Posts Tagged ‘racism

29
Jun
20

Child of Privilege

Shaking hands across a deskI remember the interview very well, even though it happened more than 30 years ago.

It was an excellent job and I really wanted it. I had some of the necessary qualifications, but certainly not all.

And yet, at the conclusion of the interview I was rewarded with a smile, a firm handshake and that truly delightful question, “So, Russell… when can you start?”

I also remember that time a few years later when I stopped to fill my gas tank. This was back in the dark ages before the invention of credit card scanners on gas pumps… if you can imagine such a medieval thing.

I pulled up to the bank of pumps furthest from the cashier’s office. There I saw a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read, “Please pay before pumping.” I shrugged and began walking toward the main building. No biggie.

Right at that moment, the cashier – a white man about my age – turned and saw me through the window. He immediately offered a dismissive wave of the hand as if to say, “Hey, buddy… that’s OK. Go ahead and pump your gas.”

I finished filling my tank and went inside to pay. “Hey, thanks for letting me go ahead and pump my gas first,” I said to the man as I fished out my wallet.

Yeah, sure,” he replied. “We’ve had a bunch of ‘drive-offs’ here lately, so we had to start asking people to pre-pay.”

And then he added, “But you looked OK.”

What he really meant to say was, “You looked white.”

These are two of the more glaring examples of times in my life when I have been on the receiving end of white privilege.

They are troubling, to say the least. What should be even more troubling are the countless times I have received unmerited privilege and been utterly oblivious.

For example…

… all the times I have not been pulled over by the police because I “fit a description.”

… all the times I have not been closely watched as I browsed among the clothes in a suburban department store.

… all the times I have not seen another person cross the street or clutch their purse tightly when I approach them.

… all the times I have been able to make a major purchase with nothing more than a cursory credit and employment check.

… all the times I have not been amazed and delighted to finally see someone on TV who looked like me.

… all the times I have been in a classroom led by a teacher and surrounded by classmates who looked like me.

… all the history lessons I have learned that were filled with people who share my skin tone.

…  the multiple talks my father did not have to give me about the extreme caution I must exercise when driving in a different part of town.

… all the stories I have not heard about how people who look like me are more inclined toward criminal behavior.

… the tendencies toward diabetes and high blood pressure and other ailments that I did not inherit simply because of my race.

The list literally goes on and on.

I will readily confess: turning down an offer of unmerited favor is hard. In fact, I am not sure I have ever done it. If someone wants to grant ME a privilege they might withhold from someone else, my inclination is to receive it, say, “Thank you very much,” and walk on.

In the same way, folks like me who compete on a playing field tilted wildly in our favor rarely speak up to challenge the justice of that field.

But we should. Especially if we take the sentiments of Dr. King seriously in his letter from the Birmingham jail. Seeking to incite the consciences of well-meaning, well-mannered white clergymen, King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The Good News of Jesus Christ was never intended to function strictly as a tool of individual sanctification. Yes, it begins its work deep in the heart of one person, but it was always our Savior’s intention that that individual spark of saving grace would spread a flame of mercy and justice and peace over the face of the earth.

Now is the time.

We are the people.

Let the hard work commence.

So be it.

12
Jun
20

I Can’t Know

Grieving peopleBy my not-totally-rigorous estimate, I have officiated at close to 100 funerals during my career as a pastor. This total was boosted significantly by one memorable week in 2014 when there were three.

Every one of these formal church services was preceded by many hours sitting with and consoling grieving family members. In some of those situations, I was also privileged to spend time with the person as they slowly died.

I was taught this in seminary, but also learned by direct experience that there are things you say and things you DON’T say to people when someone close to them dies. And right at the very top of that “DON’T” list is the phrase, “I know exactly what you are going through.

Because you don’t.

Because you can’t.

Even if your father died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79 after undergoing numerous surgeries and chemo therapies and you are talking to the son of a person whose father just died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79 after undergoing numerous surgeries and chemo therapies, you still don’t KNOW what they are going through.

One journey of pain is utterly unlike any other journey of pain. Every journey of pain is unique and unrepeatable.

And yet, even though you stand entirely outside that person’s experience, there is still a “compassionate ally” role for you to fulfill in that journey.

First, you need to discover the role. Then you need to fulfill it.

In the wake of the horrific lynching (let’s call it what it was) of the black man named George Floyd by a group of white Minneapolis, MN police officers, a lot of pain has been brought to the surface. In most cases what we are seeing is a pain that had been bottled up for centuries that is finally exploding.

This crime provided a moment that has led to some long-overdue, national soul-searching.

In an eerie parallel of the scenes surrounding the death of a loved one, some folks are responding to the pain by releasing their own pent-up pain. Some are responding by trying to deny, dismiss, or rationalize the expressions of pain they’re witnessing. Still others are struggling to find a way to respond… knowing that this particular pain is not part of their lived experience, yet also aware that they dare not turn their backs on it.

Number me as a member of that last group.

I want to come alongside those who are now in pain. I want to minister to them. I want to do something more redemptive and more effective than clucking my tongue and saying, “Ain’t it a shame.” I want to figure out a way to somehow engage in the struggle without making the mistake of saying, “I know exactly how you feel.”

Because I don’t.

Because I can’t.

Because I’m white.

In his letter to the church folk in Galatia, Paul told them they were called to, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, NRSV).

And as much a fan as I am of most of his work, I have to confess I am having a hard time getting with Paul on this one. The burden of systemic racism and oppression is not one I will ever be equipped to carry.

And yet somehow, despite my shortcomings, I know there has to be a “compassionate ally” role for me to play in this struggle.

Continuing to shine a light on it might be one option. Refusing to allow our national angst to be swallowed up by the next news cycle might help keep the dialogue going and the solutions flowing.

Educating myself about the depth and nature and duration of the pain might be another.

Standing up visibly with those who are hurting the most might be another ally role I can play.

Supporting the cause financially is certainly another.

What else?

 

I’d love to know what you think…

02
Jun
20

The Magic Bullet

Wheat germEarlier today, I was busy in the kitchen, whipping up a new batch of my famous homemade granola. Before you get too excited about my domestic skills, it is literally one of four things I know how to make… and then only by carefully following directions.

As I carefully measured out the ¾ cup of Kretschmer’s Wheat Germ, I suddenly flashed back to my childhood. I remembered when my father proudly brought home our first vacuum-sealed jar of Kretschmer’s Wheat Germ. He announced that it was an amazing superfood, packed with all manner of vitamins and nutrients and – no doubt – secret superpowers, too.

Dad told us that the way to eat it was to just sprinkle it on our breakfast cereal, ice cream, waffles, or anything else we might eat. And then, as I imagined it, we would just stand back and let the magic happen.

 

I am sure I was daydreaming about the incredible biceps I would soon sprout and the amazing strength and endurance I would be blessed with in a day or two.

Three weeks and MANY sprinkles of wheat germ later, nothing.

Bupkis.

Nada.

I was sorely disappointed with wheat germ and – to be honest – a little dismayed with my dad for promoting such a worthless product. I was still too young to realize there were little things like sleep, exercise, and a balanced diet that were all critical elements in my quest to be a 10-year-old he-man.

I wish I could say that this was the last time in my life that I have caught myself believing there must be some kind of quick fix, magic bullet solution to life’s challenges.

Take this present moment, for example; I want a COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow.

I want an effective economic fix right NOW.

And maybe more than anything else, I want a Harry Potter-style wand to wave at the pernicious evil of systemic racism to make it vanish completely FOREVER.

As a privileged white male, I have to confess that I have been walking around with my head in the clouds. Until this nightmarish year began unleashing its fury on us, I had convinced myself that, in the area of racial justice, things in this country were vastly improved compared to the world of my 10-year-old, wheat-germ-eating self.

“Guess again, paleface,” scream today’s headlines.

It is unthinkable that we still live in a place where a person cannot jog, go to school, shop in a clothing store, play on a playground, walk in a neighborhood, or wear a particular kind of clothing without a legitimate fear of being killed because of the color of their skin.

It is horrifying to think that the scales of justice are STILL being tipped unequally by presence of something as benign as melanin.

This week, I have had my nose rubbed in a reality that my African American brothers and sisters face 24 hours of every day of their lives. The difference is that I can turn away from it and think about something else any time I choose to.

They can’t.

This whole situation just really sucks, and I want it to go away… NOW! SHAZAM!

But see, as long as I keep seeing the problem as existing somewhere OUT THERE, it’s not going to go away. Not now. Not ever. It is exactly like the quote (mistakenly) attributed to Benjamin Franklin says; “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

I am complicit. I am part of the problem. As long as I relish my white privilege and passively cluck my tongue at the “bad people” out there, I help perpetuate the nightmare.

I cry out with King David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10 NRSV).

And then I pray, “Show me, Lord. Show me how you are calling me to stand up and act on your behalf in the pursuit of justice.”

 

But today, I weep.

29
May
20

Fear of Being Feared

I cannot express it more clearly or powerfully than these words of Deltha Katherine Harbin. So I will just step aside and let her speak for herself and her husband Phillip.

My thanks to Lindsey Choguaj for the original post.

Phillip Harbin picMy husband is 31 years old. My husband can proofread a paper to perfection! He makes the best pork chops and neckbones. My husband was raised in an extremely wholesome home where they were not even allowed to watch Harry Potter. My husband has never tried any drugs, not even weed. He has never stolen from anyone, not even a corner store. My husband treats me and our sons like royalty. He serves at our local church faithfully and helps anyone he can.

None of this stopped my husband from becoming a suspect in Semmes. My husband wanted to do me a favor one night when he got home late from work. He got my keys and drove around the corner to fill my tank at the gas station. While there, an older white woman was at a pump across from him and he noticed she appeared very nervous and stared at him. He said she got in her vehicle and got on her phone and pulled off to an area near the gas station. Within minutes police cars pulled in and surrounded him. He was questioned about why he was out. He was questioned about his activity earlier in the day. He was told he fit a description. They asked who’s car he was driving. He was told he could not leave. He was told the description was simply a black man. Not a 5 ft 7 inch black man of around 220 lbs who loves WWE, macaroni and cheese, and the Temptations. Just black.

The older woman was now watching and the cops revealed she had called in his suspicious behavior of pumping gas. And now he was a suspect because he fit the description of being black. He was humiliated. He was emasculated. He was angry. He was helpless. He was on his way to being cuffed when a white man stepped in. An older white man told the officers they were wrong and that my husband had come from a different direction than the robbery they had mentioned. The officers released my husband after this. Not because my husband told them multiple times he was innocent. Not because there were two car seats in the back of my car. My husband’s voice meant nothing. The only voice that penetrated those badges was a white one.

My hard working, kind hearted, silly husband was guilty because of his skin and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. The sight of him caused a woman to call the police. He said he wanted to scream. He wanted to fight. He wanted yell at the top of his lungs that he was a man and he mattered. If he had, he would be deemed aggressive. He would be resisting so he said he kept telling himself he had to make it home to me and the boys. He knew these men could kill him and justify it.

He came home a changed man. I am a changed woman. We cried. We prayed and we have healed since this took place but it changed us. Issues that once felt somewhat distant became our reality. So, when you dismiss the plight of black men in America you diminish the ever present fear within our community. You are willfully ignorant. If you think people make this up or are only apprehended by the police when they deserve it… you are part of the problem.

Open your eyes but more importantly open your hearts to the reality of being black in America. We don’t get the luxury of ignoring it because we live it. This picture of my precious family looks threatening to some people. My boys are cuddly and cute until they aren’t anymore and then they become a threat too. My heart aches for our country and I feel so helpless. Lord, please heal the hearts and minds our land! 

18
Jul
19

“Am I Safe Here?”

Frightened person“Am I safe here?”

Think back; how many times have you asked yourself that question… today?

… in the past week?

… in the past month?

Can you even remember the last time you asked this question?

If you are a member of my demographic cohort, your answer is likely the same as mine.

My answer: I can’t honestly remember when I last showed up in a situation, looked around, and wondered about my personal safety.

Unless, of course, it was a situation where I voluntarily endangered myself… like scuba diving, rock climbing, or hang gliding… none of which I have done lately.

However, if you are a woman, or a dark-skinned person, or gay, or someone who wears any type of ethnic garb, your answer is very different.

Even though it is not yet noon, you have likely already asked this question one or more times.

It might have been in a neighborhood store, at the post office, on the bus, in your workplace, or just driving your car down the road.

You noticed the gaze of another person lingering on you a little longer than made you comfortable. You saw their eyes narrow slightly as they seemed to be sizing you up. They might have drawn a purse a little more closely to their body, shifted uneasily in their stance, or even crossed the street.

And you asked – as you have so many times before – “Am I safe here?”

Freedom from questions about personal safety is one of the hallmarks of privilege.

That’s just a fact.

But the question is: what will we do about it?

How can I, today, let people know they are safe around me?

29
Jan
19

You Belong

ice-cream-bikeThree doors down from the house I grew up in lived a family named the Thompsons.

There was Mr. Thompson, Mrs. Thompson (that was back in the time when kids didn’t know adults’ first names) and their three sons.

If you were one of the kids who got invited to hang out at the Thompson house, you knew you had really MADE IT.

You see, the Thompson family was in the ice cream business. They maintained a fleet of those big three-wheeled bicycles that carried a big freezer in the middle and a line of jingly, chimey bells on the handlebar (see photo). And if you DID get invited to hang out at the Thompsons, you knew it meant unfettered access to free Creamsicles, Fudgesicles, Bomb Pops, ice cream sandwiches, and all manner of frozen confections.

And yes, I am proud to say that I was a regular guest at Chez Thompson. That is, right up until the day when I committed the cardinal sin of actually ASKING them if I could have a Fudgesicle. You see, Thompson house protocol dictated that while ice cream might be offered, it was never REQUESTED.

It was a moment that provided me with one of my earliest memories of how it feels to BELONG… and then – in the twinkling of an eye – to NOT belong anymore.

And although it would be a stretch to credit this insight to my experience with the Thompsons, it amazes me to this day how much of my life has been a search to BELONG.

People much smarter than me have recognized the need to BELONG as a universal human longing.

We want to feel a sense of belonging in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in formal and informal groups of every kind.

But I don’t know… do you think it’s possible to overemphasize belonging? Can we concentrate so much effort on where we “fit in” that we start to make belonging an end in itself?

History is replete with examples of the damage that is done when we start putting a lot of energy into trying to figure out who belongs and who doesn’t.

Taking a quick inventory of my own belonging, I have discovered that I am part of an uncomfortable number of DOMINANCE groups. Here is what I mean by that: I am white… I am male… I am a Baby Boomer… I am American… I am middle class… I am Christian… I am college-educated… I am straight… I am married… I am a homeowner… I am able-bodied and of (mostly) sound mind… I am an oldest child.

I could go on, but you get the point. If there is a group that has been granted privilege and position in today’s world, I belong to it. And for most of those groups I just listed, I did absolutely nothing to qualify for entrance.

I just showed up.

Which is why I just want to take a moment to appreciate the courage of people who – for one reason or another – often find themselves on the outside looking in.

 

I have never personally experienced having doors slammed in my face because of my skin color or my gender or my religion or my nationality or my sexual preference or my physical ableness. I cannot imagine the ongoing pain of regularly hearing – directly or indirectly – “Sorry… you just don’t belong here.”

As a pastor, I can console you with the reassurance that every person matters equally in the eyes of God. I can show you the places in the Bible where God tells the Israelites to welcome the alien and the stranger, or where Jesus goes out of his way to include people that everyone else turns their backs on.

Because it’s all true.

But I can’t help wondering if that reassurance helps at all.

Dear God, please grant these your comfort. Help them know the warmth of your loving embrace. Fortify them for the days ahead and let them experience the wideness of your welcome.

And maybe, while you’re at it, break open the hearts of the privileged just a little wider.

AMEN.

04
Sep
18

Leashed Justice

Dog with a leashWhen it first happened, I felt kind of righteous and empowered.

A little later, I began to be unsure.

Later still I just felt bad. And more than a little ashamed of myself.

You see, in my community here in Overland Park, Kansas we have leash laws. This means that when you have your dog out on a walk, you are legally obliged to have him or her on a leash.

It’s not a good idea. It’s not a suggestion.

It’s a LAW.

And happily enough, most people comply with the leash law.

But now and then there are a few folks we meet on the trail who don’t.

When I meet them, I try and speculate on their reasons for ignoring the leash law. I wonder to myself:

  • “Maybe they are new to town and aren’t aware of the leash law.”
  • “Maybe they have extraordinarily well-trained dogs who stay right by their master’s side, or else who come immediately when they are called.”
  • “Maybe their last leash broke and they haven’t been able to afford to go get a new one yet.”

Normally the sight of an unleashed dog wouldn’t bother me. However, the last dog we had (dearly departed little Molly) was VERY aggressive toward other dogs when we were out for a walk. Molly would viciously growl and snap at them and tug on the leash as if to say, “Let me at ‘em! Let me at ‘em!”I worried that an unleashed dog might forget their careful obedience training and respond to her aggressiveness with similar aggression.

Because, you know, they are dogs… animals directly descended from wolves.

So there I was the other day, happily walking Rosie on the walking trail when what did I see but a lab/something or other mix walking up the trail toward us, unleashed. Trailing behind her was her master… holding a folded up leash in her hand.

I paused and had Rosie sit down next to me, warily regarding the other dog. It approached and began sniffing Rosie in a curious, “Hey, what are you all about anyway?” fashion.

As the owner approached I said, tersely, “Is that dog OK?” Meaning is it friendly.

She replied, “Oh yes… she’s fine.”

To which I responded, “You know there IS a leash law in this community.”

The woman seemed a little taken aback by my abruptness. She looked at me and said, “Yes… I know.”

Unsatisfied with her obvious lack of remorse, I pressed the attack. “Well, then maybe then you should try to OBEY IT!”

Bending down to clip the leash on her dog, she sighed tiredly, said, “Have a nice day,” and continued down the trail.

Like I said… my first feelings following that encounter were feelings of righteousness and empowerment. I mean, what the heck?! A law is a law, right? I’M following it… you should too!

But the further the event receded into the past, the worse I felt. Yes, of course, I stood on the side of legality in that situation. But what had I demonstrated to that person by the way I chose to handle the situation? Did I demonstrate kindness? Or compassion? Or anything even remotely Christ-like in the way I responded to her and her dog?

Being the pastoral type that I am, I immediately began flashing back to Paul’s words in Romans 7 and 8. I heard an updated version of his description of the life devoted to serving the LAW compared to the life devoted to serving the SPIRIT.

In those passages, I’m pretty sure Paul wasn’t talking about leash laws, but he might as well have been.

But then here is where I went from being mildly mopey about the whole thing to being ashamed and embarrassed; it was the point at which I asked myself, “OK, caped crusader… you seem to be more than willing to speak out loud and clear against the injustices of suburbanites ignoring leash laws. But tell me… are you just as willing to speak out against REAL social injustices? For example, injustices like systemic racism, or economic injustice, or sexism, or homophobia or hunger? Are you willing to risk consequences that might be more serious than a sullen scowl from a neighbor?”

I sincerely hope my answer to that question would be “YES.” And heck, maybe I am preparing myself to do exactly that.

But for now, I think I will pick a different path for our morning walk… making sure I ALWAYS have my dog on her leash.

 

Abundant blessings;

15
Aug
17

Certainty, Wisdom, and the Fugue

Three tinhornsMy wife and I had some fun over the weekend. We were part of a local musical revue that featured songs and dances from several well-known Broadway shows.

One of my favorite parts of the show was when I got to sing the Fugue for Three Tinhorns from “Guys and Dolls” with two other men.

Even if the name of the song doesn’t ring a bell, you have probably heard it before. It is the song that features an amateur horse race bettor singing, “I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere, and here’s a guy that says if the weather’s clear…” The other two guys join in, fugue-style – singing the virtues of THEIR picks in the upcoming race; horses named Valentine and Epitaph.

The concluding line of the song is when the three point to their tip sheets and sing in harmony, “I’ve got the horse… right… here!!”

It was fun and (I thought) went rather well.

Thinking back on that show and our song, I suddenly realized our frivolous moment onstage might have actually concealed a deeper message.

That message is about CERTAINTY and the ways we arrive at it.

In the song, each of the bettors believes they have a foolproof source of information. For the first guy, the race day weather is the key. The second bettor’s friend is the jockey’s brother so he feels secure with his “inside” information. The third guy relies strictly on the odds displayed in the tip sheet.

The point is, each bettor believes his horse is THE horse.

In fact, they are each certain of it.

Thinking about the song in those terms brought to mind a phrase I read recently in the book, A Failure of Nerve. This book, written by Rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant Edwin Friedman, includes insightful prescriptions for those who lead during turbulent times.

Friedman says, “An anxious system demands certainty.” Naturally, that anxious system looks to its leader(s) to provide them with the sought-after certainty.

More often than not, leaders are very willing to provide certainty to the anxious system. That certainty usually comes in the form of strong declarations of righteous, unshakable principles. It comes in the form of definitive lines drawn to help us understand who is on the “good side” and who is on the “bad side” of the issue. It comes in the form of vague, but bold-sounding statements of steps that will be taken, “… going forward.”

Sound familiar?

The problem, according to Friedman, is that certainty is almost always the antithesis of wisdom. When we allow anxiety to drive us toward sure and certain answers, we find that we must also silence the voices that challenge our certainty.

The tinhorns in Fugue sought certainty about an uncertain horseracing event in the future. But by definition, the future cannot be certain until it gets here. And when it gets here it is no longer the future!

Learning to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity is absolutely necessary if we hope to achieve wisdom. According to Friedman, our comfort with ambiguity is, “… critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience.” (A Failure of Nerve, New York: Seabury, 1997).

As I see it, racism, intolerance, xenophobia, and all forms of hate have their roots in the desire for certainty AT ALL COSTS. We look around us and see a dynamic, uncertain, and changing world… and it seems threatening. The dynamism of that world leads some of us to rush out and erect walls of protection against a world that looks less and less like the one we grew up in. It also makes us hostile to the forces of change.

The good news is yes, there is a timeless truth. Yes, there is omniscience and ultimate wisdom. But it does not reside with you or me or anyone equipped only with this puny three pounds of gray matter we have inside our skulls. It resides only with the One who created us and placed us here in love.

Psalm 111:10 reminds us that: “Fear [meaning awe, or respect] of the Lord is the foundation of true wisdom.” Proverbs 3:5 tells us, “Trust in the Lord… do not rely on your own insight,” and a little later that, “… wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” (Proverbs 8:11).

I believe God calls us to be wise rather than certain. I further believe that the first step on the path to wisdom is HUMILITY… in other words, knowing that we do not know.

May your path lead you to wisdom today.




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