A negative peace: False succor on MLK day

“They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.”
~Jeremiah 6:14

On this Martin Luther King’s day, I would like to turn my blog over to the words of Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. To my white friends reading this — some of it is going to be hard. I ask that you read it with an open heart, and allow the feelings that come, whether sorrow, or anger, or defensiveness. Observe your feelings without judging them or trying to push them away. We have a job to do, and we can’t do it without looking honestly at our own country and our own history. And we cannot do that without looking honestly at our own hearts. It is tempting to retreat to that absence of tension that King calls a negative peace. But let’s press forward into a positive peace, acknowledging the tension, acknowledging our own discomfort, and letting that lead us forward to justice. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
~Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words “acceptance” and “integration.” There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.

Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
~James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

At this moment the phrase, “police reform” has come into vogue, and the actions of our publicly appointed guardians have attracted attention presidential and pedestrian. You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is a real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies — the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects — are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream…I knew some of this even then, sitting in Rankin Chapel, even if I could not yet express it. So forgiving the killer of Prince Jones would have seemed irrelevant to me. The killer was the direct expression of all his country’s beliefs.
~Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World and Me


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On Charleston, Hillary Clinton, and black forgiveness

Painting for Mother Emmanuel by Ty Poe

Painting for Mother Emmanuel by Ty Poe

“They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.”
~ Jeremiah 6:14

I am deeply concerned at Hillary Clinton’s response to the events in Chicago. It is the height of ignorance and, yes, racism, to call for black forgiveness for continued violence against them. Until we as white people have acted vigorously to dismantle racism in America we have no right to call for people of color to continue to absorb its blows.

This is Clinton’s statement:

Many people of color are speaking out against Clinton’s statement, and I want to join my voice with theirs.






I would like to repeat, fervently, what I wrote last June after the murders in Charleston. There is no justice in platitudes. There is no justice in crying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. Justice cannot be found in silencing the voices of the oppressed. It can only be found in truly hearing their voices, in calling out with them and for them, and in DOING THE WORK.

On the murders in Charleston

If you only have something nice to say,
Be quiet.

Now is not the time for niceties,
For crying, “Peace, peace”
When there is no peace.

If you have a voice

If you have a soul

If you have a prayer, fine.
Say it softly to yourself.

But if you want God to hear you

If you want to pray for peace

Rend your garments
Fall to the ground

And stay there until God answers you.
And then get up and do the work.

~ Jessica Kantrowitz


Social Justice for the Socially Inept: The New Jim Crow

Social justice for the socially inept(10)

I feel I have to start a lot of my stories this way, but, this really happened, I swear.

One day last fall, after a second cup of coffee, I was pushing the double stroller to toddler tumble time and brainstorming ideas for my blog, and I came up with “Social justice Sundays.” I was thinking of all the cool guest bloggers I’d have, issues I would help us to learn about, and suggestions I’d make for my readers to make the world a better place. Then, no joke, I accidentally pushed the stroller onto the heel of a handicapped, African-American man in front of me, causing his shoe to come off. I apologized profusely and tried to help him, but he ignored me. So I went on my way, chagrined, but still daydreaming about my blog series. Then it came to me — the perfect title and the perfect description of what I wanted to write about: “Social justice for the socially inept!”

Throughout my life I have tried in various ways to be an activist, a missionary, a helper, a world-changer, but most of my attempts have fallen short, often in almost tragically comical ways. I’ve gone to Turkey, Morocco, and Croatia, I’ve been to the sites of earthquakes and wars, I’ve been to church basements and homeless shelters, I did an independent study on Christian social justice organizations at seminary. I’ve awkwardly bought coffee and sandwiches for people on the streets, some who said thank you and some who swore at me. I called 911 when I found a man passed out late at night in a subway stop. I derailed a trip to the Boston Calling music festival with some friends in college because there was a homeless man passed out on the street on the way, and I was like, “What about the story of the good Samaritan? What would Jesus do?!” But all these attempts have felt bumbling and mostly useless.  I have chronic migraines, which limit my physical involvement in many things. I am very introverted and get overwhelmed quickly in social situations. I have high emotions and tend towards high anxiety, though I’m working on that. But for me, showing up at a civil rights march would be the opposite of helpful. I’d probably get claustrophobic and panicky, start crying, and need the medics to come give me oxygen.

But there are things I can do, things I am good at. I can read. I can listen carefully and think deeply about what I hear. I can write in a way that lets others know they are not alone. So I thought that instead of flying overseas to have panic attacks at refugee camps I’d try to share a little bit of what I’ve been listening to, and start a discussion about it. If you feel similarly frustrated, wanting to do something but not knowing where to start, please join me and fumble along with me. Here at SJSI, all are welcome, grace is given freely, and there are no stupid questions.

Two of my goals this year are to educate myself about race-related issues and to encourage my white friends to come on the journey with me. Incidentally, the white folks I know (myself included) are horrified at what America is coming to and will come to if Donald Trump is elected, but the people of color I know are saying that this is where America already is, and has been.


This thought has been making me nauseous for the past several days. Our nightmare is their reality. It’s tempting for me to want to close my eyes and go back to not knowing this. But yesterday’s primaries are making that impossible. And I don’t want to live in peaceful ignorance while others are suffering. I want to learn more, and to figure out what my part can be in changing things.

JimCrowSo I thought I’d start off Social Justice for the Socially Inept with a book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. I’ve heard this book is pretty brutal to read, which makes sense if you’re used to believing in the Matrix-generated world of a more or less safe and fair USA. A few weeks ago on Facebook I asked if any of my white friends would commit to reading this with me and several did. My copy arrived in the mail yesterday, solid and heavy in my hands.

Will anyone else join us? Will we take the blue pill and wake up safe and sound in our ignorance? Or take the red pill and find out just how deep this rabbit hole goes?

“The New Jim Crow is a grand wake-up call in the midst of a long slumber of indifference to the poor and vulnerable.” —Cornel West

Yours in the journey,

We must love one another or die

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

This is the thought that has haunted me for months now, and has become more and more urgent as the primaries approach and things get more and more polarized: How can we listen to each other? Brilliant writers and theologians have done their best to parse and explain and preach, but I wonder who is really listening? Those who lean towards the left, towards what is called liberal or progressive theology and politics (I’m speaking as a Christian here) write essays and op-ed pieces which are shared by other left-leaning folks, and those who lean towards the right and what is called conservative theology and politics write and share essays and op-ed pieces that say the opposite things, and those are shared by other right-leaning folks. And the left gets left-er and the right gets right-er. But is anyone really listening to each other?

It’s hard, it’s really hard, I know, to stay open to people you disagree with. I want to block them all and unfriend them all, and live in a world where everyone makes what I call sense. It’s so reassuring to scroll through Facebook and Twitter and read posts and essays that support my views. But even if that were an acceptable way to live, it’s becoming destructive now, played out in America in truly dangerous ways.

I do think we have to stand up for what we believe in. I agree with my friend Laura Parrot Perry that we have to speak up loudly against injustice and racism and fear. Yes. And, I think we also need to be asking, Why? and How? Why are people afraid? If we assume that even those we disagree with are acting out of what they think is true and right, then why do they think that? What information or misinformation do they have that is making them think these things? And how can we address their fear and misunderstanding in a way that they may actually hear us? I just don’t think I’m changing anyone’s hearts and minds by posting article after article that supports what I believe. I think they are just blocking me, unfriending me, or tuning me out, as I am tempted to do with them. But how can I speak so that they will really listen? I don’t know, but it may start with listening myself.

Yesterday Jen Hatmaker joined many other Christian leaders in speaking out against Donald Trump and his statements about Muslims. I was grateful and proud that she took that stance, since I think many of her readers are more conservative than those of other writers I follow (like Rachel Held-Evans, Jonathan Merritt, John Pavolitz). And I was grateful, too, for the opportunity to read the comments. I would rather not have. But I settled myself down with a cup of tea and prayed to be able to set aside my own fear and anger and just listen. It was hard. But I learned a lot. I learned that many people think my views are ignorant and dangerous and ill-informed, just as I might think theirs are. I learned that there are rumors going around about Syrians that many believe, that they regularly rape young boys and that US soldiers have been commanded to overlook this out of political correctness. I already knew that people believed that most Muslims endorse violence and want to kill Christians and Americans, but I got to read some of the statistics that were being shared. It was really hard, but I’m glad I listened.

But now, I am frustrated with my own limitations, my big-picture mind that doesn’t hold on to details very well, my lack of energy to do much beyond working to pay the bills. I’m frustrated with my introversion that makes any kind of conversation challenging, much less impassioned debate. I’m frustrated by this bad cold that is fogging up my brain. I am frustrated by my lack of resources, that I don’t have the statistics on hand to counter what I believe to be false claims. I’m frustrated because I see what needs to be done next, but I don’t know how to do it.

I was reading comments several months ago on a Facebook post by Glennon Doyle Melton. I forget what the post was about (sorry, Glennon – it’s my big-picture brain), but I remember one of the comments was from an angry conservative who believed that all Muslims were violent and out to get us. And, somehow, Glennon’s sister Amanda and I managed to respond to that woman with gentleness, affirming her perspective and her value as a member of Glennon’s community, and also sharing what we knew about the peacefulness of most Muslims. I expected that either she wouldn’t reply, or that she would reply angrily. But she responded with gratitude. She had been expecting anger in response to her own anger, and our loving replies surprised her. And she actually heard us. She said she didn’t know that about Muslims, and she appreciated us telling her. She said she just never heard that perspective in her circles. Overwhelmed, I messaged Amanda, “Did you see that? LOVE WINS.” We saw each others’ humanity, and acknowledged that we were all trying to do the right thing, as best we could. And love won. Listening won. Theologian Paul Tillich said, “The first duty of love is to listen.”

So I know it’s possible. I’m just not sure how to do it on a larger scale. Of course, in one sense, it’s not possible on a larger scale, because it took that individual attention and love to make the difference. But there has to be a way to magnify it, because it’s only that love that can get us to listen to each other. What W. H. Auden wrote 76 years ago at the start of World War II is just as true now: “We must love one another or die.”

I really don’t think we have any hope in America unless we learn how to bridge the gap, to stop the polarization process, and to really listen to each other.

I think I and my fellow progressive Christians are really good at following Christ’s mandate to “love your enemies” when we see our enemies as foreigners, as people of other religions, as people different from us. But I think we have to take Jesus’ words and apply them to our fellow Americans, too. What if those Jesus is calling us to love are actually the people who hurt and anger us the most? What if the man who was beaten by robbers and left for dead is actually a conservative Christian, sporting a “Make America Great Again” cap? What would it look like for us to love that man, to succor him, to bind up his wounds, even though he stands for all that we despise? What would love like that mean?

I really don’t know the answer. I’m posting this in case someone else knows. Maybe I have one piece of the puzzle, and someone else can take it and fill in another piece. Wouldn’t that be just like the kingdom economy of Christ, who said that we need each other, every one of us, just like a body needs not just a head and hands but feet and ears, too? Maybe my big-picture brain needs to be complimented by people with detail-oriented brains.

What do you think? How can we listen to each other? How can we speak the truth and also love each other, be bold and gentle, confident and humble? How can we learn to love each other, before we all perish?


To my white friends: Four things we can do

Sandra BlandYesterday I watched the video of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop. It is terrifying. It would be extremely upsetting just in itself, but knowing that the jail she is being taken to — for changing lanes without signaling and expressing her irritation to the police officer when he asked her if she was irritated — knowing that she will die in that jail is just too horrible. And there are thousands of black women and men trying to tell us that this is not an isolated incident, that they live in this fear every day of their lives. The least we can do is listen. Friends, the very, very least we can do is listen without arguing.

If you do not have people of color in your life to listen to, find people online. Follow Austin Channing Brown​, Osheta Moore​, Bree Newsome, Karen Walrund, and Yolanda Pierce. Listen to them, and read the links they post. Go to Twitter and look up the hashtag #IfIDieInPoliceCustody and read for as long as you can before your tears blind your eyes.

If you can’t do anything else, just listen.

If you can do one thing more, acknowledge their feelings. Say, “I hear you, and I’m sorry.” It helps to have your pain acknowledged, to know that someone hears you. It matters.

If you can do one more thing after that, lament. Go to twitter and look up the hashtag #welament, and add your voice. You don’t need to write a poem or say anything profound. Just say something. Say the names of the victims of the Charleston shootings. Say the names of Sandra Bland, Yvette Smith, and Shelly Frey, say the name of Dajerria Becton. If you don’t have your own words, retweet the words of others. Mourn with those who mourn.

If you start to understand, and want to do one more thing, acknowledge your own complicity. I’ll start:

I, Jessica Kantrowitz, live in a country that was built on slave labor and has deep roots of racism and inequality. Regardless of how kind and inclusive my own thoughts and actions are, I participate in and benefit from the hundreds of small ways that the system is skewed in my favor. As long as I continue to accept those advantages and remain in a place of privilege, I am complicit in imposing disadvantages and inequality on others.

If you don’t believe my confession above, or don’t think it applies to you, please go back to step one. Please go back to listening. And maybe read this post by my friend Jaime Jennet: A Love Letter to Middle Class White Folks. This is a hard one, I know. I understand if it takes a while. Please just keep listening, keep reading, keep trying to understand. Things are not going to change until more white people understand what racism really is — not a personal attitude, not the way you yourself treat people of different races and ethnicities, but the whole history, culture, and societal structure of the country in which you live. And, do you know what? This systemic, institutional racism is hurting us, too. Listen to how lovingly James Baldwin wrote about it in a letter to his nephew [brackets mine]:

“For these innocent [white] people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

Our own freedom is at stake, here, too, friends.

Listen. Acknowledge the feelings of black women and men. Lament. Acknowledge your own role in institutional racism. These four things can change our hearts. And when our hearts are changed, we can begin to change the tide of history. There is much work to be done, but we can’t get down to work until we really understand what is going on and what our own part in it is.

Thank you for listening, friends.

Much love,