Category Archives: Politics and Culture

Question: Why must we still talk about race? Answer: Twelve.


Note: This post was picked up by the Huffington Post and you can also read it there.

I’m reading Ta Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me right now. It’s a dissonant experience because the language in the book is exquisite, and the truth of it is tough and hard.

I’m also reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to northern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Washington DC in the early 20th century.

I highly recommend both books, especially if you are white. Read them with an open heart. Read them not to refute, but to understand. Read them in the spirit of Brian McLaren’s joke, “Why did Jesus cross the road?” “To get to the other.”

I hear a good bit of defensiveness from many white people when the subject of race comes up. They don’t understand why we are “still” talking about it. If pressed, they will often insist that they are not racist. They treat people equally. Everyone was nice to everyone in their high school. There was no racial tension.

All of those things may be true. But they’re not the point.

Twelve is the point.

I heard Isabel Wilkerson speak last week while I was at the Chautauqua Institution, just a few days before the anniversary of Ferguson. She began her talk by evoking #BlackLivesMatter. And I could hear some hackles rising. Do you know what hackles sound like? They begin as the sound of shifting in seats. Add some clearing of throats as people get ready to rehearse their “post racial” bona fides to anyone who will listen. It was a polite crowd, and I must say, a well-intentioned one, so the hackles simmered down. They sat and listened. And I hope they heard Isabel Wilkerson offer an offhand remark that, for me, shifts everything:

The institution of slavery persisted for twelve generations of African Americans in this country.

I knew it, but I didn’t know it.

Twelve generations.

Those of us who study the Bible know the power of the number twelve. There were twelve tribes of Israel. These tribes were God’s beloved ones. Later Jesus would call twelve disciples to walk with him in faithfulness. A woman reached out to Jesus for healing because she’d been hemorrhaging, her blood spilled upon the earth, for twelve years. And a little girl of twelve was brought to life again when Jesus’ words of liberation and empowerment filled her ears: little girl, GET UP.

For those of us who don’t read the Bible, no matter. Twelve generations is a long time.

Twelve generations of could-have-been.

Twelve generations of doctors and midwives and lawyers and writers, scrubbing floors in the master’s house.

Twelve generations of musicians and architects and sculptors and scholars, picking cotton from dawn until dusk.

And—it must be said, and was said by Isabel Wilkerson—twelve generations of white people who wouldn’t let the doctors heal, wouldn’t let the architects build, wouldn’t let the sculptors create. When you’re keeping a race of people down in the ditch, she said, that means you’re down in the ditch with them. Our history diminished all of us.

That’s why this conversation matters. That’s why we have to talk about it. If you’re not a racist, congratulations. I’m not going to argue with you, because it’s not the point.

Twelve is the point. Twelve is the point.

How long do you think it should take to dismantle twelve generations of racial oppression, not to mention Reconstruction, Jim Crow and its aftermath? Should we be “over it” by now? Ask my friend, who couldn’t get a job interview until she removed her “black-sounding” name from her resume, whether it’s over. Ask the black men in our communities, who are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire, whether it’s over.

My mother has an expression, “When it’s on you, it’s on you.” I didn’t ask for it to be on me—the privilege that comes from being white—but it’s on me. And I’m fooling only myself if I try and insist otherwise, just because we passed the Civil Rights Act and elected a black President.

It’s not about guilt. Guilt is a distraction, a side show, a dead end. My people did not own slaves. But the state of my birth fought under the Confederate flag. And contrary to popular belief, my white children will be more likely to receive a college scholarship than their friends who are people of color.

When it’s on you, it’s on you. And now it’s on all of us to talk about it—and also to listen.


During World War I there was a great migration north… painting by Jacob Lawrence.

A Racist Atticus and a Mess of a Book? Bring It On.


I was skeptical when news first broke that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-shelved novel, would be published. Lee has famously refused to let her manuscript, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, ever see the light of day.

Why did she change her mind? Did she change her mind? Given her advanced age and failing health, people are concerned she’s being taken advantage of. While I know people who can’t get past those concerns, I’m willing to proceed as a reader; an independent investigation involving two Alabama agencies has found her competent to make decisions about her work.

Now as the book is being released and reviews begin to surface, people are nervous for a new reason: apparently this novel does not measure up to the near-perfection of Mockingbird. And perhaps more heartbreakingly, neither does Atticus. It seems unthinkable that a man who would single-handedly take on the Alabama justice system on behalf of an innocent black man would attend a Klan meeting, or denounce the Supreme Court who decided Brown v. Board of Education.

But I say: bring it on.

Don’t get me wrong. I condemn the sin of racism, collectively, individually and in my own heart. I don’t relish an Atticus Finch who harbored paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans in the South, or fretted that white schools would decline in quality once they were integrated.

I don’t delight in such a portrayal of Atticus, and will likely read the book with a sick feeling. But I suspect 2015 America needs this Atticus. I’ll be reading the book, not as a novel, but as an historical document. Go Set a Watchman gives us a peek into the mind of a young, inexperienced writer who would go on to write the Great American Novel. But more importantly, it will give us a glimpse into our own soul as a nation.

We’re struggling with a legacy of racism in this country. Condoleezza Rice, no bleeding-heart liberal herself, has called racism our country’s “birth defect.” The last several months have revealed to many of us what others have known their whole lives. So now what? We need to be talking to one another about this legacy. It’s painful and important.

But how? We can start by being honest about our history, ourselves, and yes, our heroes. The problem is, we like our heroes untouchable. We want Atticus to have “cute” flaws, like exasperation over Scout’s mischief, or a nervous fumbling with his eyeglasses as he shoots a rabid dog. But Atticus, at least as Harper Lee envisioned him, was a complicated, deeply conflicted man. How do his (considerable) blind spots in Watchman influence how we understand the whole character?

In my tradition, and many other Christian traditions, we recite the Apostles’ Creed, including the line, “I believe in the communion of saints.” What do we mean by that? Presbyterians don’t have an elaborate process of canonization like the Catholic Church. Rather we believe in a “great cloud of witnesses,” people who’ve gone before us who have shown us what it means to live faithfully and well. We call them saints, even though not a single one was perfect—indeed, many of them were deeply flawed indeed. And yet occasionally, they got it right. Beautifully, shiningly right.

Atticus may still be that kind of saint for us—not because of his racist tendencies in Watchman, but despite them. If it were not so, would there be hope for any of us? Our ability to succeed and thrive as a nation depends on imperfect people coming together around a painful conversation and movement: warts, flaws, biases and all. I have them; apparently Atticus had them too.

As Dorothy Day has said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” An Atticus as preserved in Mockingbird is so perfect as to be unreachable. An Atticus whose story straddles the two novels is like us. And in aspiring to be our best selves, we can be like his best self. When the heavy machinery of upbringing and personal comfort and culture grinds against what’s right, we can stand up. We must.


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What Marriage Equality Is Actually About

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Say what you will about Justice Antonin Scalia–he is colorful. In his dissent to today’s opinion on marriage equality, he wrote this:

Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.

(By the way Mr. Justice–the 20th century called and wants its examples back. Hippies? Really?)

Yes, there is a moral beauty and spiritual resonance in what happened today. But let’s be focused and clear about what this is about. It is about equal rights under the law.

In the words of Jim Obergefell, the man whose name will forever be linked to today’s decision:

Couples across America may now wed and have their marriage recognized and respected no matter what state they call home. No other person will learn at the most painful moment of married life, the death of a spouse, that their lawful marriage will be disregarded by the state. No married couple who moves will suddenly become two single persons because their new state ignores their lawful marriage.

Ethan and Andrew can marry in Cincinnati instead of being forced to travel to another state.

A girl named Ruby can have an accurate birth certificate listing her parents Kelly and Kelly.

Pam and Nicole never again have to fear for Grayden and Orion’s lives in a medical emergency because, in their panic, they forgot legal documents that prove both mothers have the right to approve care.

Cooper can grow into a man knowing Joe and Rob are his parents in all ways emotional and legal.

I can finally relax knowing that Ohio can never erase our marriage from John’s death certificate, and my husband can now truly rest in peace.

It is so ordered.


And a blast from the past: the piece I wrote for TIME almost exactly a year ago when the Presbyterian Church (USA) made the move to marriage equality.

Image: states where gay marriage is legal. Source.

The World Is Still Beautiful

Last night I posted this to Facebook with the caption

It’s a beautiful time to be alive.



I posted it at 8:30 p.m.

Of course I didn’t know that at that moment, a young white man was sitting in an iconic black church, words of love and liberation washing over him, calculating just the right time to open fire on people whose only crime was being black in America.

It was a lynching.

As of this writing, my Facebook post had 162 likes. Many of them came in after the events in Charleston. I’m grateful for every one of those likes, because I have a hard time believing it’s a beautiful time to be alive. I’m so tired of the violence that I can scarcely even muster the energy to be outraged.

And if I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, I can only imagine what African-American friends and colleagues are feeling. A friend shared that her church is having a meeting to see about hiring a security guard, which they would share with the church across the street. I don’t need to tell you the racial makeup of those congregations.

162 people clicked a button in agreement that it’s a beautiful time to be alive., which is such a small thing, but I needed every one of those affirmation.

Because it’s true. We must fight back with beauty.

But the beauty we employ cannot be a soft, Thomas Kinkade beauty. No, we need beauty with an edge and a spine. We need Mark Rothko beauty. We need Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes and Miles Davis.

My friend Denise Anderson wrote this post. Read it and suit up.

It is a beautiful time to be alive. But only if we make it beautiful. And we have to. We just have to.