Archive for July, 2015

A Conscious Choice to Love

July 21st, 2015 No comments


First off, let’s stop thinking about Civil Rights as a black/white Issue. It has always been a white issue. That is to say that the application of the one drop rule in the American consciousness has resulted in a binary perception of white/non-white where whites have access to privilege and non-whites do not. In some cases and at some times this binary perception has been codified into law, in the form of Jim Crow laws, Asian and Hispanic Exclusion laws, etc. It is currently illegal to apply this perception of race in public accommodation, but public racism continues in hidden forms.

Racism is founded on a perception of difference that is not real. Scholars today have debunked the mythologies that once classified people according to skin color or blood. When categorizing different people groups, it is almost always done by language families, because scientists have recognized that there isn’t any essential or significant biological difference between members of the human race. This is, by the way, what differentiates the Civil Rights Movement from the Gay Rights Movement, because the former is trying to instill a recognition that there is no biological or genetic difference, and the latter wants to assert the opposite: that there is a “gay” gene that biologically differentiates people with same sex attraction from everyone else.

The goal of Civil Rights movements is to achieve civic equality. Our current efforts to achieve that goal, while historically significant and legally successful, have failed to produce a difference in public perception that makes it real in fact as well as in law. The events of recent months have shown that while racism has been driven from the law books it is still very much alive in the hearts of the people.

This is, I believe, at least partially because the methods of achieving civic equality have focused on categorizing people according to race. For example, every government form one fills out asks a question about race. One must self-identify in one of a number of predefined categories. The purpose of this is to ensure that one self-identifying group cannot achieve access to services disproportionately to another, or in some cases the opposite, to ensure that one self-identifying group obtains access at least on an equal basis to others. Do you not see the irony here? We categorize people according to race (a fictional category) in order to erase the consequences of false perceptions of race.

I think it is interesting that the man most associated with the Civil Rights Movement had a vision of an America that was not divided by race. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told the nation in his most famous speech of his dream for America:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’[1]

His dream was not for Black people, it was for all people.

One sees his vision of a Beloved Community full of diversity in his earliest writings. And when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 he was embarked on a campaign against poverty. Poverty is a condition that does not recognize socially constructed racial differences. King recognized this, and he also recognized that poor people have much more in common with each other than they do with more prosperous members of their socially constructed group. In fact, false differentiation according to race is an impediment to rising out of poverty for all groups, not just Blacks. It pits people against each other who ought to be allies.

Overcoming the harmful effects of racism is a monumental task that we as a society have begun but are yet far from achieving. There is no silver bullet. There is no easy or quick solution. I think an essential step in achieving the goal of real civic equality is to differentiate according to economics rather than ethnicity. The effects of poverty are devastating to people regardless of ethnicity. Overcoming poverty will go a long way toward erasing racism. In the United States the political elite are thoroughly integrated, while racism runs rampant among the poor.

But I am convinced that the ultimate solution is to be found in education. It is a fact that humans are taught to hate; by their families, by their environment, and by their culture. But, as Nelson Mandela noticed, if someone can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. And so our ongoing effort must be to educate the current generation out of racism and into love. And, as King and others (i.e., Gandhi, Mandela) noticed, the only way to do that is to respond to hate with a self-sacrificing love that awakens the conscience of our lost brothers and sisters. We can’t hate our enemies into loving us. I don’t believe anyone makes a conscious choice to be racist, but I believe we can make a conscious choice to love.

[1] “I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963, in James Melvin Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 220.

Trial By Combat, American Style

July 19th, 2015 No comments


The United States inherited British Common Law at its founding. British Common Law is based on what is known as the Adversarial System. There is some speculation that the system arose in the Middle Ages out of the system of trial by combat. In that system, two adversaries battle each other; the one who survives wins. In the case of a female adversary, she would be allowed to choose a champion to fight for her. As jurisprudence moved away from physical combat, the process became a contest between two lawyers. The difference between the physical combat and the courtroom is that in physical combat, whoever survives wins, while in a courtroom trial the winner is decided by a theoretically impartial judge and jury.

The Adversarial System has application beyond the legal system. “Trial by physical battle is a type of adversarial system, as are formal debate, presidential elections, football games, and a host of similar events. What all of these events have in common is that they are contests that lead to decisions.”[1] It is so fundamental to our culture that we use this system in all of our social decision making.

We take for granted that this system will produce truth and yield justice. In theory, impartial judges and jurors will be able to weigh the extreme arguments of the advocates and tell which side is telling the truth. There are those who argue this provides the most certain method of determining the truth, and there can be little argument that, when the advocates are honest and the judge and jury properly educated and attentive, the system works more often than not. But, of course, therein lies the rub. For in our social discourse the advocates are often not honest and the judge and jury are woefully ignorant.

It is an inherent flaw in the system. One author describes some of the flaws with the system:

Those who are opposed to this system point out that this is a system of procedural justice and not substantive justice. Whereas substantive due process is a real and tangible justice, procedural due process only goes through the motions of what looks like justice. Another criticism of the adversarial system is that a higher value is placed on winning, than finding the truth. Lawyers are more apt to hide the evidence that is not favorable to their side regardless of whether it would prove the innocence or guilt of the person on trial. Another criticism is that while we all have the right to be heard in a court of law in front of a neutral judge and an impartial jury, we apparently do not have the right to representation that is equal. The more money we have, the better the attorney we can hire, and thus the better our chances are of winning. Some even feel that too many poor and minorities are in prison and on death row because of this system.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg pointed out “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty … I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial.”[2]

All three of these arguments point to real dangers or impediments to finding truth and justice, but the one that is the most damning for our social discourse is the second. Because advocates in social debate unabashedly do exactly what is described, deliberately hide or obfuscate evidence that is prejudicial to their position. This might not be a problem if people took the time (or had the time) to become properly educated about the issues, but that is true in almost no case. Because all sides in a debate can present compelling evidence, the public decide based on what seems to be the most popular with their friends, or aligns with what one already believes.[3]

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” It is precisely because of the adversarial system that this is so. When advocates are more interested in winning than in serving the truth, when every debate devolves into a confusing set of competing “truths”, and when those who must decide are too partisan to compromise or too distracted to care there is little hope for the survival of our democracy.

Perhaps there is a better way. Perhaps, rather than being dedicated to winning at any cost, we might be dedicated to truth at any cost. Truth and love are the same thing. And what we need is love.

[1] Gary Goodpaster, “On the Theory of American Adversary Criminal Trial,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 78, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 118, accessed July 18, 2015,

[2] Pat Schroeder, “The Adversarial Legal System: Is Justice Served?,” The Law Insider, September 30, 2010, accessed July 18, 2015,

[3] See Keith Cox, “What Can We Believe In?,” Dispatches From Exile, July 10, 2015, accessed July 18, 2015, and Brandon Keim, “How People’s Political Passions Distort Their Sense of Reality,” Science (blog), Wired, November 19, 2014, accessed July 18, 2015,

God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5 NRSV)

July 17th, 2015 No comments


Every human being suffers a deficiency which consists of disharmony with the universe, which can be characterized as being disconnected from God, but which manifests in a seemingly endless array of afflictions. No one is perfect. No one is in complete harmony. But one can move toward harmony, not by seeking to make imperfections perfect, but by moving toward the Source of harmony. Not by celebrating darkness, but by walking into the light.

At Least I’m not Black

July 16th, 2015 No comments

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.[1]

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March” (speech, State Capitol, Montgomery, Al., March 25, 1965), accessed July 15, 2015,

What Can We Believe In?

July 10th, 2015 No comments

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” This quote from the eighteenth-century philosophe Voltaire sums up the Enlightenment argument against religion. The Protestant Reformation in Europe resulted in an era of bloody and destructive religious warfare. Beginning in the seventeenth century many educated people concluded that the problem was not one church or the other, but religion itself. Religion, by its very nature, does not rely on what we consider “reason” for its claim to validity. Who can believe rationally in a worldview that spurns reason (ghosts impregnating teenagers, defiance of physical laws, resurrection from the dead)? And, consequently but even worse, convinced millions of people over decades to brutally murder their fellows over issues of minute dogma.

The Enlightenment project was a reaction to all this. The Enlightenment philosophes sought to rescue knowledge from the superstitious shackles of religion. In effect, they set out to redefine Truth, and the ways that Truth could be known. Prior to this period, what was true was what the Bible said, or, more precisely, what certain religious leaders said the Bible said. Since the Wars of the Reformation demonstrated that the Bible could be made to say just about anything, the philosophes rejected the Bible and religion as a basis for truth, and instead settled on science.

Concurrent with the Religious Wars was the Scientific Revolution. Those engaged in scientific research were able to show that real truth could be obtained by scientific investigation and explained using mathematical formulae. They were successful in convincing that scientific evidence was unassailable. And since the way one came to know scientific truth was by the exercise of the mind – reason – the West entered the “Age of Reason.” Subsequently in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, every field of endeavor was re-oriented to a foundation in science. What began as a means of explaining the structure of the universe and the nature of the physical and biological world became the basis for understanding every aspect of life. Is it not telling that every proposed method of arranging society to meet the challenges of industrialization appeals to science: scientific Marxism, Positivism, Social Darwinism?

The great enemy of science, it was thought by many, was religious superstition. Raising science to the level of godhood (during the French Revolution the Cathedral of Notre Dame was renamed the “Temple of Reason”) was supposed to allow mankind to move forward without being dogged by fantasy and delusion. But today we are witnessing a remarkable phenomenon: science itself has become religion.

Here’s what I mean. In any number of social debates from climate change to vaccinations to sexual orientation each side on the debate tries to bolster its arguments by appeal to scientific research, or to scientific experts. But the problem is that each side can appeal to science, because each side can find scientists who will confirm whatever their political position is. So in the end, science is not used as a means to validate truth, it is used as a means to validate belief. What is that but religion?

So here’s the dilemma. If we can’t believe in God because it’s unscientific, and we can’t believe in science because it’s religious, what can we believe in?

Too Big for an Insane Asylum?

July 9th, 2015 No comments

When his State seceded from the Union in 1860 South Carolina politician James L. Petrigru famously remarked, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” South Carolina has long been considered by many to be the heart of racist sentiment in the South and in the nation, and it has often lived up to its reputation.

The Confederate flag that flew over the South Carolina statehouse and later in front of it was erected in 1961 (not 1861) in response to the challenge of the Civil Rights movement. As such it was never a symbol of pride in heritage, unless the heritage one took pride in was white supremacy – racism. It is therefore a symbol that ought to evoke shame, not pride. It is all the more shameful for those of us who knew what it stood for and never spoke against it.

Those of us outside the South tend to self-righteousness at the expense of Southerners; pointing to the well-known heritage of Southern racism. In doing so we demonstrate a selective memory that allows us to somehow dismiss racial discord and riots in places like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The South has become our national scapegoat. We can point to the brutality that really was practiced in the South and pretend that because our own racism was (perhaps) less blatant, we are somehow absolved.

But we should not forget that Major League Baseball was not integrated until 1947, and then painfully. The armed services were not integrated until 1950. The school district in Topeka, Kansas (hardly what we would consider the Deep South) was still segregated in 1955. That’s not southern baseball or the southern armed services, or southern school districts. America as a nation has long practiced a systematic institutionalized racism. And the journey from an openly racist to a race-blind society is long and fraught with danger. W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1904 that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”[1] Now we are well into the Twenty-First century and many of my students tell me they don’t believe we will ever overcome the problem of racial division.

I tell them I hope they are wrong.

It seems that few know better than Southerners how regrettable their history of race relations is. And they are stepping up to move past it. Now it is the rest of us who are in denial. By an irony of history, it is South Carolina, the State that led the Confederacy to secession, that is showing us the way forward.

[1] W E B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Dover Thrift Editions (New York: Dover, 1994), v.

Are We Free?

July 4th, 2015 No comments

are  we freeOn the Fourth of July we celebrate freedom. I love to celebrate as much as anyone but as I look around me I sometimes wonder if we are as free as we believe ourselves to be. Sometimes the evil of which we prove ourselves capable seems to indicate we are held in bondage to ignorance and denial rather than the freedom of justice and righteousness.

Let’s think about that original Fourth of July that we point to as the birth of our freedom. The political crisis that led to the Declaration of Independence was rooted in economics. The British Parliament enacted financial policies that benefited England but caused financial harm to Americans. One of the rallying cries of those protesting British policy was “Taxation without representation is tyranny!” signifying the basis for American discontent. It was only later in the Revolutionary War that the meaning of the struggle came to be associated with what we today think of as liberty. For the original revolutionaries liberty meant the right to hold on to your property, by the end of the revolution it had come to mean personal freedoms like the right to participate in government, the right to dissent without fear of reprisal, the right to worship God freely without government interference, and all of the freedoms specified in the Bill of Rights that we are celebrating today.

When the Constitution was created a few years after the end of the American Revolution the founders of the United States sought to establish a form of government that would institutionalize the freedoms won in the revolution, which at the time were thought of as incredibly radical. And there isn’t any doubt that their work inspired a movement toward personal liberation from both State and Church oppression that still resonates today. But at the same time the founders perpetuated the institution of slavery which mocked the ideals of liberty they were trying to put into practice. The Constitution not only acknowledged but accommodated a system of brutality that would only end after the devastating bloodshed of the Civil War.

It’s not my purpose here to disparage the founders for accommodating slavery. Slavery was a reality then that it is not today. It had both economic and cultural roots and the idea of ending slavery was then much more radical than the idea of keeping it. It was largely due to the efforts of Christian abolitionists, first in England and then in the United States, that slavery came to be regarded as evil. Yet the fact remains that even though our nation was founded on the loftiest principles of freedom and liberty, it was marred from its birth by the stain of slavery.

In the first few decades of the nation’s existence this issue came to dominate national political life. The conflict was expressed differently depending on whether you were for or against slavery. To the latter, slaves were property, and any suggestion that their right to own that property should be abridged or denied smacked of the same tyranny as Parliament’s insistence of extracting revenue from the colonies without their consent. They defined liberty as the right to hold property, and the purpose of government to protect that right. In that they were in agreement with the Enlightenment philosophy of John Locke, whose writings heavily influenced both the Declaration of Independence and subsequently the Constitution.

At the same time more and more Northerners came to see slavery as a moral evil, something that should not be tolerated in a land that claimed to stand as the beacon of freedom. Few of the anti-slavery advocates believed that blacks were equal with whites. Even Lincoln, who is credited with ending slavery (though he didn’t), believed that the best way to resolve the issue of what to do with freed slaves was to expatriate them to Africa. The passions of both the advocates of the perpetuation of slavery on the one hand and abolitionists on the other drove the country inevitably toward armed conflict and eventually resulted in the Civil War.

Now I want to be very clear here, and this matters, that though slavery was the underlying cause of the Civil War, slavery was not uppermost in the minds of those who fought it. The Declarations of Cause that the seceding States published all pointed to slavery as the cause for dissolving the Union, but on the principle of property ownership. Lincoln, though against slavery, made clear that his highest concern was preservation of the Union. Southerners by and large fought against what they considered to be Northern aggression and violation of their rights; Northerners fought to preserve the Union. Most Southerners didn’t own slaves and weren’t fighting to keep their slaves, and almost none of the Northerners fought to free slaves. This is confirmed by the fact that when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, many Northern officers resigned in protest, refusing to fight to free Negroes.

One incident in the 1830s involved a man named Elijah P. Lovejoy. Lovejoy was a Presbyterian minister in Alton, Illinois and a prominent abolitionist. He operated a press and spoke out forcefully for the abolition of slavery. On November 7, 1837, Lovejoy was brutally murdered by a mob of pro-slavery advocates (in Illinois, hardly what we would consider the Deep South), seeking to destroy his press and silence him. As a result, another minister, Prof. Laurens P. Hickok, rallied the people of the region against the murderers and stated in a meeting he had organized, “The crisis has come. The question now before the American citizens is no longer alone, ‘Can the slaves be made free?’ but, ‘Are we free?”

That is the question I want to put before us today, as we celebrate the Fourth of July: “Are we free?” Hickok recognized the paradox of America, a nation founded on the principles of liberty that tolerated and even supported the institution of slavery, and realized that as long as that injustice prevailed no one in America could really claim to be free.

I want to call attention to the fact that we still live a paradox in terms of our understanding of freedom. As Americans we all believe, instinctively, I think, that we are free and that we are blessed with freedom, and there is a lot of truth in that belief. Americans enjoy greater freedoms than almost anyone else on earth. But at the same time I think some of what we think of as freedom is an illusion. It leaves us to wonder what it really means to be free.

If you asked Americans before the Civil War, North or South, what America stood for, I’m pretty sure that the most common answer then would have been liberty, just like today. Americans then were sure they were free because of the promises of freedom arising as a result of the Revolution. And yet tens of thousands of human beings were held against their will in cruel bondage, and everyone knew this. A few people, mostly Christian abolitionists who were looked upon as radicals and trouble makers, recognized the paradox and sought to bring America’s reality into alignment with its principles.

The war was fought, the Union preserved, the slaves freed. But the conflict remained. It is a complex and painful history, but the essence is that ending the institution of slavery did not even address another, even deeper divide in American life: racism. We want to equate slavery with racism, and in the United States that was mostly accurate. But the opposite was not true. Being against slavery was not the same as being against racism. And so within only a few years of the abolition of slavery those who previously had been marked for bondage by the color of their skin became legally segregated and excluded from the blessings of liberty by that same measure. Americans continued to boast about freedom while everyone knew that millions of their countrymen were not truly free.

The nation was able to ignore this paradox until World War II caused Americans, particularly excluded Americans, to reconsider the promise of freedom. If they were called to put their lives on the line to fight against German and Japanese racism, why should they tolerate racism at home? And so America’s supreme accomplishment: liberating the world from the evils of Nazism and Japanese racist aggression, became the crucible for domestic soul-searching and turmoil. The Civil Rights Movement is today considered a triumph of justice but it was a brutal episode in our history and its promises have yet to be realized. We have abolished slavery in law, and we have abolished segregation in law, but we are still haunted by the ghost of racism.

As Prof. Hickok asked the Americans of his time, “Are we free?” Or are we deceived like pre-Civil War Americans into thinking that because we inherit the promise of liberty made by our ancestors we are automatically free, while at the same time we are held in bondage by racist attitudes we are not even able to acknowledge?

Are we free when we are raised to intuitively see the world through eyes that are tinted with fear and distrust of the “other”? Are we free when we dismiss the cries of our neighbors for justice and equality as whining and hyper-sensitivity? Are we free when in response to each monstrous criminal act and tragic blunder we take refuge behind fortresses of preconceived notions and parrot other peoples’ well-worn arguments to each other? Are we free when rather than taking a courageous stand for peace we allow ourselves to spiral deeper and deeper into enmity, even to promote that? Are we free when being right seems more important than being happy?

Unlike Professor Hickok we can’t note the arrival of crisis. The crisis is ever with us. We inherited it, and it is only deepened by our denial. But while crisis often has a tendency to bring out the worst in people, and we can certainly point to much evidence of that in our history, crisis can also be a time when people are able to rise above their circumstances and aim for a higher purpose. We Americans claim to be a wholly exceptional people. Perhaps if we were as exceptional as we claim to be we would not still struggle with the meaning of “All men are created equal” 239 years after we declared it.

But perhaps what is exceptional about America is that we still can envision a better future. We still can hold ourselves to a higher standard. And we have demonstrated that what we can dream we can achieve.

As we celebrate America’s independence, let us enjoy the picnics and the fireworks and all of the other fun activities and give thanks for the freedoms we have been blessed with. Let us really appreciate how fortunate we are to inherit the promises of liberty. But let us also recall that the liberties we enjoy represent not just a blessing but a calling. We are not free just to be free, so that we can become self-absorbed consumers. We are called to be light, to reflect in our own lives the vision of a world of righteousness, justice, and love. As Americans, we have the freedom to do that. We have the freedom to turn away from darkness and embrace the light. And when that has been accomplished, when, as the biblical prophet Amos says, we “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24 ESV), then we will be truly free. Then we will be able to sing along with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Thank God Almighty we are free at last!”

Happy Fourth of July. God bless our American States!

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