Thursday, January 12, 2017

Racism is like a virus. What will we do about it?

As I write this, my wife Sheryl and I are fighting off the flu. She spent three days in the hospital, tested positive for flu and pneumonia. and came home two days ago with a bunch of meds to fight off the virus and help her breathe. I had the flu vaccine, so as I deal with congestion and cough this week, I assume it's flu, but my symptoms are easily managed, so I haven't bothered to go get tested. I'm just keeping a low profile so I don't spread it to anybody else.

Also this week, words like "racism" and "racist" have been in the news a lot. Dylann Roof has just been sentenced to death for the hate-crime murder of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. And Senate confirmation hearings for Donald Trump's Justice Department nominee Jeff Sessions have revived questions about his position on race-related issues. I'm reminded of a comparison that's been helpful to me: Think of racism as something like a virus.

What we call "race" is not based on significant biological difference, but a category that culture and society have invented in order to classify people. For example, our skin colors are different because of the way our ancestors' skin adapted to the amount of sunlight they were exposed to. Skin color has a lot of different gradations and variations. There is no DNA marker for "black" or "white." These (and many others) are names people have invented as a shorthand way of grouping people with similar backgrounds and physical characteristics together.

This might not be a problem if "race" was just a neutral way to describe people. Unfortunately, human beings are very skilled at turning category differences into hard tribal lines. I live in a part of the world where just wearing clothing with maize-and-blue or scarlet-and-gray patterns can lead people to judge your character. And there are many places in the world where "race" has been a dividing line that leads people to discriminate against one another, oppress one another, proclaim the right of ownership over one another, kill one another. This is the sinfulness of human tribalism gone too far. We deny biology and the full human variety of each other, exchanging those realities for a stereotype based on our cultural and social ideas about "race." It's stupid and short-sighted. It prevents us from knowing others, or ourselves, fully. And it leads to a lot of suffering.

In areas, like the U.S., where ideas about "race" have gotten caught up with social, cultural, and political power, there is "racism." An -ism is what happens when an idea becomes a way of life. Enough people believe it, and believe it's important enough to structure life around, that the whole system of life is adapted to it. In this country, even farther back than our declaration that "all mean are created equal," there has been racism, where traditions, language, policies, laws, and social structures are intentionally designed to perpetuate "race" divisions and the false beliefs about them.

This is where I think it's helpful to think of racism as a virus. A normal, healthy, and fully functioning society is like a body, with lots of parts, each performing their own function. An intelligent body can decide to take stock of its own health and work for greater health, which helps every member of the body. But what if the body is invaded by a force that could convince some members of the body that other members ought to be eliminated, or constrained, or prevented from functioning fully? The body would be sicker and weaker the stronger that force got. In the U.S., where we state that our ideals are equality and liberty and justice, racism is a particularly powerful virus that leads us to misunderstand or lie to ourselves about our most sacred values.

One effect of thinking about racism as a virus is that gives a more clear and specific way to use the word "racist." If there's an -ism that seeks to make an idea a way of life, than an -ist is an individual or group or part of society that actively contributes toward the fulfillment of the -ism. There's no doubt that in America, some individuals, groups, and parts of society do function this way. But I think their numbers are actually comparatively small, and in almost all cases, the pro-racism function they perform is not 100% of their existence. So while it might be possible to point to a racist person, or a racist group, or a racist policy, the word "racist" usually won't completely describe them. Years ago, I wrote another blog post about how words can become labels that let us write off someone else's full humanity. So even where "racist" might be an accurate word, I think it's good to avoid using it as a label. Taking a few more words to describe how the action of the person or group or part of society is perpetuating racism can educate, provide context, and avoid shutting down a conversation.

Thinking about racism as a virus can also help focus on where racism is most harmful. If you look up "racism" in a dictionary, you're likely to find a definition that makes racism sound the same as a race-based belief. But that doesn't go deep enough in describing the damage. Another definition used in sociology is that "racism is prejudice plus power," meaning that true racism is the belief in racial superiority combined with a real, effective ability to bend society around that belief. Or, here's a fuller definition, from a Harvard class description:
At root, racism is “an ideology of racial domination” (Wilson, 1999, 14) in which the presumed biological or cultural superiority of one or more racial groups is used to justify or prescribe the inferior treatment or social position(s) of other racial groups.
The racism virus can be introduced with the mere idea that "race" makes a critical difference among people. But without the specific changes in how people treat one another, it's just another of many stupid, wrong concepts that float around. However, the virus then begins taking hold, spreading, and causing damage, when prejudiced ideas about "race" combine with power and action to artificially build one group up and put another group down. This is when the virus becomes most harmful, and when it's most important to work against it.

When a physical human body is infected with a virus, it triggers an immune system response to identify, isolate, and eliminate the virus. Our experience of being "sick" includes both the action of the virus itself and our own body's work to defeat the virus. For particularly bad viruses, we've also invented anti-virus medication, vaccines, and other drugs to give us relief from the symptoms. We work with other people to observe, diagnose, and treat the virus. We hope for an outcome where the virus is totally defeated and expelled from the body.

I think it can work like this with racism, too. Individuals, groups, institutions, and social structures can all be infected. In the U.S., the virus of racism has run rampant for our entire history as a nation. At times, racism has been so successful that very few people even questioned it. At other times, the "inferior treatment" of some human beings by others has raised the sickness to a level where we've begun to see and identify it. In the 20th century, scientific research debunked some beliefs that put a scientific gloss on racist beliefs. There have been waves of efforts where awareness and relief have made a difference. But we haven't yet come close to eliminating the racism virus from all people, or all segments of society, or all public policies and practices.

With Jeff Sessions, I've heard accusations and questions. Is he "a racist?" And that question seems to be limiting us to thinking in terms of a Yes or No answer. If an accuser says Yes, and a defender says No, then where can there be any ground to agree on? The virus of racism leads to another dividing line where we feel obligated to write somebody else off as totally wrong, or just a dupe parroting some group's party line. The reality is clearly that Jeff Sessions has taken some actions in the past that perpetuate our country's system of racism - yet this doesn't define his whole life or career. A better question for evaluating his past is: What has he done to work for, or against, the virus of racism? As a person of power and privilege, has he shown that he will work against the virus by doing more than the minimum, more than standing by with no action while racism's spread continues? And a better question for deciding his fitness to lead the Department of Justice is: Is he giving evidence that he will actively work against racism, to help move our nation closer to true justice?

For Dylann Roof, it seems easier to answer Yes to the question: is he "a racist?" He shot and killed nine people, just because their existence put them on what he was judging to be the wrong side of a line of racial difference. But the evening of the murders, he apparently sat with these people and wrestled with what to do. Some part of him seemed to be aware that they, like him, were fully human and made in God's image. I would say Yes, his action was a racist action, Yes, the belief that these murders would accomplish anything good is a racist belief. If he found some online group that urged him to kill in this way, then Yes, that is a racist organization. But the bigger truth about Dylann Roof himself is that he is a product of our society. We can't just answer a simple Yes and label him as a "racist" and send him off to die. We owe it to every member of this body to understand that racism is a virus that affects all of us, and that in the murders of these members of Emanuel AME Church, the virus has led to death and more death. A better response than "Yes, he was a racist" is to take this whole situation to heart as proof of our sickness and pain, and to stand and work against the virus of racism in all its forms.

As with Jeff Sessions, as with Dylann Roof, the question for every American is not, "Am I a racist?" With very few exceptions, I would guess that anybody reading this article could honestly answer No; being a racist, actively perpetuating the inferior treatment of one group, does not sum up my identity. A better question is: "What will I do about the virus of racism?" or maybe: "How will my life as a Christian and an American help lead to the health and justice for the whole body that racism works to deny us all?" Who are our influences? Where do we get our information? How are we stretching beyond our own experiences and our own place in the system, to understand what it's like for human beings who see it all differently? Where are we speaking out and opposing the actions that result from racism? How can we see more of the truth, shed this sickness and sin, and take small steps toward healing?

For me, there's only one response that makes any sense at all, and that is to do what I can to go after the virus of racism, the same as I want to get rid of the flu virus. I want to be an anti-racist, to actively work against racism wherever I see it. I want that to be a core value, something close enough to my very identity that it's just something I do.

It's not enough to be neutral, especially for those of us called "white" who have benefited from the injustices of racism. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of my heroes of the Christian faith, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."

I'm a small, nearly insignificant voice in a great sea of people who are badly infected with this virus. At age 52, I feel like a baby learning to walk in this effort. I can't do everything, but I can do something. By fighting off the virus within myself, by seeking to stop its spread to others, by working to encourage others to fight as well, I'm sick but I'm trying to make the whole body better. That's what I'm going to try to do about this virus.

What about you?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Transforming Donald Trump

Today I'm starting a new blog (and corresponding Facebook page and Twitter account) for reflections on Donald Trump's move into the presidency. I know a lot of people are sick of hearing politics, and the number of people who care what I have to say about it is very small. So the new blog will be my little corner for addressing those things. If you care to read, you can go there. And your feedback is welcome! If you'd rather ignore all that, I hope this arrangement will let us stay friends, both on Facebook and in real life.

The web site for the blog is:
Facebook page:
Twitter account: @TransformTrump,

The first post, "Praying About Transforming," explains what I have in mind as it gets started.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Not Okay

My previous blog post (titled "Okay") was mostly for myself. I needed to process my own thoughts and feelings about this presidential election. It was a start to being able to get up and keep going with the things I'm called to do and the things I choose to do in this life.

I need to also write about "Not Okay" - and here I'm thinking of people who are different from me.

In many ways, I personally am going to be just fine in the America that's elected Donald Trump. With just a few seconds of thought, I can name a bunch of things about myself that work in my favor. I am:

  • White
  • Male
  • Heterosexual
  • Married
  • A father
  • A Christian
  • English-speaking
  • Born in America, to parents who were also born in America
  • Middle-aged
  • College-educated
  • Employed
  • Middle-class
  • Able-bodied
  • Tall

You can probably easily think of other advantages I have. The fact that I didn't think of them is proof that there are plenty of layers of privilege that are invisible to me, because I never have to worry about them.

You could argue that I had a hand in some of these things, and it's true that some did require decisions or effort on my part. But the fact that I had the freedom to make those decisions, and the resources to follow through, is part of my privilege. There is absolutely nothing on the list above that could be said of me without the gifts that were freely given to me without me asking.

In the Great-as-Donald-Trump-Defines-Great America, I'm pretty sure I could walk into any situation and feel confident that I have society and government on my side (assuming only that I keep quiet about my political views). I WILL BE OKAY in this America.

This morning, sure I'm disappointed because the person I thought was the better candidate lost. But this is not like when my sports team loses, not even like previous elections. This morning, I have a real concern that many other people will NOT be okay in this America.

Take any one attribute off my list of privileges, and that's a difference that can be, and has been, and will continue to be used against people. And I don't mean that these people have been just silently internally judged to be less valuable, or that certain individuals just dislike them. I mean that people have been completely shut out of certain opportunities because of these differences. People have been despised. Verbally or physically abused. Turned away. Their status as fully-human has been denied. They've been excluded from basic benefits of society: nutrition, a clean environment, housing, healthy food, quality schools, freedom to experience all that society offers, the right to vote, equal pay, equal consideration. They've been shot and wounded and tortured and killed.

But these people - ALL people - are just like me in that they're children of God, made in God's image. They are people of value, who deserve the same chances I have to make it in this world.

This is not "political correctness." This is not "reverse racism." Whenever there's a dividing line around which some people are in on the benefits of society, and some are out, it's a real form of violence to human beings. It harms the people on the outside in ways that the people on the inside can only get hints and shadows of truly understanding. AND it harms the people on the inside, leaving us with a stunted vision of what human nature really looks like, and a need to build walls to protect what we think belongs only to us. The thing about walls is that when you live inside of them, they become a prison, and a fortress against reality that can't last.

I have a lot of worries about Donald Trump's America. But this is the biggest one. I worry and fear for the people who will NOT BE OKAY in this America.

What I can say for today is that God is on the side of those who are on the disadvantaged side of all these lines. God's desire is for love and peace and abundant life for ALL people. As Theodore Parker wrote, paraphrased later by Martin Luther King:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
And what I can say for myself is that I'm trying to line up on God's side, and to see that America is as okay as possible for everybody. I'm early on the learning curve of figuring out my own privilege and what to do about it. I have so many blind spots, it's hard for my eye to see anywhere beyond my own experience. But by the grace of God, I've come to know God's love and compassion. And I know it's not just for me, or for people like me.

If you read this and it connects with you, I urge you to also side with those who are worried about whether they're going to be okay. Get out of your comfort zone and go talk with somebody who's different in one or more of these ways. Get to know them as a person. Repeat. Pray for them. Put yourself in their shoes. Don't worry about hoarding things for your own okay-ness, but use some of what you've got for those who don't.

As somebody important once said: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Because that's the way it works, in the long run. We'll all be more okay, if we work to make sure that we're all okay.


The view from our back window,
Tuesday morning, November 8;
a bright, beautiful sunrise.
Okay, Donald Trump. I doubt you really believe a lot of what comes out of your mouth. And I strongly disagree with most of what you say. But in your victory speech, you said, "I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be President for all Americans," and to those who opposed you, "I'm reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country," and, "Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential." These things sound like the opposite of much of what you said in your campaign, which had more of a tone of "taking our country back." But I hope you mean them. And whether you mean them or not, I hope and pray that these things will happen to some degree.
The same view,
Wednesday morning, November 9;
cold, dark, rainy, gloomy.

Okay, Republican Party. You've won the presidency and control of both houses of Congress. You've been the party of obstruction for eight years. You've pushed for the rights of corporations over individuals. You've targeted immigrants, people of color, and LGBT people for further oppression. You've advocated for policies that hurt children, women, and the working poor. You've shut down the government over policy issues. Now let's see what you've got as the party that governs. How many of your politicians and supporters really care enough about "every single American" to act like it?

But Reggie knows that life goes
on, and the most important things
are still the most important things.
Okay, Democratic Party. Are you ready to dump the way you use "superdelegates" now? I happen to agree with many more of your policies than the other party's, but you're not much better at listening to average people. Will you learn from this election?

Okay, pollsters. Somebody smack me, if I ever put much stock in you and your fancy methods again.

Okay, Trump voters. I know and love a number of you, and while I think that the most racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and homophobic groups that lined up with Trump are indeed "deplorable," I believe most of you are real people who see the real injustices done to people in your communities. I utterly disagree with you that Trump is going to do anything to help, and in fact I believe a Trump administration is going to make things a lot worse for you and for many other people. But Trump won, and I accept the results of the election. Let's see how it plays out. What I ask of you, now that your candidate has won, is to let your words and actions show that you're not deplorable. Keep your eyes open for moves that single out people who are different from you in some way. Keep learning more about how discrimination works to divide people whose interests really aren't all that different. Watch for Trump and the Republican party and their people, when instead of "draining the swamp" and "taking our country back from the Establishment," they tighten the screws that are keeping you and other people down.

My mood is just a mood.
I'm a human being, so I need
to let myself feel my emotions
and come to grips with change.
But then it's time to get up,
and get back to the business
of trying to be the person
I want to be in this world.
Okay, Christian Right. You made a mockery of what a Christian life looks like by dressing Trump up with Christian labels and imagery to get people to vote for him. I believe most of you will honestly be praying for God's will to be done in America, and I also will keep doing that right along with you. But be careful who and what you honor. And be humble enough to be ready to repent and make reparations for things that go wrong. Some of you focused on the Supreme Court in this election, and you may find that the same justices who vote the way you like on issues like guns and abortion also keep widening the gap of injustice that divides our society. Be aware not only of the handful of verses you can pick out to defend anti-gay or anti-abortion stances, but of the hundreds of verses, and the whole life of Jesus, that calls for compassion and mercy and love for all people.

Okay, Jim. You've poured out your anger and frustration on other people. You've had some time to come to grips with your shock and depression about the way this election went. But you know you never doubted that God is the one who is really in charge; that Jesus is Lord of all. You knew you would pray for the new president and all newly elected leaders, no matter who they were. You realized that however this election went, this country would continue to wrestle with different people's reactions to a changing world and a changing populace. You claim to be humble enough to believe you might be wrong about important things. And you're fully aware that as a Christian your life is not your own. You even named your daily-text blog to remind yourself of Jesus' call: to deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him. As a pastor, you took ordination vows to preach and teach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the creeds and Lutheran confessions, to be diligent in studying the Holy Scriptures and in the use of the means of grace, to pray for God’s people, to nourish them with the Word and Holy Sacraments, to lead them by example in faithful service and holy living, and to give faithful witness in the world, that God’s love may be known in everything. And none of that has changed. You've said you're inspired by the word RESOLVE. And what better time to be inspired?

Okay, let's do this. God help us all. Amen.