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Raging at the Darkness and Reaching for the Light

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I want to write about light and hope and sparkly Christmas ornaments, but that’s difficult because the first anniversary of my brother’s death is looming, plus America’s legal system seems to be OK with black people being murdered in the streets. These two facts may seem unrelated to you, but they’ve become intertwined in my mind.

Together they form a tangled mental mess that causes me to walk around the house kicking crap on the floor and mumbling “God damn it, God damn it.” Let the record show, this is highly unusual (my mumbled curses, not the crap on the floor).

I’ve been in a rage lately. I’m angry that my brother died, angry at the way he died, and angry at injustice in the world. I’m angry at God because I strongly disapprove of the way the world works at times. I’m angry at evil and abhor the dark stains on the human soul. I’m angry at death and mental illness.

In theory, my anger fits nicely into Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grieving, but I’m angry at her, too, for suggesting that anger can be neatly boxed up and understood. Grief does not progress in an A, then B, then C fashion.

Fear of the Dark

My anger stems from the unwelcome fact that I am powerless over the darkness in the world. In the scheme of things, I can do nothing about illness and death and injustice. I can flail and rant and wave protest signs and stamp my feet and cry and spew angry blogs. I can kick crap around the floor. But in the end, I must accept being powerless and relinquish my treasured illusion of control if I’m to avoid depression and anxiety and find a measure of peace in this life.

Being powerless makes me afraid. My lack of control over my brother’s dreadful death and the fact that African-American men and boys are dying at the hands of authorities in (at best) questionable circumstances makes me feel unsafe.

Yes, I could ignore or deny the injustice against blacks — being white, I don’t live in fear for my own family’s safety. Still, when they announced the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to charge the officer who strangled Eric Garner, let alone the ones who stood around and watched Eric expire, I felt exactly the way I did on September 11, 2001. And in 2000 when the Supreme Court told the state of Florida to simply stop counting votes in the presidential election. Didn’t we want to know who got the most votes? Apparently we did not.

The world is not supposed to work this way. Massive skyscrapers aren’t supposed to crumble. The Supreme Court isn’t supposed to be political. Officers of the law aren’t supposed to strangle people.

Wrong. I keep rediscovering that the people and systems that I thought had our backs do not. There are no failsafes; our systems are not just; the world is not fair.

Seeing the Light

Despite my best efforts at denial, I think I’m finally coming to accept that this is how the world is.

When my brother died, I had to accept that I can’t escape the ugliness and darkness in the world. Nor should I try. As a praying person, I feel some responsibility to be a witness to injustice and pain and to wail with the world. To stand with the oppressed the way Jesus always stood with the oppressed. To ask questions. He didn’t throw stones at an angry mob of oppressors, instead he stood with a woman about to be stoned and said, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” The mob went away.

You see, Jesus brought God’s light into the darkness. He didn’t respond out of fear, he responded out of love and compassion. That’s why followers of Jesus celebrate Christmas, because we believe there is hope in the darkness. We’re still following that star.

star of bethlehem

Of course a society that’s based on consumerism (greed) and power (injustice is inevitable) has trouble seeing this light. The light can’t be measured by scientists or owned by corporations or controlled by fear-mongering politicians or manipulated by statisticians. For many people these days, the light simply does not compute.

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it,” wrote Jesus’s friend John.

Light into Darkness

Light into Darkness

Living in the Light

Don’t ask me why (it’s another part of God’s plan that seems crazy to me) but one of the best ways to see God’s light in the world is through individuals — flawed and broken people. Every one of us carries God’s light, but we aren’t required to tend it. We can choose the darkness instead.

According to the Bible, the result of focusing on the light instead of the darkness is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” That’s why I pray and meditate, because I want all that. I want to connect with the light and the love. I’ll probably always struggle to accept the darkness along with the light. Last month, I gave an entire sermon about finding hope in grief and loss, yet here I am again. Fear is a powerful motivator. But perfect love drives out fear.

So as I enter Christmas week — and the week that marks my brother’s death — I’m dealing with anger. That’s OK. Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died, and he trashed the tables of the powerful oppressors who were ripping off the poor in Jerusalem. He got sad and he got mad. And I imagine God is pretty pissed about the way the world is today, too.

winter 2013 & Jesus pix 045.tear

Civil rights leader Baynard Rustin said, “Let us be enraged about injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it.” Easier said than done, but a worthy goal.

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I pray for you a light and love-filled holiday season.

The Time I Stole Swisher Sweets and Didn’t Get Shot

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I’ve been thinking about the time I stole a package of Swisher Sweet cigarillos. Despite the encouragement of my friends who liked to stick it to “the system” as often as possible, I did not shoplift much as a kid — just a yo-yo, a lipstick, and the Swisher Sweets. That’s why I remember the event clearly.

swisher

It was a small package, maybe four or five cigarillos, and I stole them from Packett’s Pharmacy in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I was with Frank D., who stole a smoking pipe and a Mars Bar.

It was Autumn, and the leaves rustled under our feet as we walked up the street with our loot to hang out on the benches outside the public library. Every Friday night, a dozen or more long-haired high school kids would congregate there to act cool. Our parents told themselves that we were studying. Sometimes we were, mostly we weren’t. Nobody questioned us or told us to move along. Incidentally, we were all white.

I was fifteen. I did not get caught stealing from Packett’s. There were no security cameras back in those days.

Odds are good that there was marijuana in my blood — there often was back then. The odds were also good that I was not going to be shot for stealing those Swisher Sweets, even if I had gotten caught, walked down the middle of the street, and been aggressive with “the pigs,” as we respectfully called officers of the law in the early seventies.

What Matters

I’m not saying that the cop who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 9th did so because he thought Michael had stolen Swisher Sweets. I’m not wading into that controversy — it doesn’t matter from where I stand, except that I think the police ought to be honest about it.

I’m not saying Michael was smoking pot, either. That doesn’t matter to me. Yes, it matters that “anonymous officials” are flinging around “facts” about the case and the autopsy in an unprofessional manner, which — surprise! — makes some people suspect an intentional smear campaign against Michael Brown.

But in the end what does matter, and matters very much, is that there’s another African American boy dead in our streets, shot by bullets from a police officer’s gun. I suppose that somebody somewhere might think that stealing cigarillos and smoking pot is punishable by gunshots to the head, but I don’t know them.

Maybe Michael did get aggressive, maybe he didn’t. No doubt both he and the officer were scared out of their wits. Who knows what happened on that street?

Nobody’s perfect, not cops, not teenagers. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made a lot worse ones than stealing Swisher Sweets.

But people who make the mistake of pulling a trigger six times and shooting a kid dead should not be police officers.

I’m not judge and jury, but perhaps if at least some of these trigger happy cops went to jail, our streets would be safer for everyone.

There’s No Such Thing as Quiet Racism

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English: Statue of Liberty Gaeilge: Dealbh na ...

Statue of Liberty (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

I remember prancing around on stage in some fifth grade extravaganza, singing “Aaaaamerica is a melting pot…” I think I was wearing a cardboard Statue of Liberty headpiece and stars and stripes of some sort.

Anyway, the song’s been stuck in my head since the election, and I’ve been wondering if maybe — just maybe — our nation might be entertaining the notion of pursuing its promise – strength through diversity.

Old White Guys’ Last Hoorah

I’ve been feeling hopeful about race relations. I mean, our African-American president has been elected twice. While conspiracy crazies and FOX News will no doubt find imaginative ways to insinuate, or say outright, that he didn’t *really* win, reasonable people know that this was no fluke.

Our president is a black guy, and I still think this is incredibly awesome. True, the white vote went for Romney in most states, but exit polls tell us that’s largely due to old white guys, which isn’t surprising.

They are seeing the America they used to know – the one where they were in charge – slipping away.

As Senator Lindsey Graham told the Washington Post, “We are not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long-term.” I guess Mr. Limbaugh isn’t doing his job.

God love them, but good riddance to those good old days.

Rush with his buddies

And Now For Something Completely Different…Or Not

How about we try something different? Let’s even go beyond “tolerance” and try for genuine relationships with people of different backgrounds than ourselves. How about that?

That’s where my hopeful head was when my friends and I arrived at a local Chinese restaurant this weekend. There were five of us, and I was the token white chick.

Here’s what happened: my friends were in front of me, waiting to order. I reiterate — I was in line BEHIND them.

The woman behind the counter pointed to me and said, “Let me help her first.”

We all looked at each other, puzzled, and then I said, “I’m with them.”

“Oh, sorry, sorry,” she said.

The first sad thing here is that it didn’t occur to her that we might be together. But what’s worse is that I’m fairly certain that if four white folks had been in line in front of an African-American, it would not have occurred to the server to take that last person out of order.  My friends teased me, calling me “the special person,” and we all laughed about it. But it was not funny.

“Welcome to America, Melanie,” one of them said.

Calling Out Racism

This isn’t on a scale with the Colored drinking fountains and washrooms I remember in Florida when I was a little girl.

And it wasn’t as egregious as the time a guy at a Maryland Christmas tree lot tried to sell me a tree marked SOLD because the purchaser was “only a negro lady.”

But it sure feels the same.

Sign for

We have a long way to go, but we can all help. Prayers are good.

And I just want to make a plea to my fellow Caucasians: keep your eyes and ears open. Speak up.

Don’t let people get away with this kind of “quiet racism.”

There’s no such thing as quiet racism.

It all screams, and we should all call it out.

Thanks for listening, and for hoping with me.

God bless our melting pot.

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