What Do I Do?

On the Saturday morning after the election, members of my congregation and others joined together to draw chalk love notes on the Jefferson Avenue sidewalk. A small gesture – one unlikely to impact Trump America much – but a meaningful effort for some.

As hundreds of cars and trucks drove by, I knew that people saw us. We made a public statement against the hate this election released. People feeling scared and vulnerable in the wake of hundreds of examples of bigotry and violent intimidation could see that some of us oppose this rhetoric of division.

Amidst the smiles and waves, however, one passing driver shattered the mood of solidarity. One cowardly shout of “F*** Black Lives!,” reminded me that our effort was not an art project; not an insignificant public service message supporting love and acceptance. With three words, a bully thoughtlessly yelling at children drawing with chalk reminded me that our actions were a doorway, an opportunity to walk in another’s shoes.

As a white person, I never feared the police. As a man, I never shook with terror as slavering eyes pawed my body with rage-filled lust. As a cisgender male, I never trembled while walking to my car followed by a gang of overgrown boys looking to prove their manliness. As a U.S. citizen, I never imagined the terror of uniformed men ripping me from the loving arms of my family and casting me into a windowless prison. Even as a non-Christian, I cannot suffer the venomous revulsion others feel toward Muslims and Jews.

I can only imagine, and will never really ‘know’ how these things feel. I can only know the sorrow, the helpless witness of a growing power structure that supports violence and discrimination against People of Color, women, LGTBQ, immigrants, and non-Christians in America. I brim with frustration that I cannot ‘fix’ my country. I bemoan my inability to cure this plague of white, male, straight, U.S. born, Christian privilege in my homeland.

In the wake of the election, incidents of unthinkable cruelty occurred in our schools, our workplaces, and our public spaces. Assaults, beatings, and people made to feel unspeakable terror at the hands of their neighbors. Even Midland did not escape unscathed from these expressions of intolerance. In response, some allies began wearing safety pins as a sign that they were a ‘safe’ person, someone who would stand with the victims unleashed by simple-minded demagoguery. We hoped that this small symbol would send a subtle, but powerful signal to our community that we will not tolerate verbal and physical abuse of marginalized peoples.

No sooner had this movement begun, however, when critics expressed doubts about its sincerity, about the true commitment of the pin wearers to commit when needed. After all, white people largely elected Donald Trump as President. Why should non-white people trust them to put themselves at risk?

So, what do I do? Do I wear a safety pin or not? I do not support the racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia acting out on our national stage today. But I am one person. I am afraid, too. I do want to help; I just don’t know how.

You ask yourself questions. If I see a man berating a Muslim woman for wearing her hajib, will I stand by her and share the verbal attack? If I see children chanting “Build the Wall!” will I silence them and scold them for their insensitive attack? If I see a man grab a woman forcibly by her most private area, will I speak up and put my body between the two to protect her? I see a gang of homophobes beating a trans-person. Will I shout at them and come to the victim’s defense?

Until it happens, you cannot know the answers. Until faced with actual physical danger, you cannot know how you will react. There is nothing wrong with that. Self-preservation is a powerful instinct.

Self-preservation is a luxury of privilege
If you are white, you have the luxury of always trusting the police. If you are a man, you have the luxury of never fearing attacks by rapists. If you are heterosexual, you have the luxury of entering any business and knowing you will receive service. If you are a natural-born citizen, you have the luxury of sleeping each night knowing that you are safe from a government-sponsored home invasion. If you are Christian, you have the luxury of living in a country where your morals go unchallenged and your beliefs earn you protection.

The day following the election, November 9, commemorated the anniversary of Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass. On this day in 1938, Nazi military and paramilitary forces, joined by citizens, destroyed or damaged 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses, wrecked 1,000 synagogues, and killed hundreds of Jews. With rare exceptions, the German people uttered no protests. Few stood by the Jews and other targets of Nazi rage. The churches and universities stood mute. Judges acquiesced. Doctors and nurses complied. A nation watched as thugs kicked friends and neighbors to the street, rounded them up, and shipped them to concentration camps.

Protected status is a luxury of privilege
One by one, the government singled out groups: Jews; political opponents; gays and lesbians; emigrants; Romani; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and other “defilers.” The people responsible for electing their leader turned their backs, and others hid behind their privileges of religious belief, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and racial identification. Facing little opposition, the nation’s leaders began to change the rules of society. They normalized the abrogation of human rights and welcomed intimidation and violence as tools to enforce the new order.

I pray that history cannot repeat itself in America. But the rhetoric is there; hate groups roam emboldened; and our leadership possesses the raw arrogance to use the enormous power of this nation without concern for the very human consequences.

So what do we do? We refuse to accept these ideas as ‘normal.’ When someone threatens to hurt a minority group, believe them. Don’t rationalize, don’t intellectualize. Take them at their word…and resist. The enemy we face is not radical Muslim extremism. The enemy threatening our American way of life is radical American extremism. The precepts of radical American extremism teach that putting more wealth in the hands of the rich will improve the economy for all; that making white people feel more secure will improve everyone’s safety; that limiting the rights of women and gays reflects the will of God; and that building a wall will preserve the privileged status we earned merely by being born.

The American Dream is a luxury of privilege
Of course, you worked hard to get to where you are. But have others worked just as hard, even harder, and received fewer rewards? Why? Was your skin color a factor? Your gender identity or sexual orientation? Your citizenship status? Your religious beliefs? There is a reason the lead characters in Horatio Alger’s stories of the American Dream were all young white boys.

This election unleashed radical American extremism, freeing it from restrictions imposed by civilized behavior. Not surprisingly, white supremacists, Klansmen, and other hate mongers now rise and walk without shame, seeking to redefine our national strength as white strength, straight male strength, Christian strength, and ‘pure-blooded’ strength. This election affirmed one modern version of concentration camps – for-profit prisons selectively incarcerating generations of men of color and immigrants who simply followed the footsteps of our own ancestors who built this nation. Groundless fears of voter fraud fueled the passage of laws denying millions of citizens their right to take part in this election. How soon before our government requires that Muslims register and sew the Crescent on their clothes?

Wearing a safety pin sends the message that you considered all of this and still want to help. It means taking the stand we will not recognize discrimination and intolerance as American values. That means confronting bigots – some of whom may be friends or relatives – and making them feel marginalized for behaving in ways that do harm.

Wearing a safety pin shows your willingness to lean into your own discomfort. Read the works of marginalized peoples and explore your own feelings of fragility. Resist the urge to take offense and fight the decades of programming telling us that our way is the only right way.

Wearing a safety pin means putting your privilege of self-preservation, of protected status, and the American Dream on the table and accepting the outcomes. A safety pin is not a passive, colored ribbon of support. A safety pin is a promise – your promise to actively resist racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious hatred.

I make that promise gladly and proudly. I invite you to join me.

The Heartbroken and the Heartless

People of faith across mid-Michigan feel heartbroken over the plight facing refugees fleeing the violent destruction of their homes in Syria. Fortunately, many nations have responded with open arms to these victims of war. Germany, once the producer of refugees decades ago, has accepted tens of thousands of Syrians, displaying a vigorous national relief effort.

In the United States, however, fear too often overcomes compassion. Prospective candidates for the presidency spew the same kind of vicious venom that helped turn away Jews, condemning millions to Nazi concentration camps. The rhetoric has even progressed to the horrific level that led us to erect our own concentration camps to inter American citizens without just cause. Such flagrant ignorance runs counter to every religion teaching us to love our neighbor, to care for the homeless and hungry, and to free the oppressed.

And our own state representative contributed his personal xenophobia to a Japanese television news team. Shamelessly purporting to report the concerns of his constituents, Rep. Gary Glenn failed to acknowledge that many mid-Michiganders would welcome war refugees who are fleeing exactly the violence he presumes them capable of. Rep. Glenn has brought international shame to our region by revealing the same heartless bigotry toward desperate Syrians that he usually reserves for the members of the gay and transgender community.

In fact, Rep. Glenn’s fears are groundless. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, “The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees since Sept. 11, 2001. In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities — and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible. In fact, refugee resettlement is the least likely avenue of infiltration by foreign enemies bent on causing us harm.

Rep. Glenn also fails to realize that the true danger facing our citizens comes not from outside our nation, but from our own politicians. Imagine this scenario. An ISIS terrorist infiltrates our nation and poisons the water supply of a major city. Every one of the hundreds of thousands of residents is affected. Rather than killing, however, the poison instead causes an entire generation of children to suffer irreparable brain damage. The outcry would blow the roof off every government building. Our media outlets would talk of nothing else for weeks. People across the nation would call for the immediate execution of this terrorist.

And yet, that is exactly what has already happened right under our noses, and few of Michigan’s citizens even know about the attack. In a series of reckless, monstrous choices, Gov. Rick Snyder, his emergency manager and other appointees made decisions that destroyed the water infrastructure of Flint, resulting in catastrophic levels of lead poisoning of its citizens. In spite of governmental attempts to discredit them, only the diligent research of individuals uncovered this act of domestic terrorism for the world to see. Cover-ups are slowly coming to light, making it clear that high level government officials knew exactly what was happening, and that they did absolutely nothing to prevent it, or to warn the innocent citizens of Flint.

Just one hour away, thousands of families face the prospect of raising children whose lives have been shattered by the government they trusted to look out for their interests. People you might know, or work with, or go to school with have been affected. And now that they know their water is poisoned, there is little they can do until the damaged infrastructure is replaced. People lacking the resources to move away must bathe, wash clothes, and do other household chores in poisoned water. But Gary Glenn tells us to worry about women and children from Syria coming here to harm us.

Where is your concern for the people of Flint, Rep. Glenn, who did not need religious extremists to launch a heartless attack on their city? The violent assault on our families is happening right now on your doorstep, and the culprit is our own elected officials. If you care about these citizens at all, then you will demand a complete and thorough investigation of Gov. Snyder and his appointees responsible for this crisis.

In the meantime, keep your xenophobia to yourself and stop shaming us before the world audience. America is a nation of immigrants, most of whom came to this land in search of the same safety and freedom that Syrians want. Who are we to deny them the same opportunities our ancestors had? Instead of fear mongering, we should be welcoming these people to their new land and showing the world that compassion and understanding will always triumph over hate and violence.

(originally published January 17, 2016)