I’m Still With Her

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Holy Shit. That pretty much sums up the sentiment I felt last night when I went to bed, this morning when I woke up, and at this moment as I write these words. I am usually not one to buy into “doomsday” rhetoric, but this time it’s hard.

Rather than going on a rant about what I am against (so damn tempting right now) I decided to instead make an affirmation, a deep affirmation of those who I believe need it most today.

I am STILL With Her. Yes I voted for Hillary, but this goes deeper than that vote. Today I am With my wife. I affirm her strength and power. I affirm her deep desire to live in a world that doesn’t grade her on a gender curve. I affirm her deep desire to be heard when she tells stories of sexual harassment & blatant sexism. I affirm her desire for a revolution of motherhood and womanhood in this country. I affirm her own recognition of the truth of who she is–a powerful force wreaking havoc on the dominant culture of this “Man’s World”. I’m With Her.

I am Still With Her. I am with my daughter. I affirm her sincere belief that absolutely nothing separates her from whatever she dreams of doing with her life. And yes, as of today, becoming the first Female President is on her list of “jobs”. I affirm that she will do it if that’s what she truly wants. I affirm her innate power. I affirm her ability to make a grown man weep by simply singing a song she created. I affirm her love of the natural world, the people around her, and her own femininity. I’m With Her.

I’m Also With Them. My friends. My friends who are undocumented, on DACA, have undocumented family, watch their backs everyday in fear that their family will be torn apart. I affirm that you are my neighbors. I affirm your humanity. I affirm your worth, and I commit myself to doing everything within my power to make sure your greatest fears after last night do not become a reality. I’m With Them.

I’m Also With Them. My friends. My friends who have struggled to face all kinds of opposition when they make their self-affirmation that “Black Lives Matter”. My friends who believe strongly that this result is a “White-lash”, America’s way of saying “Get back in your place.” I affirm that you won’t listen to that bullshit. I affirm your need and desire to keep fighting. I affirm your humanity. I affirm your struggle. I’m With Them.

I’m Also With Them. My gay friends. My friends who have felt personally attacked by the wave of support that followed every deeply disturbing stunt. I affirm your humanity. I affirm your rights. I affirm the gift that you are to me and my country. I’m With Them.

I’m Also With Them. My Muslim Friends. My friends who have felt that their presence in my country was never wanted and that they sometimes feel less safe here than in the war-torn country they came from. I affirm their hospitality, their gift to my family, their gift for creating amazing food–oh God that amazing food. I affirm your humanity. I affirm your right to live a life of peace without fear. I’m With Them.

So, President Trump. You made bold claims that you will be the president this country needs. I am not being sarcastic when I say that I hope you will be. It is my hope that you too will recognize the humanity, the struggle, the resilience, the gift, of all my friends. I hope you will be their president too. I have serious doubts that this will happen. I don’t often like to be proven wrong. In your case, I welcome your efforts to try.

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Seeking Justice: Was That White Privilege?

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Black Lives Matter has utterly transformed the way I see the world. Nearly two years of its presence in my life has caused me to evaluate things like gentrification and urban renewal like never before. Are these fancy words that thinly veil racism in my city? It’s almost like I traded in my rose colored glasses for a pair that shows the world in HD. But then there’s the ambiguity of it all. For example, I have become convinced that White Privilege is real, but I find it difficult to identify exactly where and when I have experienced it. This ambiguity has led many to deny its existence and others to call those who insist it’s real “Race Baiters”. Somewhere in the midst of it all is me, a 30 something white man trying real hard to wake up.

I remember a time a few years ago when I was incredibly “lucky” after being pulled over only 3 blocks from my old house on the West side of Denver in the Barnum neighborhood. “What’s the problem officer?” I respectfully asked. “You’re headlight’s out.” I began to worry. When I was a kid I was in the car when my mother got a “fix-it ticket” for a similar issue. Money was tight and I really didn’t want to have to pay a fine.

I was planning the speech in my head about how I would fix it first thing in the morning, so as to avoid a ticket. But before I could spit the words out, he asked me for my proof of insurance. I grabbed the card from the glove box and handed it to him. He took it from me and then said “This one’s expired.” Oh no! The new one is on my coffee table at home! I know exactly where it’s at! This just went from bad to worse! First I might get a fix-it ticket, and now I will have a fine for not having my proof of insurance on me.

That’s when the strangest thing happened. As I profusely apologized for leaving the other card at home, he disinterestedly waved his hand and said, “I’m not going to give you a ticket. Just go home.”

I remember going home thinking that I was lucky I got an officer who didn’t want to go through the trouble of writing a ticket. Still I found it strange that he just let me go when I couldn’t provide proof of insurance. I found it strange, but I decided not to question it. I chalked it up to luck and mostly forgot the story—until recently.

Barnum is a largely poor and Latino neighborhood. There are several gangs that claim the streets as their own. Gun shots were a fairly regular occurrence and we never doubted that lots of drugs and weapons made their way through the neighborhood daily. Also, my car wasn’t the nicest. It was a simple Dodge Stratus with a couple dents in it—and apparently a broken headlight. I can’t help but wonder if the officer expected to find someone else driving my car in my neighborhood. I also can’t help but wonder if he had hoped that a broken headlight might turn into a search and seizure, but dismissed the idea once he saw me in the driver’s seat.

Maybe it truly was just an officer who wanted to make sure I got the headlight fixed and had no interest in writing the ticket, no matter who was driving. But then, maybe my “luck” was really me benefiting from a broken system of assumptions that is heavily bent in my favor. Maybe.

Seeking Justice: For Profit Policing?

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Black Lives Matter. With one short phrase I probably caused you to have some kind of emotional response. The truth is that our country will never be the same because of this phrase and the movement that it represents. I have spent the better part of 2 years trying to learn as much as I can from my friends and acquaintances who work for racial justice in Denver. What has this felt like for me? In the words of a friend of mine:

I’m standing at the fire hose with my dixie cup.

One of the phrases I caught in that dixie cup was, “For Profit Policing”. It caught my attention, but I wasn’t really aware of what it was pointing toward. I suppose that can be said of so much of what I’ve learned. As a white man, it catches my attention,but I have no experiential container to put it in, so it takes me a while–like over a year–to finally even begin to “get it”. About a month ago something clicked. I heard the phrase “For Profit Policing” and I immediately remembered my time as a sales person at a retail store on the 16th Street Mall in Denver.

I don’t claim to be the most noble person alive, but I think most of the people who know me would describe me as a “good person”. That’s important to say at the beginning of this story.

The store I worked at sold many things, but the biggest money maker for the company, and also for myself through sales commission, was cell phones–specifically cell phones that came with the activation of a 2 year contract. I went through the company training. I learned far more about sales tactics than helpful information about the phones I was trying to sell, to be honest. Then I was unleashed. I feel slimy even remembering the way I tried to convince my customers I knew what I was talking about. My ultimate aim was to manipulate them into believing that I was an expert and that they really wanted this phone. No, not the pre-paid one. That one’s bad. The contract phone is the way to go!

After a few weeks of trying to sell phones, largely unsuccessfully, I began to make some “helpful” observations. The people who were most likely businessmen and women, who appeared to be wealthier, and who seemed to be well educated, were very difficult to sell to. They were far more likely to ask questions that would stump me. They would easily catch on to my tactics and call me out on them. In short, they were far less likely to pull the trigger and give me that coveted commission.

On the other hand, those who seemed to be poor and less educated offered far less resistance. They seemed to actually buy into the ruse that I was the “cell phone expert”. They asked far fewer questions. They were often swept away by my sales tactics. In short, they were far more likely to sign that 2 year agreement.

My supervisors were happy with me. My paycheck made me happy. I kept doing it. I targeted the folks who I had discovered were far more likely to give me the sales numbers, all the while having to force down the suspicion that they might not completely understand what they were getting themselves into. I often suspected that they would eventually default on their bills and end up with terrible cancellation fees and most likely a decent hit to their credit score. Still, I did it anyway. In the system of my company, it was all about the numbers.

That’s the story that comes to mind today when I hear the phrase “For Profit Policing”. Did you know that police departments across the country are expected to bring in money? And it’s not usually a percentage of all fines, fees, and forfeitures. There is often a budgeted amount that they are expected to bring in. That’s right. Before the year even begins our police departments are given sales goals.

This reality was one of those “Ah, I see” moments for me. One of the primary complaints coming from poor and minority communities is the sheer number of times they get pulled over for painfully minor traffic violations. Things like a license plate that is improperly displayed, dice hanging from the rear view mirror, failure to signal a turn, etc. Philando Castile, who was shot and killed during one such stop, had been pulled over 49 times in 13 years–most of the time for minor violations, according to public record. Another complaint is how often those minor violations result in searches as the officer is suspecting the presence of drugs or weapons, violations that would result in hefty fines paid to the city or county.

Is it possible that vulnerable communities bear the largest part of this burden for the same reason that the most vulnerable people bore the largest part of my sales efforts? Are they perceived to be the least likely (or able) to resist–less likely to seek legal retribution?

One element of the phrase “For Profit Policing” stands out to me: It acknowledges that the individual officers aren’t necessarily the problem. The decision to expect police departments to be the one branch of public servant that brings in a revenue puts the officers in a difficult situation. If they resist the system that so often leads to the oppression of the most vulnerable, they could be seen as under performing in the same way that I would have been had I refused the “easy sale”. In this way it becomes clear that the well being of one truly is the well being of the other. We are not as disconnected as it often seems.

Black Lives Matter. If your immediate response is to shut down, resist the urge. Listen. It might feel overwhelming, but whatever you are able to catch in that dixie cup might just change everything.

 

 

 

Seeking Justice: The Evolution of Freedom

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A few days ago we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Some celebrated his legacy by simply taking a moment to think about something he said or did. Some celebrated by taking part in organized celebrations in their cities. Still others celebrated by practicing the very art Dr. King was well known for–non-violent civil disobedience.

I’ve been struck by several things recently that make me think of Dr. King and others who have fought tooth and nail for freedom in our country. I have toyed with the idea of blogging about several of those thoughts, but most of them escaped my ability to put them into words. Then I started listening to Dr. King. Literally. A friend of mine is letting me borrow a box set of his “Landmark Speeches”. It only took me three speeches to realize something that speaks profoundly to us today.

If you listen to the speeches of this giant of the Civil Rights Movement, you will hardly get a minute into any of them without hearing him speak of Freedom. He speaks passionately about the fact that he and other People of Color are not free and he dares to dream of a time when Freedom is realized for all.

I am also reading a book by Dr. W.E.B Du Bois, called “The Souls of Black Folk”. He published this book in 1903–only 40 years after the famous Emancipation Proclamation was issued as the Civil War raged on.

Lending an ear to both of these giants has given me a new appreciation for the journey toward racial justice in our country. Primarily it has caused me to focus on this idea of Freedom. It has caused me to see how the concept of Freedom has evolved within the consciousness of the black community–always through intense resistance from many within the white community.

Dr. Du Bois speaks of the pursuit of freedom before the Emancipation Proclamation as being single mindedly about no longer being forced to work for free. However after slavery was no longer legally sanctioned in the U.S., it quickly became apparent that Freedom meant something more. Still, the black community was not free.

But I can imagine the voice of white opposition trying to “reason” with Dr. Du Bois and others. I imagine those voices saying something along the lines of, “You are free! You are no longer slaves!” To which Dr. Du Bois might have replied, “We have begun our journey into Freedom, but we are not there yet.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who became a prominent person in the Civil Rights Movement more than 50 years later, also spoke about Freedom. He had realized that while the condition of life for the black community had certainly improved since the days of Dr. Du Bois, the black community was still not free. Segregation, both legally in the South and practically in the North, lack of educational opportunity, lack of work opportunity, lack of housing opportunity, police brutality, etc. all worked together to ensure that the black community was far from free.

Again I can imagine the voice of white opposition saying, “OK, maybe you weren’t really free immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation, but you are free now! Blacks are being educated, they have jobs, they hold power. You are free!” To which Dr. King might have replied, “We have continued down the road on the journey to Freedom, but we are far from our destination still.”

Today many activists across the country, operating under the name Black Lives Matter, are still talking about Freedom. They are pointing out, as Michelle Alexander does in her book “The New Jim Crow”, that Mass Incarceration continues to ensure that the black community is not free. They are pointing out that racial profiling by law enforcement continues to ensure that the black community is not free. They are pointing out that food deserts, under-funded schools, gentrification without justice, and many other pieces of the puzzle of our society continue to ensure that the black community is not free.

And still the voice of white opposition is present.

Perhaps I’m acting too hastily by interpreting today’s events in this way, but I think it would be a mistake to attempt to view them without any consideration of history. This is not the first time that the cry for Freedom has been met with intense resistance. Clearly, it always has.

Dr. King also teaches us something profound about this cry for Freedom. It is not only Freedom for the black community. Indeed, the Freedom of those who have been oppressed will always come with Freedom for everyone–even the oppressor.

As I contemplatively listen to history I am learning that, despite that resistance, the journey toward Freedom will march on. I choose to intentionally unplug from the vehicle of resistance. I choose to listen rather than speak. I choose to accept the invitation to march alongside my brothers and sisters toward the growing understanding of what it means to be Free.

One way I am beginning to talk differently about racism in America

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Jesus’ words often break through my layers of resistance over time. It rarely happens immediately. But once they break through, I am helplessly sucked into a level of obsession that can only be rivaled by my pre-schooler on Pizza and a Movie Night. They occupy my thoughts in ways I never knew possible and I begin to see their applicability in nearly every avenue of life.

Recently the words that have found their way into my obsessive consciousness are found in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is talking to some Chief Priests and Elders. They challenge Him by asking where His authority comes from and He responds with a parable–not abnormal for this radical Rabbi.

The parable is a story about two sons and their father. The father owns a vineyard and asks both of the sons to work that day. The first son refuses, but later does the work asked of him. The second son agrees to do the work, but never gets around to it. Jesus then poses a question to the religious elite before Him–“Which of the two did the will of his father?”

It seems like Jesus is suggesting that Intentions, when compared to reality, are utterly meaningless. This reading has cut into my heart and is continuing to force me to ask difficult questions. These questions are exposing innumerable inconsistencies between my own intentions and the reality I am actively working toward.

It is through this lens that I have been thinking about racism. If you listen really close to the national conversation, you will hear this distinction in many areas. Those claiming racism are pointing to what they see as daily realities while those arguing against their claims are pointing to pure intentions.

One such example has been on my mind a lot thanks to a co-worker who is doing a great deal of work in seminary around understanding Food Deserts and their impact on urban areas across the country. A Food Desert, according to the USDA, is

“a low income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a super-market or grocery store.”

I might be naive, but I imagine that the vast majority of people in our country–including those who are major players in the world of grocery stores and super-markets–are in no way intending to perpetuate hardship for others based on their income level and race. I think most of us would agree that the Intention in this case is clearly not racist.

However when one looks at the reality, a different story emerges. Here is a map of Food Deserts in America. In Denver, the neighborhoods identified as Food Deserts are overwhelmingly black and brown in demographic. When a friend of mine shared his perspective on systemic racism including Food Deserts, I pushed back a bit. His response was simple and eye opening. “Ben, do some research and see if you can find one single Food Desert in Denver that is in a predominately white neighborhood.” I did that research. I couldn’t find one. I became aware that while the intentions might not have been racist, I wasn’t sure the reality could be called anything else.

This type of statistic is also found in many other areas like Education, Healthcare, and Criminal Justice. So the question plaguing today is: Can we change the way we talk about racism in America? I wonder if it is possible to acknowledge at the same time that few people intend for our society to be racist AND that many parts of our society are racist.

This feels to me like one of those “Eyes to see and Ears to hear” moments. Many of my friends would tell me that my assumption that the intention of racism is absent is incredibly naive. Other friends of mine will tell me that I am choosing to see racism where it really isn’t present. Even so, It is my hope that we can start talking about racism differently, and more authentically. It is my hope that we can begin to experience a consistency between our intentions and the reality we are actively working toward. I believe that the future of our society depends on it.

What’s in a name?

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Our country is no stranger to this question. In recent years we have heard many debates about whether a name should change or not. The most famous example would be the argument involving the NFL team, the Washington Redskins.

People tend to get pretty opinionated and heated around conversations like this, and I suspect the most recent initiative here in Denver to be the same. A Denver neighborhood, whose name was passed down by the Airport that once stood in it’s place, is now at the heart of this debate on a local level. Stapleton is a name that most Denver residents know only to refer to the fairly new and affluent neighborhood on the East Side of our city.

I was at a local church beginning my journey of disorientation at the feet of Black Lives Matter activists when I first heard someone suggest that the name of the Stapleton neighborhood should be changed. It was there that I learned about Benjamin Stapleton–Denver’s Mayor elected in 1923. Stapleton was running as the candidate from the political party known by many simply as the Klan–The KKK.

So, what’s in a name? Most of Denver’s residents (myself included until fairly recently) have no idea that the name of the neighborhood came from the KKK Mayor of Denver. Certainly the people who live in Stapleton would be the first to say that they did not move there as a pledge of allegiance to the racist and all together hateful ideals of the KKK. But still, many people are passionately calling for the name to be changed–and I agree with them.

It is no doubt a symbolic gesture, to name a neighborhood–building–airport–etc. after a person. Many will point to this as their reasoning for wanting to leave the name alone. They may say that the symbol has lost its relevance and changing the name would be giving in to the push to become overly “Politically Correct”. Those who are offended by the name, according to these people, are being offended by things that don’t really affect their real lives.

This argument may seem convincing, but take a moment to think about the power of symbolism. We see it everywhere. The American Flag. The Cross. The National Anthem. Our religious Creeds. These are all symbols that (by the above mentioned logic) shouldn’t impact anyone’s real life, but we know this to be the furthest thing from the truth. These symbols have tremendous power to unify people in ways that essays and arguments fail to accomplish. There is something deeply powerful about symbols. Symbols are often used to engergize a community around hope. Symbols are also used to oppress.

It is time for us, as Americans, to practice intentional critique. We should be willing to assess the implications of the symbols around us. For most white citizens of Denver, Stapleton is only a neighborhood, but for many People of Color it is a name that memorializes the pillars that helped build a system designed to oppress. It is tempting for me, as a white man, to ignore the cries of my friends calling for the change in favor of tension-less illusions of peace–the kind of peace defined by a lack of feeling uncomfortable. But I am learning to listen. I am learning to be willing to be uncomfortable. I am learning to stand beside my friends and ask the same question they are–what impact does this symbol have on the spirit of our community? It is a symbol rooted in hatred, discrimination, oppression, and violence. The impact lacks all potential for peace.

So, what’s in a name? In this case, it contains the opportunity for a community to take a step toward hope. I doubt very much that anyone would defend the character of Benjamin Stapleton. This is an opportunity for our city to take a step–a pretty simple step at that–toward a new direction of true Peace and Hope for everyone in our community. Let’s change that name.

How could straight Christians respond to same sex couples in light of the SCOTUS decision?

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Let’s start with a statement about who this is for. I have had a few conversations recently with Christians who are truly struggling with how to respond to friends and family who are gay, especially in the wake of the recent SCOTUS decision that secures their right to marry their partner. This blog is for those Christians. Notice that I said, “truly struggling”. This blog is not for those of you who are not struggling, but are instead looking for a platform to posture. I know I can’t keep you from commenting, but I do want you to know from the start that this is not for you.

These conversations have had a few common themes. The folks I had them with feel utterly torn, because they have people in their lives whom they love that are directly affected by this ruling, and that makes them want to celebrate the feelings of joy with their loved ones. At the same time they have deeply held beliefs that make it hard for them to fully celebrate as they do honestly believe that marriage should only be between one man and one woman. They feel torn between incredibly important relationships and incredibly important beliefs. I simply want to affirm these folks and offer a challenge that comes from within their own frame of belief.

But first, a disclaimer.

I do not share your struggle. I am more than willing to have a genuine conversation if that would help, but for now I will simply say that I do not believe homosexuality to be a sin. I sincerely do celebrate the SCOTUS decision and see it as a decision that will be looked back on as the obvious “Right Thing To Do”. If that discredits me in your eyes, please feel free to close the window now. I won’t be offended.

I have felt a strong desire to answer the question this blog is based on with another (far more cliche and sure to get lots of eye rolls) question. What Would Jesus Do? Stay with me here! I ask that question, because it seems that if we are truly trying to find out how a Christian is to respond, Jesus would be a good person to consider.

This blog is being written for people who see homosexuality as something they do not condone, so I figured we should see if Jesus was ever confronted with the opportunity to engage folks who are in the midst of a “lifestyle choice” (using a common phrase among more conservative Christians in reference to homosexuality) that He would never condone. The immediate–and obvious in my mind–answer is Jesus’ interactions with Tax Collectors.

A little bit of background about Tax Collectors. These men–I understand they are mostly, if not all Jews–worked on behalf of the Roman Empire to collect the taxes demanded of the Jewish people. They were required to collect a certain amount, but most of them demanded more in an effort to use their position of power to get rich off the backs of their fellow people. They were considered thieves, and I believe Jesus would have strongly agreed with that understanding of their profession.

I feel this is a good place to note that I used the following story because Jesus was interacting with a man whose actions He did not condone, not because I believe you see homosexuals as corrupt criminals crippling the American people. I think better of you than that.

Probably the most famous story of Jesus interacting with a Tax Collector is the story of Zaccheus. Zaccheus and I have one thing in common–our height. He was so short that climbing a tree was his only chance of getting a look at this man they call Jesus. Jesus sees him in the tree and invites Himself over to Zaccheus’ home.

The people are outraged as Jesus extends this overwhelmingly kind gesture to such a terrible sinner who steals from his own people. Yet Jesus doesn’t seem to mind the talking. To Him, the gesture is more than appropriate.

Zaccheus experiences a sort of awakening and realizes how rotten he had been toward his people. He declares that he will pay back all that he stole with interest!

Let’s notice a few details about this story. 

  1. Zaccheus was complicit in a system that kept Jesus, and His nation of origin, in a state of deep oppression.

  2. Jesus did not condone Zaccheus’ work. In fact, He probably wept over it.

  3. Jesus embraces Zaccheus with no obvious agenda! That little detail often gets lost in this story, particularly because Zaccheus promises to pay back all he has stolen. In truth, Jesus (strictly speaking from the text) merely went to Zaccheus’ home. He showed him dignity. He extended an arm of friendship.

  4. This one also often gets lost in the telling of this story. Zaccheus did not stop being a Tax Collector and yet Jesus affirmed that salvation had come to his home that day. While Zaccheus might agree to pay back those he had wronged, the system was still crippling most Jews and Zaccheus was still a part of it.

So based on this story, how could straight Christians who do not condone homosexuality respond to homosexuals? With friendship. With agenda and disclaimer free friendship regardless of how others might perceive that friendship.

I am not trying to suggest that your beliefs on this subject are unimportant. I am simply saying that your wrestling with those beliefs needn’t keep you from genuinely loving and supporting the people in your life who are gay. Even if it is true that Jesus would not condone homosexuality, I am deeply convinced that He would be the first to embrace those people in your life with authenticity and without an agenda.