We were black, beyond the visible spectrum, beyond civilization. Our history was inferior because we were inferior, which is to say our bodies were inferior. And our inferior bodies could not possibly be accorded the same respect as those that built the West. Would it not be better, then, if our bodies were civilized, improved, and put to some legitimate Christian use?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Letter to My Son”

We live in a culture that is testing the church’s credibility.

Fr. Bob Schelling, homily, July 5, 2015

Before you do anything else, go and read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Letter to My Son”. Block out some time in your schedule if you have to; it’s a long read. Do not look away. Do not put it down. Read it to the end.

I read it this morning, before I got up, and I was still turning it over in my mind when I arrived at church. I therefore owe our visiting priest an apology because the only thing I gleaned from his homily today was the above comment about the church’s credibility.

Now, the church in the United States is a very broad, very fragmented, and, sadly, very segregated institution. We already lack credibility in our collective inability to get along as “one body”. If the American church were to be summed up in one word, “schismatic” is as good as any. However, the more I hear from voices like Mr. Coates’, the more I realize that the white majority of the church has yet to meaningfully reckon with its role in the darkest pages of American history. Until such a reckoning occurs, the American church will remain fundamentally incredible.

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, white American Christians have a tendency to wave our hands in dismissal of the Christians who argued and fought in support of chattel slavery. We say things like: “That’s ancient history.” “Our nation has moved past that.” “We’re more enlightened now.” “Why bring up such an ugly subject in polite company?”

Even less thought and conversation is given towards what our Christian forebears did to the Native Americans.

But it’s not ancient history; black people have been free for less time than they were enslaved. (And can you even count the years under Jim Crow as freedom?) America has not “moved past that”; we have buried the skeletons in the closet, but their blood continues to cry out from the ground for justice. If we’re more enlightened now, please explain to me why American Christians are more supportive of institutionalized torture than people who are not religious? We must bring up these ugly subjects because otherwise we will never move past them, and our children will suffer their consequences to the third and the fourth generation.

The reality is that America is a country that was conquered through the systematic massacre of its native peoples and built on the backs of slaves, and we, the enlightened white Christian majority who are so grateful that racism is a thing of the past – we have a black President now, you know – every day we reap the tangible and intangible benefits of the pernicious, white supremacist system that our forefathers constructed.

We do not have to concern ourselves about driving while black.

We do not have to concern ourselves about redlining.

We do not have to give our sons The Talk.

Until the majority of the church can figure out how to put our white privilege to appropriate use – until we’re even able to admit that we are privileged by the sole virtue of our whiteness – the American church will remain fundamentally incredible.

You do not have to look far in America to find a church proudly displaying the Stars and Stripes. For many of us in the white majority of the church, our identity as Americans is as strong stronger than our identity as Christians. We put our faith in our Second Amendment rights, drape our crosses and altars with red, white, and blue, and we preach American exceptionalism. How many of America’s churches didn’t incorporate patriotic music into their worship services this July 4th weekend? The ones that didn’t are probably all full of godless liberals, amiright?

Yet America is a violent country, born of a violent heritage. We have a higher violent death rate (10 per 100,000) than any other wealthy country. We don’t even have reliable records of how many people our police forces kill. (At least 1149 people were killed by police in the U.S. in 2014. By comparison, police in the U.K. have killed 27 people so far this century.) Our foreign policy has not evolved much from Theodore Roosevelt’s soft words and big sticks, except these days we don’t bother much with the soft words. Prince of Peace, we hardly knew ye. God bless America.

Until we unwrap ourselves from the blinding tangles of unexamined patriotism, the American church will remain fundamentally incredible.

An American Problem

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma

Selma is the most important movie I have seen in a long time. Everyone should watch it because its telling of Civil Rights history holds a mirror to our present day. It’s an ugly picture, but we must confront it because white supremacy is far from being a vestigial remnant of the past. Jim Crow laws may be long gone, but every black life snuffed out by white police officers and vigilantes—who in turn are not called to account for their actions—testifies that racial equality and justice are nevertheless a long way off.

Two lines stood out to me when I watched Selma this afternoon. The first was delivered by Martin Luther King, and said something to the effect of white pastors who preach the Bible, but remain silent on these matters of racial justice in front of their congregations bear their share of guilt. This is a conversation that we must have in our churches, mine included, and it must go deeper than mealy-mouthed platitudes about what a great man MLK was. If we claim to admire Dr. King and what he stood for, but in the here and now find ourselves more concerned about riots and property damage and respectable behavior than about dead black bodies left uncovered in the street, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

The second line came at the end of the film, as Lyndon Baines Johnson announced the Voting Rights Act of 1965: There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is only an American problem.

There is no them. There is only you and me, only us.

Do we have the guts to look in the mirror and deal with what we see there?

Blood cries out

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.

Salvor Hardin

Incompetence and malevolence can be difficult to tell apart. Acts of violence are the fulcrum where they intersect and pivot around each other, for if violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, it is the chief goal of the malevolent. From different vantage points one can look very much like the other.

Take for instance a police officer who stops a young man in the street. Their encounter is very brief, yet the officer for some reason draws his service weapon and fires. And fires. And fires and fires.

And the young man dies.

Objectively, there is no reason why Michael Brown should not have survived his August 9 encounter with Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, MO Police Department. He was an unarmed, 18-year-old kid who was 2 days away from starting college. Wilson was a 6-year police veteran with all the training and experience that entails, not to mention ready access to the array of lethal and less-lethal weaponry that all cops have at their disposal.

But Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. In the most charitable point of view, it looks like he found himself losing control of the situation, and despite all his training and experience he saw no other choice than to retreat immediately to his last refuge. But from a different viewpoint it looks more like he deliberately drew his gun instead of his taser (or instead of de-escalating completely and letting Michael walk away) and shot Michael Brown dead, firm in the belief that the world would not care about another dead black man in the street, and secure in the knowledge that his fellow officers would close ranks and shield him from the consequences if that belief proved unfounded.

It turns out that belief was unfounded, but luckily Officer Wilson’s chief had his back and was able to give him almost an entire week to settle his affairs and leave town before the world-at-large even knew his name. Whatever else he may be, Officer Wilson was competent enough to notice which way the wind was blowing and get the hell out of Dodge. He has been conspicuously absent ever since. His neighbors don’t expect that he’ll be back.

The question of incompetence or malevolence does not end with Darren Wilson, however, but extends to every action the Ferguson Police Department has made since the shooting.

  • Why did Michael Brown’s body lie bleeding in the street for four hours? Did nobody think to call for an ambulance? Or was he just another dead nigger, so who cares?
  • Why, when the authorities eventually deigned to retrieve his body, was Michael Brown carried away in the back of an SUV? Was being properly loaded onto a gurney in an ambulance too good for him?
  • Why was a complete incident report of the shooting not immediately filed at the Ferguson Police Department? Why were the eye-witnesses to the event not immediately interviewed? Are there not strict procedures that must be followed whenever regrettable incidents like this occur? Or was Officer Wilson unofficially given some breathing room to come up with a likely story?
  • Why, when it became clear that the residents of Ferguson intended to peacefully protest in the streets, was the police response to roll out the armored vehicles, the snipers, and the masked storm troopers? Are rubber bullets and tear gas really the best way to disperse a peaceful gathering? Mightn’t they be considered somewhat antagonistic, antithetical to defusing a tense situation? Or was that the intention all along?
  • And why, when Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson finally called a press conference on Friday, August 15 to disclose Officer Wilson’s name, did he spend so little time discussing Officer Wilson and his actions, and so much time discussing Michael Brown and a shoplifting incident that had not even been reported? Is Chief Jackson really so unaware of how badly that press conference was perceived by people who still have no answers to any of the questions that matter? Or was he deliberately blaming Michael Brown for his own death, and poisoning the pool for a neutral jury should the case ever go to trial?

The questions even extend beyond the Ferguson Police Department to the St. Louis county prosecuting attorney’s office. Why has Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch not expressed any interest in determining whether it might be appropriate to bring charges against Office Wilson? Is it because he is blatantly and shamelessly already in the Ferguson Police Department’s corner, and willing to ignore any wrongdoing by his heroic law enforcement officers in the name of being tough on crime?

Is everyone involved in this travesty really this incompetent? Or has this horrible episode merely uncovered for the rest of us what the minority citizens of this country have always known: that black flesh is suffered to live only at the whim of its white overseers, that violent death may be only three minutes away, and that relief for the survivors will be denied as a matter of course.

Meanwhile, Michael Brown’s blood cries out from the ground for justice. We who stand by and do not act are complicit in his murder, and the murders of those who will surely follow him.

If you do nothing else, please sign Shaun King’s petition to enact police reform at the federal level.

in Life | 895 Words

Learning to spare the rod

Growing up, my parents were not above delivering the occasional spanking to keep me and my three brothers in line. It worked for us – I don’t remember any of us ever getting smacked more than a handful of times, and we’ve all become reasonably well-adjusted and respectable members of society. We all knew that spanking was at the top of the consequences table, and none of us was ever eager to do anything that would result in the dreaded sentence of waiting until Dad came home. Since it was such an effective tool for my folks, I assumed that it would work just as well for me.

I should have remembered what happens when you assume.

In fact neither of my boys has ever responded well to physical punishment. Unfortunately I’m a slow learner, so they’ve both had much more experience with the rod hand of correction applied to their seats of learning than I ever did. In hindsight, it seems obvious that if a certain punishment does not correct offensive behavior, then maybe a different strategy is needed. It’s not so clear in the moments when Gabriel talks back to me in a manner that I wouldn’t have dared use for my father, or when Rhys demonstrates an unlimited capacity for stubbornness (and over the stupidest little things, natch.)

Here’s the thing that I’ve recently realized. I am not my father, and neither of my boys is me. I am much more laid back and less authoritative than my dad, and both of my boys have a different way of responding to parental authority – and the threat of parental force – than me. It doesn’t follow that a tool that worked well for my parents and me should necessarily be appropriate for the situation with me and my sons, or that I should even be capable of using it.

So what am I doing instead?

From the moment they started talking, Q and I have encouraged our boys to use their words. Strangely enough, I’ve been getting better results lately when I use my words. Instead of angrily swatting someone’s backside, I’ve been working on calmly sitting down and talking with my boys when they misbehave. I get them to state whatever it was they did, and tell me why it was wrong. I’ve been taking a page from my friend Bethany’s playbook and ask them what they can do to make it right. Then I take away something that is special to them to point out that their actions have consequences but with the understanding that they can (usually) start over fresh the next day. Is there room here for me to mention how I’m also trying to demonstrate to them the concept of grace? Maybe that’s another article.

The “calmly sitting down and talking” part is easier said than done, of course, but I’m working on it. Also, it turns out that Gabriel & Rhys both hate losing a toy or a privilege much more than a momentarily sore bottom, or so the wails of anguish when I take away their daily ration of Minecraft lead me to believe.

On Fatherliness

What do you want to do with your life?

Career-wise, I’ve always had trouble coming up with a satisfactory answer. The first vocation that I aspired to was Architect, on account of how much fun I had sketching out floor plans and elevations when I should have been paying attention in middle school math class. I gave that up when I found out how much work you had to do in order to become an architect, and how small your chances were of landing a job when you got there. Also, because math.

Throughout high school, my interests turned towards playing with words and I found that I liked writing well enough to go to university and study English with a view towards journalism. The journalism part didn’t stick, but I added a History/Political Science major to my degree, mostly because it shared a significant number of core courses with the English major but also because why not? Upon graduating I promptly ignored my freshly minted English/History/Poli-Sci credentials and embarked on a zig-zag career of web design, insurance sales and IT jobs. While my top-level plans for accumulating vast wealth making enough money to get by have never been in sharp focus, I have two corrective lenses for the way I look at the day-to-day business of living.

Their names are Gabriel and Rhys.

It’s such a cliché to say that parenthood changes your life, because of course it does. Even if you think you’re ready for the changes in lifestyle, sleep quality and disposable income, it’s still a shock when a brand new little human arrives. But I’ve been a father for almost seven years, so life before kids is in the realm of hazy memory. What is more profound is how fatherhood has changed me.

In my short tenure as an insurance salesman, I learned that the prospect of five-figure quarterly commission checks was not enough to get me through the soul-crushing tedium of cold-calling pages of old leads. I suppose it was useful to find out that I’m not well-motivated by money, so I don’t consider that year completely wasted. However, that was before my kids came along. If my circumstances should change, and calling people who may or may not have once expressed a passing interest in buying health insurance is the only way I can feed my children, then get ready to leave a message, because I’ll either be on the phone or working on my closing technique.

I used to only look at finances when considering a large purchase or new hobby (and sometimes not even then—hello credit card!) These days, I look at the time cost as well. On one hand, it’s definitely good for my boys if I’m around to love them and take an interest in their lives instead of going off and doing my own thing. On the other, my own life would diminish if I made less time for them. Just this morning, Rhys told me to turn up the radio because “that’s my jam!” Who wants to go waste time on vain pursuits and miss gems like that moment?

Most of all, my boys make me want to be an example. I want to see them grow up and become righteous young men, and the only way I know to make that happen is to be so myself. I want them to treat others with respect and love, so I try to keep my words gentle and kind. I want them to value people over things, so I try to avoid frivolous spending. I want them to know Christ and see how a lively faith can change the world, so I examine myself and wrestle with the unbelief and apathy that I find there.

I fail in these endeavors every day, but therein lies the best lesson I can give them. It’s okay to stumble, to fall, to throw your hands up in the air and admit you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. But then by God’s grace you get back up and keep on going.