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

Black Faith: A “Pythian Madness”

            James Cone, in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, quotes AME Bishop Bishop Daniel Payne who wrote in 1839,

“Sometimes, it seems as though some wild beast had plunged his fangs into my heart, and was squeezing out its life blood. Then I began to question the existence of God and to say, “If he does exist, is he just? If so, why does he suffer one race to oppress the enslave another, to rob them by unrighteous enactments of rights, which they hold most dear and sacred?…Is there no God?”

            Cone writes that W.E.B. DuBois “called black faith a “pythian madness” and “a demonic possession.” In a country where Black people are marginalized and cast aside, many white evangelicals call on their God, which seems quite different from the God on whom Black people have had to call and lean on in order to survive the poisonous fangs of white supremacy.

            This struggle with understanding God’s role and place in helping marginalized people is not new; indeed, Moses questioned God in the same way, challenging God in Exodus 5:22-23:

Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”

In spite of that complaint and the pain he was as he wrestled with the “whereness of God,” Moses continued his assignment of leading the Israelites out of captivity, but it was a journey fraught with questions that could not be answered. His faith was, as WEB DuBois would say generations later, a “pythian madness and a demonic possession.”

            Many of us try to pretend that everything is all right when so often, it is not. We cannot see. We cannot hear or even feel “the way” from chaos to peace, from confusion to clarity, from pain to peace. Some of us wail and call out the name of God, but others of us temper our crying to God so that it is a faint whisper. We know the testimonies of others; we have heard them say that when they have looked back, they have seen that God was with them, and so they sip on the memory that brings brief moments of numbing from the pain of not feeling God in their here and now.

            Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who broke from the ranks of the Republican Party to vote for the conviction of the former president, got a letter from his family that said that because he had spoken and acted like he did, he had disappointed his family …and God. The sentence stopped me cold. The God of his family was a God who apparently was all right with the uprising at the Capitol, yes, but was also all right with the white supremacist mind-set and beliefs that were the foundation of that uprising. The God of Kinzinger’s family is, apparently, a God is is not only all right with white supremacy but perhaps created it. 

            It is because of the practice of a religion by some that having faith in this country has a peculiar quality. How can we believe in one who has done “nothing,” as Moses said, “to deliver” the marginalized people in this country? What has been done has been done under pressure and duress, and many who follow the God of Kinzinger’s family would probably say that it would be OK to take away what gains marginalized people have made.

            Cone says that “black people’s struggle with God in white America …left a deep and lasting wound.” Black people have had to “trust and cultivate their own theological imagination,” he says, because the God of the majority of culture did not seem to have the desire to reach out to the marginalized, although God had created them as well.

            Tomorrow begins the season of Lent, a time where we have an opportunity to examine ourselves, including our souls, to see what we must work to get rid of – not just for 40 days but for the rest of our lives – in order to get closer to God. For some of us, that with which we will have to struggle is a troubled faith that is tinged with anger and anxiety because of the toxicity of white supremacy which is ever before us, and which is ever saturating everything that happens in this country.

            We would do well to be honest with God during these 40 days, laying before Her our faith in a way that exposes its tears and shredded seams. We will have to hold onto our faith, in spite of our questions and complaints against it, as did our ancestors, because our faith is the only thing that has kept and will keep us together as we will in a country that refuses to love us, as Doc Rivers said, God notwithstanding.

            Amen and amen.

Your Whiteness Will Not Protect You

Whenever there is social unrest, artists – including writers, poets, essayists, musicians, dancers, spoken word specialists, painters …come out. They come out and express through their talents and gifts the soul of those who does not have that capacity.

Many new songs and written pieces have emerged during this troubling time in America – caused first by the invasion of the coronavirus, and then by the shooting deaths of three black people – Armaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – whose situations made the news. Arbery was shot in cold blood by white vigilantes, and Taylor and Floyd were killed by police officers.

And though I have wanted to write, I have not been able to. The grief I feel is so deep, unlike any grief I have felt in my life as I have worked to try to expose, explain, and eliminate as much racism as possible by teaching people what is up, why history matters, and that they have the power to change things.

But this grief is different. It is a grief that began when Donald J. Trump became president. From the beginning, I could see that he was bad news for black and brown people. His mere presence, his arrogance, his lying, his disregard for America and America’s constitution, his sexism, his race-baiting, and his tacit encouragement of racial violence, got into my soul early on.

More than that, the number of people following him, lifting him up as some kind of messiah, saying that he either was God or was sent here by God, boggled my spirit, and the silence of white evangelicals bore a hole into a part of me that had made me believe that though their theology was different from mine, they still had – somewhere – some basic Christian principles. They claimed to be Christian, after all.

But since his election, I have seen nothing but the eroding of the gains all kinds of groups and individuals have made. I have seen GOP senators, representatives, mayors, governors, and cabinet members bow at his feet. I have cried out loud as I have watched his attorney general run roughshod over the justice he is supposed to seek. I have watched this president silence those who have sought to report dangerous happenings in the government, and put in place sycophants who are more afraid of him and what he will do than they are concerned with the lives of the people of this country.

I think the breaking point came last week, as that video of the white officer killing George Floyd by keeping his knee on his neck, did it – put my soul in this place of deep grief. The murder itself was horrendous, but it was the smug expression on that officer’s face (I refuse to use his name) that got to me. It told the story of white supremacist thinking and attitudes that have always existed. His face said, “I can do what I want and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.” His face said, “yeah, I hear this man begging for his life, but I don’t have to listen to him and I will say that his demise was his own fault.” That expression said, “I am a cop and I can do whatever I want,” and his expression said, “Fuck you all.”

I still shudder as I remember how his face got to me. I shudder when I think of how this president has said nothing publicly to comfort that man’s family or the families of the other black people who have essentially been lynched. While he urged the Michigan governor to speak to and negotiate with white men with assault weapons who stood in her capital building, angry because of the “shelter in place” rules, he has called those who are angry because they are tired of black people being dehumanized, criminalized, and eliminated – either by poverty or by law enforcement.

The president is making no bones about wanting to mobilize those who have been craving a war between the races for some time. His militarization, or deeper militarization of law enforcement, is sickening, and the silence of his sycophants is even more sickening. He is working to undo this government and his friends in high places are helping him. His jaunt to St. John’s Episcopal Church after law enforcement forced peaceful protestors out of LaFayette Park with tear gas was gut-wrenching to watch. His bodacious and disrespectful pose in front of the church holding a bible – and the silence of evangelicals about it – is still sickening to think about. His calling peaceful protesters “terrorists” while ignoring the very real and disturbing presence and work of white nationalist and supremacists is not surprising, but troubling.

He is standing on and in his whiteness.

But I have to say this: Your whiteness will not protect you. People who are white are going to suffer just like black and brown people. Your whiteness will not protect you from poverty, illness, and the inability to get health care or necessary medicine. Your whiteness will not exempt your children and loved ones from getting COVID-19, because the virus, unleashed, doesn’t give a damn about one’s race, ethnicity, or political persuasion. Your whiteness will not keep you from suffering because you cannot get unemployment benefits – and ultimately, to the politicians – your whiteness will not protect you from being voted out of office. James Baldwin said that people make a moral decision to be white – meaning, they choose to lie in the comfort of the false construct called white superiority, enabling them to ignore the people around them.

But it will not protect you, because viruses spread. Just as the coronavirus is spreading, so is the virus of racism. The infection may not have reached you yet, but it will, and when it does, I hope you have enough chutzpah to endure it. History says you won’t. You have gotten so comfortable in your whiteness that you have grown weak; you have not had to exercise and strengthen the spiritual muscles the oppressed have had to develop. You will feel the pain you have inflicted on others. What you have put into the universe will not only come back to you, it is on its way now.

A candid observation.

The Tragedy of Being White, Wealthy, and Privileged

As I have watched and listened to people talk about how it is okay if some people die in order to save the economy, I have literally shuddered. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN) said in essence that allowing some people to die in order that the economy might be saved was the “lesser of two evils.” (https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/14/politics/trey-hollingsworth-coronavirus/index.html)

Specifically, he said “…” it is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life, of American lives, we have to always choose the latter.”

He has not been the only GOP lawmaker to have expressed such sentiments. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said that lots of grandparents would be willing to die of the virus in order to save the economy. He also expressed his belief that American adults ought to be “willing” to sacrifice their lives for the economy. (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/dan-patrick-seniors-are-willing-to-die-to-save-economy.html)

The blatant disregard for human life in order to realize political goals has been mind-blowing. Some Americans – mostly, it seems, white, wealthy, and privileged – seem to be totally out of sync with what is going on in the lives of the masses of Americans. Not only are they doggedly determined to maintain their wealth and power, but they are also determined to stack the courts locally and federally who will assure their political points of view and values are instituted and saved. The footage of the GOP lawmaker in Wisconsin, covered from head to foot in protective gear to protect himself from the coronavirus as he assured voters and the media that the people standing in line to vote – not likewise protected – that they were safe, is a haunting image. (https://www.businessinsider.com/wisconsin-gop-leader-says-voting-safe-dressed-ppe-gear-2020-4). People were forced to participate in in-person voting in the middle of a global pandemic because the GOP wanted a Republican to win a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  People risked their lives and went to the polls and were able to keep that candidate from winning, but at what cost? How many Wisconsinians are going to come up sick with the virus because of the lack of care and empathy of the GOP?

Yet another lawmaker, Attorney General William Barr, said that it’s necessary for people to get back to work and to stop running home and “hiding under their beds.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/attorney-general-william-barr-fox-news-coronavirus/2020/04/09/dfda1f94-7a12-11ea-a130-df573469f094_story.html)

What these statements reveal is the complete lack of ability of the wealthy, white, privileged Americans to understand anything other than wealth and privilege. In their remarks can be heard the disparaging criticism of the shelter-in-place orders, and a glaring lack of compassion and empathy for the people who are dropping like flies because of this virus.

I have heard little compassion from any people in this group for the health care workers, for the transit and grocery store workers. Neither have I heard much concern about the fact that so many people are dying alone, leaving their loved ones without the opportunity to say goodbye, nor have I heard concern about the people who will inevitably get sick and possibly die because they cannot afford to stay at home.

It is mind-boggling. The only thing I really hear is a concern about the economy – which is important, surely, but not more important than the lives of the people whose labor has provided the work needed to create the wealth and the privilege of those who seem not to care one iota about what they are going through.

As I have listened to the comments from the president about how the number of ventilators being requested by governors is too high, and have heard reports about how there have been so few ventilators that sometimes one ventilator has had to be used for two patients, I have found myself wondering what he or any of the privileged wealthy would react if they were being treated that way. When I looked at pictures of health care workers wearing garbage bags to protect themselves, and I heard and read about how many of them have had to use the same mask for several days, I again wondered what the privileged would say had they been exposed to that kind of scenario.

Their lack of awareness or concern about the health care workers and their patients again caused me to pause. Because they remain isolated from “the rest of us,” they are too frequently divorced from what the masses go through. They have convinced themselves that crime is relegated almost exclusively to the poor, discounting the white-collar crime that has helped make many of them wealthy or that crimes of sexual deviance and assault are as common within the wealthy privileged set as it is with the poor. They live in a world within “the” world, seeing what’s “out there” as being impossible to ever stain their lives.

But of course, it does.

Wealth, with its attendant privilege, has created a class of spoiled human beings, narcissistic, self- serving humans who seem incapable of caring or even thinking about those less fortunate, instead blaming them for their financial fragility. While not all wealthy people deserve this description, enough of them do. In the case of this pandemic, just as was the case during the Ebola crisis, they seem not to understand that germs and illnesses do not care about one’s wealth, race, or political affiliation. They also do not seem to understand that if the poorest of us are not healthy or free, none of us are. The virus that begins in the slums eventually makes its way to the suburbs. The virus doesn’t care.

It’s strange that they don’t get it. If the president reopens the government on May 1, and people on Navy ships and in senior citizens’ homes, and in prisons, in the grocery stores and pharmacies and on the subway are still getting the virus, the very wealthy are going to get it, too.

Their lack of empathy and concern for others will cause damage to and the deaths of so many humans that this country could have avoided.

But their wealth blinds them to that truth, and because of that, many more people – including them and their families – are going to suffer.

A candid observation.

 

Tuesday Meditation: Doing the Work of Justice When You are Enraged

Note: I don’t normally share my Tuesday meditations on this blog but the emotion and pain that the president’s insensitive statement comparing what is happening to him to a lynching prompted me to share this meditation today.

Abraham Heschel wrote that “prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.”) (italics mine)

Our reading of the prophets suggests that God rages a lot. The lack of the capacity of the children created by Her to align themselves with Her and with Her will takes holy breath out of God. God doesn’t agonize over academic ideals; God agonizes over the depravity of the human spirit, a depravity that causes those whom God created to treat each other poorly. Though men and women are rebellious, Heschel notes, God’s love and compassion for them never wavers. But neither does the divine rage at what God is seeing.

Those who work for justice are prophets; they carry the word and the will of God into their daily attempts to get God’s people to align themselves with what they believe is right, but there are times when their own rage is so powerful, rising within them like water which has bubbled and boiled so much that it is about to spill over. What is it that should be done at times like that?

There have been moments within the past week and including today that have caused that type of rage. A person from the religious right said that God caused Rep. Elijah Cummings to die because Cummings had dared take on the president, and today, the president compared the quest to reveal his abuses of power – and more – to a lynching.

The rage bubbles.

The late James Cone concluded, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree that the lynching tree was America’s cross. Black people survived the lynching terror because of faith in God and a determination to keep pushing against the system which saw no issue, no problem, in lynching them at will, with no fear of retribution or accountability. Lynching reminded black people to stay in their place, to shut up and go along to get along. There was no angst about what the lynching did to families or to the very spirits of black people who lived under constant cognizance that they or someone they loved could be “next.”

To be honest, lynching is still something that black people, brown and Native American people, and Muslims fight against to this day. The very humanity and dignity of these groups of people, and more, are spat upon every day, and still, we move, we work, we pray, we push for justice. We work in spite of the deep pain we carry, as well as the realization that the lynching tree takes different forms, like mass incarceration, economic injustice, climate change, sexism and racism, gender and sexuality issues, and so much more.

This man who claims that what he is going through is like a lynching, then, is stepping – again – on the very souls of people who live with the threat of lynching every day. Contrary to what he is going through, people who are lynched rarely have the money to seek justice; they are accused and imprisoned or killed without much of a stir. This president is crying because there is an active attempt to expose his crimes and abuses of power. There is justice in that process that people who are lynched have rarely received.

What, though, does one do? The rage bubbles; the audacity of one to use a term that has so much history and pain is beyond the capacity of many to understand. Being put on a lynching tree and yet not being totally exterminated as a people supports Cone’s belief that the cross/lynching tree is for black people a symbol of power; we resurrect, though this system has sought to bury us. That same lynching tree for people like the president continues Cone, is and has been an instrument of terror. Those who have used lynching as a tool of domestic terror do not now get to claim it as now being accessory to their suffering.

One then must exhale and inhale the spirits of the ancestors who endured the lynching tree and yet stayed on earth long enough to pass on the need for us to pray and not faint. One must inhale the power that yet sprinkles down from our ancestors, a power that reminds us to “be still and know” that God is here. Attacking ignorance with raw anger will not help us; like those before us who learned to incline their ears toward heaven so as to stay alive and continue the work, we must do the same – in spite of the bubbling rage.

Amen and amen.