The More Things Stay the Same

November 17, 2015

The more things change the more they stay the same is one of the more depressing cliches but one that seems to always prove true.

I recently stopped at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, AL while on the road visiting friends in southern Alabama. It’s located across the street from the very church where an infamous bomb killed four children in Sunday School at the height of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. A monument outside of the class marks the spot where the bomb went off at a church still going strong in 2015. Inside the Institute are countless documents and recreations of what life was like in Birmingham when Police Chief Bull Conner and Governor George Wallace waged war on the black citizens of the city. Pictures of police officers with high pressure hoses peeling the skin off of children. City ordinances forbidding white and black people from playing checkers together. Rusty “colored” fountains adjacent to sparkling “white” ones. If you have even a passing knowledge of basic twentieth century US history much of what you see at the Institute is probably not entirely new but no less important or thought-provoking to see in person. I’ve visited similar museums in Memphis and Atlanta but this one was notable for artifacts from not so long ago detailing the extremity of perhaps the most violently segregated city in the country as well as of the struggle of the Freedom Riders. Also notable are the wings showcasing Richard Arrington Jr.’s administration as the first black mayor of Birmingham and the civil rights timeline extending through to the Rodney King assault as well as featuring civil rights struggles from around the world continuing to this day.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many people walk out of such museums thinking “wow, how far we’ve come”  delusional enough to believe the civil rights struggle is fully resolved and a thing of the past. How many do not connect the dots to the events going on right now in America? An entire wing could be added to the exhibit covering the last 2 years alone. Walk outside of the Institute and connect the dots, it’s not that difficult. Take a look at the black folks begging for money, homeless, in a park full of civil rights statues. Ponder the missing affordable housing and impact of gentrification. Think about the people of color who die today at the hands of corrupt police officers. Think about the way minorities–not only blacks but Latinos, immigrants, the poor and the LGBT–are treated today.

How would Fox News have covered the civil rights struggle? It’s not difficult to imagine them denouncing “King the Communist” or shrieking in loud angry voices why more aren’t outraged at the “war on cops” fought by “non compliant’ blacks in the south. “Fox and Friends” would blast freedom riders and marchers for “disrespecting” Wallace and Connor. How would the rest of us fare? I think it’s obvious–just look how we are faring now with those fighting for rights in our midst today. People like to imagine how proactive and engaged they would have been, marching right along MLK Jr. all while denouncing pretty much everything he stood for today. Most people would have just been silent–maybe horrified at the images of women and children being beaten and arrested but afraid to upset their neighbors and church mates by being “too political”.

I’m just exhausted. I’m sure if anyone of the conservative side is reading right now you’ve written me off on this. That’s fine. I have always tried to empathize, respect differing opinions, and be ever open to learning more about the issue at hand. I value knowledge and diversity and have worked, studied and done my best to grow as a person all my life. I have always written off many of the more heinous viewpoints and -isms as a result of ignorance–people just don’t know any better. Of course fear and greed are often reasons people mistreat others or harbor bad ideologies, but with people I love or respect I have assumed more often than not they simply did not know any better. But here’s the thing–information is everywhere if you care to look for it and compassion is a readily available choice if you care to make it. If you are under the age of 75 or so living in America today and have not been through a horrible situation that might have warped your sensibilities and judgements, you have no justifiable reason to be openly and actively racist, sexist, heterosexist or xenophobic. I say openly and actively because I know -isms are embedded in us, that almost everyone harbors some prejudices even if they wish they didn’t. Depending on where you live and how you were raised these can differ drastically but they are almost always there everywhere in the world. When you, as a compassionate and knowledgeable person become aware of your own prejudices you work on them. But when you, as a person with access to all of the knowledge you could want elect to hate, discriminate or assault another human being because of their race, creed color or sexual identity you are unequivocally immoral.

The furor across social media and even in public discourse over Syrian refugees reaffirms the depressing axiom that the more things change the more they stay the same. After all, the US did turn away the first groups of refugees fleeing Europe during the Nazi rise to power. Most Americans coldly tuning their backs then, as today, were Christians. I’ve been writing on  the relationship between morality and religiosity on this site lately and though this post may seem like a detour  it isn’t. The American response to the refugee crisis perfectly showcases a lack of positive correlation between religiosity and morality. It seems for most people religiosity is good until it conflicts with another belief or desire then it is quietly thrown into the back-seat. People are fleeing war, violence, sexual assault, bombs, starvation and oppression. The Christian response seems like a no-brainer—welcome, serve, care for the weak and oppressed. That’s what the World Council of Churches, the League of Catholic Bishops and Episcopal Migration Services are doing and urging their fellow Christians to do but a shocking percentage of Christians are saying no thanks. I’ve read or heard everything from “Jesus was no wimp who would want us to endanger our families” (as if self-preservation was the number one goal of Jesus) to “we have homeless kids of our own to worry about” (as if you are doing anything to help those children or address the systems that cause their homelessness). Just admit that on this issue, you choose not to follow your religion. You choose to ignore it or reinterpret it. That’s fine. There are secularists and atheists who will work with the religious bodies urging your help instead of you–just think before you try to use your religion to dictate their moral choices in the future.

So as I’ve stressed–I believe religion and morality are separate and distinct with little to no positive correlation between them without politics, geography or another such factor to steer them on one path or the other. Islamic extremists just committed appalling atrocities in Paris. Though their acts violate every basic tenet of their text and tradition let’s not pretend that religion itself was in no way a factor in their decision-making process. It was, it’s just that it was filtered through a specific violent interpretation and implementation taught by an armed political terrorist group. Conversely, Muslims scholars, leaders and teachers all around the world are publicly denouncing ISIS, their theology and their actions. Muslims all around the world from every walk of life are denouncing these attacks and all others like them in the #notinmyname campaign. There are 1.5 billion + Muslims in the world and less than half of one percent of them are violent extremists. Right now in America, millions of Christians are defying the pleas of most Christian religious leadership bodies and are turning a cold heart to desperate hurting people. Those aren’t good stats. It’s ironic that many of those who follow a religion founded on the life and teachings of a Middle Eastern Jewish refugee have no love or compassion for similar people today.

I’ll get back to my series of posts next time by considering what morality even is. It may seem odd that I blatantly denounce the mistreatment of refugees as “immoral” without specifying what that word implies but I assume anyone reading who has the slightest inclination or understanding of “morality” can see immorality on display in national responses right now. If not, I’m not sure I have any time for you anymore anyway.

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One Response to “The More Things Stay the Same”

  1. Wonderful article. Wish I had your writing skills and ability to articulate but I don’t so I’ll be sharing your message…with credit of course.

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