Finding the True Legacy of American Slavery

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As a child, because of my father’s work in construction, my family would travel. My mother, someone as inquisitive and interested in learning as I am, would take us children to the various historic sites and museums near the areas we visited. A significant part of our time in the South was spent surveying Civil War battlefields, exploring plantation homes built in the Antebellum era, and pondering it all from the perspective of a proud Yankee.

At the time the devastation and destruction of the war were justified by the righteousness of the victors. Slavery was an affront to the notion that “all men are created equal” and thus this institution of human ownership remains an indelible stain on that founding ideal of this nation. This perspective made Abraham Lincoln a heroic figure, it made the Union soldiers honorable men, the North was morally superior to the South and that was that.

However, that was actually simplistic.

First, many of the casualties of war are innocent, the wrongs of our enemies not justify our own, and the reasons for a conflict are far more complex than the victor’s narrative, Second, slavery had been an institution since the beginning of human history and a subject of debate for the founders who ultimately decided that the constitutional federation of independent states against the British colonial power required some compromise. Third, the aggression of the North may have resulted in emancipation for slaves in the South, yet it did not improve the conditions of those treated like rented mules in Northern industries and mines nor did come without a cost. Furthermore, both sides in the Civil War relied on conscripts (poor men forced to risk life and limb to further the agenda of the powerful) and in the North disenfranchised whites (mostly Irish immigrants) rioted in New York City against the draft and taking their anger out on black city residents.

The human and economic costs of the Civil War were staggering. It is estimated that 620,000 men died in combat or from disease related to the horrid conditions and that’s not to mention the many more ‘casualties’ who returned physically or psychologically maimed. The direct impact was full 1.5 times the GDP of the time, for comparison, the 2017 GDP distributed per capita (19,485,400/325.7×1.5) is $89,739.33, and the indirect costs were far far greater. The total economic price tag of the conflict is conservatively estimated to be 10,360 million in 1860 dollars or an incomprehensible 315 billion dollars in today’s money and at a time when the US population (and GDP) was a fraction of today’s. Every man, woman, and child in the South lost the equivalent of $11,456 during the war and continued to lose long after the war due to the destruction—the vast majority of them never owned a slave.

Poor whites in America, especially in the South, had the double whammy (or maybe triple whammy?) of being forced to fight on behalf of the rich, of working for very little compensation themselves and then still being called privileged by their actually privileged counterparts. It wasn’t the moralizing Northern abolitionists who freed the slaves nor the Southern slave owners who felt the greatest pain of the brutal conflict. The people who paid the real price were the working class, they were the ones who lost the most in the war, a war over an institution no fault of their own, and are now held as responsible as the slave owners themselves. It is a path to resentment. People who feel powerless often take their feelings out on those with less power than they do. Sadly black Americans have historically been the recipients of this frustration while the true beneficiaries of their exploitation are never held accountable.

Slavery, at its peak, only accounted for a fraction of the nation’s GDP:

In the 1850s, the zenith of the cotton economy, it came to between 1 and 1.5 percent of the nation’s GDP, not a trivial sum. By this period, however, the United States was already the second-largest economy in the world and was investing every year between 13 and 15 percent of GDP in new capital. Even if the entire “slave surplus” were saved (which it wasn’t, because there were mansions to build and ball gowns to buy), it would have made a respectable contribution to growth, but it just wasn’t large enough to be the basis of an empire. (“Was America Built By Slaves?“)

As the quote above suggests, most of that gain likely went to the slave owners themselves, spent on their lavish lifestyles then, on those plantation mansions that still exist in the South, and was not invested back into the economy in general. A significant portion of that wealth evaporated as a result of the war and emancipation. The value of a slave went from being $12,500 to $205,000 (in 2016 dollars) to effectively zero. So, in other words, if the 1860 census were correct that there were 3,953,761 slaves and the average price was around $800 in their dollars (or around $140,000 in our own) then slave owners lost around 554 billion dollars. Slaves, on the other hand, gained something priceless, that being their own freedom, and yet the cost of slavery to black Americans is truly incalculable.

The Incalculable Cost of Slavery…

The cost of slavery to black Americans is incalculable and not in terms of economic impact. It is incalculable because of the lasting social consequences that can’t be assigned a number value. The suffering of black Americans did not end with the Civil War, they faced the lingering resentment of their white neighbors, all forms of discrimination, intimidation tactics and terrorism. Even with Constitutional amendments prohibiting slavery, recognizing their citizenship and granting voting rights, conditions did not improve dramatically for black Americans in the “Jim Crow” South. It took a further effort in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, to finally see some of these Constitutional rights fully realized and not before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was murdered by an assassin’s bullet.

But, perhaps worse than the lynchings and segregation, one time events that can be adjudicated or something that can be addressed through legislation, is the immeasurable impact on the dignity of those who know that their ancestors were once treated as property and sub-human. I can’t really imagine how it would feel to have my own race being counted as 3/5ths of a person in my own country’s founding documents. There is no way to compensate for that psychologically and especially not when the widespread mistreatment was still in full force a mere generation ago. In such a context, it would be hard not to see any misfortune or measurable difference in outcome as somehow related to prior generations being robbed of their dignity and right to self-determination.

However, making matters astronomically worse is the fact that even many of those claiming to want to help often treat black people as their lessor and do more harm than good in their efforts to restore. A prime example of this is the so-called “War on Poverty” and how since then black marriage rates have plummeted and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed. First, intact families are a greater predictor of future success than race. Second, making a person dependent on government handouts does nothing to restore their human dignity and, in fact, keeps them trapped. The welfare state has more or less enslaved the black community (and many others) to politicians who stoke fear of losing ‘benefits’ as a means to gain votes and maintain their own power.

Affirmative action programs do nothing to help confidence. No, if anything, they only further reinforce feelings of inferiority and, worse, feeds a notion that black accomplishments may deserve an asterisk. I can recall very well the conversation I had with a young man in the Midwest whom I confronted over his racism. He made no apologies, he embraced the description and then blamed his own lack of success in college on his not being given the same opportunities as minorities. Whether true in his case or not, it takes an extra dose of grace for a poor white person to not feel slighted and very easy to take out the frustration on the beneficiaries. I’ve had to fight this myself as someone who never finished college for mostly for financial reasons.

A few years ago I had hope, with the election of Barack Obama, that this would heal some of the wounds, bolster feelings of self-worth, and help us turn the page as a nation. Sadly, it has seemed to do the opposite. My opposition to increased government spending, as a lifelong conservative who doesn’t see more government control as the solution to every problem, was characterized in terms of race as was any opposition to his policies. Rather than be seized upon a moment of reconciliation, Obama’s race was used as political leverage, as a means to ostracized political opponents and advance a leftist policy agenda. The specter of racism is used to control, both to frighten some voters and also to smear others.

A decade ago I had believed that we were on our way to colorblind society, one like that Dr. King had envisioned where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Today I’m not even sure that is possible, the current political establishment benefits too much from identity politics and tribalism to allow that kind of society to form. It is hard not to feel cynical in a time when white vs black narratives dominate the headlines. And, while I believe this too shall pass, that the current racial tensions are an aftershock rather than a repeat of the past, there is also the reality that slavery is an unpayable debt.

The Unpayable Debt…

Some have suggested an idea of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves to right this historic wrong and would finally, once and for all, reconcile the injustice. There are those who have gone as far as to suggest a number, between $5.9 and 14 trillion dollars, as being suitable compensation or at least as a “meaningful” symbolic gesture and something that could improve race relations.

Those selling the idea of reparations say is that this is similar to payments made by Germany to those who suffered through the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.

However, those promoting the idea fail to mention the significant differences. The first difference being there are actual Holocaust survivors still alive today to receive the compensation for their loss, but there is not one former slave or slave owner still alive. A second big difference is that the abuses against the Jews in Germany were perpetrated directly by the government itself, whereas slavery was a private institution that existed long before the United States was a nation and was eventually ended by the government and at a very great cost. Hitler’s Germany didn’t stop themselves, the government stole directly from people and sent millions to slave labor camps or gas chambers to be killed—it was literal genocide.

But the bigger problem with reparations is who pays, who gets paid and how much?

It is not justice to make one generation pay for the sins of another. There are many in the United States who did not benefit from slave ownership. My own ancestors, for instance, did not own any slaves and the own possible way they might have benefitted is in slightly cheaper cotton. However, I didn’t receive any inheritance of money nor of cotton clothes from my grandparents. In other words, my savings is my own, from my own work, do I owe anyone (besides my cousin who just helped install flooring in my rental and the bank) nor do I feel any guilt for anything I’ve done. So why should the innocent be forced to pay any more than another person should be forced to work? Do two wrongs make a right? It would only be right to target those who actually did benefit directly from slavery and the complexities of that would be enormous. Would we go after the descendants of European and African slave traders as well?

And then there is the matter of determining who gets paid what. The reparations advocates come up with their dollar figure based on a calculation of hours worked, wages at the time, and interest that would be accrued. But that’s not how things really work. Again, the wages of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers were spent in their generation, dispersed into the economy, and there is nothing left for me. The reality is that the modern ancestors of slaves benefit from the economy in the same way that we all do, thus paying them with interest would not make any sense and especially when that money would be taken from their innocent fellow citizens. Then there’s the reality that not all American black people are ancestors of slaves, some of them are recent immigrants from Africa, some have mixed ancestry and others may actually be the ancestors of black slave owners. Yes, there were slave-owning black people in the American South—should their ancestors pay or be paid?

So, what do we do, start compensating based in DNA tests, as in, “You’re 1/5th black and thus entitled to X…”?

Do we prorate based on how much someone benefited from affirmative action?

Will multi-millionaires, those who obviously have done well, be paid?

Do we deduct welfare payments, etc?

Grading everyone based on their ancestors reinforces all the wrong ideas. It is measuring a person’s worth based on their ancestors rather than their own individual merits and exactly the thing we should be getting away from. Besides that, it is severely undervaluing the worth of a US citizenship, there are people fighting for the opportunity to be here, and our economy is much better here than it is in Africa. Yes, certainly a black person born into an urban environment may face unique difficulties. But then there are many immigrants who come here with nothing, who settle in the same neighborhoods and do advance. And where does it end, do we owe the followers of Joseph Smith for the systematic oppression of them and their religion? Do we owe the Republican party for the attacks against them by the KKK and lynchings of party members? It is just not a good direction to go, it is divisive, it will hurt the wrong people, and we are already deep in debt as a nation. Why should our grandchildren (black, white and other) pay interest to the Federal Reserve and other wealthy people for what is only a symbolic gesture and, if we are honest, won’t remove the stain of the past anyway?

The truth is that money won’t change anything as far as the past. Sure, I’m guessing many who would receive reparations like the idea, who wouldn’t take a windfall? But the reality is that all the compensation in the world cannot erase the legacy of slavery and all the wrong people would end up paying the price. A professional sports contract doesn’t make anyone forget injustice, many lottery winners often end up as poor as they were before, and money can’t be used to solve the problems created by money, to begin with. There are times when a financial settlement is the answer, when both parties directly involved (the aggrieved and the accused) are properly adjudicated. But billing the current generation for the sins of the past, especially without due process, is theft no better than slavery at worse and mere revenge at best.

The true legacy of slavery is that some are owed a debt that cannot be paid.

Wake Up, the Matrix isn’t Real!

A matrix, according to Merriam Webster, is “something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form.” And we do live in a matrix where our ideas about race, history, advantage and disadvantage matter more than the actual facts. In other words, the matrix is the way we individually or collectively interpret the facts and use them to form our ideas. Our thought matrix, our assumptions based on our own interpretation of facts, plays a significant role in our outcomes. Overcoming the mental processes that keep us bound is key to success in life.

The other week I was driving to a job site and notice some nice new houses with their well-manicured lawns, spiffy two-car garages, and paved drives. I was overcome momentarily with a tinge of envy, a little regret, and mostly befuddlement at how some people could afford such things. The question immediately came to mind, “What did I do wrong?” I thought of my life, my disadvantages, the opportunities missed, and all those things that held me back from reaching my full potential. However, before I went too far along in that thought process, another question countered the first, “What did I do right?” My mind went first to all the thing I did right, but then to all my advantages compared to most people in the world and the things I did not choose.

Did I do anything right, say compared to that Haitian man I saw in Port Au Prince hauling a car body on his back or a woman born in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc?

Our mental construct, our prejudices, and preconceived ideas, a product of our culture and choices, can make a real difference in our outcomes. Sure, positive thinking cannot change the circumstances of where we are born, a good attitude does not mean that there will be fewer obstacles to our success in life, yet why not make the best of the opportunity we are given and live in gratitude for what we do have rather than envy of others or frustration because of what we lack?

Part of the problem is that there is a system of control, it helps to create our expectations, it feeds our insecurities and can keep us bound. The real systemic oppression is the idea that politics (or more money in our hands and power over others) is the answer to our problems. Money can’t fix what it created, money itself binds us to the system and the things that money buys rarely deliver the happiness that we think they will. Again, look into lottery winners, many people end up as unhappy as they were before their winnings and some worse off. So why do we measure success in terms of things that will not and cannot make us happy?

What we really need to do is reorient ourselves. We must reject the unhelpful categories and classifications that keep us bound and change the way we think. Grievance culture, tribal score keeping and trying to rank people by their outward appearance is a backward-facing, small-minded and, frankly, racist orientation. There is no group guilt for slavery any more than there is for inner-city crime, we need to stop seeing people as white, black, orange or whatever, building our own identities around those superficial things, and aim for something greater—aim for the future that we want, yet hasn’t fully arrived, where all people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

It Is Time to Think and Act Differently…

If I had my own life to do over I may have dithered less (convinced that higher education was the key to success in life because of what my teachers told me) and started driving truck earlier. It was my own pride (and anxieties) that kept me from taking the better options available to me and I suspect there are many who, like me, prevent their own success because of their aim. And I’m not at all saying that we should sell ourselves short or settle for less than our abilities can afford us. However, many do set themselves up for failure because they keep waiting for the big break, the breakthrough when everything they dream of finally comes to them and refuse to take full advantage of the actual opportunities they have.

Another thing I would do differently is stop worrying that other people had it in for me and believing that I was helpless when the reality was that I was unwilling to make the right sacrifices. Part of my difficulty in life was due to my refusal to act differently or accept that my own behavior was part of the problem. Sure, there is something to be said for authenticity and being true to ourselves, but sometimes overcoming requires us to act differently and accept what is truly reality over our own individual construct. To find success in the religious context where I was born I would need to accept their rules and my fighting with that reality, my “kicking against the pricks” or resisting the flow rather than harnessing it, had some undesirable consequences.

Cutting to the chase, we have agency and we do not. There are well-worn paths to success with risks worth taking, call them cultural conventions, and then there are the low-probability high-risk paths that lead many to ruin. For example, finding a profession like teaching, law enforcement, construction or accounting (as opposed to seeking to be a career actor, model, musician or professional athlete) is more likely to produce desirable results for most people. Feeding our insecurities, dwelling on slights (real or perceived), demanding others conform to our wishes or that they respect us for who we are, expecting too much, is a path to long-term disappointment.

Overcoming the matrix means we need to stop seeing things in black and white terms. Sure, things like “black culture” or “white privilege” do exist in some form, at very least as a construct in our minds, but they really are only terms that obscure a far more complex picture and keep us trapped in the problem rather than working towards the solution. The reality is not as simple as the narratives pushed by academics and advocacy groups. There is no one group with all the advantages nor another with all the disadvantages. There is a reason why the suicide rates for middle-aged white people have skyrocketed while black rates have declined and are considerably lower—something (like connections and community) that might be missed in the commonly touted measures of success?

Recently I read the story of a naval aviator, an officer name Thomas J Hudner Jr, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions in the Korean War. His act? He intentionally crash-landed his Corsair to protect and attempt to rescue a comrade, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, whose airplane had been hit by ground fire and was behind enemy lines. Brown, who happened to be the first black naval aviator, did not survive despite the efforts of Hudner, however, what does survive is an example of brotherly love that transcends artificial racial divides and presents a reality worth building upon. That is the legacy that, if built upon, will free us all from the sins of the past.

Loving dangerously, that is my idea of real success in life.

It is also neat, in these hyper-partisan times, to see George Bush Jr and Michelle Obama share some moments of common humanity together and continue this friendly exchange even at his father’s funeral. That is the symbolism that matters, that is the positive interaction we should aim for and the kind that can make a real difference in the world. If we love all people rather than prefer only those who look or act like us and orient ourselves to the hope of a better future rather than cling to our past and present suffering, we may well have a chance to build a better identity for ourselves as a nation. We may not be able to choose our inheritance, but we can work to create a better legacy for the next generation.

We, like Bush and Obama, have far too much in common to be at odds with each other.

Those who have faced hardship past or present should be heard and forgiven of their current insecurities. Those who have been indifferent to the suffering of others, out of ignorance or hardness of heart, should also be forgiven. And those two groups are all of us and have nothing to do with race. We are all victims, enslaved to a past that we didn’t create for ourselves, and all guilty of perpetuating the legacy to some degree. We can’t know what a person has been through by how they look on the outside and therefore we should love all people as we wish to be loved rather than by what we think they deserve. It is time to be courageously human, committed to true Christian love, rather than tribal, fearful and small.

Kanye West and the Choice to Be Free

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I’ve been following the career of Kanye West since hearing “Jesus Walks” for the first time in 2004. His lyrics then spoke about the struggle of finding his way in life:

Yo, we at war
We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all we at war with ourselves

God show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’ to break me down

I could identify with that much of the controversial rapper’s message. And, throughout the song, the memorable hook, “Jesus walks with me” was another point of our shared perspective. He seemed a man much like me in many ways.

However, his antics, particularly his pushing aside Taylor Swift at the VMA’s and his defining a natural disaster response in terms of race, really turned me off to him. Still, I couldn’t be too critical of someone who, like me, was attempting to navigate life as honestly as he knew how and, truthfully, only our specific complaints were different.

Like Kanye, while successful in so many ways in comparison to most people in the world, I’ve also felt marginalized and mistreated. In fact, much of my blogging over the past few years has been to share my frustrations. No doubt many reading my thoughts and perspectives feel I’ve spoken out of turn for daring to share my grievances.

My writing was, in a sense, a prayer “God show me a way because the Devil’s trying to break me down.” I wanted answers. I wanted my readers to tell me that part that was missing from my life and present a solution that worked for me. I did all I could and still was not completely healed.

A story of being paralyzed and so close to the healing pool.

I’ve found parallels between my own spiritual journey (of thirty-eight years) and that of a paralyzed man finally healed by Jesus:

Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” (John 5:3‭, ‬5‭-‬10 NIV )

Imagine that. Thirty-eight years of waiting for someone who cared enough to lift him into the pool to be healed. I’m guessing many did notice this man, they might have felt a little compassion, and yet for whatever reason they did not make an effort to help him into the healing waters. Perhaps they lacked the faith he had and didn’t think putting him in would make a difference? Perhaps they were too busy with their own problems?

I do not know why this man had to wait thirty-eight years—so close to healing and yet at a distance impossible for him to cover without help. But we do know about the encounter he had with Jesus. We also know that after he was healed and began to walk he soon encountered critics who seemed to care more that he wasn’t following their rules (by walking on the Sabbath) than the miracle of his new found freedom.

Kanye finds freedom to love as Jesus loves.

Kanye has again found himself in the middle of a firestorm and this time for a comment on Twitter expressing his love for President Trump:

You don’t have to agree with [T]rump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.

Given his own brash personality and the Christian themes in his music, it is no surprise that Kanye can find some common ground with Trump—and desires to love him despite their differences. He, like Jesus taught, has decided to truly love all people (including his enemies) and this includes Trump.

West, going a step further, in a recent TMZ interview, shared how he felt bad about a previous attack on another unpopular president:

Even with George Bush, people said don’t apologize. I’m like, wait a second, I just saw George Bush pushing George Bush senior in a wheelchair, and he just lost his wife. Do you know how bad I would want to go to George Bush and say, ‘I’m sorry for hurting you. I was an artist, I was hurting when I went up to the telethon, I said something in the moment but when I look at you as a dad and a family member, I’m sorry for hurting you.

Instead of seeing Bush as the face of the enemy as he one did, as a racist (for being a conservative) and someone beyond redemption, he saw him as a dad, as family member and as being a human like him.

Perhaps Kanye, having lost his own mom in tragic circumstances, could more readily identify with the beleaguered and bereaved Bush?

Whatever the case, the motive for his change of heart is clear:

Does God want you to love everyone? … If you start thinking about love and start feeling love and thinking about forgiveness, then you can overcome things…

That is the Gospel in a nutshell. We are to love as God first loved us and forgive others so we will be forgiven. Christians were told to honor each other, other people and even the emperor. Honor does not mean agree. Honor does not mean we do not speak the truth in love and risk losing our heads like John the Baptist did in speaking out against sin either. But it does mean that we see our enemies as people to be loved rather than demons to hate.

Today we must choose not to be bound to our past.

As if telling people to love Trump wasn’t already bad enough, Kanye also made this comment:

When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You were there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.

West later explained that he understood that slaves did not come of their own free-will:

[T]o make myself clear. Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will. My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved.

His point wasn’t that slavery never happened nor to take away from the wrong that had been done to his ancestors. But explains that eventually their slavery became a mental prison and that people should not continue to choose to be enslaved years after the institution of slavery has been abolished.

He continued:

[T]he reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years.

It is interesting that he uses the 400 years.

Slavery, as an institution in the United States, started in 1619, was legal in all thirteen colonies when they declared their independence from British rule in 1776, and ended formally with the 13th amendment in 1865.

For those of you bad at math, that is 246 years and not 400 years. It seems the suggestion being made is that some are still mentally enslaved despite being legally free.

Kanye’s point resonates with me as one trying to escape my own mental prison. It is difficult to live beyond our past experience. All my expectations were built around being a Mennonite and, despite my free-spiritedness, it was impossible for me to see beyond this past—I was enslaved.

But I didn’t want to spend my next 40 years repeating the same failures. I wanted to overcome, I called on Jesus to heal me and was willing to do whatever it took to be made whole—even let go of the Mennonite identity that meant everything to me.

It is interesting that the paralytic, Kanye West, and myself are so close in age. I guess there just comes a point when the longing for freedom from our enslavement becomes greater than our fears and we are finally willing to break the rules that keep us bound. And, when you do, when you find your freedom, those who choose to remain in bonds will come for you.

Speaking of “mental prisons” comes at risk of being killed by the victims.

I worked in a factory years ago. It was a sort of dead end job with low pay and certainly not where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. However, when I expressed my dreams of life beyond that place my coworkers would laugh it off and tell me that I would always be there with them. They were serious, from all appearances, and their ridicule only gave me more motivation to leave.

It reminds me of Dr. Jordan Peterson’s advice to those who wish to change the world. He says, “clean your room.” But Peterson also warns that, when you do this, there will be those who prefer their disorder and will resist. They will react negativity rather than with happiness. The critics will question: “Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re better than us?”

Those who are in mental prisons prefer to believe that they have no choice and therefore will hate anyone who tries to show them otherwise. The religious hypocrites, seeing the miracles of Jesus, were more concerned that he had broke their rules and eventually killed him. I’m sure there are many who would rather I stopped speaking my thoughts as well. And, likewise, Kanye West will likely face the consequences of breaking ranks with those still imprisoned.

Victims of racism, other multi-millionaire celebrities, have accused West of being a traitor to his race and have made threats against him. One radio station has already stopped playing his music and I’m guessing there will be many other costs. My own popularity as a blogger will probably never recover from my taking a walk with Jesus away from the Mennonite plantation. Many will never understand and will simply cut you out of their life. There are real repercussions for choosing to be free.

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. (John 15:18‭-‬21 NIV)

I’ve had many conversations in my life. I have always tried to speak the truth in love and have generally been well-received even by those who disagree. But, my own experience trying to talk about race have almost always left me disappointed—sometimes even resigned to the notion that we will always be ruled by our baser instincts. Some of the nastiest words spoken to me came as a result of my taking a stand for truth as it pertains to race.

Apparently as a white man, to the victims of racism, I can’t possibly have anything to offer besides an apology for my own gender and skin color. No, I could not possibly be a person who, like them, has experienced the pain of prejudice, discrimination and rejection, right?

Ironically or perhaps inevitably, it is often the victims of abuse who become the next generation of abusers. And that is because they are still bound to the abuse, the abuse has become their identity, and they’ve never known freedom.

I choose not to build an identity around my skin color and fears. I choose against being bound to my past failures and present anxieties. I refuse to be a mental prisoner to injuries and injustices. I refuse to live as a victim. I choose to transcend. I choose to love.

Jesus means freedom from our past. Jesus means peace of mind, a secure future, even when presently mocked and persecuted.

To silence me you will have to kill me.

God forgives and I forgive.

I am free.

Religions of Peace and of Violence

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Okay, I’m breaking a rule here, I’m going to mention a political figure and have tried to avoid politics on this blog.  Still, I do feel inclined to weigh in on a recent furor over something President Obama recently said:

“So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

The President continued on to talk about religious violence in India.  (Click here for the transcript)  But, it is the remarks highlighted in bold above that are the center of controversy, it has offended some of my Christian friends and initially annoyed me for various reasons.  Obama has this propensity for lecturing or condescension and I’m not sure he’s earned the right to speak about high horses.  However, on second thought, after reading some of the commentary in response and what seems to be either ignorance or denial of history, I am reconsidering my first impression.

There is, among my Christian friends, widespread denial or downplaying of violence done in the name of Christ.  That alone would be excusable, but that coupled with harsh judgments against Muslims and demands they denounce terrorism, seems a bit hypocritical.  Many Americans do not want themselves to be associated with the foreign policy of present and past US Presidential Administrations, let alone told they themselves need to apologize personally for every misdeed an American has done.  So why do we ask others to do what we don’t do?

What is the/a religion of peace?

One of those litmus test questions I see frequently asked as it pertains to terrorism and Islam, is “do you think Islam is a religion of peace?”  The phrase “religion of peace” is also often used sarcastically or to parody government leaders who use that phrase as part of trying to distinguish between terrorists and other Muslims.  But one place I don’t see that question asked is as it pertains to Christian history and Biblical religion.  Would Christianity pass the same test and be considered a “religion of peace” to an objective observer?  The answer might change depending on perspective.

Is Christianity a religion of peace?

Many Christians will claim that the Bible is their ultimate authority.  But then I have to wonder if they have ever actually read their Bibles when they recoil in horror at the mention of Sharia law.  The Christian Bible is full of bloodshed in the name of God.  There are instructions to kill every inhabitant of conquered lands, specifically every man, woman, child, sometimes even the livestock, and often times sparing the virgin women as war brides.  You can read this for yourself in the books of Numbers 31 and 1 Samuel 15.  By Biblical law disobedience to parents, picking up sticks on the wrong day of the week, adultery and blasphemy merited a death sentence by stoning. 

I can anticipate, because of prior experience in discussions, that the paragraph above could elicit howls of protest and that Jesus marked a change.  Yet, if we look at Christian history after Christ, it is evident many did not get the memo and the it is hard to even know where to begin.  History like the Salem witch trials, Gnadenhutten massacre, Manifest destiny, Jewish persecution, Anabaptist persecution, countless bloody wars between Christian people groups and many other examples besides the Crusades and the Inquisition or slavery and Jim Crow could be cited as Christian violence.  Much of it, from slavery to antisemitism, justified by Biblical passages and perspectives.

For those who would argue this use of Scripture is wrong and that Jesus taught peace rather the sword, that too could be questioned.  Christian theology is not very tolerant of unbelievers.  The Gospels teach that one must repent of sin, they must accept Jesus as Savior and Lord or they will be condemned for eternity.  Beyond that, consider Matthew 10:34 where he says: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  That doesn’t sound very peaceable. 

If the Bible and Christian history is so awful, why be a Christian?

I think that would be the next good question after all I just described.  After all, if I value woman’s rights, oppose genocide and slavery, shouldn’t I be looking elsewhere for my answers?  The simple answer is that I do look elsewhere.  I am not a Biblical fundamentalist, in that I do not see the Bible as the ultimate authority and instead look to the Spirit of God that was found in Jesus.  It is true, Jesus, as I quoted, did not promise peace on earth, but Jesus did set a different example to be followed:

“Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”  (John 18:36 NIV)

Jesus gave a different kind of leadership model to his followers:

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)

Jesus did not just build off of existing traditions or reform Hebrew religion, he changed the entire paradigm of faith and turned the established system upside down.  He supersedes the law of Moses with a standard radically different, in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ he goes beyond retributive “eye for an eye” justice of Biblical law and totally rewrites the script:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:38-48 NIV)

This was not just an amendment, it was a radical departure from the law of Moses and the establishing of a completely new system.  Christianity was never intended to be built on institutions, hierarchies of men or religious texts and any other form of top down power.  It was to be defined by grace, forgiveness, servant leadership and respect for all people, as Paul explains:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”  (Romans 12:14-18 NIV)

And goes further…

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  (Galatians 3:26-29 NIV)

In light of everything else Jesus said and did, I doubt his comment “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” was to inspire Christian use of the sword. He was sharing a message that was a threat to the order of the day. His message split Judaism into two and changed the world.

Why did Christianity become so violent?

“There is a history of Christianity: the first three centuries of Christianity; it was a radical pacifist religion, which is why it was persecuted, it was the religion of the poor and the suffering, and Jesus was the symbol of the poor and the suffering…” (Noam Chomsky)

My faith is simple.  History is complex.  Christianity started as “a religion of women, children and slaves,” according to an early critic, but somewhere along the way it was corrupted (or “hijacked” in the words of the President) and became another excuse for violence.  To me the corruption begins whenever the leading of Jesus through the Spirit is replaced by anything, be that a charismatic leader, a dogma, a committee, and even the books of the Bible themselves.  If Jesus (what he represents) is not the center of Christian faith, then what is left is nothing but a ritual, a dead religion and a reasoning that soon becomes an excuse for violence.

So, President Obama, while I disagree with him on many things, does make a legitimate point and it would be biased for him to exempt those who have corrupted Christianity for their own “murderous ends” from his critique.  I am not personally offended, because my own faith is not violent and therefore I know those who used the name of Christ as their justification do not represent me. 

I likewise do not judge Muslim individuals by what others do in the name of their religion.  It is not my job to judge, it is my job to show the true way of Jesus and bring forgiveness and love to all people.

The Dilemma of a Colorful Thinker

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I write this post with trepidation. I have been accused before of being too open with my thoughts by some. But I have been told by others that I am very guarded about my personal life and have been urged to express more of that. The truth is that my sharing is often intentionally not vulnerable. Talk may be cheap, but sharing my innermost feelings always comes with an emotional price tag and the risk feels too great. I can discuss abstract ideas for hours without wearying, but when I lay my deeper feelings out it leaves me exhausted, often also feeling degraded and disappointed.

I believe all people desire affirmation or acceptance. We also want to maintain our own separate identity, to be different from others and still be accepted. I had that conflict growing up as a religious minority. I wanted to be identified with my unique heritage. However, I also wanted to be treated as a unique individual and resisted being cornered with the many stereotypes of classmates. Questions, frequently asked without ill-intent, would often be framed as statements categorizing me, “you are X therefore you do Y and Z…”

Uniquely Mennonite; also a Unique Mennonite

I was born into a Mennonite home. Mennonites are a small Christian sect, a product of the Anabaptist movement that swept through Europe in the 1500’s and are known today for their traditional way of life and non-violent stance. Mennonite is both a religious denomination in that ‘members’ conform to certain established standards and, because historically many members come from within existing Mennonite families, it can also classify as a distinct ethnic group.

Most Mennonite children attend private schools and some, more frequently over the past couple decades, are home schooled. However, my parents chose differently, my siblings and I all attended the local public school. It was a consequential decision and a source of some inner turmoil for me as well. I am a proud alumnus of Lewisburg Area High School, yet there was a time where I begged my mom to home school me and throughout my schooling I always identified more strongly with my Mennonite sub-culture.

At school I conscientiously did not join my classmates in various activities. I would stand respectfully and silent during the reciting of the pledge of allegiance. As a devout Christian, I believed my allegiance was owed to something greater than country and I felt I could not pledge to anything besides God. I was separated in other ways as well. I did not grow up with a television at home, so I was out of the loop as far as popular culture and could not identify with much of the chatter about this or that celebrity. I didn’t wear shorts in the summer. I was odd.

But, in church, I did not always identify well with my Mennonite peers either, they had their own school experience and cliques. Prayers by church leaders would give specific mention of the students and staff of the Maranatha Christian School, but would leave out those few of us who attended elsewhere and I noticed it. The neglect of mention was completely unintentional, but it did contribute to a feeling of not mattering, that feeling was a source of insecurity then and lingers in my mind today. I never felt I fit into my school or church culture.

I savored my independent mindedness. I could feel privileged over both my public school and Mennonite peers at times. I had a spot amongst the misfits in both categories too. But, my finding a place among the misfits was to still feel excluded from the mainstream of both settings and was to be a double misfit. It was exclusivity with some exclusion or at least I felt excluded. I had one foot in with mainstream American thinking, with another in a culture that celebrates a persecuted past, and with that a mixed identity all my own.

My Place Amongst the Persecuted

Mennonites have a long memory. We are dutifully reminded of acts of gruesome torture committed against our people from hundreds of years ago. There’s a book, Martyr’s Mirror, nearly as sacred as the Bible in many Mennonite (and Amish) homes, which is basically a chronicle of the violence done to Christian believers. The book includes haunting etchings of the terrifying ends of some who would not recant their faith under trial and these stories help shape Mennonite identity as a persecuted minority.

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Torture of Geleijn Cornelus, Breda, 1572

Mennonites have a mistrust of mainstream society. Part of it is in a product of a religious emphasis to intentionally maintain a ‘non-conformed’ outward appearance and lifestyle. But the other big part is a real fear that persecution is just around the corner and that we could all soon suffer the same fate as our spiritual/ethnic fathers. Mennonites (and Amish) have been so insular and so separated from mainstream society that they actually have their own unique genetic disorders. Many still maintain their own German dialect, commonly referred to as “Pennsylvania Dutch” or “PA Dutch” for short, and church outsiders are referred to as “English” by Amish people.

The irony of it all is that Mennonites are more frequently adored than they are despised. Our biggest critics tend to be those who are disgruntled ex-members or those who had a bad experience in one church and judge all Mennonites based in it. We are treated both with respect and also patronizingly at times. My sister, a medical doctor, was once asked by a non-Mennonite if she would be interested in cleaning houses or babysitting, which could be taken as an insult to a person who was qualified for much more. Many have assumed my ignorance as well and apparently because of my rural and religious upbringing.

People do judge by outward appearances. People do make prejudiced assumptions based on ethnic heritage or religious connection and I have experienced this first hand. I believe that is likely why I have instinctively classified myself with the victims of prejudice rather than with the perpetrators. My unique upbringing may have been the reason why I was fascinated with history of racism in America. I read books; some of them required reading, but many others by curiosity and choice. The titles escape me, but I remember experiencing the civil rights era from the perspective of a woman in the NAACP, then living life as a young woman in Japanese internment camps and later spending time with a fictional lawyer named Atticus Finch.

My Struggle to Find Acceptance

I also have another identity and that one created in my slow development that earned me nicknames which included “micro” in them. I was short and small for my age. I was a late-bloomer beyond even my then diminutive size. I was older in my class, a polite and respectful student, I would often find more in common with adult teachers than my age-group peers, I had keen interest in history, was knowledgeable, but was also very innocent. I had little more than platonic interest in girls until my late school years and had mostly kept a safe distance from them. I did not seem to draw a whole lot of female attention either. I was an introvert in a crowd and shy around women.

With my struggle with stature, with a lack of strong social skills, athletic abilities, or other especially developed talents (besides being a non-stop daydreamer with some artistic gifts) and having not received an abundance of popular attention, I developed a bit of an inferiority complex. It only intensified as I became interested in dating and noticed many girls were more interested in a muscular, square shouldered or smooth talking male figures and I realized that just wasn’t me. I was this sensitive bundle of analytical thoughts without an adequate ability to express them. It was also furthered by the fact that I felt I was a misfit. I was way too religious for the more secular public school girls, but I was way too nuanced and philosophical for the cut-and-dried products of my own conservative religious culture.

For whatever reason, fate or fortune, I struck out with the first Mennonite girl I asked and that experience was where my confidence really began to wane. I had a an acute awareness of nuance differences of how people treat each other and knew too well how girls treated the ‘cool’ guys compared to those less popular. I was not disliked or mistreated. But I was also not that quintessential Mennonite guy either. It seemed the average Mennonite girl wanted this simple, macho, disinterested, reserved fellow and I did not fit that conventional mold. I was complicated; I alternately talked too much while not saying enough of the ‘right’ things, was fully Mennonite in some ways and not enough in others. I also lucked out with a church full of first cousins.

I was a deep-thinker, a conscientious person, fiercely loyal, told multiple times (by marriageable women) that I would make a wonderful husband, earnestly faithful, protective and gentle. I wanted to be the hero of the woman I admired, unfortunately I always seemed to play the cards of the villain or that’s how it felt my sincere efforts were received. It is against my nature (or maybe my Mennonite training) to harbor ill-will towards anyone. But feelings of rejection (both real and perceived) are as a poison to the soul. I have had my flashes of misogyny or jealousy, with those feelings immediately followed by longer moments of self-loathing and contempt for everything I was or was not. I was a victim of bad-timing, I was disadvantaged by my genetics, I was unfairly categorized and felt it all to be an injustice.

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Drowning of Mattheus Mair, Wier, 1592

It may be irony, but it was black women who later affirmed my strengths and restored some of my confidence lost along the way. Like in the books I read, where I could identify with the female minority lead character, I felt minority women could somehow understand me and with them is where I felt most accepted. I was treated like I mattered. It did not hurt that some were educated beyond my Mennonite peers and could appreciate discussions of philosophy, psychology, sociology, identity and race.  Not wanting to produce a stereotype about Mennonites, but I would probably be more popular with my ethnic kinfolk if I would shoot more deer, get a big diesel truck, be an outstanding volleyball player and learn to love card games.

The Schizophrenic Demands of Insecure People

We live in a culture that both tells us to “be you” and yet also encourages conformity of thought or action and shames divergent thinking. We live in a society that preaches against stereotypes, that celebrates individuality and yet continually it categorizes people by race, religion or gender. I am simultaneously castigated as the perpetrator of racism and sexism, as a white male, but then instructed not to build identity around race or to make any judgments about sexuality. It is a feeling of being whipsawed, assailed for doing something that I have not done by those who are doing exactly what they say I shouldn’t do and that I didn’t do.

That is the dilemma of a colorful thinker: Do I go with those who say I should be identified with the perpetrators of historical violence? Or should I go with my instincts, my experience as a minority, and make my identity with the victims?

For me the choice is clear: I am neither victim nor villain. I have felt a victim of circumstance in the past. I have been treated unfairly, excluded unjustly, felt like a perpetual underdog. I have been condescended to and even discriminated against based in my race or religion. I have withstood bullies who picked on me because of my differences (my genetics did not lend to physical intimidation) and I have endured educated elitists who hurled insults, alleged my ignorance for challenging their perspectives and then would burned their straw-man effigies of me with an unwarranted glee. But I refuse to make my identity center on my claim to victimhood.

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Burning of Anneken Hendriks, Amsterdam, 1571

I will not be like the bitter white co-worker who blamed his lack of success in college on not having the special privilege of affirmative action and would spout one racist opinion after another. I rebuked him without hesitation. I share no identity with his racism and hatred. I will likewise not patronize, show favoritism or cater to others simply on the basis of skin color and historical injustices. We all have challenges to overcome in life and it is easy to assume that our own are bigger or more real than someone else’s. I am not going to coddle and perpetuate the insecurities of any person, white, black or otherwise. I do not believe we help people overcome by treating people as helpless and hapless victims.

In discussions over race, with constructions like ‘white privilege’ and such, I have more frequently been lumped in with the perpetrators of racism rather than treated as a unique individual. It is frustrating, because Mennonites were some of the first to protest slavery and that is the identity that is more real to me than my skin color. Amish and Mennonites were even singled out in America for their ethnicity and conscience, some locked in prison during the First World War because they refused to fight. I feel, at times, that I have more in common with a persecuted minority than with anyone else. Yet, because I am a white male, some assume I could not possibly understand them and seemingly dismiss my perceptive without ever hearing it.

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Burning of David and Levina, Ghent, 1554

I may not understand exactly what it feels like to be black in America. But I do know how it feels to be treated as inferior and less of a man on the basis of superficial things. I know too well what it is like to be categorized and stereotyped. I understand the conflict of one who loves their own heritage, has a defensive urge against those who attack their ethnic community and yet is still aware of the problems of their own people. I have a love-hate relationship with my own Mennonite religious/ethic heritage. I was taught to be afraid, not just of the police, but of mainstream society in general and some of my religious peers think they are persecuted because of perceived slights.

I have felt insulted and belittled at times. The slights were real and sometimes intentional too, but not always. I have found my reactions are a product of personal insecurities and sometimes little more than that. People all have their sources of insecurity. Conservatives fear a tyrannical government will soon take away their rights, thus fearfully stockpile guns and ammunition. Liberals think that the economic system is stacked against them and want government to impose on their neighbors allegedly as an act of justice. We can build identities around these insecurities. We may find people who share our fears and can look for evidence to ‘prove’ our own disadvantaged status or victim role. Unfortunately, while we do this, while we are demanding respect of our own person or people like us, we are also often leaving a wake of destruction behind us.

Insecure people produce more problems for themselves and others. We all know them, that super-sensitive person who is so insecure that they see an insult in even the most innocent requests or gestures. Take, for instance, a guy who told a story (apparently thinking his audience would be sympathetic) of a time he was driving down the road and a woman driving in the opposite direction scratched her nose as they passed. He knew an insult when he saw one. So he spun his vehicle around, aggressively pursued the offending party and gave a lecture on her disrespectful behavior. Of course, who knows why she touched her nose at that moment. Much more disturbing is a man who assumes an insult or injustice at every turn—and does not see his own offending belligerence.

Seeing Beyond Divisions of Black and White

I am a person with multiple identities and with none in particular. I am not alone either, I believe many Americans have many different identities and do not fit neatly into statistical categories. That said, Americans do also have bigger common identities of race or gender and these identities can sometimes be used to divide us. Our differences can be a cause for celebration, but they are also the basis of falsely dichotomous ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narratives and are used feed existing insecurities. But, treating every person like a unique person to be individually loved as a unique person, rather than in category of victim or villains, would solve a multitude of problems.

Pigeonholing, finger-pointing, scapegoating or shaming those who have offended me probably will not solve my own insecurities and I’m doubtful this type of action would ever create desirable results those whom I deem as guilty. Demonization usually only creates another class of victim. When we treat people like problems rather than people, when we throw them into categories of perpetrator on the basis of their appearance or history, then we have become contributors to the disease of prejudice rather than healers and helpers. If we want more heroic people in the world, then we must treat more people like heroes and as we wish to be treated. If we want dignity and respect for ourselves, then we need to stay committed to treating others with dignity and respect.

Healing of existing wounds will not come from two sides beating each other with superior arguments or competitive claims to offense. Tensions certainly will not be solved by making any person feel inferior or labeled as a villain. The urge to point out statistics about black men in response to those who cite statistics about police will not bring us closer to peace. The truth is if there is to be healing it will come from us learning to identify with all men, and not with only those who look like us or share our own opinions.

We need to recognize even our own intuitions, even those that are informed with history or statistical evidence, might be skewed, prejudicial and wrong. What we perceive to be true is not always whole or complete truth. We need to be more introspective, practice more constructive self-criticism, and address our own faults squarely. The assumptions we make about ourselves and about other people can hurt our chances for success. Yes, I could build a pretty solid rationalization to defend my own insecurities, but it would get me nowhere towards overcoming the obstacles to my success and, if reinforced long enough, could become a reason to not try at all.

Creating Shared Identities

It is impossible to say categorically that every white man has it better or every black woman has it worse and it is foolishness to assume it. A single black mother probably has more in common with a single white mother than she does with a black woman who is happily married. Then again, a black woman, who endures assumptions about her appearance, might actually be able to identify with a young Mennonite woman who dresses differently because of her own religious/ethnic heritage.

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Dirk Willems rescuing his pursuer, Asperen, 1569

We need to endeavor to create shared identities bigger than race or gender or religion or even economic status and rid ourselves of crippling victim identities entirely. There are more of us misfits than there are those of us defined by statistics or stereotypes. We all have unique advantages or disadvantages and also our own special challenges to face. So, rather than dwell on ourselves only, or focus solely our own specific problems, we could realize struggle in various forms is common to all people and part of our shared humanity. I have my own struggles, you have your struggles and in sharing our burdens together we become brothers and sisters in the same fight rather than rivals or enemies.

I am not saying we should lose our unique identity either. What I am saying is that categories of white and black, privileged or persecuted, hero and villain are too small. We are colored, but not in black and white or shades of gray, we are truly many shades of many colors and uniquely our own person. We have many shared identities that could bridge our gaps and create common understanding, but to find them we need not to be bound to our past or prejudices.

My advice: Build an identity with those who overcome with love and despite the odds against them. Tune out those who only feed insecurity and fear.

(Click here for more Martyr’s Mirror images)