God [Bless] You

A week or so ago, on my way to the metro in downtown St. Louis for a ride to the airport, I was stopped by a man who begged me to buy him a meal. I don’t usually offer anything to beggars, partially because I don’t have anything to offer and partially because I worry that doing so creates systemic problems of dependence. Every once in a while, though, empathy gets the best of me, so I reached into my pocket and gave him all that I had at the time – three bucks. “Three bucks?! I can’t do nothing with that! Give me some more,” he demanded, and I walked off a little stunned.

[Before going any further, I should pause to make two worthwhile notes: The first is that my last experience with begging happened in North Africa while I was a Peace Corps volunteer where, for the most part, if I handed someone the equivalent of 6 cents American (50 cents in Moroccan dirham), they usually responded with, “God bless your parents,” and moved on. While North African beggars could be persistent until you told them a phrase in Arabic that roughly translated, “God ease your burden,” I never carried fear of beggars there. After all, it would be pretty strange to come across a Moroccan beggar who had a knife, let alone unheard of to come across any Moroccan carrying a gun unless they were a soldier. So, maybe it’s because of the reality of that fear and how different life is in America, or maybe it’s some kind of inherent racism you’re bound to be born with if you were raised in the south, but I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that I’m an incredibly privileged white dude who was carrying out these conversations with poor, black men (one of whom I stereotyped to be gay) in an area with a history of violence, and to say my fears weren’t fueled by stereotypes isn’t owning up to those realities. So let’s start there.]

Burned by the lack of gratitude at first, I gave a rather forceful “no” to the next beggar that asked. And even though I knew it wasn’t fair to carry the stereotype from one experience to the next, I had a tough time shaking the shear chutzpah of the man who demanded more after seeing my wallet empty. In response to my “no,” the next man glared at me and said in a sarcastic tone, “Well, God bless you, then.”

No one had sneezed. He said, “God bless you,” I heard, “God has blessed you, and yet you do nothing.” I heard, “God blesses you but curses me.” I heard in his tone not the word “bless” at all but the word “curse,” and in the tone, I realized just how interchangeable the two words are. So many blessings, so many curses, all right before us and many are one in the same. The curse of being privileged is the real risk of forgetting or misunderstanding what it means to be blessed in the face of those who have endured so few blessings.

There’s a scene early in the Book of Job where the blameless Job has already lost nearly everything that matters to him. His children are tragically killed and now even with failing health and “boils” showing up all over his skin, he scratches at them to remove them one-by-one with a pottery shard. His wife looking on kind of mocks him in 2:9, “Are you still holding onto your integrity? Curse God and die.” In the English of this text, the word “barech,” or barak, is translated as “curse,” but – and here’s the interesting part – it also (and more frequently) means “bless.” In the Hebrew, much the way “God bless you” was spoken to me on the streets of St. Louis, the antithetical “curse” was what was meant. It gives you a good picture of the tone of Job’s wife: “Yeah, sure Job, everything will be better if ya just keep scraping off all those boils like that. Why, you should just bless your maker who’s given you this abundance of awesomeness and go on ‘living.'” Needless to say, I bet Job’s wife and I would’ve gotten on well.

Because, in a sense, Job’s wife hints at a deeper meaning that there is no blessing without a curse. Nor is there a curse without a blessing. That’s kind of how I read the whole Book of Job. I don’t like to think of Job [spoiler alert] being rewarded in the end with a new family and riches all as a result of his faith so much as it is a recognition that life is bound to deal out this endless cycle of blessings and curses all meshed together for which anyone might endure regardless of what they’ve done or who they are. To walk the streets of St. Louis, no less the streets of Morocco, is to encounter that two-sided coin, of which everything is, and to live in the tension of never really knowing which side of the coin you’re giving or receiving. And even when the answer is almost always “both,” that doesn’t really clear a whole lot up. Though privileged, I am not a person without trials or temptations or without my own baggage constantly being schlepped around with me. So too, I do not know the in-depth, personal trials of those who walk the streets hungry, wanting, faced with desperation. Have they known what it is to be cursed? Surely to God and sadly, and yet, I suspect, they’ve known better than I what it is to be blessed at times, as well. The great challenge of this stupid, beautiful little life is to see not merely each other’s blessings nor simply each other’s curses but to lovingly accept the painful beauty of both.

Some Thoughts on Social Progress for MLK Day

Several years ago, one of my Facebook friends at the time posted a status on Martin Luther King Day that derided the holiday adding it was “just a day to get off work.” At the time, I didn’t take too kindly to that sort of thing, so I called her a bigot and deleted her right then and there.

The thing is, while I can’t say that I feel like I’ve lost a close friend or anything, I can say the years have tested whether or not I think she was a bad person at heart. I no longer think that. At the time, I probably demonized an otherwise good person who held a few misguided views. Aren’t most of us otherwise good people with a few misguided views?

But that’s one of the more curious things about racism today. We’re so trained in our culture to think that it only comes from people dawning pointy white hats, skinheads, or folks ready to burn crosses that we aren’t too eager to entertain the possibility that it could actually come from our friends, neighbors, family members, etc. – but those are precisely the people it comes from the most, and precisely because it comes from them, we’re not eager to call it “racism.” That is, either we only think it’s “racism” when someone is visibly hurt, so we dismiss more subtle forms of racist statements, or we’re quick to take any form of racism and demonize the whole person who said it, as was the case with my ex-Facebook friend. Neither of these approaches are doing our culture any good, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been guilty of both at times.

And yet, I think there’s a lot of us that want to believe that today’s America isn’t still racist. But the way we often show our progress is by comparing ourselves to our past. That seems a bit of an odd way to approach the issue, doesn’t it? It’s not been uncommon for me to hear people say things like, “Well, I’m not my forefathers. I didn’t own slaves. Don’t treat me like I did.” Okay, so, we’re better because we no longer hold slaves? Well, yes. We’re better because we don’t make people drink out of separate water fountains? Well, duh, but is that really going to be our litmus test for the kind of non-racists we aim to be?

The progress we must make cannot be measured by how far we’ve come but by where we can and should go from right here, right now, simply because that’s the right direction to move in. I think that’s at the heart of MLK’s dream: the dream wasn’t about achieving a goal but about a way of living out the kinds of morals that required constant reminders and awareness of who we are and who we want to be in the face of all forms of injustice. Yes, slavery is a thing of the past. Yes, the horrific Jim Crow laws are a thing of the past. We progressed to a better place. So, I suppose, we could say, “Look how better we are from our ancestors,” decide we’re happy with how far we’ve come, and say that’s enough. Or, we can keep pushing – recognizing that so long as someone – anyone – is marginalized, there’s still work left to be done. And the work, right now, that must still be done is combating these more subtle forms of racism that go unrecognized or ignored.

The unfortunate reality is, racism is alive and thriving in America, especially in the south. In fact, in the south, it can still be blatant. I recall a student at Vanderbilt talking about her own experience of racism in the south. She felt that when it happened in the south and was often blatant and hateful, she could dismiss the person as a bigot and move on with her life with relative ease, but when it happened in, say, Chicago, in a large law firm where someone made an off-hand, stereotypical remark, she didn’t know how to respond and found it shocking.

On some small level, I can relate to this as someone who lived in a rural town in North Africa for two years where I was one of maybe five light-skinned people living within a two-hour radius. Sometimes, I had rocks thrown at me by children. Sometimes, my friends were threatened or, in a few cases, assaulted because they were women or because they were different in some way from the majority. I lived occasionally confronting assumptions about me – that I worked for the CIA or that I was extremely wealthy or that I partied and was all kinds of sexually deviant or that I hated the Middle East. Sometimes, just a few assumptions about someone we don’t know at all, or even a few generalizations based around statistics that don’t include appropriate context, can be so incredibly damaging – and that is something that continues to happen worldwide.

Racism isn’t just despising someone different from you. It’s about fear and skepticism of what is different. It’s built-in assumptions that certain groups of people are “lazy.” Or, sometimes, assumptions that they’re the “good ones” or “almost white.” It’s built into political ideals about the “welfare state.” It’s built into beliefs about crime rates and incarcerations without regard for how slanted the justice system is. And yet, when a person has these assumptions and worldviews, that doesn’t also mean that he or she hates someone of a different color or ethnicity. And so we claim we aren’t racist, we aren’t bigots – because we don’t hate anybody or because we don’t wish any violence on anyone. Have you ever noticed whenever a celebrity gets in trouble for making a racist statement, the first thing they say is, “I’m not a racist.” I keep hoping some celebrity will respond by saying, “Well, you know, sometimes I can actually be racist, and I appreciate that you’ve kept me in check here, because what I said was wrong, and I should’ve known better.” We really need to get the word “racist” out of the clouds where it’s equated with “evil” because prejudice, to change the term slightly, is something we’ve all been a part of.

What we really need to combat racism is a healthy dose of self-awareness and mindfulness – a little honesty that, at times, we’re all skeptical of (if not also scared of) what we perceive as different from ourselves. To put that another way, we are, all, a little racist. That doesn’t mean we all hate or wish violence on others, but we do need to be careful, because the things we say can contribute to or promote violence and hate-speech inadvertently.

I think back to my ex-Facebook friend. She was a racist. I don’t have any question about that. But I have been at times in my life guilty of racism, too. She isn’t a bad person, and neither am I. And I probably didn’t get anywhere with her by calling her a bigot and deleting her. But when it comes to our closer friends and family, I do think we’re in a position to say, “Are you sure you really mean what you’re saying?” When we are in a position to question their words and how hurtful those words are, we should jump on the opportunity to be their keeper, to call them into question, and to remind them – because we love them – when they are being wrong-headed. I only hope my friends and family would do the same for me. If and when they do, that I believe is living out the dream MLK envisioned.

Wanderlust, Morocco

Having recognized about 80% of the locations in this video, watching it really made me want to go back. I wouldn’t mind teaching English outside of Morocco at some point – and I’m sure I will, in fact – but oh, there’s still so much of Morocco I would love to explore. I strongly suggest watching the video in its full size; it’s a beautiful video:

[vimeo 73605534]


Security Update

Lately, some of you have asked about me, whether I’m safe or mentioned that you’re worried, so I wanted to address this directly.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, update yourself here.

Peace Corps forwarded an “unclassified” security update regarding recent events surrounding a film that blasphemed the Prophet Mohammed (insinuating he was an adulterer and child molester and glutton and all sorts of hogwash).  If you’ve followed the news, you may know that even images of the Prophet are blasphemous, and this film not only made an idol of the Prophet but went on to make a mockery of him too.  What followed was violence spreading across North Africa, particularly in Egypt.  The Libyan situation appears to be somewhat different, in that it was more planned and may have coincided with the anniversary of 9/11, rather than having to do with the film.  It also appears that the Libyan attacks on the mission there were likely related to AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Maghreb).  AQIM does not operate in Morocco; although a State Department release from a day or two ago does now suggest that AQIM has moved into Algeria.

Here in Morocco, things are far calmer, though the Moroccan police have heavily beefed up security at just about any American location, including those not affiliated with the government.  My town’s police chief made sure Jonathan and I had his personal cell phone number, which is pretty funny, considering it’s a town of nearly 20,000 people.

There have been protests in Morocco at some American locations, but compared with the tens of thousands of protesters who showed up over the Arab Spring, only around 200-300 people were protesting in Rabat and Casablanca.  There may more at the next protest or two, but I’m doubting it.  Honestly, I bet you could find more Tea Party members in America willing to shout “Death to Obama” than you could Moroccans.

So, there you have it.  I’m safe.  I have a bag packed just in case we consolidate or evacuate.  I highly, highly doubt that would happen.  But we’ve been asked to be prepared, and hey, I was an Eagle Scout.

[Sidenote, Peace Corps just called me doing a quick test of their whereabouts policy to make sure I was in my village (I am) and that they could get a hold of me if necessary.]

I should say, this in no way tests my faith in the Moroccan people or my respect for Islam or the Arab world.  I just got back from a lovely couscous lunch with Allal and his family, and he was pulling out old money and showing it to me and asking me how much I thought it was worth.  He even has this sixty year-old coin from Queen Elizabeth II’s crowning.  I was all like, “Allal, let me tell you all about something called… Ebay.”

I think it can be tempting in times like these to figure out who is to blame.  The makers of this film perhaps?  I won’t provide you a link to the incendiary film, because I’ve watched a little of it, and I think it’s extremely offensive.  When you watch it, it makes you feel a little bit like someone just walked into your Church and took a crap on the altar and then smeared it all over the Cross…while laughing.  I hope you’re a little offended by that comparison, honestly, because if that comparison offends anyone, it should help you gain a tiny bit of perspective as to why this has exploded into the ugly, violence it has.   Understanding the causes of violence doesn’t justify it, but understanding its origins should help us reflect carefully on how to appropriately respond in its wake.  Understanding the origins of violence should be a reminder that if we answer violence with more violence, we enter ourselves into an endless cycle that can only be broken by those willing to take the higher ground and make peace.  Even if it makes you look weaker, it’s the stronger moral claim.

In an effort to pass off some of the blame, I’m sure there will be plenty of folks who will point to Freedom of Speech and say, “Well, it’s unfortunate that someone made that video, but it was their American right to make it.”   That’s true.  Freedom of Speech does afford these filmmakers the right to be bigots, but they are crossing a fine line when they make speech that is intended to incite violence.  These people knew what they were doing, and they’ve caused a global crisis for no other reason than the fact that they have shown little respect for others’ beliefs.

But it doesn’t matter who carries the majority of the blame – the instigators or the perpetrators.  It’s the manipulators, members of the Arab and American media, who worry me most.  I had the thought a few weeks ago that, because this culture is so homogeneous, it can be difficult for the average Moroccan to imagine a culture that’s as heterogeneous as America.  It’s like when Moroccans see Jonathan who, with his tan and dark hair, is occasionally confused as another Moroccan.  He breaks the stereotype of white, shaggy hair dudes – you know, me.

Now.  Apply that concept to what you (or Arabs) hear via the media about worlds far away.  You hear about terrorism or about flag-burnings or about other nonsense that doesn’t characterize the average Muslim fairly.  They hear about West Boro Baptist Church or Terry Jones hating Muslims and burning Qur’ans.  They think you hate them the same way you’ve been told that they hate you.  And it’s all this big, ugly lie crafted by the media and used to fuel the hate so there’s always a story, always something to keep you glued to the T.V. worried that the Muslims (or the Americans) are coming.

You wanna know what people here are really like?  They’re family people.  Probably just like you.  They just want to make it in this world, and most of them aren’t concerned about these big ole world events that are fueling so much hate.  Most of them just want to drink their tea.

In fact, Allal is here.  He wants me to make him tea, but I’ve offered American Kool-Aid instead.  So, I better close this up and go have tea and kool-aid and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish with my Moroccan friends while the media continues worrying everyone to death (quite literally).  Wherever you are, sit down and have yourself some tea.  And stop worrying.