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Putting a Shoulder to the Plow

Play the Get Out of Jail Free Card

I think the issue is not about race, but about class.” How many times have you heard this said? A million? Lately I’ve been wondering why this idea is so often used, it seems, to evade conversations on race, racial disparities, white privilege, and white supremacy.

Presently I’m reading Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.” Myrdal is a Swedish economist, sociologist, and historian who published this text in 1944. It is an epic work which must have taken years to complete. In a section describing upper-class African-American feelings towards their lower class brethren, Myrdal points out that, at the time, many held class as more determinative of outcomes than race. In that moment, I realized why so many Anglo-Americans might agree.

If the differences in outcomes between white Americans and black Americans were based on race, because we cannot escape our whiteness anymore than they can escape their blackness, the other inescapable fact is that we, as white Americans, might be at least partially responsible for racial disparities.

However, if disparities are based on class rather than race, then that would be a different story entirely.

One of my early memories as a child is of the time I described my grandmother’s best friend as “rich.” This best friend was a widow whose husband had started a very successful chain of restaurants. My grandmother quickly corrected me, “We say, ‘She is financially well-off. Not rich.’” I learned it is impolite to say, and therefore somewhat embarrassing to be, ‘rich.’ Recently, in a Sunday school class at my church, a classmate described a friend who has lived a life of leisure yet insistently self-identifies as ‘upper middle class.’ In the same way that upper-class African-Americans preferred to not be seen as ‘black,’ I suspect something similar holds true for poor people who prefer to be classed as ‘lower middle’ or ‘working class.’ In the Sunday school class, I could not lay my thumb on why there is such a draw towards being ‘middle class’ in this country and away from being considered ‘rich’ or ‘poor.’ But as I said, in reading Myrdal’s work, I suddenly realized why white, middle-class people might feel as they do.

The reason white people want racial disparities to be about class rather than race is because if it is about class, then it is an issue of rich and poor rather than white and black. If I disguise myself anywhere in the ‘middle’, then I can feel absolved of responsibility because I appear neither rich nor poor. If there is a class issue, then it is someone else’s problem. If, on the other hand, it is a race issue, in America, we cannot not-be-white and therefore cannot not-be-responsible. To self-identify as white and middle class is to get out of jail for free. We wipe our hands and carry on being not-rich while other people suffer.

Another question I hope to come to understand in the future is, “Do we as white people emphasize our experience of poverty in our younger years to depress our experience of wealth in our later years?” Thus to balance the scales and cement our status as ‘middle class.’ Or, “Do we emphasize a narrative of upward mobility to demonstrate that if we can do it, anyone can and if someone cannot, then it must be their own fault?” Thus, to ascend above reproach.

Turning a gentle gaze and putting a shoulder to the plow. Won’t you?

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From David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God”

My chief desire is to show that what is most mysterious and most exalted is also that which, strangely enough, turns out to be most ordinary and nearest to hand, and that what is most glorious in its transcendence is also that which is humblest in its wonderful immediacy, and that we know far more than we are usually aware of knowing, in large part because we labor to forget what is laid out before us in every moment, and because we spend so much of our lives wondering in dreams, in a deep but fitful sleep.

“The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart, Yale University Press, 2013, p. 84

Tradition Is On Your Side

If you are one of the 55% of Republicans who approve of President Trump’s policy to separate parents from their children who walk up to our border, here is some context you will appreciate. Tradition, as they say, is on your side.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, native American (that is, non-immigrant) children were separated from their parents and sent to boarding schools where they could become civilized like us white, Christian Americans.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, persons kidnapped from Africa, and their non-immigrant children born in this country, could be separated and sold to white Americans.

When the states of the South lost the right to buy and sell human beings as property, then they made it illegal to “loiter;” to be idle in public. Parents and children were again separated, detained in prisons, and leased out to white Americans.

At that time, if a parent or child allowed to stay in the community was deemed to be “gettin’ out of line,” then it was legal for white Americans, sometimes off-duty law enforcement officials like sheriffs and their deputies, to enter houses, separate them, torture, mutilate, burn and hang them as examples to other parents and children of what was allowed and not allowed in this country.

Later in the 20th century, state and local law enforcement officials legally used canines, water hoses, and club-wielding officers on horseback to deter children from walking in public to dispute the ways they and their parents were being treated.

During the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton, many state and federal legislators created new drug and property crimes, and made existing penalties more severe, so that millions of parents and children could be deemed‘illegal’ by law enforcement officials and judges; then separated and detained in prisons throughout the country. Indeed today, laws turn juveniles into adults for the sake of a harsh prosecution. Children who play with certain toys and adults who flee are legally shot and killed.

Though a multitude of white adults and parents have voluntarily abandoned or abused their children, I can scarcely recall a systematic, forcible separation of white parents from their children by government agents. 

If you have supported the separation of parents and children at our border and yet you find yourself angered, ashamed, or otherwise disturbed by the comparisons made, that is a good sign your conscience is still intact. Listen to it. It is trying to awaken you to a hard truth. If you read this post and feel validated in your beliefs, then here is some bad news. Your spirit is lost. You should stop encouraging politicians to harm people and seek help to find what has been lost. You may one day welcome Spirit’s return. We will all be grateful you did.

Only in America, if moderate voices prevail, could Trump soon achieve something like a two for one special. Not only might he get a border wall in exchange for no longer separating parents and children, we, our nation, might gain the right to detain parents and children together. If so, then citizens with minor children, if either are charged and prosecuted, could be imprisoned together ‘for the well-being of the child.’ In fact, whole families could be kept intact while incarcerated to stress ‘family values.’ The shame of this administration’s culture is that they feel they can do absolutely anything unless a judge tells them to stop. And then, if they can defy the judge, they will.

Portions of our country have lost any sense of decency and humane care for each other. We have entered another period in our history of uncivilized cruelty with 62 million Americans cheering it on. Fortunately, you’ll always have the right to carry a weapon to protect yourself but if you happen to be an African-American who exercises that right, you might be killed for it and at least 62 million people will shrug. Please, put a shoulder to the plow and join a quiet revolution of the heart. Many have, including me, and there is room for many more. 

From Miroslav Volf’s “Exclusion and Embrace”

There is [a] sense in which no neutrality is possible. For those who appeal to the biblical traditions, the presumption that one perspective is as valid as the other until proven otherwise is unacceptable. The initial suspicion against the perspective of the powerful is necessary. Not because the powerless are innocent, but because the powerful have the means to impose their own perspective by argument and propaganda, and support the imposition both with the attractiveness of their ‘glory’ and with the might of their weaponry. In part, their power lies in the ability to produce and give plausibility to ideologies that justify their power (Niebuhr, 1964, 2:252). Often, the only resource of the powerless is the power of their desperate cry. The Jewish prophets—and indeed the whole of Scriptures—are biased toward the powerless. Such a preferential option for the powerless implies a privileged hearing for those whose voices are excluded (Taylor, 1990, 64f.), the so-called ‘epistemological privilege of the oppressed.’ If justice is what we are after, then we will interrupt the powerful rhetoric of the smooth-tongued and strain our ear to hear the feeble and crackling voice of ‘those who cannot speak’ (Proverbs 31:8). The stammerings of the needy are an eloquent testimony to their violated rights; the spellbinding oratory of the powerful may well bespeak their bad conscience. It is above all the powerful who need to practice ‘double vision’*–the groans of the powerless should disturb the serenity of their comforting ideologies.

“Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation” by Miroslav Volf. Abingdon Press, 1996, pp. 219-220

*Double vision, Volf defines, as the perspective taking to see from here and from there. That is, to understand from my position and from the position of the other.

A letter addressed to U.S. Senators Tillis and Burr regarding parent-child separations

2513 Vesson Avenue
Durham, NC 27707
May 28, 2018

Senator Thom Tillis
185 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator Tillis:

I am writing to you following the announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that parents and children entering this country will be separated by federal officials. This policy is atrocious and should never have been considered; much less implemented. If parents with children report to an asylum center, or walk across a border, we, as a nation, have no cause to create such harm to a child or their parent. When I think of how my government is actually doing this to human beings, it breaks my heart. Can you consider how you and your child would feel? I do and it makes me absolutely livid.

You are being written following President Trump’s request to his constituency, which includes you, Senator, to pressure Democrats to ‘change this horrible law’ and grant the immigration policies he prefers. To create an injustice and then blame your opposition in order to bargain a deal is morally disgusting. He is literally traumatizing parents and children in order to gain his political wishes. Is it any surprise that a person who campaigns to bring back torture would be capable of such an action as this?

I write to you to pressure the leader of your party to not only stand down from his bargaining technique but to immediately rescind the policy to separate parents and children who come across our border. The parents and children thus far separated should be reunified right away and cared for to repair the damage done. Under no circumstances when a dependent child is not endangered by his parent should they be separated. In the future, children and parents should be hospitably allowed to enter while their asylum request is being considered or safely returned together.

This policy is unconscionable. Those who support it are at best questionable.

Sincerely,

Rev. Rob Womack, LPC

cc: Senator Richard Burr
Representative G.K. Butterfield

From “The Kairos Document” by theologians of South Africa, 1985

The purpose of all government is the promotion of what is called the common good of the people governed. To promote the common good is to govern in the interests of, and for the benefit of, all the people. Many governments fail to do this at times. There might be this or that injustice done to some of the people. And such lapses would indeed have to be criticized. But occasional acts of injustice would not make a government into an enemy of the people, a tyrant…

Apartheid is a system whereby a minority regime elected by one small section of the population is given an explicit mandate to govern in the interests of, and for the benefit of, the white community. Such a mandate or policy is by definition hostile to the common good of all the people. In fact because it tries to rule in the exclusive interests of whites and not in the interests of all, it ends up ruling in a way that is not even in the interests of those whites. It becomes an enemy of all the people. A tyrant, A totalitarian regime. A reign of terror.

“The Kairos Covenant: Standing with South African Christians” edited by Willis H. Logan. Friendship Press, 1988, pp. 31-32

I Wonder…

I wonder, “Someday in the future will white Christians view the notion of original sin, as applied to persons of European descent, and then by extension to everyone else, as we now view the Curse of Ham, once applied to persons of African descent?”

From Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma”

Attempting to reconcile their electoral practices with constitutional requirements, the Southerners have become accustomed to insist that they are not discriminating against ‘race, color, and previous condition of servitude’ but only against ignorance and irresponsibility. Repeating these statements throughout the years, reading them, and hearing them has the effect of conditioning the Southerners to believe them. It is a difficult task for even the most sophisticated person to keep on saying something for a purpose without eventually coming to believe in it—with at least half his soul.

But keeping the Negroes disenfranchised in the face of the clear-cut constitutional Amendments allows Southern conservatism nothing more than a pretense of respect for the law. On this most crucial point it is doomed to insincerity.

“An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem ad Modern Democracy” by Gunnar Myrdal Vol. 1 (Harper & Brothers, 1944, p. 446

How The Whiteness of America is like the Flatness of the Earth

In America, we like to think in dualities such as us/them, white/black, straight/gay, male/female, liberal/conservative. Such dualities are false. There is as much diversity within these groups as between them. As we reconsider what it means to be free and equal, a more complex, and possibly helpful, frame would be to note the divisional hierarchy our culture and economy establishes. We are a nation of owners, rulers, happy slaves, unhappy slaves, and home-grown exiles.

Owners are those who let their money work for them either in the form of equities or equipment. They hold paper which says they have a right to live well and prosper off of the work of others. Rulers are those who earn a living in the making of decisions and the limiting of choices. Throughout history, it has been difficult to tell if Rulers grow wealthy first through ownership, then by making (unethical) decisions profitable, or vice versa. Happy Slaves are obedient with hopes to become an owner or ruler someday as well. They acquire enough ‘rights’ to property, comfort, luxury, and authority to keep them stimulated. We tend to identify them as “White America” though their worldview is more consistent than their skin tones. Unhappy Slaves are those who know they will never migrate to owner, ruler, or happy but feel compelled to participate in the system nonetheless. What alternative do they have? We tend to think of them as “Black America” though their worldview is also more consistent than their skin tones. Exiles are those who see the cultural and economic system critically and attempt to participate cooperatively as little as possible. Owners, Rulers, and Happy Slaves discredit Exiles as radicals, dangerous to law and order, even treasonous. Which is true if you prefer the present order.

James Baldwin once wrote that the reason people hold so steadfast to their anger is because, if they ever let it go, they’d have to face their pain. I think Happy Slaves experience a similar phenomenon. If they ever let go of their happiness, they’d have to face their fear and vulnerability. They too would see the unpleasantness of their captivity. They would notice more similarities, and fewer differences, between themselves and the rest of humanity, especially the unhappy ones and the exiles, as well as the other creatures who live here with us.

One way Happy Slaves protect themselves from awareness, to give them the benefit of the doubt, is through the ignorance of certainty. Otherwise, if aware, they have chosen to look away. Each individual, Happy Slaves will say, is solely responsible for their own well-being and everyone gets what they deserve. This could be called autonomy or freedom from community. If some are unhappy, the Happy Slaves reason, and thus are suffering, it is because they, the Unhappy Slaves, are too lazy or too stupid for their own good. The futility some experience in our culture and economy has no resonance in the Happy Slaves’ reality. Many of them live with a delusion they are unwilling to examine. In a zero-sum culture of inequality, imaginations can be frightfully limited.

The difficulty to alter the delusion is deeply entrenched as freedom fighters over the centuries have realized. Another aspect of human beings is noteworthy here. All we believe to be true is self-validating. That is, we believe what we believe is true, because if we knew something else were correct, we would not believe what we believe. Meaning, we would change our minds. In a word, learn.

Sometimes it seems we never do. This because we judge almost everything in dualistic categories of ‘right,’ in accordance with ‘my belief,’ and ‘wrong,’ not in accordance with ‘my belief.’ What we believe to be right, we retain. What we consider wrong, we ignore. Without awareness of this facet of our present culture, our ability to listen, to understand, to change our minds when necessary, to learn, evolve, and therefore survive, has become stunted.

An example might be helpful. If all of your life you were told the earth was flat, everything written by other people like you said the same, all you could see confirmed it, you would be absolutely certain the earth was flat. Then, one day a group of radicals came to say, “Actually, the earth is a sphere,” you might want to burn them at the stake for heresy or treason. It happens. White America’s staunch belief in autonomy and the denial of the relationships between money, power, racial and sexual divisions, and economic and physical violence is our modern version of the belief that the earth is flat. As a result, many suffer in individualized forms of captivity while believing that capitalism is the greatest economic system ever, way better than the only other alternative ever, communism, even better than a third alternative once known, now forgotten but never extinct, known as God’s economy or the economy of our origins.

We are not born sinful but we are raised in a sinful economy. Males are not more powerful nor whites more superior or entitled. We do not suffer and die because we are unfit nor survive because we are the most fit. We are all born. We all die. Our ‘rights’ to Life and Love are inalienable, self-evident, inseparable, and equal. Our needs to survive are segregated from us by paper and ink, stripped from the earth, and withheld from us for profit. This economy depends on the exploitation of bodies and planet and fear. It depends on our obedience to the unwritten social agreements to consume as much as we want and to accumulate as much as we can. Its destruction, thus far, outpaces our learning as well as our imagination.

Our spirits, like the rest of God’s creation, are naturally good. We all yearn to breathe, eat, love, work, play, heal, and rest. If we would see the way money has corrupted our understanding of the planet and of each other, if we could soothe our fear of scarcity and the appetites it generates, then we could courageously relieve the suffering of many while protecting the well-being of all. This is the natural order of Life on this planet. We have so much to unlearn, so much work to do. Please, put your shoulder to the plow and join a quiet revolution of the heart.

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