When I read any story, I tend to put myself somewhere in the narrative, projecting myself onto certain characters. I find the character I end up “trying on” generally has something in common with me. In the tale of the woman who anoints Jesus just before the passion narrative begins, I project myself onto her. Hearing the angry protests of the men in the room, I project the oppression I experience as a woman (particularly a woman in the church) onto hers. I project my #MeToo stories onto hers. And this may be useful as an initial way to engage with scripture, but it is also problematic. Because when I project myself onto this woman, I project my whiteness as well.
Of the many #MeToo stories I have taken in, I’ve been most struck by those that start out recounting a scenario similar to something I have personally experienced. I put myself in the narrative, as I usually do. But then, these stories take an unfamiliar turn. These turns occur when misogyny is compounded with racism, xenophobia and classism, to name just three. These turns occur when I realize the projection no longer works. These turns throw my privilege into stark relief.
I am a victim of an oppressive system of sexism and misogyny in the church, and I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on that these past few months. But I am also a beneficiary of an oppressive system of white supremacy in the church. As it turns out, I may be the anointing woman in the story. But I am also her male oppressors in the room. And I am spending this Lenten season repenting of that role.
In my zeal to advocate for my own rights as a woman, it is so easy to ignore my role as oppressor. It is so easy to convince myself that all our stories as women are the same, but only a person on the privileged end of a system of oppression would be able to think that, and thinking that allows me not to listen to those Jesus tells us to.
I know one season of prayer and reflection is only the first step in the process of repentance. It will likely be a lifetime of ongoing work to continue to learn what actions I must take to match my intentions. As a start, I am actively preventing myself from projecting my whiteness onto any of the extraordinary women who appear in our Lent and Holy Week stories: the woman who anoints, the women at the foot of the cross, the woman who is the first witness to the risen Christ. I am remembering that listening to women of color means I must, much of the time, keep my own mouth shut and make space for other voices. I am watching for when my advocacy for all women excludes women of color. In all areas of church life, I am noticing whether women of color are being represented and speaking up if they are not.
White women have experienced and continue to experience harassment, abuse and assault within our church. This is highly traumatic and deeply painful, and not to be ignored or taken lightly. We must allow ourselves space for lament. However, we must not imagine that lamentation cannot and should not exist alongside repentance. Over and over, Jesus tells us to listen to those we are trained not to hear. He tells us these people have untold value. He tells us, as in the case of the anointing woman, that they should be remembered. The church has a long history of ignoring its role as oppressor while upholding its role as oppressed. This does not lead to justice. This season of Lent, I invite other white women in the church to join me in repenting of our roles in an oppressive system, even as we lament our own suffering.