This is not who we are!! Right?!

This week US Border Agents sprayed tear gas on men, women, children and babies trying to illegally and legally enter our country as immigrants or asylum seekers at our Southern border. In Alabama, at a mall crowded with holiday shoppers, police shot and then refused medical intervention to a black man—a veteran—who was there. They mistakenly assumed he was killing people, while the real shooter escaped unharmed. In elections earlier this month, we elected leaders who openly use dehumanizing language to describe non-white people or who were credibly accused of sexual assault or fraud.

As we view this recent history, our responses vary. Outraged, some protest, screaming, “This has got to stop!” Others grieve, sobbing, “Lord, have mercy.” Many refuse to look, calling it “fake news.” Overwhelmed, some shrug their shoulders, choosing apathy instead of compassion. Still others, bewildered, utter a desperate plea: “This is not who we are! Right?!”

This is exactly who we are, though. An examination of our history (importantly, not the history reflected by most secondary school standards) reveals that our country, our wealth and our cultural norms are built at the expense of people who are neither white nor Christian. I don’t say this as political accusation or hyperbole, but as a person who has studied a country and a church that I love. We are faithful and brave and willing to sacrifice for others. We also have a history of choosing ourselves first, of excusing unspeakable horrors in the name of God’s blessing to us. The protestant underpinnings of our founding affirm racial hierarchy as part of God’s good design. This led us (and leads us) to justify mission work toward and violence against people of color who were not aligned with the faith. These beginnings are rarely acknowledged, and despite the fact that we continue to take steps toward equality and universal human rights, our majority is suspicious of non-white people, and our cultural norms protect this perspective.

Interested in our national cognitive dissonance—we support a status quo of racialized injustice, while also insisting we do not have a race problem—I think a lot about how we got here, and believe we privilege greedy theologies and nationalistic governance. The great news is that we don’t have to stay here. You can decide to be different today, and you can start by examining our collective history, your individual bias and instinctive beliefs about others, about normal, about right. If we do not engage in these ways, we’ll stay here, and the news of this week will continue, indefinitely.

We have to learn to speak up, not just for the bad, but for the good. As my mom often reminds me, speak up for the good you see, for the choices that value life and honor dignity! Celebrate courage and quiet generosity. Do justice and love mercy. We the people are forming the America we live in. If you think we are better than our most selfish, grasping instincts, then you must develop a capacity to acknowledge and confront those instincts in yourself. We are the people we complain about and those we believe in, and we need to examine how we got here in order to agree with the direction we are heading. If we understand American culture and wealth is built on hierarchies, we can begin to engage in rejecting the fruit that grows out of those systems.

If you find the courage to name and challenge the poison of assumed superiority, though, you might lose your own capital in the process. We tend to demonize folks who challenge the status quo because it can lead to changing the status quo, removing any comfort found there. It is worth noting that cultural norms typically do not support points of view that challenge unacknowledged bias. Consider with me a group of wealthy men gathering for poker or to fish or for drinks, who feel they don’t have to be “careful” in their environment. Imagine one of them referring to women in less-than-honoring ways, and uttering statements about other races or ethnicities based on uninformed stereotypes. His derogatory speech offends those around him. He dehumanizes fellow humans, adhering to notions of gendered and racial hierarchies that are outrageous and inappropriate. It is not okay, ever, under any circumstances to speak of another human the way that he does. The men hanging out with him KNOW THIS to be true, but they freeze, caught between what they know to be wrong and what cultural norms approve. If a man finds the courage to speak up, to confront him or even engage him in conversation, quietly confessing he is bothered by this language, that brave man would ruin the moment. Cultural norms are so powerful that they absolve the racist, sexist man and indict the man who dares to say, “I’m bothered by the way you speak about the women and people of color with whom we all work and worship and live.” The man who speaks up becomes the man who steps out of line, not the man who uttered hate speech. This is the power of cultural norms to destroy us all.

In order for equality and universal value to become normal, we have to challenge every norm that asserts the opposite. It is tempting for some to choose apathy, to stand aloof, to shrug our shoulders when we see evidence that we are erasing our history or assuming value based on race or gender; nevertheless, choosing apathy props up the America we all claim does not exist. Others are tempted to protest, to launch a non profit, to wage war on Twitter or reddit, even while they remain silent when a colleague, churchgoer or family member speaks with bias against another group. We must learn to speak up in every arena we enter.

 We are actively creating the America we inhabit, and as long as we give biased norms the most power, they will control and divide us. We will stay exactly as we are, in hierarchies of race, gender and wealth that refuse to acknowledge themselves, unless we take the brave steps required to change our norms. For the past few weeks, these essays have discussed the courage and independence required to challenge the status quo. I’ll end this series with this final thought: If we want to be a country where everyone is treated as a valuable human, then we must take responsibility for, and speak up against, messages we hear that conflict with this idea.

independence day: what is America, and who gets to decide?

This week Americans celebrate Independence Day, a holiday that cheers freedom and demonstrates patriotism, often with jorts, fireworks and excessive day drinking. Just as often, we mark the holiday with neighborhood bike parades, or BBQ and watermelon. Thinking about the various ways we spend our fourths of July leads me to also wonder what exactly it is that we are celebrating. Put another way, what is America, and who gets to decide?

Are we Lee Greenwood’s version? Proud, certain we are free and blessed, and familiar with the agricultural highlights of each state? Is Charlie Daniel’s vision of a national kumbaya correct? Will we “all stick together, you can take that to the bank. That’s the cowboys and the hippies, the rebels and the yanks?” Does Donald Glover get to decide? In “This is America” he reveals a country alive with movement and soul, but also littered with guns, violence, apathy and fear. Maybe Toby Keith gets it right, describing us as an international bar bouncer: “You’ll be sorry you messed with the U. S. of A; we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Do veterans who think we honor the whole America in the National Anthem by standing or kneeling get to decide what America is? On a national holiday that celebrates our origin story, it is worth thinking about who we think we are.

For many Americans, particularly those who celebrate our 45th President, America does represent freedom and independence. We are the magical land where people prove their worth through their work, where everyone gets a fair shot. God loves to bless us because we are His favorites (outside of Israel, of course). Real Americans have no need to protest anything, because we are great and protesters are just violent whiners. I like this idea of America, and sometimes wish I could believe it. I have learned, however, that in order to believe this is THE version of America, I have to erase more history than I remember. In order to believe, I have to ignore the fact that our country was founded to guarantee the freedom and equality of white men, and white men alone. I have to ignore that fact that we legally and intentionally oppressed, killed and stole from Native and Black peoples. I have to ignore the single mom in Appalachia who works incredibly hard but can’t establish her worth or sustainability to the world around her. 

I recognize these ideas can seem inflammatory, but I don’t write them to provoke. Instead, I am suggesting that we might best celebrate Independence Day by recognizing our entire history. We are both a country that loves our work ethic and a country that refuses to reward the hard work of some parts of our population. We are both a country that believes in equality and justice for all while sometimes legislating injustice and inequality. We are the home of the brave and yet we have punished displays of bravery in brown or female bodies. We cherish our religious freedom but we ban people on the basis of their religion. 

People who study American culture talk about our longstanding tradition of imagining American spaces really as white spaces. In our dominant cultural imagination, hard workers look like white workers. The American heartland looks like quilts sewn and fields plowed and pies baked by white hands. I know the mention of race is off-putting for some, but this is because many Americans have the privilege of not thinking about the cultural and historical racism that links color with suspicion. If we could recognize our passive linking of “real Americans” with “white Americans” then we might embrace our country’s entire story on this historical holiday.

This Independence Day, could we honor our nation’s legacy by thinking independently? Could we reject the narrative that the only way to be patriotic is to love Lee Greenwood and ignore Donald Glover? Could we listen to those who honor our flag by kneeling or standing? On July 4th, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. A group of brave white men in tights and wigs wrote an epic letter protesting the oppressive injustice of a group of powerful privileged men who refused to consider their perspective or value. The origin story of America is one of protest. Knowing this, it is hard to now accept the idea that those who protest are unpatriotic. Un-American.

I write this with a heavy heart, because I know the dangers of living in the middle space, where American failures and triumphs are remembered. I know the mention of white supremacy feels like an attack on America. While this gives me pause, I am even more afraid for all us if we continue to act as if America only belongs to a certain type of person. The thing that we celebrate on July 4th is the taking of power from a few and the sharing of power with the many. While we have yet to get this right, we come closer to living up to the American democratic ideal when we make room for all kinds of voices to share their experiences of America. This begins by remembering our whole history.

My three year old daughter has a funny speech pattern of addressing people with a possessive pronoun.  She calls her favorite neighbor “my Isabelle.” She says, “I want to go swim with my Emmett” or “I go play with my Marion.” Hearing her talk makes me think about what it means to claim a person. She is not trying to own them with her “my,” she is asserting her devotion to them. She is relationally bound by love and delight to these people. In an age where I hear angry voices claim, “He’s not my President,” or “They aren’t welcome in my America,” I want to celebrate the 4th of July by claiming my America. Our America, which has been exclusive and inclusive, brave and cowardly, bullying and welcoming, oppressing and dignifying...I love it enough to remember all of it. Let’s celebrate the whole America, and every person who helped build, cultivate and shape it. If we look closely, we’ll see that we lose very little, while we gain the ability to recognize that fear and greed reduce us as a people. We must see America as we really are in order to become the country we celebrate.

all for one, and one for all...does it work?

If you are looking for a long, fabulous book to get lost in, pick up something written by Alexander Dumas.  From an exploration of revenge in The Count of Monte Cristo, to ideas of loyalty and resistance in The Three Musketeers, Dumas studies the many ways we relate to one another.  Born in the 19th century to a French nobleman and a slave woman of African descent, his origin surely impacted his view of the classist, gendered and racist society in which he lived.  Perhaps his lineage influenced his view of belonging, of what it means to trust systems that are flawed, of how one asserts value in a society that shuns.  Perhaps his unique vantage point required him to study what it means to be an insider or one excluded, to find comrades through shared experience, to expose unjust power structures. When each of my children were infants, I read long, fabulous novels that could sustain me through late nights.  I read Dumas during the infancy of my second son, whose birthday is this week.  I found The Three Musketeers luxuriously entertaining, and incredibly helpful now for those of us concerned about how we live with one another.

Dumas’ Musketeers work together to save their Sovereign and kingdom from the evil wiles of a corrupt Cardinal Richelieu.  Their cry, “All for one, and one for all!” is part of Western culture, a cry raised by children and frat boys alike.  It offers an ethic of unity, a call for a purpose held in common, and a commitment to a cause manifested through relationship.  It is also really fun. It is fun to live in a community to which one is wholly committed but for which one mustn’t forfeit oneself.  The beauty of this phrase is echoed in the long held cries of patriots that go something like: “All for God and country!”, or even the more recent pledge of my Mighty VOLS: “I will give my ALL for Tennessee today.” For the musketeers though, the cry does not ask only for total sacrifice. Instead, it demands loyalty to a cause while promising loyalty in return.  Give your all to us and we will give our all to you. 

The best American causes require the independent integrated collaboration of all of us.  Our belief that when we all work together we create lasting equitable flourishing has been replaced by the idea that the status quo is good for everyone and anyone who disagrees should be quiet.

So often our commitments require us to lose our sense of self for a cause bigger than us, but Dumas reminds us that the highest causes ensure that our best participation comes when we are “all in.”  Any cause that encourages us to divorce ourselves from our highest ethics is not a cause that promotes common welfare.  If we cannot bring our whole, integrated selves to a cause, then I would argue it is not worth pursuing. Whether about the prosperity, health, equity, safety or belonging of all, we are having conversations about how we should live together in the shared space of America right now.  Who is responsible if a member of our community falls behind?  What does society owe me, and what do I owe society? Am I my brother’s keeper? Our rhetoric often reveals a belief that I can only look out for me, because we are playing a game with one winner.  If you are doing well, I must be doing badly.  What if we listened to our musketeers instead, and started to believe that in the best societies, we can be for others precisely because others are for us?  In Dumas’ rendering, causes that protect and benefit the welfare of all do require sacrifice, but the sacrifice is contextualized by the affirmation of our entire selves, not the diminishment of me to benefit you.

Dumas’ ideal is the premise of the American ideal of democracy.  In theory, America is by and for and of the people.  It is one out of many. E pluribus unum. The best American causes require the independent integrated collaboration of all of us.  It seems to me that we have lost our way here, however. We have begun to believe that, “One for all” can only happen if “all is for a few.”  Our belief that when we all work together we create lasting equitable flourishing has been replaced by the idea that the status quo is good for everyone and anyone who disagrees should be quiet.

Perhaps we would do well to remember that we, as a nation, have protected some pretty atrocious status quos in our history.  We have learned that expanded abilities to live and speak and resist and collaborate increase prosperity.  My right to belong is not diminished by another’s right to belong.  I think Dumas might have been on to something; perhaps I am my best self when I am rooting for the interests of others.

The kids in Parkland remind me of this truth.  They are taking a terrible experience that has given them attention, and are using it to elevate the thoughtful lives of others.  They are, “all for one, and one for all.”  Last weekend, they students met with students in Chicago, who feel overwhelmed by the violence they swim around in all day.  Emma González, a Parkland student who has become a leading spokesperson for the #neveragain movement, tweeted about their meeting:

Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard in their entire lives the way that we have in these weeks alone. We all share in feeling this pain and know all too well how it feels to have to grow up at the snap of a finger…People of color in inner-cities and everywhere have been dealing with this for a despicably long time...The platform us Parkland Students have established is to be shared with every person, black or white, gay or straight, religious or not, who has experienced gun violence, and hand in hand, side by side, We Will Make This Change Together.
— Emma González

Dumas believed that the hardest, highest work requires collaboration, and that sacrificial collaboration creates belonging and purpose for those willing to dive in.  These students remind us that collaborating to resist a difficult status quo is happening all around us.  Will you willingly suspend your disbelief that all of us could flourish together? Will you consider believing the idea that it is more blessed to give than to receive?  Will you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others?  Will you join me in believing that it costs very little to be one for all, and that all for all could make America great again?