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Trying to Be Reasonable in an Age of Hotheaded Sloganeering

Facebook is a funny place to be sometimes. That’s funny as in weird, conducive to eye-rolling, and even downright frustrating. All you have to do is dropkick any public issue into the fray and watch what happens. Every issue becomes hot-button. People post and repost memes and videos to spout off their views. If you have a view, you probably have a hashtag. (Hashtags are the new bumper sticker.)

DebateAll of this is symptomatic of folks talking at each other and past each other without truly listening to each other. Many of us don’t seem to have the time or the interest to have open, respectful conversations anymore. Or perhaps our cynical natures have written that off as a worthless endeavor. Some tip their hat to it and dabble in a meaningful conversation here and there, but then go right back to ranting out their viewpoints.

This is an angry, fearful, sardonic, pessimistic era in which we live. We question and make assumptions about everyone’s motives. If you voice an opinion, prepare yourself for the backlash. Everyone wants to be heard, but few choose to listen. Compromise is a pathetic word for sellouts and the noodle-spined. Humor and sarcasm are barely distinguishable. And any attempt to be a calm voice of reason in this climate requires an endless supply of patience and persistence. I’m finding that out for myself.

Now I don’t want to saint myself as the wise, reasonable one among a crowd of sinful loudmouth partisans. I don’t want to be the curmudgeonly hermit who holes himself away as the virtuous remnant of reason. In other words, I don’t want my contributions to unwittingly add to the swarm of negativity I think I perceive in others.

But if we’re all going to behave differently, we have to diagnose the problem and give it a name. The name I give it is Hotheaded Sloganeering.

  • Hotheaded– easily angered, easily offended, quick to jump to conclusions about the opposition
  • Sloganeering– the repeated use of soundbite-sized arguments and statements to solidify support for a view or a cause

For example, last week I wrote a piece about Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem. I offered what I thought was a reasonable approach by saying that Kaepernick is well within his rights to free speech, and that what he did represents the very best of our American liberties for which many have fought hard to protect. Note: I did not evaluate the merits of Kaepernick’s actions or the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of what he did. I simply hopped off the bandwagon of criticizing Kaepernick’s fundamental rights as an American to not honor his country’s flag or anthem in the name of protesting the injustice of racism.

However, I’ve since then heard a lot of the following: “Sure, he has the right to do that, but he shouldn’t have. If he’s a real American, a grateful American, then he should be standing for the country who lets him do that. He should be barred for doing that. He’s totally out of line. If he doesn’t like this country, then he should leave it.”

And then I heard others say, “All you flag wavers are always telling black people to protest peacefully. Kaepernick does, and you demonize him, too. You just want black people to sit down and shut up, or in this case, stand up and shut up. That’s because you feel threatened if black people should rise up and become equals to you.”

[Sigh…]

While we’re busy shouting at each other we’ve failed to see that we are all trying to figure out the same thing- what it means for America to be America and for all of us to be Americans with dignity. Racial equality and patriotism. Two aspects of this same issue. Yet people take their aspect of choice, hold it up high as the sole battleground of the American struggle, and charge full steam ahead.

Meanwhile we find ourselves caught in a web of cognitive dissonance, character assassinations, and competing angles of the same issue.

The only way to break this logjam of unreason and disrespect is to make a concerted effort to experiment with another tactic. Humility.

Humility is tough to pin down because the moment we think we have it, we’ve probably lost it. That results in a self-assuring pride parading itself as humility. There’s a lot of this false humility out there, and I have to admit I’ve been found guilty of possession, too. Yet despite the lesser angels of our nature, I have discovered that the test for genuine humility is the ability to listen with the purpose of understanding.

Let the guard down. Put aside fear and suspicion. Bring a curious mind and heart. Look for reasons to respect different voices. Be open to the possibility that our ingrained presumptions are incomplete and inaccurate. Let others be themselves and show grace towards the unintentional things they do or say that cause us pain. At the same time, learn where others’ wounds are and the unintentional things we say and do that throw salt into those wounds. Respect that those wounds are real. Expect that the way forward will take some time to discern and that it will be a lot more complex than we think. Hang in there, anticipating that there will be some bumps and bruises along the way. But if we can do all this, the way forward will be life-giving and will bring more of us onboard together.

It’s tough to be reasonable in this age. Peacemaking is not for wimps. Sometimes it seems like an elusive quest to find people who will partner with us and stay in it for the long run. However, I’m convinced that no matter the issue or challenge we face, our work will stand the test of time. It will certainly long surpass the shallow notions and futile efforts of all the hotheaded sloganeering we hear around us… especially on Facebook.

 

 

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50 Years Later: What Martin Luther King’s Dream Means to Me

Martin Luther KingOn the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”, so many people are pontificating over the speech’s ongoing legacy, what it means today, what Dr. King would say and advocate for in our time, etc., etc. I don’t feel I’m creative or steeped enough in the issues of race and racial politics to add much to the discussion.

But I can share what King’s speech means to me and how his legacy inspires me forward, especially as a middle-class white male whose roots hail from the south and the midwest. (Yes, I  grew up surrounded by overt and subtle racist attitudes in my family.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. died six years before I was born. By the time I became aware of him, King had already been “exalted to sainthood” as the great civil rights leader whose work, speeches, and writing forever changed the shape of racial equality and race relations in America.  It took a long time for me to step through that misty shroud of sainthood surrounding King’s legacy to look carefully at his leadership, vision, and most especially his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”

What I’ve found is an endearing vision for all of America, black and white, that is still struggling to be actualized today. That vision is a call to action. It’s not enough to simply proclaim liberty, equal humanity, and equality of opportunity for all Americans. We must all work to secure that liberty and equality for all people. That’s justice. Justice is something we do, not just preach.

King’s speech also lifted up  a vision for basic harmony and fellowship between white people and people of color. That part has impacted me the most. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t think I’m superior or claim a greater seat of privilege than people of color. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t hold hatred or bitterness towards people of color. I can say I’m not a racist because I don’t purposely avoid or try to keep myself away from people of color.

But as I let King’s “I Have a Dream” speech sink in more deeply, I can see an area of racism that still exists within me and many others that creates a barrier to full harmony and fellowship. This racism manifests itself as fear and ignorance. It’s mistrust and presumption, formed from a lack of intentional relationships and experience.

We saw this form of racism on full display with the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin tragedy, trial, and fall-out. Blacks and whites clearly misunderstand, falsely characterize, and at times demonize each other in ugly ways. Meanwhile, no one in the midst of the conflict would claim to be a racist! However, if we’re all honest, our failure to truly understand and trust each other is a layer of racism we have yet to overcome. It cost Trayvon Martin his life. And George Zimmerman? I can’t imagine him ever living a normal, everyday life ever again.

Martin Luther King’s work has challenged me to combat this form of racism by intentionally getting to know, love, and work with people of color. Of all the diversity of friends I have, I’m blessed to have several African American friends with whom I can talk about anything. And when a question of race comes up, we can talk about it point-blank without anxiously couching our words so as not to offend each other. I trust them. They trust me, and that has allowed me to learn so much about how a person of color sees the world and issues of race and justice. In fact, I’m always humbled by what I don’t yet know or appreciate within people of color. It’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing. It’s all about understanding, which builds basic empathy and solidarity, which in turn builds trust and intimacy.

In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in order for America to fully overcome the effects of slavery, three prejudices must be conquered: the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of race, and the prejudice of color. He couldn’t be more correct. De Tocqeville succinctly identified the three attitudes behind American racism. I restate them this way: the prejudice of superiority/inferiority, the prejudice of  segregation, and the prejudice of fear and suspicion of the other. To date, we have come a long way in overcoming the first two. And I think we still have a long way to go with the third prejudice of fear and suspicion before we can ever say that we are a post-racial America who no longer feels the effects of one race having forcibly enslaved the other. O Lord, within me, remove any trace of suspicion, fears, mistrust, and ignorance that would keep me from fully loving, receiving, and living in absolute harmony with people of color. Only then can I say I am no longer bound to the evils of racism. Amen.

Even so, I’m passionately convinced that King’s dream is not a mere pipe dream. It can find its fulfillment in us. In some ways it’s already happening. And in time, his dream of a post-racial America will be a fully incarnate reality. In the mean time, I want to do my part by naming and casting out any racism within myself. I want to work to assure liberty and equality for all people. And I hope you’ll join me!

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How a Victim of Racism Became a Perpetrator

It was Saturday afternoon, and I came into the church office for several hours of work on a tight schedule. After being off for a week following Easter, I felt the pressure of all this work to be done. Needless to say, unscheduled phone calls or visits were not at all on my radar screen. But Murphy decided to intervene. Just as I was about to walk into the church office, someone knocked on the front door. Ah, shoot… I was caught! I didn’t know her, and I’ve been around here long enough to know that this was most likely someone coming to the church for help. Ugh…

Reluctantly I answered the door, and a woman, a middle-aged African American woman, who looked somewhat familiar to me asked to come in because she needed to talk. What was I going to do? Helping people is my business after all, but lately, I’ve also been tempering my personal/professional boundaries, too. I can’t let every random thing that pops up derail essential things, in this case getting ready for a Sunday morning.

I apologized to the woman and told her that I was very busy at the moment. She persisted, so I offered to set up an appointment to come in and talk. She declined that offer and then went on to trash me.

“Oh wait, I remember you,” she said. “I came by here before, and you were nasty.” Then I remembered why she looked familiar. “I remember your predecessor,” she said. “He was nice, but my, how things change. You’re just nasty.”

Once again, I offered to set up an appointment.

That was followed by, “You know what, I think I’m going to call Bishop Schol.” That’s my bishop. So I told her that when she calls, make sure to tell him that I offered an appointment.

To that, she said, “No, you’re just nasty. I can tell you don’t like black people.” Ouch. At that, I closed the conversation.

She could have said just about anything else, and it would have rolled right off of me. But a racist… Like a hot knife through butter, that accusation seared right through any thick skin I thought I had. I live in a highly multicultural, multiracial area. I love it! I am so happily blessed to pastor a multiracial, multicultural congregation. My leadership team and staff are purposefully diverse, and I still don’t think we’re nearly diverse enough.

So to be called a racist… I could call myself any number of unpleasant things or allow other people to label as they will, fairly or not. But to be accused of racism, bigotry, exclusiveness– that is a serious charge that carries hundreds of years of  historically heavy, painful weight. Her charge felt like Lex Luthor throwing a chain of kryponite around Superman’s neck. I’m no Superman, but I did feel crumbled down by the paralyzing weight of that single charge: you’re a white racist.

This is particularly wounding for me because I do come out of a family and community environment where racism was strongly present. My father’s family hails from Virginia. Racial stereotypes towards African Americans with an easy use of the n-word were the norm, rarely questioned. My grandfather Owens and his fathers harbored strong racism, and my maternal grandparents who came from Kansas had some racial attitudes, partly generational, partly regionally based. I grew up in the central and southern parts of Anne Arundel County where racial segregation is still culturally and geographically in force. I had friends who loved to tell racial jokes, and operated under typical white attitudes towards black people.

All of that did fundamentally shape me. How could it not? Divorcing myself from those attitudes came from an intentional process of getting to know and befriending people whom I had only understood through the lens of racial and ethnic stereotypes. Confronting my own ignorance and racial attitudes was a painful process, and sometimes it still is. I have had to own up to the racism I inherited and continually unearth and discard layers of ignorance and scorn when that twin-headed dragon rears its ugly head.

There’s no doubt my transformation continues. For example, if one of my daughters comes home with an African American boyfriend, I admit  there would probably be a struggle to work through my initial knee-jerk reaction: wishing somehow she had chosen someone of her own race. This would require one more step away from my inherited racism. (Of course, matters aren’t helped by the whole boyfriend ordeal, which is always hardest on fathers!)

But clearly, the sin and disease of racism has a way of infecting everyone, perpetrators and victims.

There’s no doubt the woman I encountered had been victimized and wounded by racist attitudes and behaviors in the past. Certainly her family, friends, and neighbors share the same experience, too. Minority people groups have lived it, can sense even the slightest aroma of it, and come to expect that it will happen again. I simply can’t imagine those deeply ingrained wounds and dread which many carry for simply having a certain skin color and hailing from a particular ethnicity and social class.

Wounded victims pose a high risk of becoming perpetrators. People give out what they’ve been given. If you’re hated enough by a group of people, chances are, out of self-defense, you’ll hate them back. If you’re singled out and treated with fear, suspicion, and scorn by a people who don’t know you and whom you don’t know, it’s all the more likely you’re going to return the favor with your own brand of fear, suspicion, and scorn.

Racism, like so many other forms of abuse, is a vicious cycle.

Take the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin. This story has already been discussed ad nauseum, and when these things happen, I rarely add to the punditry. So much has already been said to not miss my 2-cent opinion. But that last sentence of mine makes the point. So much has been said by all the usual voices, and I have found little of to be helpful.

After George Zimmerman, whose race and ethnicity are sketchy at best, gunned down Trayvon Martin, my first though was, “How absolutely terrible for a teen to lose his life like that.” But then after the killing began to be labelled a murder with charges of racism and racial stereotyping coming to question, my next thought was, “Oh no… Here we go again.”

Too much is assumed that isn’t clearly known. People raise the serious charge of racism, met with counter-complaints of racism or using this tragedy for dubious motives. Meanwhile, we’re still sorting out the actual, unknown facts of what happened. Who knows, other than George Zimmerman and God, what really motivated him to gun down Trayvon Martin? It was clearly fear, but his fear of what? Don’t answer that too quickly. Fear smiles at a quick answer.

Actually, Trayvon Martin’s parents have offered the most helpful reaction to the killing of their son. This grieving family simply wanted an arrest and a prosecution. They got that, and rightly so. Now they want a peaceful resolution and justice to be done. I’m praying for that, as I have been. And I’m praying for myself and other leaders to do the right thing in moving those we lead through this tragedy that has taken a young man’s life and has ripped open deep scars for many more. A peaceful resolution, hoped for by Martin’s family, is the best thing I can aspire to work for, too.

Well, I said I wasn’t going to add to the punditry on Trayvon Martin’s death, but I guess I couldn’t resist offering some “punditry on the punditry” illustrating the ongoing disease of racism and racial tension– victims who beget perpetrators who beget victims who beget perpetrators.

After being labeled a racist, myself now wounded by racism, I had to stop myself from being the wounded victim who rails against “all those angry, hateful black people who refuse to let go of the past.” Isn’t that also an ill-informed racial stereotype, racism just as ignorant and destructive as my visitor’s ill-informed assumption about me? God help us all.

Will we choose to counter racism with new racism, or will we do the hard work of being a peacemaker who bridges divides between people? The later is hard work and few choose it, but according to Jesus, being a peacemaker has an awesome reward attached to it (Matthew 5:9). We get a new label beyond black or white: children of God.

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What Can We Make of the Beer Summit?

Well, the much anticipated meeting between the President, Dr. Gates, and Sgt. Crowley is over. We saw images of the three men along with Vice-President Biden carrying on like chummy pals, and so the question remains: now what? I think President Obama was right to downplay the importance of the so-called “beer summit”. After all, it was more a recovery effort of Mr. Obama’s after he interjected himself into the story with his remarks that the Massachusetts police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates.

First, a word about the President’s comments. I don’t completely fault him for what he said. We tend to over-scrutinize every word a president says as if his every utterance has been planned and rehearsed and therefore infallible. Obama was responding to an off-the-cuff question with a very off-the-cuff answer. Granted, it wasn’t a very helpful answer. He pitched unfair aspersions upon the arresting officer which he would days later “recalibrate.” But be that as it may, he also answered as an African-American, obviously seeing things through a long lens of racial history in America. It’s very much understandable and forgivable, yes. But perhaps Obama now knows a bit more keenly that as President of the United States, he carries a most certain gravitas, especially as an African American president speaking on issues of race.

Now I realize that what I say here comes from my worldview as a white guy. At the same time, I have dear friends from many different races and proudly pastor a multicultural, multiracial congregation. I’ve learned from my experiences that people from different races and cultures view the world from a wide range of varying angles. Who’s to say which angle is the most accurate?

Just to give you an example, the day after the Gates arrest and the President’s ensuing commentary on it, I called one of my African American friends to ask him what he thought of all this. His first words were, “Oh man… You’d have to ask that question!” Obviously, the incident stirred up a lot within him.

I was amazed and dismayed– and maybe I shouldn’t have been– to find him questioning not Gates’ behavior nor the President’s remarks but the police officer. His gut told him, “This was racial profiling.”

Then I quoted the police report which detailed Gates’ outlandish behavior and the reasons for his arrest.

My friend held the report in suspicion.

Then I said, “But Crowley has an exemplary record as a veteran police officer. He’s even taught racial sensitivity courses. He has no record of racism in his past.”

To that, my friend replied, “But past behavior isn’t necessarily an indicator of future behavior.”

Then I blurted out, “What?? So you’re saying the officer is guilty simply because the charge of racism has been made?? So the charge is greater than any other evidence??”

I have to admit that beyond that I can’t remember the details from the rest of our conversation. My friend may have had some other good things to say, but my mind shut down after that. We talked some more and agreed to keep watching to see what would happen. By the way, my friend and I rarely agree on much of anything, however we really respect and learn from each other.

Afterwards, a day or so before the White House beer summit, my friend and I talked again. We saw things a little differently than before. While we still didn’t agree on who was to blame for the incident, we both did see that there was some overreacting from both Gates and Crowley. In other words, it was a momentary mistake of judgment. I would add that the President also committed a momentary mistake of judgment by the tone of his remarks.

So is that all it was? Was there no racism involved?

After thinking about things, I’m going to throw this idea out there: There was no racism inherent in anyone’s motives or actions. But racism, like a demonic force, stepped in as an outside intruder to make this incident into yet another firestorm to throw our country into a debate on racism that quite honestly will never be resolved.

So was there any healing balm to be found in the White House beer summit? Perhaps. It was a nice symbolic gesture. Frankly, that’s all it was. Both Gates and Crowley walked away still not agreeing on who was right and wrong. But they both seemed to walk away with a greater respect for the two different worlds in which they live and work. They both want to “move on.”

And that’s probably the best thing for them and for us, too. My African American friend and I drew the same conclusion.

Of course, there is no denying what an incredibly ugly, horrific scar the history of racism has left on America. From the earliest days of slavery in the American colonies to racial segregation and inequalities to the systemic and personal incarnations of racism we find today, that scar still lives and breathes. I truly believe that over time, the scar will will continue to weaken and fade. But I do not think that we will ever find any great coming-to-terms on the debate surrounding racism, i.e. who’s to blame and what are we to do about it.

The debate on racism is what fueled last week’s events, not racism itself.

There is no victor rising from the debate on racism, only casualties. Americans of European and African descent do not see issues of race in the same way, nor may they ever. Thankfully, it’s not necessary for us to agree in order to create racial harmony in the United States or anywhere else in the world. What we do need, however, is mutual respect for the integrity of differeing views. With my African American friend, I can learn to appreciate how and why he sees things as he does, even if I don’t view things the same way, and vice versa.

So, instead of debate, let’s dialogue. Dialogue builds bridges into community with one another. Dialogue might possibly bring new, creative solutions to the lingering issues of racism that the tired out debates could never deliver.

Finally, I’d like to offer a sure, absolute cure to the issues of race, this one from the gospel of Jesus Christ:

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. (Galatians 3:26-29, NTL)

If only we would all see, especially those of us who call ourselves Christian,  that God’s promise of Jesus Christ is our healing, our unity, and our life, we would have all the unity we need. And there would be no more need for symbolic beer summits.

Cheers!

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