American Democracy has not been Democratic

Is there anything that will make the masses of white people own up to the fact that there is such a thing as white supremacy in these United States, that it has existed for years, and that it has produced “side effects” which continue to affect African-Americans today?

I listened to Bill O’Reilly go toe to toe with Dr. Cornel West, and in their discussion, O’Reilly said he did not believe there is such a thing as white privilege. (http://newsone.com/3168784/cornel-west-schools-bill-oreilly-on-white-supremacy-trickle-down-economics/) O’Reilly is an historian of sorts. He knows what the history of this nation has been as concerns black people. So when he said that, I just sat back, frustrated.

Nowhere do we hear from this nation’s white “leaders” except, maybe, from former President Jimmy Carter, that America has a sordid past as concerns its treatment of black people for which there needs to be atonement. While America blasts ISIS for brutal behavior, her leaders keep her brutality under wraps. The lynching of black people, a huge reality, is something we just don’t talk about. We, Americans, burned black people for being accused, not necessarily convicted of, crimes. We denied people “fair” trials by juries “of their peers.” White people, claiming to be Christian, led by their pastors, treated black people like rabid animals, not human beings with needs, feelings and emotions. White slave traders broke up black families as they looked for the best “deals” to wield the greatest profits for America’s growing economy, and now they complain about the broken black family which too often has no father figure present. White politicians ignored the right of all children to get a good education, denying funds to schools in black rural and urban areas for those schools to provide solid educations for black children. White systems made it impossible for black people who fought in America’s wars to get loans for homes and for education, once they returned home from serving their country. White law enforcement officers often participated in violence against black people; white presidents turned deaf ears and blind eyes to the needs of black people.

I read about the lynching of Sam Hose (http://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/502), accused of killing his boss, and I wept. The going reason for lynching black people was that black men were raping white women. Facts show, however, that it was white men who were raping black women – without ever having to pay for it. Black women were pieces of meat, owned by white men. They were desecrated and humiliated, and were impregnated at the same time. I am sure some black men raped white women, but in many cases, the sex between black men and white women was consensual. White women would lie and say they were raped in order not to be killed by their husbands. Why won’t white people talk about how they are not so “holy,” not so “blameless?”

White people have no idea about how their racism has impacted black people, making masses of black people live in fear. The Great Migration, brilliantly written about in The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, happened in large part because white people terrorized black people in the South, behavior sanctioned by and participated in by politicians and law enforcement officers.

Surely, Mr. O’Reilly knows this and more, and surely, he recognizes that emotional trauma like this – which has not stopped – yields side-effects. Surely too he knows that mass incarceration, on top of black people having limited access to employment, has resulted in disintegration of the African-American community. Surely …

White people seem oblivious to their history. They seem, for the most part, to want to keep their heads in the sand; many refuse to admit that the Civil War was about slavery (states’ rights meant states wanted the right to own slaves). They refuse to admit that Jim Crow worked to dehumanize black people, even as it worked to undo the freedoms black people enjoyed for a short time. They will not own that their participation in job and housing discrimination was something they could do because they were and are white – that their whiteness gave them the privilege of participating in a system which was bullying black people further and further into second class status.

All this happened as white Christians abdicated the dictates of Christianity to live in and with agape love for all people.

America’s democracy has not been democratic, not for black people, and white people will not own it.

A candid observation

God, Black People, and Katrina

It has been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, and parts of Mississippi. Katrina was vicious, surely, an unwanted and uninvited visitor to an area of the country used to unwanted guests, but she was much more rude and imposing. Her winds and her rain devastated parts of Mississippi, and her power caused storm surges and broke levees in New Orleans, in effect murdering innocent people caught in the firestorm.

One could not look at the images on television of people, mostly black and poor, standing on roofs for days, waiting to be rescued. It was hard to shut out the images of people walking in the hot, blazing New Orleans sun, across the Danzinger Bridge, looking to get away from the flood waters that were swallowing their homes. My heart was broken as I saw pictures of dead people on that bridge, waiting to be picked up. The one picture that sticks in my mind is that of an old woman, in a wheelchair on the bridge, dead.

It didn’t help to hear the stories of people in the convention center, even though Katrina’s wind and rain had caused a hole in the center’s roof. The people were there, sitting in seats normally inhabited by people enjoying entertainment of some sort. Now, those seats were filled with desperate people, in a facility where there was reportedly no air conditioning, no electricity, no running water …The images even now haunt me.

I sat in Columbus, Ohio, a pastor of a church wanting to do “what Jesus said.” I have always wanted that. The people down South were suffering. We had to do something. So, we organized a campaign to collect needed items to take to the people. Health supplies. Bleach. Diapers, Food for babies and adults. Water. Clothing …you name it, we collected it. People from all over the city and outlying suburbs came over to Advent United Church of Christ, bringing supplies and by extension, love, for the people who were suffering. We were able to get an 18-wheel truck and we filled it  …and we drove to New Orleans. The truck with supplies, and us in our cars, with the determination to help “the least of these.”

In my mind, “the least of these” were primarily the black people. Those were the people whom I saw on roofs, crying for help. Those were the people who were on that bridge and in the convention center. They were the ones who had been, in large part, unable to get out of New Orleans before the levee broke, causing that dastardly flood. I considered them to be “the least of these.” We were going down there to help my people.

But God.

I have to admit, I am angry at God a lot, because I blame God for allowing racism to flourish. I blame God for not changing the hearts of white people who are filled with hatred and a sense of superiority and entitlement. I truly believe white Christianity, for the most part, has failed when it comes to racism. The white Church has allowed racism to flourish; it has advocated for segregation in its congregations; it has turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of African-Americans who have been deemed to be the scourge of not only the United States but, it seems, the world. The god of white people has not insisted on agape love, not insisted on justice for “the least of these,” and has not pushed for mercy.

The god of the black church has been different, created out of what I call a “crazy faith” that has been the fuel for hope in spite of the injustice meted out by the government and the church. Author James Baldwin called the faith and subsequent hope of black people in America an “ironic tenacity.” Black people had to develop and embrace a faith that said trouble would not always be. Ida B. Wells, who fought against lynching in this nation, talked about her faith that was defined in large part, said James Cone in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree,  to “black cultural resistance to white supremacy.”

As we traveled to New Orleans 10 years ago, I fully expected to be able to get to the suffering black people.

But God.

We were stopped in Mississippi before we were able to get to New Orleans. I think the reason why was that there were so many people traveling there to help. We looked around; the place where we were stopped was completely devastated. We were in Pass Christian. There was nothing …We drove through deserted streets and saw homes and business flattened. There was no electricity. The houses that remained had marks on them to indicate that dead people had been found inside. On one street, there was a lonely dog walking, looking lost and forgotten. We fed him and I wondered how long it would be before he was rescued.

Anyway …we had this truck, full of supplies, and in our meandering, we came upon a church. There was life there; we could see people. We were excited and we drove as close to the door as we could. We were there! We were going to help “the least of these.”

There was one problem. All of the people …were white.

Damn. I wanted to leave. I had wanted to help the black people, and here we were, in this deserted, God-forsaken place called Mississippi, where I was sure many of my ancestors had been lynched and discriminated against. Mississippi???? God! Are You kidding me?

We began unloading stuff, things that these people needed. After a while, one of the people from Columbus came to me and asked, “When are we going to help the black people?” I just muttered and said, “soon.” In our group, we had black and white people, Jewish people as well as Christian, but for me, this wasn’t their trip, not as far as the ultimate goal was concerned. I wanted to help black people, and here we were, stuck in Mississippi, helping white people whose ancestors, at least, had surely caused misery for the very people we wanted to help and who were still in misery because of Katrina.

After we had unloaded much of what these people needed, I was jumping down from the truck, and this little old white lady, with white, fuzzy hair, came up to me, with giant, crocodile tears in her eyes. She hugged me. And then she just said, “Thank you. Thank you.”

I have never forgotten that day. I still have feelings about how that day worked out, how we ended up helping people whom I no intention of helping. I have grown too cynical to believe that our stop in Pass Christian that day made a difference in the hearts of white supremacists in that group. I blame God, like I said, for not doing a sweep of hatred in the hearts of people.

But the one thing I know is that God taught me a lesson that day, about what God and religion are supposed to be about. I am not sure I appreciate the lesson, but in spite of myself, I did learn.

Who can understand the ways of God? Surely, not me.

Racism is a Sin

It has always been puzzling to me how any person could be a Christian and be racist. Actually, my puzzlement has extended as I have watched Christians be not only racist but sexist, homophobic and antagonistic toward the poor.

If one considers the Doctrine of Sin, and consider that the most commonly used word for sin is “hamartia,” which means “missing the mark,” and juxtaposes that definition against the “Great Commandment,” which is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind,” it is clear there is a disconnect in what we say believe and how we act. As Jesus gives the first and greatest commandment, he adds  on yet another piece of what is required of us:  ” …Love your neighbor as yourself”  If we consider these commands, and as Christians consider that we are bound to obey them, it becomes clear that racism, spawned by white supremacy, is a sin.

The existence of racism amongst Christians is puzzling to me because there is but one Bible, and one set of words and directions that Jesus gave, unless there is a secret text that I have not seen. When I was a child and saw what white people were doing to black people in Alabama, my mother quickly told me that no matter what I felt about what was going on, that I was to love “even the bad people.” (I said that the white people who were setting dogs on black people were bad.) My mother was adamant: to be a Christian meant you had to be willing to do the hard work of being a Christian, and loving “the bad people” was one of those tasks.

Yet, it has seemed that many white Christians have had no problem in hating black people – for no other reason than they (we) are black. And, while Jesus forthrightly commanded us to take care of “the least of these,” many white Christians seem to turn as far away from the poor and dispossessed as possible; they have no umbrage in charging them more money for lesser quality goods; they are pro-life except that their definition of :”life” seems to end once a fetus is born; the despair of poor children, especially those who are black and brown, is not an issue for them. They seem comfortable and indeed appear self-righteous as they put down African-Americans with abandon. Some of the most rabid racists in our nation have been devout Christians.

I am confused – about how people can be like that.

But I am not confused about my belief that racism is a sin because those who adhere to it are clearly “missing the mark” that God gives in the Hebrew scriptures, and then Jesus repeats in the New Testament: we who call ourselves Christian are to love God with everything we’ve got …and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

It is not happening.

In a nation which calls itself “Christian,” it is not happening.

In addition to the formal doctrine of sin quoted above, I also learned that sin is anything that separates us from God. Surely, the mistreatment of human beings, all of whom God created, does that. We are not only separated from God, but we are rebelling against the way we were created. All of God’s people were created, are wired, to love and to have compassion. I know that because when catastrophes happen, that part which is in all of us kicks in and we move to help people in despair. We are wired to take care of each other. But we rebel against our natural inclinations and the result is that we have the audacity to hate and to oppress those whom God created.

To add insult to injury, those whom God made human …we dehumanize. It helps us stay in our sin. Too many white people have dehumanized black people. The dehumanization was written into our founding documents, and we have built on that. The only reason, the only way a police officer could jump out of a car and within seconds shoot a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun down is because that officer – or officers – did not see that child as a human being. He was just a black object, and in our society, white supremacy teaches us that black objects have no value.

Some would say, “Wait! I’m not racist!” But racism is a part of the American normal. Racism is deeper than mere bigotry and/or prejudice. Racism carries with it the power to oppress people and control them, and that power rests, most often, in economics. It is racism, not bigotry, which is keeping black and brown people in economic servitude and forcing them to live in despair. White supremacists have the money and the position to keep people where they want them. They want black people in prison; it is a form of social control. That is at least one of the reasons that so many black people are in prison for non-violent drug offenses, while white people who have done the same or worse than those incarcerated continue to run free.

The arrogance with which racists move, act and think has to be a barrier between them and God. If there is but one God, and that God demands that we love each other…and racists/white supremacists refuse to do so …then there is between them and God a barrier …which means they are separated from God …which means they are in sin.

If racism is a sin, which I believe it is, then America is living in a state of sin. America’s racism exists on the mainland but has been one of the components of American exceptionalism as well, making white Americans think they have the right to oppress and overtake people of other races in other countries as well. Racism is a sin and it is a disease which spreads; American racism has left spores of contamination all over the world.

If we as Christians believe that Jesus is coming back, that there will be a rapture, and that some of us will be “left behind” while others are allowed into heaven, what kind of “Second Coming” should we expect? Will God forgive the racists, the homophobes, the sexists? Do white racists rejoice on Resurrection Sunday because they are happy Jesus died to save us and that even those who practice the most horrific racism …will ultimately be saved?

Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, said in an interview I had with him (I am writing his biography) that the ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) worked to “redeem America’s soul.” It was a powerful statement that still gives me pause.

I don’t think America’s soul is yet saved. Racism is still too potent, too much front and center, carried on by Christians.

Something is very wrong with this picture.

A candid observation ….

Is God Perfect or Not?

Galton's view of social structure in the UK
Galton’s view of social structure in the UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever since I was young enough to hear and to understand, I have been told that God is perfect. God can do no wrong. God does not make mistakes. God is …omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient. The lessons of God’s perfection have been deeply engrained in my soul.

And yet, the more I listen to study phenomena like racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, and other “isms,” the more I wonder about my theology.  Is God perfect or do we have it all wrong?

I have been squirming with this question for a while, but when an Indian-American, Nina Davuluri, won the Miss America title a couple of weeks ago, the conversation over her being too dark gave me pause. There were some in America who were angry that she, being of Indian descent had won, but there were people who said that in India, she never could have won “because she is too dark.” Apparently, the quest to have light skin to white skin is an obsession in India, with young women participating in pageants taking medications to alter their skin color – i.e., to make it lighter. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/16/miss-america-nina-skin-color_n_3935348.html)

Historically, people have wanted to be white, in this country and in others. People have tried to pray their gayness away.  Being a female has been a hindrance and not a help, too often, in the workplace.  And yet, God made all of these …untouchables, …these undesirables. Could it be that God isn’t so perfect? Could it be that not only is it not true that God doesn’t make mistakes, but that God apparently has made a lot of mistakes?

If all of these groups of people – blacks, browns, women, gays, lesbians, females – are a problem, why in the world did God create them?

There is something extremely sad about any group of people trying to deny and change themselves to fit into image of a group of people who have decided who is worthy and acceptable and who is not. The European standard of beauty has been internalized by people all over the world. Little girls in Africa carry around white baby dolls, many of them.  Studies have been conducted that show that little children in this nation think that black and brown people are not pretty and not as intelligent as are white people. Homosexual people are presumed to be morally inferior to straight people.

What in the world was God thinking when He/She created people who were not white, Protestant  males?

In the eugenics movement, which came into being largely on the efforts of Charles Benedict Davenport in the 1890s, there was a quest to create the “perfect” person. That person was white, but not any old kind of white. To be desirable, one needed to have Nordic features – blonde hair, blue eyes. Dr. Davenport, who was a Harvard-trained biologist, influenced a lot of people, including one Francis Galton. It was Galton who coined the term “eugenics,” and he defined that as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.” (Eyes Right: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, . 213)

The eugenics movement was fascinating and troubling, all at once; the purpose of this article is not to go into it in-depth – but the point is that a whole cadre of very intelligent men (!!) constructed hypotheses which upheld and justified white supremacy …and their work was so titillating that the Nazis used it to justify and construct their own system of racism which resulted in the extermination of millions of Jews.

What, then? Did God mess up when God didn’t create everyone with Nordic features? Did God commission people to “improve upon” what God had created? If that’s the case, is God perfect? Can the notion of God’s perfection be trusted?

Years ago, I was chastised by a preacher whom I respected deeply because I would not say, and could not say, that only Christians would be saved. It was inconceivable to me that God would create a whole world full of different people who practiced different religions, and condemn them all to hell. That notion of God did not fit with my notion of a loving and inclusive God. Jesus was the Christian way, the Christian mediator, so to speak, between God and humans. Other religions had their mediators, but all of them, I argued, were valid. There was no way that God was that …small, that provincial, that…narrow-minded. The perfection of God did not mean to me that God intended for everyone to be the same. In fact, because of God’s omniscience, had that been what God had wanted, God would surely have done it!

I was eliminated from the ministerial student group after my talk with that pastor.

Stung and stunned, I asked God why He/She hadn’t intervened on my behalf. Like the psalmists demanding an answer, I asked God to speak up and tell me why He/She had let me be skewered as I defended the basic goodness of God and of God’s intentions.

Of course, God was silent.

But every now and then, the question of God’s perfection comes up. When babies are born deformed or sick, does that mean God was not and is not perfect? When people have addictive personalities, does that mean God is not perfect?  When little boys grow up to be serial killers, does that mean something happened in the womb that made that child’s brain program him into being a murderer? When a child gets a debilitating disease, like Michael Murphy Odone (“Lorenzo’s Oil), caused by a malfunctioning of his ability to metabolize fats, does that mean that God put a wrong gene in the wrong place when the child was growing in the womb?

Is God perfect or not? Are people of color, Jews, gays and Lesbians….mistakes?  If we are to listen to the chatter of people who are always putting a group of people down because of who they are, we might begin to question God’s creative genius, mightn’t we?

A candid observation …

 

 

God Ignored?

English: South African Anglican Archbishop Des...
English: South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu delivered a speech at the first International Ethics Conference at the University of Botswana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Religion, says Bishop Desmond Tutu in his book, God is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations, “…should foster sisterhood and brotherhood, which should encourage tolerance, respect, compassion, peace, reconciliation, caring and sharing.” To the contrary, however, Tutu notes that religion “…has fueled alienation and conflict, and has exacerbated intolerance and injustice and oppression. Some of the ghastliest atrocities have happened and are happening in the name of religion,” Tutu writes.

Why in the name of all that is good is that true?

It sometimes feels that God is absent, or perhaps lounging, watching His/Her children be as completely human as they care to be – meaning, God leaves us to our own devices. In many ways, we are like the Biblical prodigal son, who insulted his father by asking for his inheritance while his father was very much alive. Such an act in Middle Eastern culture was unheard of, and should have driven his father to wild rage, writes Kenneth Bailey in his book, Finding the Lost Cultural Keys to Luke 15. Instead, writes Bailey, the father swallowed his hurt and insult, and granted his son the gift of freedom. He watched …as his son made a horrible decision, alienated his family and community, and went off to be as completely human as he cared to be.

In that story, the son “comes to himself,” and decides to go back home, and his father runs to meet him, which prominent men of that day did not do, lifting up his heavy robes exposing his legs so that he could run faster, again, something which was not acceptable for him to do. One did not run; one did not expose his or her legs. This father did both.

Stories like that serve as reminders that God is not absent, but that God really does allow us to be free – even if our being free results in oppression and intolerance and unkindness amongst ourselves as squabbling children.

It makes me want to say to God, “God, please, can you be a little more strict? Can you please cut down or cut back on this free will thing? Don’t you want a good world?” God allows us, as His/Her children, to take our inheritance of love and go to a “far land.”  Yes, we are free! But with our freedom, we are wildly irresponsible, causing so much chaos and pain.

Did God ask us to do things like love our enemy, or forgive folks, or …do to others as we would like done to us …knowing that we would never do it? That the way God wired us made it almost impossible?

Right now, there is a civil war in Syria – amongst religious people. Some of our lawmakers, like Sen. John McCain, seem to be pushing for our country to become involved militarily – like “boots on ground” involvement – in that country’s civil war. The Syrians are doing horrible things to each other, and some Americans want us to help them do it. Protestants and Catholics fought against each other in Ireland; Christians fought against each other in our own Civil War. In the case of Syria, I wonder if those who are fighting each other stop long enough for traditional prayers. My guess would be that they do.

What is it about religion that makes its adherents so incapable of doing what religion is supposed to foster, the things that Bishop Tutu raised in his book?

It seems that very few of us “get it.” The new pope, Pope Francis, seems to get it, that as a religious person, are all held to a higher standard. The other day he interacted with a young boy who has Down Syndrome, inviting him to sit in the pope’s seat in the pope-mobile. A small gesture, for sure, but one that made a profound impact on that young boy and probably changed his life. He’ll probably want to be pope one day so that he can pay forward what Pope Francis gave to him. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/19/pope-francis-down-syndrome_n_3465684.html)  He has said that “Christianity is incompatible with anti-Semitism,” and says that he is going to work to deepen and improve the relationship between Catholics and Jews. (http://www.religionnews.com/2013/06/24/pope-francis-christianity-is-incompatible-with-anti-semitism/). He is not being a reticent prelate, and his determination to be amongst the people is not going unnoticed. That kind of involvement with “the least of these” would probably help us all be nicer to each other. People have a need to be touched, loved and affirmed.

Is it that religion, in general, is reluctant to mingle with “the least of these” that helps breed what Tutu calls “ghastly atrocities?”

We have God, but we are not all that interested in worshiping Him/Her – if worship means to honor God by following God’s directions. We worship the Bible, wrote the late Rev. Peter Gomes, chaplain at Harvard University; in fact, Gomes said, this “bibliolatry” has superseded our desire and ability to connect with God. Gomes writes in The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Head and Heart,” that “in the absence of a visible God, the temptation is always near to make a god of whatever is visible and related in some proximate way to the real thing.”  Perhaps. Or perhaps we make a god of whatever is visible and related to our own ideologies and prejudices. Ideology kicks theology out of the game.

So, in the name of an ignored God, the late Osama bin Laden, purported to be a devout Muslim, plans and executes a plan to bomb the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, though that part of the plan failed thanks to the brave people on that flight. In the name of an ignored God, churches spew venom against gays and lesbians. In the name of an ignored God, racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism have flourished. So many times the oppression of people and groups have been the worst inside of churches and in spite of a professed belief in God.

God allows us to go to a far place …and stay there.

Maybe we’d do better with a little less freedom.

A candid observation …