So on Saturday, I’m at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice with a couple of other families. My friend’s six-year-old child asks me to read one of the placards to him. It’s about lynching.
There are some big words, and if I read them he starts getting bored, so I choose to paraphrase—very carefully, aware that there is also an audience of adults listening in to a white man talking to a black child about lynching. I’m trying to summarize without sanitizing. I explain that black men and women were being executed by white crowds for made-up reasons. He asks,
“You mean like Jesus?”
Through tears, I said, yes, like Jesus. It was like James Cone was standing over there, nodding.
Deuteronomy 24:6 forbids taking “an upper millstone” in pledge for a debt. The idea is that taking away someone’s ability to make money, to trap them in a deepening cycle of poverty, is immoral. Both states and private businesses (especially payday lenders) collude to make money off the most powerless: the poor. This court victory in Tennessee, which restores driver’s licenses to those who have had them revoked for being too poor to pay fines, is a huge win, and it illustrates the importance of the federal judiciary, from top to bottom.
If George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, and P.D. James were drinking coffee and brainstorming what kind of evil paperwork people would forced to fill out in one of their dystopias, this is what they would come up with.
“Zero tolerance.” Let’s talk about that concept a minute. What does that actually mean?
Does it mean denying due process? Setting bail so high for a misdemeanor that you can’t pay, so that you’d plead guilty in order to get out and keep your job? Because that’s what has happened to countless poor people.
Instead of cash bail, this administration has decided to use family separation in the same way: coercing folks to plead guilty rather than being separated from their kids.
Also: recognize this is what the cash bail system does to poor people all the time: it holds families hostage. If someone is not dangerous, and flight is not a serious risk, they should not be kept in jail. People plead guilty on a regular basis in order to avoid losing their jobs, homes, and kids.
“Zero tolerance” is a myth. We all want due process. That’s why we have courts in the first place: because circumstances matter.
• I always looked forward to being on the color guard in Boy Scouts. Learning the flag code and participating in ceremonies with the scouts made me aware that we were part of a bigger American story, even if we were just kids playing steal the bacon and learning how to cook over a fire.
• One of my favorite memories of South Korea was encountering an elderly man on the subway, who asked us, “American?” We said yes, and he spent the rest of the trip smiling and nodding at us. When we reached our destination, he stood up with tears in his eyes, took an American-flag handkerchief out of his pocket and waved it to us, saying, “Good-bye, friends!” It occurred to us that he had probably lived through the devastation of the Korean War, and was still grateful that he was not in a prison camp. The flag meant something to him.
• In the present controversy over kneeling during the anthem in protest, people often claim that this behavior is disrespectful to the military and veterans. This is a red herring. The American flag is not only the flag of the military—it is the flag of the whole United States. It is the flag of women suffragists no less than the Army, and the flag of Japanese internment camp survivors no less than the Air Force. That’s the thing about the flag—nobody gets to own it, because we all own it. This country is run by its people, not a junta. The sacrifice and suffering of soldiers does not trump the sacrifice and suffering of black men lynched for having the courage to register to vote. It is not elevated to some higher or more sacred platform than the brave sacrifice of ordinary citizens whose homes were bombed for protesting injustice.
• The Armed Forces of the United States of America is not a priesthood, though it is often elevated to that position by chickenhawk civilians. While the military (and its various branches) has its own culture, codes, and customs, its purpose is to serve the nation—not the other way around. The veterans I know from every branch who have served proudly are deeply philosophical about their service. They know their colleagues and the people they command(ed) are human beings—siblings, parents, children—who all have hopes and dreams. They are from all different economic levels, races, and backgrounds, and all have their own struggles. The leaders among them think strategically and understand the value of diversity, the importance of outcome-based measurement, how to set clear goals, and how to discern leadership potential. They also understand that life is complicated. They are not politically homogenous. They are people I am proud to know.
• The flag, and the nation it represents, is far younger than slavery, which existed in this land before our nation did, and the effects of which continue to be ignored, redacted, and downplayed by many white Americans. Citizens owe nothing to the flag that they do not also owe to their ancestors. Again, without slaves, Native Americans, women suffragists, civil rights protesters, abolitionists, immigrants, and organizers, there is no American history, and the flag stands for nothing worth respecting. If one does not know something of this history, one does not know the flag, and any gestures toward this multivalent symbol are worthless.
• MLK repeatedly made the point that protest is not palatable to people in power or to those comfortable with the status quo. He pointed out that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the early Christians were protesters who faced public shaming and death. The people who threw Christians and Jews to the lions also claimed that these people were trouble-makers, ungrateful to Rome (or Babylon), disrespectful, and generally individuals of low moral character. People who protest would not have to protest if everyone agreed with them!
• Nobody’s inferences of disrespect get to have more weight in the public moral universe than someone else’s clearly stated purposes for their actions. Continuing to claim that kneeling is “disrespectful” is an arbitrary judgment. Actions have many meanings: for example, according to the flag code, burning the flag is an acceptable way to dispose of a damaged flag; burning at a protest has a different meaning. If someone chooses to be offended by the proper burning of the flag, or by kneeling at its display, I suppose that is their business. Technically, you are not supposed to applaud at the end of the national anthem, but people do anyway. Nobody storms out of the stadium because people have shown disrespect by applauding. The meaning you attribute to someone else’s behavior is really more about you than about them.
• The commodification of the flag, its use as a bumper sticker, and its appropriation by white nationalists bothers me far more than professional athletes kneeling in front of it. Just as it grieves me that the language of my faith has been appropriated by people like Roy Moore to justify bigotry, it grieves me that the flag has been appropriated by people for the purpose of silencing protest and advancing white supremacy. Those who take the cross and flag as symbols for their tribalism have missed the point of each, and created a national religion that is more about the worship of Molech and Baal than of the God of Jesus Christ, and a patriotism that is more about white supremacy than about civic engagement or support for our shared values.
The museums of Egypt are not like the museums here. Here, there is so much empty space and clean lines.
In Egypt, giant statues are packed so close together you wonder how the building can hold them all. Four- and five-thousand year-old artifacts are stacked nearly on top of each other. Gods, kings, and queens stare down at you from impressive heights. The weight of history feels overwhelming.
I wonder: “What would it have been like to be a Hebrew slave, looking up at these images?”
Biblical history and archeological history have some fuzziness regarding this point, but humor me for a minute. Imagine being surrounded by these gods and kings all the time and being reminded of your second class status. The gods, you see, look like Pharaoh—not you. The gods put Pharaoh in charge. You? Your life doesn’t matter.
When those Hebrew slaves escaped Egypt, they made their way to Mount Sinai, the story goes, and God told them, “Don’t make any images of gods. I don’t need your statuary.”
Why didn’t the Hebrew God need statues? God didn’t want to be tied to the political leaders. God didn’t want to be remade in the image of the ruling class. After all, according to the Hebrew story, all human beings—regardless of gender—were made in the image of God. Therefore, if you want to see God, look at your neighbor.
It was radically egalitarian. That’s the ethic of people who know the bitterness of oppression and the sweetness of freedom.
In spite of what white supremacists, neo-Nazis, modern would-be-confederates and their enablers say, most public statues are not and have never been about “history.” They are expressions of power and the propagation of myth. It can be a myth about history, sure. But it ain’t history. That’s why Pharaohs had a tendency to tear down old ones and put up new ones of themselves. Roman Emperors had a similar approach.
Outside the Jefferson County Courthouse, there is a memorial to fallen police officers. It is a statue of a fallen gladiator.
Let that sink in a moment. It is not a statue of a police officer. It is not a statue of Blind Justice (which would be far more appropriate). It’s a gladiator. What history is it teaching? What does it say about criminal justice?
Downtown, there is a Confederate Memorial. You do not see groups of school children gather around it to learn history. It has no teaching function. And this year, the Alabama legislature imposed a penalty if our city decides to take it down. What lesson is it intended to teach?
This is not about history. This is about power. Specifically, white power, and the power of the majority-white state legislature to tell cities what they cannot do. It is the power of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, the goal of which its architects explicitly said was to “establish white supremacy in this state.” It is an idol to a Southern myth that there was something noble and virtuous about the Civil War, that “defending our way of life” or “defending states rights” meant something other than championing white supremacy and devaluing black lives.
These statues and memorials are monuments to Pharaoh and Caesar. They are monuments to the divine right of white supremacy.
“So take them down and put them in a museum,” some people say. Fine. Let them gather dust somewhere, along with the other idols to petty tyrant gods and egocentric rulers. Let children on field trips pass by them and wonder what spiritual power they had over those who created it. Or let the statues be melted down and made into liberty bells, and let the history be taught to children by well-compensated teachers in well-funded schools.
And let those children know that they are made in God’s image, and that no Pharaoh or Caesar can take their freedom from them.
Important words from a follower of Jesus.
If you’ve got a problem with this title, take it up with Jesus. He said salt that has lost its flavor isn’t fit for the soil or the manure pile (Luke 14:34-35). Maybe that doesn’t strike you as offensive. Maybe you are mindful of the wonderfully fertile qualities of shit. People refer to worm shit (“castings”) as “gardener’s gold.” Chicken and cow poo is good, too. But salt without flavor is mostly good for killing things. Even shit has redeeming qualities.
When Karen Handel says her faith “leads her to a different place” on gay adoption, I’m not playing with this toxic manure. Faith that leads you to prevent gay parents from adopting does not bring life. You aren’t “saving” kids from becoming gay, or increasing the probability of them having healthy childhoods, or reducing the suicide rate of LGBTQ youth. Quite the opposite. It isn’t spreading the Good News. You’re doing harm in the name of Jesus, and that’s some serious bullshit. Not the good kind.
And don’t give me this hypocritical tone-policing humbug that has a problem with the word “bullshit” either. I’ve got LGBTQ friends and church members who have adopted kids, and straight parents who have adopted LGBTQ kids. This is not a difference of opinion. This is an attack on people I love. There are much, much stronger words that are appropriate, but they can articulate them better than I.
Mixing your flavorless faith with bullshit doesn’t make it worthy of our community garden. You and Roy Moore can keep that manure in your own yard. I don’t need the stink.
For further reading:
On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt