We Can Stop Pulling the Trigger

Last Sunday, our church music director opened worship by saying, “It’s been a rough week. Not only the cold, but I have been dealing with two suicides–one an 8th grader at my school and the other a leader of the Black Lives Movement.”

I did not get a chance to ask Tyrone about the young student, but I learned about the activist through a Washington Post article a couple of days later (click here for the story).

MarShawn McCarrel complex com
MarShawn McCarrel complex.com

His name was MarShawn McCarrel, 23. He shot himself on the steps of the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus on February 8. A few hours before the shot, he posted a Facebook message, “My demons won today. I’m sorry.”

By all accounts, this was a talented young man,  dedicated to liberation and justice. He started several nonprofit organizations, a mentorship program called Pursuing Our Dreams and a charity for homeless people called Feeding Our Streets. He had become a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement in Ohio, following on other activism and writing poetry.

The man was a poet. On paper. And in life. Poets are people for whom words matter. Each word matters. And for this poet, lives mattered, too.

Except he could not sustain his own. He pulled the trigger.

But so did we. We–and when I say “we” I mean all of us who call ourselves white who have so far failed to undo the strangehold white supremacy, white privilege, white racism, have on our national psyche and day in and day out living in this land we claim is free and home to the brave.

As sure as anything, I believe his depression–which had plagued him for some years, after the death of his grandfather–was undone or minimized, but also deepened, by his activism.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me
observer.com

His ability to write and speak and organize and give hope to others helped to keep him going, but it was not enough to overcome the relentless–r e l e n t l e s s, let me say that again, relentless–drumbeat of negativity in his life and the lives of millions of other African American men, women, and children (remember that 8th grader?).

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his magnificent, also relentless (in a similar but also different way), letter to his son about growing up Black in America, “Between the World and Me,”

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.

Coates tells us that much of the posing and braggadocio of Black boys and young men on the streets, and the posing and efforts at creating distinct identities for the Black girls and and young women, is really in response to fear, fear for their very lives in the face of what feel like, and are, overwhelming odds against survival for many, if not most, of them in a world run by and for those who call ourselves white.

I cannot speak for MarShawn McCarrel, this lost prince of Black personhood, but I can imagine that he, like many other activists in the Black Lives Matter movement (and many in other movements for human dignity here and around the world), was brought down, depressed, by that fear, and by how little long-term deep, intentional attention is paid to the continuing violation of African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, etc.

Black Lives Matter protest  startribune com
startribune.com

I know I feel that, and I am not (yet, anyway) on the front lines of that struggle. He was on the front lines, and I know from experience on my own front lines (for LGBT equality, e.g.) that there is hope, even exhilaration at moments, when you watch others see new truth, but there also is exhaustion and fear when you realize how many people aren’t paying attention and how many of those who claim they are show no signs of caring (and may even express animosity).

What Coates’ book, and the unnecessary death of MarShawn McCarrel push me into is somehow to join the front lines. I have no desire to do what we who call ourselves white so often do–move in to take over the struggle, or even to make it about me or us. And yet, I know I have and can claim my place to support McCarrell’s surviving colleagues in the movement more than I have done, and to more directly engage my siblings in white privilege so that we all may learn why and how to give it up.

I don’t want to be part of pulling the trigger any more.

I don’t want to participate, even at a distance, in snuffing a life, or silencing a voice, as magnificent as that of MarShawn McCarrel.

It is my belief that he has found peace with the God who loves him unreservedly. But I have yet to find peace in my grief for this beautiful man, and perhaps I will not any time soon, knowing–as I have chanted more than once on the streets of Richmond, New York, Boston, and will undoubtedly do so again on Washington boulevards, and maybe elsewhere–No Justice, No Peace! Know Justice, Know Peace!

The good news, if there is any in this, may be that I have found, thanks to his friends, a powerful poem of truth and life by MarShawn McCarrel. May he have the final word here, today.

Down South by Marshawn McCarrel

The Hard Truth of Beloved Community – 2

In talking to Jonathan the other day about a person he had not met I indicated she was a person of color, African American to be precise. 

Then, I realized I had done it again. Earlier, in the same conversation, I spoke of another person he had not met, who is not a person of color, but in that instance I did not mention that fact. I felt no need to describe what is essentially the default position. Among people who label ourselves white, we assume that our racialized identity is the norm. We don’t have to specifiy skin color, it is assumed to be ours. 

white privilege 2
buzzfeed.com

This is often called “white privilege”–the unearned status to be, and to assume to be, the norm. 

This came back to me as I watched an excellent film about racism on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. “Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity” is a 75-minute film intended to lay out the various components of the system that put in place, and keeps in place, racial inequality. 

The film has enough didactic material to help the viewer understand the structural elements, and enough personal story-telling and commentary by a wide variety of individuals to give it depth and make it interesting and lively.  The audience, mostly people who call ourselves white, at the New Deal Cafe in Greenbelt–part of the monthly social justice oriented monthly series, Meal & Reel at the New Deal, sponsored by an alliance of activist groups– was appreciative of the film.

Cracking_the_Codes
dailykos.com

There was discussion, too. And that is where I noticed how the people of color in the room were much more ready to talk. Some who call ourselves white did talk, though a disproportionately small share (in terms of the ratio of attendees who were not people of color). 

Of course, the people of color had interesting, insightful, and important things to say. I am glad they spoke. 

What disturbs me, however, is how we who call ourselves white talk so little about race and racism. Even more, most of the time (as was true at the film-showing Monday night), when we do talk it seems to be about a time we noticed some other person who looks like us acting unjustly toward a person of color (and occasionally that includes our speaking up to object) or a time we realized the deleterious effects of racism on a person or persons of color. 

hand over mouth
media.co.uk

What we do not do is to talk about our own racism, our own learned attitudes and behaviors, our own complicity in maintaining systemic structures of racialized inequity. Partly this is due to the fact that the structures are hard to see. They are designed to work without our having to make any conscious choices. That is one reason it is called privilege–it is an accident of birth that goes with us throughout life. Membership has its privileges. 

But that does not let us off the hook. 

If we want racial justice, if we want a beloved community where all thrive–and I believe the overwhelming proportion of us who call ourselves white very much want that–we are going to have to get confessional. We will not overcome systemic racial inequities until we do the hard work of being open and honest about what we feel and what is at work in us. When we do that, we can change ourselves, and help others change, too. That is how the nation will really change, from the ground up. We can undo the white privilege that undergirds racialized inequity. 

confession time
guiltfreechristianity.org

For me, to start, I am going to really work at monitoring my speech patterns, and though patterns, too, to find out how I create my identity as a person I and others call white as the norm, and thus how many times and ways I replicate the model of racialized social domination in my daily patterns of living.  

And I am going to write about it, and I am going to tell others. I am committed to breaking the codes by breaking the silence. 

What about you? Where will you start? Feel free to write me here, with your ideas and personal commitments. 

 

A Pilgrimage Home

These wintry days in the northern hemisphere mean layers of clothes even inside and more darkness, too.

winter darkness
flickr.com

As someone who likes to wear as little as possible as often as possible–barefoot is always my desire, and nakedness often a delight–this is not good news.

And yet the darkness can be a joy. I appreciate slowing down as dusk descends, preparing for dinner and an evening of quiet at home. Also, I most definitely enjoy morning darkness in which to meditate before dawn, and even to go walking in the winter grayness, seeing the tree limbs arched gracefully against the sky.

But more in these days of angry talk about people from other places and locking up more of our own citizens–usually people whose skin is darker than mine–I am cherishing even more darkness. I mean the darkness that actually expands our awareness of life, the beauty of cultures and lands and people and beliefs that have their own integrity, and challenge and enrich my own.

light shines in the darkness John 1-5
pinterest.com

It seems no accident that in a nation built from the ground up on the architecture of white supremacy there is little valorizing of darkness. Of course, this is in line with so much Christian theologizing that turns to light to overcome darkness. I have not done sufficient research to determine the intertwining history of all this, but clearly neo-platonic dualisms, Euro-American colonialism, manifest destiny, theological paeans for light over dark, all help produce an ideology of dark/black/native as less worthy than its “opposites,” and even downright bad or evil.

A key element in the work of those of us not dark–by whatever definition–to heal our nation is to begin to celebrate what is dark. It is right to oppose the targeting of immigrants and the mass incarceration of black men, and many other policies and attitudes built on negative views of darkness, because we believe in justice and equality, but we must go further: we must valorize, we must celebrate that which we have ignored, belittled, and oppressed and tried to kill. Even more, we must let darkness change us.

We must claim our own darkness.

Stanton MI map
simonhoyt.com

I have written elsewhere about how my mother and my aunt repeated many times to me that my grandmother was “the first white child born in Stanton, Michigan.” (map left) Somehow that was seen as a mark of distinction for her, for us, a heritage of which I was to be proud.

As a child, I suppose I did see it that way. But along the way I began to think about all the babies born there before her, and after, who did not, do not, meet the definition of “white.” There were, are, beautiful babies, too.

africa-flag-map
potentash.com

And more to the point, our ancient heritage, black, white, native, brown, is rooted in Africa. We are all, at base, African.

Perhaps it is time go home, not as missionaries, to change people there, but as pilgrims on a spiritual journey to be changed, to come into our own deep, dark selves.

And absent the opportunity for that, we can open our borders, our minds, our hearts, to those who have much to teach us right here, right now.

More Dark, Less Light

Hanukkah party Mishkan Torah 2015
Hanukkah party at Mishkan Torah, Greenbelt MD, 2015. Author photo

We celebrated Hanukkah these past days, including a party offered by the religious school at Congregation Mishkan Torah last evening (the final night of this eight-day feast). I say we celebrated it for past days, but not eight because I could not find our menorah until time to light the third candle at home!

Christmas tree
heart.co.uk

In ten days, we will fly to Michigan to celebrate Christmas with our extended family. In between, we will observe the winter solstice on December 22. Muslims will observe Mawlid, the birth of the prophet Mohammed on December 23 to 28 (depending on the branch of Islam). Then there is Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) and of course New Year’s Day.

This is a time of year marked by celebration.

Hanukkah is often called the Festival of Lights because of the centrality of lighting menorah candles each night (beginning with one the first night and then adding another each evening). And Christmas is marked by bright lights as well, on Christmas trees and on the exterior of many homes and other buildings. This surely is a reflection on the star that guided the magi from the East to the stable in Bethlehem. Both of these holy times are dear to me, and I know to many others as well.

winter_night_snowflakes_merry_christmas_sky_hd-wallpaper-1613250
imagesbot.com

But light is not central to two other celebrations, namely the winter solstice and Kwanzaa. In fact, they are really celebrations of darkness.

I cherish darkness–skin tones to be sure–but more, too. I value the dark of night, I value being in the dark, meaning not being sure of exactly where I am or where I am going or what is around me. I have a feeling this is not how many, probably most, people feel.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes

I cannot remember the last time I heard someone use “dark” to describe something good. Fear of the dark has been sanctified in so many people’s minds . . . without constant reminders that darkness is not a synonym for mortal or spiritual danger, most people I know revert to the equation without even thinking about it. (Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 54)

I don’t meant to suggest, any more than Taylor does, that there is never danger in the dark. But in a world where terrorists randomly kill and behead people and fly planes into tall buildings, police shoot people even as they lay dying,  and people drive cars into crowds to express their frustration–all in broad daylight or on well-lighted sidewalks and streets–I am not convinced that being in the light is all that much safer than being in the dark.

fire in darkness
myinnermystic.wordpress.com

We can learn from the dark. Do you realize that if you are outside at night and you shine a light on something that you will see it in some ways better than without the light, but at the same time that the light will block out what is around the object and around you? Light actually limits the range of your vision.

That limited vision is reflected in white racism and white privilege, too–many of us are conditioned to not really see the darker-skinned people in our midst as full members of the human race. If white, or light, is the norm, is the preferred coloration, we devalue our siblings and all the richness, truth, and beauty of their divinely created humanity.

starry night sky in winter
vi.sualize.us

And at this time of the year, in the northern half of the globe, we are given the opportunity to slow down, as the plants and trees and many of our fellow animals are doing, and rest, letting go of our need to see everything and be everywhere. I am not a big fan of cold weather–and really dislike snow–but I do value the opportunity to burrow into the cocoon that is our home and feel enveloped by darkness that is longer each day.

Of course, we have moved into a more urbanized area than our former neighborhood in Richmond, and the porch lights of neighbors, perhaps 100 feet away, seem perpetually on–but still I have the great joy of taking Cocoa out for a dark walk at 10 pm or so (most people do not leave their exterior lights on and the tree-covered walkways of our two-hundred-plus acre co-op are wonderful for walking). I also cherish going out before sunrise to walk with him. If you do this, perhaps you too notice how much more clearly the bare trees stand out against the night sky. They are a great joy to my soul.

Close-up of a family celebrating Kwanzaa
kunm.org

I don’t want to stop celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, but I want to put more emphasis on the Solstice and Kwanzaa–I want more balance in my life, and that means more dark, less light.

Spiritually speaking, I take my cue from the Hebrew writers of Genesis. Creation started out as void and darkness, and then was given more shape by the creation of light. But the light did not erase the darkness, and both were judged to be good.

May it be so in my life, and yours.

 

 

 

 

Gratitude or Grief? It’s Both

thanksgiving-day-spread-700x340
hdlatestimages.com

Most of us are soon to celebrate the national holiday called Thanksgiving. It is probably as close to an official religious moment as we have–just about everyone gets into the act, generally by overeating. It is a feasting day when people gather for a sacred meal (even if they do not have religious or spiritual feelings). It is a day of gratitude for what we, as a nation, have received.

But is it celebrated by all? No.

Homeless people may be left out, despite the efforts of many good people to make sure there are public feedings. And like other days when the majority of people gather with family and friends, there are people whose solitary lives are made more painful by their being alone on Thanksgiving Day.

Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje
Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje

There is one other group that may not be celebrating, or if they do, may see the holiday differently. They may even name it Thanksgrieving (my old friend and mentor, Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé of the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley CA, introduced this term to me many years ago).

Painting of the first Puritan Thanksgiving by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914) wikipedia.org
Painting by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)
wikipedia.org

In our national mythic lore, the Pilgrims at Plymouth celebrated the first Thanksgiving. And they invited the local natives to join them. Of course, without the aid of the natives there would have been no thanksgiving meal. So it was right to invite them.

But I also know this: over time, native peoples, those who lived in and on this land before any Europeans arrived, became victims rather than invited guests–in their own land. In colonial days, it was often local skirmishes and animosity between a community of European settlers and the local tribe that led to attacks and killing on both sides. And even when there was no physical violence, the settlers often violated the natives by seeking to impose their culture and religion on those they viewed as “heathen” or “savages.”

Native peoples forced to leave the Southeast for Oklahoma historymyths.wordpress.com
Native peoples forced to leave the Southeast for Oklahoma historymyths.wordpress.com

But as the United States–the nation created by and for immigrants from other places–grew and prospered, large campaigns of relocation and terror began. Native people were killed, slaughtered, in large numbers, through blood shed in battles, and through starvation and disease. Some of the latter loss was not intentional, created by the strains of disease brought to this land that the natives were unable to resist. But there were also deliberate poisonings, too.

Native American and Army battles in the West through Wounded Knee in 1890 education.nationalgeographic.com
Native American and Army battles in the West through Wounded Knee in 1890
education.nationalgeographic.com

Scholars have struggled for decades to figure out how many millions of native peoples were lost. Many use the term genocide, or holocaust, to describe what happened. Estimates of the original native population vary widely, as do estimates of those who died. In 2014, the US Census Bureau said the population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, including those of more than one race was 5.4 million, about 2 percent of the total population. Estimates of the original population range from 10 million to 50 million. Clearly, whatever number you accept, the population has been decimated.

Even so, as the national history is commonly told, and observed and celebrated, this day is a happy one.

But it brings terrorizing memories to native victims. This is the most painful part of the holiday for me. As we gather around the festive table, laden with all sorts of good food, I can hear screams of dying Cherokee, Ojibway, Nez Pearce, Cheyenne, Sioux, Powhatan, Monacan, Algonquin, Ottawa, Kiowa women, children, and men. . . . and hundreds of other tribal nations.

wikipedia.com
wikipedia.com

And as a vegetarian, I also hear the screams of turkeys (so many call it “Turkey Day”), and pigs, and cattle, all slaughtered so we can celebrate what we have been given. We also are thus again, as in the case of the native peoples, celebrating what we have taken, namely the lives of others.

Thanks. Grieving. Indeed.

Let us face the horror of what has been done, let us feel the pain in our hearts and souls, and then let us ask forgiveness . . . before and as we give thanks.

Taking Responsibility for Our Part

Fay Wells, an African American woman who is vice president of strategy at a California company, encountered overwhelming police power at her home in Santa Monica. A neighbor had called police to report what he thought was a break-in at her apartment.

Fay Wells
Fay Wells  ndtv.com

Earlier, she had locked herself out of the apartment on her way to a soccer game. When she returned, she had called a locksmith to let her in and fix the lock, and then had gone inside. It was at that point that seventeen (or nineteen, depending on whose count you accept) officers showed up, and she was ordered out of her home–told to come out with her hands up and walk slowly down the outside stairs, facing a drawn gun and a police dog (and all the other officers).

By her account, she was poorly treated, not by overt physical violence, but by the officers’ refusal to identify themselves or to tell her what had caused their presence. It was a frightening time for her.

Santa_Monica_Police_patch
commons.wikimedia.com

Wells wrote about the incident in The Washington Post (connect here to read it in full). The police actions, and her feelings about that, are the primary focus of her story.

However, the continuing drama in many communities about the response of police personnel toward African Americans revealed yet again in her story–the violence perpetrated in the name of law enforcement through unwarranted traffic stops, arrests, treatment during incarceration as well as the killing of persons during what should be not lethal encounters–reflects the deep-seated white supremacy still at work in the culture, the DNA, of our nation. It is not just about the police.

Of course, law enforcement agencies need to change. Retraining in the ways of cultural sensitivity is essential. Probably some cops need to be let go. Some municipal authorities–mayors and city councils, police chiefs–are doing the hard work. Others need to step up. Every agency needs a thorough inventory of itself, with outside help, to figure out what it needs to change–and then the willingness to go through transformation.

Is his life worth more less than mine
pinterest.com

 

However, important as that work is, it is only treating part of the problem. Underneath police department attitudes and practices rests the much deeper foundation of white supremacy and privilege which marks our entire national culture. Alongside that rests our national love affair with guns. The truth is that all of us–certainly all of us who are not people of color–are responsible for the police departments that serve us (yes, they serve us, more than they serve others who don’t look like us, even if unintentionally).

The story does not really begin with the large police presence outside her apartment. It begins with the call from the neighbor. What about him? Would he have called them if Wells had been white? Chances are the answer is “no.”

responsibility
larrywinget.com

In her story, she says she spoke to him, and he seemed pretty defensive. Eventually, he identified himself as an attorney. Wells tried to question him, but after a little back and forth, he said,  . . . . “you can go f— yourself,” and walked away.

That sort of says it all . . . . so many people don’t want to take responsibility for their own attitudes as well as their own behavior.

Until more and more of us do, this will not change–even when, or if, the police do.

 

 

The Country Is Going Down the Slippery Slope Fast

Can anyone be unaware of how angry many Republicans, very conservative Republicans, ae? As I ponder many things I am reading these days, I think I can understand why, from their vantage point, the nation feels in grave danger.

  • vogue.com
    vogue.com

    I have been reading some blog posts about a movement called Free the Nipple–a campaign to change our laws and practices so that women can be bare-chested in public just like men. It seems fair and right to me. Why the double standard? And did you know that it was not until the 1930s that men in the United States could legally go around bare-chested in public (including at the beach)? But some on the Right say the growth of this movement surely is the result of the Supreme Court decision to legalize marriage between two women or two men. Slippery slope here we go!

  • ibtimes.co.uk
    ibtimes.co.uk

    I went to a rally last evening in the District of Columbia to protest the American Enterprise Institute giving Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu an award–and to protest Israeli policies that are causing such pain to Palestinians. The most moving speaker was a lawyer, a Palestinian himself admitted to the bars of Israel, Palestine and the United States, who spoke of the need for empathy. He said that is missing in the attitudes of many Israelis, including the Prime Minister and his government, towards Palestinians. But he also said empathy is needed for Jews who have suffered great trauma. The key difference he said is that Israelis have great power and Palestinians have very little. The second most moving speaker was a young Palestinian-American poet who read about visit to Palestine where he began to claim his Palestinian name, Amin, rather than going by his middle name, Drew. I encourage you to listen to the poem, “Amin,” read at a poetry slam, available here. Here too, you can see how things are unraveling. Israel is, many on the Right believe, our most

    Amin Drew Law vine.com
    Amin Drew Law
    vine.com

    important ally, needing and deserving rock solid U.S. support–whatever Israel wants, Israel gets–and the Prime Minister is right about everything (unlike our President, who is wrong on just about everything, including most of his Middle East policy, except for giving billions to Israel). . . .  but every where the voices of criticism are rising. This must be Obama’s fault. . . . everyone knows he is a Muslim in Christian drag and really hates Jews (and especially Netanyahu).

  • FILE - In this Friday, April 11, 2014, file photo, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe participates in a news conference in Rolla, Mo. Missouri football players announced Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, on Twitter that they will not participate in team activities until the university president is removed from office. The move aligns the team with campus groups who have been protesting the way Wolfe has dealt with issues of racial harassment during the school year. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
    University of Missouri System former President Tim Wolfe, who has resigned theblaze.com

    The President and Provost of the University of Missouri have resigned, succumbing to pressure from students and faculty angry at them and the university for a lack of sensitivity about white racism. There were other issues, but it seems anger about inadequate responses to racism that was the most persistent issue. Nobody says it for publication, but I keep hearing what feels like another slippery slope argument. . . .  elect a Black man as President of the United States and this is what you get: uppity students forcing a good white man out of office to appease Black militants. And this is the real kicker: the football team, supported by their coach, threatened not to play if the university president did not resign. The “real men” on the campus refusing to play . . . . America is really in trouble!

So, is President Obama really to blame for everything? Even the campaign for women’s embodied equality? Yes, even that it seems. If he had appointed justices like Chief Justice Roberts or Justice Alito–those wonderful Bush II appointees (or even Justice Thomas, courtesy of Bush I), then the decision in the marriage case would have gone the other way. Obergefell v. Hodges would have left the sanctity of “traditional” marriage intact.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz bbc.com
Texas Senator Ted Cruz
bbc.com

So, folks are angry, and they show it by supporting people who want to evict 11 million people from our country, believe abortion is genocide as practiced by Planned Parenthood, and vow as public servants and leaders to disobey orders of courts with which they don’t agree to protect the rights of people to discriminate against some people based on their religious beliefs.

All this is but the surface. I did not mention guns or health care, for example. And there is so much more.

But for today, I guess, these three will be enough. Times really are tough.

dailymail.co.uk
dailymail.co.uk

You just know that pretty soon naked women will be parading on Capitol Hill demanding paid leave for child care. Israel will have to pull back the settlements of all those peace-loving good Jewish neighbors in the West Bank. And all the university presidents in the country will be Black (maybe a few of them women, too, but at least they probably won’t go topless).

Oy vey! We need to make America great again!