Human Devaluation

Like many people, I am deeply disturbed by recent events. Time after time police officers shoot at or get into confrontations with unarmed black men and grand juries fail to indict them. The response from many is “Black Lives Matter.” And I am as angry as many others that our justice system is failing time after time to produce what its title implies. I do not blame or impugn anyone who is protesting, no matter what form that protest is taking, although I believe that nonviolence will go farther to achieve the goal of correcting what is wrong with our system.

But there is a broader story here, one that indicates that there is even more happening than police brutality and racism and corrupt prosecutors.

Human devaluation. Some people are worth more than others.

The news media report far too often about children with autism being murdered by their own parents, of people tying them up and putting them in closets or basements, sometimes not feeding them or allowing them outside. Sometimes teachers and assistants have placed these children in cages. And there have been incidents where police officers have reacted inappropriately due to inadequate training when people with disabilities are involved—not prepared for someone who is deaf or has Down Syndrome or autism or mental illness. Some of these people have died at the hands of the police. Public sympathy is often not on the side of the victims.

Human devaluation. Some people are worth more than others.

Even the increase in news stories about hit-and-run accidents adds to this. People in cars are hitting pedestrians and bicyclists and not stopping to help or call the paramedics. Sometimes the drivers continue on with the victim embedded in the windshield or desperately holding on to the hood. Crosswalks and bike lanes are no protection.

Human devaluation. Some people are worth more than others.

Racism. Ableism. And what’s the third one? Transportism? People who are driving are worth more than people who walk or bike? I am not sure. But it’s clear that some people are not worth stopping to help.:

Some people are not worth treating with dignity and respect. Some people are not worth working for justice for or spending more time to arrest them uninjured than to just shoot them.

I am just thinking—–

And I am greatly disturbed, actually more and more disturbed.

Because if some people are not worth as much as others, where are we going with this?

Where will it stop? What classification will be safe?

Not poor people. Not black, brown or any other people of color. Not people with any type of disability. Not women. Not people with sexual orientations other than cis-gender. Not unemployed people. Not sick people. Not elderly.

Not anyone.

God weeps.  

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“Run Free”?–An Ontological Question

Sunday morning in church the choir sang an amazing anthem. One line of that anthem stuck out to me and has left me pondering since the service went like this “…the lame will run free”. The anthem was speaking about the world as if settled in the Kindom* of God. The image of the lame walking is a standard image found in the Biblical narrative. It is not so much a literal image as it is one of the metaphorical images used to depict the the Kindom of God where right relationships are restored and persons are liberated to be who God made them to be. An image used to show that the Kindom is real and here on earth.

The line from the anthem stands out to me because this making the “lame” to “walk” has theological implications of personhood and ontological implications of our identities in the afterlife. Its a question I hear only quietly asked between friends, even within the disability community. It is not so much an opposition to the metaphorical image of making the blind to see or the lame to walk being symbolic of the Kindom of God, for of course there is an expectation that the Kindom of God will bring many things that we can not now imagine and that there with be a wholeness of identity and personhood that is beyond our mortal understanding . But between friends in the disability community, I have yet to met one persons who thinks or wants to arrive in the Kindom of God “cured” and without their impairments. No, my friends are not in need of psychological assistance, on the contrary most are clergy and have passed psychological background testing and others whom I have had this conversation with are PhDs. This issue here is not what the Kindom of God brings or does not bring, it is not an issue of God’s power needing to be made manifest, the issue is ontological individual identity.

“Of course I will have disability in the Kingdom of God!” I have a clear memory of a friend proclaiming this to me. It was not a denial of all things being made new in God , but an assertion that the identity that God created in her was GOOD (see Genesis)! The identity of people with disabilities  is what often gets misunderstood when we toss around ideas of the mute persons talking, the blind man seeing, and the woman with a limp suddenly having none.

As human beings we are embodied beings. Just as Jesus came to know the world by becoming incarnate, we come to know the world, build relationships with others, and come to know and understand God through our experience of being in our bodies. It is hard to deny that our bodies impact our identities. Look at how the theory, theology, and lived experience of the GLBTQI movement over the last twenty years has demonstrated how our experiences of embodiment impact our identities. It would be impossible for me to know how not growing up being ridiculed and bullied for having a speech impediment, physical slowness, and poor balance would have impacted my identity. Do I, personally, think I  will have a speech impediment and poor balance in the Kindom of God? No, actually I think in the Kindom of God I have a voice, power of communication, and poise that actually compels others to listen to me–because that would the topsy-turvy righting of relationship found in God’s Kindom. As a person who has lived with chronic pain, do I believe I will have pain for eternity? No I do not. ButI do think my experience has taught me that human beings have limits; that is not necessary or even desirable to be able to anything one wants at anytime. I have learned humility, and grace, patience and perseverance. Pain is a teacher and gaining  experience in how to learn from subtle experiences is something that offers profound spiritual lessons. They are not lessons about have speech impediments nor are they lessons about pain. They are lessons about getting to know oneself in relation to self, others, and God.

So I am left wondering who is going to “run free”? And why? Is it something within their personality that leads them to want or need to “run free”? Or are we finally going be able to “run” as we are without the judgement of others suggesting that we need to run, even though that may be uncomfortable for us. (Please don’t make me think about school “Field Days”, as I would consider those days to be one of Dante’s many circles of Hell.) For some of us, people with disabilities, the metaphors of the Kindom of God maybe what they are—we can’t change the scriptures, and its beautiful poetry so why would we want to? But why are the people with disabilities the only ones who have to be “transformed” to fit into the Kindom? For myself, and others with disability, it is more of an ontological question. God made me this way, and it is Good. Given the nature of my ontological being as a person with disability; given the fact that my personal identity is defined by experiences of disability, to what degree to I fit the “normalcy” of others in the Kindom of God? Why do I need to run, when I am already free?

* “Kindom” is not a misspelling of Kingdom, but an intentional feminist interpretation of the Kindom of God where equality exist between people living together as God intends

“Its A Beautiful Place”

I recently went from a denominational Justice and Witness meeting to a denominational Disability Ministry meeting and Conference. As I spoke with people at my second meeting and told them that I had just come from a meeting at the Franklinton Center at Bricks I heard again and again “that is a beautiful place”. The Franklinton Center is supported by the Justice Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.

 

Photo of one of the buildings at Franklinton Center

It is a beautiful place but its beauty is haunting. The Franklinton Center at Bricks in located in rural eastern North Carolina. The land upon which it sits was once a slave plantation, but it was not just any slave plantation it was the plantation, we were told, where the “rebellious” slaves newly brought ashore were taken to be “broken in” and inducted or acculturated into slavery. The historical tradition of the place includes the report that there was once a “whipping tree” on the grounds. This was once a place of torture.

 

The old dormitory at Franklinton Center

What was once a place of grave injustice and inhumanity has also been a place of hope. After the civil the property that the Franklinton Center now sits up came into the ownership of a Northern white woman named Julia Bricks. At that time a school for freed slaves was founded on the land. It was a school that educated emancipated slaves and also allowed them to work on the property to earn the funds to cover their tuition and room and board. In this way, what is now the Franklinton Center became an integral part of the surrounding community and has remained so.

 

Building used as a dinning hall at Franklinton Center

Eventually the school at Bricks was closed. However, the Franklinton Center at Bricks has remained an integral part of the surrounding communities and the people who call this area home. During the Justice and Witness Ministries meeting we were taken on a tour of the tri-county area surrounding the Franklinton Center to get to know the people there and current mission work of this place. Now, I spent some time of my youth in northern Florida and had been through some impoverished areas of the South; I am not exactly a stranger to poverty having lived below that line for part of my childhood. That being said, the communities in the three counties we saw around Franklinton Center are areas of extreme poverty—one of the towns had had the highest unemployment in the nation every year for the past twenty years. Nearly every other house in these neighborhoods were not only empty but boarded up. There was an absence of grocery stores, although there were a few fast food restaurants. There was an absence of jobs, an absence of public transportation. The schools in the three counties had been consolidated so better use public funds but some children had long bus commutes. One of the ex-mayors of one of the towns told us that half the housing in the area did not currently meet community building standards but that the town could not condemn the substandard houses because they had no other place to house people in the community. Another local community leaders explained how the local tax system had been gerrymandered after desegregation to funnel property tax funds into schools where the majority of students were Caucasian, while the schools with the majority of African American and other minority students struggled for state and federal funding. This area is one that has been called a community of “educational genocide”; I still do not know what to make of that. It is also a designated “food desert” meaning that there is little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

 

The pool at Franklinton Center

Hope remains at Franklinton Center. While we were there, we also met community members who are working to renew the community. There is a woman at the local community redevelopment corporation who showed us a newly built housing area is single and multi-family dwellings with community space for after school tutoring and computer labs; she showed us a commercial development they are trying to build to so local dollars can general local tax money that will stay in the county, since many have to shop in surrounding communities where goods are more available. She spoke to us about the pervasive racism in the area and how this has made it difficult to find commercial entities willing to locate in a predominately African American area. She also took us to the downtown area of one of the local communities to show us how parts of this area had been redeveloped and locally-owned businesses had begun moving in—including a pediatrician and soon a restaurant will open. We were introduced to man fighting the environmental racism inherent in the polluting nature of the region’s hog farming industry, who pointed out that while this industry supplies jobs they are jobs that often maim workers. There was also hope in meeting the principal of the local school who shared how the Franklinton Center is partnering with the local school. Hope is embodied at Franklinton Center in the center’s director Vivan Lucas who approached the local schools to create a family literacy camp using the dormitory and space at Franklinton Center. Hope abides in families of community members who can trace up to four generations who have enjoyed summer camp activities at Franklinton Center, and name children who have learned to swim at Franklinton Center which has the only pool in the tri-county area—did you know that African Americans have a higher risk of drowning because they often lack access to pools to learn to swim? Hope resides in this ground as a retreat and conference center has been developed to support its other ministries even as it teaches about the past. Hope is taking root as the Franklinton Center begins to plant fruit trees and experiment with community sustainable agriculture on its land to empower the local community to address its status as a “food desert”.

Field near Franklinton Center

 

There is on the grounds of Franklinton Center a tree called “the tree of life” it is a symbol to commemorate the whipping tree that once shadowed these grounds. As our meeting at Franklinton Center came to a close, we stood on a platform beside this tree of life to worship. In the Communion liturgy there was a pause to read the names of some slaves who had been transferred as property of the plantation from one family to another—how deeply I felt the brokenness of humanity and deeply I yearned for the new covent of hope of that meal, as I stood before that tree commemorating the tree upon which so much blood was shed. This place bears a resemblance to our most sacred story, does it not?

As I stood in silence with others after that meal, I looked out at the vast empty field beyond the tree. The land was grassy field on one side, cotton field on the other, train track in the not too distance, and the surrounding community was hungry. Still it is a beautiful place. It is a terrible, beautiful place. A place that wants to imbibe hope as it blooms out of the roots of its past. It is a land rooted in time past and present that reminds us of how far we have come and yet so far we have to go. It is a place that teaches us that hope is as much as verb as it is noun and calls us to continue the work for all types of justice in a world where “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”.

field #2 near Franklinton Center

While I do not normally use this site to advertise or fundraise, the work of Franklinton Center is too important to not make it known that the center needs financial support, including the kind that come from holding your event there, as well as prayers

Justice is a very real issue at Franklinton Center.

For more information about Franklinton Center, or to learn how to donate click: Franklinton Center/UCC

Those Who Live by Violence

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ John 18:10-11

Sometimes it seems as if we in America are truly a violent people. Not too long ago I saw a headline that read “Four Dead in Ohio” and I immediately thought of the Kent State shootings–stuff of legend in my family –but that was not the reference intended by the headline. No there had been another tragedy.  The community was in shock that something so brutal could happen in their community. Lord Hear My Prayer.

Last weekend a man went on a shooting rampage in a movie theater in Auroa, Co–surely you have seen the headlines. It did not take long for some to find artistic portrayals of similar violent acts in comic book art. And this move theater tragedy has reminded many of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado some years ago. The community is in shock, and many are talking about the need for tighter gun regulations as the media reports on the astounding number of munition round the theater shooter was able to legally purchase and possess. All the while, gun sales have been at a record high in Colorado since this shooting. Lord Hear My Prayers.

Last weekend Manuel Diaz (unarmed) and another Latino man were shot and killed, in separate incidents, in Anaheim, CA by police. The headlines have been few. The community is at the end of day four of protests by a community outraged by this violence and the community’s feeling that there have been tensions between the Latino community and the police for sometime that have not been addressed by those in power. Some news outlets have reported these protests as rioting. Lord Hear My Prayers.

At the very lest the juxtaposition of these incidents and the responses to them raise questions. Questions related to gun possession in light of the Second Amendment; who is legally able to wield weapons and what responsibility they have as a result; and how we as a society may, or want, need to monitor and limit ammunitions possessed by private individuals. At the very least these events bring our entire society into a time of mourning and ethical reflections and we ponder how to stop such tragedies from occuring in the future. Lord, hear our confusion and help us to pray through it.

These events raise many questions. Legal questions, questions about bullying, questions about whether or not mental health issues were involved. (Note, although many have speculated, I have heard no confirmed reports yet that the theater gunman has a mental health diagnosis. Let us not equate illness with violence when 1) there is not a link between mental illness and violence and 2) it is unknown if the person in question has a mental health diagnosis.) Lord hear our confusion and our questions and help us pray through them.

At the end of the day I am a clergy woman, bound by ordination vows to preach and teach the gospel. And as I look at these events I see two things. I see a society in which no matter where you look you see some form of violence–be it real or a fictional/artistic portrayal of violence. Perhaps this is not a new thing in the history of humanity. But, I also see a scriptural teaching of Jesus. A teaching in which even Jesus would not condone violence to save himself from arrest and death, not even to continue his teaching among us. And I wonder when we, individually, let alone as a society, will not only take up the task of doing what seems so contrary to our natures but will also be willing to sacrifice our own betrothal to violence, to follow the teachings of Jesus. Lord Hear My Prayer.

Unicorn, Meet Human Being With Spiritual Needs

“After 12 different phone calls I could not even make contact with a “unicorn.” When someone did FINALLY call me back 3 hours later, I suggested they start promoting women in their order as maybe that would help them become more organized and enable them to provide services for people which they insist people need. You can image how the rest of the phone played out. :)”

Its not all old hymns and prayers, folks!