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.”

Look What They’ve Done to Christianity

            I wrote before that I get a bad feeling when I hear people say “Christian.” 

The Christianity I was taught in Sunday School is nothing like I have seen Christianity being practiced – now or even in history.

            I have been singing, for some reason, “Look What They’ve Done to my Song.” The words are sticking with me: 

Look what they’ve done to my song, ma
Look at what they’ve done to my song, ma
It was the only thing I could do half right
And it’s turning out all wrong, ma, look
What they’ve done to my song

            Those who have been calling themselves “Christian” have for the longest time been assaulting the religion of the Christ. While they brag about being “Christian,” their actions tell of allegiance to a force that has nothing to do with the lessons of Jesus the Christ.

            We had grown used to it in primarily white, conservative, evangelical denominations and congregations, but now those who call themselves “Christian” nationalists have come front and center stage.

These people have a religion – i.e., they have a set of beliefs to which they adhere – and they believe in and worship a superhuman controlling power, as those who practice religion must do. But their “superhuman controlling powers are money and power. They believe in the power of individuals, not communities. They believe in a militant and muscular God, a God who apparently supports the “isms” of this world, including racism and sexism, militarism and materialism and extremism. They believe in and support the “phobias” so many people relate to – including Islamophobia, Transphobia and homophobia. The nationalists are not devoid of beliefs and it is important to note that, but though many worship in church buildings and are in “Christian” denominations, their beliefs bear little resemblance to the religion I have come to know as “Christianity.”

            To be honest, a study of Christianity shows that it has been far away from the fundamental beliefs taught by Jesus for some time. God the parent and Jesus the son were made to be the proponents of conquest and domination, not liberation, justice, and freedom for all whom God created. The religion of Jesus was about community and relationship building between people who would naturally not communicate with each other, but those values were a minimized component of the religion that evolved from Jesus’ time.

            Central to this alternate view of Christianity is the need for violence; this violence has been central to the foundation of Christianity as we know it for thousands of years. The belief is that Christianity was set up as the army of God, sent by God to conquer nations and peoples. Neither the scope nor the depth of the brutality meted out to people seemed to bother those who aligned themselves with the belief that it was God’s will that they dominate all people and all nations. Walter Wink noted that violence “is the first resort in conflicts.” Ironically, he said, “we learned to trust the Bomb to grant us peace.” This violence is good, they believe. It is called “redemptive violence.”

            The ideology of this religion (nationalism) of conquest has been damaging and painful to so many people who have flocked to churches looking for a good, kind, accepting, forgiving God. On the contrary, they have found – in the most devout church-going people – hatred, prejudice, judgment, and a belief in the “rightness” of their tendency to tear people down. In their quest for domination, using violence as a means to get it, they are doing God’s will. All of us have received lessons of the oppressor’s religion; all of us, or maybe many of us, grew up singing, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and have not given those lyrics a second thought. As long as the masses of people have not thought about the theology they’ve been taught and the implications of it as well as its contradiction of what Jesus taught, they have practiced their religion with little difficulty. It did not, or has not, bothered them that their practice of religion has turned many people off and away from God and from church. Those who continued to go to churches that adhered to this kind of bigoted, violence-based religion, suffered and struggled with their questions; those who did not believe as they did simply stayed away.

            But now there’s a move on for there to be “one religion” for this country – that of the religious nationalists. As they work to erode the rights of nearly everyone, there is little pushback against what they are doing. There is a feeling of self-righteousness as they, for example, push for “prayer” in schools – but what they’re not saying is that it is highly unlikely that the “prayers” of any religion other than that of the nationalists will be acceptable. They have said that there needs to be one religion in this country and that religion is nationalism. (https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/15/politics/michael-flynn-one-religion/index.html)

            The religion of Jesus was one that liberated people, one that taught people that God, their creator, wanted them to be free from laws that were unjust and oppressive and one that taught them that they were loved, regardless of who they were, what they had done, or their social class or race. Jesus’ power was what it was because his religion was one that embraced all people, including “the least of these.” His teachings taught that all whom God created were precious in God’s sight and worthy of being treated as such.

            But the religion of the nationalists, and actually the Christianity that has historically upheld and practiced bigotry, hatred, racism, sexism, and all other forms of judgment against certain people, contradicts what Jesus taught. Nationalists seek power and control, and they worship capitalism more than they honor and respect God. Their greed cancels out their capacity for grace, and their arrogance makes them unable to have “eyes that see” that Jesus said we should all strive to have.

            I cannot see where the Jesus of the Bible would condone the hatred and violence, and the elevation of the former president to the status of a god, more important than the lives of the masses of people in this country and their well-being. They should stop using “Christian” to describe their religion, because in principle and by Jesus’ own tenets, their religion is not what Jesus came to earth to bring.

            Better that we are honest and call nationalism what it is: a religion that has as its core beliefs violence, domination, and control. That is not the religion of Jesus the Christ.

© Susan K Smith

What Are We Celebrating?

            I wonder what we are really celebrating this July 4 holiday weekend.

            My stomach turned this morning as I caught a whiff of Ray Charles singing, “America the Beautiful.” 

America, America

God shed His grace on thee!

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

            What “good” are we talking about? What was it in the past and what is it now? Is the “good” government – including its highest court – taking away the rights of American citizens? Yes, the overturn of Roe v Wade happened, taking away the right of a woman to carry or terminate a pregnancy. Women are not safe; if they spontaneously abort a fetus, they may be accused of murder and have to stand trial. If they are raped, the government – supported by the high court – will insist that they have that baby. There’s so much that is wrong with this ruling. I found myself last evening praying that my daughter, who has not yet been pregnant, does not end up having an ectopic pregnancy, or some other life-threatening condition – because this government has ruled that she cannot do anything that would save her life. It made me shudder …

            But this is not new. In the 19th century and going into the 20th, abortions were illegal and those who died trying to abort their fetuses were labeled criminals. (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/my-grandmothers-desperate-choice)

The whole situation is so scary that I can hardly think about it.

            But there’s more. The erosion of voting rights – again – is equally as painful. Voter suppression laws promise to make voting more difficult than ever for a large swath of the population. The right of women to vote may soon be attacked in this assault on the most primary right of American citizenship; some say women “may not need the right to vote.” (https://www.news-leader.com/story/news/politics/2021/10/22/ann-coulter-says-women-shouldnt-have-right-vote-19th-amendment-missouri-state-university/8528256002/)  That sentiment was expressed by John Adams in the aftermath of the writing of the Constitution. (https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1646) , and historically, many men felt that women “were not made to vote.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/womens-suffrage-nineteenth-amendment-pseudoscience/593710/)

The Court ruled that those not read their Miranda rights upon arrest cannot sue law enforcement for damages. ( https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article263028058.html)

The Court ruled that people have the right to carry weapons in public, striking down a law in New York that forbade people from carrying weapons outside of their homes. That ruling comes even as many lawmakers are calling for teachers to be armed following the latest mass shooting that occurred in Uvalde, Texas. Some say that teachers should be armed and that students should be trained in gun use as a graduation requirement. (https://www.firstcoastnews.com/article/news/regional/florida/politician-wants-marksmanship-to-be-a-required-class-in-every-florida-public-high-school/77-a721adbe-a0d0-4e08-b747-4f92631e6b11). (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/23/us/supreme-court-ny-open-carry-gun-law.html)  

The right to peacefully assemble is being attacked in Ohio. (https://chroniclet.com/news/281560/gop-bill-would-target-ohio-protesters-with-terrorism-law/) The separation between church and state was weakened by a ruling by the Court that said private religious schools can receive public funding – a victory for those who formed private and religious schools to avoid having to comply with the ruling that separate but equal is unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v Board of Education case. (https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2022/0621/Supreme-Court-ruling-Maine-s-religious-schools-can-get-public-money)

So, what are we doing? What are we celebrating? The rights of all of us are being attacked, eroded, and taken away. People fought in wars to protect the rights of Americans. Admittedly, those rights were never fully intended for Black and Brown and Jewish people, not for immigrants or Muslims or Jews – but the fact is, people in all of those categories fought in America’s wars because they believed in the principles of the US Constitution.

Who is going into this holiday feeling good and safe and secure about being an American in America? What is being celebrated? The country is moving into a fascist state, and that move is supported by a lot of people who do not yet realize that they, too, will eventually be affected by this erosion of rights. If all of us are not free, none of us are free, as Emma Lazarus noted in 1883, a statement quoted over and over again by people including Maya Angelou, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This is a strange time for everyone – even for those who do not yet realize it.

And that’s a sad and true reality.