Friday, June 26, 2020

With a Heavy Heart...

Well, while the cautions of COVID-19 are FAR, FAR from over, it's time for this blog to move on. Unfortunately, because many have not been good little siblings and kept their face coverings on in public, and didn't avoid crowds, COVID-19 has begun to make headlines again. Who knows, we may just wind up in another lockdown! So far, so good in Pennsylvania and Allegheny County, but I'm seeing less and less people taking precautions, and we could be in the same boat soon as Florida, Texas, Arizona, and other "hot spot" states. My neighborhood had its annual "Garage Sale" a couple of weeks ago, and as I was trying to get out of Adams Ridge to go to a morning wedding, I witnessed that most of the hundreds of people clogging the streets, and a majority of those hosting sales, were not wearing face coverings, so who knows?

But this is not the main reason my heart is heavy, today. Two OP-ED pieces in the New York Times today jarred me to a higher plane of reality--one by conservative columnist, David Brooks, and one by an African American writer, Caroline Randall Williams. Got me all shook up...

Williams begins her column with the phrase, "I have rape-colored skin." She went on to describe her family heritage, which included at least one great-great grandmother who was raped by her "owner," introducing caucasian blood into her family tree when a pregnancy resulted. Williams declared herself a true "daughter of the Confederacy," writing, "My body is a statue of the Confederacy." Her column uses poignant and powerful facts from the African American experience to persuade the reader that dismantling this ridiculous "mystique" of the Confederacy of Southern States is an essential step in dismantling racism and white supremacy in this country. I think she is right, but her facts are convicting to read, and frankly, made me feel even more culpable in my white privilege for "protecting" forms of racism my head and heart don't believe should exist. The obvious question emerging from her piece is: "What are we going to do about this?"

David Brooks, in his column "America is Facing Five Epic Crises All at Once," gives us a nasty dose of current reality, including the battle against racism renewed by the murder of George Floyd. He of legitimate conservative chops has been a critic of the current president since his elevation to that office. In this column, that theme continues, bolstered by Trump's latest incompetencies over Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, and trying to kill the Affordable Care Act in the midst of a pandemic.

However, Brooks spends most of the column offering a serious critique (and a number of suggested correctives) to what he calls "Social Justice," with the two words capitalized intentionally to make it a "thing." As one whose 35-plus years in ministry and three degrees of higher learning have sensitized me to the concerns of social justice, and spurred me to preach, comment, and at least begin to act on a variety of justice oversights that threaten People of God whom I love, I admit to having my hackles raised at the genesis of Brooks' rhetoric. Why was he calling out "Social Justice," a collective cause he has championed in previous columns? Had me worried.

Brooks has long been a critic of academia, even though he speaks at institutes of higher learning all  the time. His "popular" critique is what comes out in this column--"academic elites" believe change can come from manipulating the culture. Manipulating is probably the wrong word, but it's what I thought of as I read the column. "Persuading" maybe? Or just trying to sweep the Zeitgeist in a different direction? Either way, Brooks believes this gets folk all steamed up, but has little lasting power to bring about needed change. He rather derides "symbol bashing" as an effective tool, such as believing that tearing down statues of Robert E. Lee will end systemic racism in the U.S.

I do have a bone to pick with Brooks, in that he seems to be doing something he often accuses his opponents of--painting with too broad a brush. Symbols--and words as symbols MAY INDEED be powerful tools of change. Who would argue that the demonstrations and protests for civil rights in the days of John Lewis, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't sway a nation? And who would argue that the speeches and sermons of Dr. King didn't challenge white America and help it begin to comprehend his inclusive "dream"? I DO believe the protests around the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are raising the consciousness of our nation, and while it takes a long time to "turn a big ship," the bow is beginning to point in a different direction.

Brooks' main point is that unless the people in power do something--pass legislation, change the rules, and exorcise the bigots and racists from the police precincts and the halls of justice, little lasting change will be affected. In our current scenario, some will quote the proverb that the "fish rots from the head, down." Why is it so hard to accept that America has marginalized people because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic standing? And why is it so hard to see that America lives into its Constitutional blueprint by UN-marginalizing them? Brooks suggests we must do this by changing old laws and/or passing new laws granting equal rights to ALL people, and then enforcing these civil rights through the justice system. I would add that we must educate, educate, educate! And to do that equally, we must create new ways to fund schools equitably, and make higher education affordable for all.

Is David Brooks right that some of what is masquerading as social justice has become the quasi-religion of "Social Justice"? In some corners, maybe. But it's hard to argue against the passion of people who have seen officers charged with "protecting and serving," killing instead of protecting, and in front of cameras that show the whole world that this heinous action is tipped decidedly against People of Color. And how many trials have these "Social Justice" adherents witnessed where perpetrating police officers walked away acquitted of obvious crimes against People of Color, many of whom died because they couldn't breathe? It doesn't matter what took away their breath--a knee to the neck for nine minutes or a bullet from a semi-automatic service weapon that pierced a lung on its way to the heart. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Jonny Gammage, and Antwon Rose died without a trial, "convicted" by officers who declared them guilty of a crime deserving a capital sentence.

Do I agree with Brooks, that laws must be changed, along with systems of oppression that create and "enforce" them? Absolutely. All the protests in the world will not fix these problems without substantive change in the laws--or lack of them, in some cases--that permit oppression in the first place. Should police forces across this nation be trained professionally in such a manner that they do not act on their prejudices when "protecting and serving" the public? Absolutely. Should cops with long records of questionable "policing" like Derek Chauvin be weeded out from law enforcement? Absolutely. Should jobs that never should have been delegated to over-taxed police forces be given to the counselors and social workers who have the necessary training to "disarm" volatile domestic situations or handle an agitated person with mental illness? Absolutely. All of these changes require political action, and frankly, a change in the current "wind" of politics, which seems to be reinforcing the sad status quo.

As long as we white people remain in the majority (and that reality could end before I'm pushing up daisies), the continuing oppression known as systemic racism will prevail unless we make a conscious effort to sniff it out and end its power. We white people have to confess to the "sin" of white privilege, and dismantle its insidious systems. Brooks is right that just "educating" us about it--even when we finally "get it" and acknowledge its existence--will not end its oppressive power towards People of Color. Brooks is right that legislation must be passed at the federal level, and that will only happen with leadership that will "reach across the aisle" to foster incremental change. It will take a change of leadership at the top to begin to dissolve the polarization that is crippling our nation and killing our citizens, both literally and figuratively.

And if you are still of the "school" that believes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 fixed racism in America, please reach out to a Person of Color for a conversation. Equality has not been reached in America until the person you think has attained it, agrees. And we are far from that right now. Heck, African Americans fear they may not survive the "safety stops" they face at the hands of suburban patrolmen, and must have "the talk" with their male children about what they must do when detained by a police officer on foot or pulled over in their car,  to avoid becoming the next statistic. All I had to tell my two children when they got their driver's license was, "If you get pulled over, don't be a jerk to the cop," not things like: "Put your driver's license and car registration in a clear folder, on a lanyard, and hang it from the rear view mirror so you don't have to open the glovebox to retrieve it for the officer." Or "Keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times, and don't move, suddenly." (Pittsburgh activist and long-time NAACP President Tim Stevens--who once told me he has experienced over 100 of those "safety stops" as he traveled around Pittsburgh suburbs in his work--has written a whole fold-out pamphlet to help African American parents give "the talk.")

Thanks for letting me vent, Beloved. As I said at the top of this week's blog, my heart is heavy. When that happens, I pray. Been doing a lot of praying. And I want to DO something to help end oppression in my country, a country formed around the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ALL. And this adherent to the "quasi-religion" of "Social Justice" believes that ALL means ALL. Join me in prayer; join me in action. Write your representatives; call their offices; join a demonstration; read widely about these issues; vote. Vote. Vote. Shalom!

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Quarantine Chronicles: The Final Insult...

Yeah, I bummed that title from the "Police Squad" movies with Leslie Nielsen. I caught up with all of them during the lockdown/quarantine one night when nothing better was on the TV, and that's saying something. While it won't be the last thing I write about COVID-19, it will be the final installment of what I have been calling the "Quarantine Chronicles."

COVID-19 is NOT over! All of our medical friends remind us of that daily, and Pennsylvania's "Green Phase" just means we are "green" to continue social distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands constantly, smelling like sanitizer is our cologne, and venturing out to the increasingly opened businesses VERY gingerly. Getting your hair cut is still a risk. Getting your nails done is still a risk. Eating in a restaurant is still a risk. Swimming in a community pool is a GREAT risk, as are jammed bars, concert venues, movie theaters, and churches. Go to things that are out of doors, and STILL do your social distancing and mask wearing. Get used to washing your hands thoroughly and more frequently for the rest of your life, especially if you would like that life to last a while.

I like to shake hands. Almost everyone likes to shake hands. You do it to greet, you do it to affirm, you do it to close a deal. And you do it in the greeting line at church. Nope. Not any more. Dr. Fauci said that even after the Coronavirus has been neutralized (to what degree it will be), social gatherings--and even places like church--should give up on hugs and handshakes. He said if we do, we will greatly reduce the impact of influenza and the "common cold." Both of these things may have a devastating effect on seniors and those with weakened immune systems. Our new "COVID habits" might help us stay healthier, in general. I'm OK with that. But I still like to shake hands, so I've got to erase that "tape" from my 65+ year memory.

I'd like to adopt the Indian greeting, "Namaste" with a gentle bow and folding of hands together. As I understand it, "Namaste" means "The divine presence in me greets the divine presence in you." And while it may have Hindu origins, it sure sounds like a wonderful and humble greeting for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well. One of my clergy colleagues said people in our churches would flip out, though because the greeting "isn't Christian." So what is Christian about shaking hands? Hugging? The Bible talks about greeting one another with a "holy kiss," but in the COVID era, that's not very "Christian," either.

A United Methodist news article I read the other day suggests using the "Vulcan" greeting Mr. Spock in Star Trek used. It's kind of a "V" thing you do with your middle and ring fingers on your right hand, accompanied with the phrase, "Live long and prosper." When the writers of the original Star Trek series were looking for something unique for the pointy-eared extra-terrestrial to use as a greeting, Leonard Nimoy (the actor playing Mr. Spock) flashed the "V" sign from his upbringing as an Orthodox Jew. When done as a blessing, the Jewish worship leader uses both hands, and brings the thumbs together in a representation of the Hebrew letter "Shin." Mr. Spock only used one hand, though.

I don't think that is a good idea. First of all, it comes from a fictional TV show, and secondly, the origin of it is from a real religious observance that should be kept solemn. Maybe we just humbly bow toward one another and cross our arms, which my wife tells me is sign language for "hug."

Of course, we could always take to wearing a second mask with eye holes and go to calling one another kemosabe, but that is from another fictional TV show, and besides, the media historians think it was an inside joke derived from the Spanish phrase, quien no sabe, meaning "who does not know."

We can wave. And with our hands drenched in sanitizer, it will be an aromatic blessing as well.

We're not rushing back into the church building, either. Enclosed spaces are not as "safe" as the out of doors, so with Summer here, our first attempts at "in-person" worship gatherings will be outside, with social distancing and masks, and no singing. No singing? Oh yeah, we shouldn't sing around others. Some of us have known that for years, not because of viruses, but because it's annoying. Singing with  mask is annoying to everyone, and singing without a mask is possibly a COVID-19 lawn sprinkler. And speaking of sprinklers, our outdoor worship will be "weather permitting," for the time being--we're not going into the church building on rainy days. Stay home and tune in "Worship Moments."

Preaching should be done at a distance, too, and should be kept short. Frankly, I've heard THAT for decades, too, and not for it being a viral issue. I do try to write sermons that could "go viral," but that's for another day. For now, my congregation universally suggests that short is good, and "I'll just sit in the back row."

The good news is that we have an opportunity to REALLY "Rethink Church," something the sloganeers in the United Methodist Church have been pushing for years. Amazing that it has taken a potentially deadly virus to get us to do something that neither sin nor the Good News has been successful at provoking. I can see a new hymn coming: "Jesus, Sanitizer of My Soul."

I'm writing this from my church office, by the way, something I feel free to do in the "Green Phase." Many of our staff are still working from home, though. I can write, read, and study in my office without a mask on, but as soon as I venture into the office suite here, it's on. I just completed a long pre-marital session with a couple, socially distanced, and all wearing masks. Boy, is that tiring. It's hard being pastoral and encouraging while looking like Clyde Barrow about to hit the First National Bank, and sounding like Sylvester the Cat. We got through it, though, and the couple was oh so gracious.

I'm still liking eating meals at home. Some of you who are on facebook know that I've delved into cooking a bit, but my sweet tooth has coaxed me into a great recipe for iced cinnamon roles and praline pecans. I've learned to make and eat "Chicago Dogs," which is something for a former hotdog "purist" who believed only in natural casing weiners on a chewy bun, adorned with nothing but yellow mustard. Did you notice that none of these things falls into the category of healthy eating?

Well, that's it for now, Dear Ones. Hope to see you "at church," either via our continued live-streaming "Worship Moments," or at one of our outdoors, numbers-limited, pre-registered, socially-distanced, and masked in-person worship services with short sermons and no singing. Boy, I'll bet you can't wait! Hey, stay safe and stay well! In the midst of it all, don't forget that God's grace is still amazing and abundant! Shalom!

What's Next?

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