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urbanfaith logoGreetings, everyone. Thanks for the excellent dialogue happening regarding that last post about President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren. Just wanted to bring to your attention a postmortem on the event that I posted over at UrbanFaith.com. And while you’re at UrbanFaith, please also check out my friend Todd Burke’s hard-hitting commentary on the political hysteria surrounding the health-care debate—and feel free to chime in with your own opinions, since I’m sure some will take issue with Todd’s perspective. And, if you haven’t seen it yet, you need to read Jeremy Del Rio’s insightful essay on why the call for biblical justice should be a natural part of our worship.

If you don’t frequent the pages over at UrbanFaith, there’s probably a few other recent articles there that you’ll find interesting too, so please hang out and make yourself at home. (My livelihood as an editor and journalist is depending on it.) 🙂

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I suppose I’m asking for trouble by going here, but could someone explain to me the current controversy surrounding President Obama’s speech to American public school students on Tuesday? I’m serious. At first I thought the whole thing was just a minor stink, but as I’ve been reading posts on the Web and around the blogosphere, I’m realizing that this is major stuff. And as I look at some of the conversations happening among my friends and acquaintances on Facebook, I’m a little taken aback to find that some folks are actually afraid that their children will somehow be brainwashed or corrupted by whatever “hidden socialist messages” Obama will be delivering during his pep talk on the importance of education.

I know that there was initially concern about the wording of some classroom activities that the Obama administration was encouraging educators to use with their students during and after the speech, but my understanding is that the administration corrected the problem areas and that it will even post the speech at the White House website on Monday so parents and teachers can read it beforehand. Nevertheless, some parents and school districts are still making noise. The Valley View School District here in Illinois, where my two children are students, announced on Thursday that it would not allow its kids to watch the speech, and other districts are leaving it to individual teachers to make the call. Personally, I would’ve loved for this to be a part of my kids’ classroom activities next Tuesday, and I would’ve looked forward to chatting with them that evening about what they heard.

Again, can someone help me out here? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this latest installment in the ongoing Obama drama. I’ll hold back sharing some of my less-than-hopeful observations until I’ve heard from you.

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urbanfaith logoSorry that I haven’t updated the blog in a while. I’ve been busy with work and family outings (trying to get in some final summer activities before the kids return to school). To be honest, most of my blogging energy is being used up over at UrbanFaith.com, which I’d like to encourage you to visit and bookmark, if you’re not familiar with it already. UrbanFaith is an online magazine that I work on as part of my day job at Urban Ministries, Inc. Here are a few of the interesting items we’ve posted recently:

• Redeeming a “Teachable Moment.”  This one goes beyond the beer summit to try and get at the real lessons from the Henry Louis Gates arrest and the subsequent racialized fiasco. We solicited commentary from seven Christian scholars and pastors, including William Pannell, Cheryl Sanders, Glenn Loury, Curtiss DeYoung, Art Lucero, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and Tali Hairston. Pannell and Loury, especially, offer a trenchant analysis of President Obama’s handling (or mishandling) of the matter. The topic’s a bit dated now, but please check it out and let us hear your feedback.

• Justice or Socialist?  The legendary Christian reconciler and activist John M. Perkins shares insights on pursuing biblical justice without letting our politics, ideology, or suspicions get in the way. Very relevant in light of the current health-care debate.

• How to Handle Panhandlers.  Should we give without constraint, or does God want us to be more discriminating. My friend Arloa Sutter allowed us to adapt this one from her blog. This one will always be a timely issue for us to wrestle with.

• Aliens vs. Racism.  A review of the new film District 9, which isn’t your typical UFO flick. For starters, it’s set in South Africa. Plus, the human heart turns out to be a lot more frightening than the ugly extraterrestrials.

• Three Days in 1969.  Remembering Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix, and our continuing search for peace and love. If you’re a fan of Hendrix or the Woodstock era, you’ll want to check this one out.

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An interesting (and creative) Associated Press analysis here about what both Professor Henry Louis Gates and Officer James Crowley might’ve been thinking during their now-infamous run-in a couple weeks ago. The reporter uses the official police report as well as Gates’s on-the-record statements following the episode to piece togehter a sort of dramatic timeline of what could’ve been going through each man’s head during their fateful encounter.

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May I vent for a moment?

For me, the saddest thing about the Henry Louis Gates incident is that we’re no better off now as a nation than before it happened. Like President Obama, I’d hoped it would become a “teachable moment,” a chance to learn from each other’s experiences and understand both the pressures felt by well-meaning police officers and the pain and indignity felt by African American men in these types of encounters. But even Obama hasn’t been able to finesse the national conversation in a way to get us all on the same page—or least in the same ream of paper.

Those who say Professor Gates was completely wrongheaded and unreasonable aren’t willing to take seriously the history (both distant and recent) that has defined the relationship between African American men and law enforcement. And those who say Officer James Crowley was just a racist, rogue cop are not willing to take seriously this man’s totality of experiences as both a public servant and a human being.

The bottom line: As Eric Holder suggested some months ago, we’re a nation afraid (or simply unwilling) to put in the kind of concerted effort required to truly understand each other across racial lines. I understand that many of us are weary of having to either defend against knee-jerk accusations of racism or educate our fellow citizens on its daily realities. But until we resolve to lay aside our anger, distrust, and cynicism and love our neighbor as Christ commands, nothing is going to change.

Okay, I’m done. I’ll probably read this later and regret hitting publish, but just had to get that out.

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Sonia Sotomayor is an excellent Supreme Court nominee, but President Obama’s desire for “empathy” from the bench is off base. At least that’s what Yale law professor and bestselling author Stephen Carter believes. In the past, I’ve gone on record as agreeing with President Obama about his “empathy” test. Now I’m having to reconsider. What do you think?

Check out UrbanFaith.com for my interview with Carter about Sotomayor, diversity in America, the Supreme Court confirmation process, and other topics.

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Lively conversation happening over at The Atlantic on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog. His post “The Myth of Black Confederate Soldiers” reminds me of conversations I’ve had in the past with folks who attempt to downplay the role of slavery and race in the Civil War. This is always surprising to me.

I’ve told the story before about how, when I was editor of Today’s Christian, I heard it big time from Confederate sympathizers who took me to task for publishing an article about the origin of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Silly me; I didn’t anticipate that emotions were still so raw over the outcome of the war. At the same time, I find it both revealing and truly miraculous that we can get on as fellow believers quite well (and, heck, you might even be a faithful reader of a magazine that I edit), yet we can hold fundamentally different views on issues so central to who each of us are. I think this is a testament to the unifying power of God’s love—but also to the fact that there are a lot of difficult things still left to talk about, if we ever hope to move our relationships from thin to thick. In any event, the discussion following Coates’s post offers some good food for thought.

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DO_THE_RIGHT_THINGIt’s hot in Chicago. Summer is officially doing its thing. Like so often with the weather here, one day you’re shoveling snow from the driveway, the next you’re listening to the A/C crank up and praying that the sump pump kicks in after the latest monsoon.

So here we are again in 90-degree heat and humidity, and I’m thinking, How appropriate, given that this summer marks the 20th anniversary of Spike Lee’s classic and enduringly controversial film Do the Right Thing. The movie first hit theaters on June 30, 1989.

Those of you who have seen the film will recall that it takes place on one of the longest and hottest days of the summer in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyevesant neighborhood. Lee begins the film slowly and deliberately, painting a picture of a predominantly black neighborhood made up of a diversity of people, characters, and races that each bring something unique to the urban landscape. It’s not Norman Rockwell harmony, but it’s a real-life community where disparate parts manage to get along. But, as is usually the case when it comes to race relations in America, tension and unrest are simmering beneath the surface.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, please forgive (or avoid) the spoilers that follow the original 1989 trailer below.

Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery man for Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian-American whose restaurant has been on the same corner since old days (i.e., before the neighborhood became mostly black). The blacks in Bed-Stuy have a sort of love-hate relationship with Sal’s Pizzeria. While it’s nice to have a spot for tasty pizza in the ‘hood, there’s an ambivalence about the fact that one of the community’s primary businesses is owned by a white man. During the film’s climax, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) confront Sal to demand he put a black face among his all-white wall of fame. A fight ensues, and when the police show up, Raheem is choked to death by an NYPD officer, which sets off a horrible riot.

This 1989 review by critic Roger Ebert offers a good overview of the movie. Suffice it to say, Spike Lee’s film, like any good piece of art, is open to a variety of interpretations. He doesn’t tell you what to think, though it’s easy for some to come away with the sense that, ultimately, the film is a call for some degree of black nationalism and militancy—or for black folk to at least keep the option available.

An obvious question for us today is, how does Do the Right Thing play in this so-called “age of Obama”? Is it still relevant? I’ll resist calling this era “post-racial,” for I’m sure many of you could quickly tick off a thousand reasons why it’s not. But we’ve clearly moved into a different and better era of racial understanding from what we faced in America 20 years ago, right? (Let the debate begin.) We’ve survived Rodney King, the O.J. trial, Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and the first couple seasons of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. What’s more, we elected an African American president.

Ironically, it turns out that Do the Right Thing was the film that Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date, and it consequently holds a special place in their personal history. Newsweek wonders why this seemingly minor but potentially significant fact didn’t get played up more by the media during the presidential race last year, when Obama’s opponents were looking for any and all evidence of his racial and political militancy. And TheRoot.com thinks it’s odd, though not surprising, that Obama himself rarely mentions that aspect of he and Michelle’s first date. (Though, when one listens to Obama’s ruminations on race in America today, you can hear his desire to acknowledge the multiple points of view that usually exist on the different sides of the color and class line in our nation.)

Also at TheRoot.com, journalist Natalie Hopkinson offers a fascinating reassessment of the film’s message and legacy. While she concedes the film’s cultural importance—and confesses that she reveled in the righteous indignation that the film inspired in blacks who had felt oppressed and wrongly profiled for much too long, in retrospect Hopkinson questions the film’s underlying message of angry black nationalism. She suggests that what will be needed for true racial uplift today is not a spirit of racial separation but one of multiracial cooperation. She writes:

In 1989, Do the Right Thing rightly railed against police brutality and institutional racism that reduced the life chances and quality of life of many black people in urban areas. If combating those conditions, which still exist, is what we mean by fighting the power, I will be the first to put on boxing gloves.

But 20 years on, Buggin Out’s kind of fight feels futile. Symbolically and literally speaking, we are the Power. We need Sal’s Famous Pizzerias in the neighborhood, and we need the Mookies of the world to open their own businesses, too. It’s messy. It’s sometimes tense, often uncomfortable. We won’t always understand each other. But come on back. We need that slice.

Hopkinson’s essay, I believe, rightly calls us to “do a new thing”—that is, to allow forgiveness and solidarity to trump our lingering racial resentment, bitterness, and fear. But I don’t think her change of heart about Do the Right Thing necessarily diminishes what the film was trying to do those two decades ago.

Ultimately, Spike Lee was challenging his viewers to wrestle with their prejudices and misconceptions about the American condition. To his credit, Lee understood that this would mean different things to different people, and provoke different responses based on each person’s life experience. In that way, Do the Right Thing was—and is—a bold piece of filmmaking and a disturbing but effective tool for an honest discussion of racial reconciliation in America.

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notredame3Personally, I would’ve loved to have any President of the United States speak at my college commencement. At least then I would be able to remember who it was. As it stands now, I have the foggiest idea who spoke at my graduation. But seriously, as a pro-life Protestant who voted for Barack Obama, I’ve tried to steer clear of the current Obama-at-Notre Dame controversy (lest I tick off my outspoken pro-life friends or my outspoken pro-Obama friends).

I’m such a wimp, I know. Call me a bad Christian,  but I just don’t have it in me to get that worked up over politics and ideology–and I realize that just by confessing this I’ve probably tainted myself in the eyes of those who see the abortion and embryonic stem cell issues as much more than matters of politics and ideology, and frankly I would agree with them. Nevertheless, I’m not wired to get all red in the face about it (for various reasons). I do, however, pray for the precious lives of the unborn (as well as the born). And I pray that our president will stay true to his pledge to help reduce the need for abortions and that he’ll stay open to hearing the views of “the other side,” as he promised. 

As a journalist, it’s interesting to watch the gathering storm form around the University of Notre Dame following its invitation to President Obama. For many Catholics, this has become a deeply personal matter, one which they feel obligated to take a strong stand against. Just witness the news today that Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, a devout Catholic who was to receive a special medal during the Notre Dame commencement ceremony, has now declined Notre Dame’s honor as a protest against President Obama’s pro-choice views. (This commentary at AOL’s new site, Politics Daily, offers an interesting perspective on this latest chapter of the controversy.) For Catholics like Glendon, the integrity of their church is at stake. Still other pro-life folks have seized upon the controversy as a golden opportunity to promote their cause and protest the policies of a pro-choice president. I think it’s good theater but also a healthy outworking of democracy.

I’m reminded of the controversy at Calvin College, back in May 2005, when then-President George W. Bush was invited to participate in the commencement service at that  evangelical school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Though many welcomed his participation, a vocal movement of staff, students, alumni, and community members were against his coming. They even published two open letters to the president and took out a full-page ad in the local paper to publicly air their disenchantment. In the letters–one from students and alumni, another from faculty and staff–the protesters articulated their grievances, particularly noting President Bush’s launching of an “unjust and unjustified” war, his neglect of the needy and “coddling” of the rich, and his administration’s fostering of “intolerance and divisiveness.” You can read both of the letters here.

Interestingly enough, both the Calvin protest and now the Notre Dame uprising are related to issues of life. For the Notre Dame protesters, opposing Obama means standing up for the sanctity of life and the rights of the unborn. For the Calvin protesters, opposing Bush meant standing against war and standing up for social justice and the rights of the underprivileged. Unfortunately, in the heat of protest, it’s often difficult for either side to see what they hold in common, that God calls us to care equally about all issues of life. (Plus, trying to be all diplomatic and conciliatory on these issues gets you branded as a flake and does very little for your fundraising efforts.) 

In any event, I envy the students at Notre Dame right now (as I did the Calvin folks back in 2005). What a great educational experience, to be able to observe and participate in this working out of politics, religion, and civic engagement from their front-row position. Wouldn’t you love to be in one of Mark Noll‘s classes about now?

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This week’s issue of Newsweek features a compelling article about the evolution of race relations at Princeton University (“Black in the Age of Obama”). By looking at the experiences of two African American Princeton students from the turbulent 1960s and comparing them to the college experiences of their daughters some thirty-odd years later, the story highlights the progress made as well as the new struggles faced by students of color on the Princeton campus in what the article calls the “the cutting edge of ‘post-racial’ America, where race isn’t supposed to matter anymore. Except when it does.”

The article is only four pages long, but it’s full of challenging ideas. For instance, there’s the subplot running throughout the narrative that questions the existence of a “post-racial America.” Does an Obama presidency really mean race is now off the table? From the article:

Linked in the public consciousness to Barack Obama, the term “post-racial” has now expanded to encompass the era his election has ushered in. But in the real world, post-racialism is something of a mirage. Detroit is not post-racial. Neither is Congress, nor Wall Street, nor prime-time TV. Black people pretty much refuse to utter the word, Obama included. For most Americans, it’s little more than a convenient cable-news catchphrase.

But the heart of the narrative reveals how two students from the late ’60s, Henry Kennedy (’70) and Jerome Davis (’71), had to endure the racial tensions of the day, and the limited choices they had for survival. “With fewer than 20 African-Americans per class, ‘fitting in’ wasn’t an option,” the article explains. “Instead, undergraduates like Davis and Kennedy gravitated toward one of two roles: activist or invisible man.” In many ways, of course, that same dilemma remains today. 

However, for Kennedy’s and Davis’s daughters, Alex and Kamille, the racial dynamic has been complicated by the fact that racism, or racialization, is no longer as clearcut as it was back in the days of brazen prejudice and legislated segregation. As the article’s authors observe, today “at post-racial, meritocratic Princeton, it’s often impossible to say where color ends and exclusivity begins.” Which, consequently, leads to the current brand of double consciousness that I address in my book–that is, the 21st-century angst of not knowing when something (a comment, a look, a policy) is racially motivated or when it isn’t. Here’s perhaps the article’s most penetrating observation—it’s “money shot,” if you will:

In a post-racial bubble, it’s no longer the initial incident that makes being black uncomfortable; when everyone has “gotten over” race, any controversy can be easily explained away as a joke, or a misunderstanding, or ordinary, colorblind Ivy League exclusivity. But while Henry Kennedy and Jerome Davis had an outlet for their concerns, Alex and Kamille don’t. Even worse, they have the uncomfortable burden of deciding whether they should even be concerned to begin with. As a result, they, like many young, elite African-Americans, can feel boxed in. When injustices do arise, there’s pressure to brush them aside. To do otherwise would be to think too clearly in racial terms—to clash too openly with post-racial expectations. Ignoring them entirely, though, might look like a retreat from community obligations. Everyone’s a loser and everyone shares the guilt.

Though this article spotlights the experiences of African Americans at Princeton, it’s really a case study for the larger issue of race in America today. How we’ve “come a long way,” but how the cost of that progress has been a confusion about our new reality and a tendency to believe that we’ve tackled the problem, when in fact we’ve yet to have ongoing honest communication across racial and cultural lines (Hello, Eric Holder!). What’s more, our current racial progress has beget a new brand of prejudice and racial resentment that threatens to erect even larger barriers to true reconciliation (just check out this news report from today’s Chicago Tribune and look, particularly, at the reader comments). 

“Race” articles like this Newsweek report are helpful in showing us yet another aspect of the cultural landscape today, but they often wind up leaving the reader discouraged or pessimistic about the notion that we’ll ever really move beyond the pain and frustration of race relations in eras past. What the article doesn’t mention is the reality of God’s grace and the power he gives us to heal, forgive, and build bridges across our current chasms. But, of course, first we must agree that there are still chasms.

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