no cigarette required

There was a moment in the Democratic Presidential Debate Sunday night which I’ve been pondering since. A question that dogs me. It was this: Don Lemon of CNN asked both candidates to name their racial blind spots. You can grade their responses for yourself, but I think they both stumbled. And I’ve been asking myself since then what my own racial blind spot is, or more likely, what they areplural. 

My first instinct was to discount the question. “Blind spots” seem by definition to be things we don’t know, can’t see. “What can’t you see?” is a question with no answer, unless someone with vision is standing with me to describe it. So the only way to name my own blind spot is to trust my guide to tell me what I’m missing. I am thankful for those in my life who have helped me along the way, and trust there will be others to come along as well. I hope I am always open to their experience and wisdom.

My second instinct was to re-tool the question. Perhaps “blind spot” isn’t the right phrase. Maybe “shortcoming” would be a better descriptor for me. What are my racial short-comings? That may be a question I am more able to ponder, though it is still painful to consider. I know I have them. I just have a hell of a time mustering the vulnerability required in naming them out loud.

In any event, the question was Mr. Lemon’s and I have no right to judge or rewrite his question. So perhaps my shortcoming is the inclination to answer the question I wish had been asked. Certainly there has been no shortage of that in any of the debates.

Still, I give the candidates credit for trying. I had the feeling they wanted to be honest, wanted to bare their souls, to stand with, rather than over and against. For that, I’m appreciative. I’m also white, which I know affects the way I hear the question and evaluate the answer.

While I search for insight, I also ponder the meta-question. The process. And that’s the conversation in my head I’ve been encouraged by a colleague to write about.

So, there’s a story I’m remembering. It may be urban legend, or based on some real encounter. Khrushchev and someone, Nixon, perhaps, or Kennedy or Eisenhower or Cronkite. I was young. But here’s what happened: someone asked Khrushchev a thoughtful question. And Khrushchev calmly lit a cigarette before answering. Slowly, deliberately, he lit a cigarette. And then took a long drag and expelled the smoke. Then, he answered the question. When the story was told to a young me, it was with the revelation that the cigarette wasn’t the point; the point was having time to think.

Quiet has been a theme for me this Lent. Specifically a hunger for it.

I’m not sure we are always willing to give one another time to think. At the debate, candidates had 60 seconds or maybe 90 seconds to make a coherent statement of national importance. The only way to do that, we think, is to know in advance what we will say when the expected questions come. It leaves no room for the unexpected, no time to think. In fact, we criticize candidates who need time to think, supposing that it means they don’t know, aren’t prepared to be commander in chief. But I think of the state of the world, and I would really like to know that we can count on our leaders to be thoughtful people, ready to sit quietly and work it through, whatever it is.

So I’m thinking about how often we fill the emptiness, as if stricken by an allergy to quiet, how often we talk over each other, or how often we assume that needing a moment to think is a character flaw, indicative of a lack of knowing. Khrushchev lit a cigarette. And the one asking the question waited respectfully.

What are your racial blind spots? It is a serious question that needs reflection, and I would applaud the candidate or leader or colleague or average voter willing to ponder it at length.

It’s a difficult topic, a painful topic, but we won’t get anywhere with platitudes or memorized answers. We need to hear, to think, to consider and reconsider. Such is the stuff of learning.

What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be white? Or gay or straight or transgender or from the South or from Middle East? There no way to know unless we talk. And listen. And think.

So that’s where I am. And if you are willing to be in that conversation with me, I’ll welcome your kind and gentle insights.

Help me see. Expect me to stumble. And give me time to think.



vesuvius trump

If you have any interest in historical stuff, there is a wild computer simulation of the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. In August, 79 CE, the stratovolcano spewed tons of ash that darkened the skies and blanketed the region, in some places 75 feet deep. Rain that followed turned the ash blanket into a concrete tomb. The city suffocated. In the ruins, 18 centuries later, excavators found cavities in the concrete the shape of the long-decomposed bodies of the people who were buried in the cataclysm. The entire event took barely a day.

In the computer simulation, the first ominous scene is just a bit of wispy smoke in the distance. Hours later, there are guards on a rooftop as the city starts to shake. In a few more hours, one guard falls from his post; the other remains, guarding the city as it grows increasingly dark and ashen. Eventually, the city is crumbling, and the second guard finally falls from his post, vigilant to the end.

Of course, the guards were part of a reenactment, but I wondered anyway: what made them stay? Denial of the increasing heaviness of the air? False hope or false certainly that the worst would never actually happen? Lack of a frame of reference for anything like that to which they would shortly succumb?

In the 1920s and 30s, a self-aggrandizing opportunist played on the fears and frustrations of Germans. Of his rise to power and orchestration of genocide, some will say later that they never saw it coming. Not until it was too late.

As we’ve been pondering the water crisis here in Flint, I and others have been regularly making the point that this didn’t start with water. Some say it started with emergency management; we could make a case, though, for tracing it back way before EM laws, perhaps to the mean-spirited welfare “reforms” of the 1990s, to the abandonment of the common good which was a hallmark of the Reagan years; or maybe to Nixon’s Southern strategy; perhaps further back, to a backlash from Brown v Board of Education; or to the Civil War or … Whenever it began its Vesuvius eruption, I wonder if it didn’t gain steam from the denial or false hope or false certainty of the masses, the most of us, that the worst would never happen.

Vesuvius was an actual natural disaster. Water and holocaust, not so much. But I wonder the degree to which false hope or false certainty keep us in denial, make us complicit.

This week, a video is circulating of a campaign rally in Louisville, a rally for Donald Trump. Trump has consistently played on the racism and xenophobic fears of white American voters. He pretends ignorance, but he has called for violence against protesters, against innocent civilians in the terror wars, against people who disagree with him. So, in Louisville this week, among hundreds of white supporters, including some avowed white supremacists, the video shows a black woman, a student, silently protesting. And in the protest, in the video, she is pushed and hit and spit on by white people attending the rally. She is treated violently by followers of this narcissistic demagogue, Trump.

Every indication is that Trump will win the nomination of his party. Even seasoned political leaders, from whom we had expected a barely more modulated political voice, have indicated they will encourage support for him if he is their party’s choice. And when the worst happens, they and the voters who elevated him will pretend they never saw it coming. Trump is not an aberration; he is simply claiming the mantle of a party that has made hatred and fear its political raison d’etre.

Part of Hitler’s strategy for birthing his Aryan nation was to co-opt the church. An organization of “German Christians” was established to infiltrate the mainstream churches. Which they did. There was an understanding that they would ignore Hitler and he would allow them to go about their business unhindered by the state. Once the German Christian mindset and authority was established, only then did Hitler begin to impose his Aryan principles on the churches, expelling and imprisoning those who didn’t conform.

Some resisted. The “Confessing Church” was the movement of Bonhoeffer, Niemoller and others who began to see through Hitler’s dictates, to perceive the evil in his agenda. The Confessing Church was considered an enemy of the state; its members were wiretapped and persecuted, some imprisoned in the camps. Pastor Bonhoeffer was sort of tried, and eventually executed.

Last night, I spoke about water and other stuff at one of our partner churches in East Lansing, Edgewood. There were a couple of teens in the small audience, and one asked what she could do. I said I believe it is important for people to know stuff. Read, I said, and know everything you can. Consider majoring in public policy. But mostly, mostly, don’t be quiet while people are blowing up your Facebook page with lies and propaganda. Knowing stuff helps us respond, helps us call out the lies, helps us not become duped by false claims – whether they are intentional or simply born of ignorance. Know stuff.

I believe people of faith have an obligation to call the hateful rhetoric exactly that. We are followers of Jesus, a man who knew what was at stake, and who put everything he had on the line for the sake of truth.

Trump, water, Hitler, emergency management. You may say I’m overreacting. Being dramatic. Letting my inner “conspiracy theorist” have too much airtime, using the church for political purposes.

Say what you want. But if the worst comes to pass, let’s not pretend we had no frame of reference; when we find ourselves suffocated in a blanket of concrete that began as just a little bit of wispy smoke in the distance, let’s not say we never saw it coming.