Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Fierce Urgency of Now

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

Rev. Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. August 28, 1963

On this day in 1963, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what we now call the “I Have a Dream Speech” to 200,000 peaceful advocates for racial justice.

They were marching, he said, to “demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice,” and to remind the nation of what he called “the fierce urgency of now.”

He talked about pursuing this struggle with discipline and dignity and he talked about solidarity with white people who would share in that struggle. The militancy of the struggle, he argued, “must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”

The tragic shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, and the reactions to it, provide a sad reminder that the dream is not yet a reality.

We have come a long way. The idea of a black man as President of the United States was hard to imagine when Dr. King addressed the crowd in Washington. Our society is more integrated, more open, and less overtly racist. These improvements are real and they are dramatic. The need now is less about new laws, although the gains made by the voting rights laws need to be protected. We cannot minimize our needs in job creation, education, and health care, but in many ways, our greatest need is for new attitudes and new understandings

And we have a long way to go.

If you don’t believe that racism is alive and well, just go on almost any internet site that hosts commentary on the shooting in Ferguson. A web site set up to receive donations to help pay the defense costs for the police officer who shot Michael Brown received so many racist comments, they had to shut it down and start again. For a glimpse of what it looked like before the shutdown, click here. Columnist and Fox News contributor Linda Chavez wrote a column for the New York Post complaining that it was biased to call Michael Brown “an unarmed black teenager.”After all, he was over six feet tall and weighed three hundred pounds. As if large teenagers were no longer teenagers or unarmed.

Racism is the air we breathe. It infects all of us. In a New York Times column titled, “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?” Nicholas Kristof reminds us of our latent racism. There are many people, he points out, who are enlightened, who are intellectually opposed to racism, and yet harbor racist stereotypes and prejudices.

Studies have shown that when doctors treat people for a broken leg, they prescribe pain medication more often for white patients than they do for blacks and Hispanics. Black students are suspended by school administrators at a rate that is three times the rate of white students. Although blacks and whites use marijuana at approximately the same rates, blacks are arrested 3.7 times as often.

Kristof cites another study in which scholars responded to nearly 5,000 help-wanted ads. They sent half of their resumes with stereotypically black sounding names and the other half with white sounding names. It took 50% more mailings to get a response for a black name as for a white name, and a white name gained the applicant an advantage equal to eight years of experience.

In yet another study, scholars found that we unconsciously connect “American” with “white.” In 2008 they questioned a group of California college students and found that they treated then presidential candidate Barack Obama as if he were more foreign than Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, in spite of the fact that many of the students were supporting Obama for president. The tests also showed that although Americans knew that Lucy Liu is an American actor and Kate Winslet is British, they still thought Liu was more foreign.

Not only do we have a hard time recognizing the reality of our own racism, many of us believe that America is more prejudiced against white people than against black people.

That fact is so bizarre, I was tempted to call this column, “White People Are Crazy.”

According to a study by scholars at Tufts and Harvard, both whites and blacks agree that anti-black racism has decreased over the last sixty years. But the study also shows that whites believe that anti-white racism has increased over that same time period and now is a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

Participants were asked to rate the anti-black racism and the anti-white racism in society on a 10-point scale, with 10 as maximum bias. On average, whites rated anti-white bias as the greater problem by more than a full point. And 11 percent of whites rated anti-white bias as a 10, the maximum rating.

“It’s a pretty surprising finding,” says Tufts Associate Professor Samuel Sommers, Ph.D., “when you think of the wide range of disparities that still exist in society, most of which show black Americans with worse outcomes than whites in areas such as income, home ownership, health, and employment.”

Apparently, even our perceptions of racism are colored by racism.

In his commentary about what he seemed to perceive as an anti-white bias in the coverage of the events in Ferguson, Bill O’Reilly complained, “to the race hustlers, Officer Wilson is already guilty. They have convicted him. Their slogan is ‘no justice, no peace’. I guess that's lynch mob justice because those people will never accept anything other than a conviction of murder in this case. They don't really care what happened. They want Officer Wilson punished.”

No one should be in favor of “lynch mob justice,” but it is useful to put that in historical perspective. On this day in 1955 a 14 year old black teenager by the name of Emmett Till was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Not figuratively lynched. Brutally tortured and lynched.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fear and Racism in America

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Luke 13:34-37

After Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer, students at Howard University posed for a group picture with their hands raised in surrender, just as Michael Brown had reportedly done as the officer shot him to death.

When I saw the pictures of the armored vehicles and heavily armed policemen in Ferguson, Missouri in the days following the shooting, I thought of Jesus mourning over Jerusalem. Is this the best we can do? Not surprisingly, heavily militarized police presence served only to increase the tensions.

Meanwhile, according to CBS news affiliate KMOV , gun shops around the St. Louis area are reporting that gun sales are up as white suburbanites arm themselves in self-defense. "They're just afraid of whats going on and they're coming in to purchase either additional firearms or their first firearm," said Steven King, owner of Metro Shooting in Bridgeton, Mo.”They're buying AR-15s, home defense shotguns, handguns, personal defense handguns something for conceal carry."

So, to review: an unarmed black teenager was shot and white people are buying guns to protect themselves.

Okay, I know that’s unfair. There were riots in Ferguson after the shooting and the folks shopping for guns were afraid because of the riots.

But think about it. Don’t those two basic facts tell us something very important about racism in America? If you are a parent of black children, what do you tell them about trusting police officers? What do you tell them about white people in general?

I am sure that there are lots of people in and near Ferguson who are working across racial lines to bring something good out of this. Governor Jay Nixon acted wisely in assigning a State Police unit to reduce tensions among the protesters, and that effort was successful. The images of white people buying guns are not a fair way to judge all white people (or even those particular white people). Just as the pictures of black people rioting are fair to all those who were peacefully protesting.

We can’t capture something as complicated as race relations in America in such a simple snapshot. But, still. Those two facts, the killing of the unarmed teenager and the buying of guns, say something significant.

When an unarmed black teenager is killed by a policeman, the first reaction of some (many) white people is to be concerned for their own safety. The first reaction is fear.

Think about it. Ponder it in your heart. A white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager and white people react with fear. We have to do better. We have to work toward real solutions. But first, we have to stop pretending that racism does not exist.

[Note: Shortly after I posted this blog, news reports surfaced claiming that Michael Brown was a suspect in a robbery at a convenience store. In some ways, this makes the story more complicated, and it reminds us that few incidents divide as neatly as we might wish. But this new information does not fundamentally change the issue. It’s still about an unarmed black teenager shot by a white policeman. It’s still about fear and racism. It just reinforces how complicated those issues are.]

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
Matthew 23:1-4

There is no moral dilemma which makes me more uncomfortable than the question of abortion. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a close second, but abortion is number one. And it has been number one for a long time.

I have supported a woman’s right to choose since before Roe v. Wade. I don’t believe that abortion is ever a “good” choice. It is always tragic. We need better sex education and we need free access to contraception as part of universal health care, but when that fails, then I believe the decision should belong to the woman involved. I hope she consults with her partner and with a trusted counselor, but in the end it is her body and it should be up to her.

I believe that abortion should be safe and legal and rare. That last part has to be clarified. I believe that we should provide contraception and sex education so that women rarely face the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy. There are plenty of people trying to make abortion rare by making it unavailable. By instituting burdensome (and medically unnecessary) regulations at the state level, anti-abortion advocates have shut down clinics so that abortion is already virtually illegal in ten states.

One of those states is Mississippi. And if the anti-abortion advocates are successful, they will soon shut down the last remaining clinic in the state. An article in by John H. Richardson profiles one of two physicians who continue to provide abortion services in Mississippi. What caught my attention was the title, THE ABORTION MINISTRY OF DR. WILLIE PARKER. For Dr. Parker, this is not a job, it is a Christian ministry.

Richardson describes a varied and divrse small group of women who are listening to Dr. Parker as he goes over the procedure and answers their questions. Most of them only know that he is willing to help them in a time of desperate need. He writes:

They don't know that he grew up a few hours away in Birmingham, the second youngest son of a single mother who raised six children on food stamps and welfare, so poor that he taught himself to read by a kerosene lamp and went to the bathroom in an outhouse; that he was born again in his teenage years and did a stint as a boy preacher in Baptist churches; that he became the first black student-body president of a mostly white high school, went on to Harvard and a distinguished career as a college professor and obstetrician who delivered thousands of babies and refused to do abortions. They certainly don't know about the "come to Jesus" moment, as he pointedly describes it, when he decided to give up his fancy career to become an abortion provider.

Parker spends a lot of time talking to them. He knows that many of them feel shamed and condemned by those who can only see black and white, and cannot see the gray area where they find themselves. “There's more than one way to understand religion and spirituality and God,” he tells them. “I do have belief in God. That's why I do this work. My belief in God tells me that the most important thing you can do for another human being is help them in their time of need."

Richardson describes the process that led Parker to become an abortion provider:

. . . gradually, the steady stream of women with reproductive issues in his practice focused his mind. He thought about his mother and sisters and the grandmother who died in childbirth and began to read widely in the literature of civil rights and feminism. Eventually he came across the concept of "reproductive justice," developed by black feminists who argued that the best way to raise women out of poverty is to give them control of their reproductive decisions. Finally, he had his "come to Jesus" moment and the bell rang. This would be his civil-rights struggle. He would serve women in their darkest moment of need. "The protesters say they're opposed to abortion because they're Christian," Parker says. "It's hard for them to accept that I do abortions because I'm a Christian." He gave up obstetrics to become a full-time abortionist on the day, five years ago, that George Tiller was murdered in church.

Richardson describes how, after meeting with the women in a group, Parker consults with each one separately. One patient is still in High School. Her mother is with her. He asks the mom to leave for a moment so that he can speak with the young woman privately. He wants to make sure that her mother is not the one pushing her to have an abortion. “Is this your idea to have an abortion?” he asks her. “Do you feel comfortable with your decision?”

Parker believes that the birth rate among teenage girls could be dramatically reduced by making contraception more easily available “without shame.” It’s not just the young women who have abortions who are shamed by the people Parker calls “the Antis,” the shaming is also directed at those who use contraception. "So it seems like if they want to reduce abortion,” says Parker, “the best thing to do would be to support contraception—but they're against contraception, too, because contraception and abortion decouple sexuality from procreation. That's why I think religious preoccupation with abortion is largely about controlling the sexuality of women."

Parker’s faith quest led him to study the work of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as Martin Luther King. He was particularly moved by Bonhoeffer’s insights with regard to how the Gospel calls us to confront evil and injustice. He summarized Bonhoeffer as insisting that “the kind of Christianity that does not radicalize you with regard to human suffering is inauthentic—cheap and easy grace."

Parker’s reflection and study led to what he called his “come to Jesus” moment when he was teaching in Hawaii. Richardson writes:

He was teaching at the university when a fundamentalist administrator began trying to ban abortions in the school clinic, throwing students with an unwanted pregnancy into a panic. One day, he was listening to a sermon by Dr. King on the theme of what made the Good Samaritan good. A member of his own community passed the injured traveler by, King said, because they asked, "What would happen to me if I stopped to help this guy?" The Good Samaritan was good because he reversed the question: "What would happen to this guy if I don't stop to help him?" So Parker looked in his soul and asked himself, "What happens to these women when abortion is not available?"

He knew the answer.