Why dredge up old stories?

Over the past few months, I’ve heard variations of this comment a number of times: “Why dredge up old stories? Why not just let the past stay in the past?”

The problem with that kind of thinking is that it ignores the impact those stories of the past are still having today.

On a recent trip, I listened to the audio version of the book Blood at the Root, read by the author, Patrick Phillips. He became interested in the history of the county he grew up in as a child–Forsyth County, Georgia…an all-white county.

The event that caused it to be a “sundowner county” occurred in 1912, but the impact of that event lasted beyond 1987. It was a heritage of hate, fear, bigotry, and intolerance that lasted for generations, passed down from father to son.

It was a difficult book to listen to. It would have been difficult to read in print, but hearing the words that were spoken…the graphic descriptions of the violence perpetrated against innocent people…made it a powerful experience.

There is evidence that the impact of trauma can be passed down through the generations genetically and through the ways those parents and grandparents deal with those traumas. That means that these “old stories” don’t just die away and should be put aside. We are still living with the results of those traumas–and that can help us understand what is happening today with the seemingly sudden explosion of racial anger.

It’s not coming out of nowhere. It’s been building for a long, long time. We’ve just been doing our best to ignore it.

So how do we get rid of the impact of these stories?

Yael Danieli and Brent Bezo, psychologists who have been studying this question, both say one of the most important steps is to acknowledge and discuss the atrocities. Doing so allows the survivors to process their pain and helps the families understand and make sense of their parents’ and grandparents’ behaviors.

So are we ready to do so? It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to require those of us who are white to rethink a lot of what we’ve learned. It’s going to require us to hear uncomfortable truths–to acknowledge our own complicity in creating a society which has perpetuated trauma for minorities.

But unless we do so, unless we are willing to truly listen to those stories we would rather keep hidden away, nothing will change–and we will continue to be a society that perpetuates the rights of a few against the cries for help and change of the many.

Whose lives matter?

Right now we’re seeing and hearing a lot of “Black lives matter.” Absolutely!

There’s also a lot of pushback…”All lives matter.” Also, absolutely!

But right now, in our country, it’s clear that all lives don’t matter.

Those of us who are white have not yet been willing to come to grips with how institutional racism has impacted economic equality…housing possibilities…access to health care…relationships with police…and a myriad of other daily activities for people of color.

Saying “Black lives matter” doesn’t mean that others don’t. It simply means that we need to put a focus on the concerns and issues that black people face every day. When those issues are truly addressed, then we can move on to other issues…including other people whose lives are still seen as “less than”…

Many of you know that I am a follower of Jesus. Why am I saying that now? Because Jesus’ ministry made some very specific points. He often went out of his way to meet with and minister to the marginalized, the oppressed, those not generally accepted by the society he was part of.

  • When he met the Samaritan woman at the well, he told her that “Samaritan lives matter.”
  • When the disciples tried to tell parents not to bother Jesus with their children, he said, “Children’s lives matter.”
  • When a Roman officer asked Jesus for help for his servant, Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”
  • When he was confronted by a woman taken in adultery, Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”
  • When lepers asked him for healing, he said, “Lepers’ lives matter.”

Our world is complex and solutions are not going to be easy. But we have to face those challenges and not rely on easy platitudes.

It’s only when we recognize that the lives of specific groups of people who have been marginalized and oppressed matter that we can then legitimately and honestly say “All lives matter.”

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Good for what?

When I was growing up, if someone in our family said “I’m good”…or that something else was good, quite often the response was “Good for what?”

It was usually said in a humorous way–but with an edge of serious questioning about it as well.

I’ve been thinking about that recently, especially as we (as a country) have been struggling with protests.

There have been some harsh words said, and people have often responded with something to the effect of “Not me. I’m good.”

The question arises, though…good for what? Usually we hear it used in referring to someone as a “good for nothing.”

I think what my father was trying to get us to think about is that just being “good” isn’t enough. We needed to decide what we were taking a stand for…what we were “good for.”

Were we good for standing up to injustice? good for working to make change in our community? good for working to save the environment? good for finding ways to be peacemakers?

What are we good for?

Suffer little children…

Do you remember your first day of school? How excited you were to be going? Wondering what new friends you were going to make? Did you walk there with your mom and / or dad, talking excitedly?

Can you imagine being 6 years old and looking forward to school…and on your first day being escorted by four big armed men? Going through a crowd of people shouting hate at you? Arriving at school to discover that no one was willing to be your friend? That you were the only student in your class? And to go through that day after day after day?

Or can you imagine going to a boarding school…excited to learn about another culture? Wanting to understand who these other people were and how you might be able to make friends with them? Only to have your beautiful clothes taken away and be put into a shapeless uniform…to have your hair cut? To be given a new name and told that you were never to use the name given you by your family? To be punished for speaking your own language or worshiping the way you knew? To face the risk of sexual and / or physical assault on a daily basis? To be told that you were worthless?

Or can you imagine standing on a platform with your mother and your siblings, being poked and prodded? Then seeing your siblings pulled away one or two at a time? Seeing your mother’s tears and hearing her cries as you clung to her? And then being separated from her…and never seeing her again? Can you imagine your body not being your own?

Can you imagine being forcibly removed from your home? Told that you had to dispose of your belongs except what you could carry? Forced to live in a somewhat converted animal shed with many other families? Surrounded by high fences that were guarded by soldiers? Seeing your parents cry as they recognized the loss of everything they had worked for?

These are not situations that happened in another country…or centuries ago.

They are us…and they are recent.

Ruby Bridges–the little girl–was born in 1954.

Native American children were still being placed in schools designed to “assimilate” them through the mid-19th century…and until 1924 were not considered to be citizens of the United States. In some states Native Americans were not given the right to vote until 1957.

Ruth Ellis, an LGBTQ activist who died in 2000, was the daughter of slaves.

Japanese-Americans were interned in a number of camps in the United States following the attack on Pearl Harbor, even though there was no evidence of any anti-American behavior. George Takei was one of those 117,000 American citizens who were interned.

We cannot say that “all this” is in the past and we should just move on. It isn’t. We are still dealing with the impact of these events today.

We cannot ignore this history. Nor can we continue to claim ignorance of it. It is our history–belonging to each and every one of us. While there is much to celebrate in the American ideal, it is important to remember that it was also built on the brutal destruction of families, creating trauma that continues to impact all of us today. And unless we are willing to acknowledge that, we will continue to deal with the fallout.

I am reminded that the One I follow told his followers this (using The Message translation of Matthew 18:6):

But if you give them [the children] a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck….Hard times are inevitable, but you don’t have to make it worse—and it’s doomsday to you if you do.

We  need to acknowledge our past…with its good and with its evil and brutality. Then and only then will we have the strength and the courage to begin to heal.

 

Worth of all persons

My faith tradition does not have a formal creed. However, we do have what we refer to as Enduring Principles. Our website identifies them this way: “Our Enduring Principles define the essence, heart, and soul of our faith community. They describe the personality of our church as expressed throughout the world.”

These principles provide flexibility in how they are implemented in congregations in various countries throughout the world…but they are basic to who we are.

There are nine of them:

  • Grace and Generosity
  • Sacredness of Creation
  • Continuing Revelation
  • Worth of All Persons
  • All Are Called
  • Responsible Choices
  • Pursuit of Peace (Shalom)
  • Unity in Diversity
  • Blessings of Community

While I think all of them are important, one that has been standing out to me over the last few weeks is “Worth of All Persons.” ALL persons.

It doesn’t matter race…age…ethnicity…culture…sexual orientation…gender identity…political stance…vocation… ALL persons.

I have been deeply disappointed and shocked by comments I’ve seen from individuals as we have been struggling with the issues surrounding the relationships between police and their communities.

I’ve been deeply disappointed and shocked by some of the responses to this administration’s decision to rollback healthcare protections for transgender individuals.

ALL people are of worth. That means all. It doesn’t depend on whether we agree with someone or not.

You don’t have to be part of my faith tradition to believe in these principles. In many ways they are an expansion of what is often called the Golden Rule–a version of which is in every major religion.

We don’t have to agree on everything. We never will–and that’s okay. We need to hear a variety of voices and perspectives. But we cannot continue believing and acting as if a certain group of people is somehow “less than” everyone else.

We will never solve the issues that are tearing us apart until we are willing to truly believe that all people are of worth. ALL people.