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.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Love and Marriage


In a few weeks, I hope to begin officiating weddings for all couples here in Mid-Michigan. When (not if) the U.S. Supreme Court rules Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, I will be running to the Midland County Courthouse to greet happy couples. Nothing would make me more jubilant that to be bombarded with requests to preside over glorious ceremonies of love and life.

As we have seen in dozens of other states, the earth will not stop revolving on its axis; the "traditional" family will not crumble; and people will not want to start marrying their dogs. All that will happen is that thousands of loving couples will finally have the rights and privileges that heterosexual couples take for granted.

These rights are not some dreaded "gay agenda." In fact, when people learn about the injustices faced by gay and lesbian couples, they often wonder what took so long to break down these irrational barriers.

For instance:
  • In a same-sex marriage if one partner dies, the other partner is not entitled to bereavement leave from work, to file wrongful death claims, to draw the Social Security of the deceased partner or to automatically inherit a shared home, assets or personal items in the absence of a will.
  • Unlike heterosexual spouses, same-sex partners are usually not considered next of kin for the purposes of hospital visitation and emergency medical decisions.
  • Same-sex partners cannot cover their families on their health plans without paying taxes on the coverage, nor are they eligible for Medicare and Medicaid coverage. 
  • Same-sex couples are denied the automatic right to joint parenting, joint adoption, joint foster care and visitation for non-biological parents. In addition, the children of gay and lesbian couples are denied the guarantee of child support and an automatic legal relationship to both parents, and are sometimes sent a wrongheaded but real negative message about their own status and family.
  • Same-sex couples are excluded from special rules that permit married couples to buy and own property together under favorable terms, rules that protect married couples in their shared homes and rules regarding the distribution of the property in the event of death or divorce.
  • Gay and lesbian couples cannot file joint tax returns and are excluded from tax benefits and claims specific to marriage. In addition, they are denied the right to transfer property to one another and pool the family's resources without adverse tax consequences.
These are just a small sampling of thousands of federal, state and local barriers faced by same-sex couples. Any reasonable person can look at these and see that denying these people the same rights and privileges of heterosexual couples is not only wrong, it is immoral.

In time, these injustices will not only go away, but we will wonder why we ever enforced them at all.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Notoriety or Notorious?


When called to serve the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland, I was pleased to be moving to the City of Modern Explorers. I envisioned living someplace known for innovation, forward thinking and progress. People I spoke with talked proudly of Midland's notoriety as a wonderful place to raise a family, a small city filled with the amenities of a larger metropolitan area.

Lately, however, Midland's notoriety has become overshadowed. We continue to make national, even international news — but not for new inventions, or for cultural achievements. No, Midland has instead become notorious as a bastion of fundamentalist theocracy, intolerance and bigotry. And the latest addition to this sad list...hypocrisy.

The obsession of homophobic and transphobic public figures in our city is not simply disturbing, but a national embarrassment. And the recent revelation of a local minister decrying homosexuals while engaging in sexual discussions with men on a gay dating website colors the credibility of our community.

Beyond this announcement, the subsequent resignation of the clergy in question, and the unimaginable horror in the future for this family, lies another even more insidious evil that remains unaddressed. How many people have read his words, listened to his speech and felt confused and conflicted, and perhaps filled with self-hatred? How many families has this man "counseled" into dysfunction and broken relationships? How many gay teens have sunk into depression, even attempted suicide because their minister told them that they were sinful?

I feel for his wife and children. I can even find a small measure of sympathy for him. But I reserve most of my concern for the victims of his vitriolic attacks on gay and transgender people. I stand with gays and lesbians, bisexual, transgender, and queer folk and offer my support as they face routine discrimination and public shaming by public officials who lack the will to love their neighbors as themselves.

If you are gay and a minister has told you that you are an abomination, then find another minister. If you are a lesbian and have been shamed by your church as sinful, then seek out a welcoming congregation. If you are transgender and been told that your religion has no room for you, then look for a religion that embraces you. And if you are questioning and hear our representative in Lansing compare you to a pedophile, then join with us.

Midland, we should be sick and tired of being notorious for our intolerance of people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The time has come to enhance our notoriety once more. The time is now to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the class of people protected from discrimination in our city. And from now on, our religious and political leaders should know that hate speech is not free speech, and that ancient scriptures do not replace truths proven by verifiable research.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Our Twilight Zone


I grew up watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and the original Star Trek television series. Alternative universe stories fascinated me. Contemplating different realities helps me appreciate the challenges we face in this life, at this time.

So, I invite you to the dimension of imagination, to experience the awe and mystery of a strange new world. Imagine a frontier Mid-Michigan just after the Civil War. Timber drives the local economy, but this resource will soon run low. Along comes a free Negro named Dow who invests everything he has in a dream. And his dream pays off.

Dow builds what will eventually become a major international corporation … in Saginaw. The nearest port, Bay City, thrives. And the village of Midland struggles to make lumber stretch as long as possible.

Former slaves stream to Saginaw by the thousands, building a thriving metropolis. When the Depression hits, Saginaw and Bay City ride the storm. Midland, however, loses many of its struggling businesses, and only the poor remain to hold the pieces together.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Saginaw blossoms. The city builds riverfront condos, major retailers grow downtown, and a stadium attracts a AAA baseball team. Locally-owned businesses flourish as the average income rises. Saginaw becomes the first American city to adopt full civil rights for all citizens and a guaranteed minimum wage higher than any other in the nation. Property values soar, public schools prosper, unemployment disappears and crime remains low.

Midland, on the other hand, struggles to keep schools going. The mostly white residents rent dilapidated houses and apartments and cannot find full-time jobs that pay more than subsistence wages. Drugs and violence are rampant among the vacant lots, and the mostly black police cannot keep pace with crime. After years of annual deficits and cuts to public services, the state installs an emergency manager, and the elected officials lose their authority. Residents of Saginaw driving to their summer cabins avoid Midland whenever possible. They wonder why the residents of Midland cannot do what it takes to clean up their city and get off the public welfare rolls.

One day, a white boy plays in the pavilion of Plymouth Park with a toy gun. He is alone with little to do because there are no playgrounds, no after school programs, and his family cannot afford clothes and food, let alone game systems, computers or cable television. A fearful neighbor calls 911 and two black police officers arrive on the scene. The younger officer — previously rejected by the better police force in Saginaw — jumps from the car shooting. In seconds, the boy lies dead on the ground.

In the ensuing days, the white residents of Midland explode in anger. They feel the weight of decades of economic injustice, feelings of shame and guilt because their kids lack the opportunities available to those in Saginaw, and outrage at the brutal murder of a child. They take to the streets, rioting against the hopelessness of this unfair system. They march down Main Street past the vacant store fronts and bars. Occasionally, someone throws a rock and one liquor store burns. Across the country, the news shows white Midlanders running and looting, and reports that the boy’s shooting was justified.

Pat Robertson leads a largely-ignored march in Washington, D.C., with the families of the slain boy, and of other white men gunned down by black police officers across the country. But the media call him an opportunist. The lone white commentator on Fox News opines about how welfare keeps the white people unmotivated and poor. A black sports writer in Saginaw pens an editorial calling on all people to simply engage in hard work; commitment and perseverance; effort, energy and sacrifice; respect for others; serving others; helping others. And a black Unitarian Universalist minister in Saginaw responds, calling the sports writer’s piece racist and an example of privilege.
http://www.hulu.com/watch/440892
Is this scenario difficult to imagine? Perhaps. This alternative reality might be especially difficult to imagine if you were born privileged and cannot dream of such patent unfairness. If you were born white, understanding institutionalized racism is challenging. If you were born male, the economic impossibilities facing poor, single mothers are unfathomable. If you were born financially comfortable, you think that anyone who works hard enough can accomplish whatever they want in life. And if you were born straight, you might simply assume that heterosexuality is the norm for all people and disapprove of the gay “lifestyle.”

Open your eyes. Nothing is as simple as the pundits want you to believe. Our problems do not derive from poor people believing they are entitled. Our problems derive from privileged people — people who did nothing to earn their privilege but be born that way — doing everything possible to skew social systems and maintain their own sense of entitlement.

At the end of the episode titled “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” Rod Serling stated: “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs, and explosions, and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, ideas, prejudices. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy. A thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is, these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”

In this reality, Black Lives Matter.