The Weight of White People in the World

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I will tell a truth that is hard to tell: If it weren’t for Trinity School, or some kindred community into which I was inducted, I would not be thinking about Michael Brown, Jr.  His story would be a one of the dark drops of headlines that dissolved and disappeared into my clear consciousness as soon as the evening news faded away.  Big Mike’s story would be diluted by tales of Ebola, ISIS, and Russians in Eastern Ukraine, drowned out by the floods in Phoenix.
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Not so for my African American friends.  This story is their story.  Not that they are just like Mike, but that they find themselves irresistibly drawn into this story.  They are talking about it at their dinner tables the way I would be talking if my neighbor’s house had been burglarized or his wife assaulted.  “That could happen to me” and “That just ain’t right” are questions like scabs that we keep picking until they bleed.  

When the board at Trinity formed its permanent committee on diversity, we called it by the strangest of names, the Koinonia Committee.  I will confess to having doubted the wisdom of this appellation over the years--most people cannot pronounce it, few people can spell it, and anyone who tries to define it will get all tangled up in the lexical knot that the Greek word renders.  It has been translated variously as “fellowship,” “communion,” and “commonality,” and I often find myself trying to explain what it means and why we chose it to name our Diversity Committee.  Were we just trying to be cute or clever?

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But Michael Brown’s story reminds me why it was a stroke of brilliance (not mine) to name our work Koinonia.  At its root, the word means “sharing.”  In the Greek world, a koinonia was a partnership in which both sides had skin in the game.  

My black brothers and sisters have skin in the Michael Brown game, and therefore so do I.  And my skin is not just the skin of sympathy and compassion, it is the white skin that James Baldwin discovered after his bitter father died, “the weight of white people in the world.”  That weight is not a thing I can take full responsibility for, anymore than I can be (entirely) responsible for the number that appears on my digital bathroom scale.  But it is my weight, and wherever I go, there I am, every white pound of me.  Part of koinonia is being willing to learn how that weight feels to others.  

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Baldwin tells the story of how he hurled a mug of water at a waitress who said to him, “We don’t serve Negroes here.”  He tells it not so that he can hurl condemnations against this woman (who spoke with “a note of apology in her voice, and fear”) but to claim the truth that “my life, my real  life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.”

Turns out that some of the things we share are toxic koinonia, the kind that knows no color bar.  

Which makes me glad, most of all, for another Koinonia: the share we all have in Christ, who bore the weight of the sins of the white people and of the black and the brown.  His story is our story: Christ died for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.  Not the weight of all the white racism or the weight of centuries of black anger can count against that Great Gift.  
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But the glory of that truth has not won out in my own heart yet, and they are rioting still in Ferguson.  And so, in the meantime, I am trying to listen.  And not only to my African American friends at Trinity, but also to those (of many ethnicities) in law enforcement--I was glad to see that Attorney General Eric Holder mentioned his brother in law enforcement in his recent op-ed piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  I am thankful for people like our Diversity Coordinator, Adrienne Davis, who is telling me what questions her son is asking and how she and her husband, as parents of two black sons and one black daughter, respond.


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