What does life look like post graduation from graduate school? I am about to find out!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

You Can't Stop the Beat

Here's the sermon I preached this morning at my church. Scripture text is Philemon 1: 8-21

My name is Onesimus. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? I’m mentioned several times in your Holy Book but only in one portion. The letter that Paul wrote to my master, Philemon. Paul says that he has met me and that he has converted me to his faith and that now he is sending me back to my master with the hope that my master will do the right thing and set me free as a favor to him.
What I find so interesting about Paul’s letter to my master is that not once does Paul ever ask me what I want. My voice is left completely out of the story and my silence is never once accounted for. Did Paul even think to ask me whether or not I wanted to return to my master? Did he think to ask me if I might rather have been seeking him out as a way to get away from my master? Did Paul bother to even consult me about what I thought my ultimate fate should be? No, he didn’t. My voice wasn’t considered important or interesting or necessary to Paul or to Philemon. Just like so many other characters in your Holy Book, I am left voiceless with no one to come to my defense and stand up for me. Who will speak for me? Who will stand up for me? Who will give me my voice back?
Onesimus has been silenced in the Bible. His voice and his interests are left completely out. He is just another nameless, faceless, speechless character whose own interests aren’t considered important or necessary or good. Yet, those were biblical times. Things were different then. We don’t still do that now, do we? We give everyone a voice and everyone a say, don't we?
Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Sound familiar? These four men were all shot dead over the last few years because of the color of their skin. Their voices were silenced. Their voices weren’t considered important. Their voices were considered less worthy of attention and focus than their white assailants. Since their deaths, there have been attempts by the public and the media to paint some or all of them as “thugs” or “criminals” or some other such label that would somehow justify them being shot dead. As if it is somehow more socially acceptable to kill someone if they are a thug than it is if they aren’t. Their deaths have inspired protests and have also created the “Black Lives Matter” motto on social media.
More importantly, their deaths have sparked conversations all over the country about issues of race and racism. It has forced many white people to confront their own internal prejudices and biases toward their black brothers and sisters. It has also exposed the inherent racism that exists in our justice system as so far not a single indictment has come down for the white men who killed these black men.
Tomorrow, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday in which we are asked to remember the legacy of Dr. King, a man who worked so tirelessly for so long to help the Black voice be heard and be considered important. We are almost fifty years out from his assassination and it sadly doesn’t look like we are any closer to realizing his vision of living in a society where we really do believe that the black voice matters and shouldn’t be silenced.
It is absolutely vital that more white people speak up about this issue and stand in solidarity with their black brothers and sisters. Since we are the ones who perpetuate the racist system, we are also the ones who have the power to stop it. We can take action against the systems that perpetuate racism. We can stand up against racism and declare that the status quo isn’t benefiting all. We can even work to enact new laws that will ensure that our black brothers and sisters are given a more equal footing in society.
We can be the ones who demand that the black voices no longer be silenced. We can stand up and declare that the deaths of Trayvon, Eric, Oscar and Michael do matter and that their voices were silenced just like Onesimus’. We have to be the ones who demand that they be heard and that justice prevail. We can give Onesimus his voice back. We can demand that he be given a chance to speak his truth, his experience and his life. We can do the same for all the black people in our own lives whose voices have been silenced. I hear the cries of Trayvon & Michael and I hear the protests in places like Ferguson and New York City. As a white person, I admit my own complicity in the silencing of black voices and in the attempts to slander them and keep them oppressed.
So, I’ve identified the trouble with the text: the fact that Onesimus is silent. What about the grace then? What words of hope does this text have to say to a world troubled by Trayvon & Eric & Michael & Oscar? What does this text say to us that we can use to better engage with our black brothers and sisters and be a part of the solution, not the problem? It comes through Paul’s words that Onesimus was his beloved brother in Christ and thus Paul didn’t see him as a slave anymore. Through Christ Jesus, we are all united. We are Trayvon Martin. We are Eric Garner. We are Michael Brown & Oscar Grant and the many other nameless, faceless, silent black men who have been killed. This is the hope that white people can provide. A hope that one day, our system will support and uplift black bodies, not destroy them.
As Martin Luther King says, though, in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Thus, while we can provide hope, hope won’t be enough. While we continue to sit by and wait for a day when racism will end, more black people will die or be the victims of our racist policies. So, yes, hope is great but hope won’t prevent people like Michael Brown from being killed.
We have to be more than the hope then. We have to be the agents of change. Change is coming. You can’t stop the beat of history as it marches forward toward a new day. Let’s help make that new day today. Let’s be that change. Let’s be aware of our own privilege and use it to help, not hurt. Change won’t come about if we hope for it. We have to actively work for it, for the good of our black brothers and sisters. We have to fight for it, with them, not against them. It is up to us to begin the hard work of dismantling the systems of privilege that keep oppressing black people. It is up to us to vote for elected officials that will represent those voices that are silenced. It is up to us to stand up and speak out against racism in our culture and our world. It is up to us to do this hard and difficult yet necessary work. Onesimus won’t be kept silent anymore. Michael Brown won’t be kept silent anymore. Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant won’t be kept silent anymore. Their voices are rising up, out of the pages of history. Out of the pages of the Bible. Out of the pages that tell them that they should stay silent and stay oppressed. Do you hear that sound? That’s the sound of revolution. That’s the sound of their voices. That’s the sound of change. It’s coming. The only question that remains: are you going to join in or stay on the sidelines?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Year Without A White Man

  I want to take some time to write to all of you about a project I took on this past year and the many ways it expanded my worldview. This past January 1, I decided to take on a rather unique and unusual reading project. I love to read. I've been a bookworm for as far back as I can remember. However, I haven't always done a good job of reading outside my comfort zone or reading about other cultures. Thus, I gave myself a challenge: that I would only read books written by non-white men. I did this partly because I think that white men have had enough of a voice in our culture and I wanted to give other voices a chance to speak up. I also did it as a way to confront my own internalized racism. I realized when deciding to begin this project that the vast majority of my own favorite authors or favorite books are written by white men. While I don't mean to denigrate or deny their own marvelous writing abilities, I was aware that I needed to branch out and read books by some non-white men. Instead, I focused exclusively on historically oppressed groups. I would like to add the caveat that I did still read books by white women. This was because I wanted to include all the various ways that women, even white ones, are still systemically oppressed in our society. However, of the 46 books I read this past year, the vast majority were written by people of color.
  So, what did I learn from doing this project and how did it open my eyes? A big takeaway for me is just how institutionalized and systemic racism really is. Through reading books like Americanah (Chimamanda Adichie); Roots (Alex Haley) and 12 Years a Slave (Solomon Northrup), I was exposed to the ways in which my white culture has made racism a part of every system and how far back it really goes. I confess to having a much different view of slavery and even racism before hand. My history textbooks growing up gave the image that slavery wasn't as bad as it might have been portrayed. They portrayed the idea that most slaves preferred slavery over being free and were indeed happy with their lot. I realize now just how racist and awful an idea that is to even think but before reading Roots or 12 Years a Slave, it had never occurred to me to re-think this. As a white person, I've come to realize just how little I had actually ever thought about race mainly because it doesn't affect me. I even remember thinking to myself how this project sounded very racist to take on because isn't it racist against white people to not read them for an entire year? My whiteness protects me and gives me a level of privilege that people of color don't have access to no matter their financial resources or education or ability. The books I read this year helped me see just how hard it is to be a person of color in America.
   Through reading 100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez); And the Mountains Echoed (Khaled Hosseini) and the House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), I was exposed to what life is like for those who live in other countries. It gave me a new global perspective.
It also gave me the opportunity to finally read some books by authors who are well-established and critically acclaimed but who I had never read before for some reason. I finally had a chance to read Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye, Beloved); Alice Walker (The Color Purple); Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings); Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart); Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). Somehow, I had never before read any of these authors and they completely expanded my reading abilities and my worldview.
  What were the best books I read this year? I have to admit, not every book I read this year was that great. That's ok. I didn't go into this thinking they all would be. I knew there would be some books I'd read that would be less than awesome. However, there were definitely some that stood out to me as being excellent works. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock was an incredible book for me to read this year. Mock is an African-American transgender woman who writes about her experience growing up as a boy and then realizing that she was actually a woman and then deciding to go through with transitioning. It is a powerful story about what it is like to be transgender, black and a woman in the United States. Definitely highly recommended for anyone who wants to know more about that experience. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri was a powerful story about the immigrant experience in America. Also highly recommended. I can't say enough good things about the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. He writes about his experience growing up as a Native American and choosing to attend school off of his reservation. A powerful look at how white culture has supplanted and made shameful Native American culture. I read two Khaled Hosseini novels this year (And the Mountains Echoed and A Thousand Splendid Suns). Both were great but incredibly devastating reads. He really paints a vivid picture of what Afghani life is like both pre and post Taliban. I can't stop thinking about The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Such a strong, vivid prose style that has stuck with me even now almost a year after reading it.
  I had my eyes opened to the many ways that being a minority can be hard. It can feel shameful or lonely or isolating. It can even be dangerous. I won't say that I was completely unaware of this before but it became clearer to me through the works I read this past year. Some of these books were quite difficult to read and I had to force myself to get through them. Some of them contained extremely graphic sexual acts of violence, particularly against children. Not exactly pleasure reading. Some of them made me feel so incredibly ashamed of my whiteness and the fact that my ancestors did such terrible things to an entire group of people. Some even forced me to acknowledge my inner racism. That was the hardest part of this project: acknowledging that even as a somewhat enlightened, highly educated queer person that I am still guilty of racism in some ways. I still have racist thoughts or racist tendencies. I admit that. What this project did was bring them to light and help me be willing to acknowledge them to myself.
  Now, that we've hit a new year, I've come to the end of my year long project. I'm looking forward to being able to read some Charles Dickens and John Green and Orson Scott Card again, three authors I had been particularly missing reading over the last year. However, I'm also going to be more intentional about seeking out and reading more books by people of color. I've got a good place to start after this past year with several authors that I really want to read more from. Perhaps I'll even be willing to admit some of them into my hard to crack list of favorite authors or favorite books! I'd encourage everyone to take on a project similar to this in your own lives. If you aren't a reader, maybe try it with something else you enjoy. Maybe only watch TV shows or movies starring or written by people of color? Perhaps only cook foods that are enjoyed in countries other than America? Travel someplace where you are likely to be the minority? Whatever you do, you owe it to yourself to do it. It will enrich your life in so many ways, I promise you. I can't believe I waited so long to discover so many of these authors but now that I have I'm very excited to see what else they have in store for me!