Monday, December 15, 2014

eyes wide(er) open

I recently read two descriptions of African American experience that really caught my attention:
"Their blackness alone was license enough to line them up against walls, to menace them with guns, to search them roughly, beat them, and rob them of every vestige of dignity."
And,
"A black man could be walking down the road, minding his own business, and his life could suddenly change by meeting a white man or a group of white men or boys who on a whim decided to have some fun with a Negro."
Was I reading a blog post written since the events in Ferguson, Missouri once again brought a conversation about race to the national consciousness?  Not exactly.

The first was written by the historian Joel Williamson in his book The Crucible of Race; the second passage is found in Dr. James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree.  Neither author is referring to the realities of 2014.  Instead, they're writing about the realities of the late nineteenth to mid twentieth centuries.  Notice anything about their descriptions?

Much of white America has absolutely no idea how different our experiences and those of people of color in this country have been.  Absolutely no idea!  Oh, yes, we  know that slavery was bad, and that segregation was hard, but look at the strides we've made since then!  There's even a black man in the White House!  And didn't Martin Luther King dream of a day when color wouldn't matter?

No.  He didn't.  He dreamed of a day when people wouldn't be "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  That he said.  But he never said that we should all become "colorblind" (as if such a thing were possible).  He never said that at all.

Much of white America has absolutely no idea how different the America we live in is from the America that people of color know.  Why can't "they" just put it all behind them?  Really?  Why can't "they" just move on from the past and stop blaming race for all of "their" problems?  You've heard this, right?  I mean, you've heard people saying this for real.  No jokes.  Hell, you and I may have said it at one time or another, too.  (Or, at least, thought it.)  But anyone who says -- or even thinks -- such a thing has absolutely no idea what we're talking about.  No idea at all.

Let's take lynching -- the subject of the book by Dr. Cone that I've just started reading recently.  No one likes to talk about it much, but most liberal/progressive folk will say, if asked, that it was a terrible thing.  We'd all agree with that, right?  And we'd all agree that such an awful aberration should be left behind in the past.

By one count, at least, from 1882-1968 there were 4,743 lynchings in the United States.  3,446 -- 72.7% -- were of black (mostly) men.  It might surprise some to know that not all lynchings were of black people -- 1,297 white people were also lynched.  It's worth noting, of course, that "Many of the whites lynched were lynched for helping the black or being anti lynching ..." (according to the site Lynching Statistics for 1882-1968.)

So ... it was bad.  right?  But much of white America has absolutely no idea how bad.  Did you know that some of the reasons people were lynched included being homeless, injuring livestock, looking "suspicious," and even for skipping rocks!  (A word of warning, if you follow the preceding link you'll come to a site with "10 Outrageous Reasons Black People Were Lynched in America."  The images are graphic and disturbing.)  Just as today, black Americans knew that for absolutely no reason at all they might not come home at the end of the day.  "Their blackness alone was license enough ..."  Dr. Cone notes that the threat of lynching was almost more intimidating than the lynchings themselves.  

But oh how horrific those lynchings were.  Crowds gathered.  Families gathered.  Mom, dad, and the kids would spread out the picnic blanket and make a day of it.  Photos were snapped with people standing near the corpse like fisherman stand proudly with the marlin they'd just caught.  Portable printing operations were set up so that postcards could be made on the spot.  Sometimes the day, time, and place had been advertised; crowds of up to 15,000 -- that's fifteen thousand -- people came out.  How do you "get over" something like that?

A lot of this I knew.  You may have, too.  In a not-too-graphic way it's touched on in history class.  I'd even heard about the crowds.  But there's so much that I didn't know.  So much that I had no idea about.  I didn't know that many of these lynching victims were also burned, and often burned alive.  I didn't know that people from the crowd were invited to cut off body parts to take home as souvenirs.  And that this torture could go on for hours before the hanging itself.  How does anyone "move on" from experiences like these?

Especially -- especially -- because these experiences have not been left in the past.  In August -- August of this year -- a 17-year old boy was found dead, hanging from a swing set.  His death was pronounced a suicide, but the FBI is now investigating because there are elements to the story that don't quite add up.  The last lynching may not have been in 1968.

African Americans who might be reading this post are probably now thinking to themselves, the last lynching may not have been in 1968?  May not?  Is this guy serious?  And they'd be right.  Because in the final analysis lynching was never so much about a particular technique for murdering someone, but about sending a particular message by doing so.  And that message was not hard to decipher -- black lives don't matter.  Black women and men are not the equals of white women and men.  And they never will be.  Don't even try; don't get any crazy ideas about equality or anything like that.

In Dr. Cone's book he draws the obvious -- though largely unexplored -- parallel between crucifixion and the practice of lynching.  He quotes Paula Frederickson from her book Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews:

Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement:  Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar.  The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching.  Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.

The same is true of lynching.  And it can be argued that the same is true today of the phenomenon of police violence toward people of color.  Yes.  Of course there are times when lethal force is required, and police are working in an incredibly tense environment.  All of that is true.  Yet it is also unarguably true that when the use of deadly force is 21 times more likely when an African American man is on the receiving end, something else is at work.

Michelle Alexander argues quite persuasively in her book The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that America's "war on drugs" is, at heart, a new expression of the same impulse that fueled segregation.  If you haven't read her book -- read it.  And then look for the parallels between then and now.  As William Faulkner famously said, "The past is never dead.  It's not even past."

My eyes continue to be more widely open.  I know -- I am afraid -- that they will need to be even more open still.  There is so much that I don't yet know, but that doesn't mean it's not part of the discussion.

Pax tecum,

RevWik




Tuesday, December 09, 2014

a movement, not a moment

I've never been particularly good at estimating -- age, weight, number of people in a group -- but I'd say that the crowd that gathered at the First Baptist Church on West Main Street would easily have filled the sanctuary I am privileged to preach in each Sunday.  That means it topped 200, maybe 250, people.  (And if my extremely rough calculations are anywhere near correct, somewhere around 5% or more of that crowd were other Unitarian Universalists.  Shout out to my peeps.)

We walked in a line from First Baptist over to the Federal Courthouse, where we heard some inspiring words.  Words to inspire us.  Inspire us to not let this one night's march be the end of things.  Inspire us to feel the anger, and the grief, and to come together to make a difference.  A real difference in a system that so desperately needs to be different than it is.

From there we marched to Charlottesville's famed Free Speech Wall.  More speeches.  One speaker said -- look out at you all.  Black, white, hispanic, aisan, gay, straight, young, old -- this is what unity looks like!  We were reminded, encouraged, called on not to let our disagreements over little things get in the way of our desire to move in the same direction.  One person said that this should be a movement, not a moment.

As we marched we chanted -- "No peace -- no justice!"  "Hands up -- don't shoot!"  "I can't breathe."

As we marched we were protected by Charlottesville police officers who wanted to keep us safe and free to voice our outrage and our sorrow.  I was not the only one to step out of the line and walk over to one of their motorcycles to thank them.  I said to one, "I'd imagine that this is kind of a weird thing for you."  "Yeah, but I get it," he said.

I get it.

I'm often tempted to think I "get it" too.  I don't.  At least, not fully.  I understand the concepts.  As much as I'd like to be able to ignore or refute the facts, I see them.  But I don't know what it feels like to live with them every day.  I don't know what it is like.

I can walk down the street with my hands in my pockets or my hoodie up without any concern that I might get stopped by the police and interrogated because someone had called them having seen me and being afraid.  I don't know what it's like to get violently thrown to the ground -- or shot -- because I have the audacity to question an unnecessary and inappropriate request to "prove" myself innocent.  I don't have to have in the back of my head the idea that even when I'm doing nothing at all in a place I belong I can be "in the wrong place at the wrong time."  I don't have to live with the assumptions -- other's assumptions of me and mine of them.  I don't have to live and breathe every day the reality that I am nearly always cast as "the Other."

I can understand all this, but I can't fully "get it."  I don't have to live it.

I have two transracially adopted sons.  One looks like his Irish birth mother rather than his African American birth father.  (He used to say "my brown skin's on the inside.)  The other is a beautiful cross between his East Indian birth mother and his African American and Cherokee birth father.  I know that the world will treat them differently.  I know that someday, and someday soon, my older son will transform from a "cute little brown-skinned boy" into a "threatening black-skinned man."  He's going to "get it."  I have to stop it.

"You are not my enemy," one of the speakers said last night.  "I am not your enemy."  Looking out at the crowd he said, "I don't want to be afraid of you; you don't need to be afraid of me."  "We have to work together to change things."  This is what unity looks like.

This has to be a movement, not a moment.  I can't become complacent, shift my attention to the next thing to come along, return to "life as normal."  Because "life as normal" for me is protected, shielded, from "life as normal" for the vast majority of people of color.  And when I return to my safe "life as normal," I abandon others to a "life as normal" that is unlike any "normal" I'd ever want to experience.  And not just me -- I don't want anyone to have to experience it.  And since my "normal" is, in a very real sense, paid for by this other "normal," then I have to be actively involved in changing things.

Pax tecum,

RevWik


P.S. -- yes, it's true, "all live matter."  But there are two reasons I think it's important that we keep the focus on black lives.  First, it's taken for granted in our culture that white lives matter.  That's assumed; that's expected.  When something challenges that it's thought to be an aberration.  Not so for people of color.  It needs to be asserted -- again and again and again -- that not only white lives but black lives too, matter.

Secondly, one of the ways that white liberals have learned to avoid seeing the real devastation in body, mind, and spirit that racism causes is to affirm that -- we're all in this together.  Yes, we say, black lives matter, but really -- don't all lives matter?  Of course.  But this impulse toward "we're all one" is a way denying the really differences that exist between white and black experiences.  It's a way of saying, "see?  you're just like me," but that'd be asserting that people of color have all the same privileges that I do as a white man.  And that's really a way of blinding myself to the reality that we're not all the same.  Or, rather, perhaps more accurately, that we're not all treated the same.  We need -- I need -- to keep reminding myself and being reminded of those differences so that I can keep being motivated to dismantle them.


Monday, December 08, 2014

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Jesus at 12 in the Temple by Bénèdite de la Roncière
 See more at: JesusMAFA
Yesterday I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking to the Christian Fellowship here at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.


In many ways each Sunday in a Unitarian Universalist church is an interfaith service, and like all interfaith services it is important to consider the words and symbols used so as to make the service as accessible to as many as possible.

I’ve often said that religions are like languages.  You can convey most things in most languages, but friends who speak more than one language tell me that there are certain things that you can really only say in French, for instance, or that you really have to speak Russian in order to fully comprehend a certain idea.  I have become quite comfortable in my adopted language of Unitarian Universalist, and I have a fair proficiency in Buddhist, but my native tongue is Christian.
This morning I want to hang the sermon on four passages from the Christian scriptures.  There is a story told in the Gospel of Mark:
“And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do the people say that I am?’  And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’  And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
And, you know, this question kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?  It’s a very human question, isn’t it? 

Have you ever been introduced to someone and had them say, “Oh … I’ve heard a lot about you.”?  When that happens to me I usually say something like, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” or something like that, but don’t you wonder what they’ve heard?  I know that 12 Steppers have a saying – your opinion of me is none of my business – but you kind of want to know, don’t you?  So Jesus asks, “Who do the people say that I am?”
I imagine them walking as they’re talking – Jesus up in front with long, powerful strides, the others half running to keep up.  But after his friends tell him about other people’s opinions of him I imagine Jesus stopping – the disciples nearly bumping into him and each other.  He looks at them, hard, and then he asks, “But who do you say that I am?”

And that’s really the crux of things, isn’t it?  The heart of this whole Jesus thing, right?  Who do I – who do you – say this Jesus – Yeshua ben Miriam – who do we say that he is?  Because more so than any other religion I know of, the language of Christianity is the language of relationship.  Who do you say that I am?  It’s not an academic question; it’s a relational one.

Marcus Borg, beloved scholar, says that to be Christian we must “take seriously what Jesus took seriously.”  He seems to be suggesting that – well, no, actually, he doesn’t “seem to be suggesting,” he’s outright saying it – that creeds and theological constructs really aren’t all that important.  What matters really isn’t what you believe about Jesus, it is – and here we are again – the relationship you have.  Do you care about the things he cared about?  Do you look at the world in the same way?  Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, "Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction."
And apparently this is what God thinks, too.  At the dramatic height of the story of the Transfiguration, told in both Matthew and Luke, the disciples see a vision of Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah, and they hear a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him!”  Note that the voice does not say, “Bow down and worship him,” but, simply, “Listen to him.”  Pay attention.  Take seriously what he’s taking seriously, because these are the things I take seriously too. 
In the Gospel of Luke there’s a passage that I think points us toward what those things are:
“When the crowds learned [where Jesus was], they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing”
Four points (and I’m going to quote from Teacher, Guide, Companion for a bit.):
First, crowds of people followed him.  Something about Jesus—what he did, what he taught, who he was—drew people to him. The Gospels consistently tell us that people would not let Jesus alone; crowds followed him everywhere he went, seeking to be in his presence.  
Second, Jesus welcomed these crowds.  He welcomed not only the stereotypically “holy” or “righteous,” but anyone who came to him.  Each Gospel makes a pretty big deal of Jesus eating with “sinners,” “tax collectors,” and others that his society considered “unclean.”  Yet you might be particularly struck when reading Luke by how often Jesus was said to have eaten with Pharisees and Scribes!  Everyone—anyone—who came to Jesus was welcomed; no one was turned away.
Third— … and [he] spoke to them of the kingdom of God, . .  Jesus tried to teach people what God’s rule, God’s empire (in Greek, basileia) was like.  Jesus—with his unconditional welcome—formed a community that strove to be a living model of God’s reign, God’s kingdom, the Beloved Community where a seat at the “heavenly banquet” was offered to anyone who came.  Which was markedly different than the empire of Caesar … the only empire anyone knew at the time.  And not to put too fine a point on it, this Kingdom of God is still different from the nations known today.]
The fourth, and final, element in Luke’s summation of Jesus’ ministry is that, “. . .[he] cured those who had need of healing.”  Jesus—in his lifetime—was known as a healer.  A lot of us have an acculturated skepticism about “faith healing” and may find this hard to accept, yet there really isn’t any way around it.  Those who knew him, and even Jesus himself, acknowledged that his role as a healer was central to his overall ministry. 
Yet, while not wanting to minimize at all the element of physical healing in Jesus’ ministry, we shouldn’t limit our understanding of his healing work to bodily cures.  In the Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gutama, who was called the Buddha, was also known as “the Great Doctor” and his teachings were called “Medicine.”   In the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth, who was called the Christ, was known to heal the body, mind, and soul of any who needed healing.
So … that seems to be what Jesus took seriously.  Do we?  Do you?  I’d say that I try to, but I’ll confess that I don’t always come anywhere close.  I forget … a lot.  My teachers at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation would say that we are easily “kidnapped” by the cares of our lives and the confusions of our culture.  Those things that Jesus took seriously?  Not so readily apparent in the values of the world around us; not so heavily reinforced.  So I try … and I forget.  After writing and giving this sermon I’ll probably remember for a day or two.  How ‘bout you?

So I’ve touched now on three of the four scripture passages on which I’d said I’d hang this sermon.  And … in case you hadn’t noticed … I’ve neatly managed to avoid answering directly the question Jesus posed to his friends along the road to Caesarea Philippi – who do I say that he is?  What is my relationship with this first century Rabi?

In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth – and, apparently, most Biblical scholars do think this is actually one of Paul’s (or, maybe, two of Paul’s. but that’s a discussion for another time) – in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he says of Jesus, “all God’s promises find their ‘yes’ in him.”  Isn’t that cool?  All God’s promises find their “yes” in this man, Jesus.  Yeshua.  We might say that he is a living, breathing embodiment of God.  Oh wait – that has been said.  That’s what’s meant by “incarnation.”

To me, Jesus is a model.  If you will, a teacher and a guide.  When John records him saying “I am the way and the truth and the light” I think of Mahatma Gandhi saying, “What is my message?  My life is my message.”  Jesus is the way.  The way of Jesus is the way.  (And that’s what the earliest Christians were known as – people of the way.)
And Jesus was not merely just and good; in Bishop Spong’s words, he was “God-intoxicated.”  Those who see Jesus as a fine moral example or as a gifted ethical teacher, yet who want to keep God out of the picture, miss a fundamental fact about this man.  Wherever he went, in everything he did—not only in his words but in the living of his life—Jesus “spoke . . . of God.” Stephen Patterson notes that the quest to know Jesus is the quest to know God; the two cannot be separated.  Jesus’ example points me toward God.

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr – who, if you haven’t encountered yet you really should – made a point in something I was reading recently that really touched me.  He said that the important thing for us, today, about Jesus is not the assertion that Jesus was like God.  Rather, he said, the really important thing for us to realize is that God is like him.  So God welcomes all who come – an open and inviting welcome that does not concern itself with categories.  God cares about justice, especially for those who are most in need of it, the few that the many would ignore, the ones people often say don’t “deserve” it, aren’t “good enough.”  And God heals.  Cures your cancer?  Maybe not.  But offers a way toward wholeness?  Absolutely.  Remember –  health, wholeness, and holy all share the same root.

Yet I think there’s something more, too.  For me Jesus is not just a teacher and a guide, he’s a present companion, too.  I can’t quite explain it – and it may just be a kind of imaginative play – but when I am not caught up, not kidnapped, then I do sense a presence that is with me.  Not just a teacher then¸ but a teacher now.  I’ll admit that it doesn’t make sense, but honestly?  I don’t need it to.


Now … I’d like to open up the conversation so that you can share your answers, too … [That invitation was extended to the people in the room, but I'd extend it to anybody reading this.]

Pax tecum,

RevWik

Thursday, December 04, 2014

the need to wake up

This morning I am still wrestling with what I can do in the wake of the New York Grand Jury not to indict Daniel Pantaleo who has been accused of killing Eric Garner this past July.  They reached this decision despite there being video evidence of Officer Pantaleo using a banned "choke hold" on Mr. Garner, audio of Mr. Garner repeatedly telling the officer that he couldn't breathe, and the coroner ruling the death a homicide.  How could all of that not even warrant a trial to determine the facts more conclusively?  And with this decision coming on the heels of a similar decision in the case of Darren Wilson's alleged murder of Mike Brown, and within the context of the literally hundreds of cases of fatal encounters between young black men and law enforcement personnel ....  I'm wrestling with what to do.

I mean, I got up this morning and had to get my kids off to school and I had to get to work.  And while my job as a parish minister allows me a great deal of flexibility in how I use my time, I still have things that I have to do that have nothing to do with addressing racial inequalities in our culture.  (Not to mention disparities between gender expressions, economic status, sexual orientation, differing abilities, etc., etc., etc.)  And later on the dog has to be taken for a walk, and dinner has to be cooked, and Peter Pan LIVE! is on NBC tonight.

I don't really mean to be flip and, yet, I do want to drive home how easy it is for me -- as a liberal, white, heterosexual, middle class, well-educated man -- to put all of this other stuff behind me and return to my life "as normal."  And see, that's the thing -- as a white man I have been taught in so many ways, both explicit and implicit, that my life experiences are "normal."  I am free to choose where to go, and generally feel safe when I get there.  I won't be stopped by the police for no particular reason -- like, for instance, walking with my hands in my pockets on a cold day in Michigan.  I can even try to break into my car when I've locked myself out and no one will bat an eye.  Why?  Because I'm a white man and that means I'm given the benefit of the doubt, there's an assumption that I'm okay.  

But if I were black?  World famous scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his own home because a neighbor had seen someone "suspicious" trying to break into a house.  Gates had forgotten his keys, and even though he had already changed into his bathrobe by the time the police arrived, and he could prove that the house was, in fact, his, he was still arrested.  As with Brandon McKean in Michigan, it seems that in the eyes of many, at least, black = suspicious.

Let me change that a bit.  I said, "in the eyes of many," yet even good liberal, non-racist folk will often hold their purses a little tighter, or cross the street, if they see a group of young black men walking down the street toward them.  It's not intentional.  It's not even conscious.  Racism is part of the air we all breathe and, as well all now know, even non-smokers are affected by second hand smoke.  We are all -- even the "good ones" of us -- infected by second hand racism.

If I were a person of color I would have no choice but to look at, deal with, the reality of racism in our culture.  I would be reminded on a daily -- perhaps even hourly -- basis of the systemic disparities which tend to put me at a disadvantage in innumerable situations.  I honestly and truly can't fully imagine what that would be like.

Because I have white skin.  So I have the choice to look at all of this or not.  I have the freedom to step away from my discomfort and into the safe normalcy that is whiteness.  I can choose to live in a world where racist actions are anomalies and where racists are a dying breed.  I can choose to live in a world where so much progress has been made that the President of the United States is an African American man.  This is a large part of what's meant by "white privilege" -- I have the privilege of being able to make these choices.

But here's the thing -- if I can choose to close my eyes and turn my back to these realities faced so regularly by people of color and nearly never by me and people who look like me ... well ... then I can choose not to, as well.  I can choose to keep my eyes open; keep my ears open; keep my heart open.   I can recognize the experiences of people of color as as real as mine even as they differ, even as I can recognize that some folks seriously love hip hop even though it doesn't sound like Beethoven.  And then, well then I might actually even start listening to hip hop and discover its incredible rhythmic and poetic complexity.  Similarly, when I come to recognize that there's a whole other world that I never have to experience, I can choose to begin to experience it as best I can ... stepping out of my safe bubble, taking what I'll call "racial risks" (the risk of saying or doing the 'wrong" thing), really listening to the experiences of people of color, and standing in solidarity with folks who have for too long had to stand alone.

What should I do in the wake of the recent Grand Jury verdicts?  Perhaps the first thing would be to wake up and open my eyes.  Then I can try to wake up as many people as I can.  Who will you wake up>

Pax tecum,

RevWik

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

to look clear-eyed and what's happening all around us



I am angry.  I'm heartbroken.  I despair.  I feel impotent.  My heart keens and my soul is screaming.

Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Akai Gurley in Brooklyn.

Aura Rain Rosser in Ann Arbor.

Tanisha Anderson in Cleveland.

Roshad McIntosh in Chicago.

Darien Hunt in Saratoga Springs.

Ezell Ford and Omar Brego in Los Angeles.

Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, Vonderitt D. Meyers, Jr., John Crawford III, Cary Ball Jr., Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, Eula Love, Amadu Diallo, Oscar Grant, Patrick Dorismond, Malice Green, Tyisha Miller, Sean Bell, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell ...

I could go on, of course.  I could go on, but I'd have to go on, and on, and on.  The Stolen Lives Project has collected data on over 2,000 cases of people killed by law enforcement in the 1990s alone.  (You can put a face to some of the names here.)

Were all of these people people of color?  No, but the vast majority were.  The incidents of violent interactions between law enforcement and citizens skews overwhelmingly along racial lines.  (And a Google search on the phrase "racial disparities in police violence" yields more evidence than any reasonable person could need.)

Were all of these people innocent?  Of course not, yet there are far, far too many cases of innocent people being beaten or shot by police officers, and of these the victims were predominantly young men of color.

Law enforcement personnel have an extraordinarily difficult job.  They must decide -- often with virtually not time -- how to respond to threatening and seemingly threatening situations.  I would not want to do what they have to do, and I do believe that the majority of police officers are good people trying to do good things and are not secretly "gunning for black people."

Yet we live in a culture that still considers white, heterosexual men the norm and which casts people of color (and women, and homosexuals, and ...) as Other.  Brown skinned men, and in particular young brown skinned men are seen as "dangerous" and "threatening" by white skinned people -- consciously or unconsciously.  Think of how typical it is for a white person to feel ever-so-slightly apprehensive when they see a black man walking down the street toward them.  It's unconscious.  It's instinctive.  It's reinforced by countless means, both subtle and overt.  (And by "countless" I really do mean that there are far too many ways to count that reinforce these stereotypes.)

And, so, in this context -- the real world in which we live -- it almost doesn't matter if, in any particular case, the shooting is "justified;" there are always exceptions.  But the pattern ... the pattern is where the problem is.  It is the pattern of unjustifiable police targeting of people of color for violence that leads to the cry, "Black Lives Matter!"

It seems to me that one would have to be willfully looking away not to see what is happening.  And, so, I am angry.  I'm heartbroken.  I despair.  My heart screams and my soul is keening.  And I feel impotent.  What can I do -- a straight, white, middle class, well-educated, minister ensconced in a bubble of privilege?  What can I possibly do from here -- from my own lived experience -- to make any kind of change?  Joseph Osmundson and David J. Leonard, in an essay on Huffington post, name "12 Things White People Can Actually Do After the Ferguson Decision."  It is well worth reading, and all thinking white people should not only read it but follow all the links, as well.

The other thing I can do -- and you can do, too, if you find yourself in the privileged position of being white in this society -- can take advantage of our white privilege and speak up ... speak out.  The world -- okay, let's be honest, the white world ... the dominant world -- listens more closely when a white person speaks out.  And if you're a white male, all the better.  So, if you need to, pull your head out of the obfuscating fog and look clear-eyed and what's happening all around us.  (Just because it's not your experience does not mean it's not happening.)  And then talk about it.  Post on FaceBook and Twitter.  Bring it up at holiday parties (a risk, sure, but nowhere near the risk of "walking while black" has become).

Prove that black lives matter.  Prove that all lives matter.

Pax tecum,

RevWik


Friday, November 21, 2014

In Remembrance ...

The other night I had a dream.

I'm in a large hall.  It's some sort of melding of a convention center meeting room with the dining room at Camp Quinipet (the Methodist Church camp that did so much good for me in my younger years).  The room is set up with tables, and I'm walking around with a plastic tub picking up people's dirty dishes.  The people here are an odd mix of parishioners and convention attendees.  I know that I am here as one of the presenters at this conference/event (although upon awaking I'd be hard pressed to tell you any details about what the event was).

Someone asks, "Since you're a Unitarian Universalist, explain why Communion is so important."

I continue bussing the tables, and I say:

"As I understand it, Communion isn't some kind of magical act.  In and of itself it isn't really all that big a deal.  Communion is a commemoration, more than anything else, and that's what makes it important.

It commemorates the last meal the Rabbi Yeshua had with his friends before he was arrested in Jerusalem, convicted, and crucified.  In some tellings of the story is was the night of the Passover meal, although not all accounts seem to agree on this.  What they do agree on, though, is that Yeshua sat with his friends at this meal and talked about what they'd done together and what might very well happen next.  Given the religious and political climate of the time, Yeshua's single-minded commitment to the preaching of "The Empire of God," as opposed to the Empire of Caesar, could really only end in one way.  And so these friends ate and they talked.  (In the apocryphal book The Acts of John, there is a lovely detail that after the meal the group went outside and danced together.)  And what we're told is that at some point during the meal Yeshua -- Jesus -- asked his friends to remember him whenever they ate together.

The earliest Communion meals were apparently just that -- meals.  Not just a symbolic wafer and a sip of grape juice, but a full-fledged meal.  Among friends.  Remembering this man who had been so in love with God that it seemed as though they were the same.  (As the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians put it, Jesus was someone who was experienced as, "all God's promises find their 'yes' in him.")  So Communion is not some empty, dry and dusty ritual -- it's an opportunity for people today to gather in community to remember people then gathering in community -- and all those in between who've done so -- to center their lives on Love."

"And this," I say, by this point with tears running down my cheeks and real emotion in my voice, "is why I think Communion is important."

I put down the tub with the dirty dishes, wipe my hands on the apron I'm wearing, and go to get a loaf of rugged home-made bread and a beautiful pottery chalice of wine  I initiate a Communion service then and there.  We sing together.  We eat together.  Love is in the room.



Sometimes dreams really resist interpretation, don't they?  And, of course, sometimes they don't.

Pax tecum,

RevWik



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Challenge of Good People Doing Bad Things

This past Sunday I preached one of the most difficult sermons I've ever had to preach in my nearly two decades of doing this job.  I don't think I've ever worked so carefully on my word choice and my phrasing.  I don't think I ever more carefully considered as many possible types of listeners, and how it might be heard by different people with different perspectives and experiences.  The topic was clergy sexual misconduct.

More specifically, it was about sexual misconduct decades ago by a clergy person who retired to the congregation I serve.  He had become a beloved member of this community, and while here had been a powerful preacher and pastoral presence.  He had been open with church leaders about the broad outlines of his history so I'd known about it, as had many others.  By all accounts he had done a tremendous amount of work to try to understand and overcome his addiction (which is what it certainly seems to have been).  He carried the memory of what he'd done 'till his dying day.


The challenge, as I saw it, was to someone explore "how to balance a belief in redemption with a belief in accountability."  Does a person's past misdeeds automatically and necessarily undo any good they've done and any growth they've had since?  Is redemption possible?  Can people change?


Bill Cosby is currently in the news with thirteen women accusing him of having drugged and raped them.  That's abuse, pure and simple.  That's criminal.  But he's Dr. Huxtable!  He's the jello guy!  Do we wipe away all the laughter and joy he gave to so many?  The philanthropic good he did?  The inspiration he gave?


Martin Luther King, Jr. is known to have had multiple affairs.  In fact, I recently read that on the night before he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel he'd been with "a woman who was not his wife."  Should we tear down the monuments that honor his leadership?  Should we stop quoting the "I Have a Dream" speech?


The 2010 book Gandhi:  naked ambition details a rather sordid side of the Mahatma that has rarely been discussed.  Is stayagraha meaningless because of this?  Do his accomplishments disappear in the light of these revelations (although like the aforementioned cases it has been known for quite some time)?


The filmmakers Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and, most recently, Bryan Singer have all been accused of sexual abuse, and as each incident has come to light the same question has been raised -- should we stop watching their movies?  Is their oeuvre overshadowed by their crimes?


Here at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist we wrestle with a similar conundrum.  Jefferson has a great many tremendous accomplishments to his credit -- not the least of which are the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom and, of course, the Declaration of Independence.  Yet we wonder if we should continue to honor this man who also has a very different legacy.  He was, after all, the owner of slaves, the author of some extremely racist ideas, and the illegitimate father of children he continued to hold in bondage.


Marie Fortune, founder of the FaithTrust Institute ("working together to end sexual & domestic violence") is also, arguably, the foremost authority on clergy sexual misconduct.  She recently wrote on her blog a piece titled, "The Message or the Messenger: a question of legacy" in which she explores this very question.  Her answer is essentially, yes, a person who preaches that "all men are created equal" yet who also believes it possible to own other men and rape at least one woman has lost his credibility.  Someone who preaches "the inherent worth and dignity" of every person, yet in their personal life degrades the worth and dignity of others, is not someone to honor.


She begins by looking at the case of Joshu Sasaki Roshi was a Rinzai Zen Buddhist teacher who was accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse.  She quotes Bob Mammoser, a resident monk at Rinzai-ji, as saying, “What’s important and is overlooked, is that, besides this aspect, Roshi was a commanding and inspiring figure using Buddhist practice to help thousands find more peace, clarity, and happiness in their own lives.”  Fortune goes on to ask, "What about the hundreds of Sasaki’s students who found chaos, confusion and suffering in their lives because of his sexual abuse?"  


It's a good question.  And a hard one.  As I said in my sermon on Sunday, "If there is an answer I don't think it is a simple one."  In words William Shakespeare put into the mouth of Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."  This is the way it no doubt often is, and there are many who would say that this is as it should be.  I'm not so sure.


I'm nearly always a both/and thinker.  And I think a challenge in this life -- perhaps the biggest challenge -- is to remain open to the reality of paradox.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote,

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?  Can we have compassion for the survivors of abuse and the perpetrators of abuse?  In his book Peace is Every Step, the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh includes a poem titled, "Call Me By My True Names," in which he identifies both with the injured and the one who causes the injury, both the abuser and the abused.  It sounds like the spiritually mature thing to do.  But is it the right thing to do?  Even with all the wrestling I've done of late, I honestly don't know.  Perhaps the answer is to be found in the living into the tension of the paradox.

Pax tecum,

RevWik