Forgive me, Indiana, if I am skeptical of your motives.
For centuries, people have used religion as a justification for less-than-Christian motives and you’re experiencing the backlash, I’m afraid.
We’ve all seen religion used to justify suppressing ideas and people and movements that threaten people in power. The Bible can and has been quoted to keep women quiet and passive, including laws that gave husbands the right to confine unsubmissive wives to mental institutions for life as recently as the late 19th century. Religion has been used to rob indigenous people around the world of their traditions, their language, their culture. Religion has condoned slavery and war when it suited its purposes.
So I’m not entirely convinced of the righteous motives behind your legislation to protect religious freedom. You’ve used your religious freedom to promote separation and bigotry and self-righteousness too often and too long for me to trust those words today.
I understand that it’s good to be king. Of course you want to protect your freedom to impose your personal beliefs on others. But remember, if the day comes when your religion is no longer the dominant force in society, wouldn’t it be nice for your children and their children if you had sown seeds of inclusiveness and unity and love instead of oppression and discrimination and judgment?
The Internet has been full of scorn for NC Senator Thom Tillis and his comments about deregulating businesses, including perhaps allowing employers to opt out of requiring employees to wash their hands after visiting the restroom.
Wait a minute, folks. Let’s not be so hasty in judging Senator Tillis.
It would be easy to assume that Senator Tillis is not educated enough or intelligent enough to be aware of the science that connects lack of sanitation to many of the epidemics and health risks of the past, as well as the infectious diseases we still experience today.
The uninformed might even assume that Senator Tillis is one of those liberal secular humanists who don’t know that cleanliness is next to Godliness.
But no. Senator Tillis is a God-fearing Republican. That precludes him from subscribing to science, except when it suits him. And while he may not be a proponent of science, many people in his home state will tell you he is also not a humanist, secular or otherwise.
So what is going on here?
Perhaps we do Senator Tillis a disservice. Perhaps we should recognize him as a thought leader in applying economic theory to health and safety measures.
After all, he didn’t say restaurant employees should be prevented from washing their hands. No. He suggested that restaurants that the marketplace would take care of restaurants or other businesses that opted out of hand-washing. Customers would abandon them. Marketplace pressure would force them to do the right thing, without the burden of government regulation.
We see how that works in the marketplace on a daily basis, don’t we?
So before we point fingers at Senator Tillis, we should pause for a moment and imagine a future in which only upscale restaurants serving the affluent will choose to comply with burdensome health and safety regulations.
The cleanliness, of course, will trickle down.
What is a church for, anyway?
A lot of people think Duke University stepped out of line with its decision to use its chapel to call its Muslim students to prayer. In this time when so much divides us, I cheered this Methodist university’s step toward unity. But a friend of mine believes sacred spaces should be used for their intended purpose. And the intended purpose of a Methodist chapel, she said, is for worshipping Christ. She could certainly be right.
This is the third time this week that I’ve run into situations where churches took a stand in the issues that divide us.
Twice on Sunday I heard stories of people who were turned away—rejected, they describe how they felt—by churches. One man, a new member of my church, told about visiting one of my city’s largest churches multiple times and finally asking the pastor if he would “fit in” if he joined the congregation. He was told he would not. This new member at my church, a professional man in his early 50s, is gay. He is also African-American. Either one of those labels, I suppose, might have been enough to prompt the pastor’s reluctance and his response. I’m grateful he didn’t reject God and kept looking for a church that didn’t reject him.
I also heard the story of a gay couple who asked to join a different area church—a fairly large church filled with young, affluent families. They were told they would not be allowed to join as long as they were actively engaging in “sin.” I have to wonder if Jesus would have made the same choice as this pastor in deciding that one couple’s “sin” makes them less worthy of being part of a faith community than my sins or yours?
And now the uproar, among some, over Duke’s decision. Followed, for me, by the question, What is a church for, anyway?
Maybe God wants us all to divide up into our safe little boxes in order to worship in ways that leave us segregated and unthreatened. That is not the example I believe Jesus set in the Bible read by some who are protesting Duke’s decision or the pastors who rejected three people because they don’t fit a comfortable mold for their congregations or their denominations.
Here’s what I believe a church is for: A church is a place where God welcomes all of us to experience God’s presence so that we may become the hands and feet of Christ through loving each other, caring for each other and walking together through life. I believe that maybe, as Robert Frost once said about home, God wants churches to be “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
A month of conversation and reflection about racial reconciliation has just drawn to a close at my church, precipitated by the discovery that the money donated to build our sanctuary in the early 1920s came from a Mecklenburg County family whose money was made on the backs of slaves.
During our potluck lunch Sunday, as I talked with a new member about growing up during the 1950s and ’60s in Birmingham, Alabama, he said I must’ve found it difficult, as a child, to discern which side of the Civil Rights movement to come down on. I responded, as I often do, that I knew which side was the right side because all I had to do was see where my father landed and head in the opposite direction. My father was a racist; I knew instinctively that racism was wrong.
But as I read a novel during lunch yesterday, I realized there is another reason I have landed on the progressive, liberal side of most social issues: I am a lifelong reader. And authors seldom lift up as role models people with small minds, small spirits, status-quo thinking, hard hearts. Authors tell us the stories of people who shake up the status quo, people who fight for the common good, people who have big hearts and broad minds.
And when authors do center stories around people who perpetuate hate or injustice, those stories unfold in a way that makes it clear these are not the people we want to be.
I’m thinking about that today in the wake of the Ferguson, Ohio, grand jury decision, and feeling grateful to acknowledge one more thing that love of reading has given me.
I’m also thinking about friends who are African American. I’m thinking about friends who must sometimes fear that the children they are raising have targets on their backs because of the color of their skin. I’m thinking about friends who do not see and understand white privilege. I’m thinking about what must surely come if we cannot reconcile and rcognize our shared history, our shared blood, even.
There has been much talk over the last year about being Straight Allies–people who are straight who support, love and align with gay friends and family. I consider myself a Straight Ally. And I believe it is time for all of us who are white to ask ourselves if we are willing to take a stand and declare ourselves–not just by our words but by our actions–to be White Allies.
Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a link to an article about a high school in Nebraska that allows students to take their senior photos with their firearms. As long as they are tastefully done.
I asked the question, “What kind of world have we become?”
I didn’t ask because I think everyone should have their guns taken away. I don’t. I’ve had guns in my own house in the past. I asked because it just seemed appalling to me that guns were being used as some kind of fashion accessory.
Most of my friends rallied to share my outrage.
Then, a friend whose political beliefs I don’t always share despite the fact that I respect and love him, responded in a way that stopped me cold. He wrote, “One where we are accepting, tolerant and understanding of others culture, lifestyles, heritage and preferences?”
Well, shit. I hate being caught with absolutely no way of justifying a stand I’ve taken.
My friend’s comment helped me to see that, while I celebrate the collapse of barriers to marriage for my LGBT friends, others are asking, just as sincerely as I was asking, “What kind of world have we become?”
He helped me to remember that, while I feel that being a Christian calls me to welcome immigrants and provide for those who are in need, others who are genuinely perplexed are asking, “What kind of world have we become?”
He opened my eyes to the fact that if I want others to accept the ways in which we are different, if I want others to stop waving mean-spirited signs or calling others names, I must make every effort not to be an intolerant hater myself.
It is okay for me to support certain causes and beliefs. But I must guard against becoming rigid and judgmental about the people do not share them. I can work for changes that I consider to be positve for the world without setting my sights on things to be against in the world. I can speak up for what I believe without attacking individuals who see things differently.
I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m wise enough or discerning enough or kind enough to walk what can seem like a very fine line.
It’s easy to come up with a half-dozen ways to explain why my reaction to those senior photos with weapons is reasonable, while someone else’s negative reaction to gay couples rejoicing following their marriage ceremonies is not reasonable. It feels very different to me. I’m sure we all feel that way about our beliefs.
I did promise my friend not to protest with hate-filled signs in front of that high school–a safe promise since I’m in North Carolina and they’re in Nebraska. Maybe that’s all I can claim for myself right now: A desire not to contribute to the divisiveness to our us-them world, and a very real acknowledgement that I won’t get it right.
It’s a “soft” day here on the farm, a term I learned when I was in Ireland a dozen-plus years ago. My understanding of the term, which may or may not be entirely accurate, means that the precipitation is a little more than a mist, not quite a drizzle.
And on September 8, which could be just another brutal summer day in this part of the world, the air is cool but not chilly, the breeze rustling still-green leaves. Green but for a few smallish yellow ovals that my friend who owns the farm tells me are walnut leaves, spiraling to the ground. My mother and grandmother must be shaking their heads in heaven, that I don’t know a walnut leaf without being told.
I’m farm-sitting for a friend who will be at an artist’s colony in Greece for the month of September. So I’m blessed to be spending four weeks in a hundred-year-old farmhouse filled with art and collectibles and furniture that is as softly comfortable as the precipitation today.
I typically live in one of Charlotte’s happening in-town neighborhoods of old houses, wide sidewalks and everything you need to live the good life–restaurants, library, book store, grocery store, post office, local bakery, local coffee shop, deli/wine bar, consignment store, yoga studio and a wide array of tattoo parlors–within a two- to six-block walk. Even my church is walking distance.
I love where I live, but having the chance to spend a month writing in the country feels like I’ve landed in my very own writer’s retreat fantasy.
Although I have a lovely triple-window view of a ridiculously green lawn sloping down to a tree-canopied meadow, I just left the house. I tromped around the lawn , getting my rattiest old walking shoes wet, feeling the rain on my face and arms–something that would just feel silly in town. On my way in the back door, I pulled a few weeds from the small back-door garden where some kind of cool-weather crop (I can’t remember what my friend said) is just putting down its roots. I love dirt under my nails. I love feeling the dirt release its hold on the roots of weeds that need to come up.
Shoulders, forearms and pony tail damp, I just came in to find the kitties–farm kitty Randolph and city kitty Miss Bailey–having abandoned their two-day getting-acquainted feud to nap on opposite sides of the butcher block island in the kitchen.
And it feels absolutely appropriate that the first work day on a writer’s retreat should be spent in nothing more productive than tromping and napping and eating.
There is a headstone in the family cemetery on my mother’s side in northwest Alabama that reads, “Luke, a slave.”
The cemetery is a stone’s throw from the old family house, built in 1812. Great-aunts that I knew and loved growing up are buried there, along with the great-grandmother who died about 1919, and her great-grandfather, Edmond Gilchrist, who traveled from South Carolina in Alabama. He and Luke built the house.
I first discovered Luke’s headstone sometime during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, during which Alabama dug in its heels and added to its disgraceful role in the history of racism in this country. I was 10 or 12. At the time, I think people in the family felt proud that Luke had been buried beside our ancestors, that he had the honor of a headstone. My ancestors and their descendants had never been wealthy. This was not a plantation. It was a farm. And the people who owned it also owned another human being.
Luke’s headstone carried no last name. No date of birth or death. And there was no sign that any living soul related to him by blood was buried nearby.
Yet there he was, buried alongside the other members of the Gilchrist family. I always wanted to believe that meant he was treated like a member of the family in other ways, too, that the people who dug his grave and carved his stone grieved that he was gone and missed his presence in the family circle.
But in the end, he still had no last name, no dates, no kin. In the end, on his headstone, my ancestors still claimed him not as a member of the family, but as property.
My church today had a powerful service on reconciliation and racism. I have said before that I have the blood of racists in my veins, much more recently than 1812. Two men at our service acknowledged their connection through the sin of racism; one of them said the truth had hunted him down. They call the work they are doing together, to encourage more reconcilation between the races, “stirring the ashes.”
Stirring the ashes may be the necessary next step if we are ever to bury racism once and for all in this country.
For Luke, I stir the ashes in my own family plot.
A friend walked into prison today, leaving her three children and her sister on this side of the gate.
I was in the courtroom a few months ago when she was sentenced to 21 months in a federal penitentiary. Hearing the sentence, which could have been far worse, sucked the air right out of the room. My friend was hoping for house arrest, one of those clunky ankle bracelets, or maybe a suspended sentence if things really went her way.
Tonight, for the first time, she will sleep in prison. Or perhaps not.
When I was much younger, I spent almost a half-dozen years imprisoned by circumstances I didn’t yet have the wisdom or the courage to change. It was agony and I sometimes despaired that I would ever escape. Those circumstances shaped me, and not always for the better, at least not for many years. But the last few times I’ve spoken with my friend, I heard from her a growing intention to come out of this a far better person than she went into it. “I’ll never again have this kind of time to focus on growing and bettering myself,” she said.
It’s hard keeping her out of my mind. I’ve already written her three cards, one yesterday as her family was making the journey to West Virginia and two today. Already, I’m censoring myself–the highlight of my day today was having lunch with my daughter, something I couldn’t bring myself to tell my friend about. Not yet. Not until she’s had a chance to clear her mind of those last few minutes with her kids.
A friend called this morning to encourage me to take a walk in today’s perfect morning air, as he had just done.
He knows what kind of weather I like. But he also knows morning is my best writing time, that if I don’t dig into my hardest work before I distract myself with phone calls or emails or errands, I tend to put off the work. I explained again to my friend why taking a walk in the morning isn’t a good idea, with so much work, so many deadlines.
My friend romanced me: Temperatures below 70, no humidity, breezes to ruffle my hair and the leaves overhead in my sidewalk neighborhood of tall trees and front-porch houses.
I looked at my to-do list. I looked at the clock, at my optimum work time, ticking away.
I turned away from the window, faced my computer.
And remembered that in six weeks, I will be 62. Not old. But certainly my optimum time for living life is ticking away, as it is for all of us.
I walked. And felt so grateful for the way the dogwood trees waved in the breeze that tears came to my eyes.
Music is powerful.
Music can fill us with joy and reduce us to tears. Music evokes memories of time, place and people. Music makes it impossible to keep still and it can lull us to sleep.
Music can also stir us to action that changes the world.
People in the Civil Rights movement found courage to meet violence with nonviolence, thanks at least in part to the gospel music they sang when they marched and rode buses into danger, when they sat in jails.
The Nazis knew it and responded by prohibiting certain music in Germany during the 1930s.
Slaves knew it and sang both to vent and to disguise their grief and their rage over their circumstances.
Conservative legislators in North Carolina apparently know–and fear–the power of music, too.
A year ago, the Moral Mondays movement made headlines in North Carolina. From all over the state, people poured into the capital to protest cuts to education and Medicaid and food supplements for the poor, as well as voting regulations that would make it harder for the elderly and those with disabilities to vote. Those Moral Mondays protesters followed a time-honored tradition of singing protest songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
With the promise of more protests during the current legislative session, North Carolina’s General Assembly, disregarding First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, has passed a bill that prohibits singing or clapping at demonstrations around the capital.
The General Assembly has done of lot of things over the last year that have outraged me–a recent law makes it a felony to disclose the chemicals involved in fracking, as if not knowing will somehow make it safer for our water, our land, our future, our children.
And now this. Now they have aligned themselves with cowards like the Nazis, who knew the power of music to inspire and to uplift and to shape people’s reactions to the world.
Now, the legislators of North Carolina would silence the Martin Luther Kings and the Pete Seegers and the Bob Dylans and the Woody Guthries and the Joni Mitchells and the Weavers. Now they would silence slaves and textile workers and all those whose voices can not be silenced by money or might.
Now they would say, “Music is so powerful it must be silenced.”
If I had a song to sing, it would say that trying to silence our music is going one step too far.