Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Ferguson Mandate: Show Up

I remember the day when I had had enough.  I was sitting with two elderly relatives, and the conversation had recently shifted to immigration, with some of the more predictable comments:  the Mexicans are taking over, they’re coming illegally, they drive without licenses and so cause numerous traffic accidents without consequences, etc.  I kept silent, as usual, inwardly rolling my eyes and reminding myself that these family members would soon progress to safer topics, like the new traffic light in town.  And then she said it, “I know it’s horrible, but every time I hear about all the drug wars down there, I think ‘well, at least there will be less of them to come here.’”

Then I lost it.  Only then.  

It’s a common experience among progressive, White, young people to go to large family gatherings and sit through extremely racist conversation.  We come back from Thanksgiving or Christmas and swap stories with other White friends about what crazy Uncle Al said at the dinner table.  It’s a sick game of whose family is the most racist, the most ignorant, and thus who is the bigger saint for having to put up with such awful conversation.  We never talk about how we engaged these family members in conversation, confronted ignorance, or stood up for our brothers and sisters who are targets of such hateful speech.  Because that would be rude.  Politics have no place at the dinner table, the most important thing is that everyone in the family have a nice time and we have as little family drama as possible.  What a privilege.

This holiday season, there’s going to be lots of uncomfortable conversations in White households.  For the first time, I’m actually relieved instead of sad that I won’t be joining my extended family for Thanksgiving dinner because it means I don’t have to hear people I love complain about Black criminal culture, reverse racism against Darren Wilson, or that Martin Luther King would be “ashamed” of the protests across the country.  I won’t have to sit there, debating whether or not to join the conversation, ignore everyone and focus on my pie, or to change the subject to something sunnier, like football.  I won’t be challenged to be an ally where it really counts.
"Now remember, the dinner table is no  place to talk about
race, politics, religion, income inequality, globalization,
climate change, or American Imperialism."

Our unwillingness to have difficult conversations with the people we love not only hurts our oppressed brothers and sisters, it hurts our family and friends.  When the elderly relative I mentioned before said those awful, unforgettable, and unforgivable words, I realized that I had failed her.  This amazing, loving, kind woman who in many ways has been my role model became a hateful racist.  Oppression dehumanizes both oppressor and oppressed.  Had I entered the conversation earlier, had I engaged her before, over the previous several years in which these comments began to irk me, perhaps she would never have gotten to that point.  I look back on all the times I’ve sat in uncomfortable silence among my family, whom I love dearly, and see that I have sinned against them as well.  They are better than this; they are loving, kind people, made in the image of God, called to be a part of the Beloved Community.  I’m someone who can show them the way, who can exorcise demons of racism, sexism and homophobia, and I’ve cowered in the corner.  I’ve run from God’s call. 

Us White Folks Who Want to be Allies have asked, “What can we do to stand in solidarity with Ferguson?”  The response has been two mandates: show up and engage other White folks.  The first is often interpreted to mean to show up to the protests themselves, to bring our bodies and our voices.  While this is a valuable act, it is not courageous.  My white skin protects me from danger when facing down law enforcement; they’re not going to target me.  I can offer some protection to my brothers and sisters of color in the struggle, I can be present and witness police brutality, and righteous anger, I can make sure that the media gets pictures of White people standing side by side with people of color in this moment.  This is needed, it is valuable, but it is also easy. It’s the well-worn path of progressive White folks, the opportunity we jump at, the choice we most often make, and the laurels on which we (undeservedly) rest.

The greater challenge is to engage other White folks, the ones that aren’t at the protests, who aren’t blowing up twitter and Facebook with #BlackLivesMatter.  Us White Folks Who Want to be Allies have to confront the prejudice and racism that comes from those who share our skin tone, our privilege, and our blood.  As much as we may want to unfriend all of the people on Facebook who are defending Darren Wilson, we should not.  As much as we may want to avoid awkward and uncomfortable Thanksgiving conversations with racism being thrown around like the proverbial football, we should not.  We should talk to our friends and family, tell them our own experiences, offer a glimpse of a different world and a different attitude because we are the only ones who can.  We have the privilege of access, not only to systems of power but to individuals who won’t listen to anyone else.  Crazy Uncle Al is not going to hear the cries of the young Black protestors in Ferguson, but he has to listen to his beloved niece/nephew because they’re family.  Our witness carries more weight than all the Fox News pundits combined, as hard as that is to believe sometimes, and our reluctance to engage in difficult discussions with friends and family for the sake of decorum is a sin. 

So, White Folks Who Want to be Allies, our calling is clear.  We have to show up, not only at the protests, but in our communities.  Not only at vigils, but at the dinner table.  So tomorrow, when Crazy Uncle Al says, “What about Black on Black crime?” don’t roll your eyes and go back for a second piece of pie.  Tell him that intraracial violence is a red herring, that White on White violence is just as (if not more so) prevalent, and that White on Black violence is different.  Explain why.  Don’t fall back into the privilege of ignorance; show up. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Breaking The Mould"

I was a drama kid in high school.  I loved being in plays, really sinking my teeth into different roles. I really loved submerging myself in the actual performance, getting to that point where the lines and actions come naturally and I was fully embodying that character.  And the great thing was I could do it again, two nights later; the script didn’t change.

If I was in a play about the golden calf, I could play the part of the Israelites well; I can sympathize with them. They are eager to worship the God that brought them out of Egypt and who is leading them to the Promised Land.  Moses is taking his sweet time up on Mount Sinai, and we already know from a couple of weeks ago that the Israelites aren’t very good at waiting. They’re in the middle of a desert, completely at the mercy of some deity that they don’t know all that well.  They have no idea what’s going to happen next, where they will be tomorrow, or what YHWH desires of them. Here’s what they do know: gods don’t like to be disrespected or ignored. The Egyptian deities, who the Israelites would be most familiar with, are not compassionate towards humanity, they are pretty hostile. These gods needed to be appeased so that they didn’t visit wrath upon the people.  We can understand why the Israelites were so eager to create an idol that they could worship in the way that they thought would be pleasing to YHWH. “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf.  Then Aaron announced, ‘Tomorrow will be a festival to the LORD!’...they offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices.”  Aaron tries to follow the instructions he YHWH and Moses gave him, but can’t imagine how to perform these rituals in the absence of a physical representation of a deity. He’s not willing to stand up to the people’s cries for an idol, which he already knows is displeasing to YHWH.  Aaron’s and the Israelites’ behavior is understandable, but it is not excusable. 

The sin of the golden calf is not that the Israelites worshipped a different god—they didn’t—but that they attempted to mould and thereby limit YHWH.  When they cast YHWH as something tangible, they also cast YHWH in a certain role, defining the dynamics between the divine and humanity that do not live up to a covenantal relationship. YHWH desires respect and worship, but not the kind that is born out of fear or obligation.  The Israelites desire a relationship with YHWH, but lack the imagination to see that as something other than the fear-driven relationships that define other peoples’ gods.  We are also guilty of casting moulds for God.  We attempt to define God, thereby constraining our own relationship with the divine.  Have we created a God that demands fear and penitence?  Have we created a God who is so abstract and disembodied that we can no longer perceive God’s participation in the world?  I wonder, what do our golden calves look like?

The scene between Moses and YHWH, when YHWH learns of the Israelites’ behavior, is where the real action is; the golden calf incident just provides the background. The Israelites almost succeed in moulding YHWH into that jealous and vengeful god. “Hurry up and go down! Your people who you brought up from the land of Egypt are ruining everything!” YHWH has had it up to HERE with the Israelites.  They just don’t learn.  Well fine, if they want a wrathful deity, they’ll get one.  The Israelites have cast YHWH as an impatient, cold and wrathful god.  And the only way wrathful gods can respond to disobedience is by severe punishment, right? “Let my fury burn and devour them.  Then I’ll make a great nation out of you, Moses.” The Israelites aren’t the only ones lacking in imagination. YHWH is more than happy to play the part that the Israelites have defined and start playing out another script previously performed with the Patriarchs.  YHWH is prepared to reestablish the covenant with one faithful individual and let the rest burn. YHWH’s reaction is understandable, but it’s not excusable.

We, like the Israelites and YHWH, fall back into these dysfunctional patterns time and again.  It’s easy, to cast moulds not only of God but of each other. Like YHWH and the Israelites, we have scripts in our heads and we cast ourselves and others in clearly defined roles.  These roles limit our relationships and predetermine our thoughts and behaviors.  That kid with his pants hanging low—he’s a delinquent and up to no good; better walk on the other side of the street.  That hyper child in class, he must be a troublemaker; better be strict with him.  And this is powerful stuff because our reactions to others often play right into the roles that they have cast us in, solidifying their first impressions and determining the plot of a specific interaction. Casting moulds results in self-fulfilling prophecies.  The kid with his pants hanging low just saw a white lady cross the street to avoid him, is he going to smile and wave? The hyperactive kid sees that his teacher is singling him out, is he going to seek that teacher’s affection?

We don’t have to reach very far for an example of this, its prevalent in our most intimate relationships—our families. Here’s one. My grandmother, my Mammaw, is independent; it’s her defining trait.  Her daughter, my mother, is a caretaker.  When a fiercely independent woman and her fiercely compassionate daughter are thrust together, conflict happens.  My mother wants to do everything for my grandmother because she loves her and doesn’t want her eighty-three year old mother standing on a ladder to change lightbulbs. My grandmother wants my mother to leave her alone and respect the precious independence that she has maintained for so long.  My grandmother starts to treat my mother like an overprotective nag, and my mother starts to treat my grandmother like an obstinate old woman.  They play off each other, and as the visit goes on, my mother becomes more frustrated and overbearing and my grandmother becomes more confrontational and aggressively independent.  It’s the same script, every time. They can’t break out of the roles that they’ve moulded for each other, even though neither of them is happy with these dynamics.  Understandable, but not excusable. 

We see these cycles of conflict--of action and predictable reaction and reaction and reaction—at every level of relationship.  When police officers relate to neighborhood residents as criminals, those residents relate to officers as vigilante gangs, and two groups who should be working together for a better community become enemies.  When college and university administrations treat student observations as complaints from immature brats, students will see the administration’s response as cold and out of touch; and an institution of higher learning becomes a mire of mudslinging. When a church focuses solely on the politics of its body and its activities, relationship with God becomes an afterthought and the Church exorcises its spirituality.  Conversely, when a church defines itself as a refuge from the evils of streets, the congregation separates themselves from the world that God created.   

These roles and the scripts that come with them don’t benefit anybody; none of these parties are happy with the status quo. We replay the same scripts over and over again with the same results.  We complain, we organize, we fight, we suppress, following playbooks that predict, pretty accurately, the reactions to follow.  And I think on some level that’s comforting because it’s familiar.  We may not like these cycles, but at least we understand them and we can predict the outcome; it doesn’t require us to imagine something different.  Moving from beyond imagination into actual change is even more difficult.  Better to stay in sharply defined roles and keep playing out the same, dysfunctional script again and again; at least we know how the story ends.  Better to keep erecting golden calves and reestablishing covenants. Understandable, but not excusable.

So how do we break out of the roles we find ourselves locked in?  Well, let’s get back to Mt. Sinai.  Both the Israelites and YHWH are stuck.  Both parties desire to be closer, to have a mutually fulfilling relationship but aren’t able to break out of patterns that only drive them further away from each other.  And the story could very well start all over again. “Let my fury burn and devour them.  Then I’ll make a great nation out of you, Moses.”  All Moses has to do is follow the script.  Take YHWH up on the offer, abandon the people and enter the Promised Land alone to begin anew.  It would have been easy.  But Moses imagines a different future and refuses to play along; he breaks the mould that YHWH provides for him—that of the patriarchs, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Instead, Moses calls YHWH out. “Why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt…calm down your fierce anger.  Change your mind …remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  In the SMT, or Sarah’s Modern Translation:  Hold Up.  Calm Down.  You are YHWH and you are better than this

No one has ever spoken to YHWH like this before. In the original Hebrew, Moses commands YHWH to “repent” of this hostile overreaction to the golden calf, to imagine another response.  And it works; YHWH “repents” and transforms.  YHWH breaks out of the vengeful god role and decides to live into covenantal relationship.  In the next few chapters Moses literally shatters the Israelites’ depiction of YHWH; he calls Aaron and the Israelites out for sticking with the familiar scripts.  He goes on to break the stone tablets, just to drive the point home that this is a different kind of God, and they are a different kind of people.  Moses breaks the cycle, he breaks the mould.  And the Israelites are shown that they don’t have to live into their roles as fearful slaves to a wrathful deity; they are transformed into the Chosen People.  By breaking the moulds, by throwing out the script, YHWH, Moses, and the Israelites write a different story, and enter into covenantal relationship.  That’s what happens when we break moulds, we are transformed. 

We need more Moseses.  We need to be called out, to see how we are living into unhealthy roles and playing out scripts against our better judgment, contrary to our true selves.  And we all need to be called out.  Now you might be thinking of that person you wish was here for this sermon, but I challenge you to consider your own relationships, the conflicts you’re facing.  We’re all guilty of casting moulds, of denying ourselves and others opportunities for transformation.  Even YHWH did it.  I need to be called out.  I need to be told when I perpetuate the system White supremacy in my everyday interactions.  Police officers need to be reminded that they are supposed to be partners with communities.  My mother and grandmother need to remember that they respect and admire the other’s natures. Institutions need to make space for everyone’s voice.  Churches need to embrace every facet of their identity.  We need to stop labeling and limiting God to our own narrow interpretations of the divine.  We all need to be called out—because we are made in the image of God and we are better than this

Breaking these patterns allows us to live into the people God is calling us to be, to experience transformation.  Rewriting the story and transforming our relationships with others isn’t easy.  There’s no script for it.  It took YHWH and the Israelites forty years to figure out how to be in covenantal relationship.  But the reward is great, it is the Beloved Community, the Kin-dom of God on Earth, a world where peace and justice reign.  It is the Promised Land, and we can get there, but we need to be willing to break out of our moulds and to imagine something different. If we don’t, if we stick with what is familiar, our actions may be understandable, but not excusable.  As we move into a time of prayer and reflection, I’ll ask again, what tired scripts are you following?  What moulds have you, have we, trapped others in?  How have you constrained God?  What would it look like to toss out the scripts and imagine a new story?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Woman, Behold Your Son

Last night, I preached on one of the Seven Last Words at University Church's Good Friday Service.  

John 19: 26-27--When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

This is not what she dreamed for her child.  Thirty-three years ago, an angel had told her that she would bear a child who would be called Son of the Most High, heir to David’s throne, the long-awaited Messiah!  From the moment of his birth, she began to imagine what life would be like for him, all the great things that he would do, how he would lead their people out of occupation and oppression, the kingdom he would bring.  She treasured these dreams in her heart.
As he was growing up, she did everything in her power to prepare him for his destiny:  she made sure that he went to temple every Sabbath to learn from the rabbis.  She told him the stories that bound and defined their community.  She sang to him, songs of exile and unity, of mourning and celebration.  She watched him grow into an intelligent, compassionate, wise man.  Guided by her dreams, she called him to his ministry at a wedding in Canaa. 
And such a ministry!  She heard about the miracles he performed, about the crowds that congregated to hear his sermons and witnessed his fame spread exponentially.   At the beginning of Passover, she saw how the crowds welcomed her son into Jerusalem—rejoicing as they would for a king!  The prophecies of old were being fulfilled in her own baby boy, and the dreams that she treasured in her heart were finally coming true.  The next, and last, time she sees her son, he is being crucified—condemned by both the Roman Empire and the Jewish community for treason. 
What does it mean to be the mother of a guilty man?  Christians claim that Jesus was sinless, but we cannot claim that he was innocent.  Jesus was a criminal, guilty of the charges leveled against him:  sedition, treason, and incitement.  He was granted a trial, convicted according to the law, and his sentence decided by his peers.  The crucifixion is almost impossible to read, and we often dull its impact by deifying Jesus and justifying it with complex legal language. Someone had to pay for our sins—our crimes against God’s law—and so our guilt was imputed to Christ.  He bore the punishment that we deserve—a task only God could take on.  Whether or not the laws he broke were just, our divine savior pays for his crimes and for all of ours—guilty as charged. God chose to come and suffer with us, it had to be done in order to forgive the sins of the world, he’ll rise again in three days.   Perhaps.  But in this moment, Jesus is a son, a brother, a friend. His suffering and death is deeply felt by the mother who loves him and watches him slowly succumb to unimaginable torture.  Mary’s presence at the cross reminds us of Jesus’ humanity and that his death is not suffered alone. 
What does it mean to be the mother of a guilty man?  It’s a pain that even Jesus could not ease.  In this passage, Jesus sees his mother and tries to comfort her, telling one of his disciples to welcome her into his own family, trying desperately to make this better, to make it bearable, but it’s impossible. Mary saw her child being lashed with a lead-tipped whip, saw him being forced on a death-march through a crowded street, watched Roman soldiers lash him to a cross and raise it up on the scorching rock of Golgotha.  She watched his lips dry and chap, listened to his voice become raspier and his moans of pain grow fainter.  She saw her people mock her little boy, loudly denounce his teachings, curse him and his family.  She stood in the open, an object of the community’s spite just as her son was.  And she doesn’t turn away.  I imagine Mary pleading with the crowd to give Jesus some water, begging the soldiers to give her his clothes, weeping with sorrow and relief when it’s finally finished and her son is free from the pain and humiliation.  She does not abandon her son, even when all her dreams and visions are destroyed. 
What does it mean to be the mother of a guilty man?  Mary is usually compared to the mothers of martyrs and innocents who have suffered and died for their righteous actions—an analogy that is both powerful and apt.  But she is also the mother of a criminal who reminds us that all suffering is suffering and that our communities are harmed by the prejudice we hold towards the guilty.  Offender’s guilt condemns them to the torture of the American prison system, an institution that we can all agree is deeply flawed.   Some are subject to deportation—irreparably torn from their families.  Some are condemned to death.  They are all ostracized from their communities, and even if they are released they will never be fully reintegrated into society.  Their voting rights will be stripped away, they won’t be hired for decent-wage jobs, and they are ineligible for state-sponsored economic support.  They suffer. 
These offenders are likely guilty of the crimes for which the State convicted them—just as Jesus was.  I don’t think anyone believes that our maximum security prisons are filled with innocent people.  And it’s true that there must be payment for one’s crimes.  As such, it’s often difficult for us to extend our compassion to offenders and perpetrators, especially those whom the law deems worthy of the worst punishments.  Last weekend, 36 people were shot in Chicago, 4 were killed.  Each of these victims was someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s friend—and so were the shooters   But we don’t advocate for the gangbangers, the murderers, or the terrorists.   We don’t ask for their suffering in prison to be relieved or for their families to be supported in their loss.   We forget that these individuals are also beloved children of God, made in the Creator’s image just as we are.  We forget that they are members of our communities and as such we owe them the opportunity for restoration and transformation.    Mary calls us to remember.
What does it mean to be the mother of a guilty man?  Earlier this year I met an amazing woman, I’ll call her Juanita here, through my work at the Southwest Organizing Project.  Juanita told me a story that is eerily similar to Mary’s.  She and her husband gave birth to their first son, Marcos, here in the United States almost 20 years ago, only a few months after they had made the dangerous journey across the border.  She and her husband encouraged Marcos’ interests: football and music, and made sure that he passed all of his classes.  Juanita looked forward to seeing her baby boy graduate, attend college, and raise a family.  But in high school his grades began to fall, he lost interest in sports and he began to flout her authority.  One night, she got the call that her son had been arrested for assault with a deadly weapon; he was  caught with other members of his gang.  After four years in prison, Juanita welcomed Marcos home.  He searched for a job, but no one would hire a convicted felon; he grew restless and angry.  Six months ago, Marcos left home—Juanita knows that he’s living with other members of his gang.  This is not what she dreamed for her child. 
Without Juanita’s story, would we give Marcos a second thought? Would we be able to sympathize with him, to see his suffering?  Would we be able to recognize him as a beloved child of God? Mary is seen today in mothers like Juanita, who call us to extend compassion to all of our brothers and sisters.  Mary’s presence at the cross humanizes Jesus and shows us that suffering is suffering, whether or not an individual is innocent.