I Know Only Human Beings

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

Recently my wife and I went to see the movie, “The Butler.”  It was an excellent film on many levels.  One of the aspects of the move that I found most intriguing was the capturing of the moral complexity faced by those living in and trying to overcome the racist system under which they existed.  The difficult and often painful interaction between the butler, Cecil Gaines, and his son, Louis, who became a civil rights activist involved in lunch counter sit-ins and the freedom bus rides is central to the movie.  How they arrive at a sense of understanding and respect for each other is a story that I am glad was told as part of this movie. The importance of personal relationships as a dynamic part of the larger drama in the struggle for freedom could not have been displayed better. 

 The matter of race relations continues to be something with which our country struggles and it cannot be denied that one’s race plays a central role in how one experiences life in America.  With this week marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. the relationship between the races has been at the forefront in much of the news. We are still on the long journey of making the beautiful dream of which Dr. King so eloquently spoke a reality.

 Racism, along with prejudice and discrimination of all kinds, is part of not only the American experience, but the experience of humanity across time and space.  The belief that “my group,” however my group might be defined, by skin color, geographical borders, gender, etc., is somehow better than “your group” has been a perpetual plague on humanity. The belief is often accompanied by a will-to-power, thinking that the only way for “my group” to survive and thrive is to dominate “your group.” This way of thinking, rooted in seeing how we are different from one another, has been the cause of much violence and war. Mother Theresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.”

 It is in the midst of this violent divisiveness that the church comes with the gospel of Christ in which we are taught to love ourselves, love our neighbors and to love our enemies.  A gospel in which we are to show kindness to all and extend hospitality to the stranger.  A gospel in which we recognize that all people are created in the divine image and worthy of the respect that a child of God deserves.  In the midst of racism and prejudice, tribalism and hyper-nationalism, sexism and any other kind of “ism” you might think of, we come with the message that we are all a beautiful part of God’s beloved creation.      

The story of Pastor Andre Trocme of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France has been a story that has helped me to understand just how important viewing the world through the lens of our common humanity truly is.  During World War II, after France fell to the Nazis, Pastor Trocme led the people of his parish and community to develop hidden shelters and safe-houses in which Jewish people could find refuge. It is estimated that 3,500 lives were saved through the efforts of Pastor Trocme and the people he led.  It is reported that one time he was brought before the occupying Nazi officials and it was demanded that he tell them where he was hiding the Jews.  Trocme replied, “I know no Jew.  I know only human beings.”  The beautiful courage of that simple statement is profound.

Though race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, etc., are all a part of someone’s identity, before I notice anything else, I simply want to see the other’s humanity.  Not Black or White, not Asian or Hispanic – a human being.  Not an American, or Canadian, not a Mexican or a South African, - a human being.  Not a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, not an atheist, - a human being.  Not straight or gay or transgendered – a human being.  Not an athlete, not a disabled person – a human being. 

Sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, recently died.  He had gained much recognition for his book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  In the most recent issue of The Christian Century there was an article devoted to Bellah’s influence on understanding the present religious landscape.  The article stated:

The religious roots of a global ethic of human rights led Bellah to ask if the world’s religions can mobilize their deepest commitments to universal neighbor-love and mutual recognition to give genuine institutional force to human rights.*

To this question, the church must offer an emphatic, yes.

The ways we have highlighted our differences has been the cause of much pain in our world.  The church, with its message of the universality of God’s love, needs to be an agent that helps us see our common humanity, that we are all part of one race, the human race.  May we join hands with each other and work toward the fulfillment of the Dream.  Such work is our hope.       

*The Christian Century, September 14, 2013, p. 13

White Need to Talk About Race and Privilege

By J.C. Mitchell

I remember getting ready for school when I was a pre-teen on March 17.  I was certainly wearing green and then I put my favorite jacket as it was a chilly morning.  My mother was adamant I not wear the Mets jacket I wore most days.  She was yelling at me about wearing orange.  I argued that the jacket was blue and simply had orange lettering for the Mets, I was sure that was fine since it was clear I was wearing green and would take my jacket off when I would arrive at school.  My mom was not happy with me, and needless to say I went to school with an older jacket.  I knew we were Irish, but I had no clue about the Troubles and that Orange was the color of the Loyalists and Green the color of the Nationalists, and I certainly did not understand why that should matter in my Connecticut School.

I share this experience because I find it funny, and I believe my mother’s passion should be honored.  One should be proud of their heritage and should not forget the injustices and oppression of your ancestors, be it because of ethnicity, ability, sexuality, gender, skin color, or whatever I might have missed.  I believe there was certainly oppression to the Irish, and I had experienced some of this reality when I lived in Northern Ireland.  However, this reflection is not about The Troubles, or even about immigration; it is about being White.

I had no idea what it meant to be White, when I had to put my Mets jacket aside that day.  I thought I was White, but that was always defined against other people, specifically skin color and/or language--specifically Spanish, yet not those that spoke Castilian Spanish.  I learned between my argument with my mother and living in Belfast that Irish immigrants became White, and not simply because of our pink complexion.  There are certainly many social and political things that occurred that made me, my ancestors and my descendants, White.

However, of all of us that are now in the privileged status of White in the United States, we don’t talk about our inclusion in this label (and it is a label, but with much privilege).  We avoid the subject.  We often invite people that are not White to talk about this subject.  I have been at many conferences and assemblies where the conversation on race, immigration, ethnicity, or diversity is being ran by the small group of people assembled at the gathering that are not White. 

I remember watching the film Traces of the Trade. I was moved by such a film maker who challenged White people to talk about slavery and the economy that all of us benefited from such cheap labor.  She traced her family roots, discovered not only did her family have slaves, profited greatly from the slave trade.  Even us Irish, who came later, benefited from this reality, which we cannot deny.  If we do not have this conversation, we are doomed to keep seeing people who are not White as a deficit that we must find a way to include in our discourse, because White will only be defined by those not.  So even when we desire diversity, we are looking for those that are non-White to give us the answer, instead of having the real conversation ourselves.   It will be difficult, especially as it will often reveal privilege, even for those that worked hard.   If we have the hard discussion, and read and interact with theologies from non-White perspectives, we will benefit, even if it means a larger table.

I know this to be important because I observe that my experience as a child of a first generation mother has many similarities with immigrants today.  But I don’t want to be naïve to claim my experience is just like theirs, for there is a great complexity, but if those who are White are not able to admit this complexity of our own history, how are we truly to live into the diversity we uphold?

Currently I often speak and write about inclusion of people with disabilities, and many of us who do promote the civil rights of those with different abilities, are directly affected by disabilities.  One of the things I often dream of is for people without disabilities to have the conversation (in an intelligent and educated way) of what it means to inclusive of people of all abilities.  It would require very thoughtful and real conversation about the privileges one has in a society and how we assume normal.  We do the same thing with race—even with great intentions; we assume what is normal, if we do not talk about it. We need to be open to different views, our privilege, and the fact sometimes we are wrong.  And certainly we do learn from being wrong—well, at least I know I do.




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