Thursday, April 16, 2015

Dusting Off the Cobwebs

Yes, it's been a while.  Honestly, I haven't known what to say that might be worth my effort in writing or yours in reading.  C'est la vie, as the French say.

Then too, it's been rather busy lately, with lots to do and react to.  So blogging has descended, rather dramatically, on my priority list.

But this incident was too good not to share.

I was leaving the church office late yesterday afternoon, walking to my car in the parking lot.  At the same time, several preschoolers were leaving the building with their mothers, heading to cars near mine.

One little boy stopped as I got closer, to turn and look at me with a rather quizzical expression.  I see the children fairly often - as they arrive or leave, as I move around the building, as they play or pray before lunch.

So I smiled and said, hi there.  And after a second, he responded with his own shy smile, then moved on after his mother.

As I got to my car and unlocked the door, I heard him say to his mother, as if to explain my presence, "He's an older kid here."

As the Cowardly Lion remarks in The Wizard of Oz, "Ain't it the truth; ain't it the truth."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Follow-up on Ferguson

I'm still working on a post about membership - what it means in/to the church, how we express it, whether there need to be changes in our traditional organizational approach.

But life gets in the way, so it'll appear sometime after the New Year.  In the meantime, I'm continuing to read, reflect, and engage in conversation on issues of racism, white privilege, police reactions, etc.

A couple of weeks ago, Columbia Faith & Values posted my column "Do They Know It's Christmas in Ferguson," riffing on the 1980s Band Aid crusade against the Ethiopian famine.

Rev. Shawn Torres wrote for Huffington Post about his experience in New York, protesting Eric Garner's killing with a black friend.  The difference in the treatment of a black and a white protester is disappointing, to say the least.

There have been many counter-voices raised in recent weeks, especially in relation to the tragic deaths of police officers.  Black protests are accused of causing police deaths.  However, when race and ideology are mentioned in connection with white murderers, some commentators cry "foul."

The media seem to ignore, or quickly lose interest in, the reality of home-grown white ultra-conservative terrorists (e.g., Oklahoma City).  Here's a column suggesting that some of that avoidance lies in perceptions of race.

Finally, local pastor and professor Clanton C. W. Dawson, Jr., heads the African American Clergy Coalition of Mid-Missouri and writes for their blog.  His recent column explores the nature and transformative power of protest.

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.