No room for complacency. We have a puppet in the White House.

It’s become pretty clear that Russia interfered in the American presidential election in the hopes that Donald Trump would win.  Russian intelligence hacked the Democratic National Committee emails for the purposes of damaging Hillary Clinton.  The effort succeeded, peeling off just enough votes to help The Donald pull ahead in key swing states by a mere 80,000 votes.  While Clinton won nationally by almost 3 million votes, those 80,000 votes in the right states landed Trump in the White House.  The Donald, of course, is downplaying this, even denying it, despite the fact that 13 federal agencies have confirmed Russian interference.  Most Republicans are wishing the story would go away because, after all, the interference helped them gain control of all three branches of government.  A few brave Republicans, like John McCain, are raising the alarm bells.  While McCain sold his soul for the chance to become president back in 2004, he is not backing way from this issue.  I am thankful for this.  If only Democrats demand answers, the Republicans could easily say that this is about sour grapes and Democrats licking their wounds from the drubbing they received in November.

What I’ve noticed, though, is that a lot of Americans, especially young Americans, aren’t really sure why this is a big deal.  There are the expected alt right (read “white supremacist”) and Trump supporters who are convinced by their own propaganda that reports of Russian interference is a big lie.  They are beyond reach and are believing what they want to believe.  But it’s people my age and younger who are my concern, Gen Xers and Millenials, right of center, moderate, liberal and progressive people who don’t seem to get how serious this is.

These are young people who have no memory of the Cold War, who didn’t grow up with the fear of being vaporized by a nuclear attack.  They didn’t grow up with school drills where you practiced huddling under your desk in the event of a nuclear attack (as if a desk could protect you, but if you were far enough away from the blast you wouldn’t be cut to shreds by windows blowing in over your head or be blinded by the flash of the explosion).

In the spirit of transparency, I didn’t either.  I was 20 when the Soviet Union imploded.  But what I have is family history.  My family are Mennonite and at the time of the Russian Revolution lived in Mennonite colonies in Southern Ukraine.  After the Russian Revolution, their status as landowners, as German, and as religious did them no favors.  Between 1917 and 1939, 75% of Mennonite men died, either at the hand of executioners, in prison, or in Siberian hard labor camps.  My great grandfather was sentenced to five years of hard labor in the 1930s for being a minister.  My grandfather and his brother were shipped north to Siberia in advance of the approaching German army with other Mennonite men, destined for labor camps where most would die.  They jumped the train figuring it was better to die fighting for freedom than to die imprisoned.  My family experienced starvation in the man-made famine in Soviet controlled Ukraine in the 1930s where 10 million died, in addition to collectivization, bread lines, Communist schools, and relatives-turned-informants.  To this day, my one surviving grandmother shudders when she sees a black car with tinted windows.

When the few Mennonites who survived came to Canada as refugees, most contact with relatives was cut off.  The odd letter was sent and received.  Some letters arrived with heavy black lines indicating that the letter had been read and censored.  Mostly, my family did not initiate contact, knowing that contact with the West could be mean surveillance, unemployment, prison, even death.   My mother’s family came in 1947 to Canada.  It took 12 years for my grandfather to receive notice that his mother had starved to death in a labor camp.  That’s just how it was.

With Gorbachev coming to power in the 1980s, and with the period of Glastnost he ushered in, my grandfather was able to bring his half brother over to Canada for a visit.  I will never forget my grandfather’s tears of joy and how they savored their shots of vodka before dinner.  They hadn’t seen each other in 50 years.  When the Soviet Union fell, the doors opened fully.  Some family relocated to Germany and there was much visiting between countries.  When I spent a summer in Germany as a young adult I was under strict orders to visit family in Bielefeld.  We began receiving regular letters from family who lived in Russia proper.  It was wonderful to be in touch.  There was so much hope for the new Russia, a Russia moving towards democracy and open markets.  These were good years.

It was also clear that we were very different people.  There was a haunted look in the eyes of family members who had lived under Communist rule.  There was often a hardness in their emotion.  Even once free, they were still careful not to feel too much and always to control their speech, their bodies, sometimes even their thoughts.  It’s hard to turn around a lifetime of conditioning ushered in by the reality of living under constant surveillance.

The transition to capitalism was hard and for some their standard of living fell.  We would get reports about the state of their gardens.  A good garden meant a good winter.  A bad garden meant a lean winter.  The open market hadn’t guaranteed food supplies or the income to afford groceries . A letter saying, “The potatoes did poorly this year,” would spur my grandparents to send money.   We learned that a cousin had served in the cleanup of Chernobyl and that he died of cancer within a few years.  We learned that relatives who worked in the mines sometimes weren’t getting paid.  Again, my grandparents would send money.  They were so thankful to be able to send money after years of no contact.  Family was everything to them.

Then Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official, rose to power.  Internationally, we heard about murdered journalists and opposition politicians and the imprisonment of Pussy Riot.  Privately, our family has experienced a gradual cooling in the communication from our relatives. The emails and letters first became more cryptic, less specific and detailed, less frequent.  Then they asked that my family stop sending money.  Now all communication has ceased.  We don’t know who has died, who has married, who is working where, who has children, who is living where, all the normal things that families share with each other.  We are once again separated.

A few years ago an uncle and aunt visited the Siberian village where my paternal grandmother was born.  They received subtle clues about the changes in politics and culture.  Academics are told certain research subjects are no longer appropriate.  There are certain books that have disappeared from the shelves.   This is not just happening because of edicts from above.  Ordinary people are proactively self-censoring to protect themselves from what could come.  This is being harder on the young than the old.  The young have no training to survive this and are having to learn how to curb the normal things that go with living free.  But for the old, they know what this means and they are resurrecting old survival skills.

News that Putin annexed Crimea was chilling.  After the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine, many of my North American family members joyfully returned to Ukraine to visit the former Mennonite colonies.  Tours took Mennonites through the old villages, schools, churches, cemeteries, and factories.  For many of my first generation immigrant relatives, going back was a way to finally say good bye properly to the country they fled in haste.  It gave many of them peace.  These visits have now virtually ceased.  It is no longer safe to go.

This is the Russian nation that is interfering in American elections.  And lest you protest that we are a long way from the atrocities of the Soviet Union to the Russia that exists today, I tell you, the signs are all there.  The same people are in charge.  We should be aghast that Russia attempted to sway our election and even more horrified that it succeeded.  We should know without a doubt what Russian support says about the man they favored for the White House, a man who uses the double speak typical of a fascist state, who hides his assets and his business connections, who has threatened to deport millions from American soil, who is questioning first amendment rights while valorizing second amendment rights, who wants to build a wall, who declines intelligence briefings and rejects those that he doesn’t like, who is the beneficiary of voter suppression unparalleled since Jim Crow, who surrounds himself with white supremacists and billionaires, and who has given his children security clearance.

If you are Gen X or Millenial, I strongly encourage you to pay attention.  We need to know what we are up against.  Under no circumstances should we minimize the significance of Russian involvement in Trump’s rise to political power.  We need to pressure our elected representatives unceasingly to continue the investigation into Russian involvement.  We need to watch the Republicans who claim to be pushing for investigations very carefully.  They may very well make it look like they are doing something concrete while actually creating a diversion from the truth.  We have to keep the heat where the heat needs to be, on the Russian-supported administration that will soon gain access to the White House.  We need to draw on all hallmarks of our democracy to shine a piercing light on those who have taken power.  We need to keep repeating over and over that Donald Trump does not have a mandate.    There is no mandate when your power is secured using the illegal resources of a foreign power with a terrible track record on human rights.

To use the words of Hillary Clinton, we have a puppet in the White House.   It’s up to us to cut the strings animating that puppet.

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Christmas, Hannukah, Solstice: A Thousand Years (give or take) of Resistance

I know from my facebook and twitter feeds that a lot of us are finding it hard to connect to the holiday spirit this year.  I am one of those white women who was shocked that Hillary Clinton lost the election, and while I know part of this was my own ignorance and my underestimation of the power of racism and xenophobia in our nation, I’m still often overcome with disillusionment, I struggle to sleep at night, and find myself having to withdraw from social media because it triggers me into bouts of anxiety.

Where we are is not normal.  I think it’s important to name things correctly and not be lulled into false complacency.   We are in a tenuous time and there is a legitimate hesitancy for many of us to join the revelry for fear that we will take our eye off the ball and lose traction in the resistance that is calling us to its name.

So I uncharacteristically put off decorating for the holidays.  I live in the reddening Midwest and I didn’t want to add my lights to those that voted for the President Elect.  Petty, maybe.  But it’s how I felt.

This is the thing though, Christmas is one of my favorite holidays.  I love the music, the food, the decorations, the tree, the lights.  Our family has rich Christmas traditions that I continue to follow.   I’m the girl who goes into the basement in July and opens the Christmas boxes so I can look at my decorations. So what am I doing on Thanksgiving Day, when normally I would be hanging up my outside lights?  I’m watching the Macy’s Day parade, which I dislike for a whole lot of reasons, and I say to my partner,

“You know?  I don’t think I can decorate for the holidays this year.  Can’t we just skip Christmas?”

And my partner, who barely tolerates Christmas, and only for my sake, freaked out!  “No!” she said.  “No we can’t!  Not this year!”  Then she started talking about the article Toni Morrison published in The Nation.  Morrison talks about sitting listless, depressed after the 2004 President election. She calls her friend to say that she just can’t work on her new novel, and her friend says, “No!  No, no, no!  This is precisely the time when artists go to work – not when everything is fine, but in times of dread.  That’s our job!” Morrison goes on to talk about how dictators solidify their power by going after the artists.  Artists must keep creating beauty and truth to resist tyranny.

My partner was telling me not to let the threat of tyranny take away my love for Christmas and all the traditions that mean so much to me, because that’s what tyranny does.  It separates us from love and beauty.  It separates us from history and hope.  It separates us from celebration and joy. Tyranny needs me sitting in front of the TV watching the Macy’s Day Parade in despondency.  My depression is its tool.

So my partner, bless her heart, went to bat for kind of Christmas I treasure, and what she was really going to bat for was me.  She was going to bat for us and this nation and the millions who are struggling to find joy and hope right now.

That’s what we are called to do right now, go to bat for each other.  As Toni Morrison said, “there’s no room for self pity, there’s no room for fear.” (https://www.thenation.com/article/no-place-self-pity-no-room-fear/)

So in let’s spend some time going deep into the kind of counter cultural and resistance-based hope offered by Solstice, Hannukah, and Christmas, because if you look beyond what they have become in our consumerist individualistic society, we have at our fingertips rich traditions of dissent that speak to the challenges we face today. Each of these traditions gives us strategies of resistance against empire.

Solstice – A Thousand Years of Resistance

Let’s start with Solstice, born of the pagan traditions, those forms of tribal religion existing in ancient Europe before the Roman conquest in the first and second centuries C.E.   Paganism is highly incarnationalist, meaning it understands the spirit as working through everything – every plant, every stone, every body, in water, in fires, in earth and sun and the light of the moon.  The Pagans had countless gods and goddesses, anthropomorphic projections of the human spirit moving through humanity as both struggle and joy.  There was a prominent place for priestesses, the goddess incarnate.

Not unlike other religions, paganism could be used to further political agendas.  Tribal kings curried the favor of the gods and goddesses.  Victory meant they were on your side.  Defeat meant they weren’t.  When the Roman empire arrived, bearing Christianity corrupted as a tool of empire, it felt as if the gods and goddesses had turned away.  Over the centuries, Pagan traditions were absorbed into Catholicism, the priestesses transformed into women religious under the control of the male priesthood.  Paganism was at first tolerated, then harshly suppressed, and in the burning times of the 1500s actively destroyed.   To survive this thousand-year repression, the pagan folklore, the traditions, the practices, the wisdom, went underground.  Passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter, coded in fairy tales, carried forward through midwifery, hidden in seemingly Christian rites through a long fall equinox, waiting for the time when the sun returned and it would be safe to emerge.

Some saw that return in the 1960s and 1970s.  Second wave feminism was born and with it, a desire to recover spiritual practices free of patriarchal corruption.  Environmentalists sought a spiritual base for respecting the earth.  Paganism had been taken underground to survive empire, and many saw its resurrection as a way to resist empire, the empire of America as colonial patriarchal militarized and ecologically plundering.

Imagine the patience, the persistence, the intentionality in protecting the sacred ways for centuries.  Every single person was needed – their memory, their stories, the herbal lore, their courage.  Every person bore the truths they held dear so that they would be preserved for the generations to come.

Hannukah – Never Compromise with Evil

Hannukah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that has gained significance in America as Jewish parents sought to help their children weather the pressure to do Christmas.  It has become a way of affirming your peoplehood when most of the western world is draped in red and green.

But the story of Hannukah is 2100 years old and is another great example of resisting empire.  The Greek Empire controlled most of the ancient world including Judea.  Like the Roman one that overtook Europe centuries later, the Greeks were convinced of their cultural superiority. When they conquered a people they used complete assimilation as one of their weapons.  They used enticement backed up by brutality. They set about destroying the Jewish religion and culture piece by piece.  The rewards for accepting assimilation were life itself, some hope, maybe a future, a bit more income and status, a voice in your life.  The punishment for refusing to accommodate was brutal –  death, poverty, powerlessness, eradication.

A small band of Jewish warriors, the Maccabees were not fooled.  They did not accept the new normal and refused to accommodate in even the smallest ways.  This small band of warriors took on an Empire.

Mythology says they went at it on their own.  History tells us they gathered allies – the Egyptians, the Romans.  They also knew not to take their eye off the prize and no where is this made clearer than in the story of the temple flame.  History tells us the Greeks had closed all the Jewish temples.  This band of warriors took one of them back.  They wanted to light the sacred temple flame, which indicated the presence of God.  It would would be a powerful sign that God was with them and that they would prevail. Mythology tells us there was only enough oil for one day, it would take 8 days to make more oil.  They dared to light the flame and miraculously it burned for 8 days until there was more oil.

What does Hannukah tell us about resistance?  Don’t compromise your values.  Don’t be lured into accommodating to what is wrong even in the slightest because you’ll lose the whole temple. Don’t try and resist alone. Cultivate partners.  Celebrate the small wins.  And when you have a chance to light the flame, light it, knowing you take the risk that your heart will break once more if it goes out.  You have to take risks when there is no guarantee of the outcome because there is more to lose by not taking the risk.   You never know, your flame may burn 8 days instead of 1.

Christmas – See the Signs, Dare to Celebrate

History tells us that a man named Jesus of Nazareth was born, about 3 BCE and that he died around 30 CE. This time it’s the Romans who are the occupying force.  They don’t use cultural annihilation to control the Jews.  They use an upper class of Jewish leaders who are willing to work with the Romans in exchange for political power.  This is a time of major divestment of wealth from the lower classes.  They lose their means of production as wages are falling (sound familiar?).  History tells us that any resistance resulted in crucifixion, a brutally slow way to die.  In Jesus’ time they crucified Jews by the 1000s.  Crosses lined the roads as examples of what happened if you dared resist.

The Jews were hungry for a Messiah who would save them from this horror.  This is where mythology kicks in.  Mary consented to bear a son who would be that Messiah.  Her fiancé was Joseph, a carpenter.  He got over himself and accepted both her and the child she carried, virtually unheard of at this time. Around the time of his birth, they were on the road.  Mary went into labor. An Innkeeper had pity on them and offered them his stable. Jesus was born. An angel appeared to the shepherds, considered the lowest of the low, herding sheep in fields they used to own (again, sound familiar?).  The Angels told them a savior had been born and to go see. The shepherds showed up at the stable.  So did the wisemen who come from the east in their rich robes bearing gifts most Jews would barely have believed existed in their harsh world.

The Christmas story is filled with people who dare to love.  A young woman dares to have a child in a world where it’s life is pretty much guaranteed to be filled with suffering.  Her husband dares to stand by her as she bears a child that isn’t his.  An innkeeper dares to offer sanctuary to those most vulnerable to brutal systems.  The shepherds dare to leave their minimum wage jobs to honor an unknown child.  The wisemen dare to follow a star into foreign lands.  And while they don’t yet know it, they offer their respects to a child who will grow up to be a scrapper, a master of civil disobedience that infuriates the powers of empire.  The Romans will try to squash him the way they’ve squashed everyone else and their brutality fails them because like many great leaders, Jesus instilled such empowerment in those who followed him that after he is gone, they go underground, reorganize, and come back out ready for Act 2.

So what do these rich traditions of resistance have to offer us?

  • Gather your people. We don’t journey alone.  We must organize our hope and our passion and our compassion.
  • Know when to retreat. Retreat is a time to restore, not a time to withdraw. Retreat is a time to gather our energy, reconnect with our people, strategize, and prepare for the next action.
  • We need everyone for the struggle, from the shepherds to the innkeeper to the wisemen, young and old. No one is left behind.  Everyone has wisdom and strength to offer.  We can’t afford to consider some more worthy than others.  Even those who appear to benefit from evil systems are hurt by them.
  • Do not compromise on your values. Hold them tight. Do not accommodate evil.  Learn how to see how evil is disguised to look like your friend.
  • Dare to hope. Dare to create life.  Dare to love.  Dare to trust.
  • Always be ready to celebrate. Light the temple flame.  Dance around the fire until the sun returns.  Follow a star.  Visit a child.  Accept the gifts of strangers.

So here we are in 2016, some of us reluctant to let go of the year because of what we know is coming.  Whatever you do at this time of year to celebrate, do it.  Rest, sing, gather with family, prepare and eat foods that give you comfort, follow traditions that bring back memories of earlier times and loved ones no longer with us.  Just do it. Now.  Tomorrow.   Don’t let your traditions fall by the wayside.  Let’s not underestimate how strong we are going to need to be.  We can’t afford not to take care of ourselves.  As Toni Morrison said, no time for self pity, no time for fear.

Whatever tradition is yours, Solstice, Hannukah, Christmas, know that when you celebrate, you are anchoring in traditions of resistance thousands of years old.  Let them teach us, guide us, and give us resilience and courage.

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Why Missouri Constitutional Amendment 6 is so dangerous

Missouri Amendment 6 is very dangerous.

Here is the short answer for why.  It will disproportionately disenfranchise disabled people, seniors, poor people, African Americans, and students. It is estimated that 225 000 voters will lose their ability to vote if this amendment is passed.

To justify the need for restricting acceptable voter ID to government issued photo ID, one political party has created a problem that doesn’t exist – voter fraud – and offers government issued ID as the solution.  Even when President Bush devoted an extraordinary amount of the Department of Justice’s time to uncovering voter fraud, they found virtually nothing.  Of the 4 billion votes cast in the last ten elections, there were 31 cases of voter fraud.  That’s like .000000001% of votes.  And yet, the conservatives have whipped up this problem and made a lot of people believe that it actually exists.

 

There are issues with voting procedures, but they’re not because people aren’t using ID or committing voter fraud.

 

In some counties, they find that dead people vote. There is an easy solution to this that does not require disenfranchising 225 000 people.  Isn’t every death recorded? Why aren’t copies of death certificates sent by the local government to the elections board before every election so that those names can be stricken from the rolls? Most other nations do exactly this. That would solve the problem. Creating stricter voting ID requirement to fix that problem is just being lazy. It’s also being disingenuous, because actually making different government bodies talk to each other is way easier and way cheaper than making every citizen pay the money to get government issued photo ID.

 
In St. Louis there were voting irregularities for absentee ballots. Government issued voter ID wouldn’t solve that problem either. The issue here was that government officials weren’t followed existing voting procedures. If they followed the procedures, there would have been no problem. The answer is to get rid of officials who aren’t following the rules, not punish the voters.

 
There is only one reason why laws requiring government issued voter ID are proposed only by Republicans. They know that America is changing. The young and people of color are leaving them in droves. They are supported primarily by older white men. The only way they can stay in power is either by taking a long hard look at their policies and bringing them in line with the new America, or by keeping people who don’t agree with them from voting. They have chosen the later. Amendment 6 and all other proposals like it are about Republicans are trying to choose their voters because voters aren’t choosing them.

 
Of course, there are those who will argue that it’s easy for people to get government photo ID. No, it is actually not. Talk to social workers who work with the poor. I have. It can be very difficult to get photo ID. If someone has lost their birth certificate or never got one, it’s virtually impossible to get state issued photo ID. If you have a birth certificate but do not have paperwork to establish yourself as a resident of the state, you can’t get state issued photo ID. If you are married and your birth certificate isn’t the same as your married name, and you can’t find your marriage license, you can’t get state issued photo ID. If you are divorced and changed your name and the legal changes haven’t gone through the system, you can’t get state issued ID.

 
Missouri has provided no funding to help people procure government issued ID. This will mean that even if you qualify for government issued ID, but are poor and struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over your head, there is no financial support to get state issued ID. If you don’t have a car and live in a town without public transportation, it will be very difficult to get state issued ID. If you can’t afford to take time off work to go to the DMV to get your state issued ID, because to take time off work means you might not have enough for groceries or rent or school supplies for your kids, it will be very difficult to get state issued ID.

 
The writing of the bill promises tax payers that there will be no new taxes to help pay for the change. That should tell you something. It means that there is no way the Republicans who wrote this bill want those who will be disenfranchised because of it to get help with procuring state issued ID. If they really cared about the people being disenfranchised, there would be money to pay for state issued photo ID.

 
In Mississippi, they passed a bill requiring government issued photo ID to vote and then promptly closed 12 Department of Motor Vehicle offices, all located in predominantly African American areas. Sounds like that surgical precision that the Supreme Court used to characterize a similar bill that was voted unconstitutional in North Carolina.

 
Did you know that Missouri already requires ID to vote? Here’s all the forms of ID that work now.

 
1) Identification issued by the state of Missouri, an agency of the state, or a local election authority of the state
2) Identification issued by the United States government or agency thereof
3) Identification issued by an institution of higher education, including a university, college, vocational and technical school, located within the state of Missouri
4) A copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, government check or other government document that contains the name and address of the voter
5) Driver’s license or state identification card issued by another state

 
If Amendment 6 goes away, Number 1 will be qualified.  That little yellow slip of paper you carry in your wallet, the one you got when you registered to vote, it’s no longer good enough, even though it is state issued ID.  Because it doesn’t have a photo.  If you have ID from an agency of the state but it doesn’t have a photo, it won’t work anymore either.

 
Number 3 and 4 go away. These are the primary forms of ID used by students, poor people and African Americans.

 

Number 2 can be qualified. If Missouri will both require proof of residency and proof of citizenship a MO Drivers license might not be enough (because non-citizens can get drivers licenses) and a passport might not be enough (because it doesn’t prove state residency).

 

Number 5 will be qualified.  The ability to vote with a Drivers License from another state could be ruled out. So if you’ve moved from another state, have established residency, but haven’t changed your drivers license yet, you’re out of luck. In Missouri, if you come from another state, you have to go through the full drivers test to get your new license – written and driving. It’s not just a matter of going to the DMV with your out of state license and getting a new one. So even getting a drivers license is at least a half day away from work.  If your poor, that’s going to be onerous.  You might choose to put it off as long as possible because you need your small pay check to pay the utility bill, the rent, or feed your kids.

 
In Missouri, it is estimated that 225 000 citizens will be denied the right to vote if this amendment passes. It will affect seniors, the disabled, students, the poor and people of color. Not o.k. Not part of the American way.

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“Locker Room talk” is nothing new. The response now is.

How many women, I ask you, were implicitly trained as girls and as teenagers that to refuse the sexual desires of a man was a moral injury to the man? How many women were trained to see sexual indiscretions of men as their own moral stain? How many men are trained that locker room talk about women was a way to express their manliness and strength? And how many boys does this deeply wound, forcing them to suppress who they really are to become the men they think they are supposed to be?

 
I’m sure Donald Trump thought he was being awfully manly when he said those things about taking women how and when he wanted. I’m sure it made him feel powerful, and probably Billy Bush as well, this relatively young upstart, sitting with this multimillionaire and laughing with Donald while they demeaned the woman they were about to meet when their bus arrived. When they shared this secret between them as they got off that bus and pretended to be honorable and upstanding men, they thought the joke was on her.
Well now, the joke is on them. And really, it was never a joke. This is the thing. We women learn very early on that this is how men will talk about us. At first we are shocked, horrified, and often overwhelmed with shame, thinking that this really is about us. That we did something to deserve it. We try to learn to accept that this is simply what men do, thinking it will make our lives easier and that we will face fewer disappointments. After all, do we really have any power to change it? Sometimes we fight back, often we lose the fight. Apparently, at least 1/3 of us have been raped. And those are just the physical rapes. There are other kinds of rape that that go beyond who put what in where.

 
Last week, during the Vice Presidential Debate, someone on twitter posted that the moderator, a woman, should stop trying to moderate men and go back to the kitchen. I retweeted the post with my own comment, “This is what sexism looks like.” What followed was a firestorm of what I presume were men, ganging up on me, telling me to go back to the kitchen, to make them a sandwich, that I wasn’t beautiful enough to have an opinion, that I was a f***** bulldyke that no man would want. Someone posted a picture of a horse next to mine and said its teeth were smaller (this isn’t the first time a man has made fun of me for my rather large front teeth). Someone posted a picture of a ghoul with my name on it, I was called a god damn feminist who needed to learn a lesson, and on and on and on. There are others but I stopped reading. It was rather startling to see how fast the woman-bashing train left the station and how many men hopped on. I ended up simply blocking every single offensive tweet.

 
I struggled inside with what was happening. I am beyond the place of internalizing any shame for what I said or being hurt by what those men were saying about me. I know that the comments have nothing to do with me and more to do with their own hatred. They were showing themselves for who they are. But what I did take personally was that this was an offensive launched not only against me but against any woman who dares to speak her mind, who dares to call out sexism. If I had been a young woman unprepared for this onslaught, how would it have affected me? My sense of self-worth?

 
Now this is a rather obvious example, but there are other ways that it happens to me and other women, more silent and sinister ways, like when I hear ideas I’ve expressed at a meeting claimed by men as their own (and yes, this has happened to me in every Unitarian Universalist church I have served). I’ve had men tell me, especially when I was younger, that they thought I was smart for my age. Somehow I was supposed to take that as a compliment. I doubt that anyone would say that to a man. I’ve been complimented, sometimes too eagerly, on my clothing or my figure. If I was starting my career over again, I would wear a robe every single Sunday to lessen the comments on my clothing choices or my body. I know many women who robe for exactly this reason.

 
These comments are lessening as I get older. The grey hair and the growing wrinkles, although fairly slight yet, are making a difference. But I know that eventually I’ll pass the threshold into “old woman” and I’ll become more and more invisible and less and less threatening, unless I actually try to claim some authority. We see where this is getting Hillary.

 
What Donald Trump said on that bus and all these experiences I’ve had, and many woman have had, are all connected. They happen because we are seen as lesser than, of lesser value, and of a value determined more by our bodies than our minds.

 
All of us have internalized sexism. I can honestly say that some of the most dismissive and hurtful treatment I have received as a Unitarian Universalist minister has been from older women. Again, I try not to take this personally. Women are encouraged to turn against each other and compete with each other. It’s how patriarchy is perpetuated. Those of us who are young are envied by those who are older. Those of us who are young will dismiss older woman because they no longer have what we have, youth. Older women will act out against us because we have what they used to have, youth. I once had an older woman tell me that there was no need to spend time with younger women. She had nothing to learn from them because she had experienced everything they had. They had nothing to offer her. I found that to be an exceedingly hurtful comment. And I’ve seen younger women pity older women, dismiss their ideas, see them as “has beens” with little left to offer. When we do this do each other, we perpetuate sexism. We punish each other for the oppression we all experience and often have no words with which to name.

 
So when we hurl epithets of outrage at Donald Trump, and he deserves every single one and certainly should be kept as far from the White House as possible, remember that the fact that he actually said those things, and had other men laugh with him, is a scourge that belongs to all of us. There is nothing unusual in what he did. It happens all the time. What is unusual is that we seem to have reached a line in the sand when making this behavior public could actually hold a man in search of power accountable for his actions. A man could fail to reach his goal because he disrespects women.

 
May we anchor ourselves in our own inherent worth and dignity. May we raise little girls who have no shame in raising their voices and expressing their opinions, who know without a doubt that their bodies are their own and that consen can be given and it can be taken away, at any moment, with no danger resulting. May we raise little boys who learn to respect women, to listen to women, to see their own manliness as an expression of respect and strength through love. May we of all genders love our bodies, our spirits, our minds, and see our deepest yearnings for wholeness as an expression of the holy, waiting to be released into the world

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We ain’t gonna stop until the people are free

The chorus of “Neighbor,” by the band “Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost,” which formed after the Ferguson Uprising, goes like this:

 
“I can hear my neighbor crying, saying ‘I can’t breathe.”
And now I’m in the struggle, saying, “I can’t leave.”
We’re calling out the violence of the racist police.
And we ain’t gonna stop until the people are free.”

 
When I first heard the words, I choked on the third line. I thought to myself, “Are they saying that all police are racist? Isn’t that a bit radical? I don’t know if I can sign on for this.”

 
White fragility is a term coined by Robin De Angelo to name the conditioned response to shut down any authentic conversations about race. Whites have been programmed to be deeply uncomfortable when confronted with the reality of white supremacy. They are taught to see the discomfort as something to be avoided and that comfort is our right. So when we hear uncomfortable things about race, we shut it down, either by literally leaving the conversation or by trying to stop those who make us uncomfortable, often through the use of shame. In my case, I was uncomfortable with the lyrics of the song and saw my discomfort as a sign that something was wrong with the song, something was wrong with the black voices singing it, not that something was wrong with me or that something was really wrong with the system in which policing happens. Given that I’m pretty shy, if I had given in to my white fragility I probably wouldn’t have literally challenged them. I probably would have just gone home, withdrawing my support, my time, and my heart from the work at hand. That’s what white fragility looks like.

 
On October 15 the #ReviveLove Tour came to St. Louis. Sponsored by Standing on the Side of Love UUA and Black Lives of Unitarian Universalists, the intent of the tour is to offer love back to Unitarian Universalist activists who have been the heart of the Unitarian Universalist response, engagement and commitment to Black Lives Matter.

 
Leslie and Drew MacFayden, two Unitarian Universalist activists, offered a challenging workshop focused on the many manifestations of white supremacy, how to recognize when we are looking through its life-denying lens, and how to combat the fear and shame that sustain it.

 
They encouraged us to stay present to the truth that all of us have been indoctrinated into the cult of white supremacy, a cult that shames, shuns and kills those who disagree with its tenets. All of us, regardless of the race we are assigned, are indoctrinated into this cult. It is reinforced by anti-blackness, which identifies white as the norm and anything else as other, less than human, even less than animal. Among liberals, it is reinforced by simplistic understandings of racism – racism looks like the KKK and the confederate flag, not like us. Leslie and Drew asked us to see the gradations of racism so that we could see it in our own hearts. They encouraged us to resist the white fragility that blinds us to our place in the system. They invited us to treat white supremacy like a cult from which one must be deprogrammed. It begins by learning the basic rules of anti-racism, deepens into a respect for otherness, and culminates into a lived understanding that we are part of a larger liberation.

 
They offered some basic rules to help us start:

 
1. If you are in a privileged group, do not engage in intracommunity dialogue when you are not a member. You are there to listen and to support.
2. If you are in a privileged group, do not question the tactics oppressed people use to get free.
3. If you are in an oppressed group, realize that you too have internalized the very beliefs and systems that oppress you.
4. If you are faced with your own racism, resist the urge to become defensive. Listen, consider what you are hearing, and integrate what you have learned in your thoughts and actions.
5. Know that we will all make mistakes. Be aware that when you experience discomfort and want to run, that is fragility interpreting discomfort as bad. Stay with the discomfort. It is the path to liberation.

 
We spent time exploring how the expression of our 21st century Unitarian Universalist theology with its devotion to diversity has often reinforced white supremacy rather than dismantle it. We have misused the first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to justify ideas which are harmful, seeing them as personal expressions of freedom. With a power and privilege analysis, we instead condition our first principle with the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. A commitment to diversity does not mean that all ideas are equally true. When a person of color speaks of racism, this carries more weight than a white person speaking of racism. When we give all perspectives the same value, a white person speaking of racism could contribute to the silencing of the person of color’s experience of racism, thus reinforcing white supremacy and anti-blackness. This often indicates that white fragility is shutting down the conversation.

 
So I’m not going to run from the words of those at the heart of the resistance:

 
“I can hear my neighbor crying, saying ‘I can’t breathe.”
And now I’m in the struggle, saying, “I can’t leave.”
We’re calling out the violence of the racist police.
And we ain’t gonna stop until the people are free.”

 
Will you join us? When the killings stop, when white supremacy is unwound from its core of hatred, fear and shame, we will be free.

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The “Silver Lining” of Racism

If you learn what to look for, systemic racism becomes painfully apparent in even the most well meaning of conversations.

This morning, the first hour of the Diane Rehm show focused on the opiate addiction epidemic.  There was a guest host, as Diane is having medical treatments.

Addiction to opiates has skyrocketed, mainly because of over prescription by health care providers for pain management. The cost in human life has been staggering, with addiction-related deaths skyrocketing.

The Governor of New Hampshire was invited as a guest, as was a mother of an adult child struggling with addiction after being prescribed opiates following a sports injury. There were 2 doctors. The message was clear: we have an unparalleled raging epidemic in this country and something has to be done.

There were strong arguments made against the criminalization of drug addiction and for reclassifying addiction as a health issue. Th guests also asserted that this addiction epidemic is worse than the heroin epidemic of the 70s and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 90s. One guest even stated that the death rate of young white men from opiate addiction has surpassed the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s. All of this was held up to impress upon us the uniqueness of this particular addiction epidemic.

I was waiting for someone to raise the concern that the attention being paid to this epidemic is a result of its impact on middle class white communities. Now that it’s middle class white teenagers and suburban moms and middle class white men being brought down by addiction, this is when America pays attention.

It didn’t happen.  No one brought it up.

Finally, someone submitted a question via email. It went something like this: The primary demographic experiencing this epidemic is white. Is this why we are giving this epidemic such attention?  Is racism at play here?

The doctor spoke up.   “Of course racism is at play here,” he said.

“Oh good,” I thought. “This is finally going to be addressed.”

“I hate to say it, but you could say that racism is the silver lining for blacks here. Doctors were more likely to prescribe opiates to whites than to blacks because they were concerned that blacks would sell them on the street. The doctors’ racism created a protective shield around black communities that were left relatively untouched by this epidemic.” (my paraphrasing…)

When is it ever appropriate to identify racism as having a “silver lining”?   I call this paternalism of the most insidious kind.  If the black community has truly been spared this particular addiction epidemic, that is a good thing, but we should never glorify or celebrate or express gratitude for the racism that fueled it.  It is disrespectful and harmful to talk about racism as having a shielding impact on the black community.   When has racism ever been a protective shield or silver lining to those being oppressed? How often have blacks experienced white health care providers distrusting them and then misdiagnosing serious health issues?   While white doctors were refusing to prescribe opiates to blacks, black communities were criminalized, their kids were being pushed through the school to prison pipeline, and white fear of blacks was used to justify militarizing the police and building the biggest prison industrial complex in the world.   And, when community leaders protested, when they advocated for better mental health resources, for educational resources, investment in infrastructure and employment initiatives, who listened?  More often they were disregarded by whites and those with influence and power as lazy and unwilling to take responsibility for their community issues.

Why weren’t their voices enough? They should be been enough.

But it gets better. The doctor and other guests insinuated that an epidemic that is predominantly affecting white communities was helping the black community because “we” are beginning to understand that addiction isn’t a moral failing, it’s a disease.   “We” are now understanding that prison isn’t the answer to addiction. “We” are understanding the complexity of drug abuse.

Apparently it is only through the tragic experience of addiction-related white deaths that “we” are able to understand the reality of addiction.

The deaths of black children should have been enough. The call from black leaders to decriminalize addiction should have been enough.  The epidemic of the criminalization of black communities, which currently lands 1 in 3 black men in prison, should have been enough. The call for massive investment in predominantly black communities should have been enough.

But it wasn’t, and for many white Americans, it still isn’t. A drug epidemic isn’t an epidemic until it hits middle class white communities. The crack cocaine epidemic fuelled the “get tough on crime” prison industrial complex. The opiate epidemic is fuelling reform…

… reform that is years overdue.

White America owes the black community not only an apology, but also reparations for the irreversible damage done to countless communities and families. All “we” had to do was to listen, to believe, to care, and to act.

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Epiphany Reflections for the Black Lives Matter Movement

Today is the Epiphany, the formal end of the Christmas Season. According to the Gospel of Matthew, wisemen from the East who have followed the Star to Bethlehem pay a visit to King Herod, hoping that he is the right person to help them find the new King who has been foretold by the star. King Herod greets them politely, but when he hears the reason for their journey he is terrified and angry. Who is this new King?   Is he a danger to Herod’s throne? He asks the wisemen to let him know the whereabouts of the newborn King so that he can pay his respects. Secretly, he plans to kill this newborn king as soon as he finds him.

The wisemen find Jesus, offer their gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, and return home without paying a second visit to King Herod because they are told in a dream not to. Mary and Joseph, also tipped off by a dream, flee with Jesus to Egypt.

King Herod takes the news of the new King to his advisors who are equally distressed. What could a new King intend? They imagine the worst. King Herod waits for the wisemen to share Jesus’ location. When he realizes they have gone, he  decrees that every Jewish child under the age of 2 in Bethlehem is to be killed. This is done. Mothers wail in the streets as their babes are ripped from their arms, never to return. Their babies’ bodies have born the burden of empire.

Those in our time who would strip Jesus’ birth of its political message do an injustice to its liberating countercultural promise.

Jesus was not a threat to Herod in the way Herod feared. He had no aspersions to political power in its traditional form. Jesus message and mission was a threat in a much bigger way. His purpose on earth was to upend the established power relations of his time, to use a modern phrase, to #shutitdown and create a new heaven on earth where the last were first and the mighty would tumble. “Blessed are those who suffer for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus was the antithesis of empire.   He was the realization of love.

We in the United States are in a powerful and frightening time, witnessing the second Civil Rights movement of the post-World War 2 era. Some of us are actively participating in this movement and allowing our lives to be reshaped by it and our hearts and spirits to be liberated by it. Many of us are learning the true meaning of a life dedicated to compassion.

Ferguson Uprising has planted the seeds of the antithesis of empire.   It has held up the scourge of the modern day extrajudicial killings of black adults and children, their bodies bearing the burden of empire.

The militarized response to the peaceful protests and the misuse of the grand jury process is not unlike Herod and his advisors, reacting in fear and choosing to remove an entire generation of children to preserve their power. What is at stake in St. Louis, Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Waller County, McKinney, Los Angeles and across the nation is the empire of white supremacy, a death culture so powerful that even those of us who have thrown ourselves into the movement see its poison alive in us.

We all have a bit of Herod in our hearts. We feel the panic as established ways are questioned. We see our hand in the systems that we seek to dismantle. Is it any wonder that the reaction to this movement is so strong and often so hateful? Is it any wonder that 1½ years after Ferguson Uprising many in the movement struggle with the inevitable divisions that filter across the boundaries we have crossed to unify our resources and compel the powerful to relent. These divisions are the voice of Herod, the voice of fear laced with a powerful self-serving intransigence. What is at stake is nothing less than the Christ child itself.

But we also have a mighty star to follow. In Unitarian Universalism we speak of the divine spark within.   That spark is the Star of the East guiding us into a shared vision of the Holy and the True.

“O Star of Wonder, Star of night, Star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding. Guide us to thy perfect Light.”  

The star’s draw is so powerful that many of us have accepted its invitation and set off across the desert in search of a prince of peace, embodied in no one person but in the vision of justice and renewal that we thirst for.

I have met so many wisemen in the last year and a half, people I would never have known because of the racial stratification and geographical apartheid that shapes our nation.   Some of these people have become good friends. Others are familiar faces that I recognize from attending marches.   Some of these relationships exist on social media. There are also pre-existing relationships that have deepened because of our growing commitment to join this marathon – colleagues, parishioners, friends, neighbors, family.   These relationships are my wisemen and they give me hope for the long journey.  They help me to see when I’ve stepped into Herod’s court and what it might look like to get back to the streets of Bethlehem.

What it would look like, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, to kneel before the Christ child and offer gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense? Perhaps we have money, status, privilege, power, knowledge, wisdom, curiosity and humility. We have our spheres of influence. We have our voices, our hands, our eyes, and our feet. We have our smartphones and our laptops and our cameras. We have our patience and persistence.  We have the ability to follow.  But none of this means a thing if we do not have love, for it is love that fuels the brilliance of the Star of the East; it is love that draws us to one another; it is love that pushes us out from the court of Herod and before the manger in Bethlehem. Let us gather our gifts and bring them to the child.

May you have a blessed epiphany.

 

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