Category Archives: Race and Culture

Understanding race, racism, and cultural awareness.

What Does It Mean to Be Authentically Pro-Life?

In the great debate over legalized abortion, I have consistently stood my ground as passionately and unapologetically Pro-Life. Several years before becoming a Christian at 18-years-young, I started gravitating towards Pro-Life values. It all began one day when a friend asked me, “Hey Chris, do you think that a healthy, unborn baby should be killed by a medical procedure before it’s born?” I had never thought about that before. Horrified, I replied, “No way! That’s awful.” Soon after that, this same friend invited me to go with him to some local Pro-Life rallies. The day after one of those rallies, I even found myself on the cover of a local newspaper! Then over time, as I immersed in the Pro-Life movement, I became utterly convinced that terminating an unborn life is an act of murder.

It’s been crystal clear to me how fundamentally immoral and unjust it is to terminate a viable human life in utero, a life that otherwise would be born and grow into childhood and adulthood. If consciously taking someone else’s life is murder, how could abortion on demand be any less murderous? And then I heard stories of people whose mothers seriously contemplated aborting them. My heart sank at the thought of not having these people’s presence and gifts in the world– people like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and Celine Dion.

Becoming Pro-Life at such an early stage helped me to recognize the truth that all human life is important, beginning with the lives of the unborn. So valuing and protecting the lives of the unborn would naturally lead Pro-Life people to champion the wellbeing of human life wherever it is found, right?

Well…

For me, that’s when things started to get complicated. Very complicated.

As I worked through my Pro-Life views, I could not ignore the life and welfare of mothers bearing these children. There was no escaping a growing moral conundrum: how can I call myself Pro-Life if passionately protecting a mother’s life and wellbeing is any less crucial than passionately protecting her unborn child. Life is life, isn’t it? So then, what is the best option for an expectant mother who has suffered the horrific trauma of being raped and is now carrying the child of her assailant? What is the best option for mothers who are victims of incest? What is best option for mothers whose long term health or survival is in peril if she carries full-term? What is best option for mothers expecting a child who is severely malformed and will suffer and die soon after birth?

Seriously regarding the welfare of life outside a mother’s womb widened my frame of lives that are worth protecting. This bigger frame also revealed an inconvenient truth that things are rarely as black and white as we pretend they are. While I remain adamantly opposed to abortion on demand as a means of birth control, I found that being Pro-Life requires us to bear the agonizing tension of valuing the life and welfare of both the unborn and the women who carry them. There are indeed terrible circumstances no mother wants to face when either her own wellbeing or that of her unborn child demands that a legal form of abortion is still available to her. All life is life worth valuing, after all. As a Christian Pro-Lifer, I affirm that every life, both the unborn and the born, is precious to us and especially to God, the Author of life.

But my widening Pro-Life frame of did not stop there.

We have been engaging in a national moral struggle to define whose lives truly matter to us. As a Christian Pro-Lifer, I was challenged once again to widen my frame when I first heard the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” My initial reaction to that was, “Well yes, but all lives matter, don’t they? Black lives. Brown lives. White lives. We all matter. Why single out just Black lives? What’s the point?” Many of us sang as children, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” And that’s true.

Still, my Christian conviction to love my neighbors as myself and my ongoing commitment to Pro-Life values led me to explore more deeply what “Black Lives Matter” means. What are we really saying?

Black Lives Matter became the rally cry of the Black civil rights movement after the police shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014, and gained even more powerful prominence after the police killed George Floyd this year. As a wordsmith, I have to admit that “Black Lives Matter” is an ingenious phrase— pithy, pointed and highly evocative— as evidenced by the surge of support and resistance it has received. In just three words, it says: “The lives and wellbeing of Black people are sacred. However, the actions and policies of American systems of justice, law enforcement, housing and education have time and again demonstrated that Black wellbeing and survival is of secondary or even little importance to America. We’re here to say that Black wellbeing and survival matters. Black lives matter, and since they do, policy, attitudes, and behavior must reflect that reality.”

Once I understood what Black Lives Matter means, it occurred to me that my definition of Pro-Life must widen to include the protection of Black lives.

If I am willing to advocate for the abolition of laws, policies, and attitudes that proliferate the evils of abortion on demand, how can I not also advocate for the abolition of laws, policies, and attitudes that harm the lives of my Black neighbors?

I say all this as an urgent plea to my Pro-Life friends and neighbors. To be authentically Pro-Life, our frame of focus must encompass more than the plight of the unborn. It is a cognitive and spiritual dissonance to be passionately in favor of the unborn while remaining apathetic to the plight of the born. How can we exert so much effort to lovingly empathize with the feelings, health, and potential of the unborn and not extend that same loving empathy to to the feelings, health, and potential of the born, and in this case, of our Black neighbors, who are urging us to see that their lives matter, too.

Or to put it another way: we Pro-Lifers would go to any length to protect unborn Black babies, right? After all, in principle at least, unborn Black babies are just as sacred as unborn White babies. Once these unborn Black babies are born, how can we say to them and their mothers, “Well, you’re on your own now. Good luck, and God bless. And don’t you dare bother me with all your talk of systemic injustice and racism.” How can we ignore the fact that statistically speaking, a White baby will be healthier, more educated, make more money, and live longer than a Black baby, and not ask why that is, beyond our basic assumptions? How can our Pro-Life compassion and empathy co-exist with this kind of callous disregard? We want laws and polices in place to severely limit or even completely eliminate the evil of abortion on demand. How could we not also want laws and policies in place that dismantles the the evil of racism that hurts Black lives?

We Pro-Lifers have argued for years now that there is a pervasive culture of selfishness, violence, and death in America that proliferates the evil of abortion. This death culture has severely eroded our moral obligation to cherish the sacred worth of the unborn. Amen. I would add that this same culture spawns the kind of selfishness, apathy, suspicion, and arrogance that keeps our country from recognizing and dismantling the evil of racism that denies the sacred worth of born Black lives, too.

Fellow Pro-Lifers, expand your frame of compassion more widely to include Black lives. We go to great lengths to name, and to single out, and to fight to protect the lives of the unborn. Many of us Pro-Lifers are proud to name and single out Blue lives, too.

However, if you cannot just as passionately name, and single out, and fight to protect the lives of Black people, who for 400 years have suffered a racism that has denigrated the presence and worthiness of Black lives, then for heaven’s sake, don’t call yourself Pro-Life anymore. Be more honest, and just settle for anti-abortion.

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I Was Wrong to Post This

A few weeks ago, I found a meme that uses tongue-in-cheek satire to call out typical, racially-tinged things that people say, specifically white people. I knew it would garner some response and debate, but I was nowhere near prepared for the volume and kinds of responses it got! It went on for days on end, too.

The meme I should not have posted…

That meme got under peoples’ skin and opened a huge debate on race, racism, and whether or not people like me play any kind of responsibility for it. I learned a lot about how difficult and painful a conversation this is.

But there was one other lesson folks were trying to tell that I was too stubborn to hear.

This morning, I was having a conversation with one of my pastor colleagues, and I was reflecting on the need for us to address difficult issues like race and racism with a non-anxious, clear, respectful approach. To that, my colleague said, “You know Chris, I need to say this to you as a colleague and friend-“

Uh oh. The classic set up! So I leaned in and listened.

My colleague continued, “You might want to check the sarcasm on some of your posts. They’re not exactly the kind of non-anxious, clear, respectful approach you’re suggesting.” Ouch. Yet I couldn’t deny it. I knew exactly what this colleague was pointing to.

I believe clergy have an obligation to address and not skirt the hard stuff. The gospel of Jesus Christ does indeed shape how we see and how we respond to the issues of our day, in deeply biblical, uniquely Christian ways.

And yes, people will denounce these efforts in all kinds of ways. I do get it. These things are not easy to hear or talk about. It’s whole lot easier to just leave them alone, because there’s peril at every turn. To top it all off, I am not a confrontational person. (Most clergy are not, by the way.) This task is nothing I relish.

Yet that said, there is no room at all for sarcasm, snark, shaming, cynicism, or making light of very serious things. The meme I posted did all of that, and as a result, I pulled myself and the conversation backwards, not forwards.

There is a lot of wisdom in something many of us were told as kids: it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. I would add one more thing. Why we say it matters, too.

So, while I don’t regret addressing the issues of race and racism, I do regret how I did it. It just doesn’t belong. It cheapens our discourse. It unnecessarily raises the temperature in the room.

I was wrong to post that meme. And I sincerely apologize.

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The Super Bowl Halftime Clash

The Super Bowl is an American cultural phenomenon. It’s a super-hyped event– glitzy, loud, overdone, and completely commercial. When it’s game time, everything else comes to a grinding halt, including church activities. Stores are barren. Emotions are rampant. It’s truly an unofficial American holiday.

No matter who is playing, most of us tune in to watch. The game itself is only part of the spectacle, of course. The commercials and the halftime show are every bit as significant, and my goodness, they certainly were last night.

For years now, the National Football League has found itself in the midst of several volatile culture wars. I don’t need to review them here. (Well okay, I’ll list off the big ones anyway: player safety, drug use, and behavior on and off the field, fights over mascots, patriotism, freedom of expression, race, standing or kneeling during the National Anthem, and… what to do with the Super Bowl halftime show.) The NFL has certainly capitalized on all these controversies. Some would say, “Don’t let a good controversy go to waste,” and the NFL in all its excessive flamboyance hasn’t at all been wasteful with its inherited and self-imposed controversies. Then again, I don’t entirely blame them. Much of what I see in the NFL is a mirror of the state of our country, culturally and politically.

halftimeThat is especially true in the case of last night’s halftime Super Bowl show when so many of us were tuned in and watching the same thing. Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, two superstar Latina artists performed. It was an explosive performance. And our responses to their performance have been even more explosive!

People have tried to describe what happened in the halftime show. But describing what happened is not nearly as important as answering this question: What did you see?

If you didn’t actually watch the halftime show and went by what people said they saw, you might wonder if we were watching the same thing. Trust me, we were.

Here’s a sampling of what people observed:

  • A celebration of Hispanic culture, led by two Latina women (a first for a Super Bowl halftime show)
  • A soft porn show
  • Further objectification of women
  • Empowerment of women
  • An anti-Trump demonstration
  • A lewd, disgusting display of sexuality
  • A fantastic dance and music production
  • A totally inappropriate show for families
  • A family celebration empowering young people
  • Entertainment that’s really no worse than anything else on TV

Look again at these descriptions. Why are they so vastly different? Could it be that they say more about the eye of the beholder than the show itself? I think so.

(Quick time out: if you’re tempted right now to write me off as a wishy-washy moral subjectivist, resist that urge. I had a definite, strong moral reaction to what I saw. Just keep reading.)

Our conflicts didn’t stop with our differences over what we saw or didn’t see. It got worse. We then had to navigate through our differences. How do we respond when a passionate perception of ours runs up against someone else’s perception? That’s where we failed so badly.

Let me illustrate.

I watched the halftime show. Admittedly, I knew very little about Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. Their music is just not in my wheelhouse. So right at the beginning of the show, I did a quick search, and I learned that they are both middle-aged Hispanic singers and dancers. No, I’ve not been hiding under a rock! It’s a big world, and I know what I know. (Can you list the entire discography of Rush from memory while rattling off Bible verses and the details of coffee roast profiles? I can. But I digress.)

Once I got more familiar with Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, it all began to click. Aha… yeah, their music and dancing indeed looks culturally Hispanic. Okay. Amazing talent. Still, what in the world am I watching?

The following is a recollection of my various reactions while viewing the show with my wife and son:

Wow… Shakira is a beautiful woman, but gosh, she’s wearing very little. She came out with a red rope which she rubbed across her body. Was that some kind of S&M thing? That’s… unsettling. Where is this going?

Wait a minute. She’s doing a lot of very fast, sexually suggestive pelvic thrusts, like she’s having sex in midair! At one point, the cameras were positioned right under her dress as she was thrusting around. Her crotch was right there, for crying out loud! Hey, stop the bus! Did Jennifer Lopez just rub herself down there? Yeah, I think she did. Several times. What is this?

Some guy was grinding Shakira. More very erotic, sexually suggestive dancing and flailing. Hey, Jennifer Lopez! Wait a minute? Is she pole dancing?? Yes, she’s wrapping her body around a pole. Strippers do that. What the heck is this?

But wow… amazing dancing and choreography. “Born in the USA” with Jennifer Lopez donning a Puerto Rican flag. That was daring!

Kids in cages? What’s that all about?

Wait a minute… Why am I seeing so many bare bottoms… on national TV… with my son watching all this? Why all this blatant sexuality on my TV screen? This is just more-of-the-same flagrant selling of sex and women’s bodies for corporate profit while furthering the objectification of women and women’s bodies as sexual objects. It’s well known that human trafficking is a colossal problem around Super Bowl venues. These women, as talented as they are, are only contributing to this human travesty, all in the name of greed, fame, and power.

And this is 2020?? Yup, it sure is.

Those were my responses. In my gut, they still are. Then on Facebook, I asked the question, “Soft porn halftime show?” I thought it was. Yet I was totally unprepared for the numerous, varied, passionate, and argumentative responses I got. It was like I inadvertently waded into a shark pool. Then I jumped right out of that pool and began to ask myself, Whoah, what did I just get myself into? Did I miss something. Did they?

A little later, I read the posts from friends who clearly saw the halftime show very differently than I did, and they labeled people with my kinds of perceptions as racists, sexists, prudes, policing brown bodies, snowflakes, “white boomers,” and vulgar descriptions I won’t share here.

This is a clash of cultures, pure and simple. And, worse still, we just do not know what to do with our cultural differences.

Within the comments of folks who responded to my “Soft porn halftime show?” post, I saw at least 11 different cultural, ideological and demographic representations:

  • White Christian culture (religious and non-religious)
  • Hispanic culture
  • African-American culture
  • Feminism– representing at least two very different points of view
  • Generation X and older
  • Millennial and younger
  • Married with children
  • Married with no children
  • Single
  • Male
  • Female

To make things even more complicated, people from these various cultures, ideologies and demographic groups did not all agree, but they clearly diverged from the same starting point.

My personal cultural descriptors are male, white Christian, married with children, Generation X with particular feminist leanings. That should explain a lot. Modesty, especially female modesty, is very important to my white Christian culture. As a father with feminist leanings, I taught my daughters to be very careful about how they dress. There is way too much sexual objectification and sexualization of women (my particular feminist leanings). Sexual expression is to be shared between two married people behind closed doors. So be careful about how you present yourselves to others. Be strong, independent, pure, and wise enough to show your beauty, inner and outer, with modesty, respect, and discretion.

Now, is my particular cultural view superior to someone else’s? It has historically been the majority view. But does that make it intrinsically better? That’s a pivotal question. And here is where we get into trouble.

Hispanic culture is far more openly erotic and sensual than my own culture. They might find my culture to be too formal, quiet, reserved and discreet. And there are many feminist voices who see women like Shakira and Jennifer Lopez as empowering. They are choosing what to do with their bodies, the argument goes. They are not at all ashamed of their bodies and are resisting a Western patriarchy that has sought to constrain how women use, show and treat their bodies.

I obviously don’t see things that way at all. But are they wrong? Am I? We’ll probably never agree.

Therefore, the more pertinent observation from last night’s halftime show is our collective failure to navigate through the storms our cultural differences without demeaning, dismissing, or fighting against other cultural perceptions and the people who hold them.

Think about this and be honest. What are we really accomplishing fighting this brutal cultural war of attrition where the unstated goal is to name, ridicule, belittle, blame, and destroy people from different cultural understandings? These arguments almost always end in a stalemate and at the expense of respect and trust.

What if more of us, myself included, could pause, take a breath, step back, and attempt to comprehend our differences and, just as importantly, to mutually discern the reasons why those differences exist? Instead of holding an attitude of suspicion, could more of us approach differences with an attitude of curiosity? Instead of cultural arrogance, could we practice cultural humility? Rather than engaging in fruitless arguments, could we listen, seek to understand and share? Instead of needing to be victoriously right and righteous, can we strive to be empathetic? (It is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible to do both.)

Last night, when I finally calmed down a bit and listened to other folks’ points of view, I (re)learned several things. First, disagreements are often misunderstandings in disguise. Our initial and untested perceptions are often wildly inaccurate. Secondly, I can learn things from other points of view that I didn’t know before. In some cases, that has changed the way I think. In other cases, I’m just as convicted as I was before, but at least I can understand and respect a different way of seeing.

So I did learn. And hopefully, that has made me a more understanding and compassionate neighbor. I am who I am. They are who they are. In the meantime, I’ve had enough of football and halftime shows… until next season!

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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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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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