Kwanzaa Learnings for People of White Privilege

As a man with White privilege I feel anxiety about offering any comments about a celebration of African/African American history, culture, and wisdom. I do not intend to appropriate the spiritual traditions of other people. However, as I told a friend, “It is not my heritage, but oh my, the wisdom is so powerful, so needed.” 

A bit of personal history is in order. One of the things that happened when I was the pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond VA that really makes me proud, is our decision to observe Kwanzaa on the Sunday immediately following Christmas. I do not know for sure which year we began, but I know that by 2007 (I had been pastor since 2003) the local paper ran a story with pictures about our observance.  We had purchased a kinara, a beautiful carved wood holder for the seven candles, as well as the required green, red and black candles (I don’t think I had ever seen, let alone purchased, a black candle before this). 

I was moved to promote this because I was acutely aware that this congregation of 80 people was overwhelmingly white-identified—in a city in which African Americans constituted a majority of the population (of course, the suburban counties were very different!). I admit that my reasoning included appealing to African Americans, especially LGBTQ people, to check out our congregation. This was not the first time White-dominated institutions used Kwanzaa as a marketing ploy (Hallmark cards come to mind). At any rate, I have come to appreciate Kwanzaa over the years, although I admit I have not always actively observed it. With this post, I am committing to active year-round engagement. 

Dr. Maulana Karenga

One of the seven principles of Kwanzaa is Kujichagulia, self-determination. Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa, said that he wanted to give Black people an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, not as a subset of or exception to other holidays, but their own self-designed, self-actuating celebration and foundation for personal and communal life, to define and name themselves, as well as to create and speak for themselves. 

That is why I think Kwanzaa is so vital. It can help people with White privilege come to grips with the reality that Black people, as is true of Indigenous, Brown and other people, have not only a vibrant self-defined culture but are agents in their own well-being. It is essential that we with White privilege massively change the ways we have set up, and continue to set up, the world to deny that. 

All of us, and each of us, who benefit from unearned White privilege need to get our collective knee off the backs of BIPoC people, but we also need to realize that even though we continue to victimize them they already have their own dignity, their own values, their own history. That dignity, those values, and that history are a powerful testament to the vibrancy of the human spirit from which we can learn much.  

We, all of us, need the wisdom that is collected and celebrated in Kwanzaa.  People with White privilege could learn so much from the peoples we have devalued, abused, slaughtered—and continue doing that today. At the same time, we who benefit from unearned privilege need to be careful in our own observance of Kwanzaa to avoid bleaching it (an example of bleaching is what is done each January to the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., removing all the edges of his words and work that might upset us, so he becomes a faint caricature of the giant he was and still is). 

I have already mentioned Kujichagulia, self-determination. Let’s look at the other six. 

Umoja (Unity)—To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race. 

Unity is so missing in our nation today, and really around the globe. Let the coming year be one that helps all people come together. A vital way people with White privilege can contribute to this is to give up some of that privilege, and work to eliminate it entirely. We can’t keep clinging to ideas and practices of superiority over others if we really want unity.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.  

Collective work and responsibility is in short supply these days, especially with the number of people who continue to deny the reality of COVID-19, not to mention the Climate Emergency and the continuing scourge of White supremacy, and engage in behavior which endangers not only them but the rest of us, too. You know who you are and you can change if you care enough about the well-being of all. And the rest of us can promote this change.

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)—To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together. 

Cooperative Economics seems foreign to our capitalistic, monopolistic society. Imagine, encouraging everyone to use their gifts to build their own dreams in ways to benefit all. One small way I am trying to encourage this is to buy as little as possible from the online giants and give my patronage to local and smaller companies and especially to those owned and operated by BIPoC people. 

Nia (Purpose)—To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. 

Purpose as an expression of collective focus seems foreign to the deep strain, the dominance, of individualism in the United States. This principle raises up the truth of the beauty, wisdom, and power of African cultures so often belittled and degraded by Western supremacist views. That needs to change, of course, and frankly people of White privilege also must think and work to draw upon parts of our heritage that call us to more universal values and behaviors. 

Kuumba (Creativity)—To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. 

Creativity is an aspiration to contribute our fullest potential to the well-being of all. This is not motivated by profit and power for a few but by an awareness of our own innate and developed gifts, and a desire to use those gifts to bless, serve the world. There are people of privilege engaging in philanthropy but this is more than that; this is giving our whole selves, and continually stretching ourselves, to create a better world for all. 

Imani (Faith)—To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. 

Faith speaks to the fundamental human need to believe in each other. In the context of African and African American history, this is a reclaiming of the beauty and power of the various cultures and movements of the people. For White privileged people, this needs to be understood as a challenge to us to affirm the dignity and value of all people, AND to ongoing critical conversation and action that challenges and changes the people, attitudes, and practices that create and maintain hierarchies of value denying the dignity and value of others. Frankly, I, we, have much work to do in this! 

In case you hadn’t noticed, at the heart of Kwanzaa is community, communal living. May this new year be a time where more and more of us live in ways that acknowledge the truth that we all—of every nation, color, racial identity, religion, language, sexuality, gender, age, tribe, education, economic status, as well as all the non-human creatures of this world—are in this together. 

Indeed, the lessons of Kwanzaa tell us we people of White privilege must change. We can share in celebrations of this special time created and led by others, but if we do not show up to work on our own transformation we are only engaging in making ourselves look and feel good.  

We’ve got a year to show some progress. Let us get to it. 

If you want to learn more, you can visit https://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwanzaa

Note: As always, I invite you replies as an opportunity for us to continue the conversation. The best way to share in the conversation not with me but with others is to use the comment option on this page. You also can sign up to become a subscriber to this blog. I would be so glad of your continuing participation in the dialogue. 

Addendum to “Chanukah: Reminder to Resist”

During the Chanukah celebration with my Jewish Voice for Peace Metro DC Chapter yesterday (mentioned in the prior post), we shared in this blessing by Rabbi Rosen as the menorah candles were lighted. I find it moving, evocative of the deep spirit and drive for peace and justice in the world. I am thinking I will borrow it to use on other occasions when lighting candles (such as my 75th birthday next year), reminding myself and others of our shared desire for wholeness in the world.

We Light these Lights

by Rabbi Brant Rosen

We light these lights
for the instigators and the refusers
the obstinate and unyielding
for the ones who kept marching
the ones who tended the fires
the ones who would not bow down.

We light these lights
for the sparks that guide us on
through the gentle night
for the darkness that swaddles us
in its soft embrace until the moment
we inevitably emerge
into life renewed.

We light these lights
for the spirit of resilience that remains
after our strength has ebbed away
for the steadfast knowledge even as
the bullets echo repeatedly
off bodies lying in the streets
that the impunity of the powerful
cannot last forever.

These lights we light tonight
will never be used for any other purpose
but to proclaim the miracle
of this truth:
it is not by might nor by cruelty
but by a love that burns relentlessly
that this broken world
will be redeemed.

Chanukah: A Reminder to Resist

Chanukah began last evening at our house with the lighting of the first candle and the singing of

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Chanukah lights.

Tonight is Shabbat, and Jonathan and I will sing the above as well as 

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.

Every other evening we pray before dinner in the kitchen–first with our beloved Standard Poodle, Cocoa—prayers for the world and our loved ones, giving thanks, whatever we feel called to share—and then on non-Shabbat nights we conclude that by singing 

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

You will notice that the root of each prayer is identical. I really appreciate that, because each time I am reminded of the centrality of God in my life, indeed all life (at least as I believe). 

I am a lifelong Christian, a queer theologian guided by my ever-evolving sense of what being a follower of Jesus calls me to be and to do, AND I am also blessed to be connected to the ancient and contemporary Jewish roots of that faith. Let me be clear, I can’t help but come to Judaism with my Christian heritage and life, but I also come to this beautiful faith for its own truth and wisdom. To put it simply, I am doubly blessed. 

Actually, the blessing is rooted in my 23-year marriage to the love of my life, Jonathan, a Jewish man who helped and helps me engage with Judaism more than simply coming to love what was called in my childhood, and even in seminary, the Old Testament, the text truly known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. He has helped me appreciate Jewish ritual and music and worship and values so now I want to participate more and more in it. I also am educated about the many Jewish spiritual texts by our rabbi and Jewish writers and scholars, which enriches my understanding and appreciation and grows and deepens my faith. 

Another way to appreciate this shift is that I am repeatedly reminded that God, the God of my understanding, is larger than any one faith, any one religious or spiritual system. So blessings abound. 

Tonight, at 6 p.m., Jonathan and I will join our community and Rabbi Joseph Berman online at the New Synagogue Project (newsynagogueproject.org) for lighting the Shabbat candles and the candles for the second night of Chanukah. I am honored to be a member along with Jonathan. 

Then, on Sunday, I will join my community at Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. (mccdc.com) for worship at 11 a.m. The pastor, Rev. Dwayne Johnson will be preaching on “The Gift of Wilderness.” That congregation and our pastors are a huge blessing in my life, too. 

Then, at 3 p.m. that same day, I will join online the local community of Jewish Voice for Peace (https://jvpdc.org/jvp-dc)for a Chanukah party/celebration. Our special guest will be a young, gifted writer, Massoud Hayoun, author of When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History. It is a splendid book of story and cultural/religious insight. 

Jewish Voice for Peace is a national organization working for justice and liberation for the people of Palestine. Both Jonathan and I are members. Most members are Jewish, but I am far from the only Christian involved. It is a wonderful movement. We began our involvement with the cause while still living in Richmond, VA (where I pastored the local MCC church) through Richmonders for Peace in Israel-Palestine. When we moved to the D.C. area in 2015, we joined JVP Metro DC. 

I connect all this to Chanukah because, although it is not a High Holy time like Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur—and is often thought of as more for kids than adults (many view the contemporary focus on Chanukah as primarily a response to the dominance of Christmas in our culture)—I also understand Chanukah as a symbol and encouragement of resistance, resistance to oppression, injustice, and the failure to care for each other and the world.

I want to quote extensively from Rabbi Brent Rosen’s recent piece about Chanukah [the name of his blog, Shalom Rav, refers to an evening blessing of Abundant Peace]. He writes, 

Chanukah, of course, is based upon the story of the Maccabees, the small group of Jews who successfully liberated themselves from the oppressive reign of the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE. The legacy of this story, however, is a complex one because the Jewish struggle against religious persecution took place within the context of a bloody and destructive Jewish civil war. In contemporary times, the meaning of Chanukah has become even more complicated given its proximity to Christmas, subjecting it to the uniquely American religion of unmitigated commercialism.

Beyond all these complications, I’d argue that the essence of Chanukah is the theme of resistance. At its core, the Chanukah story commemorates the victorious resistance of the people over the power and might of empire. On a deeper level, we might say that the festival celebrates the spiritual strength of our resistance to an often harsh and unyielding world.

You can read his entire article, which focuses on how we can resist Covid-19 through mutual aid, at https://rabbibrant.com/2020/12/10/Chanukah-is-about-resistance-lets-resist-this-covid-spike-through-mutual-aid/. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, I encourage you to read it and ponder your own ways of resistance, not only to Covid-19 but also to the other viruses infecting our world (including White supremacy/racism, militarism, the climate crisis, inequality and inequities of all sorts, and rampant capitalist exploitation). 

It may be the season to be jolly and joyous, as we are told—and it is also the season to resist, to work together to create the world God (however you understand God or the Universe or what/whomever) really means for us to have and be, not just you and me but every single body, human and non-human. 

So I say, “Chag Sameach” (pronounced “hahg sah-mae’-ahk) and/or “Chanukah Sameach”, or simply Happy Holidays or Happy Chanukah! 

And may the resistance be strong, resilient, and joyous.  

 

This Gift Keeps on Giving

[Note: My short essay appeared as part of the Advent Devotional series at my church, Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. Theme for the season is “You Are a Gift.”]

I have been blessed over the past year or two with a growing awareness of nature, especially trees but actually all other plants, animals, and elements, as well.  

Part of this is due to the influence of several authors I am following, including Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist, professor, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Robert MacFarlane, a fellow of Cambridge University. Kimmerer’s book is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, and MacFarlane’s is Underland: A Deep Time Journey. 

I mention these works, because they are gifts to me, gifts that keep on giving. I do not remember how I learned of either of these books, and given how powerful each is and has been in my life, I believe books and authors are a gift from God to me, and of course to many others. 

What they have helped me begin to realize is that there is so much more  that is central to this world than humans. I understand more and more that we humans are latecomers to the earth, that other living things, actually living beings, and even beings we don’t think of as living (mountains, rocks, bodies of water, e.g.) have been here far longer. And they have so much to teach us, if we can let go of our sense of human exceptionalism, as if we are the only ones with knowledge. 

And I go further. I am beginning to experience all these beings as fellow citizens of the globe, each one by itself and all of them together. Now I see the world as populated by more than the estimated 7.8 billion humans. Now the population count is so many times that I cannot even calculate. Just think, scientific studies say there are 3.041 trillion trees,  400 billion birds, at least 10 billion squirrels. 

Talk about gifts! 

This year, in Advent as we focus on the reality that each of us is a gift, that I am a gift, that you are a gift, I now see how many other trillions of gifts there are. They certainly will not fit under our Christmas tree! 

But they do fit in my life, my heart, and I hope yours, too. 

The gift God has given us—all creation—and keeps giving us, is the gift that keeps on giving. How blessed we are! 

Thank you, God!

From Turtle Island to Israel: A Shared Reality

Jonathan and I chose this year to observe two events often overlooked in all the focus caused by what is called the holiday season in the U.S. These two events are Native American Heritage Day on November 27 (part of the month-long Native American Heritage Month), and the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on November 29. 

At first glance, they may not appear connected, but for me they reflect a remarkable intersection, a confluence of political and spiritual observances, memories, hopes, and yearnings. They both involve the reality of peoples affected by the drive of one group of people to claim and occupy land which is ancestral home to others. 

Native American Heritage Day changes actual date each year because it is always observed on the day after Thanksgiving in the United States. Most people know this day as Black Friday. Clearly, the rush to shop overshadows the observance of indigenous history. Indeed, I think that in both the United States and Israel the realities of these two peoples is largely erased by the dominating power.  

The international Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People is always on November 29, designated by the United Nations (although sometimes events at the UN are on adjacent days). The date was chosen by the UN in 1977 in recognition of the adoption of a resolution on November 29, 1947 calling for the creation of two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with an international status for Jerusalem. This was intended to end the British Mandate in Palestine which had been in force since World War I. 

This plan did not come to fruition. The Jewish leadership reluctantly accepted the plan and its boundaries for each of the new nations but the Arab states objected saying it denied the agency of the people currently living there for self-determination. As we know, the result has been the creation of the State of Israel and the division of the Palestinians among three territories: those who remain in Israel, those living in the West Bank which I called the Occupied Territories because the real power of governance lies with Israel, and those living in Gaza, as well as Palestinians confined to refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. 

Thus, what we have in these two events is an effort to draw attention to the suffering of two peoples at the hands of occupying powers. 

The erasure of Palestinians is rooted in what Zionists and others felt was, is, the acute need to establish the world’s first truly safe haven for Jews. This drive began in the 19th Century—in response to pogroms and ongoing repression in Europe—and gained support and energy with the rise of Hitler and the genocide of six million Jews in Europe. Clearly, the creation of this new nation is a response to the devastation, a desperate attempt to create a national sanctuary designed and built by the survivors themselves.

The erasure of Native Americans begins with the arrival of Europeans, many of them subject to political and economic subjugation, seeking a better life in “the New World” (not so new for those living here for millennia). It picks up steam as these arrivals want more and more land on which to create a new society, one that gives them a sense of freedom from often negative experiences in Europe and one in which Christianity, not “heathen beliefs,” dominates. 

To put it simply, both groups are struggling to overcome what has been, and is being, done to them by settler colonial societies. 

Settler colonialism is a distinct type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty. According to Laura Hurwitz and Shawn Borque’s Settler Colonialism Primer, “This means that settler colonialism is not just a vicious thing of the past, such as the gold rush, but exists as long as settlers are living on appropriated land and thus exists today.”

Settler colonialism was practiced in, and the effects remain, in several countries including Canada, South Africa and Australia, as well as the United States and Israel. Thus, these two groups, Native Americans and Palestinians, both indigenous to territory now controlled by more powerful forces are linked by the fate that has befallen them and their struggle to regain their lands and their rights to live freely. 

As I learn more about the histories of these two peoples and about settler colonialism I see that once again a U.S. value has been exported to another part of the world. I am also coming to believe that the shared history of settler colonialism in both nations provides an important layer in their bonding. Yes, the U.S. wants to support the aspirations of the Jewish people for safety, but I also believe our government and many leaders recognize, if only unconsciously, our shared bond with Israel as an occupying power.

Israel is doing what we have done, and continue to do, to our own indigenous population: put them on reservations; make it difficult, if not impossible, for most of them to lead safe, economically and professionally successful lives; mistreat their children; erase their history from “our” history books; and punish those who speak up agains oppression. 

That is why Jonathan and I participated in two webinars focused on the struggles of the Palestinians and Native Americans. Indeed, one of those presentations was entitled “Unite to Decriminalize Indigenous Struggles from Turtle Island to Palestine,” co-sponsored by Friends of Sabeel North America ( http://www.fosna.org ) and Christian Peacemaker Teams (http://cpt.org ) [Note: Turtle Island is a name for North America  used by some US Indigenous and First Nations people and by some Indigenous rights activists. The name is based on a common North American Indigenous creation story.]

I will be writing more about each of these struggles. In the meantime, you can read some of my thoughts about Thanksgiving and Native Americans through this post from 2015, https://thenakedtheologian.org/2015/11/25/gratitude-or-grief-its-both/ . 

I hope you will join the conversation by leaving a comment. 

Still Haunted

NOTE: Despite the title, this is not a Halloween fantasy but a recognition of a real-life haunting that continues to this very day and shows few, if any, signs of ending. 

I have removed images that were shown earlier, to avoid triggering readers. 

A dear friend told me about her high blood pressure during the past weeks and months—a response to nightmares she is experiencing. The nightmares include her being beaten, even shot, “because of the color of my skin.” She said a recurring one involves Walking While Black, being shot for walking down the street. 

It is for me a powerful reminder of the power of White Supremacy to keep BIPOC people on edge, off-center, always having to be aware of everything going on around them, to take extra precautions to be safe wherever they are, whatever they are doing. 

Even more, it is a powerful statement about what all that watching and being prepared for the next bad thing, every moment of every day, can do to people’s psyche, their sense of well-being, their mental health, and indeed their physical health. BIPOC people are so very aware of being expected to not precipitate what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility”—the form of bullying used by White people to maintain dominance, to keep people of color in line and “in their place.”

My friend is a Black woman in her 60s, now retired, with a long record of distinguished accomplishment in her profession as well as continuing engagement in working for social change. She is a well-known, greatly admired leader in our local community. She would seem to have everything going for her, and yet she is experiencing dangerously high blood pressure due to a lifetime spent coping with the insidious nature of White supremacy. 

Another friend speaks of “adaptive behavior” that she and other Black people (and other racially marginalized people) have learned to do to survive, expressed through self-denial and self-silencing (swallowing feelings, looking past hurts and insults, avoiding disagreements, etc.) piling up over years of stifling oneself. Small wonder people have nightmares.

None of what has happened in recent years to Black people surprises either of them, nor does it surprise any other Black people………or Indigenous or other People of Color. But all of it takes a toll on their well-being. This is the seemingly “non-violent,” quiet, side of White supremacy—it is not available for video recording and replay, it is not a dramatic moment like a shooting or a lynching or White supremacist demonstration. 

But it is violence. Social violence. State-sponsored or at least state-allowed violence—just think of the differentials for health outcomes not only in the Pandemic but all the time between White people and BIPOC people. And it is only quiet in the sense that our White supremacist social structure ignores it, pretends it does not exist. 

And it is violence enacted by individuals. Most White people don’t know our own complicity in everyday attitudes, interactions, and practices that perpetuate and even encourage the violence. 

This is why Ta NaHesi-Coates, in his powerful 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” speaks about the time after the passage of the 13th Amendment and Reconstruction, and indeed all that has followed, down to and including our own time. 

Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us. 

[If you have not read his piece, here is a link so you can read it now,

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/  …..vital reading for us all.]

“But still we are haunted.” 

That is my friend, but it is not limited to her. Nor is this haunting solely attributable to overtly racist, White supremacist people, or even to a President who denies the realities of American history and belittles those who keep bringing it up. 

The long and short of it, my fellow White Americans, is that we have so much to do because we have so much to answer for. We must engage in ongoing, probing self-examination, looking intently in the mirror of our souls, our minds, to be willing to root out our unconscious obedience to racist social rules of which we have remained blissfully unaware. We must become conscious about what is unconscious and challenge it, we must to dare to see what we were trained not to see and begin to share it with others, and we must confess and repent and figure out what we can do to repair at least some of the harm we have caused. 

For example, without asking a BIPOC friend to educate you (an old trick designed to keep the focus off us and on them, to help us feel good about ourselves for asking) you might ask them to tell you of something that happened to them with a White person recently that caused them to feel devalued, hurt, anxious, or angry, perhaps all of the above. Then watch your own reaction honestly and analyze all your feelings, certainly expressing your concern for them but really being open to the full range of your feelings. Let their testimony simmer in you and see where you go. And if you don’t have such a friend to ask, that is a wake-up call. 

Until we as White people realize, really realize, with the spoken word artist Guante that “white supremacy is not the shark in the water, it is the water (see below),” until we acknowledge how much harm has been caused, and how we continue to maintain it ourselves, until we can hear people like my friend and not become defensive, until someone we know tells us of their pain and we seek to learn more and to check in with other BIPOC friends, until we confess our complicity in this sin and start changing our attitudes, our behaviors, our words, our hearts and minds, the haunting will continue.

Let’s work, with each other and within ourselves, to end our participation in the haunting.

And if you aren’t familiar with the impact of racism on mental and physical health, here are links to two articles that provide some good information. 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/racism-in-care-leads-to-health-disparities-doctors-and-other-experts-say-as-they-push-for-change/2020/07/10/a1a1e40a-bb9e-11ea-80b9-40ece9a701dc_story.html 

https://mhanational.org/racism-and-mental-health 

 You can hear Guante speak the truth in this 3.5 minute video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDSEHfxXLhI&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2-of-33eg8MhXN96m7VqsYzzfOJ1WQEqWyenS9tL8f_HBNi-gh89u6T8E

god Speaks to the Donald

My Son, i am counting on you.

All heaven is counting on you to save me

to save the truth of my Word

the foundation of the world 

to snuff out all those who claim 

to speak in my name

as they speak blasphemy

as they encourage roving bands

of anarchists and so-called 

liberation theologians and their ilk

who claim that justice is what they say it is

when of course there is no justice 

without the peace i decree,

the peace of people being led 

and ruled by you and others 

of enormous strength 

ruthless resilience in the face of danger

who know they and they alone 

define freedom and liberty

in the correct, dare i say godly, way. 

You know, i thought Abraham 

would get it right, then Moses, Jesus and Paul

—my greatest disappointments.

i thought Luther might be the one

for a brief moment or Calvin

but no they were weak each of them, 

allowing forces of deceit 

to make claims i cannot accept. 

Then came the resisters from 

those s—t hole parts of the world 

who pronounced their version of truth,

what they called the word of liberation. 

All it did, as you have so clearly said,

is to encourage lawless bands 

of rapists, drug and people smugglers

to invade the sacred precincts 

of the one true holy land

north of the Rio Grande.

And now this Joe

and his faithless sidekick Kamala

(i ask you, what sort of name is that?)

the ones who will kill me off

the ones who will destroy 

what is left of my kingdom

they will burn all the Bibles—

bless you, my Son, for standing tall

with the holy book—

the King James Version 

the true original language 

i dictated to all the scribes of long ago—

in front of that so-called house of worship

near the holy of holies, the White House,

where lawless rowdy bands 

pretended to care about the blacks 

when all they wanted was to slash and burn

what does not belong to them. 

You are so right, my dear one, 

if those two are elected 

there will be no more me. 

Save me, save us, my Son! 

 

Note: I wrote this poem in response to the claim by the President that “there will be no God” if Biden is elected. Some may see the poem as sacrilegious but I see it as Holy Sacrilege, standing up to someone who uses God as a prop, as a toy to advance his own interests.

Thriving for All, Part 1

Recently, I published a post about the Four Necessities—water, food, shelter and community, and health care (both physical and mental). These four are the basic necessities for all human beings/bodies to survive (see https://thenakedtheologian.org/2020/07/28/the-four-necessities/ )

Of course, each of us needs more—freedom to think and act for ourselves, to believe what we believe, to feel empowered to be our best selves rather than confined by the straitjackets of social expectation, oppression, invisibility and silence. 

But without the full functioning of our bodies it is extraordinarily difficult, even impossible to go beyond survival to thriving. 

What do I mean by thrive? This is far more than survival, important as that is. And shamefully, not every one in the world has enough water and food to even survive at the most minimal level. And the root of this reality lies not with those with too little but with the rest of us who refuse to create change that serves all. 

Thus, I am writing about these four necessities in order to propose an new ethic for our world—namely that rather than creating and relying on systems which provide some with more than enough to thrive while others struggle and too many barely survive, and too many of those don’t—to one in which our universal goal and practice is for all to thrive.

At this point, I am working on a definition of thrive. But there are a variety of synonyms: flourish, prosper, grow vigorously, develop well, burgeon, bloom, blossom, do well, advance, make strides, succeed, shoot up, boom, profit, expand, go well, grow rich. 

I don’t know if everyone can grow rich, at least in terms of money. But I do believe everyone can grow rich in experience, in achievement, in meaning, in love, in joy, in caring. I do believe that everyone can become their best selves, to be and to do what they are called to be and do, to be their true selves. 

I am proposing a clear systemic shift in the world, a profound reordering, restructuring, how each of us and all of us approach our own well-being—namely to accept, and live by, a new ethic which says that my well-being is very much dependent on the well-being of others, indeed of all others. What I believe, in an echo of Dr. King about freedom, is that none of us can truly thrive unless all are thriving.

This is a clear repudiation of capitalist views of “getting ahead” and the American idea of rugged individualism. It contradicts the social Darwinism doctrine of survival of the fittest (which in our world so often defines the fittest as those who are rich, white, male, already privileged). 

It is not that each of us is not an individual but rather that our ability to actuate our own bodies, character, potential is directly linked to, dependent on, the ability of all others to be able to do the same. 

I can hear someone say that surely Michael Bloomberg or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg do not need any of the rest of to do all they want to do whenever and wherever they want to do it. There is truth in that. 

And yet, even they depend on the ability of people to buy what they sell, to access their products, to entertain their ideas and their schemes to further build and burnish their empires. 

But more than that, do they not depend on the constant uprising and inflow of talented people to maintain and grow their economic and social engines? 

How many Einsteins. how many Edisons, how many Kings and Mandelas and Wells and Obamas, how many Domingos and Sills and Picassos and Kahlos, how many Morrisons and Baldwins and Lordes and Faulkners, how many Curies and Salks and Barnards, how many Platos and Arendts, Rawls, de Beauvoirs and Foucaults—how many of the very people we always need are we losing when people not only die of thirst and hunger and absence of protection of their bodies and their minds but also when more of them lose hope that they will ever be able to rise above the misery and limitations of their life situations even if they survive?

Which one of the malnourished children we see in pictures not only from so-called Third World countries but even our own might be the genius, the leader, the inventor, the artisan, the performer that will transform the world. How many of the parents we see in such pictures with eyes pleading for someone, anyone, to help them and their families could create whole new understandings of how we can all live better lives?

I raise these questions as a way for us to think that no matter our own level of privilege, our own ability to thrive, we are diminished by what others are unable to do because what they need is kept from them. I encourage you to think about your own interests, your profession and work, your community, and ponder who/what is missing. 

In my next installment I will discuss how I came to this view via the workings of what we call nature, or the natural world. 

Dark(?) Times

Friends and others lament these “dark times,” meaning for them one or all of these: the ugliness of Trumpism and our politics in general; and the scourges of four Pandemics— Covid-19, racism and White supremacy,  economic despair and devastation for too many even before the virus struck, and a burgeoning climate crisis. 

I share this lament, but not the negative value associated with the this usage of “dark.”

Why is the devil so often portrayed as black/dark?

As one who feels at home in the dark, the phrase “dark times” troubles me. There is so much that is good about darkness—whether it be darker-pigmented people or the underland where fungi and other creatures deepen and extend life in the soil or even the overland beauty of leafless trees in winter against the night sky. Or what about the things we learn as the result of “being in the dark” and the feeling of revelation, sometimes even elation, when we see what we had missed before? 

I experience darkness as almost always a gift, a break from the light pollution to which we are exposed every day. For example, there is more than enough light created by our neighbors and us in our small court of co-op homes as we leave our porch lights on at night to discourage criminals from breaking in. We also  live across the street from city hall, the community center, and the library, which are overlaid with light each night. 

When I go outside at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. to meditate and pray, all this light, not to mention the noise of twin-interstate highways and a local parkway that meet just outside our town, reduce the number and brightness of stars visible in the sky and compete with the chorus of cicadas.

Why is Jesus so often portrayed as white, non-Semitic?

Often it feels to me life is an unending contest where light keeps trying to overcome, even erase, dark. And light wins all the time—a system of light supremacy to which our society is addicted. Why can’t we accept, and celebrate, the reality that there is life, good life, in darkness, and that we can learn from its multitude of gifts?

White racism, White Supremacy, is a good place to start. Despite the beauty, strength and resilience of darker-skinned people even in the most ugly times, Western Civilization insists on the primacy of Euro-American positive valuation of light and the negative valuation of dark. 

In the United States, we connect White Supremacy with the subjugation and domination of African peoples. And yet, coupled with an Enlightenment mindset—namely the value of the rational over the mystical, the scientific over the intuitive and artistic, and the valorization of the individual (often to pursue their own interests over the well-being of community), White Supremacy supports and sustains the subjugation and domination of other groups as well. 

For example, Arab learning—at one time the zenith of mathematical and scientific reasoning and knowledge in the world—was discounted to justify Christian crusades against Muslim people. That same strain of Christian imperialism and the belief that Western (northern European) ideas, culture and systems are the apex of human achievement unite in capitalism and colonialism to undergird and justify the conquest of indigenous people in the Americas as well as the importation and breeding of slaves for the profit of their owners. 

A central method of the capitalist/settler colonialism drive to subdue and own land and all it contains is to label the wisdom and practices of indigenous people as primitive, without value in the modern world. Thus, today we can see not only how African Americans and Spanish-speaking peoples from Latin America continue to be oppressed, but also how the Middle East, other than Israel, is viewed as backward, and even nations and peoples further east are the victims of negativity.  

Further, this intersecting series of belief systems produce the subjugation of nature, degradation and elimination of species, and denial of what is happening in the Climate Crisis. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, non-indigenous people are trained to devalue the teaching of nature.

In short, “we” have created a worldview that highlights only some parts of reality and casts the rest into the dark—not listening to BIPOC people (Black Indigenous People of Color); not paying attention to that which makes life possible for all, namely the earth and all its parts; and refusing to build a world in which all have what they need to thrive (rather than some having far more than they need and too many not having even enough to survive).

Thus, I believe we must begin the practice of Endarkenment, to value not only things that appear dark but also the wisdom we have cast into the dark. In future posts, I will discuss this concept but suffice it to say at this point that I believe if we continue to refuse to acknowledge and accept and even celebrate the equal partnership of dark and light, we, and certainly our children and grandchildren and their children, are doomed. 

These are not “dark times.” They are times of pain, fear, anxiety, injustice, and crisis—and thus times of challenge and opportunity to radically change our ways to save us all. 

Time to Begin

 

Many of my friends know of my love affair with James Baldwin (no we did not have sex and sadly I never met him), that began in my ministry studies and continued with my doctoral dissertation, “Bearing Witness to the Dark: Resources for Anti-White-Supremacist, Pro-Same-Sexes, Pro-Feminist Theologizing in Queer Modes” (1999). 

Baldwin and the womanist warrior poet and essayist Audre Lorde were my inspiration and interrogators in that project. At that time, in the 90s, I had read and re-read everything Baldwin ever published or was written about him. And since, I have stayed abreast of texts and interviews and the like that were not available then as well as books and articles and films focused on him. 

So none of them will be surprised that I am extolling the wisdom and power of a new book that focuses on Baldwin and his relevance for our own time. The book is Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.  It is a valuable resource in our time, and especially for those who are considered or consider themselves White. The title is taken from a passage in Baldwin’s novel, Just Above My Head (perhaps my favorite Baldwin novel despite many negative reviews): 

Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.

Glaude is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and also the author of Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. But his treatment of Baldwin and Baldwin’s importance for us today is no dry academic treatise. 

Glaude not only discusses Baldwin expertly but also channels Baldwin in our own moment. The liveliness of his writing and the personal experiences and observations he shares bring the already powerful witness of Baldwin’s observations and writing to a new level, a new depth, from which we can draw sustenance and challenge and courage today. Indeed, Glaude draws upon Baldwin’s view, espressed in an interview conducted by Julius Lester, of what it means to be a writer, namely “to bear witness. . . . to what life is—does—and to speak for people who cannot speak. That you are simply a kind of conduit.”

For me, one of the most important lessons from the book is Glaude’s rendering of what he calls “after times.” He takes the phrase from Whitman who wrote about the time after the Civil War when the echoes of slavery and civil war remained in view in contrast to Reconstruction coming into view even as it was highly contested and ultimately undone.

Drawing on Baldwin’s powerful 1972 book, No Name in the Street, Glaude takes us through what he calls Baldwin’s personal after times.  In that works, Baldwin recounts the despair and anger he and so many others felt after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially when White America turned away from the struggle for justice (ultimately making King into an icon who was no longer challenging us).  Baldwin called it “the lie,” the denial of White people about white supremacy and our central role in sustaining its dominating power in our society. 

Glaude relates that to our own day, with the after time that is the age of Trump—the turning away, indeed undoing, the hope engendered by the Obama election, just as it was evident to Baldwin after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and King, into the 70s and 80s, as it is clear from what happened after Reconstruction with the rise of Jim Crow, lynching, etc. 

Thus, he says that Trump is not a new phenomenon but rather the latest manifestation of backlash against forces of change, hanging on to the idea of America as “an identity that white people will protect at any cost.”

Telling the the truth of the history and current reality of White supremacy

In the final chapter of the book, Glaude discusses his visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama built by the Equal Justice Institute. He is deeply moved by the exhibits witnessing to the ugly history of American White Supremacy and by the memorials to hundreds of lynchings of Black people all over this country in the latter 19th and early 20th Centuries. He notices a quote on the side of the Legacy Museum from Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” 

Glaude concludes that “what we need is a third American founding,” to try again to achieve what the Founders thought they were doing in the Revolution and the Constitution, and then what others thought they were doing in Reconstruction after the Civil War, to undo what horrors had been done until then—and then the after times of that took us back so we still rely on and glorify the first incomplete founding, despite the horrors that permeate everything to this day. 

Glaude writes, “We need an America where ‘becoming white’ is no longer the price of the ticket. Instead, we should set out to imagine the country in the full light of its diversity and with an honest recognition of our sins.” Or as Baldwin would say, it is time to do our first works over. 

To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.

It’s time, America, that we, and especially White America, stopped looking into the distorted mirrors of our alleged greatness, uniqueness, our special call, and spent serious time and effort to look at the true mirror of ourselves as it is revealed by so much that is fundamentally wrong. We must overcome the repeating practice of ignoring the foundation and finally choose  to allow ourselves to see what we have become, a country that pretends to be a democracy, and nation of equals, while acting on the deeply ingrained belief in the superiority of White people.

Glaude does not offer a plan to do this, but it is clear the timetable he sees is to get started now (it is one minute to midnight). A good place to begin is reading this book. But then what? What will you do? What will I do? What can we do together, and what must we do individually?

I know I will keep reading and writing (a book I have started to read is White Too Long:The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones). And I will keep writing about my exploration of White Supremacy and my own complicity in it, knowing that for me writing is how I become more honest. 

But I need others. I need you because none of us can do this alone. And as we journey we need to welcome BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) calling us out when they feel the need to do so (but not asking them to teach us yet again what they have been telling us for centuries). 

Please offer your own thoughts and let’s begin and continue a dialogue.