I didn’t know that is was called white guilt. I didn’t know it had a name, I didn’t know any of the psychology behind it, and most of all I didn’t know why I had it, but I had it. Maybe it was some of those trips my family took to downtown New Orleans when we lived in Baton Rogue and I was four. Maybe it was the highway overpass beggars I noticed so often when we later moved to the concrete jungles of Houston. Whatever the reason, I can recall noticing the poor as far back as I can remember. And in my early years, that awareness came with a crippling sense of shame.
Why do I get to ride in the van with mommy, I would think, and that man holds a sign? For some reason, I felt a sense of responsibility for the poor, which soon became a feeling of guilt. I felt that somehow I had done something wrong, just by being born into a middle class family.
In later years, I learned about the racism that has consistently been a thorn in the side of the United States of America. Sitting in my history classes, I hid my white face behind my textbook as the teacher went on and on about the slavery of Lincoln’s time, the segregation of Dr. King’s time, and the modern-day ghettoes of Adam Amberg’s time. A hatred for myself was growing within me, alongside a frustration and sense of injustice over having to be born into a race of perceived oppressors, though I didn’t choose it. Then came World History class, sophomore year and things began to change.
In World History, we did a unit on comparative world religions. This was public school, so they were all presented in a very unbiased way. We studied one of the five major world religions every day of the week: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. I found the whole unit very interesting. Though I was agnostic at the time, I was interested in spiritual things and open to any religion that called out to me.
“I think I’m going to study religions,” I told my mom one day. “It’s probably about time I decided what I believe about the universe.”
“Okay, honey.” My mom said. “Just don’t come home with a dot on your forehead!” But honestly, that’s exactly what I was planning to do. You remember that white guilt? Well, what better way to become a minority than by joining a religion that is very much not the norm. I also had a rebellious streak in me that longed to be a revolutionary. Breaking the social rules for a righteous and just cause… Yeah, I was totally going for that dot.
I studied the Qur’an and a few books on Buddhism before I decided that I need to be non-biased and read a little bit about Christianity too. So one day I sat down in my room with a Bible. A few Christian friends had heard what I was doing and encouraged me to start with the Gospel of John, so I did. As I read, I found myself more and more engrossed with the story and it’s characters. Jesus confused me a bit because on one page He would be really relatable and the next page he would be really mysterious. I thought to myself that, if God were real, I suppose He would have to be relatable, but very transcendent at the same time. Then I got to chapter 8.
If you’ve read John, you know what happens in chapter 8: Some religious leaders discover a woman in the act of committing adultery. Without giving her a moment to cover herself up, they rip her out of the bed, (probably leaving the man behind) drag her through the streets, gaining the attention of everyone passing by, and throw her at the feet of Jesus. She’s lies there in the dirt sobbing. She knows that everyone in town is looking at her. In her shame. In her failure as a wife and a mother. She was probably well aware that unless she’s put to death by the Pharisees, she will become an outcast for the rest of her life. She doesn’t know which fate is worse. Attempting to corner Jesus, they bellow “This woman is a whore! The law of Moses instructs us to put her to death! What do you say!?”
Then Jesus, with fire and passion in His eyes challenges them, “Okay then. Stone her to death. Just make sure the only people throwing stones are the people who’ve never made a mistake.” And one by one, the crowd looses heart and leaves, understanding the point Jesus made. But it’s the next part that had me in tears: Jesus then bends over and smile. I can hear His voice in my head even now, so filled with sincerity, and gentleness: “Woman. Who condemns you?” She looks around startled that no one is there… She stands alone with Jesus, a vindicated woman. “N-no one, Lord.” “Then I don’t condemn you either. Go, and sin no more.”
I sat there in the middle of my bedroom with a lump in my throat and hot tears streaming down my face as I thought Surely, if God is real, He is like this! He has to be like this! He-He wouldn’t be God if He were not like this.
Here’s my point: I hated myself for being white until I found the cross. In Isaiah, it was prophesied that The Lord Jesus would “fill in every valley, and make low every mountain,” and that’s just what He does. When we come before the cross, our economic differences disappear, because we are all beggars in comparison to Him. It gives the rich and the poor both a reason to fight for justice. The heart of poverty is shame. The same shame that once gripped me, for being born into privilege. But that shame fades away in both the rich and the poor, when He takes our head in His hands and says, “I don’t condemn you. You’re free. Saved by my grace alone for good works. Now go, and release the bonds of the oppressed knowing that your own oppression has been released as well.”