O God, Where Art Thou?

If, as Ross Douthat says in his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, “at the deepest level, every human culture is religious,” then what in the world is wrong with this world?

Religion supposedly gives us as individuals, the guide for living moral and right lives; almost every religion teaches that love is central to all things good.  Religion teaches us, supposedly, that we as human beings created by an Other greater than ourselves, are mandated to treat each other as worthy of love and respect.  Most of them teach that we are to forgive each other, we are to love even our enemies, we are to know that because we believe in God, however any given religion refers to that entity, that we are held to a higher standard.

And yet, the world is messed up, filled with way too many humans who are self-serving, and not service-oriented. In spite of the mandate to love each other, we use and manipulate each other and take advantage of each other whenever we can.

Dr. Martin Luther King mentioned, over 40 years ago, that the presence of materialism, militarism and racism were problems in American society which were eating away at the moral fiber of this nation, but it often seems like the moral fiber was skewed from the beginning.

Because capitalism and the free market system presupposes that some people will “have” and others will not have, there has been built-in, not only in American culture but in dominant cultures throughout history. Religious people throughout the Bible lived under economic and social oppression – from Egyptian oppression, to Assyrian, then Babylonian, Persian and finally Roman. In spite of a “living God,” people have dismissed the precepts and requirements of God continually.

So, it should not be surprising, what’s going on today. The history of the world is one of division and conquest; militarism in order to support imperialism; capitalism trumping over anything that might be called socialism, or an economic system which in theory makes sure less economic oppression is possible. There has been racism historically; America has her own unique racism, but in the Bible, the Greeks and the Hebrews didn’t get along; in early American history, the Italians and the Irish didn’t get along. Nations, including Germany and Bosnia and Africa has been a part of human history.

And my questions are two: ” Why?” and “God, where are you?”

I don’t think I have a fairy-tale expectation of God, but I am rather surprised that this God who made everything and everyone has not been able to do something drastic to make people act more civilly toward each other. I am surprised that God has allowed such horrible interactions between people He created. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is said to have said, “God put us on earth so we could learn to live without God.” Whatever for?

I have watched and listened with quiet horror and dismay the goings on surrounding the Trayvon Martin case. I have been irritated by the lack of people understanding the desire of another people to simply want justice for a child gunned down. I have listened to snide comments by people who most likely believe in God…and yet, there has been no “religious tolerance” or even an inkling of the type of love demanded of us by God.

Douthat says that in America, religion has been “steadily marginalized.”  It seems that for many, the “rightful place” of religion is at a conservative core which has a fairly arrogant and exclusive of who is American and who is rightly religious. It would seem that few conservatives understand that for many non-white Americans, religion has been marginalized from the beginning. So many non-whites have been cast aside by “the religious” of this country, with the words of the Bible being used to justify such treatment.

The words of scripture have been used to justify everything from sexism to racism to militarism to materialism, to homophobia. God has allowed a sizeable portion of people He created to be marginalized in his name.

The answer to my query, “God, where are you?” would be succinctly and perhaps tritely answered in a nice, short sentence. “God is not absent; God is within us.” Seriously? Well, then, have we all tucked God away? Have we put God in a safe room, to keep him/her quiet until a moment of personal need or crisis?

Obery Hendricks, in his book The Politics of Jesus, argues that the Jesus of the Christians mandates that we “treat the needs of people as holy,” but we clearly do not do that. We don’t as individuals, we don’t as a nation, and the world doesn’t in general.

Christopher Hitchens, an avowed atheist, says that “religion poisons everything.”  If that is true, then why is it? Could it be that in spite of claiming to be religious, that we religious types are really quite secular with religious leanings when needed? Could it be that it is because we really do not take God seriously, but know enough to use God when it suits our purposes?

I hold onto God, with every fiber of my being, because…because I need to. I hold onto God because I truly do believe in God’s creative genius. The world and all that is in it fascinates me, and though I attribute the accomplishments of science, I honor more the creative God who made the minds that made such accomplishments possible.

But I am disappointed with God as well, because I so dislike the state of this world full of religious people. There is enough food that nobody need be hungry; there are enough abandoned homes that banks could invest in so that nobody need be homeless. I am not pushing socialism; I am pushing mere humanity, a sufficient amount of which the world seems to lack. I cannot believe that God is pleased …and yet God does nothing.

I am not going to abandon God, though I feel like I turn from religion in a heartbeat sometimes. At the end of the day, God is the best answer, in my mind, for a world in which we as humans treat the needs of each other as holy, as Hendricks says, though historically, we have just never done it.

A candid observation …

Trayvon Martin Case: Holding My Breath

Today, the special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case said that she will not send the case to the grand jury.

That means, at the least, that George Zimmerman will not be charged with first degree murder.

It does not mean that he will not go to trial. He can still be charged with manslaughter or second degree murder.

My prayer is that he is charged with something. In spite of  Florida’s “stand your ground” law, this case has given off a putrid odor of injustice, an odor which is not foreign to African-Americans in this country. I shudder to think of how the nation might react if Zimmerman is allowed to go free.

What Zimmerman going free would mean to African-Americans, and to those who have been similarly treated by the justice system, is that America still does not value the lives of African-Americans, especially African-American men. Even in the 21st century, there are far too many white Americans who resent the presence of African-Americans in “their” country, and who think that the lives of African-Americans are expendable.  Historically, people in official capacities have used the power of the police state to deny African-Americans equal protection under the law, and should Zimmerman walk free, it will seem like business as usual.

It will not go over well.

What the Trayvon Martin case is doing is peeling away fear from African-Americans who are tired of injustice. It seems our fatigue comes in spells; we can fight only so many battles, or so many fights within a large battle, at a time, but this case has energized a people who for too long have been silent, trying to believe that racism is going away and that justice for African-Americans is in fact possible.  We have held onto this hope in spite of evidence that justice for us is still far too elusive…but there’s something about this case which is as energizing for us as was Rosa Parks‘ refusal to go to the back of the bus.

I read that a group of people, protestors, walked 40 miles to Sanford to protest. This wasn’t a symbolic march, like those done on the birthday of Martin Luther King every January, This was a march inspired by fatigue and determination – fatigue at the way things have been for far too long for black, brown and poor people, and determination that this case has crossed the line and pushed the envelope.

One of my members came to church yesterday, on Easter Sunday. “Pastor Sue,” she said, “I was sitting out in my car, listening to Rev. Al Sharpton. I don’t usually listen to him, but today, I couldn’t tear myself away. He was saying that what we are protesting is that these people in Florida have so little regard for a human life! Trayvon was a human being, Pastor Sue!” she said. The tears were rolling down her face. “I am so angry, so angry!”

And she is not alone.

My prayer is that Mr. Zimmerman is arrested. That is the least the justice system can do. Arrest him. Let him go on trial. Let the justice system work, as so many people are advising us. If he is acquitted, African-Americans will not be happy, but they (we) will at least feel like justice was served. The man who shot an unarmed teen will have been made to answer for his crime.

It is not a lot to ask. It is a basic American right for a crime to be prosecuted. Even though, in cases involving African-Americans verdicts have come back – way too many of them – which have been reflective of racial bias, at least there was a semblance of trying to do justice.

That’s what Trayvon’s parents and the hosts of people up in arms are seeking.

I hope America understands. I am holding my breath, and America should be, too.

A candid observation …

The Problem With America and Race

America, “methinks thou dost protest too loudly.”

The quote, from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” has been resonating with me all week.

As the Trayvon Martin case continues to be covered, with an emphasis on the possibility of his death being a hate crime, many people have protested – loudly and vehemently – that it is nothing of the sort.

Trayvon’s shooting may or may not have been racially motivated, but as I have thought about race in America this week, the thought has recurred to me that America doesn’t understand why race IS always an issue for us.

It is because, in the most simple terms, an issue of trust. Black people, African-Americans, do not trust white America. African-Americans do not trust the actions of white America or the intentions of white America. The relationship between the two races is one of suspicion based on evidence-based actions of white America which have worked to the detriment of African-Americans.

If we take it out of racial terms for a minute, and just look at the two races as two entities in relationship, we can see that the relationship has been “broken” from the beginning, in spite of absolutely glorious documents establishing America as a democracy. From the beginning, white America made it clear – and exercised its power to enforce its clarity – that they believed African-Americans were  inferior and unworthy of receiving rights guaranteed to all Americans by this country’s Constitution.

America’s blacks and whites are like a married couple in trouble, where one has continually abused the trust of the other and the other has developed coping behaviors to deal with the constant disrespect shown. In spite of efforts, some honest and some paltry, to fix the relationship, the dishonesty in behavior and intentions on the part of the “cheating spouse” has continued, and so the relationship between the two parties has continued to disintegrate.

As in many relationships where one has been unfaithful (in this case, white America being unfaithful to the ideals of liberty and equality espoused by the Constitution), the one who has done the cheating has the burden of doing whatever he or she can to regain the trust of the partner who has been cheated on. Counselors will tell cheating partners that if he or she wants the relationship, he or she will have to be willing to do whatever is necessary to mend the bonds of broken trust.

Many partners cannot handle the process of building or rebuilding trust. The partner who has been cheated on is OK for time, but the slightest deviation in word or action on the part of the cheating partner will bring back painful memories, the process of rebuilding has to begin all over again.

Only those relationships where the cheating partner is willing to take the crying, the complaining, the fear, the anger, and the resentment at having been disrespected until  a healing takes place, survive.

When it comes to white and black America, the relationship has never healed, and in fact, white America has too often continued to abuse the relationship between the two races by practicing discrimination and enacting policies that continue to belie a sincere desire to heal the relationship.

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of the “disillusionment of Negroes” in his book Why We Can’t Wait, written in the mid 1960s. African-Americans, he wrote, struggled and fought for desegregation of public schools, because the quality of education in white schools, as opposed to black schools, was so disparate. “Separate but equal” was an unreality, and all African-Americans wanted, he explained, was a level playing field in the area of education so that African-American children would have the same possibilities for latching onto the American dream as did white children.

Much of white America, however, resented the historic Brown vs. Education ruling by the United States Supreme Court, and at the time of the writing of Why We Can’t Wait, ten years after the decision, many schools had not been integrated because white educators and legislators were still finding loopholes in the laws requiring integration. Integration was supposed to happen “with all deliberate speed,” the High Court had ruled, but its words were ignored…and no court, no legislature, did anything about it.

King wrote that “the Supreme Court retreated from its own position by giving approval to the Pupil Placement Law…which permitted the states themselves to determine where school children might be placed by virtue of family background, special ability and other subjective criteria.” (italics mine)

Though there was verbal non-support of discrimination in housing and employment during the Kennedy administration, Dr. King wrote, the fact of the matter was that government, state and local, continued to allow discrimination under the mantra of “states’ rights.” King correctly observed that though the Emancipation Proclamation had been a signed at that time 100 years before the time in which he wrote, there had been little true freedom for African-Americans.

What is there to trust in this relationship between the American government and its African-American citizens?

The pattern of the government saying one thing, yet supporting and permitting just the opposite, then, eroded the capacity of African-Americans to trust this same government. Perhaps the heart of America and its general disdain toward African-Americans can be found in the fact that the federal government never passed an anti-lynching bill. In the area of justice shown toward African-Americans, the country’s record was dismal, and continues to be. Not only black, but brown and poor people have little chance of experiencing the full majesty of America’s justice system.

And yet, white America expects African-Americans to “be happy and content.” The breach of trust is never spoken of or acknowledged, and the patterns of discrimination continue, in spite of our Constitution.

Though people like GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum carry the belief that “black people are spending other people’s money,” the fact is that the majority of African-Americans have pushed through the system, the laws and the governments which have done all they can to keep them in  second-class citizen status. In spite of discrimination in hiring, housing, lending, education and justice, African-Americans have pushed through and made their own way in a country which has tried at every step to block that way.

But it is unfortunate, the relationship between blacks and whites. The trust is not there, and no attempt is being made to build or establish the trust. Those who have been “cheated on” in a relationship supposedly built on trust can recall, I am sure, their discomfort with their partner after “the breach.” The desire to continue on has been there, but has been made all the more difficult by this breach …and if the offending partner has not only not apologized but has continued to repeat the offending behavior, repair of that relationship is almost certainly not going to happen.

Perhaps if there were a national counseling initiative, a “truth and reconciliation” effort like that done in South Africa, the lack of trust might be addressed and workable solutions found…but as things stand, the relationship between blacks and whites is toxic and volatile. There is no way, as we have heard during the debacle called the Trayvon Martin case, that black people are going to “trust the system” and  be willing to “let the system work.”

Our experience has been that “the system” does not and has not intention of, working for us, not without behemoth effort and push back from a system that seems to be filled with people who resent African-Americans even being in this nation.  African-Americans have tasted the cup of injustice, over and over again, and its bitter taste remains in our spirits.

If there is no trust, there can be no relationship, not between two individuals, not between nations…and not between two races, these two races, called black and white.

A candid observation …

Making it In Spite of and Not Because Of

Lincoln Submitting the Emancipation Proclamati...
Lincoln Submitting the Emancipation Proclamation to His Cabinet (Photo credit: Marion Doss)

Martin Luther King wrote in 1964 that although President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War had been won for the Union, “there was not a just peace. Equality had never arrived.”

And still, equality hasn’t.

King, in his introduction to Why We Can’t Wait wrote that “Negroes were with George Washington at Valley Forge…the first American to shed blood in the revolution which freed his country was a black man named Crispus Attucks.”  King wrote that one of the team who designed the capital of this nation was a black man, Benjamin Banneker…”

“Wherever there was hard work, dirty work, dangerous work – in the mines, on the docks, in the blistering foundries – Negroes had done more than their share…”

And still, no justice, and little respect.

There can be little doubt, as we watch the goings on in the Trayvon Martin case, that the struggle for African-Americans to get justice in this country is still not over. In this particular case, race is not the only issue; Florida’s “stand your ground” law is equally culpable in having created the mess with which the Martin family is facing. Yet, there is a seething rage among blacks and an uncomfortable acknowledgement among whites that if the shooter had been black, and the victim white, the story unfolding would be vastly different.

I have long come to understand that blacks have made the gains we have in this country not because this is America but in spite of the fact that this is America. The presence of structural and institutional racism, even in the absence of stark and obvious racism, has made every step African-Americans have taken very difficult, and yet, African-Americans have pressed on. We have used the United States Constitution even though that document was never meant to secure or guarantee our freedoms or even our right to be here.

The parents of Trayvon Martin are to be commended, because they are standing on their constitutional rights and are demanding justice.  Interestingly, even when the United States Supreme Court has made rulings that should have made life easier and more just for African-Americans, there has been concerted effort to delay honoring the high court’s ruling; after Brown vs. Board of Education, many white school districts closed their schools rather than integrate.

Yet, African-Americans pressed on for justice, just as Trayvon’s parents are pressing on.

It would be such a relief if these types of struggles were over. It would be such a relief if race didn’t still have a seat front and center in so much of American life, but it does, and we refuse to acknowledge her presence and her power in our society.

Kudos to Trayvon Martin’s parents, who refuse to give up. When everyone takes off their hoodies, I only hope that they don’t abandon their determination to make sure race-based injustice doesn’t continue to be a staple of American life. It is so past time for our story to change.

A candid observation …

Dr. King and the Trayvon Martin Case

Dr. Martin Luther King at a press conference.
Dr. Martin Luther King at a press conference. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, as I listened to different people, primarily white, urge people to “trust” the justice system, and to “wait” for the justice system to work in the Trayvon Martin case, I found myself wanting to cover my ears from the din of useless noise.

Useless noise is exactly what it sounded like, this plea for African-Americans to wait for the justice system to work, because the system has so seldom worked on behalf of black, brown and poor people in this nation.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King talks about “the law,” and how there are just and unjust laws. It seems that white clergy were urging Dr. King to obey the law and to “wait for the justice system to work.” Dr. King pushed back, saying that “there are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.” I thought of the “stand your ground” law that is apparently protecting accused shooter George Zimmerman from being arrested. Truly, that law is just on its face, but it seems like it was unjustly applied in this case.

Dr. King talks about what is “legal,” in his discussion of just and unjust laws. The white clergy were accusing Dr. King of breaking the law, and therefore doing something illegal. Again, Dr. King pushed back, writing, “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in German was legal and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid a Jew in Hitler’s Germany,” he wrote. If, I thought, Trayvon was the aggressor in this case, according to Florida law, he would have been breaking the law, and would have put himself in the position of having to be fought off.

But it just doesn’t seem that that scenario is correct…and it seemed, as I listened to white people urge others to be calm and obey the law and let the justice system work, that they were more concerned with “law and order” than they were, or are, concerned with justice. Said Dr. King: “the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice, who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action,’ who paternally feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom, who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to ‘wait until a more convenient season,” …is frustrating. He said people of good will who have such shallow understanding are more frustrating than people of ill will who have absolute, total misunderstanding.”

It is apparently very difficult for white Americans to understand the “souls” of black people in this nation, who have been so battered, and not bettered by, the justice system. There are reasons why the rage is so obvious about young Trayvon’s shooting and Zimmerman’s non-arrest. The reasons reach far back into our history; many of us have relatives who were abused by a justice system which never intended to exhibit justice toward them or their cases. And now, here in the 21st century, we find that really not all that much progress has been made.

Roland Martin, CNN commentator, said that if there are no protests, we cannot hope for justice. Had it not been for the bravery and tenacity of Trayvon’s parents, this case would have been swept under the rug with no mention; another young black male would simply have been buried…but Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s parents, sounded the battle cry, blew the trumpet, if you will. Their refusal to let their son die in vain reminded me of how Emmett Till‘s mother, Mamie, catapulted the national shame called lynching to international attention when she refused to let her son’s death be ignored.

Dr. King, in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, wrote, “Oppressed  people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.”  He acknowledged that “few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

Dr. King’s words, written in the mid 1960s, are just as appropriate today. The demonstrations against what appears to be gross injustice in the Trayvon Martin case must continue …or else, there will be no justice.

A candid observation…