From the Wisdom of Solomon to Baltimore

There was a risky wager made when Lincoln gave the South a chance to be reconciled to the North without greater punishment than the loss both sides had so deeply suffered already, a wager that hinged on the hope that the “better angels of our nature” would prevail. The understandable hope was that time would heal the country. And, indeed, some scars were healed, while others kept hemorrhaging and yet others scabbed over only to be ripped open again later. A hundred years on, it took a preacher from Atlanta to acknowledge where gangrene had set in, to expose it for it was, only to have us pretend one more time that we were well on our way to healing so that by the time an African American president was elected, some would rush to claim we’d reached the mountaintop. Vanity of vanities! The words of the Teacher are apt for this moment in our history: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles” (Ecc. 1:4-6). Do we not yet know this? Have we not learned from words etched into the papyrus by now? As long as we humans grace (and break) this place we call home, as we are prone to do, we will confront the ongoing cyclical brokenness to which we seem bound. Either we confront it head on with painful self-honesty or it finds us, sneaking up to surprise us in our arrogance. So long as there is a powerful, there will be a powerless! And every time, the powerless will rightly challenge those who have hard-fought to maintain the status quo of their privilege. Our hope, of course, is always that the challenge would be peacefully fought and peacefully won, but is it so difficult to understand from the shoes of another why some – perhaps with hopes exhausted or in the attempt to seize hope again – might turn to rage rather than calm capitulation? Wouldn’t you? It’s hard from a state of privilege to conceive of what it would be to experience real, every day, systemic oppression. But if it felt that the forces of society had not merely imprisoned you to the life of poverty but so too actively (whether consciously or not) sought to ensure that the populace from which you were born was a populace battered and beleaguered, violence would be a very likely outcome. To say as much is to understand it and to see it as a response to another violence, one that came before it and was perpetrated by a government where real representation of that populace remains absent. We are a country founded in precisely as much righteous violence. That is not to condone it, past or present, but merely to acknowledge with empathy from whence it came so as to then empower the powerless rather than thwarting their cry with riot shields, pepper spray, or bullets. If you wish to know how this story ends, you merely have to look at our own history; either we change to be a better society, or the violence is likely to continue or grow. It simply is what it is. For at the root of all violence is a disembodied despair, the desperate plea crying out to God or to society or to the universe: to whomever might listen that these unfolding events that have and are transpiring were not the lot in life we human beings were promised by simply being born into this world. And in that violent despair, it suddenly seems that what is inalienable belongs to some and not to all – and that those who have attained it will not merely grasp it for themselves but for their progeny too and to the detriment of those who are not their blood kin. And so you should expect it in the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson or in the crumbling streets of Gaza or Egypt or as quiet whispers across North Korea or as loud marches in Hong Kong or in any nook or cranny of this world where people will clamor for justice and peace. Lincoln’s wager goes on, tested and tried, and hope will surely prevail whether it’s hard-won or not. Times like these, we rightly question whether there is anything new under the sun but hope that the expected cycle will tip again toward justice and remain there as long as it can.

Thanksgiving and Privilege

This afternoon building a Lego spaceship with an 8 year-old cousin after the family Thanksgiving, I couldn’t stop thinking about potential. And particularly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way our potential can be thwarted or encouraged by our circumstances – and sometimes by the mentality our circumstances creates. I had this weird moment where I kept thinking about the ways in which this 8 year-old had a few steps ahead of some folks in the world but also of some of the ways he might be a few steps behind. I wonder how easily it would be to predict someone’s future success based entirely on demographic factors: socioeconomic factors, race, gender, religion, etc. I mean, we were just sitting there playing with Legos, and all I could think was, “Yeah! Legos! You’re gonna be an Engineer! Here we are fostering the creative! The possibilities are limitless! Or are they?”

I guess it couldn’t have been a more appropriate time to be thinking all of this. In the context of Ferguson, in the context of Thanksgiving, we’re a nation that needs to be concerned with the ways those demographic factors can either thwart or encourage a person’s potential. Sometimes, we call it “privilege,” but that’s a phrase a lot of folks (at least as I’ve experienced in the South) don’t want to use or acknowledge. But in the context of Thanksgiving, especially, a time where we look at our “plenty” and bow our heads and say grace and thanks for the “plenty” we’ve been given, being privileged is probably something we know better than we’re willing to admit.

Let me see if I can explain this on a level that’s a little more personal: I’m now in my early thirties. I’ve got a Master’s degree from a top-tier university and studied under some world-famous folks. I’m white. I’m male. I’ve got supportive family and friends, a roof over my head, and money in the bank (even if very, very little). I’m world-traveled with a lot of experience in a few fields. But I’ve struggled to find work for two years. And, usually, that’s the point where people will say, “White male privilege?! Where can I get me some of that white male privilege you’re talkin’ about?! Cause I’m struggling here and I don’t see it!” But that’s not the take-away I have at all. Instead, my take-away from this struggle, this humiliating, painful struggle it’s been, is that if it’s this hard for me, how much harder must it be for someone who didn’t enjoy some of the “plenty” I had growing up they never had? How could I ever demonize them for not working hard enough or for not having enough personal responsibility to claim their lives when my work or responsibility hasn’t turned up a whole lot? That is, if I struggle to get work with a Master’s degree and a strong group of folks supporting me – all of whom I couldn’t be more thankful for this year as they’ve advocated on my behalf left-and-right – how am I ever supposed to expect someone who has none of that to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? As another friend said, to paraphrase, how can people who never had boots be expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? What, so they can finally get that job at McDonalds or some other major corporation that pays them far below a living wage and nearly guarantees that they’ll be stuck in that cycle?

If you are grateful at all this Thanksgiving for what’s been given to you, then be thankful enough to step into the shoes of those whose opportunities weren’t as grand as yours. That’s really the heart of what people are trying to get at when they talk about “white privilege.” They’re talking about empathy and understanding. After all, for some folks opportunities might have even been nonexistent just because of their skin color or perhaps their gender or perceived sexual orientation or economic status. And if you never had to worry about those things holding you back, maybe be careful before you judge others calling them “lazy.” Because in my two years of searching, there were times where I was tempted to give up, and while I haven’t and won’t (thanks in part to the support network I’ve had that others don’t have), I can at least say that I understand why some might have said, “To hell with it. The whole system is rigged.” Because we live in a world that cries despair for some and hope for others. And that world won’t be just until there’s hope for all. If you’ve wondered why so many religious figures have moved in on doing something about Ferguson, that’s why: a just world seeks to give hope to everybody. It seeks to “un-rig” the whole rigged system. And if you aren’t willing to acknowledge that, to cry foul in the face of those kinds of injustices, then don’t be surprised when you get called racist or sexist or labeled something awful. I don’t know that we help the situation when we rush to those labels always, but those labels are a sign of a kind of righteous rage, of that very growing despair that’s been too-often dismissed or ignored. Because you will hear that despair. And the best way to not have to hear it any longer is to start advocating for hope, by acknowledging where our privileges are, where we had plenty, and by seeking to make sure others have the same advantages. And that’s something we should do often, or at the very least, every Thanksgiving.

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.

A Barbadian Thanksgiving at Sea

I’m not sure how many people know that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  I was standing on deck earlier leaning over the railing and staring at the open sea trying to figure out why that is;  I’ve discovered that staring blankly into a few thousand miles of ocean feeds my brooding mind.  I went out there on this grand mission to spot whales, sharks, porpoises, or dolphins, but I only saw some seaweed and a whole flight school of flying fish.

I did manage to decide, however, that of all the emotions I could think of, the one I’m most connected to and understand the best is gratitude.  And I think that’s why I like Thanksgiving so much.

Mostly, right now at least, I’m just thankful that I successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in one piece.  I know Mom is happy about that.  Although, I should add – boat lag… is definitely a thing.  I wake up at 4:00 am ready to go, and I’m exhausted midway through dinner.  For the past four consecutive days, my time zone changed each night, making the last four days 25-hour days.  Weird, right?

But with all there is to be thankful for, I think this year is a special Thanksgiving for several reasons.  Maybe part of it is that I’m technically retracing Columbus’ (and other voyagers’) routes seeking the West Indies on the open ocean.  Not exactly same as the Pilgrims but close enough, right?

Or maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that I chose to return to America by boat the same way my grandfather returned from French Morocco after World War II.  When I told that to the Brits at our dinner table, John kinda laughed and said, “I bet your grandfather didn’t travel in this luxury.”  Nah.  But it’s the same ocean.  And now that this story is coming to a close, I think I’ve got this incredible sense of gratitude for him and the impact he left on me.  I catch myself at times smiling the same way he smiled, turning my lips just so and making an almost impish grin that no one else in the world could make the way he could.  I’m thankful for that.

It also occurred to me that much of my last two years was a lot like that first Thanksgiving.  Maybe that’s another reason I find this one so special.  Two wildly different cultures coming together and feasting – both with so much to learn from the other.  That was every day for me for the past few years.

[I realize, of course, that in the years that followed the first Thanksgiving, the natives lost their land, and for many, their lives to some strange notion of divine entitlement among the white settlers.  Sadly, that story was a history lesson we never learned, as even today, the idea that God favors some more than others prevails almost everywhere.  So, it’s worth a mention that I don’t believe any divine force could work that way, you know, favoring Europeans over natives or Israelis over Palestinians or the wealthiest 1% over the 99 below it.  When things work out that way, I don’t find anything godly in all that violence whether it’s physical or financial or emotional violence.  Of course, the irony is not lost on me that, as an American aboard a cruise ship, I’m an incredibly privileged bloke talking about how much privilege disturbs me.  I’m so friggin’ privileged, I even have the education to critique my own privilege.  I guess if you spend two years living in the developing world, and a lot of that time is spent fighting the perception that you’re just a bank, it can be easy to (want to) forget about that privilege, strangely enough.  I remember working really hard to be viewed as my own person and not as just “an American.”  When I realized that one of the families I grew close to, toward the end, really just saw me as a bank, I mentioned to Jon, “I just don’t get it.  They understood what Peace Corps was; they knew I wasn’t wealthy, that I was a volunteer; I even explained to them that I had all these loans waiting for me when I got back to America.”  Jon’s reply was probably one of the wisest things I’d heard in a while, something to the effect of, “Yeah, well, they also understand that you had the opportunity to take out money to go to a really good American school, and eventually, you’ll have opportunities to pay off all those loans.”  That’s when it hit me: there was no use in pretending like we weren’t banks.  We were.  We’re Americans, and we’re privileged, and while we’re encouraged to “live at the level of the people” on a volunteer salary, it made complete sense why we’d never fully overcome that image of being wealthy with opportunities and money.  Because maybe we never should.  It’s better to be honest about who we are, even if that honesty might cause cultural conflict of some kind.  But.  However it’s handled, I won’t ever believe that the opportunities that were handed to me were God’s choosing, as though God chose me over all my Moroccan friends who would kill for the chance to be traipsing across the Atlantic Ocean (or anywhere) like this.  Nor would I ever believe that I, by my own ability to “pull myself up by my bootstraps,” earned or deserve this in any way.  I don’t.  I have it; I took it, because I was privileged enough to be born with an American passport and raised in what really is a land of opportunity.  It’s that simple.  And it’s something I wish I could give everyone, but I can’t.  I can only give up a little bit of my time and my energy to give back, and sadly, even then, I gain more than I could ever hope to give.]

I guess I’m still learning that it’s hard to go from living in the developing world to eating some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had in my life on a luxury cruise ship that has its own gym, theater, casino, cigar shop, wine bar, jacuzzi and pools.  I’ve heard a lot of complaints and conversations in the last two weeks that were pretty shocking – especially shocking when you consider that nearly all the staff are Asian and seem overworked and underpaid.  In some ways, it makes me feel guilty, like I’m somehow contributing to slave labor, and I apologize if that’s an offensive metaphor, but it scares me to think it may not be a metaphor at all.

I’ve also noticed that people who are wealthy, particularly wealthy, love to talk about their wealth.  Or maybe they just don’t know how to talk about anything else.  Or maybe they don’t even realize that not everyone else has been to Barbados four times or can gamble $50K away like it’s no big deal.  I don’t know how to connect with someone like that at all.  I just stare at them blankly or in awe and think fondly of sitting on a wool rug with one little table and one plate where we break bread together and share a communal cup.

My point is that it’s all kind of disjointing.  I look at my plate of food (e.g. tonight’s menu included “rose of prosciutto and kiwi fruit on a pineapple carpaccio, cream of potato soup with baby shrimp and chives, and turkey served with candied sweet potatoes and buttered scallops over an old-fashioned bread stuffing and giblet gravy), and the first shock, of course, is that I have my own plate of food.  It’s my plate, and we’re not all sharing one.  The lines between poverty and wealth are confusing to me.  And for as good as the food here may be, I feel weird thinking that I already miss being… poor.  Or pretending like I was.  Or maybe I actually am poor and right now I’m just pretending like I’m rich?  See, I can’t even keep it all straight.  It’s just plain disjointing.  But I think that’s a good thing, maybe even something worth being thankful for: those little disjointed moments keep us on our toes, force us to ask tough questions about who we are and what, if anything, anyone is “entitled” to – it keeps us… thankful.

I had several little moments today where I thought, “This is absolutely ridiculous.  I’m swimming in the Caribbean; the water is crystal clear.  There is a friggin’ sea turtle right there.  Woah.  Duuude.  It’s a sea turtle, dude.”  Right now, back home, my parents are setting up the Christmas tree in what I imagine is considerably cooler temperatures.  Meanwhile, I’m swimming with turtles and chatting it up with Brits and Barbadians in 93 degree heat with a sunburn.  Life can be strange sometimes.  Crazy even.

But whether we’ve come from the poorest of the poor or the wealthiest 1%, whether we’re layered up in a chilly Tennessee winter prepping for Christmas or turning beet red in Barbados, we all have some little voice crying forth a quiet “thank you.”  We might sound that in our different ways or to different folks, but it’s there across every culture.  I’d like to think that our varied ways of saying thank you, despite their tonal differences, come together like a harmony of sorts, where we’re all really driving the same point home.

Anyhow, we set sail for Guadeloupe a few hours ago and arrive there in the morning.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.