Structural Racism—It Doesn’t Exist

One of the things about American culture and society is our racism. It’s not the only thing, or the most important thing (well, maybe). We have a past that is entwined with racism, and there are still problems today with racism.

I won’t go into all the details about racism and what it is in every dimension, because there isn’t the time in this post, nor do I want to completely define everything. I’ll be teaching a class about this in the fall of this year, so if you want a better run-down, sign up.

But I did want to talk about one aspect of racism, and that is “structural racism.” This is perhaps the hardest to see or admit, because we don’t see all the individual acts that lead up to structural racism.

We’re good people, you see, and not racist. We are kind to people who are not like us, we might work with them, and even might have friends who are not exactly like us.

I get that, and I say the same things.

But let’s do a little experiment to understand—or at least demonstrate—what structural racism might look like.

Take a sheet of paper and draw a tic-tac-toe grid:


Now, as best you can, enter the names of the families in your neighborhood—your closest neighbors, whether they are on the same floor as you in your apartment, in your condo development, or your suburban development. Don’t worry about being completely accurate—you might not know the names of the people, so write down something that might fit. You should be able to do this in about 5 or 10 minutes:


Now, as best you can, under their names, write down their occupation. Again, don’t worry too much about the details. Just get a general gist. I wrote down occupations that are what I understand them to be. A “director”, LePage in this case, is the director of a business department:


OK, now the part that might be uncomfortable.

Write down the race of the person or family, to the best of your understanding:


Now, your neighborhood might be slightly different. You might have a few names/races that don’t fit the pattern.

But in general, people in America live sorted by their race.

How did this happen in your neighborhood?

Likely it wasn’t anything deliberate or overt. No one posted signs “White People Only” in your development.

It just happened.

“Look,” you might say. “This is a neighborhood of nice homes. You have to have enough money to pay for them. Some people just don’t have enough wealth to live here.”

“Note that the occupations here all come with good salaries. People working at Walmart can’t afford this place.”

“Most of these people have a good education so they got good jobs. People who do poorly in school because they slack off can’t get good jobs that pay enough to live here.”

And that is structural racism exposed in kind language or “explaining-away” language.

Structural racism is exposed here as a series of steps, all along the way, that leads to sorting by race.

Minority Americans were excluded from access to federally backed mortgages, which meant they could only use financial instruments with far greater risk and far, far less guarantee that they’d end up owning their home or apartment.

Minority Americans historically (and right now, still actually) have access to far fewer education options, and their education options have been and still are substandard when compared to white American education.

Minority Americans are shunted aside to the poorer areas. These poorer areas are historically and currently where we push our most damaging and dirty industries, leading to a poisoned environment which results in sicker children and adults.

Minority Americans have been denied access to careers in businesses where wealth can be acquired, and have also been denied advancement when they do get into businesses.

Minority Americans have had far less safety in their homes and schools and businesses, and when they do have police presence, they are arrested, tried, and imprisoned at far higher rates, for far longer sentences, for crimes that white Americans get by with a warning. (This is literally true. I know you don’t believe it, but there are studies after studies that show similar crimes and similar crime rates for white Americans and black Americans lead to convictions and prison terms for black Americans and a pass or a warning for white Americans.) Prison is literally destructive to families and wealth-building, so minority Americans can’t get the assets they need to move from “starter homes” to better suburbs.

It’s an interlocked system with many components that keep white Americans on top and wealthy, and that blocks minority Americans, especially black Americans, from access to wealth and safety.

Yes, not all white Americans are middle class. And there is a large black middle class, as well as a middle class experience for other minorities.

But it is inarguable that the middle class in America as a whole is much more likely to comprise the white race than any other race.

This is structural racism. Piece by piece we have systems that block minority Americans from access to things white Americans take for granted & think come from “hard work” and “taking chances.”

The people in your neighborhood are probably not overt racists. You are probably not overtly racist. You are probably a nice guy, like me.

Yet your neighborhood shows you as living only among your own kind. The occupations are diverse. But the race is probably uniformly of one kind: yours.

I can’t offer you, right now, options to change that. I just wanted to highlight it, for now, so you can maybe start your journey of understanding America better.

More next time.

A Setback and a Resurrection

I am celebrating Easter today, which is a reminder to Christians that death is not the final answer. We celebrate Easter because Jesus, having died, was resurrected and will die no more; those who believe in him also will one day be resurrected. It is God’s way of saying our pilot episode will be picked up for broadcast and renewal.

We have this hope in us, this idea of Easter, that we will not only die when we are dead, but that something will live on, whether it is the things we have constructed, or the people we have helped to grow and change in life.

And I’m reminded that we have Easter because we have Good Friday; that everyone who is called for creation and restoration is opposed by those who would continue in destruction and misery and death.

We are surrounded by these people and these systems, which glorify (if that is the right word) all the things they can do to tear down, rip up, destroy, defame, malign, and corrupt.

I’m reminded of the efforts of these enemies to destroy every time I see good people attacked.

I’m reminded of the efforts of these enemies to tear down every time I see good organizations torn apart.

I’m reminded of the efforts of these enemies to pull to pieces every time I see good works ripped apart.

I’m reminded of these things because I see them around me.

Recently an organization in South Seattle, a community outreach center for peace, justice, teaching, training, and life, was vandalized and burglarized. Over the weekend the Umoja Peace Center had their offices and their community rooms defaced, their equipment destroyed, and their achievements trashed. Some vandals broke in, painted swastikas on the walls, cut and destroyed all their networks, and essentially trashed all their works. All the people who work there saw their efforts thrown away, all the people who use their services saw their achievements trashed, all the people depending upon this outreach and resource have seen their community shut down, all because evil men are doing their best to destroy and to bring death to the heart of this community.

We can react with pity and feel sorry for these people who’ve lost their community. We can feel righteous indignation at the evil done by these small men who are so threatened by people attempting to bring peace and justice.

We can also react by helping this community which has been vandalized and wounded.

There is a donation site set up here:

I encourage you to give what you can. There is literally no amount too small to give, and all proceeds go to the Umoja Peace Center Fund and the Africatown Center.

Use this time of Easter to celebrate restoration, resurrection, and the victory of life over death.

Forgiveness—What Is Possible? What Is Demanded?

I heard a story on NPR the other day.

rembrandtSeems that in Maryland there’s a push to review the sentences of those who were convicted of murder in the last 40 years based upon the Unger decision.

Several people who were affected by these murders—being the family and friends and co-workers—were asked for their thoughts. Did they forgive these people?

One lady—and I am not picking on her—said essentially that she forgave the man who killed her family member some 40 years ago, but she could not forget and that, as a murderer, she thought he deserved to stay in jail—that his release, even though mandated by mistakes in prosecution, should be stopped because he was guilty.

I pursued the thought of “what is forgiveness?” as I was on the way to work, trying to construct an understanding of what it meant and what it required of me.

And then I was asked for my thoughts. What is Christian forgiveness? How much are we to forgive?


I think we should separate a couple of things, first, some which you are already like to do yourself:

1. There is no “Pope” for Christianity (even though there is a Pope for Roman Catholics), so we can all kind of invent what Christianity means to us. Some people in Maryland, claiming to be Christians, really cannot be used to represent all Christians.

2. We still can still come up with what people inside and outside Christianity think that it means and requires, and hit the mark for what people inside will allow as true and what people outside consider as binding or descriptive.

3. One essential element is, indeed, a concept of forgiveness, which does not have an explicit definition in the Christian scriptures even though Christians are enjoined to forgive, by the words of Jesus himself as well as the main people who are considered his disciples, and by the example of Jesus on the cross who asked, we are told, for the Father in Heaven to forgive those who were killing him because they were ignorant of the meaning of their actions.

4. If we presume that forgiveness is really an essential mark of Christianity, and we presume we can guess what it means (release someone from the debt for their actions, giving them a restoration to their place in society, accepting that they have actually committed an offense but no longer holding it against them), then we can say that forgiveness means something we can both do ourselves and see others do.

5. Forgiveness, it would seem, does involve a releasing. It might not involve a forgetting, but even if there is no capability of forgetting, the releasing is important.

6. Because forgiveness is given great value in normative Christian behavior (“you’re supposed to forgive!”), there is, in my opinion, inordinate stress on people to “forgive” in order to show the bona fides of their faith.

7. It’s my opinion, though, that forgiveness, while something we can say we are doing, is something that really requires us to enact a change in how we will value someone.

8. Also in my opinion, we can’t be made to forgive, and we cannot make ourselves forgive until we are ready.

9. Also my opinion, we shouldn’t make our act of forgiveness something that breaks us. I think we should understand the value, and work toward it, and let time and circumstances and reflection help us forgive – but we can’t demand it of ourselves, and we cannot, absolutely cannot, demand it of others. (Which is why I was quite upset after nine Christians in Charleston SC were assassinated by a white supremacist who wanted to kill black people, that some of the survivors declared they “forgave” the murderer. I think that was at best a religious nicety but I don’t think anyone is capable of forgiving that quickly the murder of their loved ones.)

10. I think forgiveness is for _us_. _We_ are helped in our own journey and growth when we forgive, because it helps release us from the binding we have in our pain and destruction caused by another. As long as I cannot or do not forgive, I am considering someone else’s retributive pain and destruction. Forgiveness releases _me_.

11. Forgiveness, when given, is at a personal level according to Christianity. The legal requirements of justice and law may also allow for dismissal of charges and a clearing of the record, but that’s not forgiveness. And even though we can forgive someone of their damage to us, none of us can, by our personal forgiveness, release someone from their legal penalties. We might end up in court with the person who caused us pain, and whom we now forgive, but the acts that brought that person into prison are acts against the state and not really the person. (We bring people to trial for murder because there’s a law against it, not because I have a personal injury done to me, and the penalty is laid down by the law. Otherwise, people who are orphans and widows would have no one defending their right to life in court when they are murdered.)

12. I am sorry for the pain these people have experienced because their loved ones were murdered, in some cases right in front of them. (The 92-year-old woman comes to mind – her husband was killed in the shop in front of her 40 years ago, and she still weeps for the pain and grief.) I demand forgiveness from none of them. But if they do forgive, I would encourage them to go all the way, and forgive.

13. With that said, even though I might forgive someone of what they did to cause me pain, my forgiveness or lack of forgiveness is completely irrelevant in the courts. Someone who says “I forgive him, but he needs to go back to jail because he murdered!” is a nonsensical statement. He’s not getting out because you forgave him. He’s getting out because his conviction and sentence were, according to the state, unjust and unfair. His “early release” is a matter of law, not a matter of your forgiveness.

14. I think the lady in question deserves my empathy and pity, but I don’t think she deserves my acceding to her definition of forgiveness. I think she’s wrong, but I don’t think I need go any further than stating that, and hope that she can find release for the sake of her own comfort and her own soul.

15. The forgiveness-of-sin aspect of forgiveness is something that God does, not us. Our forgiveness is for personal slight. God’s forgiveness is for moral and spiritual offense. We sin against God and his holiness, causing us to break away from his presence and power. Forgiveness wipes the moral slate clean, makes us whole against spiritually, and puts us back in the place where we can commune with him face to face. God can forgive any sin/sinful action because he’s God, which is one of the things Jesus did (forgave someone their _sin_) to show that he had the power and authority to forgive beyond the human level. But that’s not what our personal forgiveness is. We can’t forgive a moral or spiritual offense because it’s not done against us.

Anyway, that’s where I am today. The topic of what it means for Christians to forgive is a testy one, because some people think we should “forget,” which is sometimes impossible, and others think that it is releasing (that’s my position), which is much more doable.

Remarks to the Muslim Association of Snoqualmie Ridge

Back in November of 2015, Washington State Representative Jay Rodne (R-05) made some inflammatory remarks about Muslims and Sharia law, leading to many ugly statements from others in the community expressing their own ignorance and hatred. In response, the Muslims in our community of Snoqualmie and North Bend came together in a community open house on Saturday, January 30th, and invited me, along with the mayor of North Bend and others, to speak to them and our wider community as part of their outreach program. Here are my remarks prepared for that meeting.

Good morning.

I extend my thanks to Mujeeb Mohammed, President of the Muslim Association of Snoqualmie Ridge, along with the Board of Directors, and the Board of Governors, for asking me to speak; the members of the Muslim community for hosting this open house; and all the residents of the Snoqualmie Valley who have come this morning to learn about and to welcome our neighbors. And as a member of Snoqualmie Valley Alliance Church, I’d like to express my thanks for the presence of my pastor, Monty Wright, and his wife, Amy Wright, soon to be the principal the newest school in the community, Timber Ridge.

I would like to start off my remarks with a story about people and faith and community. Given the circumstances of the past few months, the statements that have been made, and even the questions that have been raised, I think it’s important to get to know the people around us in our community.

Now, in my faith tradition we learn much about our lives and our values through the stories told by Jesus, and so I have found that the stories I tell are the best way to for me to explain to others what I’m thinking.

So let me tell you how it is we came to live in this valley which welcomed us and where we made our home.

It was midnight of January 1, 1990, and finally we’d finished packing our four-seater Hyundai, crammed with food and clothes for myself, my wife, and our two boys, one not quite 2, and one six months. We began our journey to Washington State, travelling from the arid Southern California coast to Puget Sound. You see, my employer had decided to move me to their headquarters, and so we pulled up stakes and headed north, driving for 3 days until we reached Canaan—or more properly, Bellevue.

Our apartment was bare for the first week as we waited for our furniture. With two small kids and a new job keeping me busy, no friends and no family, we were hungry for human contact, for relationships, for that daily interaction between neighbors, for the sense of a community we’d left behind.

I have to tell you, it was hard. Our apartment neighbors were seldom home. Our kids were too young to be in school. We had not yet found a church home, and not yet really settled into living in Washington State. We were used to things being dry and hot—and it rained here, all the time! I remember the TV news reporter in May of 1990, gleefully announcing it had been some 55 days since the last time the sun broke through the clouds. Y’all were happy about that! I thought we were gonna die.

So we lived in Bellevue for that first year. We tried to make connections with people in the “big town,” but it was hard. No family, no friends. I worked in Issaquah, my wife was in the apartment in Bellevue.

We were talking to friends back home, sharing our frustrations at connecting with people. We were friendly, we thought, but even striking up a conversation at the supermarket was met with puzzled silence.

“Oh,” our friends said. “There are some people we know who live a bit east of you. Why don’t you look them up?”

Turns out these people pastored a church in Snoqualmie. So we got up on a Sunday and drove out to the valley.

That church embraced us and made us feel at home. We’d found the family and faith community we needed. We were invited to their homes for meals. We found playmates for our children.

Soon we moved to the valley, buying our first home in Snoqualmie and then our second (and current) home in North Bend, where we raised our kids in a safe, loving, accepting environment, surrounded by people we’d grown to know and love, in a community that embraced and included us.

For the past 25 years I’ve taken for granted that everyone who lives in this valley is like that. Open. Accepting. Friendly. Helpful. Patient. When we were flooded out, twice, in Snoqualmie, our neighbors and community pitched in to help clean up. When our kids were in Little League, our community stepped up to provide a baseball park. We have community pools and recreation centers, parks, schools, libraries, and wonderful neighborhoods.

There are opportunities to enjoy the beauty of the area, and all kinds of people with different interests. Some of us are hunters and fishers, some are kayakers and hikers, some participate in Fun Runs through the mud, some take hikes in our city and regional parks. There’s a community theatre company, homegrown artists, music groups, dance troops, karate studios, sports and fitness academies—if there’s something people want to do, there’re probably people in the valley who are doing it.

Of course, we also have a strong and vibrant community of faith here. What drew my family here was the natural beauty, of course, but what got us to move here, to live here, to buy things from stores here, were the people of the church we attended. And whether our own neighbors worshipped as we did—or did not worship at all, as they might please—we were safe to worship as we would and live where we wanted.

And so, this is where we are today, a community with a diverse set of interests and talents, opportunities and events, viewpoints and values, faiths and no faiths. Not everyone in the valley walks the trails, I understand. Not everyone in the valley enjoys a hike to Mt. Si. Some, like me, enjoy seeing Mt. Si from our own warm and dry homes. Not everyone in the valley attends the same church, or even a church at all.

We can appreciate those who live here and how they work, play, relax, and worship, and none of us needs have any concern.

You see, we are all neighbors here.

And as neighbors, if we have questions about those around us, or don’t understand them, or even just wonder what they’re like, the best thing we can do about that is to do what we’re doing here, today—to get to know them as neighbors, through potlucks and dinners and play dates, Fun Runs and hiking and kayaking, plays and dance exhibitions and parades. We get to know each other by doing things with each other, and just talking to each other about ourselves, our families, our hopes, and our dreams.

I would like to invite us all to get to know each other, as neighbors, as friends, as a community. Let’s build up our trust in each other, and let go of the fears that can divide us.

I would like us do what our prophets and our wise teachers and even our parents have asked us to do: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

That’s what we’re here for, I think. To do the best we can, to be neighbors and friends, to love our families, do our jobs, and, if we so wish, attend the church or synagogue or mosque of our choosing, knowing that there is, after all, no compulsion in religion.

Thank you for listening to me today. Thank you for showing up to learn more about your neighbors, and to welcome your friends in the Muslim community of Snoqualmie Valley. May we all find a home here, a place for all our families to grow, and a community of friends who accept and embrace each other.

Why Honor Dr. King?

Reposted from 2010,  2011, 2012, and 2013. I wrote this as a quick email in response to some scurrilous nonsense forwarded to me, nonsense written by a white Christian eager to point out to me that Dr. King was a flawed man, too flawed to be honored and acknowledged.

N.B. 2016. I’ve grown in my understanding since 2010, and while I might not say things in this way, and I might add or edit this beyond some slight spelling or grammar changes, I am leaving it as-is, as I think it’s sufficient to express my viewpoint.

MLKJrLet’s get some things straight right off the bat: I’m a white male in my 50s with little or no experience through most of my life with any black/African Americans other than incidental work relationships. My cultural outlook is white, whiter than snow, whiter than LiquidPaper™, whiter than polar bears in fog on an iceberg. My outlook up to this point has been we’re all Americans and we are all the same, diversity is really all about looking past any differences, and good people will agree on all the same things, and coincidentally that agreement will be to my viewpoint, and that all this talk about race and skin and oppression and holidays for Dr. King are simply unpleasant and unnecessary reminders of a past that no longer exists. They got black people on TV; one of the richest people in the world is black (Oprah), and we got ourselves a black president. So end of story.

What I say and think now comes from a process that started about a year ago when a black friend asked me point blank several times: “You do know that I’m black, right?”

I considered it an extremely rude and provocative question, because I’d been trying for most of my life not to see black Americans as black, but rather some non-color, because in my heart I didn’t think skin color mattered, and so I simply wouldn’t see it.

Of course I knew he was black, but I wouldn’t let that affect my understanding, because I am a nice person who accepts everyone.

But still, the question rattled me. Why would he have to ask that question of me, a considerate, patient, loving person? What made him think I didn’t see that obvious fact about him?

But really, I wasn’t seeing him in any way. I didn’t consider his history or his experience or his life or his choices, instead evaluating him and what he did in the context of my own undisturbed life. My thought was that we’ve moved beyond all the unpleasantness of racial tension, and as believers in Christ there was more in common with us in our hearts than in our bodies, appearance, or even our minds.

I had to think about that – really think about that.

That one question sparked a thought process in me to examine what I really believed and thought and felt about the Other – the people that moved around me with unknowable motives, who had so many unspoken experiences, who chose and acted and talked in ways that simply didn’t make sense to me.

It was a long process to see how he lives in the America I live in, and yet has so many divergent experiences, experiences that I cannot comprehend as actually happening. And yet they happen, and continue today.

That discussion folded around in my mind, and I continued to think about what the question meant. Why would someone need to tell me that I was blind when I knew that I could see?

That led to the novel I’m working on [and have since completed], set in Texas in 1952, the story of a 13 year old boy who wrestles with racism, Christian belief, growing awareness of self, and his unfolding understanding of his own sexuality. So I’ve been doing a lot of research and thinking about what it means to open one’s eyes, to look at the world for the first time, and to grasp the fact that we each can choose what we want to do with our lives and what values we want to hold. Take this, then, with a grain of salt – the ideas are still being formed.

I think a lot of white people don’t get the impact MLK had upon the souls of black people, people who were invisible for so long in our American culture. Most white people don’t know that the first black slaves came to the Americas in the 1500s; the first black slaves landed at Jamestown in (I think) 1619. Most white people don’t know – or don’t figure it out – that some black slaves captured were Muslim, and thus brought Islam to America quite early – much earlier than popularly believed. Most white Americans think of what happened in the past as something perhaps unpleasant, but surely by now those black people should be over it, forgetting how black people had been pushed into a box of inferiority and invisibility for 400 years. Most white Christian Americans don’t think that black Americans have Christian souls or worthy Christian beliefs because their version of Christianity is so different from white American Christianity. (As some have said, the most segregated place in America today is still the American church on Sunday morning, and each side points their fingers at the other.) Most white Christians don’t think about the incredible cognitive dissonance required to teach black slaves about Christianity, a religion where there is neither slave nor free, and with the hand that holds the Bible to also hold the whip that beats them into submission as slaves, slaves for the simple reason that someone said “I have the power to own you and steal you away from your homes and families.” I can’t ever think of a time in church or in school where this was discussed: did anyone ever think Isn’t it weird that we call them our brothers and sisters and yet treat them like furniture or horses?

MLK – who was killed at 39 – accomplished so much to bring awareness to black people that they were human beings with dignity and worth. I don’t think his main accomplishment was to raise the consciousness of white people – although he did do that in some part. It was that he helped black people to be aware and to believe they were worthy of their God-given rights and citizenship. At Jackie Robinson put it, “I shouldn’t have to ask for what’s mine”; it was MLK that brought that idea to the mind of ordinary black people – that they shouldn’t have to ask for their ordinary civil rights, the right to live as they wanted to live without permission or oversight of others, the right to just be treated as human beings. His hope, in my opinion, was that just by saying they deserved participation in their civil rights, ordinary white Americans, Christian Americans, would understand their plight and their longing and their need to participate in America – and would enable it, willingly, because it was the right thing to do. A bullet ended that dream, and it’s been 50 more years of talk and fights. We’re closer than we were, but we’re not there yet.

Was MLK a perfect man, an ideal man, even a moral man? Is he someone worth looking up to? Complex broken people are always found in situations where revolution happens; often they are the reason for the revolutions. LBJ – the man who is most singularly responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – was a corrupt, selfish, adulterous, racist man who lied about things he didn’t even need to lie about, who destroyed people not just because they stood in his way, but because he could. (LBJ along with J. Edgar Hoover so thoroughly politicized the FBI that it’s hard to accept how much those actions tainted anything the FBI “discovered.”) LBJ cannot be claimed to be the friend of anyone because he could never be trusted to be telling the truth – and yet somehow he was the one who pushed through these two transformative acts of 1964 and 1965 – as well as the unknown Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction. As leader of the Senate he finagled this ‘57 Act through the Senate, bypassing the liberals of the North who wanted more and the conservatives of the South who wanted not just less, but to take away even the rights blacks already had. (Essentially the ‘57 act was to grant jury trials to people convicted of federal crimes of suppressing voting rights; the law opened up the way for registration of blacks in the South that led directly to the marches on Washington and the Freedom Riders of the South.) LBJ bungled our way into Vietnam, one of the most wasteful and useless wars in our history. He made himself into a multimillionaire in office through the corrupt use of federal power to essentially steal TV and radio licenses in Texas. No one should hold him up as an example of a moral, caring, thoughtful, Christian man.

And yet – he was the central figure in the 50s and 60s to bring civil rights to black Americans. There is no one else who had the power he did, and no one else who had the capability to do what he did. It happened because of this broken, racist man. Churches that preached the love of God and the humanity of all mankind preached and taught – but it was the actions of a man without a church and without a governing principle other than “me first and me only” who initiated these transformative acts in the American political and cultural life.

In a similar way, MLK was broken and flawed and unfaithful. He likely plagiarized to some extent his writings while working for his degree at Boston University. He did not have extraordinary preaching skills beyond all other preachers. He didn’t even have a unique theological vision; indeed, I’d claim his theology was undeveloped and based more upon feelings than upon strict logical construction. As a Reformed believer, I find that his theology devolves into folk wisdom. His work is derivative, and it is set crisply in its time. Reading his work now requires work to understand the decades of the 50s and 60s; his writings seem now more worthy of research than of wide dissemination. (Howard Thurman and W.E.B. DuBois are much more readable today and require much less understanding of the times.)

But MLK found a way to emphasize to the American people the moral injustice of treating people as if they were trash, bringing an awareness to blacks that they were not trash and to whites that they would need to start considering blacks as if they were as truly human as whites were.

Like others who pointed out these hard facts, he generated opposition. I’m pretty sure his theology and political viewpoints weren’t well-thought-out; I’m pretty sure he hung around with people he shouldn’t have; and I’m pretty sure he didn’t pay careful attention to the motivations of the people who wanted to claim him as part of their movement. And while we celebrate (and ignore!) his words about racial harmony, we ignore his words about other great problems such as the propensity of America to wage war, and the almost incomprehensibly tragic effects of the vast social and economic disparity between classes in America. I think he used Marxist terms because Marxist terms are convenient for economic and social analysis; by doing so he made a mistake, because (in my opinion) instead of listening to what he said, we can conveniently look at the terms he used or the people he associated with to ignore what he said. Lincoln said a nation could not endure half-slave and half-free, and he was right; MLK said a nation could not endure where generations and races were locked in perpetual poverty and dead-end despair, and he was right, but Lincoln has had the benefit of being dead and elevated so that we have forgotten his very human foibles: MLK has unfortunately not been dead enough for us to wring out the essence of what he said from the mistakes and errors he made.

I’m not sure of the motivation of people who feel the need to point out MLK’s flaws, though he had many. I think there’s a time for that, just as there’s time to point out Washington’s flaws regarding slavery or Lincoln’s desire to save the union whether blacks were freed as a result or not. (Pointing out those flaws doesn’t take away from who they were. It simply points out that Washington, Lincoln, and others were humans who sometimes rose out of their own times in a spectacular fashion.) I suspect the need to point out the flaws of Dr. King (who was no saint) is a way to say “he does not deserve respect or attention” and then we can move along with our lives without pausing to think what drove this man to live a life with such privation and fear? What drove him to walk and march and preach when so little changed? I wouldn’t elevate him above any other person – he was just a man, like us – but with the few tools he had he moved a nation. Whether we like him or not, he has been a powerful man in our American life, an almost unwitting agent of the essence of the American experiment “to form a more perfect Union.” What he did was profoundly American in spirit: he looked at what we were and what we could be, and decided not to settle for what we are.

Dr. King was a minister of the gospel who preached and acted in a style familiar to the American black church. And being a minister doesn’t guarantee sanctity (although one would hope that the salesman would use his own product; a preacher who doesn’t act under the light of the gospel seems to be questionable.) But I don’t see that the gospel guarantees the moral superiority of any believer in either thought or action when compared to any other person; the essence of the gospel is that it saves sinners and makes them whole and gives them working tools to better their lives until their homecoming. (As C. S. Lewis pointed out, you don’t compare person A to person B to see if the gospel is true and powerful; you compare person A before and person A afterwards to see if it’s true and powerful in that person’s life.) I won’t excuse moral failings, because we are called to a holy life, and when a minister who purports to preach the true gospel of a holy God misbehaves, it hurts people and hurts the message of the gospel. But let’s not think that only ministers fail, or focus on their failures and ignore their service. As you and I both know, God uses flawed and broken people – sometimes critically flawed people – to bring the message of the cross in order that no man can boast that salvation came by his own power, but only by the power of God.

There are wounded people in the church of Christ who carry their wounds deep inside and use them to explain their behavior, hiding behind words of sanctity and fruit-checking. I’m sure none of us could stand up to the scrutiny of others to such a degree; I’m sure all of us have stories to tell that would explain why we fail where we do and when we do. I would only offer that, as a class of Americans, black people have been put down and shut down and kept down, kept away from education and access to ordinary lives where they could assume safety and control, not knowing whether their kids would be safe or well-educated or fed or protected. The ordinary experience of blacks in America for 400+ years has been one of complete disruption and exclusion from what the rest of us just assume we’ll have – from the assumption that we can walk down any street we want, go to any hotel we want, eat in any restaurant we want, buy from any store that we want, see any doctor we want, send our kids to any school we want – you get the drift. I would expect that as we excluded our black Christian brothers and sisters from ordinary life, they have, as a result, developed their own patterns of living and beliefs that to us seem destructive and unhealthy and even unchristian; I don’t see how we’re going to help them or respect them if that’s the first thing we focus upon.

You might be interested in the viewpoints of Dr. Boyce Watkins, a black political analyst, who shares the viewpoint of the necessity of seeing the flaws in our heroes. His take is for, I think, different reasons.

Here I’ll quote a bit from his article:

[B]y pretending that Dr. King was perfect in life, we are making his legacy vulnerable to those who can prove that he made mistakes. For example, there are some who simply wish to pretend that there was no possibility and no reason to even mention the fact that Dr. King was not always faithful to his wife, Coretta. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that African Americans keep on our religious figures has not only ruined lives, but it makes all of us look silly. It also heightens the impact of the scandal when the truth finally hits the light of day. I had a friend in the south whose 19-year old mother was impregnated by a 45-year old married pastor. The pastor forced my friend’s mother to keep the love child secret, which she did for over 20 years. So, my friend grew up watching her “sanctified” daddy walk right past her in public places without even acknowledging her. You think that might have affected her psychologically? Yes, it did.

Honoring Dr. King doesn’t mean deifying him. It simply means we acknowledge that for all his many flaws, he affected us. He was not perfect. No man is. But he did show that an imperfect man with imperfect dreams and goals can accomplish great things.

Staying the Course

Conservatives love to trot out Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell because they are Black Thinkers.

To be fair, Williams and Sowell are both well-educated, worthy scholars, have great integrity in their viewpoints, and individualistic in their approaches to their fields of study–but just as you can’t say that Van Jones represents all black American thinking about economics and politics, neither can you say Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams represent all black American thinking about economics or politics..

They represent themselves, and they have a place at the table because they have earned their degrees, but they cannot be held up as “the right and only way for black Americans to think,” because, just as with every other set of people, there is no one way for black Americans to think about anything. They are individuals in every way as is anyone else. (I don’t represent all white males, or all American Christians, or anyone in general—I represent me, for example.)

There are, of course, familiar themes in what we might see black Americans talking about _because_ black Americans have been treated (and still are treated) by white Americans in ways that have isolated them and held them to be the “other,” and black Americans who are still so treated have observed their situation to find ways to express their astonishment and displeasure at not being treated equally and at finding themselves the target of ignorance and undeserved hate, and they have worked not just to understand but to get out from being the target of ignorance and hate so as to go on with their lives, to do what white Americans can do with ease.

So you might find more black Americans focusing on things like equal access to jobs and schools and housing, crime and prison and sentences, the death penalty, social justice, and so on, versus white Americans who, as we all know, can get the jobs and schools and housing they want given their finances and class and education, are prosecuted less for their actions at all stages (monitoring, arrests, charges, trials, convictions, and imprisonment) than anyone else, and so on. (Being white means it is not harder to get what you want or deserve for being white, whereas being black means it is harder to get what you want or deserve because you are identified as “black” by white Americans, who simply hold the power of definition and of power itself in America.)

Go ahead and read and study Sowell and Williams and other black conservative thinkers. You’ll learn a lot. They bring up interesting points and go down unexpected paths.

But you will also see how Sowell and Williams are among the tiny collection of safe “black” thinkers conservatives want to read because they affirm conservative viewpoints, not because they are sine qua non in the world of American thinkers. They are valued for being conservative-black. A conservative who reads Sowell will not also read Van Jones, because he is not interested in learning and discovering what is true; he is reading to ensure that he is right, and he wants to ensure is he always affirmed and not challenged.

My opinions and observations, of course, but they come from a long time of being conservative, listening to conservatives, and staying put largely within the conservative sphere of thought.

He Was Twelve

Penrod_coverWhen I was twelve I discovered in an old box of books a novel by Booth Tarkington. “Penrod” was the story (or rather, a collection of stories) about Penrod Schofield, an eleven-going-on-twelve-year-old boy in the Midwest. Indiana, I think.

I was twelve, Penrod was twelve; we were both noted for getting into trouble which, at the time, seemed perfectly reasonable. Dressing up in the janitor’s clothes for a Christmas play? Making a concoction of various household discarded foods and giving it to a neighbor boy who accepts abuse as the price of friendship? Eating far too many things at the fair & as a result having a ginormous stomach-ache?

Penrod’s world was my world. I didn’t see other things in the novel that today stand out as egregiously wrong. Penrod’s world was built for Penrod and people like him: young white males who would grow up (one hopes) to be the captains of industry, good moral men, upright church members, family patriarchs, pillars of their community. Harum-scarum as kids, but given enough time and guidance, capable of growing up from boys into men.

We protect the twelve-year-olds among us. We know they’re twelve. They’re not really adults, not really kids, not really even teen-agers. Just old kids who have the brains of a warm ball of mush, who have yet to be awakened by puberty, who have reached the limits of kid-hood. Impulsive, somewhat aware, somewhat educated, but fully unaware of the dangers around them and the dangers of acting impulsively. We protect them because, left to their own devices, they might harm themselves or others.

We don’t, generally, harm them for being twelve. We don’t throw them in jail for their offenses, we don’t (generally) physically harm them as adults, we don’t abuse them (in principle) because even though “boys will be boys,” they’re still only children.

As adults we shake our heads, clean up their messes, reprimand them for their actions, attempt to educate them and steer them, and hope that by their thirteenth birthday they will have left behind their childhood as they journey into manhood.

Twelve-year-olds, especially twelve-year-old males, seem to think they’re invincible and that their actions have no recompense. They can hoot and holler and rant, and then run off, knowing that they will escape much of the responsibility for acting like—well, kids.

Twelve-year-olds role-play and imagine they’re bigger and stronger than they really are. They see the adults around them and imagine what it would be like to be Big and Tough, and emulate those actions, even though they cannot back up their imaginations with accomplishment.

Sometimes they hang out with their younger brothers and sisters in public parks, wishing they could be older and more respected, imagining that if, for one day, they were a man, they’d be able to do great things.

Sometimes they go so far as to dress up as if they were adults, with their clothing and their fake armor and their toy guns.

What they don’t expect is that their attempts at play-acting and dress-up will lead to their death by irrational, angry, fearful, emotionally unstable cops, and what they don’t expect—in their wildest dreams they don’t expect—is that these same cops which would kill them would then get off because those cops see a twelve-year-old as a lethal threat.

“C’mon,” they’d say. “We know we’re twelve. We dress up and we pretend. But we’re twelve.”

tamirriceThere is something seriously, horribly wrong with our world when we expect twelve-year-old boys to be responsible as fully grown adults, and cops to be entirely irresponsible and unaccountable for killing twelve-year-old boys.

He was twelve.

Tamir Rice, shot by Cleveland police.




Between the World and Me: a Review

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
163 pages
Spiegel & Grau, July 14, 2015

So this is a beautiful, phenomenal, hard-to-read, engrossing, painful, tender, honest, raw, careful book.

It is a letter penned to the author’s son about what life is for Americans, when said Americans are Americans-on-probation, Americans who are not really Americans, Americans who are provisionally American because they are not white Americans.

It bookends the death of Prince Jones, the author’s friend, killed by cops and serving as a symbol of all that is hoped for in black Americans and all that can be brought to nothing by the actions of the state which can act without question against black Americans with violence, robbery, and theft.

Being black will not save you from this fate, but being black will bring you something of great value, and that is the world you see as it is and the people you meet as they are.

Mr. Coates was raised in Baltimore in the tough “urban” environment (see his first book for more details about that), goes to Howard University for a while (called “Mecca” in the book), meets significant people, starts a family, marries, travels–and all the while he sees the world around him as it is to him, someone who, in America, is only reluctantly allowed to exist.

He’s not going to pull punches and he’s not going to provoke despair. He is, however, not going to participate in lies and evasions and half-truths. He is going to talk about what he sees, every root and branch and tree, and he is going to describe what it means.

This is a book to read carefully, words and sentences together, then set aside for a moment to think. Then more words and sentences, and more thinking.

I do not know how books like this get created. They are a wonder to me because they are honest and raw, written not with the hope of popularity but with the conviction that they are true.

We Americans and Our Violence

Someone posted recently that “we Americans” demanded that Muslims in America speak out against violence because “we Americans” were terrified of them here in America.

My response:

Speaking as a Christ-follower, I see “my people” hiding in plain sight and attacking Americans and American soil. I see Dylann Roof and Robert Dear, both people in the Christian religion, killing people. I think it’s outrageous and I think they’re monsters, and I speak out as loudly as I can about these white men who tie Christianity to terror and murder.

It’s completely nonsensical and paranoid to say that because *some* people who are loosely tied to a religious belief are doing evil things, that *all* people of that faith are to be suspected and must jointly speak out.

There are hundreds of examples of Muslims speaking out against evil and terror being done in the name of their religion.

If you don’t hear about it, you should ask why.

As far as your statement of “how do you think us Americans feel?” — do you hear what you just said? These Muslims *are* Americans, just as we Christians are Americans, or we atheists, or we Jews, or we Hindus, or we Buddhists, or we Zoroastrians, or we agnostics…

There is nothing about America that excludes any religion or religious believer from identifying as American.

Who Are the Good Guys and Who Are the Bad Guys

Are all Muslims terrorists? Are any Christians terrorists?

There are somewheres around 2B Christians in the world, and 1.2B Muslims. There are perhaps around 1B Hindus and maybe the same number of Buddhists. Sikhs, Jainists, Animists, Jews, various “pagan” religions, and non-religious or agnostic round out the rest.

There is no litmus test to be included in any of these religions beyond self-proclamation. There are rules to follow, but even those who don’t follow the rules of their religion can still claim to be one. Sufis are Muslims even though many other Muslims think they’re not quite. A population of >1B people associated with a religion will include people who are outliers of the religion’s core beliefs. These people are not outside the religion–they are simply people who claim the religion as anyone else. The best we can say is that “we don’t expect believers in that religion to do that,” but that’s ignorance and prejudice. We often just don’t know.

And because there’s no litmus test to whom can be a religion’s believer and follower, anyone can do anything and be identified as a believer in his religion. Christians kill. Jews kill. Muslims kill. Animists kill. Etc

Even those who are committed to their religion and its teachings will be at various points along the path of obedience, some moving forward, some moving backwards. Christians who claim to follow Christ and his ways of peace can still lose their tempers.

So it’s difficult to say “Person X, a religious believer of Religion Y, performed Dastardly Act Z, proving that Religion Y *and all its adherents* are evil.”

What’s evil are the actions.

Some people can claim they’re acting according to their religion when they kill someone. Some Christians feel OK killing doctors who perform abortion. Some Muslims feel OK killing people who defame their prophet.

Many others in their religions don’t think that killing is the right response to either non-belief or non-compliance. Christians who think abortion is wrong don’t necessarily also think that the only solution is to kill doctors. Muslims who feel that disrespect to their prophet is wrong don’t necessarily think that the only solution is to kill scoffers.

We can’t focus on a religion or even the religious believers as obvious and certain doers-of-evil. We have to look at the actions of individuals and the patterns of behavior that lead us to suspect people outside of a religion.

Someone spouting off nonsense about a government conspiracy to kill them, who has a collection of guns and explosives, who openly carries weapons in social settings that do not require weapons, who uses anger and bullying and physical strength to attempt to control the world around them is perhaps someone to be concerned about. Someone who thinks that anger is best expressed with violence, who believes that all controversies have only one correct solution, who believes that all things can be reduced to simple black-and-white answers, is likely to think that the only solution to opposition is violence. Those people should be, in my opinion, the recipients of greater attention and alarm.

But it’s silly, wrong, preposterous, and ultimately highly bigoted to think that all members of a religion are terrorists, and even more bigoted, to excuse the violent actions of some terrorists because they belong to “our” religion.