Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Tin Soldiers and Nixon's Coming

Forty years ago today Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of unarmed college students at Kent State, killing four and wounding 13. In the aftermath of the shootings President Nixon remarked, "when dissent turns violent it invites tragedy." Of course, it was not the dissenters who turned violent that Monday morning. It was the empire's police, armed with weapons of war trained on unarmed college students in the middle of a campus that was stirred in protest against the empire's war in Vietnam.
I graduated from Kent 13 springs after the shootings, and participated in memorial vigils each of the five springs I was on campus. I've stood in the spots where the kids were mortally wounded, and I've stood on the spot where other kids turned and fired their weapons.
In other words, I've looked at the shootings from both sides now, and from both sides it has always been clear to me that had Nixon been capable of honesty he would have said, "when dissent begins to threaten the foundations of established order then the established order will bring to bear deadly force to quell the dissent." But no president can ever be that honest.
As a Kent alum I have a bagful of memories of May 4 memorials, but the most affecting May 4 connection for me happened more than 15 years after I'd graduated during the time when I lived in Pittsburgh.
In the spring of 2000 the organizers of the memorial events that year invited all of the survivors of the shootings to Kent. I don't know if that happens every year. I do know that in the early years, including the years that I was a student, the school administration really did not want the survivors on campus because they were a visceral reminder of something the university simply wished to forget.
But in 2000 the surviving victims of the shooting were invited back and many returned, which was really neither here nor there for me except that in the spring of 2000 I was serving a church in Mt. Lebanon, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh.
In 2000, May 4 fell on a Wednesday. It was both a work day for me and a school day for our children so we quickly concluded that the trek to Kent, about two hours west of Mt. Lebo, was not going to happen. I was at the church on that Friday afternoon later than usual, and the rest of the staff had left for the day. I was walking around the front of the church, something I rarely did because the main entrance off the parking lot actually went into the back of the place. I noticed a middle-aged man and woman and a teenage girl trying the door to the fellowship hall, so I walked over to them and asked if I could help.
The man said he had grown up in Mt. Lebanon and attended the church as a child, and was back in town for the first time with his daughter. He wanted to show her some of the places that had been important to him and the church, which had hosted dances for high school kids on Friday and Saturday nights in the late 60s, was one of those places.
One of the family, I don't recall which, was wearing a 30th anniversary May 4 t-shirt and I remarked that I was a KSU grad. 
That was when Jim Russell introduced himself. He told me that he had been shot at Kent on May 4, 1970. He was standing at a 90-degree angle from and more than a football field's distance from the National Guardsmen who turned and opened fire on the students that afternoon. He was shot in the thigh and the forehead by the only Guardsman firing a shotgun. The rest had machine guns.
In 2000 he lived in Oregon, having moved west in the mid-1970s to escape the shadow of Kent. He shared with me the bitterness he felt toward the university and the authorities, who wanted either to forget the whole thing or blame the students. 
He vividly remembered the calls to "shoot 'em all," and the names --"worse than brown shirts and night riders" according to Ohio Gov. James Rhodes -- that the students were called by high ranking government officials.
He shared with me that he'd lost a job in Ohio in the early 70s when his employers learned of his connection to the shootings, a story he also shares in the story linked above. He also noted that a new university administration during the 1990s had changed the way the school dealt with the survivors of the shootings and had made them feel welcome on campus for the first time in a quarter century. While time had healed his physical wounds and many of the psychological ones as well, I doubt that Jim Russell ever felt completely at peace with the events of May 4, 1970. He died in 2007 at 60.
A memorial service was held at Kent and the story on it in the Akron paper at the time drew echoes of the same response the shootings did in 1970: the students deserved what they got.
Forty years on and it remains true that the powers that be will bring to bear deadly force on those who threaten the base of the power, and they will also go to any length to avoid being held accountable for their actions.
They used to produce t-shirts each spring at Kent that read, "long live the spirit of Kent and Jackson State." I never bought one because I was always skeptical that there was any such thing as a spirit of those places and the killings deaths of the spring of 1970. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps the spirit is simply the tireless search for the truth about what happened that day and the pursuit of something like justice even all these years later.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal
When Bill Maher calls for a tax on religion he could be right, just not how he believes he’s right.
The host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher closed a recent show declaring, “If we levy taxes – sin taxes, they call them – on things that are bad to get people to stop doing them, why in heaven’s name don’t we tax religion?”
Maher, who is almost as well known for his outspoken atheism as he is for his comedic chops, went on to say, “You want to raise the tax on tobacco so kids don’t get cancer? Okay, but let’s put one on Sunday school so they don’t get stupid.”
If you take him at his word, Maher is out to protect society’s innocent victims from the violence, intolerance, and ignorance of religious beliefs. To be sure, both history books and contemporary media are filled with horrific stories of the victims of religious violence and intolerance. From Christian pogroms of the Middle Ages to the terror attacks of ISIS this year, from the church’s treatment of women throughout history to the church-driven law’s treatment of transgender persons in North Carolina and Mississippi last month, it’s all-too-easy to mock religion for the sake of an easy, albeit uncomfortable laugh, and to use that laugh track as the backdrop for a call to tax religions.
But that’s not why societies should tax religions. Beyond taxes imposed across the board to pay for common infrastructure, taxes can be used to discourage activities that threaten the common good. Carbon taxes are one example.
But even in the examples Maher cites or alludes to, religions aren’t a threat to the social order. More often they are and have been, in fact, a supporter. After all, in the Middle Ages the church and state marched hand-in-hand to persecute Jews. ISIS claims that it wants to set up a state power. The misogyny of religious groups throughout history has served patriarchal social orders quite well, and there’s a direct line from the bathroom to the voting booth tying together conservative evangelicals and many Republican politicians these days.
Those deep ties between religion and state are no reason, from the point of view of the state, to impose taxes on religions. Religions founded on what might be called a theology of respectability nurture obedient adherents to the status quo of the society of which they are a part. It’s easy to understand why the state supports them with tax advantages.
Sure, the adherents of such religious convictions might believe silly things about the origin of species, but that’s not taking a bite out of the bottom line of the corporate state. They might even have tendencies toward violent repression of minorities, but as long as those minorities continue to serve the economic and political interests of the powerful then a little controlled violence is just the cost of keeping order. Religions that preach personal piety and encourage respectable behavior don’t threaten the social order. In fact, they support it.
But that’s not the only theology available to the church or mosque or synagogue.  As Brittney Cooper notes in a recent issue of Christian Century focused on the Black Lives Matter movement, “the movement has issued a clarion call to the church […] to affirm a theology of resistance rather than a theology of respectability. This movement demands reckoning with who Jesus is. Is Jesus only a savior come to deliver us from punishment for personal sin? Or is Jesus a savior who joins with us in the work to end racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia?”[1]
A theology of resistance threatens power and stability. Societies should tax religions not to protect members of the society, but to protect the existing social order. Using the power of the IRS, the government could weaken the grip that prophets have on the imaginations of people who might be inspired to embrace a vision of a future otherwise.
Preachers following the Revised Common Lectionary through this Eastertide are in the midst of a brief sojourn through Revelation. The Roman emperor did not confine John of Patmos to that Greek island because he feared that the gospel would make children stupid. He exiled John because he feared that the gospel would make Christians rebel against the authority of Rome.
Likewise, J. Edgar Hoover did not spy on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because the FBI director feared that King’s proclamation of the gospel would make black folks ignorant. Hoover harassed King because he feared that the gospel proclamation would make black folks rebel against white supremacy and call the capitalist order into question.
That’s a sin against the state. That’s cause for taxation. Maybe Maher was completely right after all. Sin taxes all around!

[1] Brittney Cooper, “Black Lives Matter,” Christian Century, March 16, 2016, 27.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mondays with ... Orville and Wilbur?

The Wright Memorial on the OBX
On the way home from the Outer Banks yesterday we stopped for gas in Ashland, Va. I wound up standing in line to use the restroom. The station had two facilities, each of them a “one-holer” of identical design, furnishing, and, most importantly, function. Each door had a standard-issue restroom placard, one of which read “Men,” and the other “Women.” The women’s placard included a strip of masking tape on which was written in blue marker “only.”

All weekend in North Carolina I had gone out of my way to speak with the manager of each business we went into. While others in our crew shopped or settled tabs, I’d go speak with the manager and leave a copy of a letter explaining why, following the passage of HB2, not all of us feel safe or welcome in North Carolina.

After a weekend on “team advocacy” of our vacation crew, I was simply too tired to inquire at the gas station in Virginia concerning what prompted the signage. After all, the restrooms were already private and each was, by architecture, exclusive to the individual using it.

I’m writing this blog post in a coffee shop in Arlington. The shop has three one-person restrooms. Over the years I have drunk gallons of coffee here, and I have used each of these restrooms. I’m certain that each has been used by countless men, and women, and, also, by countless transgender persons, and gender queer persons as well.

I’m pretty sure nobody cares.

What I do care about, though, is justice. That’s why, wherever we went in North Carolina, we left behind a copy of the following letter, printed on church letterhead: 
Dear North Carolina friend,
 For the past five years a small group of us from Northern Virginia have enjoyed a lovely weekend together on the Outer Banks. We have strolled your beautiful beaches, enjoyed many wonderful meals at your restaurants, rented condos, participated in OBX running events, visited your parks, and shopped in your stores. We love the Outer Banks.
 Thus it is with real sadness that we must let you know that we will not be back in the years to come due to the recent passage of HB2.
 We are members of the Clarendon Presbyterian Church community, and the deepest values of our common faith rest on the conviction that all of us are created equally in the image of a loving God. HB2 violates that image in some of our sisters and brothers. More than that, it threatens the safety of our transgender sisters and brothers, and, particularly, of trans kids.
 We know that many North Carolinians oppose the law, and that many North Carolina businesses are working to create safe spaces for all people. We applaud that effort, but we will not continue to contribute our dollars to the economy of a state that does not welcome all of us.
 We encourage you to become active in your own state’s political processes, and send to your legislature leaders who truly want everyone to feel welcome, valued, and safe in North Carolina. In the meanwhile, we encourage you to contact your current lawmakers and your governor and tell them to rescind HB2.
 We promise that when you do, we will come back and visit again.
 Grace and peace,
 David Ensign
We left about a dozen such letters, and in almost every conversation, the business manager was incredibly gracious, receptive to the conversation, and deeply sympathetic. About half of them apologized for the law.

To those apologies I responded, “you don’t need to apologize; it clearly was not your idea. But we do encourage your activism. Contact your governor and your legislators, and let them know how you feel, and feel free to share our letter with anyone who might be interested.”

The conversations were universally pleasant, and several of them were deeply moving. A clerk in an ABC store actually had tears in his eyes thanking us for what we were doing. The only person who was merely cordial was the clerk in a state park, and I suspect that, whatever her personal convictions, she’s probably bound by her employment to avoid engaging controversial topics.

Even though the conversations were powerful to participate in, by the time “team advocacy” reached Ashland, really all I wanted to do was pee in peace. Come to think of it, that’s all anyone opposed to HB2 and similar proposals wants.

Oh, there was a line to the restroom marked “men.” The one labeled “women – only” was empty. I’m through Ashland from time to time. If I need gas, I’ll stop there again and ask, “why?”

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Mondays With Martin: Lines and Justice

When our youngest was a little girl she was a master at “the Charlie Brown walk.” When she got her feelings hurt – which happens frequently when you’re the youngest child – she would pout off to her bedroom doing the walk. When she felt that something was unfair, she’d do the walk. Sometimes for reasons undetectable to anyone else, she’d do it.
Her childhood gave me a great appreciation and a keen awareness of the Charlie Brown walk. I witnessed another master this morning.
A little boy who wanted to have his picture taken in front of the relief of Dr. King was told by his parents that he would have to wait while others took their pictures. He found the idea of waiting deeply unfair. He Charlie Browned it all the way across the plaza and found a place along the low wall where he could slouch in deep pout. It was hilarious to watch, though I felt a sympathetic twinge for the parents of a kid on the verge of a meltdown.
“It’s not fair,” he said.
I thought immediately of the times our kids used to employ that phrase. They learned quite early on to come up with something else because my response was always the same. “Taking turns is not a justice issue,” or “cleaning your room is not a justice issue,” or “eating your vegetables is not a justice issue.” Followed immediately by, “you want to know what a justice issue is? Kids who don’t have enough vegetables to eat – that’s a justice issue; kids who don’t have a home with a bathroom to clean – that’s a justice issue; kids who never get a turn at all – that’s a justice issue.”
Yeah, life was tough for kids in our house!
On the other hand, the idea of waiting and the challenges waiting presents do resonate at a memorial to a man who wrote Why We Can’t Wait.
In that book, which recounts the Birmingham campaign of 1963, King wrote:
“Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” 
On my way into town this morning I was listening to the Diane Rehme Show, and they were talking about the so-called religious freedom laws that have recently passed in North Carolina and Mississippi. In the introduction, the host said of these laws that they have been “promoted by faith-based organizations.”
I took a couple of minutes, sitting in my car parked along West Basin Drive, to fire off a quick note to the show saying simply, “as a board member of People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, and as pastor of Clarendon Presbyterian Church, I know that there are countless people, motivated by the deepest values of their faiths, who work tirelessly for equality and justice for LGBTQ people. I’m parked next to the memorial dedicated to a man who, had he lived after Stonewall, would have counted himself among those countless ones.”

King knew that time doesn’t care. It is, instead, up to us to care, and to care deeply about those things that truly are matters of justice. So we keep on walking with heads held high. No Charlie Brown walking toward freedom.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Mondays with Martin: Existential VIP

The National Park Service treats its volunteers well, right down to the title they've designed to make volunteers feel special: Volunteers in the Parks, or VIP. When the ranger who coordinates volunteers sends out a mass e-mail communication, it is always addressed to VIPs, and, speaking only for myself, we do feel like very important people.
I was reminded of that during my four hours at MLK today when I directed at least a dozen people to the nearest bus stop or restroom. Hey, what's more important than finding a bathroom when you need it? The little things in life make up most of life, after all, and, though they feel like an ever-flowing stream, as it were, the whole of it doesn't last very long.
When I get to talking with visitors I always ask where they are from. Today one woman answered my question with, "oh, from here, temporarily."
I couldn't resist replying, "well, that's true no matter where you're from." Free directions to attractions around the Tidal Basin, and a pint of philosophy thrown in for no extra charge. You're welcome!
A family from Atlanta stopped for a lengthy chat, and asked all kinds of interesting questions, including "what is my favorite quotation on the wall of the memorial."
I answered, "the one I probably quote most often is 'the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.'"
The mom asked why I believe that, and, having already established some Presbyterian common ground, I said, "because we're an Easter people, I believe that resurrection is woven into the fabric of the universe. In the end, it will be all right. If all is not right, it's not the end. When we do the work of love, we bend the arc toward justice, and toward that day when all will be well for all of God's children."
At the memorial I often invite kids to look at the figure of Dr. King carved in granite, and see what's missing. Eventually most of them will notice that the sculpture, which is, technically, a relief, has no feet. When I ask why they think that is, responses range from, "I don't know," to "feet are hard to carve," to deeper reflections, such as, "his life wasn't finished," and "his work wasn't finished."
The figure invites us to consider the long walk to freedom, and who is going to keep on walking now, in this moment when it is not all right, yet. Who is going to use this temporary time, this brief sojourn we have, to bend the arc a bit further?
There are all kinds of ways to do that work, and at a moment when some folks seem particularly concerned about bathrooms, telling people where they can go -- and working to make sure that all people can go to the bathroom where they feel comfortable and safe -- is very important work, indeed.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Mondays With Martin: Heroes and Fame

I met a hero at the memorial today, and I was reminded a bit about the costs of fame. Actually, this is two stories about separate encounters, but they both have something to do with legacies and the weight of histories.

First I met a family of four -- parents and two young-adult children -- having a spring-in-DC vacation. When I welcomed them the mom told me that she had gone to school with Dr. King's kids in Atlanta in the mid-60s at Spring Street Elementary School. The family I met at the memorial is white, and I was surprised to hear that the mom had gone to school with King's children. But Spring Street was the first public school in Atlanta to be desegregated, and King's kids, along with those of King's close friend and colleague in the Movement, Ralph David Abernathy, attended.

The mom told me that her classes had assigned seats by alphabetical order, so she wound up sitting next to Dexter and Bernice. I asked her what her name was, and she said, "my maiden name is King, and my first name is Carol, so I sat between them often."

She told me about what she called a precursor to "bring-your-dad-to-school day," when Dr. King came to school. "The other dads said a few words in their children's classroom, and we all wondered why Dexter and Bernice's dad got to speak to the entire school in the auditorium."

We chuckled at that memory, and speculated about what it would be like to have been a typical dad with a typical job and get to try to follow Dr. King, or what it would be like to introduce your dad after your classmate has stood up and said, "this is my dad; he is the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he was Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1963, he has received at least 50 honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world ... here's my dad."

On the other hand, she noted, "we were just kids; we didn't know anything about who he was beyond being our friends' father." That changed when their friends' father was assassinated, school was closed, and the city of Atlanta shut down.

As she and her family left the memorial to her elementary classmates' dad, I was left pondering the steep price fame often exacts from the children of the famous. Dr. King's children have struggled with that burden for years as they've come to different positions about protecting his legacy and the family's rights to it. These days, more than a little white girl sits between Dexter and Bernice (and their older brother, Martin) as they feud in court over the rights to Dr. King's Nobel Prize, his Bible, and other pieces of property, and over broader rights to control his legacy.

Fame, for the King children, seems a sad inheritance and one they have carried with, often less than heroic aspect.

Which makes a heroic life stand out all the more in contrast.

We had a hero visit the memorial this morning, though there was no fanfare nor announcement when an elderly African-American gentleman led a group of about 15 black teenagers onto the plaza. He gathered them in a loose circle off to one side of the monumental relief of Dr. King, and asked, "how many of you have ever heard of Claudette Colvin?"

My ears perked up immediately because I knew that Colvin was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger in March, 1955. Nine months later a woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for the same "crime."

Colvin, the gentleman explained, didn't quite fit the image that black leaders in Montgomery had in mind as they considered fighting the city over discrimination in bus service. She was only 15, she had very dark skin and nappy hair, and she was not afraid to speak out.

He was clearly trying to get these contemporary teenagers to see themselves in the 15-year-old Colvin. Perhaps they did. It was hard to tell just how engaged they were with her story.

But then he told them his own story.

When he was 15 years old he lived in Lynchburg, Va. It was 1962. Barely 24 months since the height of Massive Resistance, the response of Virginia's white establishment to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that struck down separate but equal public schools. Virginia shuttered schools in many districts rather than comply with Brown, and by the early 60s only a few districts were slowly desegregating.

"Slowly" was the point. Lynchburg's school board had just proposed a plan that would integrate one class at a time over the course of 12 more years before the entire system would be desegregated a full 20 years after Brown. But by 1961, a few dozen teenagers in Lynchburg had applied to transfer from all black schools to previously all white schools.

By the time the system acquiesced, it was January, 1962, and only two students were still willing (and had their parents' backing) to make the move.

Thus Owen Cardwell, Jr., became one of two students to desegregate Lynchburg's high schools.
Today he works with kids who were about the same age he was then, encouraging them to stand up for what is right, to speak out against what is wrong, and to understand that, even though they are young, they have the power to change the world and the responsibility, as well.

I don't imagine many people know of him. Judging from my own web searches this afternoon, more folks know about Claudette Colvin, and that's likely a pretty small circle. There's little by way of fame attached to his name, but a great deal by way of heroism.

(When he had finished speaking with the kids and invited them to walk around looking at other aspects of the memorial, I went over and thanked him for his work and witness. I asked his name, but I am the world's worst at remembering names, so I'm relying on the accuracy of the article linked above and a couple of others I found today to have correctly identified him.) 

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Mondays With Martin: Runners are Clueless

I am a runner. My brothers are runners. My daughter is a runner. Many of my closest friends are runners. Runners are clueless.
This is not a particularly insightful observation, nor a recent one, but it was driven home to me this morning as I exercised a small part of my responsibilities at the MLK Memorial in asking several runners to "please walk through the Memorial."
I'll confess to having ignored this responsibility for months because I pretty much knew what was confirmed for me again today: runners are clueless.
Part of volunteering involves what I think of as "hall monitor" duty. I ask kids not to walk along the tops of the low walls surrounding the space. "Young man (or lady), please don't walk on the top of the wall: the granite is slippery and it's really hard. If your head hits it, there's going to be a lot of paperwork involved." That line almost always draws a smile and a "sorry" from either the kid or a nearby adult. Similarly, the "please walk your bike through the Memorial" gets a "I'm sorry" and a dismount -- even when the request is delivered in sign language to tourists who don't speak English. Even the unwelcome, "I'm sorry but you can't eat in the Memorial; there are benches along the Tidal Basin, please take the food there," almost always gets an apologetic compliant response.
But ask a runner to walk through the Memorial and you get a dirty look, an annoyed, "where does it end?" or a blank stare as the runner continues straight on. Knowing this to be true, mostly I just ignore runners because stopping them is not worth the effort.
So why did I ask today? Probably because it was particularly quiet for a while, and when there are only a few visitors the space seems to compel even more reverence than it typically does. At such moments, a passing runner seems as incongruous there as someone running laps around the chancel of the National Cathedral.
As a runner, I can understand cluelessness. All runners know the experience of getting lost in the moment, or, perhaps more accurately, getting lost to the moment. We get lost to the moment because the moment is hard. Running is work, and sometimes it hurts. Running comes with an amount of suffering that is as sure and certain as the multi-hued shoes we wear these days. Some of us plug in to music to get lost to the moment. Others work out problems as they run. Only a few of us actually think about the moment we are in as we run. Thus, most of us are utterly clueless to the rest of the world while we run through it.
That's not terribly surprising, nor is it unusual. While runners' cluelessness is its own particular form of cluelessness, runners are simply being human in finding ways to avoid thinking about suffering.
King, on the other hand, thought a great deal about human suffering. He wrote or spoke regularly about suffering. That none of those quotes made the wall at the Memorial should come as no great surprise. After all, we don't like suffering.
Nevertheless, King understood an inherent power in suffering. In a speech in 1961, he spelled out his understanding:
... both violence and nonviolence agree that suffering can be a very powerful social force. But there is this difference: violence says that suffering can be a powerful social force by inflicting the suffering on somebody else: so this is what we do in war, this is what we do in the whole violent thrust of the violent movement. It believes that you achieve some end by inflicting suffering on another. The nonviolent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, that that self-suffering stands at the center of the nonviolent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation.
Left unspoken, because there was no need to point it out: King's followers did not create the suffering they willingly endured. The social situation of Jim Crow segregation, economic inequality, and institutional violence created suffering.
Those working to challenge the triple evils of racism, poverty, and militarism were willing to stand in solidarity and compassion with those suffering the direct effects of institutional violence. They believed being present to pain and to suffering was transformational.
Being present is the essential piece.
You can run along the Tidal Basin all you like. It is beautiful, after all, and running is certainly healthy. But if you want to transform more than your own body, slow down and take note of all around us that stands in desperate need of a deeper transformation.