Critical Race Theory and the Road to Reconciliation

I spent part of the pandemic studying and discussing systemic racism with other Christians concerned about living out our faith as anti-racists. In that process I have learned many hard lessons about the dark side of American history that most of us did not learn about in our schools or churches. It is very uncomfortable work, and while there are signs of hope, the current pseudo-debate over Critical Race Theory reminds us how far we have to go to heal 400 years of injustice and the wounds caused by racism.

I know much of the anti-CRT rhetoric coming from the Republican Right is just more red meat for the Trumpist base, but it also occurs to me that part of the problem that has gotten us where we are must be owned by the Christian church. A large part of the reason we have not learned about the horrors of lynchings as public spectacles or events like the Tulsa massacre is a failure by the church to teach and live out the true good news of the Christian Gospel.

Most of us can think of events in our own lives or of our families that we would be very embarrassed to have made public. I certainly have plenty in my life. It’s no different for a nation to want to put the best face on our actions and accomplishments as a country. For example, if we are writing a history of 1969 we Americans would much rather focus on the Apollo 11 moon landing than the My Lai massacre. But both are part of that year’s history, and we can’t get an honest picture of American culture in the ‘60’s without knowing about both.

Criticism is never easy to swallow. A favorite push back against critics of the Viet Nam war was the slogan “America: Love it or Leave it.” Such a defensive reaction to having unattractive aspects of our history exposed is easy to understand, but unless we can get comfortable with being uncomfortable about those embarrassing parts of our lives as individuals or as a nation we can never learn from them or move beyond them.

Much of our failure to embrace all of our history stems from a misunderstanding of God and God’s justice. Father Richard Rohr describes the difference between human and divine understandings of “justice” this way in his daily meditation this week (7/6/21): “When we think of justice, we ordinarily think of a balance: if the scales tip too much on the side of wrong, justice is needed to set things right. But God’s justice does not make sense to human ideas of justice! We define justice in terms of what we’ve done, what we’ve earned, and what we’ve merited. Our image of justice is often some form of retribution, which we then project onto God. When most people say, ‘We want justice!’ they normally mean that bad deeds should be punished or that they want vengeance. But Jesus says that’s simply not the case with God. The issue is how much can we trust God? How much can we stand in the flow of God’s infinite love? How much can we let God love us in our worst moments?”

This means that understanding God’s grace as unconditional love, even if we can’t wrap our minds around it completely, frees us from the fear of being punished for our sin. It is what Jesus means in John 8:32 when he says “the truth will set us free.” The truth is God’s love for us is so much greater than our worst behavior, even centuries of systemic racism, that we can face the truth, confess our sin and be set free to live in right relationships with our sisters and brothers.

When we read the many stories in the Bible about God’s relationships with sinful humans we can experience for ourselves what God’s grace feels like. Time after time in Scripture God calls and uses fallible human beings to further God’s reign of righteousness. Jacob deceived his blind father to steal his brother’s birthright, Moses murdered an Egyptian, David was an adulterer and murderer, Rahab was a prostitute, Saul was a vicious persecutor of Christians before God turned him around on the road to Damascus. These stories and what we hear on the nightly news are all examples of how all of us fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

The pantheon of American heroes is no different. Most of the brave men who pledged their “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” by signing the Declaration of Independence owned other human beings. Even our patriotic songs recognize that we are always in need of creating a more perfect union. “America the Beautiful” includes a line asking God to “mend our every flaw.”

We are a flawed nation made up of flawed human beings, but there is no shame or fear in showing God and ourselves that contrary to the famous line in the movie “A Few Good Men” we can and we must handle the truth. The alternative is that the lies about our history that we have passed down from generation to generation by commission or omission will continue to fester and poison our nation with hate and fear.

I John 1:9 Says it best: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But confession is the key word in that verse. Admitting our failure is the only way to be free of the burden of guilt and move on to a place that is closer to the peaceable kingdom God intends for all of creation. Friends, there is no reason to fear confession or humbly learning about the dark side of our history because God’s love and mercy are guaranteed. Thanks be to God!

Writer’s Block and Political Mayhem

Sometimes the way through a roadblock is to just drive through it and see what happens. I’ve been stuck for all of 2021 so far in a writer’s roadblock. There are many reasons for that I will not list here because I fear they will sound like excuses.

For whatever reason(s) I have been a distant observer to all that’s happened in our nation since 2021 began with a whimper. COVID precautions, including a 10pm curfew in Ohio made any “normal” celebration of the new year impossible. But we still turned the calendar eager to put 2020 in the rear view mirror. But putting a new date on things did not alter the realities of pandemic living.

An imminent change in our national leadership should have given hope that a new day was dawning, but that hope was blindsided by a violent insurrection in our nation’s Capitol just 6 days into the new year. January 6 could have been a good news day for Democrats like me when both D’s won Senate seats in a Georgia run off election, but that ray of hope was lost in the commotion of the Capitol riot.

Much more than windows were shattered on January 6. Any notion of a peaceful transfer of power were trampled in the dust. People died, and that is tragic; but near fatal blows were also struck against our democracy. I believe a second impeachment trial is necessary given Trump’s role inciting violence on January 6 and for the whole 4 years of his reign, but I am very sad that the trial will inflame passions and make any desperately needed attempts to heal our nation’s gaping divisions much harder if not impossible.

I am personally pleased that the Biden administration has begun to roll back some of Donald Trump’s most egregious actions and has begun an organized national response to the pandemic. Unfortunately dealing with the virus of hate, delusion and conspiracy fueled paranoia will be much harder to cure.

The main reason that other pandemic is so intractable is that it has been infecting our nation for 300 years or more. Racism was firmly entrenched in our American psyche long before a gang of slave owners wrote the foundation documents for our experiment in democracy. To patch together a fragile union between deeply divided cultures in the northern and southern colonies a lot of compromise was necessary. The question is whether those compromises were worth the divisions that continued and deepened.

The first 90 years of our democracy were full of debate and conflict over the issue of slavery. That conflict boiled over in a deadly civil war. In the simplified and whitewashed version of American history that many of us were taught in school that was the end of racism. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to our Constitution gave Blacks all the privileges of citizenship. Problem solved.

I came of age in the 1960’s when Civil Rights for our black sisters and brothers emerged from the days of Jim Crowe and the cruel joke of “separate but equal.” The ugly truth of lynchings and Klan violence and intimidation that went on for the 100 years after the Civil War never penetrated the enclaves of white privilege I grew up in. Blood was spilled in that iteration of the civil rights movement. Progress was made at a glacial pace, but when Barack Obama was elected President we again thought our ugly heritage of racism could be laid to rest.

But along came Donald Trump with his birther lies that fanned the embers of racism into a raging blaze of white supremacy which Trump fueled with more lies for the entire duration of his Presidency. On November 3, 2020 Trump’s campaign of lies and hate was soundly defeated by a record turnout at the polls during a pandemic, no less.

So the pampered president who never had anything denied to him in his life could not face the reality that he had lost. And thus began the biggest lie of all that was eagerly digested and propagated by Trump’s conspiracy consumed minions.

In one last gasp to retain power Trump invited his armed fanatics to DC for a rally on the day the election results would be confirmed by Congress. And we know how that infamous day ended. On TV we witnessed an attempted coup against our democracy.

By the grace of God the insurrection failed to stop the finalizing of the election results making Joe Biden our 46th President. If this was a novel that would be the end of the story with the forces of truth and freedom victorious.

But this is reality, not fiction, and the struggle to preserve our democracy continues. Dangerous Qanon conspiracy believers have made their way into the chambers of Congress by election. What Congress, and especially the Republican leadership does about their armed and dangerous colleagues will either help our nation build on the return to Constitutional democracy begun on November 3 or surrender again to the forces of lies and conspiracy.

The biggest truth of this whole saga is that the GOP senators who failed to remove Trump in his first impeachment now have a chance at a do-over. It’s too late to undo the damage inflicted on our nation by Trump and company in the last year. His acquittal by the Senate last year gave Trump carte blanche to do or fail to do his Constitutional duty with no consequences for his behavior and incendiary rhetoric.

If enough GOP senators had been courageous enough to remove Trump from office a year ago thousands of our citizens who died from COVID and Trump’s incompetence in managing this crisis would still be alive. And furthermore if we had had competent leadership in the White House that trusted scientists and public health experts thousands of Americans would not be unemployed and facing financial ruin. Our kids would not have lost a crucial year of their education and the socialization that goes with it. What the long-term damage to this younger generation will be only time will tell.

What we do know for sure is that the party of Lincoln has another chance to regain the integrity and respect worthy of Honest Abe by once and for all excising the cancer of Trumpism from the body politic, or at least from the halls of Congress.

How Many?

As I watch the steady rise of the number of American deaths on the COVID scoreboard I remember the line from an old Bob Dylan song: “Yes, and how many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” It’s apparently more than 177,000. It’s apparently more than George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and a host of other people of color cut down much too soon. It must be more than the police officers who fear for their lives because we live in an armed camp.

When I think about mounting death tolls I am taken back to the years of the Vietnam War. That war lasted on so long that I graduated from high school, college and seminary while it dragged on and then continued 4 more years! Like 2020 the death count in that war was served to us with dinner every evening on the national news. We thought we were winning because the scoreboard usually indicated we killed more of them that day than they killed of us. The scoreboard of course didn’t include the more than a million Vietnamese civilians killed, part of the infamous “we had to destroy the village to save it” mind set of our leadership. I guess Walter Cronkite thought that to know that ugly truth might have spoiled our appetites.

Dylan’s haunting question “how many?” can be asked about wars, hurricanes, floods, wild fires, even those caused by climate change, gun violence, racism, cancer, drunk drivers, and pandemics. How many must die before we say “enough!” What does it take to move us to action to correct the centuries-old injustices of racism? Or to suspend personal or political ambition to create a unified strategy for combatting a pandemic? Or meaningful reform of law enforcement? Or to enact reasonable gun regulations? How many, Lord? How long till we learn that violence in any form only creates more violence, over and over again in a vicious cycle.

For way too long we Christians have taken Jesus literally when he said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matt. 5:39). Jesus didn’t mean we should turn ourselves into punching bags. He was talking about interrupting the cycle of violence which will never end until enough of us realize that as long as we keep trying to achieve peace by unpeaceful means we are perpetuating more of the same.

Just before that verse above Jesus says, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you do not resist an evil doer.” Someone has said that living by the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth philosophy just produces a world of blind, toothless people. Instead of that outcome Jesus later in that Sermon on the Mount goes on to instruct his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

2000 years later we are still trying to do things the old way and expecting different results. We have failed to learn the critical lesson that someone has to dare to go first to break the cycle of getting even instead of being peacemakers. And until we learn we will continue to ask “How many deaths will it take?”

The Big IF: Confession and Forgiveness

Good news: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John: 1:9

Bad News: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.”
I John 1:10

The smallest word in those two verses is the most important. “IF we confess our sins….” That’s a huge “IF” and a major stumbling block that gets us into all kinds of trouble as individuals and collectively. To state the obvious, one cannot fix a problem until it is recognized. If I ignore the check engine light on my dashboard I can’t get the problem fixed. Or if I disregard the signals my body is sending me that something is wrong until it’s too late for the doctors to cure it I’m in deep trouble.

When it comes to God and our sin it is such a waste to live in denial. Yes, grace may sound like one of those deals that are too good to be true, but it’s not. John doesn’t say “if we confess our little sins” we will be forgiven! He says, “If we confess our sins, period.” There’s no fine print. The deal doesn’t expire at midnight. It’s an unconditional gift, and all we have to do is admit we screwed up.

Why is that so hard to do? Because we don’t trust the offer! We know too many humans who when we admit a weakness or a mistake will never let us forget it. They’ll hold it against us forever as a tool to manipulate us with guilt.

But this is no human relationship. This is a promise from the God who made us and knows our every flaw. God created us as fallible human beings knowing we all fall short of perfection every day.

So what’s the price we pay for not confessing? That denial loads us down with guilt and shame. It undermines our self-worth and makes it impossible for us to learn from our mistakes and do better. It cuts us off from God’s peace and salvation. That’s horrible on the individual level, but on the collective level it’s even more deadly.

Our refusal as a nation and world to recognize and admit our stupid mistakes costs us precious time to change our ways. We know the clock is ticking before we can no longer reverse the damage to our environment from our selfish ways. There is no Planet B.

Denial of our sins and mistakes is biting us in the butt on so many fronts – racism, world peace, bigotry, and on how to control the current pandemic. The human race needs one giant Mea Culpa because as John knew 2000 years ago, “IF we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” BUT “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.” Seems like a no brainer to me!

ONE VOTE REALLY MATTERS

Until very recently if one of the most important names in Ohio history were to be a Final Jeopardy answer I would have been clueless. And I’m guessing that most of my fellow Ohioans who took the required Ohio History class in middle school would also not be able to identify Ephraim Cutler. I would still have no idea of the critical role Cutler played in shaping the history of my state if a friend of mine had not recently moved to Marietta, the first white settlement in what became the Buckeye state. Because this colleague of mine now resides in Marietta she made mention on social media of David McCullough’s recent book about Ohio’s beginnings, “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.”

I am a big fan of McCullough and am very glad to be reading this book. I must say it started slow and took me awhile to get into it, but it was worth the effort for one of the most relevant stories in the book that lit up for me like a Christmas tree because of our most recent unrest about the evil of racism in our nation. Cutler and his father were prominent leaders in establishing the first settlement in the 1790’s in the newly acquired Northwest Territory and because of their prominence in Marietta Ephraim was elected in the early days of the 1800’s as one of two delegates to represent Marietta and Washington County at the convention responsible for creating a constitution for Ohio statehood.

I was surprised to learn that one of the most heated debates at that convention held in the Territorial Capitol at Chillicothe was over whether slavery would be permitted in Ohio. And even more shocking to my naïveté was how close the vote was on the provision about slavery. Ephraim Cutler was one of the most vocal opponents of the slavery provision, but on the day of the critical vote on that item Cutler was so gravely ill that he could barely get out of bed. His friends pleaded with him and physically helped him to get to the chamber for the vote, and it was a very important thing they did; because the proposal for Ohio to be admitted to the union as a slave state was defeated by that one single vote.

My mind is still blown by that piece of history. I am shocked at how close my home state came to being a place where human slavery was allowed. I have been self-righteously smug that we Ohioans are better than that, but we came within the narrowest of margins of becoming a slave state. That history has helped me understand better the depth of the political divisions in our state and our country even today. I knew there have always been deep-seated disagreements about race from day one in these United States — which have never been united on that issue. But realizing how heated that debate was at the very inception of statehood here in Ohio helped me understand at a deeper level why it is so hard to resolve this issue.

Ephraim Cutler also taught me again that one life and even one vote can make all the difference in the world. Imagine what Ohio history would look like if we had become a slave state. Would we have joined the Confederacy? Would we have statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson being removed here in our state capital? I thank God that brave pioneer dragged himself out of bed to take a stand for justice that day in Chillicothe. His bravery and integrity inspires me to do my part in that on-going struggle for America’s highest ideals today. I hope I do not soon forget who Ephraim Cutler was, and I thank David McCullough for telling his story. It has never been more important to study and learn from our history.

Pandemic Pentecost Prayer

O God of creation and re-creation, as we sang this morning “You make beautiful things out of dust. You make beautiful things out of us” even in our brokenness. Just as you spoke and created out of chaos in the beginning, speak to us now in our distress. We are weary and discouraged by so much we see around us. We don’t like the violence. It scares us, but help us understand the injustices that have created the protests. Some of us remember previous times of riots and civil unrest, and we are tired of so little progress toward the high ideals of our nation. But at the same time we can’t begin to imagine how weary our beloved sisters and brothers of color must be after centuries of oppression.

This morning we read the Pentecost Scripture about violent winds and tongues of flames that touched Jesus’ disciples. On our TV screens we have seen other kinds of violence and different kinds of flames that frighten us. Faith and discipleship are scary too, Lord. It’s easier to accept the status quo than oppose injustice when we are it’s beneficiaries. Renew our faith in your power to find us wherever we are and blow away our fear and break down communication barriers. Give us ears to hear the pain of all the George Floyds and the anguish of our black neighbors who do not feel safe in our society. Teach us to speak the universal language of love to oppressed and oppressors alike.

Forgive us in our comfortable havens of white privilege where we have failed to insist on liberty and justice for all of your children. We’ve been here before, Lord, but not in the middle of a pandemic! The timing of this unrest couldn’t be worse, but we know your time is not our time. We know the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt for centuries before you liberated them. It’s so hard to trust in your inevitable justice when we live in broken dreams here and now.

Give us ears to hear and really listen, Lord. We don’t know how we can help address this crisis. Let us really listen to those who have different perspectives and are just as confused and weary as we are. Let us listen to those who have lost businesses and livelihoods because of looting and vandalism. Let us listen to the first responders who literally are putting their lives on the line for all of us. We lift up all of our government leaders who are struggling to balance the rights of the oppressed to voice their concerns with the protection of property. Those are difficult decisions that never will satisfy everyone. But don’t let us settle for the false peace of a return to where we’ve been, but only for a peace grounded in just reforms of any and all systemic injustice and inequality.

We lift up to you those who are unemployed and underemployed, those already living in poverty exacerbated by the COVID virus. Show us how we can help to move things ever so slightly toward your will for our nation and world. Help us lift our eyes beyond the overwhelming problems to concrete actions and solutions that matter. But that’s hard too just as daily life is. Without “normal” routines, every decision we have to make takes more energy in these pandemic times. Sometimes we just plain cannot find the words to express how our weary souls are feeling. Remind us again, O God, that when words fail us the Pentecost spirit “intercedes for us with sighs too great for words.”

Remind us, Lord of all, that your voice isn’t always in the earthquake, wind and fire, but sometimes can only be heard in the souls of those who are still, even in the midst of chaos, and know that you are God, the one in whom we can always trust. Amen

Deja Vu All Over Again

A few weeks ago I thought about writing about a time 50 years ago when the National Guard was sent into Kent, Ohio to put down protests against the Vietnam war. I didn’t get that piece written, but now those scenes of violent clashes in American streets are playing out all over again on our 24/7 newsfeeds. I was a young seminary student that spring of 1970 and part of our response as a seminary community to the tragic deaths of four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State was to send a delegation to Washington, D.C. to share our concerns with our elected representatives in Congress. I made a whirlwind trip to D.C. with two of my fellow students. We were too poor to stay overnight; so we drove 8 or 9 hours through the night, visited with Congress people during the day and then made the return trip that night. I don’t think we had any impact on our reps, but that bonding experience turned good friends into lifelong ones I still cherish today.

One memory I have from that day on Capitol Hill was the response of our Congressperson, Sam Devine, to our concerns. He said something like, “Well, we can’t just let people destroy property.” Protestors at Kent had burned an abandoned ROTC building in their anger over President Nixon’s escalation of the war into Cambodia. That was certainly an act of vandalism and was wrong, just as the property destruction last night in cities all over America is wrong. That destruction hit at the heart of my hometown in Columbus, Ohio last night 700 miles from where George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day.

Here’s one of many questions running through my mind today: how do you compare the value of an old ROTC building with the lives of four young people and the damage done to the 9 who were wounded on May 4, 1970? How do you weigh the worth of buildings and other property against the life of George Floyd? Or against the nearly 400 years of racial injustice in this country? That comment from Rep. Devine came to mind when I heard about the President’s tweet last night which said, “When the looting begins the shooting begins.” That’s a deja vu quote from civil rights protests in the 1960’s, FYI. I much prefer a quote from another President, JFK, who once said, “When we make peaceful revolution impossible, we make violent revolution inevitable.”

You don’t have to condone property destruction to understand the cries for justice that inflame an oppressed people when those pleas are unheeded for centuries. Racism is alive and well in this country and has been from day one even though sometimes it recedes into the background when those with white privilege power think we have responded to it. As a child I was convinced that the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments had solved our American race problem for good. I was naive and the teachers in my all white community were negligent when they failed to teach me about Jim Crowe, “separate but equal,” the KKK and lynching of blacks. It does no good to grant a people citizenship and the right to vote if they are systematically denied access to a good education, adequate employment opportunities and decent health care!

I cannot begin to understand how it feels to be a person of color in this country. I also can’t understand those who feel so threatened by the loss of white privilege that they can kneel on the neck of another human being until he dies. What I do understand all too well is my own frustration that 50 years removed from the Civil Rights struggles of my youth we are reliving this nightmare of riot gear clad police, National Guard curfews and cities on fire. It makes me question what good my life has been, what more could I and should I have done to work for a more just and peaceful society?

Like many Americans I celebrated prematurely when we elected Barack Obama President just 12 years ago. Little did we know that having an African American in the White House did not mean we had arrived but would simply allow the likes of Donald Trump and Fox News to fan the smoldering flames of hatred and racism to a fever pitch. To those too young to remember Kent State or the Democratic Convention of 1968 or the riots after Dr. King’s assassination, some of us have seen this movie before. Only in this remake we’re being forced to deal with our racism in the midst of a pandemic!

It seems too much to bear! But this I know, the scourges of injustice and racism upon which this nation was founded will never be solved by curfews or armaments. Peaceful demonstrations turn violent when the burdens of injustice become too great. Riots and protests are not the problem. They are the symptoms of an insidious illness that can only be cured with repentance, compassion and understanding. Empathy for the oppressed, not bullets and tear gas to protect property are the only hope for a just and lasting peace in our culturally and racially diverse nation.

The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the injustice and inequality in our nation in vivid terms as people of color lacking adequate health care and decent paying jobs have died at alarmingly high rates from COVID-19. American capitalism in the last 40 years has become a tool for perpetuating injustice. The American dream has become a nightmare for most of our citizens. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are sadly just the most recent and well-publicized incidents of injustice for our sisters and brothers of color that have again ignited the smoldering anger of an oppressed people.

Will we listen to their pain and cries for justice this time or will we once more suppress them by superior fire power making the next version of this movie even more violent than this one? The answer is up to you and me.

Christmas Surprise: Lessons of Orogrande

Note: This is a story I wrote many years ago. The plot would have to be altered in today’s internet and social media world, but at the same time the heart of the story is as true as Christmas itself…

It was a warm spring day in Orogrande, a nearly deserted mining town in New Mexico, 50 miles northeast of El Paso. The Sharks, Orogande’s contribution to gangdom, were gathered down by the river trying to decide what trouble they could cause that day. Jake, their commander-in-chief, spotted Palermo, the villages designated “idiot,” coming their way. Motioning for his posse to follow his lead, Jake called to Palermo excitedly, telling him to come see the big fish they had just caught. The Sharks, sensing the sport to come, quickly got into the spirit of the joke and huddled around, pretending to admire the fish. They conveniently made it impossible for Palermo to see.

As he had done so many times before, Palermo walked into their trap with child-like trust. He hurried down the river bank and bent over to see their prize. Immediately, Jake got down on his hands and knees behind Palermo, and one of the other Sharks, known affectionately to his friends as “the Blade,” tossed a handful of dirt in Palermo’s face. Palermo stood up coughing and sputtering to brush the dirt out of his eyes. One of the other Sharks shoved Palermo backwards over Jake’s back, head-first into the scummy, stagnant river.

Palermo came up fighting mad, but by that time the Sharks were on their way to torment someone else, laughing and enjoying their little prank to the fullest. Palermo dragged himself up on to the bank and looked up to see John Perez, the town’s mayor and constable, standing at a distance with a thinly-disguised smile on his face. “Hey, Palermo, don’t you know enough to take your clothes off before you go swimming?”

Palermo shouted back in broken English, “Sharks, they push Palermo in river. Why you not stop them?”
“Oh, Palermo, there’s no sharks in that river. You must be dreaming,” and Perez laughed again as he walked away.

Palermo knew it was hopeless. He had been tormented all his life by the whole town of Orogrande. The humiliating laughter rang in his ears at night and kept him awake. The taunts and insults echoed in his dreams, and often he awoke pleading for mercy from a very real-to-life nightmare. As he sat on the river bank sobbing, he tried to think. No one ever gave him credit for thinking, but Palermo thought a lot. He thought about life and wondered why it was so hard? He wondered about how he could get away from Orogrande and start a new life. He dreamed of getting even with all the people who had mistreated and abused him. But the answers he came up with were always the same. He had no money to go anywhere or do anything. People gave him enough food to survive on, and Mrs. Brown let him sleep in her garage. But no one would give him a job or enough money to get away. A few people were nice enough not to tease him. Some just avoided him and told their children not to go near him.

Palermo didn’t understand why that was so. He couldn’t remember how it all began. He had heard people call him the “orphan boy” or “that half-breed” or “illegitimate” or “bastard.” He didn’t’ understand what those words meant, but he knew how they felt. They made him an outcast. They meant that other kids had never been allowed to play with him. He had never had a chance to go to school like the other children. He had no mother or father. But most of all they meant that he was all alone in a cruel and hateful world.

Thinking about it made him cry. Then it made him very angry. He remembered what the Sharks had just done to him and all the years of torment. Anger and hate boiled up in him till he just couldn’t stand it anymore. He got up and started back toward town. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he knew he was going to get even for at least some of the things the evil people of Orogrande had done to him.

Palermo went straight to Mrs. Brown’s garage. He was in such a frenzy he was not sure what he was looking for. He rummaged around the corner where his cot was, found nothing there and moved on to the other side where Mrs. B kept her car. He found a rusty old axe there and thought for moment of using on Jake or Perez. Then he spotted a can of gasoline, and he knew what he would do.
He was excited and restless. It was only 6 o’clock, and he knew he had a long wait for darkness.

He had not eaten all day; so after pacing the floor enjoying his plan of revenge for awhile; he headed for Smitty’s bar and grill. Smitty ran the only bar in Orogrande, and the upstanding citizens of the town were always trying to run him out of business. But Smitty, along with Mrs. Brown, came the closest of anyone in town to treating Palermo like a human being. “Maybe Smitty understands what it feels like to be an outcast,” thought Palermo, as he turned onto Main Street. Smitty certainly did. He was barely able to support his family on what he made at the tavern. He hated the constant harassment and pressure to close his place. But as always, he was glad to see Palermo and offered him a hamburger and some fries.

As Palermo was finishing his meal, Perez walked in. Seeing Palermo, he picked up where he had left off that afternoon by the river. Only this time he had an audience. Soon everyone in the bar was laughing furiously at Palermo. Palermo tried to ignore them. He took it as long as he could. Then the anger began to boil again. Before he knew what he was doing, Palermo pushed Perez across the room and shouted, “You not laugh when Palermo burn up your house!” Then he turned and ran out, stopping only at the drug store for some matches before going back to the garage.

Perez was annoyed at being pushed, but took the threat lightly. Everyone laughed some more at Palermo’s display of anger. Everyone that is, but Jake and The Blade who were shooting pool in the back room. Almost simultaneously, they had the same idea—a way to get Perez and let Palermo take the blame! They played pool half-heartedly until Perez left the bar. Then they took off to round up the rest of the Sharks.

Smitty couldn’t stop thinking about Palermo all evening. He had never tried to talk much to Palermo, but he really felt sorry for him. When he closed the tavern that night he walked over to Mrs. Brown’s to see if Palermo was still awake. When he found the garage empty so late at night he was afraid Palermo might have been serious with his threat. He ran down Water Street and up Jackson to where Perez lived. Sure enough, he found Palermo hiding in the alley behind the house, waiting for everyone to go to bed.

Palermo was angry that Smitty had come, but then he began to realize that Smitty was right. He would be a dead duck if he torched Perez’s house now. The whole town would know who did it! So, still angry and frustrated, but glad Smitty had saved him from making a stupid mistake, Palermo went back to his cot in the garage and went to bed. He lay awake for hours. He was still very angry about the day’s events and wanted revenge in the worst way. He was so upset he thought of pouring the gasoline on himself and lighting it. In fact, he was still wondering what that would feel like when he heard a commotion outside. He looked out the door and saw a mob coming toward the garage. Perez was leading the way.

“You stinking half-breed, come out and take your medicine,” Perez shouted. Palermo was afraid. He tried to run out the back door, but they were there too. They grabbed him and knocked him down. Someone kicked him hard in the ribs. Finally Perez pulled him to his feet and spat in his face. There was fire in his eyes like Palermo had never seen before. Perez wanted to lynch Palermo on the spot, but cooler heads persuaded him to wait until they could at least go through the motions of a trial. The mob literally dragged Palermo to the jail. He tried frantically to ask what he was being locked up for, but no one would even acknowledge his questions.

Palermo spent a sleepless night, confused and afraid. The jailer on duty kept Perez from killing Palermo, not because he wanted to, but because he knew he had to. In the morning they let Smitty in for just a minute. He told Palermo that someone really had burned Perez’s house the night before. Palermo swore he had not done it. Smitty urged Palermo not to tell anyone anything until he could find a lawyer. And then Perez gruffly told Smitty his time was up.

If fate hadn’t taken a hand in things, Palermo would have been railroaded through a trial and hanged before the sun set. But as it turned out, Judge Griffin in Buena Vista, the county seat was on a two-week vacation. In that time the media latched onto the story about Palermo’s case.

Ten days after the fire, a Mercedes with California tags drove into Orogrande. It stopped in front of Smitty’s place. A well-groomed three-piece suit got out and looked around, then went inside. The stranger ordered a drink and began asking people about Palermo. Nobody in Orogrande usually wanted to talk to strangers, especially not about Palermo, but Smitty overheard the questions and asked the man why he was so interested in Palermo? The stranger said he might be able to help Palermo, but he needed to know about his parents. Smitty said he had only been in town eight years. The only person he could think of who might know anything would be Mrs. Brown.

It was a long shot, but the man headed for Mrs. Brown’s little house on Third Street. Mildred Brown was a kindly African American woman of about 60. She, too, was leery of this stranger at first, but said she would tell him what she could if it would help Palermo. He asked her if she knew anything about Palermo’s mother. Reluctantly, Mrs. Brown related the painful story. “Palermo’s mother was a Mexican girl who just wandered into town one day. No one knew where she came from. She stayed in town, mostly doing housework for people. A few months later it became apparent that she was pregnant. She claimed the baby’s father was young John Hartford, son of J.T. Hartford. Hartford,” she explained, “owns the Orogrande Copper Mines where everybody in town works. Well, Maria, that was her name, she hid here in my house until the baby came. Mr. Hartford sent his son away to school. But when he found out Maria was still here he told some of the men who work for him to ‘take care of her,’ and they killed her.” Mrs. Brown was in tears. “I don’t know why they didn’t kill the baby too, but it would have been better for him if they had!”

“And the baby was Palermo?”

“Yes. I took care of him as best I could. But they wouldn’t let him go to school. They threatened to run us both out of town if I let him live in the house with me. Everyone picks on him. I don’t blame him for setting that fire. He took so much hate for so long!”

“Here’s a picture, Mrs. Brown. Could you tell me if this could be Palermo’s mother?”
“Why yes it is. Where did you get it?”

The gentleman explained that he was one of several attorneys who had been working for the Spanish government for years trying to locate the daughter of King Ferdinand. She had come to the U.S. twenty years ago to study at U.C.L.A. She ran away from there about 20 years ago and was last seen in northern New Mexico. “You see, Mrs. Brown, if your story is true, Palermo is the heir to the throne of Spain. I saw a story about his case on CNN last week. His age and the location and the fact he had no family inter4ested me enough to check into it further. It seems to have paid off.”

Mrs. Brown sat in stunned silence. Palermo, a prince!

The rest, as they say, is history. With the best attorneys money could buy, Palermo was cleared of the arson and murder charges against him. The Sharks were convicted of arson and manslaughter and sent to prison. The whole town of Orogrande was flabbergasted and turned itself inside out trying to redeem itself for 18 years of abuse.

Palermo was flown to Madrid where his grandfather was dying. In less than a month, he had gone from village idiot, to prisoner, to crown prince. Palermo had a very hard time understanding what it was all about. But with the aid of special tutors he was soon able to read and speak both Spanish and English. He had even begun to grasp a little history and political science by the time his grandfather died and Palermo became king.

A few months after his coronation the new king announced he would be making a trip to visit the United States to confer with the President. Palermo had arrangements made so he could also visit Chicago and Los Angeles, and he wanted a special stop in Orogrande included in his itinerary.

When the big day arrived, everyone in Orogrande turned out for a parade in Palermo’s honor. It was the biggest even in the history of the town. They had streamers and banners all over town welcoming their most famous son. There was a VIP banquet in his honor at the high school. At the banquet Perez and J.T. Hartford both gave long flowery speeches saying that things would certainly have been different if they had only known who Palermo was. They apologized profusely for any “inconveniences” the town might have “unknowingly” caused Palermo. They said they were glad that was all in the past and could be forgotten now. They presented Palermo with a key to the city and revealed elaborate plans to erect a statue in his honor on the town square.

Finally, Palermo rose to speak. In flawless English he thanked his former tormentors for their honors. Then he asked to see Mrs. Brown and Smitty. The banquet committee was embarrassed. They hadn’t even invited either Smitty or Mrs. Brown. So everyone waited while Smitty and Mrs. Brown were escorted to the high school by Perez’s part-time deputy. And then Smitty and Mrs. Brown were embarrassed because they weren’t dressed for the occasion. That was soon forgotten as Palermo greeted his old friends warmly. He presented Mrs. Brown with a diamond pendant and guaranteed both of them comfortable income for the rest of their lives. It was his thanks to them for being the only two friends he ever had.

Then abruptly Palermo started to leave. Mr. Hartford stopped him and explained to him that his copper mine was in deep financial trouble. He pointed out that the whole town’s economy depended on that mine. He was wondering if Palermo could find any way to help them out. Hartford repeated how terribly sorry they all were about the way things had been in the past.

Palermo listened politely and then started to walk away again. Hartford was persistent. “Palermo! I mean your majesty. This was your home. I am probably your grandfather. We desperately need your help! Don’t you care about us?”

Palermo turned and almost laughed in Hartford’s face. “When did you ever care about me, Mr. Hartford?” With that, his royal highness left Orogrande for the last time.

No, they didn’t live happily ever after. Few people do. But lest you should judge Palermo too harshly, it wasn’t long after this final visit that sizeable contributions of cash from an anonymous source began to arrive in the office of Mayor Perez. They came with a simple designation: “For improving the welfare of the citizens of Orogrande.”

Many people speculated about this donor. Only Smitty knew for sure, and Mrs. Brown, who found herself listening over and over to an old recording by Mahalia Jackson of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy, we didn’t know who you was.”

Walls?

“There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” – Robert Frost

When I was a young child some people in our neighborhood built a fence on the property line between their house and their next door neighbors. That was unusual in those days before subdivisions where almost every yard is fenced. This fence was also unusual for several other reasons. It was 8 feet high but only about 16 feet long, leaving easy access around either end between the neighbors’ yards. You see it wasn’t a practical fence at all since it could not keep anyone or any animal from easily just going around it.

I overheard my parents discussing this fence one day and thought they were calling it a “spike” fence which made no sense because it was completely flat on top. There was nothing spikey about it! When I inquired about the fence my parents told me it was not “spike” but a “spite” fence because the neighbors who built the fence were angry with the folks next door. I don’t know if we ever knew what they were angry about, but I realize now the fence was a symbol of their animosity about something. It wasn’t really made of plywood but of anger.

Symbolic walls are much harder to tear down than physical ones, and I believe that is the reason for the stalemate and government shut down just now. President Trump has correctly pointed out that in the past Democrats have voted in favor of parts of a wall on our southern border; so the problem is not about a physical wall or about needing better border security, it is about what this wall has come to symbolize.

From the day he launched his campaign for president with remarks about Mexicans being “murderers and rapists” to racist comments about “s***hole” countries, to his refusal to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville this President has demonstrated over and over that he is a racist. His father was a racist landlord in New York, and son Donald has not evolved from those roots.

Racism is an expression of fear, in this case fear of losing power and privilege that wealthy white males have controlled in this country since the first illegal immigrants landed at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. And the wall stalemate/debate is grounded in that fear, and that is why it is so hard to resolve.

I have reread several artistic reflections on walls as I enjoy my own privileged status to sit in comfort with a cup of coffee and ruminate about what are life and death issues for unpaid government workers and desperate refugees. My thoughts have ranged from the account of the walls of Jericho in Joshua 6, to a play about an imaginary wall (“Aria da Capo” by Edna St. Vincent Millay), to Robert Frost’s poem “The Mending Wall,” to my own climbing up on a part of the Great Wall of China a few years ago.

All of those walls are the result of fear and somewhat based on reality. The citizens of Jericho were wiped out by Joshua and his men when “the walls came tumbling down.” The two shepherds in “Aria da Capo” kill each other because each of them has what the other wants on his side of the wall, but as they die and collapse on where the wall “is” they discover it does not exist except in their own imaginations.

I don’t know my Chinese history well enough to know how well the Great Wall worked at keeping their enemies out, but the sheer magnitude and effort and cost it took to build that wall speaks volumes about how great their fear was.

Frost’s poem cuts to the chase by asking hard questions about the need for walls. Do fences make good neighbors? Are walls needed if we follow the advice of the Great Commandment in both Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels to “love our neighbors as ourselves?” Maybe that’s naïve, but on the other hand maybe it’s the only way, truth and life?

History Lessons

I’ve been pondering the current re-emergence of racism in America while reading a history of the contentious and violent 1968 presidential election. This takeover of the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower has its roots in the Southern Strategy of Nixon and the blatant racism of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. Donald Trump is simply the latest horrible outbreak of the evil virus that has been in this country from its very beginning.

There has been attention drawn to the 14th Amendment recently by Trump’s unconstitutional assertion that he can abolish birthright citizenship with a stroke of his pen. The scary thing is that if he retains control of all three branches of government next year he probably can and will. That’s what dictators do.

But here’s the history lesson we need to remember. The 14th Amendment, along with 13 and 15, that abolished slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African American men (women had to wait another 60 years to vote along with their white sisters), all three of those amendments were adopted during Reconstruction. That means the southern states never did and never have adopted those basic human values because their economy and heritage was founded on enslaving and abusing other human beings.

On my most depressed days I wonder if Lincoln was wrong to try and preserve this deeply divided union. Maybe we would have been better off as two separate but unequal nations?

But then the Holy Spirit taps me on the shoulder yet again and whispers in my ear, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

And my hero Nikos Kazantzakis shouts in the other ear, ““My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises”)

Where does that faith and courage to fight the good fight come from? The clue is this other quote from Kazantzakis that is his epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”