Friday, August 7, 2015

Our Long Climb to the Mountaintop: One Year after the Killing of Michael Brown

I took a walk today. This weekend I’m in Colorado, near Avon, at a continuing medical education conference, and after today’s sessions were over, I walked up the mountain a ways and then back. About 5 miles altogether. Beautiful day. Clean, cool, thin air. Spectacular views.
I saw thousands of aspens, two ski lifts, and of course, lots of gorgeous houses up that mountain, set back from the road, but designed, I’m sure, to afford dazzling views to their owners. To be clear, I’m not a hiker. This walk was on a paved two-lane road, and I regularly encountered cars and a few trucks driving up and down the road. I’d nod and wave, and the occupants of the vehicles, when I could see them, would smile and wave in turn. In all, a peaceful, contemplative way to spend an afternoon.
Of the many things I mused upon, the first anniversary this weekend of the death of Michael Brown was chief among them. A year ago he had his fateful encounter with Darren Wilson, and the world changed forever. Except of course, when it didn’t. Since then, we have seen the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Samuel DeBose, Sandra Bland, and all too many more African-Americans at the hands of police or while in police custody. 
About ten years ago, I was part of a weeklong workshop called Dismantling Racism in Education put on by the National Conference on Community and Justice of Greater St. Louis. The fifty participants were assigned to one of four cohorts: African-American men, African-American women, white woman, white men. We met in various permutations of our groups during the course of the week, and I will never forget what an African-American man, a high school assistant principal whom I had gotten to know quite well during the week, said in one of the men-only groupings: “I wake up every morning, and for a few moments as I’m becoming conscious, I feel good. Then it hits me. Something bad is going to happen to me during this day because I'm black. It might be a clerk at a mall looking nervous when I walk by, a woman on the street clutching her purse a little closer, a cop car slowing down to get a good look at me when I’m riding my bike. But I’ve got to get ready for it because it always, always happens.”
Today I didn’t think twice about putting on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and a ball cap and sneakers and leaving the hotel and climbing the hill lined with multi-million dollar homes with earbuds in my ears. I didn’t have to. I can walk anywhere I want. I can smile and wave, and people will smile and wave back. Because I’m white. And I have privilege. And the fact that my high school assistant principal colleague, someone who is as at least as powerful and smart and kind and good as myself, would have to think twice about doing the same thing… Well, that is wrong. That is unjust. That is immoral.
I cannot NOT be white. This is who I am. This is how I was born. And because of this accident of ancestry, I am given privilege, access, freedom that people of color do not have. And if you are white, you have it too. And let’s be clear: Privilege is nothing to feel guilty about. It simply – is. It becomes a problem when we – and by “we” I mean my white cohorts – act like this privilege does not exist. Denial is toxic. And it keeps people of color oppressed and gets them killed.
My first ten years in the St. Louis area, I practiced pediatrics in East St. Louis, a predominantly African-American community. I moved there because my mentor, Father Joseph Brown, an African-American Jesuit priest originally from East St. Louis, encouraged me to act on my deep sense of mission and vocation. Over time, though, I began to wonder whether my telling my young African-American patients that I thought they were wonderful kids, that I looked forward to seeing them again, and that I knew that they could do anything they wanted, really made a difference. I mean, here I was, an upper middle class white pediatrician. Even though I firmly believed every good thing I said to that these kids, what kind of credibility did I have? One day I talked to Joseph about this. “Oh, Kenneth,” he said, shaking his head. “Everywhere they turn, they hear they are worthless. You have no idea how important it is that these children hear from someone who looks like you that they are precious and valued.” 
If you are white like me, you don’t need to feel guilty because you’re a member of the club. But we must – MUST – realize that until everyone, including Michael Brown if he were alive today, belongs in that club, that the default greeting for everyone should be a welcoming nod and a smile, that we all should be able to climb to the mountaintop without a second thought, our work for justice will never be done…

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Marriage, Matrimony, and The Baltimore Catechism

I was an altar boy growing up in Hicksville, Long Island, NY. I went to St. Ignatius Catholic School and went to Mass at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church. Starting in the fifth grade, becoming an altar boy and serving at Mass on Sundays and weekdays, serving at funerals when I was needed, serving at weddings on Saturdays; all of this is what started me on my life of service. And as an altar boy and a student at St. Ignatius, I learned everything there was to know about being Catholic. I studied my Baltimore Catechism, and I realized how lucky I was to be raised in the One True Church, the one that would allow me to most expeditious, most sincere, most sure route to Eternal Salvation.

There was one problem: I would worry about my father. He was a Protestant, a Lutheran to be precise, and as such a heretic. The Catechism was quite blunt about the fate of heretics.

Q. 509. Are all bound to belong to the Church?
A. All are bound to belong to the Church, and he who knows the Church to be the true Church and remains out of it cannot be saved.

The fact that he was even my father, that he had married my mother was a source of some confusion and anxiety for me. After all, there it was right in my Catechism:

Q. 1036. Does the Church forbid the marriage of Catholics with persons who have a different religion or no religion at all?
A. The Church does forbid the marriage of Catholics with persons who have a different religion or no religion at all.

Nevertheless, my parents did get married, and by a priest. Their wedding picture was displayed on the shelf by the front stairs in our house. But though they are both smiling, it does not look like a wedding picture. My mom is not wearing a white dress and veil but rather a blue suit and hat. It seems that a non-Catholic who agrees not to interfere with the exercise of religion of their Catholic spouse and agrees to raise their children as Catholic can marry, but with a catch:

Q. 1041. How does the Church show its displeasure at mixed marriages?
A. The Church shows its displeasure at mixed marriages by the coldness with which it sanctions them, prohibiting all religious ceremony at them by forbidding the priest to use any sacred vestments, holy water or blessing of the ring at such marriages; by prohibiting them also from taking place in the Church or even in the sacristy.

As such, my parents were married with little ceremony in the rectory, the priests' residence, at St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Carnegie, PA. They were not allowed to have the ceremony in the church itself or even to enter it. So my parents’ humbling marriage was legal, in the Catholic sense, if just barely. But then I thought, what about my uncles and aunts in my dad’s family? None of them were Catholic. They had all gotten married, but not in a “real” church? And what about their kids, my cousins? Were all of them going to go to hell?

These vexing thoughts and memories have come flooding back the past few weeks as I’ve watched the considerable backlash against the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. County clerks have agonized over being unable to uphold their religious convictions if they are forced to give marriage licenses to same sex couples. Priests, ministers, rabbis have been gnashing their teeth over the threat to religious freedom.

The thing is, they are all full of crap. And they know it.

As I got older and had long conversation with other people raised in other religious traditions – my Protestant cousins among them – I realized that the Catholic Church was not the only religion telling their people that everyone else is a heretic who’s going to go to hell. The best example I’ve ever heard of this comes from an exchange in the movie, “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” (1993). Wanda Holloway, the Mom of the title, played brilliantly by Holly Hunter, is having a conversation with her daughter, Shanna (Frankie Ingrassia), about salvation:

  • Shanna: Momma, isn’t it true that only a certain amount of people are allowed in heaven, and we’re saved, right?
  • Wanda: Uh huh. That’s ‘cause we’re Missionary Baptists as opposed to the other kind of Baptists who if they make a mistake, they have to start all over again. But Missionary Baptists – once saved, always saved. Your grandma and grandpa were real smart. They chose a sect that has guarantees.

And when it comes to marriage, well, let’s go back to the Catechism:

Q. 1011. Can a Christian man and woman be united in lawful marriage in any other way than by the Sacrament of Matrimony?
A. A Christian man and woman cannot be united in lawful marriage in any other way than by the Sacrament of Matrimony, because Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament.

So, there you have it: the Catholic version. And though I’m not a theologian, I daresay that pretty much every religion – every Western religion, anyway – has some version of it. What it comes down to, for those with deeply-held religious convictions is this: UNLESS YOU ARE MARRIED IN AND BY A CHURCH – AND A SPECIFIC CHURCH, AT THAT – YOU ARE NOT MARRIED… PERIOD!

So to you Catholics out there, those who share my faith tradition and are agonizing over gay and lesbian people marrying their same sex partner, you’ve got a lot more to agonize about. Everyone you know who was NOT married in the Catholic Church is NOT MARRIED! Look at Q. 1011 above. It does not matter if they are one man and one woman. They have not accepted the authority of Holy Mother Church. As such, they cannot receive the Sacraments. Matrimony is a Sacrament. They are not married, just as much as same sex couples are not married.

I suspect that the same is true for many of you out there who are Christian and not Catholic, because as Wanda Holloway tells us above, unless you choose a “sect that has guarantees,” you lose.

Which, of course, brings us to the county clerks who feel that issuing a marriage license to a same sex couple violates their deeply-held religious beliefs. My question is: What are you even doing issuing civil marriage licenses? Because unless every single one of them is going to go to YOUR CHURCH, and they intend to receive the blessings of sacramental matrimony in YOUR FAITH TRADITION, you are sinning every time you hand out one of those pieces of paper. Have you issued marriage licenses to Jews? They’ve rejected Christ! Atheists? On the road to hell! The wrong kind of Baptist? Heretics!

While the point of religion is usually stated as the effort to bring us closer to God and to each other, the part that’s often conveniently ignored outside the walls of individual churches is that they all feel – again the Western ones – that they have it right and everyone else has it wrong. The logical end of this is that a Catholic employer could say that they will only grant spousal benefits to Catholics married in the Catholic Church, and county clerks would only issue civil marriage licenses to members of their own congregations with the pledge that the fianc├ęs will get themselves to that one true church for the marriage to be “real,” and anyone else who wants a license will have to wait till someone from their religion is on duty.

So are these people hypocrites? Are they consciously and willfully deciding only to judge same sex couples when the tenets of their own faith should cause them to judge those who do not share their faith just as harshly? Are they anti-gay bigots?

Well, I’m sure they would all answer No to all those questions. And to call up my own faith tradition, it is not my place to judge them either.

Q. 288. Why is it wrong to judge others guilty of sin?
A. It is wrong to judge others guilty of sin because we cannot know for certain that their sinful act was committed with sufficient reflection and full consent of the will.

So this is my invitation to those in churches and in county offices who are acting so offended by marriage between people of the same gender: You folks know very well that what happens in a government office is not a religious ceremony. It never was, and it never will be. For you to object to gay men and lesbians getting married at City Hall is like a clerk at Macy’s objecting to someone buying white pants after Labor Day. It may violate every law of fashion, but your job is to sell people what your business has to offer. So if you work in a government office, and you cannot treat every citizen of that jurisdiction equally under the law, you do not belong in that job.

And if you are a Catholic clergyman railing about this being a violation of religious liberty, well, Baltimore Catechism or no Baltimore Catechism, dude, you’ve either got a screw loose or you are lying through your teeth. Because you know better. You know that same sex marriage will have absolutely no effect on your ability to lead your flock or practice your faith. You also know that if some same sex couple decide to sue you to force you to marry them, they would be laughed out of court. And frankly, I would be on your side with that one. I believe in separation of Church and State as much as, if not more, than you, and it would be an outrageous violation of the First Amendment for a court to force you to marry a gay couple, or a Presbyterian couple or a divorced Catholic couple. And you know that. So cut out the “violating religious liberty" crap. It’s disingenuous and dishonest, and you know better.

Nearly fifty years ago when I was an altar boy, I liked serving weddings best. People were nervous but happy, and I was part of the Sacrament of Matrimony. As the years went on, though, and I began to realize that I was what I would later call “gay,” it slowly dawned on me that when it came to weddings, I would always be a spectator and not a participant. In the past few years as I began to realize that participation might actually be a possibility, I still knew that it would be highly unlikely that that participation would be in a Catholic church. And that’s okay. The Church did set me on a lifelong road of service for which I am very grateful every single day. I continue on that road thanks to Saint Louis University and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, two Catholic institutions that welcome me fully. And if I do get married, even if it’s not in a Roman Catholic church, I do feel that the spirit will be with me in that moment, whenever, wherever that might be. In Matthew 22:36, Jesus is asked, “Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” He replies:

  • “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.”

You heard Him, folks: The basis of everything is love. The rest is up to us. Let us always remember that.