Tag Archives: racism

Civil Rights: History, But Not Yet Past

This month at the NEXT Church blog, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Here’s my contribution–cross-posted here. Check out the whole series!

I have a lot of friends these days who are reading books about the rise of fascism in Germany. I will leave it to the reader to consider the reason for consuming such reading material, and any resonances between that time period and our modern day. (For now, I am content with occasional binges of The Man in the High Castle on Netflix, which imagines a world in which the Allies lost World War II, and a small band of dissidents imagines a better, more peaceful and compassionate world. They call themselves the Resistance.)

Rather than fill my Kindle and nightstand with the history of Nazism, I’ve decided to focus my heavy reading on the civil rights era in America. At the beginning of the year I resolved to read Taylor Branch’s three-volume series, beginning with the 1,000-page Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963.

Some time after undertaking this project, a friend informed me that there’s a summary book that condenses this history into one volume. But I’ve committed at this point. As for how long it will take me to read almost three thousand pages? I can only promise that it will be less time than the 14 years that comprise the movement Branch chronicles.

At last year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta, I heard loud and clear our call as an 89% white denomination to undertake conversations about race and racism, however uncomfortable these conversations may be, and however much some may push back at us for “dwelling on the past rather than moving on.” As I read Branch’s careful accounting of the ills of white supremacy, I consider today’s travel bans and border walls, and Iowa Congressman Steve King’s odious comment that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Meanwhile many of us carry signs and risk arrest, and we rejoice when the judicial branch puts a check on bigotry through legislative executive order. And I marvel at the truth of the words, attributed to William Faulkner, that the past isn’t dead — indeed it isn’t even past.

Like many of us, I knew much of this history only in the most cursory way. We studied civil rights in school, and I remember my AP Government teacher arranged for after-school showings of the magnificent documentary Eyes on the Prize. (He felt it so important for a bunch of white suburban smartypants to see it that he offered two additional points on our entire semester grade if we watched the whole thing. In retrospect, it was so wrenching and transforming I would have done it for free.)

I did not know, or perhaps didn’t remember, that Martin Luther King Jr.’s first major troubles with the law came when the state of Alabama tried to get him on charges of felony tax evasion related to his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. What ultimately saved him was his incredibly meticulous record-keeping; attorneys and accountants working on his behalf were stunned at the painstaking way he kept track of his expenses. I think about my haphazard financial records and how they would not hold up to such scrutiny. And I recall how African-American friends talk about learning from a young age that they must always, always “be better.”

I also offer my own confession, prompted by a section about the 1957 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Eisenhower. The bill was watered down as to be almost useless (though that didn’t stop Strom Thurmond from filibustering it for some 24 hours). Many civil rights leaders refused to support it because it was so weak. Yet King and other civil rights leaders ultimately signed on. As Roy Wilkins put it, “If you are digging a ditch with a teaspoon and a man comes along and offers you a spade,” he said, “there is something wrong with your head if you don’t take it because he didn’t offer you a bulldozer.”

As I read this section, I remembered King’s injunction that justice delayed is justice denied — and yet here he was, putting his stamp of approval on an almost useless bill. Here is the confession: I felt welling up in me a sense of self-righteous “gotcha-ism”: See! Even a civil rights icon acknowledges that progress is slow, and sometimes you take what you can get rather than hold out for real justice. Take that, Letter from a Birmingham Jail!

Except there’s a big difference at work here: I am white, and King was black. Yes, in the struggle for civil rights, sometimes the progress is slow. But there’s no way for me as a white person to push for baby steps and partial measures without getting tangled up in my own motivations: Am I really on the side of the angels, or am I trying to preserve my own sense of comfort? As an ally, it is my call to listen to the voices of people of color and follow their lead in terms of strategy. When they say it’s time to turn up the heat, we do. When incremental change is called for, they alone drive that, not my desire to placate white America.

When my kids come home from school every January with photocopied handouts about Martin Luther King Jr., I like to ask them if they knew what his profession was. The older ones are used to it by now, and sigh as they say, “He was a preacher, Mom, like you.” In my defense, I want them to know that the struggle for civil rights — whether it’s justice for the descendants of enslaved Africans, or the right of transgender people to use the bathroom with which they identity — is work we do in light of our Christian faith, not independent of it. But it’s also a sinful pride, I admit: a desire to hitch my wagon to one of the great heroes of the 20th century simply because we share a common vocation.

Reading Branch’s book, I catch a glimpse of King’s frail humanity as well as his gifts for ministry (prodigious beyond my own though they were). He soared and he struggled. He felt a strong sense of God’s call, and he wasn’t always sure which strategy was best. In that way, he resembled all of us who have had heavy hands laid on our head and shoulders, who try to do God’s will yet often muddle our way through.

The struggles of 2017 are different, yet frustratingly similar. King was a pastor, like me. But that also means I am a pastor, like King. And it’s time for me — for all of us who lead Christ’s church — to make that real.

George Washington, Race, Greatness, and Me (and You)

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Members of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton (Chris Jackson as Washington, far right)

The other day I listened to an interview with Chris Jackson, who recently wrapped up his time playing George Washington in the musical Hamilton on Broadway. Robert and I were fortunate enough to see him in this role last month, and wow. Wow.

The depth of talent in New York is so deep that I have full confidence in Nicholas Christopher, the next Washington, but wow. Charisma for days.

Jackson was talking to Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch, a podcast about race and culture (and an indispensable one in my opinion). Demby asked Jackson about the experience of being an African-American man who is playing a slaveholder. Jackson has said in the past that he’s not interested in “reconciling” those parts of Washington’s character, and here’s part of how he explained that:

He owned people.
He owned people that looked like my father and that looked like me.

I’ve made a compromise with myself. I haven’t compromised my principles. But I told myself, “You have to portray somebody that was behind so many unlikely, breathtakingly genius ideas and who found a way to enact them.” But I’m not the guy to see him as a god. There’s always been a movement to deify [the Founders], and that has its place and is important in terms of educating the public on what we should strive for…

But to almost a person, they were under the mindset that someone who looked like me was not capable of pressing a thought, not capable of civilized behavior, or who had no aptitude for greatness.

And I’ll never make peace with that. But I don’t have to.

I’ve just been editing a section of my book in which I talk about improvisation as having a spirit of “And” rather than “But.” When we learn to improvise, we learn to receive whatever our partner offers onstage (Yes), and then to build on it (And). That doesn’t mean we go along passively with that offer, by the way. If they pull an improv gun on us, we don’t need to let ourselves get shot. But we at least need to agree that the thing they’re pointing at us is a gun, and not, say, a banana.

We have to agree on the reality before we can move forward. (Another post, perhaps, in this era of fake news.)

I hear Chris Jackson talking about approaching the Founders with a spirit of And rather than But.

Because here’s the problem with But. When we use But, we have to figure out which part of the statement is primary. Consider:

George Washington was a wise and discerning leader, but he owned slaves.
George Washington owned slaves, but he was a wise and discerning leader.

Each of these statements suggests a different starting point. Was he a great man, who oh-by-the-way had this terrible blind spot? Or was he at his core a racist, but despite this tragic flaw managed to lead our country with wisdom and strength?

A spirit of “And” means we don’t have to make that judgment, because ultimately we can’t. They are both part of who he was.

Zooming out a bit, in my reading about leadership, I’ve studied some polarity management (enough to be dangerous). My understanding of it is that most problems aren’t really solvable. Rather, it’s more important to manage the various competing concerns so they complement each other in a healthy, balanced way. We seem to have lost the ability to do that in the US, which is odd considering that, at least on the national level, we are basically a 50-50 country.

Yes, there are some ideals upon which we cannot budge an inch and still maintain our integrity. With a president-elect who is appointing white supremacists to his inner circle and talking of a registry of immigrants based on religion, I realize that “And” may sound like capitulation. I’m not willing to go along with actions which, I believe, compromise fundamental American values.

Still I wonder, is there any way to move past this zero-sum mentality in which our leaders (and we the people) seem to have gotten stuck? Are there any issues on which people can come together?

As one of my favorite Presidents, Josiah Bartlet, once said, “Every once in a while—every once in a while—there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country.” I’d like to see us find our way toward a bit more “And.”

Contradiction, polarity, “And,” whatever you want to call it–it’s been with us since the days of George Washington, patriot and slave-holder, slave-holder and patriot.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Who Was Jackie Robinson’s Jackie Robinson?

 

Robert and I went to see 42 last night. Good film, well worth seeing. There was the tiniest layer of cheese over the movie, and the score was not the least bit subtle. But it was well done, and it captured the essence of his story, at least according to Robinson’s widow.

A church member had told me to be on the lookout for references to faith, and they were certainly there. Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) quotes scripture as a justification for signing Robinson to the Dodgers, though he’s also clear that it’s a good long-term business decision. Loved the line at the beginning: “Robinson’s a Methodist! I’m a Methodist! God’s a Methodist!”

During their first meeting, Rickey talks to Robinson about how he is to respond to the racist vitriol that will come—he cannot fight back, even if provoked, because he will inevitably be deemed the instigator by a wary and suspicious public. His job is to play ball and to do it well. (Which he does… and there are clear elements of the trickster in the way Robinson toys with the pitchers when stealing bases.)

Jackie Robinson: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?

Branch Rickey: No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.

This idea is connected explicitly to Jesus’ teachings later on during a conversation between the two characters.

Given the Christian images that wove throughout the movie, I longed for just one scene of Jackie Robinson in church. It’s not that I need that validation as a Christian or anything. But there is no real sense of the community Jackie grows out of. Whenever we see him in the movie, he’s either on the field, with Rickey, or with his wife.

We see him inspiring countless African-Americans at the time (and it was cool to read that one of the most “Hollywood” moments of the story, involving a young boy at a train station as Robinson and the team pull away, was based in reality). But who inspired and sustained Jackie Robinson? Who did he look to for support? During the torrent of abuse, the pitches thrown at him, the petitions circulating behind his back, was there a community that he leaned on?

Even trailblazers need a community.

As I wrote last week, John Lewis talked recently about the training the civil rights activists received around non-violent resistance to racist attitudes and barriers. That kind of training didn’t spring fully formed in the 1950s, post-Robinson; it rises from a long history and a deep grounding in the stories of liberation in the Bible. I understand that in a movie you have to be economical with the story, but it felt a bit strained for Rickey, an old white guy, to be Robinson’s sole mentor helping him along the way. (Though I loved the character.)

Maybe a Jackie Robinson fan will come along and shed some light—and for all I know the film may be accurate that he was kind of a loner. But there’s a bigger point. I’m always a bit bothered by this kind of portrayal of our heroes. It strikes me as a very American way to tell the story—it’s the bootstrap myth on steroids—but it’s ultimately inadequate. What’s powerful about real-life hero stories is that they tell about real flesh-and-blood people who rise out of a community in a specific time and place. They may see themselves as nothing special, but their gifts and circumstance conspire to thrust them into greatness. Even so, they cannot do it alone.

Not everyone is called to be Jackie Robinson. Heck, not everyone can be Jackie Robinson. But our world needs people to aspire to great things. If the cultural story we tell is of the lone hero, I suspect that most people will choose to sit out because they think they don’t have what it takes. But if we get to stand on the shoulders of others who’ve gone before, I suspect that more people will get to climbing.

Friday Link Love: Laughing at Kids, Love Connections at Wal-Mart and More

First of all: new author website! Woohoo! Thanks to the folks at Paraclete Web Design for their great work, prompt service, and good humor. There will be a number of kinks to work out in the days to come, but how fun to have some new digs!

Away we go:

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The Saddest Map in America — The Dish

Looking for love in all the wrong places? The most popular places mentioned in Craig’s List “missed connections” feature, compiled by state:

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I don’t know what’s more awesome: that Wal-Mart appears so many times, or that Oklahomans are looking for love at the state fair.

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Interview with Edward O. Wilson: The Origin of Morals — Spiegel

He’s changed his position on kin selection as it relates to evolution, favoring group selection instead:

During the 1970s, I was one of the main proponents of kin selection theory. And at first the idea sounds very reasonable. So for example, if I favored you because you were my brother and therefore we share one half of our genes, then I could sacrifice a lot for you. I could give up my chance to have children in order to get you through college and have a big family. The problem is: If you think it through, kin selection doesn’t explain anything. Instead, I came to the conclusion that selection operates on multiple levels. On one hand, you have normal Darwinian selection going on all the time, where individuals compete with each other. In addition, however, these individuals now form groups. They are staying together, and consequently it is group versus group.

I’m no scientist, but the tribal thing makes sense. There are new studies out about how liberals and conservatives over-exaggerate the characteristics of the other.

And this phrase was new to me:

“Humans,” the saying goes, “have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology”.

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When the Children Make Us Laugh — Worshiping with Children

She is sitting on the steps with the pastor who asks a question.  She offers what seems like a perfectly sensible answer and the whole congregation laughs.  In that moment one of two things happens, either a comedian is born or a child feels humiliated.  When a comedian is born, he often uses the children’s time to practice his new-found vocation, generally with beginner comedian results.  He may even compete with the pastor for the attention of the congregation – especially if mom or dad is the pastor.  The results can embarrass everyone – except probably the young comedian. But if the child who drew laughter feels humiliated, she often decides the conversations on the steps are dangerous.

There is surely middle ground here between a fledgling comedian and abject humiliation. But laughing at children when they are being serious is a major issue with me. It’s fine to share delight with one another, regardless of age. But I felt disrespected as a child when I made an earnest comment and adults laughed. Some ideas in this article about how to handle this in worship.

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It’s Absurd — Bromleigh McCleneghan

During the Oscars, the Onion posted a vile tweet about child actress Quvenzhané Wallis. Bromleigh’s take on the incident is one of my favorites. She also has the best “About” page I think I’ve ever read in all my years of blogging.

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Trust and Society — Bruce Schneier, The Montreal Review

This past weekend during book group at Tiny, we were discussing the Harry Potter series. I remarked that both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games portray institutions (such as government) as completely inept at best, and malevolent at worst. I wondered what it does to kids to receive such messages—that basic institutions are not worthy of our trust—at such a formative time in their lives. (I honestly don’t know; I mean, look at fairy tales!)

Many people piped up with variations on the idea that institutions should not be worthy of our trust, and certainly not blind trust (I agree with the latter). One person said “Kids needs to learn that they can trust their families, their friends. Not institutions.” Another brought up Watergate. I get that. But really, is it helpful and healthy to promote cynicism at such an early age?

I wish I’d had this article at the time:

In today’s society, we need to trust not only people, but institutions and systems. It’s not so much that I trusted the particular pilot who flew my plane this morning, but the airline that produces well-trained and well-rested pilots according to some schedule. And it’s not so much that I trusted the particular taxi driver, but instead the taxi licensing system and overall police system that produced him. Similarly, when I used an ATM this morning — another interesting exercise in trust — it’s less that I trusted that particular machine, bank, and service company — but instead that I trusted the national banking system to debit the proper amount from my bank account back home.

What do you think?

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Sister Corita Kent’s Timeless Rules for Learning and Life, Hand-Lettered by Lisa Congdon — Brain Pickings

Thought-provoking list:

  1. Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.

(Speaking of trust…)

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Want to Give Your Family Value and Purpose? Write a Mission Statement — The Atlantic

Can mission statements be pointless wastes of time? Yes, they can. But not necessarily. I’ll admit it, I love the idea. The author quotes the Covey family mission statement:

“The mission of our family is to create a nurturing place of faith, order, truth, love, happiness, and relaxation, and to provide opportunity for each individual to become responsibly independent, and effectively interdependent, in order to serve worthy purposes in society.”

I had a range of reactions on reading this. On the one hand, I found the whole thing a little corny. It seemed cumbersome, heavy-handed, and a tad humorless. On the other hand, I kinda loved the idea. I’m corny! I also thought Covey’s idea captured something inherently true: How can we ask our children to uphold our family’s values if we never articulate what those values are?

This calls to mind some of the discussion going on in the church about teaching kids the Christian faith. For decades, we have relied on Sunday School and mid-week programs to do the job. But it’s the parents’ job, first and foremost. (Especially since the trend now is for “regular” attendees to come only a few times a month—we just don’t have time and wherewithal to the do it all at church.)

Finally we voted on a single statement (taken from a remark I made when they were born): “May our first word be adventure and our last word love.” Finally we added a series of ten statements: “We are travelers not tourists;” “We don’t like dilemmas; we like solutions.”

Or how about a family faith statement? Thank you John Vest!

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We Are Not What We Were Called — The Dish

Two from Brain Pickings, two from The Dish. This is a link to that amazing movie/slam poem about bullying that’s been making the rounds. But also check out this study:

Based on the findings, Copeland and his team divided their subjects into three groups: People who were victims as children, people who were bullies, and people who were both. The third group is known as bully-victims. These are the people who tend to have the most serious psychological problems as kids, and in the Duke study, they also showed up with higher levels of anxiety, depressive disorders, and suicidal thinking as adults. The people who had only experienced being victims were also at heightened risk for depression and anxiety. And the bullies were more likely to have an antisocial personality disorder.

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What Now? Advice for Writing and Life from Ann Patchett — Brain Pickings

Two from Brain Pickings this week! I guess this post is from a commencement speech Patchett did. I took note of it because I was recently back at Columbia Seminary for only the third time since graduating 10 years ago. It was a very deep, rich experience, to walk those halls and to emerge from the Harrington Center into the quad like I did some 13 years ago when I first visited the campus and thought, “I am home.”

So her remarks about going back to the pivotal spaces in our lives resonated with me:

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours — long hallways and unforeseen stairwells — eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?

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What now, indeed? May whatever it is be wonderful for you all.