Bigotry is Normal

Innocence and Forgetfulness in Trump’s America

On my way to meet a coworker for coffee I passed a flier taped to a light pole. The bright purple letters grabbed my eye: “BIGOTRY is NOT NORMAL.” I was running late but something about this apparently self-evident statement made me stop. The flier invited students from the nearby university to protest an event featuring the former campaign manager for the President of the United States. There are a few interesting things about this flier but my curiosity lies with its premise and, I assume, the rationale behind protesting the event in question.

I assume that only those who have not themselves experienced bigotry, at least not regularly, would think of such predictable human prejudice as abnormal. A person who has been on the receiving end of a bigot’s hate is likely to come from a family or social group with a long memory of  what bigotry feels like, of the havoc in causes, and, importantly, of how invisible it seems to be among those who aren’t themselves experiencing this hate. I can’t imagine that this person – the one who knows bigotry firsthand – could claim with any conviction that bigotry is not normal.

I assume the people who conceived this pithy call to action have been exempt by virtue of race, gender, and class from the prejudices that are common in this country. Maybe I’m wrong in this assumption, but if not then it lines up with a trend I’ve noticed since the election. Among those who were strongly – morally, even – opposed to the president’s election there have been two general and divergent reactions. The first is shock, a kind of wrecked disbelief that this person could be elected to the nation’s highest office. The second reaction can be summarized by a friend who, despite her convictions about this man’s moral and political bankruptcy, told me that once the election results were clear she turned off the TV and slept like a baby. The first reaction is elicited from those who believed their nation to be something other than it revealed itself to be on election day. Those who were disappointed but unsurprised by the results have always seen this nation for what it was and is. They rolled their eyes and went to bed on election night. The first group had mostly avoided this nation’s bigotry; the second have long known it firsthand.

The assumptions behind the flier and the shocked response to the election share in common a tame estimation of evil. This optimistic view of the world assumes an unstoppable move toward the good and just, an arc that bends, however slowly, inevitably toward justice. Bigotry, for the optimists, simply cannot be normal and neither can this president. These must be anomalies along what is otherwise an upward trajectory to a more perfect union.

(I’m being overly general in my descriptions and hopefully not unfair, but I’ve had enough of these sorts of conversations since the election that I have some confidence in these observations.)

In Donald Trump’s America the optimism proclaimed by that campus flier seems utterly naive, until one considers the alternative. There is, I think, a new and personal fear that many of those shocked by the election are currently experiencing. Ironically, this fear shares an important similarity with that of many of the people who voted for the president out of fear for the country’s future: each believes in an America which is inherently good. For those who support the president the call was to make America great again. Those who oppose him often share this conviction; for them the country is already great because, as the Clinton campaign proclaimed, it is already good, and getting better all the time. Bigotry is not normal. For all of their differences, the opposing camps share in common optimistic convictions about the nation, convictions that must be strongly held regardless of alternative evidence. They are, both groups, Americans first. What, then, would it mean if America was not good? If, for the more conservative, it was not founded in a goodness worth reclaiming? And what, for liberals, would it mean if the nation did not bend unstoppably toward goodness? It would imply, I think, something painful about ourselves, something pressing about evil that we’d rather leave unexamined.

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I write this during the Christian season of Lent. The beginning of these forty days of fasting and abstaining is marked by a somber service during which ashes are smeared on the foreheads of the congregants; we leave the service with dusty reminders of our mortality. “Remember,” the pastor says while applying the ashes, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.” More than once, glimpsing my reflection in a mirror, I’ve been shocked to stillness at the sight of that smudged cross on my forehead, an ancient countdown clock ticking relentlessly toward the hour of my death.

Remember and repent. I’m expected to look back over my sin, my complicity with evil while also looking ahead to my death. I’m dust and to dust I shall return.

In theory, this stark practice of remembrance and repentance should collide spectacularly with a culture that, at best, sanitizes the past, excuses our sins, and assumes the best about our intentions. Imagine, for example, a flier on that light pole which confessed: “Bigotry is normal and, what’s more, I’m a bigot.”

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In his most recent book, Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson writes that, “one of the great perks of being white in America is the capacity to forget at will.” His words, penned after the election, are directed toward the chronic amnesia intrinsic to whiteness when it comes to facts and history which threaten one’s view of this country- this good, possibly great, country.

That most white Americans cannot understand ourselves apart from this country’s definition means that we apply our forgetfulness not only to the nation, but to ourselves as well. We become, in James Baldwin’s words in The Fire Next Time, “the innocents.” He writes to his young nephew:

Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well-meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not very far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. (I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No! This is not true! How bitter you are!” – but I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist.)

The innocence, in Baldwin’s precise description, scatters its malevolence: the damage is heaped upon the women and men who exist outside the bounds of whiteness, and yet those wounded bodies will not be seen or believed because, well, whiteness is innocence. Still, the facts remain and the wounds and bruises betray our protests, our appeals to our goodness. “It is not,” writes Baldwin, “permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

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There is one lens through which I can view the campus flier as resonant with the facts as Dyson and Baldwin express them, though I doubt it’s what the organizers had in mind. Christian people will say that bigotry shouldn’t be normal and, one day, won’t be. Hate was not present at creation nor will it cloud the new creation.

I expect, though, that both the make-America-great-again and the bigotry-is-not-normal crowds would ignore my lens for its painfully confessional nature. Because to say that bigotry was not God’s plan and will not be God’s future is also to say that it is our present experience, to which some of us contribute mightily, from the essence of our identities, despite whatever white noise of innocence has stopped up our ears. Through this lens America’s past greatness fades into something more ugly and complicated, the presidential administration’s bigotry is not dissimilar to my own prejudices, and the facade of innocence crumbles to reveal my complicity.

It’s one thing to have those cruciform ashes pressed onto my forehead once each year; it’s something else completely to look each day into a mirror and onto a country and know that our innocence was lost long ago.

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I’ve unspooled too much from that one flier and, honestly, I’m heartened to realize that bigotry, even when supported by the presidential office, will be identified and opposed by some. We can gladly say that, at the very least, the organizers of that protest were motivated to action by their optimistic view of the world. And what of my critique? Does this darker interpretation of our nation and its motives not lead to passivity, toward pious quietism or selfish isolation?

In a letter to his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates urges him to,

resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never redeem this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no natural promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Struggle over hope. Elsewhere I’ve heard Coates say that struggle is hope. And while he roots this stark definition of hope in a world devoid of God, I believe he has articulated a Christian vision of hope, one that has been liberated from the countless unkept promises of American optimism. Accounting soberly for evil and hate need not freeze us in fear or keep us from just action. Opening my eyes wide to the creeping shadow in our land and in my soul is cause for righteous struggle, one that for Christians is oriented to God’s righteous future. Despite the reputation we have among many, Christians have at our disposal a wealth of spiritual resources that compel us to tell unsavory truths – about everything, ourselves included! – and remain happy warriors in the struggle for our neighbors’ good.

Bigotry is normal and it cannot only be those whose personhood makes them targets of it who say so. Perhaps this moment will be dramatic enough to cause us to shed our innocent optimism, consider the evil we’d previously discounted, and finally enter the hopeful struggle.

“Lessons from the Dessert”

I’m deeply committed to the integration of an interior life that is attached to Jesus and an exterior life that represents Jesus’ priorities of justice and reconciliation in the world. These two postures are sometimes pitted against each other, or one is downplayed while the other is lifted up. My friend Pastor Daniel Hill likes to say that we lean toward being unbelieving activists or inactive believers and I think he’s right about that. This sermon (beginning at 4:30) by Pastor Rich Villodas of New Life Fellowship Church in NYC is one of the most beautiful visions I’ve heard for holding together these two essentials of the Christian life.

Faith & Race

This video is long, rambling, and about as lo-fi as it gets, and I think it’s pretty great. Pastor Michelle Dodson and I recorded this a few months back for an all-day Faith & Race workshop that our church recently facilitated. I regularly have really interesting conversations about these topics with really smart, thoughtful folks like Michelle so it’s nice to be able to share this one here.

“True spirituality is one that is incarnate in acts.”

Even if I must be reckoned a materialist, I shall add that I scarcely believe in a spirituality that is content with interior states. Just as it is unhealthy to be content with observances without caring about what goes on inside, so we are deceived by cultivating sentiments not translated into any practice. Pharisaic exteriority has  a no less deadly counterpart: pure interiority, combining beautiful states of soul with middle-class comfort. True spirituality is one that is incarnate in acts. The realism of the ancients understood this well. To despise these concrete practices that make the man is to separate the soul from the body, to enter into a sort of death, to fall into angelism and illusion.

 Adalbert de Vogüé, To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience (1986).

Good luck finding this book – I had to borrow it through my seminary’s inter-library loan – but it’s worth it if you can. Vogüé, a Benedictine monk, has for many years practiced the regular fast in which only supper is eaten each day. He uses his experience as a way to explore fasting and why it has slowly fallen from favor within much of Christianity. His happy approach to fasting is a surprising and helpful entry into a subject we usually think about with some discomfort, if not dread.

“Forgetfulness is the easy way out…”

Innocent history is selective forgetfulness, used precisely to avoid the consequences of a more realistic memory…

Responsible remembrance, on the other hand, leads to responsible action. A clear example is the repeated injunctions to Israel: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21); “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19); and an even more radical consequence of that memory of pilgrimage, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23). For white North Americans to remember that they are immigrants and that the land is not theirs would lead to an attitude toward the original inhabitants of the land, and toward more recent immigrants, that the present order cannot bear. Forgetfulness is the easy way out, just as it was for the children of Abraham who refused to remember their bondage in Egypt.

-Justo González, Mañana (1990).

The Blind Gaze

On seeing, and not, in America.

It takes fifteen Chicago blocks to read aloud the names of the women and men murdered in our city within the past twelve months. It might be done quicker under some circumstances, but not these: hundreds of us walked slowly down Michigan Avenue on New Years Eve, our pace restrained by the crowd, the tourists along the Magnificent Mile reaching into the street with their cameras, and the occasional pause while police officers cleared an intersection. Also, the crosses. They were heavier than I expected: hefty beams, the fresh sawdust pressed onto the shoulders of my black coat. A single man had cut and assembled each of the more than seven hundred crosses, affixed a plywood heart to the cross beam, and painted onto it the victim’s name and date of death. We carried the crosses and walked down the street and then back again, the weight of the wood but also something else slowing us down. The names were read through a bullhorn chronologically by date of death and, occasionally, from somewhere within the cruciform waves, someone would cry out in recognition. Otherwise it was quiet, the whole event like a distant kin to a graduation: quiet, names in order, the uncontrollable scream at everything the name has meant.

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As we moved I angled toward the curb, walking at the edge of the crowd so I could see the response of the unsuspecting shoppers and tourists. Many of the crosses had photos of the deceased attached, the black and brown faces matching the statistics of who gets killed in Chicago. The sidewalk faces varied in their reaction from puzzled to somber, from annoyed to grief-stricken. None, that I could see, joined our quiet march.

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The unexpected emails started arriving in the months before the presidential election. My correspondents were men who could have been my uncles or cousins, if I had a small collection of kind Christian relatives who believed I’d lost my way. My blunt opposition to the next man who would be the president provoked them to write with varying levels of concern and correction. They worried that my polemics missed greater truths about the other candidate, about their own self-consciously Christian support of Donald Trump.

I know these men. They are gentle and modest. They care for their country, but not in the chest-thumping, flag-waving, you-damn-well-better-stand-for-the-anthem way that is sometimes assumed of certain kinds of Christian men. They are authentically pious and God-fearing.

They are also white, though they might question the relevance of this particular fact.

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In an essay about his visit to the West Bank, Teju Cole asks, “How does one write about this place?”

Every sentence is open to dispute. Every place name is objected to by someone. Every barely stated fact seems familiar already, at once tiresome and necessary. Whatever is written is examined not only for what it includes but what it leaves out.

He’s thinking about the troubling relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The names of the places, people, wars, and sacred claims have become so common and heavy with assumptions of guilt and innocence that conversation becomes nearly impossible.

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Last February, on a rainy day in Israel, I sat in an idling bus with a group of clergy looking across an impressive wall into Palestinian land. The pastors, most of them, were impressed with the wall and sympathetic to its military architect who stood at the front of our bus explaining into the microphone why the separation was necessary. He told us that he hoped one day to lead the work to demolish the wall, once the people on the other side learned to police themselves.

Through the rain-streaked windows, across the border, we could see some houses, small and meager next to the impressive wall. I wondered about the people whose days began in those homes before making the slow walk through tangled border crossings to work on the other side.

Did you know, asked the architect, that some of your politicians have visited our wall to study how to build a similar one on your border?

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Seeing is hard. The stimuli enter my eyes and I register, somewhere, the scene as it unfolds. My eyes are exposed to experiences that exist beyond the limits of my body; I take them in as a passerby, sometimes as a confidant. But do I see?

It took a couple of weeks after this election to notice that I’d stopped posting photos of my sons to Facebook. The decision wasn’t deliberate; I’m proud of my sons and delight in sharing their smiles and adventures. I was aware, almost immediately, that there was nothing rational about my unconscious decision, but once it surfaced it became an unmovable fact, a thing I don’t do. The knowledge that many in my digital timeline voted for the man who has made himself a threat to my black and brown sons made posting their images seem, I don’t know, somehow inappropriate. As though I’d be aiding and abetting those who will not see my beautiful boys for who they are. These friends – and they are, still, I think – believe that what is best for my sons is to empower a man whose words and actions menace those who share what will be sons’ tenuous experience of this nation.

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There is a lot to which I am blind but, when the emails came, I could see what my correspondents saw. I know the concerns and hopes they feel. I can hear the sermons they nod along to each week. I imagine the dinner-table conversation or the commentary over the latest headline. I see them.

That’s not totally right. I know this; there’s so much that I miss and Jesus says this discomfiting thing about beams and motes that chastens any assumptions about how clearly I see. Still, I’m willing to say this: They can’t see, not really, the experiences I try to explain- the ones about my sons, our friends, this segregated country, the good things being led in our city by people whose race renders their stories uninteresting to those with the power to tell them. In America, seeing happens through tinted lenses. What is made visible by dint of proximity and friendship is rendered perilously opaque to those who lack these basics. Seeing accurately requires closeness and familiarity.

The choice, such as it was, to stop posting photos of my sons is probably misdirected. Silly even. But it’s instinctual, a spasm provoked by bad eyes. These eyes are blinded to the flesh and blood village in front of them as they look to the gleaming, reality-defining wall in the distance.

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In 1955, Mamie Till Mobley, upon hearing that the lynched and mutilated body of her 14-year-old son had been recovered from a Mississippi river, decided that Emmet would rest in an open casket during his Chicago funeral. About this decision, Claudia Rankine writes that “Mobley’s refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence.” Her decision, steeped in a courage I cannot grasp, was a mother’s demand to be seen. For her son to be seen. Photos were taken and articles written. But, as Rankine writes,

We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and going. Dead blacks are a part of life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by the police, or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is not quotidian without the enslaved, chained, or dead body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against.

In this land, seeing demands more than an open casket and a mother’s deep resolve. We cannot be made to see. The white gaze blinks, even weeps at these moments – Emmet Till in the Tallahatchie River, Michael Brown on Canfield Drive, Tamir Rice at the Cuddle Recreation Center – but somewhere deep in the racialized reptilian subconscious is the anticipation of these scenes. This is the dark traumatic screen upon which whiteness has projected itself for centuries. We know the rituals and act them out; some will grieve and others will explain the violence away. But we do not see. We do not want to see.

It has long been this way. Sixty years before young Emmet’s funeral, Ida B. Wells published A Red Record, an account of American lynchings between 1892 and 1894. The book was “respectfully submitted to the Nineteenth Century civilization in ‘the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.'” It is a brave and gruesome book, the fruit of Well’s brilliance and incomparable will. Chapter after chapter documents the sad and brutal cases in which black bodies were desecrated and hung under the most speculative of pretenses. Then, toward the end, Wells describes a trip to England in support of her anti-lynching crusade. While there, Wells was asked about another American Christian, the Rev. Dwight L. Moody who was an internationally known evangelist and founder of a well known Bible college. Unlike Wells, he was white. Her English supporters were curious whether Rev. Moody had supported Wells’ efforts to stop the rampant lynching of black women and men. She replied, “Mr. Moody had never said a word against lynching in any of his trips to the South, or in the North either, so far as was known.”

In a forward to one of Wells’ previous books Frederick Douglass praised her work.

Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever you pamphlet shall be read.

But, as Rankine observes, the scream never comes. The white Christians indicted by Douglass cannot see, or rather, what horror they do see slides from consciences that were generations ago hardened to the violence inflicted upon black bodies. There is no whiteness without the juxtaposition of black bodies and, in America, those same bodies have always been interpreted through the lurking threat of state-dependent violence.

So the white gaze sees the unending assault but not the associated horror of any human encounter with violence. The suffering black body becomes black-ness, a disembodiment requiring no empathy or reflection, certainly no confession or repentance. The gaze can survey a ruined landscape, decimated by violence of its own making, and feel no complicity for the damage, no compassion for its victims. Within this devastation, Rankine writes, black citizens are asked, “What kind of savages are we?” But the legitimate question, she writes, the question grounded in truth and history, the question invisible to the white gaze, is different: “What kind of a country do we live in?”

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My sons are black and they are brown. The oldest can tell you what continents and countries his ancestors came from. How they came here and why is unfolding before him. They must learn to see clearly for the critical reason that they cannot expect the same from those whose hazy sight has not hindered their accumulation of tremendous power.

“Every sentence is open to dispute,” writes Cole, but it’s more than that. Vision itself is contested. The gaze renders specific bodies invisible; it replaces flesh and blood with specters of an ancient, terrified imagination.

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Our New Years Eve memorial ended about two hours after we first gathered in the December chill. Family members were invited to keep the crosses bearing the names and photos of their deceased. The rest of us placed ours near the trucks that had brought them; they would be delivered far from the Magnificent Mile, to an empty city lot as a larger version of the memorials that dot certain neighborhoods throughout the city. We left then, our ranks replaced by window shoppers and tourists ready to welcome a new year. Some looked over curiously, quickly. But mostly they walked on, their sight attracted to the shimmer and sparkle ahead.

Now, months later, I try to remember the name of the man whose cross I carried. I imagine it, scrawled across the plywood heart, but in my memory I see only a blank space where his name should be.

Mourning in America

Lamenting our divided churches on the day before the presidential inauguration.

I woke up to a foreboding on the day before the presidential inauguration. It’s mostly not a sadness for the country I feel, though there’s much to mourn as we watch the decisions that will be made and the warped assumptions that will become normal. I care about these things but I’m not an expert. Also, history reminds us that the noisiest thing at the moment may not be the most important.

No, the weight of grief is tied to an unseen future in which the many Christians who support the new president continue to do so even as their fellow-citizens, many of them Christians, suffer under the president’s agenda. I cannot imagine a line that hasn’t already been crossed that will change their minds. Logically, then, we have to assume that their support will continue, that something about their experience of these days and their place within them will keep them from believing the pain of their neighbors.

The American churches have long been divided but we’ve often cooperated and this has given many of us us reason to hope. That hope, in me, is stretched thin today when one group of Christians prays for the success of the man who threatens the safety and flourishing of their family in Christ. I know this isn’t new. About a particularly horrific lynching in 1892 Ida B. Wells wrote, “American Christianity heard of this awful affair and read of its details and neither press nor pulpit gave the matter more than a passing comment.” The silence continues.

The divisions aren’t new but today their breadth seems endless. May God have mercy on our churches, on his church. May our compromised witness to the Gospel of Jesus be restored, even now, in our desperate weakness.