A Rubber Band or Slippery Slope

A caution to change is frequently the warning of a slippery slope. The idea—or fear—is that a little change will morph into dangerous change. Therefore it’s better to remain in what’s familiar because though it has its problems it is better than the outcome of change. This idea—or fear—has not been the experience in America’s history of addressing race. Race in America has been more like a rubber band than a slippery slope.

Progress toward racial justice stretches the possibilities of freedom and suddenly contracts to it’s previous shape. A few observations of our history reveal the tendency to contract and resist change. The fight to vote during the Civil Rights movement is an example of how we shrink back from change. That fight was necessary because of the contraction that occurred in the 1880’s when Black men exercised their right to vote after the Civil War. The result of their voting appointed many Black men to political office, including Congress. Many people saw this as a dangerous change that would morph into something more intolerable. So violence, oppression, and strategy were used to diminish any progress toward full rights for the Black community. The fear that paralyzed the White community was aggressively used to stymy the Black community. Black people were not forced back to slavery but systems like sharecropping and injustices such as vagrancy laws, established a new form of bondage. The rubber band had snapped back.

History will likely reveal that the pinnacle of progress of racial justice in our time was the brutal murder of George Floyd. It was a moment where the brutality of racial injustice was visible for everyone to see. People who were previously hardened toward issues of race were willing to engage conversations, read books, watch documentaries, march on city streets, and listen to voices of the Black community. True to our history, it was only a matter of weeks before the fear of the slippery slope began to soften the conviction to press toward a more just world. What would we become if we gave too much focus on race? George Floyd shouldn’t have been killed but was he an innocent man? Sure there are some racist people but not systemic racism. If we say Black Lives Matter we are giving too much power to BLM and we will eventually become a communist country.

The slippery slope sounds rational until you’re one of the people at the bottom of the slope. When you’re there you realize what comes down isn’t change but crap. I try to imagine what Black people who were enslaved felt when change was replaced with anger. How did Frederick Douglass bear the disappointment of Jim Crow laws being implemented at the end of his life after tasting the refreshing nectar of change in 1865? How did Ella Baker and James Baldwin hold onto a sense of purpose in the 1970’s after prominent leaders were killed and national strategies were put in place to shrink the progress of the 1960’s?

I wonder if the ride on the slippery slope is as painful as the backlash of the rubber band? I know that the rubber band’s snap is swift and vicious. I feel it now as it leaves a sting on my soul and bitterness on my tongue. It’s a bitterness that refrains the lips from opening with words of hope and ridicules the heart for ever believing change was possible.

If the slippery slope actually exists in this country I sure would like to try it for once. It can’t be as painful as the rubber band.

Jacob’s Clothes

His body bears the evidence: seven holes pierced his flesh and paralyzed his legs. His clothing might be the determining factor of what was imposed on his body.

The outcome would have been different if Jacob Blake was clothed in his rights as a citizen of America. If Jacob walked to his car clothed in his rights as a citizen, then every effort would have been made to restrain him rather than stain the garment of his rights with his own blood. But Jacob wasn’t seen as a man whose dignity was covered with the honor of citizenship. He was seen as a man clothed in that hostile skin that America has deemed to be a problem from its origins. It’s skin that doesn’t cause one to pause before puncturing it with bullets. It’s a skin that is such a threat it’s better to act first and evaluate later.

Society will engage a public discourse to evaluate what happened. They will look to justify this violence by listing possible wrongs rather than stating his established rights. They will even reach far into his past for previous wrongs as if each one is tattooed to his skin as an identifier in the heat of the moment. It’s a society that will justify violence rather than uphold justice. The presumption is that the perceived wrongs validate seven shots, in close proximity, to the back of an American citizen.

Is disobedience all it takes to permit penetrating a soul with violent trauma?

This approach to justice is too often applied to Black people. Like the oppression of the generations pasts, we live in a society that declares, “Black people only received what they deserve.” They are incapable of being civilized so enslavement is for their benefit. They are too ignorant to know how to vote. They are too filthy to swim in our pools or drink from our fountains. They are too poor to be in our neighborhoods. Perspectives like these lead to practices like slavery, segregation, and redlining. The injustices are justified because the person receives what they deserve. This wardrobe of lies is the reason that injustice persists.

The truth is that at the birth of every American they are swaddled in the protection of citizenship. Every person is born embodying the warmth of their God given dignity. Stand tall and resolved in the garments you wear and the value you posses. Give the same honor to every conversation about Jacob Blake. Resist the inclination of a society that will be anxious to justify violence rather than pursue justice. Insist that the garments of citizenship, authority, and good intentions that society will cloak over Rusten Sheskey will also cover the wounded body of Jacob Blake. Justice will be determined by how we clothe Rusten and Jacob. Their clothing is critical to how we view their actions and how we determine any retribution.

Love Mercy & Act Justly

Last week the quiet suburb of Hunt Valley, MD was disturbed by a man wielding a knife and stabbing five people. Police quickly responded to the scene, encircled the man, and ended the standoff with him being shot to death. Thankfully none of the victims had life threatening injuries but the scar of trauma remained on the community. Incidents like these shouldn’t happen in places like this.

It was clear to me that what transpired was terrifying and that the man’s actions were wrong. But I was troubled with a lingering question that I silently weighed: Did he have to be killed?

He was potentially troubled in the mind or under the influence of some substance. Was it possible to end this situation without ending the man’s life?

I felt like I was the only person asking this question because everyone else seemed relieved that they “got him”. (Though the most accurate word would be they killed him) What act justifies the taking of a soul? The responses to this incident indicated that invading the safety of a community, injuring innocent people, and walking away from law enforcement was enough to justify death.

This week a woman was found guilty for entering a young man’s home, shooting him in the chest, and ending his life. Many people throughout the country were asking the same questions that people in Hunt Valley, MD asked: who has the right to violate someone’s space and traumatize an innocent person? Surely someone who commits such an act deserves the consequences that follow. That would be just.

Instead the nation witnessed an unfathomable act when a young man forgave the woman who murdered his brother. Such forgiveness is powerful and beyond comprehension. Many people felt this power when they witnessed this act of forgiveness. And many others felt the strong angst of injustice. Both feelings are valid.

Justice and forgiveness are two different entities that can coexist but accomplish different goals. It’s likely that the victim’s brother would have extended forgiveness even if the sentence was much longer. Forgiveness is powerful but it doesn’t absolve the need for justice.

There is a persistent injustice underlying this event. People are anxious for justice to declare, uphold and validate the value of a black person’s soul. There have been incidents where a black man was killed because of his actions (ex. knife wielding man) and in this incident an innocent black man was killed. What acts justify the taking of his soul and what punishment is adequate for the murder of his soul? Often the analysis of these situations exclude the consideration of the worth of a black person’s soul. The silent response to these questions give way to the pervasive echo heard for many generations: there is no value.

Those who follow Jesus believe that we have been forgiven for our sins but the wages of sin still had to be paid. Our world needs both forgiveness and justice. Justice seems to be more elusive to attain.

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” -Micah 6:8

Just off My Bookshelf: What You Have Heard Is True

I don’t read many memoirs or autobiographies. Blind spots are difficult to avoid when we tell our life stories from our perspective. I tend to enjoy biographies more because the writer weighs a person’s life, the thoughts of others, and the moment in history to shape the story of a life.

Yet I found myself engulfed in this book and unable to put it down. This book came to my attention when it was listed as a finalists for the National Book Award. It’s a rather quick read and the author slowly unfolds the story leaving you wondering what will happen next. Carolyn Forche takes readers through her journey of understanding the weight of oppression and the prevalence of corruption. Her story carries you along her journey and at the same time takes you on your own journey of how you can engage in the world around you. There are a few pages from this book that will remain with me for a long time.

Some quotes that stood out to me:

Try to see. Look at the world, he’d say, and not at the mirror.

Hope also nourishes us. Not the hope of fools. The other kind. Hope, when everything is clear. Awareness. 

It isn’t the risk of death and fear of danger that prevent people from rising up. It is numbness, acquiescence, and the defeat of the mind. Resistance to oppression begins when people realize deeply within themselves that something better is possible. 

You have to be able to see the world as it is, to see how it is put together, and you have to be able to say what you see. 

I believe with my life…how I live

 

 

 

 

 

Just Off My Bookshelf: Going Down Jericho Road

This was a fascinating read about Martin Luther King’s final campaign and his final days. There are plenty of books about King but this one makes a unique contribution in telling the often forgotten endeavor of King’s Poor People’s Campaign. This is a vivid telling of the struggle for economic equality which was often more challenging than the battle for civil rights.

The content covers a short period of time but thoroughly details the events, emotions, struggles, and hopes of the organized effort to achieve economic justice. Reading this book gives a deep sense of what it must have felt to be alive during these days of tension. It also reveals that the issues of class are still barriers of division–even among people committed to civil rights and reconciliation. Readers will find many heroes of action and a steady reminder of what if means to suffer in order to bring about change.

Five Quotes that stood out:

The battle in the South will continue to be black against white, instead of what it should be and what we can make it: a battle of people against poverty and injustice.

I’d rather be dead than afraid. You’ve got to get over being afraid of death. 

Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they’re going somewhere. Because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent. 

We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. 

Nothing could be more tragic than to stop at this point…We’ve got to see it through…either we go up together or we go down together. 

The Duty of Hope

When was the last time you stopped to behold beauty? A few nights ago I almost missed my opportunity to stop. I read about it in the news headlines but gave little attention to this event. Late that evening I was doing my duty of placing my recycle bin on the curb for pick-up the next morning. I happened to look up to the sky and saw this beautiful bright moon. I was stopped in my steps by the event I wanted to ignore. It was so radiant that I ran in the house, got my kids out of bed (that was crazy!) and brought them outside to take in this moment.

The moon had a stunning brightness that was difficult to ignore. I waited in anticipation with my kids for a break in the moving clouds. In the patches of clear sky we could see a glow emanating from the moon. There was something striking about the brightness placed in a dark sky that kept us memorized. But I almost missed it.

I wonder how much we miss the opportunity to bring a similar radiant hope in the middle of challenging times? I was recently challenged by a person’s response to a very turbulent time in the world. The person asked themselves: what was is the duty of hope ? That is a powerful question that causes the slumped shoulders to straighten out in strength. In dark and cloudy times what is the response of the advocate of hope? What words are we speaking, what narratives are we sharing, what actions are we taking, what dreams are we casting, what poems are we crafting, what ventures are we initiating, what communities are we nurturing? In turbulent times what is the responsibility of hope?

It is hope’s duty to shine brightest in the darkest and most clouded nights. Hope illuminates a path forward, mesmerizes in the patches of clarity, and proves that darkness will be conquered. Don’t miss the opportunity. The challenges you see may be the backdrop to behold something beautiful.

My Sore Throat

“What amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.”           Richard Wright 

It’s been eighteen months since I’ve written in this blog. I admit that in all the controversy and chaos in this world my voice got sore. My response was to walk and talk with those in my life; make a change where I am.

Though that’s a good intention, the truth is: I was lulled into silence. My voice grew weary because I had not realized the daunting task before us. With each gut-wrenching event that shook our country, the width of the chasm became clearer to me. I was disheartened to see people loosen their principles for a stronger grip on power. I was periodically tempted by the longing to go back to the days when we all got along but quickly realized it was only a mirage to give relief to an exhausted people parched by the scorching challenges of our time.

So I’ve examined powerful voices of the past to learn from their example. Their courage has been a balm to my strained voice and a buoy to my soul. Their example has taught me that silence is as much of a contribution to society as speaking. What I contribute is my choice and I prefer to speak.

So I’m writing again because I’ve found “the courage to say it.”

I’m writing again to encourage you to say it.

If you’ve been lulled into silence it is time for you to speak, to write, to create, and to dream. Resist the urge to make what you’re against the point of origin for your voice. Your voice is clearest and most profound when it emerges from your values, your purpose, and your identity.

Stay tuned for more posts in the future and I will be looking out for your courageous contribution too.

My Silent Protest

I was exposed to the NFL in the early 1990’s. My mom’s boyfriend was a Washington Redskins fan because of the success of Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl. I became obsessed with the sport but Williams became an afterthought. I devoted eight years of my life competing in football in high school and in college.

But today my mind goes back to the significance of why my mom’s boyfriend watched NFL football. As an African-American male he was proud to witness the success of another African-American male competing in the best sports league in the most prestigious position. Today I’m also looking at the NFL through the lens of its treatment of another African-American quarterback and I’m no longer a fan.

Colin Kaepernick’s name is a lightning rod within the NFL and American culture. A mention of his name brings up the American flag and patriotism but rarely gets to the issue that drove Kaepernick to his knees–the death of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement. The same people that criticize Kaepernick’s silent protest also criticized the vociferous uprising that happened in cities like Baltimore. Many people don’t like how he protested but that’s the point of a protest–to make people feel the same discomfort one feels from injustices.

Colin Kaepernick is not being avoided because of a criminal record, an abusive incident, or drug charges. Throughout the years there have been multiple players with serious crimes in their past who were welcomed onto an NFL team. Was Colin’s protest so egregious that it is equal to these crimes? I don’t think that’s the case. I believe the incidents where NFL players hurt people are appalling to our society but Colin’s protest was offensive to many in our country. Teams hesitate to approach him because there is a large fan base who are personally offended by the act of one man. This reveals more about the moral compass of our culture than it says about the NFL. However, the NFL is stymied in their ability to view Kaepernick with objectivity because their filter is monetary impact more than moral courage.

I love this country and the value of democracy. Personally, I am offended by the confederate flag. As a black man I cannot disassociate the efforts of the people who marched to battle behind that flag during the Civil War. In this democratic country people have the right to place the image of this flag on their bumper or raise the flag from their home. Just don’t expect me to give you a hug when we first meet. There is more anger toward a man who knelt in front of the American flag than there is toward those who stand behind the confederate flag. But the issue with Colin Kaepernick has nothing to do with race just like the confederate flag and the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. Our country has the innate ability to shift people of color out of the conversation and focus on a different narrative.

People don’t have to agree with Colin. However, it’s very telling that the conversation around him has nothing to do with the lives of black people but everything to do with how he protested and if he is truly passionate about football. The same people who boldly speak against Kaepernick have yet to find the courage to speak as boldly against police brutality. As long as Kaepernick is absent from the NFL because of what he stands for, I will silently protest watching their product. My silent protest has nothing to do with the flag or Kaepernick’s knee and it has everything to do with the issue that Colin is standing for. The very issue that has disappeared from the conversation.

I know some will immediately respond with thoughts of black on black crime. This post is about one concern but I could write about the pain I feel for the murder rate, sex trafficking, and opiate overdoses in Baltimore. For now I’m focusing on this moral dilemma of why a person’s career is in jeopardy because he quietly knelt to bring attention to issues many of us quietly ignored.

“Something in human nature…gets contaminated with fear.”

-Branch Rickey, MLB owner who signed Jackie Robinson

 

 

Look Below Deck

To this day we give reverence to his writings. His hands wrote words that touch many hearts about the grandeur of God’s grace and the depth of our sin. The life of John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, is one of a sinner who encounters God and changes his behavior.

But Newton’s story, like most of ours, is much more complex. John Newton became a follower of Christ and continued to oversee ships that dragged slaves to multiple continents. In his next season of life he served as a pastor for many years before he wrote words that would decry the evil of slavery.

As the captain of his ship Newton wrote details of his day in his logbook as he traveled. In one entry he wrote:

“I will always take pleasure in ascribing to the helping of the God of peace…the remarkable good disposition of the men slaves…I was at first continually alarmed with their almost desperate attempt to make insurrections upon us…However from about the end of February they have behaved more like children in one family than slaves in chains and irons…”

It’s stunning to reflect on Newton’s ability to relish in his reverence for God and yet ignore the deplorable treatment of people created in the image of God. In this entry John Newton is content that the slaves are no longer disturbing his comfort. Their intentions to be free bothered him more than their bondage.

This still happens today. People rejoice in their high ideas of God while participating in or ignoring the degrading treatment of others. Take a moment to look below deck to look for stunning contradictions. Look for the places where your ideas are valued more than your neighbor or your comfort cherished more than someone’s dignity.

“Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” James 3:11

*Excerpt from Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild

4 BIG Questions. Do you have any answers?

I haven’t written in a while because I’ve been consumed with learning. I’m in a season of having more questions than answers. Even still, I know I need to push beyond my introvert boundaries and invite others into the questions in my mind.

Here’s an excerpt from a book I’m reading and some questions that I have wrestled with. I would benefit from hearing your (respectful) thoughts.

“Ministers led the way in justifying the English violence and atrocities aimed at the original inhabitants. Warfare against the Indians, Reverend Cotton Mather explained, was a conflict between the Devil and God…”

  1. Why do ministers now refrain from leading the way in justice if we were the ones who led the way toward injustice?
  2. If the “Indians” were savages–filled with the devil, then how do we spiritually define the brutality Europeans imposed on various people groups over the next 400 years? Were these Europeans filled with the devil or with God?
  3. How do these mindsets still influence our relationships today? Especially in the Church
  4. How do we address these significant issues?

 

*Excerpt is taken from: A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki