This IS America

If you like to play on the lake you probably keep your gear in a water tight container in case it falls into the drink. We like to protect our stuff.

In the dinosaur days of photography, I developed my own film in a dark room constructed to be light tight. We like to protect our images.

After more than six decades lived absorbing, assimilating, criticizing and ultimately acquiescing to the culture in which I swim, I’ve accumulated plenty of stuff and developed an image of America that is culture tight. We like to protect our own bubble.

Last night my gear fell into the water, my pictures were ruined and my cultural bubble burst and splattered all over me.

By accident of birth I’ve lived in the American experiment all my life. I am happy to live in this country, rather than in many others. If it’s a privilege, I freely admit I did nothing to earn it.

Raised in the north, I’ve lived my adult life in the south and have always felt like the irritating grain of sand in the oyster that eventually suffocates in the secretions emitted to coat the irritation. I’m still not southern and few would call me a pearl.

Regional, cultural differences blossom in this country, but that’s part of what makes it beautiful. It’s what gets us in the car to see things unfamiliar. We can eat ethnic food anywhere, drive through coal country, cattle country, mining country, prairies, mountains or deserts and say, “This is America.”

We can see the world’s largest twine ball, or Mount Rushmore, or Hoover Dam, or China Town or the Bronx and say, “This is America.”

We can rejoice in our differences, our diversity, in our inclusiveness, in our historic open arms, in our different houses of worship, accents, or food choices and say, “This is America.”

But now, after every horrific massacre, school shooting, hate crime, mass murder of gays and Jews, and shootings of unarmed black men, some microphone jockey will urge us to stay calm and not despair because “this isn’t America.”

How many times can you say “this isn’t cancer” before you admit that seeping, bleeding scab on your forehead really is cancer and its ugly and you need to do something about it?

I’ve come to the horrible realization that this IS America.

What was a silent, deadly undertow of distrust, prejudice, economic superiority, income polarization, selfish nationalistic identity and hate of “other” has become the tsunami that is washing our nation into the sea.

I’ve felt it for some time, but I was forced to admit it Monday night (Oct. 29) when I sat among many hundreds of Winston-Salem citizens gathered in vigil at Temple Emanuel in mutual support of our Jewish neighbors following another massacre by a middle aged white man. This one over hatred of Jews.

It’s always hatred of something “other” isn’t it, someone who is not like me, someone who threatens to come and get something I think is rightfully mine, and only mine.

The synagogue last night was filled with “other.” Other faiths, colors, genders, styles, languages. It’s a beautiful thing to participate in an atmosphere like that, bound tangentially to each other by common concern.

Thoughtful, sincere speakers who did not look like me opened my eyes to the level of discrimination prevalent in this country. I thought Jews were being hyper-sensitive to feel anti-Semitism everywhere; that we’d made big progress in black-white relations; that LGBTQ persons were finding it easier to live who they are.

Not.

This was not a political rally but neither speakers nor participants tried to gloss over their conviction that the tiny hand pulling back the curtain on America’s pervasive prejudice belongs to the president. Any reference to his divisive rhetoric that waves the permission stick over our innate hates and prejudices drew loud applause.

We were not alone. Per PRRI’s 2018 American Values Survey, 54 percent of Americans believe the president’s decisions and behavior encourage white supremacist groups.

Although those in the room were nearly universal in their perception, we still wonder, of course, “What can we do?” Resoundingly, we were encouraged to vote!

And be kind. Be wise. Don’t let those win who incite fear to keep us apart, to keep us leery of “the other.”

And don’t despair or this brief era actually will become the new definition of America.

God forbid.

 

 

Evangelicals sell authority for a pot of stew and a photo op

On the night of my deepest misery eight weeks after I’d been conscripted as one of America’s last draftees, I walked through Fort Sam Houston to a bank of phones and called my dad, 1,300 miles away. I tried to relate to him how miserable I was – a conscientious objector in medic training with a whole platoon of men fresh out of basic, fired up and ready to go “kill some Charlie Cong.”

I related this as well as I could to dad, who never understood my stance against war, but nothing helped. I hung up the phone and started walking back toward another toss-and-turn night in the barracks, when I passed a post chapel. There was nothing special about the modest, white, steepled box, except on this night it was lit up and pulsing with happy sounds. Drawn by the light and the sound, I walked in.

On the platform was a group of bright, attractive young people presenting some kind of musical. I was enchanted. The music was good and the girls were pretty. Afterwards they invited us to church – Baptist Temple in San Antonio. They offered to come get us in a bus.

Several of us went. There, I heard probably my first “come to Jesus” sermon, outside of a televised Billy Graham crusade. It was convicting and I was almost persuaded. They served us lunch after church and I tasted my first iced tea. We drank milk in Wisconsin. They embraced us, welcomed us, served us. Made us feel at home.

That was my introduction to evangelicals.

I learned that “evangelical” referred to a Christian who felt strongly enough about Jesus declaring the kingdom of God was at hand, and that Jesus holds the key to that kingdom, that he or she felt compelled to tell others about it. You know, to “evangelize,” like the young people from Baptist Temple had done for me. An evangelical took Jesus’ example to heart, reached out and served “the least of these” through selfless acts.

An evangelical took seriously biblical truths as guidelines for living so that to an evangelical, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). By definition evangelicals loved their enemies, spoke truth to power, were slow to rush to judgement and willingly accepted slights rather than instigate fights…or war.

Evangelical was a theological term that described a body of Good News telling believers.

Today “evangelical” is a political term that describes a voting block who want government to legislate their spiritual worldview. And sadly, that worldview has somehow dropped over a horizon that does not reflect Jesus’ character.

Rather than loving the foreigner among us, “the other” is demonized, drawn as a caricature we then are to fear – or to deport.

Political evangelicals appear to love guns more than children; privilege for their own, more than opportunity for all; unborn children more than desperate mothers; their narrow perspective more than tolerance that facilitates a peaceful society.

Rather than an aura of love there seems to be a halo of hate in the way “evangelicals” rejoice in the dismantling of environmental protections; the rejection of science; deification of business; deportation of ethnics who have lived in this country for decades and who are parents and spouses of American citizens, and in how they resist the idea of health care access for all, as if someone has to earn the right to see a doctor.

These political evangelicals shout obscenities at news media covering public events. They succumb to manufactured displays of patriotism and denigrate others who don’t. Their leaders don formal dress for a state dinner at the White House, sacrificing their prophetic voice to rub shoulders with empire.

One of the earliest biblical stories explains that Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of red stew. (Genesis 25:33) It seemed logical at the time, Esau was desperately hungry and what good was his birthright if he starved to death?

Voting block evangelicals today sell their prophetic birthright to Caesar, for the tinsel and spice of the arm of empire draped over their shoulder in a photo op – a photo that cost $10,000 at a Charlotte fundraiser Aug. 30, by the way.

In Second Samuel in the Old Testament, the prophet Nathan set forth a scenario before King David to secure David’s ruling. In the scenario, a very rich man took the only lamb of his poor neighbor to feed a traveler. David “burned with anger” and told Nathan “the man who did this must die!”

“You are the man,” Nathan told David in no uncertain terms. Because of his courage, and because he did not keep house in the court of David, Nathan was positioned to speak truth to power, and power repented.

Evangelicals today have sold that position for a cot in the court, and a photo op.

 

Foxes lurk outside school hen houses

Each Monday I go to a local elementary school to be a reading buddy for a second grader named Patrick.

Patrick’s school is in the part of town I don’t drive through without locking my doors. It anchors blocks populated with old, wounded cars parked half onto the sidewalks in front of old, weary houses.

Girls who look too young to wear makeup walk around broken pavement with a baby on their hip. There are no shops and no grocery stores on this side of the freeway, which slices the neighborhood off from a prosperous urban center like a cleaver through spareribs.

This morning in the media center I selected four books about farm animals. Most city kids think milk comes from the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, or that chocolate milk comes from black cows, and that McDonald’s whips up chicken in the back room.

We talked about pigs and cows, chickens and eggs. Roosters and hens. When I couldn’t recall what the thick red hangy-down thing is under a rooster’s neck, I looked it up on my phone. I actually googled “hangy-down thing on a chicken” and it came up “wattle.” Of course. Patrick laughed delightedly and repeated, “wattle.”

Chickens on the farm live in a coop, our little book said. Pictures showed a coop on wheels inside a fence. It said the farmer moved the coop daily to give the birds access to fresh grass and more bugs.

What the book didn’t say was the coop gets moved so that chicken droppings continually fertilize new areas. Hey, I grew up around farming.

The little book introduced hens and roosters and eggs and chicks. And then, it introduced a full page, bright colored rooster, with a bright red wattle, screaming lungs out at a fox, lurking on the edge of the fence.

“Why is the rooster so upset?” I asked Patrick.

“Because the fox eats meat, and chickens are meat.”

And, because we read about dinosaurs last week, he reminded me that people are meat too. Like meals on wheels for dinosaurs.

Then Patrick made a simple observation that caused me to pause and cringe. The rooster screaming “cock a doodle doo” to the others in the coop “was like lockdown at school” he said. Matter of factly. Like saying, “I got a drink from the bubbler.”

His principal was like the rooster, shouting a warning and getting everyone into a safe position. Who knows who the fox represents. Someone hungry for meat. Someone anxious to see chickens flying and flopping around, feathers torn and floating through the air. Someone thrilled by the pierce of screams, who licks his lips on the taste of terror.

It was the simple directness of his statement that struck me. “Like lockdown.”

As the rooster is alert to an encroaching fox, the principal is alert to the possibility of a shooter in her elementary school. Alert to a fox. In the henhouse.

And Patrick, who comes to school with all his friends to learn reading and writing and math so he can grow into an independent, self-sufficient adult, is forced to learn also that foxes lurk outside his coop.

And they are hungry.

 

Massacre still permeates Newtown

The December 14 anniversary passed unnoticed for most of the world. Yet, just four years ago, Adam Lanza rocked the world when in an act of unspeakable evil, he killed 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

At memorial services for the victims it is common to toll a bell 26 times – once for each of the children and teachers who died that horrible morning.

When the faith community tolls a memorial bell, it rings 28 times, to include Lanza and his mother, Nancy, who he killed before wrecking his havoc at the school.

“They were members of our community,” said Kristen Switzer, associate pastor of youth and mission at Newtown Congregational Church. “We choose love over hate. We choose forgiveness over hate. We choose community over brokenness.”

I interviewed Kristen at the God and Guns conference in New York City in October. The incident hovers over Newtown like a fog. People function. They eat and drink, marry and give in marriage. The city moves, the elementary school has been razed and a new school built.

But everywhere the misty wet, seeping blanket of memory permeates the town and its residents like a morning fog that rolled in off the ocean and settled.

When you are in the “depth of despair” from that mass killing “there is literally nothing left to do but love,” said Switzer, explaining why the faith community includes Lanza and his mother in their memorials and prayers.

Switzer grew up in Newtown and attended Sandy Hook school.

“When I get together with friends we know we will end up talking about it,” she said. “The memory is relentless.”

And yet, she and Newtown friends feel they live in an alternate reality. Their past and future is heavily linked to that day and every step, corner, sign, shrine and memorial in town reminds them #WeAreNewtown or #NewtownStrong, they know the rest of the world has moved on.

“We’re always thinking about that day,” Switzer said. “And no one else is.”

Switzer was not living in Newtown on that fateful day, but she came quickly to volunteer, sorting donated goods and sifting through email messages from around the globe, passing on those that required attention.

“One day I looked up and people from the Amish community where five girls had been killed at school (in 2006) were there. They had driven to see us. That’s when I realized the depth of our situation.”

That’s when she knew Newtown would be dealing with the aftermath for many years.

Today Switzer is a youth and mission pastor in her hometown, which itself has a mission: to end gun violence once and for all.

“We are all responsible for the state of our nation, good and bad,” she said. “We don’t have the privilege of being silent anymore. You must get active before it happens in your community…because it will.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember that

lucy-mcbathLucy McBath finds joy in her calling to make her son’s death have meaning. But the scars of her sorrow still show every time she speaks. 

 

News headlines flash at you and disappear, like an oncoming driver flicking his bright lights. Then sometime later the story beneath that headline is resurrected. You meet someone who brings it back to life and you think, “I remember that.”

Only now, it’s real because you’re talking to the person involved. It’s not ink on a page. It’s a voice in the ear, a person in your eye.

I met Lucy McBath in New York City this week. She’s the mother of Jordan Davis, the young man who pulled into a gas station Nov. 23, 2012 in Jacksonville, FL playing his music too loud for the pleasure of Michael Dunn.

Dunn asked/told Davis and his companions to turn down the volume. Davis, as a 17-year-old kid would do, got his back up and they had words. Dunn got a gun from his car and shot it 10 times into Davis’ car, striking him three times and killing him.

Davis was black. Dunn is white. But they both bleed red. The difference is that Dunn’s blood is still in his body in prison somewhere. Davis’ was spilled out onto the parking lot and his car seat.

It’s dangerous to be black in America.

Of course, I’ve just returned from the conference God and Guns 2016 at Riverside Church in New York City. So my nerves are raw. I’ve been illumined to the underlying causes of much of the gun violence in this country. (I’ll soon post stories at BaptistNews.com. There I covered them straight. Here I’m talking more from the heart.)

In New York I met Lucy McBath, Jordan’s mother. As soon as she started telling her story, I thought, “I remember that.”

But now, instead of a flashing headline, her story is meat and bone. She has dedicated her life to ending gun violence in America so that Jordan’s life and death will not have been in vain.

Addressing conference participants, McBath said change will not come if we wait for someone else or some other time. She quoted President Obama, who said, “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”

McBath is the Faith and Community outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety, a fairly new organization with chapters in all 50 states that sprung up after the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown. Their goal is “common sense reforms to reduce gun violence.”

“Ninety-one people each day will continue to die if people of faith are not engaged in saving lives,” McBath said. “It must be our task to usher in a nationwide moral movement against gun violence.”

She reeled off the statistics that any advocate will have at the tip of her tongue:

An American is 25 times more likely than in any other developed country to die by gun violence:

52 percent of women killed by guns are killed by their intimate partner or family member;

Easy access to firearms plays a major role in childhood death;

More than 21,000 people each year kill themselves with a gun;

The presence of a gun in the house greatly increases the chance that a domestic argument or a period of depression will turn lethal.

“After Jordan died I questioned the absence of the faith community,” said McBath, a devout Christian. “Their silence troubled my spirit. Where were the pastors, the ministers, the reverends and priests abiding by the Word of God to challenge the ethical and moral violation of the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not murder?’”

McBath is dedicating her life to reducing gun violence so other boys like her son, and the sons of Sandra Rougier and Natasha Christopher and the students of Newtown teacher Mary Ann Jacob who all testified at the conference can live in a time and place without fear of being gunned down in the street.

I remember that.

Building for the past

During our 40th wedding anniversary trip to Europe this spring, my wife and I visited the underground bunker being restored by enthusiasts at Schoenenbourg, France.  This impressive fortification is one element in the defensive Maginot Line built after World War I to keep Germany from invading France ever again.

Named for French Minister of Defense Andre Maginot, the line was a 450-mile long series of bunkers, barriers, artillery casemates and passive impediments along the border between the two nations. The Schoenenbourg bunker is one of the few remaining vestiges of the earnest effort.

It housed more than 600 soldiers who lived 100 feet underground in a virtual city equipped to support them for months. Food, supplies and munitions moved through the mile long system on a rail network. Telephone communications connected outside spotters to inside decision makers. Redundant air pumps and filters kept the atmosphere belowground inhabitable.

There were 45 such bunkers in the line to provide live resistance to a potential invasion, along with 352 casemates and more passive barriers such as angled concrete pillars.

The Maginot Line represented a massive commitment by France even as it struggled to recover from devastating WWI. But the perceived threat of a restive Germany and centuries of cross border infiltrations and alliances merited the investment.

The problem was, the Maginot Line was built to defend against a past threat. It was built to stop infantry, open-air troop carriers and thin-skinned battle tanks of WWI experience.

When Germany invaded France in May 1940, they flew over the Maginot Line, rolled around the end of the line through Belgium and through a break in the line through the Ardennes, which Maginot deemed too impenetrable to require fortification. Germans blew past passive defenses with their fast and powerful Panzer tanks. In seven weeks they were in Paris and the French government had surrendered.

French intentions were right. Their execution was good. But they built to defend against issues and fears of the past without accounting for future threats that would be significantly different.

This is not an uncommon situation.

In current times, the music industry built a line against pirated CDs while online music distribution flew over the defense.

American automakers defended themselves against each other’s paltry products, while higher quality cars invaded from overseas.

Furniture factory owners in North Carolina defended themselves against unions and lower profits by clinging to antiquated production methods, while Chinese manufacturers built efficient new factories from scratch.

Are you crouching behind a Maginot Line at work, clinging to former processes, staffing and equipment, while competitors punch through your product line with better tools and innovation?

Is your church trying to defend itself from the perceived threat of its surrounding culture while young people who easily learn to navigate the culture are finding your bunker increasingly irrelevant?

Those who build to defend against a past threat will be overwhelmed easily by the real challenges of the future.