N.B.: I had this idea last spring, actually, and worked through some ideas. I thought I’d offer these Advent thoughts here, just to see if and how people respond.
We people who are darker than blue
Are we gonna stand around this town
And let what others say come true?
We’re just good for nothing they all figure
A boyish, grown up, shiftless jigger
Now we can’t hardly stand for that
Or is that really where it’s at?
We people who are darker than blue – “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, lyrics by Curtis Mayfield
Come to earth to taste our sadness; – “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, lyrics by Charles Wesley
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? – Psalm 137:1-4
If Bob Dylan and Joan Baez made white folk feel good about themselves in the midst of the Civil Rights struggles, Curtis Mayfield, both with his group The Impressions as well as a solo artist, gave voice not only to the hopes of a people; he offered African-Americans the simple message that they were a great people, deserving of legal and social equality. His power as a musician is best exemplified by the fact that his songs were used as soundtracks both by Martin Luther King and the Black Pride/Black Power movements. Here is a man who really could speak for his people through song.
As the Civil Rights struggle withered and the Black Power movement was choked to death by official conspiracies, however, African-American urban life took on darker tones. No longer confident they could assert their full humanity and be accepted, the realities of official neglect and a variety of social pathologies created conditions in which hopes and dreams died at the end of needles or disappeared up people’s noses. This, too, brought Mayfield’s prophetic witness to life. Most clearly in the soundtrack to the blacksploitation film Superfly but through much of his work in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, he refused to remain silent while urban communities were ravaged by drugs, poverty, crime, and neglect. The always-present shadow of the criminalization of black life – something the United States has done well even before we were an independent country – left fewer and fewer options or free spaces for action.
That didn’t hinder Mayfield, however. As courageous as he was gifted, he preached through song, offering the picture of a life that had become the epitome of racist fears and bigoted stereotypes. In “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, he held a mirror up to life in African-American urban communities and asked a simple question: Is this who we want to be? Really?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the first season of the Christian year. We all seem to know it’s our time to get ourselves ready for Christmas. Too often, we slide quickly through Advent, ignoring our need for real preparation because Christmas, now no longer solely a religious holiday, has come to embrace much of our national life from early November through the beginning of the New Year. We think preparation means decorating our houses and churches. We prepare cookies and pies. Moving through crowds at large stores and shopping malls as we prepare to buy-buy-buy, we seem grateful only that the stores are open later so we can shop. Preparing for the birth of the Son of God is something toward which we nod on Sundays; the rest of the time we’re preparing for the stockings and wrapped packages and parties and relatives we just saw on Thanksgiving.
Curtis Mayfield, however, offers a different vision of the meaning of preparation. Before we can even get ourselves ready, we need to be clear about why preparation is necessary. It is never easy to admit just how lost we are, how in need of saving from our own blindness, our missplaced sense of self-sufficiency, and the need for our communities to see just how broken they are. If we are to bow down before the Christ-babe, however, we must see who we are. It’s true that God knows the truth, that little baby understands us better than we do ourselves. Yet if that remains the case, how is it possible to receive the blessing that lies cooing in rags in a cattle’s trough?
“We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, like Psalm 137, expresses anger. Unlike Psalm 137, however, this song doesn’t misplace the anger on some Other. Mayfield takes the measure of his people and asks a simple question: Do we want to become someone else’s worst nightmare? African-American communities seemed unable to sing their songs in this foreign homeland of theirs. Not that there weren’t artists like James Brown and George Clinton and Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock who still told their tales. Their musical witness was washed away in the promise of drugs and violence and sex that too much became the soundtrack of urban life in the 1970’s. Mayfield, already present when the dreams and hopes and pride and power seemed poised to tell a different story was now demanding that people see who they were. Only then could they be clear about what was needed.
The music of Curtis Mayfield was always a music for his people. Precisely because of that specificity, however, others, too, can hear in his words and sounds, his unique guitar playing and clear falsetto voice, the demand we be honest with ourselves. How can we make ourselves ready for freedom, for power, for equality when we are a sinful, broken people? The brokenness of our affluent white communities is no less real than that of others. The hurt, the sin, and the anger is as much a part of working class white folk as it is urban African-American communities. Violence as an expression not only of social pathology but of that fundamental brokenness we call sin is ubiquitous; it knows no color line, no socioeconomic class, no neighborhood boundaries. Until and unless we are able to hear in Mayfield’s song our own song, we aren’t ready even to get ready.
By voicing this prophetic call to repentance, however, Curtis Mayfield offers all our different communities the opportunity for real preparation. When we acknowledge just how broken, just how hurting, just how much in need of salvation we are, then Advent can really begin. First, however, we have to say yes when Mayfield asks “Now we can’t hardly stand for that/Or is that really where it’s at?”.
Father of Lights,
Breathe into me,
The Immortal son-ship,
The Truth you see,
Of breakin’ fast,
The motions thee,
The trifling flask,
Please to be,
Satisfied at last – Kody Dibble, “Somethin Or Other”
Guilt. Shame. We just aren’t supposed to walk around feeling bad. Of course, any neurotic fixation on any particular emotion isn’t healthy, for that matter, whether it’s love, joy, or grief or sadness. The thing is, guilt and shame are among those emotions we just aren’t supposed to feel. Consider that age-old question: Do you have any regrets? If we were honest with ourselves, we’d face our lives filled with regrets for things we’ve said and done, wishing if only we could go back and have those moments back. “If only . . .” can kill you if you dwell on them too much. All the same, it’s important, when taking stock, to admit there are things in our lives of which we are ashamed.
Now, I do want to qualify that a bit. I think that shame is, or should be, contextual. In ages gone by, with strict social hierarchies, shame was something for the lower classes, while honor was for the gentry; to shame a member of the upper classes was a social faux pas that brought even more shame upon the one who did so. East Asian societies have honor and shame woven through their social and personal realities in a complex of realities that can be difficult to untangle. Even we Americans, so convinced of our egalitarianism, are not immune to matters of honor, to shame being something for others. In our case, our social hierarchies are crisscrossed by race, class, and gender issues that complicate matters to the point most folks want to toss up their hands and give up on the whole thing.
Consider the word “racism”. For most folks most of the time, it refers not to a social construction upon which our economic and interpersonal relations are governed, but refers only to personal matters of expressions of bigotry. That racism is essentially about social and economic and civil power rather than any particular instance of a bigoted comment, despite the confusion far too many have about the subject, make any discussion of race nearly impossible. No one wants to be called racist; let’s be honest. Yet, were we honest in a quick glace at our lives, in particular we white men are the beneficiaries of a system that is racist to its core. We will never know what it is like to be followed by store security, or have a taxi cab pass us by time and again, or be told that apartment was just rented so sorry. We won’t find ourselves shot and bleeding by the police for jaywalking or reaching for our ID in our cars. We will never have to have “the talk” with our sons and daughters about being black in a world run by whites.
If this were all we Americans carried with us, that would be enough regret and shame for many lifetimes.
As I move down the road toward Jerusalem, having passed through scenes from my life that remind me who I was, and am; as I see people along the side of the road confused, angry, bitter, envious of what Jesus has done for them or others; as I look around where I am now, I realize there is a large stone, just to the side of the road. It has my name on it. I don’t know how I know, but I know I have to walk over and pick that stone up and carry it with me the rest of the way. It isn’t easy; it’s heavy and there aren’t any easy handholds. Finally, I lift it, settling it on my shoulder. I know I’m going to have to shift it around; I also know that I cannot set this rock down, leave it behind, enter Jerusalem without it. This is my burden. More, it is a stone I have made, the weight the total of all I have done and said for which “If only . . .” breaks my heart.
This rock is the pain I’ve caused through harsh words. When I’ve hurt others, a bit more was added. Lies, betrayals, and this stone that has been waiting for me gets ever larger. My refusal to see brothers and sisters in the faces of those who are different from mine has made this stone much larger. A life lived far too mindless of how just being the person I am in the historical and social situation I inhabit makes this stone swell to the point where I can barely lift it. Coming across it as I have, having just passed through a space where I saw so much joy, when I realized I was on the right path, that the time for the entry to Jerusalem was coming soon, knowing I had to carry this load with me angers me. I don’t want this weight. I don’t want to carry with me a constant reminder of having hurt my wife, or my children. I don’t want to know about friends I’ve abandoned, or betrayed, or treated as less important to me than they have been. I don’t want to see images of the things I’ve done, heard the words I’ve said. Yet, I also know that this is what I have to set down before the cross.
This rock, heavy, unwieldy, awkward, always in need of shifting in order to keep it with me – this is my burden. That others will see it, know it for what it is, and point and whisper as they pass, well that’s part of shame. We spend so much of our lives trying so hard to hide those things that will shame us, actively displaying our shame before others is unseemly. It’s embarrassing. It’s also necessary. Part of owning our lives as we prepare for Holy Week, the Passion, and the Resurrection, is owning all of it. Part of that ownership is accepting that some of us, at least, have led shameful lives. And we must do so without any sense that, ridding our lives of shame will somehow restore something called honor. On the contrary. Ridding ourselves of our shame gives us the opportunity to bear the shame of others, to cover their shame, to help them bring it to the same place we’re going – the foot of the cross where, with them, we set it down, asking that it be removed from us.
There’s a trick to this, though. We must admit that we want this particular burden disposed of because of how it makes us feel; we need to be rid of it, however, so that we can be the people God made us to be, so we can be about God’s work. We have to be ready to bear the burdens’s of other’s shame just as quickly and willingly as we have our own. We have to be ready to be sent to be about work that might well have once been considered shameful; yet, because it is God who calls and sends, there is no shame at all, or at least no shame that accrues to us. For you see, just as we set that burden down before the crucified Christ, so, too all that shame is taken up in to the life of God and transformed in to something holy and beautiful.
That is my hope, anyway. At this point, my shoulder just hurts, and I know soon enough I’m going to have to go through the awkward ritual of shifting it to the other shoulder. Besides the hope and faith that carry me forward, this enormous weight on my shoulders, my only other consolation is that, having picked up my own, all these people I see around me are also carrying rocks, some larger, some smaller, each and all inscribed with a name. I start laughing when I realize that some of them have no idea the burdens they’re carrying; all they seem to understand is they’ve slowed, and feel something pressing down upon them. So, I jog ahead, and rather than tell them, I just lend a hand. It may be their shame they carry with them; that doesn’t mean they have to carry it alone.
Kids are universally seen as “innocent” and in need of protection. The older they get, the less those protections apply, right? So when people view and treat kids of color as if they’re older than they really are, they’re excluding those children from those protections.
In effect, they’re seeing black children as less innocent than white children,independent of any wrongdoing. That plays out about like you’d expect when it comes to law enforcement.
– – – –
According to Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, co-author of the study, the officers surveyed showed “a use of force about three times as high towards black children as towards white children or Latino children.” Officers who exhibited dehumanizing views toward black children were more likely to have used violent force against them in the past.
And to tie that back to the first finding, those officers were also more likely to see black children as older and more blameworthy. Goff explains, “In our minds, we represent particularly those young men that we imagine are possibly dangerous to be older than they are so that we’re essentially justifying the threat that we feel.” – Maz Ali, “They Did A Psychological Study Of Police Officers. What They Found Makes Me Sick With Worry,” Upworthy.com
An unidentified Phoenix police officer was caught on tape slamming a 16 year-old boy to the ground, his head smacking off of the pavement. The boy was handcuffed at the time.
– – – –
Other than the allegation that his conduct was “borderline disorderly,” it doesn’t seem that the officer has any reason to harass the kid other than his need to feel superior and exert control. It’s definitely worthy to note that the officer and his partner are both white patrolling what appears to be a largely hispanic neighborhood. – Charles Topher, “White Cop Slams Hispanic Boy’s Head Off The Ground For ‘Borderline Disorderly Conduct'”, Inyouonlynews.com, December 10, 2014
A University of Iowa student claims police are lying about the details surrounding his arrest — and says he has the video to prove it. It’s all based on a September arrest near campus. We asked the Johnson County Attorney for a copy of the video, but she couldn’t release it because this is an active case. Grayson Scogin was able to get the video of his arrest, and KWWL’s Michelle Corless sat down and watched it with him. He still has a hard time watching it. He feels he didn’t do anything wrong. In the video, you can hear Scogin asking the officer what he did. It all starts when the officer claims Scogin nearly walked into a car, though we don’t see that on the dash cam video. Scogin says he thinks he was stopped because of the color of his skin. In a report, the officer calls Scogin “white with Hispanic origin.” “I told him I was white twice, which is true despite the fact that I’m very tan,” said Scogin. “He continued to list me as Hispanic.” That’s why Scogin is sharing the video of his arrest. “I really felt that there was a lack of accountability in the University of Iowa police force,” said Scogin. – Michele Corless, “U. of Iowa Student: Police Hurt Him, Mistook Him For Hispanic”, Kwwl.com, December 8, 2014
During the protests centered around Berkeley, a small group kept trying to incite the crowd into engaging in illegal activity, from fights to looting. Happens in any large protest, right? In this case, however, it turned out that this group of inciters were undercover police officers.
– – – –
When exposed, they immediately turned violent, threatening protestors, and even drawing a weapon on anyone who dared use a camera. – Nathaniel Downes, “Undercover Cops Busted Trying To Incite Looting – Threaten Crowd When Exposed”, Addictinginfo.com, December 11, 2014
US actress Daniele Watts says she is angry and frustrated after she was arrested by police because they saw her kissing her husband in public, and apparently mistook her for a prostitute.
Watts, who is African American and appeared in the film Django Unchained, claimed she was handcuffed by police in Los Angeles when she was out with white husband Brian James Lucas. – Louise Riley, “Black Actress ‘Mistaken For Prostitute’ And Arrested After Kissing White Husband,” HuffingtonPost.com, September 14, 2014
New York City’s police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, is urging its members to ban Mayor Bill de Blasio from their funerals, the latest episode in the ongoing clash between the mayor and the city’s law-enforcement power structure.
Officers are encouraged to fill out a form on the union’s website titled “Don’t Insult My Sacrifice” to request that neither de Blasio nor Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito attend their funeral, should they be killed in the line of duty.
– – – –
Since taking office, de Blasio has struggled to balance supporting the NYPD with acknowledging the distrust many have when it comes to racial profiling, exemplified by the controversial “Stop and Frisk” policy.
“There’s a difference between saying we should respect our officers, which of course we should,” de Blasio said in response to criticism from Lynch this month, “versus the reality that so many parents have felt that unfortunately their child might confront unfair treatment.” – Allen McDuffee, “Police To DeBlasio: Don’t Attend My Funeral”, TheAtlantic.com, December 13, 2014
Demonstrators nationwide protesting the fatal shootings of unarmed black men killed by police chanted “I can’t breathe!” ”Hands up, don’t shoot!” and waved signs that read “Black lives matter!” as family members of three victims packed a stage in front of the U.S. Capitol, urging thousands of supportive marchers to keep pressing for changes to the criminal justice system.
The march in Washington on Saturday — attended by family members for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who were killed by police in recent months, and Amadou Diallo, who was fatally shot by police more than 15 years ago — coincided with nationwide demonstrations that spanned from iconic Fifth Avenue in New York to the streets of San Francisco and the steps of the Boston Statehouse. Most were peaceful protests, although about two dozen people were arrested in the Massachusetts capital for disorderly conduct. – Matthew Barakat, “US Protesters March Against Police Slayings Of Black Men”, news.yahoo.com, Demeber 14, 2014
I could go on, but I believe this litany makes my point clear. It isn’t just in Ferguson, MO, or Arizona, or New York City. It isn’t just about the militarization of police responses to protests. It isn’t just that both civilians and police continue to be cleared of any wrong-doing when young men of color are killed. Police across the country are out of control, and minority youth – but not just youth, as the story of actress Daniele Watts makes clear – are the target. Whether it’s lethal force in a variety of forms, street harassment based on mistaken identity, or even trying to turn a peaceful protest toward violence then drawing their sidearms on those who caught them, police forces across the country feel they can act with impunity, not only killing people of color, but arresting, harassing, creating violent situations, even disrespect the Mayor of New York City without consequence.
The reason for this is simple: there are no consequences for police who act this way. They aren’t discharged. They aren’t charged with crimes. They aren’t even offered opportunities to attend courses in racial sensitivity, properly identifying alleged suspects before events spiral out of control.
Today is the day people of all races are to dress in Black in solidarity with African-Americans. The theme, “Black Lives Matter”, is indeed one that needs to be repeated over and over. Black lives matter despite the evidence the powers-that-be treat people of color as criminals, sometimes criminals in need of death, prior to any evidence being presented that a crime has been committed. It is, however, more than just the fact that the lives of African-Americans are always in danger when confronted by law enforcement. Law enforcement across the country believes itself immune to the very laws they are supposed to uphold; when they kill an innocent person, they know the killing will be ruled justified. When undercover, rather than gather information, they try to create panic, violence, and rioting, then turn their weapons on those who out them to the world. When the Mayor of New York reminds the police of his city that he has had to warn his own son about interactions with police, the Police Union responds with a disrespectful letter, refusing to acknowledge that their interactions with minority suspects might well warrant inspection, investigation, and a change.
The marches are a good start. Marching, however, only publicizes the problem. Police departments across the country are in need not just of investigation; they are in need of radical change, both from the top down and the bottom up. Municipalities, counties, and states need to take this particular blue bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Those who cooperate need to be rewarded. Those who do not can find other work, work where their particular talents can be utilized with fewer restrictions, like private military contractors. Police accountability needs to be more than just a theme for 2015. It needs to be an action we take as a people. Out-of-control police departments, while primarily threatening communities of color, eventually pose a threat to all of us. People who feel they can act without consequence, at the end of the day, feel free from any moral constraints. Those Black Lives Matter. They matter far more than the respect and deference police departments believe they are entitled.
Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence. – Matthew 19:13-15 (KJV)
Christ United Methodist Church had its annual Charge Conference last night. For those not United Methodist, it’s an annual event, a combination of all-church business meeting and celebration of past ministries. It also looks to possible futures, everything from dispensing with debt to ministries to the community. My wife, as District Superintendent, chaired the meeting, and led the discussion of what ministry to children in Rockford might look like. The verse above from St. Matthew’s Gospel was the opening. I’ve always preferred the Authorized Version, as with the birth narrative in St. Luke’s Gospel. That word, “suffer”, has such different connotations than it did when used 500 years ago.
We began our discussion of children and ministry with the usual dewy-eyed vision of children being energetic and fun, full of laughter and hugs, questions and honest statements than can cut through our adult preference for ambivalence and equivocation. Then we took a look at some statistics from one of the local elementary schools here in the City of Rockford. Three-quarters of the student body receive either reduced or free lunch. Nearly half, 46%, do not speak English as their primary language. The majority, almost 58%, are Hispanic, but there is an ever-increasing number of students who fit none of our traditional racial or ethnic categories, with 23 students – out of a total student body of 457 – who speak, variously, Arabic, Turk, Burmese, Albanian, Korean, Vietnamese, Lao, and Farsi. Among the published needs for the student body are proper clothing; enough school supplies; a supportive environment, either at home or home-like to support academics; increased efforts to involve parents in the children’s education.
The question then became: How do we do ministry in a situation that looks like that? The answers were general – listen, accept, try and see and understand the world through their eyes and the eyes of their families – and usually good. Yet, there is a stumbling block, at least for me, for Christ UMC to be in ministry in a situation such as the above. We are overwhelmingly, almost startlingly, white. To call us as a congregation upper-middle class would probably be correct enough. This isn’t about “race” in our traditional sense; 7.7% of the student body is African-American (half the national population percentage). Five-and-a-half percent is “Asian”, which apparently covers those newcomers from southeast Asia, southern Asia, the Philippines, as well as other Asian countries. Being “white” no longer refers to a binary racial context; increasingly, it refers to a socio-cultural reality in a spectrum of social, cultural, and economic realities, some of which are so unfamiliar as to be unrecognizable.
Race is not and never has been about skin color. Rather, skin color is a marker for a whole set of assumptions, matters of social privilege or limit, and cultural milieu that people take for granted, or need to learn, or with which they’re forced to reckon as strange. To say that Christ UMC is “White” is not to describe the skin color of the majority of its members. Rather, it is to say what needs to be said about the social and cultural background, assumptions, economic status, and privileges that the majority of our members enjoy, often without thought.
I wish I had spoken up. I wish I had made clear that the first step to any ministry outside our comfort zone is to look inside and examine all those things that would create barriers for effective ministry. We need to stop seeing people as the “Other”, as some “them” for whom we are doing something. Rather, we need first to realize how much our whiteness can create walls that no amount of earnest desire or fervent religious spirit (as opposed to the Holy Spirit) can overcome. The space our building occupies, its location within the city, its size, matters of accessibility and transportation – these are all things about which we should speak, candidly. We cannot do ministry if we assume people will come to us, especially where we are as we are.
This is not to say ministry from Christ to those in need of our presence in their lives is impossible. It only means that matters of race, of communication, of poverty and privilege, of ministry for and ministry with our fellow Rockfordians is far more complicated, and becoming increasingly so, than a simplistic understanding of race might indicate. I believe we can do it; I believe we should do it. I also believe that it will be, or would be, far more effective if we began the process with a searching, honest inventory of our own lives, of who we are as a congregation, and call out those things that might prevent us from being the Body of Christ for children such as these. We are told not to hinder them, after all. We can only do that if we know what might well be a hindrance without our being aware of it.
The idea that sexual activity may legitimately take place only within the context of heterosexual marriage is pretty well ignored and/or laughed at now by the vast majority of people. Will this cultural change just push the church over the complete edge of irrelevancy?
OR . . . could such a scenario help us again to focus our attention on the real points of what it means to be a holy people? Could it help us get our eyes and attention off the genitalia of others and onto the core of the matter, that is, the practices involved with loving God in heart, mind, soul and body and loving our neighbors as ourselves? Could losing this culture war force us into the understanding of the Incarnation that says, “Our bodies are holy creations, means of grace to those around us. Let us use them in such a way that brings no harm, does good, and helps us to stay in love with God” and then trust people to figure out how to do this? – Christy Thomas, “The Separation Of Sex And Procreation: What Can Separate Us From The Love Of God?”, United Methodist Insight, November 12, 2014
The Rev. Christy Thomas considers a vision of the near future, offered by Carl Djerassi, the so-called “Father Of The Pill”, in which procreation is completely separated from the sexual act. Due to what Djerassi insists will be the mass affordability of egg and sperm harvesting, followed by voluntary sterilization, human society will not only make marriage and the morality of sexuality irrelevant; it will eliminate abortions, because all births will be planned. It will also reduce the risk of certain birth defects because eggs and sperm will be harvested at such an early stage, therefore will be healthier, resulting in healthier babies. Rev. Thomas considers this as a backdrop against which the church makes a decision about its ministry, its teachings, and even its identity. She sees in this sexual technotopia an opportunity for the church to refocus on matters central to its mission and ministry.
When I read the scenario offered by Djerassi, on the other hand, I did not see some bright future in which the sexual act is separated from procreation. Rather, what I saw was the intensification of an already existing social horror story, a world in which the wealthy, the white, the powerful, and the privileged live much as they always have – outside the bounds of conventional morality, celebrating their separation from the mass of people for whom the dream of completely planned childbirths and the medical and scientific protection of fertilized ovum will offer personal freedoms is not only out of reach; it is purposely restricted through laws and regulations that parrot the language of morality even as the practice is flouted by the wealthy. Consider the way abortion is regulated; the language of pro-life arguments pounded in to the heads of the mass of the people; restrictions on access creating de facto inaccessibility to what should be a normal medical procedure for the mass of people even while the wealthy are able to access safe, clean, medical abortions at will. With the continuation of the Hyde Amendment barring any federal funding to help the poor obtain abortions as part of their overall healthcare, we are already in a position where the kind of sexual freedom – without the added benefit of such technical gimmicks like egg harvesting and whatnot – is already enjoyed by the privileged, leaving the poor, people of color, even whole nations continuing to live much as they always have: at the mercy of nature and sexual procreation.
Djerassi’s vision would only heighten the already existing racial and class divides between those for whom sexual freedom has become a given and those for whom sex is what it has always been: the possibility of having a child, whether planned or not, whether wanted or not. We do not teach our children in public school what sex is; what conception control is; how to act responsibly sexually; we do all this in the name of a morality that already resembles Djerassi’s vision. We deny women access to the birth control pill and abortion in the name of a Christian morality that is flouted by those who push it upon us. The notion that Djerassi’s vision is something to come in the future ignores the reality that it already exists . . . for the privileged.
The church continues to be divided, and therefore powerless, in the face of this reality. On the one hand is the racial and class divides that create what are, for all intents and purposes, antithetical ethical and social practices. On the other is the refusal to consider the reality of human sexuality, that it isn’t just a personal moral matter, but also has social implications, including how sexual acts are and are not regulated depending upon one’s social status. Under the cover of personal embarrassment when discussing sex, and the imposed fear that teaching youth about their sexuality will only make sex more attractive as a human possibility for them, we deny the poor and people of color access to the information they need to make informed, moral, choices about their lives, choices that impact all of us.
Human sexual ethics is as important a part of the teaching and life of the church as our work with and advocacy for the poor; it cannot be separated from it! Human sexual ethics is as important a part of the mission of the church as making disciples of Jesus Christ; it cannot be separated from it! To argue, as the Rev. Thomas seems to be arguing here, that some technical fix to the matter of human procreation will, through some kind of ripple effects, offer an opportunity for the church to focus on the two Great Commandments and the Three Rules of John Wesley, ignores the reality that human sexuality and sexual morality is bound up together will the Great Commandments. It also ignores the reality that what some see as a future filled with possibilities for liberation is only the attachment of more chains, of more rules and regulations, of more impossible social possibilities. It becomes not a sexual and religious utopia. It is a deepening of the sexual and social nightmare with which far too many people already live. The church is not up to the task of addressing the current situation; ignoring human sexuality completely because of technological advancement ignores the reality we already, for all practical purposes, ignore teaching most people about human sexuality and human sexual ethics in the name of a social morality that, Rev. Thomas rightly notes, is ignored and even laughed at.
I have nothing but respect for Rev. Thomas. It is for that reason that I must not only disagree strongly with her notion that we as the people of God can, as she writes, “get our eyes and attention off the genitalia of others and onto the core of the matter”, as if human sexuality did not exist at that same core. That we as a church cannot come to grips with how we talk with one another about sex; that we cannot agree on what constitutes a Christian, i.e., an incarnational, loving, sexual ethic; that we all already exist within a socio-economic system that already creates conditions for the powerful and the privileged to flaunt the very traditional sexual morality they force on others; these are all matters which the Church needs to address in a comprehensive manner now. We are in the midst of this nightmare scenario, and not helping people by our inability to confront these interwoven, structural issues within which matters of human sexual freedom and choice occur. If we do not, then a future in which people shop for babies like Gucci handbags will mean just that. The wealthy and powerful will have access to yet another commodity the poor are denied, yet this time that commodity is a human being.
Events in recent days and weeks has offered an opportunity for all of us to sit and watch the unbridled id of some of our commentariat demonstrate just how odd and repulsive it can be. And not just our commentariat, but some of us regular folk responding on social media as well. Even as the Governor of Missouri finally stepped in, removing the over-armed and over-eager county police from Ferguson, we continue to see the posthumous character assassination of Michael Brown as well as the same done to residents of his hometown.
Along with this particular bit of ugliness, the spreading Ebola plague in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone is also starting to register among the rank-and-file, especially as some health care workers have been transported to CDC facilities here in the United States. Nothing is more frightening than a disease Americans have no experience with, that sounds very scary, and (like AIDS when it first emerged in Africa and Haiti) spreads among people of a different skin color.
Racism can be funny, even as it turns your stomach. Consider a dispatch from the National Review’s Kevin Williamson, quoted at The Reality-Based Community:
East St. Louis, Ill. — ‘Hey, hey craaaaaacka! Cracka!White devil! F*** you, white devil!” The guy looks remarkably like Snoop Dogg: skinny enough for a Vogue advertisement, lean-faced with a wry expression, long braids. He glances slyly from side to side, making sure his audience is taking all this in, before raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge. Luckily for me, he’s more like a three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg, a few inches shy of four feet high, probably about nine years old, and his mom — I assume she’s his mom — is looking at me with an expression that is a complex blend of embarrassment, pity, and amusement, as though to say: “Kids say the darnedest things, do they not, white devil?” It’s not the last challenge like this I’ll get here where the sidewalk ends, or the most serious one.
I get yelled at by a racially aggrieved tyke with more carefully coiffed hair than your average Miss America contestant.
Rather than call crap on the scene, let us consider the whole thing carefully. While obviously the creation of a mind unfamiliar with any person of color walking the earth today, isn’t it fascinating that Williamson wrote this and his editors allowed it to be published? Isn’t it fascinating there are people in America who will read this and say, “Yup!”? I mean, who talks like this alleged 9-year-old? “White devil”? Really, Kevin? And the scariest scary black man his mind can conjure is Snoop Dogg, a persona who is the creation of a record company, receives corporate sponsorship and support for his tours, and supports his children with the meager proceeds he receives from his record company contract. Not only that, it’s a bit, I don’t know, dated a reference, isn’t it? I mean there’s Li’l Wayne, and Fifty Cent, and Xzibit and even Nicki Minaj with her penchant for showing off her body and reputation for enjoying a good party. Can’t Williamson even get current in his fears? So while this surely is an entirely imaginary event, I have little doubt that Williamson believes it to be real. The opening paragraph says far more about Kevin Williamson than the entire story he wrote says about East. St. Louis, IL.
As for the Ebola outbreak, it continues apace as every resource is strained in an attempt to get some kind of handle and control on the situation. With the announcement that two aid workers who had contracted the disease were being flown to the United States, it seems some people don’t quite understand how diseases like Ebola are spread. The mere presence within our borders of people with Ebola is enough to cause some people to be terrified, refusing to accept the disease cannot be spread either by air or just being in the same country as someone who has it. Like AIDS when it first emerged, Ebola carries the additional stigma of existing almost exclusively on the African continent. That is enough to have a few too many people worried that scary black people will now infect white people with their scary hemorrhagic fever.
The nice thing is that despite the best efforts of some to lengthen the life of horrid racist tropes and stereotypes, far more people are horrified by the photos of heavily armed police officers facing down peaceful protesters. While Michael Brown’s reputation, and by extension the town of Ferguson, MO, is having his reputation besmirched after he’s dead, based on photographs that are either misunderstood or void any context whatsoever, few people believe that it is necessary to shoot an unarmed person in the back while he’s running away from you. Even if Brown was a criminal – and nothing has emerged that I’ve seen to make me believe that’s the case – does that mean, in this instance, he deserved to be shot to death for jaywalking?
Just because the residents of Ferguson are angry, and tired of being angry, and demanding representation and justice and fairness for their community, does the mere presence of large groups of black people automatically constitute a riot in need of militarized police?
Just because Ebola, a tropical disease that, while virulent and deadly, is difficult to contract unless exposed to blood and bodily fluids of those who are already symptomatic does not mean it is some strange thing that might well wipe out whole swaths of the United States. Nor does it mean we should withhold aid and assistance because it is scary and far away and happening to people living in countries in West Africa. Nor does it mean that bringing infected persons here is some kind of threat to American residents.
People reacting out of fear do crazy things sometimes. They might concoct a scenario in which they are confronted by their own worst imaginings of some terrifying “Other”, believe it so much they tell this same story to others, creating Truth where none exists. Others might insist that an unarmed man shot in the back while running from an armed police officer deserved what he received because a photograph they saw on the Internet demonstrates that man was a thug and a criminal. Finally, many who have only heard the words “Ebola” and “hemorrhagic” in passing suddenly fear a terrible plague striking us here in the West because we had the audacity to try and care for people who had the disease. The realities of these events and situations is far more complex than cartoonish descriptions and too often ignorant ramblings even among journalists would make them out. We can set aside our fear of scary black people only when we realize they are just people. Maybe then, rather than concocting nonsense fables and demeaning dead young men and allowing thousands to die will no longer be acceptable.
We still have a long way to go.