Archive for the ‘Civil Rights’ Category

I am a protestor. This is the first in a three part series outlining my thinking and position as it relates to racial injustice in our society and lamenting racial divisions within the Church. In observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last Thursday (1/15) and this weekend’s observance of the Holiday set apart in honor of his legacy, Part One highlights Dr. King’s own words from a half century ago that still ring loudly in their call for freedom today.

I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth, who won’t accept deception instead of what is truth. It seems we lose the game before we even start to play. Who made these rules? We’re so confused, easily led astray.

Sometimes it seems, we’ll touch that dream, but things come slow or not at all. And the ones on top, won’t make it stop, So convinced that they might fall.

Lauryn Hill “Everything is Everything” (1998)

On September 1, 1958, writing from New York City, Martin Luther King Jr. publishes “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in the September issue of Fellowship, an abbreviated version of chapter six of his book Stride Toward Freedom. Citing Jesus in Luke chapter 4, Dr. King writes, “The Christian ought always to be challenged by any protest against unfair treatment of the poor, for Christianity is itself such a protest, nowhere expressed more eloquently than in Jesus’s words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’”

The Reverend continues, expanding on his long held deep concerns about the gap between superfluous wealth and abject poverty. Dr. King notes, “Capitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.” These words would be exponentially prophetic, especially highlighted by the needless death of Eric Garner over sales of loose cigarettes in Staten Island, New York on July 17, 2014 in which we became aware that the situation had escalated to one in which capitalism is now more concerned about protecting a living than taking a life.

Four and a half years later, on April 16, 1963, amidst an eight-day incarceration in Birmingham, Alabama for engaging in direct nonviolent protest, Martin Luther King Jr. pens an eloquent defense of work being done to advance Civil Rights and a stinging critique of the critical clergy who have failed to support the movement.

Dr. King gives the benefit of good will to his fellow clergy, but explains that their charges fall outside of the Biblical mission of Shalom, saying, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Dr. King’s appeal here lays the moral and ethical stare decisis for those listening to the Sprit’s prophetic voice to become involved in addressing injustice where they are able.

In his treatise from Birmingham, Dr. King expounds on the value of nonviolent protest explaining that the intent of such direct action is to create opportunity for negotiation, “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Is it possible that this is what theology looks like?

He continues, “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily… We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”

For Christ followers, especially those like me who enjoy asymmetrical power and unmerited privilege in our culture based on gender and race inequality, the challenge is to look to Jesus’ example of a King voluntarily stepping down from His throne and to ask myself if I am willing to pay the same severe price of such a costly interruption.

Mug shot of Martin Luther King Jr. (1963) "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

After outlining a multitude of the inhuman offenses of the racism which he suffered, Dr. King makes a plea that, “when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”– then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait… One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Our brother and hero in the faith then shares his broken optimism lamenting the racial divisions in God’s church, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

“When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

The temptation is to say that things have changed; that Dr. King’s “Dream” was eventually realized and that a post-racial society has been achieved over the course of the last half-century. That simple academic knowledge of the Bible is we need to make things right. This would make me feel better. Allow me to discount the narratives that do not fit my worldview. But if we are willing to listen to our brothers and sisters of color, to hear the minority report, we find an entirely different story altogether.

Is it possible, as comedian Chris Rock recently pointed out to Frank Rich of New York Magazine, “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”

Is it possible some of us just discounted the above statement because it came from a comedian and used that as an excuse not to hear the experiences and wisdom that could be gleaned from hearing a black man out?

Regardless of what you have come to believe about the character of Michael Brown following the tragic untimely end to his young life, are we willing to hear the anger and distrust of the Ferguson community? Even if it costs us something?

After a sixth bullet struck Michael Brown he fell facedown onto the double-yellow lines of Canfield Drive. Mr. Brown’s blood began to run in a small river down the pitched road. His body lay prostrate in forced submission to the police where he remained, at least partially uncovered and in view of neighborhood residents and onlookers for four and a half hours. In the aftermath, a 21 year old Ferguson resident, Alexis Torregrossa, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “They shot a black man, and they left his body in the street to let you all know this could be you. To set an example, that’s how I see it.”

Do we have ears to hear Ms. Torregrossa? If so, we must acknowledge that we have more work to do. Work that starts with listening, not to why all lives matter, but to how and why for so long the lives of black people have been placed at such a grave discount.

Are we willing to listen?

Jan 2015 New Yorker Cover

Today, February 19, 2012, marks the 70th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which resulted in the displacement of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s order declared, “the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities.”

Authority was then given to Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt who lied to the public and reported that Japanese-Americans were involved in sabotage and espionage despite having no evidence to back these claims. Sound familiar?

"All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area (San Francisco) by 1:00 o'clock noon, Tuesday April 7, 1942"

In April 1943, Dewitt testified before a House of Representatives Naval Affairs Subcommittee, saying, “I don’t want any of them (persons of Japanese ancestry) here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. The west coast contains too many vital installations essential to the defense of the country to allow any Japanese on this coast. … The danger of the Japanese was, and is now-if they are permitted to come back-espionage and sabotage. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty.”

Attorney General Francis Biddle and many in the Justice Department, on the backing of the actual intelligence gathered and the principles of the U.S. Constitution, strongly opposed the evacuation and imprisonment of American citizens, regardless of their ancestry. However the western United States (encompassing California, Washington. Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and the then Territory of Alaska) was declared to be under the authority of the military’s Western Defense Command. “War Relocation Camps” were prisons created to incarcerate thousands of Japanese Americans until Order 9066 was rescinded two years later in 1944 and the last of the camps closed after four years in 1946.

Forty-six years after Roosevelt’s order, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized for the “grave injustice” done to both Japanese American citizens and permanent residents during the 1940s. The act authorized reparation payments to be made, which would total $1.6 billion over an 11 year period, and noted the internment of Japanese Americans was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

The attacks on Pearl Harbor certainly could not be condoned, but neither could our shameful response to imprison innocent American citizens out of fear. While self-preservation dynamics have played on repeat in U.S. foreign and domestic policy over the last century often resulting in tragic consequences, my intent here is not to dwell on our national sin. Instead, this history lesson is an occasion to look at the man in the mirror. What is it about fear that so often trumps my own sound judgment? Perhaps more importantly, am I to be held responsible for my actions in response to being wronged?

In 2005, some dear friends and mentors in Montana invited Jaime and I to participate in a marriage class using Dr. Emerson Eggerichs’ “Love and Respect” curriculum. To this day I have not seen a better exegesis of the practicalities of the Biblical definition of marriage. One of Emerson’s phrases that stuck in my head is “Our response is our responsibility.” In speaking of his wife, Emerson says “Sarah doesn’t cause me to be the way I am. She reveals the way I am.” He expounds by noting that a grain of sand in a human eye may ultimately lead to infection and loss of vision, while the same grain of sand in an oyster can lead to secretion and then a pearl. Eggerichs points out that the speck of sand in both instances is only an irritant that “reveals the inner properties” of both the eye and the oyster. Adversity cannot force us to behave in a certain way, it can only test and then reveal who we already are in that moment. To further illustrate the point, Eggerichs notes that a rose crushed underfoot reveals a pleasant aroma, whereas pressure applied to a skunk yields a much different result. When times get tough, are you a rose or a skunk? Too often, when the inner properties of my personality and soul are revealed under pressure, no one is mistaking me for a fragrant flower.

In three days, Ash Wednesday will usher in the season of Lent and offer a period of reflection and repentance. Forty days of intentionally preparing for Christ’s death and resurrection. In both small and large opportunities created by adversity, I wish to be a pleasing aroma to the Lord. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to dedicate the upcoming 40 days to welcoming difficulties and making my enemies my teachers.

What can we give up that has been pathetically playing the role of God in our lives? What can we engage in, that can increase our discipline and love, such that we refuse to be the cause of “grave injustice”? Lord, help us to relinquish self-preservation, to welcome sacrifice, and to remember that “One cannot be just a bystander, for a bystander cannot be just.”

When Hurricane Irene stormed the East Coast three weeks ago, she caused major flooding and power outages from the Outer Banks to New England, cementing her status as the storm of a generation. Her fury blew into Connecticut on the last Saturday night in August and maintained a stranglehold of fear and awe through Sunday morning. She lost her hurricane classification upon landfall, but try telling that to the folks in East Haven whose homes were swept into the sea with the storm surge. While Connecticut missed the worst of Irene, which spun west of her initial forecast, approximately 840,000 people were left without electricity in our state alone. Many of our neighbors continued to be without power for nearly a week, some in the state still had no electricity or running water after two weeks.

Fortunately, our household did not lose electricity and we were able to facilitate a home church service during the storm for those who were willing to brave the strong winds, torrential rain and downed trees. Including one tree in our backyard which could have done some serious damage to the house had it fallen in the opposite direction. This video taken just down the street shows how close we came to losing our power.

 

But in the hours and days following Irene, as the damage was surveyed it became apparent that Irene would not be labeled primarily a wind or water event, but a power crisis. My place of employment located on the New Haven coast sustained significant water damage and power outages, forcing us out of our workspace for nearly three days before cleanup crews and generators allowed us to return. School openings were delayed for days as the electricity could not be quickly restored. Food went bad, perishable items had to be stored in coolers packed with ice, and folks took cold showers if their water was running at all.

Having not lost our electricity, our home felt an island with a unique vantage point, a hill from which it was possible to observe Irene’s impact without much feeling it. This came as somewhat of a convenient disappointment, convenient in that our own hot showers were uninterrupted, disappointing to my wife who was secretly hoping for a chance to hone some post-apocalyptic survival skills. But viewing the crisis from within the eye of the storm allowed the societal concept of power to rise to the forefront of my thought.

Growing up in Southern California, I am no stranger to power outages, blackouts and rolling brownouts as our electric grid was often ill-prepared for hot weather and the resulting energy consumption. However, I couldn’t help but notice during the aftermath of Irene how frequently the term “power” was used as a euphemism for electricity.

There were outcries for the restoration of power. Voices united in an attempt to get their power back. Neighbors expressed concern for each other, especially the elderly and disabled, who had lost their power. Radio stations changed their programming to air simulcasts of the evening news for the benefit of the powerless. Utility company crews worked through the night to restore power. Electricians arrived from across the nation to get power back into the right hands. Power. Power. Power.

While electricity and utility resources are certainly indicators of measurable power, the overuse of the word caused me to think about the real connection between power and resources in our country. It has been said that those who control their resources control their destiny. But how often do we collectively stop to think about how our resources are being allocated? Or perhaps how these resources, this power, is being attained or who it is being stolen from? Is it possible that our manifest destiny is just a winner’s take on highway robbery?

I am writing this as a white man cognizant of the irony and tension in those questions. I am also a white man with Cherokee blood running through my veins, the same blood that was spilled on a Trail of Tears nearly two centuries ago. The inhumanity my forefathers impressed on others, the institutional racism that persists from which I benefit daily, can only persist so long before in a very real sense it becomes a part of you. I may be 90 percent oppressor, but also10 percent oppressed. And so from within this internal conflict and for this tithe of my bloodline I will question. I will speak.

Undoubtedly, there is an uproar of attention and assistance when people who are used to being in power lose it. Fine. However, the poor and oppressed are not aware they can speak up because they have never held power. Never been allowed to taste it. Their voice can rarely be unified as they are too occupied with survival or are drowning out their harsh reality through poor decisions that create a cyclical environment, a generational imprisonment. Who speaks on behalf of these brother and sisters?

Whose voices cried out for the powerless in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina? Who among us is united on behalf of the youth in our failing schools that are more segregated today than they were a half century ago? Who is expressing outrage at the maltreatment of our elderly and the lack of access for the disabled, at times other than immediately following a hurricane? How do we go about changing our social programming and services to benefit the powerless rather than simply sustain bureaucracy? Who stays up through the night praying on behalf of the disproportionate number of people of color who are murdered in our inner-cities and sentenced to inordinate prison sentences for first time drug offenses? Perhaps we need not to worry about getting the power back into the right hands, but acknowledging that we all have a hand in distributing power and that we need to take care of each other.

Why?

After all, there are many of privilege who would now claim that equal rights have been achieved. That the playing field has been evened. That we even have a black President as proof.

An answer in short. One third of black males born today in the United States are projected to become incarcerated during their lifetime. Forty-eight percent of black males are growing up without a father in their household. Eighty-six percent of black fourth graders in our country read below grade level and 58 percent are functionally illiterate. In the Spring of 2011, only 15 percent of Connecticut black youth met proficiency goals on the standardized math and science tests compared to 60 percent of white youth. By 2050, half the population of the United States will be comprised of people of color, yet 90 percent of our lawyers and 80 percent of our law students are white. We still have a problem.

Elizabeth Eckford walks alone to join Carlotta Walls and the rest of the Little Rock Nine to integrate Arkansas' Central High in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision

On September 16, 2011, I was privileged to attend a symposium on “Educational Disparity and Minority Youth” hosted by the Quinnipiac School of Law and Yale Law School. Present was Carlotta Walls Lanier, of the Little Rock Nine who first integrated the Arkansas school system in 1957 amidst threats of being hanged by a hateful mob. Hearing her first person account while taking in her grace and dignity made tears of justice want to roll down my cheeks.

Susan Taylor of of the National CARES Mentoring Movement and former editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine was also present and noted “we have lost our way, we have lost our minds, and we need to admit that.” Ms. Taylor stated that at age 65 she wishes she could rest, but that she will not so long as “the village is on fire and our children are in dream-crushing pain.” She poignantly asked, “What are our ministers doing? What are our churches preaching?”

I pray that we can preach Jesus in our actions above our rhetoric or expressed values. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). This should give us the courage to be good news for the poor, to proclaim freedom and forgiveness to the imprisoned, and to restore sight to the blind. As the good folks at The Village Nation preach in Northridge, CA, when asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” our answer must be “Yes we are.” We must stand up for the powerless, because they are our brothers and sisters, their blood is our blood. Their pain is our pain.

One can disagree if they wish. Some will continue to keep their politics in a vice-grip. But consider Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s words:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. But If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?”

This sounds like the Gospel to me. Why the news of Jesus Christ is good, why God’s works holds value. For He too stands with the egg and not the wall. I pray that this truth can produce within us a stranglehold of fear and awe such that the strength of our resulting unified action and service can be compared to a hurricane force; a force bent on restoring power to those without.