To Tell The Truth

by | Aug 22, 2019

The Rev. Peter Jarrett-Schell responds to a question from the Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart

Know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. 
John 8:32

This past Saturday, Calvary Church hosted the launch party for a book I wrote: Seeing My Skin: A Story of Wrestling with Whiteness. If you couldn’t guess from the title, it’s about being White.

A week before the launch, my colleague, the Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, called to talk about the event’s Q and A session. She would be leading off the discussion, and wanted to know which questions would be off limits.

“I know I can come across sometimes like I’m Interrogating folks.”

I thought about how to reply. It was complicated.

On the one hand, I invited Gayle to lead the discussion specifically because I’ve come to respect her skill at asking hard, even painful, questions with clarity, precision and grace. Marking off certain questions as forbidden would undermine the very reason I had requested her help.

On the other hand, in writing the book, I had already stretched myself, and shared more than I was comfortable sharing. I dreaded the possibility that Gayle might ask something I was flatly unprepared or embarrassed to answer, in front of a crowd of friends and strangers, no less.

“You can ask me whatever you want,” I heard myself say.

For me, honesty and courage are usually a matter of saying “yes” before I know what I’ve gotten myself into, thus intentionally backing myself into a corner. It’s a practice I’ve borrowed from my biblical namesake.

Truth is tough. Rationalizations, defensiveness, and ignorance are easier and more comfortable. But they are also paralyzing; like being tied with velvet bonds. At the end of day, you’re still a prisoner. Jesus taught us that.

“Know the truth,” he said, “and the truth shall make you free.”

These words are probably one of Christ’s most repeated teachings, and with good reason. In poignant brevity, he sums up both the hard cost, and the sweet reward of discipleship.

Truth is hard.

On the path of truth, we will learn things about ourselves that we would rather not know. We who are called White might discover how inherited racist patterns still play out in our thinking and actions. We might see the structures of a White Supremacist society that still supports us, and that we in turn support, even if only unconsciously. We might recognize the magnitude of the debt we owe to generations of Black and Brown folk whose lives purchased our comfort. These are hard roads to walk.

But, says the Christ, they lead to freedom.

Imagine what it would be like to leave behind all the double-talk, evasion, rationalizations, hand-wringing and paralyzing guilt; to face squarely what racism has wrought, and still works in the lives of our neighbors, in our own lives and in the world, and to say, “this is not who I want to be; this is not the world I want to live in. And by God’s grace, it is in my power to do something about it.” And then to follow through.

I think that kind of freedom would be worth the price of some hard Gospel truth. I think it would be worth almost any price.

“Are you sure?” Gayle asked me wryly, just before we hung up the phone. “No questions are off limits?”

I could tell she had some doozies in mind.

“Yeah,” I said, though still a bit reluctantly, “I’m sure.”

The Rev. Peter Jarrett-Schell, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church and author of Seeing My Skin: A Story of Wrestling with Whiteness