Mar 27 2012

The Song of Civil Rights

Category: Pop Culture,Round Peg Square Hole,The American JesusBrent Watkins @ 4:07 PM

In this nation, on the year of my birth, Freedom Riders embarked on a mission to test what progress had been made after the 1960 Supreme Court decision mandating racial integration of public schools and businesses. The place for that test was the seat of racial segregation: The South.  These Freedom Riders were a diverse group of whites and blacks, college students and laborers, Catholics and Protestants, all convinced the need for equality among all Americans was so great, it was worth sacrificing one’s life for.

My father was a teacher. He recalled how a group of college students, including a few kids from the high school where he taught, stopped by our home to show where their car had been hit by buckshot. They were fired upon while traveling through rural Georgia. They became targets as outside “agitators” who became a voice for cultural change.

One of my earliest memories was sitting next to my father in a fundraiser for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I remember holding hands with someone of much darker complexion as we all sang, “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be…” The chorus went on to proclaim, “For my friends are your friends and your friends are my friends…the more we get together, the happier we’ll be.”

Those became the words I lived by as I grew into a young man.

God deposited within me a deep passion for people society esteemed the least. Those whose lifestyle and culture were so very different than my own. Those who were targets of hatred, judgment, derision and ridicule. I consistently found myself attracted to people much different than the world I came from. So much so, I married my wife of nearly 25 years. She is a woman of color who grew up in Tennessee as the grip of Jim Crow began to loosen.

Together we have forged lives intent on demonstrating the power of diversity and the cause of social justice. This cause seeks equality among all of God’s children: Black, White, Hispanic, Christian, Muslim and the many other social, religious and ethnic communities that comprise this great nation. The right to live where you wish, enjoy equal employment opportunities, and choose with whom you affiliate – even if that affiliation means a committed loving relationship with someone of the same sex.

I fear it is at this point I have crossed the line drawn by so many friends and family sympathetic to the cause of civil rights. For many, this is where the boundary should be drawn: The boundary between “gay” and “straight;” the boundary between civil rights and immorality.

I do not speak as one unfamiliar with the opposing viewpoint. I speak as one who shared this viewpoint. Someone who was convinced my opposition to homosexuality both was righteous cause and a scriptural mandate.  I now feel embarrassed to have strayed so far from how I was raised. I certainly was not raised to limit the freedom of others, especially because of who they identify themselves to be.

I choose to take this stand – as others who have sacrificed far more than I – simply because it’s the right thing to do. I do so with a firmness of conviction that only comes from the truth contained in the song I learned from my childhood, “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.” Put another way, “the more we spend time together, the more we will understand the others point of view.”

I call to mind the words of my former pastor, Francis Frangipane, who told me “we talk of reconciliation – you have lived it.” An ambassador of reconciliation is what God made me, and as such an ambassador, I share my convictions with you.

I have spent the last few years “getting together” with the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) community.  A shared lunch here, an exchange of emails there, quietly, one by one, I have made “their” friends “my” friends.

What I have learned is that this is a community ravaged by the hatred and bigotry of others. They have endured violence and attacks both obvious and hidden under the thin veil of religious doctrine.  9 out of every 10 gay teens report having been either physically or verbally abused because of their sexuality while in high school. As a result, they are a community that endures suicide rates much higher than the national average. Members of this community who perish by their own hand do so because they unable to reconcile their inner identity with the disgust others manifest towards them outwardly, and perhaps because of the disgust they harbor towards themselves. Their progenitors were forced to wear pink triangles as the Nazis pushed them into the ovens of Auschwitz. In most of these United States, they are still denied the right to what our nation’s Declaration of Independence describes as “the pursuit of happiness.”

As it was for my Father’s generation, so this too is the seminal cause of our generation.  History will record who stood for the cause of individual liberty and who opposed it. You may be convinced God’s Holy Word justifies your position. I am equally convinced that same word justifies my view. History shows the best remedy for such division is, as it has always been, the right for individuals to choose for themselves. To make this choice protected by a government that esteems individual liberty over religious dogma.

Unless one is a civil rights scholar, few recall the names of those who bitterly opposed the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. As I re-read their speech transcripts, their sermons, watch their interviews with news reporters – I don’t find mere parallels – I discover the EXACT same rhetoric one hears today in defense of maintaining the status quo. Dare I say, what I’ve heard from many of you, my dear friends and former associates.

I ask you, do we have a day celebrating the life of George Wallace, Bull Conner, or Lester Maddox?  We do not. They are not worthy of such a memorial. Why? Because they used social, religious, and traditional themes to justify their steadfast opposition to racial integration. When those failed, their misguided adherents, emboldened by their rhetoric, used violence.

We memorialize those who took a bold stand when the risk was high. We celebrate the lives of those who dared highlight the hypocrisy between our nation’s declaration of “freedom and justice for all” and those who we judged worthy of our prejudice.

Let me conclude by playing the part of a prophet and let my prophecy be this: That history will repeat itself. The shrill rhetoric opposing same sex unions today will be replaced by muted displeasure tomorrow – then gradually overwhelmed by the tide of decent Americans who recognize bigotry for what it is. In the end, those who formerly opposed the civil rights movement of this generation will fade away, as the benefits of individual liberty are once again made manifest.

This is my fervent hope and prayer.


Dec 22 2011

Before Judgement – Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

Category: The American JesusBrent Watkins @ 3:25 PM

Yesterday I made it official. I told my former pastor, a brother I dearly love, that I would be leaving their congregation. I had been an associate pastor at his church for 12 years. During that time I went from being a happy spokesperson for conservative Evangelical Christianity, to an anguished soul wondering how I found myself representing something so at odds with who I was and how I was raised.This wasn’t his fault. This was something I was entirely responsible for.

As I begin to see the next leg of my journey unfold, I am thankful for what I’ve learned along the way. The last five years has been spent rediscovering my true identity: Not who I thought my parents wanted me to be, not what I thought it meant to be a “good Christian,” in short, no longer living to please other people. Now I want only to please a God who transformed my life from a selfish, self absorbed pig of a human into a person who desires only to reflect His love.

That’s what God is to me.

Love.

God is love.

Why do we forget that? Why has organized, institutional religion departed from the simplicity of Christ’s message into a convoluted hodge podge of theology and tradition?

You see, when we view God as love, the presentation of Christ becomes so simple. The life of Jesus serves as an icon of that love (John 1:1) The cross has long represented exactly how much we are called to sacrifice so others might experience true love. Is the cross offensive to you? Forget about the cross, there have been countless symbols that embody His love. Choose a memorial to one you are most comfortable with. Jesus never asked the cross to be His official icon. He asked that HE be that icon.

When faith is viewed in this light, there really are no atheists, for what the atheist is saying is they reject the way God is presented to them, not what God represents. After all, who is truly saying, “I don’t want to give and receive love?” The life of Christ settles the definition of love, as that definition is this, “Greater love hath no man than he should lay down his life for his friends.”

As I laid out this presentation of Christianity to my non-Christian friend, he reflected on this for a moment and said, “I’m OK with the idea of someone laying down their life for me. I just don’t want to lay down my life for them.”

Wow. Honesty. How refreshing.

So I take back what I just said. There ARE those who simply don’t want to give their lives for others. There are many who, like me, wanted to receive a “whole lotta love” without giving one drop in return.

This brings me to a central question: How can we lay down our lives for our friends if aren’t fully committed to understanding their struggles, their fears, their gifts and their dreams? How can we be willing to give our lives for another if we don’t know what exactly it is about them that is worth dying for?

How can we die for someone if we aren’t first willing to walk a mile in their shoes?

I’m not saying that to understand a drug addict we have to become addicted to drugs, I’m merely saying we need to actually listen to their life story enough to understand WHY they became drug addicts.

Interesting how people can pass judgement on others so quickly without taking the time to walk a mile in their shoes. Consistently I’ve observed these same people retreat from their platitudes and dogma when they come face to face with the targets of their criticism and are forced to look them squarely in the eyes.

Funny how our worldview changes when we take time to live in another person’s world.


Aug 01 2011

Wanna play ball?

Category: Round Peg Square HoleBrent Watkins @ 6:30 AM

As a kid everything I did was done with my pals. Most was done outdoors: Sledding in the winter, riding bikes in the spring, baseball in the summer, football in the fall. Each of these activities made me know a lot about my childhood buddies. I knew who could be selfish, who was competitive, who was insecure, who had ambition.

I’m not waxing nostalgic for my childhood. Rather, I’m reflecting on the simplicity of childhood relationships. There was no mystery about how friendships were formed. You asked someone to play with you. Unless they has some compelling excuse, like it was dinner time, or they had chores to finish, they would almost always say yes.

The problem with adulthood is that the chores are apparently never finished and no one has time to play.

This makes me sad :(

The older I have become, the more I realize what I need in life. I have discovered it really hasn’t changed that much since I was 5 years old.

I need friends I can play with.

I recognize this need in me may be more than the average person requires.

As I became a teen, the involvements of playtime became more complex – especially after puberty. I didn’t just want to play ball, I wanted to bond with my friends at a deeply intimate level. I sought out those who experienced music the way I did and who shared a similar aesthetic in almost every other area. I had to know what my pal’s worldview was. Whether or not we could play together depended on whether their worldview lined up with mine.

Now I think of this as “tribe formation.”

In socially diverse American culture, the bonds common to ethnic identification have been fractured, leaving the individual to fend for themselves. I believe the teen years are spent trying to figure out which tribe we belong to. Thankfully, the new tribal definitions no longer rely on the color of one’s skin or ancestral origin. I believe they have more to do with socio-economic class, geographical origin and, as I’ve said, one’s worldview.

Unfortunately, living in a culture that is hyper-focused on individual freedom – coupled with a preoccupation with material success – little time is left growing one’s tribe.

I’m not talking about family – though family is central to tribal formation. No, I’m talking about the deep brotherhood that exists between people who have found one another, who recognize the richness of their commonality and the creative power that exists in their unity.

As I aged I grew out of touch with how importance these tribal relationships were. Moreover, I was ignorant of how rare tribal formation is.

Even in the midst of a spiritual quest, we are tempted to be inclusive of all who profess that same desire for truth. I have come to the conclusion that one’s tribe is not based solely on a spiritual journey, but also recognition of other intangibles that make us attracted to one another.

One of the things I have identified in my own life – and apparently this is not a need everyone has – is the need to share as much of my life with others as possible. How rare it has been to find someone as interested in sharing their life with me.

This seems to be the underlying force that motivates my creativity; the desire to experience the intimacy of knowing others as they are known by me.

I understand there are boundaries that must exist. I understand the need for personal space and solitude. What I don’t understand is a society that describes a standard of living defined by almost every ideal except this one: true intimacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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