Sunday, August 30, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Mold in the Cellar


The first time I exited Business 10 onto Patrick, I saw the sign: "Midland: City of Modern Explorers." I remember feeling hopeful that my new home would be progressive and warm. Since then, I have met many friendly and caring people in Midland. I have befriended future-oriented, justice-seeking people in the area. Midland offers amenities of a city many times its size, and is a great place for parents to raise their children.

But under the foundation of the City of Modern Explorers grows a mold. It spreads during the cold dampness of night in the sickly detritus of decay. It eats away at our compassion and understanding. It mocks our modern, forward focus and stifles our exploring nature with fear and bigotry.

Unless we explore our own cellar, we might live unaware of this destructive cancer. If we dismiss the stench of hate and the foul erosion of community, then our City of Modern Explorers may well become a hollow shell of platitudes build on the sandy ground of empty promises.

Recently, a thief vandalized the flag pole in front of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship that I serve, and stole flags representing our public witness. This was the third time in recent months that someone has taken flags from our property. One flag was the flag of our faith - the chalice of Unitarian Universalism. The others were symbols of our support of equality for gay, bisexual and transgender people. The police shrugged the act off as random nuisance. I do not.

Since moving here, I have inspected Midland's basement and exposed the mold growing in its shadows. This malignant rot wants to stay hidden and so it attacks in the only way it knows - through intimidation, bullying, insinuation, and taunts. The mold tells you what you want to hear - that everything is alright and that you don't need to change anything.

I ask you to ignore this lie, because we do need to change something in Midland. If we care about this city, then we need to confront this infestation in our cellar and see it for what it really is. Corruption. Hypocrisy. Arrogance. Evil. If we want Midland to remain a bastion of science and reason, of education, and of family activities and love, then we need to put on our haz-mat suits and enter the basement.

After our flags disappeared, the Midland Daily News published an article about the crime. It did not take long for the mold to spread its spores, suggesting that my congregation had committed this act ourselves as a public relations ploy. I challenged the author to offer proof of his allegation, which of course he could not. In response, however, he posted this black and white image on my Rev. Jeff Liebmann public figure page on Facebook.

The image sickened me. I hope you can forgive me for feeling the urgency to share this foul drawing with you. In particular, I hope that my Jewish brothers and sisters will forgive sharing such an all too familiar drawing. But, I have read much about propaganda and the growth of Nazi Germany in the 1930's. The image clearly intends to mimic similar posters created by the Nazis to rile up Antisemitism among the German people, posters like the one shown, which was printed by the Nazis for use in Russia. Look at the two images. Compare the features of the figure, unmistakably meant to mock Jewish people and make it possible to hate them and blame them for social problems. One is more than 80 years old. The other is barely a toddler.

This is how propaganda works. The message attacks people at the fringes, those whose numbers are too small to defend themselves effectively - the Other. Propaganda blames all social woes on the Other, shouting that the Other is inferior and therefore undeserving of our compassion or sympathy. When we see these messages, we might be tempted to write them off as perhaps objectionable, but mostly harmless. Perhaps we discuss the limits of free speech and how we define hate speech. But, in the end, we avoid the conflict and wait for the event to blow over and be forgotten.

Unfortunately, such images are not harmless, nor are they forgotten - and they ARE hate speech. They are not harmless, because some people actually believe the message. They believe the message and the mold slowly takes hold of their souls. They are hate speech because they are cowardly lies fabricated by people raised to believe that they are superior and that their interests matter more than the welfare of others. They are lies because they perpetuate discredited stereotypes and shun facts and evidence like sunlight.

As a religious person, I love my neighbors - all of my neighbors. I seek justice and equality for all people, whatever their culture or ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, immigrant or veteran status, level of ability, or religion. I do this because this is a principle of my faith, to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. So I witness publicly against expressions of hate, prejudice, and bigotry. I witness for the oppressed who cannot change the oppressive paradigms of society themselves. And I witness for you, so that you will know the nature of the disease infecting the foundation of our community.

The late social and civil rights activist Julian Bond once spoke at the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist Congregations at a lecture I was privileged to attend. He told this story. 
Two men are sitting by a river and see, to their great surprise, a helpless baby floating by. They rescue the child, and to their horror, another baby soon comes floating down the stream. When that child is pulled to safety, another baby comes along. 
As one man plunges into the river a third time, the other rushes upstream. "Come back!" yells the man in the water. "We must save this baby!"
"You save it," the other yells back. "I'm going to find out who is throwing babies in the river and I'm going to make them stop!"
I am rushing upstream and ask you to join me. The mold eats away at Midland's foundation every day, but we have the power to stop its spread. We can do this by proclaiming that all people should have equal rights regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Not special rights; equal rights. We can do this by proclaiming that Black Lives Matter; of course all lives matter, but right now we need to show that Black lives matter as much as our own. We can do this by loving our neighbors - all of our neighbors - whether they are Christian or Atheist, Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, Buddhist or Agnostic.

Most of all, we need to stand up to bullies and reveal them for what they are - damaged and insecure people nurtured with the stagnant waters of ignorance, the stifling heat of fear, and the cold oppressive brightness of privilege and prejudice.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Truth and Meaning: I Am Racist


Since erecting a "Black Lives Matter" sign, some people have called the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland a "racist church." I suppose the truth of such an assertion depends largely on the definition we apply to the word "racist." So, let me make this easier by discussing myself in this context.

I am racist. Me, Jeff Liebmann, I am racist. Now, what do I mean by that? I mean that as a person identified as white in a society where being identified as white is a privilege, I am by definition racist. I benefit from my inherent whiteness, whether I want to or not.

This does not make me a bad person. Just as I did nothing to earn my white privilege, I could not stop society from bestowing that privilege on me. Therefore, until I learned that this imbalance existed, I was not to blame for the privilege I received, even though I unknowingly took full advantage of that privilege.

That said, it did not take long for me to learn that I was privileged in this society because of my skin color. In school, I studied slavery, the Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement. I read the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and bell hooks. I grappled with the guilt and shame that I was somehow responsible for injustice and inequality that I felt might be inherent in our society.

I was racist. And I was a racist. I was a racist because I was not yet doing anything to eliminate racism. I had not yet learned how to use my privilege to create space for people of color in America to speak for themselves and to be heard. So I attended workshops on community organizing and anti-racism/anti-oppression. I practiced being an ally to people of color. And I helped other whites understand privilege and its pernicious effects.

I am still racist. Barring a radical social revolution, I will retain my white privilege for the rest of my life. So I am still racist. But I am working very hard at not being a racist. That may sound like a subtle distinction, but it is not. All people who possess privilege are by definition oppressive. But they don't have to be oppressors. I am racist because I possess privilege I did not earn. But I try to use that privilege to create a society where privilege does not exist. I am racist, but I am trying to not be a racist.

So, by my definition, is the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland racist? Yes. Because our membership happens to be predominately white in a society, and in particular in a city where whiteness is privileged, then we are racist.

Is the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland a racist church? We are trying very hard not to be. By erecting our Black Lives Matter banner, we tell our neighbors in Midland that racism is alive and well and that we are working to eliminate it. Through study and reflection, we are seeking ways to end systemic oppression of people of color in our society. And through our public witness, we hope to use our privilege to create a space for oppressed voices to be heard.

The arc of the moral universe is long, and we cannot see its path over the horizon. But we believe that that arc bends toward justice.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Truth and Meaning: A Top 10 List That Matters


Last week, I talked about our love of top 10 lists. So, this week I offer my list of the top 10 things Americans need to do to restore sanity to our nation.

10. Labor - Establish a minimum wage that is a living wage. The endless attacks on labor undermine our economy and our democracy. No one should suffer wage or job discrimination for any reason and anyone willing to work should be able to live above the poverty line.

9. Health Care - Provide a basic level of medical and mental health care to every American once and for all. We should demand that politicians stop using our health and well-being as a political football.

8. Corporate Responsibility - Demand that the private sector pay its fair share of taxes and be held accountable when it misbehaves. Congress should overturn the Citizens United decision. The idea that a corporation has the rights of a person is not only illogical, it is social suicide.

7. Election Reform - Guarantee the unencumbered right to vote for every citizen by removing all restrictions to voting rights and making Election Day a national holiday. Enact comprehensive campaign finance reform and abolish all partisan gerrymandering, replacing current redistricting tools with common sense and reason.

6. Environment - Stop making the irresponsible assumption that petrochemical resources are unlimited. We should plan for a future where all people have access to food and clean water, and where we live sustainably.

5. Racism - Judging people by their skin color, ethnicity, or culture is a concept that has overstayed its welcome. Our mass incarceration of people of color in increasingly profit-oriented prisons is obscene. Immigrants need a clear and affordable path to citizenship.

4. Stupidity - People are free to ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence on any given topic. But we should keep such people out of positions of authority and decision making. We have tolerated know-nothings and deniers in our public discourse for too long. The Earth is round and circles the sun. Climate change is real. Sexual orientation is largely determined at birth. Evolution occurs. The world is billions of years old.

3. Guns - End our insane worship of guns. We have allowed violence and killing to be our number one national priority for far too long. We should make universal background checks mandatory and impose strict limits on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Open Carry and Stand Your Ground may have worked on the 19th century frontier — they do not work for 21st century America.

2. Life - We should become a truly life-sustaining nation. That means no more war, an end to capital punishment, zero tolerance for police brutality, and contraception and comprehensive sex education for all so that every child is wanted. More important, it means caring about the born — eliminate hunger, provide equal education opportunities, and provide jobs, housing and social safety nets for everyone.

1. Revolution - We cannot accomplish needed changes through incrementalism. We should seek nonviolent ways to catalyze large-scale changes quickly and effectively. That means grassroots movements for policy change, boycotts, dissent and other tools the people have at their disposal. And it especially means voting for the highest quality candidates and not just for anyone who happens to have a "D" or an "R" next to their names.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Black Lives Matter


America is a great nation, a beacon to the world. America represents an ideal to many people around the globe: an ideal of freedom; an ideal of opportunity; an ideal of equality.

In America, everyone’s life matters because everyone has the chance to succeed, to better their lives. Everyone’s life matters because our system of laws protects us, and our social network supports us in times of need. Everyone’s life matters because our Founders declared that we the people are created equal.

However, every life in America does not matter equally. All lives do not matter equally because all lives do not begin equally. Wealth affords some children opportunities unavailable to poor children. Boys have a better chance to earn more than girls, and to enter a greater variety of occupations. Heterosexuals face none of the legal discrimination and socially sanctioned prejudice endured by gays and lesbians.

But the single largest determinant of inequality in America is skin color. So, while all lives matter, the reality of America is that the lives of people with dark skin do not matter as much as those with pale skin.

Black people are not inherently inferior. White people are not inherently oppressive. But our history created an uneven playing field and we have yet to fully correct for the tilt.

Almost a century passed in our nation’s history until African Americans were freed from the bonds of slavery. Yet, they were still systematically denied access to homes, jobs, voting, and many other basic services and rights that Whites took for granted. Even when African American communities did succeed, Whites destroyed them through violence (e.g the Tulsa Race Riots), or through “urban renewal,” which helped create many inner city ghettos.

And yet, in spite of sundown towns, racial cleansings, red-lining and segregation, African Americans succeeded in climbing the ladder toward the American dream. Even without inherited wealth, civil rights and equal education and health care, many endured and thrived.

All of that effort, however, remains threatened still today by the evil shadow of racism. Hardly a day passes that another Black life is not taken under bizarre circumstances by police, a shameful situation that most White people would never have to consider. Imagine you are driving down the street. A police car passes you and soon makes a U-turn. The police car speeds up until it is tailgating you. You pull over, assuming the officer is heading to some emergency call.

If you are White, does the possibility that you will end up dead in a jail cell even cross your mind? Even when you are pulled over, do you worry about anything more than receiving a minor traffic citation? Of course not. But many Black people do.

Sandra Bland is dead because of her dark skin. Had she been White, the officer likely doesn’t even turn around. Had she been White, the traffic stop would have ended in a citation and “Have a nice day!” Had she been White, she wouldn’t have been assaulted, arrested and thrown in jail. Had Bland been the same vibrant, 28-year-old college graduate with light skin, odds are that she would not be dead today.

Church burnings, the Charleston 9, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and countless other stupid and senseless acts of deadly violence against African Americans tell us that Black lives do not matter as much as others in 2015 America. That is why the #BlackLivesMatter movement was created and must be understood and respected. Co-opting this message to other purposes simply tells African Americans, once again, that their lives, their creative ideas and their concerns do not matter.

Reading this paper, you are likely thinking that you have never used a racial slur. You have never supported the KKK or other White supremacist groups. You believe in loving your neighbor, and would never dream of hurting someone simply because of their skin color.

But, if you were born White in the United States, you were born with privilege. This does not make you a bad person. It simply means you were born without certain obstacles that almost every Black person must face, sometimes every day of their lives. When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered by Cleveland police while playing in a park, did you think whether that could ever happen to a White child in Midland? Probably not. That is privilege.

When nine Black people attending a Bible study group at their church were murdered by a young man with a clear hatred of African Americans, did you think whether that would ever happen in your church here in Midland? Probably not. That is privilege.

When Eric Garner died while police strangled him for selling cigarettes, did you consider whether someone at the Midland Farmer’s Market could face the same fate? Unthinkable, right? That is privilege.

When Michael Brown was repeatedly shot with his hands in the air, could you imagine facing the barrel of a police officer’s gun, feeling the first bullets enter your skin and two more crush through your skull as you fell? Michael Brown died for allegedly stealing some cigars. The White murderer of the Charleston 9 was taken calmly into custody and police bought him a hamburger from Burger King when he complained of being hungry. That is privilege.

Possessing privilege is not the problem. Doing nothing about your privilege IS the problem. When they passed the robbed and beaten man on the road to Jericho, the priest and the Levite took advantage of their status privilege to avoid helping. But the Samaritan set aside his privilege to bind the victim’s wounds and take him to safety.

Black people in America need our help. They need White Americans to understand privilege and the impact of privilege on the lives of African Americans. They need us to not pass them by on the road to Jericho. And then they need us to catch up to the priest and the Levite and teach them how people should respond to others’ needs.

All lives matter. But right now, we must focus on the need for Black lives to matter just as much as our own. We begin that journey by learning how our own privilege contributes to inequality and oppression. We will travel that journey this year at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland. We encourage others to join us in this quest for understanding and to use the power of love for all persons.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Senseless Death


My wife and I recently watched news coverage of the dentist from Minnesota who killed a rare black mane lion in Zimbabwe. The lion's name was Cecil. He was a beloved resident of Hwange National Park and a major tourist draw.

Now, I am not one to greatly mourn the death of animals, especially when so many people suffer across the world. Animals die in the wild all the time as part of the natural order. But I admit that I have never understood the appeal of big game hunting. Hunt for food? Sure. Hunt to control herd sizes? Absolutely. But hunt simply to kill? I don't get it.

Apparently, the hunters lured Cecil out of the park, and the dentist then shot the lion with a bow and arrow. But the arrow didn't kill Cecil, who survived for another 40 hours until the hunters tracked him down. They shot the big cat, then skinned and decapitated him. The hunters then tried to destroy the GPS collar that Cecil was wearing as part of university research.

My wife asked me why people do such things, what pleasure they derive from slaughtering creatures such as Cecil. I had no answer. While my attitudes about guns are well known, I have always tried to defend hunters. I acknowledge that there are some legitimate reasons for hunting, and I know many responsible hunters. But paying $50,000 to, essentially, shoot a prized fish in a barrel is a craven and gutless act.

What is the drive to kill? Is this dentist's thirst for the blood of innocent, exotic beasts different than the desire of James Holmes, Aaron Alexis, Adam Lanza, or Dylann Roof to murder innocent people? One can argue for the existence of evil that somehow manifests itself more strongly in these murderers. Mental illness may also play a part.

But I believe that the uniquely American worship of violence, guns, and killing is also responsible. According to a study published by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, an average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18. In a country with as many guns as people, we should hardly be surprised when another mass killing takes place.

We must not allow ourselves, however, to get numb to the slaughter and become complacent. Our gun culture is not natural — we created it and we can dismantle it. We were not created to butcher each other, or to stand by passively while others die. While I imagine this dentist will pay dearly for his illegal hunt, we should be decrying the culture that glorifies killing and raises children to believe that their worth can be measured by the blood they spill.

In a few weeks, Cecil will be forgotten, but the guns and far too many irresponsible gun owners will remain. It is time for common sense — time for us to tell the gun manufacturers and the NRA that we are tired of them profiting off senseless and preventable death.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Truth and Meaning: We Won't Get Fooled Again


Videos recently released by an organization called the Center for Medical Progress purport to reveal Planned Parenthood staff negotiating the illegal sale of fetal remains. Politicians opposed to reproductive justice (including Rep. Gary Glenn) could not jump on the band wagon fast enough. Glenn quickly posted to his public figure Facebook page, "Given the gruesome but unsurprising exposure of Planned Parenthood's prenatal body parts trafficking, I am grimly all the more gratified to have been among lawmakers who insisted that the 2015-16 state budget not only not appropriate one dime of state taxpayers' money directly to the nation's largest abortion provider, but also include policy language expressly prohibiting any state agency from using our state tax dollars to indirectly subsidize its industrial termination of prenatal children's lives and profiteering from the sale of their body parts."

There is only one problem with Rep. Glenn's courageous, righteous indignation — the videos are not true The heavily-edited videos eliminated the actual context of the discussions of fetal tissue donations, from which Planned Parenthood makes no profit, and which require the clear consent of the patient. Medical researchers use fetal tissue to study and develop treatments for life-threatening diseases and conditions like HIV, hepatitis, congenital heart defects, retinal degeneration and Parkinson’s. Last year, the National Institutes of Health gave $76 million in grants for fetal tissue research. And Planned Parenthood is joined by many clinics, such as those associated with public universities, that also supply tissue for research.

Anti-abortion groups have long pushed to defund Planned Parenthood, even though no taxpayer money is used to provide abortions. But that hasn’t stopped their efforts to shut down the clinics, which provide important women's health services like contraception, cancer screening and other tests.

What, then, is the purpose of these misleading and inflammatory videos? The head of the Center for Medical Progress created a fake company called Biomax Procurement Services almost three years ago for the purpose of tricking Planned Parenthood employees, even setting up exhibits at Planned Parenthood’s national conferences. Biomax offered one Planned Parenthood affiliate $1,600 for a fetal liver and thymus, presumably to trap the affiliate in the act of accepting a high payment for fetal tissue. The affiliate declined.

The Center for Medical Progress — which managed to get tax-exempt status in 2013 as a biomedicine charity — appears to have done little beyond producing the undercover videos. And no one should be surprised that one of its three officers is the president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.

Rep. Glenn, if you have any hope of truly representing the people of the 98th District, then you need to do a better job with your homework. Your endless crusade against women, the poor, gay and transgender people, unions and public school students do not represent the opinions of your constituents. Stop using your position as a bully pulpit to stump for the theocracy you seem determined to create. At the very least, stop making a fool of yourself every time someone who shares your agenda releases dishonest and fabricated "evidence."

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Heart and Mind


My heart weeps for the congregants of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. My heart aches for nine lives snuffed from this earth because of hate and violence. Thinking about their families and loved ones, my heart sinks in my chest, draining my body of energy. The feeling sends me into a state of stunned prayer, pleading for wisdom, reflecting on this tragic waste of human lives.

The sadness in my heart for the murderer becomes an ocean as I imagine the millions of other young men filled with similar bigotry. My chest overflows with sorrow thinking about the people in his life who might have redirected his anger, who might have taught him love and understanding.

My heart reaches out to everyone affected by this tragedy. We share the pain of loss, the futility of helplessness. We cry for the future, knowing that more innocents will die before we live the message of the great prophets — love your neighbor as yourself; judge not lest you be judged.

My heart breaks. But my mind rages, seething against the inhumanity, and the senseless social paradigms that nurture such acts. In my mind, I know that the only difference between Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney and me is the color of our skin. Both men of faith, both preachers of the Beloved Community. Now he and eight of his parishioners lie dead, murdered by evil that I cannot possibly comprehend.

My brain screams at the stupidity and selfishness of a mindset that takes lives of those who are different. I look for a cause, for someone to blame. But I need look no farther than my own mirror — at the reflection of a white face in a society that privileges whiteness. I benefit from the privilege of my whiteness whether I want to or not.

I do not live in fear of a gun-toting bigot walking into my Fellowship and opening fire. I do not worry that someone "standing their ground" will exercise their Second Amendment rights to my detriment. I do not worry when my children go out to play that they will be executed by police seeing them as a lethal threat.

No, my brain works unburdened by concerns that white lives don't matter. I spend no valuable thoughts worried that I will be fired or evicted because of who I love. I walk the streets carefree that wolves view me as meat to be abused and violated.

My mind broils, however, when people spew their vile prejudice against others. When the murderer in South Carolina is labeled a "lone gunman" and not a "thug," I rage at the need for us to continue the call that #BlackLivesMatter. When Rep. Gary Glenn foams at the mouth about homosexuality, spreading his viral ignorance about sexual orientation and gender identity, I struggle to find compassionate words of response. And when another woman is raped or abused by a partner, I wonder whether we deserve Father's Day at all.

So, pray with your heart. Mourn for the victims, ask for guidance, and seek peace. Use your mind, though, to challenge the injustice. Tell the racists that their violence is unacceptable. Tell Gary Glenn that his comments about gay and transgender people are disgusting. And on this Father's Day, honor your wives and daughters, sisters and mothers; for without the women in our lives, we could not be fathers.