Saturday, May 18, 2019

Love the Racism Out of You

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. 
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 
-- MLK

I talked about how racist attitudes and acts of racism are always rooted in cowardice and self-hatred in a previous post.

If that is true, doesn't that change everything about how we ought to approach racism in this country?

We often approach racism this way:  We condemn racism itself and the people who hold racist beliefs. Then we focus on lifting up the people whom racism has oppressed.

That seems logical, right?  Racists have all the power and have used it to hurt others, so to make the situation right they need to lose that power and be reprimanded.

But what if racists don't feel like they have power?  What if, on some level, they feel like they are the victims? 

After all, racism comes out of fear--always. I'm talking about the kind of fear so deep most people often don't know they have it, but their actions speak for themselves. Why else would people work hard to oppress another group unless they were worried about what this group would do on a level playing field? Why else would they spend so much time hating what another group is doing?  Isn't their life, their family and their work enough to keep themselves interested? Don't they believe in themselves?

It gets more complicated because racism, bigotry and discrimination are problems every person struggles with. It's endemic in the human condition, or at least in human culture. It can flare up in anyone and many keep it on the back burner simmering. But to the extent that either racism is "true" for any of us, whether it's in small ways for some or larger ways for others, I would argue the same lessons probably hold true. Racism may be like greed. Some multi-millionaires revolve their lives around greed while for others it's a more occasional misstep. But whether it's all-consuming or an occasional tendency, it is still coming out of sin, and that sin is tied to fear and that fear is tied to insecurity.

What sin are we talking about? Breaking the 1st commandment. People have their confidence and pride in something other than the awesome Mystery of God. And despite what it looks like, pride is always trying to cover up shame--a lack of self-worth or self-esteem. Feelings of superiority are always masking fears of inferiority. Always. The psychologist Alfred Adler made that point many years ago. Hated of others is always tried to a deeper, often hidden, self-hatred.

That's why it's rarely successful to "beat the racism" out of someone, whether in an actual war with bullets or in a fiery online debate. Attacking someone who is fearful is not likely to inspire them to move through and beyond their fear--rather, it actually validates the legitimacy of their fears ("You see? I was attacked so my fear was justified all along!") In short: We have to love the racism out of folks. Society still needs to send a message and condemn racism, but that alone won't cause transformation in hearts and minds.

We know that racism in the U.S. was fueled by a cruel system of manipulation: Poor whites were pitted against poor blacks. It served the wealthy and powerful for the poor people to squander their energy fighting against each other so they would never organize and recognize their common enemy. The wealthy were not sharing any of their riches with the poor whites, but they gave them a sense of pride in their "whiteness." And some of those folks were so poor the only thing of value they had was their whiteness, so they have fought hard to keep the racial pecking order in place as a result. It's a twisted system.

Can we convince white people that their future will be better without racism? Can we convince them that there is a place for them in a more open, diverse, inclusive world? Can we convinced them that they have value as they are so they don't need to spend energy hating another group? They don't need racism in order to feel secure in this world. Can we convince them to let go of white privilege, which has given them much but also creates unrealistic expectations that make white people so volatile and fragile? Many white folks cannot envision themselves in a vibrantly diverse America of tomorrow. They have been convinced that they have nothing to gain there and much to lose. Can we show them that there is a bright future for them, too?

And if so, how do we do this?


If racism and other bigotry is rooted in fear--and I think it's clear that it is--then we should approach the issue with that firmly in mind. You can't scare the fear out of someone or beat or punish the fear out of someone. Or win legal cases. All of that will be perceived as a loss and will only work to strengthen the fear and persecution complex. All these will just work to convince a fearful person that they were right to be fearful because negative consequences are coming their way. But if we can get to the point where white people do not see Civil Rights victories as a loss but instead see that it is a win-win for all of us, then we can start healing that core fear. What I'm arguing is similar in a way that union organizers of years gone by worked to build a class consciousness and build solidarity--'that man over there is not my enemy but my comrade and we'll both get farther if we see our commonality and work together.'

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Arming Teachers: The Intersection of White Male Privilege and Anti-Democratic Impulses

The subject of arming teachers has again surfaced given recent legislation in Florida allowing the practice. 

This idea is absurd. However, it persists because, I believe, it sits at the intersection of hot-button issues of  gender, privilege and power. These are much deeper than simply a question of gun usage. These issues are key in an ongoing tug-of-war for the soul of this nation.

A friend who is a lifelong educator wrote: 

I strongly object to any teacher being armed. I believe if a person with a gun is in a school that person should be a genuine experienced police officer. Handling a gun, shooting with a gun, and becoming effective as a shooter can be trained into some people but developing the needed understanding, rapid decision making skills, and having a keen awareness of all the dangers in a shooter situation takes experience, practice, knowledge and commitment. How is a teacher going to do that while at the same time handling their responsibilities with their students? This is like a secret service job title. I am fearful that one of these well-meaning teachers will become a fine example of why this is a very stupid idea.

MY RESPONSE: What he describes is exactly what some people want. They want to take people who are relaxed, confident, independent and thoughtful and turn them into trained gunmen who react.

Why in the world would anyone want this? Two reasons come to the top. 

First: It serves some politically. As the Ancient Greeks taught us, true freedom and independence comes through education, NOT weaponry. When you are skilled at critical thinking--so that you can sift through information to arrive at your own conclusions and be confident in your conclusions--then you are not easily manipulated by fear rhetoric, fake news or the mob mentality. As a result, education makes you confident and relaxed. However, many do not like a truly free population, so keeping them afraid, armed and on alert changes the psychology of the population dramatically and makes certain things politically possible that would otherwise not be possible. If you want to erode democracy and install authoritarianism, this is an essential step. An armed and fearful population is the easiest for a government to control (which is ironic since so many gun rights supporters see gun ownership as the means to stave off bad governments when it's actually the easiest way to get them).

Second: White male dominance. There is a group of people--especially white males who are not college educated--who have been told all their lives that it is their job to be dominant in society. They have been told they will simply earn that through their natural skills and abilities, and they disregard at face value that any of this achievement comes through structural privilege. But their world is slipping away. Women and people of other races and ethnicities are gaining power more and more. What is the desperate insecure white male to do? He tries to augment himself to get the power he has been told he deserves and merits. He uses steroids, he drives big, loud trucks and he keeps himself armed. I actually feel bad for him, because he feels inadequate--society tells him its his birthright to be the big dog but the facts of the world tell him that he's only average, so he desperately tries to do something to live up to those unfair expectations on him.

HERE'S THE KEY: As long as the world lives and dies based on who has guns and who doesn't, then the one calling the shots (literally) still has all the power. As long as everyone is walking around armed all day, then the uneducated white male with the gun is still the big dog in society--he's still necessary--everything is all based on him--he trains and coaches everyone--and All. Eyes. Are. On. Him. 

If you take away guns, you take away his very identity and his role, and he will feel like you are taking HIM away. It's not true, but the perception is true which is why so many fight so hard to keep their guns. They have internalized that those guns are literally an extension of themselves, so they are fighting to keep them as if their very life depends on it--and it does, but not in the way they think. It's only their PERCEPTION that their identity depends on it, because the chances of them needing their guns because of a pending gunfight at the O.K. Corral are pretty slim.

In the movies, it is almost always the white, western male who saves the day and who naturally takes command. In real life, the person who saves the day might be that Muslim doctor wearing a hijab who performed flawless heart surgery on you. It could be a female politician who commands attention and sets policy. It could be an African-American male who programmed your computer. The gap here between expectations and reality is significant and people will try to address it in better and worse ways. We blame white males for being "insecure" and "fragile" but it is actually quite unfair to put these expectations on them.

The key here is not beat up on white men for being insecure but in reducing unrealistic expectations. White men have only been dominant through complex layers of privilege, NOT by their own super powers or merit. They ARE just average--just like everyone else--and that's perfectly good!

Third: Lack of Will. It would be negligent to talk about this issue without mentioning that the inability of our nation to address gun violence by the most sensible means possible means that we are going to be facing increasingly ridiculous and absurd alternatives, such as arming classroom teachers. What are those sensible means? They certain include better regulation of weapons. Many of the weapons currently circulating in the civilian population are the type that should only be kept by the military--no different than tanks, missiles and aircraft carriers. Speaking of military, if you ever walk onto a military base you won't see weapons brandished randomly by individuals at their own discretion.  Rather, they are stored safely and only come out under the supervision and regulation of a chain of command. Regulation works. The inability of our society to effectively stop the entrenched bullying of this special interest minority means we continue to fail the people living in our society by doing what's right.

The themes in this blog post dovetail with a previous piece entitled How White Male Privilege Leads to Fragility and Violence.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Why would a group dedicated to Christian unity talk about justice?

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue
Deuteronomy 16:20

A recent question on our Facebook page raised an issue that often comes up in our work. We hear it a lot. I'll paraphrase:

Since this page is dedicated to the pursuit of unity among Christians—especially between Catholics and evangelicals—why are you always talking about racism, immigration and so many other issues of life, dignity, justice and care for creation?

It's an extremely important question. One of the issues with unity is that people have different ideas of what it means. The very definition of "unity" itself has disunity!

If you ask someone who is an Orthodox Christian, they will probably hope your vision for Christian unity includes standing with them against the religious persecution and genocide in the Middle East that is currently devastating their churches. What kind of unity doesn't protect their very survival?

If talk to someone who is African-American, they will probably hope your vision for Christian unity includes healing the ongoing sins of racism that continues to fracture our churches and our society and leaves black bodies dead in the streets, rotting in prisons or suffering in near-perpetual poverty. What kind of unity doesn't advocate for their lives, dignity and equality?

The desperately poor people immigrating to the U.S. from Latin America are almost all Evangelical, Pentecostal or Roman Catholic Christians. If an asylum seeker is denied entry and is doomed to die on the other side of the border, then some statement resolving theological differences may not mean a whole lot to them—they aren't going to feel any warm fuzzies over church unity as they will only feel cold exclusion from (most likely) their fellow Christians. The group that steers this page is comprised of Evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics. Therefore, these are our sisters and brothers in the faith whose lives are at stake at the border. That means something.

So that is why this page and many other unity-seeking organizations eventually find that we have to be a voice for these other issues that exclude so many. The above is not an all-inclusive list, as there are definitely other issues that relate just as strongly.

We know from history that so many of the major splits in Christianity were related to—and were often a direct result of—serious differences in doctrine and theology. But what we often fail to recognize is that there have just as often been cultural, racial, ethnic, national and political reasons that have also  undergirded so many official and unofficial splits over the centuries.

I'll even take it a step father: I will go on record as to say that few splits—if any—have ever been purely theological. Every split is probably a combination of at least two of more of these factors.

Well, they say never say never, right? Given the thousands and thousands of Christian denominations, I can't say for sure that there has never been a split which hasn't been based entirely on theological grounds. However, I would suspect that even if it seemed like there were, there were also probably cultural or generational differences dovetailed into the mix somehow. Even some of the most famous splits, such as between Catholics and Lutherans in the 16th century Reformation or between the Churches of the East and West over the Chalcedonian Creed in the 5th century, may have been driven as much by different cultural approaches to language and inflection that could very well have factored heavily into what seemed like theological differences. In other words, it was like both groups were looking at the same coin, but one was describing the front and the other the back. What seemed like irreconcilable differences were perhaps more a difference in perspective rather than content. Again, I'm not suggesting that this accounts for every point of disagreement, but it has been suggested that this could be a factor—and even a major factor.]

So which are the church-dividing issues that matter most to you?  We'd love to hear your input and feedback! Leave comments here or on our Facebook page.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Confusion Over 'Social Justice'

The term "social justice" is very controversial in Christian circles, but it's based on a very simple concept.

It's really just common sense:

Social justice means that you want to live in a just and fair society. 

If you see people are being exploited, abused or held back by oppressive laws or other social conditions, you work to change them. It's hard to follow the fundamental commandment to "love one another" and not try to do something about these factors if you have power to change them.

A lot of people overthink this. They get into debates about whether Jesus' Kingdom is a "political" one, whether people are better served by individual charity or large-scale efforts involving the government or whether Jesus' Kingdom has anything at all to do with earthly laws or social conditions. These are all worthy topics deserving of robust discussion, no question about it. And good people may very well disagree on them. 

But here's the main idea:  You don't have to figure all this out to see that "social justice" is just common sense. If there is a law that hurts some people--or disproportionately advantages one group more than another--it would be a sin on me to just leave it in place if I have the power to influence changing it. My Christian discipleship would demand I do something to remedy this situation. When I go to the voting booth, engage in public debates or raise my voice as a citizen, I do so as a Christian.  I think all of us would agree, regardless of how to regard the Kingdom of God.

If my neighbor is trying to feed his family but waste water from my home is getting into his garden and making his family sick, it would be unconscionable of me to leave it that way. If I'm thinking as a Christian, I would realize this is not the love that Jesus invites us into. The same is true whether this mistreatment is happening to my literal next-door neighbor or to the entire city downstream from a large factory. "Social justice" helps us see that these same concepts apply whether it's on a small or large scale. "Social justice" helps us see that these large scale systems, laws and pressures can impact us in many cases far more deeply than specific behavior by individual persons.

Social justice is just another way saying "don't be a jerk"--but not just in your interpersonal relationships but also in the decisions you support for how society functions on a large scale.

You don't need an advanced degree in Christian theology to understand that.

When people oppose "social justice," I wonder:  How could someone not want a just society? Do you then want... unjust laws and systems?? See how silly that sounds? That makes no sense. Do you want inhumane, unethical laws? Do they want people to get away with poisoning our water, exploiting fellow humans or making it difficult for people to thrive? How can you "love one another" and not work to make the laws the most fair possible? 

Whether or not you think that Jesus's Kingdom has anything at all to do with those laws, it still absurd for a Christian not to do something to improve them if you have the power to do so. If you see your neighbor hurting, you do something about it. It's that simple.

For related themes and for partly inspiring the writing of this post, see the article Social Justice Is a Christian Tradition — Not a LiberalAgenda.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

What are Reparations? An Analogy

A number of political candidates have been talking openly about the issue of reparations to the African-American community for slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining and other discriminatory practices. A controversial issue, no doubt.

Many folks do not understand what reparations are and what they are for. Let me offer this analogy to demonstrate why slavery still matters to this day:

A Wrongful Conviction: An Analogy

A person in slavery is like a person wrongfully convicted and sent to prison with a life sentence. 

The Civil War was the trial that finally got him released from jail after 30 years incarcerated. Hallelujah! 

But no one did any subsequent legal work to finish the job. The man is "free" but still lacks voting rights. The prison record still prevents him from getting loans or meaningful work. His record was never completely exonerated or expunged. He is in a messy in-between state--out of jail but still a second-class citizen with no resources to pursue legal action to get his record fully cleaned.

Getting out of jail was only the first step--a huge one, yes, but only the first step toward making the situation right. How about all the therapy it will take to recover from those years of psychological trauma and forced separation from his loved ones? Perhaps his children grew up without a father, so this trauma is multi-generational. 

How about some kind of integration program to get into schools and jobs and to at least attempt to make up for lost time? That's 30 years of lost wages, lost promotions, lost raises, lost work experience and lost money saved for retirement. Instead, this person rotted in jail for 30 years and is now starting off in entry level work, with a stigma and a spotty record he shouldn't have, all doing this with years of trauma to somehow process without adequate community support.

This quote from author Marianne Williamson sums it up nicely:  "If you kick somebody to the ground, you owe it to them to do more than stop kicking," she told New York radio station Hot 97 earlier this month. "You owe it to them to say, 'Here: Let me help you get back up.'

Reparations for slavery and other discriminatory practices are like the work that happens after getting released from jail.

An Analysis

It's outrageous that we have stalled on this so long. We as a nation have clearly wronged a people severely and deliberately. When the Civil War ended, all debts were not paid by a long shot. Dismantling slavery should have been followed by rebuilding, but we all know how flawed "Reconstruction" was. 

We should have gathered as a people, pooled all our resources and did everything possible to redistribute the wealth that African-Americans had generated and help them get a leg up and get the skills to integrate in society--skills they were long denied. Instead, we denied them access to education, access to loans and access to the voting booth. To top it off, white society blamed African-Americans for "personal moral failure" for high rates of poverty. Unbelievable. 

The wealth of the plantation came through the stolen labor of slaves. That wealth should have been divided up. Instead, what they got was second-class citizen status through Jim Crow laws and unofficial second-class citizens status through racism and white privilege which continues to this day. That is NOT how you treat a group of people who we admit we have wronged. Then they get blame on top of that.

Just trying to heal from 250 years of continual forced family separation is an almost unbelievable trauma. Then add on to that denial of voting rights, prohibition from the educational system, from jobs, from getting loans, from getting the GI BIll, the list goes on and on. Instead, what I hear from white folks on my own page is "they should get over it and grow up." Wow. Try unpacking that sentence. Talking down to folks like they are children.

Imagine if I stole your money, invested it and made more from it, and then I tell you to "get over it." Give me my money back--AND the interest you've built off it--and THEN we'll talk about "getting over it" right? Obviously, reparations are much more than giving a check but you get the idea.

The morality is simple:  When you sin, you first confess it. Then you beg forgiveness both of God and of those you have wronged. Then you worked to correct the wrongs that have been done, to the extent that is possible. And then you work to make sure it never happens again.  And then as a final penance, you "pay it forward" sowing seeds of justice and charity to others going forward. This is basic, common sense. It's what adults should be doing.

Imagine a thief breaks into your home. He steals a thousand dollars. When you find him, he tells you: "Just get over it! Why can't you learn to forgive? Why are you playing the victim? Quit discriminating, leave me alone and I'll leave you alone!"  Well... give me my money back and then we can talk about "getting over it"!

Some folks say that any race-based classification is a perpetuation of racism itself. So giving advantages to African-Americans today would be to further racism, in their opinion. They say "you can't use discrimination to combat discrimination." The problem with this logic is that is favors those who already have all the power and wealth leveraged in their favor. These two quotes below dismantle that rationale quite nicely:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

― Desmond Tutu

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.”

― Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, the Accident

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Racism is Cowardice and Self-Hatred

Picture from linked article.

Racism, cowardice and self-hatred go hand in hand.

Case in point: Check out the nighttime firebombing of the Highlander social justice center in East Tennessee. In predictable form, racists act at night when no one is looking. Historically, they also put hoods on to hide their faces. Nowadays, they troll online using fake accounts from their parents' basement.

People only hide their faces and sneak in the shadows when they are not proud of themselves and what they are doing.

Oh, I'm sure you could point to an incident here or there where aggressive racists showed their faces. But I bet they only did that if they thought the odds were 10-to-1 in their favor. But even still, a few incidents here or there doesn't change the overall trend of how racists like to hide.

To be clear, racists will certainly be passive aggressive in broad daylight. Usually that's also when they are denying that they are racists while doing something very racist. They display racist symbols and mannerisms while playing dumb about it. We've all heard it: "It's about heritage not race." Sure it is. Well, that may indeed be true for some but we know it's definitely not true for many. Their denial is part of the psychological terrorism they are employing.

If you have something to say, then say it outright. Show your face. That's what grown adults do. But racists can't do that because a person has to have self-confidence to do that.

Racism is Self-Hatred

We talk so much of the damage that racism inflicts on others, but we often neglect to mention another tragedy: How sad it must be to be a racist. I mean seriously. These people have nothing better to do than sit around and hate another group? All that means is that they don't believe there is anything interesting going on in their own lives so they have to focus on what someone else is doing. If racists would just start doing something meaningful with their own lives--maybe creating new art, building up a successful business or achieving some goal--they won't have time or energy to worry about what someone else is doing. What they were doing would simply be too wonderful to waste by taking time away to hate someone else who is not harming them.

I was bullied a lot when I was younger. One day it occurred to me:  I must be absolutely amazing because these people have nothing else to do than obsesses over every little thing I did or said. Yes, it was painful and yes, it was damaging. I hate to give them the satisfaction of knowing that, but I'm also not going to give them the satisfaction of living in secrecy about it, either. But in a very unexpected way, it actually boosted my self-esteem and confidence in so many ways! It made me so much stronger than ever before.

You pretty much have to be a coward to be a racist (or any other kind of bully). To all the racists out there, admit it: Deep down, you are afraid that another race is better than you. You are afraid that if you didn't constantly work against them behind their backs that they would out-compete you. Racists have poor confidence in their own abilities. They are desperately afraid of fair competition. Why else would they spend so much time and energy obsessing about another group? Why else would they work so desperately to keep another group down if they didn't fear what that group would do on equal footing? Their actions reveal all this about them.

Do something of your own to feel proud of for a change and then you won't worry about what some other group is doing.

And that's all very sad. Racism is nothing but jealousy and envy hidden very well. And jealousy is just self-hatred--you want what someone else has because deep down you hate who you are and what you have. Racists hate themselves which is why they find it so easy to hate others.  And that's so very sad because every person has so much to offer and so much that is good about them. I have to believe that about everyone.

Love yourself and you will have nothing but love for others.

Yes, racism can and does hurt others. But it is also a sign of how deeply wounded the racists themselves are. How little they must think of themselves.

And that's so very, very sad.

These cowardly racists could learn a lot from the people they try to hate: You'll never find a display of courage more powerful than those of the Civil Rights movement. The racists hid behind dogs, covered their heads with pillowcases and used the bully power of an unfair legal system to add muscle to themselves. Unarmed Civil Rights marchers stood up to all that and won. These firebombers today and yesterday have a sad legacy. Nothing they do compares to the bravery of the people in the Civil Rights Movement. But don't be mad at the Civil Rights movement for this. Instead, be mad at yourselves that you don't think better of yourselves.

I'm angry at racists but I don't really want to shame them here. I just think the whole situation is so sad. I wish racists loved themselves and believed in themselves more. Hating others is never going to bring anyone fulfillment. You are never going to hate your way to happiness. Whatever pain or anger in their own lives is something that need healing, and hating on others is never going to fix that. It will just create more pain but most of all it just creates a loss of potential--for the victims but also for the racists themselves. Individual black people have been seriously harmed, but as a group African Americans have only risen above all of this to be even stronger than ever before. The same cannot be said of racists.

If I love myself, I love you. If I love you, I love myself.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Negative Racial Stereotypes in Popular Kids Movies

Top: L-R Princess Poppy, Cooper, King Peppy from Trolls.
Bottom: Richard the rapping wildebeest from Sing.

I've been immersed in watching animated films these days along with my toddler. Two of the movies in our daily rotation include Trolls and Sing (both 2016).

Both are very well done. Both went to great lengths to offer something for parents as well as for children. And both, I believe, made efforts to avoid negative racial and cultural stereotypes. Yet, in both movies, some unfortunate mistakes fell through the cracks.

Neither movie features humans as we know them. The cast of Trolls includes fantastical creatures and Sing showcases anthropomorphized animals. Yet in both the characters are obviously drawn from people in the "real world." Some are recognizably New Yorkers or Southerners. Others are Japanese, African-American or representing other ethnic or racial groups. Stereotypes abound--some good and some not so much.

After watching these movies dozens of times, something struck me:

In Sing and Trolls, the most recognizably young African-American male character in each movie has trouble controlling his bowels in public.

In Trolls, Cooper poops out a stack of cupcakes out of sheer terror just moments before he is captured by the Bergen chef (see picture above). In Sing, the wildebeest Richard, who raps and has a full Afro hairstyle, passes so much gas uncontrollably it disqualifies him from the singing competition. He literally propels himself out of the theater with farts.

How in the world did the creators of these movies miss this? They might as well have put those characters in blackface. Not being able to control one's bowels in public may be an excusable medical event, but historically and culturally it has deep connotations of humiliation. It marks a person as more animalistic, bumbling, uncouth, uncultured, unclean (both literally and socially) and just flat out disgusting. It establishes a person as deserving of being laughed at and, by consequence, less deserving of full rights and inclusion in society.

I actually don't judge the movie creators too harshly for this. There are some insidious racial stereotypes that are so buried in the cultural consciousness it can take a lifetime to recognize and eradicate them. Case in point: Both Cooper and Richard are shown to be friendly, caring and compassionate. Richard has an obvious gentle side. They are not "dangerous thugs" but decent characters with big hearts. These are good things. This speaks to how difficult it is to eradicate negative racial stereotypes, because while going out of their way to show these characters in a positive light, some other sneaky negative stereotypes crept in, perhaps unknowingly.

Fighting unconscious implicit bias is often like a frustrating game of whack-a-mole--you fight it in one place and it pops up somewhere else. It is still worth fighting it.

I'm actually more upset with how Sing depicts the Japanese band of singers. Those negative caricatures were more obvious and should have been caught. They are as bad as anything out of a 1950s cartoon. However, in most other ways, Sing does a good job. The African-American family of elephants is depicted good-naturedly in all their love and, yes, even their dysfunctions. Most importantly, they are shown as fully "human" and multi-dimensional--you know, just like real people. The gorillas--who happen to be a band of gangsters--speak with an obvious English accent. I've always assumed this was done to make it abundantly clear that there were not intended to represent African Americans (although it should be noted that you can have an English accent AND be of African descent).

You might say:  "What's the big deal?" Why can't we laugh at ourselves and each other? You might say the politically-correct world is taking all the fun out of life, leading us chasing wild geese in word choices while "real" social problems are left unaddressed.

But answer me this:  Can you for even one second imagine that the white, young princess girl would have difficulty controlling her bowels in public? After all, Princess Poppy was standing right next to Cooper when he defecated out of fear. Why couldn't it have been her character who did that? It's simply inconceivable. It just would not happen. We would never want to see her lowered like that, would we? It would just feel wrong, wouldn't it? Why are all the kings in Trolls very obviously white guys?

The problem is that these word choices and public images come from--and dig very deeply into--our unconsciousness. They impact the way we perceive and treat each other. When we assume that African-American males are not to be taken seriously, that they are not worthy of the same dignity as others, then that has real-world consequences. It impacts their experiences in school, in the hiring process, and in how they are treated by the police and criminal justice system. When a group of people is understood to be second-class citizens, they get second-class treatment. One follows the other. Their lives don't matter. They are just comical, sideshow characters--good for a laugh, perhaps, but not ever for power-sharing and true inclusion in society. Cooper is the funny, somewhat dim witted, buck toothed (yes.) guy on the side, but he's not the king. Richard is not the manager of the bank or the theater. It's not an exaggeration to say these images and word choices translate into dead bodies in the streets, unfair legislation and systemic, multi-generational poverty. That's why this matters. That's why it's not nitpicky but of central importance.

Continuing Thoughts

There is no scientific basis to suggest that African-American males have more trouble controlling their bowels in public than anyone else. So why are they being depicted that way in otherwise fine movies such as Trolls and Sing? If it's just innocent humor, why is the mockery not more evenly spread out?

The strong African-American male is a threat to the white consciousness. He therefore must be lowered, he must be taken down, he must be humbled somehow. Why? What would happen if African-American males were seen as expressing their full power and dignity in all circumstances? Is the white world so fragile that it can't handle that?

I had a friend like that when I was younger. He was so insecure and judgmental that I instinctively knew that the only way I could "fit in" was that I had to act dopey, silly and laughable. I had to constantly employ self-deprecating humor. He just couldn't relate to me eye-to-eye as an equal, so I had to act "lower." As my confidence developed, the relationship strained and eventually ended as he just couldn't hang in there on those terms (thankfully, I've also worked through enough of my personal demons at this point in my life not to do that anyone to secure a friendship).

So how far do we want to take these comparisons? You could argue the very nasty Bergens in Trolls are almost entirely based on white people. You could, in contrast, also ask why the African-American-seeming Cooper is a four-legged animal who hangs out with the two-legged, more hominid--and more seemingly white--trolls? Where do we stop with the comparisons?

As final thought, I recommend folks check out the animated movie Shrek. It attempted to turn many of these common stereotypes on their heads. Did it work? Is it worth doing something like that again and again until stereotypes are overturned for good? Or is that just fighting fire with fire?

Friday, March 1, 2019

The UMC and the Challenge of Unity

The branches and leaves in this tree are not unlike the many
branches and denominations of Christianity.

The recent struggles in the United Methodist Church (UMC) over LGBT inclusion raise perennial questions for me:

What does it mean to be “church”? Is there a certain level of agreement that is necessary? Or is fellowship, work and worship with people of diverse viewpoints part and parcel of the necessary work that needs to be done? 

But even so, aren't there hard limits? Deal breakers?

I come from the Roman Catholic (RCC) tradition. If you expect this 2,000 year old, global behemoth of as many as 1 billion people to perfectly represent your own private, individual viewpoints as of February, 2019, you are in for some pretty quick disappointment. I have not yet met a single person who is perfectly on board with every teaching. Nevertheless, you just can't put your life on hold just because the RCC doesn't change. That doesn't stop conservatives, liberals and everyone in between from complaining, however.

The fact that this body changes very slowly is one of its strengths--and some would argue one of its weaknesses. The RCC can quickly remind you that it’s not all about you. This can be a good thing--and a bad thing. You have a choice as a Catholic: You can give up because the church is not the way you want it to be (i.e. made in your image) or you can roll up your sleeves and get to work right here and right now. Bloom where you're planted. It will never be perfectly as you want it, and perhaps it shouldn't be. It forces you out of your self-contained universe. Even if it were to eventually change to suit you better, there is a lot of life to be lived and a lot of work to be done right now.

I'm reminded of that song lyric: "Don't surround yourself with yourself." Good advice.

Many Catholics sit with it this way: They have small body of relatively like-minded people they associate with—perhaps their school, missionary society, charitable works organization or friends and fellowship group they lean on for mutual support. But they also belong to this wider body of the whole Catholic Church. They keep at the very least their toe dipped into the larger pool while also finding that smaller group of people with whom they see eye-to-eye on most things. You end up with the peace activist sitting next to the military general at Mass on Sundays, and on Mondays they go to work against each other again. 

I'm reminded of James Joyce who said of Catholics: "Here comes everybody." Is that a strength or a weakness? Yes.

When you come to a fork in the road such as what the UMC is experiencing right now over LGBT inclusion, it is easy to justify a divorce. The pain is real. The differences in opinion are real, too. But when I look back over the 500 years of Protestantism, I wonder if all that splitting and re-splitting has gotten them anywhere. Some estimate that there are as many as 50,000 denominations! Perhaps divorce is not always the answer. Were all these breaks necessary as people simply ran out of options to stay together? Or were they the result of people who got lazy and didn’t want to be uncomfortable and learn how to sit with real differences? And where are they going with all this fracturing--is there an end game to it all? Are any of these new denominations any better than the previous ones, or are they just re-living the same ole sins and human tendencies in a new form?

Will it just keep fracturing until every single individual is his or her own "denomination"? I say this quite seriously that it may not be a bad thing to simply play out that logic to its inevitable conclusion in this way. After all, each individual already has his or her own theology regardless of which denomination they belong to. Maybe it will help Christianity arrive at a post-denominational point. We'll still need community but maybe not in the way we've been doing it, and this experiment has to play itself out this way to help us get there.

This is not to judge or begrudge anyone who feels their experiences in a particular church community are simply too painful, or the issues too serious, for them to remain. I can't weigh in on someone else's decision. People have experienced very deep wounds and abuses of all kinds, and I do not intend to make light of those in the least. "Unity" has often been used as a justification for sweeping all sorts of misbehavior and injustices under the rug while blaming the very people who are so hurt they feel forced to break away.

After all, what good is unity if you end up supporting a morality that you simply cannot condone? But on the flip side, community is fundamental to a Christian. Learning how to congregate is part of discipleship. Among may other things, it forces us to come to terms with our triggers and internal challenges, to ultimately see a world bigger than ourselves.

I know all too well the struggle and the tough choices that struggle demands. For long periods in my life, I have toggled on the razor's edge between staying or leaving my church. I debated this with myself on an almost daily basis. I was even convinced for a while that living with that tension must actually be our call rather than resolving it either way. All this to say: I get it. 

Community is unquestionably hard. Finding that gospel ideal of perfect unity in perfect diversity is an ever-elusive challenge. I've only experienced it myself in fleeting moments throughout my life. Some communities lean on the side of denying the individual for the sake of conformity. Others celebrate the individual at the expense of the group.

The fracturing of Protestantism has created smaller denominations with oftentimes like-minded people who could perhaps go further in their particular mission than they ever could if they remained within the larger parent group. Some found a safe haven after leaving a painful situation. But there's a cost that comes with that fracturing--the cost of unity and the cost of not practicing how to sit with real diversity (again, not to minimize the real efforts that people have gone through in order to prevent divisions).

People in the UMC are in pain and some are talking schism. It's painful to talk schism. Not to sound glib, but what's one more split in a long history of splintering?  After all, the UMC exists as a result of schism in the first place. Another way to look at it:  If a split in the UMC seems painful today, perhaps that can remind us how painful previous splits must have been (and perhaps still are) and awake in us a desire to mend those fences from previous splits.

Does it matter that there are others out there who call themselves "Christian" who have nothing to do with your particular group? As we ponder a potentially very painful split in the UMC, perhaps it can help us think about all the splits that have occurred in Christianity and ignite in us a desire to heal those wounds, too.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

First Comes Gratitude, Second Comes Discipleship

There is something fundamentally antithetical between a God who loves and accepts us all unconditionally and a church culture that pushes us to belong, behave, conform and suppress ourselves.

"For God so loved the world...."
— John 3:16

Those words from the Gospel of John echo throughout Christian history. They are repeated like a mantra by many. They are some of the most famous words from Scripture.

There is good reason for this: All of life is a gift. All that God has done is a gift. Everything God does has been done out of love. God loved the world into existence and continues to love it through its redemption and sanctification.

Preachers love to preach John 3:16. It would be wonderful if more were preaching this message with—and this is the most important part—no strings attached.  Because—by definition—that's what a gift is.

By definition.

Our proper response to a gift, then, is gratitude.

Gratitude is, perhaps, the only appropriate first response.

We tend to forget that. Let's face it, traditional Christianity (any of the main denominations) does not have a reputation for being accepting of God's gifts at face value. If you mention Christianity to anyone on the street, probably one of the first items to pop into their mind would be the "rules" and the "control."

Just to give an example, I saw a pastor the other day in the grocery story. He's a nice guy and my family has been to his church. But I avoided him when I saw him. Why?  Because I wasn't in the mood for dealing with the "push." You know what I'm talking about:  Little hints and jabs about how he hasn't seen us at his church, the implication that we should be there and other pressures to join his congregation and augment his numbers.

The thoughts that comes to my mind are: "Can't you just accept me as I am right now—without trying to push for a change in my behavior before you even know me? I'm good as I am—get to know me right here, right now, as I am. For God so loves me this way . . . why can't you?"

He's a nice guy, but I recognize the mini-colonizer in his actions. I realize he wants company in his church, and I realize he wants money in his collection plates. But the paradox is he might get more of both if he quit trying so hard. There's nothing wrong with an open invitation . . . if it is truly open. But when I start feeling peddled like a hot piece in a meat market, I instantly recognize the stink and get away. I think:  You don't want me in my full dignity.

What I really hear many preachers saying is:  Be different. Do more of this. Do less of that. Give more. Bend more. Think this way. Act that way. Come to my church. Give to the collection. Be a facsimile of me. Alter your life according to my specifications.

I get it:  There are obligations, responsibilities and commitments as part of Christian discipleship. And it is the duty of a preacher to challenge us. But Christianity has a long track record of frontloading those factors and downplaying something much more foundational: Gratitude. Acceptance. Love. That is, after all, the Good News!

God so loves the world. We are okay. I'm okay. You're okay. Let's start there.

Just as we are.

We can let that just be.

And then perhaps we may be so overcome with joy at this gift that we want to gift it to others—to pay it forward.

That's actually why the collection plate has been traditionally passed on Sunday since the time of the early Church. Sunday is the day of rest and gratitude. Once we have had space to reflect on all that we have been given, it is only natural to want to give to others. My cup runneth over (Psalm 23). 

All Christian charity and all Christian discipleship comes out of that gratitude: Because I have been so loved, therefore I want to love others out of nothing but sheer gratitude. We as church should never attempt to force that—we have to simply trust in that. Trust that loving and accepting others is primarily we need to do and we need not worry on how much of that comes back to us in the collection plate. That's God's business, not ours to try to control.

And then once we get that, once we are more solidly rooted in that gratitude, then and only then does it make sense to talk about obligations and responsibilities. Then, and only then, should we talk about the yoke of discipleship. Otherwise, it's just peddling a kind of works-based righteousness and a denial of the goodness of God's gifts. After all, if we want people to come to our churches, we should first give them a reason for coming before demanding membership dues.

This is why, I believe, Jesus told us the greatest commandment is to love one another—up to and including even our enemies, everyone in our community and everyone in between. Love is the most primary act we should be making and our primary stance in every situation. It is the greatest commandment for a reason. Once we begin there, then and only then can we talk about the messiness of life, the hard decisions and perhaps even some tough love exclusions. But we should only do that if we are loving first and foremost, as Jesus instructed. We are to love first and foremost and then pepper in the rules and obligations as they fit—not the other way around.

We are to love first and foremost. Because, after all, that's what God does.

There are some, of course, who have discovered the love of God the other way: Through the yoke of discipleship they have found the love that was guiding them from behind. I respect that it may work that way for some, but it's a very clumsy method that perhaps alienates many more than it converts. The reason, I believe, is because it's hard to teach love and acceptance through disciplines that fundamentally do not love or respect the natural created dignity of each person. In that scenario, people discover God in spite of religion, not because of it.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

From Birmingham Jail, MLK's Challenge to Us Today

Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from Birmingham Jail is often touted as a defining milestone in the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, it is a stunning portrait of the human spirit. MLK is literally behind bars, yet writing with a spirit of freedom and vision unknown to many of his contemporaries. He wrote with the kind of boldness reminiscent of the Apostle Paul, who also knew something about writing of freedom while behind prison walls.

I had the great privilege to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, AL, just a couple weeks ago. I urge anyone who can go to take the time to visit. Contained inside are the actual prison doors of the cell in which MLK wrote his infamous letter. There also on the wall hangs the reason for the letter--if you are unfamiliar with its history, you might think the impetus for the letter was probably some rantings by the KKK or other segregationists. Instead, it was a letter from lukewarm, moderate white church leaders, most of whom were probably somewhat sympathetic to the issues of the Civil Rights Movement. Those church leaders basically told MLK to calm down and relax. He was pushing too hard as an "outsider," they said. The methods of nonviolent civil disobedience were too disruptive. They argued he should work for change more slowly and accept what isn't perfect in the meantime.

You can find a copy and transcript of the letter here. It stings to read it. And for good reason. I cringed when I saw a Catholic bishop (my own denomination) as one of the signers. There were Protestant, Catholic and Jewish signers.

It took me a while to find this letter online. Either my internet research skills are lacking or else there aren't many traces of it to be found. The latter is understandable. Who wants to be reminded of being on the wrong side of history?  It was MLK who penned the masterpiece--that's something to celebrate. He was the hero who faced incredible adversity to lead one of the most stunning movements for change the world had ever seen. Who wants to be known as the group that tried to discourage one of history's greatest leaders during a time when he needed support the most?  It's not exactly something to put on one's resume.

But before we are quick to judge the lackluster faith and disappointing hesitation of the white church leaders, we must realize this is a perennial issue. This was not a unique circumstance that was only seen in 1963 Birmingham. Today, right now, there are people in my community, my church, my family and my world who tell us to slow down in our pursuit of justice and peace. They tell us not to make too many waves. They tell us that true progress happens gradually. And sometimes they are right. But the problem is that if we waited for these voices to give us the green light and tell us "now is the time for action," odds are that time would never come. In many circumstances, on many issues, there is never a moment when change is easy and comfortable. Sometimes being told to slow down is nothing but an excuse to stall indefinitely, and I sincerely wonder if those folks who say it really want change at all.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
 -Martin Luther King Jr.

The following are four areas of great moral importance in the U.S. demanding immediate action where we are often told the same things those eight pastors told MLK:  Slow down. Work for gradual change. Accept it if solutions are not "perfect." There are other issues in addition to these.

Racism. Despite the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, racism is a clear and ever-present reality in the U.S. to this day. It results in black bodies lying dead in the streets, in mass incarceration, in denial of opportunities and systemic poverty. We need change and we need it now! Yet, people tell Black Lives Matter and other activists the same things that these moderates told MLK--slow down, your methods are too disruptive.

Healthcare. The U.S. spends twice as much as any other nation per person on healthcare but ends up ranking only #37 in the world by the World Health Organization. Millions have no access to the system and many thousands have lost their lives or have gone into bankruptcy trying to pay medical bills.

The math is simple: We pay more. We get less. No corporation could survive for long with that business plan, yet this is how we as a people fund our healthcare. It seems hard to believe that anyone could deny these obvious facts, but millions of dollars of insurance money and hard lobbying have done what they were intended to do: They have created fear and warped perceptions. They have convinced many of us that "it can't be done," even though nearly every other developed nation on earth has figured out how to do better for less.

So where is the leadership to change this? All we hear is "Now is not the time." "Don't push too hard." "Change happens gradually." You might think we hear that from conservatives who are against universal healthcare, but those statements are often coming from left-leaning political leadership. A lot of people give those Democrats the benefit of the doubt and assume they are doing all that can be done for healthcare at the moment. However, given the incredible expenditures on healthcare lobbying, you have to start wondering if these moderates have any real intention of changing our healthcare system at all. You have to speak your vision and name your goals out loud before you can achieve them.

Climate Change. Scientists are clear that there is a very 12 year window for the human race to avoid catastrophic climate change. Yet, even the most aggressive proposals to reduce carbon emissions seem to fall far short. Case in point: Germany recently announced it would phase out all coal powered plants in 20 years. We may not need completely eliminate all fossil fuel consumption to meet our climate goals, but it is disheartening when we are told "it can't be done any quick." Why not?  Of course it can. Other places are moving quicker than we are. How can they do it and not us?

Immigration. People say, "just do it legally!" However, there are also forces in play making legal immigration more difficult to achieve for select groups. It is virtually impossible for some people. Desperate people simply cannot wait for laws to change, especially when there seems little chance of that change happening anytime soon. There are families that would never see their loved ones if they waited until every document was in order before crossing. Instead of telling immigrants to wait, perhaps we should be taking decisive action to solve our immigration fiasco which does not respect human dignity. It only creates a vulnerable population who can be easily exploited for cheap labor.


Every reasonable person knows that change does indeed take time and there may be some strategic compromises along the way, at least temporarily. But real leaders come right out and state their vision. They name their goals. They point the way to where they want to go. They weather the resistance along the way. You don't have to guess where they really stand. Ultimately, we have to decide if our actions are more like Martin Luther King Jr.--who we like to idolize--or whether they are more like the eight white moderate clergymen who urged MLK to "show restraint."

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.