America’s Absurd Logic

He meant for us to be encouraged. It was toward the end of an evening conversation in a neighborhood church where pastors and police leadership had gathered to talk about the recently-resurfaced challenge of police and community relations. The leader (let the reader understand) was talking about stop and frisk, the tactic employed by officers who profile potential mischief-makers. After explaining the advances in technology and data collection that allow officers to better distinguish criminals from citizens, the leader, in his would-be encouraging words, explained that the biggest challenge was educating the targets of these profiling stops. Once they knew how to respond to being profiled and the motives behind these stops he felt certain that any confusion would be cleared up. The officers wouldn’t feel misunderstood about their tactics and the profiled citizens would behave appropriately after being stopped for fitting the data spit out by this ever-improving technology.

Photo credit: Michael Fleshman (cc)
Photo credit: Michael Fleshman (cc)

As I listened to him talk – to his words and the optimism with which he said them – I thought about the poster than hangs in the lobby of the neighborhood field house where our church meets on Sundays. It’s an older poster that shows Michael Jordan in his car after being pulled over by a police officer. I can’t recall the text precisely, but the gist is that even Jordan, one of the most powerful people on the planet, needs to think about how he behaves – how he can make the officer comfortable – when he is pulled over. The poster’s tone is similar to the leader’s: No need to worry; just do what you’re told and things will be ok. Eventually.

The poster and the police leadership are mute to the fact that stop and frisk is directed almost totally at African Americans. A report released by the ACLU earlier this year showed that in Chicago, “African-Americans were subjected to 182,048 stops, 72 percent of all stops, yet constituted 32 percent of the city’s population.” I say that this racial disparity is left unsaid yet this impolite fact is just barely concealed. There’s a reason it’s Michael Jordan on that poster and not one of his white superstar contemporaries. There’s a reason I was one of the few white faces in the church listening to the leadership talk about data and tactics.

The obscene sense of inevitability behind racial disparity and its accompanying profiling felt especially heavy as the leadership spoke. The pull is strong toward accepting the logic behind the data and technology that spotlights black men while simultaneously making my white body almost invisible. (I was once pulled over for driving noticeably over the speed limit. After being given a warning by the officer and let go, my black friend shouted from the back seat: Are you kidding me?! Until that moment he’d been unaware that “giving a warning” was an option for police officers.) But though the logic may be rational, it isn’t true. There is too much evil it cannot account for, beginning, for example, with the very intentional way our government created the so-called ghettos that are now so heavily policed and profiled.

The obscenity feels heavier when I think about my two sons, beautiful boys whose blood points to ancestors from Africa, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Lessons, like this video, about what to do when stopped by the police will not be curiosities to them but essential curriculum. The logic articulated by the police leadership in that church is the same that so many citizens around the country accept as a benign necessity. Yet this logic, despite its cloak of legitimate data, is built on centuries of deception and destruction. Agreeing to the pragmatism of stop and frisk is necessarily agreeing to the warped assumptions that make such tactics desirable.

You may choose to accept this country’s logic, but as the father to these particular sons it will never be an option for me.

The challenge isn’t to replace the police’s tactics with better ones. After all, this is why the leadership sounded optimistic that night. They were doing better, even acknowledging past mistakes. Yet the logic remained the same and so the tactics differ only by degree. No, the challenge is deeper than tactics. The challenge is truth. And we will get to the truth only when we make plain the utter absurdity that is this nation’s logic.

“… if a mother loves the child, she wont go through with it.”

This image has been forever burned in my mind. J knew what she was doing. And she did it out of love for her child. The state of Oklahoma gave J and her parents a lot of extra things to do. And they did them all.

There is a misconception about adoption that if a mother loves the child, she wont go through with it.

Adoptions get disrupted all the time for a multitude of reasons. And many mothers change their minds and make the decision to parent. And they have every right to do so.

(And there are many adoption situations that arise out of abuse or mistreatment. I’m not talking about those. )

Both the decision to parent and the decision to place your child for adoption can be loving decisions.

Many people have asked us about our relationship with Eliza’s birth family. And they don’t often understand what it must be like. If we’re honest, we don’t really either. We’re all figuring this out as we go. But the fact is, these people have become our very own family. We love them. They are a part of our daughter, they love her deeply and so they are a part of us. But it’s not just Eliza, they also love Jamie. We keep in touch and they are just as eager to hear how he is doing. They love him. They love me. They love Brandon.

A wonderful description of the courage shown by birth parents who choose adoption. Even though I understand the well-meaning sentiment, I cringe whenever I hear someone talk about birth parents “giving up” their children for adoption, as though choosing adoption was somehow a kind of resignation. Our experience with birth parents is reflective of what Amy writes above: We have consistently been amazed at the courage and utter selflessness as these parents make painful and sacrificial choices for the children they love.

Currently Reading

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The stack, more neatly ordered than normal.

It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but I noticed the other day how many books have accumulated on my bedside table, desk, and our coffee table so it seems like a good time to mention the titles here. Maybe you’re looking for something to read this summer. Maybe something here will fit the bill.

A few of these are collections of essays, my consistently favorite genre. This being the case, it seemed right to finally dip into the original. I like having at least one book that will follow me around for a few years and having finished The Black Metropolis it was time to begin The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne. So far so good, though I maybe should have gone with the two volume set; this edition could damage the reader who dozes off mid-essay.

The collected essays of James Baldwin is less cumbersome and thoroughly enjoyable. He seems no less prescient in these days of Black Lives Matter movements than he must have in his own day. A friend gave me John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essays, Pulphead. You’ve probably read Sullivan somewhere – this account in GQ of a Christian music festival is a classic – and if not this collection would be a good place to start.

Earlier this week Maggie gave me The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. I’ve not read Pinker before, but this book was on my list and, after a couple of chapters, I think his perspective on a well-worn topic will help whatever small writing skills I have.

A friend from church and I are reading Howard Thurman’s classic, Jesus and the Disinherited this summer. There are stories of Rev. Dr. King carrying his well-worn copy of this book in his briefcase as he made his way throughout the south. A small taste from the first chapter:

To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail. The conventional Christian word is muffled, confused, and vague. Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak. This is a matter of tremendous significance, for it reveals to what extent a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering has become the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless people.

I think Thurman will compliment another book I hope to make my way though this summer, The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings. Jennings is one of a very few scholars who interacts with the theological roots of race and racism. It’s important and relevant work for our churches and Jennings writes clearly about topics that, by their very nature, mean to remain murky.

My friend, Dr. Vincent Bacote, kindly sent me a copy of his latest book, the slim and very readable The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life. This is a topic Dr. Bacote has thought about a lot and I hope the book will be read widely by Christians who want to interact more precisely with American politics. I hope Dr. Bacote won’t mind that his Abraham Kuyper-influenced book is brushing up a collection of writings from early pietists. My denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, has strong pietist roots and I’m enjoying dipping into the passionate writings of these men.

Finally, I’ve started Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way. I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to First Nations’ perspectives on Christian theology and Twiss, who died recently and unexpectedly, is proving to be a trustworthy guide.

Unquestionably, this is too many books to be reading at once. To be fair, a handful of these are simply available to visit occasionally. So how about you? What are you reading these days that you can recommend?

A Litany of Lament for Charleston

I was encouraged, yesterday afternoon, scrolling through social media and reading about how different churches intentionally made space to lament the fallen in Charleston and to call out the specific sins of racism that cannot be separated from these murders. Our church was on our annual retreat and so had the gift of extra time to listen to one another, to pray, and to slowly participate in one of the most painful and meaningful experiences of the Lord’s Supper I’ve ever experienced. Yesterday we used a litany of lament that was pulled from a few different places. I’m sharing it here, especially for those who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to participate in corporate lament yesterday.

Photo Credit: Stephen Melkisethian
Photo Credit: Stephen Melkisethian
A Lament After Charleston By Mark Charles (Navajo)

Today I lament, I mourn over the life of each and every person that was violently taken in Charleston South Carolina: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor.

I lament that a 5-year-old child was robbed of her innocence and forced to “play” dead in order to survive. I lament that today, the confederate flag is still flying in the Capitol of South Carolina.

I lament the roots of dehumanization that exist within the founding documents of the United States of America; in our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and our Supreme Court case precedents.

I lament that our nation continues to celebrate its racist foundations with holidays like Columbus Day, sports mascots like the Washington Redsk*ns and the putting of faces like Andrew Jackson on our currency.

I lament the deaths of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and countless others. I lament the words of our political candidates who promise to lead America back to its former “greatness”, ignorant of the fact that much of America’s “greatness” was built on the exploitation and dehumanization of its people of color.

Charleston South Carolina one individual committed a single evil and heinous act of violence, while minority communities throughout the country are bracing themselves because the horrors of the past 500 years are continuing into their lifetime.

I lament with every person and community, throughout the history of this nation, who, due to the color of their skin, had to endure marginalization, silence, discrimination, beatings, lynching, cultural genocide, boarding schools, internment camps, mass incarceration, broken treaties, stolen lands, murder, slavery and discovery.

Today I lament that the United States of America does not share a common memory and therefore is incapable of experiencing true community.

Confession of Sin from the Covenant Book of Worship

We are sorry, God; hear our repentance for our wayward handling of life. We have squandered time, hoarded money, avoided challenges, and used others. We have borne waiting grievously, illness stubbornly, trials reluctantly, and responsibility half-heartedly. We have doubted your care, mistrusted your providence, distorted your power, and ignored your love. We have neglected our discipleship, injured our relationships, sabotaged our fellowship, and underrated your forgiveness. Forgive us now, we pray, and let us try again, sensitive to your Spirit and committed to your will. Amen.

A CALL TO WORSHIP FOR THE TRAGEDY IN CHARLESTON BY ONE CHURCH LITURGY*

[Leader] We stand before you today, oh Lord Hearts broken, eyes weeping, heads spinning Our African American brothers and sisters were murdered They gathered and prayed and then were no more The prayer soaked walls of the church are spattered with blood The enemy at the table turned on them in violence While they were turning to you in prayer

[All] We stand with our sisters We stand with our brothers We stand with their families We stand with Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor We stand to bear their burden in Jesus’ name

[Leader] We cry out to you, oh Lord Our hearts breaking, eyes weeping, heads spinning The violence in our streets has come into your house The racism in our cities and our churches has crept into your sanctuary The brokenness in our lives has broken into your temple The dividing wall of hostility has crushed our brothers and sisters We cry out to you, May your Kingdom come, may it be on earth as it is in heaven

[All] We cry out for our sisters We cry out for our brothers We cry out for their families We cry out for peace in Jesus’ name

[Leader] We pray to you today, oh Lord Our hearts breaking, eyes weeping, souls stirring We pray for our enemies, we pray for those who persecute us We pray to the God of all Comfort to comfort our brothers and sisters in their mourning, to comfort us in our mourning We pray that you would bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes We pray that you would give them the oil of joy instead of mourning We pray that you would give them a garment of praise in place of a spirit of despair

[All] We pray for our sisters We pray for our brothers We pray for their families We pray for their comfort in Jesus’ name

[Leader] We declare together, oh Lord With hearts breaking, eyes weeping and souls stirring We will continue to stand and cry and weep with our brothers and sisters We will continue to make a place of peace for even the enemies at our table We will continue to open our doors and our hearts to those who enter them We will continue to seek to forgive as we have been forgiven We will continue to love in Jesus’ name because you taught us that love conquers all

[All] We declare our love for you, our Sisters We declare our love for you, our Brothers We declare our love for you, their families We declare our love as one body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism We declare they do not grieve alone today

Psalm 77 

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.

I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:

“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

10 Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
11 I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
12 I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

13 Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
14 You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.
15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

16 The waters saw you, God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
17 The clouds poured down water,
the heavens resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
18 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
19 Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.

20 You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

_______________
*The version here has been edited by me to be more specific to the actual event in Charleston. See another version here, edited by Kathy Khang and Misuzu Miyashita.

Worship after Charleston

Leadership Journal has published the responses of five pastors from around the country as we prepare for worship on Sunday after the massacre in Charleston. The first comes from a colleague in Chicago:

Not unlike our church, the people of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston meet every Wednesday for Bible study. And like us, everyone is welcome to attend. This Wednesday night a man sat among those desiring to study the word and draw closer to God and one another. He sat for an hour, filled with hate, before he began to open fire, killing nine people. A witness heard him saying that he had come to kill black people.

As a black man, I’m left wondering, Where can we go, is there no safe place?

I hope you’ll read them all.

How Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal Make My White Life Easier

There is a connection between two people who have recently dominated headlines and news feeds: Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal. It’s not the false equivalency between a transgender person and Ms Dolezal’s wrong-headed idea that she, a white woman, can identify as African American. Rather, the similarity that interests me is how these two individuals and their decisions have become the stories that matter.

JennerIn Ms Jenner’s case the narrative has generally been one of bravery, honesty, and even heroism. In contrast, Ms Dolezal has been portrayed as the villain: deceitful, manipulative, and potentially mentally unstable. Whiteness is what connects these two as their stories are elevated and made important by a predominately white media. In Ms Jenner the media found a privileged person whose radical decisions demand nothing of the beneficiaries of white supremacy. And in Ms Dolezal the media have the convenient opposite- a white person whose sins seem so strange and obvious that the ensuing reprimands risk no actual association. This particular white person can be ridiculed endlessly, her story deemed worthy of repeated news cycles because there is no concern that whiteness itself will be taken to task.

DolezalAnd so, in recent weeks, these two white people have been made ubiquitous as their stories seemingly require the media’s full attention and analysis. Ms Jenner became our example of bravery, a move which allows us to ignore that in America courage is most evident and most often required among those without the so-called privilege of white skin. With Ms Jenner as our hero we don’t have to consider how our own implicit biases and oppressive power are the reasons so many must be courageous in ways that will never be noticed or legitimized by our media. And with Ms Dolezal as our scapegoat we are off the hook for our less obvious racial sins. In contrast to her strange deception, our homogenous neighborhoods, segregated churches, and polite prejudices seem hardly worth acknowledging, much less confessing.

I don’t mean to imply that the issues raised by these two women’s decisions aren’t worth considering. Their public decisions are important and deserve compassionate critique. I doubt, however, that they are the issues most deserving of our attention and whether the ways which our white media frames these issues are legitimate and just. But should we expect anything different? Our white-washed society has always made it clear whose stories are worth knowing and whose need not be told. By accepting that these two people represent the most important stories of the moment, my own white life is made simpler, easier. And once again, black and brown people are made invisible, their stories of heroism and suffering deemed unimportant by a society and its media that care only for its(white)self.

Fear and Defiance in McKinney, TX

McKinneyFear. This is what I saw in the video from McKinney, TX. Yes, fear in the eyes of the young women and men as the police arrived but, most evidently, fear in the police. Those with the badges and guns, with the authority of the state to justify their actions and cover their tracks- it was their voices and body language that betrayed the fear most plainly.

The police were afraid of these young women and men and they chased their black and brown bodies into the ground. It makes no sense. What can this be other than a sickness of spirit? What must be projected onto these children to justify such terror?

And then there is the young woman, pinned to the ground, the officer’s knee grinding into her back as his hand repeatedly forces her face into the grass. Surely she too feels fear; how could she not? But there is something else that comes through more clearly. There is defiance in her voice, courage in her body. She does not lay limp beneath this abusive power. She resists. She is brave.

This holy defiance is as old as this country. It is necessary because of this country.

Children's Crusade in Birmingham, 1963.
Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, 1963.

The police officer’s fear is contagious. For many of us it is genetic, seemingly woven into the fabric of our white skin and privileged minds. We ignore it most of the time, telling ourselves that we are somehow uniquely immune to this country’s racist air. But it’s a lie and anything less than telling the truth about our complicity means that we are this brutal officer’s enablers.

We cannot be delicate about this.

The young woman’ defiance points the way forward. We hear it in her voice. We’ve seen it in the eyes of so many other young women and men. Fear need not have the final word. A mustard seed’s worth of faith is our starting point- the conviction that this will not be the end, that Justice himself will prevail.