Valuing Diversity

When I was a youth you either pulled for the Baltimore Colts or the Green Bay Packers. We divided up in other ways, too. People were often defined by their affinities or choices. In my hometown you either liked Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr, Fords or Chevys, the Red Sox or Yankees, and South Carolina or Clemson.

There wasn’t much wiggle room. Today we are even more polarized: red state/blue state, pro-gun/no-gun, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, and Fox/CNN. One of the few positives out of this horrific hurricane season is that the things that normally divide us don’t matter as much when we’re facing calamities together.

Being united in common cause is so much needed, hurricane or not. Wouldn’t it be great if bi-partisanship ruled the day rather than acrimonious finger-pointing? When we start pre-judging instead of pre-loving others we make assumptions that are usually false. A lot of our differences disappear when we get the facts and get to know someone personally.

Some of you know that I’m a member of GCORR (General Commission on Religion and Race), an agency of the United Methodist Church that works for reconciliation and grace across racial and tribal lines. It is the can-do group in the UMC that promotes a three-fold mission to promote intercultural competency, institutional equity, and vital conversations. We provide resources and training so that people can value each other and create systems that will be fair to all. We encourage conversations so that the grace of Jesus Christ might not be bound by any individual’s or group’s sense of supremacy over another. We want to help people know all the facts and back-stories of those that they assume are different from them.

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to be driving down the highway with a stuck horn and have a motorcycle gang in front of you then you know that you would love it if they knew that you couldn’t help it. But, they didn’t know all the facts. I’ve been in traffic with my lights stuck on bright. People blew their horns, threw up “Hawaiian Good Luck” gestures, switched their lights to hi-beam, and even swerved into my lane. If they knew the whole story then they would probably be more sympathetic.

Knowing people’s back stories can help us avoid paralyzing polarization and judgment. For instance, when I was a kid, born and raised in the South, there was a certain common opinion about Yankees. I was in college before I knew that what we used to call Northerners was actually two words. There was an automatic word that went with “Yankees.” Then I got married, graduated from college, and Cindy and I moved to Boston for seminary. I remember some of the linguistic and cultural differences. We stopped at a McDonald’s on Boston’s North Shore. I went inside and came back to the car without any food. Cindy asked what was up and I replied, “I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me.”

We had to learn a whole new lingo. A “tonic” was a “coke.” The “rubbish” was the “trash can.” A nearby town was named Peabody which I pronounced as Pee-body and they said Pee-bah-dee. My first request for a milk shake was a surprise. The person waiting on me poured milk into the stainless steel cup and put it under the agitator and handed me shook milk. I learned that what I really wanted was called a “Frappe” up there. There are numerous examples of similar experiences.

Until moving up North one of my favorite stories in a Southern-pride sort of way was about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman after he burned Atlanta. He was traveling down I-20 (not really) on the way to Savannah when he and his men started taking sniper fire from the top of Stone Mountain. He told 3 of his men to go up there and take care of the lone Confederate sniper. They went, and, after a big commotion, all 3 came flying off the summit. Sherman then sent 12 men and the same thing happened. Then Sherman sent 40 men and told them to take care of this Southern soldier. 39 of the men came flying off, but one, bloodied and near death, came back down. He said to Sherman, “General, it’s a trick! There’s 2 of them!” Yes, in my ignorant cultural allegiance and prejudice, I thought better of those below the Mason-Dixon Line than those above it.

What moved me from thinking of Northerners as DY’s was getting to know people, specifically Keith and Ella Nutter. They were members of Memorial UMC in Beverly, Massachusetts, next door to Salem, where I was a pastoral intern. We visited them often and became friends. After graduation they sent us a new subscription to “Yankee Magazine” every Christmas, and we sent them “Southern Living.” I learned that Yankees and Southerners aren’t that different. We just had to get to know each other!

Remember Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham? The main character is circled and badgered by Sam-I-Am to the point of utter frustration. The main character says, “That Sam-I-Am! That Sam-I-Am! I do not like Sam-I-Am!” Because he doesn’t like Sam-I-Am, he rebuffs Sam-I-Am’s constant offer of green eggs and ham: “I do not like green eggs and ham,” but when he finally tries it, he likes it, and also ends up liking Sam-I-Am. Getting to know someone. Having the whole story and all the facts make a huge difference. Too often we would rather prefer to judge others and separate ourselves from them.

Without knowing the whole story some people thought that Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was anti-patriotic when he was sworn in. As he took the oath in 1963 he raised his left hand instead of his right one. Everybody thought it was some kind of protest. Boy, were they wrong. Daniel Inouye served in the US Army during World War II. He was wounded fighting in Italy and earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart with clusters, and the Bronze Star. The reason he didn’t raise his right hand is because it was blown off during an enemy attack. He went on to honorably serve in the US Senate until his death in 2012.

My joy in serving in Aiken, South Carolina is that everybody here pretty much chose to be here, moved here on purpose for work or retirement, and are from everywhere. The diversity is refreshing and adds a vibrancy to the city. My hope is that we emulate what this city has done so well: Diversity is a good thing. Value each other!

hurricane-harvey-harris-county

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Human Relations DaySSSS!

Sometimes we just don’t get along with one another and we don’t know whether to lash out or just eat our anger. We can glad-hand it away and pretend it didn’t happen by seething inwardly, or we can go ballistic. Is there a middle way that is both truthful and therapeutic? In Charleston, SC there were no riots. A middle way was found because the families of the Emanuel Nine spoke the truth of their hurt, but also modeled grace.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us profound insight in how to live in this middle place: “We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Violent co-annihilation may be tempting when we’re dealing with what appears to be an intractable stalemate. This makes me think of North Korea versus the world; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Democrats and Republicans; and pro-this and con-that people that are on opposite sides of a multitude of subjects. Isn’t Dr. King right? Co-annihilation and evisceration doesn’t help. Chaos-promoting language is an oft-used campaign tool that appeals to many people, but it disregards the fact that rhetoric which foments mutually assured destruction ends up causing it. It’s co-annihilation.

The US government thought they could annihilate native people’s ways by creating boarding schools where tribal ways and languages were beaten out of our people. So-called Christian missionaries tried to destroy native spirituality to create “white people” out of a people who had a deeper understanding of God than they could dare imagine. Isn’t it strange that the church has adapted and accepted pagan customs over the centuries just as long as they came from people whose skin looked the same? Annihilation also came to native peoples through outright murder and ghettoization through events like the Sand Creek and Wounded Knee Massacres, or reservation-induced dependency and abject poverty.

January 17 will be Human Relations Day and is the Sunday nearest Dr. King’s birthday. Its purpose is “…to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with each other. The purpose of this day is to further the development of better human relations.” This is our day to make up for past failures and to embrace something better than nonviolent coexistence. Peaceful coexistence is better than violence, but love is more than tolerance.

In our unresolved conflicts, whether they are between people, countries, or cultures, we must be both truthful and therapeutic. I think that the genius of Dr. King’s statement about a choice between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation is not in the either-or choice of toleration or destruction. His statement is most prophetic when he says, “This may well be humankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Tolerant coexistence isn’t truthful or therapeutic. It puts scabs on wounds that need lancing before any real healing can take place. To choose chaos isn’t really helpful either, though it airs out the truth. The middle way that promotes real healing is what Dr. King called “community.”

How do we work for real community? Thankfully, the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race gives us clear tangible guidance. GCORR’s ministry model first promotes the teaching and implementation of Intercultural Competency. Second, it models for us how to have genuine, transparent, uncomfortable, and healing Vital Conversations between persons of disparate cultures and viewpoints. Last, GCORR’s ministry is to foster the creation of lifestyles and operational systems that value Institutional Equity, not just for some, but for everyone. The desire is that all aspects of every society’s structural life is fair to all.

If this ministry model is incorporated into our daily lives then we can have Human Relations Day every day. The questions for me: Will I do my best to learn about people who are different from me? Will I engage in substantive conversations that will promote cross-cultural understanding? Will I do the hard work that ensures that every person has an equal chance to be a reflection of God on earth? I pray that I will do all of this and more. What about you?

MLK

 

Ferguson and the Pecking Order

“The Pecking Order,” is what my father-in-law, Guy Godwin, a retired High School principal, called the tendency for one person or group to try to dominate or lord it over another. The pecking order can be seen in Ferguson, Missouri and it’s everywhere else, too. I saw it as a child at mealtime, especially at holidays, when there was a “Children’s Table,” and we went last. From schoolyard bullies, family systems and birth order, businesses and preferential treatment, or the socio-economic pigeon-holing of the have’s and have-not’s, there is always a pecking order. I want to say, “Like it or not, deal with it,” but I don’t like it. None of us should. I think that it is a pattern of existence that predates society and civilization. It goes all the way back to Lucifer’s attempt to usurp God’s throne in Isaiah 14:12-15. It is found in Adam’s silence when he and Eve were tempted in the Garden. It’s been in every culture since and seems to be an integral but horrific characteristic of human nature. It’s in the animal kingdom, too, and surely brings out the barbaric animal in us.

We like pecking orders because it sets up one of the most insidious patterns of sinful behavior: the “blame game,” and proves my Dad’s point when I thought that I was doing some new, unique, and improved sin as a teenager. He would say, “Son, You don’t think your brothers didn’t try that, your uncles, me, and your grandfathers? There isn’t anything original about original sin.” That might have been my first theology lesson. Yes, there’s nothing original about attempting to stratify society and try to either hurt or blame somebody else. We’re great at being victims, and victimizing. Unfortunately, it’s true. Did Bill Cosby victimize women? Seems so. Did the Ferguson Police Department with its out-of-balance ratio of white-to-black police officers promote victimization? Seems so. Didn’t someone say that perception is reality?

So whether one thinks one side is right and the other wrong is irrelevant. The fallen human desire to have pecking orders presupposes that one race always wants to be higher on the rung of society and the way to get there is to demonize the next lowest, and the next lowest does it to the next lowest, ad infinitum. The problem is that in God’s view all of humanity is simultaneously at the top of the heap and at the bottom in a sense. Every one of us is at the same time a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5), and sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We’re the best that God has to offer and our own worst enemies.

The problem with racism and the blame game is that we can repent over and over again and we’re still stuck in victimization. I’m not saying that we need to let perpetrators off the hook. We need to hold people accountable, but sadly grand juries and street mobs view evidence that we all know is skewed. Every so-called fact has bias, and we wonder like Pilate, “What is truth?” My father-in-law was right. Most mayhem and what’s wrong with the world isn’t about the facts, it’s about the darn pecking order.

Well we could try the communist method and not have a pecking order at all but, truth be told, even in communism and socialism there’s a pecking order. One person explained the difference between capitalism and communism this way: “In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.” Pardon the sexist language, but isn’t it true: the only difference is that you trade one set of fat-cats for another?

How do we move past Ferguson and racism, elitism, unfair judgment, and the pecking order tendency we all have? I suggest we own it, confess it, and repent. We need to admit that our judgments are very often not true, our assumptions are false, and our elitism actually betrays our very weakness. We are all pitiful creatures that need a Savior. The only way to make this world right can’t be legislated, though we can continue to try. The only way to have lasting peace and harmony isn’t through riots and demands. It’s through emptiness and non-violence. I daresay and mean it 1000% – it’s through a come-to-Jesus meeting for all of us. The only way for us to move forward is through self-sacrificial love, forgiveness, and human transformation. In other words, through an encounter with Jesus. Therefore, we pray the Kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” No more pecking order except Jesus as Lord and everyone as our sister and brother. Amen.

Black and White Praying hands

On to Junaluska!

Episcopal elections are less than a week away and everyone is making their selections for their top 5 nominees for bishop. It is an interesting time as a nominee, and I desire your prayers for me and all the other nominees. Please pray also for all of the annual conferences that will receive new episcopal leadership and the SEJ Committee on Episcopacy that does the assignments. Pray for our current bishops who may or may not be assigned elsewhere, too. Good matches make for good ministry!

I have no doubt about my call, but our system wisely confirms the calls of everyone from local church candidates for ministry all the way to bishops. You can’t self-proclaim God’s call in the United Methodist Church without holy conferencing and group affirmation! This year the process of voting will be different in the SEJ. We will have electronic balloting that hopefully will shave off a day from our schedule. There will be time to take breaks and conference/discern together, but, no doubt, things will be at a faster pace than we’ve ever seen before. The plan is for 16 ballots to take place next Wednesday and 16 next Thursday. Whew! Then next Thursday evening at 8:45 p.m. assignments will be announced by the Committee on Episcopacy and at 9 p.m. all the bishops will meet with members of their new/old annual conference at selected locations. Friday morning, July 20, will be the Consecration Service for the new bishops at 10 a.m.

My prayer is that we provide enough time and space in the process to listen to the Holy Spirit and each other. There’s the temptation to go to Junaluska with a slate of 5 based solely upon the election materials that have been sent out, nominee’s websites, mailings, their presentations at the SEJ D.S. meeting and at General Conference in Tampa. At Junaluska the nominees have 4 minutes to speak to the conference, then spend 10 minutes each with the delegations. We also have an opportunity next Tuesday night to speak to the SEJ racial/ethnic delegates.

The issue of discernment is very important. Very often I base my decisions on pre-conceived notions or the limited exposure I’ve had with people. That can be misleading and lead to wrong decisions. So what I’m seeking is God’s will and looking for grace in the whole process. We, after all, are judging people! Is this person someone we want to elect, or is it another? Impartiality and fairness are often all that we ask from those who judge us. When we want someone to help assess our plans or point of view we hope they will be thoroughly objective. If we really want advice and not just someone who readily agrees with us, we must demand that we be given the truth, as much as it hurts.

But, who is without bias? From one culture to the next, we have different and often opposing standards of what is acceptable. These opinions vary as much as families, schools, colleges, and churches do. Indeed, every institution, by its very nature, has its own set of prejudices. Every annual conference has its own character and culture, too.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s reality. In some sense of the word, prejudices can be helpful. A pre-judged framework of values and customs sets the course of civilization and protects much that we hold sacred. One writer said it aptly, “Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room.” An annual conference’s clarity about episcopal expectations can make transitions and expanded ministries more facile and attainable.

But, as helpful as prejudices and customs are, should we Christians be that set in our ways? Shouldn’t we hate the word “prejudice?” It reminds us of past sin and pain in the separate and unequal prejudicial mistreatment of people. Someone has said that the older the prejudice, the hardier, so hardy that some can be considered perennials. Some prejudices keep coming back year after year, perpetuating ill will.

So, how do we separate good prejudice from bad bias whether it be in an episcopal election or a civic one? Maybe the answer lies in the way we judge, open-mindedness, and how much objectivity we have. Perhaps another way to foster good prejudice is by tempering our bias with compassion, “Except for the grace of God, there go I.”

The judge glared down from his bench at the prospective juror. “And just why is it,” he asked, “that you don’t want to serve on this jury?” The man replied, “Well, judge, I’m biased. One look at that man convinced me that he is guilty.” The judge scowled and replied, “That man is not the defendant, he’s the district attorney.”

To judge appropriately, whatever we do, we need to be very careful. So let’s be careful with one another next week. I trust the Lord and our means of conferring with the Body of Christ in our decision-making. This will be my last post before the balloting starts. May Jesus’ wisdom inform us so that we share the Mind of Christ. Thanks for your prayers and for a united bias for God’s will to be done.