A cage is a cage, after all

Capitalism is a satanic structure that’s built on the idea of building a meritocracy in the midst of democracy. In this system, we are told if we work hard and put one foot in front of the other, we too can be at the top of the food chain. Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to go through the head of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God. Our quest to be at the top of the food chain is the antithesis of the Jesus message. Capitalism is built on profits at the expense of the needs of others and often is the cause of the suffering of others. Generational wealth, historical inequities, and privilege all demand that if we are to tackle white supremacy, we have to also look at predatory economic policies. A whole chapter of Acts is dedicated to a radical redistribution of wealth, Jesus and the early church knew the power of earthly greed. Slavery, America’s first sin, was powered by the need for cheap, expendable labor. This need birthed whole ideologies that devalued black life and made it akin to livestock – alive but nowhere near as valuable as white life. The wealth of the early colonies was so dependent on slavery that the American dream never would have happened without it. That system is still in place today. Corporate greed, the need for more, and racism are so intrinsically tied together, it’s hard to tell one from the other.

At the same time, capitalistic structures are oppressing our white siblings. The concentration of wealth at the very top makes resources scarce for all of us. The prioritization of profit over human flourishing makes all of our lives less abundant. The forces that keep small rural churches from thriving can be directly tied back to capitalism, and capitalism and racism will always be linked.

Therefore, by participating in the work of freeing black peoples in this church, you will, in turn, start dismantling some of the same systems that use and abuse our rural ministries. Taking apart the cage that black people find themselves in also starts to dismantle the gilded cage our white siblings find themselves in. A cage is a cage after all, and God longs for all of us to be free. 

From “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.” by Lenny Duncan – Fortress Press

How do I recognize my own biases about sexuality and gender?

Let’s start with the facts: You have biases. We all have biases. We’re born and raised in specific environments, families, and cultures that affect our viewpoints and shape our brains. There’s nothing wrong with having biases, and no shame in acknowledging our biases. They are just there. But acknowledging they exist is the only way to work toward overcoming them.

In order to see your biases, start by simply identifying who you are. For example, you might be a white, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, suburban, married man. If so, you have a set of experiences that are different from an African American lesbian, a Latin nonbinary immigrant, or a disable white man experiencing homelessness. That you view the world differently makes sense and is not surprising or a failure.

Acknowledging our biases is only the first step in being faith leaders who are inclusive and affirming. We must also consider how our individual life experiences have affected our thinking and assumptions.

Ask yourself:

  • What advantages have I had because of my identity? What disadvantages?
  • What obstacles have I faced and/or avoided simply because I was born into a certain family, neighborhood, or body?
  • What might someone of a different race, gender, or orientation experience that I haven’t?

Obviously, none of us has control over the identities and culture we were born into. But we absolutely do have control over how we leverage those identities and cultures and how we engage with people who are different from us. This is especially true for people of faith. We are called to consider others as valuable as ourselves. We are followers of Jesus, who preached about welcoming strangers and caring for those who suffer. As a youth leader, you have the great privilege of creating spaces of welcome and care for the LGBTQ+ kids in your community who are too often treated as outsiders. 

From “Welcoming and Affirming: A Guide to Supporting and Working with LGBTQ+ Christian Youth” by Leigh Finke – Broadleaf Books

Progressives in general don’t handle the situation much better

As proudly as I adhere to progressive principles and beliefs, I’ll also happily tell you that progressives in general don’t handle the situation much better. We’re quick to vilify conservatives, and we love to sound smarter than everyone else. Just as far-right conservatives can’t seem to find it in their hearts to listen to people of color and the truth of their experiences, so progressives refuse to listen to very real pain and very valid perspectives of conservatives, including white ones. This is especially true in Christian circles, where we love to eat our own. Not only that, but we’ll also get so excited about our newfound racial awareness that we’ll go around explaining racism to the very people who experience it every day. We can be obnoxious like that. 

At the same time, we have also been one of the biggest obstacles to antiracism work for civil rights leaders. Whether we’re white feminists who want to ignore the realities of intersectionality that female BIPOC face, or whether we’re tone policing people on social media, we place a huge STOP sign in front of activists and organizers, creating hurdles for the very people for whom we wish to be allies. When they call us on it, we get fragile and teary-eyed (or red-faced and defensive). We impede the progress of true antiracist work by paternalistically insisting that its proponents slow down and be polite; this is especially true in churches, where the work of social justice is often called “divisive.”  We’re fine sharing a meme or two, but participate in an actual protest that disrupts the status quo? Well, that may be taking things too far. Everyone just needs to stop yelling and be nice. And we definitely need to follow the law – even the unjust ones. We should be grateful for the progress we’ve made.

Except that for all that progress, people of color are still dying. 

From “Good White Racist? Confronting Your Role in Racial Injustice” by Kerry Connelly – Westminster John Knox Press

Mother’s Long View

                                               

Independence is a heady draft, and if you drink it in your youth it can have the same effect on the brain as young wine. It does not matter that its taste is not very appealing, it is addictive and with each drink the consumer wants more.

When I was twenty-two and living in San Francisco, I had a five-year-old son, two jobs, and two rented rooms with cooking privileges down the hall. My landlady, Mrs. Jefferson, was kind and grandmotherly. She was a ready babysitter and insisted on providing dinner for her tenants. Her ways were so tender and her personality so sweet that no one was mean enough to discourage her disastrous culinary exploits. Spaghetti at her table, which was offered at least three times a week, was a mysterious red, white, and brown concoction. We would occasionally encounter an unidentifiable piece of meat hidden among the pasta.

There was no money in my budget for restaurant food, so I and my son Guy, were often loyal, if unhappy diners at Chez Jefferson.

My mother had moved from Post Street into a fourteen-room Victorian house on Fulton Street, which she filled with gothic, heavily carved furniture. The upholstery on the sofa and occasional chairs was red-wine-colored mohair. Oriental rugs were placed throughout the house. She had a live-in employee who cleaned the house and sometimes filled in as cook helper. 

Mother picked up Guy twice a week and took him to her house where she fed him peaches and cream and hot dogs, but I only went to her house at our appointed time.

She understood and encouraged my self-reliance. We had a standing appointment, which I looked forward to eagerly. Once a month, she would cook one of my favorite dishes and I would go to her house. One lunch date stands out in my mind. I call it the Vivian’s Red Rice Day.

When I arrived at the Fulton Street house my mother was dressed beautifully, her makeup was perfect, and she wore good jewelry.

After we embraced, I washed my hands and we walked through her formal dark dining room and into the large bright kitchen.

Much of lunch was already on the table. Vivian Baxter was very serious about her delicious meals.

On that long-ago Red Rice Day my mother placed on the table a crispy, dry-roasted capon, no dressing or gravy, a simple lettuce salad, no tomatoes or cucumbers. A wide-mouthed bowl covered with a platter sat next to her plate.

She fervently blessed the food with a brief prayer and put her left hand on the platter and her right on the bowl. She turned the dishes over and gently loosened the bowl from its contents and revealed a tall mound of glistening red rice (my favorite food in all the world) decorated with finely minced parsley and the green stalks of scallions.

The chicken and salad do not feature so prominently on my taste buds memory, but each grain of red rice is emblazoned on the surface of my tongue forever.

Gluttonous and greedy negatively describe the hearty eater offered the seduction of her favorite food.

Two large portions of rice sated my appetite, but the deliciousness of the dish made me long for a larger stomach so that I could eat two more helpings.

My mother had plans for the rest of the afternoon, so she gathered her wraps and we left the house together.

We reached the middle of the block and were enveloped in the stinging acid aroma of vinegar from the pickle factory on the corner of Fillmore and Fulton streets. I had walked ahead. My mother stopped me and said, “Baby.”

I walked back to her.

“Baby, I’ve been thinking and now I am sure. You are the greatest woman I’ve ever met.”

My mother was five feet four inches to my six-foot frame.

I looked down at the pretty little woman, and her perfect makeup and diamond earrings, who owned a hotel and was admired by most people in San Francisco’s black community.

She continued, “You are very kind and very intelligent and those elements are not always found together. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and my mother – yes, you belong in that category. Here, give me a kiss.”

She kissed me on the lips and turned and jaywalked across the street to her beige and brown Pontica. I pulled myself together and walked down to Fillmore Street. I crossed there and waited for the number 12 streetcar.

My policy of independence would not allow me to accept money or even a ride from my mother, but I welcomed her wisdom. Now I thought of her statement. I thought, “Suppose she is right. She’s very intelligent and she often said she didn’t  fear anyone enough to lie. Suppose I really am going to become somebody. Imagine.”

At that moment, when I could still taste the red rice, I decided the time had come when I should cut down on dangerous habits like smoking, drinking, and cursing.

Imagine. I might really become somebody. Someday.

From “Letter to My Daughter” by Maya Angelou

By the second half of life, they’ll be long gone

Back in 2011, Richard Rohr wrote a book called Falling Upward. Richard, a warmhearted Franciscan brother, Catholic priest, insightful teacher, and bestselling author, is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, and I am honored to call him friend, mentor, and colleague. Falling Upward resonated with hundreds of thousands of readers because it told a secret that few dare to tell: somewhere in the journey of our lives, the faith we inherited often stops working. We go through a transition period, a period of letting go of many things and holding on to a precious few. To me, the title is perfect, because it simultaneously tells a painful truth and raises a hopeful possibility: the experience of doubt feels like falling, but could it actually be an upward fall?

Richard rightly identified how, for many, this faith crisis hits in the middle of life, and I’ve found that to be especially true among baby boomers and older generational cohorts. But for younger generational cohorts, the tide of doubt seems to flood in at younger and younger ages, suggesting that this epidemic of faith-struggle is more a stage of faith than a stage of life, reflecting a massive cultural shift that is making traditional beliefs less and less viable for more and more people. If they don’t find genuine understanding and intelligent support to face and process their doubts while they’re still in the first half of life chronologically, by the second half of life, they’ll be long gone from religion and finished with faith for good.

From “Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It” by Brian McLaren

Diametrically Opposed Belief Systems

If it was puzzling to me how, in spite of the presence of God and the Bible there could be such racism, I was comforted to learn that I was not the only one. The history of this hypocrisy. Throughout history, the pro-slavery and anti-slavery proponents argued their case for their points of view. The pro-slavery proponents believed that God had created and sanctioned slavery, while the anti-slavery proponents believed quite the opposite. A good God, argued the anti-slavery advocates could not possibly approve of how  Africans were being treated, but pro-slavery champions went to passages in the Bible to “prove” that God did in fact approve of the institution. In Frederick Douglas, David Blight wrote that “Dougles loved the Declaration of Independence, but since its principles were natural rights, like the precious ores of the earth, he refused to argue for their existence or their righteousness against the claims of pro-slavery ideologues. “What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue?” he asked in his famous Fourth of July speech. “Why must he prove that the slave is human?” Rather, Douglas claimed his authority from two great scriptures, “the Constitution and the Bible.”

Much later, Howard Thurman, the great spiritualist, described the inherent and indigenous tension in the United States. In spite of both the Bible and the Constitution, Thurman noted that “for a long time the Christian Church has profoundly compromised with the demands of the Gospel of Jesus Chirst, especially with respect to the meaning and practice of love. The Bible and the Constitution notwithstanding. Thurman wrote that “it was taken for granted that the very existence of law was for the protection and the security of white society. 

It seemed that Black and white society had two diametrically opposed belief systems when it came to how to treat not only Black people but also all people, since, as the Creation story taught us, everyone was made by God. Douglas, Thurmand, and so many others based their beliefs on how God intended for people to be treated on the Great Commandment, found in all three Synoptic Gospels, which said that humans were to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds, and souls, and their neighbors as themselves. Many white Christians, however, used as their guide the words found in the Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:19: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They viewed it as their godly duty to civilize people whom they believed were inferior to them; God gave them the mandate, they believed to exercise dominion over all the creatures of the earth, including people of color. That way of interpreting the BIble was the foundation of the concept of Manifest Destiny, the nineteenth-century belief that the expansion of the United States, which included subjugating people and their cultures, was the will of God, based on the words of the Great Commission. In the present day, Christian nationalists believe that it is a “God-given responsibility to moralize the world through the use of force.” One group of people sees the primary command of Jesus as it being necessary to love one another and build community, while the other group believes the duty of Christians is to exercise dominion over others and to gain political power, something we will examine later. Both groups call themselves Christians. Both read the same Bible and both are made up of American citizens, but neither group sees or interprets the Bible or Constitution in the same way.

From “With Liberty and Justice for Some: The Bible, the Constitution, and Racism in America” by Susan K. Williams Smith