The idea that you're "the other" means that you often are treated differently, often treated as less deserving, or less worthy of respect and protection — both from your surrounding community and often from the law. I've seen the "othering" of not only Asian Americans but also of Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, Muslims, and countless others. The political construct of race, and — in an international context “othering” — serves and protects those attributed in-group status. It allows the in-group to keep those deemed “outsiders” at a safe distance to lessen the threat presented by their presence — threat to internal value, threat to safety, and threat to resource access.
In “A Newsfeed of Fear” (Sojourners, May 2015), Gareth Higgins argues that our newsfeeds often scare us into believing the world is getting worse when the world is actually getting better.
Although I resonate with a call for calm in an age of violent clickbait, we cannot discuss “A Newsfeed of Fear” without talking about race in post-Ferguson America. When we say our newsfeeds are filled with fear, we need to think more about which newsfeeds are making us afraid and whose fear we’re discussing.
For example, when Higgins bemoans “horrifying, brutal videos, edited for maximum sinister impact,” perhaps a reference to the all-too-familiar videos of ISIS hostages, I actually envision Walter Scott and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and all the others. While the videos produced by ISIS are fearmongering propaganda intended to provoke, we wouldn’t want to call newsfeeds unmasking the reality of police brutality a corrupting influence on our society, right?
And in this context Higgins’ claim that the world is actually getting better is especially dangerous. Advising police brutality whistle blowers to keep their violent videos to themselves because they paint “too cynical a portrait of the improved race-relations in our society” would border on the insane.
The problem with media is not so much that it makes us fearful, but that it makes certain people fear certainthings and certain other kinds of people. It makes my mom fear that her granddaughters will get kidnapped in a very safe neighborhood. It makes me, a white guy, fear walking past black men in hoodies at night, and not white guys in polos. What you fear depends on where you’re standing and what you’re watching.
From where Higgins is standing, “our culture has been hoodwinked by the idea that we’re living in the center of crisis, when actually we’re in the midst of the evolution of hope.” In his eyes, our culture cultivates a false sense of constant terror.
But we need to ask: whose culture? When I read #BlackLivesMatter activists, they seem to say: “no, most people have been hoodwinked by the idea that ‘our’ (meaning American) culture is living in the midst of the evolution of hope, when actually ‘a certain (black) culture’ is indeed in the center of crisis.” So who’s right about the value of violent, fearful newsfeeds?
It depends on where you’re standing and what you’re watching.
For people benefitting from systematic wealth, power, comfort, favor, and convenience, it can be difficult to relate to the constant and endless forms of racism, stereotyping, and injustice that are experienced by others.
The privileged don’t experience the daily realities faced by the likes of Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and millions of others who have lived under completely different — and radically unfavorable — circumstances.
This is why Christians — no matter what your background — must passionately engage in such things as relationship-building, participating in dialogue, and actively reading, experiencing, and listening to various perspectives. Because doing this informs, directs, and edifies one of the most powerful spiritual tools we have: our imagination.
Imagination is defined as the faculty of imagining or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.
Friendships, personal accounts, testimonies, books, footage, stories, and experiences empower us to have a better picture, perspective, and understanding of others. Even if we don’t personally struggle with the same types of injustice and inequality that others do, we’re at least given the ability to imagine its reality, accept its existence, empathize with its victims, and comprehend truths we weren’t previously aware of.
In the Bible, Jesus is constantly challenging the status quo and striving for justice, peace, and reconciliation against cultural factors and precedents that seem impossibleto overcome. For the individuals God calls upon, they are required to imagine the inconceivable, accept the unthinkable, and break out of their stubborn paradigms in order to embrace the Divine.
Imagine the sea being parted, walking on water, feeding the 5,000, being healed of leprosy, encountering a talking donkey and a talking (burning) bush, and rising from the dead.
Mother, mother / There’s too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying —Marvin Gaye
then they stomped
as he lay on the sidewalk
hands cuffed behind his back
who was on his way this fall to college
My friend Peter Heltzel, along with a cohort of some 75 faith leaders in New York, have called the lack of police accountability in New York and elsewhere “a spiritual problem.” They’re right, and it’s a problem that requires a spiritual response.
But beyond all of this, there is a greater spiritual sickness I see — one that is not being discussed nearly enough. It reaches both to the deeply individual level and to a global scale. It is the question that Dr. King asked, and ultimately died for — as well as others, past and future. It was a principle for which Jesus was willing to die as well. And yet the wound festers.
Violence, or the threat of violence, is real. And the human response of fear to such a threat is a normal, socially-accepted response. It is a deeply rooted instinct, honed by human evolution over millennia, to defend ourselves against a perceived threat. However, if we want the systems around us to change, we have to consider that the fear-and-violence response has failed us, time and again. Despite using it, we still have both fear and violence. And those with power exploit those fears to further personal agendas and to manipulate others.
We hold out hope that changing leadership at local, state, and federal levels ultimately will save us from ourselves. But as Walter Wink wisely said, "If you want systems to really change, you can’t just change the rulers; you have to change the rules entirely."
There’s this microaggression happening online, offline, and all around that has a nice sentiment, but really needs to stop. Can we call for a week-long moratorium on decrying “ALL LIVES MATTER?”
This is a request specifically for my white brothers and sisters, especially those in the church.
I, of course, as a white heterosexual married middle-class highly educated American male, believe that all lives matter. It’s something I’ve been fighting for my entire adult life. Whether it is the mother infected with HIV by her wayward husband in western Africa, whether it is the undocumented immigrant father who may be separated from his American-born children, whether it is the NRA card-carrying white uncle who does an honest job and is a good neighbor back in the midwest, whether it is the homeless thirty-something woman coming off a bad meth addiction but needing shelter during a difficult winter, of course, by all means, every life matters.
Your life matters. My life matters. All lives matter.
This is a non-negotiable. This is true. This is what it means to be made in the image of God, as we’re told in the Book of Genesis — everyone, whether you’re white, black, brown, male, female, straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, nice, kind of a jerk, young, old, middle-aged, we all matter.
But these past couple weeks — these past four months, five months, 22 months? — it’s important that we stand with the ever-growing chorus and declare, yes, black lives matter. With the heartbreaking, soul-wrenching death of Michael Brown, the news just yesterday of another non-indictment in the death Eric Garner, or the dark night when Trayvon Martin was shot down in Florida, a chorus of voices has risen to declare with one voice and hashtag that #BLACKLIVESMATTER.
Dr. King said: a “riot is the language of the unheard.”
What happens when folks do not feel like their voices are being heard?
They shout louder.
Rioting is what almost happened in Ferguson, and all of us who live in fragile neighborhoods with a backdrop of deep racial injustice need to pay attention.
In Ferguson, a close-knit community was devastated by yet another injustice. They wanted to be heard. But as peaceful marches began, they were met with unprecedented force.
Tears were met with teargas.
It was as if authorities were putting their hands up over their ears. So the people shouted louder – and the world began to pay attention.
At a fragile moment when emotions were running high, the people of Ferguson had to choose between rioting and nonviolent direct action in the streets. A very small group (many of them arguably out-of-state activists) resorted to some forms of property damage. And it caught the media’s attention.
Some might say it hijacked the headlines.
But that is not how I will remember Ferguson.
Our nation has a problem. It is not a “black” problem or a “white” problem, but a “human” problem that we all succumb to — and have the power to change. Our beloved nation was NOT “conceived in liberty” OR “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” despite President Lincoln’s well-intentioned words. That was the hope, but it has never been the reality.
Many of my African-American sisters and brothers are furious. Yet another child has been felled. The challenge is this — if a tree falls in the forest and white folks don’t hear it, does it make a noise? Many of us who are white do not have the contextual experience or the “ears to hear” to understand the fear and the fury.
More than a decade ago, I pastored in a community that was predominately African American. It grew from 72 percent to 98 percent black in just seven years as a result of “white flight.” In the course of this time, the police force struggled because it didn’t listen to the people. Most of the officers were white and could legally live up to 30 miles away; as a result many (including the chief) lived in another state.
At one heated meeting, the police chief informed us what we “could” and “could not” do as we discussed community initiatives that included the older white and adolescent black residents in conversation and collaboration. Finally, as the pastor of one of the larger churches in town, I stood up and said, “Chief, please understand that we are not asking for your permission. We are telling you what we, as citizens of this town, are going to do. Now we need to know — are you with us? Or not?” The African-American residents stood and clapped loudly. I felt their pain and the reason for what some perceived as “paranoia,” but what I knew to be legitimate fury.
I don’t know about you, and the people you know, but most people I know who call themselves Christians are particularly proud of the certainty that they are ‘good enough’.
It’s an odd phrase when you think about it; in a world simmering with chaos, injustice and upheaval, oppression, poverty and human trafficking, in our cities filled with addiction and unrest, our prisons cramped and over-flowing, do any of us really believe that the best we can do is ‘good enough’?
Can many of us actually congratulate ourselves, or our faith communities for our impact on our neighborhoods, schools or cities?
Recently, I marched with McDonald’s workers from three dozen cities to the company’s corporate headquarters outside of Chicago. After they refused to leave the corporate campus of the fast-food giant with its $5.6 billion in profits last year, 101 workers were arrested.
I knew I had to come when the workers invited me to share some of the lessons we have been learning in North Carolina about civil disobedience — and moral support.
I watched my new friends sit down. I watched the police gather. I prayed with the McDonald’s workers as the police looked on and then slapped plastic handcuffs on more than 100 of the workers and arrested them.
I could not help but think of the historic arc of the civil rights movement. For all the gains we have been making, the treatment of low-paid workers by some of the most profitable corporations in the world ranks high in the more significant causes of the growing inequalities in the U.S.
What more perfect a passage to enliven our Earth Day celebrations than Romans 8:20-25?
Paul's letter to the Romans was certainly not an exhortation to deepen creation care by weighting it with environmental justice. It wasn't an exhortation for the middle-class church to listen to the groaning of people under the bondage of environmental racism. It wasn't intended to paint a picture of the intersection of climate change, poverty, and racism.
But we — two evangelical activists — are just foolish enough to give all that a try in this short space!
Our dear Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans paints a picture of the new age inaugurated by Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus has taken sin – that which infiltrated the world (5:12), enslaved the world (6:6, 17-18), and brought death and destruction (7:8-14) — and had victory over it. By our death in baptism and resurrection with Christ, we participate in his victory over sin (6:4). This is a new age, we put on our new selves, we live with the (re)new(ed) creation ahead of us.
Last fall, on a Sunday afternoon, as I walked out of the church, a young man tugged on my Franciscan habit. It was Miguel, a member of our Latino choir.
“Father,” he said, “please, pray for the people of my home parish back in El Salvador, especially for one of the priests who has received death threats.”
Startled, I asked: “What is happening there?"
“These priests are organizing against the multinational companies,” he said. “The companies are looking for gold. What will be left for our people? Only poisoned water, a wasteland, and death.”
A few weeks later, I had another similar conversation with a group from Guatemala. Theirs was a similar tale of how indigenous communities were being threatened by mining projects.
As a Catholic and a member of the Franciscan Order, I believe that we are called to “read the signs of the times” and to listen to the cry of the poor and the “groaning” of God’s Creation.
The classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card was adapted on to the big screen in November 2013. The story tells of a brilliant boy, Ender, who trained to battle in a world threatened by a formidable alien race. In the final battle sequence, Ender skillfully devises the perfect strategy, carrying it out ruthlessly to achieve victory against his enemy, effectively wiping out the entirety of the opposing army. Just as the audience exhales from his display of incredible wit and meticulous execution, the chilling plot twist dawns: what Ender assumed to be the final simulation exam was indeed a real, flesh-and-blood battle. Ender had inadvertently committed genocide.
Enraged by having being manipulated into killing, Ender glowers at his commander, the emotion in his voice drenched with the incomprehensible weight of his new realization, he says,
The way we win matters.
Duane Buck currently sits on death row in a Texas jail cell partly because he is black. He has been held since his 1997 capital sentencing hearing, which was influenced by blatantly racist testimony. Trial prosecutors relied on erroneous “expert testimony” provided by psychologist Walter Quijano, who claimed African-Americans are more liable to commit future acts of violence than non-African-Americans.
Swayed by the misinformation, jury members accepted as truth Quijano’s claims. According to Texas law, a jury finding of “future dangerousness” is a prerequisite for a death sentence. Consequently, Buck was convicted in the fatal shootings of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler and issued the death penalty.
Oddly, I wasn't there the night George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin. I wasn't in the jury box either. Some commentators, like Ezra Klein and Ta-Nahesi Coates, are saying the not guilty verdict was appropriate according to Florida's "stand your ground" law. (Note that they are not saying that the Florida law is appropriate; Klein uses the word outrageous).
If this verdict was appropriate, though, what about verdicts in cases that were similar except for the color of the defendant? What happened to the "stand your ground" law when the jury reached its verdict against Marissa Alexander — an African American woman from Jacksonville, Fla.?
And anyway, why should fear of attack justify shooting to kill? It didn't in the case of John White — an African American man from Long Island, N.Y. — who shot a (white) teenager in 2006 (accidentally, he says, when the boy was trying to grab his gun).
John White, it appears, had good reason to fear the boys who showed up on his doorstep that night. That's probably why the governor commuted his sentence after he had served five months. And White no doubt should have served some time, according to New York law — his gun was unregistered, and if he hadn't been holding it when he went to the door, a scuffle probably wouldn't have escalated into manslaughter.
But, some say, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Is this true?