Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Dealing Honestly with Race in America

(Updated, with edits at the bottom)

I had another post planned for this week, on a completely different topic.  I'll get to it sooner or later.

But events in Ferguson, Missouri, took a turn last night with the announcement of the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown.  And I've already seen far too many "justice was served"-type posts on Facebook and across the internet.

150 years after the Civil War, 50 years after the passing of civil-rights legislation - we still don't deal well with issues of race and racism in America.

Of course, lots of people don't quite "get" what it means to be privileged by the way the system works, through no intention or fault of one's own.  Lots of people don't even see the ways they are privileged.

I saw an interesting description online, of a lesson in privilege.  Sometimes it's just about where we get to start, and whether or not we recognize that others begin from an inferior position.

As a white, heterosexual male with college and graduate degrees, I know I occupy a position of privilege.  I didn't compete with anyone for that; I didn't defeat anyone (fairly or otherwise) to get where I am.

But I began life with a head start.  When it comes to finding a job, I "look the part."  If something bad happens, I don't have the appearance of "the usual suspects." I didn't do anything to cause that, and I have no reason to feel guilty about it.

BUT - I do have cause to work at minimizing the effects of privilege, so that everyone really gets an equal opportunity.

During my first year in divinity school, I worked with an anti-racism organization in downtown Boston, Community Change, Inc.  The founder, Rev. Horace Seldon, was a peaceful soul and very encouraging.  My project for the year was to lobby the state legislature for changes that would minimize race in jury selection.

One of many documents available on Community Change's website is an outline of "The White Problem":
  • "We at CCI understand racism to be more than individual prejudice and discrimination based on race.
  • "We believe that racism occurs when one group has the systemic power to institutionalize its prejudice in the forms of laws, policies, and ideologies that exclude and oppress other groups.
  • "Historically, and presently in the United States, white men of wealth and property have had this power to create and control the institutions that govern the lives of all who live here.
  • "This has produced a system of advantage for white people who benefit from unearned privilege at the expense of people of color.
  • "We believe that this systemic or institutional racism is largely invisible to the white community."
One can be as unprejudiced as humanly possible and still be a beneficiary of racism's systemic effects on our society.  And we all need to come to grips with that, so that we can begin to dismantle those effects and build a community where opportunity is truly equal.

The events in Ferguson reveal a system that is skewed dramatically against people of color, in which young black men are automatically seen as probable criminals, and their civil rights - not to mention their lives - of less value than others'.

The anecdotal "evidence" of black crime cannot finally cover over the reality that whites are arrested less often, convicted less often, and given shorter sentences than blacks - not because whites commit fewer crimes, but because the system views blacks - without reason - as more of a threat.

Over four centuries after the first African slaves were landed on these shores, we still have a lot of work to do.  And the first task is to take seriously the still-lingering character of racism.

Update:  Articles and reactions are pouring forth, offering context and constructive suggestions.  Here are a few....

On the huge disparity between blacks and whites killed by police.

On how to better understand those who think differently from you.

More suggestions for whites.

Above all, express your solidarity with those who are hurting, stand with them, and pray.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Back in September, I shared my concern about our country's continuing attention on the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and the near-adulation for both heroes and victims.  I was (and am) concerned because we don't seem to move past that day, learn from it - or put it in a larger perspective.

I just finished reading Walter Brueggemann's new book, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.  I heard another scholar refer to the prolific Brueggemann once as "he who so brilliantly surfs every wave."

In this new book, Brueggemann draws connections between the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC and America's 9/11 tragedy.

Bruegemann calls the destruction of Jerusalem "the defining historical event in the literature of the Old Testament."  He sees this event disrupting Israelite thinking to a point of crisis, in three ways:
      "confidence in the ideology of chosenness held by the Jerusalem establishment,
      denial amid the crisis that that ideology had failed and was not sustainable, and
      despair when the denial was broken and reality was faced."  (p. 1, paperback edition)

Likewise, the events of 9/11 in contemporary America have caused a crisis, seen in:
      "confidence in the ideology of exceptionalism,
      denial, amid the crisis, that that ideology has failed and is not sustainable, and
      despair once the denial is broken and reality is faced."  (p. 2)

In 165 pages, Brueggemann explains how ideology became blindness to reality, in both Israel and America, how denial prolonged the confrontation with reality, and how the eventual confrontation with reality produces pain and despair.

But he also shows how, in the case of Israel, certain scriptural voices record the prophetic counter-response - facing ideology with reality, denial with voiced grief, and despair with the possibility of hope.

Jeremiah, for instance, was a voice of reality in the face of royal over-confidence.  Lamentations expresses deep, almost inconsolable grief which finally cannot be ignored.  And Isaiah 40-55 invites hope in a new future.

The widely-read Brueggemann brings to light many contemporary voices, responding to the American crisis of 9/11 in the same way as the biblical voices for 6th century Israel.  But he leaves the impression that there is much more to do, to turn our society away from ideology's denial toward hope in a new, more equitable reality.

Having read this book, I'm less certain now that 9/11 ought to fade into the background.  Rather, the annual homage might be an opportunity to analyze and re-evaluate just what happened, why, and what it means for our country.

Are we "all that" - as exceptional a society as we claim to be?  A friend who grew up in Europe often tsk-ed, decades ago, that we Americans had no idea what it was like to live through a war.  He was right; until 9/11, we hadn't been invaded in nearly 200 years.

And there was a great world outpouring of sympathy for us in the moments and days after 9/11 - sympathy that we squandered by puffing up ourselves again and claiming a historically and morally unique position in the world.

There may yet be a message to be found in 9/11 - not what the "patriots" claim, but a challenge to rethink our national priorities and goals, so we might actually become the example for others we boast of, offering true liberty and justice instead of slogans, sharing our immense resources rather than hoarding them, serving Creation's needy instead of arming its tyrants and ignoring its oppressed.

If we can bring ourselves to do this, we may yet become that "shining city on a hill" our forebears dreamed of....

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Time Passes

Lots of family visiting over the last few weeks - good visits, too.  But at least I've managed to keep up with my deadlines for Columbia Faith & Values.

Here's my September article, reflecting on divisive issues that face our society and pondering better ways to address them.

And "this just in" for October, thoughts about the latest movie version of the Left Behind novels and why it's not Biblical in any way.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Is It Time to Move On?

At the risk of igniting serious controversy (though limited readership makes that seem unlikely), I’m going to wonder aloud if it’s time for our nation to “move on” from September 11.

On this day thirteen years ago, two planes were flown into the Twin Towers in New York City, a third crashed into the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., and a fourth crashed onto a Pennsylvania field.  A total of 2,999 people died in this tragic event.

Like many, I watched and listened to the news coverage that day and on succeeding days.  A friend worked in the Pentagon, and I worried about him and his family, emailing to find out if he was safe.  (He was.)

Like many, the church I served re-focused worship for the coming Sunday to reflect on what happened and how we might respond as Christians.

I was gratified to learn of the widespread international outpouring of sympathy, yet dismayed to hear of the prejudice and threats experienced by “Middle Eastern-looking” people in our own country.

I was heartened by the initial responses of our government, welcoming the world’s support, but deeply disappointed with the second (still ongoing) reactions of self-righteous crusading abroad and restricted civil rights at home, counter to the very principles on which our country was founded.

For those who lost loved ones that day, I know it is impossible to “move on,” and I would not counsel them to attempt it.  Some of our annual “remembrance,” therefore, may be in sympathy with those who suffered actual loss.

And perhaps – as with, say, a D-Day or Hiroshima observance – it is also appropriate not to lose track of “what happened” and who paid a price.

But for those of us with little or no personal connection to that day’s losses – why act as if 9/11 were the worst thing ever to happen in the history of the human race?  We lost hundreds more at the Civil War battle of Antietam, and that’s just American history.

Other lands and peoples have experienced much more and much worse than we.  A friend born in Europe used to gripe that Americans have no concept of what it’s like for war to take place within our borders.  To many, “American exceptionalism” is more like being spoiled.

I guess my real problem is that the annual call to “remember” just stirs up the jingoistic hyper-patriotism that wants to exterminate everyone not like us – “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” – that still seeks revenge for our wounded pride and violated soil.

That’s really what I want us to move past.  Working in a call center in California years ago, I first heard someone respond to a coworker’s self-pitying remark with “build a bridge and get over it.”

There was an opportunity, early on, for us to build bridges across the oceans and with other nations.  Sadly, that opportunity was cut off too soon by trumped-up accusations that dragged us into still-unended wars.

But shouldn’t that be what we do – build bridges and cross them – as those who now understand much more clearly the sufferings of others, committing ourselves to healing rather than more destruction?

For those who lost family and friends on 9/11, it may be too early.  But for the rest of us, I think perhaps it’s time.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Who Turned on the Time Machine?

Yesterday afternoon, we ordained a young man who grew up in our church and heard God's call to become a minister.  It was a moving service - made even more touching and powerful because less than three weeks ago, this young man began serving a church in Ferguson, Missouri.

Hardly had he begun his ministry - as an associate pastor with a particular emphasis on youth - than an 18-year-old black youth was shot and killed by a police officer.  The first night of marches-turned-riot went right past his new church.

In the past eight days, a lot of opinions have been aired.  I want to highlight three things in all of that which compel my attention and channel my thinking:
  • unarmed black teenager,
  • police violence against blacks, especially young black men,
  • resistance against acknowledging ongoing racism.
Let me begin by recognizing the "presumption of innocence" in our legal system in regard to the officer who fired the shots that killed Michael Brown, and the importance of providing him with due process.  Let me also state that riots and looting have the potential to destroy that neighborhood and its important institutions, worsening rather than solving its problems.

And I must also declare my trust that the vast majority of law enforcement officials are good, compassionate, and a credit to their uniforms.  They serve and protect, and our society would be much worse off without them.

I grew up in the 1960's and '70's.  I saw the photos of Civil Rights marches in the South, complete with police-wielded billy clubs and dogs attacking children.  But we all "knew" that was an aberration; "our" police weren't like that.  I mean, a uniformed officer helped us cross the street for school every day in Fairport Harbor.
What happened?  I honestly don't know.  But it sure feels like the '60's in the South again - or perhaps another country.  Here's how one writer compared typical news coverage of foreign unrest to the situation in Ferguson.

Others have written about the "code of silence" that ignores acts of police brutality until they're revealed on video.  Certainly, the increasing militarization of our country's police forces - initiated by the war on drugs, reinforced by the war on terror, and equipped by military surplus - has skewed the police-citizen dynamic.

And lots of folks - with better cred than I - have shared the experience of being black and male in America:
As a number of writers have suggested, Americans still have not faced the lingering legacy of racism in our society, and how it turns young black men into automatic enemies - "the other."
Something needs to happen - something different from what we're already doing - so that no more lives are needlessly ended.  And as always, the solution starts within.