Contemplation and Racism
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an author, minister, and contemplative activist. The interview with CAC’s Daily Meditations editor Mark Longhurst, which we have excerpted here, was published in 2018, but his reflections on freedom from what he calls “slaveholder religion,” contemplation, and action are especially relevant today.
My journey toward freedom from slaveholder religion has been one of unlearning a hyper-individualized piety. [This is what I would call an obsession with our individual salvation project—RR] . . . I’ve had to learn that this is a spiritual version of the myth of the self-made man or woman that [the social systems that privilege] whiteness created.
Jonathan shares about his prayer practices and how the practice of confessing sin helps him dwell in solidarity with the marginalized:
We need relationships of accountability—spaces where we listen to black and brown folks say what actions are hurting them and their communities. Given the power imbalances in our society, confession for white folks really has to be something of a reverse confessional. It’s not the job of people who’ve suffered generational injustice to sit and listen to us. No, we’ve got to position ourselves to sit and listen to them. Then talk to one another about how we can unlearn implicit bias, leverage social privilege for the common good, and follow the leadership of impacted people working for systemic justice. The daily practice of confession is a radical act of listening.
Wilson-Hartgrove finds that communal spirituality and action for justice has helped liberate him from the individualistic, self-made myth of systemic whiteness:
[The] antidote [to hyper-individualized spirituality] is, in many ways, in the communal contemplative practices of the black-led freedom movement in America. I’m thinking about the prayer practices of song and shout in Pentecostal churches, of call and response in black Baptist preaching. There’s a mantra-like repetition in that experience of worship that is every bit as much contemplation as you find sitting in silence. In fact, it is a silence—a still point of complete simplicity—that’s beyond words. For me, I find that silence in the praise and testimony service at the St. John’s Baptist Church, and I find it singing and marching in the streets with the Poor People’s Campaign.
At the same time, Jonathan cherishes stillness, embodying a true “centering down,” in the words of Howard Thurman, that can take place just about anywhere.
The silence of the early morning is why I wake early. I can’t be myself without it. But as I grow in the life of faith, I feel more and more the connection between that silence and the silence at the center of [a mourning mother’s] cry—the silence of the down beat between the claps in a freedom song. There is a still point in the turning world, and we practice contemplation as we ground ourselves in that place, not apart from action, but in the center of it.
Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, “Prayer, Action and Unlearning Racism,” interview with Mark Longhurst, Ordinary Mystic (May 29, 2019). Available at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/ordinarymystic/2019/05/jonathan-wilson-hartgrove-on-prayer-action-and-unlearning-racism/