MLK Day Reflection with The Man In Black

What do a family bike ride to Folsom Prison, a scriptural meditation on Luke 4:14-21, and MLK Day have to do with one another? I’m glad you asked… 😉

I’m thankful that Amazon recognized MLK Day as an official company holiday for the first time. As a family we’ve always sought to make it more than just a holiday from work/school. It’s been a heavy year, and this time to reflect, be together, pray, and write, is restorative. Traditional events like marches to the downtown courthouse (or in Sacramento’s case, the state capitol) were canceled this year for multiple reasons (COVID, and potential unrest as we near the inauguration), so we had to get creative and do our own thing.

We decided to ride the American River bike trail to historic downtown Folsom and the adjoining Johnny Cash trail to Folsom Prison. This facility, while more famous than other prisons (thanks to Cash’s performance at the prison and his song “Folsom Prison Blues”), is just one of thousands of institutions housing over 2.3 million inmates in the U.S., the country with the dubious distinction of having the largest prison population, both by raw numbers and per capita, in the world.

While MLK fought for civil rights and achieved incremental gains toward racial justice and equality, we still have a long way to go. Mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, and the so-called War on Drugs, are the new Jim Crow of our day, disproportionately impacting black and brown people and leaving a wake of destruction through our communities and families.

I realize these comments may offend the politics of some, but if you’ve stuck with me thus far, let’s find common ground in the agreement that, whatever the root cause, this represents brokenness played out in one way or another. Brokenness of lives, of families, of children missing a parent, of victims who have suffered. Brokenness of the societal contract by a system riddled with institutionalized injustice. Brokenness that led to a poor choice. Or to a lack of choices to begin with, due to brokenness in the promise of equal opportunity for all.

Once we rode our bikes to the closest spot you can get to the prison from the trail, within view of the walls and one of the many guard towers, we stopped and spent some time in reflection. We prayed for the inmates and their families. We read Luke 4:14-21 three times, Lectio Divina style. In this first public proclamation of his mission, Jesus astounds the people of his home town by proclaiming himself the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. Sight for the blind, good news to the poor, liberation for the oppressed, freedom for the prisoners. In short, to bring wholeness to that which is broken.

But now that’s our job, isn’t it? We are Jesus’ hands and feet to carry on this work. The Reverend Dr. King had a keen awareness of what has been oft-dubbed “liberation theology,” emphasizing this same mandate. As we looked over the walls of Folsom Prison today, we prayed that justice would roll down like a river; righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, echoing Dr. King’s most-quoted verse (Amos 5:24). He was big on justice. And lest we mistake that for the narrow western definition of getting due punishment for a wrongful act, as a Christian minister and scholar he understood the broader meaning of the word in Christendom and its root in the Hebrew, “mishpat,” which described fairness and equity far more holistically. Consider how God is described in Psalm 146: “He executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. He sets prisoners free, he gives sight to the blind… watches over the immigrant and sustains the orphan and widow.”

Johnny Cash also had this more holistic understanding of justice and healing for that which is broken—if you’ve never taken the time to read the lyrics of “Man in Black,” one of the songs he authored himself, do yourself a favor and look it up.

You might not share the religious faith of Dr. King, Johnny Cash, and myself. You may be discouraged or turned off by the degree to which self-interested people and groups through the ages have claimed God for their “side”—it certainly discourages me. But one thing we can be sure of is that, to the extent God is on anyone’s “side,” it’s that of the broken and downtrodden. So if we want to be on God’s “side,” we must be, too.

TakeAKnee Part 4: The Legitimacy of the Cause

Raised Fist

This is the final post of my 4-part series exploring the ongoing protests taking place in the NFL. For context, I recommend starting with Part 1.

*****

Beneath all the talk about troops and patriotic displays, where most of the arguments about the NFL protests ultimately reach an impasse is with regard to the legitimacy of the cause. Very few people would be upset about the method of protest if they felt the protestors had a valid grievance. The divide on this is broader and long predates the current conversations sparked by any NFL players, so I’m not so naïve as to think I’m going to convince anyone to change their mind on it in a short-form editorial. But what I can do is share my own personal journey of how I’ve come to think differently about this question over the years, and maybe even encourage the genuinely curious and open-minded to check out some more thorough material on the matter.

I grew up in the era of ‘color blindness,’ where the guiding mantra was: don’t see race; just treat all people the same. The spirit behind this tenet was good and my parents had the best of intentions in instilling this in me. But it only addresses racism at the individual, conscious level; it doesn’t touch the systemic or unconscious. A good argument can be made that we are largely beyond the days of overtly racist individuals. To be sure, they still exist (see: Charlottesville), but they’ve been largely repudiated, stigmatized, and pushed to the margins of society. But along with them, the term ‘racist’ itself has become so stigmatized that we can’t even talk about it without causing such a visceral reaction that it shuts down conversation, because we’ve turned it into no more than an individual label, prompting the automatic defensive, “How dare you accuse me of that!”

This is unfortunate, as the terms ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ didn’t always have such a narrow meaning. There can be racist policies, for example, or institutionalized racism resulting from unjust infrastructure and reinforced through the unconscious biases of society over time, and not necessarily the result of a specific individual bigot. Just like we know black holes exist (even though we can’t see them directly) because of the physical effect they have on the cosmic bodies around them, we know this type of injustice exists because of racially disparate outcomes, regardless of intent. From current lending practices, to redlining and other legacy housing policies that still have a disproportionately negative impact on minority neighborhoods; to the War on Drugs’ disproportionate impact on people of color even though whites are equally likely to sell and use drugs; to specific drug laws with disparate impact such as sentencing laws for crack—the form of the drug found in poorer, urban ghettos—being 18 times as high as the penalty for the same amount of cocaine—another form of the exact same drug more common to affluent white suburbia (a recent ‘improvement,’ by the way, over the former 100:1 disparity); to racial disparities in discretionary sentencing for the exact same crime that have been repeatedly demonstrated; along with many other aspects of the criminal justice system and prison industrial complex that have resulted in disparate outcomes.

There are mountains of data to support the existence of these disparities—to anyone skeptical or genuinely curious, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is a great place to start. But at the very least, I hope the one thing we can agree on is that it’s much more complicated than the question, “Is that officer a racist?” We have to zoom out to look beyond the controversial big-headline stories to see the vast underbelly of subtle injustices that eventually led up to it. Our stubborn insistence on limiting the term ‘racist’ exclusively to the realm of an individually internalized heart condition is, at its core, narcissistic. Outcomes are what matter, not just what’s in the heart. And the Bible says we shall know a tree by its fruit. We have to get beyond our fear of the word, and acknowledge that there are subversive, institutionalized practices that result in inequality regardless of intent, before we can work together to fix them.

Listening to the Personal Experience

Lastly, I’ll end this series with a reprise of a theme I touched on in Part 1 by re-emphasizing my own need to listen to the stories of people of color and understand that my own white middle-class perspective is not the ‘default’ or ‘right’ perspective on America. The ‘age of colorblindness’ made me blissfully unaware of things I can no longer ignore. Beyond just the practical impossibility of ignoring it—in the last few years my wife and I have been guardians to a Filipino teen, host parents to a Latina exchange student, and are raising our own Black child (pictured above at NMAAHC)—I’ve come to realize that my station in life doesn’t give me the luxury to say race doesn’t matter or isn’t an issue. Of course it doesn’t matter or isn’t an issue—for me. Why should it? But I can’t expect my neighbors of color to feel the same way; I haven’t lived their experience.

By analogy, it would seem a bit like a millionaire telling a friend who’s struggling financially: “Just don’t worry about money so much—my secret is I don’t let it create stress or rule my life.” There’s nothing wrong with that philosophy toward money—in fact it probably couldn’t be more right—but it would be pretty tone deaf for someone, to whom money truly isn’t an issue, to say that to someone who doesn’t know where their next rent payment is coming from. Likewise, I’m just not in a qualified position to tell someone else how much or how little race should matter to them.

But what about those who will take advantage of that? Play the race card simply to exploit an advantage that wasn’t warranted? What about those who will claim victimhood to abuse compassion beyond its intended bounds? For the love of God, what about black-on-black crime?

In short: not mine to assess. We are still fallen humans, regardless of race, but just as we talk about personal responsibility: others are to be accountable for their own actions, and I am to be accountable for mine, which is why I will always default to an attempt to listen, understand, and extend compassion anyway. If you, too, desire to hear more of the personal experience side, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is a great place to start, a profound individual reflection of personal anecdotes and life experience; a counterbalance (purely from a genre standpoint) to Alexander’s more data-driven book referenced above.

In order to work together to fix injustice, we must be willing to acknowledge that we might be one who benefits from the existing power structures, listen to the perspectives of those who might not, and recognize that the challenge is more complex than our interpretation of individual attitudes. That is to say, your personal status of ‘not a racist’ doesn’t give you a pass from helping solve the problem. Having won the genetic lottery, I won’t be that guy who tells someone race doesn’t matter just because it doesn’t matter to me. And this is the reason I strive not to respond with indignation or dismissiveness toward athletes making a provocative statement, or the hurt and angry reaction of a community reeling from a racially charged incident, unless I’m absolutely sure I fully understand their history, worldview, and life experience. And I don’t. But I want to, and I’m trying.

<< Back to Part 3

TakeAKnee Part 3: Sorry, Your Love of Country is Obscured by all that Patriotism

nfl_patriotism

This is the third in a 4-part series exploring the ongoing protests taking place in the NFL. For context, I recommend starting with Part 1.

*****

Patriotism as Compulsory

I’m no legal expert, but if my employer decided to start each day with the Pledge of Allegiance, and I chose to quietly abstain, my hunch is they’d probably have a hard time firing me over that, provided it wasn’t a part of my employment contract or affecting my job performance in some way. I’m also no expert in NFL contracts so as to say whether a team/owner could be warranted in firing a player for abstaining from standing for the anthem, but legality aside, I find it odd that anyone (let alone the president) would suggest they should be required to stand for the anthem in the first place, since the concept of “compelled respect” is self-evidently oxymoronic. Surely everyone but Kim Jong-un gets this…?

Patriotism as Government-Sponsored

For my employer to introduce a patriotic display prior to the day’s work activities would also be just exceedingly weird. Owing to longstanding tradition, it’s decidedly less weird to sing the anthem before a major sporting event, but consider how the NFL has amped up these displays in recent years. It’s only since 2009 that they began having players gather on the field before the anthem—prior to that they didn’t emerge from the locker room until afterward. And it’s not just the anthem anymore. I’m bombarded now with all manner of lasers and cannons, color guard displays, field-sized flags, and fighter jet fly-bys, all so that my military can advertise its own might—at my expense—to me.

And why the recent change? Simply put, because the Department of Defense saw a demographic leaning in NFL viewership that lent itself to a recruiting opportunity, and has spent millions of dollars to capitalize on it more and more, especially since 9/11. A cynic could argue it’s exploitative. And if it sounds like I take umbrage with it, it’s not because I don’t appreciate our troops—don’t even go there—but I can think of better uses for my tax dollars. The change in policy to ensure players were on display during the anthem was just another element of the overall marketing strategy. So when we hear, “Stick to sports and keep the politics out of it,” let’s remember that it was the government that inserted politics into the sport, not the players.

Patriotism as Virtue Signaling

In my experience, very few people (though there are some) will get up off the couch in the privacy of their own home to remove their hat, put hand over heart, and silently stand during the singing of the anthem. It’s something we do at the ballpark because of the tradition and social norm of doing it as a crowd. In fact, by kneeling for the anthem, I’d venture to say the protestors are engaging with it at some level, ascribing some level of meaning to it, more so than the vast majority of the rest of us are (or at least were, before we all started thinking and talking about it more).

Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with such traditions and social norms. Continuing the national anthem at sporting events is fine; I stand with my hand over my heart and will continue to do so. But my point is: don’t mistake the tradition itself for what it represents. Because either way, whether in the ballpark or the privacy of your own home, you have to recognize that such patriotic displays are only a symbol of our patriotism, not the patriotism itself.

As case in point: many have pointed out that the kneelers should be doing more—put some action behind their words, put their money where their mouth is. To this I say: amen—I agree! But wait… why just the kneelers? Surely you wouldn’t let your disagreement with them expose your own double standard by bringing this up only now, because this concept of putting action behind the views you express publically has always applied, and applies even now, to both sides. Whether someone is kneeling or standing for the anthem, the greater consideration in either case is what they are doing about it after the game, right? Surely we don’t grant ourselves the moral licensing to do nothing to actually improve our country, just so long as we wrap ourselves in the flag when everybody’s looking, do we?

Of course not. The necessary next step, beyond temporarily getting out of your seat, is to actually get off your ass to do something to love your neighbor and improve your world, country, or local community. If you’re not backing up the display with such substance, then the symbol is not representing anything. It’s meaningless. It’s useless. It can even become a form of religious idolatry. And I submit that some have made it thus (more on that in a bit).

Patriotism in Many Forms

And that substance of your patriotism may take many forms, as Bob Costas correctly pointed out in a recent interview. It may be expressed through serving in the military with honor and dignity (as it was for my father). But as much as I honor and appreciate their sacrifice, I reject the notion that a monopoly on patriotism belongs to service men and women alone. Patriotism may also involve grinding out an often thankless career as an industrial arts teacher in a public school giving kids (some without many other options) a marketable, vocational skill, when you probably could have made more in the private sector (also my father). Patriotism might involve philanthropy to organizations that improve our communities, making a million-dollar pledge and then sticking to it even after you cease to draw your NFL salary. It might involve advocating for policy reform as in the recent letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee co-penned by wide receiver Doug Baldwin and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. It might look like the many other examples of community engagement referenced in that same letter.

And patriotism, as exemplified by patriots through the past 250 years who have pushed us toward progress on numerous fronts, along with our founders themselves, might sometimes look like dissent and resistance. As Notes of a Native Son author and social critic James Baldwin wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Because productive democracy depends on its critics; it doesn’t dismiss them with “love it or leave it” bumper-sticker axioms.

Patriotism as Idolatry

But alas, our nouveau brand of patriotism in America is getting dangerously close to precisely this level of superficiality, something that emphasizes the display more than the substance. The most telling sign of this is that the NFL has come under far less criticism for their past and present leniency on more serious offenses. In what kind of world does the importance of outward displays of patriotism run so high that—while we are willing to turn a blind eye to all manner of substance abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other forms of personal misconduct among football players—that this, of all things, is the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

It was written like a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer it anyway: the kind of world where we’ve planted the seeds of idolatry by coming to prize the packaging more than the contents.

To echo the words of James’ epistle (2:18) in applying them to another context: show me your patriotic displays, and I’ll show you my patriotism by what I do.

The Faith Angle

To continue on this faith parallel (because it’s a good one), there are likewise differing expressions of faith from people with different gifts, or that call for emphasis in different contexts. An article a month ago explored how the act of kneeling by two different players (Tim Tebow in prayer, Colin Kaepernick in protest) represents two different manifestations of devotion that only together make a holistically healthy expression of the Christian faith. Tebow represents the importance of living out your faith in prayer and personal piety, and Kaepernick represents the importance of being a prophetic voice, living out your faith in the public square, speaking truth to authority and sometimes making the dominant power structures uncomfortable. Both are necessary. Both are biblical.

I do happen to believe that American Evangelicalism has over-emphasized the former while stigmatizing the latter, to our great loss. But I suppose this isn’t new or surprising—the prophets themselves were often persecuted and killed.

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