God Bless the Whole World, No Exceptions

worldFrom the moment of my birth, I have been inextricably linked to three nations – the United States, the land of my mother’s birth; Canada, where my father was born; and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where I was born. Even though I carry a U.S. passport and have now lived in the U.S. for more than 55 years, I’ve never forgotten my deep roots in and ties to Canada and Zimbabwe (and Zambia, where I also lived as a child). So there’s something in me that instinctively recoils when I hear the words, “America first.” It’s not the association of that phrase with the 1940s and anti-Semitism (disturbing as it is) that makes me recoil; rather, I dislike the idea because it seems to suggest that America is more important than other countries, that we should always be self-interested at the expense of other people in other places.

My own experience and understanding of Christian faith doesn’t fit well with the idea of “America first.” My missionary kid birth and upbringing conditioned me from the beginning to think about other countries besides the U.S. Even after returning to the States, my parents kept in touch with people in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and they were deeply interested in what happened in those countries. As former missionaries, they also maintained their connections with Brethren in Christ Missions in other countries, such as India, Japan, and Cuba.

Except for Canada, I didn’t travel outside the U. S. after we returned from Africa in 1961 until 30 years later in 1991. By then, I was an at-large member of the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. I served on the board for 19 years, including nine years as chair. While serving on the board of MCC, which works in approximately 50 countries, I had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, Zimbabwe , Zambia, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Indonesia. These visits always affirmed the fundamental value of individual people of all races and colors and creeds. I have wonderful memories of the people I met, and when I think of these countries, I often think of specific people, especially women, who worked hard and cared for their families just like I do, often under very difficult circumstances.

[Aside: I’ve written before about how my international travel taught me much: “Stories from Around the World, Part 1 and Part 2.” I’ve also written about “Books to Expand My World” highlighting books that remind me there is a world out there beyond the United States. Here’s Part 2 of the post about books.]

From a Christian point of view, caring more about one’s own country and its people seems to be at odds with the concept of being citizens of heaven and the kingdom of God, rather than earthly kingdoms. Jesus didn’t say, “God so loved the United States” (or Palestine, where he lived); he said “God so loved the world.” God created everyone in God’s image, not just Americans, and if we truly believe that, then we should care about the welfare of all people, not just those who live in the United States. John’s vision of a huge choir composed of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (a multi-ethnic and multi-national kingdom of God) points to a much less ethnocentric and nationalistic view of the world than what is currently being promoted in many places.

All of this is not to say that I’m not patriotic and don’t appreciate the kind of life I enjoy in the United States. I confess to feeling a fairly high degree of patriotism during the Olympics, as just one example, and I can’t help breathing a little sigh of relief when I set foot on familiar American soil again after traveling internationally. I also don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t integrity in taking care of our own people; there is a bit of hypocrisy in railing against poverty, inequality, oppression, and discrimination in other places when we aren’t working hard enough on those issues here at home. Self-interest is a good thing (as Jesus himself suggested when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself”), although not when it ends up always putting personal interests ahead of the needs of others, or hogging the lion’s share of resources when others are suffering.

As Christians, we are connected to a global fellowship, a worldwide church; we care about the welfare of everyone, regardless of where they live. But beyond that, as human beings,  we are all connected to people all over the world. The contemporary world is inextricably interconnected and interdependent, more so than at any time in history, given the relative ease of travel, increased technology, and the ubiquity of the Internet. What we do here affects people in other places, and what other people do affects us; this is especially true when it comes to the use of limited natural resources. Globalism seems to have become a dirty word, but that doesn’t make sense to me. The “America first” mentality seems to operate out of a zero-sum philosophy: we have to be first, which means that no one else can be first; we can’t contribute to the well-being of others in other places because that means we can’t take care of ourselves. Why does it have to be either-or; why can’t it be both-and?

The time-honored ending to every presidential speech is “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” I understand and respect that, knowing and appreciating that presidents speak as the chief representative and promoter of and advocate for one specific country. But sometimes I also can’t help wishing they would add, “And God bless the whole world, no exceptions.”

 

From Writing What I Didn’t Know to Reading to Know Better

In 1964, for my senior English class, I wrote a short story called “Created Equal.” More than 50 years later, I still have the original (slightly yellowed) handwritten copy, complete with an A grade and the comments “Excellent” and “Powerful theme.” The story is written in the third person omniscient point of view about an African-American family forced out of their home because of white protests and the family’s struggle to find another home.

By choosing that topic, I violated one of the fundamental principles of writing: write what you know (or research thoroughly so you learn to know). I didn’t have any personal experience with the topic, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t do any research. At the time, I was living in a lily-white neighborhood, attending a white school and church, did not personally know any African Americans, and just two years earlier had returned from living in racially segregated colonial Africa (albeit on mission stations surrounded by black people). What in the world motivated me to write such a story in the first place, and what made me think I could do it with any integrity?

To answer that, I think you have to put my story in context. We did not have a television in our home, but we did listen to the radio and my parents subscribed to Time magazine, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was the Man of the Year for 1963 and appeared on the cover on January 3, 1964. My social studies class during my senior year in high school was called “Problems of Democracy,” and while I don’t remember much of anything from that class, we probably discussed current events, and 1963 and 1964 were tumultuous years in the civil rights movement. For example: April 1963, King was arrested during protests in Birmingham and wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; June 1963, Medger Evers was murdered; August 1963, March on Washington; September 1963, four young black girls were killed when a church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. I’m thinking all that was in my mind when I chose the topic for my story.

I am impressed in retrospect that I cared enough about racial injustice when I was 16 to write about it, but I wish I had been able to write out of some base of knowledge gleaned from what people like Drew Hart call “those on the margins.” My church just finished a month-long series on racial reconciliation, using Drew’s book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, as a resource. (Drew is an African American assistant professor of theology at Messiah College.)  In the final chapter of the book, Drew lists seven “Jesus-shaped practices for the antiracist church.” The third item on his list is to “see the world from below,” which includes his suggestion “that Christians from dominant culture change their reading habits so that those on the margins become the main stage.”

When I was 16, “those on the margins” were definitely not the main stage of my reading habits. In the years since, my reading habits have broadened, and I have enjoyed reading books by non-white authors, including African Americans and writers from other countries, especially Africa. Two of those authors, whose memoirs I read recently, are John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia, and Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of writing at Columbia University.

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John Lewis’ three-part graphic memoir of his leadership in the civil rights movement, March (co-written by Andrew Aydin, Lewis’ communications director, and illustrated by Nate Powell), taught me so much more about the events that must have inspired and shaped my short story than I ever knew at the time. I already had a great deal of respect for Lewis based on his current role as a congressman from Georgia; reading these books increased my esteem for him. He is often referred to as a “civil rights icon,” and his three-part memoir firmly establishes why that label is not an exaggeration.

He is the only surviving member of the “Big Six,” the heads of six prominent civil rights organizations who collaborated on many of the big events of the 1960s and fought for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (the other five were Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young). He writes honestly about the conflicts between the leaders and their organizations regarding the methodology and philosophy of the movement despite their common goals. Lewis participated in the Freedom Rides, marches, and numerous sit-ins and protests to desegregate restaurants and other establishments and to secure voting rights for African Americans in the south. He is the only surviving speaker from the August 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He was arrested more than 40 times, jailed repeatedly, and beaten viciously (fractured skull) by white police in Selma on Bloody Sunday in March 1965. Despite all that, he maintained an unwavering commitment to nonviolence as the instrument of change.

The three parts of March describe how and why Lewis joined the civil rights movement, and then cover his participation in and leadership of the movement until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Interspersed throughout the three books are flash-forwards to the inauguration of Barack Obama as president on January 20, 2009, a continual reminder of what a seminal event that was in black history in the United States. Near the end of Book 3, before the account of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Lewis describes meeting Obama after the inauguration and receiving an autographed copy of the inauguration program on which Obama wrote, “Because of you, John.” (Tears ran down my cheeks as I read that, by the way.)

Most people who came of age where and when I did remember the tumult of the 1960s – not just the civil rights movement but also the Vietnam War. I often characterize myself as a child of the 60s, explaining some of my current bent toward activism and social justice as having been honed during those years. The news was full of protests, and you had to have been living under a rock not to be at least somewhat aware of what was going on. I suspect, however, that a steady diet of news about civil rights protests ended up distorting my views of black America. While I commend myself for having lamented in my story that “[u]ntil things were better, Rosie and Caleb [the mother and father in the story] would have to live as two of the many that were ‘created equal,’ but not treated equal,” I also cringe at the stereotypes I perpetuated of poor desperate blacks who worried that all the protests were not going to help them (yes, I actually had Rosie expressing her frustration about how the protests were going to hurt more than they helped, words that were more likely to have emanated from all the white people I knew than from many African Americans).

negrolandThose stereotypes were again shattered by the second memoir I read recently – Negroland, by Margo Jefferson. Jefferson was born a year before me, and thus came of age during the same time I did, in the 1960s. Her story, however, is worlds away from mine, or that of John Lewis. She was born into an upper class black family in Chicago, and lived a life of relative privilege. Absent from her memoir is much mention at all of the marches and protests going on in the southern United States. Her struggles were different, although certainly very real, and she did not actively participate in the civil rights movement as we usually think of it, but her story nonetheless illustrates the racialized nature of American life. Consider this comment about the nature of privilege: “Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege….Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident but not obliging; dignified, not intrusive” (p. 91).

The book as a whole is an interesting exploration of the intersection of class, gender, and race, as Jefferson figures out how to negotiate the world as an upper class woman where race seems more important than either gender or class in determining one’s status in the U.S. And just as Lewis interspersed his civil rights memoir with scenes from the Obama inauguration, Jefferson intersperses her own story with some of the history of upper class and wealthy blacks, dating from before the Civil War. To my shame, I knew practically nothing of this history.

Who knows how that high school short story would have been different if I had written about what I knew. Perhaps it wouldn’t have tackled the issue of race at all, or maybe it would have been about a white teenager just beginning to learn about issues of race in the country she had been living in for only two years. I can’t go back and change the story (or stop cringing in embarrassment every time I reread it!), but I can continue to enlarge my reading habits so that I am better able to see the world from a point of view that is different from that of my dominant white culture.

 

Postscript: Other recommended books by African American authors I’ve read during the past year:

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson; about racial disparities and discrimination in the criminal justice system and Stevenson’s legal efforts with the Equal Justice Initiative

Between the World and Me, by Ta-nehisi Coates; a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, confronting race in America and how it has shaped American history

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones; a novel about a black slave-owner in Virginia before the Civil War

The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore; the true story of two black men by the same name who both grew up in Baltimore but ended up in very different places

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson; a memoir in poetry of her childhood in South Carolina and New York City

And of course, Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, parts of which I re-read recently.

 

 

Re-Reading Obama

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I first read Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, after he entered the national consciousness following his memorable speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention but before he became a candidate for president. The book was originally published in 1995, and then reissued in 2004.

At the time I read the book, speculation was beginning that Obama might run for president, and he had just been elected to the U.S. Senate. Clearly, one of the reasons the book was reissued in 2004, with a new foreword by the author, was because he had become a national figure.

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Watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama with colleagues on January 20, 2009, State College, Pennsylvania

In April 2008, before the Pennsylvania primary, Dale and I went to an Obama presidential campaign rally in Harrisburg, and we both volunteered in very small ways with the Obama campaign in the fall of 2008. And on January 20, 2009, I watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama on a laptop in State College with some of my early childhood mental health colleagues. We paused during our quarterly meeting to take in this historic occasion of the first African American becoming president of the United States (see photo at right). It was an emotional moment for all of us.

Over the past 10 years of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate and then president, when false conspiracy theories about his birthplace and religious faith persisted, and criticism and obstruction of practically every single thing he ever tried to do increased, I often thought of Dreams of My Father and my observations about the book at the time I read it – before any of the craziness. So this week as the nation counted down the days until the end of the Obama presidency, I reread parts of the book. I was curious about whether my observations held up. and about what insights reading the book now might provide into the man we came to know as our president.

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Me doing a thumbs-up with a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama during a trip to Washington, DC in 2010.

I remember thinking and even commenting during a book club discussion in 2006 or 2007 that I appreciated reading something written by a politician before the person became famous, entered politics, or thought he needed to measure his words and omit inconvenient details. While I think now that a career in politics may have been in his mind while he was writing the book, I honestly don’t think it greatly affected the way he told his story.

Two things in particular stood out to me when I first read the book:

  1. He does not always paint a particularly flattering picture of himself, and is very honest about his struggle to find his identity as a black man with a white mother, an absent black father, and two white grandparents who helped raise him.
  2. He describes the development of his Christian faith and the moment of his “conversion” with authenticity and conviction.

As I reread the book this week, I looked for re-affirmation of those two observations. The first – the unflattering picture of himself and his struggle to find his identity – still rings true. He writes honestly of his partying and drug and alcohol use during adolescence and college, his cockiness in certain situations (perhaps a harbinger of the self-confident way he has carried himself throughout his presidency), his lack of seriousness about his studies, the conflicts in his family, his ambivalence toward his father. He tells about reading a story in Life magazine when he was about nine years old and living in Indonesia that greatly affected his view of himself. The story was about a black man who had undergone treatment to lighten his skin. That was the first time he came face to face with what it meant to be a black man, and he noted that his “vision had been permanently altered.” He began to notice things like there being nobody in the Sears Christmas catalog that looked like him.

The struggle for his identity as a black man continued into adolescence and young adulthood. Two quotes illustrate this:

  • At around age 15: “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant” (p. 76).
  • On trying to navigate between his family of “white folks” (his mother and grandparents) and his black friends: “I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two would would eventually cohere” (p. 82).

Today, Obama seems comfortable in his own skin, and has resolved the identity issues that plagued him as a young man. But you could hear echoes of those struggles in his responses to racial issues, especially when unarmed black teenagers were killed. His comment that “Trayvon Martin could have been me” is almost literally true; in the book, he writes about how he was well on his way to becoming a “young black man” statistic, and so I can imagine that every time a young black man is gunned down, he thinks about how his life could easily have turned out if he had made different choices.

My second observation about the development of his Christian faith still rings true as well. Whenever I have heard people deny his Christian commitment or claim that he is a secret Muslim, my mind goes back to this book. Obama writes about his grandparents and mother not having much religious faith and he mentions his father’s Muslim faith, but he claims no belief for himself until something changed during the years he was a community organizer in Chicago before he went to law school. He wasn’t making much progress in his efforts in the community until he hooked up with local churches. There he learned to know people whose Christian faith motivated them to work on behalf of justice and whose hope was found in Jesus. He writes of a Sunday morning service not long before he left for law school at Harvard. The title of the sermon was “The Audacity of Hope,” and the preacher spoke eloquently of how even in the midst of adversity, his grandmother would be singing, “Thank you Jesus,” and “thanking [God] in advance for all that they dared to hope for in me! Oh, I thank you, Jesus, for not letting go of me when I let go of you!”

Obama then writes that while the choir was singing and people were walking to the altar in response to the sermon, he found himself with tears running down his cheeks. Beside him, he heard a woman whisper softly, “Oh, Jesus. Thank you for carrying us this far.” That section of the book ends there, but the clear implication is that something profound happened to Obama at that moment, the culmination of spending time daily with people of faith. I choose to believe he came to personal faith that day and has been a Christian in the real sense of the word ever since.

At the first National Prayer Breakfast after his inauguration in February 2009, he told a version of this story. After noting that he wasn’t raised in a religious household, he continued: “I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck — no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose — His purpose.” His words rang true then and they still do.

Significantly, the preacher’s sermon title, “The Audacity of Hope,” became the title of Obama’s next book, published after he became a U.S. Senator, and hope was one of the major themes of his first presidential campaign. The theme was echoed in his farewell address last week: “I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.” And it was echoed this week in the answer to the final question at his final press conference: “We’ve tried to teach them [his daughters] hope and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world…. I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad. I believe tragic things happen. I think there’s evil in the world, but I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time. That’s what this presidency has tried to be about.”

I have not always agreed with President Obama; I’ve wished he had done some things differently or not at all. For example, he does not seem to be as committed as I would like to the kind of peacemaking that does not see violent responses to evil as justified, and at times he was infuriatingly passive when it felt like he needed to be far more active. But I’ve also supported many of his accomplishments: the Affordable Care Act, actions to reverse climate change and protect the environment, normalized relations with Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and criminal justice reform, to name a few. Apart from his policies, I have always felt like I could respect him as a person, a husband, and a father, and I have deeply appreciated the dignity, grace, and civility with which he has conducted himself amidst a never-ending barrage of ugliness and negativity. The fact that he is being succeeded by someone who is the polar opposite and who has made promises to undo much if not most of what he has accomplished is hard to take, to say the least.

As President Obama leaves office, I need a dose of his optimism and his reminder that “the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.” I began to understand some of what makes him tick when I first read Dreams from My Father, and it’s been encouraging to discover upon re-reading the book that his presidency was built in positive ways on what he learned and experienced as a child, teenager, and young adult. The person I met in those pages is consistent with the president I admired and respected. I will miss him!

Post-Election Angst

I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts and get out from under the oppressive cloud of disillusionment, sadness, anger, and grief that has been hanging over me ever since the night Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. I admire those who were able to eloquently write and speak words of wisdom almost immediately, but I haven’t been able to do so myself, and I’m not sure that what I’m writing now is particularly wise. Perhaps it’s more of a cathartic exercise and a personal reminder of what I want my priorities to be.

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Me after voting in honor of my mother, who was born before women were allowed to vote. I wore a white sweater she knit for herself many years and which I inherited.

On Election Day, I proudly cast my vote for Hillary Clinton, feeling optimistic that after 240 years, we would finally elect our first female president. That was not by any means my only reason for voting for Hillary, but it was an especially meaningful one. As I said in my pre-election post, it was not a perfect vote (it never is), but I generally felt good about voting for Hillary and very good about voting against a man who I believe is unqualified and unfit for the presidency. He is the antithesis of pretty much everything I stand for, with his vengeful, bellicose, torture-promoting, dishonest, fear-mongering, demeaning, insulting, bullying, sexist, misogynist, racist, and xenophobic behavior and/or speech both before and during the campaign. But today, that man is the president-elect, and how do I respond? Everything in me wants to rant and say I will never be able to support him, but that isn’t either right or productive.

Mental health therapists I have known would say that it’s important to allow oneself to feel what one feels – no matter how negative and unpleasant the feelings. I’ve been surprised at how deeply disappointed I am that so many Americans chose Donald Trump as their president. For the first 24 hours after the results came in, I felt almost physically ill and like I was sinking into another pit of depression and anxiety. I’m better now, but I’m still sitting with my feelings of anger, sadness, disillusionment, and grief.

  • I grieve over the racism directed at President Obama from the beginning and perpetuated by the president-elect, crystallized in the absurd and patently untrue conspiracy theory that he was not born in the United States and thus was not really our president. It feels wrong on so many levels that the same person who deliberately and repeatedly delegitimized the first African American president should now be the one to take over from him.
  • I grieve for the many immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, and other marginalized people who are afraid of what is going to happen to them. I grieve for all the expressions of hatred toward these people already in the wake of the election. I grieve for my granddaughter’s friend who is worried that his Mexican father is going to be taken away.
  • I grieve that someone who openly brags about committing sexual assault can be elected president.
  • I grieve because whether he intended it or not, whether he denounces it or not, Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists like the KKK and given renewed permission to some white people to express their racism openly and proudly. This is so not okay!

I could go on, but I have to get past all this anger. I won’t be participating in any “not my president” protests. Instead, I have to figure out how to channel my disappointment, anger, sadness, disillusionment, and grief into positive action. I have to find hope in things like the graciousness with which Hillary conceded defeat and President Obama welcomed the president-elect to the White House to begin a peaceful transition of power, and the more conciliatory tone Trump seems to be striking at the moment. I have to remind myself what I have written over the past year as I’ve been trying to process this most difficult election campaign:

From December 9, 2015, commenting on the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”: I really need the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem during this particular Advent and Christmas season, which does not leave us in despair but resoundingly reminds us of the long view of history and of our faith that somehow, the wrong will fail, the right will prevail, and there will be peace on earth:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

I realize that my own attitude toward those who are espousing ideas, beliefs, and practices that are antithetical to what I believe is right and good is not always as loving and kind as it should be. I don’t think that means I should not speak out and confront that which is so wrong, hateful and unChristian, but it does mean I always need to do so in a way that reflects this core value of my faith and my church: “We value all human life, and promote understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.”

From February 15, 2016: At its best, political correctness reminds us of the real people who are at the other end of our words. It makes us think before we speak. It helps keep our discourse, whether spoken or written, less inflammatory and more civil. It includes rather than excludes, and it should make us think about how we might be using our personal power and privilege to demean and minimize the feelings of others.

From April 26, 2016: I will work at overcoming my fear of speaking out and not be silent in the face of great wrong, and I will remind myself repeatedly that this election will not usher in either the end of the world or the kingdom of God!

From July 20, 2016: Donald Trump is a human being; he is made in the image of God, just as I am. He is someone’s son, husband, brother, father, grandfather, and friend…. He feels like an enemy to so much of what I believe is right, but Jesus said I am to love my enemies….

One of favorite Bible verses is “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18)…. Simultaneously comforting and convicting, the verse challenges me to pursue peace when it feels difficult or even impossible. With such extreme division, polarization, violence, and hateful speech these days, the challenge to live at peace with everyone feels greater than ever. I constantly ask myself: do I truly value all human life? Am I choosing to value those who seem unlovable, who commit unspeakably cruel and evil acts, who don’t value life themselves? What difference might it make if I do?”

From September 20, 2016:  I long for political discourse that is honest, that doesn’t throw truth to the wind and repeat lies upon lies upon lies. I don’t want to live in a post-truth world. I also believe that speaking the truth is important when we believe that great wrong is being done. And that’s where I am frequently confronted with the tension between forthrightly denouncing unacceptable and despicable attitudes and behaviors (speaking the truth) and still affirming the essential worth and dignity of the person. Words matter.

From November 7, 2016: One good thing that might come out of this election is some soul-searching and thoughtful re-examination of what “being a Christian in a post-Christian world” (the subtitle of my pastor’s excellent current sermon series) should mean. Perhaps many Christians will come to a renewed understanding that the kingdom of God does not depend on who is elected president of the United States, and acknowledge that perhaps we’ve expected the government to help us be like Jesus and too closely married our faith with our politics.

I have a magnet in my kitchen that says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” To do that, I have to help heal the wounds and be a reconciling force in the world; I have to be kind, empathetic, compassionate, generous, civil, understanding, forgiving; I have to listen to those who disagree with me and see things very differently. I want to echo Hillary’s scriptural admonition to her supporters in her concession speech: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). I’m not completely there yet, but I want to get there.

 

 

Stuff I’m Thinking About, Part 2: Lessons from Germany

Two more of my blog post fragments combined into a single piece.

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View of Passau, Germany from the Veste Oberhaus Castle grounds

This past May, Dale and I traveled to Europe with four other couples to celebrate our 45th wedding anniversaries. We took a “Romantic Danube” Viking River Cruise from Nuremburg, Germany to Budapest, Hungary, with stops in Regensburg and Passau, Germany, and Vienna, Austria.

I’ve written before about my thoroughly German heritage, and I married into another thoroughly Swiss-German family, so a trip to Germany was kind of like going home to the motherland. I hadn’t really thought about that until I began recognizing certain personality traits in the way the local German guides not only talked about their country but also how they themselves behaved. The guides described Germans as being obsessed with rules, orderly, punctual, and unemotional (that is, not showing their feelings outwardly), and we saw some of these traits in action as we followed them around. For example, German buses have seat belts, and the guides were very insistent that we use those belts at all times. When we came upon a minor altercation between a motorcyclist and a pedestrian in a narrow street in Regensburg, our guide pointed out that actually the cyclist was in violation of the rules because he wasn’t wearing a helmet. She also pointed out, apropos of nothing, that some bicycles weren’t parked correctly. I was amused as I recognized some of my own obsessions and personality traits.

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One of many quaint side streets in Passau

One of our stops was in Passau, a relatively small town along the Danube. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Passau before this trip, but it will remain in my memory for a long time for several reasons. First, we were treated to an organ recital in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Literal chills ran up and down my spine as I sat in the cathedral and listened to this glorious instrument featuring almost 18,000 pipes completely fill the space with beautiful music. Second, this is a town with lots of narrow and quaint little streets, great for a walking tour. You never knew what lovely view was going to present itself around the next corner. Third, during some free time in the afternoon, we climbed a hill on the other side of the river to the base of the Veste Oberhaus Castle from which there was a beautiful view of the town of Passau (see photo above). I did not know but learned later that early Anabaptists, my spiritual ancestors, were imprisoned in the dungeons of the castle, having been persecuted for their beliefs back in the 16th century.

dsc03090Also in Passau during our walking tour, our guide pointed across the river to an ordinary red row house and noted that Adolf Hitler was born there. She added, however, that there are no markings on the house to commemorate that fact, nothing to draw attention to this having been the home of Germany’s most notorious leader. If I’m remembering correctly, she also commented that the average resident of Passau doesn’t even know that Hitler used to live there.

Which brings me to another common theme from our time in Germany and some thoughts about its relevance for what’s happening here in the U.S. Obviously, it is difficult to go to German cities like Nuremburg and not be reminded of World War II and the holocaust. I was impressed by how the war, even 70 years later after most people from that time are no longer alive, is still so much a part of the national consciousness, and perhaps still a source of national shame. Several guides talked about how difficult it was for many years for Germans to talk openly about what happened, but now there are intentional efforts to teach their children the whole history of that time.

During the course of this interminable election season here in the U.S., I have read numerous articles warning about the fascist and demagogic characteristics of particularly the candidacy of Donald Trump and making comparisons to the rise of Hitler in Germany. I really dislike Hitler comparisons – they are too easily tossed around as weapons and to promote fear. But it’s hard not to notice the similarities between the focused campaign in the 1930s and 40s in Germany to ostracize, demonize, discriminate against, deport, and ultimately to kill Jews simply because they were Jews and the current rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and racially-charged rhetoric and actions here in the United States, all encouraged either directly or indirectly by Donald Trump.

Trump’s promotion of the “birther controversy” illustrates this. In his recent declaration, finally, that President Obama was indeed born in the U.S. (“Period.”), he lied by placing the blame on Hillary Clinton for starting it in the first place and further lied when he said he had finished it. The issue was actually finished a long time ago, should never have been an issue in the first place, and was probably an issue at all only because the president is a black man and was/is viewed by some as “not one of us,” “the other,” “not really American.”

This delegitimizing of the first African American president is one of the most vile, egregious, odious, reprehensible, and yes, deplorable aspects of Trump’s candidacy. Not only did he insult a twice duly-elected president, but he takes credit for having “forced” him to “show his papers,” like former slaves had to do to be able to move about freely, or many blacks had to do before being allowed to vote. There are undeniable racist overtones to “birtherism” that go beyond undermining the first black president, and Trump doesn’t get himself off the hook by making a 30-second statement that never apologizes to the president and all black people for the lie and the harm it has done. While Trump says he disavows white supremacists, the evidence shows that his crusade against the president (and by extension all African Americans), his vow to deport undocumented immigrants, and his threat to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. (even innocent refugees fleeing unimaginable horror) have encouraged them and given them reason to hope that their cause is gaining ground rather than fading into the dust heap of history where it belongs.

And that is a scary thought, and way more reminiscent of 1930s and 40s Germany than is comfortable for me, and the reason it feels vitally important to speak up and not be silent. Seventy years from now, I don’t want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be ashamed of what happened in 2016. I don’t want the birthplace of a former president of the United States to be like that red house in Passau, Germany – deliberately left unnamed so as not to draw attention to one of the darkest times in the history of the country. That might sound a little hyperbolic; I hope it is, but I’m not sure it is. Perhaps it even sounds inflammatory, and if so, I apologize. Again, as I said in my previous post, it’s an ongoing challenge for me to forthrightly denounce unacceptable and despicable attitudes and behaviors in someone and still affirm the essential worth and dignity of the person.

Pondering History, Torture and Violence

Dale and I recently went to see the movies Unbroken and Selma, both based on true stories. Both have been criticized for the way they have retold history: Unbroken for leaving out a significant part of Louie Zamperini’s whole story, and Selma for inaccurately portraying President Johnson as being unsupportive of civil rights in general and the Voting Rights Act in particular.

Obviously, filmmakers have to make creative choices about what to include out of all the material that is available to them. It could be argued that it was a secular choice in Unbroken not to dramatize Zamperini’s Christian conversion at a Billy Graham rally as the ultimate reason he remained “unbroken” after everything he had been through. His conversion and healing from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, along with his decision to forgive the Japanese soldiers who had tortured him, are a significant part of his total story, so I understand why it is frustrating to many Christians that these details were relegated to a brief sentence on the screen at the end of the movie. But the movie still stands as a powerful testimony to the ability of one person to withstand great hardship and survive. Plus, to be fair, Louie’s conversion story takes up very few of the 528 pages of the original book on which the movie is based. (And yes, I highly recommend reading the book!)

In the case of Selma, I think it’s really important to recognize that this is history being retold creatively from the point of view of African Americans. I don’t know enough about the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson to judge how accurately or inaccurately it is portrayed. However, I also don’t find it hard to believe that Johnson was not always as supportive and helpful in the moment in the civil rights movement as his significant role in ensuring passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 would ultimately suggest. As I’ve listened to and read severe critiques of the movie for what is seen as an unfair distortion of LBJ’s record on civil rights, I found this perspective particularly helpful: “These critiques are part of a larger debate about who owns American history, especially the portions of that history that were led, organized and shaped in large part by African-Americans… . Selma is unapologetic in depicting the movement as one that was primarily led by black women and men” (from Selma Backlash Misses the Point, by Peniel Joseph on NPR’s website).

I can be as much of a stickler for historical accuracy as anyone, but I also know that American history has been recorded primarily by whites (actually white males), which is itself a distortion of certain truths. Rather than criticize the movie for retelling history a little differently than many of us in the dominant culture learned it or think we remember it, perhaps we ought to try to understand why it is being retold this way and how it helps enrich and enlarge our understanding of history.

It is difficult to view movies like these and not be reminded again of how cruel human beings can be to each other. Unbroken details the horrific torture meted out in Japanese prison camps during World War II and Selma reminds us of the awful violence the white majority inflicted upon African Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. These days, as the news is full of beheadings, bombings, massacres, rape and torture happening with regularity in many parts of the world, I ask myself: “How can people do such things? Why? What creates the conditions that make it okay and even virtuous to treat other human beings like that?”

We might be tempted to dismiss the violence as being perpetrated mainly by radical religious fundamentalists/extremists (who are often but not always Muslim) and having nothing to do with those of us who are American Christians. But it’s not that simple. The U.S. Senate report released late last year documents the torture done by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. Back in 2009 soon after I started this blog (but before anyone knew about it!), I posted a brief piece called “Whether Torture Works is Beside the Point.” I was reacting in part to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center: “White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did.” Following the release of the torture report in late 2014, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 69 percent of white evangelical Protestant Christians believed that the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists (using techniques that have been classified as torture) was justified. The numbers are even worse for non-evangelical Protestants (75 percent) and white Catholics (86 percent). I find this profoundly distressing.

Christians also have to deal with the history of the Crusades and the Inquisition, not to mention the slaughter of Native Americans, the racial violence perpetrated during slavery and into the present, domestic violence, and so on – all justified in part by various interpretations of the Bible. It is clear that being Christian does not always equate to a fundamental commitment to nonviolence.

In the middle of writing this, two items passed through my Facebook feed. One was a quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian teacher and speaker with no allegiance to any nationality, caste, religion, or philosophy: “When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.” The second was a cartoon published on January 17, 2015 in The Economist. The cartoon depicted two dogs standing in the middle of a bunch of dead bodies and piles of rubble. One dog says to the other: “It all started with an argument over whose God was more peace-loving, kind and forgiving…”

I confess first of all to not knowing what to make of either item, given my belief that following the Jesus of Christianity should make one less not more violent. Secondly, in light of the history of the world and what’s happening in many places right now, I have to admit that there is a whole lot of truth contained in the quote and the cartoon. I’ve been asking the question about what makes people able and willing to do such awful things to each other, and along comes the Krishnamurti quote offering an answer that makes a lot of sense but also upsets much of what I have always believed. Does being a Christian really make a difference?

Martin Luther King, Jr. believed it did, basing the movement of nonviolent resistance that is depicted in the movie Selma in part on the teachings of Jesus. So on this Martin Luther King Day, I’ll end my rather rambling and inconclusive reflections with this quote from his essay, “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”: “When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable. I neither started the protest nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman. When the protest began, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its sublime teachings on love, and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. As the days unfolded, I came to see the power of nonviolence more and more. Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many of the things that I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action.” 

 

 

 

Reflections on Race

Like many others, I’ve been thinking about the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin. Many articles, interviews and commentaries have informed and moved me, especially those by African-Americans seeking to make sense of a not-guilty verdict that reopened old wounds or rubbed salt in existing wounds. I have also been frustrated by responses that can only be described as thoughtless, mean-spirited and, yes, racist. The incident and all the ensuing discussion have made me reflect again on my own attitudes about race.

I’ve often wondered how my childhood affected my racial attitudes. I lived in Zimbabwe and Zambia during colonial times (i.e., British rule) before independence. I went to whites-only schools; public facilities were separate for “whites” and “blacks” or “coloreds.” For all practical purposes, I lived under a system of apartheid, even if it wasn’t called that, and I don’t remember that it ever bothered me; it was simply the way it was. How did living in that environment affect me, both short-term and long-term?

I came to the United States in the middle of the civil rights movement and not too long before the landmark Civil Rights Act. In 1964, when the Act was passed, I had just graduated from high school, which might explain why, for an assignment in English class during my senior year, I wrote a short story called “Created Equal.” Even though I received an A on the assignment, along with comments about its being “excellent” and on a “powerful theme,” I am sort of embarrassed when I read it now. The story is about an African-American family forced out of their home because of white protests and the family’s struggle to find another home. I’m not sure what made me think I could write with any integrity, accuracy and knowledge about the experience and feelings of African Americans, especially since I didn’t really know any at the time. However, the story does demonstrate that, despite my somewhat condescending and cliche-ridden prose, I was aware of and believed it was wrong for people in the U.S. not to be treated fairly and equally because of the color of their skin. I suppose the story can be seen as evidence of my awakening to the absolute importance of racial justice and reconciliation.

In 1975, Dale and I moved with our 22-month-old daughter to the city of Harrisburg, where we lived for more than 17 years. Dana and Derek both attended the city public school district which at the time was about 70-75 percent African American. At our end of the block, an Indian family (refugees from Idi Amin’s Uganda) lived right across the street, a Puerto Rican family lived a few doors up the street, the neighbors in the other half of our house were Greek/Romanian immigrants, and there were several African-American families. We weren’t the only whites, but we were in the minority. Most of the time, we really liked the diversity – what’s not to like about having a mini-United Nations on your street, or receiving stuffed grape leaves and baklava treats from the neighbors, or running across the street for Indian curry (as Dana often did after she finished dinner at our house)? Both our kids had great friends throughout childhood and adolescence who were not white. Sometimes, however, being in the minority was difficult too. Three short anecdotes illustrate this:

  • When she was in middle school, Dana wanted to do a sociological science project that involved conducting a survey of her classmates on their attitudes toward race. The principal (who was white) disallowed the project because he was afraid it would inflame racial tensions, especially since the projects would be displayed right around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a time when he said tensions were always higher. (The irony was not lost on me or Dana!)
  • Dana dated mostly African-American and Hispanic boys in high school. One time, when she and an African-American boy were interested in each other, he invited her to his home for a party. When Dana arrived, his mother wouldn’t allow her in the house because she didn’t want her son to go out with white girls.
  • Derek was bullied by other boys because he sometimes hung out with African-American girls; the boys made it clear they didn’t want him messing with “their girls.”

I’ve sometimes thought of these and other experiences as examples of reverse discrimination, and at one level maybe they are. But once I became aware of the concept of “white privilege,” I began to see things differently. I first learned about the concept when more than 20 years ago I read an article called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh (1988). That piece, simple and brief though it was, fundamentally changed the way I think about race in the United States. In the article, McIntosh lists multiple ways in which her whiteness gives her privileges and advantages that African-Americans typically don’t have. For example: “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed” or “If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race,” or “Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.” Understanding white privilege, and more importantly recognizing how I benefit from it every day, doesn’t make what happened to our children any less personally painful, but it does help me put things in perspective.

So when I think about current discussions on race relations in the U.S. and remind myself of the continuing reality of white privilege, I understand the reaction of many African-Americans to the verdict in the George Zimmerman case. Regardless of what the verdict perhaps should have been or what Zimmerman’s intentions were, I’m not surprised at the anger, hurt and frustration when he was found innocent. Whether or not Trayvon Martin did anything wrong, I understand why once again it feels like an African-American was treated unjustly simply because of the color of his skin. I understand what President Obama and so many other African-American men mean when they say, “Trayvon Martin could have been me.”

My high school short story ended with this sentence: “Until things were better, Rosie and Caleb [the mother and father in the story] would have to live as two of the many that were ‘created equal,’ but not treated equal.” Rereading the story almost 50 years later, my feelings about it are mixed. On the one hand, it is embarrassing to realize how stereotypical and condescending my attitudes were toward African-Americans. It is also depressing to note that the last sentence could still be written today – “things” are probably better, but “the many that were ‘created equal'” are still not “treated equal.” On the other hand, the fact that I actually wrote on the topic of race and lamented the sorry state of affairs in 1964 is a positive indication of the journey I had begun toward understanding the nature of racism and trying to do something about it. In the years since I wrote that story, I have been on a long personal journey. I know I’ve stumbled, lost my way, and not liked myself very much sometimes for things I’ve said, done or thought regarding race, but I also know that in my heart I long for genuine racial justice and equality and try to match my actions and words with the desires of my heart.