A Stone of Hope

“A Stone of Hope,” Susan Ryder

Micah 6:6-8
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Matthew 17:20
For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.

Martin Luther King, Jr. – “I Have a Dream” speech
With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

We choose Reflection titles on Wednesdays in order to get the bulletins to Sandy in time for her to proof and run them off. This week, in honor of the observance of what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King’s 89th birthday tomorrow, my title was taken from the inspirational words I shared from his “I Have a Dream” speech. I resonated with the image of a mountain of despair being dismantled, one hopeful stone at a time, by coming together in faith that we can transform our nation, our world. It reminded me of the “faith of a mustard seed” passage from Matthew. Then on Thursday the President of the United States reportedly asked, referring to people from Haiti and African countries, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” during a meeting with lawmakers over a potential immigration deal. Instead, he complained, the US should be accepting people from places like Norway. The mountain of despair grew even larger and I wondered if I could still muster even a pebble of hope, and wished I had chosen a different title.

Though of course now, perhaps more than ever, we need to come together to continue the work of dismantling the mountain of racism, one hopeful stone at a time, especially in the midst of our despair. While I never believed racism was dead and gone after the election of an African American president ten years ago – I clung tenaciously to the belief that there are more good people in our country than bad, and that while racism still certainly exists, it is not the norm. But now we have a man who makes blatantly racist comments serving in the highest office of our country, and white supremacists are beginning to crawl back into limelight from under the rocks they were hiding under for the last decade, and that mountain seems higher than ever. Yet – while I despair about the tone and direction many in our nation seem to have embraced, I will not, I cannot let that become the new normal. I must continue to hope in the better angels of our nature – and more than that, I must DO something, because my silence, my inaction, makes me complicit.

And so once again I take inspiration from the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On September 15, 1963, white racists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young African American girls who were there attending Sunday School. Dr. King’s eulogy for these girls remains one of the most controversial and compelling speeches he ever made. Claiming them as martyrs for the cause of justice, Dr. King said, “These girls have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.”

So what can we do? How do we substitute courage for caution? First before looking at or judging anyone else we must acknowledge and OWN our white privilege. Name it for what it is. While white supremacy refers to the system, white privilege refers to the benefits of that system, which all white people receive. I am a white middle class woman of privilege who has no idea what it’s like to be a person of color. As a woman with a disability I have an idea of what it’s like to be judged based on my appearance, and discriminated against because of my gender. But I have never been pulled over while driving or followed around in a department store merely because of the color of my skin. It was white privilege when I was growing up that most of my teachers and fellow students looked like me. It IS white privilege when I cut my finger and something as basic as a flesh-colored Band-Aid matches my skin tone, or when I stay in a hotel and the complimentary shampoo generally works with the texture of my hair.

From the Teaching Tolerance Web site: “White privilege is not something that white people necessarily do, create or enjoy on purpose. Unlike the more overt individual and institutional manifestations of racism, white privilege is a transparent preference for whiteness that saturates our society. White skin privilege serves several functions. First, it provides white people with ‘perks’ that we do not earn and that people of color do not enjoy. Second, it creates real advantages for us. White people are immune to a lot of challenges. Finally, white privilege shapes the world in which we live — the way that we navigate and interact with one another and with the world.” (Teaching Tolerance)

Peggy McIntosh writes, “I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had not been taught to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us.’”

We need to be more cognizant of identifying and naming our privilege, because only when we begin to see it for what it is can we work to change things. Let’s begin by acknowledging that for most of us, people do not assume that we got where we are professionally because of our race (or because of affirmative action programs). Let’s recognize that we can turn on the television or go to the movies or open to the front page of the paper and see people of our race widely represented; that we can easily buy dolls, toys, and books for our children featuring people of our race. We can begin to break down that mountain of despair by owning up to and identifying white privilege, one stone at a time. So let’s stop and do that for a few moments. I have a few more thoughts to share after this, but let’s pause here as I invite you to think about an aspect of white privilege you are aware that you benefit from. It may take some thinking – but please do think about it, acknowledge it, own it, and then name it. If you are a person of color, share an aspect of white privilege that we may not be aware of. This is a safe space – so without judgment, let’s unpack that invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions – what are the maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks you receive on a daily basis? Raise your hand and get my attention if you have an example of white privilege, and as you share please take a rock as a symbol of our hewing the mountain of despair into stones of hope.

In addition to recognizing our own white privilege, we need to call out racism. This isn’t about name-calling and judging others so much as it is naming something for what it is. My parents taught me not to call people names, even deserved ones, because it does nothing to create conversation or promote healing. So while it may not be helpful to call someone a racist, we can and should name actions and speech that are racist. So far, the Republican leadership has been unwilling to call the president’s comments racist. House Speaker Paul Ryan called his comments “unfortunate and unhelpful” before launching into stories of his own Irish ancestors. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has kept silent, as has the RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel. Senator Lindsey Graham, present at the meeting, said he spoke his piece to the president at the time and had nothing more to say, while a few others called the comments offensive and disappointing. Seriously?

It’s inappropriate to put your elbows on the table in polite company; it’s disappointing that the Bears are not in the playoffs this year; again; it’s unfortunate that I did not win the recent Powerball lottery jackpot. It’s RACIST to call for an end to immigration from countries populated primarily by people of color and ask why we can’t get more people from Norway. The Muslim ban, yup, that’s racist. The current President of the United States repeatedly says racist things – in public and in private – and has for decades. He and his father were sued in 1973 by the Justice Department for racial discrimination because they would not rent apartments to African-Americans. He made racially charged comments against Native Americans that he believed posed a threat to his own gambling empire. He began his political career by challenging the legitimacy of the nation’s first African American president as not being a real American – asserting he was born in Kenya, and a Muslim, and then said the birth certificate of President Barack Obama was a fake. He still thinks that. He referred to people from Mexico as rapists at the very beginning of his run for presidency, he refers to Senator Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas, and says there were some very fine people among the White Supremacists who marched in Charlottesville. I could, quite literally, go on for hours. There are websites out there that have listed every public racist comment he has ever made. Let me break it down for you – if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck …

Want to hear a great example of white privilege? Being able to get away with interpreting obviously racist comments as “unfortunate,” “unhelpful,” “inappropriate,” or “disappointing.”

Sophie Bjork-James, a Vanderbilt University anthropologist who studies white nationalism: “[Trump] has a long history of talking about racialized groups in disparaging ways, from referring to Mexicans as rapists to advocating for a ban on Muslims. All of these ideas are held by white nationalists,” she said. She added that though Trump has emboldened white nationalist groups, that’s not the risk we should be worrying about so much. “The biggest danger of these kind of comments is not the emboldening of the organized racist — although this is surely to happen — but the potential normalizing of racist ideas,” she said. “The more normal these extreme ideas become the more dangerous they become.” I want to add that we need to focus on the real issue of Trump’s recent comments about Haiti and African nations – it’s not the profanity he used, but the racism inherent in his comment. We need to keep our eye on the ball – which is that his racism is the problem, not his potty mouth; so let’s not allow the vulgarity of his language distract us. Let’s say it plainly – he says racist things and advances racist policies. Just like his remarks about woman from the Access Hollywood tape were not about his vile language – they were about sexual assault – his racist comments need to be called out and named for what they are.

We are going to pass around the basket of rocks again, and I invite each of you to take one home with you if you didn’t get one earlier. Set the rock somewhere in your home where you will see it daily – or carry it in your pocket – keep it somewhere as a reminder of the stones of hope we are called to turn our current mountain of despair into. And as we pass the basket I’ll close with a recent comment from Dan Rather from this past Friday.

“This is undeniably and clearly outright racist. It simply cannot be allowed to continue by anyone who cares about the future of this country. This is sad. It is hurtful. It is dangerous. It is unpatriotic. Each elected official, each American, has a choice: where do you stand? Some may say this helps the President with his base. What about how it debases the values of our nation? This rhetoric has to be damned at every turn, at every time. That millions of hard working men, women, and children have lives that hang in the balance at the whims of this President only makes this moment all the more tragic. Make no mistake; America is diminished today in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of history. It will be up to every decent person to make sure that this is not our destiny.”