Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Heritage of Racism – a Baseball Analogy

There was once a baseball game between Team A and Team B. Team A had an extensive Spring Training. Team B, on the other hand, was made up of players who had never been allowed to play the game and were not allowed Spring Training or any other practice before the game.

In the first three innings, Team A had all the latest equipment while Team B had no mitts and no cleats on their shoes. Furthermore, when they were at bat, Team B was only allowed two strikes, while Team A was allowed the customary three. No walks were granted Team B for any reason. The umpires were hired and paid for by Team A and were overtly biased in their favor. The strike zone was much more generous for Team A’s pitchers. Close calls and calls that were not even close went against team B. And any time a Team B player hit a home run, he was ejected as soon as he crossed home plate. And any Team B player who complained about any of this was also ejected.

After three innings the score was Team A: 32, Team B: 3.

Before the fourth inning, each team got all new players. But the score remained. Team B received acquired gloves but still no shoes with cleats. Team B batters could earn a walk after six balls but not if the batter was hit by a pitch. And Team A pitchers regularly aimed pitches at Team B batters. The umpires were still paid for by Team A and heavily and obviously biased in its favor. Team B batters were no longer automatically ejected for hitting a home run but any Team B player who complained about a bad call was ejected.

After six innings the score was Team A: 51, Team B: 14.

Before the seventh inning the players for each team were again replaced by new players. But the score still carried over. Now both teams had access more or less to the same equipment. and the rules were the same for each. But the officials still seemed to favor Team A.

At the end of the eighth inning the score was Team A: 62, Team B: 19. The players of Team B again protested the uneven score and the bias of the umpires. The current players of Team A responded, “Why are you complaining? None of us was playing during the first six innings. It’s not our fault the score is so uneven.” And, “It’s not like a close call never goes against our players. We don’t believe the officiating is all that unfair. In any event, we’ve had to earn every run we have scored.” And, “Sure, Team B players matter. But all players matter. After all, at the end of the day, we’re all playing for the same league.” But the score remains unfairly lopsided and the biased officiating continues. 

I am sure this analogy can be improved one way or another (feel free to offer suggestions). It does not, for example, capture the real physical, emotional, and psychological violence of racism. But I hope it gets at the reality that for generations the deck has been stacked, often violently, against one “team”. From Jim Crow and lynching, to Red Lining and unequal access to the G. I. Bill, to unfair policing and courts, Black Americans have had multiple, often deliberate, obstacles placed between them and success. 

Many of the most egregious these injustices continued well into my lifetime. Even the history is recent history. It is undeniable that this has led to exiting inequities in opportunity and the accumulation of wealth. Playing with the analogy a bit more, one can acknowledge that not every player on each team is equally talented or has put in the same individual effort but the fact remains that we are in a situation in which one team has had and continues to have unfair advantages resulting from a history of inequality and abuse. And it is not all past. 

I don’t have a simple solution to address or redress all the resulting disparities. But a place to begin is for members of “Team A” – White Americans – to acknowledge the disparity and recognize that we benefit from the score having been run up even before we entered the game. At the very least we can begin with the officiating.

Here is a brief video laying out the actual history the above analogy attempts to portray:

Friday, June 12, 2020

Why "Black Lives Matter"?

In the sixth chapter of Acts, there is this account of the early church:

1Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Greek-speaking Jewish converts complained against the Hebrew-speaking Jewish converts because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “All widows matter.” And that settled it.

Actually, that is not what they said and not how they settled it. Instead, it went this way:

2And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. 3Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ 5What they said pleased the whole community.

It appears there was a division in the earliest church and a disparity in how the widows of one group were being treated vis a vis the other. Given the tensions it might have been tempting for the twelve, being Hebrew-speaking Jewish converts, to deny the disparity. They did not. Rather, they formed the order of deacons to issue that everyone received a fair share.

We have heard from our African-American sisters and brothers that there is a disparity in the way they are treated. In the case of Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper, and George Floyd; we have not only heard, we have seen it. This is true across the board. Particularly, and much too often, our black brothers and sisters report that this disparity of treatment shows up in their engagement with the police and the courts. This gives the impression that justice for them – indeed their very lives – is worth less. Hence the cry, “Black Lives Matter.” 

One does not need to endorse all the views of the organization that calls itself Black Lives Matter to understand and endorse the sentiment of the slogan. For the vast majority of those declaring Black Lives Matter do not. Nor is the the point of Black Lives Matter that other lives do not matter. It is not that the lives of police or anyone else do not matter. The Greek-speaking converts did not insist that their widows mattered more than the Hebrew-speaking widows. They were demanding fairness and justice where fairness and justice were not being applied. So it is with Black Lives Matter. 

Those of us who are white have the same choice as the disciples in Acts 6. We can ignore or deny the injustice. We can avoid dealing with it by deflecting and insisting that all lives matter so we do not have to deal with the reality that it is not in fact always true in our society that all lives matter. Or we can acknowledge that something is wrong in the way black people have been and are being treated. With them we can affirm and insist that Black Lives do indeed Matter. We can acknowledge that racism is a corrosive reality in America and one with a long, deep, and pervasive history. We can commit ourselves to doing something to address that history and change that reality.

What if we, like the disciples in Acts 6, faced the injustice? They formed the order of deacons – servants – to insure fairness. What if we committed ourselves to be better servants of our black neighbors? What if we listened better, with open hearts and non-defensiveness, to their stories of injustice? How might we, like deacons, advocate with and for them? What diaconal policies and laws might we advocate for to insure more justice?

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Bible and the Church are Not Political Props

He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”

It is tricky for a bishop to wade too deeply into political waters. This is not because the Bible and Christianity have nothing to say about things usually considered political. They clearly do – care for the poor and vulnerable, peace-making, reconciliation, justice, the cherishing of life and its flourishing, and more are key themes of the Bible. Each has political implications. In the Episcopal Church we regularly pray “for those who work for justice, freedom, and peace”. In Morning Prayer, we pray
Lord, keep this nation under your care;
And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
Let your way be known upon earth;
Your saving health among all nations.
Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
These prayers also have political implications.

But Christians of good faith can and do come to different conclusions as to what laws, policies, and programs will help us achieve the goals toward which our sacred scriptures and our prayers point. Members of my diocese reflect these different conclusions. 

In truth, the language of Christian faith does not translate neatly into loyalty to any one party or leader. For my part, I have voted over the years for politicians from different parties with varying degrees of reservation. Once, my reservations came to a head and I concluded that a president I had voted for should resign after betraying the trust placed in him by the American public.

As a bishop, I try to be at least somewhat circumspect about venturing too far onto political territory. But yesterday the President of the United States crossed a line and ventured into church territory. He used the Bible and an Episcopal Church as political props. And, in order for him to do so, police under federal command, used smoke canisters, pepper balls, and batons [edited*] to disperse a gathering of peaceful demonstrators from the street and the churchyard – a half-hour before a 7 p.m. curfew went into effect. Among those forcibly dispersed were clergy on their church’s property. This was an appalling abuse of power and contrary to the very sacred scriptures the president raised awkwardly in the air.

It was wrong on many levels. He used violence against people exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest a grave injustice. He did so for the sake of a staged photo-op in front of a building dedicated to the Prince of Peace. He held up the Holy Bible as a political prop. The Bible is the word of God, which bears witness to the Word made flesh who dwelt among us in our pain and need, who brought mercy, compassion, forgiveness for sinners, and hope for the downtrodden.

The president would, of course, be welcome to attend any Episcopal Church for worship or Bible study. He would be welcome to learn, as we all need to,  more about the Word made flesh who taught us to love one another – including our enemies – and suffered on our behalf and died for our sins.

Presidents and politicians, conservative and liberal, often invoke faith in one way or another, some more credibly, some less so. Some have been known to be church-attending men of prayer and faith, others less so. But, yesterday the president did not offer a prayer or appeal to the language of hope and faith. Instead, he spoke of domination, forced fellow citizens out of the way. and then stood silently using a church and the Bible as political props. Under the circumstances, this was blasphemous.

Our nation is hurting. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens have died so far from a pandemic that has disrupted the lives of all of us. We have seen outrageous and fatal actions aimed at our African-American brothers and sisters – a different kind of blasphemy. There is understandable outrage and protest. The excesses and opportunistic abuses of that protest need to be curtailed. Peaceful protest should be encouraged even as violent protest is opposed. But, we need leaders who can speak with empathy, compassion, understanding, and tenderness to the hurt and anger. We need leaders who can find the words and actions that might bring us together. It grieves me that our president used the symbols of faith for a photo op rather than speaking from the heart the language of faith to encourage healing, reconciliation, and hope.

* In the original version of this post, I said that tear gas had been used which is what was originally reported. That appears not to be the case. Instead, smoke canisters and pepper balls were used (see here). Smoke canisters + pepper balls might have been  mistaken for tear gas by some eyewitnesses. This change in detail detail does not change the substance of this post. [It turns out the CDC categorizes  the chemical in pepper balls a "tear agent" which while maybe not the same as what is usually referred to as "tear gas" the difference appears to be more a matter of technicality and semantics. See here and here.]