Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Empathy, not 'race'

The internet and some social media have been buzzing over a New York Times op-ed, “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?”, that was published on Sunday. The author, Ekow N. Yankah, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, I assume is of African heritage. A number of supporters of President Donald Trump were outraged by the statement, that we as a nation are being dragged backwards. 

But the point that Yankah is making is not about race per se; it’s about empathy. And on that score I think he’s right.

Indeed, he wrote, “Real friendship is impossible without the ability to trust others, without knowing that your well-being is important to them. The desire to create, maintain or wield power over others destroys the possibility of friendship. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream of black and white children holding hands was a dream precisely because he realized that in Alabama, conditions of dominance made real friendship between white and black people impossible.” 

In other words, he’s not talking about casual friendships where people drink beer, watch sports or in some cases even worship in the same church together. It’s about being able to let one’s hair down and share his or her stories and experiences without being judged or attacked for holding a different point of view.
And as a person of color I would agree that Trump, with his longstanding and documented decades-long racist practices, anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican rhetoric during last year’s presidential campaign and tacit support of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va. over the summer, has indeed made race relations more difficult by sabotaging the hard conversations needed to repair the breach. 
At the turn of the millennium I was dating a white woman who wanted to marry me but for us as a couple and family — she had three sons from previous marriages — to attend the church that was across the street from her (that was precisely why she chose that church). The trouble was that on a visit I noticed some literature that one of her sons was bringing home that I suspected that was racist, which turned out to be the case; over time I had other experiences that demonstrated to me at least the insensitivity of church members, including another son, when it came to such matters and because I refused to attend that church and she wouldn’t leave the relationship ended up being destroyed.
But when I shared these situations with some people I knew to be Trump supporters I was told, “You were looking for it.” Oh, no, I wasn’t, and that’s the kind of disrespect I’m talking about — the kind of disrespect that causes folks to label "Black Lives Matter" falsely as a hate group and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as being divisive for protesting police brutality for "taking a knee" last year during the national anthem, neither of which is remotely true.
One thing I have been privileged to hear over the last three decades is the incessant pain some women friends (and, in some cases, girlfriends) have shared with me over being sexually abused, including raped. Since I’m not a woman I cannot myself enter into that pain, but I can show empathy toward them and like to think I’ve done so. Nearly eight years ago, a singer in one of my bands shared with me some of the details of her abuse, which was why she was in the area in the first place, and I felt the need to tell her in response, “I will never lay my hand against you.”
She responded, “I didn’t think you would.” I can’t tell you how that felt — knowing that I had truly heard someone not like me. 
You see, it’s not enough simply to say that you don’t support racist behavior or have friends of color. They need to hear that you’ll go to the mat with them when push comes to shove, that when an incident happens to them or they feel threatened you’ll stand with them.
As the Rev. R. Loren Sandford, pastor of New Song Church and Ministries in Denver, wrote to white Christians in about the George Zimmerman verdict in 2013, “[L]isten compassionately to the hurt delivered by the lingering taint of racism with which our nation still struggles. Nothing can be done now about the verdict, but we can certainly work to bring reconciliation in the wake of it. In fact, this is our commission from Jesus who is Lord of all — Jew, Greek, white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American. We must be ministers of reconciliation together, especially now.”

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The immiment revival, part 10 — speaking out for the powerless

The irony in white evangelicals’ support of Donald Trump for president last year is that he promised to protect them from persecution — especially since they’ve complained about that since, as I recall, the 1980s. I say that because if they ever spoke out against him they’ll find themselves on the wrong end of persecution.

How do we know this? Well, given that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a Christian, a large number of players in the National Football League share that faith and Trump referred to those who “took a knee” during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality as “[S.O.B.]s” “that should be fired,” it’s clear to me that cultural supremacy, not even “religious freedom,” was always their intent. But in doing so they’ve sacrificed their witness and, even more ironically, weakened themselves spiritually in the process.

The reason for that might surprise you: They’re ignoring Jesus’ second great commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” — or, as I paraphrase it, “Do right by all.” That in practice can mean standing up and speaking up for the powerless in society and allow them to tell their stories, which is never popular with power-hungry despots and their allies.

Many in the Jewish community have always done this because they have personal and historical experience with such persecution, as did the early church, much of which was on the run — but membership grew exponentially. Sounds to me that the church grew because of the persecution, and not just in numbers, either.

I can only conject on this, but it seems to me that the spiritually strongest church we’ve ever seen in this country was the historic black church in the South during the 1950s and ‘60s that birthed the civil-rights movement, which was born from prayer and revival meetings. You need to be spiritually strong to put up with what it did with all the direct action and protests that proved fatal to many of its adherents, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. Few, if any, white evangelicals have that kind of encounter with authorities but are willing to complain about the proverbial hangnail.

So what does this have to do with revival? Well, it can be produced when, and only when, a people or a church are completely sold out to Jesus, which down the road might mean calling out people in power that abuse their authority and taking up the banner of the powerless. In other words, being filled with and committed to the Spirit of God may, and probably will, anger compromisers interested only in saving their own necks, but they’re willing to pay that price.

After all, not for nothing did Jesus say, “For whoever wants to save [his] life will lose it, but whoever loses [his] life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24).

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The 'green-eyed monster'

I think I know what’s always driven the “religious right,” more specifically its desire to remake American society in its own image: Envy. Of course, we don’t often hear sermons on that “deadly sin” in most pulpits; I don’t ever recall hearing one.

Defined by as “spite and resentment at seeing the success of another,” envy is always sin if for no other reason than it’s a result of taking one’s focus off God; in other words, as much as anything it’s idolatry, which of course God despises. I’d say that it’s part of the reason that, as much as people and organizations have said they want to improve the spiritual climate in our country, they have actually pushed it backwards.

That envy first flared up on a grand scale in 1992 when Bill Clinton was running for president and continued after his election — it seemed that lying and gossip were no longer classified as sins as long as deposing him was the goal.  Remember that the late Jerry Falwell produced that propaganda piece “The Clinton Chronicles” in order to smear him; I first heard about it at a local Christian radio station, and others began to pile on. (Niccol√≤ Machiavelli, eat your heart out.)

Eventually, however, thanks largely to the Fox News Channel, that resentment toward Clinton became mainstream; you no longer needed to hear Pat Robertson’s pronouncements about the country going to hell because of, shall we say, the “wrong people” being in power. (I need to warn you: If too many people in the “world” agree with you, that might be a sign that you’re not following God.)

More to the point, however, that if you’re obsessed with the idea of power centered in a few “√©lites,” especially if they’re liberals in comparison and whether in politics or the media, you just might be suffering from envy. Of course the idea of eliminating such people and institutions may sound attractive to the resentful; remember, however, that there is power out there and someone will have it — and it certainly won’t be you. That’s why envy can never be satisfied — it’s actually an addiction.

But what about the civil-rights movement, “Black Lives Matter” and other groups agitating for social and economic justice — wouldn’t they be similarly envious? I’d have to say no. None of them have said that they want to replace people at the top with themselves; they simply wanted their voices to be heard and have always been willing to work with those who disagree with them. They have argued only for equal opportunity and respect. Is that too much to ask? Apparently so.

This might explain evangelicals’ support of the oafish Donald Trump once he won the Republican nomination for president — the only thing that mattered is that he defeated Hillary Clinton. Not only that, but since he’s been president he’s has tried to overturn President Barack Obama’s achievements — the Affordable Care Act, the DACA and climate change edicts among them. He and most of his supporters apparently can’t stand to see anyone not of their party doing well by doing good for the country and, for that reason, have in the process split the country even wider than it had been.

Here’s the thing, however: God cannot work through dirty hearts, so if you believe that Trump will usher in a spiritual revival, as some have insisted, you need to read His Word because things don’t work like that. “But we don’t want to live in an immoral country,” you say.

So why, then, are you cooperating with it?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Hearing people's 'stories'

When Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Ala. In 1963, he fell into conversation with a number of his white jailers who, while racists, shared with him the difficulty of the system for which they worked and, by extension, their own lives. After listening — remember, he was a pastor by profession — he told them, “You ought to be with us.”

We know of Dr. King as a reconciler, but he was able to do that because of his willingness to listen to those who hated him. I suspect that the root of much of the divisiveness in this country, the degree of which I can’t recall being as bad as it is now, is an unwillingness to listen to those who disagree.

Basically, it comes down to being aware of people’s “stories.” Every person has a face, a name and a history that drives him or her. As such, we don’t always appreciate what our adversaries have to face.

I admit to being more critical of President Donald Trump and his supporters and allies for being hard-hearted toward those they see as implacable opponents. Most notably, when he called protesters playing in National Football League games as [S.O.B.’]s, he was in effect saying, “I don’t give a rip about what you think.” That led directly to an escalation of protests that, in the eyes of many, got out of hand.

The bigger issue, however, is that Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who sparked the protest last year, said that he was trying to draw attention to police brutality against African-Americans (his biological father is black). But his detractors called him disruptive and unpatriotic because he did so during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Couldn’t he have found another way or time?, people asked.

No, and that was his point.

The last couple of days, in response to the Harvey Weinstein incident, we’ve experienced a “me too” campaign primarily from women who were sexually harassed or assaulted. I’ve been sensitized over the past couple of decades, remembering things I saw at my fraternity house but taking no action because I didn’t recognize what was happening.

Some of these brave women have been willing to tell those stories and I salute them because I can’t ever be in their shoes and thus feel exactly as they do.

It’s not about being eternal “victims”; it’s about acknowledging what happened. One thing about sin is that it needs to be exposed before it can be addressed and its repercussions faced.

More to the point, it’s about “[mourning] with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), and sometimes hearing the stories of others is a part of that. I’m willing to listen — are you?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Rome, not Jerusalem

Since the 1980s I’ve seen and heard a number of Christian leaders insist that the United States was founded on Christian principles that were abandoned beginning in the 1960s and, for us to prosper again, we needed to get back to them — whatever they are. In that they liken us to a modern-day Israel, which indeed was sanctioned by God.

The trouble is that they’ve missed the point.

See, when ancient Israel was overrun by the Greeks and later the Romans it likely never occurred to folks then that the issue then was disobedience to the LORD, likely its mistreatment of the powerless (as many of the Minor Prophets railed about). Certainly the priests and the Pharisees, the lay group that tried to keep those traditions alive, didn’t do all that well in addressing the various power inequities in Jewish society of that day.

I think it's time to recognize that, to use the analogy, we live in Rome, not Jerusalem. Not only do we not run things but we never truly did; the "biblical" principles on which we're supposedly founded were by necessity filtered through Freemasonry, which by definition liberalized the Christian faith especially when it came to public policy. (Churches in those days still paid strict attention to theology, as they should have done, and the theological wars that permeated Europe were in fact transplanted here.) The generic Christianity, often also liberalized by American civil religion, that such people refer to simply didn't exist until the last few decades.

And since we live in Rome, not Jerusalem, we need to understand that we faithful Christians represent a minority.

Unlike Rome, which used its military might to suppress dissenting views, we live in a land where they can be tolerated. But being angry won't cause any lasting change or otherwise lead people to consider the faith, particularly if it's being used as the will to power. You don't want to live in a "pagan" land? Sorry, but you don't have any choice in the matter.

The early church, understanding this, survived by subverting Roman law to display its injustice; for this reason Jesus Himself, when preaching the Sermon on the Mount, actually advocated such subversion. When it came to church/state relations, the Apostle Paul wrote, in effect, "Obey Roman law — but here's how you can get around it and glorify God."

More to the point, however, the church today should stick up for the powerless in this society — the homeless, drug-addicted, people of color and even in some cases non-Christians, often in this case Muslims. It should probably also stand with immigrants, for Israel was cautioned, "Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt" (Exodus 22:21).

Because not only is God not impressed with "ethnic purity" the way Israel was but this would also represent an extension of the "golden rule." That's His real goal for His followers, not focusing upon some faux heritage that seeks only its own safety and comfort.

Remember — we live in Rome, not Jerusalem.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

'Patriots' dividing the country

“We are America. Those people are not.”

Those words, spoken at the 1992 Republican National Convention by its chairman Rich Bond, exemplify the problem we have in this country — the unwillingness on the part of one side of the political aisle to grant legitimacy to a view that it doesn’t share.

Of late that’s led to the fight over silent protests by National Football League players during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”; and, more recently, reaction to Sunday’s massacre in Las Vegas, most notably toward those who favor more gun control as being, shall we say, “un-American.”

To me, however, they speak of a form of bullying, in this case by exclusion. It doesn’t matter if you were born here or have adopted citizenship — if you don’t believe in our principles you’re not really an American.

I suggest that it’s bullying because of the focus on power, specifically the military and the sale of guns.

Concerning the protests against racism in general and police brutality in particular that caused now-former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to drop to one knee during the playing of the national anthem last year, he himself said that it was never a slam against the military — indeed, his stance was actually recommended by a Green Beret — but that hasn’t stopped the naysayers from attacking him. Two weeks ago President Trump referred to protesters as S.O.B.’s, which caused even more players and even some owners to take a knee. (The owners, some of whom donated to Trump’s presidential campaign, recognized that the players, over two-thirds of whom are African-American, are the product.)

And last weekend’s carnage in Las Vegas has put the issue of gun control front-and-center again. The “patriots” are saying, of course, that the focus should be on the mental state of the shooter[s], not that he had weaponry. (Never mind what he actually had; you’d really have to stretch the Second Amendment to suggest that he had the right to a machine gun.)

It seems to me that the dissent that we say is part and parcel of American political culture doesn’t always apply. In any nation, let alone America, politics should lead to compromise for the greater good. But when there seems to be only one way of “approved” thinking it leads to the kind of divisiveness we say we don’t want. Because not everyone is going to fall in line, and if we want a truly united country dissent must be understood, addressed and honored.