Crashing into Whiteness

There is a scene in the 2013 Martin Scorsese movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” that depicts Jordan Belfort, the film’s main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, so high from a dangerously dosed and expired super drug that his body is completely shut down. The problem is, Belfort now has to get home to stop his associate from unknowingly sharing incriminating information with law enforcement. Belfort literally crawls to his expensive, white sports car and, using his years of experience of living under the influence, carefully makes his way down the road. In what appears to be a miracle, he makes it all the way home without damaging himself, any other property, or his beautiful car. Or so he thought.

The Wolf of Wall Street Wrecked Car GIF

Once he is arrested, the police take him outside where Belfort sees his car mangled and covered with foliage and debris. The film then shows that Belfort didn’t get home safe and sound but hit nearly everything he possibly could from the moment he started the car. It’s a comedic beat in the movie, but I have been thinking about this scene a lot as I’ve somberly reflected on our current moment in the world. The shock that Belfort was experiencing as he reflected on his tumultuous ride home is, in a small way, what many white people are feeling in this very moment. For many, their lives up to this point, all of the working, earning, and relating they’ve been doing, are suddenly being called into question as the scales of privilege fall from their eyes.

The world seems to be, at least right now, seeing through a different lens on the state of race in America and the world. The pain felt by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery is being met with a new level of compassion and empathy that wasn’t as present as our black brothers and sisters grieved the murders of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many more. Compassion and empathy are powerful tools, but as they pull white people into the lives of their neighbors it brings new awareness to the fears and trials people of color experience in America every day. It doesn’t take long as white people examine the lives of people of color around them, before they begin to examine the systems around them as well. Then it doesn’t take long as they examine the systems before they begin examining themselves. All of a sudden, you’re standing on your steps staring at your dismantled sports car.

This is a feeling I am very familiar with. There have been many moments in recent history when I realized I had not been navigating the world, and, particularly, issues of race flawlessly. I hadn’t been zipping around these twisty turns with great expertise, but I was banging down the road high on woke arrogance and oblivious to my racial blind spots. The shock I was feeling comes from having to reevaluate so many aspects of my life and identity. How many friends and neighbors had I blindly hurt with insensitivity and ignorance? Was I taking the hardships they had shared with me seriously? Would they ever forgive me? How do I even pursue that reconciliation? Did I really earn any of the achievements I held deep-seated pride in or was there some level of advantage based on my skin color? Questions like these were not in short supply but it all led to one big question. Have I failed?

Have I failed to do so many of the things I believe in as a follower of Christ? Have I been denying the image of Christ in others? Have I failed to love my neighbor? Have I failed to care for the widows and the orphans? Have I failed to help Jesus usher in the Kingdom of God and participate in the restoration of creation? These questions were disorienting and painful. Thankfully, because of my faith, I already had rhythms of humbly seeking wisdom and then honestly practicing repentance, but now I had to apply that rhythm to my role in pursing racial reconciliation. I don’t know if you’ve ever repented before, but it’s not easy.

Sometimes it feels like your conscience has turned you into a punching bag throwing haymakers of guilt. This experience is similar to that described in Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s seminal work on white fragility. “Via this discourse [on issues of race], whites position themselves as victimized, slammed, blamed, attacked, and being used as “punching bag[s].” The way Dr. DiAngelo describes white fragility sounds to me like any instance of sin being revealed I’ve ever felt or heard about. Defenses go up and blame goes everywhere but where it belongs. Look at how quickly Adam’s fingers point to Eve and God when asked about the original sin. If you are feeling like a punching bag, I would encourage you to ask yourself if it’s actually your conscience doing the punching?

This process is long and nuanced. It involves the complete reevaluation and reordering of our lives. In the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes of a time immediately following his conversion when he went to Arabia. Some see this time as a season for Paul to learn the Gospel directly from Jesus, but I like to think it was more than that. Paul, who was Saul, had a worldview driven by completely different motivations than the life he would live with Jesus. Paul had to look through his life and bit by bit seek forgiveness for the atrocities he committed and redirect every area of his life so that he could now reach out to the very people he had been hurting. This season lasted three years and, even then, Paul had work to do. It is a hard process, but is the only way we are ever going to change the world. One by one the scales need to fall and hearts need to soften. So if you’re in that moment of shock right now, that is a great place to be. Maybe you won’t be able to repair all the damage you’ve done but you’ll do better next time if you just keep driving.

REVIEW: Burden

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…,” John writes in the first of his pastoral letters. This letter, in fact, has a lot to say about love. It continues, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Thankfully, John doesn’t stop there because while it’s nice to know that God is love, how does this love play out among us humans? He goes on to explain that that love is best expressed unconditionally and sacrificially pointing towards the example of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Love is costly. You may think, then, that such a costly act would be reserved for those closest to you, but The Bible leans further in to the unconditional.

Gospel authors like Luke recount the words of Jesus writing, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” These are passages that would prove challenging to Rev. David Kennedy of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church in Laurens, South Carolina. Rev. Kennedy and his congregants and fellow black citizens of Laurens are confronted daily with their enemy. This is an enemy fueled by fear and expressive in its hate. This is an enemy that lynched Rev. Kennedy’s uncle. Laurens is a town that has been defined by white supremacy. Its name comes from a well-known 18th Century slave trader, and it is home to the infamous Redneck Shop, a monument to the town’s shared history with the KKK. The shop itself is housed in what was formerly a segregated movie theater.

Burden Forest Whitaker

Rev. Kennedy entered into the tension of his town armed with passages like those in John’s letters and the war he waged, with weapons of unconditional, sacrificial love, are the subject of the film, Burden, starring Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as the reverend. One of the main battlefields in Laurens, wasn’t in the street in front of the shop where many tense protests were held, but it took place in the heart and mind of a young man named Michael Burden played in the film by Garrett Hedlund. Burden fits the mold of many young men that have been indoctrinated by a white supremacist worldview.

In his local chapter of the Klan he found easy access to housing, work, resources, and drugs. The closest thing to love he had experienced came from the owner of the Redneck Shop. Burden rose to the rank of Grand Dragon, and, in a sign of respect, was given the deed to the shop. This was around the time Burden met his wife, Judith, who was also involved with the Klan but had already begun questioning their practices and worldview. This lead Burden away from the Klan and to the doorstep of Rev. Kennedy where he’d find an opportunity for love to be redefined.

Burden Garrett Hedlund Usher

The true story of Rev. Kennedy, Michael Burden, and the Redneck Shop is impossibly complex, and the film version makes it slightly more idyllic in order to tell a more concise story. Burden tells a beautiful story of pain turned to healing, of hate turned to love, and of hopelessness turned to redemption. Hopefully, the film does inspire people to practice perfect love in the face of fear. Hopefully, like another recent film, Skin, we begin to see a prevailing narrative that people’s hearts can change and that leaving white supremacy behind is possible. To truly appreciate the complexity of this story, though, it’s worth digging into the ongoing true story.

Rev David Kennedy

The real life Rev. Kennedy in front of the Redneck Shop.

Rev. Kennedy is still battling to remove the Klan’s presence from his town. Burden is now separated from his wife and re-associated with some of his former Klan family. White supremacy has an overwhelming hold on people and systems that are in our lives every day. The work of dismantling such a pervasive system is exhausting but made easier if we are motivated by a higher power. The initial success of Rev. Kennedy’s sacrificial love showcased in the film is a testament to what is possible if we heed Jesus’ words, but as the fight against white supremacy continues in the hearts of men, the streets of Laurens, and all over our country, its worth acknowledging that love is often a burden that gets a little lighter because Christ first loved us.

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” – 1 John 4:9-11