Thursday, July 16, 2015

Confederate Flags & Wedding Cakes: An Open Conversation About Prejudice

Dear Christians, we need to have a talk and it's a difficult one to have. 

We need to talk about discrimination. We are currently living in a culture that can seem a little scary, and I get it. There's a lot of changes happening. The confederate flag is coming down, gay marriage has been approved by the Supreme Court, and Christians at least appear to be coming under fire for their positions on these topics. So, let's talk for a few minutes about these things, because how we respond is in many ways pivotal to how the church's presence is perceived in this world for the next while.

Let's start with the flag. This is where I have to be brutally honest and say that I have grown up with the confederate flag on personal items before. I did not always see it as a problem, and much of this has to do with the amount of information and education I had presented to me growing up. I grew up in one of the most racist towns in the United States. I don't say that lightly. I'm honestly scared to tell people where I come from these days for fear of how I'll be perceived. The most active chapter of the KKK is still alive and present right near where I grew up. The president of the KKK actually lives in the area. They have even been behind terribly racist billboards going up in my town. As I grew up and made friends within the black community, it was a huge wake-up call that my friends didn't even want to visit me because of actual, legitimate fear of the town where I lived. That was an eye opening experience to my privilege and even to the influence of that place in my own life. It's thankfully becoming a more accepting community thanks to the efforts of diversity committees, but it's been a long and hard road, and there are several hate groups, other than the KKK even, who are still combating against the efforts of the committee. I'm terrified to tell you all this, but I'm more terrified of the possibility that other people I know live in similar communities and don't acknowledge such a sincere problem. When they surveyed people in the 1960s, most did not see racism as being an issue. How could they be so blind?!? I think I know, because I think the same thing may be happening today. It takes huge events for us to realize problems that have been going on, and we are experiencing some of those events. 

Don't try and tell me that it's "heritage, not hate."

I've seen the hate with my own eyes. It's real. It exists. 

And let me clarify, my family is not a racist family. We often have discussed how problematic our environment was over late night hot cocoa. But that doesn't mean it didn't impact us or that it didn't exist.

Let's be real. The confederate flag represents the confederacy. The confederacy had as one of its prime objectives to retain the ability to treat African Americans like property and not people. I don't care if your southern family didn't own slaves, it was the flag of those who did. The fact that slavery went on for thousands of years and was completely normal baffles me, but it happened, and we were fully exercising that institution here in the U.S. until relatively recently in the grand scheme of time. The flag represents the desire to own people and has ever since the first one was made.

The confederate flag that started all this was put up at the state capital building in South Carolina to protest the Civil Rights Movement. The movement that sought to see people as equals instead of inferior. That's what the flag was put up to protest.

This is the flag that's been present as a symbol at lynchings of black individuals even in just the last 50 years. This is the flag that was flown by the young man who walked into that church and killed 9 people simply because they were a different skin color than him.  

EVEN IF it didn't always represent racism and hate (which I think it has), symbols can be ruined as we add meaning to them. The swastika was used for years as a symbol of peace and life for many cultures. Far longer than it's been associated with the Nazi party. If your friend was trying to wear the swastika on their clothes or get it tattooed onto them because of its previous meaning of peace, you'd probably have a long talk with them about how it will be perceived in an overtly negative way by most people. Hitler just kind of ruined it in so many ways. That new and terrible meaning can't be taken away. If you were Jewish and see that symbol being used, even in peaceful ways, it will still carry a very different meaning for you. So then, imagine being African American and walking to your job every day past a symbol on governmental property that was put there to protest your ability to use the same water fountain as your Caucasian friend. It's terrifying. It's demeaning. It's racist.

And I understand. Because of where I grew up, I have deep empathy for those who grow up not knowing any better. I can see how systemically ingrained some of this stuff is and it makes me at once both incredibly sad and incredibly empathetic to that position. However, I must speak out against it and challenge it. My empathy makes me want things to be better.

I also understand that regulating someone's ability to fly a flag seems very authoritarian and just feels weird. Limiting one's ability to free speech and expression is tricky, and no matter who you are, such a thought should be concerning, because sometimes, it is through this right that we are truly able to stand against injustice. If we aren't free to speak then, it's definitely a scary thought. Let's come back to this later.

Let's now look at the recent Supreme Court decision. I won't get into what I think about this decision (I see it rather inherently different than most, so ask if you want my opinion). However, I want to talk about the ability for bakeries and churches to "not violate our own conscience" as many have sincere convictions about the topic of homosexuality. Must a baker bake a cake for a gay wedding if they are in a position of truly feeling like it's wrong? Some have already run into this, and this topic will continue to play out over the coming years and months. I can empathize with the hesitancy, even if I myself think radically different (I'll probably write on this another time, ask if you want).

It seems then that people are overall having less personal freedom to discriminate for any reason, even religious reasons. And believe me, I get why that seems terrifying. I think we've made it far more than it is, but I definitely empathize once again.

However, this is where we get to ask - "how do we respond?"

I'd like to propose that we offer some grace to the authorities trying to figure this out. Yes, you actually just heard (read?) me say we should offer some grace to authorities - ole apolitical, non-voting, non-participating Spenser. And here's why I think this.

We believe to an extent that people need to be protected. I've heard some libertarian positions that even business owners who desire to discriminate for racial reasons should be allowed to do so, because that's freedom. However, we all believe in governmental regulation to a point. Liberally minded people believe in freedom of expression (to a point), but in more regulation concerning monetary issues. Conservatives don't want much, if any, regulation on money but tend to want it on behavioral things like drug policy, marriage, and other morality issues. (This is why politics is confusing to me in many ways, no one is consistent in their beliefs)

One thing we all tend to agree with though is that people should not hurt others. Murder is pretty much universally agreed upon as being a bad thing. Life is precious, and I think we all agree with this in one way or another (even though I think BOTH parties could afford to see it as more precious in every possible way).

For that reason, I empathize with people wanting to regulate a flag that has been present at so many racially charged murders. Will taking it away solve racism? Absolutely not, and no governmental policy will ever rid our society of it completely, but you can't blame them for wanting to do anything that might save the lives of African Americans. It might just move us a step in a direction where less people die, and so I can truly understand any effort to try and make that step.

For that reason, I understand why authorities are questioning whether a business can discriminate against the LGBT community, even for religious reasons. There have been FAR too many games of "smear the queer" played, likely at the hands of religious people. There have been FAR too many gay teens commit suicide because they could not find acceptance from their friends, but instead only found bullying. And yes, there have been FAR too many gay people killed and mistreated, as African Americans have been, simply because they are different. It's even scarier when we look at religious oligarchies where gay people have to hide simply to survive in their culture. That thought is terrifying, and so I understand authorities wanting to do anything they can to end this blatant prejudice and mistreatment. I empathize. That's a tough position to be in.

When you look at us as Christians, who has died for being a Christian here in the U.S. recently? Outside this country, definitely, but inside our country - how many? Oh, you've had your atheist friend challenge your beliefs publicly? Oh, your philosophy professor challenged your position? That's not persecution, people. We are still among the most privileged people in this country, and I mean Christians, not just white people.

That's maybe the single craziest thing about the early church to me - they cared more about the lives of people outside the church, even their enemies, than they did about their own. The lives of people they disagreed with were so incredibly valued that they often laid down their own lives to preserve and protect the lives of others, even when these other people were the ones taking away life. That's not dying for your tribe, that is dying for the tribe who is trying to hurt your tribe. That's mind boggling. Today, I promise you we don't do this in even remotely the same capacity. It was the norm back then, and now we have a hard enough time even loving each other within the church, we find the differences even amongst ourselves to be too strong to conquer.

I realize, it's scary. Things are changing in a rather dramatic way and any time such a profound change happens, it rattles the cage and it can be overwhelming.

However, this is when we get to decide how we will respond. Will we continue to live comfortably in our privilege and share articles about bakers being persecuted and why we want the flag to fly? Or, will we be gracious to everyone around us, reach out in love to all people, and seek to value life in any way that we can? The choice is ours, and how we respond might be really freaking important.

Let's show some grace to the world as they seek to simply save lives and save people from mistreatment, and may we be the cause behind such efforts, not the blockade preventing it. I know, the government won't get it all right, but we can at least honor their efforts and cause change ourselves as well. Let us be graceful even when things seem to impede our freedoms. Let us be slow to speak and quick to put ourselves in other's shoes. And let us be quick to love the crap out of people. Let us, as a church, show people that human life and love are indeed our first priorities, and not "religious freedom."

We cannot value our freedom more than we value the lives of others and our ability to love them.

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your nieghbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." - Matthew 5:43-48

1 comment:

  1. Amen. Excellent point, Spenser. Grace. Grace, grace, grace. As Christians, I think we all too readily accept grace from God and others, but completely forget to give it in equal measure. We forget that God calls us to be responsible for the ministry of reconciliation: that is, reconciling others to God through loving like He loved and bringing everyone we meet closer to Him.
    "All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation...." (read 2 Corinthians 5)