Troubled (White) Consciences

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Matthew 14:1-2)

Guilty conscience, much?

King Herod hears that there’s this guy named Jesus who is going around teaching, telling stories, healing, casting out demons, and generally doing all kinds of miracles. (From what Herod says about miraculous powers at work, it sounds like he mostly cares about the miracles, not so much about the teachings.) Herod hears these things and immediately thinks of John the Baptist―the guy he had imprisoned and then killed. Some new prophet-type person is gathering a following and doing supernatural things? Oh no, it must be John! There’s no other explanation for it.

John the Baptist troubled people’s consciences during his life, and it seems that he is still troubling people’s consciences―or at least one person’s conscience―even after his death.

While John was living, he stirred up the consciences of many crowds of people, telling them they needed to repent and be baptized; and he tried to provoke the consciences of the religious leaders by calling them a brood of vipers (Matthew 3). Later on, as we’ll see in the next few verses of Matthew 14, John troubled Herod’s conscience by telling him it was not lawful for him to have his brother’s wife.

If we’re willing to try to empathize with Herod for a moment here, I would suggest that sometimes we need people like John the Baptist―people who trouble our consciences.

For example, as a white person in the US, I think of the prophetic black voices over the generations who have troubled white consciences.

I think of people like Frederick Douglass, who, after escaping from slavery, wrote and spoke and campaigned for abolition and equality, troubling the conscience of a slave-holding nation.

I think of Sojourner Truth, who spoke up about her experiences and identity as a black woman, troubling the conscience of a white-dominated feminist movement and its white-centered definitions of femininity.

I think of leaders in the Civil Rights movement, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who troubled the conscience of a segregated South; like Malcolm X, who troubled many consciences by taking (for good reasons) a less optimistic view of white people in the struggle for black freedom; like Ella Baker, who worked hard and brilliantly and often behind the scenes in a movement that sometimes sidelined her because of her gender; like James Baldwin, who wrote a lot of insightful and (appropriately) troubling things about race in America, some of which are summed up in the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro (worth watching!).

These are just a few examples related to black/white race relations in the US. I am thankful for these conscience-troublers. They have helped shatter the illusions held by too many white people across the generations that everything is okay regarding race in America.

At the same time, I recognize that sometimes―at least for those of us who have consciences in danger of being troubled―it is easy to look back admiringly and thankfully on the powerful conscience-stirrers of past generations, while at the same time eyeing the conscience-troublers of our own generation with suspicion.

If we approach a movement like Black Lives Matter, for example, with a default posture of critique or defensiveness rather than appreciation and solidarity, perhaps we are not terribly unlike king Herod in his fear that John the Baptist was back from the dead. Herod recognized a (holy) spirit at work in Jesus that felt like the same one he saw in John the Baptist, and Herod recognized that all was not right between him and John the Baptist, and so he was troubled.

Perhaps many white Americans likewise recognize something like the spirit of the Civil Rights movement revived in new forms in the last few years. And for many white Americans, the spirit of struggle for black equality is a spirit that challenges everything we were raised to believe―and wanted to believe―about how much progress America has made in the last generation, and how racism is dead.

In the midst of this, when our consciences are stirred, we can either receive this stirring with guilt, as Herod did―in which case we often get so tripped up by this guilt that we either ignore it or are paralyzed by it―or we can allow the stirring of our consciences to drive us to ask new questions. To see our world in a different light. To seek together to build new ways of living that are more just and equitable.

For me, having my white conscience troubled isn’t always fun and comfortable, but I would rather be aware of the actual realities than remain blissfully ignorant. Because when I do remain ignorant, my life might seem blissful enough, but others suffer―others with whom I am in fact one body (1 Corinthians 12).

I would rather not be counted among those who, as the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah said, dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. I would rather not be among those who say peace, peace…when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 8:11).

When I think of present-day conscience-stirrers, I think of people like Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, Willie Jennings, Michelle Higgins, Christena Cleveland, Austin Channing Brown, Daniel White Hodge, Ibram X. Kendi. (This list is pretty arbitrary―I am by no means an expert here; these are just a few people whose work I happen to have either read or have been meaning to read. Feel free to add more names of present-day conscience-troublers in the comments, regarding race relations or anything else―I would love to hear your thoughts.)

Matthew 14:1-2 doesn’t tell us what Herod ended up doing with his guilty conscience. But perhaps, as we connect his story with ours, we find that this open-endedness is ours to walk into. It is up to us to do something good with our troubled consciences, up to us to lean into them rather than shove them under the rug. May we not shut our hearts and minds to the conscience-troublers, but may we open ourselves to hearing, learning, grieving, repenting, learning, changing.

Here’s to today’s conscience-troublers, and to those willing to be troubled.

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