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Archive for August, 2021

I have read a number of books about equity over the past several years. I’ve also heard various books recommended or critiqued by people learning to be antiracist. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone by Heather McGhee is unique in that every person who has told me about this book had not only highly recommended it, but had different reasons for raving. For nerds, there is data. For organizers, there are examples of what’s worked. For those new to this work, it’s clear. For those feeling frustrated by racism and greed, there is encouragement. It’s a hopeful book, because McGhee has the clarity and depth of knowledge not only of the intricacies of our racial inequity in America but also of the ways even the most intransigent issues can be overcome. Her life’s work has been analyzing inequity and advocating for policy changes. What strikes me is that she has incredible empathy and listens deeply, because she tells story after story of people being incredibly honest with her about their views.

The main point of The Sum of Us is that the zero sum narrative we’ve all been told — that if any group of people receives some benefit, such as affirmative action, higher pay, universal health care, etc. — others will lose is both false and is at its core, a racist lie. In example after example, relating to jobs, health, housing, environmental safety, financial security, education, neighborhood vibrancy, and more, McGhee cites research and real life example of how multiracial coalitions working for antiracist solutions can win better lives for everyone. McGhee calls this these societal benefits the “solidarity dividend.”

The ways racism is upheld in our laws and policies, the brokenness of American democracy, the damage dealt to most of us by unbridled capitalism, are problems so huge and seemingly intractable. One reason this book is so compelling is that although McGhee presents each issue as part of these systemic, interlocking inequities that seems hopeless, she moves on to stories of actual people who have come together to work for a better world, and have succeeded. They have made their communities better, for example, by breaking down segregation and getting to know each other, or by bringing about changes like succeeding in winning a higher minimum wage, holding a polluting factory’s owners accountable, or successfully lobbying for laws ensuring paid time off or other worker protections.

McGhee connects the dots between the vastness of what faces us and the need to work together: “The mounting challenges we face in society are going to require strength and scale that none of us can achieve on her own.” A few pages later she notes, “. . . we must challenge ourselves to live our lives in solidarity across color, origin, and class; we must demand changes to the rules in order to disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy.” McGhee’s infectious optimism, backed by studies and examples, makes it plausible to believe what she says is possible:

“Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower, and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper. In short we must emerge from this crisis in our republic with a new birth of freedom, rooted in the knowledge that we are so much more when the “We” in “We the People” is not some of us, but all of us. We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us.”

The Sum of Us is a kind of civic liberation theology for our time. Add me to the people raving about this book. And re-energized by it to keep on keeping on with the work of making progress for all of us.

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After reading Conditional Citizens and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami, I checked out her most recent novel, The Other Americans. It opens with a tragic event in the lives of the the Guerraoui family, longtime residents of a small desert town in California near Joshua Tree National Park, originally from Morocco. Through different characters’ perspectives, a technique she also used in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Lalami introduces the family, especially the younger daughter, Nora, who comes home from the Bay area where she is a classical and jazz composer. A few days after she arrives, she encounters Jeremy, a former high school classmate who served in the Marine Corps and is back in town working as a police officer and trying to help an angry fellow Iraq war veteran. Jeremy, we quickly learn, had a lonely childhood and found solace in Nora’s friendship when they were kids.

Nora struggles with not being the model daughter — her older sister both became and married a dentist — and with understanding her parents’ marriage, her mother’s constant critiques, and the expectations placed on her. She’s also dealing with anger and grief, and feels driven to help the police get the bottom of what has happened to her family. She tries to understand whether her growing feelings for Jeremy are a reaction to the pain they both feel or something more. And to understand not only her difficult family dynamics, but also her own sense of self.

As the story unfolds we also meet Coleman, a detective working on the Guerraoui case and trying to understand what is going on with her teenaged son who is also an outsider in the small desert town, Jeremy’s angry friend, Nora’s family members, Anderson, another classmate of Nora’s and Jeremy’s, and Efrain, an undocumented immigrant who struggles with whether to go to the police with his account of what happened the night of the tragedy. From all of these stories weaving in and out of Nora and Jeremy’s story we get a sense of what it was like to grow up in this small town, what it’s like to be an immigrant – legal or not — in a country where people whose heritage is non-white are othered, no matter who they are and what they do.

There is no thriller-level tension; rather than any dramatic twists and turns, the investigation is marked by plodding progress and a little luck. The family dramas happen in bursts followed by lulls. Same with the conflicts between friends. The pace seems very realistic, as each character mostly lives with whatever is bothering them held just under the surface as they move through the ordinary activities of life, just trying to do their best.

But even with the tragedy and the social undercurrents — and there are so many in this book as Lalami touches on displacement, war, PTSD, alcoholism, homophobia, xenophobia, racism — Lalami also spins a love story. Not only between Jeremy and Nora, but between parents and their children, and for places that hold painful memories but continue to draw people home. In fact the meaning of home, the sense of home, permeates the story and the characters’ lives as they leave, return, or long for home.

Late in the book, Nora’s mother is in the place where Nora has been staying: “As I cleared out the rest of her things from the cabin, I murmured a prayer for her, as I had so many times in the past, only this time I prayed for more than her health, more than her safety, more than her happiness. I prayed for her greedily, for the thing I had given up years ago and never found again. Home.”

Ultimately, The Other Americans is about people trying to be at home somewhere they don’t expect to be, don’t want to be, or can’t be. Although that sounds sad, some of them manage, and there’s the hope. A lovely read.

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After reading Laila Lalami‘s recent nonfiction book, Conditional Citizens, I wanted to read more of her writing, so I downloaded her novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits from my public library. Lalami tells the story we see in the news as “illegal immigration” from the point of view of four very different people, Moroccans who try to reach Europe from Tangiers by paying a smuggler to take them in a small boat at night. The novel opens with the crossing — which ends badly. Then Lalami shifts the perspective back and forth. In part one of the novel, “Before,” she introduces us to Murad, who is unemployed and feels disrespected in his family; Faten, a young woman radicalized in her faith whose comments about the king put her in danger; Aziz, who wants the opportunities available in Spain so badly that he leaves his wife and mother behind, waiting for his return; and Halima, mother of three young children trying to escape her abusive ex-husband who risks everything so she and her kids can have a better life. In part two, “After” we find out what happens after the botched crossing, and learn more about the lives of Murad, Faten, Aziz, and Halima and their families and friends.

Each of them balances their hopes with the reality of having to live, to put food on the table, to navigate the challenges of their circumstances and find joy where they can. Lalami captures the tensions of relationships between spouses, grown children and their parents, and friends. Her characters are whole people, prone to the same kinds of small missteps and small right actions, small meanness and small kindness that all people make. It’s this ordinariness that gives their lives fullness and dignity. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is a book about the way all the moments of our lives make up the bigger themes of our stories, and how those themes are common to people whose lives on the surface seem very different. Men and women, educated or not, working or not, religious or not, these characters all hope for a life that will be free of oppression and want, for themselves and their families, and in each case, they give something up in pursuit of that hope. And when their hopes come to fruition, in each case it’s not what they thought it would be like. But they each feel a kind of gratitude for the imperfect flowering of their hope.

For example, Faten, the formerly ultra-religious teen whose new life is predicated on lying all the time (including to herself), decides to make a meal for Eid for her roommate, Betoul, a rather judgemental woman who doesn’t really approve of Faten. Lalami writes:

“Betoul looked as though she wanted to sleep rather than eat, but she said thanks, went to wash up, then sat at the table. Faten served her a generous portion of the lamb. Betoul had a taste. ‘A bit salty, dear,’ she said.

Faten smiled, grateful for the truth.”

It’s this kind of moment, this sanctifying of the ordinary, that makes Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits a book that is not only a good story, but a penetrating one. These characters will stay with me, icons of the millions of people who are trying to live freely in this world.

This would be a good choice for book clubs, and I enjoyed it so much I am now reading her most recent novel, The Other Americans.

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I’ve been reading but not blogging lately, but I’ve read so many good things I want to share briefly about each of them. The Computer Scientist and I just enjoyed a week off from work, as well, so there was more time to read.

First, I’m taking a class over the next two years at EDS at Union on social justice in the Anglican tradition and I have been doing the required reading for our fall semester:

What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls by Kelly Brown Douglas — Douglas is Dean of EDS at Union. This book is her answer to a student at my alma mater (Goucher College) where she taught for many years, who asked why Douglas, a black woman, was a Christian when Christianity helped establish white supremacist, and in particular anti-black, ideas in American culture and upheld racist policies and practices? The student’s question is understandable. What are we to do when some Christians claim or have claimed that violence — slavery and lynching, but also discrimination and dehumanizing teachings — is in line with their beliefs? Douglas wrote this book of theology to respond fully. I learned about “platonized” Christianity, closed monotheism, and other theological notions I can’t say I am completely sure I understand. I look forward to more fully discussing these topics with the community of learners. But what I took away is that it is a distortion of Christianity — and Douglas is clear that means a heresy — to terrorize people. And yet, there are Christians historically and today who believe they are “right” with God and the world when they do so, arguing and even persuading others through interpretation of scripture and tradition that this is so. She examines not only white but also Black churches’ use of power and distorted theology to enact and/or uphold ideas that devalue anyone for any reason (gender, class, sexuality, race, culture or nationality, for example). Her conclusion is that “In effect, the troubling legacy of “Christianity” suggests that it is a religion in which imposing discriminatory power can find theological cover. Hence the truth of Christianity is that is has generated at least two prevailing legacies: one that terrorizes and oppresses and another that empowers and liberates; the first is most defined by whiteness and the second is most defined by blackness.”

The course is going to examine how we can ask questions and stay in relationship with God and each other in ways that help bring the world closer to “God’s just future,” or beloved community, as Dean Douglas told us in our orientation yesterday. It sounds pretty daunting. I’m anxious to learn more.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone — Another book of theology, as well as an examination of lynching in American culture and the responses to our legacy of violent racism in Black activism, music and literature. Cone covers theology, art, literature, and music, as well as the civil rights movement and the history of lynching in America. I’m still processing all the different angles, but for me this book was an affirmation that white Christianity has been timid at best (as Cone describes in critiquing Reinhold Niebuhr, who he admires but finds wanting when it comes to engaging with race) in confronting racism, and has colluded in violence either by silence or by endorsing it with racist theology. Another important takeaway is that there are plenty of Black (and a few white) theologians, writers, artists, and advocates to learn from, people who understand and express in their creativity and resistance what Cone writes of the cross: “A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life . . . .” He goes on to note: “Jesus . . . was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America. Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States . . . . Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America.” It seems to me that the many ways that our “principalities and powers” continue to lynch, through mass incarceration, police brutality, biased and racist criminal justice policies and procedures, educational and health inequities, and the monitoring, regulation, and criminalization of people because of their race, class, immigration status, or sexual orientation are also the cross in America. It’s a lot to take in.

We are also reading the 1619 project — which by the way is not about hating whiteness or white people, nor about saying that white people haven’t ever helped Black people in their struggle for equity; it is about offering information most of us have not been taught about the importance of Black Americans and their experiences in our history. And it’s about illuminating the legacy of slavery in contemporary America, as well as the painful truth that while some white people have joined the struggle for racial justice in this country, historically, many of us were unaware and/or silent. As historian Leslie M. Harris notes in an essay on the 1619 project, “It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy.” At least two of the authors of the letter written by historians criticizing the project, Harris explains, Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz, gave relatively minimal coverage of slavery and Black experience in their early career, seminal works on American history, and even in more contemporary work, “have continued to fall prey to the same either/or interpretation of the nation’s history: Either the nation is a radical instigator of freedom and liberty, or it is not. (The truth, obviously, is somewhere in between.)”

Our reading list also includes two articles on reparations – one by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the other by Ta-Nahesi Coates. Both of which are terrific.

Which brings me to the next book, Reparations: a Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. This book details the theological and scriptural case for reparations, and then in a clear and practical way lays out the steps needed, from “seeing” the existence and effects of white supremacy through “owning” the ethical response (from a Christian perspective, but anyone could find it useful), which they break into “restitution” and “restoration” through moving into the actual work of reparations: repair. I found this book inspiring as well as illuminating and it seems like a good next step for anyone who has been working on antiracism and wants to understand “what to do” now that you’ve learned about white supremacy. Spoiler: ask Black members of your community how you can support their priorities and efforts, rather than deciding for yourself what to do. Kwon and Thompson bring an ecumenical Christian viewpoint (whereas both Cone and Douglas write from the Episcopal tradition), which was interesting for me. I admit I sometimes take (false) refuge in the notion that I practice my faith in the “empowering and liberating” branch of the Jesus movement. It’s important, I realize, to acknowledge that no one denomination is that branch (not entirely, anyway) and that my own branch hasn’t always been either of those, and sometimes isn’t today.

Which leads nicely to another book I read for a discussion group earlier this summer, which is also on our course reading list, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community by Stephanie Spellers. Spellers addresses many of the same issues Douglas and Cone do, but with a very current lens: given everything we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning America is experiencing regarding systemic and intersectional inequities, what should the church do? This was a tough book to read and discuss. Spellers takes on the church as an institution aligned with empire and white supremacy. She imagines recent times as having cracked open the church, using the scriptural story of the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment that she cracks open to anoint Jesus with. Spellers asks readers to imagine that metaphor with her, and to think about how we now have to choose which way to go: patch it together or make something new? Do we go back to what we’ve been, without repenting for what we’ve learned? Or, borrowing Kwon’s and Thompson’s framework (seeing, owning, and repairing) and Douglas’s dual legacies (terrorizing/oppressing and empowering/liberating) do we figure out how to repair without just remaking the old structures that haven’t always been empowering and liberating? Spellers, like Kwon and Thompson, present examples and frameworks for thinking about how to move forward towards justice and beloved community.

The last book I read for the class is about another way to participate in the empowering and liberating work of faith: Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor by Liz Theoharris, co-founder of the current Poor People’s Campaign and longtime campaigner for justice with poor, unhoused, and low wealth people. I say campaigner with and not for, because the hallmark of Theoharris’s work and this book is that poverty does not preclude people from thinking, feeling, and acting on their own behalves. If you follow the Poor People’s Campaign at all you know that it is a coalition of people who are poor and their allies, exposing the structural inequities and the social mores that have created the false narrative that poverty is somehow poor people’s fault. Theoharris explains that but also really delves deeply into the famous biblical passage where Jesus says “the poor will always be with you” — which happens right after the woman with the alabaster jar anoints him with costly ointment and a man among his disciples scolds her, saying the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Through scriptural reflection and analysis, Theoharris explains how this passage has been distorted to defend economic inequality. She argues that in fact, Jesus was referring to Deuteronomy in noting that if people didn’t follow God’s call for justice, poverty would continue to exist. Again, this was eye opening and fascinating, and I am still digesting it.

My leisure reading also connects to the ideas in the course reading, especially that human beings (particularly those with power) have a tendency to interpret their way into defending viewpoints that harm others. I read Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens, a smart, thought provoking look at the many ways America does not afford the same freedoms and privileges to all citizens — only people who look “white,” speak unaccented English and dress in a way that does not reveal cultural difference can “pass” as American all the time, and anyone who doesn’t fit these conditions is likely to find themself having to defend their citizenship or face bias and inequity at some point. Lalami also examines sexism in a searing and personal chapter on the condition of women both in America and in Morocco, where she grew up. I found the book sobering, but also strangely hopeful. Lalami’s final chapter is “Do Not Despair of this Country,” taken from Frederick Douglass’s speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” Lalami describes what unconditional citizenship for all would entail, and explains how we get there.

She cautions that despair “is a gift to the status quo” and that therefore, we have to do what we can and remain hopeful. She suggests informing ourselves, voting, and looking to “the people who do the unglamorous labor, day after day, of confronting inequality and exclusion at a local level.” And she leaves readers with this important last thought: “In any discussion of change, there comes a time to choose partners. In the last few years, many opinion writers have urged dialogue and compromise. Only by talking about differences of opinion, the argument goes, can we hope to reach resolution. Certainly, there are disagreements that can be resolved through debate: the size of the transportation budget, say, or the allocation to Job Corps training programs. But some disagreements are not bridgeable. Separating asylum-seeking children from their parents, for example, is not an issue on which I see a possible compromise.” I appreciate this point; I think there have to be certain things that are not negotiable, and among those are human rights. She also goes on to point out that we also have to remember the partners who are not right in front of us — people in other countries who are also affected by our dialogues and decisions. Lalami’s insightful writing should inspire people to hope, and to take part, in some small way, to being and allowing others to be equitable citizens. Or what Dean Douglas calls, bringing about God’s just future.

I also finally read The Book Thief which I’ve had on my to-read pile for several months. During the pandemic, my dad re-read it and send me a copy. It’s certainly also about the way humans will interpret their way into defending harmful beliefs and practices. Markus Zusak‘s famous novel is about a young German girl whose brother dies as they are on their way to live with a foster family. Liesel’s new father realizes she can’t read and helps her learn how, and she has a new best friend next door, Rudy. Life gets more complicated as the war begins and in addition to having to deal with “the Party” which her father is reluctant to join, being hungry, and having to go to Hitler Youth activities, where Rudy is regularly bullied, Liesel soon has to keep secret that her family is hiding a young Jewish man, Max, in their basement. The novel is uniquely narrated by death, who cobbles together different perspectives, muses on the difficulty of his work, and shares snippets of thoughts and even pages of a book that Max creates for Liesel. It’s a story about people who manage not to despair and who try to do their part for justice even if that means giving up some of their own meager comfort to help others. And it’s a beautiful tribute to books and reading and writing, and their power to lift us out of even the darkest moments.

Another vacation read for me was Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Our elder offspring gave me this for Christmas, and I had been waiting for a chunk of time when I could dig into such a meaty read.The Computer Scientist said “Do you know how many times you’ve looked up from that book and exclaimed, ‘Did you know . . .’?” It’s an eye opening read for anyone who grew up schooled in the white dominant American culture that taught exactly what the 1619 project counters: a national history centered in white experience. I went through public schools, got a “good” liberal arts undergraduate education in college, and have attained two masters degrees. And yet, what I’ve learned about Black history (and what little I know about Asian history, and Native American history) I have had to learn on my own. Even then, when I first began to learn, I still had to wrap my head around all that I didn’t (and still don’t) know or understand, all that I’ve been socialized to believe or accept. Stamped From the Beginning continued that education for me. Even as someone who has been trying to understand systemic racism it is mind blowing.

So many little things we take for granted as positive if we are white — like scientific research into genetics — can be, have been, and are being used for racist means, like “proving” that intelligence is determined by genes (it’s not). Even the stories I already knew seem shockingly fresh when Kendi brings them into this lengthy overall story. For example, the racist implications of certain policies (like standardized testing) and the manufacture of false and illogical narratives about drugs (marijuana was not considered dangerous even by substance abuse specialists until Reagan pronounced it dangerous, more government money has been spent on the “war on drugs” and stricter sentencing laws on drug possession than on deadly drunk driving). Kendi doesn’t limit himself to government policy in this book; social, economic, and cultural racism is also laid bare: disdain for and/or appropriation of Black culture, double standards or dominant cultural standards in dress, behavior, and language in schools and workplaces, false narratives and claims made with no evidence about affirmative action, Black parents, city life, and welfare. Anyway, I learned a great deal, and as with the reading for the course I’m taking, I am still digesting it all.

A small but very powerful book I also read last week is How Can I Live Peacefully With Justice?: a Little Book of Guidance by Mike Angell. Angell is rector at a church in St. Louis, and wrote the book after living in that community these past few years; he moved there just a few months before Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson in August 2014. He frames his discussion of peace and what it is and how we can live peacefully in terms of what he has learned by living in St. Louis and also through his longtime partnership with a human rights organization in El Salvador, but his guidance absolutely applies to all of us, wherever we live. Angell notes, “Living with peace means being willing to become uncomfortably vulnerable, and working for justice requires building unlikely relationships of trust.” He goes on to provide a brief but clear theological explanation of the relationship between peace and justice (which protestors even more clearly elucidate: “No justice, no peace”). And he tells us his own story — because one other aspect of living peacefully that he explains is that “We all, all of us, need to work to reconcile our own sense of self, our own identity, if we are ever to be able to reconcile with others. Peace only exists in relationship.” Angell gently guides readers through what that might look like, by being vulnerable himself. One important message he shares is that peace and justice, like everything related to bringing the world closer to God’s just future, is complicated, takes practice, and requires us to engage with questions that may not have answers.

On a much lighter note, I listened to the audiobook version of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, after a friend recommended it when I recounted clearing out some closets and shelves for my mother to make her house more manageable recently. The idea is pretty straightforward — clear out your stuff now, so you can live better in your old age and so that your family won’t have to do it after you die. The book is somewhat instructional with dashes of memoir as Magnusson recalls memories evoked by her own death cleaning. It was enjoyable.

And on the last evening of our week’s vacation at a little cottage by a small lake here in NH, I read a book that was on the bookshelf there: The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett, a mystery featuring a ninety year old sleuth, Queen Elizabeth II. My offspring gave me a ribbing last night for reading all this stuff about equity and justice and then indulging in a mystery featuring the ultimate symbol of wealth and empire. While the Queen solves the mystery, she relies on her Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, a British Nigerian army officer, for help. Rozie learns that she is the latest in a long line of women who have helped Her Majesty solve crimes for decades. Okay, I get it, the Commonwealth is a vestige of colonialism. Seen another way (or am I interpreting away harm? I’m not sure) it is empire cracked open, an organization rebuilt in a post colonial world to acknowledge the relationality required for countries to collaborate globally. Anyway, while I do understand the controversies of monarchy I find the Queen interesting and this book made me laugh out loud (disturbing the Computer Scientist, who was trying to take notes on Always With Us? at the time) and I found it entertaining and enjoyable.

I promise not to go so long between posts or to mention so many books at once next time.

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