On March 20, 2010 Tavis Smiley held a roundtable discussion with leading activists, intellectuals and clergy of the African American community. I was looking forward to watching the program and thus being inspired by the likes of Jesse Jackson, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson and others. However, not long into the event, activist Dorothy Wright Tillman began to proffer inaccurate and inflammatory assessments of the Latina/o community. Despite the fact that she is a left-leaning civil rights activist, her rhetoric was as damaging and ill informed as some of the speeches I have recently heard coming from the mouth of Sarah Palin. Allow me to share one of the similarities between Dorothy’s speech and that of Sarah Palin:
When you look at our community, our communities are being gentrified. People are being spread out all over the place to keep moving, but you be quiet.”
She single handedly placed all the problems of gentrification at the feet of Latina/os. I was struck by her apparent lack of knowledge about the problem of gentrification being faced in urban areas by all marginalized communities. Are not Latinos/as, Asians and poor Whites being displaced at the same rate as blacks? With Cornel West cheering her on and the silent complicity of Micheal Eric Dyson and Jesse Jackson, she continued her inflammatory rhetoric by lambasting educational opportunities for Latinas/os. She states,
The President of the United States has a Department of Education for Hispanics. We need a Department of Education for Black people too. I am not knocking them.”
When she stated “I am not knocking them” my assumption was that this statement was not genuine, and I was left feeling that she knew full well how the average listener would react to such a comment. This is comparable to Sarah Palin suggesting that her use of the term “reloading” was not intended to connect and fuel the violent reactions of many gun carrying conservatives. Do Dorothy Wright Tillman and the other members of the panel truly believe that this sort of rhetoric does not cause anti-Latina/o sentiments within the African American community? When referring to (but refusing to name) the Puerto Rican Adolfo Carrion Jr., White House Director of Urban Policy, Tillman states:
And he has someone over there, when he talks about urban affairs where most of your urban cities, Detroit, Gary, Chicago, Ohio, Philadelphia, are Black people, he puts a Latino, Hispanic, over there, never even put a Black to balance that out. Are we not supposed to talk about that?”
If we continue to operate under the amoral politics of numbers/majorities, then we are definitely in trouble. True justice will never occur. If a justice based on numbers is what she is advocating for with the apparent consent of West, Dyson, Smiley, Farrakhan, Jackson and others then Latinas/os would be more deserving being an overwhelming majority among minorities! Her rationale for this diatribe seems to have been that only African Americans came to this country involuntarily and are the only group that have experienced enslavement. She either lacks basic knowledge of the histories of immigration or has intentionally dismissed the facts in an effort to fuel the fires of her ethnocentrism. Does she really believe that blacks from all over the Caribbean and Latin America arrived to the shores of the Americas on Cruise Liners or via Jet Blue? Did Puerto Ricans choose to come to the United States or did the United States first invade the Island in 1898? Did Mexicans choose to come to United States or did the U.S. locate itself in what historically had been huge Mexican territories? As stated by Angelo Falcon, Director of NLIP: “Later in the discussion, Tillman discussed how President Obama ignores the Congressional Black Caucus but listens to Hispanic politicians like Congressman Luis Gutierrez. Throughout her remarks she referred to no other racial-ethnic group to describe how Blacks are being marginalized today. No one at the roundtable challenged the divisive nature of these comparisons.”
We need to begin sincere and loving conversations about coalition building rather than attacking other oppressed communities who are simply trying to survive. This requires informed, nuanced conversations rather than hateful rhetoric.
On Wednesday, March 24th, communities all around the world commemorated the 30 year anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero. Instead of spending time talking about who Romero was and why his life was significant (if you are wondering, at the bottom of this post there are a number of links to give you an idea), I want to share some of his words that that feel particularly relevant in light of an event I attended this Tuesday on the Union campus entitled “People with a Mission, People with a Vision: Pentecostalism in the Borderlands.”
One of the signs of the present time is the idea of participation, the right that all persons have to participate in the construction of their own common good. For this reason, one of the most dangerous abuses of the present time is repression, the attitude that says, “Only we can govern, no one else, get rid of them.”
Everyone can contribute much that is good, and in that way trust is achieved. The common good will not be attained by excluding people. We can’t enrich the common good of our country by driving out those we don’t care for. We have to try to bring all that is good in each person and try to develop an atmosphere of trust, not with physical force, as though dealing with irrational beings, but with a moral force that draws out the good that is in everyone especially in concerned young people.
Thus, with all contributing their own interior life, their own responsibility, their own way of being, all can build the beautiful structure of the common good, the good that we construct together and that creates conditions of kindness, of trust, of freedom, of peace.
Then we can, all of us together, build the republic – the res publica, the public concern – what belongs to all of us and what we all have the duty of building.”
Óscar Romero, July 10, 1977
This “driving out” of people that Monseñor Romero speaks of happens here in the United States on a number of different levels. It happens when we detain and deport people who don’t have the documentation we deem necessary to be here. But it also happens when we decided who gets included in conversation, particularly a conversation about the common good.
Another focus on Romero’s ministry revolved around the idea of church. It is abundantly clear that for Romero, the church was a body of faithful who are committed to live out the gospel, not a building or denominational structure. This is particularly important given that who we consider the church has significant implications for how we live out our faith.
It has been my experience that often in the liberal protestant world, our noble intentions often blind us to who we see or include, or make space for, to participate as we seek to work for the common good. We miss out on seeing other communities that must be part of the conversation, and become uncomfortable with the possibility that this presence may actually change the way we have the conversation. The reality is that if we don’t work collectively towards the common good, the conversations happen separately and we are denied the opportunity to truly be the church that Romero speaks of and Jesus calls us to. Latino protestants, or rather evangelicos/as, are among those that are not engaged when we have these conversations. Because of a lack of understanding the history of evangelicos/as in the United States and internationally, as well as assumptions about their theology and culture, have deemed them to be non-participants by the predominantly white liberal protestant church.
Participating in the Borderlands Pentecostalism lecture series was an opportunity for me to engage in conversation about the common good with people of faith and religious leaders whom I too seldom engage. I am encouraged by events such as this at Union and thankful to be stretched and pushed in my understanding of the evangelico and Latino pentecostal community.
Links for further information about Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero:
What has happened over the past year with all of the critical issues that motivated me to campaign and vote for President Obama. One such issue is Comprehensive Immigration Reform. During the campaign I had the opportunity to meet President Barrack Obama. As I sat beside him in the conference room at BMCC in NYC, the only question I posed to him that day was “What will you do about immigration reform? “ He answered, “I am in favor of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” I must say I felt his answer was rehearsed and that it was not a priority issue for him. I guess my intuition was correct. Since becoming president the Obama administration has deported more immigrants in a 12 month period than the Bush administration did within the same time frame. In this first year of his presidency 387,000 immigrants were deported and, sadly, on any given day there are 32,000 immigrants being held within inhumane detention centers throughout our country. If immigrants are not a priority in his administration, certainly, one would hope that the civil liberties of US citizens would be. I would have imagined that The Patriot Act, one of the worse remnants of the Bush administration and one of the greatest challenges to civil liberties that our citizens have ever faced, would certainly be dealt with swiftly by this new administration. To the extreme disappointment of many, that has not been the case. Several weeks ago, President Obama signed a one year extension of the Patriot Act. It seems that the Obama administration is also caving in to pressure to continue the legacy of the Bush administration which has held military tribunals, rather than providing civilian trials for suspected “Enemy Combatants.” I do not understand how the most egregious aspects of the Bush administration continue to haunt our society.
“Predicando en Calzoncillos” is a phrase my grandmother used which, literally translated, means “Preaching in Underwear.” My grandmother used this phrase to refer to the hypocrisy of preachers who did not practice what they preached. Our country, that I love, unfortunately falls into this category of hypocrisy. Although I believe that for the cause of freedom and morality, it was correct for President Obama to have met with His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, neither the Chinese nor any other government should dictate to the President of the United States who he can or should meet with, particularly when the meeting in question would be with such an esteemed, inspirational human being as The Dali Lama. The position taken by the Chinese government is one of questionable moral standing since it involves the liberation of the Tibetan people from the colonial/imperial subjugation of the Chinese government, a cause for which most U.S. citizens sympathize. Whether imaginary or real, our history as a nation to a large extent traces its beginnings to liberation movements that sought to free itself from the crushing feet of the British Empire. Unfortunately, President Obama participated in this meeting with the Dali Lama on very shaky moral ground, since the United States of America has in its possession one of the longest held colonies in modern history: The Island Nation of Puerto Rico.
How can we as a country advocate for the democracy and self-determination of others, and even castigate other nations that obstruct the right to the self-determination of sovereign nations, when we are currently guilty of the same behavior? Furthermore, how can we, with a clear conscious, keep imprisoned those who have fought for the liberation of their country? The United States had been holding Carlos Alberto Torres in jail for 30 years, making him one of the longest held political prisoners because he struggled for the right to self-determination for the Puerto Rican people. I believe that we must move forward in this arena and begin to lead by example. I sincerely hope and pray that the Obama administration is able to lead us onto that path so that we may begin to preach fully clothed.
I wholeheartedly believe that issues of Justice, fairness and equity especially as they relate to ecological, gender, sexual, racial/cultural and economic realities should occupy the forefront of our theologies. In my experiential opinion, justice should take precedence over any other theological concerns. I say this not only as a theologian, but as a black Latino male. Any theologizing about God and her being and very existence, is really irrelevant for all important purposes if issues of equity for all human being are not addressed.
This leads me to discuss my experiences within some of the mainline historical denominations in the US. I have come to accept that perhaps the most unabashedly racist institutions in our society are churches and their denominational organizations. This may be due in part to some prominent teachings that are remnants of 16th century reformation theology such as “justification by faith and grace alone,” constructs of “saint and sinner” and notions that God is able to forgive us even for sins perpetrated against others. Intentionally or not, these teachings facilitate the ability for individuals to continue hating, because, in accordance with the teachings of Luther and Calvin, the depth of human deprivation is so deep and encompassing that evil/racism is not in the sphere of human agency/volition to be confronted. Therefore thanks be to God for her grace that is freely bestowed upon the sinner exonerating him or her from all consequences of their sins.
I ask myself: Does God really have the right to forgive someone who trespasses against me, without asking for my permission? Does God have the right to forgive those who, due to ignorance or evil have caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children, women and men? Does God have the authority to forgive those Christians who continue to break and destroy the self-esteem of others and dehumanize their fellow human beings simply because of the color of their skin or culture? I will leave these questions to be answered by the theologians. It seems to me that God has a perpetual public relations nightmare to address!