Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Racists R Us

I haven't seen Tony Campolo for years, but judging from his press pictures, he's the least changed of my Eastern Baptist College professors from the sixties.

Those of us who attended Eastern (now University) in the sixties and early seventies knew Tony before he was a media star, but even then he was a charismatic young prof with a distinctive lecture style. "The Mafia," he'd bellow to incredulous sociology classes, sometimes sprinkling the front row with his spittle, "is an essential institution in society because it provides needed services government can't provide -- sex, gambling, drugs." We could never be sure if he was serious, but he did force students to wake up and form an opinion.

Tony was known for making startling claims with ex cathedra authority, which was challenging in the day when you couldn't vet his claims through Google, and he tried out some of his more famous lines on us: "Last night when you were sleeping, 30,000 kids died of malnutrition and you don't give a shit about it. Worse, you're more upset that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids starved to death."

Once Tony said something, it was hard to forget it.

One of his ex cathedra declarations came back to me when Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested in his home by a Cambridge, Mass., cop who professed to be an exemplar of racial harmony.

Now President Obama, who opined the police had acted "stupidly," is inviting Professor Gates and Sgt. James Crowley to the White House for a beer and a chat. When the three sit down at the picnic bench to talk, it will simplify matters if they keep this Campolo axiom in mind:

"If you grew up in the United States, you are a racist."

I first heard Tony say that in Soc 200 in 1968, and the notion surprised me. But as the years pass, I find fewer reasons to doubt it. I'm a racist, you're a racist, all God's children who grew up in the race-obsessed cauldron of American culture are racist.

Now, that's not necessarily a peculiar aberration. Racism is a sin, and we all know we are sinners who fall short of the glory of God. To deny our racism is to deny we are sinners.

The next time you hear someone say, "I'm color-blind," or, "I don't have a racist bone in my body," smile ironically and walk away. The most dangerous people in America are those who don't think they are racists. That may include Obama, Gates and Crowley, all of whom have claimed a dispensation from the sin of racism. But if that was true, they wouldn't have to sit down this week to forgive one another.

The fact is, racism persists in our culture like an infection and many who have the most virulent strain don't even know they are sick. Today in a million offices and schools, white folks will make stupidly racist remarks based on stupidly racist assumptions about persons of color. They will react to persons of color differently and treat persons of color differently -- and, when challenged about it, they will be stunned and hurt because -- as they will tell you -- "I don't have a racist bone in my body."

But even in the age of Obama, racism flourishes in the land and each day the majority finds a new way to make the minority feel marginalized. My daughter, who is racially mixed (as are my five other children), summed it up today in her Facebook update: "Elita wishes she could have a beer with the president every time she gets racially profiled."

It goes without saying -- or should -- that racism is not the sole bailiwick of whites. It's endemic in the human condition. My wife, who was born in Havana, looked sufficiently different from the locals when she worked in Americus, Ga., in the early 1980s and was pointedly asked, "What are you?" Martha has often commented on the surprise many of us American Baptist white folks expressed when members of the Hispanic American Baptist Caucus complained about the domination of the Black American Baptist Caucus in denominational life -- as did the Asian Caucus and Native American Caucus. "How can people who live under discrimination and injustice despise one another?" white folks would ask, genuinely shocked.
Occasionally Martha suggests that Cubans -- residents of an island that projects a carefully calculated image of edenic racial harmony -- are among the most racist people on earth. "Black members of my family make a distinction between themselves and 'negros americanos,' who obviously don't benefit from the same redemptive mestizaje of the islands," she says.

But I doubt Cubans have cornered the market on racism. The people I grew up with in Central New York State were too good at it to cede the honor to anyone else. There were only a handful of African Americans in Madison County, some of whom may have been descended from slaves who settled in Peterboro, an outpost of the Underground Railroad operated by the abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Looking back, I am appalled by memories of how they were treated by us, the white majority. Black children were taunted with the N word on the playground, or slapped by white teachers and -- in one memorable incident -- subjected to an incredibly obtuse but well meaning teacher who used the N word in a rhyme to select the next person to read from a text book: "eeney, meeney, miney mo ..." I can't begin to imagine how uncomfortable we made them. And most of us oppressors would have insisted that we didn't have a racist bone in our bodies.

Today my friend Ava Odom Martin updated her Facebook by posting an insightful essay in American Chronicle ( by Elliott Francis, the Emmy Award winning news reporter and anchor for CNN, Fox News, PBS and ABC-7 in Washington, D.C. Francis noted that the kind of "hateful racism practiced by monstrous ideologues" has receded. "These days," he wrote, "we suffer mostly from a brand of racism spawned by a gross lack of sensitivity to the conditions and realities of others ... When Gates and Crowley first glanced at each other through that glass door on the professor's front porch, all this kicked in."

I responded in Ava's Facebook chain by quoting Tony's observation that "one cannot grow up in America without being infected by racism -- including and sometimes especially those who think we aren't."

Elliott responded, "The infection ... got to find a cure."

Amen, Elliott. The cure may be elusive because racism is a sin and we are all thoroughly infected.

But we can take a step toward the cure if we stop denying we are sick.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Joe and the Jesi

“I can see Putin sitting in Moscow saying, ‘Jesus Christ, Iran gets the nuclear weapon, who goes first? Moscow, not Washington.’” - Vice President Joe Biden 
“We oughta be ashamed, We oughta be ashamed,We use and abuse such a wonderful name.” - Johnny Cash and Elvis Costello duet

Say it ain’t so, Joe. A nice Catholic boy like you, using and abusing such a wonderful name?

I’d like to say I was shocked by your use of Jesus Christ in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. But that would be a slight exaggeration. Most of us hear the name used every day, often devoid of its intended theological significance. For many, the name has lost its power.

Even so, Mark Tapscott, the editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner was sorely offended by the Vice Presidents use of the JC word and asked, “How many more stupid comments does it take before his handlers in the White House realize it’s time for this dunce to retire?”

Of course Joe is no dunce, but I was puzzled why he let his guard down during a press interview. Didn’t he remember his constituency is now larger than Wilmington and there might be folks out there who would be deeply pained by the casual way he used the wonderful name?

For many, this kind of rhetorical carelessness leaves scars that last for decades. 

In 1974,  American Baptists organized a theological communications center in Green Lake, Wis., and invited media luminaries like Dick Gregory and Norman Cousins, who came, and ABC science reporter Jules Bergman, who didn’t. In lieu of Jules, the agency sent Ashley Montagu, the British anthropologist and humanist known for his appearances on Johnny Carson and who changed his name from - and I’m sure that wouldn’t have bothered Baptists in the slightest had we known - Israel Ehrenberg. 

Ashley and his saintly wife Marjorie spent a week at Green Lake, Marjorie memorable for her sweetness and Ashley for his Bermuda shorts, black knee socks and surly disposition. Ashley was, as I recall, a brilliant presenter, but for decades I would run into conferees who were still angry about only one of his sentences: “I am a Unitarian,” he told us, “and the only time you hear Jesus Christ mentioned in my church is when the janitor falls downstairs.”

So let’s not forget that a faux pas like Joe’s will hurt and dismay a lot of folks.

Ashley’s reference may have been insensitive, but I think he understood Who he was talking about when he said “Jesus Christ.”

I suspect it might have been different with Joe. If you grow up in certain parts of the United States - including blue collar Wilmington and Philadelphia - you quickly learn there’s more than one Jesus. Joe probably moves back and forth between them, deferring with due respect to the Savior and relating more casually to the others.

There is, of course, the second Person of the Trinity Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the figure Baptists know as a “personal Savior” and Catholics like Joe encounter in prayer, hymns and the awesome power of the Eucharist. Believe me when I say (and listen up Mark Tapscott of the Washington Examiner), Joe Biden is not dunce enough to speak that name with disrespect. Without delving too analytically into Joe’s political record, it’s obvious it reflects a good Christian upbringing and an understanding that Jesus Christ loves and accepts everyone, notwithstanding a bias for the poor, and calls on us to treat one another like good neighbors. I am sure Joe would never take the name of that Jesus in vain.

But there are Jesus figures that Joe also knows, and they have little to do with the One who was in the Beginning with the Word.

First of all, of course, there is the Jesus of the epithet whose name often springs to tongue but who is not regarded by those who use it as the Second Person of the Trinity. It is a name used for emphasis, as in, “Putin is sitting in Moscow saying, ‘Jesus Christ,’” or for emotional release when you need a quicker way of saying, “Please, dear, stop spilling your molten coffee into my lap.”

Then there is the unJesus whose name is removed in vain from Christmas and Easter so it doesn’t get in the way of holiday marketing, or the nonJesus whose name is used by televangelists Pat Robertson to justify “taking out” foreign leaders, or the fauxJesus quoted in George W. Bush’s State Department reports, often adding to the fog of war.

And let’s not forget Action Jesus, Bobblehead Jesus, and I don’t care if it rains or freezes Jesus.

When my wife was in seminary in the early 80s, she and her suite mate would exchange stories of their educational experiences, including student pastorates and clinical pastoral education. The suite mate’s CPE assignment was a psych ward where she encountered the full range of mental illnesses: addiction, depression, agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder and the classic delusions of schizophrenia. Citing patients of special interest, she reported, “I have three Jesi.”

No doubt each of them preferred to be called Jesus Christ, and that’s just one reason the name has lost its power. But names are merely words and words only have the power we assign to them.

I don’t think Joe Biden’s use of the words Jesus Christ implies in any way a disrespect - or a lack of awe - for the Second Person of the Trinity. He may think twice about using them in a press interview again - but that would be a political judgment, not a matter of faith.

In the context of faith, the power of the Trinity will never diminish.

The power of words, on the other hand, is subject to individual understanding, and context. In my own context, when I was growing up I never heard Jesus’ name spoken disrespectfully. My mother’s angriest condemnation was, “Piffle,” which was embarrassing enough. But the anglicized name of the Lord was always used with respect, and I still wince when I hear it used as an epithet.

But Ive got to wonder: does - He - wince when he hears it? 

But Jesus never heard it uttered during his time on earth. 

The name he answered to was Yeshua Bar Joseph.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Mac the Knife

They called it "McNamara's War" after the intellectual car maker who masterminded it. 

But by early 1967, Robert Strange McNamara had already concluded that the Vietnam War had been a terrible mistake.

It blows my mind (to borrow a phrase from the era) that Secretary of Defense McNamara realized it before I did. In May 1967, when McNamara wrote a secret memo urging President Johnson to end the war, I was still fighting the Cold War at Bentwaters Air Base in bucolic Suffolk, England. F4C Pilots from the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing were routinely assigned temporary duty in Thailand to drop bombs on Hanoi before resuming their duties in the U.K. I'd see the returning pilots in Sunday worship at the chapel where I worked, silently flexing their jaw muscles while grasping their wives' hands. I'd ask them how it went, and they'd shrug. "Had to be done," they'd say, avoiding eye contact.

I don't think any of us understood why it had to be done. I was a 21-year-old chaplain's assistant who could have been the model for M*A*S*H's Radar O'Reilly and I got most of my war news from the Stars & Stripes newspaper. All of us, officers and enlisted alike, worked in duty sections that had black-and-white pictures of LBJ and Robert McNamara staring suspiciously at us, hanging just below the metallically glistening Air Force motto: "Peace is Our Profession." Oddly enough it all made sense: as a product of our profession of peace we dropped bombs on people in North Vietnam because it had to be done. Even if we were inclined to analyze it, we'd be distracted by inspiring speeches at Commander's Call by officers like Colonel Robin Olds, the Vietnam War's first flying "ace", and the awesome Colonel Daniel N. "Chappie" James, later the Air Force's first black four-star general. Neither were fellows who enjoyed a good debate with subordinates, so we'd nod and salute.

Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to us, Robert McNamara had digested a CIA report that the so-called enemy was intractably committed to reuniting the country and there was nothing the U.S. could do to prevent it.

McNamara, who was skilled at pursuing facts to their inevitable conclusion, realized his original judgment about the winnabilty of the Vietnam War had been wrong. His memo to President Johnson is quoted in his obituary in the New York Times:

"The war is becoming increasingly unpopular as it escalates -- causing more American casualties, more fear of its growing into a wider war, more privation of the domestic sector, and more distress at the amount of suffering being visited on noncombatants in Vietnam, South and North."

Americans, McNamara told LBJ, "want the war ended and expect their president to end it. Successfully. Or else."

When McNamara wrote that memorandum on May 19, 1967, I still had 17 months to go on my Air Force enlistment. The Vietnam War itself would continue for another eight bloody years. Nearly 38,000 Americans died in Vietnam in the years after McNamara concluded the war had been a mistake. I didn't reach that conclusion until September 1968, my first year in college.

Within weeks after his memo to LBJ, McNamara found himself ushered out of the Pentagon and installed as head of the World Bank. Although it's clear now that Johnson fired him, at the time it looked like he was promoted for faithful service. McNamara gave no indication that he was having second thoughts about the war.

And that's what I can't forgive. When his voice could have thundered around the world, he chose to be silent.

There are thousands of monuments to the price of his silence. Years later, after McNamara finally revealed his regrets, my wife and I visited the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where her immigrant father once worked as a dish washer after he left Cuba. The cemetery at West Point tends to be organized by the war in which the soldiers fell, and as we passed by the graves of Vietnam veterans I became bitterly mindful of McNamara's change of heart. A lot of those graves were of men and women who died after 1967 -- after their Secretary of Defense had concluded the war was unnecessary and unwinnable.

Why didn't McNamara speak up? Did he feel honor-bound to be loyal to an intransigient president? What were his thoughts when the casualty figures continued to mount: 16,592 in 1968? 11,616 in 1969? 6,081 in 1970? -- all for a cause he knew to be lost from the beginning?

In his later years, Robert McNamara was eloquent in his contrition. In a 1995 memoir he declared the war had been "wrong -- terribly wrong." He spent the rest of his life trying -- futilely, it turned out -- to prevent similar American disasters.

But the terrible question hanging over McNamara's life can't be avoided: what if he had spoken up sooner? Would the timely confession by the architect of the war that he had been wrong all along have forced LBJ to halt it? Would it have given subsequent warriors, Nixon and Kissinger, sufficient pause to sue for peace? Would it have saved thousands of lives?

Tragically, we'll never know. Personally, I think a public admission by Robert McNamara in May 1967 would have been loud enough to suck the air out of public opinion and silence the bombs over Hanoi.

When Robert McNamara died July 6, 2009, his aged and sallow face appeared once more on our television screens and it was moving to hear the agony in his voice as he admitted his terrible mistakes. Quite evidently he has lived in a hell of contrition since 1967. I hope our nation's leaders listened carefully, because his confessions have been starkly convincing and no doubt saved his soul.

I only wish they had come sooner.