Who Is A Yank? 

Jonathan and I saw an excellent production of the play, Yank!, at Richmond Triangle Players. It’s one of those bittersweet love stories about two people–in this case two men, Stu and Mitch, in Uncle Sam’s World War II Army–who fall in love against many odds, and then almost make it to happy-ever-after bliss.

RTP Yank!But they don’t quite make it–and I don’t want to give away the entire story, so all I will say is that one is braver, and clearer, than the other.

Of course, we are talking about an era in which, despite the need for soldiers to fight Nazism and its ally in the East, Japan, the U.S. military regularly gave dishonorable discharges to service members who were identified as homosexual. So the struggle of Stu and Mitch to survive in love takes place against the backdrop of powerful institutional homophobia. [Note: this is a work of dramatic fiction, but it is based on painstaking research and reviewing diaries and published stories of many gay and lesbian service members from World War II).

This leads me to something else significant this week, namely comments by U.S. Congressman Dave Brat from the 7th District of Virginia. The freshman representative has been clear in his opposition to “path to citizenship” for any undocumented immigrants, including it seems any idea of treating the children of these immigrants with dignity and acceptance of the reality that for many this is the only country they have ever known.

Rep. Dave Brat
Rep. Dave Brat

He says he is angry at colleagues who suggest that undocumented immigrants who want to enlist in the military are showing their patriotism. Here is what he said just last week, on the radio:

I wanted to stand up and shout, I mean, ISIS is willing to serve in our military as well. . . . Part of the reason Rome fell is because they started hiring barbarians, otherwise known as Germans at the time, to be troops in their own army. What’s going on is the decline of western civilization at the highest level.

Once again, people are being told they are not worthy of serving our nation, and this time, as earlier in the case of homosexuals, immigrants–even those who want to defend our country–are seen as dangers to our national security.

In fairness to the Mr. Brat, he clarified his remarks, at least about the ISIS connection, by saying, “Take the “because they want to [serve]”  logic further: ISIS terrorists want to serve, too. Should we let them? Of course not.”

That might work in a high school debating class, but Brat ignores the bitter taste the comment leaves in the hearts and minds of the immigrants. Linking ISIS and “barbarians” to immigrants who came here seeking better lives–not to destroy the country but to share in its bounty, and to build it–and their children who have only really ever lived in one country, namely the United States–feels like an expression of contempt.

That is what Stu and Mitch had to battle in earlier days in our military, and what many others fought against in the witch hunts days of the McCarthy era. Contempt for being human beings with sexual and affectional feelings that others judged . . .  well  . . . contemptible.

Union colored troopsIt’s what slaves and freed Africans had to endure when they wanted to join Union Army units to fight the Confederacy. Few believed they could fight, but of course they were smart and brave, just like white counterparts (and eventually, they were allowed to fight, thanks to Union generals Benjamin Butler and Ulysses S. Grant, even though in segregated units). It’s what Native Americans faced in Virginia when they wanted to enlist to fight Nazis in World War II. Thanks to the Racial Purity Act of 1924, “Indians” (as they were known then) could enlist but not as “Indians”–because according to this heinous law, there were only two races in Virginia, white and black. Many of them, wanting to defend their country, went to other states to enlist, so they could be patriotic and also true to themselves.

Mr. Brat should know this history, but I doubt he does. Or if he does, he chooses to forget it. Perhaps he is more concerned with Rome.

Oh yes, if you want to know about one of these “dangers to national security,” check out this excellent column by Bart Hinkle in the Richmond Times Dispatch, “Brat Jumps the Shark on Immigration,”  http://www.richmond.com/opinion/our-opinion/article_379737a9-2a5b-5d81-b40d-5ce0df06ab19.html.  He will show you how scary one of these dangers, a man by the name of Cesar Vargas, really is.

Then, you’ll be really grateful to Mr. Brat for sounding the alarm.

Folks Are Still Trying to Kill the Dream. We Have to Keep Marching

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the two or three most amazing persons of my first 68 years. I am glad we have a holiday to honor him.

I just wish we followed him more closely. He gave us useful and powerful guides to how we, as a nation, should structure our society and live our corporate life.

So often, however, people demonstrate that they never really heard him, or perhaps it is better say that they never really listened.

MLK-Silent-about-things-that-matter
photo from InspirationBoost.com

People focus on “the speech,” understandably. The closing compares, very favorably, in its powerful evocation of our national ideals with the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and the entirety of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and the closing of his Second Inaugural. If you add Franklin Roosevelt’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and John Kennedy’s “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” you probably have the list of the most iconic political writing and speaking in our national history.

But King was so much more than a speech. And he had more than a dream.

He saw way beyond his moment to a vision of a United States that was truly free–free from all the petty delusions and ugly divisions that continue to drag us down.

In his cadences, and in his denunciation of discrimination and war and the causes of poverty, I always think of  the prophet Isaiah. He could cut right to the quick of what was wrong, and point out how it got that way.

But more than a critic, he was a builder. He really wanted peace. And he knew the path to peace goes through justice.

Martin-Luther-King-Jr- Sitck with love
photo from InspirationBoost.com

The lack of civil rights, the wrong of the war in Vietnam, the poor treatment of sanitation workers and other workers, public and private, were actually all of of a piece for him. Injustice–i.e., dealing with people not as people but as objects, not as siblings in the family of God but as items to be judged and, in too many cases, tossed aside as unworthy and irrelevant–anywhere means injustice everywhere, and that leads to discontent and unrest and a lack of peace.

Shalom. The Hebrew word usually translated as “peace,” was actually what King saw, and he knew that it means so much more than the absence of war. It means completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord–for all.

State Senator Dick Black photo from jimhuber.org
State Senator Dick Black (photo from jimhuber.org)

As I write this, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia is considering bills to deny in-state tuition for college students who were brought to this country illegally, while children, by their parents. These students have graduated from Virginia high schools and been admitted to Virginia colleges, and are paying tuition and keeping up their grades. But some, including Sen. Dick Black, want to turn them away, tell them they are not welcome in Virginia.

Can you imagine how Dr. King would respond?

I can’t write the way he did, or speak the way he did, but I suspect his oratory would soar as he talked about killing the dream–how when we kill the dream for some we deny the dream for all of us.

He knew that we are all in this together, and that raising folks up who are struggling against unjust barriers raises us all. We are all better when more of us are doing better. When we live on the basis of love, on the ground of generosity, on the health of hope, we help all to thrive.

And he knew, as so many of us but not all, know, that if it feels like discrimination, if it smells like injustice, if it holds some back while others get to forward smoothly, then it needs to be stopped or changed.

Some folks are still trying to kill the dream, to stop the vision. But even the assassin’s bullet can’t stop the movement of justice and peace. Dr. King, like Isaiah and so many others, knew that God calls us to stand up for justice, without end.

MLK and Heschel and Torah and Abernathy
Rabbi Abraham Joshual Heschel (left), Dr. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and others marching (photo from www.bu.edu)

And that means we have to live in love.

It means the rest of us have to pick up the sign and march, get on our knees and pray, get out our pens and write letters, and gather our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens and congregants everywhere and keep on organizing, and agitating–with joy and hope in our hearts and love on our lips.

Count me an agitator for justice and peace, an “angelic troublemaker,” in the words of Bayard Rustin. I know who my drum major is; I am marching with Dr. King. How about you?