Desmond-Harris on Facebook, Compassion, and Choice

But here’s what Facebook comments are good for: revealing data about whether you want your “friends” to be your friends any longer. That is, of course, if you believe, as I do, that the way someone responds to other people’s pain and mistreatment—including the systemic mistreatment of entire groups of people—is a perfectly fine way to decide whether he or she is someone you like or want to continue to interact with.

Call me intolerant, but my view is that, if someone’s reaction to an unarmed black teenager being killed is to announce that he probably deserved it, that person is not someone I’m interested in being associated with, and I won’t miss him or her a bit after I hit “block.” There are too many compassionate and smart people in the world for me to waste even a fraction of my social media scrolling time on interactions with people who are either racist or unintelligent and insensitive enough to appear so.

From Jenee Desmond-Harris’ article “How to Deal With Friends’ Racist Reactions to Ferguson” here

My Son & Trayvon Martin

I posted this on my For Fathers blog, but the intersections between the mentioned events and my weak faith are undeniable.  I hope you can read where you should be prayerful for me and us…

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black child from Florida, was killed on February 26 by a 28-year old white man named George Zimmerman.  The killer has not been arrested, and a lot of people in and outside of Florida are calling for his arrest.  Many have spent days demanding, minimally, an investigation into Trayvon Martin’s death.  Almost as many are seeking some sensible understanding of the laws in Florida, and states like it, which allow for a gun-carrying questionable character like Zimmerman to follow a child with a pocket filled with skittles, harass him, and kill him.

At this point, the US Dept. of Justice has opened an investigation into the case.  The Martin family is struggling to find consolation and justice for their dead loved one.  Newspapers are reporting on how bright and cheerful and smart the young man was.

Bloggers and journalists are providing details about the killer’s background.  He likes calling the police to complain about black kids.  He said, the day he called 911 to complain about Trayvon Martin, that “they always get away.”  He was permitted to walk away after gunning down a child, with his 9 millimeter weapon.  He was not detained or arrested or charged.  Trayvon Martin is dead.  George Zimmerman is free.

My wife asked me if I was planning to blog about the situation.  I immediately said no.  It didn’t take two seconds to respond.  I didn’t want to think, much less write, about another kid getting killed.  I had heard about the case, seen it on television.  I tried to close my eyes to it because it was too much.

I didn’t want to think about Trayvon Martin or his family and how many tears they were shedding because their child was murdered by a guy who had hardly been questioned by the police after he was the last person to hear their child’s voice.  That murderer heard the child screaming, yelling for help that never came.

I didn’t want to think or write about how that long destructive history that doesn’t release people with skin like mine but that creeps and creeps and creeps until it opens up its big mouth and screams out loud because nothing and no amount of “coverage” can hide how hard it is to be black, to be a man, to be a father, to be a son.

I didn’t want to think or write about that place in my inner soul that keeps memories locked away in my heart.  Like the time a woman crossed the street when she saw me approaching her and like the shame I felt when I turned around after passing her only to see her cross back to the same street after I’d gotten beyond her and how downcast I felt because I was headed to a class in seminary where the story of my faith would remind me that I was called to love and serve people just like that woman who clutched her bag while passing a preacher on his way to being better.  If I were in Florida studying theology at that time; if I were in Florida carrying my briefcase with a Bible and a text on salvation-history and pastoral ministry; if I were in Florida with an essay on the elements of pastoral case most effective for families in today’s time, I could have lost my life.

I didn’t want to think about how similar Trayvon Martin is to the vision I have for my son.  He was a boy, enjoying life, getting good grades, collecting admiration from teachers; he was loved by his family, who over and over called the extremely deceptive police department when he had been missing for three days because his body was cooling on a medical examiner’s table and left like his parents didn’t want him when all they wanted was him.  That young child was so much like my child, the child in my imagination’s future.  He had a girl who liked him.  He ate candy.  He was wise in discerning when trouble showed up.  He called for help.

I didn’t want to believe one more time that a young child, approaching early adulthood, could be treated so terribly and that hatred and evil—whether because of racism or bigotry or power or other foolish sins—could continue to be so bold.  I didn’t want to think one more time that we had another example of criminal justice in the United States where the criminal was the only one who saw justice and when he saw it in the face of that sweet kid, he had to laugh in his blood-covered face.

I look at my son everyday.  I say things to him, things that I know don’t make sense to most people if they’re listening to my words.  Even Dawn laughs at the things I say.  And if I’m honest, there’s a strong dose of this current reality behind my instructions to my son.  His brain doesn’t get it when I’m just a bit too firm.  His brain doesn’t get that there is no difference between his father and the last black man who was walking down a street and mistaken for some other black guy.  Bryce’s mind doesn’t conceive that his daddy, the man who loves him, could be mistreated to the point of death for no other reason than he looked suspicious.  But my son’s father knows these things.  I know these things.  And I don’t want to think them, talk of them, or admit them.  The topics, taken together, form a gross compromise of morality and justice just to discuss them.  And yet I have to raise my son with these words in his ears.

I don’t want to look at my child, who is not even able to stand up at the toilet yet, and witness the closeness between his lovely face and the loveliness of another parent’s son in Florida.  The proximity between those two children is as long as a breath.  And I am aching with a lot of people about the assassination of promise and hope and joy in Trayvon Martin and in every other black loved one he has now joined on the other side of death.

In a strange way, I knew Trayvon Martin’s future.  In a strange way, I know the next son’s future.  Whether or not he is the image of the child who lives in my house, he will be my child.  And the worst fear in me these days is that I won’t be so gracious as the day I continued on to seminary class, that I won’t be loving when my next child, son or daughter, Florida or some other place, meets death in such a horrendous way.  After all, there is no difference between my son and Trayvon Martin.  And I don’t know if there is that much love in any world.

Racism Dressed In Choir Robes

My FB friend, James, linked an article yesterday, and I read about a Kentucky church voting to ban interracial marriage, along with a ban on interracial couples becoming members of the church.  The Baptist church in Pike County separated itself from the majority of Christian churches in the area by deciding that, for itself, interracial couples won’t be permitted to join and participate in the life of their local church.

When I read the article, I kept thinking that the issue was a small one, that the church was smaller than the average church in the USA, under 100 people.  I kept wanting to convince myself that what happens in small local churches doesn’t matter.  I read the words about this black man and his white wife-to-be, and I whispered that this was a hardly noticed incident, that it wasn’t worth thinking about for two minutes.  And then I corrected myself with my real opinions.

I’ve never thought that the decisions and choices in small congregations were insignificant.  In fact, I’m of the opposite opinion.  Small congregations mirror the people in those congregations, and those congregations make up communities.  Communities, not simply cities, combine to form a nation.  I remembered my stronger thoughts about history and about how for centuries this country’s history (and not just Kentucky’s history) was lived by people who had been told who to love and who not to love.  My lips trembled as I talked to myself about how new and somewhat jarring it still is for people to marry “outside their race.”  Four other things came to mind as I read about this church’s decision.

This is bad for Christianity.  Christianity, at its core, is an inclusive religion.  It is a faith of following a person who accepted unacceptable, disinherited people, who pushed just about all the social margins of his day, and, while pushing those margins, said that the kingdom of God had room for everyone.  At the bottom of Jesus’s way of life is a ground of openness that doesn’t tell people that they shouldn’t love particular people but that they should love all people.  You can’t get away from a superficial reading of the gospels and miss this.  Jesus was bad at the restrictive nature of narrow social and theological interpretations.  He was much better at saying, “Look at it this way.”  Or, “I have another way for you to think about this.”  I have trouble seeing how a pastor, a Bible teacher, or congregant who is committed Christianity, when Christianity is following Jesus, can say to another person, “You can’t marry that person because they aren’t…”  It is baldly out of step with the One who gave his life for the outcast and cast out.  Interracial couples, along with a slew of other folks, are the outcasts at least in this case, and they’re cast out on nothing stronger than flimsy, cracked racist opinions dressed in choir robes.

The church loves to tell people who to love.  This is not a new approach.  Part of what made the early church so attractive to people in the first centuries after Jesus jumped was that the church had strong opinions about sex and race and generosity.  My pastor, Peter Hong, talks about how the early church-goers were generous with their money and stingy with their sexuality.  They kept themselves sexually pure until they married, practiced celibacy when they didn’t marry, and they gave their money to the poor and to those who needed.  Those behaviors made the church strange and interesting.  So it’s not that the church has no history with the issue of marriage and love.  But we get into trouble when we draw lines for the people in our pews.  When we force or manipulate or teach that love is defined by something as socially soft as race, we’re practicing racism and doing so in the name and under the banner of God.  There aren’t many things worse for a church.  I’ve talked about that, in pieces, before here and here.

Dating and marriage are tools of reconciliation.  I told a couple I married this summer that their relationship was a grand opportunity for reconciliation.  They came from different backgrounds, in every way.  To start, the husband is African American, the wife Japanese American.  I told them that they didn’t appear to belong together in the eyes of some.  I told them that their relationship was an opportunity to bring together visibly opposing parties.  I tried to tie that into the Christian story because the story is chiefly a narrative about how two parties (estranged and yet full of love) return to one another.  In fact, as I think about it, that theme was in all of my wedding messages this year, with the possible exception of one, because all my marriage ceremonies were interracial.  If marriage is anything it is a community of forgiveness.  A marriage’s success or fruit or longevity is not ground up in the similarity of backgrounds and races of the couple but in the free, liberal, and frequent offering of the hardest thing in the world–forgiveness.

I hope people read and discuss this.  That last thought is the reason I’m writing this post.  I want to generate dialogue about this.  Not because I’m a church-basher.  I love the church, every church.  I’m ordained as a pastor in the Christian Tradition because I love the church.  I gladly wear the banner of Christian and pastor, even when I’m on a plane  or in the park.  I’m not suggesting we bash, but I do think we should criticize and hold to account the people in our Christian family.  Whether we agree with the church in Kentucky or disagree, we should say something, speak up, and float our opinions about these things because it’s in communicating our thoughts that we communicate our faith.  If we say something, if we discuss these things, it enables honest and quality dialogue about race and love, even when that dialogue is complex and nuanced and poetic.  I think we should talk about things like this.  So I’m blogging about it.  I’m running my mouth–or my fingers.

If you’re interested in the story, I saw it here.

Civil Unions, pt. 1 of 3

My wife did a smashing job in her review, didn’t she?  Well, today I’m moving away from jumping the broom, moving a bit.  But I’m staying close still.

Earlier this year, Governor Quinn signed civil unions into Illinois law, and yesterday the law went into effect.  It is called the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act.  From what I can tell a civil union will afford a person the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections and benefits given to a person in a spousal relationship, stopping short of the ability to legally marry.  For many Illinois people in committed same-sex relationships this legislation is a splendid and welcome gift.  It’s a gift for heterosexual couples who have put off marrying for whatever reason as well.

There has been a good amount of fear across the country in the last decades about marriage and the need to preserve and protect marriage.  Much of that fear or, to be more charitable, concern has come from religious people.  People of faith, many of them Christian, have expressed and promoted their concerns.  As a professional religious person, I am naturally connected to these expressions.

I see three issues related to the new legislation in my state.  One is the connections that have been made between civil unions and the civil rights era.  A second is the issue of marriage itself, the preservation or detraction of the institution, the right to marry, and the like.  A third issue is the civil union itself, what it is, what it allows.

I’d like to think out loud about those three issues in the next few posts.  My reflection on the connection between the struggle for civil unions and the struggle for civil rights in this country is simple, almost boring.  I don’t think there is a relationship.

There are probably lines connecting the intentions of folks working and hoping for civil unions with the intentions and needs in the movement toward civil rights for people of color, particularly Black folks.  But Black people were discriminated against in legal forms, segregated against throughout the country because of their blackness.  The thread for them was historical and long and formulated by law, again, because of their racial identity.  That link was not present for people in Illinois seeking the passage of the Act for civil unions.  They weren’t discriminated against because of their ethnicity.  They did not receive the same protections as married couples, yes.  They were going without certain benefits, true.  But the absence of those protections weren’t inside the stream of four centuries of racism, discrimination, and segregation.

There are Black folks who were denied, for all practical purposes, spousal rights because they cannot be legally married.  Black people looked forward to midnight today so that they too could be acknowledged inside the new legal structure and know some freedom and some liberty.  Those Black folks are likely drawing their own connections to the earlier movement of Black people in this country.  Perhaps I should be more measured in my criticism of those folks because they are, well, Black.  But I do think that the connection is a forced, artificial one.  I’m cautious in general because of that long, existential thread that links me to a person or a relative or a people who were told who they could love and what rights they could and couldn’t have.  My blackness makes me much more liberal in that way.  But those unions allowed under the pronouncement of the judge or the lifestyle celebrant today weren’t like the earlier unions in the brush harbors of slave plantations.  There was no “more powerful other” in the ear of those couples downtown today when Judge Evans and Mayor Emanuel snapped photos and smiled and congratulated.

I think it is an advance in our state’s political arena that the civil unions have happened.  I’ll get to that in post three.  But I am concerned that the language of the struggle has borrowed, taken from, and used the narrative of the civil rights movement.  I am concerned that the practice and habit of using Black folks for everybody else’s progress continues.  I am concerned that the hardships, fights, prayers, work, and deaths of people with skin like and darker than mine can so easily be employed and appropriated for somebody other than themselves.

I think it’s a misuse of our forebears.  It may well be consistent with movement toward a more just society.  It may be a politically expedient decision to make.  But does that mean we, once again, drop into the collective story of Black people, take what is theirs, and push it into the discourse of the next popular topic because those people’s story of struggle is effective?  It that is the case, it won’t be without people  like me thinking out loud and demanding some reconsideration.

What do you think?