Thursday, November 12, 2015

Not Quite Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee’s recently released hidden and forgotten novel. While it is the sequel to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, it was actually written before Mockingbird, but was not accepted for publication. Instead Lee was urged to write her more famous and previously only novel. Watchman takes place in the mid 1950’s, 20 years after Mockingbird, as the now-26 year old Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch returns to her hometown of Maycomb, AL for a visit.

Jean Louise has graduated from college, moved to New York City, and comes home to find a very different town than she remembers as a child growing up. Her older brother, Jim, has died from a congenital heart problem that also took his mother, and her good friend and would be-lover Hank has returned from fighting in World War II and is now practicing law with Jean Louise’s father, Atticus Finch. Atticus has aged into his 70’s, somewhat slowed by arthritis, but still a well-respected lawyer, and former Alabama state legislator. Calpurnia, the black woman who raised Jean Louise and served in her father’s house, has left because of her own arthritis and now lives with her family on the other side (read “black”) of Maycomb. In her place is Jean Louise’s aristocratic Aunt Alexandra, who takes care of Atticus and continually reminds Jean Louise to stick with her kind, meaning not just staying away from “Negroes” but also “poor white trash” like Hank. Jean Louise finds herself taken back at the racist, classist nature of her family and town, but her greatest shock does not occur until she sneaks into a meeting of the Maycomb [White] Citizen’s Council.

While a racist fear-mongering guest speaker spews bigoted hatred to a group of the town’s leading male citizens, sits Atticus and Hank at the leadership table implicitly affirming his racist views by their presence. Jean Louise is devastated to the point of vomiting she realizes her father’s involvement in the group and the views it holds. She is so traumatized she can’t speak of her it for days. When she finally shares her feelings, it is to her Uncle Jack, her father’s brother. Uncle Jack acknowledges Atticus’ involvement in the group and counsels Jean Louise to she see her father and beloved Hank are not and never were the idealistic icons of virtue she remembers as a child. He points out that while Atticus sits on the council, he does not share all their views, and is committed as a lawyer ultimately to upholding the law, whether it affects black or white. He points out that Atticus defended Boo Radley all those years ago in Mockingbird not because he believed Negroes and whites were equal or even should live together, but because he believed that everyone deserved fairness in a court of law whether they were black or white, rich or poor. However we learn that Atticus’s so called respect for the law is tainted by his resentment for the Federal Government’s orders to desegregate, and his objection to the NAACP who he sees as “outside agitators” who stir up trouble that “didn’t exist before” between blacks and whites in Maycomb.

Go Set a Watchman only tells this story from the perspective the whites in Maycomb, except for one brief visit Jean Louise makes to her black former maid, Calpurnia. Jean Louise remembers her as a surrogate mother who loved and cared for her. However, when she visits Calpurnia, she finds a woman filled with quiet resentment and distrust of Maycomb’s white folks. Jean Louise realizes that there was another side to Calpurnia’s life in Maycomb she never recognized and never could fully understand, that being a black person in Alabama in the 1950’s was to be a despised and degraded “other” who had to put on a nice face just to survive.

Jean Louise eventually confronts her father in deep anger, and decides to leave Maycomb, never to return. However, before she can catch the next train out of town, her Uncle confronts her and urges her to calm down. At his urging she returns and reconciles with her father, and that is where the story ends. The reader is left wondering what will happen with Jean Louise. Will she stay in Maycomb or go? Will she adjust to her father’s way of seeing the South, or will she stay and work actively to challenge the South’s racist ways? Her “problem” according to her uncle, and presumably to Lee, is that she has grown up and now sees her father as the fallible human being he is. The issue of racism, seemingly so prominent through much of the story, fades into the background by the end of the book. Instead of being a commentary on the racism of the South in the 1950’s, Go Set a Watchman becomes a coming of age novel, and racism merely a vehicle of Jean Louise new awareness of her world.

I found this ending both disturbing and unrealistic. Lee is/was a gifted author who has a way of bringing people to life in her dialogue, and she was writing at a time when the South was caught up in the throes of a growing Civil Rights Movement. In its time Watchman was a courageous book, and it is little wonder that Harper Collins was afraid to publish it, not wanting to alienate their Southern white constituency. While not mentioned, the time frame of the story means that the Montgomery Bus Boycott very well could have happened. The conflicts in Birmingham and Selma where yet to occur. 

While White Citizen Councils of this time did consist mainly of upper class whites who looked down on the Klan as “white trash,” both groups were complicit in the ongoing injustice of Jim Crow, and the violence inflicted on the South’s black citizenry. Atticus Finch in his sophisticated racism is one of the “white moderates” Dr. King criticizes in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Despite their adherence to the law and decency, white moderates like Atticus Finch did little to stop the Klan’s violent activities. Moreover Uncle Jack’s assurance that there were many whites in Maycomb and Alabama who shared Jean Louise’s active abhorrence of racism, those whites who did act against the racism of the South like Virginia and Clifford Durr, Anne and Carl Braden, Myles Horton, Clarence Jordan and Robert Graetz were beaten, jailed, vilified as “Communists” and generally cut off from the wider white community (I tell the stories of these folks in my book, White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice). Harper Lee may have thought the South was changing gradually on its own, but the recent controversy over the Confederate flag, the shootings in the Charleston Emmanuel AME church, the numerous black church burnings that followed, and efforts by Alabama legislature to impede Blacks from being able to register to vote, reveal that without the Civil Rights Movement, the NAACP, Federal government intervention and much more, nothing would have changed. I fear that in the hands of white readers naïve to the real history of the South during this period, Go Set a Watchman will reinforce the ignorance and prejudices against seeing the struggles for black people in the America for what they really were and still are. 

Harper Lee died a few years ago and so is not here to explain or defend what she wrote. In essence she needed to write a sequel to Watchman so that we could learn how it turned out for Jean Louise. Her Uncle Jack was right in saying she was not alone in her strong anti-racist views; there were white Southerners who fought to bring racial justice and equity alongside of their black counterparts, but there numbers were relatively few and their experiences difficult. Did Jean Louise join their ranks or did she quietly cop to the pressure to racist status quo of her era? We will never know. Instead we are left with what for me is an unsatisfactory, troubling and misleading conclusion.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Excerpt - White Allies for Racial Justice

Yesterday, I received a shipment of my forthcoming book, White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice. This book is the product of nearly four years of  love and labor, as I researched and then wrote the stories of 18 White Americans who joined people of color in the struggle for racial justice. Their stories are relatively unknown, and I have shared them to provide examples for White people today on what it means to be a true anti-racist ally.

What follows are a few excerpts from the first chapter, where I share my purpose in writing the book. I hope you find these words intriguing and worth reading more. The book is due out November 20 but can be pre-ordered through Amazon or Orbis Books. Enjoy!


One day in the 1850’s, a young girl named Abbie Whinnery was swinging on the iron gate in front of her house. Abbie was the daughter of John Whinnery, one of the stationmasters of the underground railroad in the staunchly abolitionist town of Salem, Ohio. The night before, a group of runaway slaves had been shepherded into Salem and, at that very moment, were hiding in the Whinnery’s attic until the evening fell and they would be moved further north in the network of safe houses that had been developed through Ohio from Kentucky to the Canada. As Abbie played in her front yard, a marshal and two deputies rode up to the house. Even though Ohio was considered a “free state,” the Fugitive Slave Law empowered law enforcement officials from the slave-holding states to seek and arrest slaves who had escaped north to places like Ohio.

Approaching the young girl in pigtails, the marshal asked Abbie “You folks got any slaves in your house, Miss?” Without batting an eye, Abbie replied “Not a one.” Because Abbie and her family were Quakers, and Quakers were known not to lie, the marshal said “Come on then, men. She’s a Quaker” and went on their way.

After the men had departed, Abbie’s father who had overheard the whole conversation came out to the gate. “Abbie, he said, “I heard what thee said to the men who came here. Thee knows there are six men hidden in our attic this minute. Did thee tell an untruth?”

Again without hesitation Abbie responded, “Oh no, Papa. He asked about slaves, but thee told me that no human beings are ever slaves. They are free men to us, aren’t they?”

Whether this story is true or apocryphal, it illustrates that, despite the racism that prevailed throughout the United States of the 1850’s in both the North and South, there were White people like the Whinnery family that were able to transcend the attitudes of their time, and who risked arrest, ostracism and in some cases even death in order to oppose that racism and to ally themselves with those brutalized and degraded by it. All too often the stories of these brave anti-racist allies like Abbie Whinnery are left untold.
My conviction is that White people who have become sensitized to the challenges of racism can be encouraged by stories of White anti-racist allies who have gone before them. These stories provide models and examples as to how Whites today must face the challenges of White privilege and White supremacy. Whites who have become aware of the horrific history of White oppression of People of Color need to know that in spite of that awful history, there were people who saw beyond their “White blinders” and took actions toward racial justice in their time.  These White anti-racist allies bucked the trends of their time and for that they need to be remembered. I am in no way suggesting that they were somehow without prejudices and flaws, for indeed they were. However despite those flaws, the very fact that they lived as they did can give Whites hope that even though they may still struggle with the effects of conscious and unconscious racism throughout their lives, they too can join the forces for reconciliation and justice.
In telling the stories of these White anti-racist allies, I do not want to suggest that their stories efforts surpass the accomplishments of those courageous People of Color who have always had to lead the way….Rather, I hope to show that throughout the history of racism there have been White folks who have been willing to follow courageous People of Color in their fight for justice, and that they chose to use the power and access that their Whiteness afforded them to work for a more racially just society… [D]espite [their] shortcomings the people highlighted in this book came to a place in their lives where they took an active stance to oppose the racist practices and policies of their day, sometimes at great personal cost… My hope is that these stories will inspire the telling of other stories, many of which may be known in only limited circles. Moreover, I hope that Whites and People of Color reading this book can see that, despite the horrific history of White racism over the past 500 years, there is also a legacy of opposition comprised of White anti-racist allies from whom we can learn and in whose steps we can follow.

 The story of Abby Whinnery comes from  Dale Shaffer, Salem: A Quaker City History (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2002),43.
 The term "white blinders comes from Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel – Revised and Expanded (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

Saturday, October 10, 2015

What Susan G. Komen Can Teach the Gun Violence Prevention Movement

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” (Source Unknown)

When I heard of the tragic shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg last week, my first response was sadness, followed quickly be a sense of resignation That tragic scene is one we have seen played over and over again.

In response the media talking heads, as well news outlets across the country, began discussing what we can do about these shootings. Pro-gun advocates were quick to respond with their mantra that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” so don’t blame the guns and don’t step on the 2nd Amendment. Republican candidate Ben Carson even said we should train and arm kindergarten teachers. Democratic politicians, including Pres. Obama and Hilary Clinton, expressed their sadness and outrage, and called for changes in this or that legislation, while the pro-gun advocates politicians insisted we have enough laws that just need to be enforced. It all sounded so much the same as after every other highly publicized shooting.

Umpqua Comm College Victims

And as I expected, over the past week I received a flurry of emails from all the gun violence
prevention groups I am part of, encouraging me to share their outrage and write my representative, sign a petition, or send a donation to help their efforts to stop this insanity. My Facebook page and Twitter feed were filled with links to articles, charts, and videos expressing how ludicrous the gun lobby’s argument is, yet how much they control the politicians with their campaign contributions. All of us this is true and sincere, and yet, this predictable response of the prevention community also seems a bit insane: doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

While the incident in Oregon got national play for a few days, every night in cities and communities across the country the same violent scenario plays out on a smaller, less noticeable scale. Young people, particularly young men, are killing each other at an alarming rate with guns acquired illegally through straw purchasing. Christopher Harper-Mercer, the Oregon shooter, acquired his guns legally, which raises serious concerns about the background check system in this country. The unnamed young man who killed another unnamed young man last night on some city street acquired his illegally through the straw purchasing process. Yet both are joined by the reality of living in a gun-worshiping culture that ultimately benefits the firearms manufacturers and dealers who reap the profits from both the legal and illegal gun market.

Then just yesterday there were shootings at colleges in Flagstaff, AZ and Houston, TX . As I have taken in all of these events and the predictable reactions on both sides, I have realized that the insanity is not just with the gun lobby, the insanity is with the gun violence prevention community too. We keep responding the same way, hoping for a legislative response that isn’t going to come. So we have to come up with another approach, another strategy, because the one we’re using ain’t working.

Last weekend in Philadelphia, the Komen Foundation (formerly The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation) held its annual Three Day Breast Cancer Walk raising over $2.7 million in one weekend. This is just one of hundreds of such walks held in communities all over the country. In the spring there will be the Race for the Cure and several more millions of dollars will be raised. If you have ever been to a Komen Foundation event, you know they are more than just a walk or race. Komen events are a production, a rock concert, where you the participant are the rock star. Every participant is robed with pink shirts, hats, scarves – you name it. There are jumbotrons with media folks talking up the event to the whole metro area. There is loud music and dozens of sponsors handing out free goodies. There is a high energy MC pumping up the crowd, and when you finish your walk or run, you are publicly congratulated for your effort. It is a masterfully orchestrated event designed for maximum impact.

While the Komen Foundation has raised all sorts of money for breast cancer research and care, they also have made breast cancer an issue of public concern. Professional sports teams wear pink shoes and arm bands, celebrities tell their stories, and political leaders show up pledging their active support. Why?—because Komen has spent huge amounts of money on social marketing, convincing you, me and the powers-that-be that we need to care about those suffering from breast cancer. They didn’t pass a bill, they didn’t just send an email blast; they changed culture and the way we think about breast cancer.

Public health advocates have declared gun violence to be an issue of public health, a social disease devastating lives in our society. However, we don't talk about gun violence as a terminal, social disease; rather it is debated as an issue of personal rights. Organizations like Komen have raised personal and public awareness about their public health issue, and at the same time changed the way we think about it. The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation has done something similar for MS. Last weekend I was supposed to go on the MS City to Shore Ride, but it got cancelled due to storms. I knew little about MS before joining the race and raising money for the ride, but because I wanted to go on a long bike ride, I became a promoter of their cause; why couldn’t the gun violence prevention do the same thing?

Instead of raising money to change the mind of entrenched politicians, we need a popular movement for one of the most deadly public health issues of our time: gun violence.  We need to have thousands of people marching, biking or running for the cause of gun violence prevention. Since the NRA has got the politicians to defund research in the CDC, we should raise millions of dollars for research into how to reduce gun violence, to train local police how to look for would-be shooters, and support for the victims and families traumatized by gun violence. We should sponsor huge ad campaigns like did against the tobacco companies. I am imagining something much bigger, much splashier, with much more impact. Something on the order of the Million Man March for gun violence prevention where the focus is not on whether one does or does not own a gun, but how we can work to reduce the violence.

The group we would be primarily trying to influence would  be neither hardline pro-gun folks like those who showed up to protest Pres. Obama’s trip to Oregon to speak with grieving families, nor would it be folks like me who never owned a gun and never wanted to. Rather, the focus of this campaign needs to be those gun owners who like to hunt, and target shoot, or who have a handgun in their house safely locked away, but who also recognize the unfettered distribution of guns is not the way to go. We want to focus on those folks who are caught in the middle of the polarized debate, those who are deeply concerned about safety for their families, but don’t know if the answer is more or less guns. We need to big splash events like the Race for the Cure with t-shirts, celebrities and music, where the talking heads and the politicians feel compelled to show up, where sports teams can wear apparel that symbolizes the need to keep our communities safe and corporations put our logo on their public relations literature.

Where are the social entrepreneurs out there who have the grit and the experience to make the cause of fighting gun violence as popular as fighting breast cancer or MS? No one needs to decide whether they are for or against gun rights, but could work together to help victims and fund research on how best to reduce gun violence. My point is basically this: gun violence is public health disease rooted in a sick, violent culture. We need to address this problem at the root, we need to change culture.

Breast cancer has the Susan B. Komen Foundation and the Race for the Cure; AIDS has the AIDS Walk; Multiple Sclerosis has the MS “City to Shore” bike ride; Alzheimer’s disease has the Alzheimer’s Walk. What organization will be created to make the reduction of gun violence an event and a production, you can’t ignore and can’t stay away from?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What It's Like to be a White Guy

On the first Thursday morning of every month I participate in a multi-racial, multi-faith discussion group on race called NewCORE (New Conversations on Race and Ethnicity), an organization founded eight years ago after then-Senator Barack Obama’ landmark speech on race in which he called for a new conversation on race. The format for our group is pretty simple. Each month there is a “presenter” who tells his or her “race story,” while the rest of us listen intently, and then ask questions designed to draw more of the person’s story.  Soon the conversation deepens into an exploration of how we are seeking to live out our lives and professions in ways that fight racism and promote greater inter-racial understanding.

During a discussion a couple months ago, a white Jewish woman said: “I don’t have a desire to be a white male, but I have always wondered what it would be like to be a white male just for a day.” Sitting next to me was a African-American pastor who I have known for nearly 18 years, who turned to me in good humor and said loud enough for all to hear “Yea, Drick what is it like to be a white guy?”

I looked at the only other white male in the room (in a group of about 15), rolled my eyes, and said: “Well, in this group, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.” Despite that response, the question has hung with me these past two months, as I have wondered what my white Jewish female colleague and my black male friend would see or experience if there were put on my skin for a day.

Peggy McIntosh in her classic essay on White Male Privilege makes the point that one of the characteristics of privilege is that most of the time one is largely unaware he has it. Thus there are aspects of my whiteness and male-ness that  females and non-white males see to which I am just plain oblivious. Over the last twenty years or so, I have deliberately and consciously sought out relationships and learning events where I can be enlightened and reminded of the ways in which my whiteness and maleness gives me credibility and respectability others are denied. I have become sensitive to the ways in which I am given information or access unavailable to others. When the opportunity arises I have sought to call attention to the ways in which I sense women and people of color have been excluded. I have consciously worked to put myself in positions where I am under the leadership of or learning from women and people of color. I believe all of these efforts are positive, yet as my colleague Alexia Salvatierra often reminds folks, the very nature of privilege is that one has a choice as to whether or not to engage these issues. So I suspect that one of the first things my female and black colleague would notice is the extra choices my white male skin would give them.

I have become increasingly aware of how much in the normal course of the day, I am given deference, even without asking for it. I work with an African American woman, and often we will compare notes on how we were received or responded to, and consistently I am given special or positive treatment she is denied. Moreover, in my work environment I rarely walk into a room where the group is not dominated by white folks and run by white folks. In those instances where I am in a room dominated by people of color, I know implicitly it is the exception in that environment, not the rule. Over the past few years I have seen the administration of my university turn over to almost completely white men. With this group I have tried to use the power of my white maleness to raise ignored issues such as the exclusion of women and folks of color in places of power, or how the “diversity” we are so proud of is not consistently spread across the university. While folks don’t like to hear me say such things, I get a hearing, and I don’t have to fear being accused of playing the “race card,” whereas folks of color always have to weigh the risks of speaking up. So I suspect if my colleagues had on my white male skin they would see much more attention paid to their concerns and with a great deal more respect than they are used to.

However, the thing my colleagues could not get in a day of being white would be the entire history of my life as a white guy being told in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that I am better-than, smarter-than, more well-connected-than and therefore more deserving-than others. Being given those messages (especially when you don’t know that is what is being said) leads to a kind of entitlement which I often feel, but I have learned I did not earn or deserve. I can look at any corporate board, or any table of leaders, or any list of outstanding citizens and see people like me. Despite all the talk about diversity and inclusion, white guys still run the world in their white ways.

Even the messages about my privilege can be twisted into a kind of superiority. I remember my parents stressing that because I had come from a  “good home” where I was loved and provided for, I had a responsibility to “give back to society” and help others. My parents not only taught that philanthropic spirit, they modeled it. The same message was stressed in the large, all-white suburban church we attended. Seemingly a good thing, it led me to feel like it was my “calling” to go an help the “less fortunate”, which has been the trajectory of my life since high school. I don’t regret following this path, yet even in that message there was the meta-message that I was better-than and that THEY needed the help, not me. Consequently, I have spent my adulthood seeking to reshape that message into a frame of mutual learning and mutual need, but every once in a while my “do-gooder” elitism emerges.

Unless my colleagues had lived a lifetime with that constant message of being just a little bit better than, I don’t know if they would have the inflated white male ego I sometimes recognize in myself. It is not who I am but it is the person I am told I am supposed to be, and it can catch me off guard at the strangest times. Being told and believing I have something to offer others is a source of inner confidence, but the more aware I become of my internalized racist superiority, the more I realize that confidence is sometimes misplaced.

I am fortunate to have friends and colleagues with whom I can discuss these things. I have groups like NewCORE, Training for Change, and workshops at Temple University’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership that help keep me humble and keep me seeking ways to be a more reliable anti-racist ally. I have friends, colleagues and students who regularly point me in the direction of authors they think I should read. I am fortunate to have these people and resources in my grasp. They keep me learning, growing, and humble.

Were it possible for my white Jewish female and African-American male colleagues to get inside my skin for just one day, they would not necessarily have the life history that white male privilege affords one. Nonetheless, I suspect there would still be lots of things they would see, feel, hear, and sense that I have yet to learn or become aware of. So what is it like to be a white guy? I have some idea, but there is still much I have to learn and ways I need to change. It will take a lifetime… and then some … to find the answer.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Pope Paradox

Pope Francis at Independence Hall

Like thousands of other people in Philadelphia I have been caught up in the frenzy of Pope Francis during his visit to our city. While I have not attended any of the live events, – his speech at Independence Mall, the Festival of Families, his parade through the throngs, and the Mass on the Parkway – I did have occasion to go into the city for a pre-Pope rally around justice issues on Friday evening and a Pope bike ride through the car-less streets of downtown on Saturday morning. Moreover, I have been watching with great interest the events surrounding him and his words to the faithful. (For those not in or from Philadelphia, the Pope has come  to Philadelphia in large part to speak to the Roman Catholic Meeting of Families, a triennial event lifting up the importance of family, which has brought thousands of people from around the world to the week leading up to the Pope’s visit.)

Pope bike ride
While I am a very “low church” Mennonite, I have been fascinated by this man at the helm of the most hierarchical church in the world who faithful Roman Catholics believe to be the spokesman for God. While I do not hold him in the reverently high regard that most faithful Roman Catholics do, I have found his outspokenness on immigration, concern for the poor, the importance of the family, and the dangers of globalized capitalism to be refreshing and inspiring. However, I think like most people, what has touched me most is his personal interest in the children, the broken, the forgotten, and the ignored.  When in Washington, DC, he turned down a lunch invitation with Congresspeople to meet with homeless folks. He spent his Sunday morning in a prison with the incarcerated. He made sure that the undocumented and immigrant got the choice seats at his speech on Independence Mall, and he listened intently and responded personally to the stories of families at the Festival. While mildly disappointed (but not surprised) that he did not take up the cause of women religious and the role of LGBT folks in the Church, like most, I found that I was impressed with his forthrightness, and willingness to “speak truth to power.”

At the pre-Pope rally sponsored by the PICO Network and POWER, I participated in a modified stations of the cross march, stopping to pause, reflect and pray at the Philadelphia Police headquarters, a Federal jail and detention center, a low wage service industry store, and the site where slaves of George Washington lived. At each site we lifted up issues and causes Pope Francis has discussed: police brutality, mass incarceration, exclusion of migrants from society, low wages, racism and oppression. Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish speakers called us to continue our work of resistance to injustice and work for justice. We prayed, we sang, we listened, we marched.

Security checkpoint
One of many strange things about this weekend has been the high police and military presence. In order to secure the Pope’s safety, there is a virtual military state in downtown Philadelphia. Police, national guard and bomb squad personnel are everywhere. Individuals must go through security checkpoints to gain access to the downtown streets. Wherever the Pope goes he is surrounded by a phalanx of Secret Service, Swiss Guard, black vans and police on bicycles as he smiles and waves from his Pope-mobile.

So I find myself with a bit of a Pope paradox. I do not appreciate the elevation of the male clergy of the Roman Catholic Church at the expense of others, but I am drawn by the powerful call to justice to the social teachings of the church and liberation theology orientation of Pope Francis.  The city has an air of peace, unity and serenity while it is dominated by military and security personnel. Mostly though, it is Pope Francis, himself, stopping his vehicle to kiss and bless babies, waving and smiling intently at all whom he passes, and taking time to listen to those fortunate few who have a chance to talk with him personally. Even while his robes, his throne-like chair, the royal Catholic  spirituality and the overwhelming presence of security surrounding him seems to defy the very spirit of Christ he is said to represent, at the same time his word, countenance, and interaction with people seems to embody that same spirit of Christ.

Sometimes the most important things in life are contained in paradox – an apparent contradiction pointing and embodying a deeper truth. If Pope Francis, the so- called “people’s Pope” can somehow communicate the radical truth of Jesus love and concern for justice, while challenging the power-brokers of governments and corporations, then he is a paradox I will embrace and continue to ponder.
Pope kissing Michael Keating, boy with cerebral palsy

[Pictures from author and Google Images]

Sunday, September 06, 2015

What Goes Around Comes Around

I have been watching with horror and anticipation the drama that has been unfolding with the refugees from the Syrian civil war seeking refuge in Europe. I could not fathom what it would have been like for a Hungarian law enforcement officer to have to push people away from the trains that would take them to Germany. I was relieved to hear that Germany and Austria agreed to take the refugees and that Hungary provided buses. However, these are not the only migrants seeking relief. A week or so ago there were reports of people seeking to get to England from France by walking through the Chunnel that runs between the two countries. Then of course, there are 11-12 million undocumented immigrants here in the United States, whom Donald Trump callously stereotypes as thugs and rapist, but who like their European counterparts are simply seeking security, safety and a place to live in peace. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has challenged her European counterparts to help refugees in the right thing to do. I wish her well.

As I read and watched the news of this unfolding crisis, I was reminded of something I would say to the kids I worked with in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, when they would contemplate getting involved in the drug trade or seek revenge for a perceived hurt. I used to say: “You know, what goes around comes around.” In other words, what you do today will consequences down the road, and will come back to you.

Yes – the violence is the reason refugees are fleeing Syria and other countries. However, the violence is the result of actions taken 15, 20, even 50 years ago that have led to a divided and war torn area of the world. The U.S. and European coalition constructed to attack and destabilize Saddam Hussein has caused that area of the world to plunge into utter chaos. Western addiction to oil made that region an “area of interest” to attack and “defend.” Moreover, our blind and total support of Israel  has made that nation a threat and destabilizing force for all in the region. Now Saddam was a brutal ruler, and rulers like Assad in Syria, and the Ayatollah in Iran have been brutal.  Israel has a right to its own security and ISIS is a legitimate threat. So I don’t want to oversimplify things. Yet, if one were to step back, they could see that the events following World War II in that region of the world  and subsequent decisions by Western nations to intervene in those countries and have led to refugees flowing into Europe.

Likewise, in the United States a similar process is at work. In the 1950’s and 1960’s large fruit companies like United Fruit (now Chiquita) propped up puppet governments in exchange for control of the productive farm land, even when it displaced millions of people from their homes. In the 1980’s the CIA waged a covert war against governments in several Central and South American countries in the “fight against Communism.” These efforts left many countries like Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua impoverished and devastated. Then President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that allowed U.S. companies to operate  there while paying subsistence wages, and avoiding safety and environmental regulations that existed in the U.S. However, while businesses and markets could flow freely between countries, no such arrangement was made for labor, so workers in the north and south ended up being impoverished and manipulated. Is it any wonder that people would risk their lives to come north just to survive?

Again, I don’t want to oversimplify. Obviously there are numerous other factors that come into play. However, beefing up the border patrol and building a wall simply avoids the issue. Choices that the U.S. leaders and companies made have come back to us. What goes around comes around.
One might be willing to forgive some bad decisions that looked good at the time but turned sour, if we were willing to learn from our mistakes. Instead our leaders build their wall, and blame the victims for doing what any sane person would do in order to survive and provide for their families. 

What is so troubling about statements made by would be political leaders like Donald Trump or European leaders like England’s David Cameron seeking to block the migrants from coming across the border, is that so many regular citizens agree with them. Let us imagine for a moment what it would be like to be in the shoes of a Syrian refugee or a young Honduran man seeking to enter the United States, and honestly ask ourselves: would we do anything different?

One of the American classic stories is John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the story of a family from Oklahoma seeking to go to California to escape the Dust Bowl and poverty, in search of opportunities to start a new life. Like the refugees, like undocumented immigrants, they were vilified and turned away, blamed for their own misery. Steinbeck wrote that story to hold the mirror up to every American and ask – would any of us do any different?

 I have no simple solutions to migration crises around the world, but it seems that violence, manipulation, overthrowing rulers not to our liking, and then putting up fences and walls to keep the victims of actions out is not addressing the deeper problems. Perhaps our leaders need to read history and read Steinbeck, and then ask as Angela Merkel is trying to do – What is the right thing to do in the moment of crisis? However beyond that they also must consider what must we do differently to avert these crises all together. Otherwise we will continue to experience (without getting the lesson) that what goes around comes around.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Small Things and Simple Pleasures

This past week my work was extremely stressful. I felt, as I often do these days, that my responsibilities far outstrip by capacities to meet them. I feel beholden to my colleagues, my students, my friends and family members. I worry. I pray, I meditate, I remind myself of all my blessings, and then I worry some more. Sleep can elude me and I come to the end of the day and the week physically and emotionally spent.

While the nature of my work does not really end when the weekend begins, there is something about Friday that allows me to let down. However this week seemed extra special. When I came home last night my wife had cooked a simple meal: hot dogs, fresh corn, and beans and tomatoes from a friend’s garden. Not elegant, simple – yet so refreshing and delightful.

Then on Saturday morning as I often do, I got on my bike for a long ride along the Schuylkill River Trail and then off into the hills north and west of the river. In the beginning the air was clear and fresh, and lots of people were out walking, running, rollerblading and biking. The sun was bright but not harsh, and when I happened to ride through a shaded area, it was cool and invigorating. As often happens when I take my morning rides, I felt  sluggish at first and somewhat out-of-sorts, but after a few miles the endorphins kicked in and I felt alive and at times almost euphoric. At about mile 16 I was going up a long hill and though my legs had to work there was a rush at just being alive. At mile 28 I bent low and pumped my legs on a long straight stretch, and was aware of how fortunate I was to be strong and healthy enough to feel the rush that comes in such moments.When I finished after 32 miles, I felt tired but complete.

Part of the stress of my week is normal work stuff, some is related to changes taking place in my job leading to feelings of uncertainty, and a lot of it comes from considering the state of the world: the violence, the cold-hearted hatred of some leaders, the desperation of migrants seeking refuge and rescue, the poor state of our educational systems especially for the poor, and wars all over the globe. I wonder, as did many a psalmist where God is in all of this, is there any reason for hope, is there any point in trying to change things, and no clear answer comes. So I need these moments of simple pleasure not to escape these other things, but to balance them out.

As I rode my bike I was reminded of some advice the poet Ranier Marie Rilke gave to a young protégé in his classic work,  Letters to a Young Poet, where he describes what Buddhist writers call “mindfulness”, that attention to the wonder of ordinary things and taken-for-granted pleasures. He wrote:
Here in this vast landscape, swept by the winds and sea, I wonder if there is any person anywhere who can answer the questions that stir in the depths of your being. For even the best miss the mark when they use words for what is elusive and nearly unsayable. But nonetheless, I believe you are not left without a solution, if you turn to things like those that are refreshing my eyes. If you ally yourself with nature, with her sheer existence, with the small things that others overlook and that so suddenly can become huge and immeasurable; if you have this love for what is plain and try very simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent, and somehow more reconciling, perhaps not in your conscious mind, but in your innermost awareness.

Small things and simple pleasures are always available, if I simply take time to note them and then take them in.

[Photos taken by the author]