Tag Archives: racism

Martin Luther King, Jr: Sacramental Theologian

We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces. They don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church day after day. By the hundreds we would move out, and Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come. But we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” [applause] Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” (Yeah) And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the trans-physics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. [applause] And we went before the fire hoses. (Yeah) We had known water. (All right) If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist and some others, we had been sprinkled. But we knew water. That couldn’t stop us. [applause]
–“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
April 3, 1968; Memphis, Tennessee
I’ve been pretty obsessed with the last speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ever since Charlottesville. In preparing for yesterday’s sermon commemorating the baptism of Jesus, I reviewed our commitments as baptized United Methodist Christians (hub of resources here). We all agree to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves”. This has always sounded good to me.
If I’m going to be more active in the human struggles for freedom and dignity, actually, all I have to do is keep the word I gave at my baptism.

How are Non-White Americans forced to live today?

This is part two of a series of reflections on Charlottesville via Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech “I See the Promised Land” (text and audio here). See the Intro here.

I can remember [applause], I can remember when Negroes were just going around, as Ralph has said so often, scratching where they didn’t itch and laughing when they were not tickled. [laughter, applause] But that day is all over. (Yeah) [applause] We mean business now and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.

What is the rightful place for black people in God’s world? The naturally-following question is more blunt: How are non-white Americans ‘forced to live’ today?

Just this week, a story emerged locally of a man deported in February leaving behind a wife and 7 kids. He is only 2 years older than I am. I cannot imagine being ripped from my family and removed thousands of miles away. I would probably die of sadness. Compare this to the relative ease with which Irish immigrants came to the US 100 years ago: granted ease of passage for being white. The notion that the road is equal for white and non-white Americans is simply not supported by statistics.

  • See HERE for disparities in the criminal justice population.
  • See HERE for income disparities.
  • See HERE and HERE for educational disparities. See HERE (pdf) for a huge federal report from 2013.

Add to these realities the function of historical trauma. This refers to the difficulties of particular groups of people to escape the pains of their ancestry. You can see this trauma in Native American groups where addiction has decimated entire tribes, essentially finishing off ethnic-based atrocities begun generations earlier. The black community is still feeling the economic ripple-effect of slavery. They are feeling the economic ripple-effect of segregation. they are feeling the economic effects of mass incarceration.

It’s weird, I don’t see anyone forcing black people to live poorer than me. But the invisibility of these disparities is designed into the disparities themselves. I don’t see the income gap, because I live in a lily-white town. I don’t see the disparities in education. I just happened to go to a private Christian college and saw the percentage of black classmates drop from 40% to 1%. I think you get the picture.

In this context of systemic disparities in America, what then is black America’s “rightful place in God’s world”? What then must be done for the black American to gain that rightful place?

The first is a spiritual matter. The second a spiritual-political one.

Spiritually, it seems obvious that black Americans ought to be free. Free to be who God is calling them to be.They ought to have equal access to housing, healthcare, education, opportunity, etc. as anyone else. It seems to basic and obvious to me that it seems almost shameful to have to say it. Why would a nation who so values money NOT want to unleash the productivity of half of its population? Why would a nation who prides itself on opportunity not want to grant full access to the creative powers of its peoples?

The simple answer is the best one, in this case. Black America’s rightful place in God’s world is to be free and to seek and find the abundant life God has for them.

Closing the gap between current realities and God’s will for black Americans is a lot tougher (The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates remains the seminal work). I’m not sure its because the answers are all that complex. I more think that the pathway to true freedom and equality for all people is BOTH spiritual and political. And often the political is dominated by current matters. Spiritual matters are slower and elusive. Of course, public policies need to eliminate disparities in the public sphere. But spiritually, there needs to be a further growth within white people for black equality to be a reality. The growth is in terms of awareness of black inequality, honesty within white America regarding our complicity in systems of oppression, a deep concern for non-white Americans that leads to radical change in white Americans and an collective effort to acknowledge wrongs and commit to set those wrongs aright.

As I encounter Dr. Kings’ last speech in light of an ascendant white power movement embodied at Charlottesville, I see so much about what he writes that is still unresolved 40 years later. This intersection of black America’s “rightful place in God’s world” and the powers forcing black Americans to live dramatically less free is today’s enduring work for enlightened and conscious people. The work is multifaceted: artists, politicians, clergy, educators, historians each have their role. I worry that there is too much work and too little will power for true equality. But ultimately, these spiritual matters are God’s will. Don’t I want to be in that will?

The Promised Land After Charlottesville

After Charlottesville, what changes? The change is what matters. The posturing doesn’t matter. The marching only matters as a means to an end. After Charlottesville, as in after Charleston, Ferguson and Baltimore, what matters is the change in society to where black Americans can say “Yes! We are truly free!” Perhaps we forget this larger transcendent goal in the immediate skirmishes over policing and monuments. It is ultimately about the mistreatment of black Americans: historical, ongoing and systemic. It is about black Americans being able to walk, drive, learn, marry, create and work without skin-based harassment and belittlement.

America has rarely afforded her black residents full access to her promises. Slavery, segregation and mass incarceration have weighed the black American down, obstructing her access to these promises. Disparities in policing, housing, schooling and economic services add to the weight. It is a testament to the mighty spirit of the black American that any of them can overcome such daunting obstacles. That entire families and communities have risen from such depths is miraculous. Why America would NOT want to unleash the full potential of her black residents is an utter mystery. The only conceivable answer is fear…and even that is a baseless convolution of white shame.

As events in Charlottesville unfolded, I was leading my congregation through a summer series on Moses. We were looking at ourselves, our congregation and our community through the Moses story utilizing an ancient Jewish method called midrash. I was already boning up Martin Luther King’s final speech “I See the Promised Land” (aka “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”) in an effort to unlock Moses’ own death scene in Deuteronomy 34. Dr. King gave this speech in support of sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis in 1968. The next day he would be murdered on the balcony of the Loraine Hotel. “I See the Promised Land” is a profound, mighty speech (text and audio here). It is powerful, wise, poignant and prophetic. For 45 minutes he recites history, outlines strategy for helping the sanitation workers, calls for non-violent, compassionate and spiritual action and defies threats against his life with boldness and spiritual tenacity. He sees the bigger picture (the human rights revolution) in the smaller skirmish (Memphis was being unfair to its sanitation workers) and vice versa. After Charlottesville, I can’t help but notice the relevance of this speech today. I hear unlearned lessons, forgotten strategies and unfinished business.

I’ve long struggled with the junction of the bigger picture and the smaller skirmishes. I have struggled with the gravitational pull of white privilege and the tyranny of the latest upheaval. Occurrences of racial strife–from the killing of Trayvon Martin to the brutality that killed Freddie Gray to the uprising of white power hate groups–rightly demand our attention and are great opportunities to clarify positions and analyse prongs in the larger issue. But I fear that left unattended or under-analyzed, these skirmishes suck our attention from the larger issue and its ongoing causes. If your marching against the Patriot Prayer group, you’re not marching against police brutality. At the root is a subtle belief in white America in the inherent inferiority of our brown and black brothers and sisters; an apathy within white America to take on changes that will promote the freedom of black Americans; an ignorance (willful or otherwise) of the social structure that lifts whites on the backs of brown, black and immigrant Americans. Beneath all of these major matters is a basic lack of love, understanding and responsibility on the part of white Americans to the plights and rights of our non-white residents.

With this understanding, I have been diving more deeply into Dr. King’s “I See the Promised Land” speech to gain reflection points, study angles and action notes. I have 10 jumping off points from the speech which I will reflect on in the coming weeks.

  1. Where is God’s hand in today’s struggles?
  2. How are non-white Americans “forced to live” today?
  3. Do we really have to march still?
  4. What sacrifices are required by white people of conscience to further the freedom of black Americans?
  5. How can I master non-violence?
  6. How do we move stubborn white Americans to see the plight and dignity of black and brown neighbors?
  7. What is the role of clergy today?
  8. What economic pressure points need to be brought to bear today to further the freedom of black Americans? And what does it mean for the white person of conscience?
  9. In what ways is compassion the linchpin to true peace?
  10. How does one overcome threats and fear?

I cannot seem to get away from these teachings. I hope these reflections further the conversations that lead to true peace.

I’m White, but I Don’t Feel Like It

screenshot-dna-ancestry-com-2016-09-06-14-21-35So for Father’s Day, I got an Ancestry.com DNA test kit. I spit into a little tube, mailed it off and awaited an emailed result. And the results are as intriguing as advertised.

Prior to getting the results, I had my surname analyzed and found that “Raines” traces back to a village in Essex, UK called Rayne. Or it could come from Rennes in Brittany, northern France. There may also be Yiddish origins.

When I went to England in 2000, I internally treated it like a kind of homecoming. Then again, I felt like a welcomed outsider that whole year, rather than a beloved insider. But that’s much better than a despised outsider. Later as I approached Paris enroute to Taize, “Rennes” popped up on the flight tracker. It felt like Tom Bodette had moved to France and left the light on for me. I, in my ignorance, felt like that was where I was from.

On top of all of that, I am from West Virginia, in the middle of Appalachia. And that has long felt to me like its own ethnicity, complete with cuisine, history, folklore, and music, not to mention its strong tribalism.

Getting Into My Whiteness

Then I recall also back in 1998 meeting this guy who to this day is the epitome of white guilt. He and an African-American lady presented on racism for my training as a US-2. This fellow was extraordinarily anxious, contrasted all the worse to the lady who was the epitome of cool, wise authority. They both made similar arguments about systemic racism and white supremacy. And the information in whole was quite compelling. But his anxiety made his presentation hard to access. The most repellent statement was the fact that he called himself European-American and he thought all white people ought to call themselves European-American. I had never taken any offense, as some are wont, to people describing themselves as African-American, Hispanic-American, etc. At that point, I did have more than an inkling to non-whites’ status as oppressed people. I had read Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X and I knew a little of Native American history. At the same time, Europe felt foreign to me. My people left Europe willingly to start something new. And I thought as an Appalachian, I had plenty of culture.

That particular presentation was largely material from The People’s Institute. I was privileged to come across that material again on two more occasions. Their “Undoing Racism” workshops are tense but very effective. It certainly took me three workshops to wrap my head around the concepts. And I still shake my head at a few of them.

One of my gripes (and this is my gripe, not a criticism, let’s be clear), is that they often present white and black as opposing ‘races’ but then define them differently. They will talk about whiteness in terms of institutional power whereas to be black is to have a common cultural identity. (I’m now realizing how long ago these workshops were and that I need to revisit.) White is kind of an anti-group. It’s maddening because I clearly recall arguing definitions with them and saying how they were trying to compare two things that they knew weren’t the same. In any case, they do a great job spelling out racism and white privilege and I am better for their work.

Who am I?

I say all of that to say that my Ancestry DNA has helped me see myself in a different light. I had always thought of myself as Anglo. But I’m not Anglo. I’m 61% Western European, which is certainly dominant. That’s the France, Belgium, Holland, German sector. I’m 24% Irish which should come as no surprise as an Appalachian descended from a big clan of Baileys. Yet, I’ve never thought of myself as Irish given I thought of myself as Anglo. But in Appalachia, the Irish were suppressed by the Anglos, and I never felt suppressed. I’m also 8% Iberian Peninsula (Spain/Portugal), which was eye-opening to me. I know nothing of this region other than how lovely I found the Canary Islanders I met at Taize. The remaining 7% was scattered among other European regions with a trace (<1%) of my DNA coming from “Asia South”. So I might have a Sri Lankan cousin out there somewhere.

Most of my people came from a territory where conquering others was as much a pastime as baseball is to modern-day Bostonians. And yet, that fresh layer of Appalachian coupled with a theologian’s self-awareness, gives me a heavy dose of compassion for underdogs. I have meekly watched my brothers and sisters in the Dakotas as they’re sacred places have been bulldozed to make way for more oil (as the earth knowingly melts). It has taken me a long time to feel their anguish. And that’s my sin to bear. I’ll have to add that to related sins regarding Syrian refugees, kidnapped Nigerian school girls turned sex-slaves, and impoverished and broken families in North Korea. At the same time, my people’s sacred sites have been bulldozed and dynamited for coal. My people’s children have not washed up on the beaches of Greece, but we have lost plenty to doped-up moms and dads.

Part of my need for identity is the loss I have felt by being summarily disinvited from West Virginia. I had always felt free to leave. And I did leave freely to see the world. And I felt a true homecoming when I returned after seminary. But despite its motto (Montani Semper Liberi: “Mountaineers are Always Free”) West Virginians don’t like West Virginians who leave. You can easily find people lamenting having to leave West Virginia. Almost all of those cite economic reasons why they had to leave. Almost none of them cite how the culture chewed them up and spit them out. At the same time, the other unofficial motto–‘You can take the boy out of the hills, but you can’t take the hills out of the boy’–I can attest is mostly true. So I feel a swirling mixture of feelings about my homeland: anger, disappointment, pride, defensiveness, sorrow, respect and…yes, love.

Who am I to you?

ALL of this: the DNA test, the People’s Institute training, the Appalachian pinball machine, the theological enlightenment and the search for identity is leading me to conclude that all human divisions are bullshit. Not that I have learned to live into that conclusion, yet. But the truth is what is happening to you is happening to me. They bulldozing your heritage? They’re bulldozing my heritage…not because I’m Sioux, but because I’m people. Black Lives Matter to me not because I’m black, but because human divisions are bullshit and if you’re black you do matter to me. McDowell Matters to me, not because I’m from there, or used to be from near there, but because I care about you as a matter of principle and spiritual virtue. Lord Jesus help me.

A Cure for White Privilege? (Introduction)

Unlearn Racism 1It’s Black History Month. It’s important to observe it. It’s important to remember and learn and recommit to eradicating racism. One part of my observation of Black History Month is an examination of White Privilege. I am examining it as a cultural phenomenon, for sure. But I am more interested in examining it as a reality I experience. I want to know the privilege around me and within me so that I can transcend it. If white privilege is a legacy of racism, then perhaps it’s a sin which can be healed.

Privilege is a lens I wear. I wear it the same way I wear my beard. When I am thinking about it, I can notice it. But most often, I just look through that lens unaware of how it is shaping the world I see. It’s easy to ignore most of the time. Recently, I have had a harder time ignoring the lens of my privilege. My privilege was re-revealed to me as I watched events unfold in Ferguson, MO following the killing of Michael Brown. It continued as I became aware of Eric Garner’s killing in New York and Tamir Rice’s killing in Cleveland. As I watched Ferguson erupt, I was reminded that a few short years ago, I was watching something eerily similar unfold in Florida. I have identified that eeriness: I had forgotten Trayvon Martin. That realization began this current struggle. I began to better see how my own complicity was part of the problem. How can I love my neighbor as myself and allow this realization to remain?

My struggle with my privilege is certainly about racism, its presence in my world and my life. But more simply, it offends my faith. I believe in sanctification and Christian perfection, the idea that sin can be eradicated through the grace of God. Why should this sin be any different? Does it really matter that it’s an old and enduring sin? It ought not. I believe it is possible in this life to transcend sin, to be so free from sin that sin doesn’t even try you anymore. With this belief, racism and white privilege make no sense. Nevertheless, throughout the holidays I felt my conviction ebb and flow. It flowed Thanksgiving week watching the DA in St. Louis drop the case against Darren Wilson. It ebbed as Christmas got busy. It flowed again as I felt the issue beginning to fade in my own consciousness. For one second, I actually wondered if my forgetfulness would lead to another killing. I don’t think that kind of guilt is useful, but I also don’t want the opportunity of this conviction to be squandered.

I have been thinking of white privilege as an addiction. Addictions are diseases in which the infected person participates in his/her own destruction. Also, in an addiction, the rewards and negative consequences of the addictive behavior get convoluted. Many alcoholics know that their drinking is bad for them, but they choose the short-term escape in spite of the long-term destruction. With white privilege, the default setting is to enjoy the privileges without even being aware. I believe that white privilege destroys whites by displacing values and dividing us from others, but many aren’t aware.

My approach for examining my privilege is to 1) examine how white privilege operates in my life, 2) examine why my environment allows privilege to so easily exist, and 3) examine how approaching white privilege as an addiction may reveal ways it can be “treated”.

I value any constructive feedback. My feeling is that minorities have raised their voices quite enough. White people must increasingly choose to be part of the solution. We must be willing to try. We must be willing to honestly fail and be corrected. At one point, I thought of this as my speaking up. And while I do think that whites need to be speaking to other whites about racism, I know that our greater tasks are those of listening and learning. So I offer these insights with a question mark. Where I go wrong, please tell me. Where I am going right, please encourage me.

Photo: "Unlearn Racism" by Light Brigading

More Thoughts on White Privilege

I’ve had many thoughts on white privilege lately. This is in addition to those admissions I made earlier (here). In no particular order…

  • I’ve identified some hallmarks of white privilege
    • Ability to provide simple answers to complex matters. (i.e. “He shouldn’t have pushed that store owner.”)
    • Propensity for nitpicking details of an occurrence while disregarding larger trends that lead to such occurrences. (i.e. playing the he-said she-said game while disregarding the injustice of racial profiling)
    • Twisting verbage to disempower a group you don’t like. (i.e. Responding to #blacklivesmatter with #alllivesmatter, which allows the responder to feel good for being technically right while missing the larger point of the original statement. This is another form of nitpicking details to disregard a larger matter.)
    • Compulsion to answer rather than affirm. (i.e. Being unable or unwilling to affirm that #blacklivesmatter answering instead with #alllivesmatter. This allows the answerer to remain in superficiality while others cry for justice out of a deep pain.)
  • White privilege allows me to ignore or never learn about institutionalized racism. The racism of the 1940’s was characterized by hot rage and violent lynchings. Racism today doesn’t live in the emotions of white America, but in the policies and behaviors perpetuated by the institutions that white America runs. I can feel great every time I hear the I Have a Dream speech while completely ignoring the fact that my local police department monitors my neighbors based on their color, accent, ethnic clothing, etc.
  • Institutionalized racism divides white people from ourselves.
    • Those who run the institutions have a certain culpability to the racist practices of these institutions. Meanwhile, I get the benefit of that institution’s work without getting my hands dirty. I’m culpable insofar as I am aware. I am aware. But it’s easy to not be aware.
  • White America is the missing link indisempowering white privilege.
    • Black and Brown America has raised their voices and raised the consciences of many others. It’s time for white America to do the hardsoul searching and be part of the solution that ends the disparities our neighbors are experiencing.
      • There may be some enlightened in the liberation movements of the 20th century which argued that oppressors rarely give up being oppressors. That may be the case. It may ALSO be the case that now is a time to change that narrative.
    • White people of conscience need to create avenues to enlighten others to the scourge of institutionalized racism. We also need to create safe and effective means for dealing with one’s privilege. It’s time we become part of the solution.
  • I am beginning to think about white privilege as a disease akin to alcoholism. I’ve played with the idea of a 12-step program for disempowering white privilege, but I’m not sure yet.

What about you?