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]

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.

Holy Love: Christ

Steve Harper continues his reflections on Holy Love by looking to the life and teachings of Jesus. The Jesus Hermeneutic as offered by Richard Rohr captures the preference of “Christ Transforming Culture” rather than a “Christ of Culture” (as H. Richard Niebuhr suggested over fifty years ago).

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​The fourth vantage point for seeing the hermeneutic of holy love is Christ, the one who reveals the creator (“whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” John 14:9), the one who made the creation (“ everything came into being through the Word,” John 1:3), and the one who is the mediator of the covenant (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, 12:24). So, everything we have said thus far comes together in Christ, and it does so through love (John 13:1).

One of the things I have heard people say about the relation between Christ and human sexuality is this, “I wish he had made it clear about sexual identities, orientations, same-sex marriage, etc. I have wished the same. I have thought, “If only I could spend five minutes with Jesus.” I have a list of questions. Human sexuality is one of them.

Scholars are correct in noting Jesus’ silence about homosexuality. And…

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Bishop Judith Craig

Recalling Greatness: Bishop Judith Craig

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So many memories, joyful ones, of Bishop Judith Craig. That laugh — so often laughing at herself.  Those hands on your shoulder as she teased or counseled or intermingled the two and you didn’t realize you had been “schooled” until the next afternoon.  Those eyes — that voice.  That wisdom — cutting through the antics of clergy or lay person who would seek to damage the whole. 

I think of her as one always open to delight — she lived with an expectancy of something better.  And could she preach and pray — yes, my Lord, she could!  Losing dear Judy in this hour in the life of our United Methodist Church is heartrending.  I salute you, dear sister and beloved friend.  May perpetual light shine on you.

I remember how moved I was when Judy was the first woman to give the episcopal address for the denomination back in 1996.  She called for a church that could be bigger than the narrow bigotry that entrapped us.  She was unashamedly a champion of full inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings.

At the time (1996), I thought the church would make a transition to a more accepting and courageous witness quickly.  I was wrong.  It has now been over twenty years of regressive movement.  Twenty years of narrow interest caucus groups using the scriptures and our guiding documents as a blunt instrument of exclusion and harm.  How can the good news of Jesus have been so disfigured into another kind of news?  What hermeneutic can justify this push to separate and move away from one another in a time when the gospel is so relevant to a hurting world? 

We seem to have been “trading down” as a denomination for these two decades. Giving away our legacy, our commitment to loving acceptance for all. Open hearts, minds and doors of welcome has been replaced by a move for the withering of the church by exclusion.  It is fostered by those who build fences of fear and use the very resources and structures of the church against it. The church has lost a great visionary leader.  She was mentored in East Ohio by another great, Bishop James Thomas. They were of an uncommon kind.  I see them together — one testimony to our church at its very best.  Both were able to stand tall for justice and piety.  Neither would sell out for a false sense of peace.  I saw both of them stand tall in difficult circumstances.  Each possessed a wisdom that would not accept the ill-considered proposal, the seeking of unfair advantage of others, or the mean-spirited tactics of a caucus group.

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Mary Oliver

Judy’s death comes within hours of poet Mary Oliver.  Two women, two singular voices.  I wonder if they ever met?  Let me suggest that Judy offered us the poetry of a life-well-lived and of poetry-in-action. Or, as Mary Oliver might say, Judy “didn’t end up simply visiting the world.” She was indeed “a bride married to amazement.

 

I give thanks for the witness, the joy, the friendship of Judith Craig… I now laugh through my tears.  I have been touched by greatness and I know her expansive witness will endure and thrive in places we do not yet see, no matter the petty politics of the current United Methodist Church.

Why Seek a King Cyrus?

Why Seek a King Cyrus When We have a King Jesus?

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Katherine Stewart writes of what she has been discovering among many right wing, Christian Nationalist groups.  [See Katherine Stewart, NY Times.]  Having read her thought-provoking report, I can’t help but wonder why Christians would seek the re-emergence of a King Cyrus when we have the far more appropriate witness in life, death and resurrection of King Jesus, as our guide?  

I also stop and consider what recent socio-cultural trends mean for the church.  While United Methodism has been distracted by folks seeking a heretofore undesired “doctrinal purity” on issues like “homosexuality,” our core message of multiple ways for faithful disciples to “Know God in Christ” has languished… and in some places nearly disappeared. All the while, our distractions have kept our attentions from the deeper cultural realities. Basic assumptions about liberty and faith provided by folks like the Niebuhrs, ML King, Jr., E. Stanley Jones, Georgia Harkness and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been undercut. A profound shift in understanding of the nature of Christian citizenship has eroded beneath our feet.

This, I believe, was (and continues to be) a well-planned, well-funded and well-executed effort by persons who have little or no interest in encouraging a Wesleyan spirit. I don’t believe many of my sisters and brothers caught up in the so-called “Good News” movement or the so-called “Wesleyan Covenant Association” intended this. Even so, they are in my view the seminal actors in this tragedy. I do also wonder, at the same time, if they (and we) haven’t “been played” by nationalistic and anti-democratic forces over the past several decades. Have we unwittingly made space for some to suggest that POTUS is a modern “King Cyrus?” Alas.

I believe our foolish warfare over welcoming our gay brothers and sisters has contributed, in some significant measure, to the current season of intolerance and authoritarianism that passes for Christianity. Can United Methodism recover it’s voice? Can we move back to a focus on living lives based on the teachings of Jesus? Can we again practice basic democratic, respectful and honorable civic dialogue? This was once a part of Methodist annual conference sessions — in many places in recent years it has been lost.  Can we mend the soul and witness of our church?  The soul of our nation may stand in the balance.

 

Mirrors of Truth

Mirrors of Truth

We are arriving at the Reign of Christ Sunday (Christ the King).  It is the conclusion of the seasons known as Kingdomtide and Pentecost.  2018 is one of the unusual years when the Reign of Christ Sunday comes after Thanksgiving.

The scripture lesson is from John’s Gospel, the 18th chapter.  The lesson tells of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate — the Roman Governor who questions Jesus and has yet to be answered verbally for two millenia.   Pilate asks “What is truth?”  Jesus is SILENT —  He just stands there.  He has already given the answer by how he has lived.  Truth is discovered in right relationships rather more than in right answers.

Parker Palmer in To Know As We Are Known writes “In prayer I begin to realize that I not only know but am known.”  Palmer says “Truth is in relationship… “The hallmark of a community of truth is in its claim that reality is a web of communal relationships, and we can know reality only by being in community with it.”

So the sermon tomorrow will focus on the mirrors of truth I have known over the years — those who included me in the conversation toward truth.  [You can find it on the church’s webpage at http://www.fumcsd.org.]  I will be speaking of Olive and Sidney Anderson.  We knew them in Atlanta when in graduate school and teaching at Emory.  They worshiped, as did we, at Trinity UMC in downtown Atlanta.  Here is a part of the story that unfolded slowly as we knew them:  Anderson, Sidney (An Disheng) (1889 ~ 1978) – Methodist Mission Bicentennial.

Their amazing lives – the lives of these two were mirrors into the Reign of Christ which came into view as we were blessed to know folks like these and call them friends.

More recently another has demonstrated what God’s realm is about.  Bob Wilson worships every Sunday at San Diego First UMC.  He sits about six rows back on pulpit side.  His wisdom and good will exudes to those around him.  Recently Bob has made a generous response to the victims of wildfires in Paradise, California.  You can read about it here: Bob Wilson’s Generosity.  [http://enewspaper.sandiegouniontribune.com/infinit/article_share.aspx?guid=68587f94-6283-4340-ae0f-107fc920b4d9.

Folks like Sid and Olive Anderson and the Bob Wilson, each in their own special way, leave behind a legacy that answers the question “What is truth?” They answer through their lives, each in his/her own unique way.

Yeats speaks of the truth of legacy-making through relationships in this poem.

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun,
Now may I wither into the truth.

William Butler Yeats, The Coming of Wisdom With Time

Pentecost Lost… and found

Pentecost Lost… and found

Light the candles, sing the songs, cut the cake, burst the piñata — it’s a birthday.  Laugh, dance, tease, shout out “Many Happy Returns!!”  WAIT A MINUTE… Which Birthday is it?  PENTECOST?  Where?  What if the gifts of Pentecost go missing this year?  Shouldn’t we send out a missing feast day alert?

Pentecost is said to be the birthday of the church.  Why celebrate the Spirit first unleashed two millenia ago?  Should I wear red on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018 as in other years?  Perhaps not.  Scanning the international, national and ecclesial horizon, there is little evidence such celebration is in order or that Pentecost will have much of a season in our world today.  Pentecost has gone missing.

The Pentecost Season in the church is to last several months.  It is when we read some of the greatest chapters in Christian scripture —  Acts 2, Ezekiel 37, Romans 8, Psalm 104, Galatians 3.  And, the most reiterated word (and theme) in these passages? It is “ALL,” as in “EVERYONE,” “EACH TOGETHER.” 

Here is the core identity of church, the basic DNA of God’s people.  In these texts it is made clear — God includes all persons.  Further, we are to love and protect ALL of creation.  Francis of Assisi had it right — we indeed are relatives to brother sun and sister moon.  Pentecost is about including, renewing, accepting, out-reaching.  It is about creating community and not simply talking about community. In Pentecost we learn the meaning of neighboring with God and with one another.

Romans 8 speaks of all creation groaning in B+Pentecost+Acts+02_17+No+2new birth.  The work of the Spirit is about new life, addition to our social fabric and our communities of friends.  It is not an excluding or dividing.  Rather, Pentecost passages include, extend, restore.  Like the dry bones in Ezekiel, this is a focus on that which has been separated or torn asunder being made whole.  God’s heart in any Pentecost celebration is about inclusion. 

If the word “All” were to be left out of these passages, they turn to gibberish.  Or, if words like “everyone,” “each,” or “every nation,” “every tongue” or “all flesh” were to be omitted, Pentecost vanishes.  No need for celebration, no call for many happy returns — Pentecost would drift away, vaporize, disappear.circle-312343_960_720

At a national level, in the U.S. today, Pentecost may have gone missing.  The preachers who affirm the mean and divisive ways of this president, have missed the story and meaning of Pentecost for our world.  Instead of a Pentecost vision we are offered border walls, white nationalist rhetoric, the separating of children from undocumented parents, thinly veiled racism that smoothly falls from the lips of national leaders.  Pentecost seems hidden by ugly bigotries.  On so many fronts the vision of Pentecost seems erased. 

Racism and Patriarchy continue to plague our nation and blind us to the story of Pentecost.  We are still discovering the enormity of these curses on our national psyche and our people.  Racism and sexism is baked into all we do and who we are as a nation — it masks any signs of Pentecost among us. 

Take for example the tragedy of the maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States.  These percentages are growing and are almost exclusively due to the increased percentage of deaths among African-American mothers and their children.  “We are the only developed country the [mortality] rate is going up.” (https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily.  The Daily, New York Times podcast, May 11,2018).

Our “infant mortality rate is high…  It is 32nd out of the 35 most developed countries… A black woman is 2 to 3 times more likely to die in child-birth than a white woman and a black baby 2.2 times more likely to die than a white baby… This racial disparity is larger now than it was in 1850!” (Listen to “A Life-or-Death Crises for Black Mothers” on The Daily podcast, May 11, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily).   

Today there is now overwhelming research that demonstrates this disparity in mortality is grounded in the racism of our institutions and cultural life in the United States.  Such disparity does not exist to this extent in other countries.  One of the most astonishing discoveries has been named the “weathering” of African-American women.  (Again, Listen to “A Life-or-Death Crises for Black Mothers” on The Daily podcast, May 11, 2018.) Weathering is language that speaks of the results of chronic toxic stress on African-American women.  This is the impact of racism on the body of women facing day-in and day-out challenges and diminishment in this society due to their racial identity.  Put simply, our racism damages the bodies of our sisters.

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Or take, for example, the patriarchy that still distorts the church from genuine expressions of the gospel — from the meaning of Pentecost.  Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson has finally apologized from insensitive and dangerous remarks about women needing to stay in homes where they are being physically abused so that “they might be a witness” to abusive husbands.  Patterson only recently also acknowledged that some sermon illustrations about young women were “hurtful.”  It is tragic.  Still this denomination and many others exclude women in leadership in multiple ways.

In my own denomination, United Methodism, we live under our own distortions of Pentecost.  Jeremy Smith has argued that “the Gay Panic” has also harmed women and equality throughout the denomination.  In his most recent posting Smith outlines the ways the United Methodist Church is damaged by an inability to welcome all people. (Gay Panic Harms Women and Equality, Jeremy Smith, May 11, 2018.)

In a stunning, dispiriting outcome this past week, United Methodists learned that a constitutional amendment stating that woman and girls were to be equals in the church, narrowly failed to receive the two-thirds vote from the world-wide denomination necessary for its approval.  A re-vote is scheduled due to some mistakes in the original stated language of the amendment.  Still, no matter.  Damage done.  Patriarchy clearly asserted, riding the coattails of Gay Panic in the church.  Where is Pentecost in this?

Still I confess to being a prisoner of hope.  Just when I believe Pentecost has been lost or gone into permanent hiding, there are experiences that renew and restore.

As in so many other places in my life, I have discovered that I was looking for Pentecost in all the wrong places.  Our nation and our churches seem to be drifting away from the SPIRIT BEING A GIFT TO EVERYONE.  Still there are Pentecost tracks and genuine sightings all around.  Last Sunday I saw evidences of Pentecost at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Chicago.  And, I know that such signs are bubbling up in churches like Broadway United Methodist in Indianapolis and St. Marks United Methodist in Bloomington Indiana (where I worship).  I see it there — almost weekly.  There it is — the Spirit given to ALL.

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Then today, I caught what will be an enduring glimpse of Pentecost for me.  It was the dedication of two Habitat for Humanity Houses in my town.  Two homes — one for Colleen and her daughter Juliana;  another for Rachel.  Two houses — built by women and for women.  There were women crew chiefs and three-hundred-and-forty (340) local women working on these builds!  These women raised the money, hammered the nails, put on the roof, painted the walls and finished these homes.  They completed two homes in two weeks (take that Paige Patterson)! 

I watched as the crew leaders passed the keys along a line of celebration — each one a contributor — and then to the new owners.  I watched Colleen and Juliana accepted the keys to their home.  They have worked hard to get to this point — their own homes, their own mortgages — after years of living it difficult, counter productive situations. 

Then keys were passed to Rachel.  When I heard Rachel say “I have worked hard but you women have taught me more than building, you have taught that we need each other.  Hey, this is MY House but your love is in every board,” I caught a glimpse of Pentecost.  It has been in hiding for me, but I might see it more clearly yet.  I may even wear red on May 20, Pentecost Sunday!