Faith, Love, Politics, and Social Justice

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Dear White People Who Don’t Like Dear White People Posts

Dear White People,

It will probably come as no surprise, but I sometimes (OK often) get complaints about my “dear white people” posts. These complaints are sometimes phrased diplomatically. Other times not so much. But most seem to break down into the following categories. So if you are one of quite a few people who have recently written to me to bitch about my blog, here you go. (Others are welcome to listen in.) :

      1. Your words make me feel bad Please notice, I NEVER engage in personal attacks. I get piles of hate mail on a daily basis and have yet to respond in kind. This blog is safe space in that respect. Safe space means respecting the dignity and worth of all people and not letting anyone be personally denigrated. That said, there is a big difference between safe space and comfortable space. We are talking about racism here. It is not a comfortable topic. I can only sugar coat my words but so much. If I make the conversation comfortable so none of us white people ever need to feel bad about anything, it will become meaningless. So we need to make a decision. What matters more, white feelings or black lives? I believe black lives matter more than white feelings. So don’t ask me to sugar coat my words any more than I already have and let’s get past the need to feel good all the time and deal with this grown up topic like grown ups. This brings me to the next related objection
      2.  You are trying to make me feel guilty ashamed Actually, as I have said many times, I think shame, or sense of worthlessness as a person, is what STOPS white people from healing from our own internalized prejudices and working to end systemic racism, so no, I don’t want you to feel shame. Guilt is another story. Guilt means recognizing you have done something wrong and need to change it. Anyone with a conscience experiences guilt. Recognizing healthy guilt and taking action to change whatever it is we feel guilty about is called morality. Morality is a good thing. Let’s be moral.
      3.  Not all white people are racist. Let’s deal with some definitions here. Personal racial prejudice = having negative feelings about others based on their actual or perceived race. Some people have more personal racial prejudice. Others have less. Still more are really good at hiding their prejudices. Even more still aren’t even aware of the prejudices they have. I suppose it is theoretically possible for a person to have NO personal racial prejudice, but, frankly, I have yet to see it. I know for a fact, I am not there yet. There are still levels of unconscious bias I still have to work on. Systemic racism = social, economic, political, cultural, and other systems that have disparate impact on certain races. We all grew up in a racist world full of racist systems. We didn’t all personally create those systems, but we do all either suffer from or benefit by them and, those of us who benefit from systemic racism, i.e. white people with white privilege, have a special responsibility to be about the business of dismantling racist social systems. So, yes, we are all racist in SOME sense and it is not a personal attack to say so, nor is it shameful to admit it.
      4.  “Not all white people are horrible” First of all, I never said that. In fact, I am pretty sure I have been quite clear that I believe in the inherent goodness of all human beings, including those of us who society deems white. Without it, we would have no hope in the face of such an enormous and long standing national sin as racism. I am also quite aware that we are all in different places in our, hopefully, anti-racist journeys. However, regardless of where we are on our journey, we can still ALL do better. Overcoming racism isn’t just an item on a to do list that you can check off and move on. It is a lifetime commitment. Either you are in or you aren’t and, if you are in, you still have work to do. Furthermore, responding to anti-racist messages with a “not all white people” response is usually a way of avoiding an uncomfortable discussion that really needs to happen whether we like it or not. That brings me to the next objection.
      5.   Saying “white people” is racist because it labels people- “usually these comments come from the “colorblind” set so I will combine my response to this with my response to the related statement “I am colorblind.” No, you aren’t colorblind. None of us are. We are all capable of looking at another human being and making a good guess about how they are perceived racially. If you are trying to say that you try to treat people fairly, regardless of race, that is nice, but it is still not enough. As I have said before, there is a lot more to dismantling systemic racism than learning to be personally nice to folks. If you mean to say race is, basically, an artificial social construct, then I agree with you. It is. But it is a very deep seated construct that has led to the construction of many racist systems and simply pretending it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter to you, won’t make it go away. Furthermore, playing colorblind is not a loving thing to do. If you care about a person, you want to know something about them beyond the fact that they are some abstract humanoid. Part of knowing a person is understanding something about their racial identity and experience.
      6.   Racism is a sin of the past that had nothing to do with me a.k.a. the “I never owned slaves” defense I never owned slaves either. To my knowledge, neither did my ancestors. But I DO benefit from the white privilege that came from white supremacy and, because that is so, I am responsible for trying to change my society. If you are also willing to take responsibility and work for change, I invite you overcome these objections and get to work.

 

 

Dear White People Who “Celebrate” MLK Day

Dear white people who “celebrate” MLK day,

Please do not ask me to hold hands with you while we all get teary eyed singing “We Shall Overcome” unless we can at least agree that a big part of what WE need to overcome lies in US. (Even then, we may not want to engage in this ritual but let’s at least start here.) Ever since MLK day became a holiday white America (and yes there is a white America and yes it does differ from non-white America) has been busy watering down and trivializing his legacy. We hear small clips from “I Have A Dream” and love the part about being judged by the “content of our character” and not the “color of our skin” because, when you listen to that all by itself, you can almost convince yourself that MLK himself would endorse our “colorblind” fantasies of race being a thing of the past and all we have to do is hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” once a year and it’s all good (which, btw, is why we maybe shouldn’t). But then there’s the rest of the speech, like the part about check marked “insufficient funds.” Can we talk about that? Even if it means we might have to fund it? Just asking.

Can we read the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” along with its indictment of white people and churches and even liberals and face the facts that even those of us who make a big deal out of being “good people” have failed to be just in a most fundamental way when it really counted?

How about this quote? “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

So, when we, as white people, say WE shall overcome, what is it we are overcoming if not our own ignorance, our own internalized privilege, and our own sense of superiority?

I know this is an uncomfortable conversation to have. Part of the reason is, I think, so many of us think admitting to white privilege means saying we are bad people (and let’s not even get started on what admitting to a legacy of white supremacy might do!) I keep pondering the reasons why overcoming racism is so hard for us as white people and I think it all boils down to shame. Deep down we know something is wrong, but we are too ashamed to admit it. It threatens our sense of goodness and even our deeper sense of self worth.

So let’s look at that. Does admitting to the racial ignorance and sense of superiority MLK accused us of having mean we are bad or worthless as people? Actually, I would say the opposite is true. I think being willing to admit these things, and then WORK to OVERCOME them is a sign of recognizing one’s own true worth.

James Weldon Johnson said “in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.” I believe my own soul is worth saving. That is why I choose to do the work and invite you to join me. So, instead of holding hands one more time and singing that song one more time, how about we REALLY try to overcome something, starting with ourselves?

Dear White People,

Dear White People,

We haven’t talked in a while. I think it’s time. I know we are all still digesting the “White People 101” stuff, so I won’t say this is “White People 102” yet, but there are a few more items we need to add to the list so here goes:

  1. Just in case anyone on the planet is still wondering, and apparently some are, no you don’t get to put on a wig and black face and call it “trans-racial.” Trans-racial is a thing, but it has to do with people of one race who are adopted by people of another race. In other words, it is a genuine lived experience not a form of masquerade. The fact that white people CAN masquerade is a symptom of white privilege, not an answer to it. That is all I am going to say about that because…
  2. Just because the story I am referring to in #1 is more likely to be turned into a “reality show” does not mean it is more important. Just days before we were all up in it, black children were attacked by white civilians and police at a pool party in McKinney, Texas. If we want to know about the “black experience” we need to put down the spray tan and pay attention to that because that is the real reality of race in this country.
  3. When a nearby country (like the Dominican Republic) decides to disenfranchise and deport its own citizens because they don’t like what color they are we need to speak up about it.
  4. When it comes to racist, domestic terrorism like the mass murder of black people in their own church, we need to call it what it is the same way we would call it what it is if the perpetrator was Muslim or black or anything else besides a white American. We also don’t get to play the “I don’t know how this could happen” game because if we have been paying any attention to American history, white attacks on black churches in the form of shooting, bombing, fires etc. is not new and, if we honestly don’t know how it happens, we had better figure it out really fast.
  5. Whether it is police abusing black kids at a pool party or racist terrorists killing black people in their churches or any other manifestation of racism in our nation, let’s stop playing the “few bad apples” game. Yes, there are bad cops, there are good cops who have bad days, there are white people with psychiatric conditions who kill people and who need our prayers. But there are also longstanding patterns to this violence and we don’t get to ignore those obvious patterns just because we can see the humanity of the perpetrators. In fact, if we find ourselves noticing the humanity of white perpetrators in ways in which we do not notice the humanity of black perpetrators of other crimes we really need to check ourselves out on that.
  6. As always, dear fellow white people, let’s love ourselves, not with the kind of “love” that needs to hoard privilege and hold onto systems of supremacy, but with a real love of ourselves as fragile, vulnerable humans united with other fragile, vulnerable humans who know we are all ultimately connected, who want to move beyond oppressor and oppressed in a common humanity and who know that we can do better.

Voices From The Wrong Side of History: Let’s Hear Them Too

 

It has been fifty years now since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Civil Rights movement crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma. On some level, we all want to identify with this historic event. Anyone who can remotely claim a connection to it (and some who probably can’t) proudly do so. I have heard it said that if everyone who claims to have been part of the original march actually was on that bridge it would have fallen. This is what happens with history. When it is happening, only a few choose the right side. When it is over, we all claim it. Now MLK has his own holiday and we were all on that bridge marching with him.

Except we weren’t. Look again. There is more to that scene. On the other side of that bridge there were a whole lot of white men, some cops and some deputies. Sheriff Jim Clarke (of KKK fame) ordered all white males in Dallas County over the age of 21 to report to the Court House and be deputized. Many of these deputies then joined other officers under the command of John Cloud and prepared to meet the protesters with force on this “bloody Sunday.” Some of these white men must still be alive today but, as far as I know, none of them have spoken out. They don’t seem eager to admit to being there, let alone to tell their stories. Fifty years later, it seems nobody wants to hear from or speak from the wrong side of history. But the wrong side of history has its truth to tell too.

When I imagine the events of that day I naturally want to identify with the protesters. I would like to believe I would have their kind of courage. I would like to think that I would have been on the right side of history and perhaps I would have been. But, if I am honest, as a white person and as a retired cop, a huge part of my own story is probably closer to those police officers and deputies than it is to Martin King. So I wonder, what were these officers and temporary deputies thinking?

Until they do speak out, we don’t know. So I am going to take the liberty of guessing. First of all, I bet they were scared. The fact that so many were forcibly deputized speaks to the deep anxiety white people in Selma must have felt. I imagine some of them were thinking thoughts like “These f—ing n—rs, who do they think they are coming here and causing trouble in this peaceful town? I had way better things to do today than stand here by this damn bridge and do this dirty job. I don’t want to be here.” I bet others were angry at King thinking “That coon King is a damn trouble maker. How does he have the nerve to call himself a Reverend? Ministers are supposed to be about peace and law and order, not politics and protest. We all got along here fine until this outside agitator came into town.” I bet others, standing on the east side of the bridge, focused on their physical discomfort thinking “ My feet are tired. I am hungry. I have to pee. I would rather be home today than doing this.” I bet others were thinking things like “These protesters just want attention. We don’t have a race problem here. White folks and Negroes get along fine with each other. It’s just a matter of everyone knowing their place and staying in it. King is an outside agitator creating problems where there are none. He encourages people to break the law like they are doing today, disobeying a lawful order to disperse. If they don’t turn around they will get what they deserve. All I know is I am coming home safe today and I will do whatever I have to do to make sure I don’t get hurt. I am ready for them. Just let them try.” I wonder if, in the midst of them, there were at least a few who saw something good in King and in the protesters, but were afraid to say so lest their community reject them as n—er lovers. I wonder if there might even have been at least one of two who wondered if what they were doing was right. I am betting, though, that most of them felt like THEY were the good guys, not the protesters. I bet most of them really believed that they were doing the right thing, standing up for law and order and public safety, protecting themselves and their families from something evil and bad. I doubt very many believed on that day that they were on the wrong side of history.

I wonder how, fifty years later, these men feel about what they did. I would love to ask them, if any were willing to speak. But even more, I wonder where I stand today. I would like to believe I am making choices about my life that I will later feel proud of that will put me closer to being on the right side of history. Don’t we all? But the truth is, history is always clearer in hindsight and human beings always make mistakes. Police make mistakes. Protesters make mistakes. Bystanders make mistakes. But there is still, as King often said, a moral arc in the universe. History is going somewhere and it matters where we stand. Even if none of us can know perfectly, we can all get a clue. If the path we have chosen involves beating someone bloody it is likely to be wrong. If the path we have chosen is full of “us versus them” it is worth questioning. If the path we have chosen somehow denies the full humanity of all God’s children, we are likely to be on the wrong side of history. So let’s hear the stories of the past, from both the right side of history and the wrong side of history. Let’s have enough humility that, at least in some ways, we might be wrong and let’s move forward as best as we can in ways that lead us closer to the right because, in the end, God’s justice and God’s peace will prevail and when that moral arc of the universe eventually does bend toward justice, it will matter what side we were on.

 

Do Black Lives Matter?

So yesterday we received word that there will be no indictment of any police officer in the death of Eric Garner. As one who has already admitted that “it could have been me” meaning I could have been that cop, I am feeling all sorts of conflicted emotions. On the one hand, I feel like it is my duty to say something, to not let “it could have been me” be my last word on this subject in this blog. On the other hand, seeing the deep pain and outrage so many people are feeling I am afraid of saying anything that in any way might rub salt in these open wounds. But I trust God is bigger than this retired white cop trying to be a theologian and that whatever is missing in my words or in my heart God will fill in somehow.

I don’t know why the Grand Jury found “no true bill” in this case. As I said before, I can see the “take down” as legitimate but not the choking on the ground. I have gone into my reasons for taking this position, but I am thinking more discussion about rules and procedures and tactics isn’t going to be very helpful right now. The real question isn’t about that is it? The real question is DO BLACK LIVES MATTER?

It’s easy for me to say “Well of course. All lives matter.” But that doesn’t answer the question. It avoids it. The truth is I really don’t know if black lives matter or not. I mean, I believe they do, but I can’t honestly say I have gotten to a place in my white life where I really, really know it in my bones and that’s after having worked at at least trying to know it for a while now. So no. No cheap answers. I will let the question sit there and take responsibility for my own discomfort and defensiveness and still let the question sit there unanswered.

One of the first of many black people to die during my own police career under tragic circumstances  was Eleanor Bumpers. Do you remember her? She was an emotionally disturbed black woman who was killed by police in 1984 as they tried to evict her from her apartment. At the time, I was a rookie with two years on the job. I remember talking with a black cop, citing all the reasons why this was a justified or “clean” shooting, going right by the book, showing how she might have been a threat etc. I was adamant that “It wasn’t about race” and I really believed that. But then he said something that stopped me in my tracks. He said “Yes, it is about race because the officers were too quick to shoot her because she didn’t look like THEIR grandmother.”

Those words stuck with me. I wondered if he might be right. Do black lives really matter? I mean, beyond just thinking that they ought to matter. Do they? More to the point, do they matter to me? Yes, I have black friends and yes I love them and all that, but that isn’t the question is it? The question is, everything else being equal, would I shoot someone who looked like someone else’s grandmother faster than I would shoot my own? Would I choke someone who looked like someone else’s father or brother faster than I would choke my own? The defensive part of me wants to deny such a thing, but the more honest answer is I don’t know. I don’t know if black lives really matter in the way they need to matter to me.

Getting back to Eric Garner and my previous blog posts, when I say “It could have been me” meaning the cop in this scenario, what about the other question underneath it? As a good friend pointed out to me, others look at that video and see Eric Garner and think the same thing – “It could have been me” meaning Eric Garner. Am I seeing that side as clearly as my own? I don’t know yet.

Someday these two kinds of “It could have been me” might come together, but that day has not yet come and pretending it is here is just another form of cheap grace, a peace without justice that is no peace at all. So, for now, I do my work. I ask myself DO black lives matter to ME? At this point, all I can honestly say is I know they OUGHT to and I know it’s up to me to get to that place where they do.

Let us pray for one another on this journey. Amen.

Good Death: A Human Right

It is November now, the month in which trees let go of their leaves and appear to die, a month that begins with the remembrance of the dead that Christians call All Saints Day and ends with Thanksgiving tables that sometimes have empty chairs. So I am fixin to blog about what else? Death – specifically good death – not painless death, not griefless death, not easy death but good death and, yes, good death is political and it is about social justice and it does call for faith.

In the past few years I had the profound privilege of walking with both of my parents as they journeyed from this life to the next. They both suffered greatly on the way but, at the end, they both died well. These were good deaths.

My mother went first. We didn’t expect it. Dad was in much worse health and she was his caregiver but, as often happens, the caregiver is the first to tire out. After ongoing complications following heart surgery the day came when Mom just said “enough.” She chose to refuse all medical treatment and, as she put it “just close my eyes and go be with God.” I was with her in her hospital room during her last night of consciousness. Unlike the weeks before when she was so miserable, this last night was neither sad nor difficult for either one of us. Like my dad, mom was a world traveler so we talked about what was about to happen as one more trip, more marvelous than anything that came before, going all the way from earth to heaven where she would finally see God face to face. She asked “Are you happy for me?” I told her yes, yes I was happy that she would soon see God. Then she told me something I will always treasure in my heart “You will see God too some day because you are a very good person.” Not long afterwards she slipped into a coma. By the next night her journey was complete. It was a good death.

My father, who suffered from dementia, was just not ready to go on living without his partner of sixty years. He really couldn’t even process it and sadly sunk into a world of frightening delusions full of loneliness and the deep pain of loss. It was a horrible time for me and for my brothers, but it was not without love. There were moments of grace and connection, even as the disease took over and destroyed what was once a brilliant mind. When death came to dad fourteen months after mom’s passing, it came as a mercy. I even remember it as a kind of joy. You see dad was a musician, an accomplished tenor. Even after his mental faculties had eroded, he could still connect in song, particularly when it came to songs he once had sung. Years earlier, when he was still singing in his church choir, he told me that he wanted the song “And The Father Will Dance” by Mark Hayes to be played at his funeral. I asked him why and he told me “All my life I have struggled with a judging and punishing God. I need to know an affirming God, one who loves me without conditions, one who will dance when He sees me.” So I got the sheet music and learned the song – just in case. On the day dad died, we all waited around his bed for hours as he lay there unresponsive not opening his eyes, not squeezing anyone’s hand until the very end. All day I envisioned God dancing and prayed that soon dad would see that image. When his legs began to mottle, indicating that transition was happening, I sang a piece of the song. Dad squeezed my hand when he heard it, opened his eyes, and let go. Dad saw God dance just for him. It was a good death.

Seeing my parents have good deaths not only gave me a sense of peace about my relationship with them and with God, it also helped to heal me from some of the trauma I felt from having experienced so much violent, or not so good, death during my police years. But I also realized all over again how death, like life, is political. Not everyone has the chance to die a good death. Impoverished people, people of color, mentally ill people, incarcerated or otherwise socially marginalized people are all more likely than others to die violently or die needlessly before their time or to die alone with no one there to love them and hold their hand as they cross over.

Good death is often more a matter of social privilege, something that happens to people who are able to live a long life and not be shot down on the streets, who have access to the best medical care when they are sick and don’t get neglected, and who have the kind of social support that ensures someone will be there in the end. Good death is a privilege, but it needs to be a right, the right to die with dignity, surrounded by love, the right to be buried or cremated with dignity, the right to be remembered, the right to be mourned, the right to have a name, the right to have mattered to someone as a human being, the right to go in peace, the right to go in justice.

That’s what I want my life to be about, working to create a world where all people have the chance to live good lives and die good deaths.