Responsible Independence, 1 Corinthians 12.12-27

During this 2015 Independence Day weekend, it would be right for us to give thanks to God for the bold vision of those individuals who fought and worked together to shape and craft our nation from its earliest conceptual stages, through the declaration of Independence, up to this present moment.

It is good and it is right to take time to reflect on great and courageous work of our past, particularly as such reflection prepares us to project and commit to great and courageous actions that will define our future.

Regardless of party affiliation or length of citizenship, today and throughout the weekend, we reaffirm, with joy, our great freedom story.  

When our collective foreparents crafted the blueprints for our nation, and when they declared independence from the British Empire, they set the nation on a course from which it would never stray, a course of self determination, that is, we will define ourselves as a nation, and by that definition, we are prepared to live free from tyranny, free from subjugation.  We are independent from the Crown.

However, no matter how brilliant the light of our freedom story may have been, much of it was hidden under the politically broad yet morally bankrupt bushel of exclusion, brutality, and nullification as made known through nation’s participation in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its legalized, even baptized systems of racism, enslavement, and racial discrimination against persons of Africa descent.  

For the many who longed for authentic freedom and equality with full integrity, Independence Day celebrations have always been punctuated by an asterisk, one that asserts that only after the heroic, sacred, and sacrificial dedication of those who labored for Civil Rights and Equal Rights, could the nation as a whole move closer to paying credible tribute to nationalized doctrines of freedom and justice for all.

Now it is my belief that independence for the purposes of self-determination was and is the key element that was and is vitally important for the emergent and continued life of our nation.  In fact, it is the independence of our nation, and the freedoms that over time we have learned to tweak, craft, and finally (begrudgingly) offer to all citizens regardless of religion, race, sex, age, sexual orientation, or physical condition, that make us the shining example of hope and liberty we are to many segments of our world.  

Inasmuch as we continue to mature and accept responsibility for promising and protecting liberty for all of our citizens, as imperfect as our delivery systems may be, we will have widespread credibility in matters of freedom and self-determination of our people and people from around the world.  

These understandings I present here focus on legal statutes that shape and govern us as a nation.  However, I believe we now must turn our attention to the social and moral requirement necessary for us to flourish and advance as a people, and that is interdependence.

As diverse as our land has been, is, and is becoming, we now find ourselves on the threshold of an inalterable future that will be characterized and animated by diversity.  

Some of us trace our ancestry back to the native peoples of North America; some to the African Continent; some to Europe; some to the Caribbean Islands; some to Latin, Central, and South America; some to Asia and the Pacific Islands; and some to other lands.  

Regardless of our national orbits of the past, we’re all in the same orbit now.  If this nation will move forward and avoid being pulled into the consuming vortex of self-interest, division, and hate, we must learn to tame our coveted independence and our sacred societal mythology of rugged individualism with the public declaration of our interdependence on each other, and our fundamental need to live as people who are united.

In my view, the church must always offer a visionary, leading voice in this effort as we have been given a great and glorious image of unity.

In 1 Corinthians 12, we learn that the Apostle Paul came to realize that the church at Corinth had become a conflicted and divided church with numerous parties and factions.  There were fissures among the faithful over spiritual gifts and social class, and as I read this passage, I get the feeling that Paul had simply had enough.  So Paul took the time to issue a simple yet powerful image for this church to consider then, and for the church to consider now: we are one.  We are a body, one body, and all body parts are important and needed.

No body part can legitimately say to other body parts that their functions are not welcomed or needed on the body!  In fact, Paul is clear that God has designed a sort of ecclesial affirmative action policy in the body so that stronger parts share their strength in order to assist the weaker parts.  The weakest links are not voted off the team or told to pull themselves up by their own biological bootstraps.  Dislike and distrust, imperfections and impatience don’t lead the strong and the majority to profile and profit off of minority or weaker and parts of the body.  So that’s why when I go running and sprain my now 56 year-old right ankle, my left ankle breaks out in a Bill Withers song, singing, “Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on, for it won’t be long, till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”

Now to be sure, life is more complex now than it ever has been.  As a nation we are acutely and profoundly more diverse than ever before.  Many customs, beliefs, practices, and assumptions of the past are being reexamined as new ideas, healthier images, different languages, and previously overlooked histories are coming to the forefront.

By now we understand the reality that church pastors, regional and conference ministers, and bishops contend with even when they are ushered into church service under an expectation of change and growth:  Change and growth create conflict.  So with the impatient emergence of new realities, much-needed justice-based social, political, and religious correctives, and the justifiable cry for a new cultural template, we now face the question that the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once inspired, “Will we have chaos, or will we have community?”  Along with this question, I have my own: How can we avoid the self-selected national diminishing that comes when our many groups use their creativity, gifts, and resources for themselves exclusively, and instead elect to flourish live as a nation whose diverse parts willingly offer their best for the common good?

I think the answer to these questions lies in what I learned from watching the Christian Women’s Fellowship group of the Detroit church where I once served as senior pastor.

Every Tuesday, a group of mostly retired women from Detroit’s United Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and community would gather for worship, fellowship, lunch, and quilting.  As a courtesy, they would invite this pastor to join them in the worshipping, fellowshipping and the eating, but not the quilting!  Joyfully accepting their invitation, each week I would pray and break bread with these strong sisters of faith, and afterwards watch them work on the quilts.  I carefully observed them as they would intentionally select individual strips of cloth and weave them together into one strong and beautiful quilt.  Each strip was unique and special!  They were of many different colors, shapes, and sizes.  Some were visibly older while others had the shine of newness.  Amazingly all of different strips were carefully and deliberately woven together to form one quilt of many colors.  No strip by itself could function as a quilt.  It was necessary for each strip to be woven and connected to other pieces of fabric, for only the interdependence factor could transform a collection of stray strips into a united quilt.

One day, one of the women, Ruth, said to me, “Pastor, please bring us all of your old ties and worn out shirts so that we can use them when we make our quilts.  Now this may have been a commentary on my wardrobe, yet even so, I did as she asked!  As she issued this request of me, I thought, how awesome it is, that older clothes were not excluded for they, too, had something that they could contribute for the good of someone else.  They could be connected to newer strips of fabric and together, they all could become a beautiful, warm, and protective quilt.

As we chart the course for the future of our diverse nation, I believe we would do well to consider the work of these amazing quilting women, women who possessed skillful eyes that could see the worth and value of every piece of fabric, even those that had once been deemed as unimportant, or believed not to matter, or forced to reside in the closets of life.  We would do well to learn from these women of intelligence, character, and vision, who possessed enough patience to weave diverse strips of fabric together into one strong and beautiful quilt.

We must possess the eyes of God, in whose image and likeness we all have been crafted!  God’s eyes love and justice see the worth and dignity of all of humanity, regardless of whatever scrapped and stray condition we are in.  We must say with one voice that all lives matter!  Yet, don’t stop there, for at this juncture, when institutional racism continues to be misdiagnosed, under-acknowledged, and denied; and when race-based injustice and violence continue to be perpetrated against African Americans causing them to wonder if they can survive encounters with law enforcement personnel, or be treated fairly at work, or receive justice in the courts, or find sanctuary from racist violence even in their own church buildings,  we must cry out with one voice and with loving specificity, Black Lives Matter!

Each of us must be willing to give the best of ourselves for the common good, to be woven together to form one nation, united and strong, that refuses to see diversity as a sign of weakness, as some seem to assert during election cycles, but instead as a signal of its strength.  As James William Fulbright wrote, “The source of a nation’s strength is its domestic life, and if America has a service to perform in the world, it is in large part the service of its own example.”

When we adhere to a domestic life that is characterized by justice, the many and varied pieces of fabric from across our land will be woven together for the common good and the advancement of the nation and the world.  When we arrive at the grand conclusion that our diversity truly is our strength, we will possess the requisite cultural vision that enables us to live in the “subjunctive mood” as the late Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor was fond of saying, where we are motivated not just by what was, but by what may be.  It is out of this enhanced national template that we will be able to nurture our children in the hope that comes to each as a birthright.  Amen.


So the Wall Street Journal Believes Institutional Racism No Longer Exists…Seriously?

Seriously, WSJ editorial board? After the racist Charleston Church Massacre, your best effort is to print your collective belief that institutional racism no longer exists?  Is that is the best you could do?

It seems to me that people who believe that institutional racism is dead operate from posture of privilege that prevents them from truly grasping the meaning of racism as they mute or discount the experiences of African Americans and other People of Color who work or volunteer within their institutions.

While no Jim Crow segregation laws remain on the books in the United States, there remains a frequently unacknowledged yet very active undercurrent blowing across the land, one that maintains that White people ought to be in charge of society and the world, and that White historical narratives and figures; world views; notions of beauty; definitions of success; religious values, theologies, and art; and more, ought to form the normative template that sets the shape and tone for all other expressions of human life.

This White cultural template is alive and well in the United States and beyond.  It is the operating system that can be found on society’s cultural and political hard drive and in any realm that is considered “normative” or “mainstream” (notice the bias in these terms!).  It is, simply put, the given.  This template, hardwired into mainstream institutional life, maintains that White ways of knowing, being, and doing are inherently correct and worthy of replication by all.  Whether conservative or moderate; whether liberal or tea party inclined, the template is there and it knows your email address and password.

The template dictates that non-White people form a clear and present threat to the well-being of White people.  This must account for the fact that so many White people double and triple check their car alarms, purses, and wallets when they see me approaching in the grocery store parking lot, even when I am wearing a business suit and am obviously weighed down with bags in both hands;

It is the template that determines who gets hired, who gets selected as board trustees, who gets promoted, and whose version of truth gets accepted as fact;

The template says it is perfectly fine for the White side of town to have numerous venues for high quality grocery and retail shopping while the Black and Brown sides of town must contend with few stores of any kind and accept their limited selection of products and higher prices, or drive to the White side of town;

It is the template that makes it acceptable for Black and Brown males to comprise over one half of the US prison population and to be given sentences that are sharply harsher than those given to Whites who commit the same kinds of crimes;

It must be the template that approves the narratives that lead to the mysterious terminations, resignations and buyouts, as well as scandalously poor workplace treatment of African Americans in industry, government, and even in church settings;

The template allows for rewarding White people’s creative endeavors and calling them faithful, provocative, and innovative, while denouncing the creative endeavors of African Americans, calling them reckless, unnecessary, and too costly;

I believe it was the template that created the climate of racial hatred and deadly violence that perversely nurtured Charleston’s murderous, domestic terrorist, Dylann Storm Roof and the others that we have yet to hear from;

Finally, the template calls on all people to accept and internalize its White privilege-oriented demands without critique or serious conversation about them, and… many Whites as well as People of Color, consciously and unconsciously do just that, carrying the template right into their places of work, their board rooms, their church houses, and into matrix of public and private institutional life.

Life in the Institution

When African Americans and other People of Color aspire to work in a historically White institution, be it public or private, secular or religious, they must have a track record that demonstrates competence not only in their professional or vocational areas but also in the value systems, norms, perspectives, world views, the template of White America.  In short, they must prove that they can work and play well with White people.  By comparison, it is often the case that the White co-workers, colleagues, and supervisors of African Americans and other People of Color are never required to produce a résumé that reveals enrollment in courses about or led by a Person of Color, nor must they show a track record of harmoniously and successfully working with People of Color in serious non “power-over” contexts.  Their employment requirements indicate no demands that they show mastery of an African American or People of Color cultural template, nor must they even acknowledge that one exists.  This imbalance with respect to academic, social, and professional employment preparation is staggering, and reveals the mechanics of White privilege in the workplace.  Moreover, it sets the stage for the lethal cocktail of racial prejudice and institutional power, which is racism, to shape practices and policies that work against African Americans and other People of Color in the workplace.

African Americans and other People of Color in institutional contexts are often supervised, evaluated, and judged by White people who know very little about them as persons and the rich, diverse, and complex cultures they represent.  Sure, the ways People of Color sing, dance, play sports, and even preach are appreciated and celebrated, often stereotypically, and sometimes utilized; and sure, People of Color may be hired as managers, executives, and even bishops of historically White church bodies.  However, careful observation would reveal that while some of these steps reflected honest, good faith effort on behalf of people of good will, many were often no more than mere cosmetic adjustments that were adopted in the interest of maintaining some sort of public image of compliance with existing and emerging calls for diversity that equip leaders to boast, “See, we’re not racist!”  This, of course, is tokenism 2.0.

Very often, African American and People of Color staff in historically White institutions are ignored and isolated by those charged to provide support, even as they inherited significantly difficult if not impossible work assignments and challenging institutional realities.  Instead of experiencing the satisfaction of having their successes and accomplishments lifted up and celebrated (as done with and for White staff), African American and other People of Color staff often have their mistakes – real and imagined – magnified, and find themselves scapegoated and blamed for institutional dysfunction that they did not create but tried to remedy.  On numerous occasions, African American and other People of Color staff have been victimized by leaders in historically White institutions who used their power not to support People of Color staff but to caucus themselves, promote personal agendas, hold exclusive communication forums, reach negative conclusions, and make hostile decisions (with no fair and just input from People of Color staff and often outside of the organization’s adopted methods of operating) in ways that undermined the integrity, perceptions, and success of African Americans and other People of Color staff.

This, dear reader, is how 21st century institutional racism works.  While establishing legally acceptable proof of institutional racism illogically requires that one show evidence of burning crosses, a paper or electronic trail of correspondence with the N-word, or invitations to neo-nazi or KKK meetings posted by the water cooler, African Americans and other People of Color staff know it when they see and feel its presence and effects.  They know when the institution considers them less than human and worthy of no respect and honor even when their contributions and efforts are praised by outsiders.  They know that while they may hold power positions, real and true institutional power has often been conferred onto a collection of Whites who serve as the actual faces of the institution.  The burning questions are:  Will Whites holding institutional power use it to advance the impact and influence of their institutions by supporting African Americans and other People of Color staff and helping them to succeed in their roles?  Will they call out unfair treatment of People of Color staff and demand justice?

Beyond ornamental hiring and profit driven program planning/product producing realms, historically White institutions and society as a whole would do well to consider these questions:

*How are the histories, aspirations, values, and norms of People of Color taken seriously and woven into the fabric of historically White institutional life, thus creating new ways of operating?

*How are perceptions of success, modesty, effectiveness, beauty, faithfulness, etc., of People of Color being factored into the operational stance of the institution?

*How are agenda-setting, decision-making power forums inclusive of People of Color leadership?

*In which ways are all board members, staff, and volunteers required to become students – not just participants –  in ongoing anti-racism and cultural competency training (which extends beyond diversity/sensitivity training)?

*How have People of Color leaders been fully vested and authorized to do the work they were hired to do?

*Which people among the guardians of historically White institutional life are personally committed to shaping institutional attitudes and marshalling resources toward helping African Americans and other People of Color to be viewed as valuable human beings by the institution, taken seriously, and otherwise succeed in the workplace?

*Who has the power to hold the institution accountable for its fair and just treatment of African Americans and other People of Color staff, and where can People of Color lodge grievances when they feel it necessary to do so?

*How do we encourage and support the significantly high numbers of People of Color and White people, younger and older, who categorically reject society’s racist template, and work feverishly to dismantle it in institutional life and beyond?

Until the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal demonstrates that its own organizational fabric is clear of any threads of racism, I consider its obituary on institutional racism to be premature and ill-informed, and its members unqualified to make such a judgment.

Hold Up on the Harsh Judgment of Ms. Rachel Dolezal

Ok, do I wish former Spokane NAACP branch president Ms. Rachel Dolezal had been honest about her race?  My goodness, yes!  If she had been truthful about her race, Ms. Dolezal would have been rightfully and cheerfully counted among the untold numbers of courageous White people who have labored honorably and sacrificially alongside African Americans and other people of goodwill to defeat the often discounted and always unnecessary systemic evil which is racism.  Having established that, I would caution the scores of people who seem quite willing to denounce Ms. Dolezal.

As a former NAACP branch president, I can bear witness to the fact that the road toward racial justice has significantly more bystanders and onlookers than travelers.  It seems to this writer that those who are heaping hot coals on Ms. Dolezal’s head should check to make sure their résumés reveal evidence of public anti-racist activism and advocacy.  To be sure, racism is an equal opportunity destroyer that consumes both the oppressed and the oppressor.  America’s racial house is experiencing a multi-alarm fire and we need anyone with water, regardless of their race, to help extinguish it.  I offer my thanks to Ms. Dolezal for her dedicated work to dismantle systemic racism, and I pray for healing within her family and the Spokane branch of our beloved NAACP.


Racism: The Continuing Contaminant

One of the most difficult realities for many to accept is that the contaminating sewage, which is racism, continues to seep into social, political, and religious systems and remains there, untreated and very lethal to African Americans and other People of Color. It goes undetected by many power/privilege-possessing people because their perspectives, values, and fears form so much of what is called valid or “mainstream.”

Mainstreamed racist contamination leads to institutional callousness and arrogance that discount the realities, perspectives and aspirations of African Americans and other People of Color, and nullifies their existence except in fields such as arts, entertainment and sports. This happens every day, even in the church. In fact, church racism is quite debilitating because people confuse smiles and “we love you” sentiments with justice. They are not the same! The presence of an African American president or as other senior leaders in church and societal realms DOES NOT mean there is no racism in their systems. In many ways, it just gives license for many to believe that systemic racism is cured. I can tell you, it remains untreated and deadly in church circles.

Fixing systemic racism in public education, church organizations and society requires power/privilege-possessing people to admit they hold these advantages, while using their positions to create avenues for anti-racist power analyses, listening, truth telling, and power sharing en route to building and maintaining diverse, multicultural systems that have justice at their core, valuing all while trivializing none.


From Fear and Self-Preservation to Faith and Goodwill

On July 4, 2014 my family and I were part of a massive crowd of people that attended an outdoor concert when out of nowhere the elements of fear and self-preservation were released into the crowd causing a stampede.  Several people, including one of my daughters and me, were knocked to the ground.  Scores of people on a nearby hill stood motionless as they watched the rampaging crowd.  For a moment, I thought my daughter and I would be crushed!  By God’s grace, we collected ourselves and sprang up in time to witness a small yet bold and dedicated security crew diffuse the mayhem and prevent serious injury and loss of life.  After calm was restored, my daughter and I had our injured knees bandaged by Red Cross personnel visibly on the scene.

Four learnings: 1.  Fear and self-preservation can lead people to believe they must engage in irrational, unjust acts that can harm the life and well-being of those around them; 2. Many people stand and watch as others are consumed by fast moving, dignity-nullifying groups who have numbers on their side; 3.  It doesn’t always take a large group to end chaos and establish justice.  Small yet bold and dedicated crews of people, motivated by a sense of goodwill and fairness, possess the ability to effectively work for change; 4. People who are injured by those who have numbers and power on their side need places to go for healing.

I pray that the church of 2015 and beyond will never allow fear and self-preservation to give it the ill-conceived view that it must lead or be part of stampede-like actions that hurt others, or even to live as bystanders to social and ecclesiastical mayhem, for such inactivity erodes Christian credibility and gives consent to systemic misbehavior.  Instead, I hope we follow Jesus and adhere to the love-justice ethic of our faith and work together to establish and maintain human dignity and to end injustice wherever it exists – in social and economic realms, and within church operated corridors.  I hope we will acknowledge the brokenness of people all around us and position our churches as visible stations of healing and hope for victims of the stampedes of life.

Thanks be to God, our knees are better now!  Praise God for the security crew and the Red Cross personnel on the scene.  Amen