Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shades of Racism

A few days ago, columnist Richard Cohen got in a lot of hot water over comments he made in the Washington Post. He said...

"Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all."

I don’t know whether Mr. Cohen is a bigot. I do think that his comments are poorly thought through and monumentally insensitive but I don’t believe he was saying that seeing Mayor-Elect de Blasio’s family forced him to repress his gag reflex. I don’t know that he’s necessarily homophobic either, though his comment that Chirlane McCray "used to be a lesbian" was kind of bizarre. He says that all he was trying to do was to explain to the rest of us how Republicans, and especially the Tea Party see the world, and I think he's probably telling the truth. He’s saying that people with “conventional views” still want the world to look like it did in the 1950s (or maybe the 1850s) and they’re dismayed and even angry when it doesn’t. According to Mr. Cohen, this doesn’t make them racist, and understanding their context can help us to see that.

If this is the case, I think he's about as wrong as he can be.

Mr. Cohen's comments are a good illustration of how confusing a word "racism" is. There are really two things we can mean when we says it: personal racism and institutional racism. The two are related but they are not the same. When we say that someone is personally racist, it's the same as saying they're a bigot. This is the sort of person who hates anyone from a different racial group, or at least considers them inferior. When we talk about institutional racism, we're saying that there are laws, economic forces, social attitudes, etc. that keep non-white groups in America trapped in high-crime neighborhoods, failing schools, food deserts, and lives of hopelessness and poverty. Institutional racism is a lot harder to spot than personal racism and is a lot harder to deal with. You don't need to be a bigot to participate in institutional racism, you just have to perpetrate the attitudes things that keep people of a different race down.

That's where the confusion starts. A lot of the time, people say "that's racist" meaning "you're participating in institutional racism" but what others hear is "you're a bigot." If they don't hate people of other races they will naturally feel hurt (as Mr. Cohen did when people called his column racist.) If you're not a bigot, and someone calls a view of yours "racist" you're likely to respond that the person who said it is falsely accusing you.

I suspect that's what happened here. Harry Belafonte said that he saw a lot of (institutional) racism in the Tea Party. Richard Cohen countered that no, the Republicans aren't (personally) racists. I suspect this was an honest mistake on Mr. Cohen's part, though there are some political commentators (like Anne Coulter and Glen Beck) who seem to deliberately misinterpret any mention of racism.

In any case, the column is a good illustration that racism is alive and well in our country. If someone does gag at the thought of a multi-racial family, that's personal racism. If someone harbors no hatred for people of other races, but longs for the good old days when you didn't have mixed race families, or black presidents, etc. that's institutional racism. In both cases, there has to be change before we can be a just and compassionate society with true equality.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Revisionaries

I've been watching this documentary on the Texas Board of Education and science text books. It's fascinating and disturbing.

The big textbook companies want to keep the business of Texas, which is--along with California--the largest market in the U.S. In order to sell to Texas, they must publish textbooks that meet the standards the Board of Education establishes. Members of the board, who are conservative Christians, have been trying to have language put in the texts that talks about the "weaknesses" or "insufficiencies" of the Theory of Evolution. The struggle is especially intense because changing the texts for the Texas schools means changing them for the entire country.

This is opposed by advocacy groups who do not want to see evolution taught as only one of several viable theories. They point out that it is the only theory that fits all the facts and that the rival ideas of Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design are not testable theories at all and have no place in a scientific discussion.

I agree, and the dishonest tactics used by the anti-evolution forces seen in the film bother me. It reminds me of an apocryphal story I heard years ago. Pi is a number that is useful in geometry, but it is infinitely long and seems kind of cumbersome. Supposedly, the Alabama legislature passed a bill changing the value of Pi to 3 and cited biblical texts in support of their decision.

The story isn't true. It started as an aside in Robert A. Heinlein's novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, and was more recently expanded into a brilliant bit of satirical writing which perfectly captures the spirit of the anti-evolution side of the debate. Huge leaps in logic and outright fabrications are justified in the people's minds because they are defending a literal reading of the Bible.

This bothers me because truth can never be defended with lies. If we believe in God (I do) and believe that God embodies truth (I do) than it follows that God will stand up to any sort of intelligent and honest search for truth. Science deepens our understanding of the world around us. It may challenge our assumptions, but that's a good thing. If we assume that that we have all the answers, we need to be knocked down from time to time. Besides, it's not the existence of nature of God that science challenges, but outdated human theological ideas. The Bible was never meant to be used as a science book, and the efforts do do so have always lead to very unscientific ideas, like the earth being the center of the universe, or the earth being only 6000 years old, or Creationism and Intelligent design.

I think people are afraid that casting off this silly pseudo-science means losing faith in God, but that's not true. It is perfectly possible to accept the wonderful findings of the sciences and keep your faith in God. I know because that's how I've always lived, and I know many who have done the same.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


I see that the Supreme Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. The Court also struck down California's Prop 8 allowing gay marriage to resume in California.

I'm happy to see this decision. There's some outcry, of course, but i think the tide of public opinion has finally shifted. In 30 years I suspect people will wonder why this was ever even an issue.

Something that happened concurrent with this is I became aware of an argument being put out by some conservative Christians. It's long been acknowledged that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality, but some are taking a statement from the Gospel of Mark as evidence that he would disapprove of gay marriage. Jesus said...

But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female.' "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
Mark 10:6-9.

The assertion is that Jesus was promoting the idea of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman over any other model. Actually, if you read the whole chapter you see that isn't the case.

The Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus acknowledged that the Law of Moses allows a man to do so if he presents a certificate to her but condemned the practice as hard-hearted.

The view of marriage in biblical times was not that it was a loving relationship between equals. Marriage was an arrangement in which the woman was given to the man and more or less became his property. Women had some rights but nothing like the rights their husbands enjoyed. They were expected to be obedient and faithful, while the man was free to see prostitutes, or sleep with female slaves, or even marry new wives. Women had no recourse to divorce their husbands, even if they were flagrantly abusive, but a man could divorce his wife if she displeased him in any way.

This biblical model of marriage is not something we should want to return to. In two thousand years, marriage has become something much better than it was in those times. For us it is not compulsory or arranged, but entered into freely for the sake of love between equals. It has become something I believe Jesus would have approved of.

The free and equal union of two people who come together in love and faithfulness in one of the great blessings of life. It blesses two men or two women as surely as a man and a woman.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Those Who Love the Devil?

I ran across an image of this sign this morning.

After checking around a bit I found that it seems to belong to a man who likes to picket in front of strip clubs in New Orleans. It's an interesting collection of groups who he thinks love the devil.

Some of these are non-Christian groups: Atheist's, Agnostic's, Pagan's, Scientologist's, Buddhist's, etc.

Some are Christians but apparently not the right kind of Christians: Catholic's, Jehovah's Witness's, etc.

Some are doing things that are pretty universally considered self destructive: Druggie's, Drunkard's.

Others are doing things that we would all agree are harmful to others: Thieve's, Wifebeater's, Gangster's, Racist's, Liar's.

Some are in groups that Christian conservatives consider sinful: Homo's (presumably homosexuals), Abortionist's, Femenist's, etc.

Some seem to be people whose politics he doesn't agree with: Liberal's, Democrat's, Environmentalist's.

Some seem to be people who just annoy him: Loud Mouth Women, Sophisticated Swine, Sport's Nut's.

And some I can't quite figure out: P.K's, High Falutent.

The writer in me cringes at the spelling and the way this guy uses apostrophes. :) The Christian in me is saddened at the long list of people who he thinks are evil. It makes me sad because I know that this is how we are often perceived; as angry, judgmental people who are intolerant of anyone who is different then us for any of a wide variety of reasons. It makes me even sadder because I also know that there is a reason for this. The sign-wavers are real, the TV preachers who make intolerant proclamations on behalf of all Christians are real, the churches who shun members for being gay, or getting a divorce, or voting for Obama are real, and they've wounded a lot of people.

If you're like me and you run into someone who thinks all Christians are like that, your first response may be to get a little defensive. You may catch yourself saying things like: "All Christians aren't like that." "I'm not like that." "My church isn't like that."

While these things are true, they aren't necessarily very helpful to the people who have been burned. A wounded person doesn't need to hear a spirited defense of your faith, or your church, or even God. A wounded person needs healing, and that may mean letting go of the need to defend ourselves and listening to all the pain and outrage. It may mean, very sincerely, saying "I"m sorry." It certainly means caring about that person and their pain and responding with love and and acceptance even when we get unfairly lumped in with the sign-wavers.

It even means finding ways to love the sign-wavers too.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Lessons from Don Camillo

I rewatched a favorite movie recently.

The Little World of Don Camillo is an adaptation of a wonderful novel by Giovanino Guareschi. It tells the story of a traditional Italian country priest in the Po Valley and his rivalry with the town's Communist mayor, Pepone. The novel and the film aren't well-known un the English speaking world but they ought to be. They are beautifully acted and photographed and Guareschi's stories are wise and warm-hearted without ever becoming trite.

Don Camillo and Pepone's rivalry dominated the episodic stories. It would have been easy for this to be a one-sided thing with a heroic priest facing down the heartless Communist, or the heroic mayor standing up to the superstitious, out of touch, and reactionary cleric. But Guareschi has done something that is subtler, more honest, and ultimately more satisfying. He has made his characters human.

Don Camillo is a wise and compassionate man who is also opinionated and pig[headed with a terrible temper and an un-priestly fondness for fist-fights. Peppone is equally short tempered and pig-headed and is, if anything, more doctrinaire in his Communism than Camillo is in his Catholicism. Yet both men are united by the fact that they care deeply for their community, and each grudgingly respects the other for his compassion. Their ideas of how to help differ radically, but they are both driven by a desire to do good for the people. It makes for a toughing and sometimes hilarious relationship.

The minor characters are often so caught up in being "right" that they show neither kindness nor respect to those who differ from them. They are as opinionated and self-righteous as Camillo and Pepone at their worst, but lack their great-heartedness. Then there is the voice of Christ. Don Camillo often has private conversations with this voice.

Guareschi's Christ doesn't make ideological proclamations or encourage Camillo to smite the unrighteous. It is a non-judgmental voice that gently reminds the priest that he doesn't have all the answers. Through the conversations with Christ, Don Camillo (rather grudgingly) he becomes humbler, more forgiving, and more understanding of the people he disagrees with.

I really find the movie's use of these values as an answer to the bitter political, religious and economic divisions of post-war Italy both comforting and instructive. We live in an age of bitter debates. The lessons Don Camillo teaches about the values of humility, honesty, respect, and above all compassion are invaluable right now.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Me (and the President) on Gay Marriage

A few days ago President Obama made history by saying that he supports the rights of gay couples to marry. Obama is the first sitting president in US history to make such a statement. I've heard a lot of specualtion since then on just why he made the statement at this time and there are a lot of cynical speculations from all sides. I imagine that the President had mixed motives (most people do for any big decision) but I do think he is saying what he honestly believes and that it was a good thing to say. Obama talks about an "evolution" of his attitudes toward gay marriage. I have to confess, I've been through a similar evolution. When I first learned about homosexuality (around 9th or 10th grade I think) it seemed strange to me and a little scary (different things are often scary.) I didn't know any gay people (at least, not that I was aware of) and it seemed strange to me that people could have an orientation so different than mine. Fortunately, I had wise parents and a good church who helped me understand that this was just one of the many ways people were made differently, like skin color, or left vs. right-handedness, or nationality. Gay people were people, and should be treated with the same respect and kindness as anyone else. That was very much the attitude of my church growing up. The focus was seldom on the nature of homosexuality but on how we, as people of faith, should treat others. As I went through college I learned a lot more. I still don't feel I have a complete understanding of the root causes of homosexuality, but I have learned enough to know that it neither unnatural (it happens in many places in nature) nor is it a "lifestyle choice" the critics claim it to be. I have learned a lot more about the Bible and homoseuality and feel I can speak with some authority there. I can say that the laws in Leviticus that condemn a man having sex with another man don't apply to the modern world any more than the laws phohibiting wearing blended fabrics, trimming your beard, or eating shellfish. These laws were meant to address the danger of cultural assimilation in ancient Israel and were never meant as eternal moral dictates. I can say with confidence that, while the New Testament condemns manipulative, abusive and indiscriminate homosexual behavior, it condemns the same behavior in heterosexuals in the same breath. In no place does the Bible condemn a loving and committed gay relationship. You have to manipulate the scripturrs to try to pretend otherwise. So, I've been generally supportive of gay rights, but gay marriage was an evolution. I never bought into the idea that gay marriage would somehow undermine heterosexual marriage. I've never heard even an attempt to explain how it could, for critics the unsubstianted claim seems enough. But it seemed to me that marriage was different somehow. I thought gay partners should have equal legal rights to married couples but I resisted putting the label marriage on it, and wondered why that should ne needed. It's hard to explain because it was more an emotional reaction than a rational one. I was also aware of some gay activists sayingthey didn't want to call it that because, for them, the word "marriage" carried a lot of baggage. I came to accept the term gay marriage a little reluctantly, but I realized that unless this was recognized as marriage, opponants would always have an easy way to undermine it. Then, I heard a gay speaker why swept away the last of my reservations. She pointed out that we really have only one term for people who want to commit themselves to a life long loving relationship, to proclaim their committment in public, and to ask God's blessings on it. She said that there is disagreement about whether to call it gay marriage within the gay community, but it's one that's that needs to be resolved there, not by straight people dictating what it should be. I don't know if President Obama's evolution has been like mine, though it sounds as if it may have. In any case, I sympathize with his struggles, I respect his sincerity, and I'm proud that he (and I) have ended out being fully supportive of this.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012