Category Archives: Race and Culture

Understanding race, racism, and cultural awareness.

Christchurch: We Are All Perpetrator and Victim

I woke up this morning, as many of you did, to news of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. At least 49 Muslims were murdered while in prayer at two different Christchurch mosques by a gunman. Christchurch is known for being a peaceful, tolerant town within a nation known for peace and safety. Once I learned that, I immediately thought back to the massacre in Squirrel Hill. There are so many similarities.

A Christchurch, NZ Mosque

Yet I admit, when I heard the news, the usual things began to happen. At first I was numb. Then as I looked harder at the news, I was shocked. Then I began to slip into numbness again. After all, it’s just one more incident in a long succession of ideologically and racially motivated acts of mass terror. What more is there to think and say? It will happen again and again. So, in my instinctual way of handling things, because all this is just too horrific to comprehend, I began to check out.

Checking back in for a bit, I noticed this “incident” was followed by the usual obligatory responses. Outrage. Condemnation. Calls for thoughts and prayers. Gun control debates are coming. My Bishop issued yet another pastoral letter. (I wonder how she can find something new to say each time. Eventually, I’m waiting for her to say, “Click on the link to my last letter.”)

That’s when I came to again.

Maybe it’s time to admit that none of our responses are working. Not a one. No one is healed. No one is protected. More violence is almost guaranteed.

No hearts are truly changed by our public outrages, our pious thoughts and prayers, and our endless debates on mental health, safety and security. All these things are blood-soaked band-aids.

I think we must step back and own what’s happening in a whole new way.

In the face of all this violence, perhaps it’s time for us to humbly and soulfully confess something fundamentally true: each of us is both perpetrator and victim.

It is not enough to simply stand in solidarity with the victims. It’s a good first step, especially when the victims are of a different ideology, religion, or race than we are. But that’s still too easy, and we can get awfully self-righteous while doing something that began as compassion. I know I have.

The harder, perhaps more necessary step, in addition to identifying with the victims, is to name ourselves as the culprits. We may not have pulled the trigger, but we all have done our share in creating the climate that leads to the kind of carnage we have witnessed in Christchurch. If we want healing, this is something we must recognize and change within our basic attitudinal stance towards our neighbors.

It’s the I vs. you, us vs. them, dualistic way of seeing our neighbors in contrast to ourselves. On the one hand, thinking like this is inevitable. In the necessary growth work of self-realization, differentiating ourselves from others is part of the process. It’s the reason why teenage children push away from their parents; it’s their first step towards developing an adult identity away from home.

As we work, play, raise families and make a name and a life for ourselves, the nature of the game is Survivor, and competition to stay on our islands is an unavoidable dynamic. We compete for life, liberty, and happiness. We want to win. We want success. And as we strive for it, we develop this us vs. them way of seeing. From fighting fellow drivers in traffic, arguing a political point, griping about the idiots and despots, and competing for that job we want, it truly is a tribal warfare life we’re told we must live if we want to succeed in the world. It’s pervasive, and for most people, it never stops.

The next, often hidden, necessary step in human maturity is to see the world, not in terms of rules, boxes, groups, classes, good/bad, winners/losers, saved/damned, black/white, red/blue… but in terms of we, as in the interconnectedness and vital necessity of all people and all things.

Practically speaking, what does this mean? As a Christian, it means that I see and recognize Christ in all people. To break that down some more, it means that I endeavor to see that every person is made in God’s image, that each one is very good (because God said we are), and that Christ is at work in each of us to transform us into God’s likeness, no matter our religion or beliefs.

Everyone. Me. You. The homeless woman walking down the street. The family crossing the southern border in the cover of night. The co-worker I can’t bring myself to like. A child born in a meth house. Everyone in my neighborhood. Everyone in Christchurch. The white nationalists. The Muslims in prayer. All are in God’s image, all are created very good by God, being transformed by Christ into God’s likeness, in God’s time and way.

That kind of solidarity gives us the freedom to love the perpetrator and the victim because each of us, in our own way, are perpetrators and victims of our world’s violence. We have all contributed to the kind of us vs. them tribalism that feeds the violence in our world. We have suffered from it to varying degrees. And we all have the choice to opt out of the game when we’re mature enough to do it.

So do we simply stop calling out evil and injustice? Of course, not.

That said, if that’s all we do, or even half of what we do, then we’re simply exhaling negativity into the air, ironically enough becoming the kind of badness we hate to see in other people.

For every negative, there must be double or even triple the positive. If we don’t or can’t do that hard work, then we continue to deepen our collective human addiction to all things negative, gloomy, dark and problematic. As they say in the news room, “If if bleeds, it leads.” In an oddly perverse way, we just love bad news.

For me, unconditional, gracious, bridge-building, self-and-other-identifying love is the only remedy to our world’s violence. It sounds so simple and naive to even type those words, but it’s true. Love for the victims. Love for the perpetrators. Seeing God and ourselves just as clearly in the victim as in the perpetrator.

We are all both monster and saint, innocent and guilty, Pilate and Jesus, heavenly and hellish, all wrapped up in a tragically beautiful, divine creation called you and me.

With the most sonorous YES I can sing— just as it was in the beginning, as it is now, and ever shall be to the end, that everyone and everything in creation is all inherently, intrinsically, collectively good, because it is in God, and God is in it. And in some mysterious way I can’t quite comprehend but know to be true, God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).

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Filed under Cultural Quakes, Judaism and Other Religions, Race and Culture, Spiritual Growth and Practice

The NFL Has Outlawed Conscientious Patriotism

626307AC-2B2C-49B7-BD56-B230736C3B66To stand or to kneel, or to do anything else quiet and unassuming during the playing of the American National Anthem…

The decision has been made. The NFL has mandated all players to stand for the Anthem or to remain in the locker room until its conclusion. This is the NFL’s “solution” to a raging controversy swirling around issues of free-speech, employee rights, and how freely a player can express himself. And note: this change was made without any consultation with the players.
Let’s get one thing straight. The NFL’s decision has nothing to do with honoring America or patriotism. It is about protecting its bottom line. The NFL’s real bottom line is not America. It’s not patriotism. Too many people got upset at kneeling players, and the league lost eyeballs and dollars. So it’s all about money, pure and simple.

Now before anyone starts howling that I’m some kind of un-American anti-capitalist liberal commie…(I’m certainly not a liberal. I belive in free markets, which means I’m not a Communist.) I am a proud American. I express my pride by standing to pledge allegiance to the flag. I stand and sing the National Anthem. I do both with my hand over my heart. It’s an honor to do it. I’m proud of our military, our Constitution, and all the other American institutions that make us the greatest nation in the world.

My proud patriotism also extends to protect the Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of conscience for all my fellow Americans, and that includes their right to stand or not stand for the National Anthem. I don’t have to like their refusal to participate, but I will do anything to protect their freedom of refusal. That’s one of the greatest things about America. For civilians like me, I have the choice. To make a personal choice and to respect the freedoms of others to make their choices is true, proud Americanism.

But to say it again, the NFL’s decision is not about patriotism or Americanism.

To protect its profits, the NFL is mandating its employees to follow a new rule that may very well violate many players’ conscience. Granted, the NFL believes it gives these players an out. Players who refuse to stand for the National Anthem can stay in the locker room, after all. But that’s akin to, “Do what I say or leave the room.” It is a backhanded, implicit form of penalizing and silencing that will create just as much division as before while also inviting scorn and shame upon players who are following their deeply held convictions. That is unjust, and therefore inhumane.

Now someone might say, “C’mon, Chris, these guys are being paid millions of dollars. They just need to shut up, suck it up, follow the rules or get another job.” Let’s clear up a few red herrings here. First, it’s not a matter of how much someone gets paid. Whether someone earns $50,000 or $5,000,000 a year, employees are still thinking, conscientious human beings, many of whom compete hard and sacrifice much to get the jobs they have. Simply leaving one job to get another is much easier said than done and says nothing to respect an employee’s sense of conscientiousness and justice.

“Still,” you might say, “this is a business, not a social club. Players are paid to play, not to express their views on the field.” Okay, then. In that case, the NFL must be consistent and ban all forms of personal expression on the field, including any form of celebration and religious expression such as gathering to pray before the game starts, crossing themselves, pointing to heaven, and kneeling after a good play. (No kneeling, right??) And while they’re at it, the NFL should mandate players to cover up all those tattoos. Aren’t those personal forms of expression? But, for various other reasons, those expressions don’t seem to offend the majority, and so they’re still allowed… for now.

Meanwhile, this newly enacted form of disparity created by the NFL still remains. Players can express certain personal things on the field, but not other things. Those other things— well, they hurt the NFL’s revenue stream. So the NFL, in effect, outlawed some players’ expressions of faithful patriotism and speech. In so doing, it has proved that money trumps any form of patriotism, conscience, or a player’s dignity.

The NFL is certainly within their right to do all of the above. It is a business who hires employees to do a job and follow its rules. So the question we must all ask ourselves is: how much can I support an organization who increasingly treats their players like indentured gladiators and less like principled human beings, all for the sake of money? That’s something I’m wrestling with now.

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My Ancestors Came from S***hole Countries, Too

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The Gray Family from Aberdeen, Scotland

Lately, I have rekindled my interest in geneology and joined Ancestry.com. I joined to find some more information about my father’s family. Instead I have immersed myself in researching my mother’s lineage. It’s very true that whenever you start digging into your family’s past, you never know what you’re going to find.

One of the most interesting facts: on April 19, 1850, my 17-year-old second great grandfather William Gray landed in New York with his family. They were from Aberdeen, Scotland. William Gray was among a large wave of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 19th Century journeying to America to escape widespread poverty. Eventually he met and married my second great grandmother Hannah Shalloo, an Irish immigrant from County Cork.
After moving to Dearborn, Michigan where his mother and father stayed for the remainder of their lives, William Gray moved to Kansas. There, William and Hannah had children, raised a family, and lived and died as a farmers. William Gray’s obituary states that the Grays were among the pioneering families of Kansas.

Fast forward to 2018. Yesterday, President Trump was reported to say that he no longer wants immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries whom he derided as “shithole countries”. Instead he favors immigrants from Norway. (?) While the President later denied that he used that specific term, the same Washington Post article that broke the story mentions past comments he has made disparaging immigrants from poorer countries and racial minorities in general.

If I could have a moment to speak to President Trump, I would say these words: “Mr. President, my ancestors came from s***hole countries, too.”

19th Century Scotland and Ireland were racked in poverty. Famine, premature death and disease due to failing crops pushed many to leave home just to survive. Scots in particular are fiercely proud of their country and family. For people like my grandparents to leave their ancestral home to settle in an unknown country speaks to the desparation they lived in.

When they arrived in America, they came to a country that was growing increasingly wary of their presence. They were poor. They were culturally different. They soaked up jobs and homes. In fact, by the 1890’s, under a cloud of Irish and Scottish xenophobia, the United States government sharply curtailed the number of Scotts and Irish who could immigrate here.

And yet, where would our country be today without people like my grandparents, William and Hannah Gray— poor Scottish and Irish immigrants from economically impoverished countries?

It’s clear that Mr. Trump does not possess a broad vision of America’s greatness.

I personally know people from these “s***hole countries” he describes. They are friends of mine from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Zimbabwe. I have visited the extreme poverty they came from. In America, these immigrants have become very successful citizens.  They bring their skills, their culture, and the story of their lives to our country. They are entrepreneurial, hard working, wonderful people. They have already made America great. Mr. Trump’s derision of these countries is an affront to them and to thousands upon thousands of men and women who immigrate to our country legally from the places he deems to be nothing but excrement.

Mr. Trump’s vision of America does not make room for us to be the America we have always cherished- a country of opportunity, freedom, and dignity for all people. He has defined America’s greatness by excluding and demeaning whole segments of the American and world populations. That is not America. It’s certainly not the America my grandparents and so many others came to in which to live, thrive and prosper.

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.
‭‭Exodus‬ ‭23:9‬

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To My Fellow White Americans: It’s Time to Get Real about Racism

IMG_1531The catastrophe in Charlottesville last weekend followed by President Trump’s outlandishly surreal press conference on Tuesday and the outrage most Americans have felt over all of this, has made for a trying week in our nation– to say the least. Our racial divides are even deeper now, thanks to a new generation of white supremacists, lingering societal racism, the behavior of our President, and the unwillingness from many of us to call it out or do anything about it. We are a wounded America.

If you’re still reading this, and if you find yourself disagreeing with anything I’ve said so far, the balance of this post is for you. This is not meant to be some “in your face” post. I’m going to be respectful, thoughtful and truthful with you.

I’m speaking to you as a fellow white person, a white male, in fact, who has traditionally stood and voted right of center on many things, including matters of race, the role of government, and a number of social issues. Like you, I’ve seen the news unfolding and the things happening to our country, and I have been deeply concerned about our future. Like you, I have reflexively avoided blaming myself for lingering racial issues in our country. Like you, I have been uncomfortable with what we call “identity politics.” In short, there has been some Archie Bunker kinds of thinking in me, and I suspect in you, too.

However, the events of last weekend and this week have reminded me of some valuable lessons I’ve learned in recent years about race and racism. I’m going to share them with you, and I hope you will read them carefully and consider them:

  • Racism- the attitude and resulting socio-economic systems establishing one group of people as inherently better, more valuable, and dominant over other groups of people- is still very much a problem in America. We see it in overt and in numerous subtle ways. Just acknowledging that fact and listening to the stories of our neighbors of color will open our eyes wide to this reality.
  • Saying, “I’m not a racist” while remaining silent and aloof to racism in our country only contributes to the problem. The worst evils are propagated by the cautious silence of the good people.
  • Our biggest problem is that we do not have to see- or we choose not to see!- ongoing racism in our nation and communities, and so we create the self-insulating illusion that racism doesn’t exist. Again, talk to people of color, and they will show us a vastly different reality. It’s a reality in which racism is still very much alive and well.
  • Just because we’ve come a long way towards eradicating racism in our country does not mean we can ignore where it still exists and the pain people still experience from being subject to racism.
  • Fact: white people in our country, no matter what socio-economic status we were born into, have a societal standing that will get us ahead faster and more smoothly than our neighbors of color. People of color have to work harder and endure more pain to get what we have. All of this is just a statistical fact. This is the “white privilege” you might have heard folks talk about. We may grimace at terms like this, but unfortunately, they are cold, hard realities.
  • Blaming black people for racism or racial disparity is a convenient deflection from our own culpability and responsibility. I don’t beat myself up with guilt or think I’m a horrible person. At the same time, I don’t point my fingers at the black community to heap guilt and blame on them. None of that changes anything. Rather, it’s a matter of working with our neighbors of color to make our communities more equitable and just for everyone. When there’s something I can say or do to make sure my neighbors have the same dignity, opportunities and justice that I’m afforded, I’m going to say it or do it!
  • You don’t have to be a liberal, a Democrat or an activist to talk openly talk about the problem of racism. I’m not a liberal, a Democrat, or an activist, and yet I have no problem embracing movements like Black Lives Matter and getting real about the reality of racism. This is not some tribal issue based on how you vote, where you get your news, or what causes you embrace. Racism is real, and thankfully, we’re moving to a time that addressing racism in frank, open ways is a bipartisan, multiracial effort. So… Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, Fox News or MSNBC, hop on the bandwagon. There’s plenty of room for you.

Back to Charlottesville and President Trump’s comments. There is no “two sides to the story.” These were white supremacists and neo-Nazis who were protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, and they were rightly confronted by those who were standing against white supremacy, fascism, and racism. Did things turn violent? Yes. But for the President to somehow equate the moral cause and justice of the two sides while claiming that there were good people there to protest with “Unite the Right” was simply a painfully absurd, ignorant, thing to say. The only just response is to condemn racism, racial supremacy, and fascism wherever it appears.

Period.

I’m not going to claim that the President is a racist, but I will say that his behavior has torn open and deepened the wound of racism in our country. We needed a Healer and Uniter in Chief this week. Instead, we got something far worse. We got a President whose words only aroused the worst angels of our nature- anger, blame, defensiveness, finger-pointing, distrust, tribalism.

I hope that in the wake of this awful week, more of us, especially more of my fellow white neighbors, would adopt some humility, openness, and a willingness to see and think differently. We Christian white people say we love our neighbors. Well, let’s prove it. Let’s be the Christlike servants we say we are. Let’s get on our knees and faces in humble service of God and all people. Let’s take up the cross of Calvary and leave behind the fiery crosses of our racist past. Let’s look at our neighbors of color, tell them we love them, and then demonstrate that love in practical ways.

We may not have the elected statesmanship to heal our nation, but we always have Christ the King whose wounds, working in and through us, can heal the wounds of any person and any nation. May his healing begin with us, and spread to all of our neighbors.

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Black History Month: Remembering Dr. Mack Statham

In honor of Black History Month, I want to remember an accomplished African-American who not only shaped our world for the better, but also shaped my life, too. I think we need to take the time to remember these everyday heroes– those who truly blessed the world even if their names are not emblazoned in the history books.

Dr. Mack Statham 9/24/1934-9/2/2013

Dr. Mack Statham
9/24/1934-9/2/2013

Today, I am remembering and honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Mack Statham (September 24, 1934-September 2, 2013). Dr. Statham, or “Dr. Mack” as he was fondly called, was at heart a church musician. I met and befriended him while I served at First United Methodist Church of Laurel. He was a quiet, gentle, and warmly personable man, and yet he possessed an almost unstoppable energy to play prolific music every Sunday, even while his health was failing. He took the time to help anyone further their own musical expressions, especially in worship. He was an accomplished classical pianist and organist, but far from being a diva, he was an accessible, down-to-earth musician who could work with anyone under any circumstance. His approach to music and people, given his tremendous gifts, was marked by an uncanny, Christ-like love and patience. In my eyes, he was a humble giant of a man.

Dr. Mack was born and raised in Baltimore as one of seven children. The Stathams are a musical family, and so quite naturally, Dr. Mack began taking piano lessons as a child. He excelled in music and later graduated from Hampton University with a degree in music education. (He was later honored with an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater.) He taught music in several school systems, was a veteran of the Korean War, and was a successful businessman, too.

He also spent his adult life as a church musician and music director with several churches in the Baltimore-Washington area: Metropolitan UMC in Baltimore, Asbury UMC in Washington, D.C., and First UMC in Laurel. Dr. Mack never did truly retire. In fact, he played the organ at First UMC on a Sunday morning and died that night. He truly lived out all of his days doing exactly what God had created and called him to do.

But I believe Dr. Mack’s greatest vocational accomplishment was his ability to unite whole communities of people around the gift of music.

Dr. Mack was not only a world-class musician, but he was also a prolific composer. His hallmark composition was “Trilogy of Dreams” in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote it for a mass choir, two pianos, an organ, and a small orchestra. Here’s the beauty of this music: it united so much of the Laurel, MD community, black, white, different denominations, Christians, Jews, politicians, and anyone else who attended what became a yearly event called “Sing for King” on the Sunday of MLK weekend. During the six years I participated in “Sing for King” as a member of the choir, I was awed by the power of one man and his music to gather a wide diversity of the Laurel community. For one day, there was no separation of white and black, Jew and Christian, religious and non-religious, and even church and state. We were one people. The bonds these yearly events created were long-lasting.

Dr. Mack demonstrated that things as simple as music and love can unite people and form new relationships of trust and cooperation. All it took was one person with a vision, good friends, a lot of persistence, and grace to make it happen. In that way, not only did Dr. Mack advocate for peace, equality, and justice, he made it happen by offering the best of himself.

That’s an example we all could carry on.

As for me, Dr. Mack instilled many valuable lessons that shaped my life in the 6 years I knew him while serving as pastor of First UMC in Laurel. Here are a few of those lessons:

  • Whatever you commit to do, give it your all. Avoid half measures.
  • Whatever you commit to do, do it with excellence, striving for perfection. Avoid any notion of “good enough”.
  • Make the time to invest in someone else’s growth. Every person is worth our time because they, too are a gift.
  • Do what you love, and don’t stop, no matter the struggle.
  • Slower with excellence is far better than faster and sloppy.
  • Practice, practice, practice… It’s the only way to get better.
  • Trust God above all things and believe in yourself. No, that’s not a contradiction. (Dr. Mack showed how that is possible.)
  • Use your gifts wherever they are needed, no matter how small or seemingly trivial. It makes a difference.

As I write this, I miss my good friend very much. Mack, as I called him, was a rare gift, one of those few people I’ve met who profoundly impacted me for the better. For all the reasons he has touched my life and the lives of thousands of others, Dr. Mack Statham is worthy to be remembered and honored during this Black History Month. May we all live his kind of legacy to the glory of God and the blessing of others.

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50 Years Later: What Martin Luther King’s Dream Means to Me

Martin Luther KingOn the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”, so many people are pontificating over the speech’s ongoing legacy, what it means today, what Dr. King would say and advocate for in our time, etc., etc. I don’t feel I’m creative or steeped enough in the issues of race and racial politics to add much to the discussion.

But I can share what King’s speech means to me and how his legacy inspires me forward, especially as a middle-class white male whose roots hail from the south and the midwest. (Yes, I  grew up surrounded by overt and subtle racist attitudes in my family.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. died six years before I was born. By the time I became aware of him, King had already been “exalted to sainthood” as the great civil rights leader whose work, speeches, and writing forever changed the shape of racial equality and race relations in America.  It took a long time for me to step through that misty shroud of sainthood surrounding King’s legacy to look carefully at his leadership, vision, and most especially his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”

What I’ve found is an endearing vision for all of America, black and white, that is still struggling to be actualized today. That vision is a call to action. It’s not enough to simply proclaim liberty, equal humanity, and equality of opportunity for all Americans. We must all work to secure that liberty and equality for all people. That’s justice. Justice is something we do, not just preach.

King’s speech also lifted up  a vision for basic harmony and fellowship between white people and people of color. That part has impacted me the most. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t think I’m superior or claim a greater seat of privilege than people of color. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t hold hatred or bitterness towards people of color. I can say I’m not a racist because I don’t purposely avoid or try to keep myself away from people of color.

But as I let King’s “I Have a Dream” speech sink in more deeply, I can see an area of racism that still exists within me and many others that creates a barrier to full harmony and fellowship. This racism manifests itself as fear and ignorance. It’s mistrust and presumption, formed from a lack of intentional relationships and experience.

We saw this form of racism on full display with the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin tragedy, trial, and fall-out. Blacks and whites clearly misunderstand, falsely characterize, and at times demonize each other in ugly ways. Meanwhile, no one in the midst of the conflict would claim to be a racist! However, if we’re all honest, our failure to truly understand and trust each other is a layer of racism we have yet to overcome. It cost Trayvon Martin his life. And George Zimmerman? I can’t imagine him ever living a normal, everyday life ever again.

Martin Luther King’s work has challenged me to combat this form of racism by intentionally getting to know, love, and work with people of color. Of all the diversity of friends I have, I’m blessed to have several African American friends with whom I can talk about anything. And when a question of race comes up, we can talk about it point-blank without anxiously couching our words so as not to offend each other. I trust them. They trust me, and that has allowed me to learn so much about how a person of color sees the world and issues of race and justice. In fact, I’m always humbled by what I don’t yet know or appreciate within people of color. It’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing. It’s all about understanding, which builds basic empathy and solidarity, which in turn builds trust and intimacy.

In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in order for America to fully overcome the effects of slavery, three prejudices must be conquered: the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of race, and the prejudice of color. He couldn’t be more correct. De Tocqeville succinctly identified the three attitudes behind American racism. I restate them this way: the prejudice of superiority/inferiority, the prejudice of  segregation, and the prejudice of fear and suspicion of the other. To date, we have come a long way in overcoming the first two. And I think we still have a long way to go with the third prejudice of fear and suspicion before we can ever say that we are a post-racial America who no longer feels the effects of one race having forcibly enslaved the other. O Lord, within me, remove any trace of suspicion, fears, mistrust, and ignorance that would keep me from fully loving, receiving, and living in absolute harmony with people of color. Only then can I say I am no longer bound to the evils of racism. Amen.

Even so, I’m passionately convinced that King’s dream is not a mere pipe dream. It can find its fulfillment in us. In some ways it’s already happening. And in time, his dream of a post-racial America will be a fully incarnate reality. In the mean time, I want to do my part by naming and casting out any racism within myself. I want to work to assure liberty and equality for all people. And I hope you’ll join me!

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How a Victim of Racism Became a Perpetrator

It was Saturday afternoon, and I came into the church office for several hours of work on a tight schedule. After being off for a week following Easter, I felt the pressure of all this work to be done. Needless to say, unscheduled phone calls or visits were not at all on my radar screen. But Murphy decided to intervene. Just as I was about to walk into the church office, someone knocked on the front door. Ah, shoot… I was caught! I didn’t know her, and I’ve been around here long enough to know that this was most likely someone coming to the church for help. Ugh…

Reluctantly I answered the door, and a woman, a middle-aged African American woman, who looked somewhat familiar to me asked to come in because she needed to talk. What was I going to do? Helping people is my business after all, but lately, I’ve also been tempering my personal/professional boundaries, too. I can’t let every random thing that pops up derail essential things, in this case getting ready for a Sunday morning.

I apologized to the woman and told her that I was very busy at the moment. She persisted, so I offered to set up an appointment to come in and talk. She declined that offer and then went on to trash me.
“Oh wait, I remember you,” she said. “I came by here before, and you were nasty.” Then I remembered why she looked familiar. “I remember your predecessor,” she said. “He was nice, but my, how things change. You’re just nasty.”

Once again, I offered to set up an appointment.

That was followed by, “You know what, I think I’m going to call Bishop Schol.” That’s my bishop. So I told her that when she calls, make sure to tell him that I offered an appointment.

To that, she said, “No, you’re just nasty. I can tell you don’t like black people.” Ouch. At that, I closed the conversation.

She could have said just about anything else, and it would have rolled right off of me. But a racist… Like a hot knife through butter, that accusation seared right through any thick skin I thought I had. I live in a highly multicultural, multiracial area. I love it! I am so happily blessed to pastor a multiracial, multicultural congregation. My leadership team and staff are purposefully diverse, and I still don’t think we’re nearly diverse enough.

So to be called a racist… I could call myself any number of unpleasant things or allow other people to label as they will, fairly or not. But to be accused of racism, bigotry, exclusiveness– that is a serious charge that carries hundreds of years of  historically heavy, painful weight. Her charge felt like Lex Luthor throwing a chain of kryponite around Superman’s neck. I’m no Superman, but I did feel crumbled down by the paralyzing weight of that single charge: you’re a white racist.

This is particularly wounding for me because I do come out of a family and community environment where racism was strongly present. My father’s family hails from Virginia. Racial stereotypes towards African Americans with an easy use of the n-word were the norm, rarely questioned. My grandfather Owens and his fathers harbored strong racism, and my maternal grandparents who came from Kansas had some racial attitudes, partly generational, partly regionally based. I grew up in the central and southern parts of Anne Arundel County where racial segregation is still culturally and geographically in force. I had friends who loved to tell racial jokes, and operated under typical white attitudes towards black people.

All of that did fundamentally shape me. How could it not? Divorcing myself from those attitudes came from an intentional process of getting to know and befriending people whom I had only understood through the lens of racial and ethnic stereotypes. Confronting my own ignorance and racial attitudes was a painful process, and sometimes it still is. I have had to own up to the racism I inherited and continually unearth and discard layers of ignorance and scorn when that twin-headed dragon rears its ugly head.

There’s no doubt my transformation continues. For example, if one of my daughters comes home with an African American boyfriend, I admit  there would probably be a struggle to work through my initial knee-jerk reaction: wishing somehow she had chosen someone of her own race. This would require one more step away from my inherited racism. (Of course, matters aren’t helped by the whole boyfriend ordeal, which is always hardest on fathers!)

But clearly, the sin and disease of racism has a way of infecting everyone, perpetrators and victims.

There’s no doubt the woman I encountered had been victimized and wounded by racist attitudes and behaviors in the past. Certainly her family, friends, and neighbors share the same experience, too. Minority people groups have lived it, can sense even the slightest aroma of it, and come to expect that it will happen again. I simply can’t imagine those deeply ingrained wounds and dread which many carry for simply having a certain skin color and hailing from a particular ethnicity and social class.

Wounded victims pose a high risk of becoming perpetrators. People give out what they’ve been given. If you’re hated enough by a group of people, chances are, out of self-defense, you’ll hate them back. If you’re singled out and treated with fear, suspicion, and scorn by a people who don’t know you and whom you don’t know, it’s all the more likely you’re going to return the favor with your own brand of fear, suspicion, and scorn.
Racism, like so many other forms of abuse, is a vicious cycle.
Take the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin. This story has already been discussed ad nauseum, and when these things happen, I rarely add to the punditry. So much has already been said to not miss my 2-cent opinion. But that last sentence of mine makes the point. So much has been said by all the usual voices, and I have found little of to be helpful.

After George Zimmerman, whose race and ethnicity are sketchy at best, gunned down Trayvon Martin, my first though was, “How absolutely terrible for a teen to lose his life like that.” But then after the killing began to be labelled a murder with charges of racism and racial stereotyping coming to question, my next thought was, “Oh no… Here we go again.”

Too much is assumed that isn’t clearly known. People raise the serious charge of racism, met with counter-complaints of racism or using this tragedy for dubious motives. Meanwhile, we’re still sorting out the actual, unknown facts of what happened. Who knows, other than George Zimmerman and God, what really motivated him to gun down Trayvon Martin? It was clearly fear, but his fear of what? Don’t answer that too quickly. Fear smiles at a quick answer.

Actually, Trayvon Martin’s parents have offered the most helpful reaction to the killing of their son. This grieving family simply wanted an arrest and a prosecution. They got that, and rightly so. Now they want a peaceful resolution and justice to be done. I’m praying for that, as I have been. And I’m praying for myself and other leaders to do the right thing in moving those we lead through this tragedy that has taken a young man’s life and has ripped open deep scars for many more. A peaceful resolution, hoped for by Martin’s family, is the best thing I can aspire to work for, too.

Well, I said I wasn’t going to add to the punditry on Trayvon Martin’s death, but I guess I couldn’t resist offering some “punditry on the punditry” illustrating the ongoing disease of racism and racial tension– victims who beget perpetrators who beget victims who beget perpetrators.

After being labeled a racist, myself now wounded by racism, I had to stop myself from being the wounded victim who rails against “all those angry, hateful black people who refuse to let go of the past.” Isn’t that also an ill-informed racial stereotype, racism just as ignorant and destructive as my visitor’s ill-informed assumption about me? God help us all.

Will we choose to counter racism with new racism, or will we do the hard work of being a peacemaker who bridges divides between people? The later is hard work and few choose it, but according to Jesus, being a peacemaker has an awesome reward attached to it (Matthew 5:9). We get a new label beyond black or white: children of God.

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What Can We Make of the Beer Summit?

Well, the much anticipated meeting between the President, Dr. Gates, and Sgt. Crowley is over. We saw images of the three men along with Vice-President Biden carrying on like chummy pals, and so the question remains: now what? I think President Obama was right to downplay the importance of the so-called “beer summit”. After all, it was more a recovery effort of Mr. Obama’s after he interjected himself into the story with his remarks that the Massachusetts police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates.

First, a word about the President’s comments. I don’t completely fault him for what he said. We tend to over-scrutinize every word a president says as if his every utterance has been planned and rehearsed and therefore infallible. Obama was responding to an off-the-cuff question with a very off-the-cuff answer. Granted, it wasn’t a very helpful answer. He pitched unfair aspersions upon the arresting officer which he would days later “recalibrate.” But be that as it may, he also answered as an African-American, obviously seeing things through a long lens of racial history in America. It’s very much understandable and forgivable, yes. But perhaps Obama now knows a bit more keenly that as President of the United States, he carries a most certain gravitas, especially as an African American president speaking on issues of race.

Now I realize that what I say here comes from my worldview as a white guy. At the same time, I have dear friends from many different races and proudly pastor a multicultural, multiracial congregation. I’ve learned from my experiences that people from different races and cultures view the world from a wide range of varying angles. Who’s to say which angle is the most accurate?

Just to give you an example, the day after the Gates arrest and the President’s ensuing commentary on it, I called one of my African American friends to ask him what he thought of all this. His first words were, “Oh man… You’d have to ask that question!” Obviously, the incident stirred up a lot within him.

I was amazed and dismayed– and maybe I shouldn’t have been– to find him questioning not Gates’ behavior nor the President’s remarks but the police officer. His gut told him, “This was racial profiling.”

Then I quoted the police report which detailed Gates’ outlandish behavior and the reasons for his arrest.

My friend held the report in suspicion.

Then I said, “But Crowley has an exemplary record as a veteran police officer. He’s even taught racial sensitivity courses. He has no record of racism in his past.”

To that, my friend replied, “But past behavior isn’t necessarily an indicator of future behavior.”

Then I blurted out, “What?? So you’re saying the officer is guilty simply because the charge of racism has been made?? So the charge is greater than any other evidence??”

I have to admit that beyond that I can’t remember the details from the rest of our conversation. My friend may have had some other good things to say, but my mind shut down after that. We talked some more and agreed to keep watching to see what would happen. By the way, my friend and I rarely agree on much of anything, however we really respect and learn from each other.

Afterwards, a day or so before the White House beer summit, my friend and I talked again. We saw things a little differently than before. While we still didn’t agree on who was to blame for the incident, we both did see that there was some overreacting from both Gates and Crowley. In other words, it was a momentary mistake of judgment. I would add that the President also committed a momentary mistake of judgment by the tone of his remarks.

So is that all it was? Was there no racism involved?

After thinking about things, I’m going to throw this idea out there: There was no racism inherent in anyone’s motives or actions. But racism, like a demonic force, stepped in as an outside intruder to make this incident into yet another firestorm to throw our country into a debate on racism that quite honestly will never be resolved.

So was there any healing balm to be found in the White House beer summit? Perhaps. It was a nice symbolic gesture. Frankly, that’s all it was. Both Gates and Crowley walked away still not agreeing on who was right and wrong. But they both seemed to walk away with a greater respect for the two different worlds in which they live and work. They both want to “move on.”

And that’s probably the best thing for them and for us, too. My African American friend and I drew the same conclusion.

Of course, there is no denying what an incredibly ugly, horrific scar the history of racism has left on America. From the earliest days of slavery in the American colonies to racial segregation and inequalities to the systemic and personal incarnations of racism we find today, that scar still lives and breathes. I truly believe that over time, the scar will will continue to weaken and fade. But I do not think that we will ever find any great coming-to-terms on the debate surrounding racism, i.e. who’s to blame and what are we to do about it.

The debate on racism is what fueled last week’s events, not racism itself.
There is no victor rising from the debate on racism, only casualties. Americans of European and African descent do not see issues of race in the same way, nor may they ever. Thankfully, it’s not necessary for us to agree in order to create racial harmony in the United States or anywhere else in the world. What we do need, however, is mutual respect for the integrity of differeing views. With my African American friend, I can learn to appreciate how and why he sees things as he does, even if I don’t view things the same way, and vice versa.

So, instead of debate, let’s dialogue. Dialogue builds bridges into community with one another. Dialogue might possibly bring new, creative solutions to the lingering issues of racism that the tired out debates could never deliver.
Finally, I’d like to offer a sure, absolute cure to the issues of race, this one from the gospel of Jesus Christ:

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. (Galatians 3:26-29, NTL)

If only we would all see, especially those of us who call ourselves Christian,  that God’s promise of Jesus Christ is our healing, our unity, and our life, we would have all the unity we need. And there would be no more need for symbolic beer summits.

Cheers!

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