State and nation

The announcement that the Trump Administration is considering fundamental changes in federal regulations to enforce strict binary gender norms for all Americans is distressing, demeaning, ugly, to say the least. However, it occurs to me that this may be a good time to reflect theologically about gender; can those of us who oppose the various attempts to control others’ bodies find guidance from biblical texts and spiritual reflection? 

I have been engaged in various small ways supporting transgender people for many years, including during my time as Pastor of MCC Richmond VA where I worked closely with an active trans community on several projects. 

Additionally, over the past several years, I have begun to identify as gender queer—still am comfortable being a man in my birth body, but clear that my understanding of that gender differs from the norm. This process began many years ago when I started wearing long, dangly earrings that many say are feminine. (see my earlier posts, “Choosing to Be Me Again” and “Why Do Watches Have Gender?”). 

More recently, as the controversies swelled about bathroom and locker room usage, I began to reflect theologically about gender and specifically about the movement by many, particularly in church and government, to enforce rigid gender norms. 

The Apartheid of SexI begin from a truth I learned long ago from Martine Rothblatt in her book, The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender (1995). She writes

“There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities. Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone.”  (xiii)

Of course, we know that skin tone and gender play powerful roles in how society is organized but her point is apt: neither makes any real difference, except as society creates and enforces, and we often reinforce, structures to keep these two aspects of ourselves in line. 

She also wrote that it is time to end the classification of people by sex, “because in truth our sex is as individualized as our fingerprints and as special as our souls (my emphasis).” (157). I hope to return to this proposal on another occasion. 

As special as our souls…………indeed. There’s where God comes in. 

The Hebrew text in Genesis 1:27 reads, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Jewish Study Bible). Those who seek to get everybody in one or the other box, male or female, rely on this text and others to say that what God has ordered must be followed. 

Of course, there are a number of objections to be raised about these arguments. First, for me, is the reality that the Bible, in Hebrew and Christian texts, makes many claims about what God orders and commands. Some faithful people believe that every word is dictated by God, but even if you do, and I don’t, we still have to engage in interpretation to understand what the commands mean for us now. My point: We don’t actually have any assurance that the statement in Genesis 1:27 means that there are only two genders. 

Second, could it not mean that God’s creation of each human involves our being some sort of combination of both? A footnote in The Jewish Study Bible, for example, says, “Whereas the next account of human origins (Gen. 2:4b-24) speaks of God’s creation of one male from whom one female subsequently emerges, Gen. Chapter 1 seems to speak of groups of men and women created simultaneously.”

Elohim in HebrewA note in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, points out that the Hebrew for God in this passage, Elohim, is actually a plural (literally “gods” or “powers”), but is ordinarily treated as a singular noun. “This verse and two others (Genesis 3:22 and 11:7) are notable exceptions. The ‘us’ has been explained as the majestic or imperial plural; others see it as God including the angelic host; still others, as a reflection of the more ancient polytheistic roots of the story.“ (There are times when the word is used of lesser, foreign gods, but to the best of my understanding and searching these three instances are the only times in the ancient text has God referring to God’s self as “us.”)

Might another way to read that is to see is that these groups, and God, are not as rigidly defined as we have been taught to believe? We now know, thanks to genetic studies, that many of us are not purely one or the other, that our genes are combinations of X and & Y chromosomes in varying proportions. I think of “effeminate men” and “mannish women” in this regard, Among some Native American tribal traditions, Two Spirit persons exhibit behaviors and attributes of both genders and are considered to have special spiritual powers. Is not God all of these, and more? 

However, theologically speaking, there is a larger issue at play here. When we interpret biblical texts—and that is what we always must do, interpret them because we cannot ever be absolutely certain of the intention by those who repeated these texts and eventually wrote them down—what is our standard of interpretation?

Do we interpret in opposition to what we see around us, that is, do we insist that any new realities discovered since the texts were recorded and canonized be disregarded and/or declared the work of evil forces? Or do we seek to bring the reality in front our eyes and the texts into harmony? Do we see in the texts the promise of more wisdom or do we simply repeat the wisdom from before? Do we let creation unfold or do we insist that God created everything eons ago and nothing has changed? 

Indeed, do we let God continue to create or do we give God thanks for what God has done and then, in effect say,” Stop God, we don’t want anything new, don’t give us any new ideas, any new information?” In my view, this is idolatry, creating a false idol, calling it God, and insisting that there is nothing new in God’s universe. 

Queering ChristianityWhen human beings play God by not letting God be God we suffer. In this case, transgender, gender variant, gender queer, folks suffer. What is being considered by the Trump Administration is codifying that which was never meant to be codified, at least not by God, who is the author of change and growth every moment of every day. 

As I have written elsewhere, “We serve a God who is always messing with our all-too-human arrangements, our desire for things to be neat and tidy and easy” (See “Faithful to a Very Queer-Acting God, Who Is Always Up to Something New” in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, Shore-Goss, Bohache, Cheng, and West, eds. Praeger 2013). 

In that same essay, I quote Lisa Isherwood and the late Marcella Althaus-Reid, 

God dwells in flesh and when this happens all our myopic earth-bound ideas are subject to change; the dynamic life-force which is the divine erupts in diversity and the energy of it will not be inhibited by laws and statutes. Far from creating the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, this dynamism is always propelling us forward into new curiosities and challenges. It does not shut us off from the world; it is the world drawing us into more of ourselves as we spiral in the human/divine dance (“Queering Theology,” in The Sexual Theologian: Essays on Sex, God, and Politics, T& T Clark, 2004). 

This proposal by the administration—and supported by many in various religious groups—is anti-God. They claim they are serving God, but it is a hollow God they serve, as indeed are all our efforts to contain God in our self-justifying insistence on things remaining exactly as they were (or at least as we think they were). 

Biblical literalismWe must of course oppose it, and all like-minded efforts to limit and even eliminate human and natural diversity from the globe. It is always a tall order to stand against forces of repression and injustice, against those who refuse to see God really at work in changing us and the world. 

But we can do so knowing that God’s creation has many more than two genders. Indeed, the creation of genders is an on-going act of God because God is still creating humans.  Further,  even as we labor as faithfully and courageously as we can and as we know our own limits, God is not going away, God adapts and prods and beckons us in directions new to us (though not to God).  I say this not so much to offer comfort to those under threat from this proposal and many other efforts to limit humanity, but rather to affirm the reality that all things are, despite opposition, becoming new. 

Thanks be to God for all we have received, are receiving, will receive!

BlackkKlansmanThere is another new film to match with Sorry to Bother You, the creative work I have written about previously (see earlier posts, Sorry to Bother You, When Do I Use My White Voice, Scraping More Paint, Unlocking the Trap–Part 2, and Part 1).

The new one is BlackKKlansman, the latest Spike Lee offering. And those two films are parts of a trilogy of recent films about racism/white supremacy, the third being last year’s Get Out (some would add a fourth, Blindspotting, but I have yet to see it and so don’t comment here). Sorry to bother you

Every white person, and others too, should see all three to learn more about our racialized heritage. Each of these works probes and unpacks truths about the reality of white supremacy/racism in the United States today—instead of reifying that reality as films have done for so long. 

Get OutI can already sense some white readers saying, “Not this again. Do we have to hear more about something we did not cause and do not like?”The answer is yes, of course, because we have a role in changing the system. 

There is so much to write about this film that tells of the true story of the first African American Colorado Springs police officer, Ron Stallworth (played brilliantly by John David Washington, Denzel’s son). In simplest terms, he wanted to be a cop. The film has us believe the chief wants to hire him, but at the same time he is not just sure what to do with him. So his first assignment is to the Records Desk, getting files for other officers. There he encounters considerable racism, especially one deeply racist, white supremacist cop. 

What Stallworth really wants is to be a detective, and he gets a chance to go undercover at a rally of the Black Student Union of a local college, an event headlined by Kwame Toure (known to the police and much of the white world as Stokely Carmichael). 

Of course, if Stallworth had been white, he would not have been given that assignment. Yet, it is on this basis that the story unfolds. It is here also that a romantic attachment begins, one that will reverberate in many ways throughout the film. 

Black Klansman A MemoirThe plot is taken pretty faithfully from Stallworth’s book. Black Klansman: A Memoir (2014), although dialogue is the creation of Spike Lee and others. And Lee adds important background in showing scenes from the deeply racist silent film, Birth of a Nation, as well as news footage from last year’s white supremacy march in Charlottesville, VA (including the remarks of the President about “good people” on all sides. 

I have thought quite a bit about what I, as a white person, gain from this film, and what I think other white people could also receive. 

Adam Driver and Washington in BlackkKlansman

The team: Adam Driver and John David Washington

First, is the intimate portrait of evil within the KKK (and the wider white nationalist supremacist movements), especially as they are uncovered by Stallworth’s white colleague, Flip Zimmerman (played with incredible power by Adam Driver). Part of that power comes from Zimmerman being Jewish. Indeed, I was left reeling during the scene where he disagrees with other KKK members who claim the Holocaust is “fake news,” by claiming it did a good thing by wiping out Jews—and his newfound allies are supremely satisfied that he really gets the truth. 

it is the use of language that kept me riveted, and helps me see how white extremists continue to bury their vile views in acceptable language. 

When they succeed, they delude not only themselves but also the rest of us. In this film, members of the Klan are schooled to never use that name; instead it is “the organization.” The local Klan leader seeks to put a pleasant face on the group (undercut by others who relish in virulent language), and David Duke (Topher Grace), the storied leader of the Klan nationally is portrayed as a mild, well-mannered leader who hates no one, just wants white people to live among themselves without the presence of Blacks or Jews or others. 

BlackKKlansman Topher Grace

Topher Grace as David Duke (some of his best action is on the phone talking with Ron Stallworth)

Critic Naomi Elias writes, “In his slickest salesperson voice Duke says that he agrees with people who say that “America is a racist country” — but unlike the black Colorado residents using the phrase to call out the racial profiling and police brutality they experience, Duke argues America is racist because it’s “anti-white.” This willful misuse of the word “racism” allows him to reframe oppressors as victims and vice versa.”

Of course, more people than David Duke use this kind of language reversal to make themselves and others in their groups into victims. We can see this in a certain President of the United States. 

“Alt-right” is a seemingly harmless way to describe people who are white supremacists and nationalists, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, white racial purists, and its proponents have brilliantly succeeded in getting much of the mainstream media as well as ordinary people to use the term. It even sounds lively and avant-garde, like alt-rock and alt-weekly newspaper. 

Alt-rightThis echoes the efforts in the 19th Century (and yet today) to claim that the South was only fighting for states’ rights not slavery. This also echoes how many white people say, “I’m not racist,” meaning they do not use the N-word or other ugliness—even as they help perpetuate structures of race-based oppression. 

Organizations, business and otherwise, even churches do this sort of thing when they talk about diversity and inclusion while never linking either to our white-dominated national (and global) heritage that remains alive and well. The goals are commendable but they tend to work “feel good” emotions—valuing everyone equally is a worthy goal, but that will not happen until we take our boot off the backs of those unlike ourselves. 

We have much to learn about ending the ugliness of the KKK and allied hate groups, and even more to learn about how to undo our denial of what our fellow human beings go through every day. That requires taking the blinders off. 

cant we all just get along Rodney King

The plaintive cry of Rodney King, viciously beaten by police in Los Angeles in 1991–how are we doing 27 years later?

This is much harder than trying to get people to “just get along” better. It requires that we pay close attention not just to good intentions but also to dangerous, damaging, destructive outcomes. In simple terms, I mean paying attention, and proactively working to correct the reality of outrageous levels of incarceration of Black and brown people, the high rates of poverty within Black communities, “food deserts” and lack of health care in minority communities, etc. 

The usual practice of denial and dismissal is shown by the action of the Chief of Police who tells Stallworth and Zimmerman and the other officers who have been supportive of them to bury the files. Thankfully, Stallworth wrote his book, and Lee made his film.

We can keep trying to hide, but it won’t go away until we face it, name it, recognize our role in it, repent, change our ways, and make reparations. 

Start by seeing this film (and the others mentioned above). 

My focus in this series, Whose Land Is It, Anyway, is Israel and Palestine. However, I do not come to this concern as a blank slate. I have history, we all have history, some of which does not directly involve this holy and sacred land in the Middle East.

For me, there is other holy land, too–as a citizen of the United States, there is the land comprising the 50 states.  For people in other nations, they may well consider the land of their nation holy.

In fact, all land is holy, part of the divine Creation of which each of us is a part. Without the land of the earth to stand on we would not be.

Massasoit commons wikipedia org

Massasoit commons.wikipedia.org

The native people European explorers and settlers encountered in the Americas knew this truth in a deep and powerful way; it was a core belief on which they all lived. In fact, they rejected the idea than anyone could own land to the exclusion of others. The land belongs to all.

“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” -Massasoit (leader of the Wampanoag in what is now Rhode Island; despite this quotation, he did sell land to the settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony to keep the peace)

Against this vision of common wealth, resources shared for the good of all, immigrants from other places arrived, many of them wanting to create a new life very different from their former ones, including the real possibility that they could finally own land on which to live and even work. No longer would only a few rich, often titled, persons own land, but everyone, or at least many, could own land, too.

westward expansions of US solpass org

solpass.org

There were inevitable clashes, the newcomers wanting what the natives already had, namely land, and the natives sensing a threat to their ability to continue to live in traditional ways. And as the numbers of immigrants swelled, so did the demand for the land.

What began on the east seaboard became inevitably a push all the way to the west coast, from Atlantic to Pacific. In between were many battles, even real wars, between the increasingly dominant power of the U.S. Government and a land-voracious society on the one side and increasingly desperate native tribes and leaders on the other.

American Exceptionalism 1872 painting by John Gust (after Thomas Hart Benton) cnn com

“Manifest Destiny” painting by in 1872 by John Gust (after Thomas Hart Benton) cnn.com

Manifest Destiny, the belief that not only could the United States conquer the entirety of land between the coasts but also was called to do so by divine Providence, became the rallying cry. This nation was understood to be ordained to take possession of all it could see between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Land became the commodity and the native people who sat on it became the victims of an overwhelming power, forced to retreat on to reservations where they were told they could keep their native customs (of course, it is not easy to be a hunting and gathering people without large expanses of land).  Most of the time, the promises made to the natives were not kept, certainly when those promises got in the way of settlers claiming the land they wanted.

Today, Native Americans struggle to retain their identity, some still living on reservations and others integrating more into the wider society.

American Indian and Alaska Native Lands in the US one of many feathers com

oneofmanyfeathers.com

And the land? It is still here, more polluted in many cases, and much of it far more densely populated (as well as much still open space) and all of it is “owned” by someone–according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Report in 2007, about 60 percent of the land in the United States is privately owned. The Federal Government owns 29 percent of the land base, mostly in the West. State and local governments own nearly 9 percent, and Indian trust land accounts for about 2 percent.

The natives never claimed to own it, but they did claim to live on it and from it. Many no longer live on reservations and are part of the majority society (even as many of them retain identities as native peoples). But the part on which they can live in community more as their ancient teachings guide them is very small.

Whose land is it, then?

The answer seems simple: those who control access to the land own the land.

And yet rarely, if ever, was a full and fair price paid to the natives. They may not have wanted to sell, but perhaps we could claim some moral high ground if we finally paid what we said it was worth.

I leave this very simple version of the story at this point, inviting the reader to reflect on the value of land and people, and how we are called to live in peace with all.

How can we find peace standing on holy, yet so often bloodied, ground?

 

 

 

 

 

The latest ugliness of assault and murder against a group of people–the attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino CA–results in more calls for reasonable gun control by many.

woodtv.com

woodtv.com

But here’s the deal. No one in the Republican leadership–Congress or the Presidential candidates–is saying anything about control. They express sympathy for the community, and those who grieve the loss of loved ones, but not a word about doing something to stem the tide.

And you know what is really outrageous? Congress has not even given terror-fighting agencies the authority to deny guns to those on the nation’s no-fly list. What’s more, they have refused for decades to put any funding into research on gun violence.

That’s the power of the gun lobby, particularly the NRA (National Rifle Association). They claim to represent gun owners and hunters. I have known a lot of hunters in my lifetime, and I feel certain that most of them would agree that denying guns to people our government, for security reasons, doesn’t let fly around the country is a reasonable measure. And I believe most of them would think that research into ways to deal with, and respond to, gun violence is a reasonable measure.

NRABut the NRA and others have terrorized the GOP, and some Democrats, into thinking that any departure from gun lobby orthodoxy is political suicide. I want to blame the NRA because they bear great responsibility.

But the ones I really blame are the spineless legislators and leaders who refuse to act, again and again, in the face of rising violence through the ready availability of hand guns and assault rifles. There are so many different types of people who commit these horrific acts–mentally unstable, angry religious extremists, sullen former spouses and employees, abortion haters–but they all have one thing in common.They can easily get their hands on guns. Guns are the common denominator. In the case of San Bernardino, these included assault weapons.

Why can anyone other than police and soldiers get access to assault rifles? Why is everyone who wants to buy a gun not subject to a background check?  Such checks will not prevent law-abiding people from getting guns, but they can help make sure others do not.

I don’t like to call people names, and certainly not whole groups of people. So I won’t use a label on these leaders who fail to lead, but I will name their behavior: cowardice.

freedomoutpost.com

freedomoutpost.com

I don’t know how many of them actually own guns, or use them, but what I see are people who are supposed to be out front leading who are, instead, standing behind cover provided by the political guns of the NRA.

In my book, that’s cowardice.

How many more of these horrific situations–how many more school children, college students, public employees (including police of course), people with developmental disabilities (as in San Bernardino), ordinary citizens, mothers and fathers, will we have to lose before they find their spines?

I am praying that one of them, just one, breaks ranks and moves from cowardice into bravery–maybe even acting with courage and conviction like the police officers and emergency personnel, and many civilians who reach out to help, who have to respond when yet another gun-toting killer strikes.

That’s called leadership.

 

thanksgiving-day-spread-700x340

hdlatestimages.com

Most of us are soon to celebrate the national holiday called Thanksgiving. It is probably as close to an official religious moment as we have–just about everyone gets into the act, generally by overeating. It is a feasting day when people gather for a sacred meal (even if they do not have religious or spiritual feelings). It is a day of gratitude for what we, as a nation, have received.

But is it celebrated by all? No.

Homeless people may be left out, despite the efforts of many good people to make sure there are public feedings. And like other days when the majority of people gather with family and friends, there are people whose solitary lives are made more painful by their being alone on Thanksgiving Day.

Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje

Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje

There is one other group that may not be celebrating, or if they do, may see the holiday differently. They may even name it Thanksgrieving (my old friend and mentor, Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé of the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley CA, introduced this term to me many years ago).

Painting of the first Puritan Thanksgiving by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914) wikipedia.org

Painting by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)
wikipedia.org

In our national mythic lore, the Pilgrims at Plymouth celebrated the first Thanksgiving. And they invited the local natives to join them. Of course, without the aid of the natives there would have been no thanksgiving meal. So it was right to invite them.

But I also know this: over time, native peoples, those who lived in and on this land before any Europeans arrived, became victims rather than invited guests–in their own land. In colonial days, it was often local skirmishes and animosity between a community of European settlers and the local tribe that led to attacks and killing on both sides. And even when there was no physical violence, the settlers often violated the natives by seeking to impose their culture and religion on those they viewed as “heathen” or “savages.”

Native peoples forced to leave the Southeast for Oklahoma historymyths.wordpress.com

Native peoples forced to leave the Southeast for Oklahoma historymyths.wordpress.com

But as the United States–the nation created by and for immigrants from other places–grew and prospered, large campaigns of relocation and terror began. Native people were killed, slaughtered, in large numbers, through blood shed in battles, and through starvation and disease. Some of the latter loss was not intentional, created by the strains of disease brought to this land that the natives were unable to resist. But there were also deliberate poisonings, too.

Native American and Army battles in the West through Wounded Knee in 1890 education.nationalgeographic.com

Native American and Army battles in the West through Wounded Knee in 1890
education.nationalgeographic.com

Scholars have struggled for decades to figure out how many millions of native peoples were lost. Many use the term genocide, or holocaust, to describe what happened. Estimates of the original native population vary widely, as do estimates of those who died. In 2014, the US Census Bureau said the population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, including those of more than one race was 5.4 million, about 2 percent of the total population. Estimates of the original population range from 10 million to 50 million. Clearly, whatever number you accept, the population has been decimated.

Even so, as the national history is commonly told, and observed and celebrated, this day is a happy one.

But it brings terrorizing memories to native victims. This is the most painful part of the holiday for me. As we gather around the festive table, laden with all sorts of good food, I can hear screams of dying Cherokee, Ojibway, Nez Pearce, Cheyenne, Sioux, Powhatan, Monacan, Algonquin, Ottawa, Kiowa women, children, and men. . . . and hundreds of other tribal nations.

wikipedia.com

wikipedia.com

And as a vegetarian, I also hear the screams of turkeys (so many call it “Turkey Day”), and pigs, and cattle, all slaughtered so we can celebrate what we have been given. We also are thus again, as in the case of the native peoples, celebrating what we have taken, namely the lives of others.

Thanks. Grieving. Indeed.

Let us face the horror of what has been done, let us feel the pain in our hearts and souls, and then let us ask forgiveness . . . before and as we give thanks.

Spiritual journeys are often arduous affairs. Many people who have shared about their own admit that they went places they did not expect to be, saw things they did not expect or maybe even want to see, and changed more,and in ways other, than they thought possible or even desirable (at least initially).

Mother TeresaMother Teresa, for example, wrote (in private diaries only published after her death) that much of her journey of caring for the poor, exhibiting what the world saw as enormous faith, was marked by a lack of faith in the presence of God. Nonetheless, she kept going until the end.

It is this kind of patience, perseverance, that so many lack. Our Western culture lives on the fast track, wanting only sound bites for answers, quick fixes that may make the fixer feel good but do not really change anything.

I am struck by how this desire for the quick fix is infecting the political arena in the United States today. It reminds me of an earlier time in our national life, a tumultuous time before the Civil War. Slavery was unsettling the nation to be sure, but there were other stresses, too.

Citizen Know Nothing

“Citizen Know Nothing” by Sarony & Co., lithographer – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

One was immigration. Wave upon wave of immigrant from Europe–many Irish and German Catholics arriving in the late 1840’s and 50s–scared those already here. They feared the country would be taken over by the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

A political movement arose, under various names, but ultimately came to be known popularly as the Know Nothing Party  (because members, seeking to keep their membership and work a secret, were encouraged to say, “I know nothing,” when asked if they belonged). It officially became the American Party, and other combinations of terms, designed to highlight their belief that only nativists (but not Native Americans, of course), not these Catholic immigrants, were the true Americans.

It would be easy to say the Republican candidates, and many of their supporters, today are like the Know Nothings. But in fact the Know Nothings supported many progressive measures. They often supported regulation of railroads and other institutions and free public education, and many opposed slavery and spoke against concentrations of wealth.

What does connect these Know Nothings with contemporary Republicans is fear, fear that someone from the outside is destroying the nation. Today, it is immigrants from Mexico (“build a wall” so no more come in, and send all the ones here back), and now, thanks to twenty or so state governors, it is immigrants fleeing the chaos and terror of Syria (because among their number are sure to be some ISIS-inspired terrorists seeking to come here to destroy us).

And there is another fear, namely that elites–the so-called mainstream media today is the favorite–are selling out all the good, ordinary Americans. Certainly, the anti-politician rhetoric of Messrs. Carson and Trump, and their supporters, reflect this belief. Another target of many, though not all, are the banks and other concentrations of wealth.

All of this feels very scary to many of us. Simplistic solutions to complicated problems rarely help, certainly scapegoating groups does no good, and insisting that one ideology or religion has all the answers has never worked, and will only promote totalitarianism.

ilearnamerica.com

ilearnamerica.com

Is it possible to say a nation is on a spiritual journey? I hope so. We are in the midst of great turmoil. We are being shown things about ourselves that many would rather not see (e.g., the continuing violence against African-Americans). Indeed, many refuse to even look. Instead, they apply angry rhetoric and harsh policies to avoid having to deal with complicated realities.

I continue to pray, and hope, however, that all this is leading us to a deeper place, a place where we can finally face the fact that our nation, though wonderful and beautiful in many ways and surely the land that I love, is not the paragon of virtue and freedom we claim to be–indeed that we never have been–and that we need to find ways to lower the decibels, listen more to disparate voices on the margins and work with other nations in constructive ways (even recognizing their own national needs as legitimate, not just ours).

What helps me pray, helps me to share this hope? I remember Mother Teresa who stayed the course. She wrote in her journal in 1961, as revealed in the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light

“Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can’t explain.”

donmilam.com

donmilam.com

According to those who have studied her life in depth, she died with this struggle still very alive in her. Her spiritual adviser of many years, Rev. Joseph Neuner, helped her realize that her feelings of abandonment only increased her understanding of the people she helped. And she identified her suffering, and their suffering, with that of Jesus.

Our answer as a nation is not to lash out at others unlike us, to find easy fixes in blaming others, but to go more deeply in our own souls, as individuals and as a nation, and persevere in creating more justice and more opportunity and more openness everywhere in the world.

The answer to our troubles, our need, lies not so much in politics (necessary as good politics is), as it does in spiritual depth–I don’t mean religion, even though I am a deeply religious person, because we are a secular society–but I do mean in going on a spiritual journey together.

We must find a way to knit our hearts together without blame and recrimination, without scapegoating or false divisions.

One nation under God (whatever you think of, or about, God).

The election of Barack Obama, and his re-election, caused some to think the United States had moved to a new level of racial justice and harmony (well, harmony anyway).

The recent bout of killings in all parts of the nation, the reminder that although things are much better in New Orleans poor Black residents still face daunting odds in getting their lives back (and when the storm struck 10 years ago they were the ones most often the victims of disinterest in their plight), and ugly comments about immigrants and proposals aimed at them, remind us that all is not well in the still-racialized United States.

Friends on Facebook just made me aware of an intriguing map project which marks how segregation still haunts so much of the country.

racial map USA mostlyThe map, created by Dustin Cable at University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, is stunningly comprehensive. Drawing on data from the 2010 U.S. Census, it shows one dot per person, color-coded by race. That’s 308,745,538 dots in all–around 7 GB of visual data. It isn’t the first map to show the country’s ethnic distribution, nor is it the first to show every single citizen, but it is the first to do both, making it the most comprehensive map of race in America ever created.

racial map Sacramento

Sacramento

There has been much work to achieve housing desegregation, but many experts have pointed out that just because a place is less segregated it is not necessarily truly integrated. And as this map project makes clear, some places–California cities may be the best example–are far more integrated than others.

You can check all this out for yourself here.

Detroit in green, Oakland County in blue

Detroit in green, Oakland County in blue

I checked out Detroit, knowing that it is considered by some to be the most segregated city in the nation. I am a native of Michigan–Oakland County to be more precise, the jurisdiction just north of the Detroit city limits. Eight Mile Road dividing the city and the county, was, when I left Michigan in 1981, a racial dividing line. And it still is today! The color contrast on the map–like the color contrast on the ground, is stunning.

Across the southeast United States, where I lived for 12 years in Richmond, still shows much of the historic pattern of the Black Belt, originally labeled because of the rich soil but later so named because of the prepondance of slave-labor plantations.

racial map Black Belt

Black Belt in the Southeast

The good news is that there have been changes. The bad news is that on the whole we remain a nation visually, and viscerally as recent events indicate, divided by race.

The divisions are not accidental. They are the result of long-held ideas, practices and policies. The good news is that means we can change them. The bad news is that so few seem interested in doing so.

Why can’t we still get Congress to overcome the gutting of the Voting Rights Act? Why can’t we get better training for police in dealing with highly emotional encounters between Black people and police? Why is that Black transwomen are still far more vulnerable to attack and murder than white ones (not that either deserve this treatment)? Why is that poverty still impacts the Black community far more than others?

New Orleans

New Orleans

And why can’t the progress in New Orleans be more balanced? Why can’t build a truly multi-racial society?

If you think we have done that, look at these maps.

And then think back to January 1963, when then Governor George Wallace of Alabama made his pledge, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”  We have made progress, but so far Governor Wallace still has much evidence to support his claim.