Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Some "common sense" on race and racism

“Hey, we all know there’s been some bad history in our country. We know that racism exists. I’m extending a hand like, ‘Hey, we want to get past this. We’ve been bullied, we’ve been beat down, but we don’t want it anymore.' ”

Rapper and actor Common, who said those words recently on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” ended up taking some abuse for also saying that ending racism can begin by “extending [a] hand in love” to whites. And, frankly, I don’t understand that.

Because he’s right. That’s the only way racism has ever been ameliorated.

Last month I picked up the book “Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church” by Edward Galbreath, and in reading it I got a considerable surprise: As a teen Dr. King himself went through an “I hate Whitey” period.

Which tells me that, like Nelson Mandela after him, he underwent a time of transformation and, by the time he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., he was able to refer to “our white brothers” in sermons.

We all remember what happened next.

And as the campaign for voting rights in Selma, now 50 years old, made national news, whites — even some religious leaders — even got involved. One of them, Boston minister the Rev. James Reeb, who was beaten to death, is listed in a hall of martyrs at alma mater Princeton Theological Seminary; Viola Liuzzo, a housewife, lost her life at the hands of Ku Klux Klansmen when driving demonstrators back.

I respectfully ask militants out there: Kindly explain to me how we’re supposed to attain “equality” without relationship-building, what Common was getting at. Tough talk has never availed us anything but further social, economic and political isolation.

Many African-Americans often ask: Has there ever been this level of disrespect for a sitting president as there is today toward Barack Obama? The answer is yes.

Remember that Bill Clinton was gossiped about, with unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, and eventually impeached — illegally — on phony charges. And if you want to go back in history, consider that 11 Southern states left the union as the direct result of Abraham Lincoln being elected president — and he eventually ended up dead. To say that people hate Obama simply or primarily due to his race is thus an overstatement.

One other thing to remember: Dr. King’s adoption the Gandhian-style nonviolence served to expose the bad guys as bad guys. And it certainly worked like a charm because “We’re not going to play their game — we’re bigger than that.”

I find it interesting that Common’s former stage name was “Common Sense.” Which he displayed that day.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Franklin Graham: Back to the dark ages

When evangelist Franklin Graham announced that he was coming to Pittsburgh I thought about going — when his father Billy held a crusade here in 1993 I went every night but the first.

But after the first night of the three-day gathering, which I couldn’t attend anyway, and I heard about an interview with Franklin that aired that night on the Fox News Channel complaining about Muslim persecution of Christians in the Middle East, I decided not to (he has made numerous anti-Muslim statements over the years). In fact, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that he insisted — falsely — that Muslims had never spoken out against Islamic-based terrorism.

And of late, that’s not the only pronouncement he’s made that has offended many. Last month, according to his Facebook page and quoted by blogger Bill Chandler, he asked, “Why is [President Obama] seemingly continuing to protect Islam and refusing to open his eyes to the truth?” And just last week he basically told “people of color” that they should obey the police to keep from being roughed up or shot.

What I think we’re seeing is a return to the bad-old days of the 1980s culture war, where enemies real or imagined were played up by media “ministries” for the sake of power, using some bogeyman to raise money to maintain their empires. In 1980 it went from “secular humanism” to communists to “abortionists” to liberals; in the 1990s President Clinton and the media were the whipping boys; these days, of course, it’s President Obama, gays and Islam.

And the problem was the same then as it is now: Just as did Moral Majority and other groups did back then, Graham, with such pronouncements, is neglecting the spiritual war — which is the war in which he’s supposedly enlisted to fight. Doing so actually causes divisiveness in the church.

Graham’s statements about African-Americans and the police have to be especially insulting considering that Billy was one of the few conservative Christians who supported Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement (Billy supposedly said to Dr. King, “You take the streets; I’ll take the stadiums”). Modern political conservatism has a reputation, which frankly is deserved to a certain extent, for racism; while I’m not calling Franklin a racist, he’s probably alienated black supporters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, under whose aegis Franklin works.

People might be saying, “But Franklin is preaching the Gospel.” I would ask: What kind of Gospel is he preaching? Are we asked to commit to a God Who needs to be propped up by the culture, or is He beyond all that? He is not a tribal deity that we can call upon to defeat perceived enemies; remember that Jesus was crucified in part because He refused to go that route.

A number of people, most notably Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners, have called Franklin out. And I think it was the right thing to do — because he’s making things more difficult for the rest of us.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Forgiving ISIS

While [members of the Sanhedrin] were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

— Acts 7:59-60


The world took note when the Coptic Christian community in Egypt announced that it had forgiven the Islamic State terrorist group that beheaded 20 of its members a few weeks ago.

I learned today, however, that a tract was circulating that part of the world with the same sentiment — and it’s getting notice, with even Muslims reading it according to my source.

And do you know what? If this kind of thing is happening, it really could mean the eventual end of Islamic-based terrorism.

You see, one distinction between Christianity and Islam is the concept of forgiveness, a major part of Christianity but foreign to Islam. Indeed, it probably makes little if any sense to Muslims, who likely believe in retribution for the wrongs done to them (I confess to some ignorance about Islam, so I can’t say that for sure).

Moreover, in this case the Copts understand and accept something that we American Christians often don’t: Following Jesus may very well cost you your life. We’re often the first to complain about mistreatment from the world when He Himself said it was inevitable — so, why worry about it? Heck, He would know about unjust treatment, since He was falsely convicted of a crime against the state and hanged on a cross.

Here’s what might be happening: The Copts didn’t react the way most people expect, and that distinction is turning people’s heads around in that part of the world. And the dictum “The tree of faith is watered with the blood of martyrs” truly applies here, for the reason that if someone were willing to die for something it must be worth it.

Will the Copts’ stance sway Islamic terrorists? It actually might. Remember, the church grew rapidly as a result of Stephen’s stoning and eventually captured a anti-Christian Pharisee named Saul, with the Roman name of Paul — who of course became the greatest missionary the world has ever known.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Rhetoric vs. reality

For years I’ve heard complaints from the political right that people were being “unfair” to it when the topic turned to race relations and politics. Those folks insist, probably to this day, that the Republican Party eliminated slavery in the 1800s and Jim Crow 50 years ago and complain that African-Americans reject them because “they don’t understand the history of the Democratic Party.”

I heard today, however, that not one — not one — member of the congressional leadership of the current GOP is participating in tomorrow’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, Ala., that resulted in the Voting Rights Act. I would think that if they were so proud of that achievement they would be the first to laud it.

Perhaps the reality that the folks who now run the Republican Party had absolutely nothing to do with civil-rights gains made then (if anything, they opposed them) has finally hit the fan. I wonder just how many of their constituents told them not to bother — or even if they took a poll because they represent districts that tend to be hostile to folks voting who don’t think the way they do. (Then again, they didn’t attend the golden jubilee of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 2013, either.)

After all, who was it that has always tried to gut that law? Who today is passing voter-ID laws that would keep people from voting? If the shoe were on the other foot they would scream bloody murder.

Bottom line, talk is cheap.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Telling the real story

Another Academy Awards show has come and gone, including ongoing complaints that historical films about the black American experience, most recently “Selma,” generally don’t win or are even nominated for any Oscars unless there’s a “white savior” involved. On the surface it sounds like racial bias or, at best, patronizing.

A few years ago at the writers’ conference I attend annually, however, I realized why this is the case.

My newspaper runs a weekly, first-person column called “Saturday Diary,” to which I’m a frequent contributor. When I started there I was told, “The Diarist aims to describe an inner transformation (which can be microscopic or massive) in a way that engages the reader. Being on the [Op-Ed] page, it is in the realm of changing the reader’s mind about something. But being a Diary, it’s more about altering the reader’s perception.”

In other words, I learned at the conference that, say, mere social change simply doesn’t make a good story in its own right, either in print or on the screen. The protagonist needs to undergo a transformation of his or her own in the process for the story to be effective.

A personal example: At the end of prom season three years ago I wrote a Diary called “Being Prince Charming” — I still regret that I didn’t go to mine 36 years ago, but on my birthday in 2010 I took a woman to a cabaret for which we “went to town,” having portraits taken and everything. (While it wasn’t a complete make-up, I did get a sense of satisfaction.)

That “inner transformation” is why films like “Cry Freedom” and “Invictus,” both about the apartheid system in South Africa, made for good stories. In the former, a white “liberal” newspaper editor who was a severe critic of a banned black activist later became friends with him and took up the cause; with the latter, Nelson Mandela, sent to prison for nearly 30 years and probably bitter at that time, emerged a conciliator and, upon becoming president, challenged his own people to “do right by” the white population. (That film, whose immediate premise was Mandela’s attempt to unite the country behind the national rugby team during the World Cup, which South Africa was hosting, won an ESPY award from ESPN.)

So perhaps the critics of the Academy are barking up the wrong tree. It could be that people need to see how the black American experience would change the folks involved on a heart level, not just in a cultural or legal sense.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dating and marriage: Some thoughts from the dance floor

A few months ago I began taking lessons in West Coast Swing, and I’ve been having a blast. Since there are so few WSC dances in the Pittsburgh area I go to as many as I can, including most Tuesdays at the studio where they’re held.

There’s a culture involved in these dances — since in my observation no one is hitting on anyone else, you dance with whomever asks you and change partners with every song. And while I do have favorite partners (I’m sure that some women also prefer to dance with me as well), I usually invite the woman physically closest to me. It isn’t even considered gauche for a woman to approach a man, which happens to me about once a night.

The experience is showing me some things about relating healthily to the other gender.

For openers, I’ve never been of the opinion that you should date only those people you would marry; after all, everyone, men especially, needs to learn how to build a relationship, to see what works and doesn’t work. The studio offers lessons and a “practice party” afterwards, so that you can try out new moves and/or refresh old ones. Thankfully, since it’s a “safe” place, you can do that, with instructors ready, willing and able to help.

Were more people able to help each other in doing so, in love and life.

Second, I learned quickly that West Coast Swing is fairly unique in that the roles between “leader” and “follower” might change at a given movement; as such, I need to be ready for something different that my partner may want to do and thus create a “frame” for her to do it. For this reason I often prefer dancing with more experienced partners.

During one move called a “right-side pass,” in which a “follower” is normally twirling under the leader’s arm, one woman I was dancing with didn’t complete the pass but held my hand high and simply started moving in the direction I was taking her, indicating that I was supposed to respond. After this happened a couple of times, I finally realized what she was doing and didn’t force her to follow me, just “going with the flow.” (Technically it’s not a ballroom dance, most of which tend to adhere to strict rules.)

This happens a lot in marriage because, even though the husband is the “leader,” the wife may have some ideas of her own that he would need to, and thus should, support. Perhaps she may want to go back to school or seek a new ministry opportunity that would broaden her — and thus their — horizons.

And there’s no feeling in the world like knowing that you’re doing well. The last time I danced with one of my favorite partners, a 20-year-old who’s been at it for longer than I, I noticed at one point that her eyes were closed, I’m guessing because she had gotten "lost" in the dance. At the end of that evening she thanked me not once but twice for dancing with her.

I said in response, “I should be thanking you.” Because she was allowing me to grow.

Monday, February 16, 2015

‘Dangerous’ men

Lately I began thinking about a movie with the female lead as an ingĂ©nue and the male lead as a flawed anti-hero. The current “Fifty Shades of Grey?”

No. “Dirty Dancing,” which of course starred Jennifer Grey — what a coincidence — as a teenage girl nicknamed “Baby” and the late Patrick Swayze as a streetwise dance instructor with a checkered past who seduces her.

In fact, when that movie came out about a quarter-century ago it did arouse a bit of controversy. During a discussion on local Christian radio, one commentator called “Dirty Dancing” “a woman’s sex fantasy.”

And that may be the very same issue surrounding the extremely erotic “Fifty Shades of Grey”; when the book came out that a newspaper or magazine reported that one woman recommended the book to another, with this admonition: “Wear a panty liner.”

With the latter production has come the predictable amount of evangelical hand-wringing, especially the apparent glorification of sex, which many consider part of the coarsening of our culture.

Though I have no intention of reading the book or watching the movie, I have a different take: I see it as women falling for what I call “dangerous men.”

Having read the book “Wild at Heart,” I understand this phenomenon a little, with author John Eldredge explaining it as women wanting a sense of adventure in a relationship with a man. Not for nothing are fraternity men, athletes, entertainers and cowboys (to a certain extent) regarded as “hot”; mild guys who are morally upright and stable are, on the other hand, often as a result considered boring.

And this has been going on for decades now.

Here’s the rub: Eldredge also says that when women catch one of these “wild” men they often set out to tame him. Some refuse (I did in my last relationship), while others comply — and promptly lose their mojo, the very thing they fear. Some years ago a newspaper advice column ran a story about a couple in which the woman wanted her husband to trade in his pickup truck for a minivan and he was resisting for that reason. (I thought, “Why not buy the minivan but also keep the truck?”)

In one case, Eldredge referred to a wife who wanted to spice things up in her dull marriage, and he advised her to “invite [her husband] to be dangerous” — which in her case meant allowing him to buy a motorcycle, to her chagrin.

I’m seeing now that church culture usually doesn’t invite men to be “wild”; it’s supposed to turn out good and moral people who don’t make waves, but that has also hurt the masculine journey because a certain amount of passion is lost in the process. For that reason, adventure should be part of a man’s life. (It’s one reason I play jazz and blues, both an adventure every time out because in some cases no one knows what will happen next.)

So perhaps the issue isn’t really eroticism; it’s a desire for women to be intimate with a strong man. Or what they perceive to be one.