Comfortability

I admit it.  I was uncomfortable with the Black Lives Matter protest at Bernie Sanders’ rally in Seattle. I thought their point was made at the Netroots rally a few weeks before.  And I thought Bernie Sanders had taken steps to adjust his campaign to meet Black Lives Matter’s concerns.  And I felt uncomfortable when I began seeing posts that stated I should not be questioning the actions of Black Lives Matter–even if my questions were seeking to understand.  But I moved forward in my being uncomfortable.  I read more posts.  I sought out words from the organizers of that rally and began to understand the context of the protest. Context that is oft times lost in the mainstream media.

One of the goals of Black Lives Matter’s, as I currently understand, is to confront the bastions of privilege and racism where ever it may lodge.  And white liberals, and I am one, can easily hide behind the rhetoric of racism is a reality in this country and then return to business as usual feeling proud that we recognized that the issue exists, but having done nothing to break racism’s hold on the nation.  Black Lives Matter were stating that Seattle’s white progressives have been such people and have done nothing to end the racism that exists in Seattle other than a head nod in their general direction.  Head nods do not make a difference when lives are being lost. Such a stance rests in the protection of privilege. If we were to truly respond by doing something, it might mean losing the privilege.

Bernie Sander’s record on civil rights, better than most of our presidential hopefuls, does not mean anything if white progressives/liberals are not willing to step up to follow people of color’s lead to end racism in this nation.  Respectability politics is no longer the way to go when people are dying daily to racist policies enforced through our police forces, our city councils, our states and federal government.  Black Lives Matter placed white liberals and progressives on notice that knowledge about racism is not what makes an ally.  It is a piece towards the making of an ally, but it, and it alone, does not make an ally.  It never did.  Not today.  And not when Bernie Sanders was marching with Dr. King.  It is action.  It is the willingness to place our lives on the line to prevent one more life from being taken too soon by police or by denied access to Medicaid.

To hear that white progressives are not any better than confederate flag waving white supremacists is a hard pill to swallow.  It is uncomfortable.  It takes us aback.  And we might respond defensively… “but, but…” we begin to say and then add what ever pops into our defensive heads next. ‘I’ve always given money to black causes.’  ‘I’ve always signed petitions.’  ‘I always decry racists whenever I see their confederate flags.’  ‘I’ve got black friends who agree with me.’  Deflections, every one of them.  And when those deflections fail, we dismiss the person who stated such things to us and fall back into our white progressive slumber whereas the person of color must always keep their guard up because they are one traffic signal away from being shot.

When I was in seminary, I attended an anti-racist conference hosted by Meadville Lombard.  The seminary wanted to work towards becoming an anti-racist institution.  At that conference composed of a majority of white people, I stated that we (white folks) needed to develop the skill of comfortability.  I then defined the word as having the ability to be willing to embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable in situations.  In the context of being confronted on racism, it meant not being defensive in response but able to be held accountable to our complicity with white privilege and white supremacy and then using that skill of comfortability to change our behavior.  I was chided for suggesting this.  I was told by grammar elitists that comfortability was not a word.  Several people openly dismissed this notion and shifted the conversation.  Of course, it wasn’t a word, I just made up the portmanteau.

It is indeed a skill that needs to be developed.  Gyasi Ross writes in his editorial about the Bernie Sanders protest:  “Why shouldn’t the folks in the crowd have to talk about race—they consider themselves “progressives” or “liberals,” right? If they truly wish to be an effective ally, then they should WANT to feel the discomfort that we feel when we’re constantly confronted with questions of race. They should EARNESTLY DESIRE to feel the awkwardness of explaining to our children why our kids have different outcomes than white kids when they interact with law enforcement. [emphasis the author’s]”  He is writing about developing the skill comfortability.  White liberals, all whites regardless of political stripe, need to develop the ability to sit in discomfort and listen to how the system whites created serves to oppress, demean, and destroy Black Lives and other people of color. We need to recognize how we as white people continue to benefit from this system even when we put on the mantle of being progressive liberals with anti-racist rhetoric.  White privilege protects us from these feelings of discomfort.

We need this skill.  We need it yesterday.  Because if we do not develop the ability to listen with humility no matter how uncomfortable the charge of racism is, then our hearts will harden and we will find our selves siding with the supremacists who want ‘those agitators gone’ by any means necessary. Only we will do it in the white liberal progressive way by becoming increasingly silent and complicit when police kill a child for playing with a toy gun, or when a woman is pulled over for a traffic stop and is publicly finger-raped by police for an unsubstantiated drug search. Silence equals death. Complicity yields to consent.  I will no longer remain silent and I will no longer give consent even when I find my skill level in comfortability is lacking.

 

 

 

Perhaps Love

“Perhaps love.”

“Perhaps love is like the ocean full of conflict, full of pain**.”

It is, isn’t it?  We like to think, oh, no! That is not love.  Love is happily ever after.  Love is all roses and sunshine.  Love is all that and a bag of chips.

We need to face the reality … love contains conflict.  Love contains pain.

Now before I go too much further with this line of thought, let me clarify what I am talking about when I mention conflict and pain as being within love.

Let me separate out the pain and conflict experienced as the result of emotional/mental/physical abuse.  The sort of conflict and pain that arises from abuse is not about love, that is about power—control over another human being. Love is not about power over another person.  So when I state love contains conflict, love contains pain; I am not referring to abusive relationships.

I am referring to the pain that arises when someone is hurting, physically/emotionally/mentally.  I am referring to when a loved one is sick.  I am referring to when a loved one is being harassed.  I am referring to when a loved one dies—regardless of circumstances.

On a larger scale—I am referring to when there is injustice against people.  People who seek to love one another face conflict and pain when there is injustice.  I am referring to when pain and conflict arise because of a systemic condition of the hardening heart in the collective hive.

This has been a tough summer for those who believe that Love wins. I know for me it has made me seriously reconsider my calling as a minister who longs for the day when justice runs down like a mighty stream.  What am I doing here in Alabama?  What am I doing here in the United States? If I, as a minister, am not on the forefront of justice standing on the side of love with the people who are in pain, what am I doing?  I cry for justice to reign in this land.

Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson was only the tip for me.  I listened to my relatives defend his being shot and became nauseated.  His senseless death is an abomination to all of America’s ideals and principles.  But his death is not the only one, and we don’t really know how many others because our police and government do not track violent encounters[i] between police and civilians. A law was passed by Congress in 1994 requiring the Attorney General to collect and track such events and give an annual report[ii].  No such report has ever been submitted in 20 years.

There were at least 4 other deaths of unarmed black men in the month of August—their names must not be forgotten:  Eric Garner—Staten Island, NY; John Crawford—Beaver Creek, OH; Ezell Ford—Los Angeles, CA; Dante Parker—Victorville, CA.  How many more deaths are needed before America wakes up to the evil it is perpetuating?

This is the pain that love contains. The pain is greatest at the epicenter, with their loved ones who grieve senseless deaths at the hands of a corrupt system militarized by fear and racism. But it is a pain that radiates out like an earthquake and is felt far away by those who are sensitive to it.

How does a family live with such pain?  Where is their comfort to be found?  How do we respond to such an earthquake of pain?

There are other pains that love contains.  This past week Save OurSelves hosted a daily Jericho March around the capitol regarding the pains that our current state administration is enforcing on the people of Alabama—in total disregard of the pain and grief it causes their citizens.

These daily marches focused on Immigration Rights, Education & Youth, Women’s Rights/ Equal Justice, Worker’s Rights/Living Wage, Criminal Justice/Due Process, Medicaid Expansion and Health, and Voting Rights.

These issues all intersect with one another. There is a coordinated effort in our state to hold people down from their great potential by denying the ability to organize in the workplace, by removing funding from our educational budget, by taking away a women’s right of agency to address her own needs, by creating laws that unjustly increase incarceration and slavery in our prisons, and the grief experienced by loved ones who died because of no healthcare—when healthcare could be afforded to them with Medicaid Expansion.

Love is like an ocean, full of conflict, full of pain.  What does one do with the ocean so that Love wins?

We expand the ocean.  We support one another when pain occurs. We cry out together.  We let our wails be heard like the mothers in Ramah. We place our lives on the line when others are threatened.

Many of you know that I was arrested within the capitol building on Thursday for attempting to participate in a 24 hour prayer vigil for the expansion of Medicaid.   I spoke with our board president before I made my decision to do this but it was obvious that this was where my heart was leaning.  Too many deaths have occurred that could have been avoided if our governor, a doctor by profession, had agreed to expand Medicaid.  I could no longer be silent on this sanctioned death by denial of healthcare any longer.

The pain and grief he has caused 700 families this past year alone is unconscionable, not to mention the 300,000 people who are struggling and praying that they will not need medical intervention to save their lives.  My heart this summer has broken open and I am compelled to speak out in a way I have not before.

I see his refusal to expand Medicaid to be an evil act against the people of this state, people he was elected to serve.  Many of whom he defined as his brothers and sisters in Christ, since he has made it clear he does see non-Christians as his brothers and sisters in humanity[iii].  With brothers like that, who needs enemies?

Our Governor is a victim of his own lies and deceptions.  And like Governor Wallace before him, he must be convinced of his betrayal against the people he was elected to serve.  The only way I know how to reach him and save him from his own deception is to rip the veil off on white privilege and supremacy which this administration has fought to preserve and strengthen and to fill the capitol with hundreds, even thousands of people demanding to see Medicaid expansion now.  And to insist laws put into place that expand rather than contract a person’s ability to reach their full potential.

This must be a concerted effort and a coalition of people broad and deep.  It means we must be motivated more by love than by fear of the stigma of being arrested. As the Rev. Kenneth Sharpton-Glascow said to me in the Montgomery County Jail, Jesus was arrested for his civil disobedience.  So was Gandhi, so was Martin Luther King, Jr. so was Annie Pearl Avery, who is one of the original SNICK participants in the 1960s and who joined me in being arrested on Thursday.

Ms. Avery is now 79 years old and told the police at the Montgomery jail that it was partly her actions in the 1960s that enabled them to have the jobs they have today. She enjoined them to recognize that we are fighting again for rights that are being denied Alabamans and join us in our struggle—not fight us by locking us up.

But these people I mentioned by name are all people of color.  We live in a nation where people of color are disproportionately arrested even though all people share equally in the crimes committed.  I realize that as a white person, I have been conditioned to believe that only bad people are arrested.  And in this country, bad people are conflated with being people of color because that is what White America is taught to believe.  There should be no shame in being arrested for justice.

I am also aware that in our Unitarian Universalist movement, the temptation is to make an arrest for a just cause to be some sort of an elite status symbol.  Across our denomination clergy arrests thus far have resulted in no time served, a small fine, and some court costs.  In Washington, DC, the arrests of 112 clergy and faith leaders were an orchestrated show against deportation of immigrants.  We knew in advance that we would be released with no further court cases, no threat of prison time. The risk was minimal. It gave us media publicity.  If we are serious in our quest for justice, we need to take larger risks that place our lives on the line, a few hours being arrested is not a personal risk.

While there was some media present at the rally on Thursday, the arrests that happened were no media stunt.  The Governor’s office did not want to arrest us and pleaded with us to leave. We stated we needed to pray for the governor to expand Medicaid and therefore would not leave.  We were charged with trespassing in the second degree which carries a $ 500 fine and /or up to 90 days in prison.  We could have been charged with trespassing in the third degree which carries a small fine.(In delivering this sermon, I misstated the penalties based on a website I found regarding these terms.  It is corrected here to Alabama criminal codes.)  My court date is Sept 15. I cannot predict the outcome.  Our governor does not want to become the next North Carolina with thousands swarming the capitol and over 900 arrests.  He is hoping this will deter others to follow.

We must not be deterred. Love does not stand back in the face of evil actions. It stands firm.  It holds the pain felt and assimilates it into more love.

I am committed to justice for the people of this state and therefore I must be willing to sacrifice the white privilege I am afforded.  If need be, to be arrested and bear the consequences.  The consequences I face do not even compare to the lives painfully lost because of denial of healthcare.

The evil that we face today is the same evil that Martin Luther King faced in the 1950s and 60s.  My actions are not the seeking of a status symbol, they are a call to action, to be willing to put our heart and soul into the belief that people need to be free to reach their full potential.

I realize some of you may not agree with the actions I have taken.  I understand. I have said this before and it bears repeating, I do not desire a congregation that follows their minister blindly. I do desire that this congregation will be informed of the issues.  Study them.  Read up on them.  Consider these issues a matter of faith development importance because they are indeed a serious matter of faith development. The future of our faith is dependent on how these issues play out. There are forces that seek to take away our freedom to practice our free and liberal faith.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the billboard out on University Blvd entering Cottondale.  It is a huge sign displaying the #Secede.  This group wants to recreate the confederacy in the form of a White Supremacist Christian Theocracy.  I have talked with some people who have experienced this group firsthand and they are a vicious and hateful bunch.  They are feeding off this country’s and state’s current hatred for our President. Be forewarned, there is very little difference between this group and the white elected officials in Montgomery with their declarations of a specific Christian theology that places women back into the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant and laws that place black and brown men into slavery through incarceration.

Perhaps love. Perhaps love is like the ocean full of conflict, full of pain.  The ocean is wide and deep. There are many ways to hold that conflict and pain. Some will grieve and wail uncontrollably.  And that witness of love is essential.  Some will share their stories of injustice committed against them. And that witness of love is essential. Some may do so by supporting those who stand on the vanguard. And that witness of love is essential.  Others may march, wave banners, and shout slogans.  And that witness of love is essential.  Others may stand with hands raised in silent protest in front of the guns and tanks pointed at them. And that witness of love is essential.  And others may choose to engage the pain with civil disobedience, risking their livelihoods, their freedom to enable others to be free.  And that witness of love is essential.

Peace is not the absence of violence.  Peace is the ability to remain centered and grounded while the world is raging threatening storms.  It is the ability to move forward in love because of the inner conviction that justice is the victor already. Love ultimately wins.

Love is large enough to contain the conflict and the pain on the journey towards justice.

Blessed Be.

This sermon was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on August 31, 2014 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond.

** This quote is from John Denver’s song “Perhaps Love.”

[i] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-ferguson-police-killing-african-americans-20140819-story.html

[ii] http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/12/dispatches-tracking-us-police-brutality

[iii] http://www.towleroad.com/2011/01/alabama-gov-elect-bentley-tells-non-christians-hes-not-with-them.html

Prayer for the End of White Privilege

Our hearts this evening are heavy.  They are heavy from crying out in grief and pain for yet another unarmed young man is shot and killed by those who are called to protect and serve.  How long shall this continue in our neighborhoods?  How long will people’s grief remain unabated?  How long will this injustice across our nation remain unseen, uncomprehended by White America? For too long, White Privilege has separated the people of this nation. For too long White privilege has covered the eyes and ears of White America so these actions by our police are not seen for what they are.

Transform our grief to righteous anger.  Let us have anger that rips off the scales of blindness so the eyes will see with understanding.  Let us have anger that like a skillful surgeon’s knife cuts out the gangrene of white privilege and racism to enable people to heal into wholeness.  Empower with a Mother’s love that will protect her children fiercely. Empower us with a Compassion that will reach out to intervene when we see abuse and injustice in our communities.

May our actions be a comfort to those who weep for their children. May our actions be our prayer to change our land into a land of freedom and justice for all its people.

In the name of the author of love, justice, and mercy, we pray.   Amen.

 

This prayer was offered by me, Rev. Fred L Hammond,  at a Memorial Service for Michael Brown at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, held in solidarity with Brown Family in Ferguson, Missouri. (c) 2014

Feel free to use with credit of author. 

Michael Brown

On Monday, August 25th, I conducted a memorial service as an act of solidarity with the Brown family in Ferguson, Missouri. Here are the words I shared with my congregation:

I speak as a white man who, while I believe I am fairly well educated regarding racism and white privilege in America, I confess I am not heart educated.  I could tell you logically and calmly the whats and wherefores of racism and white privilege in this nation.  But I could not tell you emotionally the detrimental effects of white privilege, because I am so well enveloped in it. Sometimes, I do not even know I have received it until much, much later. And only if, I am lucky enough to even reflect upon it.  White privilege is like an anti-body that automatically removes any social discomfort that might exist around me.  I don’t pay attention to the anti-bodies in my immune system until they no longer work.  And then, and only then, do I notice that I had anti-bodies working to keep me isolated from dis-ease.

White privilege is the anti-body for White people in this nation.   This is something that white liberals can talk about but don’t have the heart knowledge to develop the conviction to act against it.  And it is something that white conservatives deny for the same reasons.  When whites are held in the embrace of White Privilege anything that goes against that experience seems like a contrived falsehood.  Events like this are not in white people’s experience.

It is therefore vital for whites like me to listen to the stories and experiences of my neighbors who are people of color. To hear their first-hand accounts of not receiving the privilege that I am so very accustomed to. That is a struggle because human nature says; if it is not in our experience then it must therefore be false. This explains why people, white people in particular, were so quick to look for evidence, even made up evidence, to discredit the story of Michael Brown’s death.  The experiences of the people of Ferguson are not generally the experience of white people anywhere in the country—exceptions aside. It must be false, white’s state emphatically, because that is not our experience.

Michael Brown’s death is not an isolated event. As some would have us believe.  It is not a localized event as if there is some quirk in Ferguson that gave rise to his death. It is not a justified event as the Ferguson Police have tried to indicate by smearing Michael Brown’s character.

This is a frequent event. So frequent that children of Black parents are taught differently in how to respond to police than children of White parents.

One white mother wrote a blog about her white privilege as a mother of her three male sons.  If you are white, imagine if these statements were not true for you and what would you do about it as she describes her experience of white privilege?

“I will not worry that the police will shoot [my sons].

If their car breaks down, I will not worry that people they ask for help will call the police, who will shoot them.

I will not worry that people will mistake a toy pistol for a real one and gun them down in the local Wal-Mart.

In fact, if my sons so desire, they will be able to carry firearms openly. Perhaps in Chipotle or Target.

They will walk together, all three, through our suburban neighborhood. People will think, Look at those kids out for a walk. They will not think, Look at those punks casing the joint.

People will assume they are intelligent. No one will say they are “well-spoken” when they break out SAT words. Women will not cross the street when they see them. Nor will they clutch their purses tighter.  

My sons will never be mistaken for stealing their own cars, or [breaking and] entering their own houses.” [i]

This is the world that Michael Brown grew up in and it is the world that killed him.  This is our world, too.  The whiteness of your skin does not excuse you from responsibility in this world.  Being White is no excuse for not knowing that this is the reality our neighbors of color experience daily. And not just in faraway communities like Ferguson.  These experiences are happening in Tuscaloosa and across the state of Alabama as well.

When the Valedictorian of Central High cannot pass the entrance exam to enter the University of Alabama, we have a problem that screams injustice. When whites enroll their children into private academies instead of Tuscaloosa public schools, we have a problem that screams injustice. When police follow a group of black teens for no apparent reason in the West End we have a problem that screams injustice.  When a black student states that he dropped out of school at 16 because that was normal and expected of him, we have a problem that screams injustice.

It is up to us to determine what will be the legacy of Michael Brown’s disrupted life.  We can mourn his passing, say it’s a shame, and continue on, hardening our hearts to the reality that is demanding redress or we can get angry like the people of Ferguson have gotten angry.  We need some anger about his death.  We need some anger over the fact that he will not be the last unarmed person to be shot in 2014.  There will be others unless we stand up, Black and White, Latino and Asian, together to say no more.

Black lives matter.

Every faith group in Tuscaloosa should be screaming this from their pulpits as a conviction of their faith principles. We can no longer abide with white privilege and racism in this community, in this state, and in this nation.  Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for non-violent action, he did not advocate for calm as the clergy did in Ferguson.  There is a major difference.  One is an act of moral courage to evoke a response and change in the system of oppression and the other is a numbing drug administered by order of the system of oppression.

Which tact shall we take in honoring Michael Brown’s memory?  May we come together as a community to strategize how we are going to address these issues before another unarmed shooting happens and it is here in Tuscaloosa County.  Blessed Be.

[i] http://manicpixiedreammama.com/a-mothers-white-privilege/

Suckled by Mother Earth

Show of hands:  How many of you would say that you feel a deep connection—I will let you define what that phrase means—with nature and with the earth?   You are not alone; according to Pew Research some 85% of Americans[i] claim that they feel a deep connection with nature and with the earth.  85%.

As of November 2013, 23% of Americans[ii] deny that Climate Change is real.   This by the way is the highest percentage of Americans since Gallup began measuring this opinion. Despite the 9,000 scientists who have published findings affirming climate change in the past two years, of which only one article, count them, only one article in 9,000 refuted that climate change was man-made.  If anyone tells you there is no consensus in the scientific community on climate change being real and man-made—tell them they don’t know the meaning of the word.  99.99% of scientists publishing in the past two years declare that climate change is real and man-made.  That is not only consensus; that is considered a unanimous vote in many Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Everything that is alive on this planet from the smallest microbe in the primordial ooze to the largest animals owes their very existence to Mother Earth.  To date, unless one subscribes to what Ancient Astronaut Theorists believe, we have been the only species on this planet that has the ability to cause its own extinction.  We are currently on the verge of the sixth mass extinction event on earth.  A report found in Newsweek[iii] recently stated that because of acceleration of climate change we are facing the loss of habitats for half of the amphibians in the USA alone in the next few decades. The increased warming and acidification of the oceans may mean the loss of coral reefs and saltwater fish by the end of this century.

Mass extinction is defined by a rapid significant loss of species within a relatively short period of time due to a global event or events that occur too rapidly for species to adapt.  Now mother earth will most assuredly survive this mass extinction.  It has survived the other five mass extinction events by creatively circumventing the environment but we may not.  She will spawn new children and perhaps those children will understand the gift of life she has offered them.

Part of our total disregard for Gaia, the greek mythological name for our mother earth, is based in the theology of western civilization.  It is a theology that has been integrated into the DNA of American culture, regardless of which religion one subscribes.  The theology comes from a literal reading of a passage in the book of Genesis but it is a theology that has shaped the American persona of privilege these past 240 years.

In the King James Version of the book of Genesis we find this passage:  And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. … And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Pay attention to this phrase:  Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over… Other translations read:  Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it! Be masters over (International Standard Version);   Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over (New English Translation); Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over (New Living Translation)

Here is one scholar’s commentary on this passage:  And replenish the earth. … This clause may be described as the colonist’s charter. And subdue it. The commission thus received was to utilize for his necessities the vast resources of the earth, by agricultural and mining operations, by geographical research, scientific discovery, and mechanical invention[iv].

And so it has.  When colonists landed on these shores, they saw the vastness of space, the resources to be subdued, and the opportunities for power over others.  They saw themselves as having supremacy over all other races and beings. They did not see the people who already lived here, they only saw another resource—another object of their quest for dominion over the earth.

In James Cameron’s Avatar, one of the most profound lines in the movie is when the Na’vi use the phrase, “I see you.” It is the acknowledgement of the Thou in Martin Buber’s description of the I/Thou versus I/It.   It is the Indian culture’s use of the word Namaste meaning the divine in me acknowledges the divine with in you.  It is recognition of the inherent worth and dignity of our first principle.  The colonists and dare I say most of Americans today do not ‘see’ the other standing before them and especially the other standing at a distance.  To Americans the other is only a resource to be exploited to satisfy the quest to rule over others.

The colonists thought they were doing God’s will in fulfilling Genesis 1:26 & 28.  And it is this self-centered self-important supremacist mindset that continues in the American culture to this day in our false belief in Exceptionalism that places the USA as the superior and therefore the recipient of not only of the world’s resources but also that of the world’s labor force.

This mandate to subdue and rule over is the cornerstone of a theology known as Dominion. Dominionists[v] have applied these verses not only to the earth’s resources but also to the governing of nations and the world.  They represent a small but growing segment of the radical extremists of the far Christian right.  Dominionists believe that the events of ecological disaster described in the book of Revelation are the end result of the Genesis mandate to subdue and rule over the earth. Therefore these disasters are necessary in order to usher in the rapture and Christ’s return to establish a world theocracy.

But one does not need to adhere to such extreme beliefs to embody human privilege.   What is human privilege?  There has been much discussion about white privilege, about male privilege, and about hetero privilege in the tabloids and social media but we have not spoken of human privilege, at least not naming it as such.  So what could be considered human privilege?

Think for a moment on how the concept of privilege works.  There is an underlying assumption believed to be fact that is so well integrated into the person’s world view that it is no longer a conscience thought yet all other thoughts and actions emanate from this assumption.  For example, “I can stand behind another person at an ATM machine without being feared as a potential mugger.[vi]” I can also walk down the street without having people who are walking towards me cross the street.  These people have automatically afforded me the benefit of the doubt simply because of my having white privilege, and they did so without so much of a thought.

Living with privilege operates in the background.  It is like a sub routine in a computer program, running its course and affecting every other program I run but I do not have to focus on that sub-routine before beginning any other program.  I assume that the sub-routine is already operating and therefore I do not think about it. Until the sub-routine no longer works or until it prevents me from doing something else.

The assumption that is operating is not based on an immutable fact but is an assumption that is at its heart false and can be revoked.  Human privilege is based on as false an assumption as white privilege, male privilege, and American privilege. While I may benefit from the privilege bestowed on me for being white, for being male, and being American—these privileges are not inherent rights but accidents of birth or citizenship of a specific social construct.  Privilege carries with it a false sense of supremacy and entitlement.

So what is human privilege?  It is the worldview that whatever needs that humans have trump the needs and wellbeing of all other species on the planet. The Dominionists have taken human privilege to its extreme with the belief that humanity is the superior on earth placed here to do whatever it will to the earth with no consequences.  And if there are consequences, Jesus will return in the nick of time to make everything right as rain for the chosen few.

Therefore, it is okay to plunder the earth for its resources of coal, gas, and oil because they are ours to plunder in the first place.  It is okay to cut down the rain forests for its wood because they are ours to cut down.  Forget about the fact there are indigenous people who have lived there for tens of thousands of years. They have what we sophisticated humans want.  Forget about the fact that there are species of plants and animals that are unique to that region.  They are inconsequential to the wood that is mine by birthright of being human. It is okay to dump our trash along the roads, it is just a little cigarette butt after all—what could it possibly do—cause a fire that destroys thousands of acres of land?  Eh, so what, the earth’s land mass is huge. And fire is a natural force of nature, lightening causes forest fires all the time.  Human privilege can rationalize any action no matter how destructive to the environment based on the assumption that we are heads and shoulders above all others and therefore have the right to act as we please toward the earth.

There is a map that can be found on Google that shows all the fires, natural and man-made on the globe at any given time.  It is horrifying the number of fires that occur and the amount of carbon monoxide that is spewed into the air as a result.  Another map shows the amount of carbon monoxide and it is heaviest over regions of fires and industrial nations like the US and China[vii].

Human privilege thinks nothing about the effects of pollution.  There is no thinking of what will be the fate of future generations because of our actions; privilege is only concerned with the immediate benefits for this current generation.   Human privilege assumes it will always be able to suckle unabated at Mother Earth’s teat.  Human privilege is arrogant in its behavior towards other species and towards earth.

The realities that oil, gas, and coal are finite resources are unheeded.  As long as there is technology to extract, humans continue to suckle.  Fracking is known to contaminate water aquifers[viii] as reported by the Environmental Protection Agency but the practice is being expanded not curtailed or abandoned. There comes a point when in order to survive, the infant needs to wean itself off milk and feed on other nutrients.  For humanity to continue to develop and survive, it needs to wean itself off completely of fossil fuels and turn its attention to harvesting solar and wind.

What amazes me is that the big oil companies are not transitioning to solar and wind themselves.  It seems to be a natural evolution for their viability to do so.  They can transition their work force towards cleaner energy.  In my studying genealogy, I found one family of wheelwrights who transitioned from fixing horse drawn carriages to fixing automobiles.  Evolve or become extinct.

But the real transition that needs to happen for humanity to survive on this planet and not be part of the coming mass extinction is to begin living as co-inhabitants and co-partners with life on this planet.  This means relinquishing our privileged post and recognizing that we are but one of many species of animals on this planet.   We were not created a little lower than the angels but rather we evolved alongside the rest of life.  A humbling truth that is heretical to many.

It would require that we change our policies in business practice.  Instead of asking how does this policy increase our shareholders profits, we need to ask, like our indigenous cultures, how does this policy affect the 7th generation to come?   For many of our policies, the question becomes WHAT  7th generation as our actions makes our future existence questionable.  But this question is not just for human’s 7th generation, which might be 150 years hence but also 7th generation for other species—which can span much fewer years.

Had we asked this question about the 7th generation of honey bees that pollenate our flowers we might not be pondering their extinction today or the extinction of Monarch Butterflies who within my life time went from billions to only a few million.  But human privilege says this is okay because the shareholders of Monsanto’s are happy with their dividends.  Monsanto’s operates under the theology of subdue and be master over life on earth. This is not a healthy world view.

We certainly did not consider the 7th generation of passenger pigeons who also numbered in the billions in the mid 1800’s and were extinct from hunting by 1914. The passenger pigeon were seen as an impediment to the expansion of the new telegraph wires—their sheer volume collapsed the wires and poles.  Nor did we consider the 7th generation of the Western Black Rhino which officially became extinct in 2011 also a result of hunting.  The other sub-species of Rhino’s are facing similar fates.  The Northern White Rhino only has 7 non-breeding adults remaining.

It appears we have a limited time period in which to shift our mindset.  Scientists are saying we have already passed the tipping point and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse[ix] is now inevitable.  What other catastrophic events are now inevitable because of our refusal to act on scientific knowledge?  What events are reversible if we humble ourselves off our platform of superiority and privilege and embrace our rightful place as partners with this planet’s inhabitants?   Mother Earth has nurtured our species over the last 200,000 years, but it is up to us if our species will survive to see the next thousand let alone the next 200,000 years.

Usually, when I feel a deep connection with another it makes me loyal to them.  I want to defend them, protect them; in other words love them with all my heart.  85% of Americans express a deep connection with Mother Earth—may we show that love with our actions.

Blessed be.

 

“Suckled By Mother Earth”  delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa by Rev. Fred L Hammond on 8 June 2014 (c)

[i] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/23/5-facts-about-atheists/

[ii] http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/american-climate-change-denial-is-at-an-all-time-high

[iii] http://www.newsweek.com/earth-heading-another-mass-extinction-scientists-warn-252835

[iv] http://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/genesis/1.htm

[v] http://www.alternet.org/story/152271/inside_the_christian_right_dominionist_movement_that%27s_

undermining_democracy?paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

[vi] http://www.cpt.org/files/Undoing%20Racism%20-%20White%20Privilege%20-%20McIntosh.pdf

[vii] http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/GlobalMaps/view.php?d1=MOD14A1_M_FIRE&d2=MOP_CO_M

[viii] http://priceofoil.org/2013/07/31/fracking-causes-significant-damage-to-aquifers/

[ix] http://oceana.org/en/blog/2014/05/west-antarctic-ice-sheet-collapse-calls-for-revised-sea-level-rise-predictions

Changing Our Narrative

 by Rev. Fred L Hammond 7 October 2012 ©

Last spring I delivered a sermon on the Doctrine of Discovery, a 550 year plus old document that set in motion the underlying narrative of the United States of America.  I talked about this doctrine then because our Unitarian Universalist Association was submitting a resolution to our Justice General Assembly in Phoenix to renounce this Doctrine of Discovery and request that all laws that reflect this papal decree be removed from our governing bodies. The resolution passed with an overwhelming majority of those congregational delegates present.

The story of this country is cast with this doctrine as a preamble to our history and the majority of our country’s actions have the spirit of this doctrine imbedded within them.  To remind us what the Doctrine of Discovery states, let me quote again Pope Nicholas V who in 1452 wrote:

” We grant to you (King of Portugal)  full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens (Muslims) and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and wherever established their Kingdoms, Duchies, Royal Palaces, Principalities and other dominions, lands, places, estates, camps and any other possessions, mobile and immobile goods found in all these places and held in whatever name, and held and possessed by the same […]and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude. [i]

Pope Nicholas V wrote another edict to protect Portugal from other Christian nations laying claim to lands already claimed by Portugal.  And in 1493, Pope Alexander XI expanded this edict to allow other Christian nations to also lay claim to lands not already claimed by Portugal and gave Christopher Columbus the right to lay claim to the lands he set foot on for Spain.

So the historical narrative of the United States essentially begins in 1492.  We know the poem entitled The History of the U.S[ii]. written in 1919, which begins with the stanza:

In fourteen hundred ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
And found this land, land of the Free,
Beloved by you, beloved by me.

It implies that prior to 1492 this land was uninhabited, unknown to anyone, per se.  Columbus found it and introduced to this land European civility—or so we were taught in school.  Yet, there were people already here with a culture that was long established.  Howard Zinn[iii] writes in A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present   “These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.”

Another poem entitled In 1492 by Jean Marzollo first published in 1948 about Christopher Columbus contain these closing stanzas

The Arakawa natives were very nice;
They gave the sailors food and spice.

Columbus sailed on to find some gold
To bring back home, as he’d been told.

He made the trip again and again,
Trading gold to bring to Spain.

The first American?  No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.

This isn’t exactly what happened after Columbus landed in the Caribbean but it is what we teach our children.  Some histories will make mention that the encounter of Columbus and his crew with the native peoples of the island went according to Columbus’ plan of enslavement and genocide but this mention is equivalent to a footnote.  While these histories do not deny the atrocities they do not make it central to Columbus’ mission. Columbus wrote the following to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand[iv],

I took by force six of the Indians from the first island, and intend to carry them to Spain in order to learn our language and return, unless your Highnesses should choose instead to have them all transported to Spain, or held captive on the island. These people are very simple in matters of war… I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased… They are very clever and honest, display great liberality, and will give whatever they possess for a trifle or for nothing at all… Whether there exists any such thing as private property among them I have not been able to ascertain… As they appear to have no religion, I believe they would very readily become Christians… They would make good servants… They are fit to be ordered about and made to work, to sow, and do aught else that may be needed, …

To sum up the great profits of this voyage, I am able to promise, for a trifling assistance from your Majesties, any quantity of gold, drugs, cotton, mastic, aloe, and as many slaves for maritime service as your Majesties may stand in need of.”

In the short time after Columbus’ arrival the population of what is now known as Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cuba was reduced from 3 million to 60,000.  The people of these islands died; some to European diseases like small pox and others through genocidal killing and suicide for not being able to secure the gold amounts desired.

Howard Zinn in his text writes[v], To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves—unwittingly—to justify what was done.”

And this has been our stance in the Americas ever since. We called it by many names; Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, and today American Exceptionalism. It is a part of our narrative that covers up or hides many sins that we have committed as a nation.  And it is this narrative that we teach our children in schools.  America is best.  America is the greatest.  America is the home of the brave and land of the free.  America can do wrong in its eyes.

Of course the question arises, who is this America.  From the earliest days of this republic it was white men who were America. This is a White supremacist narrative that is presented to the world.

Congress in 1790 enacted this law:  All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof, before a magistrate, by oath, that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to all the rights of citizenship.[vi]

Now in 1790 all the rights of citizenship only pertained to white men who owned property, white women were not granted all the rights of citizenship. And in many states Jews and Catholics were also not granted all the rights of citizenship.  The definition of who was white in America was narrowly determined. Benjamin Franklin gives a definition of whiteness in 1751:  “[vii]That the Number of purely   white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is   black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians,   French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call   a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only   excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People   on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased.”

Today there are texts written entitled How Jews became White Folks and How the Irish became White.  Our narrative as a nation was told from the perspective of Whites as the only sanctioned narrative.  To go against this narrative is considered sedition. That is a strong statement but it is a true statement nonetheless.

Especially if you listen to some of the conservative voices in this country going against the narrative is indeed seditious.  The narrative of America as told is being destroyed by having a Black president.  Te-Nehisi Coates[viii] in his article in Atlantic Monthly proposes that the furor over whether Obama has an American Birth Certificate or proclaiming him to be a Muslim is a means to maintain the white narrative of America.  If Obama is not an American or is a Muslim then he is not really the president of the USA and the white narrative of America is preserved.  There is a photo going around FaceBook of a poster at a Koch Brothers sponsored protest against Occupy New York that reads, “I’m dreaming of a White President just like the ones we use to have…”

Preserve the narrative of America at all costs.  Obey our laws, obey our cultural norms.  Do not disrupt the 550 plus years of white narrative that declares whites as superior over all others.   In 1635[ix], a native person allegedly killed an Englishman in Maryland. The English demanded the native be handed over to them for punishment under English law.  The chief answered how they would handle the native and refused, saying “you are here strangers, and come into our country, you should rather conform yourselves to the customs of our country, than impose yours upon us.”   But to do that would have made the doctrine of discovery invalid.  It would have changed the narrative of supremacy.

Arizona HB2281 which was signed into law and into effect December 2011 banned the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona schools.  The ethnic studies specifically banned were Latino ethnic studies.  This law states that “School[s] in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

  1. 1.    Promote the overthrow of the United States Government.
  2. 2.    Promote resentment toward a race or class of people
  3. 3.    Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

At the heart of this ban is a course of studies that were taught at the public schools in Tucson, AZ. Tucson is a community of about 47% Anglo, 42% Latino and the remaining 11% being Black, Native American, or Asian.  In the public school district the demographics change because many whites attend private or charter schools making Latinos to account for 62% of the student population.

The Mexican American Studies program was considered seditious because it taught the history of the indigenous people of the America’s from the perspective of the indigenous people.  History of the indigenous people did not begin in Europe with the Greco and Roman empires but rather with the Aztec’s and Mayan’s.  Columbus’ arrival was not the heroic event that unfurled the ability of Europeans seeking to breathe free but rather as the beginning of an invasion that destroyed civilizations and enslaved and ransacked human and natural resources. It placed the context of the land of Arizona in its thousands of year old histories of a proud people who lived in this land and had its resources taken away from them, first by the Mexican government and then by the United States government. The bumper sticker of the immigrant rights movement, ‘we didn’t cross the border the border crossed us’ is not just a sound bite it is an historic fact of a people living in the southwest.

Theirs is a narrative that highlighted the values of community that holds itself together. The sharing and generosity that Columbus found in the Taino tribe of the Arawak people is not seen as a weakness but as a strength of their heritage.    Yet, it is this ethnic solidarity in a community value that was made illegal by the Arizona law in favor of the strident American individualism. American individualism where the pursuit of capital gain is not to uplift the society but only to increase the privilege and power of the one receiving the gain.  This is not the society that neither Columbus nor any of the Europeans encountered when they arrived on these shores.  Europeans encountered the culture of Iroquois Chief Hiawatha, who said, [x]We bind ourselves together by taking hold of each other’s hands so firmly and forming a circle so strong that if a tree should fall upon it, it could not shake nor break it, so that our people and grandchildren shall remain in the circle in security, peace and happiness.” A Jesuit priest who encountered the Iroquois wrote, [xi]No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers… their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common…”

And while I am not so naïve to think that the native cultures of the America’s was idyllic, these are narratives that need to be incorporated into the American narrative as a whole in order to sort out and sift the wheat from the chaff.  There are aspects of cultures found right here in these lands that could aid in the redemption of the American narrative that has spawned centuries of white supremacy and violent racism against others.

The Mexican American Studies program was one of those programs that sought American redemption through the telling of a history from the perspective of the native people’s point of view.  These students have the potential to contribute to our society if they are given the tools to understand where they fit in the narrative of this country.  They get to begin to rewrite that narrative to include their achievements, their cultural contributions.

The high school drop out rate of Latino’s nationally hovers around 56%.  The Tucson school district after implementing their Mexican American Studies program found the drop out rate decrease to 2.5% in the school district. Tucson students who attended this program did better in state exams as compared to their peers in other schools.  The students found that they found a reason why education was important for them to pursue. They discovered that education was relevant to their life experiences.

Clergy in Tucson[xii] wrote a letter in support of the Mexican American Studies program.  They wrote:

“As people of faith, we recognize how important our history and stories are to us. Scriptures are nothing more than the passed down stories of people who wanted their children and their children’s children to remember the ways in which God had moved within their lives and in the course of human history to bring forth freedom from slavery, forgiveness from retribution, love from hate, and grace from sin. The history of the people of faith within sacred scripture has never been the dominant history; our history is not the history of Egypt but the history of the Hebrew slaves, not the history of Babylon but the history of those carried away into captivity, not the history of Herod but the history of a refugee family who had to flee to Egypt, not the history of Rome but the history of a peasant named Jesus and his followers.” The same is true of the Mexican American Studies program; it is a history of a conquered people, the indigenous people of these lands.

Howard Zinn recalls a statement he once read that stated, [xiii]The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”

Yes, the story the Mexican American Studies program tells is counter to the narrative of this nation but it’s aim is not to raise up people with seditious acts but rather to honor the lives of those lost.  To glean from their stories the richness of their lives and the lessons their lives still have to offer us.

It may come as a bit of surprise to folks that tomorrow has two names as the holiday.  It is Columbus Day, a day in which Alabama anyway, seeks to honor those of Italian heritage. It is also American Indian Heritage Day, a day to honor the contributions of the native peoples from these lands.  It may seem odd that Alabama is only one of a few states and municipalities that honor the native people of this land officially. I hope Alabama gets why honoring Native Americans tomorrow is so important in our country.

This state also continues to honor Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Memorial Day.  And I think I now get why it is important for Alabama to honor and remember these people from a painful time in our nation’s history when ideologies clashed so brutally.

In order to fully live up to our potential as a people we need to understand our story as a nation. We need to change our narrative to include the fullness of our story; the good, bad, and ugly truths of our story.  It would be easy and it has been easy for parts of our history to fade away because they are too shameful, to painful to face.  We have done this in America.  We have tried to forget the Japanese Interment camps during World War Two. We have tried to forget the turmoil and unrest of the Civil Rights era.  We have tried to forget the brutal murders of sexual minorities like Matthew Shepard and the thousands who commit suicide because their sexual orientation is not viewed acceptable by society. And I am sure there are some of us who would prefer that the Undocumented remain in the shadows of America.

But if this country is to live up to its most sacred creed, then we must do its work to undo white supremacy and white privilege where ever it is established. It does not serve us well, it never ever did.

[i] http://unamsanctamcatholicam.blogspot.com/2011/02/dum-diversas-english-translation.html

[ii] http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2274/where-does-that-1492-ocean-blue-thing-about-columbus-come-from  Poem written by Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.

[iii] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 72-75  | Added on Wednesday, October 03, 2012, 04:41 PM

[iv] http://red-coral.net/Columb.html  from the poem Columbus in the Bay of Pigs by John Curl

[v] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 214-16  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:02 PM

[vi] As found in the article “Fear of a Black President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/?single_page=true

[vii] http://www.dialoginternational.com/dialog_international/2008/02/ben-franklin-on.html

[viii] “Fear of a Black President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/?single_page=true

[ix] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn) – Highlight Loc. 456-60  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:39 PM

[x] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)-Highlight Loc 426-31

[xi] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)-Highlight Loc 431-35

[xii] http://www.tucsonweekly.com/TheRange/archives/2011/06/21/faith-leaders-ethnic-studies-program-is-a-valuable-educational-program

[xiii] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 252-53  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:09 PM

Coming out of the Shadows: Whole and Upright

I have been reflecting on The Book of Job recently.  In Stephen Mitchell’s introduction of the translation of this text he defines “The Hebrew … tam v’-yashar, which literally means ‘whole (blameless) and upright.’” Then later comments, “When Job is handed over to the good graces of the Accuser, he is turned into the opposite of what the words mean in their most physical sense.  He becomes not-whole: broken in body and spirit. He becomes not-upright: pulled down into the dust by the gravity of his anguish.” [Italics Mitchell’s]

Since the end of July, the No Papers No Fear: Ride to Justice have been crossing the country stopping in various communities where immigrant communities have been assaulted by SB 1070 copy cat laws or had families torn apart by the federal 287 (g) or Secure Communities provisions in immigration law.  I am beginning to see connections between Job and the undocumented and larger connections in how America views herself.

I believe it was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who said “… the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”  

One of the tags the No Papers No Fear group has been using is coming out of the shadows.  Their greatest gift to us as a nation is to come out of the shadows.  The average person does not think about where their food or clothing comes from.  Nor do we think about who is cleaning our hotel rooms or mowing our public lawns.  We simply expect that there is food and clothing, clean hotel rooms and manicured public lawns readily available and in ample supply.  These are the people in the shadows, whether they are in a poultry processing plant in Mississippi, a day laborer in Alabama, or a migrant farm worker in Immokalee, Florida; these are all people in the shadows in this country.  Their shadow supports the rest of us to be in the sun, without them all would be darkness.

When I worked in public education many years ago, I had students when asked where milk, eggs, and vegetables comes from, answered me ‘from the store’ with a look that stated what kind of question is this.  Telling them vegetables did not come from a can or a frozen box but were first grown in a field where people stooped over in the hot sun and hand picked them for pennies for a bushel was like telling them that Santa Claus was not the one who made their presents but some worker in China who works 15 hours a day did. It didn’t make sense to them.  These are the shadows we do not like to expose to the light of day. The truth behind our economy is one shadow we prefer to remain in the dark about.

But being whole and upright is what we Americans like to proclaim on the mountain tops.  We have bought the lie just like Job’s friends that if all is well with us, then we are blessed and favored by God. All is well is defined as being able to have multiple safety nets below us that will catch us and keep us from harm. This is the privilege that many in America–White America especially–have come to expect to be here as if it is a natural law like gravity.   We do not need to look down from the trapeze wire to see the scattered bodies of those who fell before us because we have the nets to catch us and bounce us back up to the wire.  But many are discovering too late that the net, without our notice, has suddenly disappeared until we slip and fall.

Melissa Harris-Perry spoke passionately about this recently: “What in the world is riskier than being a poor person in America? I live in a neighborhood where people are shot on my street corner. I live in a neighborhood where people have to figure out how to get their kid into school because maybe it will be a good school and maybe it won’t. I’m sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky. No, there’s a huge safety net, that whenever you fail, we’ll catch you, and catch you, and catch you. Being poor is what is risky. We have to create a safety net for poor people and when we won’t because they happen to look different from us, it is the pervasive ugliness. We cannot do that.”

When you are wealthy in America one can ignore the poor, the undocumented, the sick, the elderly, and the disabled, all of the pervasive issues of our day because we can shove them inside the shadows where they cannot be seen.  The middle class is expected to follow suit and ignore these people as well and when we cannot any longer we pass laws to oppress them back into the shadows.  The middle class is taught in this mobile class society to always keep our gaze on the wealthy because maybe, just maybe, we could be one of the elite.  But this upward gazing is equivalent to navel gazing and keeps us from looking where we need to step. Now many are finding our footing slipping, the upstairs climb has become covered in the oil of greed which dictates mine first and the rest be damned to the shadows. We desire a scapegoat to allow us to keep  casting long shadows to hide our failings as a society.

Jon Stewart pointed out an interesting aspect to America recently: If we are successful, then we built it, if we fail, it is the government’s fault.  I would add this twist… if a poor person, Black or Latino especially,  is successful in America it is because of a hand out from the government; if they are not then they are simply lazy and deserve their lot in life.  Our nation is certainly contradictory in describing itself.  Eric Fleischauer writes about the Cruelty of Kind Alabamians but this trait is not limited to Alabama but extends to all Americans when discussing how we treat those in the shadows.

Job was whole and upright until disaster befell him and pulled him down to be not whole but broken, not upright but immoral and defiled.  If only he kept his mouth shut.  If he only kept silent and accepted his fate as just the way things are but No, he had to state he was still whole and upright.  He had to declare he was still a human being and not something to be tossed aside as worthless trash to be,  at best, composted.  And so, too, are the people on the No Paper No Fear: Ride to Justice Tour declaring their inherent worth and dignity and the brightness of their truth stings our eyes.  They are bringing America’s shadow into the light and we can do something about it once our eyes adjust from leaving Plato’s cave.

When we begin to realize that safety nets for the poor in this country will keep all safety nets intact and ready to catch us, at any level, then we will be able to truly be the class act we proclaim ourselves to be.  The poor includes all of the poor; the franchised and disenfranchised, the employed and unemployed, the abled and disabled, and the documented and undocumented.  If we can bring the poor out of the shadows then we truly will be whole and upright living in the noon day light of love.

Is there an American Ethnicity?

This question arose for me after reading this article by Ray Suarez:  “Red, Brown, and Blue:  How our definition of whiteness has changed with each new wave of immigration.” It is well documented that as immigrants came to the United States of America, our concept of whiteness changed as these groups assimilated into the dominant Anglo culture.  The Germans were not white, Irish were not white, the Italians were not white, the Jews were not white in America until they were assimilated into the culture and assumed their place of sharing power with the anglo culture. The article states there was a great loss and sacrifice these groups had to surrender in order to be called white in America.

Hold that thought.  The definition of the word ethnicity that I am using is the following: Identity with or membership in a particular racial, national, or cultural group and observance of that group’s customs, beliefs, and language.

In recent months, there is increased rhetoric about preserving  American values, American traditions, American culture.  This rhetoric has been used in relationship to immigration, specifically undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America;  to Religious freedom, specifically the Islamic faith and the building of Mosques on American soil.   So the context implies that what is really being talked about is White American values, White American Traditions, White American culture.  In order to be an American, one needs to be perceived as being white, as part of the dominant Anglo culture.  This dominant Anglo culture is embedded with the notion of white supremacy and white privilege.

Back to what was lost in order to be white in America. My family has been here for close to 400 years, we are not simply Dutch or French or Irish or Welsh or German or Jewish.  My family is all of these and a few more besides.  I can no longer claim as my ethnicity any of these ethnic groups since culturally they are distinctly foreign to me, 15 + generations away from immigrant status will do that.  If I tried to reclaim all the ethnicities that make up me, I would be accused of cultural mis-appropriation. In fact, I already have been when I sought to honor my Jewish roots, albeit four generations back.

So even though my ancestral heritage includes these various groups of people, I am not a member of  these groups.  I cannot authentically claim these ethnicities as mine since I have no observance of these groups beliefs, customs, or language.  So because the dominant Anglo culture has conflated being American with whiteness–an ideology that I reject as a person who strives to undo racism in my life and in my culture–and  because my family roots have been here for 400 years and assimilated into the dominant culture a dozen plus more generations ago losing its  ethnic identity;  I become invisible because I have no ethnicity that I can authentically claim.  Except for the possibility of claiming American as my ethnicity.

But this begs the original question. Is there an American Ethnicity that is uniquely American that has not been conflated by the Anglo dominated culture? In other words what would an American ethnicity look like if “whiteness” was not part of the criteria for being an American?

I looked at the traditions and foods handed down in my family to see if there was any inkling of something that was uniquely American that could be applied to all Americans as an ethnic marker.   Something that would not presume dominance over other ethnicities that are also present in America.

There are two family recipes that I have that go back several hundred years.  One is a cookie called “Delaware Crybabies.”  This cookie is a molasses cookie/cake that dates back to the 1700’s presumably to my dutch ancestors.  The other recipe is Tomato Butter, a condiment that dates back to the early 1800’s.  So these recipes originated here in America by my ancestors, whether it was my ancestors directly that created them or a community of folks from that time period.  They are not European based so again, I cannot say they represent my ethnic heritage from Europe.  They are American based and the ingredients of these recipes are connected with the Anglo dominant culture.  Molasses, Nutmeg, and Allspice were all made available because of the Atlantic Triangle Trade where these ingredients were brought up from the Caribbean to New England in exchange for rum and other manufactured goods which was then bartered to acquire slaves in Africa.  So while these recipes have the markings of something ethnic for my family, they are tainted with the Anglo Dominance of whiteness.  The best ethnic marker I can offer them is that of being Colonial American which would then separate them out from presuming dominance over any other form of cuisine present in America.

In terms of customs that my family celebrates that might be considered American would be Thanksgiving and 4th of July.  Thanksgiving takes precedence as a holiday over any other in my family.  It is a secular family holiday which has deep roots, a time to express gratefulness of another year being together.  My family has also used this holiday to remember our loved ones who have died in thanksgiving for the gifts they bestowed us with their lives.  But the origins  of this holiday is tainted with Anglo dominance.

I remember a few years ago after the events of September 11th this ad was aired. It showed the faces of Americans.  

I don’t have any answers as to what my ethnicity is, it has been lost to the oppressive dominant culture of whiteness.  But in order for me to claim American as my ethnicity, it would mean a concerted effort to continually separate out America from the whitewash (bad pun) of white supremacy and white privilege.  The America I see does not equal white and its time that that is explicitly stated. We do not have to reinforce the history of American racism by continuing the conflation of these terms for our present or future reality. We can create a different future where America means equality for all.

Cousin George W. Bush??

I am an avid amateur genealogist.  [Did I just hear someone say rabid?] I enjoy tracking my ancestors and learning more about their lives, who they were, what they thought, what kinds of struggles did they have.  This all fascinates me.  It also fascinates me to discover how I am related to other people.  It is for me a clear sign of the interdependent web of which we are all a part.  

Ancestry.com has a feature that allows someone as rabid about genealogy as I am to look up famous people and their connections to your family tree.  Of course, the connections are only as good as the research that people have done to confirm these connections.  I discovered that I am related, albeit, distantly, to some 6 presidents and 6 first ladies, as well as Rev. William Ellery Channing, one of the icons of Unitarian history.  Interesting, if this sort of thing excites you.  

What startled me is that one of these Presidents that I am distantly related to is none other than President George Walker Bush through his mother, Barbara. 

Now for those of you who know me know that I am not a huge fan of our President.  In fact, I have pretty strong opinions about where I think he should be instead of at the White House.  But the fact that somewhere  inside him and inside me flows the same DNA has stirred up some things for me.   

First, that someone so [Fill in your own expletives @%$#&*!] could be even remotely related to me is astounding.  But it reveals another thought… oft times expressed as “there but for the grace of god, go I.”  I don’t know what experiences he may have had that led him to being the type of persona I see in the media.  For that matter I am not even sure what experiences I have had that were directly responsible and linked to the expression of my own unique persona.  But here I am and here he is on this planet.  Opposites in our opinion, hanging steadfast in our stubbornness to believe that ours are the right ones. Stubborness must come from his mother’s side of the family as it must come from my father’s side of the family.   

In my quest to understand my heritage, I learned several years ago that one of my great grandmothers, several generations back, was Adrienne Cuvelier.  She was the mother of the first white male born in the New World–New Amsterdam, before it was New Amsterdam, to be exact.  It was her family which is claimed to be responsible for one of the first massacres of the native people here.  She instigated revenge for the killing of a white man after a poker game with the native peoples.  In revenge, the men from the fort in the middle of the night crossed the river into New Jersey to slaughter men, women and children of the native people.  Many were decapitated with their heads placed on stakes brought back to the fort.  Grandma Cuvelier was so deranged that it was said she played kick ball with one of the heads after it fell off the stake.  The chief of this village, it is written, is said to have asked what kind of people would kill their own sons and daughters.  Many of the tribe had intermarried with the families from the fort and therefore white blood flowed within their beings. 

I remember feeling sick, physically sick when I first read this historical account of my ancestors role in this brutal attack.  It was unimaginable to me to act in this manner.  And I wondered what part of her still existed in my veins. 

What her act represents to me is the  beginnings of White Privilege in this country.  The belief that whites are so privileged to act in a manner that this behavior coming from other people would be considered at best; arrogantly rude or as in the example given above; down right evil.  Not justifying the act of the native person’s killing of another person, but for the members of the fort to lay blame on an entire village of people is to declare those people as an other, an object that can be gotten rid of as easily as one would get rid of an insect infestation.  To separate oneself from the shared biological connection these people had is a form of schizophrenia, it is to disown a part of our selves.  And, given that my ancestors included 6 Presidents and 6 First Ladies means that others of my ancestry were in the position to strengthen this notion of White Privilege as it developed in America.  

It is said that all people can trace their DNA back to Africa.  Which means that we are all related some how, albeit very distantly.  So when we find ourselves disagreeing vehemently with another person, whether they are in the same room as us, in the news media or across the globe in Iraq or North Korea, know that he or she is kin.   And just as I may disagree with my immediate family on a variety of issues–just listen in on my families annual Thanksgiving political debates–I do not wish any harm to befall them. 

So too, I wish only well being for my Cousin George Dubya.  I close with this Metta. 

May all in my immediate family dwell in peace in their hearts and minds and in their actions. May all in my immediate family know their own well-being.  May all in my distant family dwell in peace in their hearts and minds and in their actions.  May all in my distant family know their own well-being. May all living in other lands dwell in peace in their hearts and minds and in their actions.  May all living in other lands know their own well-being. Namaste… Rev. Fred L Hammond          

   

Published in: on April 13, 2008 at 8:55 pm  Comments (3)  
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