You can end the protests, Mr. President. Will you?

I’ve never written to any President before.  I seriously doubt he’ll read this, but I’m going to publish it nonetheless.

Mr. President,

You have indicated that you finds the actions of professional athletes protesting systemic racism and violence against people of color to be “a total disrespect of everything we stand for.”  Much has been written these last few days about the appropriateness of the protest.  I’m not writing today to express my opinion one way or the other.

You have called on the owners of the NFL to halt these protests by firing or suspending players who participate.  Personally, I don’t believe this proposed solution would work.  Colin Kaepernick began these protests over a year ago, and finds himself still unemployed, while more players seem to be protesting each week.  After your call on the owners to act, many issued statements and stood in unity with the protesting players.

You have also called on fans to act to end the protests, by boycotting the NFL.  This doesn’t seem to be a viable solution either.  For one, the opinion of fans seems to be mixed, meaning that many of us are going to still watch the games, and some are even voicing support for protesting players.  The NFL has proven in the past to be a strong enough business to survive major hits to revenue as demonstrated during previous labor disputes.  There appears to be a lot of profit in an NFL franchise, that will enable teams to weather partial boycotts.

No, Mr. President, the owners and the fans can’t end the protests, but you can.

Despite all of your attempts to bluster, obfuscate, and redirect attention to claimed “disrespect” to our flag, our military, and our nation, these protests are about what one author has described as “America’s Original Sin.” These protestors are crying out for someone to address the oppression and violence against black and brown people in our nation.

There is a problem.

It is not getting better.

Our nation needs to unite behind strong leadership resolved to eradicate the problem. This is a cultural issue that is woven into the very fabric of our country.  All change is difficult.  Changing the culture of a society can only be accomplished through determined, unrelenting leadership willing to do that which is unpopular, but necessary.  Even then, it is the rare leader capable of pulling it off.  You are positioned to be that leader.  Will you?

Here’s how you can start:

  • Appoint and resource a commission to define and clearly articulate the problem and develop strategic solutions to begin addressing it.  You know, like the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity? You’ve commissioned an organization to, at taxpayer expense, study a problem (alleged voter fraud) which has little evidence to prove that it actually exists, and all experts on the subject agree that to the extent a problem, has had no material impact on our nation.  Surely you are willing, as one who aspires to unite our country and make it great, to invest at least as much to solve a problem that is real, heavily documented, and causing real harm to the fabric of our nation?
  • Task the Attorney General to put the full force of the Department of Justice into eradicating the well-documented systemic injustice in our legal system.  Refocus the resources he is aiming at employing to resurrect the failed “war on drugs” to instead get to the problems that are resulting in between 70 and 80% of African American men in major cities targeted by the drug war having criminal records that permanently sentence them to the lowest caste in our society.  These are appalling numbers particularly when one considers this rather astounding fact:

Despite illegal drug usage rates that are essentially the same for whites and blacks, “black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men.”¹

Black men are dying at an alarming, disproportional rate at the hands of our law enforcement officers.  No citizen of this nation should ever have to fear an encounter with our police; sadly Philando Castile demonstrates that even when an African American driver is doing everything right, he can still be shot to death, and our criminal justice system will not hold the officer accountable.  Your Attorney General can begin the reforms necessary to address mass incarceration, at your order.

  • Hold a rally.  Seriously!  You are gifted at stirring a crowd to act.  So why don’t you rally our country to unite to address some of these issues?

You’ve said your comments had nothing to do with race; that it “has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.”  If that is true, you can help these players respect our country and our flag, by addressing the issues that they feel so strongly about that they are willing to risk their livelihood, reputation, and the ire of their fanbase to raise.  Marcus Peters, of my beloved Kansas City Chiefs, has pointed to our Pledge of Allegiance to ask for nothing more than what our country promises:  Liberty and justice for all.

Sounds to me like he very much wants to respect our country and our flag–but he doesn’t see the country living up to its end of the bargain.

So what will it be, Mr. President?  You can take positive steps to lead this country toward the unity and greatness you say you seek.  Will you lead?

 


¹Alexander, Michelle. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” (New York: New Press, 2012), 100.

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From Heritage and Hate to Legacy of Love

I started this series talking about my heritage, and how my upbringing led me to be a member of the “Heritage, Not Hate” crowd.  I did so with two hopes:

  1. To help those who cannot comprehend how a person displaying a Confederate flag can claim they are not racist,
  2. To help folks with backgrounds like me to consider how we might be hurting others without realizing it.

I am hoping that some might choose to pursue a journey of understanding similar to mine.  I’ll warn you up front, it’s not a fun trip.  You’ll find yourself between two warring factions, understanding, yet disagreeing (in some aspects) with both sides. You’ll be frustrated, misunderstood, attacked and condemned, sometimes by your own friends.  Not the greatest sales pitch, is it?  Best answer I have for why you should walk this route comes from my faith.  If you’re not a Jesus follower, this might be meaningless to you, but you may have a similar principle in your faith background.  But Jesus told his followers, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

In Part 3 I explored the idea of “heritage” and the key point that “you have exactly zero input into your heritage.”  Heritage is inherited from our ancestors-it is what they did, not what we did.  Today I want to explore the other side of the “heritage” coin.  We call the coin our ancestors made our heritage, but the other side of that coin is their legacy. You have nothing to do with forming your heritage, but everything to do with forming your own legacy–what you hand down to future generations.  You choose your own legacy.

The legacy I’ve chosen is one of love, of peacemaking.  “That’s a nice sentiment, Greg, but it’s not going to change the world we live in.  This has been going on for centuries.”  I will agree that it’s easy to look around, and become overwhelmed with a sense of doom.  We’ve been fed a pretty steady diet of fear and defeatism. But here’s the thing:  While I might not be able to change the world, I can change the world around me.  Jesus called his followers to be peacemakers, not to set us up for an impossible task, but precisely because it is possible!

How?  Good question.  I don’t have all, or even most of the answers.  But I offer a few things that have helped me.

learn

“If you never leave the small comfortable ideological circle that you belong to, you’ll never develop as a human being.” -Malcolm Gladwell¹

“Read one thinker and you become a clone.  Read two and you become confused.  Read a hundred and you start to become wise.” -Tim Keller

Unfortunately, what passes for learning in our culture today often is simply reinforcing what we already know or believe.  If I keep reading the same books, or blogs, from the same authors whose ideas I already approve, all I’m going to learn is how to embed the same ideas more deeply into my thoughts.  Repetition of a thought is critical if you want it to become something that you call forward without thinking, but it’s not “learning.”

Read things you disagree with!  This is hard, but it’s key to learning.  If your news feed doesn’t include at least one or two sources that are from the other side of the ideological aisle, you’re becoming a clone.  I’m not saying you have to go totally extreme.  But if your thoughts and perspectives on a subject aren’t challenged, they’ll remain shallow.

With respect to the discussion of heritage, and race in our country, take the time to read things from the “other side.”  A couple of suggestions:

  • The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.  Written over 100 years ago by the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard, who founded the NAACP, this is a great look at the history of black Americans in the initial decades after their emancipation.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.  Written in 2012, this book looks at the legacy of Jim Crow laws, and how the underlying biases have carried through despite the advancements in civil rights of the late 20th Century.
  • Don’t want to buy a book?  Pick some topics and read the Wikipedia posts for free.  Start with Jim Crow Laws, Emmitt Till, Lynching, 1917 East St. Louis Riots. This last one was eye-opening to me, because it happened near where I grew up, less than 50 years before I was born, and yet it didn’t once get mentioned in school, not even in my state-mandated Missouri History class in high school.

Beyond reading, I recommend listening.  Not just to podcasts and famous speakers, but also to those around you.  Really listen.  Remember the story about SPC Marshall in Part 2? I learned from her because I took the time to consider her perspective.  I could have easily dismissed it, because it didn’t align with my own, and simply told her what I really meant, and called it good, because I had taught her “truth.”  That route would have left me continuing to believe what I believe, and reinforced her beliefs as well.  We’d have both been worse off.

If you don’t get “Black Lives Matter,” ask them.  And listen.  Especially in light of the history and personal experiences you may not be aware of.  Consider that the white person in the Midwest who is railing against immigration may have very legitimate concerns that aren’t driven by an ideology of racial superiority.  Discover why “systemic racism” and “white privilege” are not condemnations of personal character.

live

Add some variety to your life.  Ruts are easy, but pretty much guarantee things won’t change.  Think in new ways.  Here are three ideas:

  • Stop “winning.”  Start “excelling.”  Don’t mistake this for “everybody gets a trophy.”  Winning is measured against an opponent.  To win, someone else has to lose.  Excellence is measured against a standard.  The Latin word literally means “beyond lofty.”  When I was in the infantry, we had an award we could earn called the “Expert Infantry Badge.”  One of the tasks was to complete a 12 mile road march carrying a 35# pack and weapon, in under 3 hours.  It’s a difficult task, and in theory, 10 soldiers could finish the road march, but not make it in the 3 hour time limit.  The first one across the line still “won”, but none of them “excelled.”  Conversely, in an “excellent” unit, all 10 might come in under three hours.  When we set our standards as beating the next guy, winning can be as easy as choosing an inferior opponent.  If my goal is to beat the clock, I have to push myself.  If my goal is to beat you, I can just push you in a ditch.
  • Ask a brilliant question.  When you find yourself ready to disagree, to fight for your (correct) position, ready to condemn those ridiculous fools on the other side, ask this question:  “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act that way?”²  Part of the problem with the polarization we see in our country today stems from the mindset that everyone agreeing with me is a genius, and those who don’t are either idiots or devious evil people bent on all us good folks’ destruction.  In truth, the vast majority are reasonable people.  Rational people.  Decent people.  So, if they’re acting contrary to my way of thinking, that means there is a good chance they have a reasonable, decent explanation.  If you begin there, and then ask, they’ll be likely to share, and you can learn.  If you aren’t in a position to ask, check yourself, because you’re likely about to head down a dangerous, divisive road.  You’ve already started forming a story in your head to explain the action.  Most likely, that story begins with a belief that the actor isn’t reasonable, rational, or decent.  Once you re-start the story, you might find a plausible explanation, or at least be open to one.  Most of the people you disagree with, really aren’t the enemy.  They’re not even necessarily wrong.
  • Get out of the box.  This goes along with learning by listening.  Too many of us are living such a homogenous life that we can’t listen to diverse voices because we don’t have any in our circle.  When’s the last time you had a person of color as a guest in your home?  Had coffee with someone from outside your political, social, economic circle?  Be deliberate about making friends with people different than you.  Sure it’s awkward, but if it’s genuine, people will appreciate your willingness to reach out.  You’ll discover that most people are just waiting to be invited in-but someone has to be bold enough to be the inviter.

love

One of the most overused, misinterpreted words in English.  I’m referring to sacrificial love; not an emotion but an action, a choice that says, “I value the wellbeing of others more than I do my own.”  Love says, “I want to see you excel.”  Then love surrenders some of oneself in order to actually make it happen.

Call me naïve, but consider history.  When real cultural change has occurred, strength and power didn’t achieve it.  Military force or threat of violence doesn’t make someone think differently.  Power might subdue someone, but it won’t make them your friend.  Loving those who aren’t like you is the most counter-intuitive, objectionable answer there is;  And it’s the only answer that actually brings about real, positive change.³

What about you?  Have you seen people change for the better?  Have you experienced change in your own perspective?  What has worked?  What are you struggling with?  Let’s keep the discussion going. Drop a note in the comments.  Help us all learn.


¹ Malcolm Gladwell is an author and speaker that I’ve just started listening to.  His podcast is called “Revisionist History.”  If you want to be exposed to some new thoughts, I highly recommend it.

² I stole this question from Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. This book is probably second only to the Bible in helping me change how I view and interact with others.  It has helped me become a better problem-solver and communicator.  Even if you don’t want to change the world, it’ll make you a better employee, spouse, friend.  It’s really that good.

³ If you’re a Jesus follower, love isn’t an option.  It’s a command; Jesus says it’s how the world will know you are a Jesus follower.  It’s your identity.  Beyond the “spiritual” aspect, consider Roman history.  The world’s most powerful country, a pagan empire that oppressed and killed Christians to defend its emperor-religion, became a “Christian nation” in just a few hundred years, not through force, but in spite of it.

Heritage… and Hope.

Before I begin “Part 3” to my “Heritage” series, I want to take a moment to say thank you for the encouraging words in response to the previous two posts (if you haven’t read them yet, follow these links to Part 1 and Part 2).

I said at the end of Part 2 that I would talk today about “reconciling heritage, rewriting history, and new identity.”  Heritage is an interesting concept.  Examining different online definitions yields an idea of either possessions that are passed down from previous generations (an inheritance), or more commonly a set of cultural aspects one receives as a result of birth position.  Heritage can have geographical, economic, cultural, and even physical/biological elements to it, but the interesting part is that you have exactly zero input into your heritage.  You receive it from your predecessors.  You didn’t earn your heritage; you don’t even get to choose your heritage.  Think about that for a minute.  I’ll wait…

Whatever your heritage is, it can have an influence on you, but you had no influence on it.  And you can’t change it.  You can reject it, or embrace it; you can choose the extent to which it influences your identity, but you didn’t form your heritage, be it positive or negative.  While there is much more to consider with respect to heritage, I want to focus on the discussion of heritage occurring in our country today, particularly since the events in Charlottesville last weekend.

Earlier I used the phrase “reconciling heritage.”  I honestly had no idea what I was thinking as I typed that out at 2 am. But today as I considered the word “reconcile,” I can only claim dumb luck or divine inspiration, because it’s a brilliant phrase to describe what I want to talk about, that I take no credit for crafting.    Reconcile literally means “to bring back together.”  It has multiple modern uses, including the accounting idea of making two accounts consistent with each other, and the broader definition of settling disagreement or bringing two disparate concepts into harmony.  The more I learned about my heritage associated with the Confederacy the more I needed to reconcile that heritage with my innate desire to treat all people with dignity and respect.

I find myself confronting a second concept that, like “heritage,” is trending in the news today: “rewriting history.” The record of the story of black people in the US deserves a much deeper exploration than what I am able to do in this post.  Ultimately, the point I’m launching from is that the history of the Civil War and slavery in the US was gravely distorted.

Take a look back at Part 1, where I described my understanding of the Civil War.  I believed that the war resulted from a conflict over states’ rights stemming from economic issues. Is this simply the case of me remembering what I wanted to remember?  NO!!!  I studied the Civil War multiple times in elementary, junior high, and high school, as well as at least twice in college.  I can vividly remember my military history class professor emphasizing the point that only fools believed that the South seceded over slavery.  Again, this was at a Historically Black College! Why did I get taught this?  It’s because our history books told us this!!!

Yet the true story is that primary documents from the era describe a very different motive.  Secession was about a single right–the right to own other human beings.  Look up the prolific documentation of reasons for secession from the states.  More personally, here is the text of a letter my great-great-great grandfather, Captain William Dyer, wrote to his cousin in May 1861:

My Dear Cousin-

My regiment leaves in a few days for the east, presumably northern Virginia.  My heart and soul is in the contest; I am, you know, a State’s right democrat, as defined by that greatest of southern statesmen- John C. Calhoun. This election of Lincoln by the aggressive anti-slavery element of the north was equivalent to a declaration of war against the south, and the institute of slavery-we have the alternative presented of tame and odious submission, or secession and war.  In this hour of supreme necessity, hesitation would be treason.  The South, if true to herself, will surely triumph, and may the God of battles lead her sons. (emphasis added)

Here’s the difficulty I bumped into in my own journey to reconcile my heritage:  I was celebrating a heritage of a group of people who took up arms against the US because the majority of the US opposed the Southern institution of owning human beings and using them as property.  The symbols of my Southern pride represented people who felt so strongly about the rightness of their superiority to black people that they were willing to go to war for those convictions.

People who are advocating taking down Confederate monuments and removing the Confederate battle flag from its prominence in public places are not trying to “rewrite history,” they’re trying to correct the accepted history that is grossly inaccurate!  And that distorted history has served as a foundation for a heritage that is a key piece of many peoples’ identity.  As a general rule, challenging a person’s identity, or a symbol that represents their identity, is not the best idea.  You’re gonna get a fight.  A pretty nasty fight.  Logic and reason are almost hindrances in this kind of fight.  So, why risk it?  Let’s just leave the monuments up, and let Mississippi keep the Confederate Flag on their state flag, right?

Good argument, unless you’re a black person.  Because no matter how vehemently I assert that my pride in my Confederate ancestry and flag have nothing to do with how I view racism, that doesn’t change the fact that those symbols were all about white supremacy, in 1865, and the next 100 years.  Most of the statues placed around the country commemorating Confederate leaders were installed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as a means to glorify a southern identity badly damaged during the Reconstruction period.  They represented Black Codes , Jim Crow laws, and lynching.  The flag gained even more prominence in the middle of the 20th century when it was used as a symbol of opposition to the civil rights movement.  That usage eventually mutated into a broader “Southern pride” symbol that could conceivably be detached from racist purposes.  And whether or not an individual waving that flag hates black people, the vast majority of black people see the symbol, and are reminded of racism-much like SPC Marshall was when I called myself a “redneck.”

Consider that in recent polls about half of black Americans view the Confederate flag as a racist symbol.  The 15 year old girl who started the petition in Charlottesville to get the Lee statue removed said she and her friends didn’t attend events held in the park because of the reminder of white supremacy there.  Here’s a question worth pondering:  If you strongly  believe something, and then you discover that what you were taught was inaccurate, arguably even part of a deliberate campaign of deception, would you be willing to change your beliefs based on new evidence?  Would you still hold onto it if the belief was not only false, but hurtful to others?

I have discovered that I’m writing for the benefit of at least two audiences:  Those who, like me, might need to reconsider their beliefs in new light; and second, those who cannot understand how people like I was can be so hateful.  I have friends in both groups.  Let me talk to the second for just a minute:  I spoke earlier about the fight resulting from attacking a person’s identity.  If you start this fight with removing statues and flags, rather than helping people reconcile heritage in light of more accurate history, you’re quite possibly attacking an identity.  Now, you can take the approach that you’re tired of waiting, and that the injustices of people of color are so horrific that they need to be fixed now, no matter the cost.  But that approach is going to get you a much fiercer fight from people who are defending their identity.  My hope is that by providing an answer to the often-shouted question, “What is wrong with you people?!”, you might see that nothing is wrong with them, they are simply operating off a misunderstanding not of their own creation.

Now let me talk to everybody again-please don’t take this post as me advocating for one side or the other.  I’m trying to position my writing in the middle, and address both sides.  Because both audiences are important, need to be valued and heard.  We have an opportunity to turn Charlottesville into a milestone-in a few years we can look on it and say, “That was the event that caused us to come together as a nation, and resolve issues that had festered for centuries.” Wouldn’t that be a great legacy for Heather Heyer?

I was hoping to wrap up this “series” with this post, but we still need to talk about where to go from here. I have some ideas, based on what I’ve learned as I’ve walked this out. Because I think there is cause for hope that we can move into a much better future with respect to race relations in our country  Check back for Part 4 on Tuesday.  Or better yet, follow this blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the menu below (if you’re on a mobile device) or the menu bar on the left (if you’re on a desktop), and you’ll get notified when it’s published.


 

Heritage and Hate, Part 2

In my previous post, I described how I came to be one of the “Heritage, not Hate” guys.  How a “Southern Pride” identity could lead me to identifying with a Confederate Flag as a symbol of who I was, even though I truly held NO ill-will toward black people, or any other race or ethnic group.  This is not to try to justify Confederate flags, or statues, and it is CERTAINLY not a defense of White Supremacist ideology or the repulsive, hateful behavior displayed in Charlottesville, on alt-right websites, etc.  I don’t “identify” with that; to the contrary, it makes me violently angry.  I can understand, particularly if you’re not a white from the South, how difficult it might be to reconcile me saying I identified with the Confederate Flag as a symbol, yet bore no ill-will, and in fact had genuine love for black people.  Just hang with me a while.

Another Army story:  After college, I went back in the Army as an officer.  I loved leading soldiers and building high-performing units.  I spent a lot of time working on making my team the best, a place where everyone grew individually, and as a unit we did amazing things.  Having been a private, it was important to me to hear what my privates were thinking.  As a company commander, that’s harder to do, but I would schedule quarterly “sensing sessions” where I met with just the junior enlisted.  No sergeants, no other leaders in the room.  I gave them the opportunity to speak pretty candidly about what was on their mind.  In one of these meetings, a black female specialist (E4) spoke up.  I hadn’t been commander long.  SPC Marshall was from East St. Louis.  She told me something I’ve never forgotten.

I tend to be fairly self-deprecating, and I never really liked a lot of the privilege and honor that comes with being an officer (such as being saluted by those you out-rank).  When I stood in front of my company, on more than one occasion I had referred to myself as a “redneck,” trying to imply that I was just a simple guy, nobody special.   SPC Marshall informed me that she couldn’t understand why I kept calling myself a racist.  “I’ve been watching you, and I don’t think you’re a racist.”

“WHAT?!  When did I EVER say that?!”

“You keep calling yourself a ‘redneck,’ and where I come from that means a white racist.  I couldn’t understand why you were calling yourself a racist, but I finally figured out it must mean something different to you, because you don’t seem racist at all.”

That was almost 20 years ago, but I remember the moment like it was yesterday.  The conversation after that wasn’t significant; I apologized, stumbled through some quick explanation of what I meant in my mind, and we moved on to a new topic.  But I learned a hard lesson there:  A word, or a symbol, can have a huge impact on what people think about me, and it can take a lot to correct a misunderstanding.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I no longer had a Confederate Flag on my truck, but I decided then and there to pay more attention to the perceptions I gave others, because most people aren’t in the same situation SPC Marshall was.  She had to pay attention to me long enough to discover the truth, because I was her commander.  She couldn’t just go find another unit. I tried to eliminate “redneck” from my vocabulary from that day forward, not because of political correctness, but because I didn’t want people to misunderstand ME, and I didn’t want to accidently place a barrier between me and others.

It’s funny in hindsight, because about that same time, I received my copy of that big genealogy binder I showed you in the previous post.  Not only does it have huge family trees, but it has a lot of historical detail, including dates of birth, marriage, death, but also occupations and records of military service.  I didn’t know much of anything about my military heritage.  My dad and his two brothers were in the Navy in the early 60s. His dad was crippled with polio as a child, so wasn’t medically qualified to serve.  My mom’s dad was in the Navy in the Pacific in WWII.  Other than that, I really didn’t know about any other family service.  I really didn’t know much about my heritage at all.  I had a few stories that my dad’s mom told about her relatives, including her grandma telling her about watching her dad being forced to dance on the hot stove by “Bald Knobbers” (a term I wasn’t familiar with at the time), and then cut up and fed to the hogs while she watched.

I poured over the binder, and discovered more about my heritage.  I had a LOT of military service in my background.  French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Indian wars, and yes, the Civil War.  On both sides, but predominantly the Confederacy.  I didn’t dig into the details, other than to remember that there were a few officers, a few prisoners of war, but probably at least a dozen different family members with documented Civil War service.  As someone who had by that time determined that I was going to be a career Soldier, I took pride in that history–particularly the Confederate history, for all the reasons I cited in the previous post.

The binder also contained other historical records. One of the key items was executed wills.  They provide genealogists with a lot of detail on a person’s life, including their wealth, and property.  It’s funny to read through a will detailing the disposition of a person’s plow, bucket, and other things that we would consider disposable today, certainly not worth accounting for, or willing to the next generation.  Several of those recorded wills listed property that I was not all proud of… Slaves.  My family owned slaves.  Some just a few, at least one is estimated to have owned around 100.  One, who died in 1796 (of the same era as Presidents Washington and Jefferson), recorded in his will instructions to free his slaves, provide them room and board, and pay them for their labor.  Another, whose slaves were emancipated at the end of the Civil War had a married couple who chose to stay with their former masters on their land, and were apparently provided for and treated well until they died. Well, at least my ancestors were the kind-hearted masters. Except, that wasn’t any consolation.  Reality started to hit home.  Not so much guilt, per se, because it was not my doing, nor was it something I had any control over.  But suddenly, that “Southern Pride” was stained.  I could no longer claim all the positive things about my heritage while ignoring the atrocity of treating another human as less-than-human.  I didn’t hate black people, but my family was implicit in treating them hatefully.  And make no mistake, no matter how you try to spin it, depriving any human of their freedom, treating them like property, is hateful, no matter how well you treat them.

Fortunately, as my desire to have my identity tied to my Southern heritage dissipated, I found myself developing a new identity–Alaskan!  Rugged individualist? Check!  Capable of surviving in the wilderness, of taking care of myself? Check.  Lots of macho cool-guy stuff? Check!!! (Note, this was long before reality TV made Alaskans look like rubes).  Plus, cowboy boots on arctic ice was a recipe for disaster.  My binder went on the book shelf, and the “South” was 5000 miles away.  But the tragedy of black history in the US was about to get a lot more personal.

My second job in the Army in Alaska found me leading a combined team of Soldiers and US Army civilian workers.  One of those civilians was a black man named Dan Grant.  Dan was a retired Master Sergeant, and he was about the same age as my dad.  He had served in Vietnam, and was an amazing man.  Known around Anchorage as “Deacon Grant”, Dan was a big, barrel-chested man, always smiling, with a booming baritone voice that made him a natural choice for Master of Ceremonies at every military function.  Dan and I became good friends, close friends.  We often would spend hours, occasionally an entire afternoon, sitting in our office talking about life.  Dan had not always been “Deacon” Grant; one of his last duty positions was as the NCOIC of the Club.  But Dan found Jesus, and boy did he love him.  At that time, I called myself a Christian, and I went to church, but I certainly wasn’t following God.  But we talked about Him, and music, and the Army, and family…

The Army works hard to appreciate diversity, including holding ceremonies to observe things like Black History Month.  One year our unit was tasked to run the Black History Month event for our installation.  It was decided to present a dramatic reading of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.  One of our soldiers would portray Dr. King in his cell by sitting on a darkened stage on a cot, dimly illuminated by a single spotlight, writing, while Dan was off-stage narrating Dr. King’s letter.  To be honest, I’d never heard or read the letter.  I really didn’t know much about King; I’d heard snippets of “I have a Dream” and I knew he was assassinated.  Hearing Dr. King’s words, in my friend Dan’s voice, wrecked me.  I was really glad the theater was dark, so people couldn’t see my reaction.  Those impersonal historic facts became real.  Afterward, Dan and I talked all that afternoon in his office… That’s when he told me about growing up in Georgia.  I wish I’d have taken notes, but I don’t remember the precise locations.  He talked about how he lived on one side of the tracks, and his white friends on the other, but it didn’t matter.  His friends liked to hang out at his parents’ store, and they all did teenage boy things together.  A few years passed, and Dan was marching in a civil rights march (led, as I remember the story, by Dr. King).  Dan described how he saw some of his white buddies standing along side the road, throwing urine on the marchers as they passed by.

My heart ached, like it was made of lead–and at the same time, a white-hot rage burned inside it.  In my mind, I could see myself doing violent, serious physical harm to anyone who would degrade another human, my friend, like that.  That wasn’t in my history book.  This was ugly.  It was hateful. It was evil.

A few things changed that day.  First, I resolved that I would try to understand and empathize that my story wasn’t like the story of others.  Second, I began to learn more about the Civil Rights movement, and black history in the US in general.  Third, I doubled down on the lesson that SPC Marshall taught me–I was willing to let go of things that I thought were important if they were hurtful to others.

In Part 3 I talk about reconciling heritage, rewriting history, and new identity.

Heritage…and Hate

Lots of discussion going on in the world, and in social media, about race.  I haven’t blogged about it much, but not because I haven’t had something to say.  I wasn’t sure I had anything valuable to add to the discussion, but that changed last Friday.  I hope you’ll take the time to listen, because I think my journey of discovery with respect to race might be useful.  And if you don’t, maybe someone will find it useful, because I am done not-talking about it.

First, a little background-I’m white.  Reaaallly white.  Not just my ethnicity, but my upbringing.  White, middle-class, central-Missouri-raised country boy.  My mom’s family were Welsh, Scottish, and Swedish (so they claim), all immigrants to the US from those countries in just the last few generations.  My dad’s side?  Scottish, English, and one thin line of Huguenots, which gets me the “Saxon” part of my rather long, well-documented “Anglo-Saxon” pedigree. They’ve all been in the US for a LONG time… since the 1600s for the most part.  My grandma was into genealogy, and she and my aunt traced the Walker clan back 14 generations.

This binder is my family geology on my dad’s side… pretty cool!

I grew up pretty isolated from black people.  There were a few in my elementary school class, but none that lived anywhere near me.  My parents were certainly not racist, and didn’t raise me to be racist; race wasn’t really on my radar.  In high school, racism didn’t show up much, but “Southern Pride” did.  I attended high school in the early 80s.  While Missouri isn’t known as “the South” in a lot of people’s minds, the town I grew up in was sure “Southern” in culture.  Add to that the popularity of country music, led by Hank Williams, Jr and Charlie Daniels, and Confederate flags and all things “Southern” became part of my identity.

Identity.  That’s an important word here… You see, for a middle class boy in flyover country, particularly if you’re not a star football player, finding an identity that is more exciting than Wonder Bread is pretty important.  “Southern Pride” did that, particularly in the 80s.  And the preeminent symbol of Southern Pride was the Confederate Flag.  That flag represented a lot:

  • The Confederate Army:  It wasn’t until I joined the Army and was exposed to “Yankees” did I ever consider it a sign of a losing force.  I know they “lost” the war, but bear with me…  The Confederate Army didn’t “lose”, they fought valiantly, vastly outnumbered and out-equipped, and they almost won!!!

  • Rugged Individualism:  The flag represented the tough guy, the man who could provide for himself off the land, defend against tyranny, and make his own way.  One of my favorite movies then (and even now) is The Outlaw Josey Wales starring Clint Eastwood.  The movie starts with Josey, a Missouri farmer whose farm is raided and family massacred by Kansas (Union) Redlegs. Seeking revenge, Wales joins Quantrill’s Raiders, a pro-Confederate guerilla force operating in Missouri and Kansas.  My absolute favorite movie of that time, True Grit starring John Wayne, also depicts the Duke’s character, Marshal Rooster Cogburn, as a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders.  Never mind what actually happened, the image, or identity was something that was larger than life, and something I aspired to.

  • Leadership:  Like it or not, the reputation of Confederate Army leaders, from Lee on down, was one of gentlemen-warriors, chivalrous, honorable men of great moral character and superior strategy and tactics.  Union generals, on the other hand, were often portrayed as bureaucrats, poor strategists, and even drunken buffoons (or in the case of the bad guys in The Outlaw Josey Wales, rotten, blood-thirsty scoundrels of no morals).  The superiority of Confederate Army leaders was reinforced after I joined the Army, where I was stationed at Fort Benning and  Fort Bragg (both named for prominent Confederate generals).  There is no “Fort Grant,” and the only Union leader I remember being lauded in my studies was Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg.

But what about the Civil War? That flag represented rebellion against the US!!!  No, not according to my history books, they didn’t.  See, what I learned, IN SCHOOL, about the Civil War, was that the North took advantage of the South, using Southern raw materials to get rich making products in their Northern factories, then selling the finished goods back to the Southerners at a premium.  The poor Southerners could only make their economy work using the labor of slaves, and now those no-good Northerners were trying to take the slaves away… This wasn’t about human rights, it was economic oppression, rotten to the level of Pharaoh taking away the Israelites’ straw used for brickmaking, but telling them to continue producing the same number of bricks!  Those poor Southern statesmen did everything they could to try to appease the judgmental Yankees, but they just kept taking, and taking, until finally they left the poor Southern states no choice but to stand up for states’ rights.  You see, all the real scholars know that while the North might have used abolition of slavery as a means to rally popular support for a war against the South, it was really all about the North, and the US government, trying to economically and politically dominate the Southern states.

Seriously.  That’s what I was taught, all the way through high school, and college, IN MY MILITARY HISTORY CLASS by a PhD in History, at a HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGE!!!

But what about slavery?! You know, actual, people-owning-other-people, SLAVERY???  Yeah, I watched Roots. But what I was taught was that the reality of slavery wasn’t really that bad.  Most slaves were well-treated, and even loved their masters.  In lots of cases, after they were freed, they chose to stay with their benevolent masters for the rest of their lives…  I’m serious–these were the FACTS that I learned.

What about Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement???  Lynchings! The KKK!  So, in my American History classes, we quickly glossed over the Reconstruction, where we learned about how those rotten Carpetbaggers abused their victory, and robbed the poor Southern states of the little bit of wealth they still had after the war (“but they never took our dignity!”). From there we jumped right into WWI, the Great Depression (which, as I look back, only apparently affected white folks), and then, after we got back from Easter vacation (that’s what Spring Break used to be), we did a big unit on WWII, and how we defeated the Nazis and the Japanese.  A quick skim through the Cold War (which was still going on, where we were in a life-and-death battle against the USSR and godless Communism), and it was finals week.  Oh, yeah, somebody shot Martin Luther King, Jr.  Terrible thing.  James Earl Ray was probably a communist, but don’t worry about that, because the final only goes through WWII.

Through that lens, a heritage represented by the Confederate Flag doesn’t look so bad… might even be something to be proud of!

After high school, I joined the Army.  The US Army is one of the most integrated places in our culture today.  Southern Pride is thick in the Army.  I don’t have statistics to back this up, but it sure seems like there are more Soldiers from the South.  There is racism, but it gets squelched pretty quickly and thoroughly.  I still remember as a young Private, fairly new to the 82nd Airborne Division, my platoon sergeant, SFC Jeffries, a black man from Alabama, yelled at me one night to “turn that shit down!”, referring to the Hank Williams music I had playing on my stereo while we were cleaning the barracks one night, getting ready for a big IG inspection.  Being the good soldier I was, I immediately went to my extensive country music collection and queued up that great Kris Kristofferson classic, If  you don’t like Hank Williams…” and called out, “Hey!  SFC Jeffries!!!” just in time for the title line.  SFC Jeffries, being the great soldier/philosopher that all platoon sergeants are, grinned, looked me right in the eye, and said, “Walker! Are you prejudiced?”  My blood ran cold, and all my false bravado evaporated, leaving me a stammering mess…  “N-N-N-NO! SFC Jeffries, I’m not prejudiced!”  And I meant it!  I wasn’t!  “Bullshit, Walker.  Everybody’s prejudiced.  You gotta grow past it.” The Army reinforced in my brain, that you judged people by their performance, period.  And you fought, and died if need be, for your brothers in arms.

After my initial enlistment, I left active duty to go to college.  I attended a small Historically Black College in my hometown.  What an education in cultures and race.  Nestled in the middle of rural Central Missouri is Lincoln University, founded in 1866 by the officers of the 62nd and 65th US Colored Infantry Regiments.  When I attended, Lincoln had about 3000 students, about 900 of which lived on campus.  The on-campus students were about 90% black, and came primarily from inner city St. Louis, Memphis, and Chicago.  The off-campus students were 90% white, from Central Missouri.  During my time there in the late 80s, Louis Farrakhan was making news with Nation of Islam, and Jesse Jackson was running for President, bringing issues of race to the forefront in national news, and creating division on campus.  There were major protests when the administration rescinded the student’ government’s invitation to NWA to perform at our homecoming concert.  Our book store sold t-shirts that said “IT’S A BLACK THING, YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND” and “BLACK BY POPULAR DEMAND.”  I got to see racism from the other side… sorta.  I walked around campus wearing my cowboy boots and hat, and I knew I wasn’t part of the predominant culture-on campus.  But when I drove my pickup two blocks down the street I was back in my world.  So there was no real threat.  And besides, I was a big deal in ROTC (at Lincoln, every incoming freshman had to take 1 year of ROTC), and I got along with almost everyone.  I was even invited to join the Alphas.  I left college proud of my university, happy for the cultural experience, and confident that I didn’t have a race problem–I did not judge people “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  

OK, so that was more than a little background… but it’s relevant.  I get it when people say “Heritage, not Hate.” If you made it this far, thank you.  Hang with me.  This is going somewhere important, but if you bail now, you’re gonna miss it.

Heritage and Hate, Part 2

Jesus-follower? Here’s some clarity on what our Lord says about Refugees

This article, published in “The Gospel Coalition,” is adapted from a speech the author gave in May 2016.  He does an excellent job laying out a Biblical foundation for bringing refugees into the US.  No tweetable platitudes here–sound theology.

I do have one disagreement though–In the author’s fourth “Biblical truth”: “Though God generally establishes government for the protection of all people, he specifically commands his church to provide for his people”, I believe the author provides an unsupportable excuse to prefer Christian refugees over non-Christians.  I don’t believe a comprehensive reading of Jesus allows his followers to show preference.

  • The author supports his point with one passage from Matthew 25, focusing on the word “brothers” when Jesus says that what we do, or don’t do, for the least of these, we did, or didn’t do for him.  The Greek word translated “brother” in this passage has a base meaning of “flesh and blood male sibling,” but culturally the Jews used it to mean fellow Jews, and the Greeks and Romans of the day used it to mean “compatriots.”  Taken by itself, one could infer, as the author does, that Jesus was talking about taking care of fellow disciples of Jesus.  But we shouldn’t interpret a stand-alone passage of Scripture to build a comprehensive understanding of Jesus’ way of thinking.  Consider other teachings of his:
  • In Luke 10 we read Jesus teaching one of his most well-known stories–the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells of a man who is beaten, robbed, and left on the side of the road.  His fellow Jews, his “brothers,” pass by without helping, because they have good legal or religious reasons not to help.  A hated enemy, from a race of people whom the Jews of the day considered inferior people, stops and goes to great trouble and personal expense to help the wounded Jew, even though society would say he was well in his right to leave the Jew to die.  The story by itself should convict us, but it is important to note why Jesus tells the story:  He’s answering a question.  A religious expert asks Jesus what the man must do to earn God’s favor.  Jesus asks the man what the Scriptures say.  The man replies with the correct answer:  Love God with your entire being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus tells the man that he has given a good answer, but the man isn’t satisfied, because this answer is too open-ended.  It requires self sacrifice. The man seeks to clarify, asking, “And who is my neighbor?”  The man is looking for a way out–a way to show that he is good enough for God, without having to sacrifice.  THAT is when Jesus tells the story.  He ends the story with a question back to the religious man:  “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who was robbed–his fellow Jews, or the low-life?”  When the man answers, “The one who had mercy on him,” Jesus affirms his understanding by saying, “Go and do likewise.”
  • In the teaching on the Good Samaritan, Jesus is explicitly answering the question, “who is my neighbor (or brother)?”  Earlier in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and teachings, Jesus makes a similarly difficult point:  “Love your enemy.”  This passage is one that gets a lot of “interpretation” (read qualifying) to help make it more palatable.  A straight-forward reading of the text is pretty easy to comprehend, and totally incongruent with what we believe to be “right.”  A more nuanced reading, with the benefit of some Greek background and cultural understanding of Jesus’ day makes this even more difficult to swallow.  Jesus isn’t talking about “enemy” like a foreign army.  He’s talking about anyone who isn’t “in your circle.” To his immediate audience, this was anyone outside your family, or your community, and even outside the Jewish religion.  When he says “love,” Jesus doesn’t mean to have warm feelings for them; Jesus is saying “do good things for them, even when it isn’t in your best interest to do so!” In case you want to argue with him, he even expounds on his point in the latter part of the passage, saying, “Don’t be proud of yourself for loving those who are in your circle–even evil people do that.  My followers will love those who are outside their circle!” And then he drives the point home:  “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  We were all outside God’s circle, but he sacrificed so we could be brought back in–he sacrificed at a great price.
  • Full disclosure:  I despise the thought of Christians being killed because they are follow Jesus.  It makes me sad, angry, and vengeful, to be honest.  Nik Ripken, a former missionary to Somalia who has extensively studied Christianity in closed cultures, writes in his book “The Insanity of Obedience: Walking with Jesus in Tough Places” that these martyred Christians have a better understanding of Jesus’ teachings than we do!  When Jesus teaches in his Sermon on the Mount,

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil things against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

he is telling us to “Rejoice and be glad!”  In another teaching, Jesustells us that he is sending us out like “sheep among wolves.” He’s not telling us to be mindless here, because he follows that statement with the directive to be as shrewd as snakes, but innocent as doves.”  However, he also tells a parable in Luke 15 about how important it is for people who don’t know Jesus to be connected to him.  He tells a story of a man who has 100 sheep, but loses one.  He leaves the 99 in the open country (where they are most susceptible to attack) to go find the one.  He tells of the man calling all his neighbors to celebrate when he finds the one, and then says, “In the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” 

While I’m in no way wishing martyrdom on any Christian, could it be that if Jesus wants us to show preference to refugees, that we should be more concerned with providing refuge to those who don’t know him than those who do?  As Ripken describes in his book, many Arabic Christians who have converted from Islam point out that American Christians are soft.  They are more concerned with getting former Muslims to safety outside their Arabic nation, but the Arab understands that Jesus has called him to risk his life to tell his Muslim brother the Good News!  Rather than taking these indigenous missionaries out of the country, perhaps we should be preferring (if any religious preference is indeed necessary) to provide refuge to Muslims who can then experience the life-saving love of Jesus!

If you’re not a Jesus follower, I don’t expect you to agree with this.  I’m ok with you disagreeing, because you aren’t claiming to submit yourself to Jesus’ teachings and leadership.  But if you call yourself a “Christian”, literally a “little Christ,” I would encourage you to examine whether you are showing beliefs and attitudes that are more in line with Jesus’ teaching, or with a need for safety and security.

Merry Christmas from the Inn

It’s been a while, and this isn’t really a deep post, but it’s more than a Facebook comment for friends.  I hope everyone is having an amazing, perfect Christmas, but the reality is, most folks aren’t.  Lots of people are hurting, missing someone, worried about finances, their future, their children, or a hundred other fears.  They might be battling depression, or just overwhelmed by the difficulties of life, and more than a little irritated that no matter how they try, they can’t seem to get a break.  This time of year it’s especially hard, because, you know, you’re supposed to be HAPPY!

As I’ve been contemplating the Christmas story this year, I have been drawn to thinking about it from Joseph’s perspective.  He was a good man.  He always did the right thing, to a fault.  He worked hard, and tried to honor his girlfriend even though the world said he should publicly humiliate her for cheating on him.  Then, God sent a messenger with a crazy message-he was supposed to keep her, and raise the boy as his own, even though he was God’s son.

Sometimes when we’re doing exactly what God wants us to do, we expect everything to be easy and go our way.  I’m guessing Joseph did too.  But he got ostracism, gossip, shunning by the people of his community.  Every day.  And, just when it couldn’t get any worse, he gets ordered to travel to be counted (and taxed) by the oppressive government.  With a 9 month pregnant wife.

I can hear him shouting in desperation, “Seriously God?”  (Joseph sounds a lot like me in my imagination, and I’ve been saying that a lot lately).

I can’t imagine traveling with a 9 month pregnant lady, on foot, for days.  It can’t be good. I suspect the conversation was more than a little strained.  Hours of long walking in silence, rehearsing conversations, counting frustration on frustration…  And then they get to Bethlehem, and there isn’t even a decent place to stay to have the baby.

There’s no record of any other divine communication to Joseph after that initial visit from the angel.  He’s had 9 months to second-guess himself, to doubt what God was doing, to consider how lousy his situation is, when all along he was doing the right thing.  There was one thing that was undeniably real.  There was a baby.

Our nativity scenes and Charlie Brown Christmas Specials really skew our understanding of that event.  The multitude of heavenly host didn’t show up at the birth; from what we can read, there was no angelic presence at all at the manger.  The shepherds got to hear the angels worshipping; all Joseph got that day was a visit from a bunch of smelly low-lifes who claimed to have seen angels.  That was Joseph’s only confirmation that the promises were coming true.

Joseph’s “Christmas Story” wasn’t a “happy holiday.”  But God was working.  And even when we can’t see it, he can reassure us that we are on track, even by the least-likely of messengers, if we will listen.

“Merry Christmas” doesn’t always mean “Happy Christmas.”  “Merry” would be better translated as “joyful” because joy isn’t dependent on feelings or emotions, or even circumstances.  Joy is the reality of being in God’s will, doing what he made you to do.  Joy is always available, even when you have no reason to be happy.

I truly hope your Christmas is happy, but I pray it is joyful.