Grasping Thorns

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose." ― A. Brontë

Category: Race

Oops. Sorry, all.

So . . . I forgot to update my blog when I moved to writing for Bustle and then Daily Kos (a Dissident Voice is thrown in here, too). I imagined that everyone who read me here would read me there by following my Facebook links (like H&G’s breadcrumbs). But, some of my readers here aren’t as Facebook crazed as I am. 🙂

I’m still writing, though! Here’s a list of things I’ve penned, along with where to find me now.

April 28th: The Baltimore Riots Should Remind White People To Listen And Act — Not Judge Protestors

May 5th: Why Responding To Bigotry In Facebook Comments Matters

May 7th: On Mother’s Day, Remembering My Daughter’s Birth Mom

June 17th: God is Disappointed in You is a Book Every Evangelical Christian Should Read

June 18th: That Moment When Your Friend Finds a Bullet Hole over Her Son’s Room

June 19th: The Charleston Church Massacre and “Making It Right”

June 20th: Disturbing Conservative Commentary: A Compilation

June 21st: An Open Letter to Governor Haley

June 23rd: Dear Governor Haley, Part 2

June 24th: This is What “Discussion” Looks Like in America Today — And Why It Must Change

June 26th: Senator Pinckney, President Obama, and New Eyes for Seeing

July 14th: The Importance of Remembering “It’s Not About [Your Name Here]”

July 16th: A Mass Shooting Hits Home — Again.

July 19th: A New Southern Wedding Tradition: Yes, I Wish I Were Kidding

July 24th: It’s Our Fault People Are Dying: American Gun Culture and the Myth of Personal Responsibility

July 29th: Dr. Walter Palmer, Lion Killer: Meet Lawrence Anthony, Elephant Whisperer

July 31st: Last Night, I Watched Two Videos: Planned Parenthood’s and Sam DuBose’s

August 6th: Release Time Bible Programs Are Invading Public Schools. God Help Us.

August 15th: God Got A Dog: Another Book That Evangelical Christians Should Read

August 19th: Sacrificing Our Children’s Lives: America and Her Guns

September 4th: American Exceptionalism as Exceptionally Bad … Also: How to Make It Better

September 5th: Dear America: Stop. Painting. Bullets. Holes. On. Our Kids’. Heads.

In short, it’s been a bloody, busy summer.

If you want more fire for your rage-machine, start following my Daily Kos page.

love to all my readers. xoxo




Blue Lives Matter? Then Support Gun Control Reform

This month, we’ve suffered the loss of several law enforcement officers unjustly killed in the line of duty. On May 9, Officers Benjamin Deen and Liquori Tate were killed during a traffic stop in Mississippi. On May 2, NYPD officer Brian Moore was shot in the head and died from the injury a couple of days later. Both these tragedies bring to mind the double homicide of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu on Dec. 20, 2014, a shocking act that was nearly universally condemned. And it’s wrong to suggest  — as many do via social media — that those who support the “Black Lives Matter” movement don’t care about cops unjustly killed.

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The hashtag #BlueLivesMatter (which sprung into existence in the fall of 2014, as a response to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri) is unsettling both because of the controversial nature of the movement’s title (i.e. the erasure of “black” for “blue”) and also because of the fact that it states the obvious and unquestionable: of course blue lives matter. Unlike black lives, blue lives are both valued and mourned. When a cop is killed, the murderer is sought and convicted — as is just. However, when a cop unjustly kills a black man, he’s much less likely to be convicted (unless there is an accompanying video, and sometimes not even then — e.g. Eric Garner).


Of course, cops have a dangerous job, are afraid, and are right to be afraid — not of people of color, but of being shot. In 2013, 32 cops were fatally shot; in 2014, 50 cops were fatally shot. The number jump seems alarming, although NPR’s Eyder Peralta points out “While gun deaths of officers have increased, they still remain 12-percent lower than the decade-long average of 57.”

Still, we have a gun problem and need sensible gun control reform. One cop unjustly killed in the line of duty is one cop too many. Last year, while the debate was raging over Michael Brown’s death, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias argued that we should find common ground over the fact that we need gun control reform; he said, “This is true if you think Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson should have been found guilty of a crime. But in many ways it’s even more true if you think he’s innocent of any wrongdoing. A system in which legal police shootings of unarmed civilians are a common occurrence is a system that has some serious flaws.”

The rub? So many people who rally behind the “Blue Lives Matter” slogan are against gun control. They complain, instead, about a “war on police” and say that gun control reform is “off topic” rather than a sensible solution to a triad of problems: violence against the police, violence by the police, and violence against the community at large — including our most vulnerable: children. CDC statistics list 16,121 homicides in 2013, and 11,208 of those were with guns. Too many guns is absolutely relevant to any discussion about the safety of law enforcement officers — and public safety to boot. And while I’m concerned about any way kids are dying, 10,000 American kids a year are injured and/or killed with guns and those are preventable injuries and deaths. Finally, holding police accountable is not a “war on police.” It’s holding police accountable.


This past December, a meme was circulating in response to 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s death. I first saw the meme on Facebook from an avid supporter of “Blue Lives Matter.” It features a man holding two nearly identical guns, accompanied by the phrase “quick! which one is a bb gun? Oops, too late . . . you’re dead.”

The person posting it was defending the cop who shot Tamir Rice, not pointing out the fact that maybe the NRA shouldn’t be blocking legislation like California’s Senate Bill 798 that would require not-real guns (air gun, airsoft and BB) to be distinguishable (as in brightly colored) from real guns.

Four hundred and nine people were fatally shot by cops in 2012, according to The Economist, some of them children. And that’s a problem for everyone: the dead people; the families of the dead people; and the cops, some of whom have to live with inadvertently killing unarmed kids. Think that’s just what happens? Number of shots fired by police in Britain that same year? THREE. Number of fatalities? ZERO. More recent tallies suggest that the number of people fatally shot by cops each year in the United States is even higher, as many go uncounted.

No one is defending violence against the police. I spoke out against the Dec. 20 homicides, just like I spoke out about Walter Scott’s and Freddie Gray’s deaths. Too many people in the “Blue Lives Matter” movement, on the other hand, are fearful of violence against their community while excusing violence perpetrated against those outside their community. And that’s wrong.


What’s also wrong? To assert that blue lives matter while failing to advocate for gun control reform that would actually save blue lives.


Brian Moore was shot to death with a gun stolen from Georgia, a gun lover’s paradise. As NY Daily News reporters explain: “Georgia’s lax gun laws are often cited by critics for the steady northern flow of illegal weapons to New York. Straw buyers purchasing firearms for people who can’t legally own guns face no penalty, and there are no background checks for people buying guns from unlicensed dealers. A bill passed last year even repealed the state regulation targeting rogue gun dealers convicted of criminal or fraudulent actions. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms stats from 2013, the most recent available, showed 331 weapons recovered in New York State originated in Georgia that year.”

I can hear the tired “gun rights” arguments now that essentially boil down to:

I don’t want to be inconvenienced when buying my gun — despite the fact that, for the sake of public safety, buying guns should be at least as difficult as having a pet (many cities require you to register dogs) or driving a car (think: testing, licensing, registering, servicing, renewing).

I don’t want to be restricted from buying military style assault weapons and high capacity magazines, because (2nd Amendment!) I need to be prepared to overthrow the government in case it becomes tyrannical — despite the fact that we have an unmatched military and arsenal of weapons (against which neither assault weapons nor high capacity magazines stand a chance) and despite the fact that we support our troops.

In the end, what is the purpose of asserting “Blue Lives Matter” (except in opposition to “Black Lives Matter,” which — let’s face it — seems to be the purpose) if the only “solution” is to allow police full discretion in killing civilians, which is unacceptable? What is the purpose of asserting that we support our troops, if we’re simultaneously daydreaming about fighting against them?

Of all the comments in response to Freddie Gray’s death, and I’ve read a lot of them, this may be the most hypocritical of the bunch:


The implication is that Freddie Gray carried a knife and therefore should have expected a violent end (never mind the fact that, as a country, we’re one big sword-wielding maniac — and 20 times more likely to be a victim of gun violence than citizens of other first world countries because of it). It’s time for gun buyback programs and more sensible regulation, because it’s time for a real and decent solution that supports all: cops and our communities.

You say: blue lives matter. I say: you’re right; they do; let’s do something about that.

The Case of Two Walter Scotts

Walter Scott

UPDATE, again: You may also follow the following new link. Thanks to The Daily Dot for reposting it. While I miss the family photos on this version, I enjoy the fact that the quotes are blocked alongside the text rather than in it, since the latter always feels like a reading-hiccup to me.

UPDATE: Please follow the link for the article. Thanks to Bustle for publishing it. Special thanks to my editor, Rachel Krantz, who added images that broke my heart. All over again.

Dear Reader, Thanks so much for your interest in reading this personal essay (and many thanks to those who directed you to it). Bustle has picked it up, so I’m pulling it down temporarily (per their request), and will post in the link to the published version ASAP. I’m grateful for this interest, since Bustle’s readership is much, much more than this humble, personal blog, and I very much think this (i.e. cultural racism and — God help us — how to overcome it) is a conversation we need to have. Thanks, again — especially for being the lovely, inspirational people that you are, xoxo

The Worst Memes on Facebook (at the moment, and possibly in the history of the world)

I haven’t written, at least publicly, in months. Work. Kids. And I may have started fostering dogs again — because with all the racism/torture/terrorism in the world right now, sometimes you just have to rescue a dog from a kill shelter.


With newest foster dog Annie Cresta by my side, I’m tackling the five worst memes I’ve seen on my Facebook Newsfeed lately (which means, yes: they’re being shared by. people. I. know). They’re being shared by women who bring casseroles to new mothers and to widows and to anyone, really, who hints they’d like a casserole. They’re being shared by men who wave in a neighborly way and hum Christmas carols. They’re being shared by women and by men who have children, or at least seem to like children. So, clearly, they must not understand; and, since I can’t see such things and not respond (b/c “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”), here’s my two cents:

5) The “no mother should have to fear for her son’s life” meme. Actually, one of my students came across this on her Facebook Newsfeed and mentioned it during class discussion, but I’m sure that one of my 600+ Facebook friends is featuring it on their page too, because it’s the type of meme they’d love and the type that — yes, I’ll admit it — took me awhile to process before I even got it.

In the photo, a young black man stands with a couple of protestors while holding a sign that reads: “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he robs a store.”

Me: “Of course not — because we don’t shoot people for stealing. If someone steals, they’re arrested for theft — not shot on the street.”

My student had to explain that the young black man was holding a different sign (one that read “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he leaves home”), which was photoshopped to read the other version.


So we talked about the ABC bike theft experiment (what happens when a white guy, a black guy, and a “hot” blonde girl steals a bike?) and whether the response to theft is consistent. Hint: it’s not.

And I talked about one of my friends in high school, who was around Michael Brown’s age when he stole gas from a local station (back when you didn’t use debit/credit cards for everything). He was busted, but he was white, and I watched and listened while people laughed about it, called him a rascal, and chalked it up to what seventeen-year-old boys do.

I’m not saying his mother should have worried about him getting shot. What I’m saying is that Michael Brown’s mother shouldn’t have had to worry about her son getting shot either.

*qualification: i’m less interested, here, in engaging with the finer points of this case (like the fact that wilson stopped brown for walking on the road rather than the sidewalk, not stealing cigarillos; or the fact that wilson said he was threatened) than I am in exposing some people’s disturbing tendency not only to appoint themselves judge-jury-and-executioner when a young black man is involved but also to flaunt, through photoshop and Facebook, that mindset.*

4) The “don’t like cops? the next time you’re in trouble, call a crackhead” meme. Two things:

First: As Jon Stewart points out, “You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”

Being critical — of the fact that neither the Brown nor the Garner case was deemed trial-worthy, when over 90% of cases that go before a grand jury end in indictment — is not the same thing as not liking cops. Pointing out that it’s a potential conflict of interest to ask local prosecutors (who work with police) to present evidence against the person who may be their Secret Santa is not the same thing as not liking cops.

Second: It’s annoying when people stereotype isn’t it? — whether they assume that you’re a bad guy b/c you have dark skin, or you’re a bad guy b/c you’re a cop. Okay. So, don’t assume “crackheads” (dehumanizing much?) — or, people who may be struggling with a drug addiction — aren’t capable of helping and doing good. Geez.

3) The “quick! which one is bb? Too late. You’re already dead 15x over” meme. This meme features a cop holding a real gun and a not-real gun, and they’re virtually indistinguishable.

YES. Cops have a dangerous job, are afraid, and are right to be afraid — not of people of color but of being shot. In 2012, 30 cops were killed in the line of duty.

We have a gun problem and need sensible gun control reform; as Matthew Yglesias writes, “This is true if you think Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson should have been found guilty of a crime. But in many ways it’s even more true if you think he’s innocent of any wrongdoing. A system in which legal police shootings of unarmed civilians are a common occurrence is a system that has some serious flaws.”

The rub? The person who posted ^this^ meme is against gun control. She was posting it, no doubt, to defend the cop who shot 12-year-old Tamir Ricenot to point out the fact that maybe (just *maybe*) the NRA shouldn’t be blocking legislation like California’s Senate Bill 798 — legislation that would require not-real guns (air gun, airsoft and BB) to be distinguishable (as in brightly colored) from real guns.

409 people were killed by cops in 2012, some of them children. And that’s a problem for everyone: the dead people; the families of the dead people; and the cops, some of whom have to live with mistakingly killing unarmed kids.

Think that’s just what happens? Number of shots fired by police in Britain last year? 3. Number of fatalities? 0.

2) The “breathe easy. don’t break the law” meme. This little slogan is actually a t-shirt, designed by police officer Jason Barthel.

So . . . people can breathe easy, as long as they don’t break any laws . . . but, if they DO break a law (like selling untaxed cigarettes), they may be choked to death by police, and we should be okay with that.

If you do not understand why ^this^ is problematic, please reread #5 and/or go looking for your absentee conscience.

1) The 9-11 torture meme. Whether the meme quotes Rush Limbaugh or Dick Cheney, the argument is the same: torture isn’t defined by what we do to other people (e.g. beating, rectally infusing food, shackling, water boarding, etc.) but what other people did to us on 9-11. Never mind that at least twenty-six of the people we tortured in retribution were totally innocent. Never mind that every.single.person who is giving.the.thumbs.up TO TORTURE on Facebook (at least in my circle of friends) claims to follow the teachings of a man who consistently challenged the myth of redemptive violence; as activist Shane Claiborne explains:

“[Jesus] abhors both passivity and violence and teaches us a new way forward that is neither submission nor assault, neither fight nor flight. He shows us a way to oppose evil without mirroring it, where oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed.”

Another person who shows us a way that oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed? FBI Special Agent Ali H. Soufan, or the guy who “elicited some of the most important confessions from terrorists in the war against al-Qaeda—without laying so much as a hand on them.”

To anyone giving a thumbs up to torture? You should read Soufan’s Black Banners — oh! and Jesus’s teachings too.

So ^those^ are the top (or bottom?) worst memes on Facebook at the moment. And I’ve had a couple of reactions to seeing them. My first knee-jerk reaction is to emulate my friend Mike, who wrote this oh-so-fabulous Facebook status update:

“Rather than respond to all of the disgusting comments I’m reading about the people in Ferguson, I’m just gonna do some spring cleaning on my friends list. If you’ve used the words ‘savages’ or ‘animals’ to describe the protestors/rioters/looters (whatever you want to call them), you’ve been removed. I’ll just continue to THINK racism still exists, rather than have you morons prove it to me on a daily basis. Good luck out there…’ll need it.”

But I’m going with the hope that those who have posted any (or all / shudder) of the five memes are confused, probably because they haven’t realized that the “thoughtful” commentary they’re hearing about these current, heartbreaking issues isn’t thoughtful commentary at all but propaganda. One way to tell the difference between a thoughtful commentator and a propagandist = their ability (or lack thereof) to empathize and identify with the “other” side.

Think Jon Stewart only goes after Christians for their silly war on Christmas? Watch him call down Freedom from Religion this past week for being just as petty.

Think Daily Beast, as a liberal news Web site, only glorifies protesters and vilifies cops? Read Michael Daly slam certain NYC protestors on Saturday for insulting Detective Larry DePrimo and Officer Conor McDonald, two men who he calls “civic treasures.”

Watch John freaking McCain address the CIA torture report with Jon Stewart applauding him.

And then, for Christ’s sake (which is not blasphemous — b/c I mean, literally, for the sake of Jesus and his Golden Rule), look at all.the.people who share this planet with you, give them the benefit of the doubt (i.e. actually listen to what they have to say), and then reevaluate your position (which, I promise, will not kill you).

Or, at the very least, stop being such a shitty person on Facebook.

Talking Racism and Reconciling History

My fingers have been been itching to write one of my vent-posts since Mike Brown’s tragic shooting on August 9th in Ferguson, MO. August is a difficult month for writing, between an annual summer trip (to, of all places, MO), two family birthdays, and the always hectic start of the school term.

So, I’ve shared things, rather than write them; I’ve had conversations; and I’ve been especially grateful for friends who have picked up the figurative pen (kudus, especially, to friend Elizabeth Broadbent, whose amazing blog post went viral).

As is often the case in such tragedies, those of us who feel sick to our stomach at the thought of losing yet another young black man are sickened further by the response of those who say:

“Look at that photo — Mike Brown, looking all innocent and young. I want to see a more recent photo, of the huge, scary man he was.” < yep, that’s an actual quote


“They’re not talking about the fact that he’s a thief!” < and another actual quote


“Poor Officer Wilson. They’re really wanting to crucify him.” < and another actual quote


“Have you seen Mike Ojo’s ice bucket challenge? He’s black and he tells other black people that they should pull up their pants and stop looking like criminals, if they don’t want to get shot on the street. If you ask me, Mike Ojo is a smart young man.” < apparently, this ice bucket challenge has 30,000 Facebook shares.

The retorts to such statements roll easily enough off the tongue. You’re not allowed to shoot a person, because you think he looks “huge” and “scary.” You’re not allowed to shoot a person, even if he stole something. (I remember watching Disney’s Aladdin as a kid and shrinking back in horror at Princess Jasmine’s near loss of her hand as punishment for theft. I was grateful that we don’t have punishments like that here, not realizing at the time that young black men sometimes get much, much worse).

We should be able to trust our officers, trained professionals, to keep their temper and fear in check and to neither instigate nor escalate fights with the civilians they’ve sworn to protect (e.g. an officer may get angry at the teenager who punches him in the face, but that officer should not retaliate by putting a bullet through the teenager’s head). And, rather than dubbing a young black man “smart” for urging other young black men to dress differently in order to be perceived differently, we should rail against the fact that people of color have to live by a set of rules [that includes the bagginess (or lack thereof) of one’s pants] in order to freaking survive. This, of course, is reminiscent of the equally wrong “don’t wear a miniskirt if you don’t want to get raped” argument — another classic example of blaming the victim.

As sickening as these racist comments are, I expected them, especially since so many of them are parroted back and forth between Fox News pundits. What I didn’t expect were the comments I received both publicly and privately on Facebook, after posting an article about a brilliant video, entitled “See The Stripes [Clemson University]: A Poem by A.D. Carson,” recently nominated for the University of South Carolina Museum of Education’s Charles and Margaret Witten Award for Distinguished Documentary Film in Education.

A.D. Carson’s poem, and the accompanying video, convey both his (overall positive) experience as a young black student at Clemson University and also his fervent wish that Clemson University will one day own its complete history (i.e. the ‘university grounds as plantation, peopled by slaves’ part of its history). Carson argues that we’re better and stronger by acknowledging “the stripes” — the good and the bad. Most, if not all, institutions only highlight the good moments, and it would be nice if that wasn’t the commonplace or the expectation. Imagine if, instead, institutions of higher learning were encouraged to educate current and prospective students more responsibly, to model thoughtful discussion of difficult topics, to discuss how to create better futures by learning from past mistakes.

Facebook friends, both conservative and liberal, denigrated Carson’s argument, insisting that he should be celebrating his university rather than airing particularly old and dirty laundry. At first, I thought they misunderstood. I always forget that Clemson (of which they’re alums) and USC (of which I’m an alum) are “rivals.” I’ve been at USC for over a decade and have never been to a football game. I drive an orange car (Clemson color) with a paw print (that’s meant to be a dog’s but could just as easily be the Clemson tiger’s). I half-heartedly stuck a USC sticker on the car when my students complained, but — really — I affiliate myself with institutions of higher learning, because I value education, regardless of the color (orange or garnet) through which it’s filtered.


^ that’s my “solid orange” car in the background ^

My friend and colleague, Graham Stowe, thought they misunderstood too, and hastened to explain: “This isn’t a case of ‘USC people’ bashing Clemson . . . Both schools have a tendency to whitewash (pun intended) the more despicable parts of our history. Why can’t both schools become leaders on this? There are smallish projects on this happening, but why not make these things center pieces of our stories? Can’t reconciliation with our own history be part of healing and good for these important public institutions?”


Because here’s the thing:


It’s a problem, and it’s at least partly a problem, because we ignore talking about things that embarrass us. Example: I was watching the John Adams series, and I was shocked by the image (in Episode 6) of the White House being built by underfed slaves. And then I felt like an idiot. OF COURSE it was built by underfed slaves. But that’s not anything I ever heard on the tour when I visited DC as a child, and that did a disservice not only to me (by limiting my understanding) but also to all those earlier lives — lives that *mattered* and that should be remembered and honored.

The White House is beautiful, as is the Horseshoe at USC, as are the buildings that make up Clemson university. But we neither talk about the African-American artisans who contributed to their beauty nor the fact that they were able to do so under unimaginably trying circumstances.

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^ a happy, recent DC duck tour, in which I did not hear about slaves building the White House ^

I can’t help but think that this omission, this erasure of others’ humanity, has a chilling effect. You see it in “blackface” parties, like the one Clemson alum, Coby DuBose describes; or in the fact that within walking distance of USC’s campus, the confederate flag still flies in front of the South Carolina State House.

Making slave narratives a centerpiece of our university stories may not put an immediate end to “blackface” parties, and the confederate flag may still fly for awhile, but as more and more incoming students hear the voices of previously silenced people of color, and understand how devoted we are to hearing and appreciating those voices, I suspect that they’ll be less likely to ignore and/or ridicule. Enough of Gilderoy Lockhart, university edition. Let’s be honest, transparent, and thoughtful about our histories, please.

This and this = a good start.

Dear Christian Evangelicals: Jesus and Santa are not white; holiday is not a curse word; and Phil Robertson’s right to free speech was not violated.

It’s been an especially angry Christmas season this year.

Example #1: Every year Fox has its “War on Christmas” segments, and every year Jon Stewart has his always hilariously funny “War on Christmas” response — and, in our family at least, we look as forward to that as we do to putting up the Christmas tree. It’s cherished tradition. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Jon Stewart telling Gretchen Carlson to chill.

But, this year, the debate went further than whether or not we should be mad at Tulsa for calling its parade the holiday rather than Christmas parade. This year’s defining moment was not Gretchen Carlson, but Megyn Kelly insisting to her 10:00pm Fox News kid viewers (all zero of them) that both Santa and Jesus are white men.

To be fair, even the most conservative Christian evangelicals seem to recognize that neither the historical Jesus (from Palestine) nor the historical Saint Nicholas (from what is modern day Turkey) would be “white” according to either Carlson’s or Kelly’s definition and would probably instead, as Jon Stewart jokes, “be on the no fly list.”

Still, as my friend, Alec McLeod points out, “Facebook never disappoints,” and at least two people insisted to me that Jesus and Santa are white, and each pulled quotes from articles that *seemed* to support their points . . . until you, um, read them and discovered something else entirely.

From The Washington Post, “Reza Aslan on Jesus’s skin color: ‘Megyn Kelly is right. Her Christ is white.” In this recap of an interview between Max Fisher and religious scholar Reza Aslan, the latter differentiates between the historical Jesus (Palestinian man) and the figurative Christ (“The Christ of faith can be anything, anything that you want him to be, and has been whatever you want him to be throughout the last 2,000 years of Christian history”).

He continues: “The foundational metaphor for God in Christianity is man. What is God? Christianity tells you God is man, and so man is the metaphor for what God is in Christianity, because God became a man in the form of Jesus. How do you know, how do you define God? Think of the perfect man. God is infinitely good, infinitely caring, infinitely compassionate. God is all the greatest human attributes that you can imagine. That’s what God is. It’s a sort of a central metaphor . . . This is precisely why Christianity is the largest religion in the world. Because that central metaphor allows you to then thoroughly absorb this conception of Jesus as God into whatever your own particular understanding of humanity is.”

From The World Mysteries blog, “How many major races are there in the world?” The person who quoted this article only quoted the part that, as you discover by its conclusion, “is rooted in the European imagination of the Middle Ages, which encompassed only Europe, Africa, and the Near East.” The article, as a whole, seeks not only to undermine racial categories but also to suggest that those, like Megyn Kelly, who insist on the “whiteness” of Jesus and St. Nicholas, are evil:

“By 1871, some leading intellectuals had recognized that even using the word ‘race’ ‘was virtually a confession of ignorance or evil intent.'”

Moral: I won’t go so far as to call Megyn Kelly evil, but I do think that this particular “War on Christmas” edition is more insidious than past ones, which (1) makes talking about it important; and (2) offers an opportunity to develop/practice empathy for “the other” — b/c what both articles imply is this:

*if* the race of either Jesus or Saint Nicholas *matters* to you at all, then you should actively start imagining him as different from yourself — until it doesn’t.

Example #2: A following status popped up on my Facebook Newsfeed: “If you are tired of hearing ‘happy holidays,’ go visit Chick-fil-A! The employees are encouraged to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Praise God, finally someone who knows why we celebrate Christmas — Christ!”

Why would anyone get “tired” of receiving well wishes for happiness, despite its form? I said as much, while pointing out that even holiday has religious connotations (happy holiday = happy holy day) as does Happy/Merry Xmas, incidentally (see Greek letters/Roman alphabet/X as a symbol for the cross/etc.)

Response? Either people shouted “Merry CHRISTmas” in a nah-nah-nuh-boo-boo way, or said this: “Happy holidays? Well what holiday is it? Hanukkah is over, chances are not too many people have ever even heard of Kwanzaa, and New Year’s is not a holiday (holy day), so that only leaves Christmas.”

Moral: ^Therein^ lies the problematic philosophy of the conservative religious right — if you’re one of the few, the “not too many people” so casually dismissed above — you and your holiday and your wishes for peace on earth and goodwill towards men may as well not exist. period.

The irony is that this went down while I was at a Catholic church, enjoying a performance of Handel’s Messiah, with a Jewish friend, who got tickets for me and my husband. And I came home to a “Merry Christmas” card from my atheist friend.

Because: there is something magical about the golden rule. When you treat those who think differently from you with love and respect — when you think about what’s most appropriate for your audience and say “Happy Hanukkah!” or “Happy Kwanzaa!” or “Happy Winter Solstice!” or “Happy Holidays!” [which is the best if you don’t know, since it includes Thanksgiving to Epiphany] or “Merry Christmas!” accordingly, you’ll be treated with respect and sincere well-wishes too.

Your holiday greeting shouldn’t be about *you,* the person making the wish, but about the one who receives it. Honestly, though . . . the most common response to any of the above is: thanks! . . . because most people understand that how well wishes are “wrapped” is of as little import as the choice of paper below.

Seriously, evangelical Christians: Get a grip.

Example #3: I think everyone’s Facebook Newsfeed has been blowing up over Phil Robertson’s suspension from Duck Dynasty, after he asserted that homosexuality is the sin from whence all evil comes, after he compared gay sex to sex with animals, and after he waxed nostalgic over the good ole’ days of segregation.

His most ardent and spirited defenders are sharing a more palatable Robertson quote, in which he claims to “love all of humanity,” one that directly contradicts the way Phil just treated the GLBT and African-American communities.

Next, follows a discussion of how his free speech has been violated, because his employers decided that they want to dissociate from his comments.

Dear Phil Robertson defenders: if you’re so proud of him, why not post his image with the comments for which he was actually suspended? Why not make a t-shirt with them and wear it to church, to work, etc. — or might it be problematic to wear the following?


You may, of course, say or wear the above to your workplace. It’s within your right. But: freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequence (i.e. there are repercussions to being an ass). Also, even those who take the Bible literally, who wear WWJD bracelets, recognize that Jesus had *this* to say about homosexuality, and, for the most part, only quoted Scripture to challenge it (e.g. “You have heard it said, BUT [no]”).

Moral: I think my friend, Dr. Roger Ray, says it best in his most recent Sunday sermon:

“Most of what the Sarah Palins, Rush Limbaughs, and Bill O’Reillys are really bemoaning is the loss of an almost entirely unchallenged very white and very Christian dominant culture. They are grieving the loss of a past in which they indulge themselves in that same fantasy recently articulated by Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, when black people were happy about being sharecroppers and tenant farmers, and gay people either didn’t exist or we didn’t have to pretend to be nice to them . . .

The dominant class in any country or any century can make themselves blissfully ignorant of those who are oppressed . . .

Christmas stories introduce Jesus as being someone who is going to turn the established order of the world upside down . . . in very different ways, both Matthew and Luke interpret the birth of Jesus in images that are defiant of the dominant culture . . . The angels sang to us, and even the stars line up to affirm that the weak and the powerless, the homeless, the ones who can’t afford to go to a university or a hospital: Jesus was born for us.”

In that beautiful, inclusive spirit: a very merry Christmas, happy holidays, and season’s greetings to all.

The Zimmerman Trial and Les Misérables

I’m always reading. If I don’t have a book in hand, I’m listening to one downloaded to my ipod while I clean the house, or drive the hour commute to work. Before, during, and since the Zimmerman trial, I’ve been reading Victor Hugo’s massive Les Misérables in preparation for a themed class I’m teaching in the Fall. Although the novel was penned in 1862, Hugo alludes to its enduring relevance in the forward:

“As long as social damnation exists through laws and customs artificially creating hell at the heart of civilization and muddying a destiny that is divine with human calamity; as long as the three problems of the century — man’s debasement through the proletariat, woman’s demoralization through hunger, the wasting of the child through darkness — are not resolved; as long as social suffocation is possible in certain areas; in other words, and to take an even broader view: as long as ignorance and misery exist in this world, books like the one you are about to read are perhaps not entirely useless.”

The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is an example of how the working of law enables social condemnation, thereby creating a human hell. Trayvon is the child, wasted by darkness.

I’ve been collecting articles about the trial for a potential unit in the current issues class I teach in the Spring, and I’ve read the sometimes heated debate on social media sites with interest. My observations are as follows:

1. Where you stand on the issue has much to do with your ability or inability to empathize with young Trayvon. I’ve read comments all too eager to label Trayvon a “thug,” because he was willing (perhaps even inclined) to fight Zimmerman, because he had smoked marijuana before, etc. — all of this ignoring the fact, of course, that he was a 17-year-old boy and that neither fighting nor smoking a joint should equal a death sentence.

I’m especially sympathetic, because I have a firecracker of a child myself, and, as I pointed out in a Facebook discussion: If Arina were a strong,  17-year-old boy, she would totally be the type to throw a punch at the “creepy” person who was stalking her. Zimmerman should have lost a fight, learned his lesson, and changed his behavior. Instead, Trayvon is dead and Zimmerman is back patrolling the neighborhood with a gun like some bad Western movie. (Although, thankfully, in his latest “patrol,” he was able to help victims of a car crash; here’s to hoping that all his future “good” deeds will be similarly gentle and helpful.)

2. You can follow the Zimmerman case and still care about homicides in Chicago. Another response to the coverage of the Zimmerman trial is that we shouldn’t care about the case so much, because 17-year-old boys are dying of gun violence in Chicago. Or, some people flashed photos of white children who have been killed, as if to say: “look! White kids get killed too!” Of course, we care when any kid is killed. Of course we do. But, here’s the thing, as Charles Blow explains in his New York Times article, “The Whole System Failed Trayvon”:

“This case is not about an extraordinary death of an extraordinary person. Unfortunately, in America, people are lost to gun violence every day. Many of them look like Martin and have parents who presumably grieve for them. This case is about extraordinary inequality in the presumption of innocence and the application of justice: why was Martin deemed suspicious and why was his killer allowed to go home?”

Or, to put it another way, courtesy of my friend, Kayla: “for those of you asking why the stories of other murdered children didn’t make national news, go back and check if the police knew who was responsible but waited a month and a half (and only after cries of national outrage) to arrest him anyway. Had the police arrested Zimmerman that first night, he may have still been acquitted but none of us would know his name.”

3. The lack of sensible gun regulation must be addressed. In his response to the verdict on The Daily Show, John Oliver discusses the inevitability of Zimmerman’s acquittal due to Florida’s lax state gun laws and argues “That’s what makes this so much worse: that we can get a verdict like this not because the system is broken down, but because it works exactly as it’s designed.” He concludes the bit by asking, “How does 2013 Florida have a law that seems cut and pasted from 1881 Tombstone?”

Zimmerman had already been charged with resisting arrest with a police officer for violence, had been issued a restraining order for domestic violence, and had been fired as a security guard for being “too aggressive.” He defied the police dispatcher’s instructions and stalked Trayvon anyway.

The very idea that he could legally own a gun, carry it while patrolling the neighborhood, and use it to kill a 17-year-old with skittles and sweet tea is baffling to me. I mean: it was 7:00 at night (my kids are often outside playing at that time, during the summer) and Trayvon was close to the house where he was staying with his father.

To those who suggest that George Zimmerman *had* to shoot and kill Trayvon, lest he be killed himself: I call bullshit. There are nonlethal ways to extricate yourself from a fist fight other than using a firearm. Sadly, thanks to the NRA, people like Zimmerman are more likely to buy a lethal firearm than pepper spray or even a taser. Had Zimmerman been armed with pepper spray rather than a firearm, he would have extricated himself from the fight (which, again, he was at least partly responsible for initiating) and Trayvon would still be alive. Period.

4. The African-American community is particularly vulnerable to acts of violence rooted in racism. I mentioned above that Arina would be the type to throw a punch at her stalker (according to Rachel Jeantel, who was on the telephone with Trayvon as he walked home, Trayvon had tried to elude Zimmerman and thought he was successful before Zimmerman found him again and jumped out of his car to confront him).

Here’s the difference, though. My blond-haired, blue-eyed Barbie Doll of a child wouldn’t have been accused of suspicious activity in the first place; I’m pretty sure, in fact, that in a few more years she could play the blond at the end of this five-minute video:

Young black men must, as Charles Blow describes, “constantly fight” against “universal suspicion without individual evidence.” And the fight continues, as evinced by recent Fox News segments that justify this fear of black men, despite the fact, as Stephen Colbert points out, the statistics used to support the claim — when carried to the logical conclusion — indicate that “we can reasonably be scared of .009% of 1% of African Americans.”—color-bind

Even more frustrating is the unwillingness to recognize, as my friend Dr. Ray argues in a recent sermon, that “poverty causes crime regardless of race . . . crime is not a race issue.” Too many African-American communities are poor. Why? Because while white men were able to become doctors, lawyers and politicians — while they were building fortunes for their children and grandchildren to inherit — black men were denied access both to equal education and also to a fair wage that would enable them to afford such an education in the first place. For God’s sake, schools weren’t even desegregated until the 50s, my mother’s generation, only one removed from my own.

So, the fight against universal suspicion of being both dangerous (because black) and lazy (if poor) continues, but it should not be a fight that young black men fight on their own. White people of conscience should say “no” to the Bill O’Reillys and Bernie Goldbergs of the world. 

The beginning of Les Misérables focuses not on Jean Valjean, but on Monseigneur Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, in chapters with such titles as “A Just Man.” Hugo cites one example after another of why the Bishop is just: he exchanges the large Bishop’s palace for a small, run down hospital, much to the hospital director’s delight and surprise; he spends nearly all of his salary in charitable donations; he’s likely to sprain an ankle to avoid killing an insect; etc.

To summarize: “There are men who dig for gold; he dug for compassion. Poverty was his goldmine; the the universality of suffering a reason for the universality of charity.’Love one another.’ To him everything was contained in those words,  his whole doctrine, and he asked no more . . . ‘if [Love one another’] is folly,’ said Monseigneur without disputing the matter, ‘then the soul must enclose itself within it like the pearl in the oyster.’ Which is what he did.”

In the fourteen chapters describing the worthy Bishop before Jean Valjean is introduced, there are two incidents that have a profound affect on Monseigneur Myriel: in the first, he witnesses an execution and is “overwhelmed” afterward, concluding “it is wrong to become so absorbed in Divine Law that one is no longer aware of human law. Death belongs only to God. What right have men to lay hands on a thing so unknown?”; in the second, he visits the deathbed of someone against whom he has nursed a lifelong prejudice: a former member of the Revolutionary Convention , responsible in the Bishop’s mind for ushering in such events as the execution of Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror. He accuses him of such; the old man replies:

“In the case of Louis XVI, I voted against his death. I do not think I have the right to kill a man, but I believe it is my duty to abolish evil. I voted for the overthrow of the tyrant — that is to say, for an end to the prostitution of women, the enslavement of men, the dark night of the child.Those are the things I voted for in voting for the Republic. I voted for fraternity, for harmony, for a new dawn. I helped to bring about the downfall of prejudice and error, that their crumbling might let in light.”

By the end of the meeting, the old man has convinced the Bishop of the fact that he has always “striven for the advance of mankind towards the light,” and when he says to his visitor, “Now at the age of eighty-six I am on the point of death. What do you ask of me?”, the Bishop responds “your blessing,” and falls to his knees.

These experiences set the stage for Jean Valjean’s entrance as a poor and starving ex-convict; and the kind, compassionate treatment he receives at the Bishop’s hand — a transformative encounter that inspires much, if not all, of Valjean’s subsequent good deeds (which include rescuing the prostitute, Fantine; adopting the child, Cosette; and saving Marius from the barricades).

In short, Les Misérables asks us to consider what could happen if we let go of prejudice and fear; if we embody a Christianity that asks us not to fear but to love. Perhaps George Zimmerman would have found his prejudice as easily dispelled as the Bishop’s had he been less likely to suspect, to accuse, and to shoot first and question later.