Repost: Grace and Race

A post from 2013.

32695-01I sure loves me some Maria Dixon.

Dixon is a Methodist and decided to share he thoughts about the whole Paula Deen affair and decided to take Progressive Christians to task for their selective grace:

When it comes to discussing race, progressives have little tolerance for intolerance–past or present. We throw labels around as easily as the Pharisees threw stones at adulterous women. How dare someone not have OUR enlightened view on the world! How dare they not have been born with the innate view of justice, righteousness, and soul that we have!

So when Paula Deen’s transcript was leaked to the press last week, the script was already in place. The media would report that she used the “N” word–everybody would gasp–then the outrage would begin. She would be crucified by the New York Times, Facebook pundits, and of course, her fellow chefs. She would be tried by the court of public opinion who would judge her entire life’s work and character by the use of the “N” word in a private conversation. RACIST! we would yell. She would cry. Her business would be destroyed and progressives would declare victory.

Yet, here is the reality: Deen told the truth about her past. Knowing everything: her empire, her contracts, and sponsorships were at stake–she told the truth. She was more honest under oath than at least 3 US Presidents, several dozen Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Non-Denominational preachers and countless business leaders. Unlike the Pope, Joe Paterno, or Donald Trump, she acknowledged she hadn’t always gotten it right but that she and her company was committed to doing it better and were doing better.

Dixon isn’t done yet:

Progressives Christians love to talk about grace except when they have to extend it to someone who has offended their political reality. The grace that we proclaim that washes us clean and entitled us to a new life is for everybody as long as they have not offended our politics. A cursory look at the progressive schizophrenic (and hypocritical) view of who deserves grace bears this out. Anthony Weiner shows his weiner to someone other than his wife–Grace abounds. My beloved Bill Clinton gets a handy j in the oval office–Grace abounds. Barney Frank shacks up with a male prostitute–Grace Abounds. President Obama–doesn’t close Gitmo; listens to our conversations; and uses drones to kill civilians–Grace Abounds. A woman uses the N word AND admits it knowing that a great portion of her clientele is African American (I’d say Paula probably has used it more than that)–our verdict: Off with her head, her show, and her ham.

What really angers me is the fact that most of the people really tripping about Deen’s past are from the North. That’s not to say that Southern African Americans are passive about the use of racial slurs but we are also aware of the reality that mindsets don’t all change at the same pace and that if we judged every white southerner over the age of 50 by what they said in the past, we could never buy a car; house, or eat in a Waffle House ever again. Perhaps the reason that much of the civil rights establishment, the men and women who got their heads beat in on the regular, have not condemned Paula Deen is because they know the complexity of the human heart on matters of race. Moreover, they are also aware that someone’s past doesn’t predict their present. Perhaps they remembered that the same George Wallace that stood in the door at the University of Alabama saying that Blacks would never be welcomed, returned in 1985 to the campus to crown and kiss that year’s Black Homecoming Queen, my sorority sister Deidra Chestang at a time when our campus was threatening to boil over in racial turmoil. That kiss silenced the bigots that day and his words begged all of us to embrace a new South. Though we lost that game to Vanderbilt, that kiss symbolized the magnificent change that God’s grace can make in a man’s heart. Many African Americans are standing by Deen, especially those that through the years she has launched into business because they are judging her actions as well as her words.

When I first heard about this, my thoughts were: and this is shocking because….

Like Dixon, I don’t condone the use of the N-word or any racially insenstive word for that matter. But I don’t expect a nearly 70 year old woman from Georgia, who grew up in a very different South where the N-word was used a lot to somehow be a paragon of virtue. She told the truth of a past slip-up. PAST.

Having relatives and friends in various states in the South, I know it’s an odd place to a Northerner. People from South, can be friendly and caring to a fault to a person of a different color and yet still harbor some racial amimosity. To outsiders, it makes no sense. But the South is a place of contradictions and they don’t have a problem living with those oddities.

I remember Mrs. Martin a well-to-do white woman whose husband owned the local paper mill in Pineville, Louisiana. My dad and uncles did a number of jobs for her and whenever we went South, we would visit her. I remember one time she gave us a gift- a figurine of a black kid eating a watermelon and sitting on a bale of cotton. The porcalain figurine had a square hole that contained and acutal piece of cotton.

Now, this gift was offensive. I mean total racist. But she gave it to us, not out of spite, but out of love. So, while it was horrible, I understood the intent. So did my Dad.

The other thing to remember about Deen; she told the truth when asked. So, this is how we treat people who do the right thing? What this is telling people is that when it comes to having a “conversation on race,” it’s best to lie or just say nothing at all. When it comes to race, we expect perfection. Anything short of that makes you nothing more than a Grand Dragon.

Part of the condemnation of Deen has to do with the South. It’s always surprised me how many folks up north really, really hate the South. They see it as a backwards region, filled with stupid racist bumpkins and in their minds, Deen is the exhibit A.

What we seem to forget is that racism didn’t stop at the Mason Dixon line. Here in my adopted state of Minnesota, I learned shortly after I moved here that back in the 1920s, three black men were lynched in Duluth. Mind you, I said Duluth, Minnesota NOT Duluth, Georgia.

If we really care about racial reconciliation, then we have to have some grace for old Southern white women and men who may sometimes say the wrong thing. Not all of them are part of the Klan. Some of them are trying their level best.

Paula Deen said a horrible word a long time ago. I’m dissapointed by that, but I’m not going to judge her. And neither should the court of public opinion if they looked into their own hearts.

Sing.

Psalm 40:1–10 | The Music of My Mind Sermon Series | Fifth Sunday After Pentecost | June 28, 2015 | Dennis Sanders, preaching

—-more—-

“A friend used to tell people before he started preaching “what was God
doing in their lives. I think he believes that God is active, that God
changes us. And if God can give us a new song, then we have to share
this good news.”

Read the sermon text.

Symbols, Actions and American Racism

dukes_of_hazzardIn 1979, I was 10 years old and in fifth grade.  One of my favorite television shows during that time and well into the 80s, was the Dukes of Hazzard.  Being a car guy even then, I was fascinated by the bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger driving through the Georgia backwoods.

It didn’t hurt that Bo and Luke Duke were pleasing on the eyes.

The Dukes of Hazzard was a successful series for most of its six year run.  This is somewhat surprising in someways because of the symbols of the old South that were so present in the show.  The Duke boys car was named the General Lee.  Their nemesis was the county commissioner Jefferson Davis Hogg.  And of course, the General Lee had the Confederate Flag painted on its hood.  This was a show that was steeped in the Confederate era culture of the South and used the names and symbols of that era.

We’ve been having a discussion about the role of the Confederate Flag.  A number of people have been demanding that the state of South Carolina remove the flag from the state capitol grounds.  Politicians have fallen over themselves to share their agreement.  Maybe this is all good.  But as I argued recently, I worry that this is all window dressing for the really hard work that has to happen when it comes to dealing with racism in America.

But if we are going to demand that governments take the flag down, then we should all do some soul searching, because despite what others have said, the flag has an ambiguous meaning.  Over the last 35 years or so, the Confederate Flag has become a pop culture symbol.  The Dukes of Hazzard was the epitome of this.  A recent article in the Atlantic reminds us of just how embedded this symbol is in American culture:

The Confederate flag isn’t merely available as merchandise in big-box stores, or in mom-and-pop souvenir shops, or in the many crap-selling corners of the Internet. Its symbolism is also incorporated into the flags of seven—seven—different states. It has appeared in artwork both high and low, and on album covers, and at concerts, and on television, and in movies. It was used in a button for—if not necessarily produced bythe Clinton-Gore campaign of ‘92. It is the visual embodiment of Americans’ storied capacity to whitewash our own history: of the highways that are named for Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, of the statues of Lee, Davis, and CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens that remain in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, of the multiple schools whose names pay tribute to Lee, Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

The writer, Meagan Garber, adds that taking down a flag is a lot harder because this specific flag has become a meme. Removing the flag means contending with an entire culture that has appropriated the flag:

If the Confederate flag is to be “removed,” in any comprehensive way, from American infrastructures if not from American memories, the removal will have to contend not just with the flags that fly over state capitols, or with the images stamped onto government-issued license plates. It will also have to contend with Johnny Knoxville, with Lynyrd Skynyrd, with Tom Petty, with Kanye West—with all the flags and non-flags that, while they are no longer available for purchase at Walmart and Sears, remain available across the Internet. It will have to contend with the places that insist, contra history and common sense, that a flag is just a flag. And that history—even, and especially, history—can’t be painful in the present.

Which gets me back to the Dukes of Hazzard.  If the flag is to be removed from American culture, it means that not only must governments and merchants have to change, so do all of us.  Are we willing to apologize for watching the Dukes of Hazzard?  Are we willing to call out those that sell or use the flag, even friends.

In a recent blog post, I wrote that actions regarding racism should matter more than symbols like the Confederate Flag.  I wrote about what actual change has taken place in South Carolina since the civil war and the civil rights movement:

South Carolina has an interesting racial history.  Charleston was known for its slave markets.  The first shots of the Civil War took place here and the state was the first to secede from the Union.  So the Plametto State doesn’t have a great history when it comes to race relations- at least in the official history.

The funny thing about this state is that at least in recent history when it comes to race South Carolina has been doing things right, to the chagrin of Northern states.  Back in April of this year, a cop in North Charleston killed a black man, Walter Scott, who was running away from him.  We have seen a number of these run-ins before and its the same story: a white cop kills a black man and the highups do: nothing.  In New York, the cops who killed Eric Garner were not charged.  Same thing in Cleveland after the shooting of Tamir Rice.  Again and again an unarmed black man was shot and police and judges didn’t do anything.

North Charleston was different.  The policeman, Michael Slager was fired from the force.  The South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division , along with the FBI and the US Attorney General all started investigations.  Earlier this month, a grand jury indicted Slager of murder.

So here we have a police shooting taking place in the cradle of the Confederacy and they did what many of us have been asking for all this time.  And states in the North like Ohio, New York and Wisconsin have dithered on this issue.  The state that is known for a history or racism is the one that got this issue right.

The Bible calls for people to repent, to turn themselves around.  Is removing the flag an act of repentance? For the most part, yes.  However, the danger is that we remove the flag from state capitols and from daily life and yet have some of the same problems of racism persisting.  I will still have to worry if when I meet a cop will he see me as a citizen or a threat for no other reason than the color of my skin.

Sadly, the flag issue has sucked all the air out of the real issue regarding race in America.  The Confederate flag, if it is a cause at all is a symptom of a wider issue.  The killer of the nine at Emmanuel AME might have been pictured with a flag, but I want to know more about who taught him to hate black people so much that he would walk into a church to kill people.  The flag is sucking the air out of having a real conversation on white privilege and racism in America.  Whites can forego taking a good look at themselves and instead use the flag as a scapegoat for all that is wrong when it comes to race. Or as a New York Times reporter tweeted:

We need to have more discussions about the role of white privilege in our culture.  (Disciples pastor Brian Morse has an excellent essay on this, as does a Reformed Church in America pastor living in Lansing, MI who equates white privilege to riding a bike.)  The racial problems facing America go deeper than a flag of a long dissolved nation that lost a war.

This focus on the flag also allows people to do another thing: see racism as a Southern and not national problem.  As a number of states in the south move to get rid of confederate flags, it will make people in other parts of the county feel a bit more smug about themselves.  They can be proud that the Midwest or West or Northeast is not at all like those backwards idiots in the South.

Because, you know, racism like that never happens “up North.”

I don’t know if I should ask God to forgive me for watching the Dukes of Hazzard.  I’m guessing a lot of people won’t be, because even if they watched the show most people aren’t focused on what they have done, just what a state or business is doing.  Which is on par for race relations in the country: it’s someone else’s job- not mine.

By the way, Dukes of Hazzard merchandise will be sold without the Confederate Flag.  No word yet if the car will get a name change as well.

Stay With Us

I wrote this for our church blog last week after hearing the news about the shootings at Emmanuel AME.

charleston-shooting-victims-feat1

I’m not one that says much, in that way, I’m a lot like my Dad.

But this week’s slayings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina left me without words. A young man was welcomed to take part in a Bible Study. The attendees sat with him for an hour as people discussed scripture and prayed. Then, as the meeting ended and the people prepared to go home, the young man took out a gun and did the unspeakable.

A wolf disguised in sheep’s clothing entered the fold. Nine of God’s children were gunned down.

There is a lot to talk about in light of this week’s events. We can and will talk about the perniciousness of racism. What did this man learn that told him that a group of people were seen as problem to be “solved” rather than a people to be loved?

But while we deal with the shock and anger of such an act, it is important to remember something- something that has been forgotten in all of the news coverage. The name of this historic church says it all: Emmanuel, God with Us.

It might seem that God was absent as the shots were fired, but God was there. God wept over the nine people who died. God was also with the a white woman outside of Charlotte, NC who spotted the suspects car and was able to aid police in his capture. God was present a the memorial service in the Presbyterian Church down the street where people of every race and hue came together as a community to mourn. God was there when three women, two African America and one white who were strangers, came together in front of the church to pray.

The fact is, that even in the wake of such horror, at a time when it would not be out of place to wonder where God is, we are reminded in the name of a church that God has not abandoned us, evil will not win. It will never win.

None of this means we won’t ever faith heartache or even worse. But in life and in death, we are never alone.

I am reminded of the hymn “Stay With Us,” written by the late Lutheran Herb Brokering. It’s been years, but I can remember that last time I sang it; sitting in a church in St. Paul on the even of September 11, 2001. It is a hymn of comfort during a trying time. I can’t find the lyrics, but I can remember it being truly what was needed in a time of confusion, sadness and anger.

God still Stays with Us. God is with us. Even if we lose our lives, God is always with us. Evil will not win. Hate will not have the day.

God is With Us. God is With Us. God is With Us.

Amen.

-Dennis Sanders, Acting Pastor

The above photo is a composite photo of the nine shooting victims, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Rev. Daniel Simmons and DePayne Middleton-Doctor.

Walking Backwards with a Backpack of Bricks*

Ginger did everything Fred did butOne of the difficulties of being a “high functioning” autistic is that it is in a way an invisible disability.  For most people, when they look at someone like me, they see a “normal” person.  Because they see a person that seems to act just like them, it makes it hard to understand when things go wrong in that person’s life.   For the uninitiated, some difficulty looks more like laziness or being defiant which can have severe consequences in the high functioning autistic’s life.

The sad thing is that the uninitiated is basically everybody.  There are a few folk who “get it” and are able to accomodate and encourage the high functioning autistic, but most people don’t understand it, even when you try to explain it.  And the result down the road are broken relationships and (possibly) fractured employment.

Physician Lisa Jo Rudy writes about the problems that someone with high functioning autism faces.  I want to share a few that I have faced in my own life:

Social “cluelessness.”  What’s the difference between a civil greeting and a signal of romantic interest?  How loud is too loud?  When is okay to talk about your personal issues or interests?  When is it important to stop doing what you enjoy in order to attend to another person’s needs?  These are tough questions for anyone, but for a person on the high end of the autism spectrum they can become overwhelming obstacles to social connections, employment, and romance.

Anxiety and depression.  Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders are more common among people with high functioning autism than they are among the general population.  We don’t know whether the autism causes the mood disorders, or whether the disorders are the result of social rejection and frustration – -but whatever their causes, mood disorders can be disabling in themselves.

Lack of executive planning skills.  Executive functioning describes the skills we use to organize and plan our lives.  They allow typical adults to plan schedules in advance, notice that the shampoo is running low, or create and follow a timeline in order to complete a long term project.  Most people with high functioning autism have compromised executive functioning skills, making it very tough to plan and manage a household, cope with minor schedule changes at school or at work, and so forth.

Difficulty with transitions and change.  Lots of people have a hard time with change — but people with high functioning autism take the issue to a whole new level.  Once a pattern is established and comfortable, people with autism (by and large) want to maintain that pattern forever.  If a group of friends goes out on Wednesdays for nachos, the idea of going out on Thursdays for chicken wings can throw an autistic adult into a state of anxiety or even anger.

Difficulty with following verbal communication.  A person with high functioning autism may be more than capable of doing a task — but unable to follow the spoken instructions provided.  In other words, if a policeman says “stay in your car and give me your license and registration,” the person with autism may process only “stay in your car,” or only “give me your license.”  The same goes for instructions given, say, at a ballroom dance class, at the doctor’s office, or by a manager in an office setting.  As you can imagine, this can cause any number of issues, ranging from serious problems with the police to inadvertent mistakes at work.

Most of my difficulties come to fore in two areas: relationship and employment.

When it comes to relationships, I am usually bad at figuring out social cues and basically how to be a good friend.  The message it sends is one of being aloof and it tells someone that I don’t care, which may be the farthest thing I want.

When you realize this, that’s when the anxiety comes in.  Questions flood my brain.  How do I act? What do I say?  How do I try to look cool and try to “pass?”  All of this uncomfortableness makes me want to distance myself which causes people to again think I’m cold and uncaring. (I’m this way even online.  It takes me a while to compose a note to someone; fearful I’m going to say the wrong thing.)

So a lot of my interactions is trying to make connections, missing laughably by a country mile.

I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture.  I’ve learned to be a better employee and handle changes.  I’ve been able to control my emotions, making meltdowns less common.  And while they aren’t as close as I would like them, I do have friends.  But all of this had to come from lots and lots of hard work.  What might seem easy for others is a challenge for me.  They aren’t insurmountable, but they are still challenges.

I’ve seen friends that seem to just make friendships with ease.  I’m always a bit envious of them, because I am not that smooth and it seems at times I do more to drive people away than keeping them close.

When it comes to changes in schedule, I’ve been better at handling them, but I can feel how unsettled I feel.  It feels like everything is out of control; chaotic.  My mind races thinking about how everything is out of sorts.  But I’ve learned to be a good actor and not show my emotions ( or meltdowns).

What I’m trying to get at here is that being high functioning or mildly autistic doesn’t mean that life is easy.  It’s just different.  The challenge for me is how to live in a world that seems so different than me.

And that has challenges all of its own.

*The title of the blog post is a take on the quote on Ginger Rogers, the one where she does everything her dancing partner Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.  For me, walking backwards with a backpack of bricks describes what it is like for me to be high functioning in a world where you still don’t fit.