Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Racism: A Discussion That Needs to Happen (But Isn't)

When I was in elementary school, I thought racism was a thing of the past. We learned about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, about the segregation of the 50's and 60's; the picture painted was that Dr. King curb-stomped racism when he marched throughout the south. I thought racism was only an issue that had existed in the south, that the north were people with some darn good common sense. Tack that in with the capitalist notion that all it takes to be successful in life is hard work, that everyone has an equal chance; racism couldn't possibly exist.

Fortunately, my parents abhorred racism and did their best to raise my siblings and me to be accepting of all people regardless of skin color. The problem that rose up was that racism was not discussed in the modern context. It wasn't portrayed as something that still occurred. Even when I was in high school, though by that time I knew that racism still existed I still had no idea how rampant and embedded it is in the American culture (if I can be permitted to express it that way). My position was solidified when I was falsely accused of making a racist comment towards a latino student at my school. I said, "is that so hard to understand?" and he heard, "do you speak English?" At the time, I was enraged that someone would have the audacity to claim that I was a racist. I felt like my entire essence was being put on trial and my value as a human being was being assessed. Ultimately, I was suspended for two days on account that I had only myself to support my side of the story while the latino guy had three black friends who said they all saw it his way. Do you see the way this story is shaping up? At the time, it seemed like the school was favoring the other guy simply because he was latino and yet it didn't matter that there might have been a conflict of interest when his three black friends stood up for him.

For years I harbored bitterness towards other ethnicities, not because they were different; I didn't really see them as being any more different than my German-Irish family is from my Scandinavian neighbors. I did not ask to be born of the privileged white male elite. I did not ask to inherit the history of an oppressive, evil, and savage stereotype. I did not enjoy looking into the eyes of a black man and feeling as though he might think I'm a racist "like all other white folks". I've grown up in a multi-ethnic church (though not necessarily multi-cultural). After the pastors' daughter married a man from Uganda and they started orphanage there, I became more and more accustomed to the differences in culture between my American self and the boys of Uganda. I actually had the privilege to spend time with some of the boys who came over here to study (and another who came over for medical procedures). Even then I was still so bitter that because I was white that I automatically must be a racist.

It wasn't until I went on a retreat with my chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IV) that God began to work on my hard heart. I began to understand that God was calling me to leave my bitterness at the foot of the Cross and begin to see with the eyes of love again. My resentment towards my own elite status of color and sex were actually causing me to be less sympathetic that there is in fact a huge disparity between races and genders. It wasn't about who was a racist and who wasn't, it was realizing that God's heart was for the oppressed and overlooked- that included those victims of racism I so neglected to acknowledge.

Enter Kony 2012 trend...

When I first watched the film there was a conflict between my rational mind and my emotions. Emotionally I was ready to jump on the Kony 2012 bandwagon and do whatever Invisible Children (IC) told me to do. Rationally, I was thinking about how things weren't adding up that the only part of me that was moved by the video was the emotional side of me. I mean, who doesn't want to help scared children who are being taken away by big scary mean warlords? I was on their website, literally about to order the geo-tracking bracelet they feature in the film and a kit of about 30 posters. Just before I put the order in I stopped and thought about it. I asked myself if this is the kind of revolutionary action Jesus would take to end such a horrible thing? Would Jesus really drop Benjamins into the hands of other warlords to kill one warlord in the spotlight?

At the same time, I still wanted to do something. I heard people complain about the IC and the Kony 2012 trend and felt as though it was an attack on me personally. I felt as though all the awful things they were saying about IC were also being said about me. At that point I broke down and posted on my Facebook wall that I was upset that no matter how genuine I tried to be in my attempts to do good work in the world, there was always a critic to point out the flaw in my work. This status inspired a few people to respond sympathetically, but at least one person wanted to discuss it openly and honestly. From this talk, I didn't come away with more answers, but it did clarify something to me. Racism is an issue and it needs to be discussed.

Not just racism, but what does it mean to be American? One of my favorite authors from last semester, W.E.B. DuBois brings up the issue of being both African and American- not wanting to sacrifice being either. What does it mean for me, of German and Irish ancestry, to be living as an American? What is my responsibility as both white and male? What about white guilt? There are so many questions and so few discussions on this and many more issues... The scary thing is that the more we ignore these discussions, the more I believe we will see things like what Jezebel reported in this article.

In short, the article highlight that's people are feeling cheated because they invested emotionally into characters from Suzanne Collins book, The Hunger Games, only to see the film version come out differently than they expected. What was different? Was it missing plot points? Was it bad acting or misrepresented characters? No, it was because the characters were faithfully portrayed as ethnically diverse, in particular the character of Rue. Let me warn you that SPOILERS are ahead. Reading the book, almost everyone falls in love with Rue. It's hard not to. She's sweet, innocent, and most people can readily identify her as the little sister-type. When people went to the movies and saw her as a young black girl, suddenly they got upset. They got upset because somehow being emotionally invested in a black girl is bad and it's Hollywood's fault for portraying her as black. This speaks volumes about the underlying racial attitudes of white people in America. It says to me that racism is still alive and thriving, only now it is unspoken. It's not in-your-face-cross-burning that was seen in the 60's.

I don't have all the answers... I don't know exactly how to begin, but I encourage everyone to start thinking about racism and the questions we have when we think about it. Maybe you've been on the receiving end of racial slurs, maybe the one spitting them out; the discussion must happen if want to see a change. Sweeping it under the rug has not solved anything.

Peace that surpasses all understanding,

Friday, March 9, 2012

What Feminism Means To Me

When I was younger this image would have encapsulated my understanding of what "Feminism" is. What's even worse is that my experiences with feminists has been mostly negative. It wasn't until I met a few who weren't telling me about the evils of men or how everything I do can be pointed back to patriarchy that I realized that feminism deserves a second chance. It's at this point that I believe I should admit that I have not read anything about feminism specifically, but I have read In A Different Voice by Carol Gilligan as well as a few suffragist writings. The book I linked to heavily influenced my thinking and I plan to continue to learn and try to understand what this is all about. Just thought I'd give a fair warning before anyone jumps down my throat.

Feminism gets a lot of heat from conservatives, which is really unfortunate since feminism shouldn't be about conservative or liberal agendas; it should be about common sense. This wasn't clear to me until I started talking to my sister. We were brought up with conservative Christian values and as you might imagine, the thought now makes me gag, but all the same it's what we were raised with and I'm not ready to call foul-play on the people who raised us. Unfortunately, there's a rather nasty underlying implication about our upbringing that I am trying illuminate for you. Though it's never directly stated, and in fact many conservative Christians would deny it outright, but the narrative implication is that women are the lesser sex.

This is further complicated by the fact that my parent's church (but not the same church my sister went to) had a female head pastor. Our church was very unorthodox for a conservative Christian church. As a little kid I didn't know that it wasn't normal for women to be pastors, and frankly I had (and still don't have) a reason to think women can't be pastors. Still, I was taught that women do certain things, men do other things. Men lead, women follow. There's a lot of spiritual discussion that I'm leaving out of this, because this entry isn't meant to discuss theology from an egalitarian perspective. The point is that I realized that women in my life who were brought up as I was had been led to believe that they were inferior, and the most incredible thing was that they couldn't see how.

It's not like many of these conservative Christians are trying to be anti-equality. Many of them would make compelling arguments to the contrary, and I was one of them, but over the course of several conservations with my sister I began to find myself saying things like, "No, you have just as much right as anyone else to thing A and no one should make you believe otherwise." I'll use the example of dating because it's the example most forefront in my mind. For a long time and still today, many men and women of the conservative Christian camp believe that men should initiate and women can sometimes feel inhibited by this. I know that when I was high school I would tell my friends that if a girl asked me out, I would have to say no because I believed so strongly that a man should be the one to initiate. But why? Is a woman any less capable of asking me out on a date? Is she any less capable of coming up with something fun to do? Is it so wrong if she pays once in a while? Men have been painted by the conservative Christian narrative as being absolutely evil creatures who, if they don't have Christ and live according to this very narrow conservative interpretation of Scripture, are bound to cheat women out of everything they have. Women are taught that men who follow Christ are the leader, that they are to follow men down the aisle in marriage to the grave. Women are also taught that there is something wrong with them, that their body is somehow evil, and that if they don't cover every inch of it that they will cause a man to do something bad. Really? So if a woman in the nude walks past me, I will be compelled to do something to her? Don't I have say in this? Yes, yes, I do. I have a responsibility to keep my penis in my pants and my hands by my sides; a responsibility that is so much easier than my upbringing would have me believe.

The fact of the matter is that there are lot of great people who don't realize the damage done by these implications. I wouldn't be surprised if there are things I don't know about my conservative Christian upbringing that has taught me some misconceptions about women. It is my hope that more and more followers of Christ will critically analyze their beliefs about the roles men and women in our sub-culture and realize just what kind of nonsensical ideas we've been taught to believe. There's nothing wrong with wanting to treat women with respect, as it is phrased by many a conservative Christian man, but why not just treat everybody equally and then you won't have to worry about how you're treating women?

Peace that surpasses all understanding,

Monday, March 5, 2012

For God, Not So Much For Country

Since I was a little kid there has been no question that God and my country were linked. I was convinced that my duty was to God and then "Uh-MER'-kuh". I truly believed that God had given this country to those who sought freedom from oppression and those oppressed people were Bible-believing Christians. I remember church services around 4th of July when we'd sing nationalist songs such as, "God Bless America" and the Star Spangled Banner. It freaked me out to see people raising their hands and worshiping the same as if we were singing Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus. When did America become God's HQ for salvation and hope for the world? And when did it become acceptable for church to look like this? For a while, I tried to understand the logic and swallowed the bitter pill of conformity. I still had that inkling that something was wrong, but under my parents' roof and at their church I felt a lot of pressure to maintain the status quo (plus, I worked overnights and was sleeping during Sunday morning service). Strangely enough, it wasn't until I found a Christian group that I agreed with- at least I thought I did, that I realized what was wrong. They call themselves, "The Christian Left" and proclaim to be the liberal contingent of Christians in America. Now, I love the folks at TCL so please don't go bashing them, because I truly believe they want to do what God has called them to do. Shortly after getting all excited about discovering them, I was reading Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, and I realized that a major problem with the American Church is that politics has corrupted and corroded our sense of purpose as followers of Jesus. TCL, for all the good that it attempts to do, is tangled in the same messy business as the fundamentalist Christians are - politics!

I'm not asking for you all to become anti-American cynics blasting Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan in your trailer at some peace-commune. Please, don't think that I'm throwing myself in with the hippy cult-like "Christian" movements that cropped up in the '60s.

There are too many negative stereotypes surrounding this image.

And frankly I think it's quite appalling if we can't be a little more creative than to go from one stereotypical image to another. If we really want to be counter-cultural Jesus followers, the counter-cultural action has to start with the heart and mind. My personal conviction (read: what I believe I should practice) is that followers of Jesus are to live in peace with the government, not getting involved in the affairs of State so long as the State does not require you to do something against the teachings of Christ and His disciples.

I've now covered my feelings on violence: personal acts, mentality and the cycle, and military service. Though I'm probably still going to go on tangents about nationalism in future blogs (which often happens when I talk about violence), this entry should cover most of my thoughts on the subject. In addition to the book mentioned aboved, I would suggest the following for further reading:

Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne and Jim Wallis

Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy Keller

Peace that surpasses all understanding,

Image sources:
God and Country picture
Hippy picture