White Privilege, Indifference and Lent . . . Let’s Talk

imageimageOur church in north Minneapolis is talking about racism during Lent. We use the Holden Village liturgy and in the middle of the Wednesday night service we have conversation at our tables where we share a meal together before the service. This conversation is hard, necessary, at times awkward  – and real. I had the privilege of facilitating one of these conversations. What follows are some of the thoughts I presented at the beginning of the conversation and some of my takeaways from the experience.

It’s Lent – and we’re used to giving up things like candy, pop and other items we “like” as part of our fasting during Lent. But Pope Francis, who is asking people to travel outside the box in their faith journeys, had a different idea about what folks should give up for Lent in 2016. He wants people to give up indifference for Lent. He said in his recent Lenten letter that”[i]n this body there is no room for indifference which so often seems to possess our hearts. For whoever is of Christ, belongs to one body, and in him we cannot be indifferent to one another. ‘If one part suffers, all parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all parts share its joy.'(1 Cor. 12:26).”  Christopher Hale, Executive Director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, added “[w]hen we fast from this indifference, we can begin to feast on love. In fact, Lent is the perfect time to love again. . . If you want to change your body, perhaps alcohol and candy is the way to go. But if you want to change your heart, a harder ‘fast’ is required.”

It’s Lent in the year 2016 – and there is an indifference to white privilege in America. It’s in our fabric. A part of me can’t believe that in 2016 we’re actually talking about “white privilege.” And another part of me can’t believe that we’re not talking about it. What is “white privilege?”

In a well known article back in 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and became one of the first white persons to actually write about something people of color had described for years as how whites benefit from unearned privileges people of another skin color are simply not afforded in life. She likens white privilege to an invisible, weightless knapsack of assets and resources that she was given just because she was born white in her time and place in United States history.

McIntosh  writes that the obliviousness about white advantage is kept strongly inculcated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. She writes: “Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.”

I then asked folks to start the conversation at the tables, asking how they have experienced or seen white privilege, and what did that feel like. Does it look like Flint where black children have been poisoned by lead in the drinking water? When I go to a department store to buy pants, as a white male I’m only thinking about if they will have the size and color I’m looking to buy. But the black college professor who calls my law office asks me, with both an anger and sadness in his voice, when will he ever be able to go to a department store without being followed by the white sales clerk to be sure he did not steal anything- because he’s black. White privilege also looks like that.

I then invited those present to also discuss what they might do to change hearts with respect to such indifference. And so we started.  And we shared, together.

I learned we’re all at different places in this journey. I learned how exhausted my black brothers and sisters have become trying to educate and inform those of us who are white what their world is like 24/7 in a country steeped in white privilege. I am grateful they have not given up trying to educate me.

We heard stories of white people remaining silent while witnessing white privilege at the expense of people of color.  Those of us who are white get to choose if or how we engage. White people can choose to be indifferent. People  of color don’t enjoy  that same privilege.  When we as whites don’t speak out in our communities (churches, schools, politics and elsewhere) when we witness white privilege, our silence is making a powerful statement that what happened was alright. And it’s not. Our silence perpetuates white privilege. During the Civil Rights movement Martin Luther King, Jr. said “in the end, it is not the words of our enemies that we will remember, but the silence of our friends.”

I learned how whites don’t have to worry about whether educational opportunities will be available to them. I learned of a criminal justice system where there is a huge discrepancy in bail, charging and sentencing between whites and people of color, not to mention “driving while black.”

At the end of the service I realized how much those of us who are white just don’t know and have yet to learn about white privilege and what people of color live with every day in America. I learned again how much listening with an open heart matters. There was also a commitment to continue the dialogue on white privilege and racism – and that fills my heart with joy. I am grateful for this beloved community that welcomes me in all my brokenness and provides a safe space for these difficult conversations to take place, face to face, child of God, to child of God.

My hope is there can be more of these types of conversations on race and white privilege in our churches and communities across the country. Can we afford not to?




News Flash – Senators Don’t Make The Rules on Supreme Court Appointments

imageHow many of us have played board games with our young children or grandchildren and had them immediately change the rules when things didn’t go their way? It’s a teaching moment. A chance to share the importance of following the rules and being in relationship.

But how many of us expect that same childish response from our U. S. Senators who don’t like the rules? These are not the Candyland rules we’re talking about, but the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution explicitly provides it is the President’s responsibility to appoint justices to the Supreme Court. The Senate’s constitutional responsibility and role in the process is to advise and consent.

I wonder if the Republican Senators who have already said the current Democratic President should not fulfill his constitutional responsibility have forgotten the oath of office they each took to uphold and defend the Constitution.  That oath does not have a caveat that says “unless it’s the first black President who we have worked for 7 years to oppose.” That oath is the solemn obligation and promise each individual Senator  takes as an elected official to serve. Not serve Republicans. Not serve Democrats. But to serve their country . . . first.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell was adamant when President Bush, a Republican, was in office, that it was only the President who nominated Supreme Court justices. He’s now said he will not allow a vote on any Supreme Court nominee by President Obama, a Democrat. Politics? Or, a failure to perform his constitutionally mandated responsibility? Both.

Senator Marco Rubio has simply declared the President may certainly nominate someone to the highest court, but there will not be a vote. You see, Rubio believes the people need to have a voice in selecting the next justice and we should wait 340+ days until the next President (him?) is elected and can make the appointment.  But he’s conveniently forgotten the people already made their choice, actually twice.  They chose President Obama. Did I mention President Obama, in addition to being the first black president, is also the first president who is a constitutional scholar?

And in a wonderful irony, and with as much indignation as he could muster, Senator Rubio reminded us all how crucial it was to this great country that the next President (him?) choose the next Supreme Court justice, a justice cut from the same conservative cloth as the barely cold Justice Scalia. Yet the strict constructionist Justice Scalia would undoubtedly come down on the side of this sitting president having both the power and responsibility to do his constitutionally mandated duty – and appoint the next justice. I wonder if Senator Rubio is concerned that his busy presidential campaign schedule might keep him from being present to vote on President Obama’s nomination. He has struggled in the past to be present on Senate work days to, well, do his job and vote.

Senator Cruz is spouting the same nonsense as Senator Rubio, that this nominee will shape the laws for a generation and the people should have a say in the next nominee. Again, see above. Senator Cruz opined at a recent news conference that the 2014 Senate gains by Republicans showed how upset the people were with President Obama’s unconstitutional actions. “Elections  have consequences,” Cruz crowed. He’s right. One consequence of the 2012 presidential election is that President Obama appoints Supreme Court nominees. Period.

Perhaps these  U.S. Senators  and presidential wannabes should get to work figuring out questions for the next Supreme Court nominee so they can do their jobs and make an informed decision on the qualifications of the president’s nominee? That sounds like a lot of work for them. . . as well as their job.

I know Senator John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota. He recently came out with the same politically expedient excuse as Senators McConnell, Rubio and Cruz, for saying why he, too, was sure Senators need not follow the Constitution and that the Senate should not vote on any nominee put forward by our president. I served in the North Dakota State Senate for 4 years when now Senator Hoeven  was then Governor Hoeven. And while I rarely agreed with him, I respected his right as the Governor to do his job under the North Dakota Constitution. The office of Governor commanded and demanded such respect. My office as a Senator demanded that I do my job and also that I afforded him that respect, as our state’s Governor. I owed it to the people that elected me and the people of our state.

The office of President commands and demands an even greater respect. There are three branches of government, not just the legislative branch as many of our current Senators seem to forget. And if our Senators are not willing or able to give the presidency the respect it’s due, or honor their own oaths of office, they  do not deserve to serve in such a position of responsibility and trust. And it’s then on us, as Americans, to unelect them.

When I bumped into Senator Hoeven in downtown Fargo a couple years ago he enthusiastically greeted me, bought me a cup of coffee, and asked me what the issues were that people were concerned about. In all honesty, I appreciated being asked. I then told Senator Hoeven  I thought in many ways people now saw our  Congress like they see an alcoholic. After the Senator gave me a confused look, I then explained to him that things have to hit absolute rock bottom before an alcoholic can realize he or she needs to make changes in his or her life, to survive. And I told him I did not think Congress was quite yet at the bottom. The Senator immediately shared with me how he and a few other Senators were working diligently across party lines to try and make some changes to end that gridlock. We have seen how that has worked, or not worked.

Listening to Senator Hoeven now spew the same nonsense as his Senate party leader and colleagues, asserting the President should not nominate a justice and that America needs to wait until after the November 2016 election by the people, I can’t help but wonder if we might finally be near or at that bottom. I hope we’re close.  And, as a recovering alcoholic for the past 30+ years, I say that with all due respect to my fellow alcoholics.

As I write this blog, intending to inspire questions and solutions “outside the box,” the irony is not lost on me that thinking “outside the box” in this case – means nothing more than our Republican Senators simply doing the jobs they took an oath to perform, and letting our president do his job. And if they don’t? If they continue to thumb their noses at the Constitution, at their constituents, and all of us? Then what? What will Americans do? While my hope is we will do something,  history leads me to think we will likely do nothing. I’m betting Senators Rubio, Cruz and other Republican senators who are essentially refusing to do their jobs are thinking the same thing. And that failure to do something and act and unelect those Senators will be on us, the voters. We need to demand more from our Senators and ourselves.

Armchair  theologian and well known writer Anne LaMott has come to a place in her life where she tries to follow two simple rules. The first rule is to follow the rules. The second rule is don’t be an asshole. Do you think these Republican Senators will be able to move beyond the smallness and to a station worthy of their stature as Senators and statespersons – where they are actually able to  follow these two simple rules?

I hope so.

The Politics of Fear. . . Continues

image“Supposing  a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it,” Piglet said. “Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh, after careful thought.

In an America full of Piglets, are we able to be Pooh?

We are constantly bombarded with messages that we need to be afraid – of Muslims, immigrants, refugees, ISIS, terrorism and more. We’re told to be safe we need to isolate ourselves even more from the rest of the world. We’re told we need to fear Syrian refugees and keep them out because they may be terrorists. We’re told building walls on borders will keep us safe.  We’re told “carpetbombing” ISIS will alleviate our fear. But following such a fear driven path means moving away from who America has historically held itself out to be –  a welcoming country of immigrants and a beacon of hope and opportunity to the rest of the world.

There’s no denying that America was changed forever after the September 11, 2001, attack that killed thousands of Americans on American soil. We will never forget the pictures of the mayhem. Rage, fear, anxiety,  and sorrow gripped our country. We could no longer fully believe President Roosevelt’s WWII declaration that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. Because this new paradigm was now on our soil, close to all of us and our loved ones. And now we knew, first hand, how most the rest of the world lived, every day.

America’s initial immediate response was swift, passage of the USA Patriot Act- an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” And while it gave far reaching new powers to the FBI and intelligence communities, it also served to eliminate checks and balances that had given courts necessary opportunities to be sure there was not an abuse of those powers. We entered into two wars on misinformation and lies and the toll in blood and treasure is still seen every day in this country by our brave veterans and their families and the billions of dollars in debt incurred by putting it all on credit. The price we pay for safety . . .or the cost of fear?

America continues to be afraid yet today. America’s exceptionalism has been paralyzed by our fear.  The amount spent on defense spending in our country is unparalleled in the world and takes needed resources from valuable undertakings consistent with what we tout as American values. We are afraid of the unknown and what might be. . . and even what likely will not be. We allow the demonization of groups of people who are different than the white men who make the rules. Research reveals America will soon be made up of people who look much different than we do now. Those in power, and used to making the rules, are afraid of losing their power, so they sell fear of those who look different than they do.  Why can’t Americans seem to be able to refuse to buy?

Look at the response of other countries to the recent challenges of fear. Germany has welcomed almost a million refugees in less than a year. Watch Angela Merkel’s New Year message to Germans and you will see what it looks like to be a humane, compassionate leader and not a captive to fear. Such  leadership does not come without pushback. The French continue to take refugees, even after the recent mass shootings. Canada, our neighbor to the north, has taken a neighborly and invitational approach to accepting refugees that serves as a stark contrast to America’s fear based response. And there are other examples on the world stage. There are ways to choose to move forward and not be paralyzed by fear.

My wife is currently engaged in a program of study led by Margaret Wheatley, called Warriors of the Human Spirit. The program involves helping people develop tools to go out into the world and participate in change processes, detached from outcome, and free from fear and our own ego. One interesting observation she shared from that process has been that as we are constantly inundated through technology with overwhelming amounts of information about all the bad stuff happening in our world, we are simply unable emotionally to filter it in a healthy way. We are so enmeshed in technology that our human relationships and communities of support are being sacrificed. We no longer regularly invest in meaningful face to face conversations that we have historically relied upon to be sources of emotional support and grounding to enable us to navigate this fear.

While I’m certainly not denying bad stuff happens in this world, the immediacy of our access to it post 9-11, coupled with the intensity of that access/delivery seems to foster and magnify many people’s fears. Be afraid, 24/7.

My understanding is that the Bible tells people approximately 365 times not to be afraid. That’s once for every day of the year.  I wonder what presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both who regularly tout the need to be afraid and their Chrisian faith, would say to that.

So can we be . . . more like Pooh? Doing that in real time is significantly more challenging than hitting the television remote for a 30 second sound bite, or scrolling social media on our phones that we have with us every waking moment of the day (so we don’t miss something).

I have learned that we really control very little in this world. In many ways, that’s quite freeing. But we do get to choose our reaction and response to what happens in the world around us. Being intentional about how much and when we interact with technology may help us to be less afraid.  Talking to friends and community for emotional support and to get a reality check may also help.

Being afraid all the time is exhausting. It’s unsustainable and prevents us from being our best selves – and our best America. Perhaps  more of us should intentionally choose not to live in fear anymore. Think of the possibilities.






The Church, Racism, and the Messiness of Being Truly Engaged

imageAs a lifelong Lutheran and person of faith I seem to have more questions than answers these days.  That includes racism. The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), correctly points out in her June 18, 2015, letter addressing racism that “[w]e need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act.” She points out that each of us needs to speak out against inequity and look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways our communities see people of color as being of less worth.

But how do we do this stuff in real life? The most recent data that I am familiar with puts the ELCA at approximately 96% white. My understanding is the ELCA goal has been to increase the percentage of people of color to 10%. Admittedly, we have left this undone. And while success is certainly not all about numbers, do we, yet again, merely express our continued dissatisfaction with this result and pledge to somehow redouble our efforts to improve in the future?   But then what does doing that actually look like?

Maybe it looks like the ELCA asking hard and painful questions of its own practices, questions that may make us uncomfortable not knowing where those answers might lead. Why don’t white members attend churches with black pastors? Do people of color working for the ELCA have safe spaces within the church to offer their honest opinion on why this is where we find ourselves and how it might change? And if they do not have those safe spaces, why not? Are those of us long time white Lutherans willing to relinquish our seats on boards and councils and decision making bodies of the ELCA so that we can have people of color at the table? If not, why not? Will we step up and financially support clergy of color who are serving in poor neighborhoods so they are not forced to continue working part time and can earn enough to support their families?

Perhaps we as the ELCA need to ask for forgiveness from people of color for what we have done and what we have left undone. We continue to live in a society where we, as people of white privilege, are conspirators, knowingly or unknowingly, in advancing systems that foster systemic racism. The church is a part of the systemic problem, yet it is uniquely poised to help with the healing and hard work required to move forward. As both sinner and saint, called to do justice, can we be Christ like as generous listeners and learners without offering hollow excuses or justifications – even when it threatens our own white privilege?

Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu, have written a thoughtful book on forgiveness titled “The Book of Forgiving – The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World.” The book is written for those who need forgiveness, whether they want to forgive or be forgiven. I’ll boldly suggest that this includes all of us. The fourfold path starts with telling the story. We begin by letting the truth be heard in all its rawness, ugliness and messiness. The Tutus talk of putting the pieces back together when you tell your story “one hesitant memory at a time.”

The second part of the path is naming the hurt. This means giving the emotion a name that is a way to understand how what happened has affected us. Naming the hurt is “how we begin to heal our broken parts.”

The last two steps encompass the granting of forgiveness and the conscious decision to either renew or release the relationship. When we are truly able to let down our defenses and look honestly at our actions, theTutus write “that it is then that we have a great freedom in asking forgiveness and a great strength in admitting the wrong.” “I am sorry” may well be the hardest three words to say.

As Lutherans,  we are called to do justice and are saved by grace. The “doing” in today’s world means traveling outside the comfortable box we’ve been living in for so long. Perhaps we begin by offering worship services of listening and lament, so that stories of the sinfulness of racism can be told by our brothers and sisters of color, in their own words or anonymously, and with all their rawness, ugliness and messiness. Maybe then, and only then, might a service of forgiveness be truly possible.

As a practical matter, before any of these things can happen, we as white members of the ELCA need to be curious and ask people of color how we can act in meaningful and intentional ways that show our desire to be in real relationship. This means first being willing to be uncomfortable as Lutherans so that others might be comfortable.

Following Jesus. . . it’s messy.