By Tommy Airey
Note: this piece has been edited after it was originally posted.
“At stake is not just a new cognitive awareness and objectivity about the situation of race, but a new passionate posture and subjectivity founded on a new spiritual interiority.”—James W. Perkinson, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity (2004)
A year ago, Ruby Sales invited white men to email her if they were interested in convening a conversation about breaking rank from what James Baldwin called “a pantheon of the relentlessly mediocre.” We organized a gathering that she called “The Council on the Way.” I joined her and 22 other white men from New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, California and Oregon for a spiritual conversation centered on a redemptive white male liberation theology. We gathered on Capitol Hill, a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court. We hoped it would be a mustard seed for a movement breaking rank from white male mediocrity.
At the Council on the Way, Mother Ruby Sales exhorted us white boys to get to the source of our own spiritual malformation. “What is the spiritual disease,” Ruby consistently prodded, “that has led to so much oppression and suffering from white Christian America?” Whiteness has stamped us with entitlement and stripped us of empathy. It has led to an epidemic of gun violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault, addiction, mental illness and more. Mother Ruby’s question has inconveniently prodded my soul over the past year in a political climate pressing white folk to show up, break silence and devour anti-racist literature. A frenzy of fixing and formulas, much of it driven by guilt and grandiosity.
As I’ve processed and prayed over Ruby’s prompt, I keep coming back to a Welsh monk named Pelagius who was declared a heretic in the 5th century by St. Augustine, St. Jerome, the Pope and all of Western Christianity since. Pelagius had the audacity to believe that human beings are inherently good. The divine belovedness of humanity, in fact, was the source of his heresy. He denounced the doctrine of “original sin” and other convictions that resign the plight of all people to a sin stain that eternally puts people at odds with the purposes and promises of God. Pelagius spoke out against the popular notion that we are just sinners eternally segregated from a distant and angry white Father God. Pelagius: one of the greatest heretics ever.
Pelagius (left) had an Indigenous advantage. He came from the people known by ancient Greeks and Romans as keltoi, the “strangers” or “hidden ones” living on the northwestern fringes of empire (eventually Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales). The Celts were village people—before they were colonized by Roman Christians. They emphasized intimate relationship over rational knowledge. They practiced an earth spirituality of hospitality and blessing. Moved by wonder, they celebrated each other and the Earth. One of their most cherished saints sang of citizens of heaven drinking in a lake of beer together for all eternity. When they converted to Christianity, they synthesized their Indigenous convictions with the way of Jesus.
When Western Christianity pressed cancel on Pelagius 1600 years ago, it doubled down on the deeply disempowering message that we are not good enough. Then, my Celtic heritage experienced a white out. Empire erased all Indigenous nuances into gross Black-or-White racial categories. The declared heresy of Pelagius and dismantling of Celtic sensibilities have spiritually disoriented “white” folks like me. We are constantly inhaling deep messages of supremacy and shame at the same time. When the spiritual message is consistently that I am not good enough and that God is angry or disappointed, then there exists an overpowering temptation to find value and belonging by being a member of the superior race or the greatest country on earth or from a connection to job or celebrity or the perfect family or even the winning sports team. There are many counterfeit ways to try to compensate our deep feelings of being worthless or devalued or alone. Guns and big trucks are just the tip of the iceberg.
Instead of the Celtic emphasis on community and intimacy, the conventional wisdom of white folk is now confined to individual rights, self-interest and personal salvation. The spiritual convictions of white people do not mirror what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail in 1963, “We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together in a single garment of destiny.” White people, by and large, cannot fathom that we are intimately connected to God, ancestors and every living being and that, as a result, we belong to each other. Where have you gone Pelagius?
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I feel like I’ve finally come to the place during this pandemic where I am taking Mother Ruby’s question seriously. Instead of spending more of my energy showing up, breaking silence and harvesting more head knowledge about racism, I am re-orienting a spirituality rooted in rigorous self-reflection. I am identifying the source of this spiritual disease of whiteness and interrogating how I have been malformed by shame and supremacy narratives and by a hierarchical worldview and lifestyle that have segregated my ancestors and me from Black, Indigenous and Immigrant people.
I am not demeaning watching docs, listening to pods and reading books about racism. The social analysis is vital. However, I believe that some of the time and energy collectively focused on book clubs, protests and lifestyle liberalism (voting, donating, posting to social media, etc) can tend to take away from what I believe is more needed in this moment. Kim Redigan, a dear mentor, says that if you are white you are either a racist by choice, a racist in denial or a racist in recovery. The great awakening for us good white progressives is that white supremacy is not just “out there.” It is “in here” too.
The most helpful image for me in the past few months has been this one (right) from Detroit-based poet, educator and activist Tawana Petty. It clearly animates the steps of a spiritual journey of problematizing our position in society. We must commit to a deep dive to move from being in solidarity with the Black struggle to becoming a co-liberator with Black people. But here’s the rub: our spiritual journey cannot be fueled by guilt, grandiosity, shame or supremacy. It breathes with a divine belovedness that intimately connects us to everything else.
With my 12-step fellows, I believe that only a higher Power can restore us to collective sanity. My Celtic ancestors believed in a creative and nurturing force that flowed through everything. This divinity weaves the world through the wonder of love. Unfortunately, the white “Western” He-god has been enthroned in heaven, segregating Him from everything else. With the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, I resist the image of a god wearing king’s robes. Rilke described the divine, instead, as “a drifting mist that brought forth the morning.” What if Spirit is more Indigenous than we ever imagined? What if we really are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality? It is a conviction that changes everything.
My prayer life has suffered in the dozen years since I fled the fundamentalist Christian flock. While white conservative Christians raise their hands to praise the Lord and bow their heads to ask for everything in Christ’s name, I have rolled my eyes to boycott the enterprise. This has been an unfortunate move for me. My soul longs for spontaneous and erotic prayer that unveils my own vulnerable struggles and calls upon a God of love who is powerful enough to shift the fault-lines of injustice, oppression, disease and suffering.
I am tapping into my Evangelical roots to pour out my heart to the Beloved that binds us all together. I am also taking seriously the work of white male theologians like Stringfellow, Walter Wink, Bill Wylie-Kellermann, James Perkinson and Bruce Rogers-Vaughn who name whiteness (and patriarchy) as a principality. Some of these theologians even name exorcism as a weapon for engagement. The demons of whiteness and patriarchy malform us in mysterious ways. Somehow, we must learn how to creatively cast them out.
Perkinson says that exorcism is not just purifying a person from an influence, but recovering a body from a habit. We unlearn the fragility and rigidity of whiteness by embodying both agony and ecstasy. We drop the poker face posture and tap into the passion. We learn to speak in more than one voice and to express ourselves in more than one rhythm. This embodied exorcism will require that we intentionally traffic social spaces that are not majority white.
The principalities of whiteness, capitalism and patriarchy have taken possession of me for decades. Most of it undiagnosed. Increased levels of exhaustion, irritation and resentment drove my white ass back to therapy this past month. I am triggered by past pain and trauma into feeling alone, unknown, devalued and worthless. I cope by emotionally distancing and/or hustling hard with work, writing and caretaking for others. Deep down I feel like I need to earn or struggle for my value. Just like the generation of Jesus, I hear the prophetic lamentation of children: We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep. I struggle to feel. So I perform and achieve. I try to fix everything with formulas. The principality of whiteness working in me.
Please do not confuse this with self-flagellation or shame. With compassionate curiosity, I am working on noticing and naming my pain and counterfeit copings—in order to lean into the truth about myself and the world. I am dearly beloved and connected by divine belovedness to everything and everyone else. I can breathe and let the world fall off my shoulders. My therapist says this work is like disarming a bomb waiting to explode at any triggering moment. This is one reason why inner work is deeply connected to anti-racist work. White people are a bomb waiting to go off at any minute—exploding their unexamined shrapnel all over everyone else. Without even knowing it.
In a recent sermon, Perkinson preached to white folk about de-centering whiteness in ourselves and the world around us. His challenge: to become smaller by reducing our footprint on the planet and the space we take up in social gatherings. However, he also prodded white folk to get bigger emotionally and spiritually—to develop what he calls “a muscular inner capacity” that can “express big feelings, without embodying grandiosity or dissolving into guilt and shame and fear.”
What is the spiritual disease that has led to so much oppression and suffering from white Christian America? As I prioritize Ruby’s prodding, I am re-orienting my life towards a posture of presence instead of production and performance. Jesus compared it to servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open the door when he comes and knocks. Gird your loins and light your lamps! I will never be ready to open the door of divine healing by burying myself in busyness. Instead, I cling to the heresy of Pelagius and the spiritual sensibilities of my Celtic ancestors. I am praying again. I am going to start experimenting with exorcism too. The journey is long and messy. I am building a base of spiritual training. Because if I don’t, I’ll never make it to the finish line.
Tommy Airey is a former high school teacher and Evangelical pastor. He is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).