Friday, September 29, 2017

Take a Knee...

When I played sports, or should I say "played AT" sports, as I wasn't very good at anything except tennis, it was typical for a coach, wanting to get our attention in practice, to call us together and say, "Take a knee." By planting one knee down, a group of young, restless guys were anchored to the turf, and would listen to the coach's instructions. Thanks to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and the events that swirled around the National Football League last weekend, the phrase now has a totally different meaning. It didn't help to have the flames of the controversy fanned by our Commander in Tweet, either.

Last year, after yet another young African American man was shot to death by police, Kaepernick, whose father was African American, decided to protest racial injustices by kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem before a football game. It became a thing. He also became persona non grata to many people who felt he was "disrespecting" his country. Last weekend, after You-Know-Who tweeted that Kaepernick--and any other players who joined him in such protests--were "SOBs" and should be fired, the controversy rose to national prominence. This taunt from a white person in a position of authority brought forth many more protests, and now, here we are. Twitter wars, Facebook debates, and even opinion-slinging in the national media have ensued.

That injustices in the lop-sided arrests and use of deadly force against African Americans when it was not shown to be appropriate are incidents of fact. These things have happened. We have all seen the "eye witness" videos. I am not saying that all arrests of persons of color are unjust, nor are all uses of deadly force inappropriate. However, there do seem to be a much larger share of inappropriate treatment of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement that we see against white people. In her book The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander cites statistics that show that, while African Americans make up only 13% of the population, they make up over 40% of imprisoned people. She attributes much of this disparity to the "War on Drugs" which was a linchpin of the Richard Nixon presidential campaign and administration. This "war" stiffened drug laws and largely sought to blame the spread of illicit drugs on the American black population, especially young, male, urban gangs. Alexander cites statistics that show how, when white persons and black persons were arrested for the same drug crimes, the black person would almost always be sentenced to jail time, while the whites were released on probation or simply got a pass. Hence, the escalating African American prison population.

Couple this with the highly publicized--and cell phone recorded--violent arrests of African Americans, and finally a young man in a position of some notoriety--Kaepernick--decided to use his "bully pulpit" to stage a protest. He--and those who have joined him in these athletic field protests--are not protesting against the flag, our patriotic anthem, or those who serve in the military. They hope to put attention on a growing racial problem, and one that has been exacerbated by the Charleston incident and the President's "both sides" reaction to it, publicly. They are showing their disappointment and concern that their country seems to be fine with these injustices.

You are free to disagree with their method of protest. "It's a free country," as they say. The statistics author Alexander cites are real facts (not "alternative facts"), and anyone who suggests that these athletes have "no right" to stage such protests would be arguing with the First Amendment. (A tweet posted by one of our military personnel recently went viral. He tweeted: "If you think I joined the Navy and fought for this country so these NFL players could kneel during the Anthem, you'd be right!")

So, what gets us to this point? White supremacists walking the streets of Charleston? African Americans being locked up at an astonishing rate and going to jail for years over crimes white people get a slap on the wrist for? Yes, but there is something at the root of it all.

It's called white privilege, or "white advantage," if the former statement is too "harsh" for you. If you don't believe it exists, just ask a friend or neighbor who is black! And don't just ask the ones who have managed to survive through the myriad racial barriers they faced in finding success. Ask a young black woman or man. Ask a student. Ask a young African American man fresh out of college who went on his first car-buying trip, or went looking for an apartment in a "nice" neighborhood. Ask an African American what goes through his head if he is pulled over by the police. I guarantee it's not the same thing a white person thinks ("Oh rats, another ticket!").

How about considering a few "less threatening" things that point out our white advantage? Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, came up with 50 statements that express things she doesn't have to consider or face as a member of the white majority race in America. Let me list just a few of them as food for thought:

  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  • I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  • I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge," I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
  • I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing, or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
  • I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  • I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
  • I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • If I have low credibility as a leader, I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
  • I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.
Just a few, mind you. The one that really grabbed me as a parent and a grandparent was: "I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them." I can't imagine the empty and fearful feeling that just sending my kids out into the world could be a threatening thing for them. Wow.

So often when speaking about racism, whether it is in a seminar, from the pulpit, or even person-to-person, a typical response is "I'm not racist! I have friends who are black. I don't see color." Friends, racism is not a personal thing, primarily. If right now, as I write this, every white person were to suddenly be healed of individual racist feelings, there would still be racism! That is until laws and systems (political, legal, social, economic, educational, religious) are changed to not discriminate. AND, just being a minority people will always have social implications--implications that do not stop at the African American community. Just ask an American Muslim.

If we refuse to see the systemic nature of racism, we will continue to believe that "both sides" can be racist. If racism is only personal, then a black man is "racist" if he says something derogatory against a white person. But if we understand the harmful, threatening, even destructive nature of systemic racism, backed up by the power of white majority privilege, then African Americans are not capable of being "racist."

So, Colin Kaepernick is not just being "difficult." He is not disrespecting "the flag," or the National Anthem, or those who proudly serve in uniform. He is trying to start a conversation. He is shining a spotlight--one he is granted him by being an NFL star--on a pox in our midst.

Until my country is able to be a place where all human beings have equal treatment under the law, equal opportunity in all aspects of life, and a place where all citizens are equally respected, then I will continue to be a white racist. With all my heart, I don't want to be. I want to fix this stuff, and RIGHT NOW! But that's not how it works. We have to have those conversations. We have to admit that Charleston was an anti-American event at the hands of white supremacists. We have to stand up to public officials who support the continuation--even the strengthening--of racist systems and laws. And, as people of faith, we must look to our religious "better angels" to drive our politics rather than our politics to inform our religion, in this and many other matters. Maybe that is another way we can "take a knee"--in prayer for our nation and ALL of its people. What Martin Luther King, Jr. said way back on August 28, 1963 is still yet to be fulfilled in our midst:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

God and Hurricanes...

The age-old questions of "Why do bad things happen to good people?" and "If God is good, why does God let things like hurricanes cause so much damage and kill people?" never get old, because this stuff does happen. Theologians call these the questions of theodicy. Is there a decent answer to either of these questions? Probably not one that is absolutely satisfying, especially to those who are victims, or who are in the path of destruction.

The Planet Earth is an amazing thing. I happen to believe a divine mind was involved in its creation, but am quite happy to let the scientists describe how it "came to be," how its evolutionary processes resulted in life as we know it--including our own--and so forth. Believing in a divine "spark" and/or divine, intelligent input to this creative process doesn't negate the efforts, observations, and findings of science, in my opinion, and believing in these scientific factors do not detract from my religious beliefs. This planet refreshes, replenishes, and "cleans" itself, using magnificent weather systems, air and water currents, thunderstorms, and even naturally occurring wildfires. If we weren't here, it would thrive quite nicely, thank you.

However we are hear. Again, I think this was intentional, and was planned by a benevolent creator. The Bible even says the Earth was made for its living, breathing life, including ours. Psalm 8 indicates that humanity was created "a little lower than God," or "a little higher than the angels," depending on which translation you read. Genesis even says we were to "have dominion" over the Earth, and to "subdue" it.

Boy, have we. If I were to look at the hurricane disasters (and we might include earthquakes, floods, and wildfires in this), I could say, very empirically, that we just "get in the way" of the processes that the planet uses to care for itself. Coastal lands are popular places for us to live because of the ocean tides, breezes, and sunshine. These are the same factors that give rise to hurricanes. We like the rugged, mountainous terrains as well, and so do the wildfires. And when we over-build or build shoddy structures in areas prone to earthquakes, well, you see where I'm going with this.

No, I don't believe God sends hurricanes, floods, fires, or earthquakes to smite us because of some doctrinal quirk or moral infringement. The Holy Spirit convicts us of these things and prompts us to get our act together, person to person. And I don't believe anyone--anyone---deserves to suffer at the hand of these naturally occurring events, but when we locate ourselves in their paths, we might.

I am NOT saying we aren't partly to blame for the severity of these events. Hurricanes are a natural phenomenon, as are rains which may bring flooding. However, the top climatologists among us say that our rapid pace of development of the lands, our years of spouting "greenhouse gases," and burning fossil fuels have warmed the world's oceans at an alarming rate--far faster than have ever been extrapolated from the evidence extracted from core samples of the poles and the fossil records of the land. And when the oceans warm, hurricanes are gluttonously fed "fuel" that turns them into super storms, and torrential rains and monster storm systems develop at a greatly accelerated pace. When a section of our nation sees two "500 year" storms in a single season, something is amiss. It's not God, it's us!

What if Planet Earth's evolutionary systems have detected our "sabotage" of these factors? Possibly, then, these systems are compensating by "punishing" us in such a way that we will be forced to work together to reverse the damage we have caused. If we want to keep our coastal properties and our chalets in the forests of the West, then we will need to be more gentle with the Earth and give it time to cleanse and heal itself while we stop mucking it up from our end. Just a thought...

Here's what I do know about these disasters: they do draw us together to help each other. Weren't we all touched to read about how people showed up with fishing boats to help rescue those stranded by the storms? Wasn't it a good thing that so many ways to help out--and places to send relief funds--were advanced by the media, Hollywood, the pro sports people, etc.? J.J. Watt, a star football player with the Houston Texans started a drive to raise $200,000 to help the folks around Houston, and the last I heard, over $30 million had been raised by his social media site. UMCOR donations at St. Paul's and other churches across our United Methodist connection have been pouring it to help. And, rather than being discouraged by these events, we are hearing faith stories and testimonies coming out of the storm zones.

I think God shows up when these things happen. Often, it is in the form of a great human chain of caring, but I believe God is at the center, prompting, encouraging, and triggering a generous and compassionate response from us. God comforts those who experience loss of loved ones and property, fostering the courage to recover and move on. God even works through government entities, as disaster response agencies like FEMA are learning how to efficiently and effectively intervene to help. I don't know why it often takes some kind of disaster to get us to work together, to reach out to help that neighbor in need, but I'm sure glad we do. Maybe that is OUR human systems and evolution kicking in that causes us to do so? And when we do step, we don't examine the color of the other person's skin, their social status, or their religion.

As has often been pointed out by poets, philosophers, and scientists alike, the Earth is all we've got. We're not moving to a new neighborhood any time soon. For now, between storms, may we recharge our energy and our tender hearts for loved ones, friends, neighbors, and Mother Earth. Shalom, Yinz...

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...