By Rev. Justin Smoot for Wausau Pilot & Review
When I was in college and seminary, I always thought the most pointless part of any class was the evaluation. It wouldn’t impact me because the professor already finished the class. So, why bother?
Then, in seminary, I encountered a new question. It asked about the inclusion of books and articles from authors who were women, non-white, and from “2/3rds world,” which confused the heck out of me. Ultimately, they were asking if we read works from authors and theologians who were not white, European men. This seemed to me, an even stranger questions because, shouldn’t the only criteria for inclusion in the coursework be the academic value of the text?
Despite my presence in a graduate level academic program, my response was irrational. I took whatever pen I had at hand and scratched out the question, sometimes even saturating the paper enough so that the question that angered me could be physically removed.
Then, I took a class of Christian Ethics where we were required to write personal responses to the course content for the week. After a few negative comments from my professor on my responses, started to write the exact opposite of what I thought about the course work. It felt like I was criticizing myself in everything I wrote, negating my own world view. What astounded me was that the professor was impressed with my personal journey through the class.
And it really was. I came to see that my distain for evaluations, my irrational response to the inclusions question, and how I adapted to the ethics class was all connected to my own narrow view of the world. I had never truly encountered the world through the eyes of another, or at least another person who was not white and male. Part of this was pure selfishness. I felt like I did the class on my own and survived, so would anyone else. Yet, what fueled my irrationality was the pain at being shown that the world does not function like I thought it did, the viewpoint that I had was far from universally applicable, and there were other people who were different from me who had experiences of the world that were not mine.
I was becoming self-critical in a healthy way. Previously, I was acknowledging worldviews different from my own, but holding unwaveringly to my own. The pain came as I was opening my eyes to that fact that more is necessary. I needed to seek out voices and viewpoints that did not simply reinforce what I always thought and include them. Engaging them to broaden my perspective was painful for the challenge, in the end, it was healthy and brought about solid personal growth.
February celebrated as Black History month. We may want to decry the need to include it as a thing, ask, reflexively, where white history month is, or roll our eyes and ignore it. If we do this, we are continuing an unexamined life. If we do the work, if we include and engage the stories, history, and experience of our Black neighbors in this world, our own perspective will open to realities we never considered because we have never experienced them.
This is not a condemnation of the evils of white people, but an indictment of our lack of healthy self-criticism. I am fully aware that I am a white man writing encouragement to engage with the stories and history of our Black neighbors. I do not write the to say that I am “cured” of racism, bias, or bigotry. I write only to say that the life found on the other side of the difficult work of confronting what we have not confronted within ourselves is worth the pain of the transformation, which truly is barley fraction of the daily struggle that my Black neighbors endure. I pray that my story of struggling through my own experience with confronting my own, unquestioned, racism helps lead others to engage in the difficult, yet beneficial, self-critical work.
Rev. Justin Smoot
Rev. Justin Smoot is one of the pastors at Saint Andrew Lutheran Church in Rib Mountain. He is always on the lookout for how God’s story turns our lives upside down and draws us closer together.
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