WHITE FRAGILITY AND PASTORAL CARE
Updated: Feb 2
One of the struggles I experience in the world of racial reconciliation and peacemaking is to hear people say pretty stupid things. Sometimes I get to hear people express their fears, and sometimes their anger, and sometimes just their ignorance. In all of these expressions I am still called on by God to love people.
Most of us are exposed to different spheres of thought, or activity. Those of us who are Christians live, or ought to, in the world (environment) of the Church. We also live in the world of politics, media – including both news and editorials. We live in our cultures, we live in our families, in our vocations, and our opinions are formed. Sometimes those opinions are well founded, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes those opinions are held without pride or arrogance, they are held loosely, and are open to change. Sometimes we tie our opinions to our egos and then we entrench ourselves against all comers, even the truth.
Pastors are called to shepherd folks, and part of that shepherding is the pastoral care of people with racial opinions. I have been thinking of how to do that, and how we can do that well. I realize of course that even pastors like to choose sides, and sometimes it is necessary and right to do so. I have decided to follow Jesus and therefore I am for righteousness, justice, mercy, and love. I am against oppression, and evil, and racism. I make no apology for that. Yet, my weapons are not the weapons of the world, nor am I allowed to become so self-righteous in my causes that I being to mistreat people with whom I disagree, although at times that is hard.
One pastoral issue within racial discussions is the subject of “white fragility.” Now, there are other names for this and varying degrees of it such as…denial, defensiveness, anger, confusion, blaming the victim, creating false narratives about intents or motives, etc. The phrase is often used in a pejorative sense especially by People of Color to dismiss those white people who react negatively to various racial and justice issues. In some circles there is little patience for white folks just coming into awareness about issues, especially when that awareness results in resistance to change or even in naïve celebration of their new realizations.
When I say little patience there is slight willingness to hear people say dumb things, either as they try to learn and understand, or actually resist listening to truth. This is where the phrase becomes pejorative, and speeches are made about how people should know better, should know by now, and allowance is not going to be made for very elementary discussions to teach these folk.
This is exactly where pastors live, in a world of people being dumb, and saying dumb things, and doing dumb things. It is like the world of parents who only hang on to their children because they are in fact blood relatives, otherwise they couldn’t continue to put up with such immaturity. One can only try to imagine what it must be like for God to put up with any of us.
Pastoral care for folks caught up in “white fragility” has to begin with a love for sinners and patience with them especially when their ignorance and racism is exposed. It must be coupled with a determination not to excuse racism nor its buttressing of injustice, but with a willingness to begin with people where you find them. It means answering a lot of very simple questions, hearing erroneous statements made boldly and not being intimidated by them, and gently correcting people. Pastoral care is always about not losing the patient while trying to bring them to healing and that can usually only be done by maintaining the relationship.
Why bother with putting up with such folks? I like the bumper sticker I once saw that said, “we don’t make peace with our friends but with our enemies.” Making peace is hard, and one has to be tenacious to do it. Making peace is safer for everyone in the long run. In a multi-ethnic society establishing allies across racial lines is essential for progress, and protection.
Isolating ourselves and defining our “sides” and our parties while demonizing our opponents is sort of an American political tradition. The triumphalism of gaining ascendancy as our ethnic and ideological groups gather strength is often an illusion and very often temporary. We reinforce ourselves in our rhetoric as we mock not simply our ideological opponents but those asking questions, even if they are sincere in their ignorance.
White fragility is a way of thinking that sees white people as being set upon, as if gains for POC will mean less freedom for white people. White fragility is fear because it finds the tables turned and white privilege (often assumed but not identified as such) seems at risk, socially, politically, and financially. White fragility is anger at being made to feel guilty often before that guilt is specified and understood. We live in a blame culture and white people especially resist unspecified guilt. When that guilt is accepted they know it will cost them something.
No one likes to feel guilt, or accept guilt, or be blamed for things that happened long ago or about which they struggle to see a direct link to their door, or to their personal decisions. When assailed by such blame without an understanding of how they could possibly be at fault they are like people about to be sued by someone assumed simply trying to make some money for themselves, without justice, in the legal system. People get ready to fight back in such circumstances.
Good pastoral care means helping people see that repentance for real guilt is actually a doorway to joy, freedom, and fellowship. Good pastoral care means helping people own up to history, and to be delivered from illusions about living in a completely merit based society with everyone beginning at the same starting line.
Pastoral care for people working their way to racial reconciliation means seeing and hearing sinful things from people, and from people on both sides of issues. It means loving them through it, seeking to maintain relationships, to keep the discussion going, to reducing the heat in the words and conversation, listening to the hurt, anger, and panic, and pointing people always to Christ and the Scriptures. It means at times repenting in ourselves as pastors as we feel like giving up, or cutting some folks off, or just getting to name calling. Lord have mercy!