Romans 14 – Appropriate Attitudes for Black History Month

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
    every tongue will acknowledge God.’”

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

A little back-story

A chapter wholly devoted to dietary preferences may seem a weird jumping off point for race relations, but there are actually many parallels here that can illuminate our current realities.

Let me start with a little back-story.  If you didn’t know already, my husband is black (I’m white, by the way).  He is very vocal about issues of injustice, especially those concerning representation of POC in and around farming, food, and land use.  (You can read his work on Medium.)  Last week, he noticed that Modern Farmer, a magazine in which he had been featured under the previous editor-in-chief a few years back, had not featured a single black farmer on their (very active) Instagram feed in the first half of Black History Month. In fact, they hadn’t shown any black farmers since November 20th (and even longer for a Hispanic farmer – both facts I independently confirmed when Chris brought my attention to it).  He reached out to them to let them know, and was ignored.  Then he publicly announced their oversight, and several other farmers reached out to them.  Again, this was largely ignored, other than a curt private message from Modern Farmer to Chris basically saying “cut it out and leave us alone.”  Well, Chris did not cut it out, and they eventually put up a weak apology – with a stock photo of a black farmer instead of a real, working, promote-able black farmer – on Thursday last.  They say they’ll do better, and I sincerely hope they do, but both of us have our doubts.

Those in power respecting the needs and opinions of those not in power

Back to today’s Bible verse.  What it boils down to is people in a position of power respecting the needs and opinions of those not in power.  In the Roman empire, pagan temples often doubled as butcher shops, where the meat sacrificed to the gods was then consumed by the people.  With almost all meat having been dedicated to pagan gods, many observant Jews decided to forgo meat entirely so as not to accidentally defile themselves with meat that may have been involved in pagan ceremonies.  Paul affirms, and many Gentile Jesus-followers believed, that Jesus did away with the old systems, essentially making all food clean. As such, the Gentile believers saw no need to limit themselves to (in their view, obsolete) Jewish dietary restrictions.  This was greatly distressing to some Jewish Jesus-followers, who saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the law but not the abolition of the law.  To them, dietary restrictions were another way to honor both tradition and God, and should not be abolished.  Take the dedication some people have to Keto, vegan, or gluten-free diets, add a religious aspect to it, and we can begin to understand how important this was.  Gentiles, being able to eat whatever they want and move more freely through the larger society in part because of that fact, are the people in a position of power in this story.  Jews, with the need for careful dietary observances, avoiding certain (or all) purveyors of meat, and being scrutinized by the larger society for that fact, are the people who lack power in this story.

Paul, though he does affirm that he sees all food as clean, stresses to the Gentile believers that they should respect the beliefs and dietary restrictions of the Jewish believers.  I’m not a huge fan of his word choice: “strong” and “weak” faith makes it seem like Gentile believers were better at believing in Jesus.  Perhaps progressive and conservative might have been more accurate, though those two terms are also pretty loaded now.  But I digress. The important part of the story is that Paul urges those in power to respect those who lack it, up to and including following the restrictions of those who are “weak in faith” as a default, and saving free-for-all meat eating for personal meals.

Stumbling blocks of our own making

Dear white people, this should be our guiding light during Black History Month and indeed all times.  While Chris has had many supporters in this Modern Farmer skirmish, I’ve been appalled at the number of people basically saying “So what’s the big deal?”  Here’s the big deal: Black Americans – indeed any people of color, here – live in a country where they’re routinely treated as invisible, labelled as “aggressive” if they speak up (and are often fired, demoted, or otherwise punished for it), and watch as their culture is commodified for white-only consumption while they are forced to assimilate into white culture.  Need an example?  A white teenager walking down the street listening to ODB is viewed as cool, a black teenager listening to the same music is seen as threatening.  We, as white people, are in a position of power, let us respect the opinion of – and indeed uplift those – who are not!

My favorite line from today’s reading is “make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”  If you’re over there reading this, getting defensive, thinking “well, not all white people are like that” while remembering how you invited your black coworker to your last cookout, then whatever, I’m not going to argue with you on that one.  But you’re just one person, and if that is your attitude, then you’re not exactly a starter on the offensive line of combating inequality.  There are so many stumbling blocks we need to help remove.  Pervasive stereotypes exist that black people have to overcome every single day, over and over again.  Google even had to fix it’s auto-suggest because the suggestions were so racist.  Still, after Google’s attention to that issue, society’s biases continue to come through.  I just did a quick experiment with Google Images.  Type in “deadbeat dad” and a lot of memes come up, but one of the top “you may also be interested in” suggestions is “black” complete with a picture of a black man.  “Welfare queen” is another telling example example.  While most welfare benefits go to white recipients (and are often less than what a person truly needs), the idea of a “welfare queen” being a large, lazy, greedy black woman persists – in Google images and in the real world.  Now, imagine that stereotype following you around to the grocery store…on a job interview…hell, even on a date.  It’s like handicapping a horse during a race, only you’re adding weight to the wrong one, ensuring that the favored horse will continue to win.

Working towards peace and mutual edification

So what are we to do?  Paul gives us the blue-print in my other favorite line from this passage: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”  This passage needs one tiny bit of clarification: Peace is not the same as silence.  Peace does not mean getting black people to “cut it out and leave us alone,” as Modern Farmer basically told Chris (again, I’m paraphrasing, but that was the clear intent of their message).  As Paul stresses, the onus of peace and mutual edification is upon those in power.  So yes, that means it’s up to us, fellow white people, to listen when a black person says something isn’t working.  Equally important, we cannot then deny or try to justify that wrong, but must try to fix it.

Yes, that means more work on our part – but we’ve got the bandwidth for it.  If you’re lucky enough to walk out your house without a stereotype (or several) hanging over your head the minute you interact with another person, then you’re already saving on emotional energy.  Pour some of it into being a better ally.  Educate yourself. There are several good books out there.  I’ve read bits of White Fragility and have also seen How to be an Anti-Racist and Between the World and Me highly recommended.

Then, listen and don’t overshadow.  It’s easy to gain a modicum of understanding and then feel like you are an expert.  It is particularly important to resist that urge when working towards equality.  If your discussion about racial issues in the workplace doesn’t include minority workers, if your business claims inclusivity without having a racial minority in a decision making role, if you are in any way speaking for or about someone (or a group of someones) to the detriment of them speaking for themselves, then you’re not doing much to promote equality.

Finally, don’t give up.  The minute you excuse yourself from fixing the problem, you become part of the problem.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Then there’s this quote (not from film director Werner Herzog, but from a doppleganger twitter account run by William Pannapacker, a professor of American literature at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  The authorship, in my view, makes no difference on its impact): “Dear America: You are waking up, as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches.”  In less eloquent language: indifference is the problem. Do not be indifferent to the sufferings of your brothers and sisters, of which we all are in Christ.  Do not look away, and do not excuse yourself from action.  Until there is truly peace and mutual edification for all, until all the stumbling blocks have been removed, then we have work to do.

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Hosea 09 – Stewardship Callings

5 What will you do on the day of your appointed festivals,

    on the feast days of the Lord? (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Kind of a rough start to a blog entry the week before Christmas, right?  But this chapter does ask us an important question: what will we do on the day of our appointed festivals? On the feast days of our Lord?  Will we participate in hollow ritual, whether that be religious or secular in nature, or will we remember our true callings?  Throughout these recent chapters – indeed, a major message that comes from numerous prophets – is that God does not want lip service, God wants our hearts and minds, our true dedication.

But what does that mean, exactly?  For me, it means stewardship.  I believe the best way to show our love of God is to care for what God cares for: Xyr creations.  The Earth and all its inhabitants.  So stewardship can take many forms, as you might imagine.  That’s one of the beautiful things about it: you can find what makes you passionate and follow that path.  And no one path is “better” or “right.”  There are many, many problems that need to be addressed in this world.

For example, my two major motivators are environmental stewardship and combating racism/xenophobia.  Those are broad topics, and I’ve explored them further I’ve zero-ed in on what really, really interests me.  First, within environmental stewardship is the issue of food waste.  Did you know that somewhere between 162-218 BILLION DOLLARS of food waste is generated in America each year?  That’s food that is thrown out at grocery stores and restaurants, by individual consumers, and the stuff that is left to rot in the field because it doesn’t meet harvesting standards (but is perfectly edible).  Just one third of that wasted food would be enough to feed the 50 million food-insecure individuals in this country.  Instead, it is in landfills producing methane, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. It is a sin of excess compounded by a sin of carelessness.  Did you also know that there are two bills that have been introduced to Congress that would go a long way towards combating this waste….but they have languished since being introduced.  (It’s the Food Recovery Act and the Food Date Labeling Act, both introduced by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine, you can read more about them here.)  You can bet I call my reps about those bills, and spend a lot of time sharing facts like the ones above to spread the word.  And while I’m far from perfect, I try to combat food waste at home, as well: buying only what we need, using leftovers in the next meal’s cooking, and composting as a last resort.

Second, racism and xenophobia, which need to be attacked from so many levels.  The issue-within-the-issue, if you will, that really gets to me is governmental policies towards refugees.  We are a country of plenty – as illustrated above by the sheer waste we are able to generate – and there is no reason we can’t reallocate resources to help those in need, including incoming refugees.  I wrote more about why this issue is important to me last year, in this blog post.  Again, I call my representatives, speak up on this blog and other forums, and donate when I can to organizations like IRC and RAICES.

But that’s just what I’m passionate about.  And it’s OK if that’s not what you’re passionate about.  My plea today is to just find what makes you passionate.  Some other quick examples:  My priest in Charlottesville cares deeply about healthcare in rural communities, as well as the rights and well-being of those in institutionalized care (such as the elderly or mentally ill).  I have friends passionate about criminal justice reform.  Others are dedicated to plastic-free lifestyles and spreading the word on the benefits of that, both personal and environmental.  Many of my favorite accounts on Instagram are devoted to fighting fast fashion with it’s exploitative nature and environmental impacts.

Like I said, there’s a whole world of problems to be fixed.  And that can be scary, when you think about trying to fix all of them. But God does not ask that of you.  God simply wants you to be a part of the larger picture.  When we are selfish, greedy, careless, we turn from God, as the ill-fated people in this chapter.  But if we turn towards eachother, towards stewardship, we can avoid the horrors of this chapter, and that is something to rejoice.

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Hosea 08 – Michael Vick and the NFL

“Put the trumpet to your lips!
    An eagle is over the house of the Lord
because the people have broken my covenant
    and rebelled against my law.

(Read the rest of the chapter here!)

 

The NFL is like an idolic religion for some.  A calf that a metalworker has made, you might say.  And that is our jumping off point for today, because there has been a lot of talk about Michael Vick getting recognized at the upcoming Pro Bowl.

Let me just go on record as saying, what Michael Vick did was atrocious.  I have pitbulls myself, and it just shatters my heart to think about those poor dogs he put to fighting.  Do I think he should be recognized at the Pro Bowl?  I honestly don’t know.  My knee-jerk reaction is “no.”  But, he’s done prison time, he’s paid fines, paid for some of the dogs’ rehabilitation, and has partnered with the director of the Humane Society to speak at anti-dogfighting forums (where he pays his own expenses, by the way).  This article is a few years old, but does a good job painting a fair picture of Vick.  And, as the author says, dogs themselves live in the moment, wanting to forgive and love and get back to playing….so maybe if a dog can forgive Vick, then we can to.

With that out of the way, let me also say that Vick is just a symptom of a larger problem that is the NFL.  Chris and I stopped watching football years ago.  We love the sport: Chris played it in high school and the Superbowl has consistently been one of my favorite events of the year since I’ve been young.  (My birthday is January 27th, so it was always around my birthday and felt like a second party.)  But the NFL just has too many problems to keep watching it.  Let’s list some, shall we?

  1. Openly racist names and mascots, particularly the Washington Redskins.
  2. Roethlisberger, twice accused of rape (one case settled in civil court, one where the prosecutor refused to press charges), still starts for the Steelers.
  3. The NFL (an organization that makes over 10 BILLION dollars a year) was exempt from federal taxes until 2014.
  4. The NFL does not care – at least, not care enough – about the players’ health and safety.  Autopsies of 202 deceased NFL players showed that 99% suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Side note: not all these guys are millionaires. Apparently NFL retirement benefits suck and many face financial hardship.
  5. Their charitable causes are often just marketing campaigns in pretty packaging.  Let’s take Breast Cancer Awareness month.  Here’s all the official NFL gear that you can get to that end. Some proceeds may go to breast-cancer awareness, but you know their making a pretty penny off of it, too.  And how many new viewers do you think the NFL got when all that started? Hm?
  6. Selective blindness to player personal conduct.  Their suspension system makes no sense.  Some of my favorites: Tom Brady for cheating (remember Deflategate?) for only 4 games in 2015; Adam Jones for attacking a stripper and threatening a security guard’s life for one season in 2007; Mike Reilly for vehicular manslaughter for one season in 1983.
  7. And the biggie: Self-reinforcing institutionalized racism runs rampant in the NFL and its fans.  Colin Kaepernick and Michael Vick – two black men – are the ones getting people riled up.  Not the (white) rapist Roethlisberger or Dan Snyder (white owner of the Redskins), who flat out refuses to engage in a name-change discussion.
  8. Everything else: personal conduct of the team owners, the league’s steroid policy, problems with the officials…you get the point.

If this chapter of Hosea has one overarching message, it’s that God doesn’t want lip-service, God wants your heart.  So wringing your hands over Michael Vick and talking about how terrible he is but not acknowledging the larger problem?  It means you’re just looking for something to talk about.  Are you actually worried about Michael Vick’s behavior, and perhaps the NFL at large?  Then stop watching.  I’m not asking you to physically join the protests, which do happen fairly frequently over various NFL-related issues.  Simply, don’t tune in.  Don’t tune in for the Pro-Bowl, as many anti-Vick commentators are claiming they will do.  But then, don’t tune in for the Superbowl either.  Then don’t tune in next pre-season.  There are plenty of other things to watch or do on Sunday.  This is literally the easiest form of activism you can possibly do: not doing something.  I miss it, I do, but seriously folks, what do you think the NFL would do if viewers and attendees dropped by 50% for a season?  Maybe even for a single Superbowl? They’d be scrambling to get some changes made.  We’d see more personal accountability from the players and the owners, more concern for the player’s health and safety, more inclusivity and less racism.  Then we could all get back to watching football after church again, and not have to feel guilty about it.

***

(Also, since it’s Monday, I wanted to let you know I called my representatives.  I talked about the Border Crisis again.  If you want to do the same, here is the script I made for today’s call:  Hello, my name is _________ and I’m calling from zip-code _______. Nine thousand people travelling across the Southern Border *as families* were arrested in November, which is the start of the slow season.  Defunding of DHS programs like MPP, and increased funding of the Office of Refugee Resettlement needs to be addressed before refugee numbers start to surge again in the spring.)

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