Saturday, June 16, 2012

Every Day I'm Smuggling

This Monday I’m headed to Phoenix, Arizona, to attend the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  A few weeks ago I blogged about how, ahem, excited I am to be going to Phoenix in June.  However, when it comes time to pack for the trip, I plan to slip a contraband substance into my suitcase.

The illicit material I’m referring to is a copy of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, the gorgeous story of Esperanza, a Latina girl growing up in a poor neighborhood in Chicago who dreams of being able to reshape her life.  The teaching of this wonderful work of literature was recently “banned” in Arizona.  (I chose this book to smuggle because it is one of Anne’s favorite books.)

In the spring of 2010, Arizona passed HB 2281, a bill regulating ethnic studies classes that disallowed any courses of instruction that “promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group, [or] advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals.”

In December, 2011, the Tucson School Board ruled that the district’s Mexican American Studies curriculum was in violation of Arizona law and on January 10 of this year officials showed up and confiscated the teaching materials of the Mexican American Studies program, reportedly going as far as to take books right out of students’ hands.

The materials that were effectively banned in Tucson range from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, from the Native American young adult literature of Sherman Alexie to the gorgeous prose of Sandra Cisneros.  A complete list of the books removed is available here.

In response to the law and school board action, author Tony Diaz launched the librotraficante – book smuggler – movement to create libraries in the state to make these materials readily available.  You can see him talking about it on a Democracy Now program.  You can also watch this humorous video of him talking about smuggling “wet books” and “dime books.”  In cooperation with the librotraficante movement, Unitarian Universalists are bringing several hundred copies of the banned books to General Assembly.  They’ll be displayed at the UU Humanist booth at GA before being donated to local organizations.

The Arizona law and its enforcement are ignorant, offensive, and inherently racist.  Reporting on the Mexican American Studies program makes repeated references to positive outcomes including higher graduation rates and increased college enrollment.  Pedagogically, it is both responsible and necessary to provide students with literature that reflects diversity and that inspires critical reflection on history and present day society.

You can watch a Daily Show segment on this craziness here.

I think I will have to add a few books to my reading list...

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sermon: "The New Jim Crow and the War on Drugs" (Delivered 6-10-12)

The reading this morning comes from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  She writes,
The impact of the drug war has been astounding.  In less than 30 years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than two million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.  The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran.  In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children.  In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000. 
The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature.  No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities.  The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.  In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.  Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America. 
These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime.  Studies show that people of all colors use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates.  If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.  This is not what one would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders.  In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.  And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.  These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society. [p. 6-7]

I want you to create a mental image of a drug dealer.  Take a moment and hold that image while I tell you a true story.

At the beginning of my ministry here, one of the things I did for fun was to volunteer for an oral history project.  I was trained in the techniques of oral history and I was assigned to interview a gentleman who lived in a rural area outside of one of Kansas’ university towns.  I drove out to his home on a Saturday morning and he invited me to sit on his backyard patio.  “Can I offer you something,” he asked me.  “Coffee, tea, water, soft drink, a joint?”  I graciously accepted the cup of coffee.  It was at that point that it dawned on me that this man had a small marijuana growing operation in his wooded backyard. 

There’s not really anything more to this story.  But, be honest with me.  How many of you were holding a mental image of a white guy in his sixties with a Ph.D. and who also happens to be a respected member of the community?  Be honest.

This morning’s sermon is inspired by a book I read earlier this year, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.  It was a New York Times bestseller and has been called the most important book about racial justice in the past decade.  Alexander is a law professor at the Ohio State University with a dual appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.  She will also be a guest speaker at our denomination’s General Assembly a little more than a week from now and I look forward to having the chance to hear her and hopefully to meet her.

In the month of April, at least three different Unitarian Universalist ministers preached sermons on Alexander’s book.  All three sermons – one in Iowa, one in Illinois, and one in Oklahoma – were delivered, interestingly enough, by white guys about my age.  All three sermons beautifully summarized the arguments of Alexander’s book.  I am going to take a slightly different course and speak about the connection between the subject matter of Alexander’s book and the day-to-day lives of members of Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Before we talk about the lived experience of African Americans who are victimized by the war on drugs, let me first say a few words about my own experience and about my own privilege.  You might ask yourself if your experience, or the experience of members of your family, has parallels with my own.  I grew up in a town where there was certainly some level of illegal drug use, although I didn’t encounter drugs until I went to college.  I went to a liberal arts college with a reputation for its open and laissez-affair attitude towards drug use.  Even though I wasn’t one to seek out drugs, I learned what was common knowledge among most students – the smart kid in my Humanities seminar was doing a brisk business selling hallucinogens from his dorm room, ecstasy was being dealt out of that dorm, those students were rumored to be doing more than just their homework in the chemistry lab.

The cost of all of this could be measured in wasted brain cells, measured in wasted tuition dollars, or, sadly, measured in lives damaged by drug abuse and addiction.  The cost for my college peers, however, was never measured in jail time, legal fees, prosecution, or the long term consequences of a criminal record.

To go back to the story about the university professor, it should not be at all surprising that this would be where I would encounter drugs.  Michelle Alexander writes, “Studies consistently indicate that drug markets, like American society generally, reflect our nation’s racial and socioeconomic boundaries.  Whites tend to sell to whites; blacks to blacks.  University students tend to sell to each other.  Rural whites, for their part, don’t make a special trip to the ‘hood to purchase marijuana.” [p. 99-100]  We know that many areas of American life remain segregated; drug dealing is one of those areas.

I think it is absolutely essential to name privilege at the outset, before we launch into a discussion about the New Jim Crow and the war on drugs.  I want you to imagine a world in which police show up to do locker searches at Shawnee Mission East High School.  I want you to imagine a world in which police descend on the Town Center Plaza on a Saturday night and stop and frisk those going to the movie theater, in the way that young people of color are stopped and frisked in New York City and elsewhere.  I want you to imagine a world in which the police set up a traffic stop along 151st  Street and search cars for drugs.  And, I want you to imagine a world in which those caught up in these police operations were arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Such a world for us would be unthinkable and we would find it intolerable.  Any police chief or prosecutor who tried such a thing around here would soon be looking for a new job.  As Michelle Alexander writes, “In every state across our nation, African Americans – particularly in the poorest neighborhoods – are subjected to tactics and practices that would result in public outrage and scandal if committed in middle-class white neighborhoods.” [p. 98]

Michelle Alexander combines passion with devastating evidence to argue that the war on drugs and the modern day criminal justice system creates a system of racialized social control that is analogous to the old Jim Crow system.  Alexander begins with a provocative history of one African American family.  She writes,
Jarvious Cotton cannot vote.  Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy.  Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises – the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life.  Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave.  His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote.  His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation.  His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests.  Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole. [p.1]
 Alexander describes a system of racialized social control that does not only affect the 2.3 million incarcerated persons in our nation’s prisons, but also the millions of Americans who find after serving their time that they are perpetually punished.  She writes,
The “whites” only sign may be gone, but new signs have gone up – notices placed in job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, forms for welfare benefits, school applications, and petitions for licenses – informing the general public that “felons” are not wanted here.  A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind – discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service.  Those labeled criminals can even be denied the right to vote. [p. 141]
 It is an historical fact that “get tough on crime” politics found its ascendancy at the precise moment in our nation’s history when the old Jim Crow system met its defeat at the hands of the civil rights movement.  Politicians could no longer explicitly call for racial segregation, but they did develop a coded way of speaking about crime and poverty.  The crime rate was actually in decline when Ronald Reagan officially announced the war on drugs in the early 1980s.  Since that time, Republicans and Democrats alike have both made it a political point to show that they are tough on crime, even though the policies they support often have a detrimental effect on the communities they claim to be making safe.

Some have balked at the idea that the legal disenfranchisement of criminals today is analogous to the legal disenfranchisement of people of color during the era of Jim Crow.  If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime, they might say.  So, let me be clear.  This sermon is not about the legalization of drugs, although I have some very definite opinions on the matter.  Nor is this sermon about the ethics and morality of drug use, although I do have some particular opinions on this matter as well.  No, this sermon is about justice.

If whites make up about two-thirds of the adult population in the United States, and if study after study shows that whites are more likely to use and sell drugs than people of color, then a just enforcement of our nation’s laws would mean that roughly three out of four people in prison for drug crimes should be white.  Nationwide, an African American man is thirteen times more likely to go to prison for a drug offense than a white man.  According to Human RightsWatch, in not one single state in the nation are whites incarcerated for drug crimes at a rate that matches their percentage of the population at large.  In fact, “in seven states African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.” [p. 98]  If Jake, Dylan, and Amy went to prison at the same rates as Jamal, Darnell, and Aisha, we would consider it outrageous and intolerable.  The system would be changed and the legal consequences of drug use would be altered.  To say that the law is the law is to use rhetoric that is hollow.  Americans would not accept these laws if the laws were enforced fairly.


While I was reading Elizabeth Alexander’s book, I had a vivid memory of an experience from years earlier.  During grad school I received an invitation from my undergraduate institution.  My college’s president was coming to Boston and there was going to be a reception for alumni living in the Boston area.  There was a question and answer session and someone asked him to comment on steps the college could take to make the student body more racially diverse.  His answer was brutally honest and quite memorable.  He said that his admissions staff spoke with the parents of students of color who chose another school.  What they heard back was that the college’s laissez-affair and tolerant approach to drug use was a major strike against the college in the eyes of minority families.  The narrative that says that experimenting with recreational drug use in your late teens and early twenties is a rite of passage to be regarded with a lighthearted spirit, a wink and a nod, is a narrative of privilege that is out of touch with the lived reality of many people of color.  For them, as they had instilled into their children, there was no room for error and one slip was all it took for opportunities to close forever.  According to my college president, parents of prospective students of color told the admissions officers that it felt as though the college didn’t really understand the world they were coming from.

The war on drugs, the new Jim Crow, is a system that harms whites as well as people of color.  It is a system that harms whites in more ways than just serving as an impediment to visions of diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism.  Scholars have pointed out the way in which the old Jim Crow system, like slavery before it, made use of what is called the “racial bribe.”  The “racial bribe” gave poor whites a sense of superiority over blacks and the price of the bribe was to side with the white wealthy elite.  Michelle Alexander argues that the war on drugs, the mass incarceration of people of color as a form of racialized control, functions as another form of a racial bribe.  She writes, “In retrospect, it seems clear that nothing could have been more important in the 1970s and 1980s than finding a way to create a durable, interracial, bottom-up coalition for social and economic justice to ensure that another caste system did not emerge from the ashes of Jim Crow.” [p. 256]

What are we to do?  There are so many issues of importance that tug at us.  These issues are environmental and economic.  They involve ending oppression based on race, gender, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation.  They involve issues of peace and civil liberties and civil rights, not to mention the day to day work to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and care for the sick.

I would urge you to read Michelle Alexander’s book.  Her arguments are powerful and persuasive and may change the way you see the world and your own story.  Share this book with your friends.  Social movements need a large group of people who do not find the world as it is to be acceptable.  You can become one of those people, if you are not already.

Through reading this book and others like it, we also grow in an awareness of our own privilege, of the ways in which the story of our own life is not universal.  Such growth and self-understanding is necessary if we are to build the world we dream about and be the community we dream about.  Such learning is incredibly important if we would be one.

Let us continue to find a deeper wholeness, a connection between our own story and the story of our world.  Let us connect soul with earth.  May we turn caravans of despair into journeys of passion, connection, integrity, and insight.   With these deep yearnings, let us go forth.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Sermon: "A Song of Gratitude in Your Heart" (Delivered 6-3-12)

I want you to imagine that someone is making a movie of your life.  I know this is a little far-fetched.  It probably won’t be a Hollywood blockbuster.  More like an independent art house flick.  Now, before you start wondering if George Clooney or Julia Roberts is available for the role, you might want to consider yourself cautioned by folk singer Susan Werner who sang, “But if they really made a movie of my life, they’d show me going to a [lot of] movies.  And if they really wrote a book about my life, they’d say I read a lot of… novels.”

But still, I want you to imagine that someone has made a movie of your life.  It’s a cut.  Filming wraps up.  The movie now goes to the sound editor.  It is time to give your life a soundtrack, to select some songs so that the viewer can be cued to your inner emotions and feelings and thoughts as you go about the action of your life.  What songs do you choose for the soundtrack of your life?

Maybe the soundtrack to your life has some vanity and self-absorption, so you select that silly “Sexy and I Know It” song.  Or maybe the soundtrack of your life has some moments of low self-esteem, so you put on a little Beck, “Soy un perdedor, I’m a loser baby.”  Or maybe the soundtrack of your life tells us that you are withdrawn and stoic, so you put on some Simon & Garfunkel.  “I am a rock, I am an island, and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”  Or maybe the soundtrack of your life should speak to feelings of hurt and resentment, so you select some Cee-Lo Green.  “I see you driving ‘round town with the girl I love, and I’m like…”  You can finish the lyrics on your own.  (I’ll tell you what, it’s hard to pick songs that I think we’re all going to recognize, so I apologize if you have no idea what I’ve been talking about here.)

If there was a movie about your life, there might be a couple of scenes of heroism and courage.  Hopefully there are some scenes of compassion and tenderness.  Scenes of integrity, mindfulness, generosity, and principled living.  And hopefully the soundtrack of your life has some love songs, some songs of joy and hope and inspiration.

Religion and spiritual discipline can influence us as we direct the outward action of the movie of our lives.  It can inspire us to stand for peace, work for justice, and serve those in need.  It can instruct us to welcome in the stranger and to love our neighbor as our self.  Religion and spiritual discipline can just as importantly be a tremendous influence as we select the soundtrack, the score, to the movie of our lives, the articulation of our inner feelings and emotions, our thoughts and imagination.

Of course, these are not completely separate.  They cannot be separate.  Our outer actions cannot help but to be shaped by our inner songs.  To score something means to set it music.  But to score something also means to make a real and physical scratch in it.  Enough marks may eventually become a groove.  Our inner scoring plays against the outer world.

This morning I want to ask you about the songs in your heart.  The trajectory of these words has been shaped by an amazing piece of writing that I’ve been reading.  In My Home There Is No More Sorrow by Rick Bass is a travel memoir by an American writer, an activist who has written about topics such as environmental justice.  Bass travels to Rwanda with his wife, teenage daughter, and a colleague to lead a writing workshop for a promising group of young Rwandan authors who are trying to rebuild that nation’s literary tradition.  The stakes are high; in Rwanda authors can face death for taking on politically sensitive subjects.  I’m fascinated by the way the author writes about how his inner soundtrack plays against his outer travel experiences.  Take, for example, this scene when the group stops at a local establishment while traveling across the countryside.
Some loud ‘70s tune is playing in the bar now, and when we gesture to the waiter that we like it – we’re laughing at how loud it is – he thinks we’re complaining that it’s too loud, and dashes into the bar to tell the owner.  Seconds later, the volume is dialed down to a discreet and very un-barlike Muzak croon.  When the waiter comes back, we try to convey that were just laughing, was all, that in no way do we want to impose our desires upon the folks in the bar, but we’re unable to make ourselves understood.  The previously festive, even raucous music remains subdued, in deference to the gigantic micromanaging of the high-maintenance Americans.
This launches the writer on an extended riff about the soundtrack, the spirit, of the people he meets, and the soundtrack that plays within him.  He remarks, “It feels… like we are in the presence of spirits [very different from] our own: less numb, less jaded, less beset by self-focus and the low chronic agony of unmet desires, many of which do not even originate within us but have been grafted on from the outside.”  This is to say that he is self-aware of how his own emotions and thoughts play on well-worn grooves. 


We opened up our service this morning by singing together a song that has come to find a regular rotation in our worship services.  “Oh we give thanks, for this precious day, for all gathered here, and those far away, for the time we share, with love and care, oh we give thanks, for this precious day.”  I was inspired to choose the subject of gratitude this morning because it is a virtue worth remembering as we conclude this church year and beginning the next.  Some of the board members and committee members are ending their time of service as new members come on to fill their shoes.  Our choir breaks for the summer, but not before they enjoy an end of the year pool party.  Our religious education teaching teams turn over.  It is important to pause for a moment and express gratitude.

And, as a preacher, I have to tell you that gratitude is a subject that doesn’t seem to need a whole lot of theological finessing.  Gratitude is one of those virtues that very few people go out of their way to avoid.  Forgiveness takes a lot of hard work, soul work.  Generosity can seem hard to swallow at first.  Compassion can take some intentional effort before you get the hang of it.  But gratitude can seem like the low hanging fruit of all of the virtues.  It helps that gratitude is a virtue that people don’t generally make a conscious decision to set their heart against.  People say things like, “I’m just not ready to forgive.”  “I’m not ready to accept.”  But, people don’t make a conscious decision to be ungrateful.  It is a sin of omission, not commission.

I find it helpful to think about virtues as songs, or perhaps as stories, that live in our heart.   If you walk around singing about giving thanks for this precious day, you’re liable to do just that.  The story you find yourself in will be the story of the universe unfolding in a kindly way for you.  If you’re not much for hymns, then I commend to you any number of popular songs that speak to a grateful spirit.  I’ve provided a list at the end of this sermon.

If songs of gratitude fail to become stuck in our hearts, if they fail to serve as the stories we find ourselves in, it is probably not because we have rejected gratitude.  Rather, it is because we have chosen to sing another song in our hearts.

One such song is found in our hymnal.  Hymn number 304 is entitled “A Fierce Unrest.”  Its lyrics declare, “A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.  It was the eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings.  There throbs through all the worlds that are this heartbeat hot and strong, and shaken systems, star by star, awake and glow in song.”  The last line of the hymn announces, “We sing the stinging discontent that leaps from star to star.”

This is not a hymn that is often sung, and I doubt that many of us walk around singing it.  However, its words describe a way of being in the world that we may recognize.  How many of you know somebody that this hymn describes?  Or, does it describe you?  Are you ever fiercely restless, stingingly discontented?  If that is the emotional space you occupy, you are going to find it hard to have a grateful heart.

In the interest of full disclosure, this song probably describes me in a lot of ways.  And, don’t get me wrong, there is a sense in which unrest and discontent can be beneficial.  Martin Luther King frequently used the term “divine discontent” in his sermons and speeches and spoke of being maladjusted to systems of oppression.  At the same time, embodying that spirit of discontent can take a harsh toll on our relationships.

If the song of gratitude is not playing loudly in your heart, another song that may be drowning it out is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love Judy Garland.  It is a really hopeful song.  Imagining a better world where dreams really do come true is important.  But, I think we all have met people who fall into a simple dichotomy that complains that here stinks, but over there is awesome.  Right here is wanting and deficient, but over there is all wonderful.  The grass over there is greener.  And, at the end, isn’t the longing for what lies over the rainbow tempered by a grateful acknowledgment that “there’s no place like home”?

I love Judy Garland and I love Janis Joplin, and I’m glad that Janis was being playful and tongue-in-cheek when she sang, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.  My friends all drive Porsches.  I must make amends.”  But, we’ve known people who have that song in their heart, just without the irony.  Oh Lord, won’t you really buy me a Mercedes Benz.

I recently had the opportunity to dine with a family with young children.  We had a great dinner and then they served an amazing, mouth-watering, dessert.  I glanced over and noticed that the young boy in this family was glancing back and forth between his sister’s plate and his own.  He was making sure that they had the exact same amount of dessert, that she didn’t have any extra, that he wasn’t being cheated.  This is developmentally appropriate for a child his age, but it is something we’re supposed to grow out of.

What songs do you carry in your heart?  Do you carry a song of gratitude with you?  Or, is that song of gratitude drowned out by “A Fierce Unrest,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or “Mercedes Benz”?  If the virtues are songs that live in our heart, we should be mindful of the songs we carry with us.


Some songs of gratitude I recommend:

The Luckiest by Ben Folds
ThankYou by Dido
ThankYou by Led Zeppelin
Kindand Generous by Natalie Merchant
ThankU by Alanis Morrissette