Grace Matters

Is That Racism on Your Shoe?

A straight-shooting white friend once commented that whenever blacks and whites are together it's like there's a "big pile of poop in the middle of the room" that everybody sees and smells but pretends isn't there. "Let's stop tip-toein' around it," he said, "get us some shovels, and start digging."

Parts of that still-stinking national pile get plenty of air time, and deservedly so: racial profiling, the explosion of hate groups, 25 percent of African Americans still entrenched in poverty, and persistent corporate discrimination symbolized by Texaco's $150 million settlement to black employees, to name a few. But other parts of the black-white pile are rarely faced. I'll step right into my own list.

Don't start with failure. The reason the civil rights movement and affirmative action have inspired every liberation struggle after them—from women's equality to ending apartheid in South Africa—is because they have been successful. Black married families now earn 87 percent of white married families' income. Black women with a college degree or higher earn more than white women with the same education. In his book The Ordeal of Integration, black Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson flatly states, "There does not exist a single case in modern or earlier history that comes anywhere near the record of America in changing majority attitudes; in guaranteeing legal and political rights; and in expanding socioeconomic opportunities for its disadvantaged minorities."

While the enormous progress continues to be a great ordeal, Patterson argues that lack of friction would be "the surest sign that no meaningful change has taken place," and that the viciousness and trauma of change are "side effects of progress, not signs of failure."

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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Losing Our Religion?

My former college, one of the nation’s top-ranked schools, is considering banishing a highly respected national Christian group from campus for discriminatory practices. It may be a case study of coming hostility for Christians in America’s public square. If so, is this bad news or good?

The InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter at Vermont’s Middlebury College is unwilling to install any leader who advocates any form of sexual intimacy outside of marriage. A proposed college policy would not only force the group to accept leaders who don’t share their moral beliefs (or lose funding, meeting space, and campus affiliation), but even demand that no group "discriminate" on the basis of religion.

Okay, before I start to cuss, let me get this straight. Alcohol-abhorring Muslim groups have to consider wine-lovers as leaders? Jews have to entertain Gentiles? Whatever a Christian’s ethical conclusions, whatever one thinks about God, this amounts to an appalling act of censorship that suffocates the free exchange of ideas and the practice of religious liberty.

Imagine the uproar and college reaction if a white student demanded to lead the Black Student Union, a male the Feminist Association, or a heterosexual the Gay and Lesbian Alliance. Middlebury bends over backwards, as a secular institution should, to accommodate support groups for all kinds of minorities.

However, it is not Muslims and Jews who are being harassed. At least for now. A powerful subculture of American elites confessing "tolerance" as the highest virtue finds one group in particular completely intolerable—evangelical Christians with strong moral beliefs.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2000
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What I Learned When I Opened My Mouth About Gay Rights

In all my 17 years in Mississippi, I never heard anyone say they were gay. A year ago I moved to Vermont where unmarried couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, live together without shame. The word "partner" has entered my vocabulary. I see adopted children with two mothers or two fathers.

As I awkwardly discern how to ask new friends about their lives and families, Vermont may become the first state to adopt a domestic partnership law giving same-sex couples the benefits, rights, and responsibilities of marriage. Letters pro and con fill my Burlington Free Press. Public radio aired emotional testimony on the subject from packed statehouse chambers. In our small-town church, several people walked out of a Sunday School classroom when a mother shared about her gay son and that she had testified in favor of the law.

I decided to write about Vermont's debate on homosexuality and domestic partnership in "Grace Matters." Before submitting it to the editors, I e-mailed the first draft to 200 friends, asking for critique.

The next evening 57 e-mails greeted me. Slapped me in the face, actually. And they kept coming-eventually I had more than 70 pages of responses printed in 10-point, tightly squeezed type. Old friends came out of the woodwork to offer emotional three-page opinions.

These are all friends I dearly love. All people of sincere faith. And they are deeply divided. I went to bed heartbroken.

I HAVE SPENT 20 years working on an issue-race-where those who try to be bridges get walked on from both sides. Attempt that same approach with homosexuality and the bridge gets detonated.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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Only Jerks Allowed

There is much talk these days about the disintegration of "community," and no wonder: One in two marriages break up, leaving disillusioned children of divorce suspicious of intimate commitment. Industry's growth tears people out of lifelong neighborhoods. High mobility and downsizing move us like nomads. Yet Internet chat rooms are standing-room-only. We yearn for a place of belonging.

Douglas Coupland poignantly voices this yearning in the novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. "All looks with strangers," says the main character, "became the unspoken question, 'Are you the stranger who will rescue me?' Starved for affection, terrified of abandonment, I began to wonder if sex was really an excuse to look deeply into another human being's eyes."

We desperately need and long for deep connectedness with others. But we seem to be complete failures at finding it. In reality, I think we resist it. Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance illuminates a very good reason why.

The story is based upon Hawthorne's experience in an intentional community. As the character Miles Coverdale leaves behind the "false and cruel principles" of the world and begins life at Blithedale, he imagines life together as "something that shall have the notes of wild-birds twittering through it, or a strain like the wind-anthems in the woods." The group goes downhill from there, slowly unraveling in mutual disappointment and ungrace as the dark side of each communal member emerges.

Hawthorne didn't even last a year at the real-life utopian farm, whose downfall lay in its vision as "a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more wholesome and simple life than can be led amidst the pressures of our competitive institutions."

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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Separate and Equal?

If you ever despair, as I often do, whether massive change for good can come through peons like us, read the book Social Movements of the 1960s for a shot of hope (by Stewart Burns, Twayne Publishers, 1990).

Maids boycotted Montgomery buses and walked to work. Children trooped past Bull Conner’s fire hoses in Birmingham. Young women at Berkeley marched against inequality and male domination. Their footsteps reverberated all the way to Washington and echoed back to change the mindset of an entire nation. Racial and gender discrimination were crippled.

However, in this otherwise stirring story there is a disturbing question—are we only liberated from something, or are we also liberated into something?

In 1966 Black Power advocates seized the reigns of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and dishonorably discharged battle-scarred white comrades from their ranks. Until that time, two compelling ideas characterized the civil rights movement as a whole: liberating an oppressed people and building a "beloved community" between freed oppressed and redeemed oppressors. Eventually liberation alone became the dominant model for the black freedom struggle and for social movements that followed.

In 1978 secular feminist Vivian Gornick wrote that the point of the feminist movement was that every woman could define herself "in any terms she shall choose." Later, Christian feminist Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza wrote, "àat the heart of the spiritual feminist quest is the quest for women’s power, freedom, and independence" (In Memory of Her, 1983). Today, highly influential theologians call for "women-only churches." Again, the "beloved community" seemed to get lost.

Has America moved from "separate but equal" to "separate and equal"? A glorified and replacing a disdainful but?

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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Gimme A Break

Okay baby, let’s say God really is God; he’s not applying for the job, etc. etc. And Big Fella like craves to shake up the world, make it one big happy neighborhood, blah, blah, blah. He’s got plans. Big dreams. Always been that way. You get the picture.

Yeah, and Big Fella smacked us right on his assembly line. Said he’s gonna do all this through us. On topa that maybe you got kids, a hubbie or da wife, gotta pay the bills. This is a ton of responsibility. We’re talking 24-7. I got stains under my armpits already. Stressful, right? And Big Fella’s not too happy about our sleepless nights, and us gulping down aspirin, anti-depressants, and ulcer medicine. Wants us to do the job his way not ours, see?

So he’s got a secret potion. It’s like ancient. Goes back to Adam and Eve in the raw.

Make a long story short, Big Fella pulls up his sleeves, punches the clock, makes day, night, Jersey shore, Himalayas, crazy-looking fish, wild animals, first dude, first babe, pulling all-nighters the whole way. The job’s over and the guy’s whipped.

That’s right, I said tired. Big Fella. Big Cheese. Put a Q-tip in your ears. How do I know that? I read the book. Duh. Says he "abstained from work and rested." Dude named Abraham Heschel talks about this Hebrew word qadosh. Means holy. Abe calls it "the mystery and majesty of the divine." So Abe says, "What was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar?" Nope. Listen up: It was rest time that Big Fella first called "qadosh." His day off. When Big Fella lit up the barbecue, took a walk, smelled the roses, called his buddies over, and stuck a line in the water.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1999
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More Than Family

The continuing scandal is summed up in a 1997 Gallup Poll: The Christian church remains the one "highly segregated" major institution of American public life. More than 70 percent of whites and blacks still go to churches that are, respectively, nearly all white or all black.

Surely adding insult to injury is Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson’s observation in The Ordeal of Integration (Perseus, 1998) that "the Christian church has failed miserably in the promotion of ethnic fellowship and is now the mainstay of segregation." But do we see this as a scandal? Desegregating American Christianity is very touchy ground. The biggest defenders of maintaining black churches are black Christians, not white. And for good reason. Birthed of necessity in response to the outright racism of white Christians, black churches blessed dignity, community, leadership, and cultural refuge upon a people in devastating oppression. They became the organizing base for perhaps the greatest nonviolent social revolution in world history. Nearly half of today’s polled African Americans credit black churches most for improved conditions among blacks.

But aspects of what was courageously created to survive and thrive in an era of intense oppression may become outdated, and even disabling, in a new era of progress and opportunity.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in a long and acrid history, white and black Christians enjoy vast opportunity for meaningful and mutual relationship and partnership without penalty of death, intense persecution, or economic devastation. Reconciliation is no longer reserved for martyrs. But it will cost you something. Perhaps blacks distrust whites’ calls to reconciliation because blacks are more honest about what is at stake.

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Choosing the Better Part

With our family's move last year from urban Jackson, Mississippi, to small-town Vermont, I exchanged the blackest state for the whitest and neighborhood drive-bys for wild turkey dive-bys. Instead of 20-plus around a communal dinner table, now it's just our family's five, plus Grandma and Grandpa most nights. In a stillness broken only by Cub Scouts and chickadees, there are no earth-shaking meetings to attend, no lives in crisis to save.

My theology honed over 17 years of intense activism didn't prepare me for a place like this. Depression set in.

Martha of Bethany, an activist at heart, would have understood. It is deeply disturbing when the yardstick you have always used to measure your significance, even your devotion to God, is suddenly challenged. Martha holds two house parties, with the Messiah as guest of honor at both. While she slaves away serving, her sister Mary took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, anointed the feet of Jesus, wiped his feet with her hair, and filled the house with the fragrance of perfume (Matthew 26:6-13, John 12:1-8). A year's worth of a common laborer's salary. Dior with gold flecks has just been dumped on one who taught his disciples to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

"Why this waste?" ask the indignant disciples. "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor." Expecting an echo from Jesus, instead they get a reprimand. "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing for me." At the second party, as Martha works, Mary sits still listening to Jesus. When Martha protests, Jesus' response is completely unfair. "You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke10:38-42).

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1999
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Hymn to an Insane-Loving God

For him it was always hard, accepting who he was,
Even in your eyes.
So I do that today,
For he was much greater than he knew.

For his undeserved embrace of Prodigals,
Despite persecution across-the-tracks,
Ugly hate, flight, abandonment,
Indifference, neutrality, silence,
And countless white eager-beavers busy disappearing.
For soothing souls with the balm of forgiveness felt,
While propelling them forward to make a new history.
We thank you, insane-loving God.

For keeping his vows to his little postage stamp on earth,
West Jackson, in sickness and health,
Christmas robberies and Bulls-eye barbecue throw-downs,
Over decades long enough to uncover all our masks,
and his:
A fellowship of recovering sinners
Freeing from addictions seen and unseen:
Cocaine and pride, winos and egotists,
We thank you, insane-loving God.

For his Labrador-like patience, stability, devotion,
Sticking with impossible people
And an abused druggie-looking
momma mutt stray we called Bebe—
Car-hit, we wanted her put to a restful end;
He couldn’t bear it, and without permission,
beyond reason,
Spent $300, enduring our wrath,
And Bebe wiggled her way into our extended family.
Even for that, we thank you, insane-loving God.

For his restless Truth-seeking,
Enlarging us with gift of language and story:
Scottie, who would not come through that open gate,
God’s "prime directive,"
"Reconcilers don’t die, we multiply,"
For playing the grace card, not the race card,
We thank you, insane-loving God.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1999
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