When my husband Doug read my previous blog post, he displayed all the signs I’m used to seeing when he wants to say something but is concerned he may hurt my feelings. He read my blog post as an expression of “Liberal White Guilt”. Yes, I was experiencing Liberal White Guilt, but that’s not something I’m ashamed of. Instead, I think Liberal White Guilt is a good thing and is closely related to Early Quakers’ Peace Testimony.

Doug reminded me that during the Civil Rights struggle, many Blacks* were skeptical of Whites* who wanted to get involved with the cause. The skeptics wanted only people who were working for their own liberation to participate in the struggle. They didn’t want Whites, whom they suspected might be joining the struggle out of pity or guilt or some other self-centered emotional need. The skeptics feared that White participation would perpetuate the pattern of putting Whites’ needs, priorities, and thoughts at the center of the movement. They wanted the agenda to be set by Blacks and the movement to be run by Blacks. These are all very valid and important points.

The same discussion also took place in South Africa within the different branches of the anti-apartheid movement. Could/should the liberation movement include Whites? The answer to this question was one of the distinctions between the ANC (African National Congress) and the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) – ANC included Whites in their movement, PAC did not. 

Those who read my previous post will have seen that I suffered from guilt and shame as a White child in Southern Africa during the apartheid years. I didn’t suffer material deprivation compared to those around me, although our standard of living would be considered well under US or Norwegian poverty lines. My suffering was spiritual: I watched Blacks suffer from the effects of poverty, knowing that the authors of that suffering were White, like me. It was painful to me that my skin color associated me with apartheid. 

I say these things not in a bid for your pity and certainly not to claim that I suffered terribly. My point is theological:  I’m going to suggest that Liberal White Guilt is just a modern psychological expression of the same phenomenon that the early Quakers were addressing in the variety of peace testimonies (e.g. Peace Testimony, 1660).

The Peace Testimony of 1660 is a claim by Early Friends that they were “harmless and innocent”. They had political motives (didn’t want to be associated with the 5th Monarchymen Movement), but also wanted to be seen as morally pure, worthy of being followers of Jesus. The original texts actually don’t address the impact of physical violence on its victims. Instead, the writers say they are willing to accept physical suffering if that is the consequence of refusing to engage in violent actions that would make them morally guilty. Many of them did endure physical significant suffering for their beliefs.

As Paul points out in Galatians 5, those who live by the Spirit will experience the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But those who follow the “sinful nature” will do/experience all manner of unpleasant things, among them hatred, jealousy, fits of rage, envy and they “will not inherit the Kingdom”. In my mind, “Liberal White Guilt” is the natural spiritual consequence of being White and privileged in a society with structural and physical violence. I experienced guilt, shame, and identity issues as a child in apartheid-era Botswana. My Liberal White Guilt flared up again in September this year when a pastor in Florida wanted to burn the Qu’ran and people protested the building of an Islamic Social Center near “Ground Zero” in New York.

This is as it should be from the White perspective: if I and/or the group I am associated with are engaging in “acts of the sinful nature”, I am glad I do feel awful and that feeling awful spurs me into action. In this way, my own White salvation is tied in with Black liberation. It is in my own self interest to pursue a society where all humans, regardless of skin color, wealth, geographic location etc, can be respected as a beloved child of God.

Query for prayerful consideration: What is your experience of the cost to perpetrators of violence and injustice? Why do you think the Peace Testimony doesn’t mention victims of violence? How do you feel about that? 

* I use the terms “Black” and “White” both because that is the terminology I am familiar with from Southern Africa and because I believe the larger issue in terms of race and ethnicity is, in fact, about skin color, not geography. E.g. I am half African and live in the USA, yet I don’t experience racial discrimination because I look White. Ethiopians are technically Aryan or “White”, but they aren’t exempt from racial discrimination because they look Black.