June 1, 2020

What Story Do We Tell Ourselves Right Now?

What story do we tell ourselves right now? In this moment?

It is the beginning of yet another week during a worldwide pandemic in which many of us have been distanced from each other. Whether this be because we remain home, mostly indoors or are deemed "essential" and yet remain separated–just as everyone else–from human touch by gloves that separate our hands from feeling each other and sneeze guards that separate our bodies from touching each other. We are separated from human connection–missing physical cues and facial expressions–by masks that cover our noses and mouths.

Those that risked contagion, and the finger wagging of the more cautious, on Memorial Day weekend crowding bars and beaches declared with their bodies what all of us, whether we admit it or not, want to and need to say: we miss each other.

And yet ...

In the midst of this, the very breath of a human being was squeezed out of his body just a week ago. The moment captured on camera and played over and over and over again to the public.

Since then, cities across the country have seen protests irrupt. Images of protesters looting and vandalizing public and private property flash across our screens. Images of squad cars driven into crowds and non-lethal weapons fired by police officers at people sitting on their own porches flash across our screens as well.

It is worth noting that it took nearly 4 years after the great recession began for the Occupy Wall Street protests to start in NYC's Zuccotti Park. During the current presidency–aided by a worldwide pandemic, noted–it took less than three months for riots to brim over from the beginning of the current economic recession.

What story do we tell ourselves in the moment? Why is this happening? What is this about?

I have been trying to listen. I have been trying to hear what that story is. I can only tell you the story I hear. I place a high priority on listening as a practice for Christian mission. If you listened to the first episode of "The Pandemic Sessions" on my podcast A New Thing, you will hear my friend Becky Zartman refer to this. If we seek to partner with what God is doing in the world we must listen; listen to Scripture, listen to the Spirit, listen to our neighbors and "listen" to the context.

What I hear right now are two stories.

In one story, there is a mistake–an accidental injustice–and an out of scale reaction to the murder of George Floyd. It is a short story; a vignette, a skit, a mini-episode, an ahistorical moment. Set apart from time, with a clear beginning and end, it does not make sense. One man's life for a nation on fire. It does not make sense for the cities of America to be set ablaze, buildings destroyed. It is an out-of-proportion response. It is ridiculous.

This telling is rationale, is sense-making if you have lived a certain kind of American story. That is, the story that most white America experiences. It is my story.

When quarantine orders were set in place. I stayed home. I've stayed home since. For nearly three months I have not been in harm's way of being exposed or exposing others to a disease that has now claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans. My household remained safe. My income was secure as well. Though significantly modified, I could do nearly all of my work from a phone and laptop. Most white Americans I know can say the same.

Even if I had lost my job, I would have had options. And the reason why I have options is part of my story, my history.

It was economics, not ethics, that separated my white southern ancestors from the sin of slave-ownership. They were too poor. Instead, they worked for and fought for white slave-holders. I note this only to point out the relatively low-income status that existed within my family only a few generations ago.

For the sake of time, let's skip ahead to the Great Depression. On one side of my family are second generation European immigrants struggling to acclimate. On the other side are white southerners. Both sides either solidly blue collar or down right poor.

Following the Great Depression and as the country goes into war, young men and women of my family both serve their country in different ways. In gratitude, the nation offers them good job opportunity and home loans. Their children come of age in a much different America than their parents. Public schools and public services are rapidly expanded in the neighborhoods they now live in. There was an infrastructure set in place for their thriving. They are now solidly middle-class. There is an established social net and, even for a family with few college graduates, relative economic stability is established for generations to come.

This is not to say they were not hard working. They were and are. Yet, it is only honest to say that the American system has generally worked for us. That is to say, I still benefit from the post-WWII social benefits provided my grandparents who leapt out of the poverty just a generation before.

In one story, this story, the pandemic is an inconvenience. But there is no reason to believe that we will not recover, that things will not return to a semblance of normality. So, what do we expect to happen? We will recover. We always do. A man is killed. It is unfortunate. But it has little bearing on anything else going on. I could stop here. It is a story I can safely and solidly live within. I could stand in judgment and disgust of those who riot in response to George Floyd's killing.

But I'm a Christian.

This means I follow Jesus. And in one of his most impassioned speeches, captured in the Gospel of Matthew, I am told to reflect on my sin and complicity in the sin of others before I judge someone else.

And, so, I'm compelled to pay attention to the story others experience. It helps me understand if I've misjudged, misunderstood or done wrong that I've previously unnoticed.

What I find is that my story is incomplete without recognize it's interplay with a wider story. In other words, the story of those that differ from mine.

In the story of Americans different from me, this pandemic has aggravated already difficult circumstances and there is no historical evidence to believe that the systems in place will assist you. Rather, that system will use you for their own benefit regardless of your well-being.

In this story of America, the Great Depression arrives upon a generation of black Americans still trying to recover from the devastation of slavery enacted upon ancestors. These families as well serve their country in varied ways during the war but do not rejoin America with the same assurances of job prospects and home ownership. In fact, red-lining laws insure that many cannot purchase homes at all or that will accrue value that their white counterparts do. Decade upon decade, black neighborhoods receive less infrastructure support. Generations of black economic stagnation stands in contrast to white generational economic upward mobility.

This brief–and recognizably incomplete–jog through a segment of American history brings us to the powder keg of a moment we are now in.

Approximately one quarter of Americans are currently out of work. And the protection and fair wages for those deemed "essential workers" have lagged. Essential workers that are people of color tend to make $1-4 less than their white counterparts. At the same time, profits for companies such as Amazon.com have increased (How much online shopping have you done during this ordeal?).

This is not news to non-white America but it has lay bear the economic disparity in this country. This is compounded by collective indifference demonstrated towards the well-being of those that risk contamination for our material benefit. For many, this public apathy for their well-being is woven into generations upon generations.

So, what do we expect to happen when economic injustice upon injustice from age to age is made most evident all while you are under- or unemployed with time on your hands or deemed "essential" but not provided PPE or equal pay?

Execute a man on camera and watch what happens.

It's important for those who call themselves Christians to recall the scene from the Gospels where Jesus enters the Jewish temple in Jerusalem just before Passover. As Jesus arrives at the temple, we read that crowds hoping to worship God are being economically exploited. The economic system in place benefited the few but required participation of the many if they wanted to be in right relationship with God.

In that scene, Jesus is enraged by the business being conducted inside the temple. He creates a weapon. He uses it against people. He damages property. In response, the authorities question his credentials: What right did this peasant from the country side have to destroy property and violate others? It is true, Jesus response to the request for I.D., for credentials re-frames this story (he had a tendency for doing this). Jesus's words and actions in this scene do three things. First, they appear to establish that he is the Jewish liberator much longed for (Messiah). Second, his followers believed Jesus to be implying that the presence of God was no longer limited to the ways temple worship assumed. But we cannot escape a third, that the Messiah will liberate those who are economically exploited for the sake of temple worship. This lines up, for example, with his mother's words before his birth and Jesus word's at the commencement of his ministry.

I cannot unsee the parallels with this third aspect.

Let's be clear: it is not the majority of protesters that are damaging property. That said, the damaging of property carries a similar message in this moment. By their actions protesters are saying the system has not existed to assist them but exploit them and this exploitation has to stop.

You may say that protesters are not Jesus and to read their plight into Jesus's muddies the Messianic message of the Gospels. It is true that protesters are not Christ. Yet, Jesus made it clear that we are to see him in the face of the oppressed, as his parable of sheep and goats states. Therefore, we Christians have to wrestle with what God is up to in the destruction of these monetary temples, not brush it off.

You may say that not all protesters are African American–even if one agrees with my telling of the black American experience not all protesters have shared that experience. This is true. There are a high number of Gen Z and Millennials protesters though, and they are two of the most diverse American generations ever. This means that if they are not people of color, there is a higher likelihood that they have seen and heard these stories from their friends.

You may say that protesters are still breaking the law, disregarding direction of the police. This is true. What is being done in the streets of our cities does not abide by the rules we have established in this country for changing laws, changing political authority. Protesters are not generally political office holders or law enforcement. As a Christian, I want to point out that this is exactly what the religious elite said to Jesus in the scene described above. He did not hold position. He was not the authority figure. His role was to abide by protocol and rules. The trouble was, those rules were financially breaking the people they were intended to care for. So, Jesus broke the rules without credentials for the sake of the people. As an American, I want to point out that a proud point of American history and meaning-making is the Boston Tea Party, which was also public protest and violation of property. How do you rationalize that action but that it stands too far away from us across time to have its' potency?

You may say still think that the economic impact of this pandemic and the inequities of our economic system previous to this have little to do with George Floyd's murder. Well, there may be no better time than now to use the phrase, this was the straw that broke the camels back. History tells us that few law officers are convicted for the murder of a black civilian. Even when captured on camera. Nothing more demonstrates the capacity of a system to exploit and dehumanize a people than public apathy for the execution of a man innocent until proven guilty in a court of his peers.

I do not write these words full of pride or anger. I know I risk getting so much wrong in writing these words for public viewing. There is no hubris here. Only lament of what is. Only longing for something other than what is. I write these words to bring us fully to where I started:

We miss each other.

We miss each other in the sense that we long for that moment when can embrace each other, smell each other, feel each other and allow flesh to touch flesh–hands and arms clasped together in bonds of love and friendship. We miss laughter, tears, arguments, and the heat of other bodies near our own.

But ...

We miss each other in the sense that we no longer understand the human experience of the other. We miss-understand each other. Empathy is lost in translation and wires crossed. We are so wrapped up in our wants and desires that we cannot patiently sit and listen and watch and know how other bodies experience the world around us. We worship our own bodies, lifting up alms to ourselves, making false idols of our own rights, our identity. We miss each other in the sense that we pass each other in the marketplaces of life with no interest in how the other experiences these spheres of consumption.

We will continue to miss each other until we see each other.

You can make this all about politics if you choose. As a Christian, this for me, is all about theology. Jesus tells me to love God with every fiber of my being and to love my neighbor as I would love myself. He says that all other theologies hinge on this.

To love each other is to see each other.

I confess that I've not always been all that good at loving myself (just ask my wife). That means I am not be as good at loving my neighbor as I hope to. But in these words I'm trying to work out how to do a better job of both. I'm the great-grandson of southern, Pentecostal white trash. I'm a middle-aged, upper middle-class white Episcopalian. That's part of my story. It's not all of it. I'm trying to figure out how my story fits into what's going in the world right now. Just like you are. We're going to miss each other for a while longer I would bet ... but can we work on seeing each other in the meantime?

Let's tell a better story about tomorrow than this.

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