The R Word

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Racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.—Martin Luther King, Jr.

In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’—Jeremiah 31:29

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous I Have A Dream speech in Washington, D.C. The occasion for the oration was the March on Washington, only we tend to forget the full name of that historic event. It was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The marchers flocked to the nation’s capital to demand not only social justice but also economic justice. In the language of the day, Dr. King drew attention to the plight of his fellow African Americans:

But one hundred years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

Even now, fifty-seven years later, it is difficult for many white folks to acknowledge the ongoing effects of slavery and systemic racism on Americans of color. The following hypothetical scenario might help.

Imagine that your great-great-grandfather owned land worth a million dollars, and a neighbor stole it from him and invested the money. The thief’s family wealth grew over the decades to many millions of dollars with that seed money. Benefiting from the wealth unjustly taken from your ancestor, the other family educated their children at the finest colleges, purchased expensive properties, started businesses, got elected to political office, and became wealthier in each successive generation. However, your family had to scratch and save and never earned enough to climb the elusive social ladder. Would you feel cheated? Would you want to get back some of the wealth from the descendants of the man who stole from your great-great-grandfather?

What I have described is no mere thought experiment. It actually happened to millions of African Americans in the United States. For generations whites cheated blacks out of their land or drove them off with threats of violence, according to an 18-month study by the Associated Press. Even worse, the ruling class deprived slaves and their descendants of their lives, their liberty, and their labor. The effects of this unjust-but-legal economic system continues to disadvantage Americans of color today. For example, in June 2020, the Washington Post reported that “the gap between the finances of blacks and whites is still as wide in 2020 as it was in 1968.” A book I am currently reading (listening to on audio, actually) has been driving home not only the injustices of the past but their ongoing effects in the present. Here’s an excerpt from Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns:

In Louisiana in the 1930s, white teachers and principals were making an average salary of $1,165 a year. Colored teachers and principals were making $499 a year, forty-three percent of what the white ones were. . . .

In neighboring Mississippi, white teachers and principals were making $630 a year, while the colored ones were paid a third of that—$215 a year, hardly more than field hands. But knowing that didn’t ease the burden of the Fosters’ lives, get their children through college, or allow them to build assets to match their status and education.

The disparity in pay, reported without apology in the local papers for all to see, would have far-reaching effects. It would mean that even the most promising of colored people, having received next to nothing in material assets from their slave foreparents, had to labor with the knowledge that they were now being underpaid by more than half, that they were so behind it would be all but impossible to accumulate the assets their white counterparts could, and that they would, by definition, have less to leave succeeding generations than similar white families. Multiplied over the generations, it would mean a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of colored families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value. Otherwise, the chasm would continue, as it did for blacks as a group even into the succeeding century. The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born.

The U.S. government has paid—rightly, in my mind—more than $1.6 billion (equivalent to $3.46 billion in 2019) in reparations to 82,219 Japanese Americans who had been interned in World War II, even though the Supreme Court ruled the internment constitutional in 1944. The same government has paid nothing—not even forty acres and a mule—to African American slaves and their descendants, who have suffered far worse treatment over a much longer period with greater economic impacts. In the Bible, the Lord allowed the Hebrews to plunder the Egyptians, their former masters (Ex. 12:35-36). Thus, both historical and biblical precedents exist for compensating injured parties who suffered the unjust loss of their freedom.

Although reparations for the descendants of slaves remains a third rail of American politics, maybe it is time we started taking the idea seriously. If you are still unconvinced, read the article “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coats. Then ask yourself, What if my family and I were the descendants of slaves, how would I want to be made whole?

P.S.: If it is just too radical an idea to pay the descendants of slavery for the economic injustice they and their families have suffered for generations, then maybe we could at least enact meaningful police reform so that no more black mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters will have to weep at the funerals of their unarmed loved ones, killed by the police.

Update (8/30/2020): Yesterday Yahoo! News reported that “California Moves to Consider Reparations for Slavery” 

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With Two Lungs

Fr Elias and Moger

“The Church must breathe with her two lungs!”—St. John Paul II

Yesterday, August 15, was a special day on two counts. It was the feast of the Assumption (Dormition) of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and my friend Deacon Elias Dorham was ordained to the priesthood.

According to Pope Pius XII, “the immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul to heavenly glory” (Munificentissimus Deus, 44). The Byzantine Liturgy Troparion (hymn) says,In giving birth you preserved your virginity, / in falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos. / You were translated to life, O Mother of Life, / and by your prayers, you deliver our souls from death.” In the western tradition, Mary did not experience death. In the eastern tradition, Mary “fell asleep” first and was then taken to heaven. Both versions find expression in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (966). Therefore, Catholics may hold to either interpretation. The bottom line is this: at the end of her earthly life Mary did not experience corruption and was united body and soul with God.

On the beautiful feast of Mary’s heavenly home-going, I attended an ordination at Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia. Deacon Elias Dorham was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in a beautiful liturgy so full of “smells and bells” that it made a Roman Catholic Mass look like a Quaker meeting. My son called Fr. Elias my “brother from another mother,” which I think is fitting. We both served in the U.S. Navy and my spiritual director is his former pastor. More to the point, Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of us both. A married man with ten children (yes, ten), some with special needs, Fr. Elias explodes all my excuses for why I cannot serve the Lord fully. He is a holy man and will make a fine priest. After we posed for the photo above, he turned to me and said one thing: “Pray for me.”

Most Roman Catholics know little about the churches of the East. Some twenty-three fully Catholic Eastern “rites” (liturgies) exist in the Church, celebrate the Seven Sacraments, and recognize the primacy of the bishop of Rome. Referring to the western and eastern traditions, Saint John Paul II wrote that “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!” (Ut Unum Sint, 54). For me, Fr. Elias and my brothers and sisters at Holy Transfiguration serve as living reminders of this truth.

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Real Art?

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On Kawara (artist), Today series painting, Art Institute of Chicago.

Today was my fourth visit to Glenstone, a contemporary art museum in Potomac, Maryland. Each time I discover something new or rediscover something I had seen before but passed by with little reflection. I blogged about a previous Glenstone experience here. Two things caught my eye during this outing: Richard Tuttle’s Dark Blue Canvas and On Kawara’s Moon Landing. Both pushed the boundaries of what counts as art and they keep pushing it.

Tuttle’s work is a minimalist textile artwork—a dyed, monochromatic piece of humble cloth. Hung diagonally, the work resembles a capital letter Q, only upside down, backwards, and askew.  I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when the curators discussed how best to display Dark Blue Canvas. In the end, they affixed it to the gallery wall with tiny painted nails. I can think of no other example of a piece of art being intentionally impaled like this. Tuttle’s tapestry, if I may call it such, bears signs of having been constructed but it lacks formalism of any kind. In fact, it is so informal that one might struggle to recognize it as art. In a less prestigious setting, its novelty might come off as either pedestrian or pretentious. At Glenstone, it challenges the viewer to wrestle with the question of what counts as art.

Kawara’s Moon Landing paintings are as much about the process, or even the ritual, of painting as the product. The artist produced each monochromatic painting, from start to finish, in a single day with the corresponding date memorialized in white sans serif numbers and letters. He associated each painting with a contemporary event, in this case, significant milestones of the first moon landing. Kawara’s conceptual art continued until the end of his career, shortly before his death. The three large moon landing canvases form a tiny portion of Kawara’s Today series. Like time-lapse photography, the artist’s larger body of date paintings captures nearly five decades’ worth of change, growth, and decay.

If your idea of “real art” is Norman Rockwell, then Glenstone might not be your cup of tea. The collection can certainly challenge as well as delight. Then again, even Norman Rockwell wasn’t always tame.

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Dropping the Bomb

 

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A Victim of the Hiroshima Atomic Bombing

On August 6, 1945, the United States of America dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing between 70,000 and 80,000 citizens. After the war, President Truman claimed that it saved half a million lives, a claim that has since been debunked. In a thorough study, Rufus Miles, at the time a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, concluded that “the number of American lives saved as a result of the dropping of the two bombs [on Hiroshima and Nagasaki] was, with a high degree of probability, not more than 20,000 and was quite probably considerably less.” (“The Strange Myth of Half a Million American Lives Saved” International Security, Autumn 1985, pp. 121-140).

Even if it were true that dropping the bomb saved more lives than it cost—and it did not—the ends don’t justify the means. Consider the weapon’s effect on the civilian population:

He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos. Many, although injured themselves, supported relatives who were worse off. Almost all had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent, and showed no expression whatsoever. (John Hersey, Hiroshima)

The fact that we have refrained from employing atomic weapons since World War II and have been more circumspect about bombing civilian population centers, with a few notable exceptions, suggests that we may have learned a lesson from our indiscriminate killing of civilians. At least one can hope that we have.

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Economic Injustice

Chicklet-currency

Why does the richest nation on earth and one of the most religious, the United States of America, have 42 million people (13 percent of the population) living in poverty, even in pre-pandemic statistics? If you’re not impoverished, it’s easy to ignore the problem, or worse, blame the poor.

We live in a nation founded on the ideals of social and political equality. “All men are created equal.” Not only have we failed to live up to our own ideals by not extending Constitutional rights equally to minorities, but as a society we have shown little interest in economic equality.

Income inequality is real. Considering race, gender, and ethnicity, all groups (except Asian men) earn lower hourly wages than white males. On average women bring in only 81 percent of what men earn. The gender wage difference in America has improved in recent years, but the income gap between blacks and whites has gotten worse over the past two decades. In 2019, whites earned 26.5 percent more than blacks, up from 21.8 in 2000. African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to live in poverty. One in four Native Americans are poor, the highest rate of any ethic group. Disabled Americans are twice as likely to fall below the poverty line.

Our American economic system favors the haves over the have nots. The rich keep getting richer, the middle class continues to shrink, and the poor find it harder to climb out of poverty. To quote the late Elijah Cummings, “We are better than this!”

Is it possible to imagine a better economic system than our current one, which perpetuates extremes of wealth and poverty, one that ensures not only equal opportunity for minorities but also better economic outcomes?

The answer is yes, but not without a radical change in priorities. Fairness must become the priority, not amassing capital. Instead of wondering, “What’s in it for me?” We must learn to ask, “What’s best for everyone?” This goes against our rugged individualism.

To build a more equitable society, we must care as much about our neighbor’s right to adequate food, shelter, and health care as we do about our right to own a gun.

In other words, “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”

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Wiping Out History?

Robert E Lee Book Cover

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”—President Donald J. Trump (July 3, 2020)

Trump doesn’t know much about history. It’s probably unfair for someone like me, a professional historian with a Ph.D. in the subject, to pick on a man who claimed in an earlier Independence Day speech that Revolutionary War troops “took over airports.” Despite my misgivings, I feel compelled to address the president’s recent bombast, because my concerns go beyond correcting an anachronistic faux pas. While evidence of Trump’s racism (which is nothing new) has finally shaken me out of my cowardly silence, his flawed historical understanding presented the occasion for me to speak out. What Trump calls history isn’t even history.

We must distinguish between history and heritage. History increases knowledge. Heritage instills pride. History includes everything historians have written. Heritage is what we choose to honor and promote from the past. Pulling down a statue is not censorship. It’s an act of defiance, a protest against what those in power deem worthy of honor. While I would prefer that offensive statues come down legally (as dozens have since a deadly hate crime at a black church in 2015), toppling images of Confederate generals—who took up arms against the United States—rights a wrong. It doesn’t “wipe out our history.”

History isn’t something concrete and enduring like a statue. It’s about the present as much as it is about the past. Historians do more than chronicle facts. They select topics, pose questions, decide what to include and exclude, and interpret evidence. Even the most objective historians exercise a great deal of subjective judgment. The questions historians raise and the stories they choose to tell vary from generation to generation. This can be a good thing, especially when historians revise what their predecessors got wrong, bring to light what they covered up, and focus on what they ignored. It’s not surprising that those who find themselves on the losing side of history often cry foul.

Trump’s view of history reflects what was taught when he was a schoolboy. Until the early 1960s when the president came of age, privileged white males—people like Trump—controlled academia and publishing. The history they produced reflected their assumptions, interests, and values. As Trump made his way through elementary and high school, Random House produced a popular history series for young adults called the Landmark Books. These high-quality, beautifully written children’s books show a clear bias, at least during the first decade of the series, which ran from 1950 to 1970. In 1959, of the 90 American history titles only one included an African American: George Washington Carver, a tame choice. There’s no volume on slavery, and the series editors showed a four-to-one preference for Confederate Generals over African Americans. They snubbed many famous people of color: Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Henry Johnson, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Jackie Robinson, to name a few. Why does Robert E. Lee deserve three book titles, but Nat Turner none? Turner fought to free the slaves and paid for his heroism with his life. Robert E. Lee fought to keep African Americans in bondage, received amnesty for his treason, and is still honored with monuments around the country. It’s tempting to conclude that Trump’s historical prejudices arose from the history he consumed growing up, only according to press reports the president doesn’t read much.

The kind of history that privileges privilege and focuses on white power has given way to a broader, more inclusive narrative over the past fifty years. Trump and many of his supporters look wistfully on an earlier era, when elite whites—some racist, others simply oblivious to different perspectives—got to say what was history and who got statues. No longer. Times change and history changes with it. Removing Confederate statues and taking down the rebel flag (as South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley did in 2015) will not end bigotry and racism in our country. But it’s a good place to start.

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God, Evil, and COVID-19

800px-COVID-19_patient_in_sever_state._Chernivtsi,_UkraineLike many of you I’ve been struggling to understand the current upheavals rocking our society and world. First, there’s the COVID-19. Like the Spanish Flu a century ago, the current pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of victims, ruined lives and fortunes, and caused some of us to wonder, What have we done to deserve this?

On May 25, as the Coronavirus continued to ravage the United States, the killing of an unarmed African-American man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police sparked Black Lives Matter protests that spread across our nation and beyond. Voices in the streets can be heard chanting: “I can’t breathe!” and “Black lives matter!” Some cities have seen violence and looting. Despite the protests, cases of police brutality against minorities continue to occur.

What do the Coronavirus and violence against minorities have in common? Both exemplify evil: one natural the other moral. How can we who are Christians reconcile our belief in an all-good, all-powerful God with the reality of evil in our world? Why would God allow good people to suffer?

No easy answers can solve the thorniest of theological problems. In the Bible, Job questions God’s justice. Job knows that he has done nothing wrong, and yet he has suffered terribly. The Almighty appears to Job and shows him, through a series of rhetorical questions, that he is not qualified to challenge God. Job never gets a straight answer to his question about why bad things happen to good people, yet he chooses to stick with God. Why? God revealed himself to Job. And a real God, no matter how inscrutable, deserves our worship.

Theologians have offered another solution. They reason that God permits evil, but does not cause it. Free will can help explain why God does not overrule all moral evil. God wants us to do what is right by our own free choice, even if it means that we can also choose to do what is wrong. Philosopher Peter Kreeft makes a compelling argument for the Christian view of God and suffering here.

In the end, no answer fully satisfies. We may understand to a certain extent why God won’t calm every storm, stop every bullet, and heal every disease. But this is cold comfort for a COVID-19 patient in ICU or a wife whose husband dies in police custody. No amount of reasoning can heal a broken heart.

Fortunately for us, God is not aloof. He entered into our world of pain to suffer with us. As Christians, we worship a crucified God.

I choose to believe in a good God, sometimes with difficulty, even when I see evil and suffering in the world. This may seem irrational. But it’s better than believing that God is too weak to stop evil or that God doesn’t exist. We can’t solve the problem of evil by refusing to believe in God. The world remains a harsh place where people suffer, sometimes horribly. Without God, suffering is meaningless. In God, suffering becomes redemptive.

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2019

800px-Image_of_the_Sun_shining_through_cloudsLast year’s ups and downs were so frequent and extreme I often felt seasick. Hopefully the rhythms of life in 2020 will feel less like a roller coaster in a thunderstorm. I shouldn’t complain. All told, the last year of the decade brought me more joy than sorrow. A new grandchild arrived. My job became permanent. The Coast Guard offered our daughter a commission.

The year ended on a happy note. On Christmas Eve, I received a friendly email from the author of one of my favorite books, who found me through this blog. His beautiful, award-wining book gave me a metaphor to describe the pain of watching someone you love suffer.

“The image of compassion: a mother running along the bank of a rapid river, keeping up with her drowning child, running along the bank because she had no arms” (Lindsay Hill, Sea of Hooks, citing Patrul Rinpoche).

What do you do when you desperately want to help but you’re powerless?

You must learn to say to yourself that you have no arms.

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Jesus Is Real, And So Are Wild Bears

Black Bear Crossing Road

Brakes screeching. Cars swerving. My whole life flashing before my eyes. . . . Well, it wasn’t quite that bad. But I did almost get into a wreck yesterday on I-81 after dropping off our daughter Maddy at Virginia Military Institute. The cause of this near-collision? A bear! As plain as day, a medium-sized black bear ran across the northbound lanes in front of the car ahead of mine. It was the first time I saw a bear outside a zoo. Seriously. Now, I had it on good authority that wild bears existed. Not only have I seen numerous documentaries on the critters, but my wife spotted one several years ago in California, appropriately near Big Bear. However, in my just-over-half-century life on this planet, I had never seen one in its natural habitat . . . until yesterday. That experience got me thinking about what we accept and reject as evidence.

Occasionally someone, usually a person with an axe to grind against religion, will deny that Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. Discounting everything written by his followers, some unbelievers claim there is no evidence that the founder of the largest religion on earth was real. Hogwash!

An honest historian looking at the evidence would have to conclude that Jesus existed. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37-c. 100) mentions him in two passages in his Antiquities of the Jews. The Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56- c. 120) and the Roman governor Pliny the Younger (61-c. 113) both attest to Jesus’s life. So does St. Paul. So do all the Gospel writers. Extra-biblical Christian authors do to, including some who wrote at the same time as the New Testament writers. Whether or not you agree with their theological interpretations of Jesus, it is unfair to dismiss their works as evidence that Jesus was a real historical figure.

Finally, the existence of the Christian religion itself lends weight to the argument. The Church was founded by the closest followers of Jesus, the Apostles, most of whom suffered martyrdom for their belief in Jesus. Would so many “eyewitnesses” die for a lie?

It is reasonable, therefore, to conclude that Jesus existed. It turns out that wild bears do too.

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Five Reason for the Resurrection

Resurrection of Christ tapestry

The Resurrection of Christ tapestry, The Vatican Museum

Easter calls to mind brightly colored eggs, fluffy marshmallow peeps, foil-wrapped chocolate bunnies, frilly pastel dresses, and new suits with clip-on ties. These American traditions are worlds apart from the Palestinian tomb which Jesus vacated like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. It makes one wonder whether the Gospel story is even intelligible to modern hearers. Its profundity is lost in its familiarity. Most people, at least here in America, don’t doubt its truth. Rather, they miss its meaning.

Perhaps a medieval theologian can help bridge the gap between the first century and our own time. In his Summa, St. Thomas Aquinas gave five reasons for the death of Christ. First, the resurrection was necessary for divine justice, which exalts those who humble themselves for God’s sake. In the Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin Mary sang, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52).

Second, the resurrection confirms our belief in Christ’s divinity. St. Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). The opposite is true too. If Christ has been raised, then the preaching of the apostles has meaning and so does our faith. The fact that Jesus walked out of his tomb is evidence that he is God.

Third, the resurrection gives us hope that our bodies, like Christ’s, will be raised from the dead. St. Paul explained, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”  In the Old Testament, the Hebrews brought an early sheaf of wheat as an offering to God, a part for the whole. The resurrection of Jesus foreshadows and promises our own at the end of the world.

Fourth, the resurrection helps us live better lives. Just as Christ rose from the dead, he calls us to live a new kind of life (Rom. 6:4). “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). The resurrection both inspires and empowers us to live good, godly lives.

Fifth, the resurrection completed the work of salvation. The death of Christ was not the end of the story, nor his burial. The death, burial, resurrection form a redemptive whole. Again, St. Paul says that Jesus “was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). No resurrection, no salvation.

The resurrection of Jesus isn’t like the story of the Easter bunny, which is neither true nor meaningful. The Good News that Jesus rose from the grave is both true and meaningful. And worth celebrating!

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