The Whiteness Problem

The Whiteness Problem

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday arrives.  Another year.  Another invitation to dream, to conceive a different world.  Memories cascade:

  • Dr. King’s funeral, standing with other seminarians outside Ebenezer Church, then, marching/weeping along the route;
  • Harlem, a year later, discovering my profound ignorance of the white problem in our nation;
  • Two years later, substitute teaching in Atlanta and realizing that the young shy boy named Marty, who seemed so lonely, had the last name of “King;”
  • Graduate research on Racism and Suburban Congregations opened new vistas on the complexity of white racism.
  • Then, I was honored to pastor a predominantly Black church.

These memories and many more remind me of the Whiteness Problem our nation faces.  I am white; and have been shaped by hidden and obvious advantages of being placed in this racial category.  Even though there is more than a hint of Native American ancestry, my whiteness still shapes how I navigate the world and the social structures in which I live.  In the end I believe that all of our racial categories are only social constructs, they are none-the-less real and filled with the potential to do continuing harm to persons and groups.

White racism is the most negative of the templates shaping our nation’s core identity.  There is slavery, reconstruction, lynchings, Jim Crow, federal policies restricting loans for African Americans leading to widespread housing segregation, the practices of red lining that continue, the courage of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement.   The Whiteness Problem is embedded in the warp and woof of our core.  Years ago Toni Morrison said that “Every American novel is about race.”  Her novel “Beloved,” for me captures a way of seeing who we are and seeing a more hope-filled future.

Sixty-five years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation was illegal.  Desegregation of public schools was to be undertaken with “all deliberate speed.”  In a majority of our cities little has changed since then.

Sixty-two years ago, as I was preparing to enter the seventh grade, there were nine young African American persons in Little Rock, Arkansas who would risk personal safety to enroll in Little Rock Central High School.  President Eisenhower faced with the threats of violence responded by sending troops to protect those young persons.

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[Elizabeth Eckford on her way to class at Little Rock Central High School.  Photo by Will Counts.]
Fifty-two years ago, February 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Rights, otherwise known as The Kerner Commission released their extensive and clear analysis of the White Problem: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

At the time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of the report that it was a “physicians warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”   Two months later, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.  Even so, President Johnson and Congress ignored the recommendations from The Kerner Commission Report.  Johnson was leaving office as his Vietnam War policies were an evident failure.  Richard Nixon would assume office in January of the next year.

In 1975, forty-five years ago, I completed my graduate work.  My dissertation title was simple, “Racism and Suburban Congregations: Strategies for Change.”  The research was part of a national effort entitled Project Understanding.  We measured changes brought about through a variety of interventions.  More than 1,100 persons were surveyed from more than seventy congregations in six cities.  We learned much; at the core of our learning was that the extent and pervasiveness of the Whiteness Problem waited to be addressed. 

Any enduring change would require more than sermons, teaching, pulpit exchanges or even legislation.  Change required relationship.  It required those of us who are categorized as “White” to see with new eyes.  It would require people lumped in each and all racial categories working together to uncover and end discrimination and prejudice.

Being “non-racist” is not sufficient. This myth of neutrality in vogue at the highest levels of our government seeks to paper over the deep wounds and sins that beset us.  It is the notion of “good people on all sides.”  Astonishingly, the racism that fueled the murders in El Paso is dismissed.  Defenders of the current administration say, “It’s not us, the White Nationalist are the true racists!”

This is the challenge — how to name the evil, the oppression and remain clear.  Amazingly, many leaders dismiss, confuse and obfuscate even as racist language, behaviors and institutional practices are on the ascendancy.  Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell stood before T.V. cameras and said “President Trump is not a racist.”  Really, Senator McConnell?  You say this with a straight face.

There are few who write about race and racism today as astutely as Tressie McMillan Cottom.  Her collection of essays “Thick” is a tour-de-force as it looks at the challenges and opportunities we face as a people seeking to live together with honesty and care.  One of the sharp essays in this collection is entitled, “(Black is Over) Or, Special Black.”  She writes of the way some seek to dismiss our deeply embedded racism by suggesting that the acceptance of academics like herself proves that we have entered a new era where the gifted, special Blacks prove we have moved on. 

She writes: “Black is not over… There is no post-black race theory or race work or racial justice or activism that can thrive by avoiding this truth.  Whether at the dinner table or in grand theories, the false choice between black-black and worthy black is a trap.  It poses that ending blackness was the goal of anti-racist work when the real goal has always been and should always be ending whiteness.”  [Thick, p. 152]

Filibustered by Congress

Filibustered by Congress

“Write your congressman” — advice I have heard — and given — all of my adult life. Often, I wrote. I have written scores of letters to senators and congresspersons. Acknowledging that it would likely make only a slight difference, if any, I wrote. Past experience was that the congressperson, or her staff, replied. Often there was disagreement. Still, I wrote and they replied. Occasionally, in the process, our positions and concerns were clarified. Sometimes there were acknowledgments of gratitude beyond ‘thank you for writing.’ There was, implicitly at least, a search for common understanding — perhaps some shared awareness might be found, even if only a tiny patch of it — light (insight) that is.

Today it seems that the Republicans in Congress are filibustering the American people as we search for light. Instead of filibustering in Congress we now are in a time of filibustering by Congress. What is the truth regarding the actions of Donald Trump and his enablers regarding aid withheld and encouragement needed for a more democratic governance in the Ukraine?

An impeachment has resulted and now a Senate trial. Efforts to hear from witnesses, to see public documents or interview government officials involved are avoided or denied altogether. We deserve answers — instead we receive what can only be understood as ideological fog and attempts by persons like Rudy Giuliani to tell us “up is down” and “left is right.” There is an embargo on needed information — a filibuster is set up against information for the citizens of the United States.

In the past, I wrote my representatives and they replied. That was then. Now? Not so much. I continue to write. My experience with Trey Hollingsworth, Congressman from Indiana’s Ninth Congressional District, exemplifies the problem. No more honest exchange. (I also write Senators Young and Braun and find a similar sad pattern of avoiding and filibustering in their responses.) Responses to my letters are delayed or not received at all. Worse yet, when a response comes, there is an avoidance of answers to specific questions. Instead there is a blaming of others, a sense of victimization, an avoidance of seeking after any truth other than what little can fit in a narrow ideological corner. Below are my questions for Representative Hollingsworth first sent on November 8, 2019; then, sent again, December 19, 2019.

  1. Do you believe the testimony of Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman that efforts were made to demand of Ukrainian President Zelensky a public statement against a private citizen of the United States in exchange for the release of much needed military aid?
  2. Do you observe this as a way Mr. Trump continues to act in support of the global agenda of Mr. Putin and Russia?
  3. Was Russia engaged in trying to influence elections in 2016 and is Russia already at work on interfering in the 2020 elections?
  4. What are you, as a congressman, doing to protect us from any such attacks?
  5. Was the National Rifle Association a conduit for Russian influence in our elections?
  6. Did former Congressman Rohrabacher and Pete Sessions receive direct support from Russia or were they indirectly assisted by the use of Russian directed bots on social media?
  7. Have you received, or are you open to receiving, aid from any foreign country, especially Russia for your political campaigns?
  8. What will you say to your grandchildren when they ask in twenty years, “What did you do to protect representative democracy, grandpa?”  [This is not a rhetorical question.  I sincerely want your answer.]

A response, of sorts, from Representative Hollingsworth came on January 3rd. Remembering my questions, here is what I received:

I realize my questions were direct, troubling for those who would seek to protect Donald Trump and his administration. However, they were more. Most could be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Each question was a sincere effort to get at the truth. Of course, question number eight challenges the Congressman to think about his legacy — what indeed will he say to his grandchildren?

I am wondering if others in my congressional district and state might try… perhaps if there are three of us, or ten of us, or one hundred of us, we might get more than responses that seek to avoid honest and direct answers to these questions.

And in recent days, many other disturbing questions have emerged. Was Ambassador Yovanovitch under surveillance while in the Ukraine? What was the role played by our Secretary of State? Our Vice President? Our Attorney General? The Secretary of Energy? The Ranking House Republican on the Intelligence Committee?

It seems each week is filled with new information that Senator McConnell, his allies and President Trump would like to sweep under a carpet of avoidance and obfuscation. I believe we, the American People, deserve more than a filibuster against us. I wish to know the truth that might be uncovered in answering my first set of questions.  If answered, they would offer a place to begin to understand what is at play.

Our future as a Constitutional Democracy requires more than a filibuster of information directed against us, the Citizens. As Timothy Snyder puts it so well, “post-truth is pre-fascism.” 

Hacked Christianity — UMC

Below are my comments responding to Jeremy Smith’s fine post in Hacking Christianity regarding the plan for United Methodism to move beyond the brokenness and harm of recent decades. (http://hackingchristianity.net/2020/01/the-art-of-the-deal-understanding-the-plan-of-separation-for-the-united-methodist-church.html) Yes, this is a schism… however, as many others have pointed out, this is a separation, a brokenness, an ideological chasm that has been going on for years.

My experience is that much of our current United Methodist situation has been brought about by persistent and well-financed outside groups bent on reshaping Methodism away from our natural theological sensibilities and core understanding into a force field of division more to their liking (e.g., Institution for Religion and Democracy). What has happened to the Republican Party in the past two decades is an interesting parallel image. I encourage you to read Smith’s overview — it is a helpful analysis of where we currently stand and what might be possible.

Excellent overview, Jeremy. Excellent, thanks. The proposal has many flaws and potential cautions; however, it does seem to offer a direction if not a precise map to a way ahead. All of our categories and desires for perfection will be tested. That can be a good thing; if we are able to act and think in imaginative ways where the perfect is no longer the enemy of the good. Over the years I have been in three previous attempts at finding a space of compromise — of offering options beyond our ideological/theological entanglements. None made it this far… although a few came close.

Sadly a deep distrust will continue among many who carry decades-long wounds. Distrust will continue to percolate. Others more deeply tied to institutionalist roles will say silly things like bishops “have never stopped the pursuit for a more excellent way for the diversity of United Methodism to be freed from internal theological conflict so that love and respect can triumph over legislative votes that leave a divided church more wounded and less focused.” Poppycock. We need a more humble and repentant stance just now in my view.

What has happened is a tragedy… lost opportunity, broken promises, lost legacies, a tearing out at the root of centuries of witness, analysis that is shallow in anthropology and devoid of theological rigor.

Going forward we all could benefit from a larger dose of generosity, humility and repentance.

2020 – Time to Build or Tear?

I huffed and puffed on December 31st to blow up a float for my six-year-old grand daughter, Eleanor. It was cold in Arizona where we were vacationing. Still, the pool was heated; and the float, named Star Flyer, called out to her for a ride. Four-hundred-and-fifty lungs-full later, Star Flyer was ready. Grandpa watched from a warmer spot at poolside. There is a reason I am counting things today.

The last day of 2019 was also the final day of my seventy-third year. Been that way all my life. A New Year’s baby in 1946… same every year. Cabbage, cornbread and blacked-eyed peas are my regular birthday fare. Seventy-three years and what have I learned? What do I hope for Eleanor and Gus, Zack and Colin, and for all children everywhere? Each year it seems, that along with cabbage and cornbread, I reconsider the message from Ecclesiastes 3 — For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

The poem goes: a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
(NRSV)

Most of us end this marvelous paradoxical poem with “a time for peace” as if that settles it. This year I contemplate particularly the rather singular commitments being made to make this a time to “break down” and a time to “throw away.” In our nation, in my faith denomination — United Methodism, there seems to be more energy being given to the breaking apart, throwing away, weeping, tearing down and hating, than to building up, laughing, healing, seeking, and loving.

As 2019 ends, there is too much attention in our nation and our institutions — even our families — by well-meaning people to focus our toil to a shattering, a brokenness, a disaffiliation, a separation with little to balance it on the side of uniting, healing, affiliating and joining. Such is life as 2019 ends. I’m ready for 2020 — another chance. Like death, the shattering of the past patterns comes to all. But what follows is another chance. In Ecclesiastes 3:9 is the follow-up question, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” The answer follows, “it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil” and all should stand in awe before God.”

So, as the New Year arrives, I will commit to seeking God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. Oh, yes, tomorrow I plan to laugh and dance. I might even go for a ride on Star Flyer. Not certain I am ready for 74! As an early act of resistance, I have hidden the candles set aside to top my birthday cake — one shaped as a “7” and the other as a “4”. Let them eat cake with out those damn candles! I will stand in awe. Happy New Year, All!

A Crack in Everything

On Wednesday, December 18th the House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump. It was a day of sadness and a day of hope. For me the hope didn’t ensue from the debate on the floor of congress or even the the vote to impeach. Rather it came from a surprising place, Christianity Today magazine.

Mark Galli, longtime editor of the magazine who is about to retire, wrote an editorial that gave voice to a bubbling discontent that has marinated among Evangelical Christians for years. In short, Galli asserted that Donald Trump should be impeached and removed. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/trump-should-be-removed-from-office.html.

Galli writes, this president’s actions and words are “profoundly immoral.” Trump, Mr. Galli asserts, “has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”

Was I surprised? Well, in truth my surprise was only that it has taken this long for an Evangelical leader with moral courage to surface. Over the past three years my Evangelical friends have lowered their gaze and voices when speaking of the wholesale surrender of Christian virtue to Donald Trump. They spoke of his enablers, like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., having strayed far from any biblically normative ethic. Just how solid is the support for Mr. Trump?

There has been growing discontent and concern near the heart of important parts of the Evangelical universe. For years, words of concern have come from Fuller Seminary that the racist language and the horrific immigration policies of the Trump administration are not to be endorsed. Respected Evangelical colleges across the nation, places like Point Loma Nazarene in San Diego, Wheaton in Illinois, Seattle Pacific, Houghton in New York have seen a growing willingness to say “enough, this is not who we are!”

In May 2019 there was widely expressed faculty and student discontent at Taylor University in Indiana when Vice President Pence was selected as commencement speaker. Thousands signed a petition of concern regarding the racism and bigotry of the administration. There was a request to rescind the invitation, to no avail. Mr. Pence spoke; but dozens of the graduates and faculty did not participate or wore symbols of protest saying “We Are Taylor Too.”

In the state universities, like in my hometown, Evangelical student organizations are finding young Christian students who are embarrassed by the claims that Trump represents an Evangelical agenda. They discover alternative voices and perspectives.

I listen to the pundits who say the Evangelical support is a solid wall, eighty percent (80%) or more of the Evangelicals will support this administration. I doubt it. I doubt it will be there in November. O yes, I suspect a majority of those who wear the “Evangelical” label will march in line. However, there is dissent, especially among the young.

So, my belief, my hope at least, is that December 18, 2019 was an inflection point, a crack in the silence, a step by the honest adventurers away from all of the aiding and abetting. The gift of truth was spoken even amid the threats to “stay in line.” This crack in the facade of official Evangelicalism is an opening for small virtues like manners, and greater virtues like truth, altruism and beauty. I want to express gratitude ahead of time to our courageous Evangelical sisters and brothers speaking words of truth in the new year. May your tribe increase.

I am reminded of words of Leonard Cohen: Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. (From Anthem by Leonard Cohen.  See also The Soul’s Journey, Alan Jones, p. 219)

Prayer: O Christ of Christmas, lite our way in the year ahead that we may see your pathways of hope.  Amen

Impeachment Narratives

Two narratives on impeachment: 1) What is legal, constitutional? What builds up a responsible nation with checks and balances as a human community? 2) Can we avoid corrupt leadership by diverting attention, blaming others, claiming to be victim, complaining about the process? True — there is a mix of both sets of ideas in each narrative presented, however on the whole, #1 is the response of those who seek restoration (we might call it adult or grown-up) and #2 is the response of those who seek only retribution (the preadolescent response).

It is difficult to step back and see the larger frame of what is occurring in our nation just now. However, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson 161 years ago offers some perspective. Realities between then and now are nearer than is often seen or understood. Johnson said that the nation would always “by God,” be a nation of white men. Reconstruction had only begun and the fear of the loss of the dominance by Whites in the political process, along with the deeply embedded racism – both open and submerged — along with the appeal to authoritarianism and illiberal ideologies are as much in play now as then. They are made of the same core ingredients of human fear and desire to control.

Studies of racism over the past fifty years show a high correlation with authoritarianism, dogmatism and status concern. Not much change comes by argument or debate; even so, there is the need to say, “NO, go no further with the harm you are doing.” More likely, change comes to persons who carry different narratives when they meet one another, experiencing the world of an enemy in real time, real life. The stranger, sometimes ever so slowly, learns that he or she can also be neighbor.

Prayers this Advent are that the slow restorative work of seeking to transform a stranger into neighbor can move forward… with the aid of a flawed human process known as impeachment.

I Choose Stories for Good

I Choose Stories for Good

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”  I chuckled when I first heard this — and understood the truth it contained.  This wisdom, first heard years ago, is both whimsical and helpful in appreciating the gifts of insight and delight offered by a good story. 

Stories provide a doorway to new understandings, new vistas on human realities and may even offer broader faith understandings.  Jesus of Nazareth knew the value of parable — story laid alongside life’s experience and opening the listener to deeper truths.  Stories are durable and can both deepen mystery or provide clues to one of life’s many puzzles.

What of the converse?   Can we say, “Never let story get in the way of fact?”  As the impeachment hearings in Congress began on November 13th we heard Ukrainian Ambassador William B. Taylor and George Kent, long-time expert on the Ukraine, speak of dueling narratives, competing stories.  These career civil servants were troubled by a counter narrative being peddled among certain American leaders based on conspiracy and contrary to the deep expertise of those committed to our national security.

What is a good story, for you, dear reader?

A deep, and I believe, good narrative has guided our nation’s best actions for decades.  Based on our constitution and constructive alliances with other nations it encourages the strengthening of human rights, democratic goals around the world.  Do we sometimes get it wrong and stand with the tyrant — I fear we do and we have.  However, the core narrative we share runs counter to tyranny and oppression.  The current “irregular narrative” dismisses our nation’s long-held values and seeks to divide, destroy common understandings and undermine trust relationship. 

What irony that on the day impeachment hearings begin, Mr. Trump entertained President Erdogan of Turkey and said he is “a big fan.” A big fan?  A fan of a man whose strong-arm tactics destroy democracatic institutions, who jails those who disagree, whose recent aggression in Syria destroyed a delicate peace in the middle east and has set the stage for the reemergence of ISIS?  A big fan?  What irregular narrative is being promulgated?  Why?  Who benefits in the larger history being written for our grandchildren?

The idea ofNever let the facts get in the way of a good story,” contains the word “GOOD.”  And, what is lacking in an “irregular narrative” is a link to our values and a moral compass.  A good story is built on that which is constructive and beneficial to human communities and societies.  The good story is one that encourages freedom and seeks to diminish tyranny.  Compass&Bible Abraham Lincoln used good stories as a critical part of his political legacy.  Even though his legacy is imperfect, overall he chose to resist the temptation to divide and destroy those who disagreed.  The alternative, the irregular narrative is based on a mountain of lies, of half-truths and a poisoned concoction of bigotry and deceit.  Ambassador Taylor identified this story as dangerous to our security. 

What makes a story good?  Good for you?  Good for your neighbor?  Good stories are, at root factual, they contain truths, even though some of the “facts” may be elaborated.  Good stories seek to help and not harm.  Good stories build up and strengthen others.

Falsehoods are being dressed up and widely shared on social media. Memes and tropes are invented that are specifically designed to undercut that which is good.  Truth is victimized and a search for the “good” is jeopardized.  We are living through a time when false narratives are employed to hold gain and hold power and do harm.  The temptation to accept the torrent of lies that come from politicians, tyrants and even television commentators seems too strong to be countered.  However, I will live believing truth will prevail.  What is “good” may appear to be lost in the tsunami of false information that seems to go unchecked. Still I choose a commitment to the commonweal, the beloved community, a community that includes all people.

Good stories are powerful things — at a fundamental level they reinforce and magnify the truth.  In the end, I believe the good in stories will prevail… but this good is fragile and under attack.  How do we know the good?  Well, there is being attentive to our history and our ongoing struggles with tyranny.   There is also the identification of truth-tellers.  I believe the narratives shared by patriots and long-time civil servants like Bill Taylor, George Kent, Fiona Hill, and Alexander Vindman will cut through much of the disinformation and deceit.

There is our faith… and with it, there is joy.

img_0759-2Like the license plate I saw on a crimson pickup truck years ago driven by a theology school dean which read “JOY N IT.”  Good stories, stories of faith, typically bring new insight, laughter and delight.  I choose stories that are good, in large measure because they also lead to joy.  The gift of honest exaggeration, of teasing, of hope-filled truths will always make clear the gift of sisters and brothers who can smile, and understand it when they say, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”