On fearing fins.

As we laughed and splashed and yelled like oversized children, I heard a noise. Chris heard it too. Like someone clearing snot from their nose. We gave each other a glance as we rolled over the top of a swell. Then, just beyond us, two enormous black triangles broke the surface...

Read More

A Letter to St. Peter

Dear St. Peter, 

Can I borrow your ear for a minute? 

Sorry, I didn’t mean anything by that. But I will say, when you swung that sword at that soldier’s head when he was arresting Jesus, I'm glad you only got his ear and not the whole enchilada. That could’ve gone much worse. But this brings me to what’s on my mind...

Read More

A reminder to begin.

One woman—less than a billionth of the species—dared to take mental images and feelings and launch them into our shared ether. Having no idea how it would be received, or if it would even suit her own tastes, she began. And now, by God, here were all these bricks and stones and employees and $8 butterbeers...

Read More

Adventures in Male* Whiteness** PART 2: Jesus Christ Why Do You Gotta Make Everything About Race?

When I realized earlier this Fall that I was reflexively making issues of division someone else’s fault, that the work to be done was someone else's work, I got an idea.

I decided to conduct a non-scientific poll at the beginning of my Sunday morning talk. I asked two simple questions to several hundred people each service that I thought represented my own line of thinking earlier that week. I said, 

“By show of hands, how many of you think our nation has a problem with unity and peace right now?”

So far as I could tell, every hand in the room went up. On to question two.

“How many of you think you are part of the problem.” One service, as many as four hands went up. That was the most of any of the three services. We all laughed at ourselves in self-discovery. We all want the world to be set right. Funny how easy it is to think we’re not involved in holding it back. 

It's like this for all of us in some way. But as it pertains to my role in society as a gainfully employed white heterosexual Christian man—or more simply, privileged—it's especially important to watch where I might not be raising my hand, and where I might be refusing to.

Sir John Everett Millais   The Good Samaritan,  1863

Sir John Everett Millais
The Good Samaritan,  1863

One time an expert in Jewish Law asked Jesus how one can live a life of the ages. To be included into the human family the way its Creator intended. It was a question everyone asked in their own way back then. We still do. Look at our world now, and observe how you instinctively wonder what it’s going to take for things to be better than they are. What will it take for our nation to improve, and in what way can you contribute your effort and ideas.

Who doesn’t want things to be everything they could be?

Perhaps the fact that a Lawyer was asking the question was noteworthy. He was supposed to know, wasn’t he? Amateurs could only repeat what they heard someone else say in a sermon or a blog post, but this guy’s entire calling was to give society the answer to the very question he was asking.

Jesus asked the expert what his own opinion on the matter was. The man’s answer was solid:

“Love God, love your neighbor as yourself,” he said. Jesus agreed.

But the man was apparently not sure he was on the right side of things, perhaps had that growing sense that it was going to take more than right answers to heal the world. So he asked a follow up question. 

“So, who’s my neighbor?” the man asked.

In response, Jesus told the man a story. We may know the story as The Good Samaritan. The short version goes like this:

A guy got robbed on a busy road to Jericho. They took all his money and his clothes, beating him so badly they left him for dead. 

Later, a Priest saw the man laying there and went around the bloody scene because he had religious duties to attend to. Touching his blood, his naked non-Jewish body, or perhaps his corpse, would make him ceremonially unclean.

Behind the Priest was a Levite, serving among other capacities as the Priest’s assistant. The Levite did as his boss did. Monkey see monkey do.  

Then a Samaritan came to the scene and got involved. He took the half-dead, bloody, naked man, wrapped his wounds, put him on his own animal, got him some medical care and paid for his rehabilitation.

Jesus asks the expert on the Law who the neighbor to the robbery victim was in his story, the answer being obvious. Anyone with a cursory understanding of the Bible knew helping people who need help is religion 101. You can imagine the Lawyer nodding with the proverb “Whoever is generous to the needy lends to the Lord and the Lord will repay him,” already in his mind. What kind of monster walks by a man that obviously in need. The Priest and the Levite should've known better. 

But the Lawyers answer betrays an important layer to the story.

“… the one who showed him mercy was the neighbor.”

Why didn’t he just say “The Samaritan?” Why instead phrase it, “The one who showed him mercy?”

Perhaps he couldn’t bring himself to say “The Samaritan.” Perhaps the last thing he wanted to do is find out that underneath easy answers about what’s wrong with the world that there are underlying issues about how we rank people in society. Perhaps he wouldn’t say it because he was hoping to employ the privilege of not talking about race because he doesn’t have to.

Samaritans were an ethnic minority in the first century. For context, understand that some first-century Jews publicly derided Samaritans in synagogues, cursing them and calling them a counterfeit people. Jews weren’t permitted to try and convert Samaritans, believing that they couldn’t enjoy heaven anyway. Many Jews wouldn’t even pass through Samaritan towns for fear of exposure, let alone conversation. They’d rather inconvenience themselves by several hours and just go around. Out of sight, out of mind. The cultural norm was that Jews were at the center, and Samaritans were justifiably marginalized as a consequence of their ideas and for their blood and for their being all the wrong kinds of different.

The Lawyer wanted to discuss the enhancement of his own life, to make it part of what God was up to. And Jesus had to go and make it about race.

“The parable about the Good Samaritan tells how a Samaritan rescues a man who is mugged and beaten by robbers on the Jericho—Jerusalem road, a notoriously dangerous stretch of highway. To understand how this story must have shocked the Jews, imagine someone telling a story about “The Good Nazi.” The Jews and Samaritans hated one another.” —Paul Miller, Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus

Mr. Miller raises a good point. But perhaps that comparison to Nazis is too far afield for us to learn from. Perhaps we should instead try The Good Muslim. The Good Lesbian. The Good Thug. The Good Syrian Refugee. Then see what stirs in us. 

How painful it probably was for the Expert in the Law to hear that there’s more to love than to be another man’s savior if the opportunity presents itself. That instead, you yourself might need to be saved from your underlying assumptions about what you are and what "they" are. People like the Lawyer, who knew to say that Love of God and others were paramount, could still believe on some level that other human beings were less so for their ethnicity, their gender, their sexuality, their economic situation, their mistakes and their beliefs. And when he was challenged on it, he resisted to some degree speaking what he plainly saw. Can't we talk about something else? Besides, he'd hate to have to go into all the reasons Jesus's story was incomplete theology, and bad sociology.

I don't mean to shape Jesus's personality into my own, but I find myself wondering how much uncomfortable silence there was before the Lawyer answered "The one who showed mercy" and what Jesus did in that silence. As the Lawyer searched for a way out of the parable's only conclusions, I can't help but imagine Jesus's grinning face daring the man to qualify his answer and add something stupid like, "But he'd still have to change his beliefs, right?" or "But he wouldn't be the model for Divine Will in real life because of where Samaritans are from and what they believe, right?" or "But he'd still have to pray the sinner's prayer, right?" I can hear Jesus thinking it as he waited for the man to speak; I dare you to suggest that Love of God and Neighbor is enough summary for someone like you, but others must submit to yet a third commandment that says "Thou shalt become like the majority." Say it. I dare you to imply that your streamlining of God's will only applies to folks like you.

In reality, he probably prayed and wasn't an ass about it; God, don't let this dear man who has so much power in society, say something as foolish as "Good story, Jesus, but people like that can't really be heroes unless they..."

 ”On the basis of this parable we must deal with our own racism but must also seek justice for, and offer assistance to, those in need, regardless of the group to which they belong.” —Klyne Snodgrass, Author, Theologian
 

I find it facepalmingly ironic that, all these generations later, an organization named Samaritan’s Purse exists today and does great work around the world in aiding people’s physical needs. Yet, its founder, Franklin Graham, thinks that it’s a Christian duty to be the opposite of kind and loving to gay children, to not even invite them into your home because they are the enemy. A man at the helm of an organization that bandages wounded human beings because of this very scene in the Gospel of Luke, very enthusiastically defended Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson when Phil said Muslims and Chinese people believe what they believe because their minds are controlled by Satan and that women should be made to marry as children to keep them from straying from the faith as adults. They stop and help those hurting by the roadside, but refuse to understand the pain their attitudes and influence cause so many others still standing.

That is, some people are so dull they can only recognize pain and suffering when there’s blood.

*

I find that we too often forget the precision intended in “Love your neighbor,” as it’s designed to put a particular, specific person(s) in our mind. “Love people,” as the knock-off version goes, makes love a generalized social virtue that can be so lacking in practical specificity that good rarely ever comes of it. Let’s admit it; we have a far easier time serving someone beaten up and bleeding on the roadside than we have allowing another ethnicity, another belief system, to be our absolute equal. Perhaps this is the major problem with phrases like, "I don't see color." It seeks to generalize the human experience rather than understand, with particularity, that specific others may be living at the expense of your blindness. 

Perhaps that’s the deeper significance of Jesus’s story for anyone who wants to address the real world and be earnest about making it better: Let’s not merely help those too weak to help themselves (let’s do that!) but also those we’re too weak to admit might be suffering, if even accidentally, because of ourselves. It’s painful to confront the inequities and prejudices running, and perhaps being maintained, in the background of our lives. But why else does Jesus bring up racial/ethnic disparity to a man asking about the Good Life? Maybe because there will never be peace for anyone if we think loving our neighbor doesn't chiefly demand we observe how we might be contributing to the plight of other human beings whose suffering is systemic rather than roadside. And if your faith demands you marginalize certain people because you got a Bible verse for it, then Jesus, whom you may recall was killed by self-righteous majority power, has a hard story to tell you.

The Lawyer saw that the one who showed mercy was the neighbor. We can only hope that he subtly meant that in that moment he became more aware of the limits of his own mercy to those systemically vulnerable folks in the margins. The "them" that gave "us" much of its shape. Perhaps, like me and hundreds of others I know, the next time he inquired about inheriting the Kingdom of God to supersede a world full of fractures and tension, he raised his hand and admitted he might be part of what needs repairing.

 

Adventures in male* whiteness** PART 1: WMA

For a fuller experience, I recommend listening to this while reading.

It was 1995, and we'd figured out how to sell tons more vacuum cleaners to people who didn't want them.

Pee-wee Herman wasn't the only one to slam the door in a salesman's face. Almost everyone did. To get around this impulse, we invented a monthly drawing for people to sign up for. We'd knock and explain to them right on their front steps that we weren't selling anything, just entering people into a contest.

This was pre-internet, so people just went for it.

We'd call them days later and explain that they hadn't won the monthly grand prize drawing, but had snagged the daily prize (like all their neighbors). The prize was a free carpet cleaning. This increased our demonstration and sales rate perhaps as much as 10X. Getting folks to fill out these monthly drawing registration cards (or “Regi cards,” for short, because we were on the move baby and had no time for “stration”) was like printing our own money. We’d hit the best neighborhoods, register everyone we could, and make thousands of dollars in commissions in the weeks after. It was almost easy. 

But there was another element at play in my success I didn’t recognize.

One day I took two new recruits out into the field to get some Regi cards. It was a high-end neighborhood and the houses were close together. Perfect arrangement. A hundred cards would be 20-30 demonstrations which was 8-10 sales. I was talking up this exciting formula with the two new men, their shirts starched white, their ties well knotted, their skin dark brown.

I walked up the street one direction, they each went others. Divide and conquer. We’d meet back at the car in an hour or so, the entire neighborhood our wheel of fortune. 

Nearly an hour later I returned to the car, sweating, smiling, several dozen cards in a stack held tight with a rubber band. I had been thinking about new chrome wheels for my car. Maybe a new stereo. Hell, maybe both—what a stack! 

Both the other two guys were already in the car, their heads surrendered to the headrests, each staring through the windshield. Faces like stone. They didn’t look at me when I walked up, or even when I spoke to them through the passenger window.

“What are you guys doing?”

“We’re done.”

“Done?” I asked. “All your cards are filled out?”

I can still remember his jaw muscles beginning to flex as he stared straight ahead. An alert sounded in my mind and I silenced it. The alert wanted to make known why he and his friend were done and so obviously angry.

“Dude. Help me understand why you’re not out here doing the work?” I knew why. “Why are you just sitting in the car while I bust my butt?” I knew why. “You’re taking a break after a few minutes work?” I knew why.

“We didn’t get any cards man.”

“None? Why? Why not?” I didn’t want the answer. I already knew the answer.

It was here he looked at me in the eye for the first time, jaw muscles flexing. He pushed his sleeves up dramatically past his elbows. Most of his black arms were exposed to me now, the dark of his skin a sharp contrast to his white sleeves. He twisted his arms back and forth so I could get a good look at them. I still didn’t want to know what I knew.

“You didn’t get any Regi cards because you have sweaty arms?”

I sincerely believe this is a top ten deserved-to-be-punched moment in my life. Alas, this is the power of denying what one cannot know. And what I couldn’t know was this: These two men worked as hard as I did, saying verbatim the words I taught them to say, to the same kinds of people I was saying them to a cul-de-sac over, and it produced nothing. Not even a reasonable beginners’ fraction of my expertise. Nothing. When these men knocked doors, people looked through their curtains and feigned absence. People opened the door and said little more than get off my porch. People quietly locked the door, the click either meant to be heard or meant to be unheard. While I took down home phone number after home phone number, drinking the ice water one homeowner gave me, someone a street over told one of my new coworkers to “Get the hell out of here before I call the police on your black ass.” 

The men explained to me, since I so convincingly portrayed someone who needed an explanation, that they had been treated not merely differently than me. They were treated with contempt. And I couldn’t know this because then what could I claim about all my efforts and skill? How can you brag about being the fastest swimmer when your teammates have been fitted with cement shoes?

When we got back to the office I explained what had happened to another white coworker. I was still committed to not learning anything that would make me reassess my place in (on?) society. I hinted dismissively that the only card the new guys had in their pockets was the race card. The white coworker rolled his eyes. “Typical. Lazy bastards.” he said.

His judgment shook me. I immediately felt terrible. Those guys weren’t lazy. Far from it. But what was I going to do now, defend them? So, I accepted that my white coworker was the racist.

From there it became easier to see, reinforced again and again, that my experience was/is generally easier than other ethnicities, for the simple fact that I'm not them. And it became easier to see that to admit this, to face it and put energy into what I might see if I'll see it, is profoundly threatening.

“I’m white, thank God… That is a huge leg up, are you kidding me? I love being white. I really do. Seriously, if you're not white, you’re missing out. Because this s*** is thoroughly good. Let me be clear by the way: I'm not saying that white people are better. I'm saying that BEING white is clearly better. Who could even argue? If it was an option I would re-up every year! 'Oh yeah, I'll take white again. Absolutely….I’ve been enjoying that, I’m gonna stick with white thank you…’ Here's how great it is to be white: I could get in a time-machine and go to any time and it would be awesome when I get there! That is exclusively a white privilege! Black people can't f*** with time machines.” -Louis CK, comedian

My black coworkers were experiencing racism by anyone's definition. Most of us can call that out effortlessly. But the second dynamic is more challenging because it's naming how I, as a white male, unfairly benefit from how racism works. I compound the negative consequences of my privilege by defensively refusing to acknowledge or discuss it as a thing. That is, racism is still happening, and unacknowledged white privilege in a way demands it’s not— IT CANNOT—which gives racism its resilience. It's 2016 and people are still saying, "If you work hard, you can achieve whatever you want." See what this does? It conveniently blames the oppressed to salvage the story of my own hard work, my own security that there's a just and good side and of course I am squarely on it. To acknowledge the inequity disrupts our sense of accomplishment and even our very "goodness."  

I am imagining some readers even now are growing frustrated with me because they hear accusations, which means "defend!". Perhaps they're even forming their argument. But if we want the world to improve, expending most our energy on defending how we're perceived may be precisely what's holding it all back. How can there be peace if we've already decided we won't listen to those not experiencing it? 

A white friend of mine moved into a low-income, predominantly minority neighborhood a couple years ago. She told me a story that I have heard numerous versions of over the years. She said a city cop got to talking to her about her new digs and at one point leaned in with a knowing smile and assured her, in hushed tones, that he'd add the neighborhood to his patrol and would come check on her family here and there, make sure things were good. She rolled her eyes as she told me this, wishing aloud that the officer would offer this same service and protection for all its residents. Of course not all cops think like this. Of course the officer was offering, in many ways, something good. But can you see how it sets up whiteness for success, just for being white. See how it reveals residency isn't enough for full protection, it must be white residency? Can you see how you might feel, as a person of color, that you're being held back because of that color. That you're not as American as me?

safe unsafe.jpg

As a white male American, the deck of Regi cards has always been comparatively stacked in my favor. From our Country's founding. I’m benefitting from a system of biases many of us have uncritically adopted as standard. Human nature tends to forget that privilege is something externally bestowed. We tend to make ourselves not see privilege and exchange knowledge of it for narratives about our performing better. Rich kids literally believe they are better than poor kids, for reasons having nothing to do with what they've done. Who would argue that we all grow up and have none of this in us as adults?

Consider how white privilege accumulates into a very different sort of experience than for people of color. And this doesn't even get into the role privilege plays in relation to gender, sexuality, being an immigrant, nor does it deal directly with the huge economic dimensions of this conversation:

I’ve never been discriminated against because I’m white. Much the opposite.

I’ve never been accused of being scary because I was at a store too long, wearing a hoodie, playing music I like, or working in neighborhoods far from my own.

I’ve never, outside of specific childish events I instigated, been harassed, mocked, bullied or attacked because I’m white.

I’ve never been told I speak well for a white person. No one is surprised I’m intelligent.

I’ve never as a child had to worry I wouldn’t have academic support at home because I was breaking new ground by being educated and literate. I’m easily a tenth generation literate man.

I’ve never been told that if I would pretend to be different, dropping the accent and vernacular that’s in keeping with my upbringing, that I’d seem more trustworthy, smart and worthy of inclusion in another’s organization or life.

I’ve never wondered if the cops would be harsh with me.

I’ll never teach my son to grip the steering wheel if pulled over, and to speak to cops like one deescalating an aggressive dog, just in case.

I’ve never felt like if I were another race, my family would automatically make more money at the same job.

I’ve never had to spend more than a few moments as the only white guy in the room. I’m the standard color in this part of the world.

I never have to sort through the dominant culture’s guidelines to find music, clothing, entertainment, spiritual guidance, traditions, customs, holidays, cosmetics, role models, children’s names, art, hobbies, etc. that better suit where I and mine come from. 

I never have to worry that I’ll be sentenced with disproportionate harshness for the exact same crimes other races commit. 

I never have to be worried I’ll be pulled over for my race, or my car searched more that other races, or those searches being generally understood as more valid despite those searches not producing different results than the searches of other races. 

"I never have to worry," is pretty general, but probably a good summary and a place to stop for now. These and countless more ways that I run a footrace on an even track while others are presented a hill, create such disparity of experiences that animosity and tension are to be expected. We must start listening better, because only some of us have the privilege of saying we're tired of talking about race. This is not an indictment on whiteness. It's a real plea for being better, non-defensive listeners. 

Next, I’ll talk about what we do— in my estimate—with any acknowledgment that Louis CK is demonstrably correct. As we look at the work left to do where race is concerned in America, what might that work look like past admission of inequity.