Sins of My Fathers

549px-Udo_J._Keppler,_A_good_beginning_2

Without ash to rise from, a phoenix would just be a bird getting up.

– Schmidt

I want to talk about race, and gender, and some of the other things I’m not supposed to talk about because I’m white and male. Which characteristics I of course chose for myself when the gene genies contacted me for that traditional prenatal identity consultation. This was after the prenatal press conference in which I explicitly endorsed all the injustices committed by all the white males before me, throughout history.

I have news for you: Hogwarts is not real, and there is no such thing as a Sorting Hat. I was born, and I have acted (for better and for worse) on my own account and no one else’s; my impact as a person can be judged fairly only by that rubric.

But that is not the rubric against which I find myself measured. I am told that, regardless of who I am or what I have done, I am complicit in a multitude of previous sins. I am presumed guilty, and am placed beyond proof of innocence. And anything I say can and will be used against me in the court of public opinion.

I’m told that men shouldn’t be involved in the gender debate, that they should just listen quietly and be educated. Fair enough: quiet listening is necessary to education, and speech before learning leads only to Fox and Friends. But there is a time for quiet listening, and there is a time for taking what one has learned and getting into the conversation, respectfully but actively. Otherwise, there isn’t much point in learning in the first place.

I’m told that Black Lives Matter. And they most certainly do. But I’m also told that this is a claim that must exist in isolation; that to suggest, as a member of the white community, that my life also matters, that indeed all lives matter, is an act of imperialism and violence. I am told by those speaking out for their own worth and meaning as people that if I do the same, I am worthless and meaningless. Meanwhile, on many levels, the whole argument misses its own point, given that we are prosecuting it as a multitude of refugees stands helpless and homeless at our borders, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens stand helpless and homeless on our street corners, and all the rest of us stand idly by demanding more attention for ourselves.

I refuse to accept this. I will not play this game nor will I acquiesce to these rules, any more than anyone should give in to the arbitrariness of socially-imposed classes and categorizations. Justice is never about taking dominance away from one voice and giving it exclusively to another. Justice can only come about by way of dialogue; it must involve both the wronged and the perceived wrong-er.

The debate over feminism cannot thrive if it is framed in a such a way as to intentionally alienate or shut out the male voice, not because women are incapable of solving their own problems, but because men are a fact, unfortunate though it may be. We exist; we are everywhere. And if we’re the problem, then we have to be a part of the solution. Otherwise, you’re repairing the roof by tearing down a wall.

Black lives matter. White lives matter. Middle Eastern lives matter. Unborn life matters. Life matters. Wherever it is found, behind whatever sort of face it hides. This is the underlying problem: we think that in order for one group to matter, another has to matter less. This misconception of meaning has provided the framework for every violent human arrangement in history, from slavery to the Cold War to the War on Terror. Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter is but one more example of this false dichotomy. If we are to reach a point at which either black or white lives truly do matter, then it must be in tandem with one another, and alongside all other life. This is a zero sum issue: either all lives matter, or none of them do.

Recently, I read the following quote by radical feminist Alicen Grey:

It’s painful when I hear/see quotes from men, waxing poetic about how violent and inhumane “we” “humans” are “to each other”. When historically and globally, males account for the vast, vast majority of violence. Mostly against women. I used to wonder, how could these men – fancying themselves profound and in-on Truth – possibly call “humans” violent when they are technically the source? But I guess that’s what happens when the only people you consider humans are other men.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what I say, or in how many positive ways I contribute to the quest for social justice, gender and racial equality, or anything else. I am, in the most literal of senses, worth-less, beyond any possibility of betterment, trapped in the web of my original sin: the penis. I am generational evil incarnate. Regardless of my individual character, I am defined by my class and, consequently, disenfranchised. I am refused the right to contribute on the presumption that anything I say is by definition suspect. I am barred, not just from the conversations surrounding gender and racial issues, but from any conversation at all. How’s that for violent, imperialistic speech?

I hear her, and I appreciate (if I cannot fully understand) the pain that animates her words. Women have been sorely mistreated by men, African Americans have been devalued by white America, and ethnic minorities the world over have been abused and murdered by majorities the world over, for far too long. But anger, while a powerful and constructive tool, becomes merely destructive when wielded as a weapon. This may be temporarily satisfying, but it is not ultimately productive. Alienation as a response to alienation only creates greater alienation.

I will not apologize for things I did not do and have not done. No one should have to. What I can (and will) do is my best with my life to ensure that the unjust actions and words of my predecessors and contemporaries are, through my own actions and words, to some measure counteracted. I will honor, respect, and speak out for the rights of women, African Americans, and any others to whom they have been denied, and I will fight alongside anyone (Alicen Grey included) who is interested in bringing about a more just social order for all people. I may not move mountains, but I’ll go down swinging. I will be your ally.

Assuming, that is, that you’ll let me…

Whistling Dixie

800px-General_Lee_scale_modelMidnight, our sons and daughters
Were cut down and taken from us.
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat.

– U2

I still remember the Christmas morning at my grandparents’ house in Waxahachie, Texas. I found one of these little guys under the tree: a remote-control model of the General Lee. And I was pumped! The Dukes of Hazzard was one of my favorite TV shows as a kid. I once busted my knee wide open pretending to be the Duke boys on my Big Wheel. They were, to me, the height of cool.

Of course, I was a kid, and I didn’t know from the Confederacy or the Civil War. I knew I was supposedly related to some guy named Robert E. Lee (that has since been debunked as a myth), but that was pretty much it. I hadn’t an inkling that the awesome design on my favorite car in the world (beside K.I.T.T., that is–it could talk, after all) actually meant something. I didn’t know what racism was, or slavery, or prejudice and discrimination. Jim Crow would have sounded like a storybook character to inexperienced little me. I had no idea that I loved something that to many, many people was a symbol of hatred, fear, and inequality.

Now I know. But I still don’t often think about it. I still watch reruns of the Dukes without stopping to consider the underlying cultural message, one that still resonated, apparently, two years after I was born in 1977–112 years after the Civil War ended, and 114 years after U.S. slaves were (sort of) emancipated. It never occurs to me to wonder how my African American compatriots feel as they channel-surf past TVLand when they happen to have a little free time. How it may, for some, call into question the very idea of “free time.”

Why? Because I’m white. Which is more of a soporific than I often realize. Yes, it is structural, and no, I wasn’t around in the 1800s, nor did–as far back as I’ve gone, at least–any of my forebears own slaves. But the simple fact of my white-ness implicates me in a way I can perhaps ignore, but not in any responsible way deny.

I recently became angry with a couple of fellow bloggers (my sincere apologies to Ruth and Madalyn) when they suggested that I might be implicated in the politics of patriarchy and chauvinism simply by virtue of being a man, regardless of my personal stance on the issue. If you ask my wife, I think she will tell you that I am a fairly enlightened male-type person when it comes to feminist issues, but does that let me off the hook? Perhaps not so much as I’d like to think. I also consider myself fairly enlightened when it comes to racial issues: I grew up in Argentina, where they did to their natives what we did to our buffalo–literally; I belong to the local race relations committee (or I will, if they ever get around to cashing my membership check); I have worked in educational settings with minority youth of multiple backgrounds and ethnicities. There isn’t a racist bone in my body.

Except it’s not my body that matters. It’s the space my body inhabits, the system of which it’s a part, however innocently. I have never burned a cross; I have never donned a bedsheet or strung a noose. I haven’t turned away a job applicant because of his color or denied anyone the right to vote. I have never summoned up sufficient hubris to try and own a fellow human being. I have never done any of these things. But they are still a part of who I am, because they are an ineluctable part of my cultural milieu. They are, whether I like it or not, whether I even know it or not, mine by birthright. An ideological inheritance I have to acknowledge, painful as it may be.

I am white. Therefore, I am responsible.

I also think in a racialized manner. In this context, I don’t think there’s really a significant difference between “racial” and “racist,” no matter how many people tell me there is. I think it is a distinction born of collective guilt, of a certain helplessness in the face of systematized conceptual violence. We’re all of us whistling Dixie, and we’ve no idea how to stop.

When I was on that misson trip to the Carver Baptist Center in New Orleans, and made a conscious effort to interact with the people there in a way that would show them I “wasn’t a racist,” I implicated myself in my white-ness. As much as I rail against gentrification, I avoided the same neighborhoods as everybody else in Waco when I bought my house, never stopping to consider the fact that the very feasibility for me of that avoidance implicated me in my white-ness. I am implicated by the simple fact that I have never nor will I ever feel the stigma of minority identity. I will never look at the General Lee or the flag flying over the South Carolina capitol building with any other than white eyes, and I am implicated in my white-ness by that, as well.

I am white. Therefore, I am responsible. And I haven’t a clue what to do about it.

But perhaps that’s the beginning of comprehension, the first step toward a solution: I cannot understand. Not completely, by any means. And if I cannot understand, then how can I presume to be the arbitrator? So much of our society, our politics, is based on this misbegotten assumption of “understanding,” of comprehension we cannot possibly possess. Men want to regulate the sexual and procreative choices of women; heterosexuals want to define the family lives of the LGBT community; Christians want to limit the political participation of atheists, Muslims, and people of all other faiths (and vice versa–don’t think you can get off the hook that easily).

Whites want to decide whether African Americans should be able to look at the their own state institutions without the constant reminder of centuries of subjugation and injustice. Because we think we know better.

Am I a racist? I don’t believe so, but that’s not really the question. The system is, and that’s the real problem. I sit at the end of a timeline I cannot fathom, a history I can study but never truly understand. Because I am white.

And I am responsible…

Rock and a Hard Place

396280_10100316678480673_951323144_n…now that we’ve got them just where they want us.

– James T. Kirk

Question of the day: Do I want to be an atheist?

Answer: Not necessarily. Call it phantom limb syndrome or whatever you like, but a part of me still very much wishes I was a Christian. More to the point, it wishes all my Christian acquaintances would allow me to still be one.

It seems that it’s not cricket to claim a Christian identity without accepting a prescribed bill of goods. Prescribed, generally, by the same people who insist that any attempt to categorize the Divine is beyond us puny humans. I never cease to be amazed that those who speak of God and faith as beyond definition are all too happy to force that elusive definition upon unsuspecting others.

On the other side of the equation, I wish my new atheist friends would stop trying to revoke my membership anytime I express continuing affection for my Christian upbringing or any amount of regard for people who remain within the Christian fold.

Apparently, unless I’m willing to concede that all those folks, near and dear to my heart regardless of philosophical disagreements, who continue to embrace a religious worldview are near-sighted simpletons who only do good in spite of themselves, I’m betraying the atheist worldview. My wife, my parents, my sibling and siblings-in-law, close friends and long-time mentors–either I condemn them as idiots, or I’m no longer welcome in the sandbox.

So I’m stuck, between a Christian rock and an atheist hard place. I can’t even say I’m an agnostic without the hardliners on both sides accusing me of either intellectual laziness or moral cowardice.

Newsflash: I am who I am. Some days, I’m so strong an atheist that I can’t even spell “God.” On other days, I’m so sick of atheists that I consider baptizing myself again. I am who I am…and here’s what that looks like:

I am a follower of Jesus (the man, not the ex post facto metaphysical invention). But then, I’m also a follower of Shakyamuni Buddha. And a follower of U2, and Jon Stewart. And of truth wherever else I might find it.

I refuse to judge a book–any book–by the worst thing it contains, or a group of people by the most despicable individual among them. The Bible, taken as a whole, contains a lot of stuff that to our postmodern sensitivities is beyond abhorrent, but it also contains a lot of stuff that is beautiful and good. To refuse to learn from the good out of anger at the bad…well, that’s ignorance, as far as I’m concerned. And there are individual Christians out there who make me want to punch a baby, the Fred Phelpses, James Dobsons, and Franklin Grahams and such. But if I allow those infuriating, narrow-minded, self-righteous few to act as straw men for all the good and loving people who raised me and taught to me to be who I am today–heterodoxy and all–then I do Christians everywhere a grave injustice, and I’m the one not worth their time.

(Just so we’re clear, there are also individual atheists out there that I find completely intolerable, Dawkins, Harris, and the like. Anyone who can, with a straight face, tell me that these guys are any more open-minded than the “religious nuts” they go on about–well, XYZ, my friend.)

Religious upbringing is not child abuse. Sometimes abusers happen to be religious, and religion can be transmitted in harmful ways, but one of these things is not (necessarily) like the other. There are things about my childhood that I wish had been different, but that applies, I expect, to all of us. What I know for a fact is that, while my parents raised me in a very Christian home, they also taught me to be the loving, accepting, thoughtful person I try so hard to be. I owe them who I am, even the willingness to tell all y’all to take a flying leap if you suggest otherwise.

Take away the ad hominem, and we’re all just a bunch of plankton convinced that we’re whales. We’re all on the same journey, whether or not we agree on the stops along the way. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are Christians out there who don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God; who don’t believe in an afterlife, or Noah’s ark, or a six 24-hour day creation. They don’t even believe in stoning homosexuals. And they are Christians whether you like it or not.

There are also atheists who are more than willing to see the beauty in Scripture (anybody’s Scripture, Bible, Koran, Talmud, etc.), and to engage Christians in respectful conversations based on an assumption of mutual intelligence. I know there are, mainly because I am one of them.

Somewhere inside me, Christianity lurks, hand in hand with the atheist’s skepticism. Why? Because it occupied the first three decades, plus, of my life. I cannot turn my back on that part of my identity anymore than I ought to turn from my search for Truth. Because some of that Truth still speaks through the Christian in me…

They Come

We seek not to offend but to
Up-end your little world, head to
Toe; to overthrow your calculations,
Your vain confabulations and conventions.
Our intentions more than peaceful, less than
Violent: to quell the silent tumult that rings from
Looming rafters, to take away the laughter plaguing
all your nightmares, the ones that
Scare you into thinking, worried that you’re drinking
Hemlock spiked with poison, while the noise of
Screaming chatter (not that it matters) is everywhere
You listen. Eyes closed open, hoping, hoping, sometimes
Groping for answers that elude you, this insight that
Deludes you in the quest for understanding, all demanding, all
Dismissive. We’ll do everything in our power to
Deflower your illusions, confusion in our wake, contusion
As we brake and you take a flier into
The dashboard of your vision.