Water Cooler Observations, June 24, 2020

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Racism as we know it, is a special type of bullying that preys on perceived weakness. Fear draws in bullies. Bullies pick their victims based on the likelihood that the victims will not fight back. I wrote about my own experience of being bullied as a kid in my memoir, Called Along the Way (Nemesis). Just like there will always be bullies; racism is an intractable issue that will never go away.

Analysts make a distinction between a problem that can be solved and a polarity that can only be managed. The reason that racism cannot be considered a problem to be solved because the bullying instinct is innate in all social animals. Bullying is used to establish dominance, the pecking order in a group of animals, birds, or even fish. Such behavior is tolerated by all societies, but it is also regulated by convention. Deer lock horns, but they do not gore each other; military officers are allowed to yell at enlisted personnel, but not lay a hand on them.

What makes Christianity radically different is that Jesus refused to tolerate the usual ways that societies establish dominance. We read in Matthew’s Gospel:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.” (Matt 20:25-26).

As sons and daughters of the Lord, all bullying of any kind among disciples is forbidden. We are to earn respect by our service, not by bullying.

Lessons of History

The current interest in history is healthy provided the broader sweep of history is not forgotten.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not follow from a slave revolt but rather an outpouring of conscience, especially among northern churches. Slavery was inconsistent with Christian ethical values, especially the words of the Apostle Paul:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

In todays’s language, no ethic group is better than any other, no economic class is better than any other, and no gender is better than any other. Because we are all children of the same Father God, work to mitigate the remnants of racism in our institutions deserve the broad support of Christians.

What Will Demonstrations Accomplish?

If racism is intractable, are the current demonstration pointless?

No. Not from the perspective of the recent history of demonstrations.

When I was in high school, I participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Antiwar fervor helped elect Richard Nixon president, as the current demonstrations will likely turn the fall election against our current president. Nixon attempted to end the war by escalating the fights and the bombing.

The Vietnam War officially ended in 1975, seven years after the 1968 election that brought Nixon to power. The draft was abolished and an all-volunteer military established. Still, dirty little wars continue to haunt American foreign policy.

Earlier demonstrations after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led to renewed emphasis on the Great Society legislation. The civil rights and Great Society legislation facilitated the development of a large black middle class in American that never previously existed. It also changed the tone of the public debate over race in American and made the election of Barack Obama possible.

What can we conclude from this brief experience with demonstrations? War, poverty, and  racism have not been eliminated, but our public response to each of these issues has been responsive to the political aims of demonstrators.

If demonstrators continue to focus on policing policy, policy makers will  likely be responsive. Virtually everyone believes that the police should treat people with respect and enforce the law in an unbiased manner. Widening objectives to other issues will be unlikely to garner the same widespread support.

Policing Policy Reform

Racism is intractable. Until everyone sees others as brothers and sisters under the living God, we will have the polarity of racism. Policing policy is another matter.

Police are bureaucrats who are, like everyone else, are responsive to those that pay their wages. In poor neighborhoods, not everyone is a taxpayer who earns their respect. In areas with a weak tax base, police are also seriously underfunded and overworked. Financing problems lead to recruitment, training, and attitude problems. This is why almost all urban police belong to a union.

The usual response to complaints about policing is to fire those responsible and hire new leadership. This may help for a while, but if the underlying problems of financing, recruitment, and training are not addressed, new leadership will not offer lasting change.

A key issue in the current debate about racial disparities in policing is the effort after 9-11 for police departments to respond to the threat of terrorism. This is why many departments now have a swat team as well as military style weapons and training. If the local department thinks of itself as a de facto chapter in Homeland Security, it is not focused on urban policing, de-escalation of violence, and coping with the psychiatric cases walking the streets. Tight budgets have already been allocated to a different set of priorities with the encouragement of national leaders.

Looking to 2021

The point in raising these issue is that racial harmony is not the only issue facing police departments today. Those impatient for reform will likely be disappointed. I suspect that large scale reform efforts will not be possible until after the November elections and well into 2021.

In the meantime,  little evidence of political reform can currently be seen. We have seen no congressional hearings, no presidential commissions, no white papers, and no appointments of police reform czars, normally the staples of a reform effort. Symbolic moves, like taking down a few confederate paintings in the Capitol Building, are evidence of political impotence, not reform. The political party conventions this summer will likely give us the first taste of what to expect in 2021.

Will these demonstrations alter the balance of power in the Congress in the fall? I suspect that we will not know until the votes are counted. At what point do demonstrators become vandals in the public eye? How many people have to die before people realize that demonstrations during a pandemic are a bad idea? Protracted demonstrations this summer could fuel resentment as well as support for reform.

Water Cooler Observations, June 24, 2020

Also see:

Water Cooler Observations, June 17, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, June 10, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, June 3, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, May 27, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, May 20, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, May 13, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, May 6, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, April 29, 2020

Interview about the Corona Life in English and Spanish with Stephen W. Hiemstra, April 24, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, April 22, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, April 15, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, April 8, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, April 1, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, March 25, 2020

Corona Virus Versus the Flu

Black Plague

CDC Flu Statistics

Managing Change 

Believer’s Prayer

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/HangHome_2020

Continue Reading

Water Cooler Observations, June 3, 2020

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This evening (6/3/2020) on the world news, we witnessed something almost unheard ofa Monday afternoon demonstration. We’ve seen unhappy people; we’ve seen riots; we never see Monday demonstrationsSaturday is the preferred day for demonstrations, because most demonstrators have to work. With forty million unemployed in the United States today and warm summer weather, weekday demonstrations may become more common.

Again this year, we find ourselves confronted with a Gethsemane moment. Will we turn to God or turn into our pain?

The Police Thing

Institutional failure is a tough nut to crack. If institutional racism were an easy problem to solve, it would have already happened.

We have two issues to deal with, one local and the other national.

Locally, police departments need to clear out the bad apples and deal
with institutional prejudice. A generation after eliminating
racial prejudices in law, spending billions of dollars on Great Society programs, and electing a black president, we still have a problem.

Nationally, America needs to wake up to the fact that local funding of
police is a problem in urban areas lacking an effective tax base. Shoestring financing leads to recruitment problems, cutting corners on training and toleration of bad apples. The same financial deficiency has given us broken school systems. National funding and leadership is needed to turn this around.

Progress and Resentment

Relatively few people today are overtly racist which is why the demonstrations we are seeing represent a wide demographic. Unlike in the sixties, today we have a large, black middle class. The racial epithets that were common in the sixties are no longer part of daily speech.

Still, the Amy Cooper incident last month in Central Park, NYC is a reminder that racism in America is no longer a holdover from the Jim Crow era in southern history.  It may well be that the development of a black middle class has sparked resentment from other groups that have not progressed nearly so well in recent years.

Reconciliation requires true dialog where both parties listen to each other.  Reconciliation is hardgood guy, bad guy attitudes have to go. Solutions to the problem of racism also need to include other disadvantaged groups not having so articulate a political following. Cities that have learned to reconcile have seen real progress that is absent in cities that have not.

The Example of Food Stamps

An example of a successful national program is found in the food stamp program. Self-service grocery stories cannot exist in areas where poor people cannot afford to eat because they are prone to shoplift. As supermarkets anchor many shopping centers and malls, the provision of food stamps actually services to spur development of more than just food stores.

Food stamps are funded nationally, but the benefits are local and do not advantage one minority group over another. Food stamps were originally sold to Congress as a subsidy to farmers, not as a public assistance measure. In the same way, scholarships to deserving urban and rural high school graduates are a subsidy to the college that they attend that are right now in need of financial support as foreign students have stopped coming because of the pandemic.

Looking Beyond the Race Issue

The usual response to broken police departments is to hire a black police
chief or buy some body cameras. This response is cheap and gives the appearance of change. As time passes, this response usually does not solve the problem of a lack of funding and institutional neglect.

The elephant in the room here is that the U.S. economy is not producing enough high-quality jobs for low-skilled workers. Even though we had record low unemployment as late as January 2020, many people—especially young people and minorities—remained stuck in dead-end jobs earning little more than the minimum wage. When the smoke clears, we will not go back to Saturday demonstrations until this problem is resolved.

Be an Ethical Voice

It is hard to offer an ethical voice in the current environment. What story would the Holy Spirit advise us to embrace if we took the time to ask in our current Gethsemane moment?

My ministry focus has been on serving the Hispanic community here in Northern Virginia since about 2012. Before that, I spent six months interning in Providence Hospital in northeast Washington DCthe only Medicare hospital in the District serving primarily African Americans that was closed last year. Both Hispanics here and African Americans in the District suffer from prejudice, which is obvious for all to see.

My hope that my volunteer work in Hispanic ministry and my writing in English and in Spanish will serve to bridge communities that do not normally communicate a lot. I cannot change the world, but I can change myself and  be a catalyst for reconciliation for those around me.

Water Cooler Observations, June 3, 2020

Also see:

Water Cooler Observations, May 27, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, May 20, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, May 13, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, May 6, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, April 29, 2020

Interview about the Corona Life in English and Spanish with Stephen W. Hiemstra, April 24, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, April 22, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, April 15, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, April 8, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, April 1, 2020

Water Cooler Observations, March 25, 2020

Corona Virus Versus the Flu

Black Plague

CDC Flu Statistics

Managing Change 

Believer’s Prayer

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/Release_2020

Continue Reading

Thurman: Re-imagining Pain at the Cross

Thurman_review_20200601Howard Thurman.  1996. Jesus and the Disinherited (Orig Pub 1949).  Boston:  Beacon Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor who carried at least two books with him wherever he went.  One comes as no surprise:  a Bible.  The other was Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited (xii).  When I heard this, I was curious to read Thurman.

Who is Howard Thurman?

Howard Thurman (1899–1981) was one of the three most influential African American preachers of the 20th Century.  He was also an author, philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, and Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades[1].

Thurman is a powerful, yet humble writer.  In his preface, he wonders out loud:  Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion, and national origin?  (8)  He goes on to write:  the striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts (ix).

Social Position

Using social position to interpret the person and teaching of Jesus marks Thurman as an antecedent of liberation theology.  The basic idea is that starting from a position of affluence and privilege when Jesus was poor and marginalized makes it hard to interpret Jesus’ words and teaching correctly.  It is easier to interpret Jesus when your own social position (poor and marginalized) is roughly the same.  If you substitute the neutral word “context” for “social position” in this sentence, then virtually every hermaneutics instructor today would agree.

Thurman argues that taking Jesus out of context, particularly social context, allows interpreters to insert their own social context and read Jesus’ words in ways not intended.  In effect, he is arguing that Christianity’s impotence in dealing with discrimination and injustices has at its core a misunderstanding of the Biblical accounts themselves.

Still, “social position” does not substitute easily for “context” as an upper-middle class hermaneutic.  In my work at Providence Hospital in northeast Washington DC, I was shocked to learn that how common the scars of violence were among African American patients.  While it is rare among white Americans to know someone who has been shot or murdered, it is common among African Americans—such trauma is part of their daily lives.  How can someone correctly read an account in the Bible subtly referring to indignities committed when those same indignities are outside one’s personal experience?  “Social position” does not substitute easily for “context” as an upper-middle class hermaneutic.

Thurman describes Jesus’ social position as a poor Jew from a minority group—a Galilean (16-18).  Worse, Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was within a couple miles of Sepphoris—a Roman garrison burned to the ground just before Jesus’ birth in response to a Galilean rebellion.  Thurman speculates that, as a young carpenter, Jesus probably helped rebuild Sepphoris and was no doubt painfully aware of his own social position (18).  For example, do you think someone from Centreville, Virginia might be totally ignorant of the Battle of Manassas, Virginia (5 miles away) twenty years after the Civil War?  Thurman has clearly tarried over the facts here.

Sepphoris

Evidence that Jesus was personally affected by his context shows up in his use of the word, hypocrite (e.g. ὑποκριτά; Luke 6:42 BNT).  In the Greek before Jesus, hypocrite meant primarily ‘play-actor, role-player’ (BDAG 7615).  In the Old Testament, by contrast, hypocrite appears only twice in the Book of Job in the Septuagint (Greek translation) and the Hebrew word used denotes profane (וְֽחַנְפֵי Job 36:13 WTT; also Job 34:30), not two-faced as in a role-player.  Why would Jesus be aware of this Greek word?  Sepphoris had a Greek amphitheatre.  Jesus no doubt knew first-hand what an actor was and he re-defined the word in his own usage.  Thurman (72-73) makes the point that Christians on the margin of society need to be especially vigilant in avoiding hypocrisy.

Clearly, even in Nazareth Jesus was not isolated from the tensions of his day—and he was not a Roman or even a privileged Jew.  Writing as an African-American man in the 1940s, Thurman observes:  If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in a ditch (33).  Do you think that Thurman wrote from personal experience?  The answer is clearly yes (78-79).

Outline of Thurman’s Disinherited

Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is a short book with only 5 chapters and an epilogue.  The chapter titles speak to his concerns:

  1. Jesus–An Interpretation.
  2. Fear.
  3. Deception.
  4. Hate.
  5. Love.

He writes a brief preface.  The forward is written by Vincent Harding.  Thurman’s audience is not primarily white Americans, although he recognizes that they are probably listening.  No, he writes a cautionary note to African American Christians about how to remain faithful in a context of persecution.

Reading Thurman changed the way that I read scripture.  In quiet moments, I use a mind experiment to highlight the importance of context.  Imagine Jesus sitting on a stool in the middle of a room with four walls.  Each wall has a different landscape picture—say, a beach scene, a workroom, a kitchen, a barnyard.  Now, imagine walking around Jesus with a video camera so that you picture him against each of these landscapes.  How does the change in context color your perception of Jesus?  Having finished this exercise, repeat this experiment with different social groups; different social situations. If context is fluid and carelessly employed, we get whatever view of Jesus that is most congenial to our own social position.

Assessment

Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is an important, but hard, book to read—especially if you do not agree with everything that is said.  His critique is particularly convicting for me knowing that he taught at Howard University—only a few miles from where I grew up and within walking distance of the hospital where I interned as chaplain.  Thurman observed and experienced racism, but he also rejected hatred, fear, and bitterness.  Out of great pain, Thurman speaks with an authentic, Christian voice.  We should too.

Footnotes

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Thurman

Thurman: Re-imagining Pain at the Cross

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