Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Prayer for a Muslim Gandhi or Mandela

As I have read about the growing conflict in Iraq between ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and the Iraqi government, I find myself wondering if there is someone or some group within the Islamic world that can help these two Muslim factions avoid massive casualties and untold suffering on either side. ISIS is primarily led by Sunni Muslims, whereas the president Nouri al-Maliki and the ruling faction in Iraq are primarily made up of Shia Muslims. Meanwhile various governments in the Mideast have lined up on one side or the other: Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS are Sunni while the government of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah (Lebanon) are Shia. While I don’t fully understand the difference between the two groups or the reason for the conflict, there has obviously been a long standing animosity between extreme elements in both groups which has led to the current conflict. As much as we in the West worry about Islamic extremism, the ones who have suffered and died the most are Muslims themselves.

While there are political conservatives like John McCain and Dick Cheney calling for Pres. Obama to insert U.S. troops into the conflict, others like myself have wondered, couldn’t we serve in some mediating role. However, when one looks at the whole situation, it is clear that the United States and most of Europe have lost credibility and therefore the ability and to serve any constructive role in the region. Recently, John Stewart beautifully and succinctly outlined the West’s problem in the region in a segment he called “Middle Eastern Politics: a Love Story.” While some U.S. officials have warmed to the idea of Iran coming to the aid of the Iraqi government, our dependence on oil form Saudi Arabia keeps us from getting too close to Iranians. Meanwhile we are also dependent on Iraqi oil, so how do we respond without alienating our allies/potential allies or are oil-rich business partners?(As an aside this does help make the case for alternative energy sources and lessening our dependence on oil).

Recently in church I found myself praying that someone with credibility with or within the Muslim world might arise and address the problem of this divide. The NY Times reported that a Shiite cleric has called for his fellow Shiites to join the military battle against the Sunni based ISIS. That wasn’t the kind of action I was hoping for. From what I can see from here there is no clear good side or bad side; both have suffered oppression, alienation, violence and endless suffering. To turn on each other as they often do, only heightens all of those things.

Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, returned to India in 1914 to find his country suffering under British rule while also deeply divided between Hindus and Muslims. Through the force of his vision and message, he was able to lead these disparate factions in an effort that eventually led to Indian independence. Even so, he was killed by a Hindu extremists, and the former British colony eventually divided into three countries (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) divided in part by religious belief. However, in his time Gandhi was able to help them see beyond their differences to a common cause.

Likewise, while still in prison Nelson Mandela began brokering a deal with the apartheid government that not only led to his release, but also enabled him to call for the Truth and Reconciliation commission, whose role was to invite perpetrators of violence and atrocities to acknowledge their actions in exchange for pardon. The TRC and Mandela went a long way from preventing South African from spiraling into racial violence. While there are still great disparity between whites and blacks in South Africa, Mandela did leave a framework for bringing justice peacefully.


From my interaction with Muslims in this country I have found them to be peace-loving people who long for the same kinds of things, that I as a Christian long for my community and world. We all want equity, freedom from oppression and the liberty to pursue of life of meaning and purpose. I refuse to be deceived by the media stereotype of Muslims as extremists. I will no more judge the Islamic faith by those who use it as a lever for power, than I would want my Christian faith to be evaluated on the basis of rabid, gun-toting Christian white supremacists.  At the heart of the Christian faith is a commitment to justice, reconciliation and peace, and I have found the same sentiments among my Muslim brothers and sisters. While our belief systems differ, our concern for human need  and the just ends we seek does not.


The continuing conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Israel-Palestine, Yemen, Iran and elsewhere are deeply troubling and frankly quite scary. Violent conflict never has and never will bring a modicum of peace to the region. So I find myself praying for a Muslim Gandhi, or a Mandela or some group with the will and credibility within the Islamic world, to arise to help bring sanity to an insane conflict and deeply divided part of the world.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Case for Reparations Debate


I have been watching and reading with interest “The Case forReparations” an article written by senior editor of The Atlantic Ta-Nehisi Coates, which first appeared on May 21, 2014.  On June 6, Coates’ colleague at The Atlantic, David Frum responded with “The Elusive Specificity of Reparations” and then on June 11 with “The Impossibilityof Reparations.” Coates’ then responded in that same issue with “The Radical Practicality of Reparations.” Since writing the original article Coates has been on numerous progressive radio and talk shows including Moyers and Company, MSNBC, Democracy Now and others (apparently Fox News has not yet called!).

Coates’ original article was quite lengthy, but his essential point, as I understand it, is as follows: African Americans endured 250 years of legal slavery, then 100 years of Jim Crow restrictions and violence, and despite the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and progress for some African Americans in the last 50 years, the vast majority of African-Americans are still suffering the financial, political, cultural and emotional repercussions of 400 years of slavery, terrorism and institutionalized disenfranchisement. Therefore, it is time for the United States to own up to its sins. To make his case, Coates tells the story of Clyde Ross, a black sharecropper from Mississippi who migrated north  to Chicago in search of work and a better life, only to find himself swindled by a real estate system consisting of red lining, deceit, and exorbitant fees and interest rates, all endorsed by the social and political authorities of the time. Through a community organizing effort called the Contract Buyer’s Club, Ross and about 130 others were able to legally purchase their homes; another 370 families in the Lawndale section of Chicago were not so fortunate, lost their homes and had to leave the neighborhood. The point of the story was to illustrate the ways in which political, financial, real estate and other institutions intentionally exploited African Americans like Clyde Ross and put nearly insurmountable barriers in front of his desire to pursue a better life like all Americans.

Coates declares it is time to pay up and calls for members of Congress to support HR 40, a bill that has been proposed by Detroit Congressman John Conyers for the last 25 years without ever being given a full hearing. The bill calls for the establishment of a Commission to Study Reparations. The Commission would meet and then submit recommendations to Congress  for possible solutions to the injustices faced by African Americans for the last 400 years.

While Frum is sympathetic to the intent of reparations, he claims the logistics of making reparations actually work are so complex and problematic that they become impossible. For Frum the fundamental questions are “Who will get them? How much? Who will pay?” These are questions he claims Coates fails to address. He points out that the reparations paid to Japanese-Americans only went to those who had been detained in internment camps, not all Japanese- Americans; that is there was a specific wrong, and a reparation was paid for that wrong.  For Frum, the process of determining who should receive reparations is too complex to make it plausible and practical.

However, there is a deeper point behind Coates’ proposal that seems to have gotten lost in the debate. In his response to Frum Coates writes: “The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history.” Those ghosts are the ongoing, systemic, entirely legal means by which people of color, especially but not exclusively African-Americans, have been denied the basic rights that the overwhelming majority of white citizens enjoy: the right to live where you please, the right to a decent education, the right to fair access to jobs, services and training, the right freedom from being terrorized and freedom from being categorized as “other” or “less than.” What Coates is calling for in his call for reparations is for America to face the truth of its past and correct the historical narrative it has been teaching and telling for 400 years.

To use another metaphor, America has many skeletons in its historical closet which have been noted but not really given a full hearing. They are skeletons we in essence say we know are there, but  for which we deny responsibility because we were not there when they happened. They are the skeletons of colonial expansion, of chattel slavery that built the economy, of lands stolen from Native Americans and Mexican citizens after the Mexican-American War, of the exploitation of Japanese, Chinese, Irish and East European workers, and so much more. While we say America is the land of opportunity and “the home of the free and the land of the brave,” it also is the land where hundreds of thousands of Africans died in the Middle Passage, where Native cultures were obliterated, and where millions of citizens were restricted and beaten because of the color of their skin. These are the ghosts of our history, the skeletons in our closet, that the reparations discussion hopes to unearth.

As worthy as Coates proposal is, I find it lacking. In his story of Clyde Ross and the Contract Buyer’s League of Chicago, he illustrates a principle articulated by the great 19th century African-American orator/abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass wrote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Douglass goes on to describe how oppressed persons gain  power only if they demand and seize that power. Coates’ proposal does not so much seem impractical to me as it does na├»ve. If the Congress has not taken up HR 40 in 25 years, why would they even consider it in this racially-charged, partisan political environment? If African-Americans or any oppressed group is depending on Congress to take up the reparations question, they are going to wait forever.  The Contract Buyers League did not enable 130 people to own their homes by asking nicely; they challenged the system by their numbers and financially forced the realtors to come to the bargaining table. They withheld their mortgage and fees until the realtors decided they had no choice but to submit. In the same way if reparations are to even be discussed, the discussion must be forced upon us.

In different ways both essayist bell hooks and psychologist Howard Stevenson outline ways African- Americans can and must go through what hooks calls a “psychic conversion” to face and overcome the stress racism brings living in a white supremacist society. I would add that whites such as myself in a parallel way must go through a psychic conversion in which we expose the lie of our “color blindness” and the myth of a post-racial society. We need to take responsibility for the privileges, power, and wealth we have inherited and still enjoy because of a system that favors us simply because we are white. The point is not guilt or shame, but setting things right.  I am not at all suggesting that individuals don’t have responsibility for their decisions or their actions, but that responsibility needs to be exercised on a level playing field, in a system that truly provides “liberty and justice for all.” That is not a system that has ever existed for people of color in this society.

I have no idea how reparations might work, but before we can address that issue, as a society and as individuals, we need to face the realities – past and present – that make the case for a discussion about reparations even necessary. This is not a discussion that will start in Washington, but needs to start in schools, churches, homes and community centers. It needs to be a conversation that grows to the point that goes to Washington rather than comes from Washington. I am thankful for Ta-Nehisi Coates for getting the conversation started. I encourage us to read the articles, and continue the conversation wherever we are.


Friday, June 06, 2014

It Starts With the Guns, Stupid!

Today we learned of another mass shooting, this time on the campus of Seattle Pacific University, a small private Christian university outside Seattle. Two weeks ago the same sort of event happened at University of California Santa Barbara. Last night and every night in cities across the nation, the same thing happened, as young people, mostly young men, were gunned down. Meaningless deaths of mostly young people due to another young person wielding a gun.

In a recent "Daily Show with John Stewart", Stewart turned his satirical wit on the news media which has now begun to portray such meaningless slaughter of our young as “inevitable.”(The segment on guns starts at about the 3:15 point; its powerful and worth a look). Things have gotten so absurd that even the NRA is not sure how far its gun-slinging, gun-toting enthusiasts should be encouraged to go. (See this link to the article.)

The truth is only a fraction of the gun-related violence in our country ever makes the news, and usually only when such incidents involve white folks in places like elementary schools and college campuses. As horrific as the SPU and UC-Santa Barbara shootings are (a death is a death no matter where it occurs), the media generally ignores the carnage occurring in poor and urban communities all the time. Yet as Stewart points out, even white kids shooting white kids now has become "old news."

When the media pundits try to get to the causes they point to mental illness, family stress, depression, low self esteem and the like – all of which are contributing factors – but rarely do the mention the one common factor:  the ready availability of guns in this country whether thru legal or illegal means. Take the guns away and there will still be troubled youth and a certain level of violence will exist, but the dead body count will go way down.

Let me share a personal illustration. When I was 22 years old living in Boston, I was mugged by an assailant who demanded I give him my watch. When I resisted, he hit me several times with a baseball bat. I had to go to the emergency room but I survived the ordeal. Had that same event occurred today, most likely I would have been shot, the difference being in the late 1970’s guns were very rare in even seemingly “dangerous” neighborhoods such as where I lived. Don’t get me wrong, there were certain places one did not go to maintain safety, but in six years of working with street kids I never saw a gun and only hear one a few times. There was violence to be sure, but few firearms.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am passionate about addressing issues of inequity and injustice in many areas, and violence of any kind is something that needs to be addressed. However, let’s not be stupid or blind or in absolute denial. If we want to reduce the carnage of our young people which has become all too common, we need to start with reducing the availability of guns. We need to pass laws strengthening and expanding background checks, limit sales to one handgun a month, require fingerprint identification and licensing, hold gun dealers responsible for prohibiting straw purchases and require all guns lost or stolen to be reported the police. Hunters can still hunt. Target shooters can still shoot. People who feel they must have a gun due to some distorted view of the Second Amendment can still get their gun. All I am suggesting is that we don’t make it as easy to get a gun.


If we want to reduce the carnage, the solution is not difficult – its starts with the guns. And to those who say that gun violence is inevitable, let’s call such logic what it is: BULLS**T!