Archives for the month of: August, 2017

Ferguson was supposed to be a turning point. It was the unflinching reveal of systemic violence that routinely plays out on black and brown bodies. It was supposed to be a metanoia moment for the rest of society. Instead, it became a line in the sand between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter; between those who must navigate the realities of daily dehumanization, along with some white allies, and those who wish to maintain a corrupted facade of ‘universality’ that is the mechanism of dehumanization. Ferguson revealed how little ground has been ceded by the powers that be, and how bloodied.

And now, Charlottesville.

A white life has been killed while standing in defiance of a colorless vision of the US–a vision that is wholly without merit, though not without precedent. This colorless vision is easy to refute when presented as a high contrast image, like the events in Charlottesville, but not as obvious in its grainier daily forms. Since last weekend I have seen many posts on social media decrying the hatred and provenance of the ideologies behind ‘unite the right’, and admonitions among the white community to stop racism at first sight in any form. I have also seen pushback from people of color who are sick of hearing the defensive response, ‘but I’m not like those people’. Both responses point to a critical piece that we, my fellow white folk, must contemplate. We have so swallowed and ingested the doctrine of individuality that it seems inconceivable we might be confused for one who looks like me but is not-me. We don’t like to be labeled (because no one likes to be labeled), and refuse to consider the subtleties of racism–because I am not ‘racist’. Not like them.

But here is one label that I am willing to guarantee: all humans are assholes.

This is also known as the doctrine of sin, or hamartiology, to get fancy. And right now we are having a serious Come to Jesus moment with communities of color.

Perhaps you’re right to say that you are not like those tiki torch carrying white men. Congratulations. So now, let’s take a look at that knapsack of privilege. When I open mine I see an above average K-12 education, childhood in an affluent and unpolluted community, which meant that I grew up with a sense of security outside the home. My parents divorced when I was young, so other people’s homes became my safe havens, as did school. College was expected, not an option. I’m blonde and blue-eyed, so no issues with fitting into the larger society. Somewhere along the way I learned to listen to the stories of others, and to take them seriously. James Baldwin, Sherman Alexie, bell hooks, and Japanese American internment survivors have all been my teachers. You could say my knapsack is adorned with the classic white, liberal badge of honor (or a Canadian flag). But all that is the easy part to identify.

Privilege likes to hide out in tide pools and shadow. It emerges in our gut reactions to something that impacts our daily routine, or sense of fairness. It feeds off particularities of perspective, the way ‘common sense’ is shaped. We see this when a white college student sues a university for not admitting her, blaming Affirmative Action for ruining her future. What seems straightforward–admitting the best and the brightest–takes a detour. The algorithms of society are usually in our favor. When something gets coded differently, suddenly it appears as unfair. There are moments when I see my Latinx and Black colleagues involved in grant-funded initiatives and think, wait, where is my opportunity? The job market is doubly bleak for us theologians. So, with churches dying and schools not hiring, why must my spouse and I bear more of a financial burden for graduate school? It isn’t fair. But when I take a step back, reframe the picture, some other factors emerge. What are the chances I will be able to work past age 60, or perhaps even 70? Good? Better than average? What about my colleagues who may or may not receive the same level of health care? Whose voices are more urgent for the church today? Mine, or the prophetic witness of my colleagues, many of whose lives bear the undue burdens of our society?

Privilege’s partner is exceptionality, also known as not-me. This is perhaps the most insidious manifestation of the doctrine of individuality. We are seldom aware of how we categorize, prejudge, and stereotype others, but we bristle when others do that to us. How dare he assume that I’m like that… Who does she think she is… Together, privilege and exceptionalism provide a filter for walking through the world. We fail to recognize all the visual cues, social patterns, and unspoken expectations that perpetuate white power.

Schoolgirls, Fort Spokane Indian School, n.d. Photo from the UW library archives.

As one of my conversation partners often likes to remind me, white people are not the only assholes on this planet–just look at history. The Huns, Aztecs, Pharoahs, and Hutus have all done their fair share of conquering, killing, and destruction. ‘They’re no different from us.’ True though that may appear, those are not the societies in which we currently live. And we do have a responsibility to be aware of how we, in this time and in this place, are being assholes to others.

Advertisements

In homage to Smokey Bear’s 73rd birthday, a reflection on water.

You have been deputized, by any and all environmental groups, to do something about resource consumption. Yes, you, the individual. Because, we are told, one multiplied by thousands and even millions becomes many. This kind of multiplication of ‘one’ is seen all around the internet. For example, Woodchuck uses the tagline, “buy one, plant one” meaning that if you buy one of their products, they’ll plant a tree. The Nature Conservancy (among others) provides a carbon footprint calculator so you can know how your household rates. And, perhaps the most ubiquitous expression is in the petition. Sign up to receive news from the Sierra Club and you are guaranteed a petition a week which, with just one more signature added to many others, is destined to communicate something important. The one flows into the many to create a swell of influence and change.

Or so we believe.

Smokey, straight talking for 73 years.

But the one and the many are simply not enough. By the time an individual receives the information needed to persuade him or her, damage is already done. As I type, the Cascade region has been enshrouded in smoke from B.C. wildfires for a full week. The particulates in the air are still dangerous to breathe beyond minimal exposure. And, while the daytime highs are coming down, we are on day 12 of 80+ degrees, day 52 with no rain. No rain, in Seattle.

Wildfires are a normal part of the season. What is disconcerting is that they start earlier in the season, last longer, and hit some unusual places. For example, in 2015 the Hoh Rainforest caught fire, in June. Those two words–rainforest and fire–are not supposed to be used in the same sentence, except once every 500 or so years. For the Pacific Northwest region, the new normal of climate change comes in a haze of smoke with less and less water to temper the flames.

You have heard it said, “Conserve water by taking shorter showers,” but that isn’t enough. In fact, according to an Orion article by Derrick Jensen, it doesn’t even really address the situation. Contrary to consumer culture belief, it is not all about you because the vast majority of our water is redirected before it hits the tap. You do not have access to 90% of the water currently consumed. It goes predominantly to agriculture and to manufacturing. Sure, the juicy tomatoes and cucumbers are a manifestation of some of that water, as is the wheat that went into the hamburger buns–and don’t forget all the water needed to raise cattle for hamburger meat. Thinking of going vegetarian? While it might eventually reduce some agricultural water consumption, your one change is but a drop of dew.

But I want to make a difference–or feel something other than helplessness. And Grist.org would love for us all to believe we can use the power of individual choice to make a difference. They have the infographic to prove it. Yet in this instance, the ‘proven’ change culminates with “Have one fewer child”. How many families would consider whether or not to have a child in the same way they think about, say, car ownership? Even the editors hinted that might not be a compelling message by highlighting the “real takeaway” that personal choice matters, and every action counts.

What we are up against requires a tectonic shift in the rhetoric. The accumulation of personal choices will begin to make a difference when they are an expression of many voicing their dissent against the primary users of water: industrialized agriculture and major manufacturers. But this is a radical message for consumer culture because we are supposed to power progress and good change through buying more, or at least buying into the myth that the best thing we can do is simply take care of ourselves.

 

Listen to the opening paragraph of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si:

“Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

Mother Earth, our common home, is the conduit of God’s care and sustenance for humanity. But we have split her open for rare minerals and to mine her veins.

He continues, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” We are plunderers, and we violate the very soil that nurtures us. This is not a new message. It is a confession of sin much like that recited with each communion. The underlying question is, does ‘we’ mean ‘me’? Read in the consumer culture of North America, we only pertains to me–it is not connected to brands, labels, box stores, and corporate entities. Forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned, is the more common confession of sin. In film, in newspapers and on Sunday mornings, we are so consumed with the sins of every-one, that we do not look upstream to see those redirecting the pipes at their source.

You have heard it said, ‘Take shorter showers, and turn out the lights’; but I say to you, follow the waters from tap to source, and find out who it is that drinks deep from our sister’s aquifers, draining her sides with unfathomable speed.