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If I were lost in the woods, I would probably die after a few hours. I know nothing about wilderness survival.
Fortunately, I know someone who does. Well, kinda know. I’ve never met him. He lives in Australia. I live in Boston. But I watch his incredible skills on YouTube! He is The Man. (Seriously, commentators just call him “The Man” because he never reveals his name.)
The premise of the Primitive Technology channel on YouTube is rather simple. The Man makes items like charcoal, a bow and arrow, or a forge blower.1 He uses no modern tools or materials. His resourcefulness puts MacGyver to shame:
“Primitive” should be in scare quotes. Though The Man creates things with the simplest of materials, he uses great film equipment to produce sleek videos. He also learns many of his skills on the internet.
Primitive Technology is different from almost everything else on YouTube. The Man never speaks. The only sounds one hears are the rustling of leaves, the chirping of birds, or the chopping of wood.
I first learned about Primitive Technology from a relatively “primitive” form of communication – the essay. Jennifer Kahn in the New York Times writes:
Fans often describe the videos as meditative, or even therapeutic. (“Your videos are the most beautiful thing I have seen on the internet,” one person writes. “They make me feel serene. No talking and no rubbish — just plain, simple work.”) Watching them, especially amid the clamor of YouTube, can feel like leaving a crowded party and stepping out into the cool night air.
Kahn’s description fits my own experience of watching Primitive Technology. It also reminds me of one of Pope Benedict XVI’s messages for World Communications Day. He wrote:
Attention should be paid to the various types of websites, applications and social networks which can help people today to find time for reflection and authentic questioning, as well as making space for silence and occasions for prayer, meditation or sharing of the word of God.
The Man does not overtly share the word of God in his videos; he’s busy acting like David and throwing rocks with a handcrafted sling. Still, unlike so much of what bombards my eyes and ears online, Primitive Technology makes me feel at peace.
Of course, Primitive Technology is sort of absurd. Rather than getting off my butt, going to the woods, and building something, I sit in the comfort of my home watching a carefully edited YouTube video of someone else doing work.
Perhaps even worse, I may feel like I have accomplished something when I’ve done jack squat.
Still, while technology often disconnects us from nature and from silence, The Man reminds us that it can also be used to reconnect us with God’s creation and a little more peace and quiet.
And Primitive Technology is not the only example of how we can find a peaceful place online. Apps like Calm have helped many of us get in the habit of meditation or centering prayer. Fr. James Martin and others have offered one-minute retreats that simply show off God’s handiwork:
Of course, actually spending time in our common home is far better than watching The Man build a tiled roof hut.2 Still, online sources that help me pause and rest a while can be part of a healthy digital diet.
And who knows, they may motivate me to turn off my computer and spend some time outside. They may even help me to pray.
– // –
For an excellent but more negative take on our technology habits, check out Four Reasons NOT to Read This Article by Joe Simmons, SJ.
“Four Reasons NOT to Read This Article” sounds like a title meant to provoke your interest.
It is. Internet-1, You-0.
But aside from that, not reading another article online is probably good advice.
Let me explain.
One recent weekend morning, I spent five hours consuming articles and video clips online. Like many idle cyber flaneurs, I glutted myself with an uneven mix of brain vegetables and empty-carb junk food. Longer think pieces on politics, shorter news articles, a few SNL skits to lighten the tone, snippets from bumbled press conferences…whatever shiny things crackled and popped on Youtube, the New York Times, Twitter, and the Atlantic.
As I sat in pajamas, watching the sun climb then disappear over my house, I found myself growing…numb. I was not enjoying this lounge-fest, but I couldn’t summon the energy to pull out of my Internet Sloth Spiral either. My phone, with its brand new battery, was flagging – it had quickly gone from 100% to Power Save Mode — and it let me know of this depressing fact. My soul was hovering around 20%, as well.
“Good grief…look at your life!” I thought — and forced myself outside for an afternoon run.
* * *
I submit, for your consideration, some facts about our collective internet consumption:
- 2.9 billion Google searches are made every day.
- There are 966 million unique websites in existence.
- 37,000 of those sites are hacked daily.
- 2.7 million blog entries – like this one – are posted every day.
- WordPress alone hosts 76.5 million blogs, including The Jesuit Post.
- 75.1% of online Americans access the internet and social media through mobile devices. The internet is with us wherever we go.
- 56% of internet traffic comes from robots and spammers; only 44 percent comes from humans.
And perhaps most alarming for me: a 2016 Nielsen Company audience report found that adults in the United States now spend an average of 10 hours and 39 minutes in front of their screen(s) each day. This included tablets, smartphones, home computers, multimedia devices, work laptops, video games, radios, DVDs, TVs, DVRs…
Just let that number sink in a for a hot minute. 10 hours, 39 minutes, every day.
“Not me!” you protest, rather quickly. Well, me neither, I say. I would never spend that much time in front of a screen! Me, a lover of books, poetry, art, and face time with interesting people. Me, a physically active adult. -ish. Me, a man studying for the priesthood, who — per St. Ignatius’ over-laundered wisdom — aspire to a “discerned use of all created things…”
And yet, there I sat: frittering away five consecutive hours on a pleasant morning, just because I had no commitment pressing me to engage the non-pajamaed world outside.
* * *
10 hours, 39 minutes? Phhh…not me. Could it be? I submit four moments1 when screen time sneaks up on us each day. It begins when I…
1. Wake Up! Let’s review a typical start to my day:
- Wake up to a smartphone alarm, which opens unto the Magical World of Internet.™
- Check for new texts, the day’s weather, refresh emails.
- Skim news pushed to the phone from around the world.
- Re-watch videos of diapered nephew toddling and speaking adorably, growing wistful.
I’ve already sacrificed 30-45 minutes to this glassy demigod, before I’ve even gotten out of bed. Yes, but what about when you’re out of bed and working early? Certainly that means less time spent in front of a screen! We turn then to…
2. Daylight Screenings Time. Even on days when I have graduate classes and reading, most of it is planted in front of my laptop:
- A few hours of distracted PDF reading and Canvas posts for class; followed by
- Three hours of classroom screen time; plus
- Two-to-three hours spent emailing throughout the day…flitting between this or that site…iMessaging friends and family…writing a homily, or a blog post, or dragging my feet to pen a short essay.
This Blended Screen Time (hereafter “BS Time”) offers neither focused productivity, nor restorative leisure. Rather, BS Time leaves us feeling distracted, unproductive, and pulled in different directions. Which is compounded by…
3. Me, Myself and iPhone. None of this screen time takes account of the dozens of unconscious phone checks throughout the day (yes, dozens). Who hasn’t felt the endorphin rush from an incoming text message? Who doesn’t “refresh” their inbox every half hour, like a slot machine junkie hoping for a big haul? We wait with muted panic for some email – any email – to come in, marked bold! Bold with newness!
And when there are no new texts or emails (criminy, not even work emails?) — we wonder, just for a moment, if anyone remembers we exist.
Isn’t all this technology supposed to make us feel more connected? Why do we feel, to borrow a term from MIT professor Sherry Turkle, alone together? Oh well. Let’s check Facebook and Instagram to see if we can get an emotional contact-high from someone else’s well-curated life. What’s this? Up-to-the-minute political soapboxing? Someone skiing in Denver with kittens? An ad for Dollar Shave Club? Why do I do this, again?
4. Nighttime and Netflix. After a long day of distracted, semi-productive BS Time, it’s nice to have a measurable physical task before bed, like folding the laundry, or cleaning the bedroom. But gosh, it sure is quiet! Why don’t I turn on an old 30 Rock, or see if a new episode of Young Pope or Veep is online yet? An hour or two later, the amped up rods and cones of my retinas finally unplug from my iPad. But that odd blue light, which has oversaturated the retinas, keeps the mind spinning in its hoary afterglow. I find my addled brain wondering,
Is it possible that I just spent 10 hours in front of screens today?
And if I didn’t, doesn’t an average of 10+ hours mean that a lot of other Americans spend more than 10+ hours every day in front of screens?
* * *
You might scoff at all this, or shake your head in pitying silence, or turn away in knowing horror. But…I’d venture to say that these Pavlovian pings and sad trifles texture the daily life of many American young adults. Is this really life? Am I just being an ornery Troglodyte, the likes of whom I challenged just last year here?
I don’t know for sure, but I find it telling that Steve Jobs strictly limited his kids’ screen time. This is telling, but not surprising. I doubt McDonald’s execs encourage their kids to eat a lot of fast food, either.
I could expend a lot more time here suggestion habits for you and me to get off the internet, and go outside. To not start our day with a smartphone. To ditch Facebook. I could probably write an irresistibly clickable “5 Ways to Enjoy Your Life More…[Alec Baldwin could NOT believe #3!].”
But, the internet can not solve your problems for you, which might be the best reason not to read this article. I submit that the root of our collective problem is that we have been conditioned to turn to the crowd-sourced wisdom of the internet to tell us how to live our life away from the internet. There is a cruel irony here: like McDonald’s ads that remind us to be active between fattening bites, our smartphones deliver addictive content with one hand, and pesky reminders to “Sit Less. Move More. Get some exercise!” with the other. Like a cruel parent or a manipulative spouse, the internet giveth — and the internet taketh away. The internet, and the snake oil vendors who capitalize on its seductive sway, have little reason for you and me to unplug.
* * *
I trust you see where I’m going here. What would spending a full day — how about this Saturday? — totally unplugged be like? What desires spontaneously emerge through the dissipating mental fog? I submit that you and I already know what we really want to do, if we didn’t have Apple-sponsored Stockholm Syndrome ten hours a day. So…
What will you do? Discuss ideas over coffee with a friend? Pen a note to your sister? Take a long stroll with a neighbor? Purge your basement or attic? Perhaps — gasp — spend an afternoon enjoying the pleasure of your own company?
“All of humanity’s problems,” Blaise Pascal writes, “stem from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room.” If he’s right, then the problem is not seductive screens, or the internet’s siren song; those are just modern-day symptoms of humanity’s eternal issue: a deep-seated fear of solitude.
And that, dear reader, is some good food for thought.
Tomorrow, your friend and mine Michael Rossmann, SJ offers a counterpoint to my assessment of screen time.
Title image by Flickr user afromztoa is available online here.
Image of Apple products by Flickr user Jesús G. Flores is available online here.
The Recording Academy has yet again lost my ballot for the Grammy Awards in the mail. Thankfully, I’m willing to share some of my notes on several of the nominations for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards. Perhaps, some Jesuit guidance will help the voting members.
Record of the Year Nominations:
“Hello” by: Adele
“Formation” by: Beyoncé
“7 Years” by: Lukas Graham
“Work” by: Rihanna, featuring Drake.
“Stressed Out” by: Twenty One Pilots.
And … My Winner Is: “Hello” by: Adele
Who doesn’t love to belt your heart out with Adele? Certainly, her song “Hello” deserves recognition for its ability to be sung at high volumes in the privacy of your car on the way to and from work. Yet, besides its shower-anthem quality, the song hits a theme worth recognizing: reconciliation.
The song begins with a double acknowledgement: that there is “a difference between us,” and that even if “time’s supposed to heal ya … I ain’t done much healing.” In that tension, Adele belts out a “hello from the other side,” demonstrating her desire to reach across their differences. She acknowledges that it’s hard, “but at least [she] can say that [she’s] tried.” The peace and reconciliation Adele seeks is not some sentimental recreation of the past, but rather a resolution of the remaining tension between them. It’s healing, not denial.
Adele’s desire for reconciliation, conversation, and healing seem so apt for our current national and international tenor. Adele’s “Hello” calls us towards a spirit of reconciliation and healing, and that should earn her Record of the Year.
Album of the Year Nominations:
25 by: Adele
Lemonade by: Beyoncé
Purpose by: Justin Bieber
Views by: Drake
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by: Sturgill Simpson
And… My Winner Is: Lemonade by: Beyoncé
Revolution occur within hearts before it occurs in cultures and societal structures, so I am struck by the power within Beyoncé’s album Lemonade which seeks both kinds of revolution. It’s an album in the true sense: a cohesive and directed whole, rather than a random accumulation of songs. Each song on the album has a music video and these piece together to form a feature-length narrative. The combined power of the lyrics, imagery and symbolism aim forcefully at empowerment over racial and gender injustices.
There is a raw power present in the lyrics, and often a raw content, wherein Beyoncé repurposes the language of oppressive structures and prejudices into a new expression of power.
In her music video for “All Night,” Beyoncé claims that “with every tear came redemption, and my torturer became my remedy.” Certainly, there is an honest suffering acknowledged, but somehow she finds strength; even more, she finds a “remedy” by recycling the pain into power. We see this turn in “Formation,” where she takes negative self-images caused by racial prejudice and re-owns them: “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” What was an insult by the dominant culture, she owns as a preference. The linkage between the nose and the Jackson Five also hints towards commercial and cultural success. It all points towards a revolution of hearts.
I’m not usually a fan of Beyoncé’s music, and Lemonade is a bit more explicit in language and content than I am terribly comfortable with. Yet, her statements towards justice—particularly in liberating women and black America—represent a battle cry for revolution within hearts and minds. For that, her album merits recognition.
Song of the Year Nominations:
“Formation” by: Beyoncé
“Hello” by: Adele
“I Took a Pill In Ibiza” by: Mike Posner
“Love Yourself” by: Justin Bieber
“7 Years” by: Lukas Graham
And… My Winner Is: “7 Years”—Lukas Graham
In Lukas Graham’s “7 years,” the sing‐along–friendly meter and rhythm can hide the deep struggle to capture and hold gratitude for people in our lives. The song retraces a life that has past and the hope of what the future holds. The song does this, not simply recounting events or even struggles, but by capturing the voices and advice of his parents: to find good people to hold onto in life—friends and lovers. At different ages and different challenges within the song, it’s those people who help him along. They help him make life worthwhile, and they help him make the world warmer.
There is a gratitude for those people and moments which define his life. At times it’s a bittersweet gratitude for those he’s “had to leave behind,” and for that he sings, “My brother I’m still sorry.” Yet, even the pain holds a bit of fondness, as it reminds him of those people who supported him along the way. It’s a beautiful struggle: to move on and to still hold our past relationships as treasures. The song’s rhythm invites us to sing, but also invites us to remember the progression of time, our own progression through life. Reflecting with him on these stories—and our stories—we continue “learning about life,” remembering our past gifts and eagerly anticipating the gifts still to come.
Graham beautifully intertwines the gratitude for our past with a renewed hope for our futures. For inviting us to participate in the joy of this insight, “7 Years” warrants Song of the Year.
When Jon Stewart announced that Trevor Noah was going to take over The Daily Show in fall of 2015, my first reaction was “who the heck is Trevor Noah?” He wasn’t a regular correspondent so I wasn’t too familiar with him. And, not being too eager to overdo my election news intake, I haven’t really been a regular viewer of the show. This past November, however, I heard that he had released a memoir, “Born a Crime”, and I love a good memoir by a comedian.1 So, I went to library and got on the waiting list for the e-book without knowing much about the book or Trevor Noah’s life.
The Daily Show has relied on humor and sarcasm to make a point, mainly about our political system. As Stewart pointed out on his last day of host, the show is primarily a war on bulls—,2 and Noah emphatically vowed to continue3 that war on his first day as host. Would this book, I wondered, continue that fight with the same sense of humor that helped The Daily Show’s cultural impact?
Yes. But about the politics of another country. “Born a Crime” is an authentic look at his life growing up in South Africa during the waning days of apartheid and the years following its fall. The title of the book comes from the fact that his mother had a child with a white man, which was illegal in South Africa.4 Trevor Noah’s life is the result of a crime, even though it was between two consenting adults. Sounds like bulls— to me.
From the moment of his conception, Noah’s life has been affected by apartheid, the system of laws in South Africa that repressed the much-larger black population in order to keep the minority whites in power. Noah does an admirable job conveying his lived experience, as well as the experience of his family, living under this oppressive system. Some stories are gut-wrenching and unforgettable. In one, when Noah was five or six and being watched by his grandmother he was not allowed to go outside and play with his cousins. When he pleaded to go outside she firmly said “No! They’re going to take you!” Noah explains:
For the longest time I thought she meant that the other kids were going to steal me, but she was talking about the police. Children could be taken. Children were taken. The wrong color kid in the wrong color area, and the government could come in, strip your parents of custody, haul you off to an orphanage.
His, and South Africa’s, history comes alive through stories, and Noah’s tragicomic stories have a special power to explain history and move hearts. The reader comes to understand what it was like growing up at the end of apartheid not through facts and figures, but through the experience of a young boy and his family. This is an effective way to fight the war on bulls—.5
Besides unpacking apartheid, Noah probes his relationship with his mother and his mother’s experiences. His mother is presented as strong, independent, smart, and deeply religious. Noah tells a great anecdote of her mother finding a career:
True to her nature, she found an option that was not among the ones presented to her: She took a secretarial course, a typing class. At the time, a black woman learning to type was like a blind person learning how to drive. It’s an admirable effort, but you’re unlikely to ever be called upon to execute the task.
She does end up using this skill and with some success, including managing her husband’s business.
It is through this relationship with his mother that we really get to know who Trevor Noah is. He presents it with authenticity, humor, and a deep love for all she did for him, raising him right as a single mother. This is so important because his mother, did not have the right to have him … literally. Not only did she have him, but raised him on her own for the first few years of his life in a time when at any moment she could have ended up in jail for being a mother. For Noah, who’s been an act of protest from the moment he was born, his current gig feels like an extension of the efforts of his mother to raise him.
It is obvious throughout the book that the example of his mother’s life has made Noah who he is today. She has a dynamic and strong personality which Noah inherited. Her faith and her understanding the ridiculousness of Apartheid, and unwavering resilience are the three main examples. If not for the example of his mother’s fight against a system of oppression, would Noah be able to do nightly to a national audience?6
The Daily Show, with Noah as its host, insightful uses humor to point out absurd and hopefully fight back. In “Born a Crime” Noah is allowed to tell a story, his story, his mom’s story, his nation’s story in a way that points out the absurdities but also draws the reader into a relationship. That is how history, not only comes alive, but also remains a part of our lives. And so moved, we are enlisted to join the war on bulls—.
I found a letter in my mailbox, my friend’s characteristic handwriting looping out our names in their appropriate places. I looked for all the “G”s; I always love to see how people write them, and she’s someone who has to write them as much as I do. To: GG, From: GG. I flip the envelope over and smile: she’s still a third-grade teacher. Stickers seal the back flap.
We’re not exactly what you would call frequent pen-pals. We never drop the correspondence, but letters tend to rest before their replies. Maybe even a month. I keep hers in my top-left desk drawer; I don’t know where she keeps mine in the meantimes.
We’ve stopped apologizing for delays—we’re both teachers, and we know that there’s a lot of life happening in between each postmarked date. And in its time, a full report will arrive.
I remember unfolding her last letter around Christmastime, sitting at a hotel lobby table next to a Christmas tree and fireplace. Snows blew outside. Her friendly tone traced the loops of her writing, neatly fitting the thickly dashed lines of the thin brown paper we both learned to write on. Another artifact of her teaching. I remember being amazed by her clarity, honesty, and depth of reflection—at the end of the long haul of the fall semester, her letter paired with the weather to bring me deep pause: Where am I right now?
I tried to reply in-kind, but before I could match her depth I had to match her stationery. I leafed through my folders and found just the thing. I flipped it over and started writing, stopping only to look into the fire or out at the snow. An hour later, licking the envelope’s flap and smoothing it flat, I reflected again—this was a heck of a semester.
And last week, about a month after I had responded to her last letter, here came the response, perfectly timed—again—at the end of a long day as I shuffled through the front door and past our community mailroom. Even before I took off my backpack, I tore open the end of the envelope and gently extracted the letter so not to hurt the fox and snowman stickers. Standing in the doorway to my room, I unceremoniously read the letter, start to finish, before setting it on my desk while I unpacked the day’s things. “i always delight in receiving your letters. i particularly enjoyed seeing how you wrote your last letter on the back of your bus driver certificate.”
My non-stop mind was stopped in its tracks. The compulsive activity of a January teacher retrying to build momentum after a long break: halted. I exhaled.
I used to have lots of ways to call time-out on life—to shepherd a month’s worth of experience into one flock for accounting, inspection, and appreciation. While I was in Minnesota, we had communal silent prayer on Sunday nights. While I was in graduate school, I took long runs on Sundays. Last year, I took walks through the nearby hills with a fellow teacher.
This year, it’s the letters.
And I love it. The handwriting, the envelopes, the surprising stationery, the silly stamps, the poems on the envelopes and the long delays. I love all of it. But, I think I especially enjoy the long delays, the pauses postmarked clear as day, the date askew in the top corner of each envelope. Inside I will find the latest exchange in a conversation delightfully out of date but also delightfully still relevant: I wrote and she listened. And she started her letter with her responses, her responses of understanding or disbelief, of congratulation or condolence, of affirmation or advice.
In this way, our letters are more than just updates; they’re reminders to the other of where they were when they last wrote. When Gretchen writes, I know not only how she is but how I was. I used to overlook this or take it as an awkward reminder of our sporadic writing, but now… now, I count this as a great gift.
Yes, I could go just back to my journals to remember how I was. I could read about the anxieties of last November and the needed recoup of December. I could peruse my entries over the New Year and then count the unexpected blessings of early January.
But, letters offer me something more.
There is a deep grace in hearing it all again, my victories and challenges not written in a journal but by the hand of a friend. A month removed, and too late to troubleshoot. A simple and compassionate naming of what it is that I lived without too much fuss. I sit content in the calm of this reminder then turn with her artful transition to where she’s been, our lives always seeming to somehow overlap.
And so it goes—she wrote and now I listen: soon it will be my turn to respond in-kind. But not just yet. I finish the letter, say a little prayer for her, and slide it into my top-left desk drawer for another day.
That day will come, perhaps a quiet Saturday or an emptied evening. I will sit down at my desk chair and open her letter beside the paper and pencil I chose.
My letter starts itself, with encouragement and affirmation springing to her tales of victory, gentle care to her honesty about the hardest things. And so it goes…
Despite having just had eight years with our first (and only) Black president, racism continues to shape so much of the reality in our country. We can see this in the continuing gaps in wealth, education, and incarceration that in some cases have even widened. And so as always, but maybe just more clearly after this election cycle, there is a real need for racial reconciliation. But is that where we’re currently going?
“Reconciliation” is used in many ways and for many purposes, but its necessary first step is a deep acknowledgement of the truth, no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable. Catholics know this well from the Sacrament of Reconciliation which teaches us that before we can move forward, we must first examine ourselves to get to the deeper roots behind our sin. Only by courageously admitting the truth of what we’ve done can reconciliation happen. Likewise, in these admittedly scary times, it’s clear that yes, as a country we must work for reconciliation, but we need to also realize that this can’t happen until we are willing to fully face our country’s intensely racist past.
How We Look Back
What are some of the damaging and false ways we look back on the past that prevent reconciliation in the present? I remember my introduction to the “good and evil” lens with which we learned about the Civil Rights Movement in elementary school. There were the clear good guys (“us”: more advanced, progressive Northerners) and the clear bad guys (“them”: backwards, bigoted Southerners) as our textbooks encouraged us to forget the deeper, messier realities. I was grateful, for example, to learn about events like the desegregation of public schools in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The sad irony, lost on me at the time, was that everyone in my class pretty much looked the same.
Thankfully, I had dedicated teachers who taught us to dig deeper into our history to get to the truth of what really happened. For example, what is not often taught in Civil Rights History is that Dr. King also marched in Chicago as part of the fight to desegregate housing. After facing continuously brutal violence while marching in all-white neighborhoods he said: “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”
But aren’t Northerners supposed to be the good guys?
Another way we can look at the past is through the “good old days” lens, which holds that at some point everything was great in America. The problem with this view is that it has little grounding in truth and it tends to whitewash the serious wrongdoings on which our country was built. A clear example of this was in 2010, when the Texas Board of Education approved certain changes in their history curriculum. One such change was the subtle renaming of “slaves” to “workers.” If not for the objections of a concerned student and his mother, this change could have remained, erasing the reality and legacy of the millions stolen to build our country.
Side stepping or simplifying the truth is more attractive because it’s easier, at least in the short term. It’s definitely easier than facing hard realities like hearing James Baldwin (quoting Malcolm X) remind us, “the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.” It’s more comfortable to proclaim “color-blindness” or to tweet #alllivesmatter than seek to understand why too many in power act as if Black lives don’t matter. But when we replace the truth with lazy, simplistic, or inaccurate history, we can’t possibly begin to work toward reconciliation. This is because reconciliation doesn’t magically happen; we have to work for it in truth.
An Example of Reconciliation
In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the new government was faced with the question of how to heal in a country where many perpetrators and survivors still lived side by side. Given the choice between overburdened courts and indiscriminate revenge, the new government chose to revive a traditional, community-based justice system called Gacaca (“justice among the grass”). Here, local tribunals would determine the truth of what happened with the help of witness testimony in the hopes that the country as a whole would reconcile. Though not perfect, this process is conducted with brutal honesty, in the communities where the killings took place, and in the presence of the survivors. The result for many communities in the country has been peace, renewed trust and long-awaited closure. I don’t pretend to know the difficulties of this experience, but it seems that without it, 1994 would likely have been just another chapter in a book of ethnically-fueled mass murders.
Gacaca is just one example. There are other such structures, as well as dedicated individuals and groups, rooted in the recognition of truth that have helped communities and countries move forward in authentic reconciliation when times seemed darkest.
Reconciliation is tough and takes hard work. But, if we hope to truly reconcile, there’s no other way but to look honestly and critically at our history. Then we need to embrace the messiness of its truth.
Whatever our political views, we’ve become too willing to allow facts and reality to be changed because they make us ashamed. However, the consequences of this are clear if we have the courage to look. This goes for racial divisions as well as the many other fault-lines that we pretend not to see, but which still hurt people. If we keep allowing the truth of our past, the truth of how we really got here, to be distorted for any agenda, the cycle is guaranteed to continue and there will never be actual reconciliation.
Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user Michael Coghlan, found here.
In the light of the seemingly constant political and social conversation which has been ongoing for nearly a month, it comes as no surprise that Super Bowl LI would have political and social statements… BUT, who could have predicted the extent?
These weren’t simply anti-Trump ads; in fact, any direct reference to him was noticeably lacking. Rather, something more happened—and I’m not talking about the historic comeback of the Patriots.
Artists made subtle statements with their actions, companies advocated for inclusion and decency, and the overall tenor of advertisers was directly opposed to fear and anger. All combined into a concerted effort to shift the national conversation: towards hope, towards togetherness, and towards a more positive tone.
In the midst of all the plays and the crazy comeback, did you fumble the message or did you catch it? Here’s a top almost-ten re-cap of a different kind of comeback.
1. Papa Francisco!
Sunday morning, Papa Francis encouraged us to look at the Super Bowl as “a sign of peace, friendship and solidarity.” His video started the tone of encouragement which continued throughout the night.
2. Singing of “Sisterhood”
Several stars from the award-winning musical Hamilton, took the stage before the national anthem. In magnificently singing “America the Beautiful” they extended the language for inclusion: “And crown thy good with brotherhood, and sisterhood, from sea to shining sea.”
3. Budweiser Advocates for the Immigrant: “Born the Hard Way.
At first, the commercial shows a young man coming to America. We have an Ellis Island-type of introduction: passports, long lines, a lack of welcome, insults, even a fire on a riverboat… and then, an American staple: Anheuser-Busch. While the commercial stretches the story of the founding of brewery, it does emphasize the fact that we are nation of immigrants. Our greatness, our identity, and even our staples lie in that diversity.
4. Lady Gaga’s Patriotism and Embrace
Often the halftime show begins with one of the headlining artist’s best-selling songs. So when Lady Gaga launches the halftime show singing “God Bless America” and “This Land is Your Land” on the roof of NRG stadium with drone-created red, white, and blue background floating in the sky: it’s a statement. She stands overlooking the stadium and the Houston skyline—and by extension the United States of America. But then she took it a step further. She ends her rooftop entrance with a thesis statement cribbed from the Pledge of Allegiance: “One Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” All of her performance will be a message as desiring unification and inclusion. Grounded in her faith and patriotism, her statement is not one of criticism or cynicism, but one of hope.
For all of the dancing and pyrotechnics and costumes and jumping off of the roof of the stadium, the image that most haunts from her performance comes at the end of “Million Reasons.” The hope-drenched song ends with her walking into the crowd, holding and hugging a young (brown) woman while the chorus’s command to “stay” echoed through the stadium. The implications of Lady Gaga’s action are clear: go embrace the stranger.
5. Coke’s “Oh Beautiful.”
The chorus is haunting and elegant, as they sing “America the Beautiful” with multiple voices and in multiple languages. It’s not a new advertisement—it originally appeared in 2014, and that in itself makes a powerful statement. Coca-Cola purposely chose to highlight the diverse makeup of the beauty of America. It’s an invitation to look at what makes our country great: each other.
6. #WeAccept: AirBnB’s Many Faces
Airbnb’s commercial features a collage of faces, slowly changing, and including different hair color, eye color, genders, races, etc… There are no words spoken, but a message slowly appears before the faces: “We Believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.” The message and the faces are accompanied by a gentle, echoing piano. Ending with the hashtag #weaccept, it is a striking statement of both encouragement and inclusion.
7. 84 Lumber: “The Journey Begins” & “The Full Journey.”
Easily the most political, this ad is also the most moving. The Journey Begins shows a little girl and her mother making their way into the United States. It begins with a sense of destitution and desperation, opening with the girl and her mother waking up in “their house” which is one step up from a shed. As they travel, we see intense hardship punctuated with intimate moments of joy between the mother and daughter. We also see the little girl grabbing little plastic bits of red, white, and blue garbage. Only half of their story aired on television.
The Full Journey continues, showing further hardship and stress in a desert. Interspersed in their journey, brief images appear of men working construction. The mother and daugher eventually arrive at an impossibly high wall. In that moment, the mother starts to cry and the daughter pulls from her bag an American flag made from the bits of plastic she had gathered along the way. As the mother and the daugher cling to one another, they hear a truck of one of the construction workers driving away. They run towards the noise and find a door. Together they push it open, light washes over them baptizing them in newness and hope. The camera then moves to the truck driving away, and the commercial ends with the text: “The will to succeed is always welcome here.”
8. Morgan Freeman’s Delight in our Differences: Turkish Airlines
Perhaps it’s my deep affinity for Morgan Freeman’s voice or perhaps it’s the depth of the words contained in this 45 second advertisement, but I find the tone of the message striking. Freeman identifies “those of us” who explore with a “sense of wonder” and those “bridging worlds” and “finding delight in our differences.” He then turns that identification into an invitation, “to widen your world.” It appeals to a sense of adventure but also to the genuine depth with which we need to meet others in order to learn more about them. Instead of protesting, the tone of the message is one which invites us to enter deeper into encounter with the other.
9. Google Home: Images of Life, Home, and Togetherness
It may seem strange to close the list with this piece, but the images are so striking in the video that I cannot help but point to more occurring below the surface. It’s a simple premise behind the advertisement: Google Home helps you with life. To express this, Google shows moments of coming home, people laughing, surprise parties, father-daughter laughter, cooking advice, and greetings. Families of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds appear, but that actually matters less than what they are doing. It’s the images which are striking: it’s just people living, people of diverse backgrounds simply, joyfully living. This ordinariness and joy echo both an appeal to “go and live” and a reminder to us of what matters: family and friends. In the midst of all the tense political and social conversation as of late, Google’s commercial reminds us of each other. It reminds us that we can find comfort, life, and joy in those we love. It’s a message which certainly we need to hear more often.
If you are interested in articles with happy endings, you would be better off reading something else. In this article, there is no happy ending, no happy beginning, and very little that is happy or spoiler-free in the middle. This is because not many happy things happen in A Series of Unfortunate Events. My name is Sean Barry, and it is my solemn duty to review this series.
It is fair to say that I am not a very good person to offer a review on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. This is because I approached it with a great deal of “nostalgic bias,” a term which here means that I read the books on which the series is based as a child and they were some of my favorite stories.
I first ran across the books by happenstance at a school book fair when I was either in fifth or sixth grade. I quickly devoured the books, partially because they were easy reads but also because I found something of value visiting a world where tragic misfortune is not the end. Each book follows the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, as they find themselves in many unfortunate situations, as the title would suggest.
If you’re unfamiliar with the books, the antagonist is Count Olaf — Neil Patrick Harris at his best — the Baudelaires’ first guardian after they become homeless orphans at the hands of a fire. He is constantly after their considerable family fortune which will only be available to them once Violet, the eldest, comes of age. Count Olaf will stop at nothing to get his hands on their inheritance, even killing several of the Baudelaires’ guardians in his mad quest.
He is a sickening character. He thinks only of himself and has the singular focus of stealing their fortune. In contrast, the children simply try to grow up together in a world where nothing is stable for them. They earnestly care for each other, as well as the others around them. And, I loved seeing how the siblings use their talents to better work together and foil his plans at every turn. But, with each successive plot, the circumstances grow more dire and their escape even more tenuous. It is clear that they are never going to completely escape the Count, so how do they adapt? How can they survive?
When I was young, these books gave me a sense of hope 1—No matter what evils or unfortunate events befell the Baudelaire children, there was an underlying sense of hope that they would manage to overcome them, though that hope dimmed with each successive book. At the same time, the mystery and intrigue of their world grew. Why does the tattoo on Count Olaf’s ankle continue to show up? How are all of these guardians related to the children? Who really were their parents?
I found the books fun despite their dark scenarios, and the series neatly captures the darkness and the fun. In the first episode of the Netflix series, Count Olaf says to the children, “You may think I am a terrible person. You haven’t the faintest idea.” Even as this gets fleshed out through the Count’s heinous actions in the books, the other dark elements, the vile characters, and the unfortunate circumstances … it’s still a testament that good can overcome evil. No matter how much power evil seems to have, it is conquerable. In addition, the books taught me how others make pain and misery bearable.
The Netflix series does a marvelous job of capturing these feelings. The scenarios are ridiculous but never out of the realm of possibility, such as Count Olaf pretending to be a sea captain on a lake. (None of the adults can identify him). At times the plot can feel rushed or jokes can fall flat, but the series does a beautiful job of expressing the world the Baudelaire children inhabit. I eagerly await the adaptation of the next books in the series.
Of course, I would like to see the children find a stable home in the midst of this series. But that’s not how the story goes. They are doomed to continue this series for an unlucky thirteen tales. If this scenario bothers you, then I suggest you look away and find something more cheerful to occupy your time such as enjoying a walk through the park or some other whimsical activity where misfortune cannot interfere.
African-American History Month started yesterday. Founded in 1926 as an annual week in February, it was expanded in 1976 to encompass the entire month. Wasn’t one week enough? Do we need an entire month to acknowledge the presence of African-Americans in American culture and society?
Given the history of African-Americans, the answer must be yes.
Let’s recall that history. First, Africans were hunted and captured throughout the African continent. Second, they were forced into crowded slave ships that sailed across the Middle Passage to the Americas. Third, they were transformed into chattel to be sold on an auction block into slavery. This process reduced to animals to be owned by white persons, and created a social order literally built on the marginalization of the black race.
Fourth, when they were finally freed from slavery and began to rebuild their lives, they faced lynching, segregation, and Jim Crow laws which rendered them equal to dogs. It was only in the 1960s’ that legislation eliminated Jim Crow laws. That means African Americans have only been considered fully equal under federal law for 52 years.
Given the continued racism that perpetuate their unequal opportunities, it’s not surprising that scholars like Charles Mills argue that our country is a white supremacist society.
I know: this term is really controversial. When we think “white supremacist,” we have images of the KKK from the 1950’s and fringe neo-nazi groups today. Mills is making a different argument. “Supremacy” here is a synonym for superiority. Clearly pre-1965 whites were seen to be superior to blacks. But what makes this argument different today from the standard KKK image is that African Americans are socialized to see themselves as less-human than other people.
What does this mean, less human? It means that because of media imagery, police brutality, neighborhood inequality, and inferior schools, black children grow up having to negotiate what it means to be black in a society that privileges all images of white persons. It means negotiating complex feelings about oneself, because the dominant imagery renders them not equally human – because they are not equally white.
This is admittedly a really complex thing to grapple with, and certainly it is one I deeply struggle with. Am I truly part of a white supremacist society, one that always sees whites as superior to anyone else – including myself as an ethnic minority?
I, though not white, grew up believing that being white was the superior, more American way to be. This was not taught to me by my family, but inherited via school, the television shows I watched, and the books I read. Should I have learned about the African-American experience, it was on the fringe for this one month each year. This is not just a sad story for African- Americans, but for all of us. When I began to question my own assumptions about society, I didn’t want to give up my image of the superior white idol. Untangling my assumptions was painful because it meant I am implicated in a structure of white supremacy – and I must constantly wrestle with it – even today.
But that is precisely my call, and, I believe, our call as fellow Americans. As a nation, we cannot continue to live with the false idol that one (white) group is superior to all others, for this impedes our own journey as humans. To be fully human is to be a person who is free of labels that lower one’s status. It also means to be free of needing to subjugate others to build one’s own identity.
Said another way, this African-American History Month is about recognizing the struggles blacks have had and the system of white supremacy that made black and non-black lives possible.
It’s about questioning how I understand who counts as the ideal American, and patriotically pledging to wrestle with this in my engagement in all aspects of my life. That includes working against social structures that perpetuate the racial hierarchy.
This is a difficult task, perhaps utopian in its goal. Yet until our black brothers and sisters are not formed to think they are existentially “less than,” coupled with breaking away from the subconscious belief that white people are superior, then none of us will ever be free.
“That’s not my name,” I shouted, “My name is Damian!” I was angry. Maybe there were tears, I can’t remember, but I remember shouting a third grade shout. “Leave me alone!”
“Okay, Taco Paco.”
“Stop!” I yelled.
“Whatever, Burrito Pete.”
“My name is DAMIAN!”
“No, your name is Poop Crusty!” They laughed a third grade laugh, piercing and volatile and mean.
“That’s not my name!” Now there were tears. My skin was being compared to feces. I may have been eight but I understood the insult. I tried to be strong, but sometimes I just couldn’t be.
At my well-to-do Catholic grade school I was one of a handful who had brown or black skin, the only one in my class. I was also very shy and overweight. I was slow at reading. I still solved math problems by counting on my fingers. The Payless shoes I wore didn’t compare to the name brands running around at recess. And I felt more comfortable playing hopscotch and foursquare than touch football.
I wasn’t aware how these attributes made me different until my classmates taught me. It was like a real life game of, “One of These Things is Not Like the Other.” I never had a chance to fit in. Those kids made me into an eight-year-old with handicaps, a fatso, retard, hobo, stupid gay-wad. I was pushed around, spat on and laughed at; bullied, by any other name. Teachers said it was just boys being boys, kids being kids. “You need to toughen up,” one teacher said. I may have been a kid, but those words weren’t comforting coming from an adult.
A few years back I witnessed a homeless man being shoved around by teenagers. My heart sank and my legs sprang into action, running towards the scene, shouting: “Stop! Stop!” A levee of emotion burst and I began shoving these kids to the ground. They ran away, and I saw the man’s ashy face streaked with tears, his change cup ripped and money strewn about. As he collected himself and his things, we spoke. Actually, it was more like…we sat. Something in me didn’t want to leave him alone.
The distance between me and where he decided to sit expressed the deep distrust of strangers. He was beside himself, rife with tears and audible cries. Eventually I said something. I can’t remember what exactly, probably some comment on the weather. Whatever I said, it was a place to begin. Gradually, the gap between us narrowed. I learned about his dreams of wanting to own a barbershop. He had three kids and an ex-wife, Lucy. He had an obsession with washing his hands and sneaking pumps of lotion from the Walgreens down the street. And being harassed by kids wasn’t new to him.
From the trembling of his voice I imagined a heart already too shattered to break, almost eviscerated by the teasing and taunting of teenagers. To be homeless wasn’t a requirement to understand this man’s grief. All I could do in that moment was offer dignity and companionship. To do that, I drew from the afflictions in my own life story to grasp the emotion of what he was going through. Two hours and a Subway sandwich later, we parted.
My experiences at the well-to-do Catholic grade school branded themselves into my psyche.They’ve informed the ways I’ve engaged my world, my relationships, and my self-understanding. It’s taken an enormous amount of time to mend the damage and nurse the bruises. But I’ve recognized more and more, with damage and bruises comes a kind of sensitivity – a sensitivity for myself and even more, a sensitivity for others.
I could hear suffering and loneliness, anguish and misery from that homeless man. The course of his life made these feelings particular to him. But the particulars of these sentiments in my own life gave me the ability to sit with him, to hold his hand through tears and stretches of silence as he gathered his thoughts and felt his way through the pain. I was able to listen to him beyond words, because his pain was in his heart and I understood.
There are many instances where I find myself drawn to people pushed to the edges of society. I recognize myself in their shoes even if the shoes I’m wearing are a different color. My life includes wonderful memories and beautiful, life-altering moments. But it also includes profound rejection and hurt. Pain I didn’t want, but pain I received.
So if I can, I’ll confront a name-caller. I won’t tell anyone they need to toughen up if life is getting hard. I’ll create an atmosphere of inclusion with whomever is in my presence. And if someone tries to shove me to the ground because of who I am, I have hope a stranger will fend them off, sit with me, and maybe buy me a sandwich.
Recent events have reminded me of Jacques Maritain’s book Man and the State. Therein he makes four points about an obscure topic that is now splashed all over the headlines: democratic prophecy.
- Prophecy is necessary to democracy.
Democracy like every government has a legal structure. In fact, what we typically call “democracies” are not democracies at all. Rather, they are governments with the form of a republic and the democratic principle of popular sovereignty.
But for all the forms, structures and norms, a society always has to rediscover the principles that found their institutions, and often in spite of those institutions. For a democracy, that task has to be carried out by the people. And so democracy depends upon “the dynamic leaven or energy which fosters political movement, and which cannot be inscribed in any constitution or embodied in any institution, since it is both personal and contingent in nature, and rooted in free initiative.”1
In other words: prophecy cannot be replaced by law, history, technology, bureaucracy or better policy. And so, if democratic societies are to flourish, they must make room for it.
- Prophets arise in moments of crisis.
Prophets are necessary when the structure breaks down. They thus arise in the midst of difficult times:
“They are needed especially in the periods of crisis, birth, or basic renewal of a democratic society… The primary work of the inspired servant of the people is to awaken the people, to awaken them to something better than everyone’s daily business, to the sense of a supra-individual task to be performed.” 2
It goes without saying that we live in challenging times. But what will our response to those times be? For it is in our response to such challenges that we determine whether now should be a time of death or rebirth for our society. Prophecy has to be nourished on the hope that rebirth is still possible.
- Prophets are self-appointed.
By definition, prophets are outside political and social structures:
“And those servants or prophets of the people are not – not necessarily – elected representatives of the people. Their mission starts in their own hearts and consciousness. In this sense they are self-appointed prophets.” 3
Prophets must respond to a call to speak the truth, and they must be willing to own that call before others. If they are self-appointed, however, they only have their power in receiving the support of their people. And in this sense they are not self-appointed, but called forth by the people. Prophecy thus demands a double responsibility: of prophets to have the courage to speak, and of the people to discern that prophetic status and support them.
Prophecy, then, offers persons the chance to revitalize their character as citizens fully invested in their community. Will ordinary citizens take up that call? And will they sustain their energy for justice?
- Prophets mean false prophets.
For all the necessity of prophecy, it comes with a risk:
“That is a quite vital and necessary social phenomenon. And it is a quite dangerous phenomenon. For where there is inspiration and prophecy, there are false prophets and true prophets; thieves aiming to dominate men and servants aiming to set them free; inspirations from dark instincts and inspiration from genuine love… It is easy to mistake impure inspiration for unsullied inspiration; nay more, it is easy to slip from genuine inspiration to a corrupt one.” 4
Indeed, in politics we routinely treat our enemies like false prophets. But who are the real prophets? In our own times we see a seemingly prophetic wave of reaction against a leader whose own rise was hailed as a prophetic reversal of a president who was himself accorded unprecedented prophetic status in 2008.
This complex history is no proof that there are no prophets. It only increases the urgency of discerning the true from the false – and of asking what “truth” really means. And here we are come to the complex relation between democracy and truth: is the truth what the majority of people say it is? Or is the truth something that must be recognized and defended even against its denial by the majority?
Maritain’s thoughts provide no immediate solutions for our problems. Yet at a time when our society desperately needs an account of truth and truth-saying, the prophetic tradition stands as a reminder that democracy has moral resources drawing on wisdom far older than present circumstances.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Randy OHC.
I figured I’d put this at the front: I am not an economic expert. I do hold a Bachelor Degree in Economics and did work (for two years) in the field, but I am especially unqualified to opine on major shifts in economic thought. Since I am not an expert but do know some experts, I hope I might bridge this gap a bit. So lend me your eyes for a few minutes.
After the Great Recession of 2008, the public’s faith in economics was shaken. Nearly all of the “experts” failed to predict the damaging downturn, let alone propose strategies to prevent it. Yet somehow the discipline of economics has survived and even thrived since then! Even I chose to study economics in the heat of the recession, because I thought it would become more, not less important to understand.
I think the recent global political trends betray a different challenge to the field of economics. The dismal science and other statistical methodologies failed to predict both Brexit and the election of President Trump. In fact, most economists were vocal in warning about the negative economic impacts that would probably result. Now the experts are still scrambling to explain how and why these things happened despite their best advice.
The response from academic economics has been varied. One response has been to double down on econ as an important explanatory factor or to simply accept and lament the divide between experts and the “laity”. Others have called for changes in the way economics is done. I tend to fall in the latter camp and am particularly intrigued by a movement called “Rethinking Economics” which seeks to make econ more accessible to everyday people and revitalize political debate beyond the economic sphere.
I would like to highlight three problems in economics that ought to be addressed to restore trust between the people and economic experts: the domination of economics in politics; the assumptions of mainstream economic thought; and the lack of diversity in the discipline.1
Politics is not economics. There, I said it. Money and material goods are not the only things that people desire from social interactions, therefore there must be a realm of politics that is not governed by the rules of economics. This view has not been popular in recent decades when all political questions are boiled down to economic ones. I think this aggravates polarization because economics prefers to have simple answers to technical problems. “Policy X is good because my model says so.” There is no room for legitimate disagreement among people of goodwill. There are two groups of “experts” who are convinced that their models are correct and the other side’s models are flawed. Politics ought to be considered a moral discipline seeking the common good through the study of ethics, philosophy and other humanities in addition to economics and statistical sciences.
Certainly everyone has material needs. Most of us work 5 days a week to provide ourselves and our families with food, clothing and shelter. This is good and noble, but we, both individually and collectively, cannot allow our concerns to stop there. As individuals, but even more so as communities, we ought to recognize and address our spiritual needs for love, purpose, forgiveness etc. That is not to say that economics can or should adequately address the spiritual realm, but rather that economics should be held in perspective.
In reality, all economic models are flawed because human beings are extremely complex in our motivations and decision making. Often we make seemingly illogical or counter-intuitive choices, not to mention that preferences vary widely across cultures and individuals. To model our behavior economists must make assumptions. They assume that everyone behaves rationally and chooses what benefits themselves the most. Furthermore, most economics values parsimony: the idea that the simplest explanation for a particular phenomenon is the best. One need only to reflect on their own life to see how false these assumptions are.
Lastly, the study of economics has become homogenous in the past decades. What passes for economics in most universities is a highly formulaic and uniform method called neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economics emphasizes mathematics; theoretical modeling of supply and demand; and the self-interested individual as the basis of the economy. While other ways of doing economics exist, if you have studied any economics, chances are it was neoclassical and it was presented simply as “economics”. Many voices have criticized neoclassical economics for being out of touch with reality and amoral but there has been little deviation from this approach in academia.
The lack of a diversity of approaches within economics has led to increasing mistrust from everyday people. Economics has evolved into one way of understanding and talking about the world which has diverged from how most people see it.
President Trump has appointed relatively few economists to major positions in his cabinet, likely reflecting a perceived skepticism of economists among his supporters. If economists don’t shape up and reform the discipline it may lose its relevance.
I believe this would have tragic results for our society. Experts and especially economic experts are essential to a well functioning political community. But if we are to thrive as a nation and civilization, we need economists who are in touch with reality and are seeking a robust understanding of the common good.
As the annual March for Life gets underway today in Washington, D.C., people are standing up for both women and the lives of the unborn. Despite the exclusion of NewWave Feminists as co-sponsors at the Women’s March, many pro-life women and men demonstrated alongside those who are “pro-choice.” Many of these same folks may show up again for the March for Life as well. Why? Our society is only as just as we treat the least in our society. That not only means working to stop abortions, but working to create a culture in which women do not need to have them – in which there are supports to help them and keep them from worrying about how they will continue their education or pay their bills, and what their families, friends, or community may think of them. These marches and protests don’t happen every day though, so what can we do all the other days of the year to build a culture of life?
1) Volunteer. Look for agencies like crisis pregnancy help centers or women’s shelters near you. Help out at a nursing home or hospice care center. Or, maybe consider finding a way to start offering something new with and through a local pro-life organization. Build relationships with those who are in a place where it is or has been difficult to choose life. Be there for them.
2) Collect resources. Single mothers may have difficulty affording basic necessities for their child: things like baby food, diapers, car seats, house baby-proofing items, breast pumps and baby bottles. There are organizations out there that would be happy to help distribute items for you. Ask them what they need.
3) Read and have conversations with both those with whom agree and also those with whom you disagree. If you belong to a college or university community, or have access to academic journals, find sources that align with your views and others that do not. Think critically about both sides and give people the benefit of the doubt for the sake of learning – not apologetics. Talk civilly, not angrily, with those you know you may disagree with.1 Read about women’s experiences of abortion, feel emotions, and pray for not only those women but women who feel they have no other choices except abortion.
4) Do something that supports life at its later stages.
- Visit or talk with your grandparents or other older figures in your life. Talk with your neighbors and get to know them. Offer to help with yard work or apartment cleaning if they’re unable to do it themselves. Let them know how much they mean to you. Listen to their stories. Play a board game or just sit silently enjoying a view together.
- Volunteer at a homeless shelter or NGO and get to know the people being served. What is going on in their lives? Learn about what choosing life means for them in their day-to-day reality.
- Support organizations that are working for restorative justice or that care for migrants.
- Find a way to live more environmentally friendly. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis says “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” (LS, 120) I’d argue this relationship is reciprocal. Being pro-life is incompatible with lack of care for the environment and ecosystems. Find ways to grow your own vegetables or herbs. Compost. Buy a solar charger for your phone. Take public transportation. Join a co-op or community garden.
5) Contact your local, state, and federal representatives in support of initiatives that you see as pro-life. Whether it be health care, climate change, social service legislation, the death penalty, immigration, or any other issue, support what you think will genuinely help people to choose life and not participate in our throwaway culture.
Promoting a culture of life can take on a variety of forms, from participating in a march to following one of the suggestions I’ve made above. Hopefully, one day at a time, we can work together to build a culture that respects life in all of its forms, from conception to natural death.
Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user SJA KofC Life Line, found here.
The beautiful colors of the leaves and the cool tinge in the air make for perfect running conditions. I’m near the end of a nine-mile run, feeling wonderful. Just two miles left to go at a comfortable pace. The measured footfalls hit a rhythm while I simply revel in the joys of running.
But then, in the corner of my eye, I see her running on the other side of the street, heading the same direction as me. She’s obscured, because I have forgotten my contacts. Still, I can see a pony tail… and a bright, bold blue shirt… and hot pink shorts… and, she is pacing me. I ignore her for a moment, but then add another step between my breaths, dropping 15 seconds per mile from my pace.
I’m over seven miles into the run, and my legs begin quietly complaining about the increase. Still, I run. The beautiful leaves and color move a little faster past me, but I’m sure they are just as pretty, I think to myself. I give a half-glance to my right, and on the other side of the street I find her step-for-step matching me. I turn my head forward and I continue running, ignoring her… for a moment. I think, I can go faster. I trim my stride down another 20 seconds.
Nearly to mile 8. My legs have stopped quietly complaining; they are now screaming. Still, beautiful leaves and all that nonsense, I think to myself. I try to keep my eyes forward, but they glance right. Damn.
Across the street is a bright blue and pink blur, and she’s mirroring my every step. With my head forward again my eyes squint, attempting to block out anything but the path in front of me. The sidewalk. The leaves. The… nope. I can’t do it. I kick in and drop my pace again, this time shaving an additional 30 seconds off per mile.
I’m less than a mile from home—I’m moving quite a bit faster than my preference. My legs have decided to give me the silent treatment, or they are pretending to be jelly—I can’t distinguish which, but I know they aren’t happy. My core and lower back have joined forces, and in an attempt to get me to be reasonable, have decided to start spasming. My chest, feeling left out, has set my lungs on fire. My heart is attempting to beat its way out of my rib cage.
But, gasp, the leaves, gasp, and colors, gasp, and… and… gasps…
I’m certain this run sucks. I hate it, I think to myself. I swear I hate running. Hate it.
But, I think, at least I’m winning. At least I’m… and once again, I look right.
Step-for-step, she’s there.
Three-quarters of a mile remaining, and my body hates me. I know that tomorrow it will punish me, but I’ve gone too far. No regrets! I tell myself—knowing that’s a lie. I drop my pace down again. I’m basically sprinting, and I feel every step, each a hard impact with the sidewalk. I know full-well: I’ve got nothing more. So instead, I veer left onto a side street taking an alternate route for the final half mile.
I’m exhausted. I’m furious. The run is ruined. She ruined my run. I tell myself these things, but I also realize it’s my fault. I just don’t want to admit it.
The next day I’m sitting in a coffee shop waiting for a friend. I have coffee, a book, and a body that hurts in every place imaginable. Each slight move I make finds a new soreness and a new argument for how silly I had been to run so hard. As my friend walked into the shop, I could see the furious look on her face:
“Colten! YOU RUINED MY RUN!”
I didn’t know it was her when I was running; I had forgotten to wear my contacts.
Even so, I’m not sure it would have changed anything.
Who was I really racing against?
She and I are perfectionists and type-A personalities. Sometimes that comes with a competitive streak that gets in the way of good things, like friendship or celebrating someone else’s successes. As she and I focused solely on winning—or maybe worse, on the other person losing—we ruined a good thing. We let the competitive streak separate us and destroy an activity which we both love.
But, I ruined my run, not her.
And, she ruined her run, not me.
The race was never against each other; it was always against ourselves. Yet, in our perfectionism and competitiveness we turned something good into a contest that we both lost.
She and I have since run with each other, and for the most part we held back from pushing the other’s pace. It may take us time, but I think we are growing to realize that not everyone is a competitor and not everything is a race.
The cover image can be found here at pexels.com.
A few years ago I found myself in an airport terminal with time to spare before boarding my flight. Ambling among the gates, I stopped to peruse a shelf of paperbacks until The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan caught my eye. Keegan delivered an address by the same name at her graduation from Yale in 2012; she died tragically five days later in a car crash. I stood there in Hudson News and read something from Keegan’s title essay that has remained with me: “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life… It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.” Tears welled up in my eyes as I flipped through the collection of essays, moved for this young woman, her insight, her honesty, her death. I returned the book to the shelf of paperbacks and headed to my gate. I was traveling alone, but I felt less lonely for having encountered Marina Keegan.
On Saturday, millions of people around the globe joined in the Women’s March in Washington D.C. and its sister marches.1 The march of more than 60,000 that I attended in Atlanta was among the most joyful events I can recall.2 From the packed train cars on the way to the march to the packed train cars home, a spirit of gentleness, strength, and fierce beauty abounded. Women and men high-fived and hugged police officers, who high-fived and hugged back. Wheelchairs and baby carriages were pushed with care and deference, marchers laughed and smiled easily between unwavering calls for justice and equality across our society.
Without question, the inauguration of Donald Trump as president was the catalyst for these marches. The marches, though, surpassed opposition to a leader, or a policy, or a political party. These marches may have started with people standing together against something, but they became about standing together. Period. Millions of us experienced the opposite of loneliness last Saturday. It was communion – a sudden awareness of living in a web of relationships of solidarity and care – and it gave birth to hope. Whenever we feel the opposite of loneliness, we are given the chance to hope.
Everyone needs this communion. Its alternative is isolation, and in isolation there is only despair. We isolate ourselves in many ways: through the wrongs that we commit and the wrongs that we don’t speak out against. Through belief that we have been abandoned by God and by those around us. By failing to see that we are capable of relationships, that the world needs us, our gifts, and our participation in the whole web of things. Perhaps especially, we isolate ourselves through our own uncompromising rigidity.
As a person unreasonably privileged by our society, I can almost always opt into things or stand back in judgment of them without fear of personal consequence. Sadly, I exercise the option of judgment all the time. Unless I know that the march will turn out a certain way, I won’t attend. Unless I agree with everything it’s about, I conscientiously object. If I don’t totally understand or control my surroundings, I take my proverbial toys and go home. I’ve done it countless times.
And yet the invitation remains – even for the privileged like me – not to be alone. To choose hope. To move boldly from the dry sand of isolation into the waters of communion. On Saturday I found out, as millions of others did, that the water is fine. In fact, rather than losing ourselves in this ocean of communion, we found ourselves in hope.
Marina Keegan put her finger on the thing that each of us needs, wise well beyond her 22 years. The opposite of loneliness is communion and it’s what I want in life, too. I don’t just want it for myself; when I taste this communion, I want to invite other people in. I don’t want to harbor hate, or prejudice, or judgment anymore. I don’t want to hold unreasonable power at the expense of those who welcomed me to march alongside them on Saturday, and those who have been marching for generations. And so I will continue to act, and I will invite others to do the same.
I had my deepest hope confirmed this weekend. None of us has to be alone. Women all around the globe, throngs of beautifully diverse people of every race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion – richly human people – were saying the same thing to one another, including the people to whom society gives power, like me: let go of judgment, hate, exclusion, isolation and despair. Grab a sign and jump in. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the only thing there is. Believe me: the water’s fine.
Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user mobili, found here.
For weeks now, we’ve been brainstorming what we can do to rebuild ourselves and our nation. Whether it’s through educating ourselves about racism or recharging via nostalgic television shows, we have to move on – productively. The question, of course, is how?
Following the Second World War and the devastation of the Holocaust, some philosophers like Martin Heidegger turned to works of art to move forward. Their focus was on aesthetic experiences, experiences that evoke a feeling of beauty, of something greater than the wreckage of the war. The rationality: we can’t let death have the last word – through producing art and writing about it, we can bring new life and meaning into the world.
Admittedly our situation is not clearly so dire. We did not witness the execution of eleven million people. And, this weekend’s Women’s March shows that people are still engaged. That being said, many Americans continue to feel hopeless. We are more fearful than ever. Like the Post-WWII era, could art exhibitions offer us one way to work through our experience of troubled times?
On the one hand, the works in Cracking Power trouble our senses of selves. Images of wounds remind us that at any moment, forces of insecurity might rupture our sense of stability amidst a fragile existence. His soap structures ironically juxtapose these too, also, though more subtly: power, seen in the form of a chair, is stable. Yet the sculpture can disappear when met by such an ordinary substance: water. Whether via dramatic burst or slow evasion, we realize permanence fades away. In the words of dear Taylor Swift, nothing lasts forever.
We know this from our own personal experience. A relationship ends – perhaps without us realizing it has been falling apart for years. A car accident takes someone we love, instantly. A political loss means a given cultural reality fades away. For some, that means being rendered an irrelevant stranger.
But, on the other hand, Pham’s Cracking Power suggests radical potential and newness. Out of painful ruptures we can take reclaim ourselves – and our communities. Loss does not have to be forever. Whether we feel personally inferior or collectively defenseless, renewal and innovation is possible. In Pham’s own words, ruptures, cracks, and wounds
can be a transformative moment of well-formed moral character. A social rupture can catalyze and bring forth a process of cultural revolution. In art, rupture provides an aesthetic experience in the form of primordial force.
Aesthetic experiences like Pham’s remind us that we can take painful moments and re-appropriate them into a newly reinvigorated political imagination.
Both our story of faith and the long progress of history tell us that devastation doesn’t have to be the last word. As our former President Obama reminded us two weeks ago,
Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power—with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.
Art, like Pham’s, prompt us to question our disillusionment. It prompts us to re-engage ourselves and our communities so that we might renew and restore social order. His work suggests perpetual stability is constantly evasive, but this is exciting. It means that our work to create personal meaning and community is never done. We fulfill our role in our great democracy by taking up this call each day of our lives. Pham has found his role as an artist and social critique. Now, let’s find ours.
The photos, in order, are entitled “Crack 2” (cover photo), Wound 3, Slanted Chair, and Rupture 9. All photos are courtesy of the artist. Click here to learn more information about Cracking Power and the work of Trung Pham SJ. Cracking Power is currently on display at Tobya Art Gallery in Seattle, WA.
To explore the power of art for political change, consider visiting local museums for the aesthetic experience described by Pham.
At 12:00pm EST on Friday, January 20th, 2017, Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America. I’m sure that the proceedings will be on any number of television channels, to say nothing of live-streams, live-tweeting, and so forth. But will I tune in to any of these media?
In the midst of the primaries, I thought Trump was a joke candidate. During the general election, I found myself aghast at many of his words and antics. I was stunned by the results on election night. After collecting my jaw off the floor, I resolved to give the President-elect a chance, hoping that the gravity of the office to which he had been elected might spur him to correct both the tenor and content of his campaign.
Much to my dismay, that hope has not been met.
Despite this disappointment, I still feel this nagging desire to watch the inauguration. I don’t know what time period (if any such period exists) is hearkened to in the phrase “Make America Great Again.” I do, however, desire America’s greatness, and so tuning in to a notable event in American civic life like a presidential inauguration is appealing to me.
America’s greatness, however, is not measured by the occupant of the Oval Office or the political composition of Congress. Rather, it is measured by the ability of her people to come together, celebrate the diversity of our backgrounds, find common causes and solutions, and ensure the flourishing of all people, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
It almost goes without saying that our elected leaders hold disproportionate sway in determining how well we can accomplish these challenging tasks. That is, after all, the nature of representative democracy. However, saying that elected officials hold more power does not lead to the conclusion that everyone else holds no power. So what is it that we common citizens can do to exercise our power and make America actually great? (By the way, my hope is that these questions and tips apply to everyone, no matter how you voted in November.)
- Are you concerned about the polarization this latest election revealed in our country? Meet and converse with someone with whom you disagree.
- Is someone in your life threatened by Trump’s campaign promises and precedents, on the grounds of their race, religion, orientation, gender, or immigration status? Reach out to them, tell them you care about them, and ask what you can do to better support them.
- Do you see Congress preparing to take an action with which you disagree? Write a letter, pick up the phone, or even contact them on social media.1
- Do all of these suggestions simply seem inadequate to address the significant issues facing our country? Stay active in the process, go to a rally or protest, keep voting, maybe even run for office yourself!
As it turns out, I won’t be watching the inauguration on Friday, not out of protest, but because I’ll be proctoring a mathematics exam at that time. If I were available, though, I would tune in. Not for the festivities. Not to support the President-elect. But to be informed about what’s going on in our country. As citizens, we have the power to take action and engage our shared public life. I think that makes America pretty great.
Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user angela n., found here.
Peace is only found in yes.
The plain but powerful mantra was glowing – almost vibrating – off a photocopied page from some collection of pithy spiritual one-liners. I was beginning a retreat for busy people – professionals who needed a nudge in the direction of the divine. Yes, I thought. Yes is where I will find my peace. Yes is where my happiness rests. Yes will be my salvation.
I was, after all, a yes man. At the time, I worked with university student organizations and built a career around saying that single, simple word. Yes, of course I’ll be at the Mass you planned for this Saturday. Yes, of course I’ll sit in your group’s dunk tank, or let you throw pies in my face, or form a team to participate in a 12-hour stationary bike marathon. Yes, of course I’ll give you a second chance. Yes, of course I’ll turn the other way.
This perpetual yes-ing has continued. I left that job for another yes, a response to some deep question about the religious life. And wouldn’t you know it, after a few years away from full-time work, I’m at it again, this time at a startup college trying to meet the needs of young people who (by no fault of their own) face significant adversity in earning a higher education degree. Everything is new, and everyone seems to do everything. Most of the time, yes feels like the only option. The right option.
Why, then, does peace so often hide from me?
A friend invited me to a private conversation some years ago. We were living at a university in Denver, and on the day we sat down, the sun was shining brightly in the thin mile-high air, the mountainous horizon drawing my attention toward some unknown adventure. There were black bears and brown trout and wild blueberries deep in the woods of my mind’s eye. Before me, people were playing frisbee on an expansive lawn, and I longed for the feel of bristly July grass under my bare feet. A group I knew was off to Ft. Collins for the afternoon, no doubt seeking the bitter, piney taste of the latest issue of summer IPAs. Yet, there I was with him, my good friend, on a coated wire bench outside a campus dining hall.
He shared that he wanted a deeper friendship with me. He feared I was trying to be too many things to too many people, and that there might not be room for him. He thought that I was the kind of person who could offer him true companionship; he didn’t want to be just another person that I drank beer with a few times a year. I told him I agreed, and I was willing to commit to strengthening our bond.
I’ve never really made good on that yes, though. That was three and a half years ago.
A different friend called me in mid-December and asked if I could pull together some music for a New Year’s Eve prayer service. He called because he needed help. He called because I love music, and because he knew I had the capacity to do it. He called me because I say yes. Imagine our surprise, then, when I said no.
Disappointment swelled in his voice. We chatted for another minute and hung up. I floundered immediately. I wanted him to know that I could handle anything. I thought to call him back, apologize for abandoning him, and then agree to take the full weight of the task. As I searched for his number, I did schedule-gymnastics in my mind and found the time.
Some people seem to have 25 usable hours everyday. What I do in a week, they do in an afternoon. They never let anyone down, they can be all things to everyone, and they always finish the job. I’m coming to realize that I’m not one of these people. I can do a lot. But, I can’t do it all. I say yes joyfully but negligently, and while the intention is good, the results can be harmful. Things don’t get done, I get burned out, and people are left sitting on benches for years.
But still, the yes to my friend and his request for companionship followed me. Now he and and I are in regular communication; an old door is newly open, a growing desire to finally become closer to him, a chance to make good on the deal we struck all those years ago. My yes is drawing me back into a promise I made but couldn’t find the energy or honesty to keep.
And my other friend – the one with the music – he called me back. He told me he was grateful I said no, grateful that I knew what I couldn’t handle. He knew it was hard for me to turn him down. My no wouldn’t affect our friendship. And somehow, in that no, I felt peace.
There is some amount of grief in every decision. Saying yes to one thing always means no to something else. Saying no may open doors, and saying yes may close them. I’m learning how to tell the difference. Peace can be found in yes, but only sometimes. At other times, the greatest peace I know can also be found in no.
HBO just premiered its sumptuously weird 10-episode miniseries about an American Pope (spoiler alert: he’s young). Here’s some stuff you might have missed on a first watch-through:
1. Is this who they really think we are?
Why did Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino choose an American to be the brash, insincere, menacing, and generally-odious protagonist? We wonder if this watermelon-eating, hyperbole-craving, shadow-of-a-human-being is how we Americans might be perceived in the rest of the world. Oh, wait:
Another Trump characteristic: he enjoys asserting his authority and robbing others of their dignity. #TheYoungPope
— Michael Clear (@MichaelClear) January 16, 2017
2. His dreamy Urbi et Orbi
Pius XIII presents himself on the papal balcony to deliver an exuberant speech introducing himself to the world. Celebrating individual freedom with all the earnest enthusiasm of Joel Osteen, he is relishing the moment and eating up the applause from the crowds. He is clearly enjoying his new role, but a bit differently than this Argentinian fellow:
— Michael J O’Loughlin (@MikeOLoughlin) January 16, 2017
3. Diane Keaton’s ascendance
Diane Keaton finally gained the control she’s been missing since she was Kay Corleone in The Godfather Part II. As Sister Mary, she raised Pope Lenny since he was a child and now she is his only confidant. She’s certainly the only one comfortable lecturing Pius XIII on his grave responsibilities.
4. Forrest Gump feather
One scene, in which a group of cardinals commiserate over the Holy Spirit’s role in the papal election, opens with a single white feather floating down in the air. It’s reminiscent of the most-famous-of-all floating white feathers: the one that lead us through the life of Forrest Gump. Irony: Pius XIII is basically the complete opposite of Forrest and perhaps that is the point. The cardinals think it’ll be easy to manipulate the new pope, but they’ll be in for a surprise if they underestimate him.
5. Gossip and Calumny vs. Pope Francis
Pope Lenny is dismissive of the sin of spilling secrets. Though one Vatican priest calls this prying calumny, to the American it’s just simple gossip. Pope Francis is of the former opinion, invoking Satan himself when giving his 2014 Christmas address to the actual Vatican’s Curia:
This is a serious disease that begins simply when people chatter, and it takes over the person, turning the person as a Satan, and in so many cases people are speaking ill about their own colleagues and brothers and sisters. These people haven’t got the courage to speak directly, and they speak about others behind their backs. Dear brothers, let us be aware and guard against the terrorism of gossip.
Piece of evidence #315 Jude Law might be playing Satan?
7) The smell of s— and life
When asked by Sister Mary if he likes his living in the Vatican, Father Andrew answers, “This place smells like incense and death. I prefer the smell of s— and life.” This one’s easy to imagine Pope Francis saying. Our actual Holy Father seems to find more life engaged with the world in all its ambiguity and grace than in the hermetically-sealed Vatican. Also this:
Pope Francis to Washington DC clergy: A good shepherd must smell like his sheep or he’s not truly been carrying them pic.twitter.com/kDW17SgTHK
— Ike Chukwubuike (@IkeChukwubuike) April 17, 2016
8) Hurt people hurt people.
Lenny’s life started with his running off to start a new life in Venice and dropping him off at an orphanage on the way. “No one loves me,” he tells Sister Mary, “which is why I’m prepared for any kind of violence from everyone.” This fear makes Lenny vulnerable–he has to protect himself from his embittered mentor, crying “Don’t talk to me like that, you’re hurting me.” Maybe this bit of 12-step wisdom explains why he gets so much pleasure out of humiliating his entourage.
9) The Young Pope is beautiful, ridiculous, and confusing and leaves you wondering what the point is.
Okay, you might not have missed that. But, it is interesting how a such an implausible, surrealistic show can evoke the feeling of daily life suffused by grace–confused beauty searching for meaning amidst a fair share of evil.
10) The symbolism of Jude Law crawling through the infant-built Arc De Triomphe
We certainly didn’t miss the unforgettable open, but we did miss the symbolism. What do you think it means? Tell us in the comments below.
Standing before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech to over 250,000 people:
I have a dream that my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Every Friday before MLK Jr. Day growing up, my teachers in school would project a video of his speech for us to hear. I’d listen thinking that since racism is over, the speech was simultaneously inspiring and repetitive.
Admittedly, we’ve come way since 1963: for example, many this people week are thinking of November 2008 when our country elected the first African-American president, Barack Obama – with a wife, Michelle, whose family ancestry includes black slaves. For some, this signaled the end of racism in our nation.
And, on this day celebrating racial progress, many other people are thinking about our future president and his controversial racialized language during the campaign. Subsequent post-election accounts of racist acts suggest that perhaps we’ve made less racial progress than we thought. Both ABC’s television show Black-ish and this week’s cover of the New Yorker Magazine boldly highlight the still wounding legacy of American racism.
Certainly voting for Trump does not mean one is a racist person – one who hates other persons based on the color of their skin. That being said, each of us make assumptions and have harbor prejudices about the people we interact with – including myself. These prejudices are implicitly formed by our conceptions of the great America – usually driven by the white heterosexual middle-class suburban version – shaped by a historical legacy of American exceptionalism, slavery, and Manifest Destiny.
Theologian Kelly Brown Douglass explicates this connection in her excellent 2015 book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. Explorers like Christopher Columbus “found”two continents full of people. But because these settlers saw themselves as ordained by God to “cultivate” and “civilize” the lands, they justified via “God’s will” the extermination of the Native population in today’s now US while also creating a labor forced based in the enslavement of African peoples. This mindset infiltrated the consciousness of our Founding Fathers, too. When the land of the East was not enough, the Manifest Destiny narrative provided justification for more land seizures. Said another way, our great America was founded, already stained by the original sin of racism.
These personal biases – and the origin stories of our country – point to the deeper level of racism King addressed in his speech. Growing up we can’t help but learn these stories and incorporate them subtly into our understanding of what it means to be an American. We (the ones who benefit from the current racist power configuration) then end up making racialized excuses including:
- I didn’t own slaves so I’m not racist.
- I’m not racist, I have a black friend.
- Slavery is over so black people need to move on, and my personal favorite.
- Black people can be racist too. I am experiencing reverse racism.
Yes, in 2016 we do not own slaves. And sure, slavery is over in its 1850s version. It has, however, taken a new form via institutional racism: two examples include the prison industrial complex and neighborhood segregation.
And finally, while all people (including minorities) hold prejudices about other persons, Jim Wallis argues that racism is “prejudice plus power.” Racism is more than just implicit biases: it is the ability to use personal or institutional power and prejudice to deem some as less than equal – whether in school, court, communities, or the ideal of the Great American Society.
Were King living today, he would protest against the social fabric of our country. Take two examples from his speech:
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.”
Sadly, despite the work of the Civil Rights movement fifty years ago, racial segregation continues to be a chronic American problem: “if you’re a black person in America, you’re more likely than a white person to live in an area of concentrated poverty,” the BBC reported just earlier this month. The consequence often means schools with less resources, worse housing options, and less access to financial credit. Women of color have higher rates of complications during childbirth. It also means that white and black persons are less likely to form friendships that could break down even well intentioned prejudices.
The liberal Northeast and West who voted for Obama perpetuate this segregation just as badly as the supposedly more racist Southern States. The difference is, in the Northeast and West, major urban centers tend to blame segregation on class, not race. But in reality, racialized social policies created many segregated areas intended to separate black from whites.
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
Tragically, black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, even if they are not suspected of any crime. And ironically, suggests The Atlantic, this is our system working properly: innocent young black men like Trayvon Martin are killed because our society “takes at its founding the hatred and denigration of a people.” The Atlantic concludes that we should expect more, not less, cases like Travyon’s because we are socializing ourselves to assume black persons are suspicious.
* * *
Let’s be honest with ourselves: racism is deep-seated in our country, and isn’t likely to disappear tomorrow. Our governmental structures, laws, neighborhoods, schools, culture, and personal consciousness are socialized by our racialized original sin. What is more, our current political culture suggests that decreasing housing segregation and preserving the social safety net for poor people will be difficult – at best. That being said, we aren’t helpless in the fight against racism. For those of us with privilege, we can start by deepening our understanding of racism – and our role in it. We can:
- Read and learn about racism: both published in 2015, Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin and Kelly Brown Douglass’s Stand Your Ground give comprehensive accounts of how racism has been with our founding. What they offer particularly is theological reflection that can help us choose to stand with God who stands with the marginalized.
- Watch film and documentary series about racism: this year’s Golden Globe Best Picture winner Moonlight addresses the intersection between race, poverty, and sexuality. Netflix’s 13TH examines the history of being African American in the United States – from slavery until today.
- There are excellent radio programs, too: BBC’s new “America in Black and White” tackles topics in depth including criminal justice and economic opportunity. New York City NPR affiliate WNYC has a new series too, called “Dear President: What You Need to Know About Race” to help educate with personal experiences of growing up marginalized.
- Perhaps most important of all: When we hear the experiences of black and brown people today who suffer from racism, it is understandable to feel defensive and “blamed” since we’ve benefitted at their expense. Admitting that to ourselves, we can listen more closely to the experience of our black and brown brothers and sisters so that real partnerships can be formed.
- Correct our friends when we hear racialized statements (like the ones above) that minimize the deep roots of racism and the privilege we’ve experienced as a result.
- Get plugged into undoing-racism trainings with organizations like Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, and Whites Confronting Racism.
In his farewell speech to the American public last week, President Obama noted that race relations have improved over time, but issued us a call to work harder. That call means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.
None of this will be easy, none of it will be quick, and it will draw us out out of our comfort zone. Towards the end of his life, King famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” When we benefit from racism, we can remain comfortable with the status, or we can choose to participate in the arc of the moral universe. Choosing to participate means challenging the arrangement that makes our privilege possible. It means choosing to say, yes, we can.