White Fog

CN: Racial Terrorism

Say their names.” Yes, world, say their names. Rage against the injustice. Celebrate who they were. And mourn all the gardens they will never tend, the phone calls with parents they will never make, the paintings they will never paint, the runs they will never take in the gorgeous spring air, the babies they will never cuddle. It’s so important to lift them up, and to give THEM attention, instead of their killers, to recognize that they had a life that was more than the label “victim,” that one of the cruelest parts of racial terror is the way it steals the individuality of these individuals.

But let me talk to my white friends a minute:

While our black neighbors relive this never-ending monotonous generational trauma which is, by definition, a kind of hell, we need to say some different names among ourselves.

Because Gregory and Travis McMichael believed—and still believe—they can get away with it. Because George Zimmerman did. Because Amber Guyger did. Because Daniel Pantaleo did.

George Zimmerman chased and picked a fight with a teenager who went out his door to buy Skittles. When George Zimmerman started losing the fight that George Zimmerman instigated, he used his gun, because the law told him he could. He killed a teenager. A boy. My son’s age. We need to say the murderer’s name: George Zimmerman. He’s still among us. Free.

So I put Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael and George Zimmerman together. I put their names in the list with Amber Guyger, who may or may not have been cognizant when she killed her neighbor. So Travis and Gregory and George and Amber. I put their names in the list with Daniel Pantaleo, who choked a man to death while he begged for his life on a New York sidewalk. Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael and George Zimmerman and Amber Guyger and Daniel Pantaleo.

I started trying to make a list of killers, of dream-destroyers, of people who robbed the world of gardeners and painters and teachers and children and siblings and parents.  I started making a list of people who think of themselves as moral, upstanding individuals, who killed because the law said they could, who said “oops” afterwards and got forgiveness, or something deceptively like it, because it’s perfectly understandable to white people when a white person kills a black person out of fear.

But when I got to the unknown killers who killed Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray, I realized there are so many killers whose names we will never know, because there is no video. And would video be enough, even if we had it? We don’t know the names of the gloaters and mockers and normal white people in the black-and-white photographs of public lynchings from decades past. Time and intentional forgetfulness have erased their names.

Our white history teaches that there are two ways to get away with lynching: hide your motivation, or hide your identity. You can even hide in public if you hide in a crowd, like in the lynching photographs. It’s what Gregory and Travis are hoping to do: hide in the crowd. They believe a white crowd will protect them. They may still be right.

Sometimes we allow newspaper headlines to hide identities with passive voice: “Suspected burglar slain,” as though someone didn’t hold the gun and pull the trigger, as though the suspicions were just floating through the air and not in some particular brain in some particular white man’s head, as though it’s nobody’s fault that the implicit bias in his head resulted in pressure on his finger, pressure which was transferred to a trigger.

Sometimes we allow legislators to hide the motivations of vigilantes with the laws they write. “Stand your ground” is one such example, because all you need to commit a lynching murder is 1) a gun and 2) fear. They have even written laws to excuse vigilante motorists for killing protesters with their cars. (While the law did not protect James Alex Fields, he was enabled by these legislators when he mowed down Heather Heyer. She was white. I hate to think that if she had not been, he would have had a greater chance of going free.)

Occasionally someone will be brought to something approximating justice, like Dylan Roof, but those names are the “bad apples” among the white crowd that allow us to make the fine distinction between murderers and vigilantes, between the those who wear hoods and those of whom it is said there are “good people on both sides.” The main difference between murderers and vigilantes is that the latter are convinced, when they put their hands on a gun, they can take for themselves the righteous authority to kill another human being, and that they will be excused by a white crowd.

I am sick of white murderers pretending they are Batman, that they can vanish in smoke, blending into a white fog of misunderstood intentions, of headlines that erase their identity, of well-meaning we-don’t-know-what-was-in-his-heart-and-we-are-all-sinners-so-we-should-forgive Christianese. I am sick of them being able to hide behind the well-crafted language of legislators, of racist stand-your-ground laws, of anti-protest laws, written by the same hands that gerrymander voting districts.

I am tired, as a white man, of having to see myself in these damned lynching photographs, because so many of my white neighbors want to hide behind our shared whiteness. The word “damned” seems tame and cliché, because these photographs really do seem like snapshots of hell, a moment of gleeful hatred and terror preserved for eternity. The identities are erased, even though their faces are preserved. What seeps out of those photographs is whiteness in all its poisonous anonymity, this breathtaking confidence that the white crowd protects them, that they can hide in a white fog.

No. I am going to write down the names of the killers. I am going to say them out loud and remind white people about them. I am going to tell what I saw: You put holes in a human being and poured human blood on the ground. You choked the life out of a divine soul. You broke the neck of a child of God. You hanged a woman for being uppity. Then you hid the evidence, you excused your intentions, you made it look like a suicide, and you tried to disappear into the crowd.

And you tried to make me an accessory to your crime by relying on my whiteness to protect you.

Cain, Cain, the Lord is walking in the garden, calling for you. Your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground. I will not allow you to hide within a white fog. I will not be a silent onlooker in your lynching photograph.

Time for a New Religion

Hey, American Christians! Time for a new religion.

Christianity hasn’t made you more loving, or generous, or less violent and militaristic. Your scriptures say that God loved the world so much that God gave God’s only son, but you don’t love the world enough to even slow your economy in the face of pandemic or environmental collapse. So obviously, preaching Christianity from American pulpits hasn’t worked for y’all.

So let’s try a different religion. In this one, your immortal soul doesn’t go to heaven or hell. It time-travels and goes into the person who, during your life, you most treated like shit. Your reward, or punishment, is that you get to live their life. Punched someone in the face? You’ll feel it. Spread life-ruining gossip? You’ll feel that, too.

Suffering is inevitable for everyone, of course, but whatever suffering you manufactured for others will be visited upon you.

Of course, you’ll get their joys, too. And maybe you’ll have a chance to learn a lesson and develop more kindness, or maybe the lesson will simply make you more bitter and evil. It’s really up to you.

And here’s the kicker: depending on the size of your effect—say, you created or influenced public policy—you may actually wind up living multiple lives. If, for example, you were a ruthless dictator who killed thousands or millions of people, your reward is that you get to live every single one of their lives. You’ll get their joys, of course, but also millions of dashed dreams, millions of unimaginable griefs, just unbelievable pain. If you were a billionaire whose lobbyists pushed millions into poverty, you get to live ALL of their lives. You’ll get to feel what it’s like to have too much month left at the end of the paycheck. You’ll feel the rage and sadness of watching loved ones die because they can’t afford preventive healthcare. You’ll feel the trauma of racial disparities and other systemic injustices.

What happens to you when you die? You get to walk in the shoes of the people you hurt.

As a matter of fact, it’s silly to say “you’ll get to” live their lives. It’s already happening, because of time travel. See? The pain you inflict upon them is the same pain you are inflicting on yourself now. You just don’t know it yet. You may not even know it then, in the future-present. It depends on how spiritually stupid you insist on being.

You can erase some of this, of course, with your good deeds. And it may be that after you live the lives of people you hurt, you’ll get to live the lives of people you helped. There may be a reward, many lifetimes from now. But I suspect that in this new religion, we’ll need to keep that a far-off hope, because American Christianity has demonstrated it has a far greater affinity for hell and threats of punishment than for heaven. We seem to prefer a theology of deserving to a theology of grace. That’s why I think this new framework will be perfect for us.

And if you’re following the logic of this transmigration of souls, you begin to realize that we’re not actually separate souls. We’re all the same life, which makes it vitally important that we care for each other and the earth while we have the chance. You may have eternity to work it out, but there is an urgency to it—in part because our species won’t live forever, either, especially on our present trajectory. We can’t wait to fix our behavior and our attitudes until tomorrow, because tomorrow is already now.

American Christians, some of you may realize this sounds a lot like Hinduism. And, for the record, India is certainly having their own problems with selfishness, hatred, and terrible social policy right now. But maybe it’s time to try living our private lives (and adopting social policies) that take karma seriously.

You know, like “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Because those aren’t just hypothetical statements spouted by some random messiah. And your current leaders who are loudest in claiming allegiance to him while doing harm are liars. Or, as he said, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

So it’s time to re-evaluate. It’s time you tried out a different religion. Or no religion at all.

And if this sounds like blasphemy to you, then you never knew Jesus Christ.

(Matthew 7:21-23, Luke 6:46-49, Matthew 25:41-46)

If they actually cared about abortion…

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If Alabama politicians and preachers really cared about preventing abortion, we’d have comprehensive, medically accurate sex education in schools. This new bill criminalizing abortion is entirely about controlling sexual behavior and taking away bodily autonomy.

A few years ago, some conservative clergy proposed a resolution in our local denominational body about defunding Planned Parenthood. The resolution was tabled until we could talk through it. I offered to meet with its authors to see if we could craft a resolution we could agree on.

None of them showed up for the first meeting.

Since they chose not to participate, those of us who did show up kept the goal of the original resolution—reducing or preventing abortion—but chose to focus on a policy that actually applied to our state: comprehensive, medically-accurate sex education in schools.

That got their attention. They showed up to the second meeting to oppose this change. They would not even consider a resolution that included comprehensive sex education. Abstinence was the only choice. The only compromise we reached was withdrawing the resolution.

I asked if any of the authors had met with the people at Planned Parenthood whose jobs they were trying to defund. They had not. I offered to facilitate a meeting between representatives of Planned Parenthood and the clergy who drafted the resolution. They declined.

I don’t know how they could have made it any clearer: They didn’t care about preventing abortion. Nor did they care about even hearing from the other side.

Alabama politicians likewise have made their goals and values clear: In addition to rejecting exceptions in cases of rape or incest, they are entertaining a bill which makes false accusation of rape a felony. This is intended to intimidate women in light of the #metoo movement. All of these policies taken together are about subjugating women.

I support the right to an abortion, and see religious justification for restricting that right as a failure of empathy and imagination. Ethics requires us to imagine situations in which we have to apply our norms or policies—to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” If we create a rule or law, we have to imagine what it would be like to be subject to it.

I believe there are people of good faith who disagree with me about public policy, and are sincere in their desire to reduce or prevent abortion. I just haven’t met many yet.

On “Zero Tolerance”

“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.