The Guilt and Riches of our Ancestors: Take it or Leave it (Sort Of)

Whoah:

“Land was acquired back in the day through theft and murder …

I agree to a point that individuals shouldn’t be held guilty for the sins of the past. But if that is true, then individuals shouldn’t at the same time be able to benefit because of the sins of the past. [WHOAH!] [#WhyDidINeverThinkOfThis]

I don’t believe land can be owned by a person or a bloodline.”

~Mark Van Steenwyk [brackets mine]

When I shared this excerpt, a friend asked me: “So does that make purchasing or inheriting a home/plot of land wrong?”

My reply, revised a bit for a blog post, went along like this:

The above quote is definitely fairly radical, especially the lattermost sentence. The middle paragraph is of greatest interest to me. The lattermost sentence is, for me, an interesting application of the middle paragraph.

The middle paragraph resolves something that I’ve been chewing on. We needn’t inherit the guilt of our ancestors, but neither then should we inherit their ill-gotten gains.

To the question: I think that specifically avoiding buying or owning land would miss the point. Even renting is basically temporary land ownership. Inheriting wealth and using it to rent stolen land all your life is not really very different from inheriting stolen land and living on it.

In a way I think that Christians etc. have a useful mental model for how to think about this; we’re used to saying “everything I have is God’s, I should use it accordingly”. (Not that we’re great at living it out! But I digress.) The point isn’t, then, that everyone must sell everything and give all the money to the church (though doing so is a well-known and powerful approach/calling). But rather, you should live with a posture of humility and dedication, and be willing to and seeking out ways to leverage what you have toward the good of those the resources are intended to bless. With God, it’s all intended to bless those who are suffering, marginalized, poor, etc.

That goal isn’t too different than when we say “all this land and lots of this wealth I have was gained from genocided natives and enslaved africans (and people across the world who were colonized, etc.)”… you’re basically saying “nearly everything I have belongs to people who are now suffering, marginalized, poor, etc.”

All I have is actually God’s, who wants me to use it to serve the poor and oppressed. // Almost all I have actually belongs to people who are poor and oppressed.

It’s hard or impossible to parse out just how much of our parents’ wealth stems from theft and genocide and slavery vs. honest hard work. It would require mountains of historical work, calculous and economic modeling, etc. So refreshingly, a legalistic approach here is completely unfeasible.

What would definitely be “no dice” would be to say “I accept the wealth stolen by my ancestors – it is mine now and is for my enjoyment, but I reject their guilt and responsibility in having stolen it”.

Now, legalism certainly won’t work; no purity can be earned here; even if I were to do all the calculus and give back everything that was stolen, that wouldn’t be any different than giving back the money my grandfather gave me after he mugged and killed someone else’s grandfather.

As my spouse just wisely and succinctly summarized:

“Of course it’s sinful [to own stolen land]. But this is a sinful world so everything is sinful… we can’t avoid sin, but we just need to do the best we can.”

My brain’s understanding of “doing the best we can” would entail seeking to learn and follow the will of those to whom my wealth and land belongs. Following my metaphor; like a Christian who knows all is God’s would seek to know and follow God’s desired uses of the resources, a person who realizes that most of what they have is stolen would seek to know and follow the intent of those from whom it is stolen. Conveniently, a person can coherently be both of those things!

Admittedly, the latter realization is less perky. Honoring and giving to the grandchildren of someone murdered by your grandfather comes with a lot more pain and trauma than honoring and giving to a God who has willingly entrusted you with resources. But I suppose in both cases a deep need for mercy and forgiveness is present.

Speaking of mercy and forgiveness… as well as regarding intent of the bereaved: Native voices I know of are not asking all whites to pack up and leave and go back to Europe. As from Black americans, I hear a deep cry for truth and reparations, but “go back where you came from” is not something I hear. It is up to each to do their own integritous listening to the voices of these communities. There’s a book called What Does Justice Look Like?: The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland, written by native scholar and activist Waziyatawin. She first overviews what happened 1500s-1900s, and then lays out point by point her recommendations for reparations. “Without justice, many Dakota say, healing and transformation on both sides cannot occur, and good, authentic relations cannot develop between our Peoples.” (from author’s excerpt here)

She is one voice among many in her community. To continue my drawn-out metaphor: like a person of faith attempting to discern the voice and call/will of God through various and nebulous sources, a grandchild and beneficiary of the murderer has a tough task to try to listen to the many grandchildren of the murdered.

Engaging with and supporting reparations and reconciliation on a large scale is one valuable response, but it’s also quite distant. Personal-scale donations to good native+black-led efforts around these communities is a good “other half of the coin”. Painting houses on the Rez (like I did with my church and family ~15 years ago) is really not the ticket. Our group eventually quit going because natives running multiple different nonprofits out there said to us (“we don’t need your paintbrushes, we need your money”). Rebekah and I are sitting on the idea of paying “first rent”. Basically loosely/non-legalistically figuring out what it would cost to rent the space we live in, and “paying rent” to a combination of Native and African American nonprofit organizations. This wouldn’t earn us any purity or whatever… but rather would just be a way to say “hey this is theirs not ours… we should probs be paying them for our use of it…”.

I’m not sure how to conclude, so instead I’ll hold in tension those two quotes:

“Of course it’s sinful [to own stolen land]. But this is a sinful world so everything is sinful… we can’t avoid sin, but we just need to do the best we can.”
~ Rebekah, my wife.

“Without justice, many Dakota say, healing and transformation on both sides cannot occur, and good, authentic relations cannot develop between our Peoples.”
~ Amazon excerpt for What Does Justice Look Like?: The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland

Advertisements

Why I have found it hard to have sincere theologically liberal/postmodern faith

Saying, as I sometimes do, something like

“I can’t tell you whether My God is THE God, but I can tell you that My God is My God”

sounds fancy and good… but is actually really hard FOR ME to live out.

People of what I’ll call [warning: buzzword ahead]”indigenous” faith, as I have experienced, do this all the time. A pan-african drum troupe’s leader told the audience “every faith, all Gods worshipped, are true”. A Dakota who prays to and sees spirits and ancestors also worships Christ the son of God, and minds hindu Gods and wisdoms. A Mohican told us the story of the Celestial Bear (Ursa Major / “Big Dipper”) whose blood gives us a red sky, but I don’t think he’s saying that those stars are ONLY a bear and not whatever other people’s faiths hold.

I, on the other hand, don’t know how to get excited about and motivated by my faith unless it’s the only  true faith. I feel like my moments of religious experience, faithful passion, etc., are vestigial/residual. I cry when I pray a doctrine (e.g. God is present in all people, loving and loved through us all) that I learned when I thought the Bible dispensed truth.

Different people see God through different lenses. Different people see Rebekah (my spouse) through different lenses. I see someone who is tender, warm, deep, wise… James sees her as proficient, efficient, competent. But it’s the same Rebekah. But how far does that really stretch? Mono vs. Triune vs. Many? Different structures for afterlife, etc?

I KNOW that James and I are observing the same set of matter that consists Rebekah… but are Hindus and I actually observing anything that is indeed the same? How could they see millions and I see 3? We see different parts of the same elephant… a classic reference. But when I hear that, I’m saying “okay, well, I don’t want to worship a trunk (‘snake’), or a leg (‘tree’), I want the full truth”. I tell myself something humble sounding like “far be it from me to tell God which parts of God’s self to show me”. But at that point I’m already checked out. My reassurance does me nothing. With Rebekah, I get the full her; I know the whole picture. I may experience some things more, but I even hear about the version that James interacts with. Rebekah shapeshifts, but not so much as to go from being 0 to 1 to 3 to 330,000,000 people…

It’s tough for me to get excited about a God who is just one image (i.e. a Christian one) of God, even when I say “but that’s the image of God that God chose to show me”.

With Wave and Particle Duality (where we see that light behaves as both a wave and a particle, even though those two things are different) I just assume that there’s an UNDERLYING reality that manifests as following both of these contradicting patterns (wave = widely spread out / particle = in one tiny place). An underlying reality like… a “waveparticle” (I just made that word up). But as soon as I acknowledge that, I’m interested in the UNDERLYING reality… I don’t want to sit there and stare at the wavy part only…

Just like how the proposition of functioning as specifically a Christian is hard for me. I’m observing that the likelihood of me having found the 1 religion out of thousands out there that happens to be true approaches nil… but it’s tough for me to say “but this one’s mine so I’m going to focus on that”.

I do this in marriage though.

Rebekah is the most ______ (superlatives superlatives superlatives) in the world. Without having cause to believe she’s truly actually objectively the best out of all the ones out there… I can nonetheless unwaveringly say she’s definitely the best.

Indigenous people [whatever that means] – it seems to me – can do this with religion/faith/belief. Quite handily.

Whereas I feel like theologically liberal euro/western culture is basically merely — as I feel I am — milking the emotional remnants of a faith-nostalgia while finding ways to be okay and feel okay while not actually believing anything.

Meanwhile various sects claiming exclusive truth squabble over who has it, all believing themselves the lucky winner. So no, I can’t just go back to that.

I guess in a way I’ve been trying to be like my understanding indigenous faithful people… approaching religion to draw strength but not being hung up on exclusivity. And in a way, I feel like it’s not really going so hot. I feel basically faithless.

I have a dear friend who believes he’s got exclusive truth… not because he has evidence that it’s exclusive (he’s fairly open about the lack thereof), but because he can’t figure out a way to believe it’s true at all if it’s not exclusively true. And I kinda can’t blame him.

And of course there’s good old atheism (and its variants) right around the corner. Which is basically a religion with zero Gods, no less exclusive a claim than any of the others, and not qualitatively more defensible.

Finding myself, ironically, somewhere I’ve found myself continually: with the conclusion that there’s no good place I can be. Tempted to say that the ancient/indigenous way is better/best… but even if that’s true I’m not sure I could get there…

 

Capitalist gov’t is an absurdly large mercenary guard service.

squirrel with ak47.jpg

Some economic musings. Don’t mind me. I hold this all pretty loosely. Thought experiment follows:

I drafted this a few months ago and wasn’t going to publish it, but in light of Trump’s tax dodging, and people’s response saying he’s just “keeping what he earned”, I figured I might as well hit the “publish” button.

———–

In a world without any weapons, it’s easy to steal from someone who has lots of food/possessions. Non-human animals in nature work like that; if a squirrel has 1 billion acorns, they will be ceaselessly stolen until the point where the squirrel has only the acorns it can defend with its bare teeth. Let’s say, 100 or 1000 acorns. (Let’s call this scenario “Squirrels in Nature”)

How can the squirrel accumulate more acorns, then?

Weapons. The squirrel now has a spear. Or a bow an arrow. Or an AK-47. It can guard substantially more acorns now. Maybe ten thousand acorns. But still not a million or a billion. (let’s call this “Stone Age Squirrels”.)

Militia/guards. The squirrel hires his own troop of independently contracted guardsquirrels. On a good day, with his hefty posse, they protect his million acorns. But on a bad day, the captain of the guard stages a little coup, kills Bob the squirrel, and is the new (albeit probably temporary) owner of all the acorns. (Let’s call this “Feudal Squirrels”.)

Well-reputed militia/guard services. Bob the squirrel needs a guard service brand he can trust — one reputed to prevent this type of coup. An armed organization so large that it has more to gain by building a reputation of faithfully guarding acorn piles than it could ever gain by stealing them. So large, perhaps, that competing military entities are thousands of miles away, and unlikely to ever overrun and plunder the territory of his own. His ten million acorns are very safe. (Let’s call this “Imperial Squirrels”.)

Business is the means whereby acorns are accumulated.

Government is the means whereby they are guarded for whoever has accumulated them.

Some people think that governments “play robin hood” by taxing its rich constituents and creating services for all its constituents.

Here’s what I’ll say to that:

If government were to “get out of your life”, you would be a lonely squirrel with bare teeth, or maybe an AK47.

You would be terrified.

To defend yourself better, you would perhaps form a pact with your neighborsquirrels to protect each other, so that you were not SO lonely of a squirrel. You might agree to how that protection would work, what support was required of the constituents, etc. Guess what you just created. Yup … Government. A cooperatively owned and governed guard service.

armedsquirrel

A reason the wealthy pay more in taxes [OR SHOULD, AT LEAST!] is because they have the most to benefit from a guard service. If there were no conglomerations of martial power, I could guard my little house with my spear or AK-47 well enough to de-incentivize any individual thief from breaking and entering. But your real-estate, manufacturing, or technology megacorp? It needs so much protection that if somebody halfway across the country or world conquers your hotel or factory or even takes your ideas or information, you’ll be covered.

That is, perhaps, why the population gets real mad when you think you should pay a flat tax. [or when you completely dodge taxes!] 95% of your assets would need police forces to protect them from individual thieves, whereas maybe only 10% of mine (macbook, car, bike) do.

At this point, the U.S. is serving as the Huge Guard Service for vast chunks of the world. Whether that’s a good thing or bad is outside of scope here… but you’d better believe that the fees paid to it (taxes, etc.) are [OR SHOULD BE] paid by the people who benefit most from the protection.

 

 

The scariest thing about humankind

The scariest thing about humankind is this:

  • Our ability to scale.

Or in other words,

  • Our ability to concentrate resources and power. 

Or in other words,

  • Our capacity for removing boundaries for the expansion of power.

Or in other (nerdier) words,

  • Our capacity for removing negative feedback loops (“damping effects”) regarding the concentration of resources and power, making us subject to to positive feedback loops (“runaway effects”).

A capitalist economic society/system is often described in terms of “survival of the fittest”, modeled after the highly potent process of evolution in nature. However, there are some very dangerous differences that a capitalist economic system has by comparison to survival of the fittest in nature:

Nature is full of damping effects:

  • If an elephant gets too large, it will run too slow. It will be eaten by lions.
  • If a population of gazelles gets really large, the population of lions will swell, and then diminish the gazelle population.
  • The same is true with populations of plants and the bugs that eat them, and with the birds that eat the bugs… and the eagles that eat those birds.
  • If you get too many apex predators (birds).

NONE OF THESE DAMPING EFFECTS ARE TRUE FOR CORPORATIONS.

  • Corporations are not allowed to act as predators each other. Proliferation of WalMarts does not trigger a swelling in the population of a company whose niche is to raid walmart stores.
  • Corporations can quickly switch niches. Unlike aphids, if the thing they were doing is no longer available to do, they can reorganize and take on a different challenge. “AT&T” is “American Telephone and Telegraph”. “3M” is “Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing”. And Google… Google is whatever it wants to be this month! Unlike cacti or freshwater fish, they can quickly add (or acquire!) the capacity to fill a new target market OR IF THEY DON’T, THEY JUST GET BOUGHT BY SOMEBODY BIGGER!
  • Those are literally the 3 things that keep species’ populations under control and dominance limited in nature: 
    • Predator populations swelling.

    • Prey populations diminishing / niche exhaustion.

    • Inability to merge

  • AND NONE OF THEM APPLIES TO CORPORATIONS!!

 

SO. then we are just subject only to RUNAWAY effects among corporations.

  • Bigger corporations ->
    • better lawyers
    • more lobbyists
    • ability to price-gouge in limited space and time to destroy smaller local competitors
    • more capital to buy less huge corporations — within or across niches.

Dear libertarians out there… who it seems don’t like antitrust… and who think The Market is the guide for all of that…

STOP IT!

But before that, let me say,

I GET IT! I LOVE the idea of the free market emulate the ways evolution in nature keeps each species adapted and optimized to its surroundings. And I hate the idea of putting an inefficient beaurocracy in the way. I LOVE the way supply and demand guides production quantities. Let me say that again so you know I care and validate you… I LOVE the way supply and demand guides production quantities. That would have been great when Mao was (probably accidentally) starving the heck out of his constituents! He just didn’t know that the people were hungry! Supply and demand would have helped!

Okay. Now that you know I care. … I’m going to spend even more time convincing you that I understand, that I care:

Government cronyism really DOES screw up our economies and lives! Look at our addiction to corn syrup… corn puffs… corn everything… because it’s so darn cheap because it’s subsidized!

I hate cronyism too. But let me say this:

Laissez-faire / hands-off economics works great for grass, gazelles, and lions. (In the CIIIIIIIRRRCLE of LIIIIIIFE!)

BUT IT DOESN’T WORK FOR US!

If we’re going to:

  1. protect corporations from their competitors (and individual citizens) physically raiding/looting/conquering them
  2. allow them to switch niches, and
  3. allow them to buy each other

(measures I generally agree with!)

…then we NEED SOMETHING ELSE to stop our current spiral of concentration of power into fewer and fewer companies.

ALSO, libertarians and libertarian-tempted-thinkers: keep in mind that point #1 above is NOT laissez faire / hands off! As soon as a larger force like a government prevents people from stealing each others’ stuff, it creates the “conditions for growth”. It really does. Because in a society like that, most people are generally spending more time creating wealth and less time stealing and protecting it. And that’s generally / arguably / potentially a good thing… but ONLY IF you also create conditions to prevent runaway growth!

Humans generally have unique, non-nature-like capacity for scalable growth, and capitalist governments’ protection of private (and corporate) property causes it to occur specifically within business corporations. (In communism, we can get similar effects but more directed toward governments).

Here is my sense of the 2 things we need to do to prevent the runaway corporate growth:

  • Serious “early-and-often” Antitrust
    • CURRENTLY ANTITRUST BREAKUPS ONLY OCCUR WHEN THERE IS ONLY ONE COMPANY LEFT IN A NICHE!!!!!!
      • So what, then? We’ll live in a world with 2 companies per niche? 2 oil companies, 2 ag companies. Are we sure that’s okay? AND since companies can span niches… maybe that just means 2 companies in total!
      • ALSO, BE AFRAID because think about what happens when a company is bigger than the U.S. (and/or bigger than China). What happens when a company is so big that it can successfully boycott the biggest nation!?!? Good heavens. I’ll tell you what happens then. Then we can’t do antitrust at all. … Unless all the nations merged into one to do the boycott. Also reasonably terrifying.
    • So… yeah. I’m thinking early-and-often antitrust is needed. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I much prefer that over the world being gobbled up into 1 giant ACME congolomerate, and nations themselves become figureheads and cultural niceties.
  • Every measure possible to keep companies out of government.
    • Yup. Every. Possible. Measure.
      • Companies can’t give a dime.
      • Individuals have flat campaign giving caps.
      • No PACS (super or with any other prefix) can advertise.
      • Unions don’t get to give either. (we gotta be fair here. our point is to combat runaway giving.)
      • Lobbyists may not receive any compensation. Or maybe it’s that they can’t give any money to the candidates.

 

We need to take these measures because if we don’t, the current runaway growth of corporations will have nothing – literally nothing – to stop it.

The horrors of a world with only one company (or a handful thereof) can only be imagined.

  • But I’ll say this: the past and present can show us horrors of scenarios — whether for coal miners or jim-crow-south sharecroppers — where your life is owned by a single company; where you always owe money to the overpriced “company store” so you can never. stop. working. … where the law exists to bring you back to your boss if you ever try to run.
  • In terms of the environment, we must remember that corporations have almost unilaterally pushed for looser environmental policy, and governments have pushed toward more constraints. Runaway corporate power could generate runaway greenhouse gas-driven warming (sometimes called the “Venus effect”).
  • In terms of war, I imagine corporations with all the power and armies and WMDs of todays nations, but accountable only to their shareholders… I could see them warring for resources or for customer-bases. I’m not fully certain that megacorporations commanding armed forces would be worse than today’s nation-states are, but I’m quite certain that I don’t want me or my children’s children to find out.

This blog post discussed reasons for the runaway affect we’re already seeing, discussed the fact that it is an unfettered runaway cycle with catastrophic possibilities, and discussed what I think needs to be done about it.

To recap:

  • The idea of business mimicking the “survival of the fittest” we see in nature is appealing. Supply and demand, and The Market, truly are powerful effects that can accomplish swiftly what bureaucracies cannot. It is tempting to think that if we remove the regulative interventions of government, those forces will create balance, efficiency, and a flourishing economy that benefits all.
  • This idea, however, is severely flawed, for the following reasons:
    • Businesses do not experience several key damping effects that species’ populations face:
      • Companies do not have to shrink when their niches shrink, as they can switch niches much more rapidly than animal populations.
      • Modern companies are not regulated by the proliferation of predators that normally keeps a growing population in check. Modern capitalist governments actively apply incontestable force to prevent the raiding or takeover of firms or their locations. Even a very libertarian government is not “laissez-faire” or “hands off”, but rather, is applying a strong force in favor of property accumulation. I find deep, or “anti-antitrust”+”anti-social-net” libertarianism to be highly misguided in that it believes it can safely apply the above martial property-protecting force without applying forces to constrain that runaway effect in which property and power beget more property and power for the increasingly few individuals and corporations that hold them.
  • The above “runaway effect” must, I believe, be countered by socialist-capitalist hybrid policy in the world’s most powerful governmental agencies, before those agencies are no longer powerful enough to constrain the worlds’ largest corporations, or we will suffer a one-world-company distopia or whatever bloody revolutionary chaos it takes to break it up. I believe those needed constraints are:
    • “early and often” AntiTrust… I’m not sure how it would work but I’m imagining something like a forced version of how Google is always internally breaking itself up into little competing companies.
    • election reform; i.e. extreme constraints on the degree to which money (corporate or union) can influence government… and in general efforts to make the government accountable to and representative of voters on a per-person rather than per-dollar basis.

Growth

Sometimes it’s cool to look back and see the path of how we’ve grown.

As I approach a lot of big transitions (among them the graduation of every student I’ve ever taught, the completion of several large work projects, and a job change), I found myself appreciating how my artwork captures my emotional growth over time.

2016

Today was a stressful day.

Between balancing two separate work clients, recently deciding to quit both of them to pursue more standard employment, trying to prepare for the transition and wrap up a couple major projects, begin my job hunt, AND, ya know, do the rest of life, all of a sudden it sort of came to a head today as I began to feel the feelings of overwhelm creeping into my body.

So I did what I know is good for my soul — I got out the ink and made some art.

stress no.2 - 2016

Any of you who have seen my art or follow my art blog know that my artwork is very emotional and impressionistic. And, knowing the state of my life right now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this particular image came from.

But it also tickled my memory, because I created a somewhat similar piece of art a few years ago.

2012

Four years ago, in the spring of 2012, I was struggling. I was 7 months into a teaching job that was *supposed* to be exactly what I had wanted in a teaching job — middle schoolers, racial and economic diversity, subject-based teams, even a decent starting salary. And I was sinking.

I hadn’t quite figured out why, but I knew that something was wrong, and I could feel myself drowning as I tried to keep my head above water in the classroom. But the overwhelm kept creeping in.

One day, in sheer desperation, my non-verbal brain took over and somehow remembered where I had buried an old sketchpad and a set of oil pastels, and I drew this:

stress no.1 - 2012

I literally hadn’t done any artwork since high school, really, but somehow my body just made this happen, in the middle of my crazy, crazy stress.

Growth

It’s interesting now to look back and compare the two pieces of art, the two snapshots of myself. There are some elements that are basically the same — the nondescript person, the blue spheres, the chaotic shapes outside — but even just looking at the art you can tell some things are different. In fact, the pictures can tell you nearly as much as I could by remembering.

stress 1 and 2

The person on the left is tiny, infantile, literally in the fetal position, as if seeking protection. She seems to be cocooned in a bubble, but the bubble is tiny and almost recedes into a pinpoint compared to the large, aggressive, jagged shapes that seem to fill the landscape. Inside the bubble is calm blue, but everywhere around are vibrant, loud colors and shapes that threaten to pop the bubble and cause the person to curl up tighter.

The person on the right is standing strong, holding a line. Some sort of energy emanates from her center, seeming to protect her, or at least help to hold the boundary. Outside the circle of calm, chaotic shapes and shadows swirl, but the warmth and the focus of this painting is on the person, standing firm, arms outstretched, exuding calm blue and hopeful yellow light. Although it seems that the bubble’s edge is broken in places, the person seems to still be in it, and a burst of dark and light around her right hand seems to indicate active resistance.

See? That’s just me psychoanalyzing my own artwork. (Lol.)

But since it’s my life, I can tell you the actual story.

Four years ago, I got broken by teaching. Totally wrecked. I felt like I had failed. Not only was I miserable at that job, but I had to live with the fact that I had studied for over four years and dragged my new husband to a faraway state — for nothing. I don’t know if I was actually diagnosably depressed, but it was a pretty low time in my life. I didn’t have a lot of emotional resources. I felt pretty helpless and hopeless, and you can see that in my drawing.

Today, I’ve got a few old scars but those are proof that I’ve come out the other side. Now that I know what it’s like to be stuck in a job that’s a terrible fit, I’m not miserable and I don’t feel stuck, because even the jobs I’m leaving are a much better match for my personality and skill set. Moreover, I know I have a sense of agency to change things if they aren’t good for me. And the transition I’m about to embark on will help me to grow even more, both professionally and personally, as I move on to the next thing I want to learn. Yes, I’m feeling stressed today, but I’m aware of my stress, I know why I’m stressed, and I can deal with it standing up instead of crumpling into a ball. (Most days!) Sometimes it breaks through and gets to me, but with a lot of hard work I now have deeper emotional resources to be able to fight back and keep moving through the overwhelm. (And sometimes, I know when I need to take a break!)

Anyway, I don’t really have like a moral to this story — I just am thankful for what I’ve learned and for such a vivid opportunity to reflect on one piece of growth in my life. And I thought I’d share with you all, because sometimes it feels like the internet sort of skims over the tough stuff in life. But the thing is, sometimes the tough stuff is the stuff you’re most proud of.

Fight on, fellow warriors. Fight on.

stress no.2 - 2016

Why I Think Paris Is More Important than Beirut

In the aftermath of the attacks on Paris, Beirut, and other cities around the world, I’ve been doing some thinking.

I’ve seen a lot of posts about what we should or shouldn’t do in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. I’ve seen a lot of posts about how we should or shouldn’t pay attention to various disastrous events that happen. I’ve even seen some (really dialed-in) posts about the parallels to the story of the flight of the Holy Family as refugees, and our responsibility as Christians.

But I want to spend a few minutes writing the post that only I can write, which is the one about my own reaction to the two attacks.

I heard about the Paris attack first. I was at a fancy dinner event. The glitzy outfits and bubbling laughter seemed dissonant alongside the updating news reports of multiple shooters and over a hundred dead. I felt sad.

The next morning was the first time I saw any news about Beirut. Much has been made on social media now of the difference in grief and empathy and outrage expressed by Americans/Westerners on Facebook over the Paris attacks compared to the one just a day earlier in Beirut, Lebanon. At first when I saw an image pointing out this discrepancy, I shared it and chimed in with a mental, “Yeah! We should pay attention to both!”

But today, especially as I’ve been reading The New Jim Crow and thinking about the role of the unconscious, implicit gut impulses we have in our complicity in systems of inequality, I decided to take a look at the only realm over which I have total control: myself.

So let’s start here:

First things first, let’s just get it out there: it’s true. I do care more about the attack in Paris than about the one in Beirut. I react more strongly to the attack in Paris than to the one in Beirut. And, if we’re being totally honest, I probably also care more about the people in Paris than the ones in Beirut.

Why? Because when I think about Paris I think about people like me, and an attack there feels closer to home. And when it feels more personal, I react more. Because if it could happen to a city like mine, it could happen to me.

I am a third- and fourth-generation European American on both sides. Many of my forebears have trod the soil of France at various times, most recently by participating in the liberation of France during WWII. Heck, I’ve even been to Paris myself. My own personal history, culture, travel experience, and language all tie me to Europe and/or Paris.

Compare that to Beirut. I admit, I actually had to look it up to even know that it was in Lebanon. I know no one from there. My family is not from there. I have never been there. I would be hard-pressed to find Beirut on a map, let alone tell you much about the people. The little I do know is telling: I know it sounds Middle-Eastern. (Read: “foreign” / “brown” / “Muslim”)

That leads me to my next observation, which is that what I’ve learned over the years from school and media coverage plays a factor as well. It seems that there is “always” “some” explosion or suicide bomb or terrorist attack of some kind happening “over there”. Throughout my entire awareness of news media, I can’t remember a time where there wasn’t seemingly endless coverage of seemingly endless violence all across the Middle East. This leads me to assume that violence, even terroristic violence (perhaps especially terroristic violence), in the Middle East is normal and expected. Just another attack in a series of never-ending, normal, everyday events. Nothing to see here. Move along. It’ll stay over there.

Compare this to my shock at hearing of a terrorist attack in Paris. But this is PARIS! Things like that don’t happen there! Underlying those unthinking thoughts are more ugly assumptions: Paris is immune from violence. “We’re” more peaceful (aka civilized) than “them”. How did “those people” bring “their” violence to “our” impenetrable fortress of civilization?

Basically, if I’m totally honest, I’m pretty fine with violence and terror… as long as it doesn’t feel like it can get me. And that feels shameful.

It feels gross to look inside and see that all of those thoughts are inside of me. But they’re in there. And ignoring doesn’t make them go away. Just because I don’t want to think those things doesn’t mean I can just make them disappear from my brain!

But rather than hiding behind defensiveness, it’s better to just get it out and then start the work. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem!

So yes, we should pay just as much attention to violence in Lebanon as to violence in France. But don’t just jump straight from “error” to the “correct” thing — it’s also important for each of us to take the time to actually unpack the “what’s going on under the surface” of why we identify more closely with Paris. Only when we can honestly name and own our yuck can we confess, repent, and begin to open up and allow God to give us true compassion for all the people, not just the ones that look the most like us.

A Letter to My Fellow White Christians about #BlackLivesMatter

blacklivesmatterDear Fellow White Christians,

Here’s the deal: I’m a little confused.

I hear some of you talk about why you don’t support the #BlackLivesMatter movement — and I don’t get it! So I thought I’d talk about it in a blog post (especially since I already talked about it on Facebook, so consider this a more organized recapturing of a great conversation with some of you, friends). First off, the basics…

Don’t ALL lives matter?

Or, as presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee recently commented, “When I hear people scream, ‘black lives matter,’ I think, ‘Of course they do.’ But all lives matter. It’s not that any life matters more than another. … I think he’d [Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] be appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others.”

To this I say, yes, he would be appalled — we just need to get on the same page about which “some lives” are being elevated more than others!

When I think about the question “What are black lives worth?” the first thing that comes to mind is what I learned in U.S. History class — the 3/5 clause written into the U.S. Constitution. According to our most sacred founding document, black lives are literally worth just over one half of white lives.

The second thing I think of — again from history class — is slavery. In 1860, an enslaved black person’s life was valued at around $800, or around $130,000 in today’s currency. (I thought that sounded like a large sum — then I thought about how I would feel if someone offered to pay me $130,000 in exchange for unlimited physical labor for my whole life and the right to separate me from my husband and family at their convenience. I no longer find it a large sum.)

To me, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement is about reminding the rest of us that black people are created in the image of God, too. Consider this powerful paragraph from a New York Times article I posted earlier today:

The Black Lives Matter Movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of police, and is of a piece with this history [of the Civil Rights Movement]. Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. (emphasis added)

Let me say that again: saying that Black Lives Matter DOES NOT MEAN that “other” lives don’t matter. It simply seeks to correct the false belief, prevalently visible throughout our country’s history, that black lives matter less by speaking the truth even louder: in other words, not just BLACK lives matter, but Black lives DO matter!

But what about BLM’s questionable methods?

Okay, you may say, fine — a noble goal. But this just isn’t the same as the Civil Rights movement. That was about respectable, peaceful protest, and these folks’ methods are rude and not okay.

Fair enough. You are entitled to your opinion. Even this black former Civil Rights activist has some questions about BLM’s methods and leadership. That said, here are two thoughts I would like you to consider as you continue to form and inform your opinion:

1. Practice listening to black people.

I’m not black — and neither are you, dear fellow white Christian. It’s not our movement. So when I am talking about BLM, I defer to and try hard to LISTEN to black people, especially before I open my big mouth and start to tell other people how to run their movement. Just like that Jesus guy. He was really good at listening to people’s pain and asking thoughtful questions before offering his opinion.

Additionally, I implore you to stay away from sensationalist exaggerations like that Dr. King would be “appalled” or “rolling in his grave.” First of all, this is just an emotion-yanking tactic to try to invoke a sense of violation of one of our most beloved and popular-to-invoke figures. Secondly, remember that the reason we don’t actually know what Dr. King would think is that he was shot by a white supremacist. As this thoughtful and hard-hitting reflection by a black activist puts it, “A nice suit is a nice suit. Get one. But it won’t stop a bullet, son.” So next time you think of invoking Dr. King’s ghost on a black activist, maybe consider another tactic instead. Remember, the authorities on being black in America are black people. So even when it feels hard, even when it feels uncomfortable, cultivate an attitude of listening, not scolding.

2. Remember that the black community is NOT monolithic.

Just like the white community, the Christian community, the Minnesota community, etc etc, black people often disagree with each other! (Shocking, I know.) Some black people will support BLM’s methods and some won’t, but they are entitled to their opinions! If someone thinks interrupting political candidates on stage is a good idea, go for it! If someone thinks that’s rude and won’t get the movement anywhere, more power to ’em! This debate and disagreement is part of making our way forward together, and I think it’s unreasonable for us white folks to hold the BLM movement to standards so high as to not allow for normal growing pains and disagreement as BLM finds their way.

So you’re anti-cop? Don’t Blue Lives Matter?

No! First of all, let me state very clearly: killing police officers is not okay.

Police perform a difficult and invaluable function in our society, and I think it’s appropriate that cop-killers receive harsh punishments in our society. THAT BEING SAID…

Using “Blue Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter” or saying that “cops are now being killed indiscriminately” (as one of my friends stated) is a falsehood and gross misrepresentation of the facts. In fact, this site that tracks the deaths of law enforcement officers says that deaths of officers in the US due to gun violence in 2015 total 24 and are DOWN 20% since last year. Overall line-of-duty deaths total 83 and are down 2% from last year. Hardly an escalation to “indiscriminate” open season on police!

By contrast, The Guardian estimates that police in the US have killed upwards of 500 people this year so far. Additionally, in examining a claim that “police kill more whites than blacks”, Politifact found that while this claim is true, it’s true only because whites make up more than 50% of people in the US, and in fact, “When comparing death rates, blacks are about three times more likely than whites to die in a confrontation with police.” 

SO — again, I reiterate that I am saddened by the deaths of police doing their best to “serve and protect” — this should not happen. I do NOT support hatred towards police (nor does BLM) and I support efforts to bring officers home safely and alive from their rounds of duty. But bringing this up as a way to minimize or dismiss claims about the systemic bias against black people by our society and by our law enforcement practices is misleading and ignores the very real concerns of the BLM movement about consistently high rates of black deaths by police officer in comparison to other racial groups.

What about BLM telling black people to kill white people?

After a lot of Googling, I found one article from a sort of questionable-looking source I’ve never heard of claiming that the “leaders” of BLM had told their followers to “kill a white person, hang them from a tree, upload a pic to social media”. Apparently this occurred shortly before the tragic shooting of two young news professionals in Virginia — the implication being that BLM is implicitly (or explicitly) responsible for the death of these two young people.

Two things.

First, look at the names of the “main ring-leaders” this site lists: Carol “Sunshine” Sullivan, Nocturnus Libertus (Sierra McGrone), Palmentto Star, and Malcom Jamahl Whitehead. Now, look at the names of the founders of the BLM movement, according to Wikipedia, the BLM website, and an article by the Associated PressOpal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza. Notice anything? Hint: the names don’t match. It’s okay to be alarmed that somewhere, a couple of black people are making threatening statements about killing white people. BUT, it’s also important to recognize that most groups have radical extremists. As my friend on Facebook aptly pointed out, “It’s like pro-life people killing abortionists, it tarnishes the message.” Yes, friend — yes, it does. Which is why generally these extremists — both these couple black people talking about killing white people on the radio and the few pro-life people who advocate murdering abortion doctors — are generally viewed as extremists, and NOT as representatives of the movement at large. Ergo, if you are pro-life, you have just as much moral ground to support that cause as BLM advocates have to support theirs — you both have the preservation of undervalued life as your core goal, and you both have tiny splinter groups of extremists who think that taking life is an appropriate way to achieve that goal. (In fact, I find that the BLM movement should align perfectly well with conservative Christian views about the sanctity of life — one of the most challenging Christians I know is a deeply faithful and conservative black pastor who is a staunch pro-life advocate as well as a staunch #BlackLivesMatter supporter.)

Secondly, while receiving threats of being killed, hung from a tree, and photographed simply for being born with a certain color of skin can be pretty terrifying, I’m pretty sure black people have received that threat wayyyyyy more times than they’ve made it. Between 3,000 and 4,000 black people were actually lynched (aka killed and hung from a tree) in the U.S. between about 1850-1960. And those are only the ones that were actually carried out! As for the “post a pic” part — many of these lynchings of black people were not only attended by spectators as if they were sporting events, but profiteers actually made photo postcards of the lynchings that included the bodies of the black victims, and white people actually sent these to their friends!! (Sound like horrific early social media photo posting to anyone else?)

I’m not saying that this makes threatening white people’s lives okay — but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that these issues are NOT isolated incidents, but parts of a larger social and historical narrative of race relations in our country.

Okay, but what about black-on-black crime?

Okay. Here’s the thing.

Yes, statistics show that there tends to be more crime among black communities than among white communities. HOWEVER, as this article points out, “Felony crime is highly correlated with poverty, and race continues to be highly correlated with poverty in the USA,” McCoy said. “It is the most difficult and searing problem in this whole mess.” The article also said that when you control for poverty, (poor) whites have about the same rate of crime as (poor) blacks. SO, until we can fix poverty and/or erase the poverty gap that currently disproportionately affects the black community, we will continue to have more crime in the black community. And they will continue to have more encounters with the police. And they will continue to be killed at a disproportionate rate to whites. And that is not okay. Hence #BlackLivesMatter, because the rest of us need a reminder sometimes when it’s not right in our faces.

Additionally, notice how I said “black communities” and “white communities”? That’s because, as mentioned in this excellent article addressing the question of black-on-black crime,

African Americans are twice as likely to live in black neighborhoods, not because they necessarily want to but because, most of the time, they just have to. With limited social mobility in comparison with whites, most black families can’t just pack up, leave and move to Any Location USA. Instead, they find themselves in majority-black neighborhoods, many of which are ravaged by stubborn trends of low income, poverty, unemployment and underemployment.

Oh yeah, and crime. But not because those neighborhoods are black “hoods” or black people are culturally or genetically predisposed to homicidal crime. Areas challenged by poverty indicators, as this Census Bureau American Community Survey analysis shows, are places where “concentration of poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities.” Some of the 10 most dangerous states in the nation admittedly have large—20 percent-plus—black populations concentrated in urban centers, but they’re also places with the highest poverty rates in the nation.

The article also notes that

The three most dangerous states in America are Alaska, Nevada and New Mexico—all states ranging from 70 to over 80 percent white. And not so surprisingly, 6 out of 10 dangerous states are places with open-carry gun laws, which Stanford University researchers suggest contribute to an overall spike in aggravated assaults. Yet we’re loathe to call any of that an upward trend in “white-on-white crime,” just as you wouldn’t hear Russian President Vladimir Putin lamenting the rise in “Russian-on-Russian” murder rates (among the highest in the world, and higher than those in the United States).

So basically, let’s stop focusing in on “black-on-black” crime as a thing.

BUT even if you really want to, I say to you this: even if black-on-black crime is a problem that needs addressing, why do you assume it’s not being addressed? A quick search for “what is the black community doing to prevent black on black crime” quickly reveals that there is already much being done to address this issue — including this conference specifically about addressing crime in black communities, which is celebrating its 30th year! I think it’s safe to say that the black community is well aware of this issue, and don’t need us to remind them.

In conclusion…

If you still have qualms about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, gentle reader, that’s okay. My point isn’t to force you to agree with me. My point is to help us all think deeply and self-critically about the hidden assumptions we hold about black people, how our value of people stands up to God’s value of people, and the role of protest in our shared life together. I hope you’ll keep an open mind — I try to! — and I hope you’ll feel welcome to continue to ask questions, do research, and pray about how we as white Christians might best come alongside our black (and brown) sisters and brothers to communicate in ways that can’t be misunderstood, “Your life MATTERS, to God and to me!”