Bypassing the White Spiritual Bypass
~ written with love for myself and other spiritual white people who desire hope
I desire more hope in the world, and I want to write about it. I also want to write about the creativity and love our faith communites and movements need. I want to share with you about how I am learning to love on myself. I want to chronicle my path from burn out to contemplative, mystic praxis. I want to ‘go tell it on the mountain’ about the personal healing journey I’ve been on. I want to write about hope, rest, joy, and victory.
But, I struggle to write that story. I’ve put it out there some. I’ve written a bit on the topic: on being still and knowing, on the practice of Sabbath, on healing our bodies with food and sunshine. I’ve podcasted and facilitated workshops on the topic of healing for white people in our anti-racism movement. Though I have certainly begun to put myself and this healing work ‘out there’, I find myself most days holding back. I think it is because I struggle to trust to myself.
I struggle to trust myself, because of the long-standing problem of white spiritual people like myself who bypass and minimize the material realities around us like genocide, slavery, and slavery by its new name here in the U.S.- mass incarceration.
I struggle to trust myself, because of how frequently I see us as white people prioritizing our desire to avoid anxiety over the literal lives of people of color.
I struggle to trust myself, because while I am in a healing battle of learning to trust myself, the research is showing us most of the time we’re not operating from our explicit values. We’re on auto-pilot around 95–98% of the time.
I struggle to trust myself because of how manipulative and gross the healing industry is, and how easily I could slide into prioritizing money and subscribers over what people actually need.
There are a lot of valid reasons for a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle class, woman like myself to need to sit with and question my motives and analysis when it comes to hope. There’s a complexity of reasons why I find myself wanting to write about love, joy and hope over and above the problems and pain. Some of the reason is that we are burning ourselves out and desperately need self and collective care. However, some (probably most) of the reason I go to joy, hope, and love more than pain, trauma, and oppression is deeply connected to my destructive addiction to spiritual bypassing.
On the daily, I/we pass-by the pain, suffering, and trauma going on around us and within us. We practice deceiving ourselves and others that we are more calm, collected, joyous, hopeful, and wise than we really are. We minimize the pain caused by the Powers that Be. We say things like: “There’s always a silver lining.” “We’re all God’s children.”, “Keep the vibe high.” “Social justice is just not my thing.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” And on and on.
For Christians, in contemporary and traditional churches alike - whether it’s in a dark room with a fog machine or in a classic santuary with a hymnal - our worship gatherings are geared to numb us out and avoid the pain. In most white Christian churches, we show up, sing songs of hope, exchange some greetings, and leave without talking about the death around us. As soon as someone (often a modern-day prophet) suggests we practice lament or talk about suffering and injustice, there’s someone right there to accuse them of not bringing in the hope of Jesus.
In his book Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah dives deep into the U.S. Church’s masterful avoidance of lament; Lament being the language of suffering and practice of allowing ourselves to connect to it. While 40% of all psalms in the Bible are psalms of lament, we only sing them between 13–19% of the time. What develops from this avoidance of suffering, is an over-emphasis on praise and celebration —
“Those who live in celebration ‘are concerned with questions of proper management and joyous celebration.’ Instead of deliverance, they seek constancy and sustainability… To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand.” — Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament
Spiritual bypassing is certainly not exculsive to white people, but we are certainly the most guilty collective of practicing and enforcing it. We maintain systems and cultures that coerce all of us, including people of color, to assimilate into the practice of bypassing the pain. Out of our angerphobia, we shame oppressed people across the board into the compliance of feigning eternal joy. And even worse than that, we tell them and ourselves — either overtly or covertly — that justice work is a distraction from the gospel message that Jesus came (and died, and rose) to share with us.
It’s not necessarily our fault that we are this way. We unthinkingly internalize and proclaim justice as a distraction or a ‘slippery slope’ from the good news of Jesus because, despite the fact that our Bible tells us differently, we have been conditioned by a story. We have been given a narrative.
Despite the fact that Jesus repeatedly proclaimed to be about the work of justice, spoke often about the Powers that Be, and sided with the people on the margins; Despite the fact that the Scripture speaks boldly and cautiously to those who value personal piety over seeing the face of Jesus in the ‘least of these’; Despite the fact that Jesus warns us that religious people who think they are the saved ones, are really the lost ones; Despite all these facts we repeatedly tell a different story that pits individual relationship with Jesus against the call to justice.
This story that is not working for us. Either/or thinking has birthed the narrative that we must choose between justice and Jesus. The binary in our minds says our focus is either on salvation and relationship with Jesus OR, on doing justly. Despite the facts leaping off the pages of our Bibles, we repeat the binary. The serpent has served us up a lie-ridden, toxic apple that we consume and serve up to others.
Fortunately, God is always raising up prophets among us to tell the truth that sets us free.
“We don’t stray away from good doctrine or truth by focusing on justice and compassion for those in the margins — rather we find Jesus and truth in the margins.”
“Injustice is a cold, unrelenting reality. It can be tempting for us to use our comfort to ignore injustice or rationalize it away. But God would have us join His work.”
I elaborate on the Church because it’s my primary faith context, but we see spiritual bypassing happening in all kinds of white spiritual spaces. Those of us white (primarly middle class) United States-ians who are dillullisoned by the church, or faith lineages our people come from, frequently escape into Eastern spirtitual traditions, such as Buddism. It makes a lot of sense that white people would leave the Church in the U.S., as the Church has strayed so far from the original gospel story and become so nauseatingly in relationship with the Powers that Be that it damages every precious person it comes into contact with. However, this hard-swinging journey away from our ancestoral traditions can be really damaging, especially if it also becomes just another way of spiritually bypassing.
Our pursuit of Eastern spirituality as white people often becomes an attempt to escape the roots of violence our people have enacted and been complicit in. We try to escape into nature or India or Latin America to meditate, tree pose, permaculture, and breathe our way out of the reality that we live in an empire dominating the world along the lines of class, race, gender, and ability and we are all going down. Our attempts to go east, or south, or north, or anywhere else on the globe to get away from this reality are futile. We cannot bypass the truth and holing ourselves off will not save us. We cannot escape our global, interlocking crises of oppression.
We as white middle class people say to ourselves that we are not being selfish or avoidant, because: We’re connecting back to the earth, we are connecting to our own indigeniety, we are saving the planet, we are creating jobs. Certainly we are doing some of that, and certainly some of the time we are maintaining a groundedness in the larger vision for justice. But a lot of the time, I see us spiritually bypassing with individual ‘white knight’ responses to systemic problems or simply rationalizing our ego’s desire to compete on the Monopoly board.
Why do we keep doing this? Mark Charles has an answer for us:
We as white people are traumatized. Which sounds off, because we tend to associate the concept of trauma with people of color. We forget that we too have been exposed to a multi-generational process of dehumanizing violence. We come from a lineage so dissociated from reality they would take their children to an after-church picnic to watch a lynching. Mark exhorts us to consider as he talks around the country about Race, Trauma, and the Doctrine of Discovery: If there is such a thing as Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS) in the psychological field — then could white Americans be suffering from it? We do happen to be exhibiting all the symptoms:
- Shock and denial
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Anxiety and fear
- Strong reactions to triggers of the trauma
- Avoidance of anything that reminds you of the trauma
- Feeling disconnected and numb, depressed
- Guilt and shame
As a traumatized people, we require a trauma-based intervention. Which means we need some practices and spiritual tools to stay in touch with reality so that we don’t keep dissociating off into Spiritual Bypass Land. Which means we will have to grow our capacity to feel our feelings, our capacity to be in our bodies, and our capacity to hear and integrate deeply the truth about what has happened and is happening.
There’s good and ‘bad news’.
The ‘bad news’ is: The trauma vortex of dissociation into Spiritual Bypass Land is not working for us. It keeps us running from ourselves, one another, reality, and the solutions.
The good news is: We do have hope. God has given us a spiritual prescription for our trauma. We can balance our hope and praise with lament. We can connect with the pain, suffering, and depth of injury that has occurred and occurs. We can engage in the transformational process of renewing our minds by grounding in the realities around us. We can grieve the loss. We can experience the fullness of the gospel message.
We can lament.
Sign up here to receive a free audio recording of a lamentation practice*, and to stay connected about the intersection of anti-racism and spirituality.
Also, also — Shout out to the Healing Justice Podcast and the amazing work they are doing to amplify the healing and spiritual work of justice, including their incredible IG memes posted above ❤
*this practice is based on the Christian practice of lament, though it may be useful to folks in other faith traditions