Friday, March 31, 2017

facing white privilege: a film series...


Facing White Privilege: A six part film series

As we continue deeper into this presidency, the project of deconstructing white privilege becomes ever more important. This year we have a valuable resource from a surprising place, i.e., Hollywood. After the embarrassment of 2016’s #oscarssowhite, there was actually a solid list of African-American themed films both nominated…and winning, not the least of which Best Picture winner Moonlight. (Leaving aside the whole embarrassing scene around the presentation of that award, metaphoric in its own right.) There were in fact enough films to create a film series that a congregation or study group could use to explore white privilege from the perspective of African-American artists.

Let’s take a look at these films:

First, Hidden Figures. ( nominations…Best Picture, Supporting actress Octavia Spencer and Adapted Screenplay). This, the most traditional of the films, tells the story of three African-American women Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson who were vital to the success of the Mercury 7 space launch. The film depicts the prejudice that was the norm at the NASA facility in a segregated Virginia. (It also secondarily shows how sexism limited the roles of women.) The women through grit and determination survive the racism and take their rightful roles with the assistance of a supervisor, Al Harrison,  who realizes the importance of the best, no matter what, we all cheer when he takes a sledge hammer to the colored bathroom sign, and astronaut John Glenn. It becomes clear that racism was holding the US space program back and a choice had to be made between maintaining old structures and having a program be as successful as it could. All the right heart strings are rigged as the women succeed.

From a movie about a true story, there were 3 significant actual documentaries.  The winner, OJ: Made in America, was a actually a five part 7.5 hour long ESPN series. ( You watch, are amazed at how much we forget and see the story of OJ in its context. You see his rise to fame as a “safe” (ie, deracinated black man), the trauma of the Rodney King era LAPD relentless assault on the black community. And how the trial became a touchstone in our national drama. Underneath the prosecution’s bungling of the case (why did this make me think of the Clinton campaign?) and irrespective of OJ’s guilt or innocence, Attorney Cochran weary showed that whether or not they planted evidence intros case, the LAPD certainly could have based own its attitudes and culture. Cochran didn’t so much play the race card as revealed what was already there. In Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, Michael Eric Dyson has pointed out how for black Americans, this case was payback. And more than one juror in the  film attests to that reality. It’s important to remember that 95 million  Americans watched OJ’s white bronco run…more than the Superbowl. The nation was transfixed. It is tragic that the Rodney King videos look like they could have been on this morning’s news. 

13th is required watching.(Best documentary nomination    The title refers to the 13th amendment which abolished slavery…except for criminals. It shows how that loophole was used to criminalize blackness and find anew way to enslave African-Americans. In illustrating what Michelle Alexander has named the New Jim Crow,  Ava Du Vernay’s film clearly shows the connection between mass incarceration and police violence. (To which one could add gentrification) Today’s mass incarceration is a direct (chain) link back to US slave history and  until this issue is truly wrestled wth, slavery is not only a legacy but an unsealing wound in society.  Consider: one of every four African-Ameriocan males will do time in  prison...

Finally,  Raoul Peck’s “I am not your Negro” (Best documentary nomination). This documentary follows an essay by Baldwin dealing with the lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. It s both revealing as to Baldwin’s subjects but also to his internal life. It captures the searingly beautiful lyricism of Baldwin’s prose. One early intercut views of recent police violence illustrates…again and yet again…how little has changed. We see the tragedy that the US could not understand the opportunity that Evers, King and Malcolm X offered. And it shows that King snd Malcolm had arrived at virtually the same place vis a vis American society. Through Baldwin’s voice, we hear his unrelieved anguish and tragic lack of hope  for the future. We hear why he had to go in exile  to Paris and then had to return. We hear in the awkward words of Dick Cavett our inability to even find the language to talk about our struggles with this issue. Baldwin’s look in response captures the knowing bemusement, resignation and sadness of the reality. While he had loving relationships with individual white people, his sense of hopelessness is a stern warning  to any who see us in a post racial society. 

Fences and Moonlight serve as bookends. Through the very particular lives of individual black people in specific contexts in two eras, film with no significant white characters whatsoever, we gain insight into the universal human reality. Through the lens of blackness. Between the two of then they garnered a dozen nominations ranging for best picture too score.  

Denzell Washington’s Fences brings the work of August Wilson to the screen and makes it  available etc those may not have been able to experience his plays. Wilson may be the quintessential American playwright of the 20th Century. His 10 Play cycle…one for every a vibrant, passionate, loving and lyrical portrayal of African-American life through the century. Once complete, he died soon thereafter. I have had a special love of Wilson’s plays because all but one are set in Pittsburgh and show me the tie of my home town I never knew. For those who say the words are too poetic, I disagree. When I go around the corner from my apartment  on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, Boulevardrd, in front of the liquor store, and listen to the men, I hear the braggadocio, the metaphor, the dance and parry that is Wilson’s language. In Fences we are taken to Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the mid-50’s.  We see a world shaped and controlled by white people, even when invisible, including the commonness of the prison experience, and its impact on one man, Troy Maxon and his family. August Wilson opens for us a world we would otherwise never see….or hear….

Moonlight accomplishes the same thing in a different era. It is in short an exquisite motion picture. A true film in every way from cinematography to sound. It’s beauty takes us into a world where white people are fro all intents and purposes irrelevant. Like Wilson, Barry Jenkins gives us characters who are complex, not easily categorized. We find, for example, drug dealers who can be caring and compassionate and valuable to their community as well as destructive. (One can think of the similarities of legal jobs of white people that are destructive been when the individuals may be more complex..) We also get to see how that world looks though the perspective of queerness. It gives us the opportunity to talk about what moves us, what we connect with, in a story in which we collectively have no visible role. 

Together these films give us a sound insight into what white privilege means and what our societal reality is like for the African-Americans who live within it. We get a broad and deep view without having to ask any African-Americnas we know to….. once again…. be our tour guides int blackness. The journey is very long. It’s time to start….

Friday, March 17, 2017

Hegemony How-To: a review

A Review

Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals
A review by Robert Brashear

As one who was profoundly occupied by the Occupy movement, both literally and figuratively for years, I jumped in to Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To…with great anticipation.  The book is both a critical analysis of that moment in US social history and also a valuable road map to organizing for broad based social change. For those of us who not only want to imagine a better world but actually help create it, this book is a very valuable tool. More explicitly, for those who understand that we must not only remove a President but an entire infrastructure that runs through the cabinet and congress, this may be the most important book you may read right now. 

First, the word hegemony has for most of us negative connotations.  While I suspect Smucker is being playfully provocative, for him in this book, hegemony is defined as  leadership or predominant influences exercised by one group within national, regions or local political spheres. For those of us who are experienced in classical community organizing, Smucker provides a potential bridge from the local to the national. And therein is the value.  Smucker’s analysis comes not only from a close look at Occupy, but at the 60’s movements Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). 

As a trained organizer, Smucker begins with stating the importance of power. He reminds us, that as Dr. King said, …power is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose…and that the refusal to use power is both political suicide and the abdication of moral responsibility.. He likewise makes us take a closer look at coercion as an appropriate tool, rightly pointing out that from strikes to community organization actions, change is achieved through coercion. What is critical is the content and practice of that coercion. 

Smucker also critiques the idea of the righteous few, that is the tendency towards insularity and self-selection that can lead inevitably to encapsulation, e.g., how SDS ultimately left behind the thousands who were being attracted to it and morphed into the Weather Underground. At less dramatic levels, progressives can be drawn towards that same tendency, viewing ourselves as the righteous few. 

What is missed is Pablo Freire’s  question: What can we do now in order to do tomorrow what we cannot do today? Or the responsibility to improve real people’s lives, mitigate real suffering and oppression in the here and now.. (That debate that we engaged in around Bernie vs. Hilary vs. non-participation. A debate that now feels like a luxury.)  That responsibility is the main motivator of most organizers I know. 

Smucker appropriately points out the difference in tasks of achieving moral legitimacy vs. political legitimacy, the symbolic contest vs. the institutional contest. For example, Occupy succeeded in winning the symbolic contest by introducing the inclusive concept of the 99%. A potentially large we. The political opportunity, the potential to realize actual institutional change was squandered. 
To build real power, it is necessary to move beyond self-selected groups like OWS and learn how to incorporate already existing blocs, as the SCLC did in the Civil  Rights Movement. As Alinskyite like the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organizations do at the local level by being an organization of organizations. 

It’s also helpful to consider how we recruit people to demonstrations, for example.  Most progressives continue to argue the moral point even with people who already agree with them. The most important question get me to show up is what will  be  accomplished? Most of us have the 3-6 people who if they ask us to show up we’ll be there,no questions asked, because we know they will never waste our time as we will  not waste their’s. An organizer needs credibility on the outcomes side. Moral Mondays works because it’s moral grounding has actual political demands. It also works because MM shares a common moral language with the North Carolina legislature.

The leads to a conversation about shaping the meta narrative, or put another way, shaping what is understood to be, what Smucker calls  common sense. The everybody knows…Smucker looks at this as an achievable task. There is a spectrum of positions related to what is important to us: active opposition, passive opposition, neutrality, passive support, active support. The goal is to, through the use of dialogue and conversation, not debate, seek to find common  moral values, getting someone to shift just one position to the left on the spectrum. That is enough to bring about meaningful change. It’s what Smucker calls narrative insurgency, changing the narrative, the common sense,  from the inside out. 

As many progressives have come from a post-modern philosophical perspective, Smucker raises a caution as to the problems in finding moral common ground in a post-modern society. (That’s what makes New York a more complicated environment than North Carolina for a Moral Mondays type movement to be effective.) 

Related to OWS, Smucker believes that the allergy to leadership and refusal to be political along with its paralyzing commitment to hyper-democratic concensus decision-making were fatal flaws. I would, for the  most part, agree. 

Smucker connects the emergence of OWS to the preceding anti-World Trade Organization protests, the Battle of Seattle, etc. And that is his background. But there were other streams as well, e.g., disaffected Obama campaign volunteers who felt their hope betrayed and brought passion and highly developed social media skills with them. There was always a constant tension between anarchist and movement politics that became paralyzing, in my observation.  (I continue to be curious as to how the Occupy culture came to be. Who proposed the working groups, spokescouncil structure, facilitation methods, etc? That will be someone else’s book…)

Likewise, I have tended to be defensive about the accepted wisdom that OWS was a failure. I sincerely appreciate Smucker’s assessment that changing the common sense around income inequality was a significant victory. His critiques are equally valid. But I would add what is not so directly visible:

  1. The radical success of Occupy Sandy that will have long term political effects in Staten Island and Rockaway 
  2. Occupiers who remained and embedded themselves in New York City politics and had a real impact on City Council elections.
  3. OWS veterans providing broad based logistical support for the Climate Change march. 
  4. OWS veterans providing logistical support for Black Lives Matter 
  5. OWS veterans in the heart of the Bernie Sanders campaign                                                                           There is a through line there that can’t be ignored. We are at a moment when a broad based national movement not only to resist but to reshape and reform needs to come into being. In that regard I appreciate his criticism of the word activist. It is a contentless word describing activity, not commitment.  What is clear  is that a class of professional activists…and accompanying 501c3’s… has emerged whose livelihood depends on  the continuation of their own issue situation within a system of dominance and privilege, i.e. the status quo. We need to ask what churches, and/or communities of faithful resistance, are called to be and do. What we need are values driven communities of mutual accountability and commitment that can begin the organizing work. Jonathan Smucker has given us a valuable tool for that project.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Transfiguration Sunday: Last Sermon


Lots of strange feelings as i enter the chapel for my last “official” sermon at West-Park as I move ever closer to retirement. At least as pastor of West-Park church. It’s moving to see so many people turn out. Old members who had walked away. Angry, or just quietly. Jasper who I baptized 15 years ago. New musician friends. Like Joel. Whose presence and interest alone was almost enough to make me change my mind. My friend and colleague Elise. The radical artist Heide. My favorite musical collaborator Jeremy back from Switzerland. My boys, Nate and Dan. The Grotowski Seed Group. A full congregation. We run out of bulletins. 

Sooner our later, we have to start.  We sing Jesus the light of the world. I greet everyone. Joke about it being a big daythe Oscars, you know?  Leila and Pat bring up the once-shattered Cristo Rey from Cali, Colombia (gift of the Sanchez family..) that has no when put back together again by Leila's husband Berik. 
Table with Cristo Rey

Then time for scriptures, like Exodus 24:12-18, Moses on the mountain…and then Matthew 17:1-9, the story of theTransfiguration. We sing Julia Ward Howe’s Mine eyes have seen the glory…with special emphasis son the line as he died to make us holy let us live to set all free…and I remember our amazing year with Bill Schimmel on accordion and that my son Micah went to Ward elementary school and that we need to take a new look at John Brown, especially in the current day…(and of Louis De Caro’s religious reassessment )

Then, finally, time for the sermon….



Well, this is it. 
Transfiguration Sunday. The end of the long season of light that began with Epiphany.  One final burst of light before the beginning of Lent. Well, and for me, the end of a season that began nearly 22 years ago on April 1st, 1995. Not that it’s always been a season of light. Nor (I hope) is this my last burst. But this season is winding to an end. 

Leave it to our new President to use the week before Transfiguration to degrade a community whose identity also begins  with trans. And to also push for ICE raids in NYC and seeking to silence those who bring us the light of truth and fact. I have not as a rule singled out Presidents. But this so an unprecedented Presidency. yes, singular. know the story.  Jesus,  accompanied by Peter, James and John goes up the  mountain. All of  sudden, they see Jesus with Moses and Elijah. In shining, shimmering  white. Peter, with his usual lack of impulse control wants to build 3 sukkot and just stay there. The Holy Spirit  repeats these words from Jesus’ baptism,
This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!
Which of course, frightens them. And Jesus tells them Do not be afraid. And they head back down the mountain.

Symbolism? Well, by tradition,  we’ve got The LAW. And the PROPHETS. Remember Jesus said, I came not to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:18)…These are the lectionary read in Jewish services every week. Jesus both maintains tradition and challenges authority. And he demands that we speak to when authorities fail short, be they church or government officials.

The story speaks to not wanting to leave mountaintop experiences…and in these last 22 years there have been many:

  1. I came here as a designated pastor. With a renewable (one time) 3 year contract. The church decided  to make it a permanent call.
  2. Our first Comfort ye concert with stars of the  Metroplitan and City Operas. For homeless. For the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing that we helped found. The singers blowing out the back windows of the church with Oh Holy Night. We hosted this for 10 years. In 2001, the deep bass voice Try to remember a time in September leading into Oh Holy Night…
  3. The funeral service for Arthur Cafiero, formery of the Metropolitan Opera, formerly a chef who catered Central Park symphony picnics, who sang with us, rang bells for  the executed and died homeless on our steps. Who rests in our cemetery.
  4. The day of and days after 9-11. The first Sunday after at  West Park when we were exactly who we were supposed to be.
  5. The Lysistrata project  production against the Iraq war with a cast of formerly incarcerated and homeless because they pay the bill. And the Not in Our Name concert. 
  6. The day we took the gates in front of our front doors down. 
  7. That first crafts fair and concert and former PCUSA moderator  Rick Ufford-Chase from Stony Point visiting us in a church with no heart and no restrooms. Ana Vega’s weekly sacramental cafe con leech
  8. Wheeling the communion table back up the street from exile at St. Paul and St. Andrews
  9. The concert for Andre Solomon-Glover
  10. The welcoming of Occupy Wall Street
  11. Teddy Mapes and his amazing memorial service that drew more than 250 in a living witness to who we are and what this place i
  12. A lunch with volunteers from Sacramento who restored the chapel  and Theatre Dzieci who had just performed a passion play..
  13. Programs that drew visits and from government officials …with flags!… from Serbia, Japan, Denmark and Kazakhstan
  14. The conversation with Simran Jeet Singh of the Sikh community
  15. Visits from Amy Goodman, Cornell West, Michael Moore
  16. The 70th anniversary of Hiroshima  & Nagasaki, the 
  17. 50th anniversary of the murders of Goodman, Cheney, and Scwerner
  18. The service  when Bread &Puppet  Theatre came to be in solidarity with us  when we expected a hostile Presbytery moderator to come
And so-so many more…

What you didn’t see….

  • A member who struggled with many issues playing piano and  one of  Noche’s world famous flamenco dancers wandered into the sanctuary and broke into a fiery improvisational dance to her music…
  • Two women from Alabama who had lived together faithfully for 25 years flying to New York City and West Park to make that  love legal at last..
  • The Peace Poets, who created the songs for the Black Lives Matter marches (I can’t breathe) recording their album in our gym with Jeremy (, 100 queer kids dancing joyfully and celebrating the release of Love Songs for the Rest of Us, in our gym..(
  • The amazing love relationship of Philip and Ruby, his baptism, her being his godmother..
  • John walking Rachel home, every Sunday

All those moments where for just one moment there was a glimpse of what was supposed to be where you go, yes that’s it…

And I confess to not having been able to figure out how to channel that flow of fleeting moments into a great rising tide…but each one was no less real..

Valleys too…the fights…the conflicts that led to both parties…and there closest friends… leaving…people who left from anger, disappointment or just plain exhaustion, the light of hope they had seen extinguished…I take responsibility for that…and you should know that their faces are before me every day and the weight of their absence is always with me…

Back at the foot of the mountain, there is work to be done. 
Law and prophets work. STAY FAITHFUL. Don’t let the unique legacy of light  that began way before me go out. 

My mentor once told me that if God wants something to be done in the world, it is already being done.. we just need to see it..keep looking…and welcoming…

Do not be afraid…that’s what he, Jesus, always says..keep pushing the boundaries…

You have each other. You have all that is needed. They looked up…and saw only Jesus…don’t worry about doctrine. Enjoy theology, exploring it. Don’t argue about it. Or if you do, enjoy the argument.  Don’t worry about what you can or can’t believe but how to live. Follow Jesus. Feel him in your midst. Stay faithful. Love each other. That’s the start. Love each other. Love each other. Love each other. 

It will be all right. There’s Lent then Easter. Spring is coming.


And that was it. My heart was pounding. Joel and Carrie who perform as Hot Glue and the Gun had a special song.

There were prayers. any prayers. For Rachel. And Ruby. And me.  Jim  Nedelka, now at Jan Hus, gives us words of encouragement...Jeremy and I finished with Rest Awhile..

Following the service, there were hugs. And tears. And food. And the Seed Group sang…
The Seed Group

And I tried to take it all in and understand it. I think why couldn’t it have been like this? Just like this? See? Which is impossible. So I let it go. So I just let it be.        And thought, and felt, thanks. Just thanks.
Thanks Chuck and Angela

First Reading Exodus 24:12-18

12The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”

15Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

Psalm 2

1   Why do the nations conspire, 
          and the peoples plot in vain? 
2   The kings of the earth set themselves, 
          and the rulers take counsel together, 
          against the LORD and his anointed, saying, 
3   “Let us burst their bonds asunder, 
          and cast their cords from us.”

4   He who sits in the heavens laughs; 
          the LORD has them in derision. 
5   Then he will speak to them in his wrath, 
          and terrify them in his fury, saying, 
6   “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

7   I will tell of the decree of the LORD: 
     He said to me, “You are my son; 
          today I have begotten you. 
8   Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, 
          and the ends of the earth your possession. 
9   You shall break them with a rod of iron, 
          and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.”

10  Now therefore, O kings, be wise; 
          be warned, O rulers of the earth. 
11  Serve the LORD with fear, 
          with trembling 12 kiss his feet, 
     or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; 
          for his wrath is quickly kindled. 

     Happy are all who take refuge in him.

Or alternate Psalm Psalm 99

1   The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! 
          He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! 
2   The LORD is great in Zion; 
          he is exalted over all the peoples. 
3   Let them praise your great and awesome name. 
          Holy is he! 
4   Mighty King, lover of justice, 
          you have established equity; 
     you have executed justice 
          and righteousness in Jacob. 
5   Extol the LORD our God; 
          worship at his footstool. 
          Holy is he!

6   Moses and Aaron were among his priests, 
          Samuel also was among those who called on his name. 
          They cried to the LORD, and he answered them. 
7   He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; 
          they kept his decrees, 
          and the statutes that he gave them.

8   O LORD our God, you answered them; 
          you were a forgiving God to them, 
          but an avenger of their wrongdoings. 
9   Extol the LORD our God, 
          and worship at his holy mountain; 
          for the LORD our God is holy.

Second Reading 2 Peter 1:16-21

16For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

19So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Gospel Matthew 17:1-9

1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”