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29 July 2009

Black Power

This century, decade and year have witnessed the exercise of power by persons of African descent in the Americas at previously unprecedented and virtually unimaginable levels.
May I call the roll?
Thomas Clarence, Condalezza Rice, Colin Powell, Donna Brazile, and Barack Hussein Obama, just to name a very few in just one field.
These black women and men wield and wielded their considerable power with the authority and endorsement of majority white (in power if not always in numbers) constituents and sponsors.
Their successes and those of many, many more bear witness to the great distance this nation has progressed from its slave-holding roots, slave-owning presidents and slave-dependent economic system.
But we have not moved any great distance from the racism that spawned the conquest of the inhabited Americas, rape and pillage of Africa, its nations, inhabitants and their descendants and continuing xenophobia manifested in Islamophobia and white supremacist ideologies.
The simple fact is that Americans of color - are black brown and beige - are regularly treated as second class non-citizens.
I remember how surprised was Oprah Winfrey when interviewing Shoshanna Johnson, the first African American woman prisoner of war on record, after her release in 2003 that the white soldiers who came to the rescue of her unit initially tried to leave her, doubting her nationality until a white soldier vouched for her. (Ironically, it was easier for them to believe that she was a black Iraqi - they do exist - than a black American.) She simply did not look like what they believed an American, or American soldier looked like.
I am not surprised by the arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or the surrounding discussions. I am appreciative for the class implications of that discourse. For all of those who say that if this could happen to a man of Skip Gates' standing (class) then it could happen to anyone, it does. Everyday.
Now the stories are pouring out, particularly those of women and men who have access to the media. Both Dr. Rice (who had to argue with a jewelery salesperson that she wanted to see real, not imitation, pearls no matter the price) and Gen. Powell (who had to prove that he was the National Security Adviser to a person who did not believe that a black person held the job) have entered such stories in the public record.
Bloggers everywhere are posting the stories of lesser known persons who have been the victims of racial profiiling, particularly by the police.
President Obama has appealed for a national conversation on race, first after the high-tech lynching of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright and after the fraudulent arrest of Dr. Gates. Black folk have been having this conversation sice we got here, voluntarily or involuntarily.
It's well past and high time for white folk to have this conversation among themselves in comparable numbers. While the work of theorists and social critics is invaluable to this end, these conversations need to happen in white enclaves, congregations, clubs and around dinner tables.
One of the first topics: the acquisition of power by a few black and brown persons does not signal the end of racism or the advent of a post-racial society.
As Lani Guinier put in her 30 July post to the Chronicle of Higher Education:
"The undisputed historical backdrop for the porch encounter includes 240 years of chattel slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, and 400-plus years of intergenerational wealth transfer during most of which time black people not only owned little property—they were property. In roughly 50 of the first 72 years of our country's first century, the presidents of the United States themselves owned slaves. In the infamous Dred Scott case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that a black man had no rights that a white man need respect, five of the justices were from slaveholding families."
Power to the people.

20 July 2009

God Created Them In God's Image

As a post-colonial scholar I have learned to be critical of binaries – two opposing views, positions or categories that sum up any idea or experience, including physical manifestations of gender in the human species.
Things are not either black or white, right or wrong and people are not only not just gay or straight, but also neither are they either male or female.
The world is complicated and complex. Are so are the people who inhabit it.
People have come into this world with indeterminate or multiple expressions of gender from the beginning of humanity’s sojourn on this globe. At every level of scrutiny from genital to genomic, there are more than two types of human body configurations. (This doesn’t even take into account all of the internal physiological variety among individuals – everything from where the aorta branches to where the internal organs are in the body.)
Along with the false notion that people are either female or male is the cultural assumption here in the West (and to varying degrees in other parts of the world) that there is a way to be male and a way to be female. And that way in each case is single and the polar opposite – or complement – of the other.
I am reminded of this when I hear some – certainly not all – trans-persons, persons in the process of changing their gender discussing why their new gender is who they are. Many rely on stereotypes that articulate single ways of being female or male: I like baking, I love football, I never/always played with dolls. It does not surprise me that there are some trans-folk who eventually seek to have their surgery reversed as much as possible and return to life as a person of the gender identity the lived previously, from birth.
This is not to say that there are no folk who have legitimate gender identity issues which are appropriately resolved through therapeutic means including pharmacological and surgical means. I am not making that claim.
I am interested in those folk whose expressed gender identity does not conform to an idealized norm. They may be living a gender-neutral life as much as they are able, they may be living a gender identity that is at odds with their biological gender but feel no need for surgery to fell complete as a wo/man. They may simply be lesbian or gay.
There are so many ways to be fe/male. I simply get nervous when I hear people making life-altering decisions for them and for their children based in part on stereotypes. And I know that most responsible surgeons work with therapists and that gender transition takes time by design.
I just wonder how some folk would understand themselves if they weren’t limited to two options.

15 July 2009

One Voice in the Anglican Communion

The Rev. Dr. A. Katherine Grieb is the Professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological (Episcopal) Seminary. She is also a member of the Anglican Communion Covenant Design Group, the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, and the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission.
In these capacities she has written on the full inclusion of sexual minority Christians in the Anglican Communion and the integrity and survival of the Communion. In We Will With God's Help, Dr. Grieb writes:
One of the early desert fathers, Dorotheus of Gaza, has given us an image for understanding this passage that many of us have found helpful. He describes our human situation as a circle. God is at the very center of the circle, as its focal point, and every human being that God has made is a point on the circumference of that circle.
Dorotheus reminds us that it is false to think we must choose between loving God with everything in us and loving our neighbors as ourselves. We can deduce that it is false by observing that as we move towards the center of the circle, as we approach God more closely, at the same time we also become closer to our brothers and sisters who are, in the same way, being drawn towards the center of the circle by the attractive and attracting love of God. That same love which draws us to itself like a powerful magnet also draws us to love our neighbors as well. These loves are not in competition; rather they come together in the well-ordered spiritual life. God’s gentle but effective centripetal power resists the centrifugal forces within us that are inclined to fractious and schismatic separation from one another.
I have found it useful to meditate on Dorotheus of Gaza’s geometric parable as I think about the pressures on TEC and the Anglican Communion at the moment... If we think of ourselves as points on the circumference of the globe of which God is the center, then it is self-evidently a false choice to be asked to love either our neighbors who are nearby or those who are far away; our neighbors who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, or our neighbors who, for the present at least, oppose their full inclusion in the life of the church.
At this point I am reminded of an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It is wise practical advice, a useful strategy. This is entirely appropriate, for once our theological situation is clarified (as we are drawn to love God more and more, we are to relate to each of the points of the Compass Rose, whether near or far, as a neighbor to be loved) then the questions that arise are in fact strategic ones: (1) What does loving our GLBT neighbors, both here and around the Anglican Communion, look like? (2) What does loving our neighbors, both near and far, who for the present oppose their full inclusion in the life of the church look like? (3) How can we act gracefully at the present time in a way that moves the Anglican Communion as a whole to go far by going together?

In the past two years the Episcopal Church has not ordained any bishops whose manner of life presents a challenge to the larger Anglican Communion as we were asked. We have not formalized liturgies to consecrate same gender partnerships as we were asked. Yet the bishops of the Southern Cone have continued their intrusions into the American church, flagrantly flaunting the requests of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the wider Communion. And I fear all that shall be said and remembered about these years is the Episcopal Church's affirmation of the possibility of ordination for all the baptized.
I wish more more people had listened to Dr. Grieb and we were as a Church and as a Communion wrestling with these questions.

09 July 2009

Die Another Day

In the past two weeks I've had a number of conversations in which someone has suggested that there is an increase in the number of deaths around us. In each conversation I've pointed out that there was an apparent increase in the number of celebrity deaths, but the actual numerical trends of all deaths remains constant.
Underneath each of these conversations is the fascination and fear most of us has with death. (I'll not comment on celebrity cults in this post.)
There seems to be an assumption that it is "natural" to live to a ripe old age. I think this is an American and more broadly, a Western idea based on our technological and medicinal accomplishments: we just ought to live into old age. There is also, in some Christian communities, a reliance on the verse which claims that the "normal" human life-span is "seventy years or perhaps eighty" (Psalm 90:10) as a literal immutable promise.
Yet the lived reality is that people die every day at every age: in the womb, at birth, as infant, toddlers, children and teens, as young women and men, as middle-aged adults, yes as septa- and octogenarians and even nonagenarians and centenarians.
As much as we might prefer to "die another day," unless we choose suicide we cannot choose the moment of our deaths. We certainly cannot avoid the day of our death.

W. Somerset Maugham tells it this way in Appointment in Samarra:
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now Master, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me [Death] standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

As for this this day, it is not yet past. I cannot say with certainty that I will die another day.

03 July 2009

America's Original Sin

The juxtaposition of the protests in Iran and the Fourth of July weekend bring to mind the ways in which racism is inscribed into our historical documents. While the Declaration of Independence is intentionally silent on Africans in the Americas and slavery, it does speak about the original inhabitants of this double continent:
"the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."
I don't ever remember hearing that read at Independence Day celebrations.
Freedom for some is an oxymoron.