“Lifelines,” January 17, 2015, Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
We cannot do the work of understanding the fault lines of racial divisions in our society and seeking greater justice without getting in touch with some deep and difficult feelings. This is heart work, dealing with our fears, our shame, our grief, our suspicions and judgments, our frustrations, even our longings for redemption and hope, which might be the most painful of all. That heart work is hard work for intellectual rationalists like me; I want things to be logical, I want principles that make sense. But let me tell you here at the beginning that I want healing and justice and right relations with my neighbors even more than I want the world to conform to my linear notions of what makes sense. And so I engage this process, again, without knowing how it will unfold, and without needing to defend its rationality, knowing that if it works at all, it will take us to scary, confusing, difficult places, and change us in profound and unpredictable ways.
I can invite you to join me as an act of trust, because you want what I want for our nation and our children. I can’t tell you what will happen, or how it will all work, or what expectations might be disappointed, or what convictions we might be asked to hold aside in order to see another perspective. I can pretty confidently predict that we will be massively uncomfortable at times. We will have to listen to people say things we disagree with; things that make us embarrassed, or that we are sure are wrong, or that make us just plain mad. It is likely that we will find ourselves saying things that sound stupid in our own ears. I suspect that at times I may be tempted to throw up my hands and walk away from the whole impossible thing; I suspect you might be tempted too. But I’m going to try to stay with it, because I think the only way out is through. And for the next few minutes now, I’m going to give you the intellectual, philosophical reasoning that leads me to that conclusion, in the hope that it may be helpful to you as well, when the feelings get overwhelming.
So, there is a big word I learned in seminary – there were many of them, as you might imagine, but this one is actually useful. You might know it – the word is hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is about how you read a text, like for instance, the bible. We’ll come back to that in a minute. We all know that some people read the bible from the point of view that it is completely and totally the inerrant word of God. That is a hermeneutic; one way of reading. Other people read the bible as a human narrative about the work of god, and god’s relations to human beings over the course of time. That’s a different hermeneutic. Some scholars read the bible for what it might tell us about the period of time in which it was written, as a set of archeological data. Again, a different hermeneutic, a different approach. Some people take the bible at face value, assuming that it means what it says, and that there is some positive interpretation for anything in it, and it is up to the reader to find that interpretation. But back in the day, when I was in seminary, feminist religious scholars were starting to read the bible from yet another point of view. They were asking the questions, Do the writers of the bible tend to dismiss and undervalue and misrepresent the experience of women in the stories they tell? Is the whole thing written in ways that inherently privilege the male voice, and the lives and agendas of men? And if the bible is written primarily by men and for men, what might be missing because of that? What realities of women’s lives are being silenced? What should we hear between the lines of the actual text? These kinds of questions represented a new way of reading, a new hermeneutic. And we called it, a hermeneutic of suspicion. The suspicion was that the bible did not fully understand itself; that its writers had perspectives and agendas that they themselves were not even aware of, that limited what they were able to observe and to realize was going on in the stories they were telling.
Once a hermeneutic of suspicion gets going, it isn’t limited just to women. For example, if you start to read the Hebrew scripture accounts of the conquest of the promised land from the point of view of the Canaanites, you get a very different picture of the people of Israel and their god. A hermeneutic of suspicion teaches you to always look for the voice that is not heard; for whose story is being forgotten, or swept under the rug. It is essentially disruptive. Now, most of us UUs don’t have any problem with bringing a hermeneutic of suspicion to the bible; that makes all the sense in the world to us. But here is the catch – you can bring a hermeneutic to other texts, as well. And for us religious liberals, especially of the humanist variety, one of the most important texts of our religion is our own experience, and the story of our own lives. That’s where we look for truth about the human condition, and the meaning of existence.
Now let’s back up a bit in intellectual history, because the feminist scholars did not invent the hermeneutic of suspicion. I would argue that it actually begins with our old friend Darwin, who explained the process of evolution as driven by natural selection. If you embrace his theory, then you have to recognize that there is a drive for reproductive success that is bred into human nature at a level much deeper than our conscious will. In fact, your whole personality and all your ideals and affections and aspirations are all strategies employed by your DNA in order to get itself replicated. As Edna St. Vincent Millay once noted to a potential lover, “Whether or not we find what we are seeking, is idle, biologically speaking.” Our genes urge us to mate, even though having a child may be the furthest thing from any intention we are aware of. Our actions and attractions have roots at a level of being that we do not, and cannot, observe. The text that is the narrative of our life choices and experiences can be read through a hermeneutic of suspicion.
Darwin’s biological suspicion was soon compounded by that of Sigmund Freud, who argued that our infantile desires, our sexual impulses, and our fears of death and of social disgrace, drive our behavior from the level of the unconscious. With effort, we can bring some of these compulsions to consciousness, but never entirely or perfectly. We never have complete access to the full scope of our own motivations. Karl Marx went on to observe that our ideas about the world were significantly the product of our social class and economic status. We may aspire to an ideal of abstract justice, but in fact our sense of what that looks like is heavily flavored by experiences of privilege or oppression, the effects of which we can never entirely escape. Neitsche joined the chorus, with his assertion that our longing for power, and to be right, motivates our values far more than anything rational or altruistic, however little we may like to believe it. All of these thinkers challenge the capacity for objective logical thought that is the whole premise of the Enlightenment project for human improvement. Read the text of your life with suspicion, they advise; you are nowhere near as objective and high-minded as you think. And don’t feel bad; it’s not just you – no one else is either. In fact, the text of our collective experience – our culture, our history, our society – is also shaped by forces that we are not, and by definition cannot be, aware of.
The people who have the best capacity to grasp an idea of what some of those forces might be, are the folks whose stories and perspectives are missing – they are the most likely to notice that absence. Not always, and not perfectly, because the social construction of reality is so powerful that it can teach us that rather than being left out, we must be crazy, or stupid, or insignificant. Women had to struggle with that message for a long time – I shouldn’t even put it in the past tense, because we struggle with it still. Queer people, gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people are still struggling with it. We atheists know a little about that too. Any human society always creates a normative picture of what constitutes a ‘true’ person, a default definition, from which anything else is a kind of deviation. We don’t do it on purpose; we can’t help it; it’s like language; it’s in us. But it’s also true that this normative picture will look just like whoever has the most power, and any of us who want freedom and justice as fundamental values must learn to read the text of our society, and its definition of the normative human, from a hermeneutic of suspicion.
Now hear me carefully; this is important. I’m not talking about finding the point of truth, and reading our lives and our society from that place of ‘rightness’. It’s called a hermeneutic of suspicion because that’s all we have – suspicion. And we have to suspect the text of our stories and our own inaccessible motivations as much as anything else. Oppressed people don’t have anything other than suspicion either – it’s not as though there is some place of truth and righteousness that you get to by being distant enough from the cultural norm. Oppressed people have a suspicion made all the stronger by the awareness of something that is missing from the dominant narrative, but their Freudian and Darwinian motivations are just as inaccessible to them as anybody else’s. Suspicion is not a stable, objective place on which to stand; it’s more like a style of moving, a skepticism that once ingested, keeps us from taking anybody’s account of their own innocent purposes at face value, always including our own.
I am inclined to think that the hermeneutic of suspicion is the foundation stone of all postmodernism. That’s what postmodernism is, is a kind of implacable distrust of all normative claims, all self-reports, and all supposedly objective narratives. It is the premise that there is always something inauthentic about what we think we know, all the while we are trying not to acknowledge the more discreditable motives that are at work beneath the surface of our interactions. There is also a very ancient term for this discrepancy – I believe it is what sophisticated theologians meant for centuries when they talked about ‘original sin’. Only the simple-minded and the perverted meant sex, or anything that people deliberately did wrong, or had any choice about. None of us, and none of the theologians themselves, can escape from this conundrum, that there will always be a hidden component to what moves us through the world, a piece of what makes us who we are that we ourselves will never have a handle on.
The concept of white privilege is a particular instance of this hermeneutic of suspicion, where the dominant culture defines the normative, default human as white-skinned and Caucasian, while people of color are a deviation from that norm, a special category that is not what we ordinarily mean by ‘human’. For those of us who are born into the club of whiteness, the rules and definitions, assumptions and privileges that cause it to persist are almost completely invisible. We who inherit that membership must undergo an awkward and uncomfortable process in order to become aware of what white privilege might even mean, and how it manifests in our own lives and behavior. It is almost inevitable that the story we tell about ourselves, and to ourselves, is that we are good people with good intentions, who desire justice and peace and objective truth. We are not even wrong about that, as far as our own self-knowledge goes. But the Darwinian struggle for species survival is going on in our genes, coding us to mate and nurture and defend our territory in ways that our rational brains have nothing to do with. The Freudian impulses to hog all the good stuff for ourselves, and deny our mortality, and let everybody else clean up our mess, are there in our subconscious, no matter how strenuously we resist them in conscious practice. Whether we are born into money or into poverty will shape our awareness, even if we later make a fortune, or give a fortune away. We may be committed to liberty, or democracy, or even anarchy, and we will still use the power that is in our hands to enforce our vision, and do all we can to make others agree with us. And whether we are born into the club of whiteness, or not, means that for the rest of our lives there will be things that we don’t see or understand, no matter what we consciously want or choose.
At best, the hermeneutic of suspicion makes us curious about what other stories might be hiding within the dominant narratives that we already know. Curiosity is the most effective antidote to judgement, and to prejudice. So today, I invite you to dwell in curiosity as much as you can. As I said at the beginning, trying to get our minds and hearts around the full scope of what white privilege means in our society, and the damage it does to those who are not born into the club, is painful work. It means changing the way we see the world, in ways from which we can never go back; it means hearing voices we can never afterwards un-hear; it means seeing images we can never un-see. It means setting aside our certainties, and our comfort with the world we have always known, and never quite getting them back again. It means acknowledging that there will always be a part of ourselves that operates out of sight, apart from logic and intention, and an underside to our culture that is only visible through the eyes of those who do not share some aspect of its privileges.
If you want to be part of healing the deep woundedness that continues to afflict American culture, wasting our resources, crippling our children, costing lives every day and creating untold suffering, this is the price. You have to be willing to read the text of your life from a hermeneutic of suspicion; there may be aspects of that whiteness club that I was born into, and maybe you were too, that are silencing voices we need to hear. Until something changes about that, nothing will change in our cities, our neighborhoods, our courts, our prisons, our schools, our streets – and indeed, our church. Harriet Tubman once said, with pardonable exaggeration, “I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Like the lifelines that she once offered, the opportunity for liberation in our day involves a perilous journey through an unknown land, to a life that will be different from what we are familiar with. We will have to encounter some tough questions, face up to some painful truths, and leave behind some very comforting assumptions. I don’t know what freedom land looks like, exactly, but it will no doubt have difficulties and heartbreak enough of its own; freedom isn’t paradise. I do know that once you grasp the hermeneutic of suspicion, you start to read all texts through that lens, and you never again know anything with the same old sublime self-confidence of privilege. Which I assert is a good thing, even though I can’t prove it – and that may be close to the essence of what I mean when I claim that I am a person of faith.
I believe that our whole nation is starting to become aware, at a profound and painful new level, how unsustainable the structures of white privilege are, once you see them. We who, decades and centuries ago, cast our lot with the vision of justice; we who cherish the legacies of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King; we who believe in freedom, have once again the opportunity to take the risk of leadership. To do that, we must lay down our longing for innocence and righteousness, and instead discover the dimensions of the privilege which has shaped our idea of what being human means. Dearly Beloved, be warned, but be not afraid; if there were ever holy ground, this is it, and we are in this adventure together. It is surely a marathon, and not a sprint; in truth, it is a relay race across generations, and this is our lap. Take courage, and in the end we shall find that we do not run this race in vain. Let’s sing.