When We Stop Deceiving Ourselves

 

 

            The trembling in my soul that began leading up to the observance of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr has not yet stopped. I shuddered at the thought of hearing people who hated and still hate what Dr. King did to dismantle the capitalistic, white supremacist system that caused and still causes so many people to suffer offer flowery words of tribute. For what purpose? Only to bolster their objectives of continued racial oppression. by twisting and manipulating a few words that he said. 

            Were he alive today, they would be attacking him. As it is, though Dr. King was murdered in 1968 it wasn’t until 1983 that Congress approved a holiday in his honor and it took three more years for the holiday actually to be celebrated. 

            We live in a society that thrives on deception. The powers that be from the very beginning created a myth of American exceptionalism. They decided from the beginning that some people were more worthy than others, and they wrote those beliefs into the Constitution. This country was never meant to be the “land of the free and the home of the brave;” too many people were excluded from human and humane treatment from the beginning. 

            The deception with which this country was founded, and the deception that continues to be an identifiable element of our society can make one tremble with rage. Do the people in power know they are being deceptive? And if they do, do they care? Howard Thurman, though, makes an observation about deception – saying that it is “perhaps the oldest of all the techniques by which the weak have protected themselves against the strong.” The disinherited have survived by practicing deception, i.e. acting like everything is OK when that is far from the truth. The words of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask” comes to mind: 

We wear the mask that grins and lies, 

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes 

This debt we pay to human guile; 

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,  

And mouth with myriad subtleties. 

Why should the world be over-wise 

In counting all our tears and sighs? 

Nay, let them only see us, while  

We wear the mask. 

We smile, but O great Christ our cries 

To thee from tortured souls arise. 

We sing, but oh the clay is vile 

Beneath our feet and long the mile; 

But let the world dream otherwise, 

We wear the mask! 

            If Thurman’s observation is accurate that deception is that which the weak use to survive, then we have to lift up the possibility that this country, which has touted and boasted about its strength, is actually very weak. It has created a narrative that has enabled it to survive against nations, principles, and ideas that are much stronger than anyone cares to admit. 

            But on an individual level, we deceive ourselves if we do not admit to ourselves that this entire debacle called Americanism grieves us to our souls. It causes us to tremble. Every time we have to swallow our pain and anger because of one more assault, we tremble. We dare not show it for fear of being castigated, fired, or worse, but it is inside of us. Thurman says that the “question of deception is not academic, but profoundly ethical and spiritual, going to the very heart of all human relations. For it raises the issue of honesty, integrity, and the consequences thereof over against duplicity and deception and the attendant consequences.” 

            We must admit and own the trembling within us. We must not fall prey to the narrative presented by the deceptive American society and government that criticizes the anger that the disinherited rightfully feel. This American government is not good for “the least of these,” and Thurman says we cannot continue to call a lie the truth.” He writes, “the penalty of deception is to become a deception.” That is not acceptable. We cannot be in true relationship with God – who is Truth – if we submit to a deceptive narrative that was created to steal our joy, our hope, and our faith. Thurman says, “sincerity in human relations is equal to sincerity to God.” 

            I got through the day by refusing to listen to any of the “tributes” to Dr. King that were offered by people who are actively trying to destroy everything he and other Civil Rights leaders did. They are not only trying to destroy what he and the Movement accomplished; they are also trying to dismantle and destroy the entire country.

It may be that it will not only be Black people will be wearing masks to hide their pain at what is going on in this country because the attack on liberty, constitutional rights, honesty, integrity, and principles will affect a lot of people. Were Dr. King alive, he would be mortified.

As well we should all be.

A candid observation …a

Seeing Injustice

            Watching what is going on in this country is as terrifying as it is troubling.

            The United States has touted as one of its core values its belief in “law and order:” We have always been taught that this is a “nation of laws,” and most of us have not questioned it. We have bought into the idea that justice in America is and has been somehow different and better than justice practiced in other countries, and to be honest, it was a comfortable myth to which to attach ourselves.

            But what is going on now in this country is mind-boggling. I believe there has always been corruption in our government, but I have also believed that when blatant wrongdoing has been revealed, there have been enough people in government – from both political parties – to call out the person or persons accused, forcing them to step out of their elected offices and prohibited from seeking office again.

            That is not happening. From the former president to his aides and his attorneys and his friends and advisors, what I see is people with a lot of money getting away with a lot of bad behavior, and the more I see it happening, the angrier I become.

            Corruption in our government is not new; people have done all kinds of things in our history in order to attain and hold onto their power. The Christian nationalism we are seeing, along with nativism, is not new. Unfortunately, the mistreatment of non-white, non-male, non-Christian people has been as much of the American political tradition as it has been a component of Christianity. For many, to be American and Christian, one must be white. In my work, I really did not understand that like I do now. I was puzzled at how any Christian – regardless of race – could be sexist or racist or xenophobic or bigoted in any way – based on the story of Jesus the Christ in the Bible every white nationalist professes to love. But I really did not know that for many white people, you are only American and Christian if you are white.

            That mindset helped many white religious people treat non-white people as objects, unworthy of respect or rights and fair treatment. Non-white people have been dehumanized, criminalized, and compromised, and the white religious world seemingly condones it. Evangelical Christians have long had an uncanny ability to, as Dr. Anthea Butler says in White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, “merge the mob’s symbolic act of vengeance with the divine justice enacted in the evangelical church.” This group of people sees nothing wrong with the way they treat Black and other non-white, non-Christian people. In fact, they believe they are mandated by God to do so.

            I cringe when I hear some of them talk about being “woke,” because I know they do not have a clue as to what they are saying. To be “woke” is to see the injustice that is meted out to people, and to care about it. To be woke is to understand that every race of people has a history that is worthy to learn and to respect. To be woke is to see how unfair the socio-political-religious landscape is for so many people, and to do something to help level the playing field.

            Perhaps some of that sensitivity could be realized if money were not involved. People in this country fought the civil war because the practice of enslaving people allowed people to become wealthy off the backs and labors of people who were not viewed as people, but, rather, as beasts, deserving of being worked too often to death, while never receiving working wages so that they could survive and live quality lives.

            Because they were not considered to be human, they could not be considered to be worthy of American citizenship and the rights that citizenship afforded. Not even fighting in America’s wars was enough for white Christians to treat the veterans with respect. The statistics of how many Black war veterans – many still in uniform –  were killed after returning home are staggering and sobering. (https://www.zinnedproject.org/collection/black-veterans/) (https://eji.org/news/remembering-black-veterans-targeted-for-racial-violence-in-the-us/)

            Dehumanization did not and does not just affect non-white adults. Non-white children are targets as well. Elected officials do not care one iota about the schools that Black children attend – often dilapidated buildings in sore need of repair, but never being considered a big enough problem to address and correct. Author and activist Jonathon Kozol, who has written extensively about public education in America, wrote in his book The Shame of the Nation that black children who live in America’s cities are more isolated now than they were before the historic Brown v Board of Education decision in 1954. Separate but equal was OK with many who said they love Jesus, but the schools were not even close to being equal. White parents, after the ruling, behaved abominably after that decision, attacking Black students who were integrating white schools, and gradually pulling their children out of public schools as they formed segregated “Christian” schools, for which they asked for and received, for a time, federal funds. 

            None of what this country has done as concerns people of color has been right or fair, save for the instances policies were put in place to level the playing field for everyone, but the truth is, the masses of Americans seem not to care. The term “law and order” is thrown around like a football, even as we see wealthy, white people being allowed to stay in office and even be assigned to important committees, in spite of there being a fair amount of evidence that they have worked to overthrow this government. No other racial group would be able to do what these people in office have done and get away with it – historically and in the present day. “Caucasianism” (yes, I created a word) has been allowed to run free in this country, with proponents of it teaching not only this country but the entire world how to treat people of African or other non-European descent.

            The tyrants in office – and running corporations and the media – are there because Americans have put them there and/or kept them there. They do not worry, it seems, about being held accountable. Law enforcement is actually not respected by the Far Right, it seems, judging by how some of those involved in the January 6 insurrection were more than ready to attack and kill officers. They spout rhetoric about being “for the blue,” but we have seen that they are only for those in blue who help them spread their ideological and political goals. Had the attack on the US Capitol been carried out by non-white “protesters,” they would not have been called patriotic but, rather, thugs, and their annihilation by law enforcement would have been seen as justified. What we see instead is a group of people who belong to a race and class of people who have always been able to skirt and avoid “the law.” Their whiteness has spoiled them and threatens the life of this country.

            Hearing and reading about injustice is one thing; seeing it is quite another. I am not sure how we will turn this corner, and if/when we do, what the country’s landscape will be like. I am sure we cannot go “back,” as the far right wants to do, to a time when non-white, non-Christian, women, men, and children were openly castigated – and white women, too. America’s tradition of practicing blatant injustice has cut into the already rotted soul of America. We can all see it, even those who want to deny it. America should have been taken to the woodshed a long time ago to address the divide between what she professes to be and what she actually is.

            Not doing so in the past has had a bad effect on our people and on our institutions. Though they call out and claim the name of Jesus, Jesus is nowhere in what they do. It remains to be seen if this nation, called an “experiment,” will get enough courage to stare its commitment to injustice based on race, class, and religion and decide to do something about it, to work to be “better.” We have struggled with this same behemoth before. It is high time that the beast is slaughtered in order to make room for a new nation to arise.

A candid observation …

When Challenged Children Grow Up

            A couple of weeks ago I went to the school where my daughter works with children who are on the spectrum. She has been working with these children for several years, and, as a licensed music therapist, she is remarkably effective at helping children reach their inner selves through and using music.

            The school puts on programs twice a year; one during the winter holidays and the other in spring. My daughter has the responsibility of working with children who are in her location and in the other school locations, writing and arranging the music that will be used, and coaching the children for their respective parts. Some sing, and some play an instrument, helped along by her. They sing or perform as soloists and as a group. For those playing an instrument (usually piano) they play the melody and my daughter sits beside them, playing the harmony.

            The atmosphere at these programs is completely chaotic. While some children are performing, others are squirming in their seats, some are running around, and some experience meltdowns. All of this is normal, and teachers and parents alike do what they need to do even when it seems the chaos is growing in intensity.

            But what never lets up is the performance of the children. When it is time for any one or ones to perform, they are ushered to the stage by parents adn staff. My daughter is there on stage with them, coaching them, encouraging them, helping them, hugging them, and getting children who can barely speak to mumble a syllable or two from a song she has prepared for them. Some stand on stage and hold their ears, some rock back and forth, but almost always, there is a word or a part of a piece of music that has made its way into their souls, and at exactly the right moment, they will “sing” that note or “say” that word (it’s often just a grunt). My daughter grins; the children see her grin and know they’ve done well.

            In the aisles are the parents, taking videos of their children, some little, some now in their teens. To see their children on stage seems to give them life and when “the grunt” or the breakthrough comes in their performance, the parents smile and laugh and give each other high-fives. When their children come off stage, the parents are there, hugging them, saying, “good job,” and though the children hear the accolades most of them do not visibly react. But I can tell that inside, they are smiling and proud of themselves.

            This school is expensive, and most of the students are white. I find myself at every performance I go to feeling proud of the work my daughter is doing with the children, and proud of them for what they are able to do – but I also get stuck in two areas. First, the parents. It seems to me that these parents probably seldom completely rest. Many of these children are low-functioning which means they are high-maintenance. I find myself wondering how often the parents are able to relax or get a restful night’s sleep. Their child’s (sometimes multiple children) needs are massive, and I wonder how they manage their own needs as well as the needs of their children.

            The second place I get stuck, though, is wondering how many children – especially poor and non-white children – are likewise suffering from the effects of being on the spectrum. I wonder how they are treated at home and in school. I wonder how many of their parents know that something is wrong but cannot afford to get it treated, and how many parents don’t have any idea that something might be wrong, but simply label the child as “bad” and subject him/her to the effects of their frustration – screaming at them, putting them down, punishing them, hitting them … I wonder how many of these affected children end up being labeled with behavior problems in school and just get stuffed into a category that is almost like being in a locked cell. And then I wonder what happens to them once they are not children anymore and are thrust into a world that has little patience for anything that is considered to be out of the normal? I find myself wondering what kind of anger and frustration these kids hold inside themselves after years of being ignored and subjected to violent language and treatment from their parents and teachers– because it is clear to me that even though many cannot communicate what they are feeling, they are feeling something. They are on the spectrum but they are still human.  I wonder if their meltdowns lessen with time or remain the same or even grow in intensity, making them prime targets for police officers who really do not know what to do.

            The children at my daughter’s school are being attended to and helped. I have watched many of them grow up and some are still non-communicative or have limited capacity to communicate. But at least they know someone cares. They are helped, encouraged, and loved, and they know it. The parents of these children might be able to afford to put them in group homes when they become adults or do something that will help them live as normal a life as they can, but for the children who never get this kind of specialized help and care, I wonder where they end up.

            When the winter program was over, the parents of the participating students surrounded my daughter. They were gushing with gratitude, telling her how good she is with them. And she is. I stood and watched and listened, and was proud of my daughter, but I walked out of the building sad, again, because this world makes little effort to help “the least of these.” We are too eager to label others and incarcerate them – physically or emotionally. And what I always end up carrying with me is the wish that somehow, schools or programs like these – with personnel like my daughter who is called to this kind of work – would increase and thus, save the children while they are young, and once they grow up.

            A candid observation…

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.