The Wall Between Grace & Domination

Parking along the street felt ordinary enough. Our group of seven got out of the car to see ourselves flanked between an everyday row of homes and the Arizona/Mexico border wall. What a strange thing to see amid a neighborhood. What a strange thing to opt traveling to.

As we walked along the wall on the US side, I noticed an immense amount of garbage and an unnecessary amount  of razor wire. We listened to a story of a pregnant woman climbing the wall and falling to be shredded by the wire. We kept walking. We listened to the story of a young boy being shot by border control on the Mexican side—a boy who was not attempting to cross the border. The bullet holes still embedded on the wall. We kept walking. We heard about how the border agent was tried twice only to get off twice and that all issues with border agents are handled internally. We kept walking.

bell hooks explores the fact that domination and love cannot coexist, writing, “Whenever domination is present love is lacking…. The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination.”* And, I wonder, what on earth are we––the United States, doing?

The humanity across the border was pure grace — the people, the beauty, the art, the color. The ways in which the kindness of the people embraced us with smiles, warmth, welcomeness and inclusiveness. That same sense of inclusion we claim to host within our church doors and even our nation. This was grace. Grace from a group of people who owe me––us, nothing. Grace from a space whose demands supersede my provisions and yet whose kindness seeks nothing in return.

Then, there was the art. The radiance of colors telling stories. The boldness of truth painted around bullet holes. The clarity of love depicted by an array of mediums while the quiet hands behind the scenes of these pieces were nowhere to be found. Artisans of justice. Visionaries of peace. As similar to me as my own flesh and blood, and yet, caged away like animals, barricaded apart as though monsters. By what form of grace do I deserve to see this beauty, to witness these artists and to receive their love?

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It seems to me that so much of learning someone or someone is showing up. James Cone writes that “a man is free when he accepts the responsibility for his own acts and knows that they involve not merely himself but all men.” Often times this means showing up to the truth of someone which may not reflect nicely upon myself. This also means stepping far enough away from my own (and my nation’s) missteps that I am truly present to the fellow human before me. The one I’ve show up to. The place of presence I’ve chosen to be.

In the same breath, I often find myself wondering: what does this solve? What does showing up really mean in a world of walls and laws, a world who tears families apart and imprisons them? The answer is: I’m not sure. I only know that bearing witness to the truth of someone is a means of love, of friendship, of solidarity in our common humanity. This journey of being a human is impossible to accomplish alone and often in my place of privilege I fail to hold before me the clarity and urgency of what that really means.

Domination shrinks the table while Grace has the table set and expanded for our arrival.

Domination feeds fear while Grace always assumes the best.

Domination has nothing to teach me while Grace patiently awaits my arrival to the classroom.

The following day, our group went on a hike behind a home to visit migrant memorials. Locations where the bones of bodies once filled with breath were found and laid to rest. Pausing at each grave our group read poems, breathed prayers, and considered these lost lives. we finished with the gusto of “uno, dos, tres: ¡PRESENTE!” This, to remember the presence of those we’ve lost on this journey of dreams and freedom. To remember:

“Now your bones are part of the story Part of the architecture of this landscape. Your spirit followed the evening star into a new day. One we all will enter when it is our time. The bones you left behind we all share … In what farm, village, or city does someone look at an old photo weep and say your name Again and again and again like a prayer. Caress that photo as though you were still near… Here in this place we hold questions falling in tears Remember that once you were here in this place. Know that we, too, will leave our bones behind. Know that we, too, will carry some answers Beyond the reach of those we love” (Marie Vogl Gary).

The final grave belonged to a teenage boy. A young woman in our group said, “my mom and dad used to sing me ‘You are my Sunshine’, can we sing that?” As we all sang the song we ended with the final words that felt more like a gut punch of truth, “You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

The US/Mexico border situation is beyond words. But I can listen to grace. I can see the vibrancy of story. And I can witness my fellow human in this in this world of unimaginable pain and suffering.

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“The embracement hopelessness rejects quick fixes. Now, I think one of the problems is when we think of hopelessness we think of despair, and despair was horrible, I mean despair I just want to roll it up into a fetal position and cry but hopelessness is not despair, it is desperation.

And there’s a big difference. When a migrant decides to cross the desert, it’s not an act of despair. It’s an act of desperation, even though they know they probably will die. And as a side note, every four days five brown bodies die crossing the desert in this country. Probably the greatest human rights violation occurring since the days of Jane and Jim Crow.”

–Miguel De La Torre

To learn more about the story of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez watch this to hear the story from his grandma. 

*bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics.

 

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Killing White Lies: Abraham Lincoln

I grew up nearby a street named Lincoln Way. This transcontinental highway runs all the way from Lincoln Park in California to Times Square in New York. And, it ran through the town I grew up in, giving me a kind of landmark for directions, much like I was taught to treat the street’s namesake when it came to history.  I grew up being told to admire Abraham Lincoln––the 16th president of the United States, a man of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), one who fought for the Union and to end slavery… or did he? 

While it’s not surprising, our history books lied to us and Lincoln got it wrong.

Recently, I’ve been reading a number of books by theologian James H. Cone including Black Theology & Black Power, The Cross and The Lynching Tree, and God of the Oppressed. Struck by his words and my growing understanding of truth as clearly laid out before me, I couldn’t help but fumble around when I read about this “great” president. I’ve come to realize that when we see the history we’ve been told is a lie, it’s not only our responsibility to listen, learn it, and apologize; It’s our responsibility to not look away. This writing is my apology. This writing is my refusal to look away.

“There is no place in this war of liberation,” Cone writes in 1969, “for nice white people who want to avoid taking sides and remain friends with both the racists and the Negro.”

While reading Black Theology & Black Power, I came across Cone’s notes on Abraham Lincoln and the frequent lies told about him as a man who longed for the freedom of slaves. Cone writes, “Whatever may have been the motives of Abraham Lincoln and other white Americans for launching the war, it certainly was not on behalf of black people. Lincoln was clear on this:

“My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” (Abraham Lincoln)

Cone goes on, “If that quotation still leaves his motives unclear, here is another one which should remove all doubts regarding his thoughts about black people:

“I will say then that I am not, nor have I ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races––that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and interior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” (Abraham Lincoln)

With a whitewashed history, what does the future hold? Years from now, will the 45th president be portrayed with the light of racism and white supremacy under which he stands? Or will we––yes, we––continue to add layers and layers to the facts and perpetuate a world of hatred and injustice, a world comfortable enough for the nice white person who wants (and thinks under these severe circumstances that there is) progress without any conflict or discomfort?

“A man is free when he accepts the responsibility for his own acts and knows that they involve not merely himself but all men.” ––James H. Cone

If the truth no longer propels us to care, what will? If we can look upon the suffering of our fellow human and remain neutral because we are comfortable, we have lost our humanity. There is no time for neutrality when humans are suffering. Or as Cone says, “There is no time for talk when men are suffering.”

Cone’s words in Black Theology & Black Power were written 50 years ago this year. His preface contains his own newfound truths including a recognition and apology for the sexism within the book (both in his gendered language and leaving out the leadership notes and significance of black women) as well as a new clarity that “we need to develop a struggle for freedom that moves beyond race to include all oppressed peoples of the world,” in accordance with some of the lessons he heeded from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Some may say, “The history books didn’t lie, they only didn’t share the whole truth.” Some may say, “Often times our imperfections are used for ultimate good and slaves were freed, weren’t they?” I, for one, refuse to bow my body or tip my cap to a man whose blatant racism was left out of history so that he might be elevated as some kind of white savior. Lincoln did not free slaves, he did not believe in the equality of our black brothers and sisters. To “free” a human from the labor and life of a slave in language yet to continue to treat them as less-than in any way is to keep slavery alive.

I am not a history expert. I claim no in-depth knowledge about slavery or presidential history. That being said, I do know my history books got it wrong. I do know there is a sitting president who is an undisguised racist and I do not want my nephews reading anything less than the truth in their history books. I do know that I am sorry for my ignorance. I do know we have a long, long, long way to go and we must bind ourselves together so that we can all stand on equal ground or we will continue to fall deeper alone.

And, some may say “How can the Republican party go from the 16th president of the United States to the blatant racism of the 45th president of the United States?” Relearning history makes it not only obvious but abundantly clear. Patterns are being repeated. History covers up racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia––by rewriting history through erasure, by perpetuating lies and therefore perpetuating hatred.

Next time I visit my hometown, I will remember the truth about the namesake of the street which runs through my town. The inevitable thought will make me consider just how many daily reminders we have of unabashed racism. The result will be a reminder to be louder against hatred, bolder against falsities, and clearer about the truth. Because I want my fellow human’s value in this world to be clear, known, and not just a pretty phrase. Because we can’t keep lying about our history. Because I want my nephews reading truth. Because I’m done being another nice neutral white face in the crowd.

“The liberal, then, is one who sees ‘both sides’ of the issue and shies away from ‘extremism’ in any form. He wants to change the heart of the racist without ceasing to be his friend; he wants progress without conflict. Therefore, when he sees blacks engaging in civil disobedience and demanding ‘Freedom Now,’ he is disturbed. Black people know who the enemy is, and they are forcing the liberal to take sides. But the liberal wants to be a friend, that is, enjoy all the rights and privileges pertaining to whiteness and also work for the ‘Negro.’ He wants change without risk, victory without blood.” ––James H. Cone

References:
Text from: Black Theology and Black Power by James H. Cone, 1969.
Cone’s references for Lincoln quotes:
First quote by Lincoln: “Reply to Horace Greeley,” 1862, in The American Tradition in Literature, Vol. 1; revised, S. Bradley, R.C. Beatty, and E.H. Long, eds. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), p. 1567.
Second quote by Lincoln: Quoted in Charles Silberman, Crisis in Black and White (New York: Random House, 1964), pp. 92-93.
(***Image from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving” 1978.)

 

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