Accountability and the Oppressed Jesus | Know Justice, Know Peace: A Jesuit Antiracism Retreat

Podcast episode:

My name is Billy Critchley-Menor and I’m with The Jesuit Post. This is Day 5 of the Know Justice, Know Peace: a Jesuit Antiracism Retreat. Let’s begin with a prayer. 

Come Holy Spirit. Fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your divine love. Send forth your spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.

I can remember when I first realized I was white. I was in my sophomore year of high school. Trayvon Martin had just been killed, and a young black woman in my town organized a community forum titled, “How to kill legally.” She spoke of her younger brother who liked to fish along the shore of Lake Superior which bordered our city. He often wore a hoodie as he walked home from the lake in the evenings. She spoke passionately about how worried she was that he could be followed, harassed, and even shot because of this supposedly “suspicious activity.” In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, the rationality of her worries were acute and painfully obvious. 

In the midst of her sharing, it struck me that these worries had never entered my mind and that they never had to enter my mind. This was because I’m white. I never had to worry that walking in the evening or wearing a hooded sweatshirt would be considered “suspicious.”

I am deeply grateful to this community organizer for opening my eyes to this reality in high school. As the scholar Ahmad Ali says, “It’s a privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing it your whole life.” 

Essentially, what I realized in that moment, although I didn’t have the language to articulate it then, was that I lived in a society and culture that was more accountable to me, my needs, my flourishing, my safety than it was to that of others, namely people of color. It was an experience I will never forget. 

Anti-racism experts talk a lot about accountability. The question is formed like this: Are you (as an individual or organization) accountable to the needs of people and communities of color in the same way that you are to the needs and sensitivities of white people and communities? 

This retreat is about deepening awareness of how being a follower of Jesus includes being an anti-racist, includes resisting forces of domination and oppression. Much of Jesus’s mission is about accountability: he preaches that we are to live a life accountable to God, and then gives us a startling theology of who that God is and what it looks like to be accountable to him.

The mission of Jesus is his own self. Pope Benedict makes this clear in his book Jesus of Nazareth: That Jesus’ whole mission is to disclose to the world who God really is through his very being. This is essential, because if we aren’t aware who God is, we will not be able to live in a way that is properly ordered to God. 

So, what type of God does Jesus reveal? There is a striking passage from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel that gives us one answer. You’ve heard this passage before, “When I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty, you gave me drink….whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.” 

St. John Paul II says, “This Gospel text is not a simple invitation to charity: it is a page of Christology.” Meaning, it tells us about who Christ is. And the Christology we get here tells us that God is one of the oppressed; that to get to heaven, we need to live our lives accountable to the needs of the oppressed, of those on the margins. 

Dr. James Cone, the father of academic Black Theology reflects on how radically Jesus identifies with the oppressed. He writes in his book, Black Theology and Black Power,  “God has made himself synonymous with black oppression.” 

Therefore, our orientation to the realities of black oppression is our orientation to God. Our accountability to the oppression of people of color is the measure to which we are accountable for the oppression of God. 

One important caveat here, is this: being an anti-racist is not about white people doing good things for people of color. As John Paul II says about Matthew 25, it is not merely an invitation to charity, it’s about the identity of Jesus and the way in which we are to live in right relationship with him through how we live in relation to others.

Being an anti-racist follower of Jesus is not white savior-ism or white benevolence. The question is less about ‘service’ and more about accountability. Here are some good and challenging questions to reflect on accountability in the work of antiracism:

  1. When I speak about racism, am I generally more worried about how white people will feel, react, or think of me than I am about how people of color will? Does it change depending on who I am with? Am I more worried about having credibility with white people than I am with people of color?
  2. Does my Church, my workplace, my classroom consider mainly the sensitives, comfort and concerns of white people
  3. Which do I find more important? Listening to and committing to hearing and understanding the stories and experiences of people of color or knowing and insisting on practical solutions that ‘make sense’ and are tolerable to white people?

Accountability to people of color can be difficult for people with white privilege since we are so often embedded in white normative spaces and, further, it is so easy to distance and let ourselves be distracted from the reality of racism. 

We only have to recall that Catholic churches once denied black people baptism, publicly used theology to justify segregation and slavery, and were unaccountable to black life in a myriad of other violent and unapologetic ways.  

The legacy of such unaccountability persists, albeit in more insidious ways. To live as a follower of Jesus means the opposite. 

For further prayer on this, I encourage you to reflect on:

  • Matthew 25. Ask Jesus to show you what our world would look if systems and institutions as well as individuals were  equally as accountable to people and communities of color than to white ones

Let’s conclude in prayer. 

Oppressed God of the Oppressed,
Reconcile us to yourself. Give us the mind of Jesus. Help us not be distracted in our constant walk to live for and with you, through the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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