Tuesday, November 15, 2016

My Learning Edge: Dealing With Being White

So much has been written about the presidential election of Donald Trump. People are surprised, shocked, pleased, sad, angry, frightened. Some rejoice. Some join protests. Some are acting out.  Some are giving Facebook a rest and turning to other interests.  

Me, I'm trying to come to terms with being white.  I never thought much about it before.  White was the cultural norm, in which I grew up.  My family is white.  The community where I lived in Appalachia, the church and school I attended were white.  The television shows and advertisements were about white people.  The first black person I met was an international visitor who visited my church and ate at my family table when I was a pre-schooler.  I couldn't stop looking at our guest's hands, black on the top and white on the bottom palm side!  The next black person I met was a fellow tenor at a Westminster Choir College choir camp in Princeton, NJ when I was 16.  Sadly, I don't even remember his name.  I do remember thinking, he is not so different than me.

I've come a long way since then, as has America. Or so we thought. The Civil Rights Movement changed things.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy is marked by a National Holiday.  Generations of kids have grown up watching Maria and Gordon on Sesame Street.  Bill Cosby, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Oprah, Brian Gumble, and Robin Roberts normalized our seeing people of color regularly on television. When President Obama was elected president, we thought look how far we've come!  Then we witnessed him being treated unlike any of his predecessors.  His political opponents plotted from his first day in office to oppose every and anything he proposed. He was shouted down as a liar by a congressman during his state of the union speech!  His place of birth and legitimacy to be president were questioned even after birth certificate was provided.  A person of color in such a position of power was/is inconceivable to some.  Whether acknowledged or not, whether overtly claimed or subconsciously driven, racism has raised its ugly head among the white electorate.  This, along with the demographic growth of Hispanic voters, alarms some white Americans fearful of becoming a minority, losing power.  Add to this the post 9/11 concern for terrorism in America, the term "homeland" entered our consciousness and in the Federal Government with the "Homeland Security Administration."   Fear of "the other" reached a crescendo in president elect Trump's campaign rhetoric.

The long ugly presidential election season is now over! Votes have been cast and counted.  The pollsters were fooled, pundits dumbfounded, most everyone shocked!  We have a president elect, Donald J. Trump.  Now we wonder what will this mean?   Will the hate language, the demeaning of whole groups of people continue and be codified?  Given what has been said, what does this mean for people of color who already suffer police profiling and harsher sentencing in our criminal justice system, and who fill unproportionately for profit prisons?  What does this mean for undocumented immigrant families, for those living with disabilities and mental illnesses, for Muslims, for girls and women, for LGBTQ persons, for interrogation protocols, for access to health care, for foreign alliances and treaties, for the environmental justice and global efforts minimize human impact on documented climate change?  What does it mean for the role of data, science, speaking the truth, emotional intelligence, integrity?  What does this mean for the constitution and the rights and protections it affords all in our nation?  Alas, I digress.

My intent for this post is to refocus attention from what is happening in America, which you and I cannot control, to what is happening in me and possibly you,  which we can control.  I can't speak for others, but as for me, I am on a journey of awakening to my whiteness.  

Last fall I was introduced at a leadership training to the privilege I have for simply being white.  I am not profiled by police. I do not fear being shot when I am pulled over by police.  The community where I live is not regularly patrolled by police.  I never felt the need to lecture my children to keep their hands in sight when pulled over, so that police can see them for fear they would be shot, nor did I instruct them to lower their gaze, and avoid looking others in the eye, but to look at the ground.  I was not aware that the post war GI Bill was for white veterans only.  My access to loans is privileged by bank policies which historically gave loans to preferred (white) communities, business and persons, or at a better interest rate.  Society norms have afforded me other advantages as well because I am a man, straight, protestant and have a European heritage.

I spent a day in October with Jennifer Harvey, author of the book, "Dear White Christians" at a conference sponsored by ECCL (the Ecumenical Center for Christian Leaders).  What struck me most that day was my realization that I need to come to grips with my own white identity.  Like most white persons, I don't think of myself as being white.  I am not a minority.  I am part of the culturally dominant white America.  White is normative.  Minorities are identified by this cultural norm.  Because of this, most minorities work to strengthen their racial esteem and celebrate their ethnic identity.  There are Kwanza celebrations at Christmas celebrating African roots and traditions, Native Americans Pow Wows, Gay pride parades.  All these lift the esteem of a subculture.  Everyone becomes Irish on St. Patrick's Day.  The Cooperstown and Montauk Schools, which my children attended, held an annual cultural day celebrating a designated people. The goals of these celebrations were to built up the esteem of a minority, and to increase understanding by the rest.  One year the school celebrated Brazil, the country of origin of my adopted daughter, Leana.  She was different than the other students.  It gave her cause for pride, and helped her classmates understand her better!  BUT Jennifer Harvey helped me realize my own ambivalence about my racial identity.  When I think of a white pride parade, I cringe.  Confederate flags, swaztikas, and hooded men in white robes come to mind, symbols of white supremacy, that white is better, and white people should be in power over others. This taints my sense of self.  I feel wounded by this!  To be whole, I need healing.

Healing begins with confession, forgiveness, and repentance.  I am no better or more worthy than any other.  I am white, male, straight beloved child of God, just as those who are not are also God's beloved children.  Although I have benefited from my whiteness, I now need to stand up for others.

My education continued at the Polity Conference of the PC(USA) just a few weeks ago.  The plenary leaders were guests from Crossroads, an anti-racism education group from Indianapolis. I learned how white dominance is not only the aspiration of white supremacist groups, but America's historic cultural norm.  In a workshop, I was introduced to an Anti-Racism Impact Assessment Process for decision making in institutions similar to Environmental Impact Assessments prior to construction projects.  I also was introduced by our GA Co-Moderators to Debbie Irving's book:  "Waking Up White."  Irving's book is her memoir as an upper middle class white woman awakening to her privileged position in society due to her race.  Jan Edmonston and Denise Anderson call the PC(USA) to a denomination wide read and discussion of this book as an entry point to the spiritual work Presbyterians, who are predominately white, need to do.  This is not the work for our black brothers or sisters.  This is the spiritual work of white persons to do.

So this post is an invitation to join me in this journey of awareness and repentance, particularly if you are white. The election is over.  We wait and watch as the Trump administration forms.  But let us with God's help  through the grace we know in Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, take control by naming our own demons, making our own confession, turning around/repenting from our own behaviors, and transforming our institutions, including our beloved church.  And as we do so, may the peace that passes all understanding be with us.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Aroma of Christ

I am sharing here a message which I have preached on several occasions and which resonates with the emotionally charged climate of this election season, with the stress experienced in so many congregations, and with the Presbytery's challenging discernment on the future of our camp.   The Scripture texts are Isaiah 52:7-12 and 2 Corinthians 2:14-17, 3:12.

“How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, 
and brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” (Isaiah 52:7)

Isaiah did not know my college roommate.  His feet smelled SO bad, or maybe it was the antifungal spray he used on his feet & sneakers that permeated our small dorm room. You could not escape it.  It was awful!  But let’s park this olfactory sense of smell for a moment.

The power of Isaiah’s message is visual!  He is describing the joy of sentinels who anxiously watch on city ramparts waiting for word of the battle being fought beyond the mountain, who spot a messenger runner who comes into view on the mountain ridge line bringing news to the folks back home.  “Peace at last!  We are saved!  God be praised!  God reigns!”
How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of the messenger.  The feet part is a poetic way of expressing utter joy. Joy like my grandparents knew on Armistice Day at the end of WW1!  Joy my parents knew on VE Day at the end of WW2.  My generation missed the ticker tape parades for returning Vietnam Vets.  We do remember images of people climbing the concrete wall in Berlin, in 1989.  How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of those who bring good news which we cannot produce, but which only God can do?  Yes!  There is a God!  Goodness is stronger than evil.  Love stronger than hate, as the song proclaims.  God reigns!

The people addressed in this passage were a defeated people.  There leaders had been either killed or carried off to Babylon.  The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, lying in ruin.  Their understanding of God’s blessing of protection shattered, needing rethought.  The prophets, including Isaiah, had warned the king of misplaced trust in allegiances and warned the people against the mistreatment of the poor and vulnerable.  Now Isaiah proclaims with this poetic messenger character.  “All is not lost, God has prevailed, the victory is won, peace at last, our God reigns!”

We know such a messenger in Martin Luther King, Jr., who said the night before he was assassinated, “God’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land.”  We know such a messenger in ArchBishop Desmond Tutu, who in the dark hours of Apartheid, when confronted by supporters of that law, said,  “I’ve read the story.  I know how it ends.  God provides the victory.  We win!”

Martin and Desmond challenged society's controlling narrative with God's story.   They confronted institutionalized oppression of "colored" persons with God's larger, liberating, life giving story. They witnessed to God’s victory won by Christ on the Cross, a victory realized in full on the last day on his return, a victory which gives hope and courage for living in the present struggle.  Theologians call this eschatology, bending the past and future victory to bear on today’s struggle.

But that’s hard and we get more than a little antsy when facing trials, and life is hard.  The Apostle Paul addressing an antsy, conflicted congregation in Corinth writes, “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.  Because we have such hope, we act with great boldness.”  (2 Cor. 2:14, 3:12)  Referring to the parade of Roman legions through the city upon return from their conquests.

Maybe we feel more like anxious disciples than bold acting apostles.  Maybe Martin and Desmond are bigger heroes than we aspire to be.  Yet we can relate to that sentinel watching and waiting on the city wall.  We all experience dark moments in our lives when we wait huddled behind our defenses.  When we or someone we know is struck down with an illness, or tragedy, or challenge:  a community is hit by layoffs, an economy in crisis, a race subjugated to poverty, a gender subdued, a people rejected, a struggling congregation fearful for its future.

And there comes a messenger, who knows the news from the front, who knows the end of the story, who has seen a glimpse of the promised land, who comes over the crest of that mountain that separates us from God's blessing with a transforming word of encouragement, love and grace, WHICH GIVES HOPE!  How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of such a messenger, who reminds us that we have this victory, and lives in that reality today: a pastor, an elder, a visiting deacon, a good neighbor who shows up at the right time.  We are a people of hope. We worship God who reigns and provides the victories we cannot produce ourselves.

Now back to that opening thought of smelly feet, and to Paul’s words to a conflicted congregation.  “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him, (Jesus) for we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved.” (2 Corinthians 2: 14-15)

I love that!  We should memorize these verses and daily hold them in our hearts.  Here we move from the Sense of Sight to the even more powerful Sense of Smell.  Here Paul gives the church in Corinth and all followers of Christ a clarifying Identity Statement.  “We are the aroma of Christ of God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (v. 15).  Wow!  And in the verse before it (v 14), he gives a Mission Statement, what they were called to do. “Through us spreads in every place, the fragrance that comes from knowing him."

The faith questions are, do we claim this identity and mission?  What fragrance permeates this sanctuary, this community because of your witness, because of your knowing Jesus?  Is it gagging anti-fungal spray or the aroma of Christ? 
Orthodox, Catholic and Episcopal Christians fill their sanctuaries with incense. The theological ardor of Reformed and Presbyterian Christians often stirs up rigorous debate.  People hate conflict and avoid it as anathema!  But it is a good thing at the right level.  Too much is toxic and community life suffers.  Too little and we stagnate, stuck in malaise and oppression, unreformed.  We are reformed and always reforming, and that stirs things up.  Effective leaders know when to turn up and down the heat for a healthy engagement on the right things.
These are challenging days. The stench of political rhetoric this election season permeates our public space, seeps into our homes and sanctuaries....  It is toxic!   The scent of anxiety, fear and gloom permeate our congregational discourse.  We get anxious when we see we are growing smaller and older…The American culture no longer sends people through our doors.  The community is not there to save the church, so we can feel good about ourselves!!!  God sends us into the community to witness to Christ, to transform the neighborhood with the aroma of Christ's love.  Anxiety and fear are NOT the aroma of Christ.  Rather, Jesus told his disciples again and again,  “Do not be afraid.  Do not fear."  God gives his disciples a mission to proclaim good news, to live in God's narrative, to release the captives, to join in with what God is doing where you are, transforming the neighborhood like salt in soup, like fragrance to a room? Are you passing the sniff test?  No congregation will grow until it does.  
Daniel James Brown, in his New York Times Best Selling Book, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics,” tells the story of the University of Washington’s crew team, the story of life during the great depression, the story of the contrast between privileged Ivy League students in the east and hard working youth of the west, and the story of the Nazi regime and it’s quest for racial, genetic, ideological purity.  Scattered throughout the book are the most beautiful descriptions of team.  One such moving passage is on pages 178-180. I highly recommend it.  P.J. Fleck, coach of the WMU football team has used the mantra "Row the Boat!" inspired from this story.  Every person doing their part working in together, synchronized teamwork.  One picking of the slack of another.  It's a thing of beauty.  The Broncos are on a transformational journey from a losing 1-11 team three years ago to a 7-0 team this season.  There first 7-0 start of a season since 1941.  
I think there is a reason why this story wasn’t written and published until recently.  We humans are all in the same boat of this planet.  We need to stop trashing it and work together in order to survive and thrive. We Americans are all in the same boat. We need our elected officials to stop grandstanding,
and work together for the common good.  We Christians are in the same boat, the body of Christ, the church, one of the symbols of the church is the sailboat vulnerable on the vast sea.  We need to stop demonizing others we don't understand, and work together. 

Rather, we seem hell bent on bowing to the smelly idol of narcissistic individualism, building altars to the personal interest of me, my and mine, saying to hell with anyone else, if it does not serve “my” interest.  
I wonder when the Christian character in this country will stand up, not so much to demand our rights, but to give off the aroma of Christ? To permeate our public discourse and our congregational life with compassion, justice, love, hope, and healing forgiveness.
Paul makes it crystal clear,  
       “To the one a fragrance (or stench) from death to death,
       to the other a fragrance from life to life.” (2 Corinthians 2:16)