Neutralizing Racist Emblems

Neutralizing Racist Emblems

Americans need a crash course in how to argue.

Inundated by partisan “screaming head” content daily on cable TV and blogs and social networks, we need a refresher on respecting opposing views for a healthy public discourse.

As a college English professor, I’ve been wondering about this as I witness my freshman composition students struggle to explain opposite viewpoints in essays. But after reading about Byron Thomas, a 19-year-old University of South Carolina freshman, I’m encouraged.

Thomas, who is black, hung a Confederate flag in his dorm room window after researching its meaning. Initially there were no complaints, but then university administrators asked him to take it down for violating the school’s anti-racism code. Thankfully, they came to their senses and reneged, realizing they were violating his right to free speech.

The Confederate or Rebel Flag is what Southern states that seceded from the Union fought and lost under during the Civil War against the North. The war was complex, but hinged and swung on slavery, especially as black men joined the Union army, helping to turn the tide toward victory. For many, the defeated Confederate Flag remains a symbol of racism and white supremacy.

In a video blog post, Thomas explained that he understands this history and respects blacks and whites who have fought and died for justice and equality. He believes the flag was co-opted by racists and chooses to see it as a symbol of states’ rights and smaller federal government. Besides, the near extinction of Indians happened under the American Flag, as well as slavery, sexism, legal segregation and the discrimination and racism that remain today. Thomas’ point is that these are shackles of previous generations and he wants his Millennials to have their turn with the banner for a better future. Move forward by changing what old symbols mean.

Of course, this is not a popular position for an African American to take, no matter how well reasoned. And just a glance at some of the negative comments at the CNN blog post about Thomas’ story reveals the intensity of emotion on this issue.

Even Thomas’ parents have challenged him on the matter, to the point that he said he was reluctant to raise the flag again because of their disappointment. As a parent of college students, I understand their concern. But as a Gen-Xer who believes in pushing boundaries, I’m impressed with this young man.

Can and should we change the meaning of symbols? Of course. It often happens with our language over time as words, which are merely symbols of meaning, evolve. “Bad” changes to “good.” “Cool” changes from a description of temperature to a description of one’s popularity. “Nigger” becomes “Nigga.” (Well, I don’t know about that one).

But the point is if we listen to each other, and take time to understand opposing views, we could become better informed in our convictions or perhaps change for good. We might find that we share more in common than not. Symbols and meanings are social constructs. They exist in the mind. If we truly strive for peace and understanding, even evil symbols, such as Swastikas or “stars and bars,” can weaken to worthlessness, especially among those who never suffered under them. The cross was a symbol of pain and condemnation, but Jesus turned it into one of ultimate sacrifice and redemption, right?

Well, the risk of what Thomas proposes is that we forget why the symbol was changed. “Choosing” to see the Confederate flag as non-racist also plays to the agenda of those who, in the name of “honoring Southern heritage,” would delete slavery and black pain from the Civil War narrative. This would be particularly devastating if embraced by young blacks — the generation for whom slaves prayed to God to grant a better future. It is our responsibility to honor our ancestors by “never forgetting” and by achieving dreams that for them were deferred.

Perhaps the younger generation could weaken the Confederate Flag by commercializing it. They could sport “Confed Gear” like how those “X” hats and shirts promoting Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcom X went out of style when white kids began wearing them, too. I could be wrong, but it seems Thomas is on the right track in understanding free speech and using it for the public good. He told CNN the following:

“I learned that my generation of people are applauding me and telling me they want to see things different now. I’ve gotten so many friend requests on Facebook. They are encouraging me. The generation before has mixed views about it, strong views. The generation before won’t let us think for ourselves. They had their chance to think and run things but we need to have our chance. We will have our turn to step up to the plate and get out of this mess that we’re in.

“I respect where they are coming from. I’m not saying that what happened didn’t happen. We don’t want history to repeat itself, but I see where they are coming from. They endured things I might never endure, but why do I still have to feel grounded, that I have to endure it? They weren’t allowed to go to school with white people but I am. I have never been to a school without white people. Why can’t my generation start making our own history? I respect every black person for the civil rights movement. I just want us to move on from all of the hatred that’s still dividing us today. I’m tired of us still being divided.”

Son, you are persuasive and I’m proud of you for having the guts to make this sound, thoughtful argument.

Your parents raised you well.

Stumbling Toward Holiness

Stumbling Toward Holiness

As it turns out, do-it-yourself is not just for Home Depot or Lowe’s aficionados. Jana Riess, author of the new book Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, which was released by Paraclete Press last month, attempts to achieve sainthood in 12 easy months.

As Riess writes in the introduction to her book, “this project originated as a lighthearted effort to read spiritual classics while attempting a year of faith-related disciplines like fasting, Sabbath keeping, chanting and the Jesus Prayer.” Each month, Riess endeavored to read a new spiritual classic such as writings from the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers (some of the first hermits of the Christian tradition) while incorporating a spiritual discipline such as fasting. (She even reveals how to eat Girl Scout Cookies while losing weight! Read for the skinny!)

However, by year’s end, Riess was reminded why Jesus had to die on the cross: she failed at keeping even her own rules and regulations for the project. From reciting the 12-word Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” — to keeping the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath (which included pre-shedding her toilet paper prior to her Sabbath observance), Riess concludes that sainthood is not a do-it-yourself project for the light of heart. Still, though she flunked sainthood, she gained valuable insights into herself that translated into her irreverent yet poignant book.

Riess, who blogs at Beliefnet.com and is the author or editor of nine other books, spoke to UrbanFaith about Flunking Sainthood.

URBAN FAITH: You mentioned that your year of DIY Holiness was your effort to “pop a little zing back” into your relationship with God or the “spiritual equivalent of greeting Jesus at the door wrapped in cellophane.” Did it do that for you?

JANA RIESS: Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. There were certain practices that were more resonant with me than others. For example, the Jesus Prayer definitely had that effect.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT? Jana Riess learned that the quest to become a mature Christian is more about the journey than the end result.

You write about how difficult it was for you to implement these new disciplines and read these Christian classics each month. Did you expect it to be that hard?

I think I was naïve going into the project. There were some practices that I expected to be difficult like fasting which is why I wanted to get that out of the way quickly, so I chose to fast in February, the shortest month of the year.

But there were other practices that I was expecting, frankly, to be much easier than they were … like gratitude. I was very surprised by how difficult it can be to sustain genuine gratitude. We talk a lot about being thankful and what that means, especially at this time of year with the holidays. With being thankful, one thing that I discovered is that it is difficult to sustain gratitude over the long term for things that are fleeting — even things like health. We’re always most grateful for our health when we’re just getting over an illness rather than if we have a long period where we’re feeling just great.

What was your favorite spiritual practice and why?

My favorite spiritual practice was the Jesus Prayer, and that’s the only one that I’m still doing every day, because its only 12 words long. It is something I’m able to incorporate into daily life very easily. It’s also not showy. Other people don’t even have to know if I’m saying the Jesus Prayer in my mind. Some of the practices that I tried were very obvious, like fasting or practicing financial generosity, because they involved other people. Because the Jesus Prayer has an emphasis on the fact that I’m a sinner, it reminded me that I’m not in the position to judge other people, which is something I need to be reminded of every day.

Although you earnestly attempt to implement these spiritual disciplines from month to month, your sense of humor makes it clear that you don’t take yourself too seriously. Do you think that Christians should inject humor into their spiritual lives, or is this just a part of your personality?

Both. I think that it’s essential for me to have humor in every aspect in my life. Humor is a wonderful way of helping us to not take ourselves too seriously and to deal with hard times. I think also many Christians could try to inject a little levity in their lives and in their relationships. We need more joy frankly, many of us.

There’s a wonderful book that just came out by Father James Martin. He’s the resident priest on The Colbert Report. He’s very funny. The book is called Between Heaven and Mirth, and it’s about humor and the Christian faith. One of the things that I took away from that book is that instead of trivializing deep religious faith, humor can actually enhance deep religious faith and make it stronger. He points out places in the Bible where humor is used intentionally and places in religious history where humor is important. It’s a good book.

Do you feel that many Christians are unaware of the spiritual classics, or even some of the spiritual practices that you mention in the book?

Yes, I think that’s true. It’s certainly true in my religious tradition. It is difficult to try to make some of these texts more relevant for today. Some of them may be off-putting. I mention in Chapter 3 that Brother Lawrence’s book rubbed me the wrong way in some instances, even though it was very spiritually enriching. Just the style of it is so different — the author referring to himself in the third person. It’s just a very different kind of book than what we would read today. So sometimes I think the spiritual classics get ignored simply because they are not written how we would write now.

Do you think that God requires that we implement all of these practices or read all of the spiritual classics?

No. And thank goodness! I think that are many different kinds of spiritual practices precisely because there are so many different kinds of people. And when we beat ourselves up for not being able to do all of them perfectly, we are not even honoring who we are in all of our diversity. Some people are more active. They are doers in the world. They are into social justice. Other people could think of nothing better than to sit for two hours a day in deep prayer. People are so different.

What advice do you have for other aspiring saints, other than reading your book?

Although I flunked sainthood and often felt that I was doing these practices far from perfectly, there was tremendous value in doing them. We don’t expect that we’re going to read a book about soccer and then suddenly be able to play it the very next day like Pelé. We practice if we’re in a sport or trying to learn to play an instrument, and the practice in itself is the journey rather than the destination. Not every athlete is going to make it into the Olympics, and not every Christian is going to be able to fit into contemplative prayer. But we learn from the doing.

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Oldies but Goodies

If you’d like to follow Jana Riess’s lead and add some Christian classics to your reading list, here are a few that Jana recommends:

The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul by the 19th-century French saint Thérèse, a young nun known as “the Little Flower of Jesus,” sought to forget herself in quiet acts of love (translated by John Beevers).

Eternal Wisdom from the Desert: Writings from the Desert Fathers; 3rd-century monks and nuns drawn to live in the Egyptian desert; they were the first hermits of the Christian tradition and inspired the model for Christian monasticism. (edited by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.).

The Rule of Saint Benedict by Saint Benedict, the 6th-century Italian monk considered the father of Western monasticism; his “rule” were spiritual precepts distinguished by a unique spirit of balance, reasonableness, and moderation.

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century French monk; known as “Lawrence of the Resurrection,” his primary message was focused on being aware of God’s presence in daily life.