The President, Racism, and Trayvon Martin

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The president finally said something about the outcome of the George Zimmerman second-degree murder trial.

He spoke honestly about what it is to be African-American, specifically an African-American male, in this country.  He said that, 35 years ago, he could have been Trayvon Martin. And he was and is right.

Many whites really do not understand, nor do they believe, that African-Americans have the struggles we have had since …forever. Whites complain about us complaining; they say we “whine,” and perhaps some of us do; perhaps all of us do at certain times.

But we also live lives on the edge.  I as a mother had “the conversation” with my son about how to act if stopped by police. I worried about him when he got to be a teen, more so than any parent of a teen worries. I had to warn him to be careful. I had “the conversation” about how it isn’t all that safe to be black in America, in spite of his protestations that perhaps I was being too dramatic. Times have changed, Ma, he said.

Well, maybe not so much. Or at least not enough. George Zimmerman remarked that Trayvon moved, walked, too slowly. A few years ago, a black youth, tabbed by police as “suspicious,” ran, was shot, and was killed.  The criticism levied was that he had brought his death on himself; he shouldn’t have run.

So, Sybrina Fulton’s observation, her question and the questions of many African-American mothers, was spot on. What do we tell our sons? Should we tell them to run? Walk quickly? Stop? Walk slowly? What?

President Obama’s question, “If Trayvon Martin had had a gun, would he have been able to stand his ground?” struck an immediate note of painful doubt, borne by experience where black youth have been arrested for things that white youth have gotten away with. Surely he would not have been able to “stand his ground,” shoot and kill George Zimmerman, and gone home.  He would have been accused and probably convicted of murder.  Mark O’Mara‘s comment that if Zimmerman had been black, he wouldn’t have been arrested, was pure poppycock.

The comments heard this week after the Zimmerman verdict show how deep the divide is between black and white people in this country. Juror B-37 was completely infuriating as she talked about how “they” live and talk as she referred to Rachel Jeantel. There was absolutely no awareness of cultural differences and how they are different. In her comments could be heard patronization, scorn, and worse.

All of those comments, and more, have been the polarizing statements, not what the president said. They have been polarizing and maddening, and yet, in spite of the preparation for “riots,” there has been quiet grace, people practicing “hush-mouth grace,” trying to get over yet another wound caused by America‘s disease called racism.

Perhaps some people are calling the president’s words polarizing because they will not believe that what he said he has experienced as a black man is true. Americans live in denial when it comes to racism…When someone says something about which we are in denial, on whatever subject that may be, we instinctively get angry and defensive.  Our denial is the only way we can survive in too many cases.

So I understand why people are angry, but isn’t it time that America get out of denial and start the work of healing? President Obama put the ugliness of what it means to be black in America on Front Street. He aired the ugly truth, out loud.  People don’t want to hear that stuff.

But that stuff is our stuff, America’s stuff. The sooner we move it from the “stuff” bin in the back of our cultural and historical closets, the sooner we can clean that closet out, air out our differences …and be the nation we are supposed to be.

A candid observation …

An Uneasy Peace in America

Ever since President Barack Obama became president of the United States, there has been an uneasy spirit, an uneasy peace that is brazenly obvious.

Although in 2008 there were tears of joy and the cry of America being “post-racial,” many people, both black and white, knew differently.  America has always refused to look her racism squarely in the eye; she has been content to live within comfortable walls of myth as opposed to agreeing to stand in the hot sun of reality.

America is a nation that was formed with a racial divide.

Author James Baldwin wrote, in Nobody Knows my Name,” that America “has spent a large part of its time and energy looking away from one of the principal facts of its life. This failure to look reality in the face diminishes a nation as it diminishes a person…” He says that we as a nation are obligated to look at ourselves as we are, not as we wish to be, and he said that “If we are not capable of this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations.” (p. 116)

The peace between blacks and whites is …uneasy and inauthentic.  We have not looked racism in the fact and challenged it. We have not done the work to become whole.

The most exasperating thing about our situation is that everybody knows it exists. Before this last presidential election, I was having a discussion with a white friend of mine about the political ads on television and radio that we both wished would go away, and, out of nowhere, she said, “…there is so much prejudice in white people. People are so prejudiced against Obama but nobody wants to say it out loud.”

It felt like she needed to say that, to do a “mea culpa” on behalf of people with whom she had close and frequent contact. What it made me feel was …uneasy, because the uneasy peace that exists between blacks and whites in this country feels very volatile and very threatening.

It is not as though the very most virulent racist feelings are confined to a particular region of the United States. Yes, the South has the history of being most blatantly racist, but there has been no love lost for black people in any part of this nation. John Hancock lived in Boston, and owned slaves. James Madison, a signer of the United States Constitution and a president of this nation, wrote that slaves were both property and human – but human only for the purpose of giving states more representation in elections. They were property in general, and did not, could not, receive the rights of being American citizens.

There has been resentment between the races, then, from the beginning of this nation’s life. Blacks have been under the heels of a race that has deigned itself as superior and blacks as inferior. Whites have enjoyed freedom by virtue of their race, and blacks, because of their race, have had to fight for every ounce of “freedom” they have gained. Blacks have resented whites for thwarting their efforts for freedom and whites have resented blacks for wanting more and more freedom, somehow nurturing the belief that blacks are “moochers” who feel like they are “entitled” to what whites freely enjoy.

There is no peace between the races. The issues have been pushed under the carpet and whites and blacks as well work very hard to keep the issues right there.

But truth always comes up and out. The resentment of blacks and whites periodically rises to the surface. There has been no real effort for reconciliation between the races because blacks and whites have been more interested in keeping the disease and its issues hidden. That’s why we have seen and heard so many unkind and racially tinged insults against President Obama. That’s why the Trayvon Martin case is so volatile. That’s why the incidence of hate crimes is on the rise. Though slavery as a formal entity does not exist, blacks are still disproportionately detained in prisons (read Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow and Douglas 

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘s Slavery by Another Name) as a way of keeping them in their place. Blacks and whites are as far away as we ever were, made worse by the fact that we will not “look reality in the face.” It is as though we have strep throat but will not acknowledge it or get an antibiotic to kill the bacteria, and as a result, our nation is suffering from a system rheumatic heart disease.

An uneasy peace is no peace at all. Peace comes only after the work of peace is done…and we in America have not done that. It is scary and troubling, but our nation, while it is off trying to help other nations in the world embrace democracy and freedom, has not attended her own broken democracy.  There is an uneasy peace, and it is truly scary.

A candid observation…

 

Whose Phony Theology?

This morning I heard a news report on “The Today Show”  about the surging poll numbers of GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum. He is apparently appealing to Republican voters who like his socially Conservative views, and is ahead of last month’s front-runner, Mitt Romney, even in Romney’s home state of Michigan.

But I don’t write this because of Santorum’s poll numbers. I write this to challenge Mr. Santorum, Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich to be honest politicians, and to win their nomination based on truth and not on sensationalism…AND I challenge news organizations to be honest and accurate as well, seeking truth in reporting and again, not sensational reports that will drive their ratings up.

Peter Alexander did this morning’s report, saying that Santorum is using religion as one of his tools to fight his opponents. We already heard him say that President Obama has a “phony theology,” but Santorum took a jab at the President’s Christianity yesterday, intimating that something may very well be wrong with a man whose pastor was Jeremiah Wright. Said Santorum, “He sat under Pastor Wright for 20 years.”

Enter the now infamous sound bite of Wright saying, “no, no, no, not God bless America. God damn America!” End of clip. As the clip aired, Alexander continued talking, saying that Wright was “forced to resign from his church after making inflammatory remarks.”

My soul fell out of my body. First, the clip…which I will talk about in a minute, but Alexander’s carelessness as a reporter made my blood boil. Pastor Wright did NOT resign; he retired after serving Trinity United Church of Christ for 36 years! In his book, A Sankofa Moment: The History of Trinity United Church of Christ,” Wright writes, “It was during those years between 2001  and 2005  that we began to look earnestly for a pastor to succeed me in leading the flock of God known as Trinity United Church of Christ….We were looking for someone who loved the Lord with all their hearts, their souls and their minds. We did not want anybody coming into the congregation who was playing with the Gospel or playing God’s people, pimping them or trying to get over on them!” (p. 283) The church had a Plan of Succession; his retirement was not new news. Pastor Wright preached his last three sermons at Trinity UCC in February of 2008;  his last Sunday as senior pastor of Trinity UCC was the first Sunday of March, 2008.

The lack of accuracy in Alexander’s reporting is a giant black eye on a news operation which prides itself as being competent and accurate.

But then…that clip. I cringed. There it was again…ten words taken out of context, and done purposely in order to feed into the fear, suspicion …and dislike of President Obama that has never disappeared. From the claim that the president is not American to the charges that he is really a closet Muslim…a non-American, non-Christian, who is in the White House. Santorum is feeding the sharks and he knows it.

That clip came from a sermon, entitled  “Confusing God and Government,” and was actually preached in 2003. In that sermon, Pastor Wright began by asking, “If you were to ask the average Christian, ‘did Jesus cry?’ almost every Christian would quote for you that John 11:35 verse, which most Bible students call the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.”

He goes on to tell the story around that particular verse…but then he begins to talk about why Jesus cried, going to the Gospel of Luke, where on Palm Sunday Luke says Jesus wept over the city; “he cried for his people who did not know the things that make for peace.”

Wright says, “He cried for his people because they were blinded by their culture, they were blinded by their conditions, they were blinded by their circumstance, they were blinded by their oppression…” He described a people who in Jesus’ day were oppressed by the Roman government; he said these people were tired of their oppression…they were blinded by the pain of their situation…”

He explains how people get confused: “Let me help you with something,” he said. “The military does not make for peace. The military only keeps the lid on for a little while…War does not make for peace, war only makes for escalating violence and a mindset to pay the enemy back by any means necessary,” a sentiment spoken by preaching greats including William Sloan Coffin and Martin Luther King Jr.

Wright talked about the people in Jesus’ day who wanted a new king but who were blinded by their circumstances, and “it made Jesus cry because they missed the meaning of his ministry.”  He continues to develop this thought, saying in the sermon that people were “confusing external appearances with external power.  People look for a miracle, Wright said, which is “just a sign,” but “the deeds of power point to a God who is greater than any physical limitation, and a God who can overcome any limiting situation…The people under oppression were confusing God and government.”

As he develops his thoughts, he talks about how some Muslims (and he is careful to say “not all Muslims”) confuse God and government who “condone a law condoning killing any and all who do not believe what they believe. They call it ‘jihad.'” He says we in America do the same thing: “we cannot see how what we are doing is the same al-Qaeda is doing under a different color flag, calling on the name of a different God to sanction our murder and our mayhem.”

“We confuse God and government,” he said. He mentions some of the things America has done in the name of God, including oppressing Native Americans and African Americans…”We believe God approved of African slavery.”  He talks about America’s Constitution which assumed men to be “more equal” than women, and he said, “We confuse God and government; we believe God is on the side of the wealthy.”

The place of the wealthy is forever up for discussion. Jesus, in the New Testament, and God in the Hebrew scriptures admonished the wealthy for not caring enough for the poor.  William Sloan Coffin once said “Our nation is going to have quite a lot to say about how tolerable this planet is going to be. And if it’s as hard for a rich individual to get into the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, you can imagine what it must be like for a rich nation!”  In other words, the debate about the rights of the rich versus the poor is not new; the chasm between the two has been a subject for prophets and apparently for God from the beginning of time.

In this sermon, Wright makes three points; Governments lie; governments fail, and governments change. He talks about how our government has lied over time “The government lied about Pearl Harbor. They knew the Japanese were going to attack.  Governments lie!  The government lied about the Gulf of Tonkin – they wanted that resolution to get us into the Vietnam War. The government lied about Nelson Mandela and our CIA helped put him into prison and keep him there for 27 years. ..Wright talks about well-documented instances in which the government has lied, but ends that section with “God doesn’t lie.

He then talks about how our government (and others) change. “Long before there was a red, white and blue colonization, the Egyptian government was doing colonization. They colonized parts of the Mediterranean. All colonizers ain’t (sic) white…But while the government of Egypt and Pharaoh ran it, they don’t run a thing today, and why? Because governments change. When the Babylonians carried away the people of promise into exile, the Babylonian government was the baddest government around, but when King Nebuchadnezzar went crazy, his government was replaced by the government of King Belshazzar. King Belshazzar held a great big feast, big banquet, defiled the sacred vessels stolen from the temple in Jerusalem, and a hand appeared.” Here, Pastor Wright describes the writing on the wall translated by Daniel, which said to the king that his government would fail. Governments, Wright said, using the Biblical text, change.

But, he said, “God doesn’t change, quoting Malachi 3:6 which says “…thus says the Lord, and I change not.” God, he repeats, does not change, an affirmation and a comfort to people who need to know that God is a constant, no matter what.

Finally he says governments fail. He talks of how the Roman government fail; the Russian government failed; the British government failed; the Japanese government failed …and the American government failed “when it came to treating her citizens of Indian ancestry fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed; she put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, she failed.”

Said Wright: She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing, “God bless America” No, no, no! God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”

Governments fail, he says, but God never fails. He asks the congregants to refer to the Bible, where it says people will be cursed for not treating people right; in Deuteronomy 27 and 28, there are extensive lists where Moses explains why people (and nations) will be cursed and why they can and will be blessed. The fall of Jerusalem came about because the people “forsook God,” and the curse was that God allowed the enemies of His own people to topple them. It is not a pleasant message, but it is in the Bible.

I challenge Mr. Santorum to read the sermon, instead of making sneaky comments implying that there is something wrong with the president’s theology because he sat under the teaching of Pastor Wright. One might argue that a theology that allowed for the enslavement of African-Americans, the oppression of women, and the exploitation of workers is phony, too, if the Bible is to be taken into account.

At the end of the day, though there is one God, there are many different theological perspectives. The Rev. Franklin Graham gave a lukewarm acknowledgement that President Obama is a Christian, though he strongly affirmed that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are. When pressed by reporters on “Morning Joe” about his thoughts about the president’s faith, he waffled, criticizing the president’s policies which to him seem to be more concerned with protecting Muslims than Christians in places like Egypt. “We are not protecting the minorities,” he said, intimating that a good policy would be one that protected “the minorities,” which, in Egypt, are the Christians.

Yet, in America, many Christians historically have not been all that concerned with protecting its minorities.  So, which theology is “phony?” Which theology is “real,” in Santorum’s view or in Rev. Graham’s?

Rev. Graham said “all I know is that I am a sinner saved by grace.” That is the correct Christian jargon, but saying the words does not a Christian make, and, conversely, NOT saying those words when asked if one is Christian does NOT mean that one is not. Rev. Graham is right: the measure of one’s Christianity is found in the way one lives one’s life. Rev. Graham seems to have problems and issues with the president’s policies primarily in the Middle East, making him apparently doubt the president’s Christian belief claim.

As for NBC, I hope Peter Alexander corrects his error, and I hope all of the news operations are careful to check their facts before they put reports out that will only feed the fears and insecurity of so many people. I don’t feel sorry for politicians who rip each other apart, because those in politics know what they’re getting into, but the press has a duty to get the facts right and care about the lives of people it disrupts and destroys when it is not careful.

A candid observation ….

Disrespect of President Obama is Telling

Governor at a book signing in Phoenix, Arizona...
Image via Wikipedia

I keep trying to put into perspective what I feel about seeing the picture of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer shaking her finger in the face of President Obama.

Actually, I don’t know what that perspective is…I guess whatever the president said to her annoyed her.

But I am thinking that other presidents have said things to governors in the past that were not words of comfort or praise for jobs well done, and yet, I have never seen a picture of any other governor shaking his or her finger in the face of the President of the United States.

Gov. Brewer said that she respects the office of president; it was striking but not surprising that she did not say she respected the President.

But her actions belie her proclamation of respect. Shaking one’s finger in someone’s face suggests that one thinks one has the right to do such, and that the one being “scolded” is somehow so much “less than” than the person doing the scolding that the pointed finger is deserved.

What has bothered me from the beginning of this president’s term is the lack of respect for him which has then spilled over into actions which have shown an absolute lack of respect for the office of President.

From Sen. Mitch McConnell‘s proclamation at the beginning of President Obama’s term that his top priority was to make sure that President Obama would be a one term president, to Joe Wilson shouting out “You lie!” during the President’s first State of the Union address to this …the lack of respect has been blatant, scorching, and arrogantly communicated.

So does this mean that some people will not and cannot respect the office of president if someone they truly dislike and/or disagree with is in the White House?

Why is it that I cannot remember anyone showing such disrespect when President George W. Bush was in office, a president who got the country into two wars, ran up our debt by out of control spending, and who, frankly, kind of made a mockery out of Republican/Conservative principles when it comes to spending?

Was it because he at least gave big business and the wealthy what they wanted – tax cuts – which arguably have contributed to the financial mess we are in now?  When one thinks about what President’s actions and policies have done to this country, it would seem that his actions would have stirred the ire of red-blooded Conservatives, and yet, nothing. I never saw anyone openly disrespect him.

Has Gov. Brewer apologized for what she did? I haven’t seen it. I have seen a story where she said that she went to the airport to give President Obama a letter to invite him to an event, but that he ignored that invitation and voiced disapproval over the way she characterized a meeting the two had dealing with immigration.

The story did not quote Gov. Brewer as saying the President had been rude, or disrespectful, in the way he voiced his disappointment; had that been the case, I am more than sure we would have known it. No, the articles I have read have merely said that she took issue that he had taken issue with the way she summarized the way she wrote about their meeting.

And for that, she shakes her finger in the President’s face?

I am appalled by what I have seen overall since the President took office. I am not an “Obama groupie;” I think the President has done well in some areas and not so well in others, but he is the President of the United States, for goodness’ sake! I did not like President George W. Bush, but he was the President of the United States! Had I met him, there would have been no way I would have disrespected him.

That so many people think it is OK to disrespect President Obama in the way that they are is troubling. The President has handled it well, probably better than we who have observed it. But the type and the width and the breadth of the disrespect of this president says a lot about what’s going on, on many levels.

I leave it to you to unpack that last sentence.

It is a candid observation.

“Meanness” an Attribute for GOP

I heard this morning that what Conservatives most want is someone who is “mean,” someone who can beat the president in this fall’s general elections.

That’s why issues about Newt Gingrich‘s marriages and his alleged desire for an open marriage, just wasn’t an issue in the South Carolina primary. There is a “national conversation” that is in place, one ABC reporter said, and in order for Mitt Romney to regain a bit of the ground he has lost, he has got to tie into that conversation.

Included in the conversation is anger amongst the GOP.  The successful GOP candidate must connect to that anger, and run a campaign that addresses the “politics of resentment.” It seems, according to some, that a large part of the GOP base is angry at the “elite media,” the  economy, of course, and the fact that Barack Obama is in the White House.

When Newt Gingrich did his “Contract with America” some years ago, the issue of anger was addressed; specifically it was the anger of white men. Is that the same crock pot that Newt has identified and is adding ingredients to – this pot of stew, brimming with elements of white anger?

This election cycle is a bit scary to me; for the party of “faith and values” to be willing to abandon that platform just so they can elect someone they think can get the president out of the White House makes me wonder about the validity of their claim to be so above it all. The recent YouTube video of the young man giving a spoken word about how he hates religion but loves Jesus, then, seems so appropriate. This young man sees the disconnect between what religious people say and do, and it bothers him.

It bothers me, too.

It seems that if the faith and values people are just looking for someone to go on the attack, and be “mean” enough to get President Barack Obama out of office, then something is askew. If the Evangelical, pro-life base is willing to remain silent on what appear to be obvious moral breaches on the part of Newt Gingrich, just because they think he can beat President Obama, then something is wrong.

When it no longer becomes important that a presidential hopeful at least appear to be concerned for all of God’s children, when it becomes OK for a man who’s marital and extramarital indiscretions are not important (when in the past, such indiscretions were enough to knock any candidate out of the ball park), then we Americans need to stop and pause.

We are in a very dangerous place.

I suspect that the next few weeks leading up to the Republican convention are going to be painful, because the campaigns will be so nasty and so “mean,” that the real issues will be lost. Politicians are good at manipulating the emotions of Americans, and Newt Gingrich is one of the best.

If it is true that what GOP voters are looking for most is someone who is “mean,” it’s likely they won’t be disappointed.

But at the end of the day, what in the world will it mean for our country?

A candid observation…