When We Truly Love

Let’s talk about love. Let’s talk about patriotism, what it is and what it is not. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines patriotism as “love or devotion to one’s country.” So, if we’re Americans, what does it mean to love the USA? For me, it’s similar to loving a person, a person who has always been in my life, a person who has cared for me and for those I love, and a person who has, since birth, affected the way I think about myself and about others.

As our relationship has developed over time, this person, USA, and I have grown to know each other better. And as with any relationship, we will never know all there is to know about each other. We will never know how other people feel about either one of us or what all the reasons are for those feelings. What we do know is that in order for us to stay in love and for our love to mature, we must take care of each other, support each other, trust each other, and be honest with each other. We must acknowledge that each of us makes mistakes, call attention to those mistakes, apologize for our own mistakes, and have the courage to help each other rectify and learn from those mistakes. If we are unwilling to do all of that, then we do not love each other. It may be infatuation, mutually beneficial companionship, or even a master-servant relationship, but it is not love.

Today I ask each of you who is an American and a patriot to ask yourself if you love the USA. If the answer is yes, ask yourself if your love is a mature love? Do you love her the same way you did 10, 30, or 50 years ago or has your love grown? How much about her past do you know, do you question, and do you try not to know? Can you name any of her recent sufferings or mistakes? Have you been or are you a party to those sufferings? Have you ever tried to help her rectify those mistakes? How do you react when others tell you she has said or done something to hurt them? Do you automatically dismiss their claims, become defensive or do you take time to truly listen to what they’re saying, to try to understand the claim from their point of view? When was the last time she hurt you or disappointed you, maybe even neglected or abused you?

I encourage you not only to ask these questions of yourself but also of other people who claim to be patriots, who claim to love her, who pretend to love her. I say claim to love because we know that saying we love someone is not the same as loving them. I say pretend to love because we also know that loving what she’s wearing, what she’s saying or writing or what holiday she’s celebrating, does not equate with loving her. In the same way, loving our country’s writings, like the U.S. Constitution, loving the national anthem, loving the American flag, or loving the 4th of July does not equate with loving the United States. It does not equate with being a patriot.

To love the United States is to seek to know and to understand the struggles through which she has come, to welcome the promise of who she can be, and to love the people who have made and continue to make her who she is. And yes, that includes loving people who are not, have never been, or may never desire to be American citizens.

To love the USA is to not just to talk about but to have the courage to put into practice the principles for which she stands. Two of those principles that we say we hold dear and that we have fought for at home and abroad, are freedom and justice. They are also principles that have never been fully realized by all Americans. If we are unwilling or afraid to say that or if we get angry or hurt when others do, then we need to question the depth and maturity of our patriotism, of our love. My father, uncles, brothers, and cousins who served in the military at home and abroad did not do so in order to restrict freedom or to affirm or ignore injustice. They did so in the hope that the country for which they fought would one day love them as much as they loved her. They did so in the hope that their children and grandchildren would have the opportunities that they were denied. They served as did thousands of women and men so that every person who lived in this nation could put into practice and benefit from the principles they held dear. They did so to give every person in this nation, regardless of their political affiliation, faith tradition, occupation, or citizenship status, the freedom to speak as much and as easily about the things that are wrong in this nation as about the things that are right.

The individuals across this country who are marching for the rights of women, who are protesting the treatment of immigrants, and who are calling attention to the state-sanctioned harassment, discrimination against, and murder of people of color are doing so not out of disrespect for this nation but out of love for this nation. Whether they do so by rallying in the streets, by refusing to rise or place hand to heart for the pledge of allegiance, or by sitting or kneeling during the national anthem, they are doing so not to dishonor the individuals who fought for this nation but to honor and uphold the principles for which they fought and died. They do so to bring to fruition the dreams of those who were beaten, jailed, and lynched simply for wanting to be treated as human beings, not as vermin or apes, workhorses or chattel. They do so to bring our nation closer to realizing the promise of who she can be.

If any of those actions upset us, we need to move beyond initial reactions, beyond defending and worshiping symbols, and beyond catchy but empty and meaningless phrases. We need to ask those who protest why they are protesting. We need to seek the truth in what they tell us and try to understand why they feel the way they feel. We need to examine the ways in which the hurt, the anger, the abuse or the injustice they feel connect with the feelings and stories of our own lives. For when we truly are patriots, when we truly love our nation, we want all who live within her to love her. We want to help her overcome the trials life will continue to bring. We want her to live up to her potential. We want to love every life she births, shelters, or nurtures as much as we love her.
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/patriotism (accessed on 08/20/18)

The Goodness in Us

“She understood that God loves us and helps us not because we are good but because God is good.”(1) A few days ago, I read those words about Julian of Norwich, the 15th century writer and mystic and God placed it on my heart to share them with you in relation to the immigration battle being waged in the United States. I believe Julian’s words can guide us when confronted with two of the three main reasons given for blocking immigration from Latin America and to some extent, for blocking or limiting the entry of people of the Islamic faith. One reason, based on the economy, was addressed in an earlier post. The two reasons addressed in today’s post are the risk of criminal or terrorist activity and rewarding people who are breaking our immigration laws.

For those people who seek to exclude immigrants or certain ethnic groups based on the notion that some of them are criminals or terrorists, I ask you to be mindful of the fact that criminal behavior and terrorism are not limited to any specific racial, ethnic, or religious group. And as Americans let’s be honest with ourselves. If our immigration laws were designed to protect the nation from criminals and terrorists, our history would require limiting immigration from Western Europe as much or more so than any other area in the world. Our history also would require limiting immigration by Christians more than any other faith group. We can site instances as recent as the shooting of journalists in Maryland and the rioting of white supremacists in Charlottesville or as distant as the lynchings of thousands of African-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the murder of Native-Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. If we talk about gangs and organized crime, we could talk about the Italian mafia, which many of our organized crime laws were initially crafted to combat, and we could add another area of the great white north and speak of Russian organized crime, which has been a lethal part of American crime for decades. We could add many of the modern day corporate and government criminals to that list, executives who lay off workers, raise prices, close businesses, and slash benefits that feed, shelter, and help heal the most financially impoverished among us, not because they must but for financial gain. So, I ask my fellow Americans and fellow Christians to speak out honestly and forcefully against the portrayal of Latin Americans and Muslims as criminals and terrorists. I ask you to be honest in owning the fact that our immigration policies and laws are not about crime or terror. Our immigration policies and laws, as they always have been, are the rotten fruits of racism and religious discrimination.

For those people who seek to exclude immigrants or certain ethnic groups based on the notion that they are entering the country illegally, I ask you to be mindful of the fact that for the most part, laws are created by human beings with power and they are designed to benefit the people who create them, not the nation as a whole. Legality does not equate with justice. Some of the cruelest and most horrific actions taken by our government and by governments throughout history have been taken under color of law. At this very moment across our land, there are innocent people trapped in jails and prisons who have been legally convicted when justice would demand their freedom.

Even when laws are created with the best intentions, they can never be justly applied to every individual. They simply cannot cover every situation or circumstance. That is why it is vital to have competent, caring, and compassionate individuals as police officers, prosecutors, and judges, and to give them laws that are flexible. This way they can connect with the individuals in front of them, apply the law as fairly as possible, and, at the times when a required application is unfair, seek to find ways to limit or counterbalance that unfairness.

Our focus as human beings must always first be not on law and order, but on justice and grace. Our focus as human beings and as Americans, if we truly value family, community, and freedom, must be on the goodness in every human, not on their faults or potential faults. Relying on the law and punishing people often seem to be great ideas until the laws and punishments are applied to us and to the people we love. Then, we open our mouths and our hearts to cry out for acts of mercy. As people of faith, in particular, we are called to remember that each of us makes mistakes, causes harm to ourselves and to others, and participates and benefits from injustices.

If God sat in judgment over humanity in the way we sit in judgment over each other, the human race would long ago have been extinct. We should give thanks every day for God’s justice, a justice that seeks to empower, connect, and liberate life, a justice that is filled with mercy, love, and grace.

To paraphrase the opening quotation, God is good to us not because of our goodness, our purity, our merit, or our obedience. God is good to us because God is good. May we seek to live as ones created in God’s image. May we love others, help others, and welcome others not by our estimation of their goodness, their purity, their merit, or their obedience, but because we seek to be good as God is good.

Amani.

(1). Gloria Durka, Praying with Julian of Norwich (Winona, Minnesota: Saint Mary’s Press, 1989), p. 42.

We Are All Each Other’s Children

We are all each other’s children. There are two components to that statement. One component is that each one of us is a child. The other component is that every child is our child. We are all each other’s children.

First, each one of us is a child. No matter our age, we still have a child within us. We are most aware of that fact when we are overcome with joy and laughter, when we are lonely or afraid, and when we bury the people who raised us. Second, every child is our child. We have a responsibility to care for and to nurture each other. It is not always our responsibility under the law, but it is always our responsibility as human beings.

A few years ago, I went to South Korea as part of a ministry team. The primary reason for our trip was to assist with a Vacation Bible School program. I was blessed in many ways by spending time in South Korea and one of those ways relates to this post. The church was relatively large by American standards and had numerous activities occurring in addition to a large Vacation Bible School program. Every day the building was buzzing with students of all ages, teachers, translators and room assistants, kitchen and maintenance volunteers, members preparing for the regular Sunday worship services, and paid church staff. As for the VBS kids, they were everywhere, sitting in classrooms and on the floor during morning worship services, walking and gathering in the hallways, singing in the praise band and sleeping in sheltering arms. They did not have on identifying wristbands. There were no guiding ropes around their waists. There were no huge name placards on their backs.

After one or two days, I gave up on trying to connect any one child to her biological parent. It was a fruitless and unnecessary enterprise, for every child in that building belonged to everyone else. If a child cried, fell, tugged on someone for food or water, or was being picked on by another child, she was immediately attended to by an older child, a teenager, or an adult. I was blessed by what I observed in that church and saddened by what I had observed in many American churches. Our focus in the United States on so-called child safety has unnecessarily increased the risk of any of us caring for children in the ways in which our hearts guide us. It has caused us to teach our children through our words and our actions that there are good people and bad people, when in truth, every human is born good and every one of us can succumb to sin and evil at any given moment. It has caused us to teach our children that security comes from laws, restrictions, and barriers instead of from inclusion, openness, and love.

We have become a society that neglects our responsibility to every child, that neglects our responsibility to each other as human beings. Our current immigration battle is a prime example of our neglect. I say battle, not discussion or debate, because a battle is what this has become. I say neglect because there’s way too much focus on laws and on which government policies led us to this point. There’s too much back and forth about why we care for one group of children and not for another group of children. If we are not to neglect our children, if we are not to neglect each other, our focus must be on caring for all children. Our focus must be on comforting, supporting, and loving every child.

Yes, there are children who are American citizens who are without their parents due to their parents’ abandonment, military service, imprisonment, or death. Yes, there are children who are American citizens who are without adequate shelter, food, or clothing. Yes, we have a responsibility to each of those children AND we have a responsibility to the children at our southern border, regardless of which side of the border they are on. We have a responsibility as part of the human race to all of the children at the border, including the toddlers and teenagers from Latin America and the parents and other adults fleeing persecution or simply seeking to build a better life for themselves and their families. We have a responsibility to every child, including the border patrol agents, immigration lawyers, social workers, journalists, cooks, bus drivers, and any other person who is in the midst of the cruelty that is occurring. What must the child in each of them be feeling? What must the children in them be remembering from their early years or fearing for their futures? What heartache and grief do they take home to their families?

We must resist the temptation to pit one group of children against another group, to become more and more suspicious and less trusting, to limit our interactions and our sense of responsibility to people like us, whatever that means, and to judge who is good and worthy and who is bad and unworthy. The temptation is great because we think that if we do those things, we will be safe and secure. We think we can avoid whatever risk being open to, vulnerable to, and responsible for others might bring. In reality, we cannot live and avoid risk. We cannot be safe and secure as long as our fellow humans are not safe and secure. We cannot be fully human until we are willing to embrace the child in us and the child in others. We cannot be fully human until we risk being responsible both to and for each other.

When we live as the human beings we are created to be, we recognize the child that rests in each of us, a child in need of love, of kindness, of laughter, and of human touch. When we live as the human beings we are created to be, we are grateful for the child within us, the child that reminds us of our vulnerability and of each other’s vulnerability. When we live as the human beings we are created to be, we speak and act with an awareness that we are all each other’s children. We accept and cherish the responsibility to care for each other and to protect each other, not only other Americans but all people. When it comes to immigration or to any issue that confronts us, may we remember the child in each of us. May we remember that every child is our child. May we remember that we are all each other’s children.
Amani.

The Wall We Need

Recently, I spoke of the importance of language and of how as a nation, we have lessened its importance as we promoted math and science. I spoke of how this was not a choice we needed to make as we could promote both areas. I also noted that I am an English major not a math major. I don’t pretend to quote detailed statistics. That’s not the way I try to understand the world around me. Thus, I state up front that I have done no mathematical research on what I am about to say. This is just my educated guess regarding the question of what as a nation, we could do with 25 billion dollars. One thing we could do is provide transportation (by bus, or even plane if we’re good bargainers) for every unemployed American citizen who will take a job picking produce in the Southwest, working in chicken plants in the Southeast, or washing dishes and similar tasks in New York or Chicago. My educated guess is that a few American citizens would take the offer but that the vast majority would not, even if we threw in housing.

Another thing we could do, which I would prefer personally, is to use the 25 billion dollars to pay for trade school and community college for unemployed citizens whose jobs, like those in coal mines and steel factories, are gone, are not coming back due primarily to automation, and who would be willing to try something new. We also would let them know we realize how difficult this may be and we would offer to help with child care, transportation, etc. through our federal, state, and local governments, our faith communities, and our individual efforts. We would have enough left over to provide basic services for people who are seeking to make a new life here. That would include public education and health services, especially if we have 25 billion dollars plus the money we are spending on immigration officers throughout the country, border patrols, and internment camps.

Yes, there are American citizens who are hurting. There always have been. There is simply a difference in whose hurt we choose to see at any given time and whose hurt we seek to heal. I invite each of you to turn off the televisions, I-Phones, Facebook, and other social media for even one night and think about and, for those of faith, pray about, what the immigration battle is really about. For I submit to you that it is about three main things that it always has been about since the birth of our nation. It’s about greed. It’s about power. It’s about fear.

First, it’s about greed. And no, I am not making this all about class. I have financially wealthy friends, financially impoverished friends, and friends in that dying breed called the middle class. This is about our greed as Americans. We believe we are entitled to more than whatever it is we possess and that bigger is always better. We need more land and more money for bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger buildings, more expansive highways, and yes, fellow Christians, bigger and more elaborate worship spaces. This is a wealthy nation and it is not because of the mental abilities, physical labor, or any other contributions of any one generation, one gender, one race or one nationality. Every person who has ever been born here, brought here, or moved here has contributed something of value to this nation and not one person who has ever been born here, brought here, or moved here survived, much less thrived, without assistance, assistance of other individuals and assistance of governments. And remember that we never have a problem opening our borders to bring in people who will do the work we are not skilled to do or do not want to do from indentured Europeans to enslaved Africans to today’s so-called illegal immigrants. Then when the work is done, we want them to either leave or assimilate into the so-called American culture, which translates as one race, one faith, and one way of believing and living for all. I could speak on a personal level of the psychological damage that does to a person who does not fit into any one of those categories, but that is a story for another day.

Which brings us to immigration problem number two. It’s about power. It’s about who will control the economy and means of production, about who will control the government, and about who will control the American narrative. One Latin-American theologian often says something we should all remember in times like these. He says that the roads on which people are coming to the United States from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other Latin American countries are the same roads we built going in. Our government, our corporations, and our citizens have no problem going into other people’s lands, whether they ask us to or not. This is when it becomes about narrative. Our entries abroad are not invasions or infestations. Oh no, our entries are to bring democracy, economic growth, and culture to others as if people around the world did not have any culture before there was a nation called the United States of America. In fact, in many cases, including Native American communities, they had cultures in which their communities, not only individuals, were responsible for caring for children and the elderly; in which animals were only killed for necessities, like food, not for sport; and in which the land was seen as a gift to all, a gift to be nourished, rested, and planted with crops suitable for the soil and the climate.

I guess that’s what made them weak and vulnerable to our invasions and those of nations with similar narratives. Community, compassion, nourishing and nurturing, and even rest are not the characteristics valued and applauded in those narratives. If you’re thinking, well, we’ll get there, but first we need to have a strong economy, secure borders, and peace for American citizens in our own nation, our own communities. Unfortunately, if that is the roadmap, we’ll never get there. We’ll never get to see or to experience the main characteristics, the characteristics that sustain and nourish all. We’ll never to get to live into the main characteristics of our Constitution and of every major faith tradition. For my fellow Christians, I invite you to try out the theory on Sunday. Go to your home church and/or local church and as soon as any of the main characteristics is mentioned in a greeting, a prayer, a hymn, or a sermon, get up and leave. Okay, La Ronda, I get your point, but it’s just not the world we live in. That brings us to the last immigration problem, fear.

It’s about fear, fear of change, fear of difference, fear that somehow someone is going to take something that we believe belongs to us. Here are some things to consider during the evening’s respite from television or social media. First, change can never be stopped. Some change we have no choice over and for change that is within our control, the only options are to fight it or embrace it. To fight it, including fighting it by trying to ignore it, only brings more fear and misery to all involved. If we instead choose to use our energies and our resources to embrace it and learn how to implement its benefits for all, we will be a better nation for having done so. Second, difference is good. What is the point of all the fascination with DNA tests, ancestry charts, and even world travel if not to learn about and embrace differences of heritage and experience the good that every culture has to offer. There have always been people in this country who feed off the fear of difference. Their goals being what we’ve already discussed, greed and power. To be a better nation, we must not overcome difference. We must overcome fear.

The vast majority of individuals at our southern border only want what every one of us wants deep in our souls, to be valued, to be respected, and to be loved. The real terrorists and gang members are not the helpless individuals we are incarcerating at the border and in cities across the country. The real terrorists and gang members are powerful enough and well-connected enough to come and go as they please. Or they are our fellow citizens, whether they strap on colored bandanas and guns, wear dirty pillowcases on their heads while burning crosses at night, or sit in boardrooms lining their expensive suits with the profits from building and leasing facilities to imprison traumatized children and their desperate parents.

Which brings me back to walls. I woke up this morning thinking about a wall. It wasn’t the 25-billion-dollar wall being touted as a savior for our nation but a wall in Jerusalem. It’s called the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall. It’s all that remains of the wall that surrounded the Temple Mount in ancient Jerusalem. There are some people who go to that wall to pray for a Messiah or for the return of Israel to its military and religious might during the days of King David and King Solomon. Those are not the people who entered my thoughts this morning. Who I thought of are the people who go to the Wailing Wall to pray for loved ones who have passed or who are in trouble, to pray for the healing of their nation, or to pray for forgiveness and for God’s mercy on us all. For those are the prayers that rest in my heart at this time. I pray for loved ones whose toil over generations helped to build this nation. I pray for loved ones and for my fellow citizens who are overcome by fear and despair, politics and division. I pray for the families that we as a nation have torn apart and who may never be reunited again on this earth. I pray for God’s forgiveness for anything that I have said or done or failed to do or say that has in any way contributed to or made me complicit in our government’s actions. I pray that our nation does not experience the enveloping nightmare that I and many others foresee. Yes, Great Spirit, I need a wall. We as a nation need a wall – a wailing wall. Amani.

On This Day

This is one of those days when I still cannot decide. What was the spirit that led me to leave my bed and venture into the world on this Father’s Day? At first, I thought it was God. After deciding I would hibernate for the weekend, I had received a text on Friday to read a scripture passage this Sunday. Of course, I said yes. I love to be a worship “leader” whatever that means. I love to read scripture aloud. And for better or worse, I love to please. It must be the Great Spirit, I said as I responded “yes” on Friday and as I made my journey to worship today. The reading went okay but everything else before and after seemed to go wrong, not in a major way but with small signals. By midday, I wondered, “What spirit had this been?”

After worship, I made my way to lunch ahead of the rest of my lunch group for the day. I could not meet and greet or do the cocktail party type chit-chat. I needed to leave, to find a space to let go of the hurt and anger and despair. As I parked at the lunch venue, backing in near a modest incline, an individual standing on the sidewalk below assisted me with the ordinary stop and go hand motions. When I exited my car and thanked him, I realized that he was an elderly man and a Vietnam War veteran (thanks to the words on his baseball cap). We chatted briefly and for some reason, his words cheered me. Only a few words about people each of us knew who fought in Vietnam and about being childless on Father’s Day were shared but those words were heartfelt, I believe, on both sides.

After chatting with a few other people at the restaurant before and after meeting my lunch group, I journeyed home, hardly able to hold back the tears. I made it in, let the tears flow, and then began to wonder what motivated this mood. Was it limited to another Father’s Day without my father and without my uncle, who had raised me like a father? Was it the sadness of sitting “alone” in worship in the midst of a room full of people? Was it the ongoing struggle of going to any worship service and not using the gifts I have been given and yet knowing that those gifts do not fit within a “traditional” or even “contemporary” worship structure? Was it the current political climate, a feeling of being trapped between worlds with so many people I care for seeing the world so differently, thanks in part to different media outlets and different social connections? Was it the feeling that no matter how much I researched the world that lay beyond these borders and how much I hurt, I am stuck, stuck between the land of my birth and the hatred and venom that spews forth with reckless abandon within it and venues abroad that each have their attributes and their detriments when compared to what has always been home? How can I, as an African-American female, well-educated and having received so many gifts from family and friends, describe the despair that overtakes me at this moment? Only if you have had or are having similar feelings about life, about country, about vocation, not occupation or career, but vocation, or about the earthly loss of family and friends can you truly understand.

I have the luxury on this day to go to bed in comfort, in good health, and with an awareness that there are many tomorrows in which any minute may bring positive changes within myself, within those I love, and within the country that is my home. The fear which arose to the surface this day is that those positive changes within the United States may not occur. In the midst of that fear, I still believe that each of us is called to do what we can to move our country forward in ways that show our compassion for all, regardless of ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background, or citizenship status. My prayer this evening is simply that each of you will open your hearts to feel and to understand where we are as a people, to for a moment let yourself take in with all of your senses the cruelty, the intolerance, the mistrust, the fear, and the hatred that has become so pervasive among us. My prayer is that we each speak and act with the awareness that we are not invincible as a nation, that we, like so many nations and empires before us may be permanently divided or destroyed as a people. My prayer is that each of us will find ways to surrender to openness, to hope, and to a justice that values and cherishes every life. May we allow ourselves to be guided by the loving, vulnerable, and embracing Spirit that rests within each of us and that I believe yearns for us to be so much more as a people than we are on this day. Amani.

The Language of Faith

We have become a nation that ignores language. This is thanks in part to text messaging, corporate names and logos with intentionally misspelled words, and the unnecessary promoting of science and math over English and liberal arts as if we could not promote the sciences and the liberal arts. The only times we seem to pay attention to language are when it’s time to write a college essay, craft a wedding invitation, or engage in a political correctness battle. Only then do we give our words the thought they deserve. Remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” It is true that words will not break our bones, but they can break our hearts. They can break our spirits. Words can hurt us, wound us, and scar us. We remember the playground taunts from elementary school. We remember the words of family or friends that made us feel unworthy or unloved, the words of teachers or colleagues that made us feel stupid or destined for failure, and yes, the words of clergy or church members that made us feel sinful or like a perpetual outsider.

Words also uplift and inspire us. We remember the written and spoken words of encouragement, praise, and comfort from teachers and supervisors, coaches and clergy. We know how good we feel inside when we find the right words to express at the right time for a friend or a complete stranger who is grieving or simply having a bad day. As people of faith, the words of our scripture, hymns, and worship liturgy can bind us together or rip us apart. As Americans, we learn of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution which gives us the freedom of speech. We are guaranteed the right to speak and write in order to express our opinions, to protest, to worship, and to put words to our feelings and desires. In theory, any person can say almost anything at any time as long as it does not cause a riot. I say in theory because each of us places limits on the words we use with certain people and in certain contexts in order to avoid conflict, reprimands, or hurting others.

Let’s take, for example, the f-word. I have friends who view the use of that word as offensive and some who even view its use as sinful. I have other friends who use it as often and as easily as they would say heck or forget you. As for me, I have no problem using the f-word but it’s not a word that comes to mind on a regular basis. Do I have a right to use the word? Most certainly. Should I use it without concern for the beliefs or feelings of the person who will hear it? Most certainly not. I try to base my use of the word on context and particularity, on how I believe the hearer or reader will feel when I use it. When my perceptions are wrong, I am thankful when the person trusts me enough to share her feelings and the reasons behind those feelings. Even then, I may not completely understand and I may unintentionally use the word again. I am human. I don’t know everything or how everyone will interpret or feel about what I say. All I can do is to try to express myself in ways that fit the time and the audience and most importantly, that cause the least harm and do the most good.

Here’s another example. Having lived in the southern part of the U.S. for several years, I have become comfortable using the word “hon.” “Thank you, hon.” “That’s okay, hon.” I say it to women, men, people younger than I am and people older than I am. It is simply a way to show affection or to soften the impact of certain statements. One day when I was serving as a chaplain, a colleague asked me if I realized how often I used the word. She noted that I had used it in our conversation several times that morning alone. She also cautioned me that there were people in the hospital who got extremely offended by the word. “Really?” I said. Then, she shared a story of someone having called a doctor hon and how the doctor went on a rant because she believed she was being disrespected. Initially, I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous,” especially after I learned that it was a female doctor who said it to another female doctor.” Then over time, as I tried to limit my usage of the word and thought about its use in different contexts, I came to the conclusion that it was okay to call someone hon but that I should be sensitive to the context. Is this someone who I know well or someone who also uses the word? If not, how did they react when I used the word. Body language says a great deal. If the word slips out and I’m not sure of the reaction, I will let the person know I meant no harm or that I use the word indiscriminately, and I will apologize if it was offensive to the person.

If you’re saying right now, “Well, that’s too burdensome. People are too sensitive these days. You can’t say anything without someone getting offended and overreacting. It has gotten to the place where I can’t even tell a joke or sing a song with certain words without someone having a problem with it. Just f it, I’ll say what I want!” And hear me say, that is certainly your right. Hear me also say that until we all are willing to take the time and make the effort to monitor our own language at the same level or greater than we monitor our actions, we will never be the free, uplifting, and harmonious nation we say we want to be and that we can be. This also requires taking the time to listen to other people’s concerns and reasons for reacting the way they do. If we are being asked why the words are offensive or why they’re offensive if person x says them but not if person y does, it means erring on the side of believing that the other party is sincere and wants to learn or engage in a constructive manner, not that they are being sarcastic or mean-spirited or that they are intentionally uninformed.

All that said, I put forth our recent debate over Roseanne’s tweet and the cancellation of her show. My initial reaction was to approve of the show’s cancellation and the more I learned of other comments Roseanne has made, the more I applauded the network’s decision. Then I started reading statements from people who questioned why Roseanne’s show was cancelled when the shows of certain talk show hosts and other comedians was not. “That’s different,” I said to each example given. Then God poked me and asked, “How is it different? Are you just having a knee-jerk reaction or have you actually thought about the examples being given?” So I began to think about it and I continue to do so, not just about Roseanne, but about our use of language on a daily basis.

First, I think about context. Life does not provide clear answers of right and wrong. Maybe that would make life easier but it’s a moot point. Context matters. For example, the comedian Dave Chappelle did a skit years ago in which he brought forth the lunacy of Jim Crow laws. I believe he called it a shit-in instead of a sit-in. He filmed the skit like a documentary with himself as an elderly factory worker recalling a day in the Jim Crow south when he desperately needed to use the bathroom and the “colored” bathroom was on the other end of the factory. He took a chance on using the whites only bathroom only to find himself sitting on the toilet with a shouting police officer and an attacking German shepherd at the bathroom stall door. There were many people who found the skit offensive and chastised Chappelle for what they viewed as making fun of the Civil Rights movement. I believe he said the intensity of hostile feedback was one of the reasons he took a long break from public life. I, however, thought the skit was hysterical as it did point out how ludicrous those laws were. It also could pique the interest of people who were not familiar with that period of our history or of its effects on the daily lives of African-Americans. In my opinion and in this context, the skit was not one that would require chastising Chappelle or taking his show off the air. Even if we personally did not agree with how the skit was presented, this was a comedian and an African-American addressing a political, racial, and moral issue that still effects us as a nation.

Second, there is history, the person’s history, the history of television, and our nation’s history. Unlike Dave Chappelle, Roseanne was not commenting on her ethnic group and she has a history of making racist and otherwise offensive comments against African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and others. She has done so as Roseanne the celebrity, as Roseanne a human being. Unlike Carroll O’Connor, for example, who played the racist and sexist Archie Bunker and used his celebrity to speak out against such behavior, Roseanne has used her popularity to give racist words a larger platform. We could add to her history the extremist political and social statements she has made on both the extreme right and the extreme left.

Television for decades has joined in affirming sexism, ageism, religious discrimination, homophobia, and racism. People of color were rarely seen and when portrayed were portrayed in demeaning ways. Even as I watch documentaries today on World War II, I am reminded of how people of color have been discounted. As I watch the footage of soldiers in the field, being transported in ships across the Atlantic, or celebrating at the end of the war, I think of my own father and three uncles who served on foreign soil during World War II, who served honorably, and who served in a segregated military. Where is the footage of the soldiers who looked like them? There is some, but it is rare. The small and the large screens that depict our lives and provide our entertainment have a lot of making up to do. So should ABC and other entertainment entities watch Roseanne’s behavior more closely than that of many other entertainers? Yes. Both her history and the history of the entertainment industry warrant it. Should the show have been cancelled? In my opinion, no, even if it continued for a certain time period or indefinitely without Roseanne. Possibly the incident could have been used within the show as a way to educate and to prompt fruitful discussions.

Lastly, the role of our nation’s history. If we live in the United States, we live in a nation infected with racism. Unlike many of my family members and other African-American friends, it has taken me decades to be able to own that fact. I have never wanted to own it because it hurts. It wounds and it wounds in ways that can never be healed. Even with all of my education and all the advantages my family has given me, even though this is the country of my birth, and even though this is a country for which generations of my family have worked, fought, and died, I will never be treated equally, not as an equal to a white female and certainly not to a white male. I am reminded of that fact every time I look for a house or an apartment, every time I apply for a job, and even every time I think of going to a new doctor or a new church. My parents’ generation risked physical, financial, and emotional injury by doing any of those things. My generation has faced less of the physical risk, but the wounding attitudes and words still abound. At times, they have caused me to discount my own worth as a human being, to dislike the physical characteristics that God graciously gave me, and to discount and disparage people of my own race.

Roseanne’s comparison of an African-American female to an ape was more than a political commentary or an inappropriate joke about appearance or a protest against political correctness. For better or worse, her comment came with her history, the entertainment industry’s history, and our nation’s history. For African-Americans, it came with a history of being compared to apes as an insult to our intelligence and our humanity, not only by the entertainment industry but by the so-called science of the day, science that found it perfectly acceptable to experiment on African-Americans without concern and without consent. If as Americans, we are to be one nation under God, each of us must take the time to learn about our history, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We must own that history and deal with it, not once but continuously. For racism is like a cancer. It can be hard to detect. It can be mistaken for other diseases. If we have symptoms of it, we may try to ignore them for we know that treating the disease may drain our bodies, our minds, and our finances. Once cancer is detected and even after it is in remission, it must be monitored for the rest of a person’s earthly life. If it is not, it can return and spread throughout a person’s body before showing any obvious signs. And yes, it can be lethal. The same is true of racism and racist words affirm racist beliefs and behavior.

Each of us, regardless of ethnicity or social prominence, must expend the energy to think before we speak, to listen and seek to understand when another person takes offense at what we say, and to communicate in constructive, not destructive, ways. As Christians, we have committed to viewing every person as a child of God and to loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. When we are tempted to believe that other people are being too sensitive or that words don’t matter, we need to recall a time when someone said something that was hurtful to us. Regardless of whether we called their attention to it, whether they intended to hurt us or not, or whether others would or would not have taken offense, the hurt was real. The wounds are real. May we learn from that hurt and remember the effect words can have. As we hear and read the words of people who have chosen to be in public forums, may we be mindful of context and history and hold them accountable. May each of us seek to fill our daily discourse with words that heal, inspire, educate, and transform for the better. May we do so not because it is politically correct and not because any person or any social standard requires us to do so, but because as human beings traveling on this journey together, we desire to do so.

Amani,

La Ronda

Our First Meal Together

Invitation: If you have not read the first three posts or at a minimum the post “A Reminding Dream” please do so before reading this one.

What finally moved me from procrastination to publishing blog posts was a crying session Saturday morning. As I stood waiting for my mug of high-test coffee to fill up, I started to cry. If you know me, you know that I am a crier and a proud one at that. I cry silent tears and I wail. I cry when I am overjoyed and when I am in the depths of despair. When those tears flow seemingly without reason, it is often a sign from God. They tell me when a sermon is the right one, regardless of what I have prepared. They tell me when I am avoiding what I call my God-time,  when there is something with which I don’t want to deal and I know I’ve reached a point where I must. They tell me when I am embarrassed because I am not being the person God has created me to be. As I investigated the reason for Saturday mornings tears, I realized that God was calling attention not only to my embarrassment but to heartbreak.

For several days, I have been obsessed with an agonizing combination of national news and anniversary documentaries on the 1960s. Even though I was raised in a household where newspapers were delivered every day and ignorance of current events was met with intense disapproval, I have tried to tune out. Why tune in when I will only get depressed and angry, lose sleep, and not be able to do anything to change the situation? God reminded me on Saturday that I am able to do something as is every individual. What we each are gifted to do on any given day may be different but we all are capable of doing things that will change the situation. We may not know what the impact is of what we do or say but we can be sure that doing and saying nothing is not an option, not if we have hearts, not if we have souls. The tipping point for my heartbreak on Saturday was the treatment of children, children who are being separated from their families by our government, and the failure of so many Christians to even express any outrage. So today I add my one voice to the voices of those Christians who are speaking out.

One of my pet peeves as a pastor has been hearing church going Christians go on and on about how sad it is that there are so few children in worship or Sunday school. One church in which I served even had a room filled with decades old toys and furniture for children, maintained as if the children who had roamed the halls 20 or 30 years ago would some day miraculously reappear. The same people who bemoaned the childless state of the church also were the people who did not see the huge number of children who lived in walking distance of the church. They also showed no concern for the children who came to the church every Sunday afternoon as part of a congregation that rented space in the building.

For example, one Sunday as our congregation had a reception in the fellowship hall, members of the other congregation began to arrive for their service. Their pastor would pick up many of them in a small van, dropping off people a van-load at a time. Since our trustees were adamant that the other congregation did not enter the building before their scheduled time, adults and children were standing outside on a concrete parking lot in the July heat, patiently waiting. Our senior pastor invited them in over intense objection and later was penalized by some of the members of our congregation for having done so. Why do I share this story?

I share it because it is an example of what happens when we start to see some people as less than others. I believe most of the individuals in the congregation genuinely wanted to welcome and nurture children in the building again. The problem was that consciously or unconsciously many of the members had narrowed their definition of children to the images, characteristics, and qualities that made them comfortable. They wanted children, but the children in the neighborhood and the children of the other congregation did not come within that definition. There were differences of dress, mannerisms, language, and ethnicity that led to discomfort and fear. Somehow these little beings were threatening at best and at worst non entities. They were invisible, except when someone needed to be blamed for spilled juice or some other similar capital offense. The senior pastor, who also reached out to the neighborhood children, was first ostracized and then removed as senior pastor, unsupported and unprotected by the local church and denominational powers that be. Children were desperately wanted in the building, in the denomination, in the faith — certain kinds of children that is.

Even though I was supportive of the senior pastor and took minor risks in what I would do or say during my tenure there, I must add myself to the list of people who were not vocal enough. Would I have opened the door if I had been the senior pastor or member of the congregation at the time? Probably not. As much as my heart may have wanted to do so, my mind kept saying no. My own snobbery, my own selfishness, my own fear combined to keep me from acting.

Apply that same combination in my own mind and apply the mindset of those members of the congregation who limited their definition of children to the children crossing our border with Mexico and you may understand what I mean by heartbreak. Regardless of any of our views on immigration policy, national security, or economic policy, there is no justification for separating any child from her family simply because they are trying to enter the United States. Let me repeat that. Regardless of any of our views on immigration policy, national security, or economic policy, there is no justification for what is taking place at our border with Mexico. If there is doubt as to whether what is being reported is true, then our response should not be to simply convince ourselves that it is not true or content ourselves with research from sources that will yield the answer we want.

As people of faith we have a responsibility to speak whether it is to our elected officials, from our pulpits, or in response to our colleagues. We must not allow our policy positions, our political affiliations, our fears, or our definitions of patriotism take precedence over our faith. Being Christian and being American are not the same thing. They never have been. On our best days as a nation, they overlap. Those are the days when we demonstrate our compassion for all people, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, economic status, or citizenship status. Those are the days when we are courageous enough and compassionate enough to see the humanity in every person and to act accordingly. On our worst days as a nation, being Christian and being American are diametrically opposed. Those are the days when only certain kinds of people are deemed worthy of entering our sanctuaries, our communities, or our nation. Those are the days when only certain kinds of people are deemed worthy of compassion, of value, of being seen and heard. Those are the days when we become so fearful of each other that we can no longer speak or act with civility. Those are the days when our version of Christianity and our calls for religious freedom are not about being free to express our love for each other or being hospitable to and welcoming of each other, but instead about seeking justification for excluding others and for refusing to face our fears of what is different or unknown. Unfortunately, those are the days in which we are living.

If you have not tuned in to any of the recent documentaries on the 1960s, I encourage you to take the time to do so. I also encourage you to do so in a group of people who you trust and who you know have different opinions from your own. It is the 50th anniversary of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Robert Kennedy and there are a host of documentaries on each of them, on the civil rights movement, on the Vietnam War and the related protests, and on the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon and the contentious political conventions and processes in which they each were involved. Most importantly, listen to the words and watch the actions of ordinary people, both the footage of the time and their reflections on the time. They are us. We have more sophisticated and subtle ways of ignoring each other, fearing each other, and hating each other. We have more ways to justify being too busy to engage each other, to be aware of what is actually occurring in our country, and to seek ways of learning and sharing. But at the end of the day, they are us.

In these days in which we are living, I pray that we will have the courage to be the people of faith we are called to be. When we dig deep within ourselves, we know when our faith and our fears are being used to divide us. We know when so-called faith leaders are more concerned about their personal fame and fortune than about the people they claim to lead or the God they claim to serve. Yes, as a nation we must address issues of immigration and national security, but I submit to you that as with any issues, we must address them with our hearts and our minds. As Christians, that means putting ourselves in the position of the least of these. It means remembering that there is a way or ways in which each of us is among the least of these. Whenever we are tempted to turn away, to remain silent, or to champion division and exclusion, we must remember the incarnation of God, not in a first-century Roman citizen or in a wealthy merchant or in the politically sponsored clergy of the day but in Jesus of Nazareth, a non-citizen, a poor laborer, a child refugee in Egypt, a person who spoke Aramaic, not the Greek language of the Empire, and a person to whom many religious people closed their doors and their minds because listening to Jesus of Nazareth was too inconvenient, too disruptive of daily life and deeply held beliefs, and too socially, politically, and economically risky. We know in our minds what it means to listen to Jesus of Nazareth. We know in our hearts what it means to be followers of Christ. May we speak and act in the ways the Christ in and of our heart guides.

Amani,

La Ronda