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Doing the Work, Part 1

You can’t get there from here. That’s what I think about this academic stuff.

It only goes so far, and then it runs out, like an asphalt road built along the surf line. The ocean does not work with asphalt roads. You need a boat, a tree or something that will float. You need your body, your arms and the motion they make against the waves, pushing you along, a little speck in a great sea. Don’t be afraid. All things that are wild have your heart at the core. 

I began this work because I wanted to heal myself and my people. My people (white people, German people) created this system of injustice and I need to do my part to destroy what we built, what we keep on building.

But how do I destroy this system, the house that I’m living in, the one that shelters and protects me? I must be a lunatic.

I fight with my ancestors at night when I’m lying in bed not sleeping. “Be quiet,” they say. Then louder: “SHUT UP. HOR AUF.” But I can’t stop. How can I?

I’ve seen the pictures: people, parents and children, their bodies stacked like firewood, naked and ashen. This is mine to fix. (It is yours, too.)

“Not our problem,” some of my ancestors hiss. They left their country. When war changed the borders, they moved on.

What kind of fiction do we have to invent to make this history okay?

A big BIG story. An underbrush, a thicket, each lie overlapping lie.

My ancestors came to this continent, carried inside my father, but they didn’t know about me yet. I am what came next. I feel it here in this country, in the forest by the ocean that looks like our old home. All the people whose land this is, they talk to me.

Maybe I wouldn’t be able to hear them if the forests weren’t clear cut. But I do hear them, at night when I am arguing with my ancestors. They whisper: “You don’t belong here. Be useful or go away.” Some of them are angry. Some are gentle. Some look at me like they know who I am.

Where does it come from, this need to make it right?

I have to make it better for myself.

I can’t live here anymore, in this house I’m trying to destroy. I know it has stout, wide-timbered walls, but it is not my home. Yet it is SO big. Where can I live where I am not under its roof?

I go small and I gather friends. I am part of the resistance.

And there is a bigger part of our life, one I know…even though no one has told me it’s true:

Our Mama God, Mother of the Cosmos, is bigger than this house, this roof we’re living under. Nothing the germans (or english or french or spanish or dutch…), nothing any of us could make, even hundreds of years old, is bigger than the

BODY OF OUR MOTHER.

You can’t contain her.

She will hold us all, she will shelter us, when the house finally comes down.

Look…a hole in the roof! I can see the stars. LOOK! There’s proof.

None of it is hopeless.

All of it is worthwhile.

Don’t stop.

Don’t be quiet.

Step up, speak out, keep moving.

This is the first half of a meditation I wrote recently while struggling through my thesis on white religious racism. I am trying to find a vision for what sustains me to do my work for racial justice.


What Color is Your God?

What color is your God? I envy my friends their relationship with rocks and rivers, ocean and trees. God for me will always wear a human face: Our Lady, blessed mother of the world, and Jesus.

I’m knee-deep in a thesis for my master’s degree about racism and White Christianity. Womanist scholar Mukti Barton writes that while feminists have asked if a male God can save women, white people have yet to ask:

Can a black God save white people?

Because regardless of what you believe about whether Jesus was divine, as a historical flesh-and-blood man, Jesus wasn’t white. Some scholars even point to our use of “Middle East” as a convenient way of avoiding the reality that Jesus came from a peninsula in eastern AFRICA. Jesus is from Africa, people. Jesus is a black man.

I’m trying to write about this and feeling stuck, because I know exactly how my body feels about Jesus as a black man.

I’m afraid of him. I’m a white woman, raised to be afraid of black men. Kelly Brown Douglas has a brilliant book in which she explains that to demonize a people you first have to sexualize them. My nervousness around black men is rooted in the lynchings in the American South. To imagine a black man saving me has an edge of erotic danger. Racism alive and well in my white female body.

I can look this in the face without becoming overwhelmed by guilt because I remember that I did not invent this. I carry it, name it, and resist it.

I’ve been invested, in this blog, in looking at the costs of racism to me as a white woman. Not to minimize the costs of racism to people of color, but to find motivation for me to resist and call my people, white people, to resistance.

One cost of racism is that we white Christians have made God in our image. Malcolm X told us long ago that white Christians aren’t worshiping God, we are worshiping whiteness. We’re worshiping ourselves.

I definitely don’t mean to suggest some romanticized ideal where black people rescue white people from white racism. (And there’s a whole other correlation between the crucifixion of a black Jesus and lynching of black men in the American South…I’ll write more on that later.) We need to do our own work.

I think we can start with refusing to display a white baby Jesus in our nativity sets. And as naive as it sounds, I think we  white people have to confess our racism as sin and commit ourselves to a new relationship with a new God….one that perhaps has yet to be revealed in our hearts and lives as white people.


Changing the Story

I’m a coward. Tonight’s class was full of cultural appropriation, racism and silencing. I said something, but not enough, and I drove home thinking of all the things I could have said if I’d been clever, clear-witted and focused instead of angry, hurt and sad.

Theatre of the Oppressed gives the audience a chance to re-write a real-life example of oppression and do it over. The rules are that you don’t get to change the person being an oppressor (because that would be easy) and you don’t get to change the person being oppressed. All you can change are the bystanders, the allies. That would be me, the silent white girl who says too little too late, there at the edge of the room by the door.

So here is the real-life scene as it occurred just hours ago, along with the interventions I thought of in the car on my ride home. (STOP! indicates an intervention I could have said.)

Setting: Classroom at Marylhurst University. 11 White students, 1 Native American student, 1 White teacher.

Terry, white lady from Sisters Oregon: So for my presentation I am going to play a fun game that will show us how stories in oral tradition get changed over time. First we have to send two of our tribe members outside the room. Then I’m going to be the elder and tell you our creation story. This story comes from the Quinault Indians.

STOP! Wait, so we’re pretending to be Quinault Indians, is that right? Wow, that’s offensive. I’m not going to “play Indian.” I’ll wait outside. Let me know when you’re done.

Terry: (reads her ‘creation story’ from a sheet of paper) Okay, so now that I’ve told you our creation story, let’s call the tribe members back. Now one person tell the tribe member our story from memory. You get the idea — it’s a lot like Telephone.

STOP! Wait, Telephone…you mean the child’s game where you whisper a nonsensical sentence down a line of people to see how messed-up and incomprehensible it becomes by the end? I don’t want to disrespect another culture’s sacred story by treating it as a game. Does anyone else think this is disrespectful?

Terry: Wow, that’s funny. Isn’t it funny? [many people were in fact laughing] Grey Eagle. Ha! It was Great Eagle. And the daughter didn’t have a name, you added that. See how the story changed? This is just like how Christianity was spread in Rome by the early Christians. A merchant told his wife who told her neighbors who told…

Me: Oral tradition isn’t telephone. It is a sacred practice in which stories are held by the storykeepers and passed on to those who must learn them precisely and carry them. I don’t think you can compare a sacred story from a Native American culture with word-of-mouth gossip.

Terry: Well I had to use a Native story. I couldn’t use a story from the Bible because you would all know it.

STOP! I don’t think everyone knows bible stories. Not everyone in this class is Jewish or Christian. An indigenous creation story is just as sacred as the biblical texts and should be treated with respect. Could you have made up a story?

(end scene)

Writing this, I realize that I’m changing the story to make myself feel better. Re-writing it now doesn’t remove the pain of this experience for my friend who sat there while the culture of her people was mocked and trivialized. But I want to re-write the story. I want to do theatre and absolve myself. Play the game. How am I any different?

The idea with Theatre of the Oppressed is that you get to role play the scene over and over until you come up with strong interventions that short-circuit oppression and open understanding.

But a sacred story isn’t a commodity, a trinket, a souvenir.

And surviving oppression isn’t a game, a play-acting script, make-believe.

Only my whiteness lets me see it that way. That’s what I learned from class tonight.


Body Truth-Telling & Tenderness

Three weeks ago I hurt my back. It has been hard to walk, to sit, to write. I stumbled around and stopped writing, and when I finally picked up my pen again, I wrote this:

There are many types of offerings in the world’s religions. Some people leave cups of grain or lentils, made into stew, flowers or rice or coins, creased dollar bills or slips of paper with ‘please’ written in pencil and ‘thank you’ written in ink. Some people sing or dance or feed the hungry.

I tell the truth. That is my offering. Here is a story that cannot be proven:

But I can’t tell you that story. Not yet. I can barely hold it. Every time I think of the story I shake, my stomach rises in a wave of sickness, my lip trembles, my eyes fill. I feel crazy and I should know from crazy. I should know.

While I’m holding this story, I’m also working on a project for school on homosexuality and the church. I forgot how it feels to be called an abomination. objectively. morally. disordered.  I’ve been living insulated, passing for safe.

But my body knows. All the stories my body carries and want-needs to tell.    Not yet, not yet.    Shhhhhhhhh.

So while my brave writer friends keep their pens moving, I stop. I make tea. I watch the rain. I rock a little. I remember my pen is not the enemy. My body did not invent the stories. I am not alone.

Pema Chodron says: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” She says: “When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way.”

So I am praying for tenderness. I am old enough to know the story my body knows will not destroy me. I am praying for tenderness. So that when I do speak that story, I will not punish myself for talking. For telling the truth.

 


Everydayness & G*d-in-Everybody

I had the honor of sharing coffee and conversation today with my dear friend Rev. Melissa Bennett and new friend Dr. Dapo Sobomehin. We talked for a long time. We talked about isolation and the lack of accountability, how white and brown and black people are afraid of one another, how white people think and act like we’re better than other people, how people of all colors often forget that the person in the other shade of skin is a human being. We talked about war and poverty and education and violence and community.

And we talked a lot, a whole lot, about God france achat viagra. Dr. Dapo quoted a lot of scripture. He said the word J—- out loud so everyone could hear. [Wait, don’t quit reading yet! Bear with me.]  This is not a normal part of my everyday experience. The J word has been a weapon of violence against people who I deeply love, from individual friends to my larger queer community. I use that word with extreme caution.

It made me realize that while I’m nervous talking about race, I am terrified talking about You-Know-Who. I’m hyper-aware of the ways my protestant christian privilege goes hand-in-hand with my white privilege and systems of oppression. (The conquistadors, the slaveowners, the boarding school missionaries, the nazis, Matthew Shepard’s murderers — all christians.)

But I realized today that I need to talk about spiritual stuff if I am going to do activist work. (Fortunately I have lots of words for the Holy that don’t make other people twitch or reach for their coats.) I can’t do this work of authentic connection, this work of open-hearted listening, of taking responsibility, owning my mistakes, being present, and keeping hope without my spiritual life. Because I am limited by my blind spots, my fear. I am limited by my oh-so-excellently-trained-in-white-privilege-automatic-conditioning, my ivorytower education. The problems are too big, the challenges too complex, the solutions evasive.

In conversation with remarkable spiritual people today, I felt how the Divine is manifest in a unique way in each person. Each human being is this expression of G*d-Love in a specific intersection of time/place/culture/language/skin/shape.

Think of all the billions of people on this planet. Not just the friendly people but the broken people, the people who hurt and damage others. The mystery is that somehow, the Holy is in those people too. I think this is what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. meant by “beloved community.”

At first glance, it may seem like a cheap cop-out, but in the end what I come back to is this connection that each of us has to the Sacred. Spirit is unlimited resources of Love, moments of everyday grace, miracles of reconnection and reconciliation, all rooted in the powerful full-body knowledge that I, and you, and each of us is deeply known and beloved.

None of these realizations are new or remarkable (except to me, of course). Other people have said it much more eloquently than I can. Tonight I am reading Womanist scholar Emilie M. Townes. In her book Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil she writes:

“We have dreams that can be more powerful than nightmares, possibilities more radical than realities, and a hope that does more than cling to a wish or wish on a star or sit by the side of the road, picking and sucking its teeth after dining on a meal of disaster and violence in our lives…

Emilie M. Townes

To combine challenge with hope is powerful. For together they enable us to press onward when we are at the verge of giving up; to draw strength from the future to live in a discouraging present. Challenge and hope make it possible for us to see the world, not only as it is, but also as it can be, so that it can move us to new places and turn us into a new people…

Hope cannot simply be given a nod of recognition, for it demands not only a contract from us, but also a covenant and a commitment. When we truly live in this deep-walking hope, then we must order and shape our lives in ways that are not always predictable, not always safe, rarely conventional, and protests with prophetic fury the sins of a fantastic hegemonic imagination (and theological worldviews) that encourage us to separate our bodies from our spirits, our minds from our hearts, our beliefs from our action…

We cannot hide from responsibility or accountability for we are never relieved of the responsibility that we have to our generation and future generations to keep justice, peace,and hope alive and vibrant…

Ultimately, somewhere deep inside each of us we know that perhaps the simplest, yet the most difficult, answer to the challenge of what we will do with the fullness and incompleteness of who we are as we stare down the interior life of the cultural production of evil is live your faith deeply.

This is not a quest for perfection, but for what we call in christian ethics the everydayness of moral acts. It is what we do every day that shapes us…these acts that we do say more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action.”

Today as I sat at the coffee shop in conversation, part of me itched with frustration at the lack of answers, at the need to DO more. Conversation seemed like such a little thing.

Talk doesn’t replace the necessity for action. Yet Townes reminds me that authentic listening and presence in connection to Spirit are not little or less. Everydayness is essential. And speaking about the Holy is necessary, even though it is the very last thing I feel comfortable or ready or able to do.


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