The Intellectual Condescension of White Liberals

The denial is staggering. My colleagues are weighing in, one by one and then in a rush, commenting on Facebook and e-mails and in messages about their conversations with white parishioners who don’t get it, who are sunk up to their knees like quicksand in white privilege and denial and a worldview that wants to assume that this doesn’t just happen and he must have done something and you don’t know everything and did you read the report? and did you read it as thoroughly as I did, because if you did you wouldn’t be so upset, you wouldn’t be sick and snarling and enraged and disgusted with humanity right now, you’d be the nice, comforting minister I expect you to be.

Forgive me, or don’t. I am indeed sick and disgusted and although a beautiful colleague of mine wrote this afternoon about the need to take hands and sing, I cannot sing and I am keeping my hands to myself because I want to punch something. But my feelings and my comfort and my inability to sing are not what matter. What matters to me tonight is a man named Eric Garner who sold loose cigarettes on the street and as the cops confronted and harassed him this summer, yelled at them to leave him alone. Yelled at them to leave him alone because he wasn’t doing anything. I can’t quote Mr. Garner exactly, but as I remember that he said something about how you all (meaning the police) were looking to make trouble with him, looking to arrest another black man. He was irritated and agitated and then they surrounded him like sharks in the water, methodically and murderously taking him down.

I can’t breathe, he said.

I can’t breathe.

And they held him down and one officer strangled him from behind and they held onto him until he was dead. Someone called it a lynching and I can’t see the difference myself.

He became a martyr in that moment, if you hadn’t considered that possibility. Eric Garner was a prophet who spoke truth to power and that power pulled him down to the sidewalk and killed him right then and there.

And they got away with it.

Brainy white analytical types want this to work somehow in their minds, as they have no life experience by which to process this cognitive dissonance as reality.  There must be a reason for this. I can practically hear the gears whirring as I watch them try to make sense of what does not make sense for white people, even though one particularly lurid and egregious case after another of police brutality against black men has been paraded out in front of us for months.  We are Romans sitting in the arena watching gladiators kill slaves (I know that’s not historically accurate – it’s a metaphor) and questioning the dead as they’re dragged away.  Now, what strategic move did you not make that would have allowed you to avoid that fatal blow? There must have been something. Think. 

The fatal blow is systemic racism and the compliance and complicity of white America. You think I have any answers? I don’t. I only pray that liberal white Americans can examine their own intellectualized response at this moment and challenge each other to see how harmful it is — how distancing, disrespectful and unfeeling it is.

No one who hasn’t lived it has a sturdy soapbox to stand on from which to pontificate and opine. We only have the perspective of our own context and location, which for most of us is well removed from Ferguson, Missouri. It is not a time for analysis. It is a time for empathic imagining, for humility and sorrow.

Where in America would a white 12-year old boy walking around on a cold afternoon in an unpopulated area and idly waving a toy gun be shot by a police officer literally two seconds after that cop got out of his squad car? Two seconds on the clock. Imagine that happening in your neighborhood.

When it came out in the news today that the officer who killed Tamir Rice had been poorly evaluated by a previous supervisor for his “dismal performance with a handgun,” white Americans said, “Ohhhh.” A dead black child wasn’t enough proof for some of them, you see. They had to have the Officer Timothy Loehmann’s gross ineptitude confirmed by a white authority figure.

White men wave real guns around crowded areas in America and are taken into custody alive.  Tamir Rice, carrying a toy gun in an open carry state, wasn’t white. His parents are apparently not law abiding citizens, so one Ohio resident suggested to me yesterday (and this is a quote) that it was a good thing that Tamir was “put down before he got a real gun.”  I fail to see a significant emotional and spiritual difference between the callous bigot who celebrates the murder of a kid and the white liberal who says it’s all really sad, but he shouldn’t have been waving around a gun. Both responses are distancing and victim-blaming: one pathological and the other quite ordinary and therefore, often unquestioned and uncommented upon.

“He shouldn’t have punched a cop,” is what a white man said in the sushi bar tonight about Mike Brown.  So he obviously deserved to die. I didn’t say it. I didn’t want to start a brawl at the sushi bar.

He shouldn’t have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He shouldn’t have been big and scary. He shouldn’t have been black.

In my call for empathic imagining, I am going to ask, again and again, under what circumstances, exactly, would any of us accept an 18-year old member of our congregation to be shot dead by the police and left in the street for four and a half hours? Under what circumstances would we not move heaven and earth to get answers from a police chief after such a horrific occurrence? Under what circumstance can any of us imagine tolerating hearing one of our sons described as a raging hulk, would stand for the characterization of our child as some kind of beast by a police officer whose “injuries” sustained at our son’s hands are a pink mark barely visible to the naked eye?

On what planet do we really think it’s acceptable for a police officer to kill a teenager who may or may not have stolen a few cigars from the corner store, who may or may not have behaved in a belligerent way and then have the police chief and governor respond to our community’s outrage over his murder with tanks and tear gas? How would we feel, how would we respond, what would we demand, if there was no official comment or information for the an entire day after one of our teenagers was shot dead in the street?

Oh, they looted.

Oh, they burned down their own property. How stupid is that.

Oh, this guy really knows what he’s talking about. He is so spot on in his scathing critique of the violent and destructive response in Ferguson. Tsk, tsk.

Bad and destructive choices made by some people in Ferguson or anywhere affected by police brutality does not excuse white people from allying themselves with African Americans in the struggle for justice. When justifiably enraged black people take to the streets in violent ways in protest, or in crime sprees or to kill each other, that is not white people’s cue to retire to our armchairs, light our pipes and descend into the comfortable form of white superiority that manifests as condescending intellectual curiosity.

If Johnathan Gentry wants to speak to his own African-American community about the stupidity of looting and the futility of civil rights songs, that is his privilege. There is a conversation that is happening within the African-American community that no white person is entitled to comment on.

I have tried to avoid providing a lot of links to articles that support my points in this post because I know that someone who disagrees with me will only post their own links in retort, and that is a game that white people can afford to play while black men die in the streets. We need to have more respect, for God’s sake.

I realize that this post was a bit confusing. I started with Eric Garner and then I segued to Tamir Rice and then I referenced Mike Brown. Cleveland, Ferguson, Staten Island — who can keep up with it? It all blends together and I have compassion fatigue. I know. I do, too. I have outrage fatigue. But to sit back in the armchair because we’re too tired of reading articles does not honor the witness being borne by the African-American community right now. Perhaps taking to the streets is not your style, or is not possible for you. For many white folks, the longest and most important distance to travel in our claims to be an anti-racist, justice-seeking people may be from our heads to our hearts. Our longest march may be the one that takes us down from the dais of of competitive debate and rational inquiry to the common ground of listening, witnessing, mourning and embracing.

Put down the newspaper and the computer. There are caskets going by.






Posted in Mind of the Minister, Social Justice, Unitarian Universalism | 15 Comments

Sane Holidays

I wrote this yesterday on my Facebook Page and it got a lot of “shares,” so I’m posting it here, too:

Now is the time to strategize the holidays so that you don’t get suckered into doing things or going places or spending time with people who make you miserable. Make a plan! Don’t feel weird skipping the traditional things if that’s not what you need right now. There are many reasons — emotional, financial, health — to bow out of customary obligations and make alternate plans, even just to stay quiet at home. Put things on your calendar that give you something you can look forward to: “day at the library” or “cook lunch for friend.” Call in support: ask now for someone to help you get through a particularly trying day or help you decompress after a stressful event that you can’t get out of. Communicate your plans clearly, honestly and firmly and let grown-ups have their own reaction. As long as you’re not unkind about any of this, everyone will survive your decisions. If they can’t deal, then isn’t it a good thing you’ve never taken sacred vows to please them all your life long?

When I first started being a minister, I didn’t realize yet that Christmas was forever shot to hell because of my vocational commitments. It probably isn’t really respectful to the Baby Jesus to say “shot to hell,” but I’m sure he’ll get over it.

I was in a parish internship in 1995 and my supervisor casually mentioned something in mid-October about planning the Christmas Eve service. My first reaction was to think, “Oh, right. I guess ministers have to work on Christmas Eve but not ME, LADY, because I’m not a minister yet and no thank you! You can have that one to yourself! I am going home and sipping cocoa in my jammies and looking at the tree and listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing! And in the morning I will open my stocking and have presents and eat fondue in the evening with my family!”

But I realized in a quiet moment of doom that I should not say that. I realized with a lump in my throat that I should nod and make a note in my calendar that I would be at church on Christmas Eve, way too far away from my mom’s to drive there the next morning in any reasonable time to share Christmas with my family, so I swallowed the lump in my throat and decided to make alternative plans. I wanted to do something dramatically different that would signal to my head and heart for all time that Christmas was never again going to be the way it had been. My life was different now. I was a minister now.

I had learned after my father died that to try to carry on old traditions under new and painful circumstances was a certain road to hurt and regret. And now I had this new career path/vocational commitment to factor in. So what I did was to call the closest monastery I could find that was taking reservations for Christmas retreatants, and I made a reservation for Christmas Eve. I certainly had never spent Christmas with nuns before.

It just so happened that the monastery I chose was operated by a silent order, the Cistercians. So there would be no chatty companionship on the way to prayers, in passing in the halls (if indeed I would be passing anyone in the halls) or at meals. The internet was barely newborn then and we didn’t have cell phones, so I was totally cut off. No one would even be able to phone to wish me a merry Christmas. It would just be me and God, silent meals, a long walk in crisp, cold air and a lot of Q & A with Jesus while sitting in the chapel.

What I learned during that retreat is that Jesus does not do Q & A with me. What he does is Q & Q. I still have my journal where I recorded our conversations, where I ask Jesus something and he responds with his own question for me.

Jesus is frustrating but it was still a really good thing to spend his birthday with him, and now I do that every year.

My silent Christmas retreat was emotionally and spiritually challenging but also lovely and memorable, and it bore lasting fruit in my life in the form of giving me the confidence to rip up old scripts as necessary in order to have meaningful and healthy holidays. It also gave me a Jesus-focused Christmas, which seems like a pretty fine thing for a minister to get to have.

Rip up a script. Make a plan. Let me know what you do and how it feels.



Posted in Greatest Hits, memories, Mind of the Minister | Comments Off

“St. Vincent” Is Quietly Revolutionary For Hollywood: A PeaceBang Review

[Warning: there will be mild spoilers in this essay, so don't read it if you want to see the movie. - PB]

The movie “St. Vincent” is lifted out of cute cliché territory by the great Bill Murray in the title role as Vincent McKenna, a cranky Vietnam vet with a heart of gold. Supporting Murray are three terrific co-stars: Melissa McCarthy as a struggling single mom, young Jaeden Lieberher as the kid Vin babysits, and Naomi Watts as Daka, the pregnant, Russian “lady of the night” who keeps company and does business with Vinnie.

The movie is mildly remarkable for two reasons that so far have been uncommented on by the mainstream media, which is where I like to step in!

Melissa McCarthy is the first fat leading lady of a movie I can remember whose weight is never mentioned, and whose body size is not the impetus for any physical comedy, sight gags or plot conflict. This is a huge breakthrough for Hollywood, whose aversion to overweight performers is obvious to anyone who watches television or movies on a regular basis. Fat women, particularly, are almost non-existent in Hollywood’s universe except as comic sidekicks or expendable bit players. Melissa McCarthy’s character in “St. Vincent” never mentions her own size or weight, is never shown comically stuffing her face (a typical Hollywood trope), and is never bullied or harassed for her weight. She looks beautiful, she wears nice clothes, and she is treated as a human being worthy of dignity and respect. High five me, writer-director Theodore Melfi and casting person! Can we see more of this, please?

Also quietly notable is Naomi Watts’ depiction of a sex worker, a character names Daka who slyly evades the “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché by twice insisting on being paid her full fee by her strapped broke client (Bill Murray). In one of the first scenes in the movie, we hear her berate Vin in no uncertain terms, telling him in a heavy Russian accent that she’s not a charity.

As the movie progresses, Daka becomes drawn more intimately into Vin’s life, but contrary to what at least a dozen movie reviewers I have read have written, she is not Vin’s girlfriend. He is a client of hers, and a friend. There is a difference. Daka is pregnant and vulnerable, and Vin is broke, in poor health, and also vulnerable. The two characters join forces in the end in a way that will be familiar to many financially vulnerable, working-class American — working out a shared housing and food in exchange for household help and emotional support. Daka is not in love with Vin, nor he with her. They share not romantic feelings but mutual affection and compatible needs. I am not surprised that mainstream American movie reviewers missed the multiple references to Daka’s expectation that she will be paid for her sexual or domestic services rendered, but I am disappointed. Daka is an independent working woman; one of the rare Hollywood depictions of a sex worker that manages to be funny and fair, that doesn’t romanticize her life (“Pretty Woman,” I’m looking at you) or end with a chalk outline of her body surrounded by detectives.

I hope we will continue to see more such realistic depictions of the complicated relationships and alliances forged by human beings in community. Storytelling is so much more interesting when it breaks from outworn conventions.



Posted in movie reviews, book reviews, advertising & pop culture | Comments Off