Recognizing our Unconscious Bitterness


In spite of the power and necessity of the “MeToo” movement, I have found that I am wrestling with what Dr. Martin Luther King called “unconscious bitterness” toward white women. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes about he realizes that his children, as they learn how this world regards them because of the color of their skin, their personalities “distorted” by “ominous clouds of inferiority” are developing an “unconscious bitterness toward white people.”

As scores of women, predominantly white, are stepping forward to share how they have been sexually assaulted by men – again, predominantly white, I am at once glad but angry, because, in my own mind, white women have used their sex and sexuality against black people from the beginning of time. In October of 1892, “hundreds of black women” gathered in New York City to hear Ida B Wells, who argued that “while black men were being accused of ravishing white women, “the rape of Negro girls, which began in slavery days, still continues without reproof from church, state of press.” (Danielle L. McGuire: At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, p. xix)

For some, there has never been any unconscious bitterness toward the way things are, but for others who dare plunge into the deep recesses of their social and spiritual beings, there is a place where the questions we have had for so long, coupled with the frustration that there have never been good answers or an end to the situations which have caused those questions, there is a dry and bitter place.

The Rev. Dr. James Forbes calls this black a “pocket of bile,” which hopefully never bursts, but perhaps we should “go there” and pick at that place until the bile is released and we are cleansed of the bitterness which gets in the way of a full and most powerful relationship with God.

It isn’t just white women who are responsible for my own unconscious bitterness; it is white supremacy in its entirety. It is the way God has been compromised by a religious belief system which has been oppressive at its core, causing black and brown people, women of all colors, the poor and disabled, the LGBTQA community and more – to be marginalized, seemingly at the behest and with the approval of God.

The late Rev. Dr. James Cone wrote in The Cross and the Lynching Tree  that “belief in a good and just God was no easy matter for any black person living in the so-called Christian South.” He wrote that “personal suffering challenges faith but social suffering which comes from human hate challenges it even more. White supremacy tears faith to pieces and turns the heart away from God.” (p. 153)

Different individuals may define bitterness in different ways, but there are some characteristics of bitterness which are probably constant: bitterness is destructive and leads toward rebellion and it rips at our heart and soul. Bitterness sticks to us and in us, a constant reminder of its presence, like syrup or honey on our fingers. Bitterness can get in the way of our living life “abundantly,” as Jesus says he came to show us how to do. While it seems obvious that it affects our spirits, it affects our bodies as well, causing us internal stress and pain which can lead to physical disease.

How do we deal with it? First and foremost, we have to see it and name it. To be honest, I didn’t know that I was carrying unconscious bitterness toward white women; only as I felt my spirit reacting as each white woman came forward did I realize that I have a problem. I carry unconscious bitterness toward white supremacy as well, and even toward the way this society has described and taught who God is – which in my mind, has been God as a racist male who sanctions racism and sexism and all of the other “isms” with which we wrestle. Perhaps it is this administration, arrogantly throwing its whiteness around, that is forcing me to recognize the unconscious bitterness which I have harbored, apparently, for some time.

But in admitting that we have some bitterness – no matter who we are, what race or ethnicity we are, we make way for a closer relationship with God. When we know what we are carrying within our souls – that pocket of bile – we know that we have to address it and get rid of it. Unconscious bitterness gets in our way and gets in the way of our having a true and strong relationship with God. Our God can handle the bitterness; our God can help us convert the bitterness into something which can be used for good. What this experience is teaching me is that we cannot deny what makes us bitter; we have to face it and get it out. Nobody is exempt from having it. The challenge is for more of us to have enough spiritual integrity to name it so that it loses its power over us. Naming it can help us face it and cast it into the sea…leaving us with the capacity to grow from it and probably help others do the same.

Amen and amen.

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