America, the Violent

            Toward the end of the mid-term election cycle, the Republicans resorted to their usual gaslighting ads. The emphasis was on crime and violence, with some pictures, certainly, but more with verbiage that anyone who is afraid of Black people and Black crime readily identifies.

            It was Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist, said in 1981that Republicans had to find ways to say what they wanted to say without actually saying it. He was using, or implementing, the “Southern Strategy,” and in 1981, he explained how it worked:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

(https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/exclusive-lee-atwaters-infamous-1981-interview-southern-strategy/)

            I was appalled when I first listened to that interview, but I also understood that Atwater and the GOP knew how to use race – and the belief that Black violence is the root of American problems – to bait white people. At once infuriating and troubling, the strategy has continued to be used. In the fight for power in the American political system, the race card is always played. And it always works.

            The fact of the matter is, however, that white violence has been the plague and the scourge of American politics and has been a part of American life since the Puritans landed on these shores. White people decided they were sent here by God to make a country for white people – and for that reason, they felt justified in carrying out violence against Indigenous people who already lived here. Yes, there was violence on both sides – but much of the violence was instigated by the new white people who landed in their country. They fought to get power and they fought to keep it. It was accepted, and thought to be sanctioned by God.

Since then, white people in power have used their status and money to encourage and support mob violence against any group that they have decided are threats to their power. Black people have been attacked, of course, but so have white people who have dared challenge the system and other ethnic groups who came here and worked to help build the American empire. Adam Hochschild, in his book American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, describes how in 1917, a group of white laborers, who were seeking to form a union in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were visited by police during a meeting and were subsequently arrested. They were charged with vagrancy, though Hochschild noted that they all had jobs. That didn’t matter. They were convicted of the charges, fined, and thrown into jail. Others were arrested that same night.

            Later that evening, they were taken from their jail cells (in police cars) to a railroad crossing, where they were taken out of the police cars. What they saw was a mob of men, dressed in black robes and black masks, carrying rifles and revolvers. Even though it was freezing, these men were made to strip to their waists and remove their shoes. One by one, they were led to a tree at gunpoint, tied to it, and beaten. The vigilantes had hot tar that they poured onto the backs of these men, and completed their violence by stuffing feathers into the bloody and tarred wounds, terrorizing these men who simply wanted to organize so they could be paid their worth. Their clothes and shoes were set on fire and they were told to run – half-naked and shoeless – for their lives, which they did. It is a horrible story, but not unique. White mob violence, often rooted in race but always grounded in the fear of losing power, is a part of the American story. (Hochschild, pp. 3-4).

            The media does not pay attention to white violence. The violence of angry white men and women, so vehement that it led them to attack the nation’s Capitol and threaten to kill elected officials and to attack police officers – who are normally deified by the white population – was not reported as white terrorist mob violence, and even those who participated in it have said that Americans concerned with happened should just “move on.” But even in the shadow of that horrible day, the usual ads showed up during this election cycle, with a woman’s soft voice seeming to warn all white Americans that they should never forget that Black crime is the major reason they should vote for those who are tough on “law and order.”

            If America was tough on all people who broke the law, my angst would not be so pronounced, but the fact is, white mob violence is too often ignored, and, worse than that, is often supported and participated in by law enforcement officers themselves. Police do not protect the masses; they do, however, do what they need to do to stay in relationship with those who are in power. Jill Lepore wrote in a 2020 article entitled “The Invention of the Police” in The New Yorker, asked “Why did American policing get so big, so fast? The answer, mainly, is slavery.” Someone, she wrote, “someone had to invent the police.” In this country, civilians were deputized to catch Africans who attempted to flee from being enslaved. These men and women were not criminals; they were human beings who knew that they did not deserve to be treated as objects and who exercised the human yearning to be free, but those who needed them to remain enslaved so that their profits would continue to increase, managed to criminalize them for wanting to be free – and the designation has never been corrected. Slave laws were passed and those who sought freedom were thus in violation of “the law.” Those laws included being illegal for a Black person to carry a gun and defend himself, and needing a certificate in order to leave the premises of his/her owner’s property. There were many of these laws, but the point is that white vigilante groups – called slave patrols- were formed and members were rewarded for bringing Africans/African Americans either back to what the society said was their rightful place – or for killing them. (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20/the-invention-of-the-police)

             White mob violence was not limited to Black people. Immigrants in this country have been historically attacked – and not just immigrants with brown skin. Asians have been attacked by white mobs. Those who have fought for the development of unions have likewise been the victims of white mob violence. The numbers of recorded beatings of marginalized groups are staggering but many of them go – and have always gone – unreported.

            White mob violence is a part of the American fabric.

            We have before us now the 2024 presidential elections, and the ads are going to pop up again, reminding white Americans that they should be afraid of Black people. It would be great if this country would begin to tell the story of America – and how white men (and women) in power have advocated racialized violence in order to maintain power.

            The truth is, the angry white mobs do not want democracy. They want total control, with authority to keep people “in their place.” It was the late Paul Weyrich who outright said, “I don’t want everybody to vote.” Weyrich, called by some the “Stalin of Conservatism” said that when too many people vote, the leverage of the GOP (and Conservatism) decreases. 

            One way to keep them from voting and upsetting the leveraged is to use fear, and that’s what the anti-crime ads produce.

            Maybe if the stories were told, this whole “Black people are inherently bad” narrative could be put to rest, and real attention could be paid to domestic white thugs who specialize in terrorizing groups of people. Only the truth, exposed and taught, will make this country “safe” for all those who live in danger of being attacked every day merely for being who they are.

            A candid observation …

Tuesday Meditation: Calling God Good in Bad Times

 We are constantly on the lookout for a “good” God, and to be honest, sometimes we say God is good when we are full of doubt about it. The late Rachel Held Evans shared how, when she was in seminary, she asked one of her professors how any Christian could legitimately say that they practice a “just and fair,” a faith that gave the Nazis a better shot at salvation than the Jews they murdered? His response to her was that she had allowed “hypersensitivity and emotionalism –“ – her feelings – to creep into her faith and that she was “soft” and “weak.”*

 Her question was not unique to her. Many of us have asked similar questions, albeit with fear and trembling, because when we ask those questions, the “saints” are ready to pounce on us with terse responses much like that of Held’s professor. But when we are in bad times, especially bad times that seem never to relent, our very humanness makes us ask the question, “God, where are you?”

 The late C. Vann Woodward wrote in The Strange Career of Jim Crow that Jim Crow laws “blurred the lines between formal law and informal enforcement. He wrote, “…Jim Crow laws put the authority of the state or city in the voice of the street car conductor, the railway brakeman, the bus driver …the hoodlum of the public parks and playgrounds.”

            ​How can that be okay with a “good” God?

 In a society that is quick to call out the “violence” of Black people, there is a strange silence about the history and the legacy of white violence in this country, allowed by “the law,” which has caused far too many innocent Black people to be murdered by law enforcement officials and by vigilantes who were basically ignored by officers who often stood by and watched these violent crimes take place or who, worse, participated in them.

 Violence against Black people (and other marginalized groups in this country as well) is as much a part of the American story as is its claim to being exceptional – but the white violence is ignored and not spoken about. These days, to mention it or teach it is to be a proponent of “critical race theory,” and to be “anti-American. To share the truth about this country’s history is too threatening; just this week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said that “teaching that the United States was built on stolen lands is inappropriate and not true.”

 But it is true, all of it, and our struggle is to make sense out of it all in light of the fact that there is a God whom we call “good.” We know that God “is,” but we wrestle with how God works. While it is good to look back over our lives and see that God has been there and has thus given us a testimony, we find ourselves wanting to see God working against the forces of racialized evil in real-time. We want to see those who work to deprive others of their liberty and justice and human/civil rights struck down where they are, silenced, and stayed by the very presence of God.

 Because we do not see that and have not seen it, as a rule, we wrestle at times with our faith. We dare not stop believing, but we find it difficult to keep on believing. We know that if it had not been for the faith of those gone before us that God was in fact good and that they prayed to that God with deep fervor, we quite possibly would have been decimated as a people long ago.

 This walk with God, and calling God good, is one of the toughest things we will ever do. Too often, the people who find themselves in a wilderness come to realize that there are too many wildernesses and not enough open, clear spaces where they can live full, free, and fair lives. We are tired of the wilderness called White Supremacy, which has wildernesses within it called racism, sexism, homophobia, Christian nationalism, ableism, and ageism …and we ache, some of us, for a showdown between the God we call good and the forces we call evil. We want the forces of evil to be stymied and ultimately stopped.

 The only thing our ancestors had to keep them going was a stubborn insistence that God was good, and that stubbornness kept them fighting, getting knocked down over and over but refusing to stay down – and they would credit the “good” God with being the reason they were able to hold on.

 Calling God good in bad times is a spiritual skill set. We have to be able to state our beliefs and our doubt about what we believe at the same time, as did the father who asked Jesus to cure his son who was possessed by a demon. “If you can,” the father said, “heal my son.” Jesus, whose response shows he didn’t like how he had been approached, said, “If? All things are possible for those who believe.” And the father said, “I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”

 It was the man’s honesty about his struggle with believing that has always drawn me to this story. The father didn’t honestly know what Jesus could and would do. He presumably had been to a lot of people claiming to know how to cure his son, and none of them had been able to. Jesus got the demon out of the man’s son; we pray for Jesus to get the demon out of the system of government that is wreaking havoc in the lives of all of us.

 We have to continue to pray – with our mouths and with our feet – that God will exorcise the demon of white supremacy out of the spirits of those in power – and find comfort in the fact that in spite of the forces that work against us, that it is the “good” God who has kept us and held us close, as the song says, “so we wouldn’t let go.”

 Letting go is not an option.

* Rachel Held Evans. Wholehearted Faith. , p. 33

A candid observation …

 Amen and amen.

Tuesday Meditation: Refusing to Let Others Determine Your Self Worth

 (Note: Last week, during the “Writing for your Life” online conference, Brian Allain asked why my Tuesday meditations were not on my blog every week. Well, I didn’t know …but I am going to post them going forward. I hope you enjoy them!)

            Most of us have at one time or another felt unworthy or “less than” someone. It might have been a friend, a sibling, or a colleague. How we are emotionally wired makes us susceptible to intaking, swallowing, and digesting how others think of us – or how we think they think about us. 

            When I was little, I felt it. I was adopted into a family when my mother married my stepfather. From the beginning, it was clear the extended family didn’t care much about me, but what is important is not how they thought about me, but how their rejection and judgment about me led me to think poorly of myself. 

            As I watched “The Woman -King” this weekend, I looked at the beautiful, dark-skinned women on the screen, and I knew how they had grown up in this country being thought of as “less than” and “not as good as,” because of the color of their skin, but yet, they persisted. And they won. 

            In a racist, sexist, and generally bigoted world, facing ethnocultural, gender-based rejection is no new thing, and yet, it is clear that many of the rejected never accept that judgment. They have known and lived in their self-worth. 

           In the recent issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, there is an article about a man who embodies what it is to not let anyone determine one’s self-worth. When 95-year-old Enoch O. Woodhouse went to Yale in 1948 after serving as a Tuskegee Airman in World War II, he was rejected. Nobody wanted him there; many believed he did not belong there, and being a veteran did not help him but rather fed into resentment that many felt about Black men in the military. He was one of four African Americans admitted to the school that year; he tells of how there was a “small enclave of buildings known as the “Slave Quarters,” but none of that could make him accept their opinion of him.

           As a Yale undergrad, when he would go into the dining hall, white students would leave. When he walked into lectures, his classmates would ignore him. It had to have been painful, but it didn’t stop him. He completed his education, graduated from the prestigious university, and headed to Boston College and later, to Yale Law School.

            He has many stories to tell but one that stands out, in particular, struck me. In this magazine article, he recalls an incident that happened to him as he headed to Texas from St. Louis for basic training.  He was kicked off a train by the conductor and told to wait for a later train “that carried Black passengers and coal.” 

            In the article he didn’t talk about the raw pain he must surely have felt, but he did say something profound. “I feel disappointed in America,…but that doesn’t make me your victim or anyone else’s victim. I am proud of who I am and you should be proud of who you are.” He gave these sage words to a group of cadets, about to begin their military careers, with whom he had just shared this story. 

            The system works very hard to make certain people doubt their self-worth and make them believe that their lot in life is to be rejected, scorned, and discriminated against. Lisa Sharon Harper reminds us in an article she wrote for Religious News Service that it was Aristotle who made a declaration that oppressors have fully embraced –  that the conquered have demonstrated that they were created to be subjects and that those who subjugated them were created to rule. 

            But thankfully, many people have rejected that idea and belief; they believe and know that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and they embrace themselves, their talents, their gifts, their faults, and their flaws, and keep moving. They embrace their dark skin in a world that hates it; they embrace their full figures and full lips so well that some seek to imitate those lips and hips by injecting substances into their bodies! They carry a sense of holy pride in who God made them, and an equally important holy determination that nobody will make them think less of themselves for any reason. They decide that nobody will determine their worth. They know their worth. And they live and walk in it. 

            In my own life, I absorbed the rejection of my new family and lived and walked in it until very recently – now that I am old as Jesus! But the journey has been revelatory and brings to mind the words of Ntozake Shange in her work, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. One of my favorite poems in that work is “Somebody almost walked off wit alla my stuff!” When we let others determine what and how we think about ourselves, we give ourselves to them, but when we say, “uh-uh,” when we arch our backs so that the wings God gave us have no choice button pull up and away from our sides and let the winds of divine love, acceptance, and power carry us, we have moved into the place God wants us all to be. 

            And that not only frees us up but has to make God smile. 

           A candid observation …

The Pass Hall


 There’s something about wanting something your whole life, “seeing” it though it has not yet appeared, that is life-giving and that seems to open the door to receive and retrieve the vision.

 All my life I wanted to be a dancer; we couldn’t afford it, but I read everything I could about dancing and dancers, and as a teen, when I was able to pay for dance lessons myself, I became what I had seen. I did very well, even going so far as to be able to study on scholarship at the Dance Theater of Harlem.

 Then, as a pastor, I always wanted our choir to do all kinds of music – so as to invite children from the neighborhood could see and hear all that was available for them to wish for. We did Gospel music very well, but I wanted to expose the children in our community to more. I was able to get members of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra to play for us for one of our concerts and I for the first and only time in my life had a complete orchestral score from which to direct. I had “seen” that, from the time when I was little. We sang music from the most classical to the most soul-stirring Gospel, and the children were there, sitting in the front. Our choir was invited to be the featured choir for “The Lion King” promo and was also invited to sing in concert with country singer Lyle Lovett. We laughed. Country music? And yet, it was what I had “seen” and what I had seen came to fruition.

 So I was weeping when Sheryl Lee Ralph received an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in “Abbott Elementary.” She had “seen” where she wanted to be and her vision guided her and landed her in a role that earned her a cherished award. I listened yesterday to actress Jenifer Lewis, who grew up in abject poverty, talk about how she had “seen” herself being famous, in spite of not only living in poverty but struggling with bipolar disease. She never stopped “seeing” what she wanted to be, and it came to be. And I recall Viola Davis who, likewise began to see herself doing great things with her life despite being desperately poor – after, she says, she “wrote a love letter” to herself.

 All of that made me think of my mother, who, for as long as I could remember, wanted a house with a “pass hall.” The house we grew up in was a bungalow; you walked from the front porch right into the living room, and my mother hated it. It seemed that there wasn’t a week that went by without her saying she wanted a house with a pass hall.

 And then, after all those years of saying her vision out loud, it happened. Our family was able to move to a home that had a pass hall. We would walk into that house and on the left side was the living room; on the right was a study that became my dad’s office. The pass hall took us past the stairs and into the kitchen, where we walked through and turned left to get into the dining room. I remember the walk-through, but what I remember more is the tears that I saw in my mother’s eyes as she walked into that pass hall. It had happened. The vision had come to be.

 She died a year later, but she died having seen her vision come to pass, and what this remembrance says, or is a reminder of, is that having a vision, being able to “see” what you want and what God has for you, is a driver of hope and faith. Surely our ancestors saw themselves out of slavery, into schools on the highest levels, doing what the system they would never do. Surely the vision stayed with them, in spite of the way they were treated and in spite of the roadblocks to freedom, justice, and dignity that were put in their way.

 When you’re able to “see” what your spirit is feeding you, you have a power within that the world cannot touch; it did not give the vision and therefore, it cannot take it away. It just grows inside of your spirit, like a fetus, continuing until there is nothing left for it to do than to be born.

 If we, even in this most difficult time, keep the vision of justice and freedom and dignity for all, in spite of those whose only desire is to preserve the system as it has always been, we will see victories, our “pass halls,” so to speak. We are not powerless as long as we have the capacity to see what the world cannot see and what the world thinks is crazy for us to think about. Our lives and our hopes and what God has in store for us do not die until we do. Our task is to live on purpose and not give in to despair and hopelessness and know, not just believe, but know that the vision is truly “for an appointed time.” We are strengthened by knowing that the vision, that which we “see,” is on its way.

On the Question of America’s “Soul”

            We are consistently hearing politicians and pundits talk about how work is being done to save America’s soul. Biden said it (https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/09/01/remarks-by-president-bidenon-the-continued-battle-for-the-soul-of-the-nation/), the former president has said and continues to say it (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/17/us/biden-trump-soul-nation-country.html).

            The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said it, saying that the saving of community was key to saving this country’s soul (https://reformedjournal.com/to-save-the-soul-of-america-martin-luther-king-jr-and-the-renewal-of-america-today/) Historian Jon Meacham wrote a book about it: (https://www.npr.org/2018/05/02/607704116/soul-of-america-makes-sense-of-americas-present-by-examining-its-past)

            And yet, in spite of lofty words and ambitions to save what we call “democracy,” America’s soul is revealing itself as a spiritual sore that cannot be healed because the toxic cells that were released at the founding of this country have metastasized to the point where nothing can be done. America’s soul is terminally ill.

            Some would argue. Those on the right who see the takeover by people who believe in Fascism and who do not want democracy to survive, say that things will be all right if America goes back to “what she was.”

            What was that, exactly?

            It was a country that sanctioned the enslavement of Black people from the beginning, using Black labor to build it into an economic behemoth. It was a country where law enforcement was formed primarily to dissuade enslaved Africans from fleeing their enslavement. (see Carol Anderson’s book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America). It was a country where even presidents enslaved people, and pastors preached in support of it. 

            It was a country where the concept of “liberty and justice for all” was a farce from the beginning; the founders and those who came after them never believed that all people deserved liberty, justice, or full American citizenship with the rights that citizenship required.

            It was a country where patriarchy was the rule and where white women were minimalized while Black women were brutalized, with white men using the excuse that their violence against Black men was justified based on their belief that Black men raped white women, while the fact was that the white men were raping Black women and getting away with it.

            It was a country where white settlers thought it just and right to exterminate the lives of Indigenous Americans whose land this was – so that they could make this a country for white people; it was a land where the whites who killed others believed they were doing the work and the will of God.

            It was a country where “law and order” have most often meant keeping Black people “in their place,” forbidding them by law to learn to read and write or even to visit libraries, and it was a country where little Black children seldom finished school or enjoyed full days in class because the law said they could only go to school a few hours a day – less in planting and harvesting seasons – so they could work the fields and thus help white people live comfortably while they were forced into abject poverty.

            It was a country where the laws caused and supported the creation of Black ghettos,(see Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law) a country where Black people who had served in the military were denied access to loans that white soldiers received upon completion of their time of service that helped them purchase homes. It was a country where “the law” often looked the other way as Black soldiers came home and were immediately attacked and killed – while still in uniform – by white men who wanted them to never forget who this country said they were.

            It was a country where medical experiments were carried out on Black people – without their consent and often without anesthesia – to perfect instruments and treatments that would later serve masses of white people. (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/17/603163394/-father-of-gynecology-who-experimented-on-slaves-no-longer-on-pedestal-in-nyc) (https://eji.org/news/remembering-black-veterans-and-racial-terror-lynchings/)

            So, America’s “soul” was infected by a deadly virus called white supremacy while it was still in the womb; the country was born with a terminal disease. Those who believe being terminally ill is not the case – because they do not believe that white supremacy is a dreaded social disease but is, rather, the preferred way to live, believe that the “soul” of America will be safe once all of the work done to protect the lives of all people has been undone.

            America’s division is so complete that even the definition and understanding of her “soul” cannot be agreed upon.

            America’s “soul” as defined by both sides is non-existent. With that in mind, it is unclear how it can be “saved.”