Wednesday, June 25, 2008

If Today You Hear (Again)

So, that other small epiphany about which I promised yesterday to post today.

It may seem tiny to anyone else. But it felt big to me.

My nephews Colin and Patrick came over several days ago with their friend Eric. It was right at suppertime (the arrival time was probably not happenstance). I had some cold roasted chicken left from the weekend, which I quickly deboned and mixed into chicken salad surrounded by a ring of three-bean salad and macaroni—also leftovers. Also had collard greens and macaroni and cheese from Sunday’s dinner, a slice or two of chess pie, some vanilla pudding with plum sauce, a cucumber or two, potato salad: food fit for growing young men who had been playing basketball all afternoon, after they got off from work at one of my brother’s restaurants.

I mention all the food to situate the epiphany. As I noted in a blog posting some weeks ago, I contend (following Teresa of Avila) that God speaks to us frequently entre los cucheros—among the pots and pans, right in the midst of the humdrum detritus of our daily existence.

As Colin, Eric, and Patrick tucked in, it hit me: they have a generational ease, a total lack of self-consciousness, in interacting across racial lines, that is well-nigh impossible in my generation. Have I mentioned that Eric is African-American?

The supper-table banter included jostling (from Eric’s side) about Pat and Colin’s slave-holding ancestors, ribbing from Patrick and Colin about Eric’s “Big Daddy” t-shirt. I held my breath through it all, wondering whose toes might be stepped on, what comment might be an insulting crossing of an invisible line.

Because that is how it is with my generation. We cannot get over the “fact” of black and white, even when we know perfectly well in our heads that this “fact” is not a fact at all, but a social construction of reality. Skin color is something society has taught us to notice, to use to classify each other as higher and lower, in and out. This system of classification has been with us so long, it almost appears natural and God-given, even though many of us are well aware that there is no such thing, genetically, as race: we all spring from the same genetic roots.

It is as bizarre and capricious to classify people according to the pigment of their skins as it would be to sort human beings by foot size or nose length. Classifying people by race is arbitrary, a social choice to raise to the level of consciousness a difference that, without careful tutelage, we would perhaps simply notice and then dismiss, as we interact as human beings with other human beings.

The epiphany: if each generation chooses to leave behind at least a tiny portion of the garbage of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, etc., then perhaps the world will, eventually, work towards a more inclusive human community.

I’m not a fool, at least not entirely and not every day. I am well aware that there are almost insuperable obstacles to overcoming prejudice. I know that the process of leaving the garbage on the dump heap of history is not automatic: it requires education. It demands that we teach our youth, at home, in church, at school, to stop hating and start loving, to consider the Other as one of us.

And I know that we do a dismal job of educating the heart. I have read on the internet today that the Lexington-Richmond school district of South Carolina remains in uproar over a request by students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance club at a school in the district. The students will now be permitted to form such a club, but over the fierce opposition of many parents.

And this two years after the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released a study showing that over a third of gay and lesbian students in American schools report physical harassment due to their sexual orientation . . . .

We have a long, long path to follow, to overcome such hatred. The path towards educating our hearts and souls to build a more humane society is a long one, and educators are not always willing to lead the way.

I know. I have worked in church-affiliated colleges and universities whose education departments are dominated by folks who mouth tolerance, but who practice homophobia—who are willing to wallow in every stereotype they can find to marginalize gay colleagues and gay students. I have worked with heads of education faculties from places like South Carolina (and Arkansas, it goes without saying) who have no commitment whatsoever to educating for tolerance and against homophobia. I have worked with university faculty in education departments who are preachers' daughters from places like Tennessee, who regard themselves as tolerant and inclusive while using homophobia to score political points with those leading the university.

I have worked in a church-affiliated institution whose leader informed me that, in even mentioning GLSEN as a resource for faculty, I was shoving my "lifestyle" into the faces of my colleagues. This leader professes to love gay people and to work for our inclusion in church and society . . . .

We have to educate ourselves before we can educate our youth.

Still, the conversation I witnessed several days ago between my nephews and their friend Eric gives me cause to hope. Just as Colin and Patrick are tone-deaf to homophobic prejudice, they simply do not think in the racial terms that dominate the imagination of my generation—of both black and white folks of my generation. Those who say that the surge of support by young voters for Obama reflects a diminishing level of racism in the United States are certainly correct, if what I see in my nephews’ lives is any indication.

And this is cause for hope. If, in my lifetime, I have seen my own part of the country move from having separate water fountains, separate restrooms, separate but “equal” (not!) schools, to integration, to the beginning of a post-racial society, then the movement from one generation to the other can provide reason for hope—when education attends that movement.

In his work to create an ethic of the land, philosopher Aldo Leopold argues that human societies extend rights to groups previously deprived of rights through a process of social evolution (attended, spurred, by education and consciousness-raising) in which a society begins to regard as persons those previously regarded as objects. The extension of human rights, the growth of participatory democracy, depends on the constantly developing awareness of social groups that previously marginalized groups of persons are not objects to use and abuse, but persons to treat with dignity.

It was such a breakthrough of awareness of the personhood of enslaved human beings that led to the abolition of slavery. The same breakthrough of awareness led to the gradual extension of human rights, including the right to vote, to women.

Societies that wish to claim the title of humane societies—societies that purport to be democratic—have no choice except to keep scanning the social horizon, seeking to identify those now regarded and treated as objects, with the intent to bring these objectified human beings to the table of participatory democracy, give them a voice, and allow that voice to count.

There is no other way to a humane future.

And our churches should be leading that way as the headlight of the process, and not following it, as the taillight, as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted.

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