Being Aware of Our Racism

Last week I went to the playground with my family. We were there for my oldest son’s occupational therapy session. The therapist is a woman about my age and she recently moved out of the neighborhood to live in another part of the city. It was a beautiful day and we basically had the playground to ourselves. Micah ran around on the playground equipment and swung on the swings. During our time there a couple of kids came in and also ran around the playground for a few minutes before leaving again. Because we had the place to ourselves when we came in we kind of had our belongings scattered throughout the entrance of the place. My youngest son Ezra was sitting quietly in his stroller in one area and the therapist’s bag and purse were about 20 feet away from the stroller. After awhile another kid came to play at the playground. He looked to be about eight or so. He was having a hard time opening the gate to the playground. (In his defense, it was a bit tricky. I had a hard time myself.) When the the therapist noticed the boy trying to open the gate she leaned over to me and said, “I’m going to go grab my bag.” I thought as she was over there she would help the boy open the gate. But she just grabbed her bag, and put it over with the stroller, closer to where we were. Then she just kind of stood there, watching the boy struggle to open the gate. Eventually she said told him how to get the lock to open so he could swing open the gate.

I was kind of shocked by her actions. She hadn’t reacted this way to the two other children that came in earlier. She didn’t feel the need to go move her bag when they came in. It was only when this boy was attempting to come in, and then she seemed reluctant to even help him.

The difference was that the boy was black, while the two other kids were white.

I’m sure the therapist wouldn’t perceive herself as being racist. But her actions told a different story.

I was once challenged by a peer who said that we all participate in racism in one way or another. Sometimes it’s active, and sometimes it’s passive. Sometimes it’s individual, and sometimes its systemic. Sometimes its intentional, and sometimes it’s just ignorance. Sometimes it’s blatant bigotry, and other times it’s nuanced micro-aggressions.

Since that challenge I have tried to become aware of the actions, statements, jokes, body language, facial expressions, thoughts, and other blind spots which could be considered racist or prejudiced. And boy…there’s a lot. It’s quite sobering.

Saying you’re not a racist falls in the same category as asking a woman if she’s pregnant — just don’t do it. Ever. It’s just not a good idea.

Our country has a very complex racialized society. Even though much has been done in our country to eliminate the obvious areas of racism and inequality, systemic and institutional racism still remains strong and is often unchallenged by those with the power to change it. But the unchecked racism doesn’t stop there. While many would deem in very inappropriate to use racist language or to use racial stereotypes, in our world of colorblindness racism is allowed to flourish under the radar.

Many white people assume that colorblindness, the desire not to make any assumptions based upon the color of someone else’s skin, is a good thing. But blindness is generally not a good thing, and neither is colorblindness. Yes, we shouldn’t judge people based upon their skin color, but that doesn’t mean that our skin doesn’t say something significant about who we are. Plus, to say that we don’t make assumptions based upon skin color is just not true. We all make assumptions based upon people’s appearances, including skin their skin color – right or wrong, willingly or not.

The goal is not to try and ignore the assumptions we make or to try to be blind to the skin color of those around us. Instead, let’s become better aware of the assumptions that we make about others. Let’s be better at listening to the stories of those who do not look like us, and learn how their skin color does affect their daily lives and how it shapes their identities. The better we understand people not like ourselves, the less likely we will be to make assumptions based upon appearance.

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

Yesterday I was sitting amongst a group of people desiring to be more involved in their neighborhoods – how to better love our neighbors. I believe those sitting around the tables all had the desire to better live into what Jesus said the most important commandments in all of Scripture were. Briefly, let me give the context.

In Matthew 22:34-40 this scenario occurs:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus was the perfect example of this. He lived a life that exemplified living into these commandments wholly. As we talked about what loving our neighbors looks like practically for us, people who are not perfect by any means, a question arose:

“What does it mean to follow Jesus?” 

People went around the room and said what they thought it means. Eventually my wife gave an answer that she and I had just discussed the day before.

When it comes to Christians not wanting to seem judgmental, but still not approving of a certain “lifestyle” or action people often use the phrase, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s one of those phrases that sounds nice, but just doesn’t work. There are a number of problems with the idea that we can truly separate the two.

My wife and I had come across a comment made on Facebook from a non-Christian summarizing what they understood Christianity was supposed to be all about. We both agreed that the person seemed to hit the nail right on the head, and decided that we probably couldn’t have said it any better ourselves. So when the time came, my wife spoke up to the group and summed it up what it means to follow Jesus by using the same words from that person on Facebook:

“Love the sinner; hate your own sin.”


Smile Moment: Taking Out the Trash

Sometimes I experience or witness something that makes me smile to myself. There’s not really a place to mention it in person with people, so I thought about writing about these moments on my blog in a series entitled “Smile Moments.”

On my way home from work yesterday I stopped by my Trinity’s campus to grab mail from the mailbox I still have there and to pick up a couple rolls of quarters for laundry.

As I was walking back to my car, I noticed a young girl attempting to carry a large bag of trash. Clearly she was intending to walk out to the dumpster in the parking lot and throw it away. But this girl, probably about six or seven, could barely carry the thing because it was as about as big and heavy as she was.

As she struggled to carry the bag, grunting and moaning, looking at the distant dumpster, probably 50 yards away, with a sense of determination, I asked if she’d like some help.

“Hey there. That looks heavy. Would you like some help?”

I didn’t know if this was a chore or potentially a punishment given by her parents, so I didn’t know if I should say anything, but I couldn’t help myself.

Without even looking at me, eyes still fixed upon the dumpster, she replied,

“No, thank you.”

By this point she was practically dragging it on the cement sidewalk. It looked pretty heavy.

“Ok, then.”

Right then I realized another girl about her age walking up to her. It must have been a friend of hers. As she walked up to the girl struggling to carry the trash bag she told me,

“No, but thank you for asking and for your consideration.”

I was a bit stunned by the girl’s response to me. Her response was so polite and mature. I hadn’t even asked her. It made me chuckle to myself.

“Well, you’re welcome.”  I replied.

I gave her a smile. The kind that a parent gives a child they’re proud of.

As I got back into my car and began to pull away I saw both the girls holding the bag together, sanguine-faced and shuffling their feet under the weight of the bag. I thought about taking a picture, but even as a photographer I determined this was a moment for me to take a mental picture of rather than a digital one.

I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I drove away at the image of the two girls working together to carry that trash bag in my rear-view mirror. .


Pride and Prejudice

I’m thankful to be a part of a church where the pastor has the courage and the faith to provoke his congregation to love. He not only teaches through the words of his sermons, but through his attitude, humility, and compassion. We have been studying the book of James over the last month or so, and this past week’s sermon dealt with James 2:1-13, which says:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Although in the context of the people James was writing to the issue was accepting a rich person with favoritism, Pastor Bill contextualized it for us by flipping it around. (I think, in part, because we, unlike the early church, are rich.) We are likely to have prejudices towards certain types of people, whether they be different ethnically, racially, economically, sexuality, theologically, or even in gender. He spent some time explaining Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink which in part discusses about our prejudices toward blacks and whites. We have prejudices than unintentionally creep up into our perceptions of people. They affect how we treat people, how we act around people, and how we think.

He gave examples of some of the prejudices he’s had to confront in his own life. He was very honest. The way he discussed his prejudices was appropriate and helpful. (And in my opinion, that’s a hard thing to do.) He talked about how he regretted that a woman answered the phone at a car mechanics because he didn’t think that a woman would know as much about car repair as a man would. He mentioned how when he hears a person with a southern accent, he for some reason assumes that they are not as intelligent as a person with a northern accent. He explained his discomfort when he first moved into Andersonville and mingled with the sizable LGBTQ community that exists there.

He’s had to confront himself about these. And he challenged us to do the same. In the church setting he explained that we shouldn’t give preferential treatment to people we agree with or have prejudice towards those we are not like. He gave the example of how charismatics and non-charismatics react toward each other. He mentioned how people feel toward those in the LGBTQ community. And it was here that I felt he was being bold, knowing that people may feel uncomfortable or that he is caving to the culture by saying that we should not judge those in the LGBTQ community, but love them.

He talked about how the church’s stance on traditional marriage hasn’t changed, but that doesn’t affect our ability to love others. He talked about what it was like to go to gay parties for the first time after moving into Andersonville. It was uncomfortable for him at first, but then he realized that these people are people. They are made in the image of God just the same as any other person. They have the same fears, issues, and goals as we all do. And then he said something that shouldn’t be ground-shaking or incredibly insightful, but in the current evangelical culture we just don’t hear it like we should.

We don’t have to agree with people to love them.

To love others doesn’t mean we agree with everything they do, believe, say, or think. But in a Christian culture that splits and splinters over minor theological and even non-theological differences, the statement is truly counter-cultural. And yes, that’s very sobering. But growing up with a father who was quick to judge others and after spending four years submersed in the Independent, Fundamentalist, KJV-only, Baptist crowd in Pensacola, Florida this was so refreshing that I found myself overcome with emotion during the service. Tears welled up.

It just shouldn’t be a profound statement within the church to say that the fact that someone is not like us shouldn’t change the fact that we should love them with the love of Jesus Christ. But right now, here in 2014 – it is.

So he challenged us to look in ourselves. What prejudices do we have — even unintentionally? We must learn to confront those prejudices and overcome them by loving all people. If we are blind to our own prejudices, then we should make an intentional effort to love all people well. We must determine to love others better.

If we judge people, James explains that we can expect to be judged in the same manner that we judge others. Mercy is better than judgment. I believe it is better to be quick to love others and give mercy than it is to judge others. As I have said before, it is better to err in love than it is to err in haste judgement. We should love others the way we want God to love us.

Jesus was pretty clear about this as well in His “Sermon on the Mount.” In the Lord’s prayer, something many people have memorized, there is this statement:

And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

That’s a dangerous thing to pray to God for someone who is not very forgiving.

Jesus also says this later in his sermon:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

It seems pretty clear. James says, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Our daily challenge to ourselves should be to be loving others better, resisting judgment. The judgments that we should be making are those of our own hearts. That’s a hard thing to do, though. It’s a scary thing to do. It’s a lot easier to just compare ourselves to others or to judge others whom we deem as worse than ourselves. We should pray that very vulnerable and dangerous prayer that David prayed to God in Psalm 139:

“Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.”

And then we should ask for the mercy we need as David did in Psalm 51:

“Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.”

To do this requires vulnerability before God, it requires us to be honest with ourselves, and both of vulnerability and honesty require humility. Pride is what leads us to judge, to be unforgiving, to not have mercy. We can’t be prideful and truly love well. So maybe we should start by praying for the ability to humble ourselves before others and before God.

Heavy Hearted

Yesterday as I was coming home from work I heard news briefs about five topics in the matter a few minutes that really made me heavy hearted for the rest of the trip home. We are living in a very interesting time in history right now.

Botched Execution in Oklahoma

I don’t believe in using the death penalty. I do not believe it is a deterrent for crime, nor do I believe that it balances out any injustices committed by a criminal. America is split down the middle about it. 50% of Americans support the death penalty. (Obviously, 50% therefore are not in support of it). In states that practice capital punishment, however, it makes a lot of sense to have transparency on the drugs being used to kill someone. If we are desiring to use lethal injection as a means to be as civil and humane as possible when killing someone (something that is not civil, nor humane IMO), then you’d think that we’d also want to make sure that the drugs (poison) being used should be administered in a way that reflects that supposed desire. It has not been that simple.

Ironically, the same groups of people who are incredibly (and rightfully) angry about this situation are the same groups that have made it hard for state’s to have access to the drugs (poison) that are used for lethal injections. States have been having to figure out other ways of getting access to drugs to use, leading to highly secretive sources and basically experimental death cocktails. In this case, the drugs didn’t have their intended impact. What has happened in Oklahoma is exactly what the anti-death penalty groups have been saying could happen if states decided to use drugs (poison) in ways that have not been confirmed as actually being able ot be  “humanely” administered and successfully lethal.

The guy was even talking before he died of an alleged heart attack. Yikes.

Donald Sterling

I don’t have much to add to anything anyone else has, but I’ll right just a few thoughts down about this whole fiasco. Did Donald Sterling deserve to be booted for life from the NBA? Yes. Should it have happened years ago? Yes. Is it right that he got fined the league maximum $2.5 million, and banned for life because some horrible comments made in private to his girlfriend/mistriss? Maybe – but I’m pretty actually leaning towards the direction of ‘no.’

Having Donald Sterling out of the NBA is a good thing, I wholeheartedly believe that. I just find it very strange that in our day of promoting freedom of speech to the grave I don’t hear much being discussed about the fact that this all blew up because of some pretty dumb, bigoted comments spoken to his girlfriend in the privacy of his own home. It wasn’t in public. It wasn’t during a press conference.

There has been practically unequivocal support of the NBA’s decision and bold statement. Ultimately though, I think those who have been the most outspoken in their support of this situation have done it to make themselves look good. What he said was so obviously stupid that practically everyone agrees that it was a bad thing to say, not to mention weirdly inconsistent.

I think it would have been a much stronger statement for the NBA to go deeper and specifically mention his history of actual racist actions over some kind of stupid argument with his girlfriend. He’s had lawsuits against him with clear evidence of housing discrimination. For some reason that gets primarily overlooked, especially by the NBA. (Many people who write about racism, classism, and even some sports columnists have brought this issue up before now – and they are the ones that seem the most frustrated by this whole ordeal). That is where the real issues of racism have actually hurt people. That kind of racism is the structural racism that contributes to the communities we constantly hear about being violent gang-ridden.

We are seemingly getting more and more reactionary as a culture. The CEO of Mozilla recently was pressured to resign because he had donated substantially to support Prop-8 in California. Now we are fining someone $2.5 million and banning him from life because of something he said in private. The New York Times and countless other companies quickly voice their overwhelming support. I hate the “slippery slope” argument – because it usually is a fallacy – but boy, this feels to me like a slippery slope. Isn’t he free to believe what he wants, even if it is hateful and ignorant? Isn’t he allowed to say dumb, inconsistent things to his mistress? Let’s react to the actions that stem from those beliefs and words – not his private conversations. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I think we’re going to look back in a few years on this time of high social pressure in America and realize just how reactionary we were about things like this.

Chic-fil-a, Duck Dynasty, Mozilla, World Vision, Donald Sterling — is this how things are going to continue to be or is this just a result of the high pressure society that’s been created due to the nature of our media, social media, and desire to be politically correct and to never look intolerant in any way? Are we ever going to slow down enough to have meaningful conversations that lead to real change rather than immediately jumping at opportunities to point fingers, condemn, and make ourselves look good?

This!!! –

No More Plastic Bags in Chicago

Chicago voted yesterday to ban plastic bags from grocery stores starting next year. It makes a lot of sense. Plastic is horrible. It really is. I like that my city is trying to take meaningful steps to be “greener.” (Again, this could be more about making us feel good about ourselves, rather than really attempting to make real changes, but who knows?) It makes a lot of sense, right? Well, the city council’s decision was not unanimous. Why? The south side of Chicago struggles to have very many grocery stores. I heard an Alder(wo)man say that she voted no because it doesn’t matter what bags they use where she’s from in the city. There’s no grocery stores to use them in. Stores will be expected to provide alternatives to plastic bags, but paper bags cost three times more than plastic bags. It’s argued that this would be just one more hurtle that keeps grocery stores from being built in the south side neighborhoods. Interesting thoughts to consider, for sure.

I’ll be happy to stop using plastic bags. But what’s to stop me from using thing now?

Oil Spill in Lynchburg

I was very sad to hear about another crude oil spill – this time in Virginia. And it’s polluting the local water. Not much to say about it, other than it seems like these types of occurrences seem to be happening more often.

Minimum Wage Vote Blocked

Democrats (and some Republicans) want to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 over the course of two years – but the bill was blocked from going to a vote by the GOP in the Senate. Obama wasn’t happy about it being blocked, and it seems that this topic is starting to become a central issue for the Democrats. I’m totally okay with that!

It’s hard to listen to the news sometimes. I didn’t even mention anything about Ukraine, or about the near 200 girls that have been kidnapped in Nigeria, many who have probably been sold or forced into marriage by their captors. There’s so much going on out there sometimes that it makes me just want to never listen to the radio or read any headlines. But that’s not helpful. I’m an optimist – and I believe that things can change for the better. We just need to take the time to listen to each other, work together, and not focus so much about making ourselves look good.