Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What the Fuck Are We Doing With All These Fucking Guns?

What the fuck are we doing with all these fucking guns?

(I swear a lot in this post. Please keep reading to the end.)

How in the fuck have we regressed, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, to the point where we keep adding more and more guns, and more powerful guns, and the fucking death toll keeps going up, and we don't wake the fuck up and realize we're going in the wrong direction?

From the Daily and Sunday Express
Night before last, one guy with a big fucking bunch of guns started shooting at a concert. So far, reports are that 59 people were killed and hundreds injured, either in the gunfire or the chaos that came with it. It appears that he owned these fucking semi-automatic guns legally, and made some simple modifications to achieve fully-automatic death-dealing capability. How the fuck did our society get to the point where nobody saw anything wrong with any of that, until he started shooting into the crowd?

Oh, I know, 2nd amendment. "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." We hear a lot about the "not being infringed" part, but not so much about the "necessary to the security of a free state" part, or the "well regulated part." Do some people need to own guns? Yes, that does add to our security. Should there be registration and training that goes along with that security? Fuck, yes. Should there be regulations to guide the use of guns in ways that are helpful, not harmful, to society? You fucking bet. Should there be screening and laws to keep guns out of the hands of people who can't be a part of a well regulated force? Why the fuck not?

We've reached an incredible level of tolerance for gun-rights groups, particularly the fucking NRA, pushing to remove any limits on personal gun ownership, and using fear and hatred to sell more fucking guns. Have you seen their fucking ad that sneers at and whips up irrational fears about "the liberals" to get you to buy more, bigger fucking guns in resistance? Let me tell you something. This is incredibly fucking stupid and unbelievably fucking irresponsible. If you believe this ad - no, I'll go further; if you aren't embarrassed by this ad - then you've been manipulated into an alternate fucking universe. I am a liberal. I hang around with other liberals. Sometimes I even work on organizing things with other liberals (although less than you might think, because I can't stand political parties). Contrary to what this fucking ad says, I do not hate America, I'm not cheering for ISIS or communism or chaos or anarchy, and I don't want to take away your way of life and everything you hold dear. You know what I do fucking want? I want a society where everybody has enough to eat, a safe place to live, room to raise their family like they want, freedom to be who they are, and encouragement to make a positive difference in their own way. How fucking scary is that?!

There's also a lot of nonsense going around about how all these fucking guns are making us safer. Sorry, you're exactly fucking wrong. If you're still quoting the book More Guns, Less Crime, do some research from different sources about its statistics. Or just look at a catalog of gun violence. In these recent years, with restrictions removed and concealed-carry permits increasing, the Gun Violence Archive (http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/past-tolls) reports increases in the number of incidents, number of injuries, and number of deaths from 2014 to 2015 to 2016 - and 2017 is well on its way to setting even higher numbers. We're fucking killing ourselves.

And don't tell me I have to be a fucking gun expert to propose gun control. I'm not an expert in nuclear bombs, but I know I don't want a bunch of them in Kim Jung Un's hands. Do details have to be worked out by people who are gun experts? Of fucking course. But it doesn't take a fucking expert to look at the way things are going and say, "What the fuck? Enough!" We are already way down the fucking path of having too many fucking guns and too much fucking firepower out there. Let's cut down the increase, so we can have some honest fucking conversation about how we can rein it all in before we all blow each other's fucking heads off.

There are proposals being floated to allow concealed carry in more places (schools! churches! why not fucking everywhere?), do away with bans on high-powered assault rifles, allow silencers in more places. While some of us might say "What the fuck?" at any time, these few hours right after our deadliest fucking mass shooting (I should say, deadliest fucking mass shooting yet) represent a time when the NRA has paused running its ad, and sponsors of these measures have delayed bringing them up for a vote. "It's not time to politicize guns, so soon after a tragedy." Well, fuck that! Politics is what we call it when we make decisions about how to live together in a society. The fucking tragedy is that we can't seem to have that conversation all the time. In the wake of so many gun deaths, this is the perfect fucking time to talk about the broken fucking system that lets all these fucking guns get out there and gets people so fucking passionate about them, while the problem just keeps getting fucking worse.

You might have heard about the words of Caleb Keeter, a member of the Josh Abbott Band playing in the concert the night of the shootings. Take a look at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2017/10/02/i-cannot-express-how-wrong-i-was-country-guitarist-changes-mind-on-gun-control-after-vegas/ and read for yourself. The bottom line:
"I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have members of our crew with [Concealed Handgun Licenses], and legal firearms on the bus ... They were useless ... We couldn’t touch them for fear police might think we were part of the massacre and shoot us. A small group (or one man) laid waste to a city with dedicated, fearless police officers desperately trying to help, because of access to an insane amount of fire power. Enough is enough. Writing my parents and the love of my life a goodbye last night and a living will because I felt like I wasn’t going to live through the night was enough for me to realize that this is completely and totally out of hand. These rounds were just powerful enough that my crew guys just standing in close proximity of a victim shot by this fucking coward received shrapnel wounds. We need gun control RIGHT. NOW. My biggest regret is that I stubbornly didn’t realize it until my brothers on the road and myself were threatened by it. We are unbelievably fortunate to not be among the number of victims killed or seriously wounded by this maniac."
You got that fucking right, Caleb Keeter.

Or you might have heard about the words of Bill O'Reilly, who said, "This is the price of freedom." He could not be more fucking wrong. Mass shootings are the price of a way-too-powerful gun lobby and a way-too-fearful-and-money-grubbing political systems. How can you fucking call it freedom when we're living in more danger and fear all the time? We're making our own fucking prison here.

Or maybe you heard the words of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said, "There’s a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country.” Okay, Bill O'Reilly, I apologize - she may be even more wrong than you. Should we unite as a country in grieving for the dead? Of fucking course. Should we unite against the evil (even Donald Trump used that word to describe the shootings) of mass shootings? Abso-fucking-lutely. But to unite in saying this is the wrong time to try to set things right, and work to see that more people aren't killed in the same way? Sorry, that would be fucking evil in itself.

At least 59 people are dead, hundreds wounded. Have you heard the words of their spouses, parents, children, friends? Have you heard the stories of what good people they were, how they represented the best of America by giving of themselves for the good of others? Do you honor them for that, and want us to do better?

Me too. Let's wake the fuck up. Open our fucking eyes and see that we've hit a point where dozens of innocent lives can be fucking snuffed out in a moment, because we're too wrapped up in fucking gun rights and making fucking enemies of each other to pause for a fucking moment and have a fucking conversation about how to do a little fucking better. Let's not wait until it's our loved ones getting shot.

Thanks for reading this far. I hope you'll use your own words, voice, vote, and influence with politicians to say enough. Observe a moment of silence if you feel it's right, but follow it up with a lot of moments of speaking out. Let's rein in this gun violence.

About the swearing: I used the f-word 59 times in this piece. (And quoted it once in what Caleb Keeter wrote.) Did that bother you? Distract you? Offend you? Well, that's nothing compared to the bother and offense of the loved ones of those 59 people who are now dead. If we can go on about our day after hearing of the needless, senseless deaths of 59 people, but be shocked or shaken up by a pastor dropping the f-bomb, that's an indicator that we've been conditioned to pay attention to the wrong things.

Please be a part of making things better.

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Some other resources:
http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/
https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/gun-deaths/
https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-by-the-numbers/
https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/2/16399418/us-gun-violence-statistics-maps-charts
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/daily-202/2017/10/03/daily-202-10-political-takeaways-from-the-las-vegas-shooting/59d2e8a130fb0468cea81d17/
http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a12766946/american-gun-violence-epidemic/

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Reborn: A Story of Hope in a Time of Racism

Today, I watched Red Tail Reborn, a short video documentary about an airplane. The plane is a P-51 Mustang flown during World War II by the United States Air Force 332nd Fighter Group - one of the units that made up the heroes known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The video includes a short introduction to the Tuskegee Airmen and their history, then shifts to tell the story of this particular plane, rescued from being scrapped in the '60's and restored so that it could fly again.


Turns out the video is not really about the plane. The whole context of the story is the brave service of the Tuskegee Airmen. And the whole context of that story is our American history of racism.

In our history, African-Americans have been found suitable for service in the lower ranks of our military, but have been excluded from full participation. During World War II, the military was still fully segregated, and the video mentions official military documents describing how "Negroes" could and could not serve, due to supposed racial limitations. Eventually, enough factors came together that some units were created to train African-American pilots and crew. The 332nd trained in Tuskegee, Alabama - and the training dragged on and on, as leaders were reluctant to actually put them into service. The video gives a lot of credit to this widely circulated photograph of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt taking a ride in a training plane with one of the Tuskegee Airmen:


Funding and support increased after that, to the point where the 332nd was finally deployed, serving in North Africa and throughout Europe. The unit served admirably, escorting bombers, protecting the lives and earning the respect of white crews, with whom they would not have been allowed to bunk. The video includes an interview with an 85-year-old former bomber crew member, who credits the "Red-Tail Angels" (named after the distinctive red paint on the rear of their planes) for his long life complete with retirement, old age, and grandkids.

Most of the Red Tail Reborn video is about the process of finding, salvaging, restoring, and returning to flight one of the P-51 Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. The video was released in 2007, following the engine failure and crash of the plane after its first successful renovation in 2004. It ends with the unfinished story of the plane being repaired and restored again, hoping for a future flight.

The timing of watching this video is meaningful. Today, in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was also a planned white nationalist rally called "Unite the Right," where a number of "alt-right" and other groups promoting "white supremacy" came together to challenge the removal of a Confederate war monument and argue for the need to "take back our country."

As I watched the video, its 2007 tone was hopeful and positive, with several references to "the way things used to be" and "America's past." On the same day I watched it, ten years later, my phone kept notifying me of racism alive and well, causing fresh violence and divisiveness. Our president delayed any criticism of the rally until well into the afternoon, after damage had already been done. Rally organizers responded that he shouldn't have been critical, as they were the people who put him into office. The president's first seven months in office have seen a ban on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries, unprecedented deportation of Latin American immigrants who have had jobs and families and homes and productive lives in America for decades, new threats to voting rights and affirmative action and public schools, an announcement that transgender people would no longer be welcome in the military, proposed new cuts to legal immigration, a turn back to the fruitless and racially biased drug wars of 30 years ago, and much, much more.

Racism is not just our past. It is still very much our present reality.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is inspiring. In their service, these men showed themselves, their country, and the world that skin color and ethnic origin were useless as ways of categorizing what someone can and can't do. Their patience, dedication, professionalism, and commitment really did overcome a level of ignorance, fear, racism, and discrimination. One of the airmen interviewed in Red Tail Reborn spoke about how the sharing of their story was helping to "transform our society."

Like the Mustang in the video, that transformation was lost in mothballs for a while. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen took a long time to be fully told.

Then, like the team of people who restored the Mustang, working together as both black and white, military and civilian, from all different backgrounds and parts of the country, the story was reborn. It flew again. There was a time when "hope" held the day, and progress really was made.

Like the day of the engine failure and crash, today under the Trump administration and its anemic vision of what American "greatness" means, we're in a tragic moment of violence and destruction. The story of racial reconciliation, of teamwork and community and education and trust overcoming racism has taken a dive.

As I said earlier, Red Tail Reborn ends with an uncertain future. The crash damaged the plane badly, also killing the man flying it, who was instrumental in its restoration and publicity. More expense and time would be needed to repair it. The work of many people, of all skin colors, from all over the country and the world, would be needed to make it fly again.

But I peeked, ten years later, at the rest of the story. The Red Tail P-51 Mustang is flying again. It's painted with the colors and insignia of several of the Tuskegee Airmen units. Its name is "Tuskegee Airmen," and its purpose is to keep their story alive, and keep inspiring people. In fact, in September, it will be near where I live in Northeastern Ohio, and I intend to go to the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton and see it fly.

The plane also bears the words "By Request" under the side windows. That was the name of the plane flown by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commanding officer of the 332nd. It means that the Tuskegee Airmen, held back and kept in extra training so long due to racism, gained a reputation for excellence and skill, to the point that bomber crews would request them as their escort specifically.

America still needs the Tuskegee Airmen. We need people of all colors, backgrounds, and nationalities. We need people of courage and determination, who will overcome racism and ignorance and discrimination of all forms. We need to be shown, again and again, that character is what matters.

We need to mourn this moment when the progress of racial reconciliation has crashed and burned. And then we need to get to work on making it fly again. It will happen. It's too important not to.

What will be your part in the story?


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Dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen, to the Commemorative Air Force and all who have kept the story alive, especially Don Hinz and his family, to the other filmmakers and storytellers, and to all the people young and old who are inspired by the story.

Offered as a prayer for each individual person and each organization who commit themselves to the ongoing work of racial reconciliation, justice, and peace.

All images in this post are links to photos at http://www.redtail.org/.

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For more information, watch the videos:
Red Tail Reborn
Flight of the Red Tail (the sequel to Red Tail Reborn)
The Tuskegee Airmen (1995 dramatization of the story)

And read about and support the Red Tail restoration and history sharing project:
http://www.redtail.org/

See the Red Tail fly in September 2017 at the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio:
http://www.libertyaviationmuseum.org/events.html

There's also a web site dedicated to the service and memory of the Tuskegee Airmen:
http://tuskegeeairmen.org/

Thursday, June 29, 2017

For Some of God's Saints I Know

Sheryl and I were away for the last week and a half, for Elise and Matt's wedding and then a vacation time of relaxing and unwinding. It was great! And one great part was the chance to slow down and think more deeply about life: the daily routines, the things that get done and the things that don't, the way I manage to tend to time for God, myself, Sheryl, family and friends in a busy world.

It occurred to me one day that in my years of pastoring, helping, seminary-studying, being a part of the church, and every other part of existence, my life has overlapped with the lives of a lot of other wonderful and interesting people. I think there are books with names like "My Little Book of Saints," with a page or two devoted to a number of saints the author thinks people ought to know about. And if I were looking for a new daily project, I would easily have material to write about a saint each day, for a long, long time!

Lutherans reading this will know right away what I mean by "saint." The word means "a holy one," and as it's used in popular culture, it might lead you to think of some exalted, especially-holy person who has been elevated to some higher level of being. But for Lutherans, we don't think of "saint" without also thinking of "sinner." Martin Luther's phrase simul justus et peccator, "simultaneously saint and sinner," is a short way to sum up the way the Bible uses the word "saint," to refer to any normal, regular, flawed, ordinary human being who has been made new by the grace of God in Christ and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. God comes to us while we still are sinners and says that we are worth everything, with Jesus' birth and life and ministry and death and resurrection and ascension all given as a free gift to reconcile us with God and each other and the world. Simultaneously, we remain both the same sinful slobs we have always been, and marvelous new creations of God's grace, welcomed into God's family, alive with God forever, pronounced holy simply because of the love and faithfulness of Christ, called and equipped to be a part of God's never-ending mission of love for the world.

This kind of sainthood comes from God, not from extraordinary human abilities or achievements. Most often, the only miraculous thing about saints is how much God can accomplish through absolutely ordinary people. And there are an infinite number of miraculous variations on this theme. God seems to delight in choosing people from a specific background with a certain history and life experience, mixing them up together with others the same and different, and then blossoming up the most unlikely "fruits of the Spirit" to enrich the lives of still others. The last verse of John's gospel says, "There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." I think John would agree with me that those acts of Jesus include the innumerable ways that people live as sinners-and-saints in his name.

My thought a few days ago, during vacation time, was just a reflection on how many of those people I have spent time with personally. This is not bragging! Just an observation that as I make my way through life, God has mixed me up together with a lot of saints, each with their own story. Very few of them would think of themselves as heroes of faith, or heroes of any other kind, and most would probably be surprised if I were to tell them I wanted to write their story. Some I know well enough to write a whole book about; some I might only manage a paragraph or two. But in each person's life, like an individual pane of an enormous, intricate, stained glass window, I see the light of Christ shining through in a unique way, making up an important part of a whole work of art. Nobody else would fit in the same place the same way, with the same color and shape and texture and quality. If I were to write a book of stories, I would hope that knowing a few pieces of the picture might lead to a better appreciation for the craftsmanship and power of the whole.

So it would be wrong for me to name such a book anything like "My Little Book of Saints." It would certainly be "little" in proportion to the tiny percentage of God's story that I've been able to see up close! But it would not be "mine" as an author's, or "yours" as a readers. It would all be just another piece of God's work in reaching out with love to human beings in need. The best title I can come up with today is "Some of God's Saints I Know."

While still on vacation, I thought of a few people whose stories had come to mind recently. Family members and friends we saw at the wedding, and some who couldn't be there. Members of congregations I've been a part of, present and past. People who have been my guides, mentors, helpers, healers, companions, provocateurs. There are so many, I would probably have no other choice than to write about them as they randomly came to mind. Maybe I would remember some event we shared together, or be reminded by a birthday or anniversary or other special occasion. Maybe life would present me with something new that recalled someone from the past.

Clearly, I wouldn't be able to come close to doing justice to anybody's whole story, or to the size and extent of the full company of saints. But maybe it would be worthwhile to compile even a tiny number of rough sketches. I am not looking for another daily project! But maybe, at some point, this project will come looking for me.

Today, I feel called to mention a few of the saints I know. I'm thinking of a number of people who have worked at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. This is the seminary where I studied and was "in formation" for five years, from 1999 through 2004. The sinners-saints I knew there helped guide me, in a vocational sense, from my first career as a software developer to my second career as a pastor. They also helped guide me, in a personal sense, toward a fuller and deeper understanding of what it means to be a maturing Christian (spoiler: it means to be a sinner-saint in your own way, not necessarily a pastor!) and how the whole worldwide church can come together as an amazing community of love and support and growth.

The world and the church and the seminary have, of course, changed in the 13 years since I graduated and moved away. Some of the same people are there, and are included in the group I'm thinking of today. Some have also moved away, on to their own next phase of life. The seminary, like many parts of the church, has gotten smaller in attendance and more challenged in finances. This summer, major steps are being taken to merge Trinity Lutheran Seminary back into Capital University. And tomorrow, in fact, is the last day of employment for a number of seminary staff people. It was recently announced that the seminary will actually be closed tomorrow, and so today becomes the last official day of these positions for many.

Among my friends and colleagues who have some connection to the seminary, there are a wide variety of thoughts and feelings. Most would probably agree that some kind of move like the reuniting of Trinity and Capital is inevitable and necessary. No doubt there are also benefits that will come from the arrangement. But the move has also come with some abruptness, thoughtlessness, and carelessness toward the people whose lives are deeply affected. There would have always been grief under such circumstances. Now there is also anger, confusion, and sadness, and more.

We say that "the church is not the building, it's the people." This is most certainly true. Our buildings and property and programs and materials are only the things used by the people in our call to love God and love each other as ourselves. The seminary is also not the building, but the people. And by people, of course, I mean sinners-saints. In the Trinity Lutheran Seminary transition, in my view from far away, I've seen in some ways the Christlike love and humility and blessing and holiness that's worthy of the title "saint," and in other ways more self-centered words and actions that are irrevocably tied to the title "sinner," where love for people has been betrayed and crucified to achieve purposes that are judged at the time to be more worthwhile. With faith in the power of God in Christ to outshine all darkness, and with trust in the God who chooses to bestow and continually draw out the title "saint" in us rather than leaving us stuck as "sinner," my hope is that this story will keep unfolding over time, bringing healing and hope and new life, as we all run the race toward "sainthood" together.

Today, an ending takes place that affects the lives of many of the saints I know. Those whose employment is terminated this week have been good and faithful servants of God and the church and many other saints. There are stories that could be written, by me and many others, of how God has worked through them to bless students and other staff and faculty, and of how those blessings have been multiplied many times over as students graduate and go on to serve other saints. This week's sad and rough ending to their time with the seminary is not at all what they deserved. Their contributions to the seminary community have not been recognized, celebrated, and honored adequately.

I hope that today you'll pause with me and think of them, pray for them, and entrust them into God's care. May they each be blessed by another set of stories, and lives to be mixed up together with, that will help them see the light and grace and love of God.

And for those who remain at Trinity, those who will become a part of the combined Trinity-Capital relationship, all current and future students, and everyone whose life has been or will be touched by the efforts of the sinners-saints of the seminary, please join me today and in the days, months, and years to come, in prayer and in hope for a new community that will bless the church and the world with sinners-saints formed and equipped to inspire us all to keep God's story going.

Finally, in your own story, may you be blessed in your time with the saints of God that you know. May you be built up toward the perfect love of God in Christ, and may you take a hand in building up and making a difference where you can.

You never know when you will be one of God's saints whose story impacts somebody else's life.

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?