Antiracism as a Spiritual Practice II: Control
Seth Patterson July 19, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 13:24–30
As the sun begins its final descent, my anxieties begin their ascent. For the last several weeks, as the day approaches night, I begin to change. Like a lamp turning on in the dusk, my heightened senses turn on and I begin to prepare. My mind starts to plan. My imagination begins at a trot and by nightfall is in full gallop. I begin to see in my imagination everything I am afraid to see. And I hate this. I fear this. I do everything that I can to try and control this. That is why my senses pick up. I attempt to control my fear by preparing for every single eventuality and controlling the situation. Every noise must be investigated, every smell is suspect, every shadow must be illuminated. I do everything that I can to control my fears and my anxieties. I stuff these fears and worries into a box in my head and sit on it. I try to grip it, to hold tightly and control it.
And then I remember to breathe. I remember to breathe and let go. I remember to breathe and acknowledge the fear and let it drift away. I remember to breathe and stop trying to control that which is not controllable. I remember to breathe, and then I can breathe again. This is what I have practiced for.
Maybe these feelings arrive because of reverberations of the tension we felt in the east part of South Minneapolis after the incomprehensible yet historically predictable killing of George Floyd. Maybe I feel this way because of a near-drowning experience in my early 20s. Maybe I feel this way because of all the uncertainties that this pandemic illuminates every day. Those are questions for me to sit in and wrestle with.
I wonder if there is another reason that is riper for consideration this morning. I wonder if part of my anxiety has to do with whiteness. As a person who is considered to be white and benefits from whiteness, I have been promised the impossible promise that chaos and uncertainty are other people’s problems, that we have a system that will control the feared elements of our society so that I do not need to feel the discomfort of fear. Whiteness has taught me that we should have control—control of and control over the unpredictable.
I am using the term “whiteness” instead of referring to white people. Whiteness is a concept in our culture; it is not melanin-based biology. Nell Irvin Painter, author of the incredible The History of White People, says it succinctly: “Race is an idea, not a fact . . . its questions demand answers from the conceptual rather than the factual realm.” There is no biological or genetic difference between what we call races, but there is a large cultural difference in how these races are treated. Race is not biologically real, but the concept has very real and often disastrous consequences in this country.
This culture of whiteness, of which I am an unwitting yet benefitting participant, has its roots in colonialization and the very birth of what we now call the United States of America. Therefore, whiteness has its roots in control. The very definition of colonization is “the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area.” That is how we began, and a story’s beginning will always dictate how the rest of the story unspools. We controlled the First Americans through disease, violence and broken promises. We began by controlling the bodies of stolen African people to work in bondage the land that was recently cleared of Indigenous people. Whiteness has controlled who has the right to vote, where someone can buy a home, what water fountain can be used, what schools can be attended, where money can be allocated. Whiteness has put people into internment camps and prisons and pulled apart families at real and perceived borders. Whiteness attempts to control through money, through laws and often by kneeling on the necks—either for 500 years or 8 minutes and 46 seconds—of anyone perceived to be a threat to this control.
Whiteness justifies this control by saying that it creates safety and better schools and gives second chances. Whiteness is American. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture says this:
Whiteness . . . refer[s] to the way that white people, their customs, culture, and beliefs operate as the standard by which all other groups are compared. Whiteness is also at the core of understanding race in America. Whiteness and the normalization of white racial identity throughout America’s history have created a culture where nonwhite persons are seen as inferior or abnormal.
Whiteness is about control and the continuation of colonization. We need to decolonize. We need to stop trying to control what we cannot control.
The parable that we heard before the sermon gives us some theological grounding in this conversation. When the owner of the field is confronted with unwanted plants growing, he doesn’t try and control the situation by demanding that the new plants be torn out, because that would also uproot the wheat. The owner doesn’t tighten his grip and try to control the situation. Instead he responds to the situation by letting it be and then doing the extra work to get rid of the unwanted plants at reaping time. We are shown here an example of how to lessen the need for control. If whiteness oversaw this field, then control would be primary. Those unwanted plants would be weeded out no matter the cost, and a wall would be put around the field to make sure that any unpredictability would be prevented.
To release ourselves from trying to control the uncontrollable is not a suggestion that we do nothing. Rather, this parable seems to remind us that there are things we can control and things we cannot. We cannot control the past or the future, but we can respond to our present. When my imagination begins to gallop in the evenings, I am trying to control something that does not yet exist. If any of my fears do come true, no amount of tightly gripping today will be useful at all. The gun that was pulled and the knee that was placed on George Floyd’s neck were not because of an actual threat. Control was being exerted on an unrevealed possibility and not in response to what was actually occurring.
But this is not a political conversation, it is a spiritual one. And even though we are talking about the concept of whiteness and the systems that support it, we cannot control everything, we can only control ourselves. As the Zen Buddhist priest angel Kyodo williams says: “Without inner change there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters.” If we wish to detach ourselves from the illusion of control as presented by whiteness, we must first begin to detach ourselves from the illusion of control in ourselves. If we wish to decolonize our systems and communities, we must first work to decolonize ourselves. We must release ourselves from the illusion of control.
This is where contemplative practices come in. Also called meditation or centering prayer, these practices involve quieting one’s mind and practicing not how to remove yourself from the world, but how to be more present within it. Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, one of the leaders of Plymouth’s Contemplatives group, said that in contemplation we are “practicing the release of control.” She went on to say, “In the context of antiracism work, presence, receptivity, humility, service and surrender are especially relevant. Centering Prayer actively engages these muscles. Strengthening them in silence then builds this capacity in us.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but to sit in contemplation can prepare you for the work of the world. The practice of releasing control within yourself can begin to detach you from the need to control the world around you. If you can begin to decolonize yourself, you can then more readily participate in our collective decolonization. No one is too young or too old to begin this work, and everyone is capable. It is as human as stillness and breathing. Priest and teacher Richard Rohr puts it this way: “If suffering is ‘whenever we are not in control’ (which is my definition), then you see why some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion of control and to give that control back to God.” This requires practice. It won’t happen overnight. We will stumble along the way, but if we keep deepening our practice we will improve incrementally.
Professor of Psychiatry and Religion Ann Belford Ulanov wrote, “Working on oneself enlarges society, and working to enlarge social space among diverse groups makes possible new depths in oneself.” This inner work is central to the Christian message. Jesus often removed himself to go and center himself in prayer and spent 40 days in solitude in the desert. Facing ourselves alone like this may be difficult, but it is essential to the work of the world. We must be able to practice releasing control over ourselves if we are ever to dismantle the control of whiteness. Ulanova again says, “We fear we are empty inside so we cover it up with manufactured control, or made-up excitement, or self-promotion. The emptiness can never change if we refuse to experience it.”
I know that this is a big conversation and can feel overwhelming for many. Part of whiteness is being able to avoid having these conversations, and it leaves many of us out of practice when we attempt it. But none of us are alone here. There are people to walk with us in this adventure. The Plymouth Contemplatives are an excellent resource. They lead three online practices per week and occasional in-person meetings outside (check the website). They can also direct us to other resources. There are also innumerable websites and books on the practice. I encourage you to read anything by Richard Rohr or angel Kyodo williams. You may also consider participating in 30 Days of Silent Prayer: Healing the Heart of Our City. This is a month-long, African American–led collaborative in North Minneapolis conceived to add a spiritual factor to our civic work. This is a shared public ritual where people of all faiths and good will can come together throughout the day for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silent prayer/meditation. And you can practice alone or with the people in your home. Sit still, breathe in and out and practice the release of control.
Simultaneously, you can begin to explore the conversation on dismantling whiteness. Plymouth’s Racial Justice Initiative is an excellent resource as well for books, articles, films, podcasts, upcoming classes and conversation. I would also love to talk to any of you about this. Email me and we can set up a time to chat. Seriously: Let’s talk.
The work of the world begins with each of us. We are strong enough and capable enough, but we need to practice. We need to breathe.
Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), ix.
“Colonization,” Lexico, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/colonization (accessed July 20, 2020).
“Whiteness,” National Museum of African American History & Culture, https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/whiteness (accessed July 20, 2020).
Richard Rohr, “Suffering,” Center for Action and Contemplation, https://cac.org/suffering-2015-06-11/ (accessed July 20, 2020).
Ann Belford Ulanov, The Unshuttered Heart (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), x.