Sunday, March 31, 2013

In the Presence of My Enemies

This past week as I remembered the sacrifice of Jesus, I was meditating on the familiar words from Psalm 23.5 which read: “You [speaking of God] prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” I memorized the entire 23rd psalm way back in Sunday School at Colonial Church growing up, but this week I got wondering: what does that verse 5 actually mean?

The author of Psalm 23 is supposedly King David, who before he came to power was something of a renegade, if you will, a freedom fighter or a terrorist (depending on your political persuasion), and the words just before verse 5 say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me.” So David is remembering God’s protection, which for him was not metaphorical but intensely real because people were out to kill him. King Saul had sent out an elite team of soldiers to find and kill the renegade David.

Then there are those words of verse 5 which say that God prepares a table, that is a meal, for David “in the presence of his enemies” – the very people out to get him. In Ancient Near Eastern culture sharing a meal with someone was an intensely personal, even intimate act. To share a meal with someone was in a sense to invite someone into your life, your home, even your family. For David to have table fellowship with the people out to get him ---well that just isn’t a good strategy for survival, much less make sense rationally or politically. Yet that is what David says God has done – he has placed him in the vulnerable position of opening his life to the very people who despise him and even want to kill him.

As far as I know, I don’t have enemies like that. I am not aware of anyone who wants to kill me, much less even harm me. However, I am aware of people I despise; however when I think of them, they are not people I know personally, but people whose actions, decisions and perspectives on life are directly opposed to my own. I am thinking people like Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA who keeps spouting his pro-gun rhetoric; and Governor Tom Corbett who has gutted money for social services and education in PA; or members of the Tea Party, or the KKK or the pro-gun zealots who keep showing up at gun violence prevention rallies. I am thinking of the banks and payday loan sharks who cheat poor people out of the little money they have. I am thinking of impersonal corporations who get richer by the minute and squeeze the rest of us out all in the name of profit. These are people I consider my enemies…but they probably don’t know I exist or if they do, it is no more personal than I know them.

I guess that’s the point of this verse - that God does not want us to love or hate in the abstract, but rather to interact with people in real space and time. Curtiss Paul DeYoung, professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University (St. Paul, MN) and an author of several books on racial reconciliation, has said that reconciliation has to start with relationships. I know from personal experience that true change starts with relationships too. What David is saying in Psalm 23 is that God is about the business of bringing folks together who despise one another and saying in essence: Before you keep hating on one another, why don’t you get to know one another.

These words remind me of something Abraham Lincoln was supposed to have said – that the way we get rid of our enemies is to make them our friends. Now Lincoln did not succeed in that endeavor and was even killed by an enemy, but the sentiment is a worthy one. When I see Democrats and Republicans bickering in Congress, when Syrians are killing each other, when North Koreans are threatening South Koreans, I wonder: do these folks even know one another? Have they even tried Psalm 23.5?

I doubt that Wayne LaPierre or Tom Corbett would ever become my best friends or that the CEO of Exxon or Smith & Wesson and I would ever agree on much, but perhaps if we had forums to really get to know one another, we might not be so divided; we might be able to find compromises we could live with. I don’t know. Perhaps it is just a pipe dream; but those words keep rolling around in my mind: God prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies and my cup overflows – with love, joy and understanding.

That’s what I have been thinking about this past Holy Week. It’s my prayer, my hope, and the thing that keeps me working for justice, reconciliation and a better world – so help me God.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

White on "Being White on Philly"

Full disclosure. I am white and don’t live in Philly. In some people’s minds these two facts alone disqualify me from saying anything meaningful about race in Philadelphia. I very much would like to live in Philadelphia, but for various reasons my wife and I have decided to live in the western suburbs. The fact that we are white and middle class gives us the freedom to make choices about where we will live that others do not have. I fully recognize these realities and recognize that these alone could discredit anything I might say on the matter.

However, let me also point out that while I do not live in Philly, I spend a great deal of my time in West Philadelphia working on issues of racial reconciliation, economic justice and gun violence prevention alongside people of many of races and cultures. I am part of city wide groups like NewCORE (New Conversations on Race and Ethnicity) and POWER (Philadelphians Organized for Witness, Empowerment and Rebuilding) multi-racial groups addressing issues of racial and economic disparity in the city. I also teach courses on race and ethnic relations and social justice at a local college. So I have some credibility; yet the very fact I must list these credentials betrays the delicacy with which issues of race and class must be approached in our society.

Having said all of this, I have been somewhat surprised by the controversy created by Philadelphia Magazine’s recent article “Being White in Philly.” The article largely focuses on the experiences and perspectives of middle class white folks in a section of the city known as Brewerytown. Last fall one of my students wrote a community analysis paper about Brewerytown and concluded that there was clear divide of race and class that existed on either side of the Poplar and Girard Avenues in the neighborhood. “Being White in Philly” largely illustrates the accuracy of my student’s analysis. If there was a flaw in the article it was not the stories of white experience, but rather that the article should have been entitled “Being White in a Part of Philly” or better yet “The Experience of Some Whites in One Part of Philly.” Nonetheless, Brewerytown is not the only neighborhood in the city experiencing the division of race and class that is described in the article.

The negative reaction to the article seems to imply that the author, Richard Huber, was presenting the white perspective (and therefore the definitive perspective) on race relations in Philadelphia. I must confess that I did not read it that way. The article does not capture the experiences of all whites in Philly, but it does describe the perspective of some whites. This perspective is often not voiced precisely because of the reaction like that of Mayor Michael Nutter, who in a public letter to the Philadelphia Human Relations Commissionaccused the Philadelphia Magazine of “[sinking] to a new low,” propagating “disparaging beliefs, the negative stereotypes, the ignorant typically and historically ascribed to African Americans citizens” and putting forth “a collection of these despicable, over-generalized, mostly anonymous assumptions.” The mayor ‘s reaction lends weight to Huber’s observation that “Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city.” In response to the criticism put forth by the mayor and others, Philadelphia Magazine’s editor admitted that the article had flaws and did not provide enough context, while at the same time pointing out, “We by no means were trying to do a definitive take on race relations in Philadelphia. We set out to do this from one particular point of view.” To mention the issue of race in an article does not make either the author, the magazine or the people who shared their experience racist. Rather it is to share their perspective regardless of how skewed or limited it might be.

My point is this: bringing up the issue of race does not make one racist. Sharing one’s perspective does not make one racist. Racism is not only about the words one uses, but also the way in which power and resources are disproportionately allocated along lines of race and class. Racism is built into the very fabric of our society and city, such that those who are often most often marginalized and disadvantaged by public policies and practices are people of color. Racism is built into the policies and practices of government, business, education and health care regardless of the race of those who happen to be making the decisions or speaking out on those issues.

The fact of the matter is that in Philadelphia the disparities that exist often do fall along race lines. At the same time both some of the most privileged as well as the most victimized citizens in the city are people of color. While black on white crime may be a problem in places like Brewerytown, black on black crime is a far greater issue in many parts of the city. While persons of color occupy the offices of the Mayor, Police Commission, Superintendent of Schools, and many of the major city, state and national political offices, those who suffer the most from the recent tax reassessment, unemployment, school closings and gun-related incidents are also persons of color. Racism goes far deeper than the experiences of a few white people in one section of the city.

While my experiences do not reflect the experiences of those depicted in the article, I know whites who share the perspective of those cited in the story. At the same, those same white folks whose houses have been vandalized or who have mugged by persons of color will often  in the next breath say that they wish that the assailant had not been a person of color. They recognize that often the crime and violence they experienced is more about poverty and lack of opportunity than race. They recognize that persons of color are victimized as much or more than they are.

Talking about being white in Philly for many folks is a delicate and sensitive issue. However, if there is to be meaningful discussion about race and racism in Philadelphia or in the United States in general, all voices and all perspectives must be allowed without being disparaged out of hand.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Hugo Chavez, Jimmy Carter and America’s Image in the World

On Tuesday, March 5 Hugo Chavez, the fiery and controversial president of Venezuela died of cancer at the age of 58. Since his death there have been numerous articles and commentaries seeking to evaluate the life and legacy of this charismatic leader. As I have listened and read this reports, there seem to be two consistent themes that have emerged. 

First, it is clear that Chavez was a champion of the poor in his country and around the world.  As one CNN report  said, “Chavez played a pivotal role in bringing the plight of Latin America's impoverished people to the top of the political agenda.” In his 2009 documentary South of the Border,  Oliver Stone walked with Chavez through the neighborhood where he had grown up and clearly portrayed a leader in touch with the poorest of the poor in that nation. These are the people mourning in Venezuela’s streets today. As a result he was not well regarded by the business community or the wealthy elites because he nationalized many businesses and redirected government funds to programs to help the poor. He even offered cut rate oil to the low income homeowners in the U.S. as a sign of his concern for those in need.

However the other thing Chavez was known for was his antipathy toward the United States particularly in its military and economic domination throughout the world. To that end Chavez befriended many countries, such as Iran and Syria, and leaders, such as Fidel Castro, who have been historic enemies of the United States. Though he came from a relatively poor and powerless country he did not seem cowed by the threats made by the U.S. and so was a persona non grata to many U.S. political leaders. While I am in no position to evaluate Chavez’s skill as a leader, one has to be impressed with the courage with which Chavez sought to buck U.S. control of Latin America. He even mentored several other leaders in the region to take similar stances and to turn their governments in a more socialistic direction.

However, my purpose is neither to praise nor criticize Hugo Chavez as a leader, but rather to point out a coincidence between this focus on his legacy and a recent speech made by former President Jimmy Carter made on Feb 24 at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club (to listen to the speech go to this link ). Since leaving office in 1980 no former president has done more to promote peace and justice around the world than Jimmy Carter, and at 88 years old he is still going strong. While Carter certainly had his failings as a president, one cannot but be impressed with how he has used his status to good ends around the world.

In his speech Carter pointed out that since 1945 the United States has increasingly been seen by other nations of the world not as a force for peace and human rights, but rather as a nation that is constantly at war and denying human rights. He noted wars such as Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central American incursions in the 1980’s often were done to deny human rights and overthrow legitimate governments than to defend those rights. Moreover, he pointed out that currently the U.S. is violating at least 10 paragraphs of United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.  He said that if the U.S. is to become the great nation it used to be, it must change course and become a defender of justice and human rights rather than a violator. As examples he spoke about the use of drones in Afghanistan, as well as being the major arms dealer to all sorts of nations in the world. He also pointed out that the U.S. imprisons the highest percentage of its population in the world and along with Saudi Arabia and China has the highest rate of capital punishment.

As I listened to a replay of Carter’s speech on the day of Chavez’s death I could not help but be struck by the common theme stressed by two very different leaders from two different positions in the world. Hugo Chavez, a recognized champion of the Latin American poor, and Jimmy Carter, a recognized champion of peace, see the United States as more of threat to the world than its protector. The former was a self-identified foe of the U.S. but the latter still proudly proclaims the United States as the greatest nation in the world. Yet, such a coincidence of their perspectives cannot be ignored.

In business ethics one of the simplest tests of a person’s character is for that person to look him/herself in the mirror and ask whether the person looking back is a person of integrity, compassion and honesty. The great American myth is that we are the defenders and promoters of justice and democracy around the world. Yet our own country suffers increasing economic disparity, while lining the pockets of the very wealthy. We are the only developed nation in the world without universal health care and our public school system has been put up for sale to the highest bidder through charters and privatization. We still have many prisoners in Guantanamo Bay that have never even been charged with a crime, much less given a trial, and we continue to be directly or indirectly involved in armed conflicts all over the world. Can we as a nation look ourselves in the mirror and say we are the best we can be, that we are living up to our values and ideals as Americans?

Recently I took a group of students to visit the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, which recounts the writing of the U.S. Constitution and its development throughout U.S. history. Every time I visit the Constitution Center (which has been about 10 times) I am struck by the high ideals on which this country was founded. At the same time I am struck by how far short we continue to fall. What Hugo Chavez and Jimmy Carter reminded me was that not only do I see that, but so do the vast majority of people around the world. Perhaps instead of puffing our chest out in defensive patriotic pride, we ought to take a long look in the national mirror and heed Pres. Carter’s call to seek to be the nation we say we are.