I’m Tired of the Okey-Doke: Ethics in a Cosmopolitan Era

 

This ‘think piece’ is dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Stewart Pero, PhD, child

of God, friend, colleague, theologian, and advocate for justice in the church and world.[1]

“Our hope for creative living in this world house that

we have inherited lies in our ability to re-establish

the moral ends of our lives in personal character

and social justice.”[2]

 

[1] It was a rather pedestrian December day.  The sun was shining.  I was on my way to pick up my daughter from her day program for people with disabilities.  I was running late.  I had to meet her at 12noon.  I turned right off 127th street onto S. Kostner to go to 123rd street.  There was no traffic.  I had driven about a quarter of the way on Kostner and noticed a police car in a parking lot.  I turned right onto 123rd (now more than a block from where the police car was parked), I saw flashing blue lights in my rear-view window.  I pulled into the parking lot where I was to pick up my daughter.  The White police officer stood between the left side passenger door and the driver’s door.  He leaned forward and said I was speeding and “clocked me going 39 mph in a 25-mph zone.  Everybody does it.”  He asked for my insurance card.  All I could remember was what happened to Philandro Castile.[3]  So, I announced that I was reaching into the glove compartment.  I showed him my insurance card.  Then he asked for my driver’s license.  I announced to him that I was reaching into my coat pocket and did so with two fingers.  I told him that I knew my license had expired.  However, the Secretary of State’s office was closed because of the pandemic.  He responded, “that’s ok.”  As I looked in my rear-view I noticed he had his hand on his gun.  “Hmm, I thought.”  I wondered after the officer left, why would he have his hand on his gun?  What led him to think that was even necessary during a routine traffic stop?  While I did not want to think race was an issue, it played a significant role in my reflecting on that incident.  I thanked God that officer did not have a bad day.

[2] Life during the Covid-19 pandemic, as Langston Hughes wrote in his poem, “Mother to Son” “ain’t been no crystal stair.”[4]  It has been stressful.  If I may be blunt, “I am tired of the “okey-doke.”[5]  I am tired of hearing about and seeing African Descent, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islanders,[6] Arab and Middle Eastern, American Indian and Alaska Native, LGBTQIA+,[7] and female bodies being murdered and abused by White police officers.  I am tired of seeing police and National Guard personnel prepared for mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.  Yet, for a rally and the insurrection at the Capital in Washington, D. C. the police and National Guard were hardly prepared or present.  I am tired of the lies and promises of religious leaders, politicians, and allies with justice movements telling the global community they will “reform” systems of police injustice.

[3] The senseless murders of Brianna Taylor (March 2020) and George Floyd (May 2020), among others, reveals how deep white supremacy is within the ethos and structures of society.  And as the world learned in December 2020, through a released video, White Chicago Police wrongfully abused an African American woman, Ms. Anjanette Young.  Under the legal guise of searching for guns and ammunition, they busted into her home, handcuffed, and held her naked for some time.  After telling the officers they were at the wrong house, and pleading to put on some clothes, they finally “let” Ms. Young get dressed!  Later an officer said: “We believe what you’re telling us.”  It turns out the police received bad information and went to the wrong house.[8]

[4] This type of policing behavior was and is simply outrageous!  It was outrageous because twelve (12) White police officers just stood around.  They committed what Ms. Young identified as sexual abuse.  As I watched that video, I became emotionally distraught.  I could not stop crying.  As tears flowed, I thought, “what if that was my daughter, or mother, or grandmother?”  I remembered one of my ancestors, Patsey along with her brother Martin, who was brought to America and landed in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1830.  I imagined Patsey had to stand naked (I presumed she was naked because that was the practice of how African American slave women were treated), stripped of her dignity and respect.  White supremacy continues to make life for people in communities of color ‘no crystal stair.’

[5] The experience of racial injustice perpetrated by police departments across the United States results in a feeling of cynicism.  This feeling of cynicism, which motivates the title of this “think piece,” raises questions about the efficacy of Lutheran ethics and its impact and implications for responsible, justice-oriented engagement with social structures.  We are, as ELCA Lutherans, called to participate critically in the structures of society.[9]  Structures and institutions are meant to provide stability and reduce evil in society.  What does it mean to participate in those structures which foster an ethos of white supremacy and perpetuate systemic racism?  Of course, some would argue that participating critically leads to enhancing the status quo.  Others may argue our participation really leads to transforming structures.

[6] The urgency of our times calls for an attempt to reimagine Lutheran ethics and its operating principles like “faith active in love” or “neighbor-love.”  Is it time to move from a purely 16th century orientation to a more contemporary cosmopolitan perspective which listens to and meaningfully engages communities of color?[10]  I want to suggest that ethics in this era may need to be more descriptive than prescriptive in nature.  Such a perspective begins with owning one’s formation, honoring lived experience (s), analysis of the problem (s) emerging from lived experiences, identifying operating ethical principles orchestrating moral behavior, and suggestions for resolving the problem (s).  Knowledge of self, especially for White Americans who enjoy privileges many people of color are denied, is the first place to start.

How Was I Formed?

[7] The Greeks have a word which may be appropriate here, paideia.[11]  Paideia is a process for molding and educating young people.  Its purpose is what I call the socialization process.  That is, one is socialized into how they are to think and behave in society.  Proverbs 22:6 and Deuteronomy 6: 1-8 (especially v. 6-8) gives wisdom to what parents, guardians, and mentors are to do with their children.  Young people are taught what is right and wrong.  They are mentored by the elders on what it means to be a moral human being with a heritage and on what it means to have justice as the north star on their moral compass.  As King suggests in the epigraph, paideia, is an opportunity to ‘re-establish the moral ends of our personal character and social justice.’

[8] Two summers ago, I took my daughter on a father-daughter road trip to Washington, D.C.  I did what my parents did with my siblings and me.  My daughter and I spent our first night on a tour of Washington, D.C.  The capital city is beautiful at night.  The next day, a hot July day, we spent a few hours at the National Museum of African American History & Culture.  There she watched some movies, learned about the Middle Passage, the Civil Rights Movement, and most importantly, learned about where her ancestors lived, Mound Bayou, Mississippi.  There was so much to see and learn that we went back a second time.  We saw the Washington monument, visited the King Statue, the Vietnam Memorial, and other sites of interest.  From Washington, D.C. we went to Fredericksburg, Virginia.  This was the place where our ancestors, Martin and Patsey, landed in 1830.  We found a slave auction block, in the middle of town, which may have been used to sell Martin and Patsey to the Ross family in Grenada County, Mississippi.  My daughter learned that the ‘crystal stair’ is full of broken steps and landings for African American people.  Life, as an African American, includes struggle, resistance in many forms, and overcoming white supremacy.  We took many pictures so we, together, could relive those memories and that history.  She learned about an America which has been hidden and rendered African American people as deficit.  And through it all God is walking with her on her journey in life.

A Persistent Problem

[9] America has a persistent problem, white supremacy (some people identify this as white racism or anti-blackness) and one of its progenies, systemic racial injustice.  White supremacy is, I would argue, founded on a pseudo anthropology.  A central tenet is a false and deceptive understanding of what a human being is.  The White body, cultural ethos, and sense of privilege become the norms which every other body and culture is expected to accept as normative.  It serves as a rationale for immoral and maladjusted behavior.  Pseudo anthropology is supported by an ethos of superiority and inferiority.  American society, in my view, is built upon this ethos and rewards people (including people of color) who support it and practice its binary practices.  The experience of Ms. Anjanette Young points to this binary.  White people are superior, and people of color are inferior.  Ms. Young, an African American, was presumed to be guilty of a crime even though she told them she had done nothing wrong.  She was treated as an “it,” an object to be controlled.  Armed with so-called ‘fair’ and ‘just’ policies and laws, those White police officers could treat Ms. Young any way they wanted with impunity.  That is white privilege supported by an unjust system of white supremacy!

[10] Moreover, pseudo anthropology is grounded in a contrived knowledge of the creative power of God.  It is secondary to the knowledge and power of those White police officers and to those White Americans who support and practice white supremacy.  Their “whiteness” makes them God.  This sense of privilege, being White and its privilege, is what Derrick Bell writes about.

Black people are the magical faces at the bottom of society’s well.  Even

the poorest whites, those who must live their lives only a few levels above,

gain their self-esteem by gazing down on us.  Surely, they must know that

their deliverance depends on letting down the ropes.  Only by working

together is escape possible.  Over time, many reach out, but most simply

watch, mesmerized into maintaining their unspoken commitment to keeping

us where we are, at whatever cost to them or to us.[12]

This pseudo anthropology makes ‘whiteness,’ an ethos of superiority with inherent rights, the ideal and norm for those who are racially, ethnically and culturally different and expected to meet in order to survive and prosper.  Pseudo anthropology operates by comparison, “at least I’m not like Black people.”  Any pushback to this false sense of self-esteem and “identity” prevents any wrestling with being a member of a racial group.  Said differently, White Americans are socialized into a myth; difference means deficient thus they protect their sense of being a racial group.  Consequently, people of color can be treated as less than Whites and unjust systems and/or institutions will reinforce amoral behavior.

[11] We are now faced with a series of questions: How have we become the human beings we are?  What principle (s) emerge from the actions of human beings engaged in the pursuit for justice?  How do we understand the world “as it is” and how “it ought to be?”  My interest, here, is to begin to disrupt the behavior of those who practice white supremacy, both explicitly and/or implicitly.  Ethics in a cosmopolitan era, a descriptive task, includes the following components: belief, responsibility, active listening,[13] action, and restorative justice.

Ethics in a Cosmopolitan Era

[12] In her essay on an African American Lutheran womanist ethic, Dr. Beverly Wallace wrestles with what that ethic would look like.  Building on the thinking of various African American womanist theologians and ethicists, Wallace argues that “Christian ethics is the construction of God’s claim on humanity in the relationship God has with God’s people.”[14]  In this situation the experience (s) of African American Lutheran women and women in general must come to the center of ethical thinking.  God’s grace grounds their voices as they speak out about structural injustices.

[13] If ethics (and subsequently human morality) reflects a pseudo anthropology, binary in nature, what would ethics look like in a cosmopolitan era?  We may all agree that ethics, a second level discussion, has to do with frameworks, coherency, principles, and values.  Ethics is careful reflection on moral behavior, in this case human beings’ moral conduct.  The word “cosmopolitan” reflects that human beings exist in the world.  We exist in specific cultural contexts.  We live in a universe with people from “every nation and tribe” (Acts and Revelation).  Ethics in a cosmopolitan era reflect specific nations and tribes (with all their diversity) and their lived experiences.  This is precisely what the Black Lives Matter Movement has emphasized – that African American people (and other people of color) experience injustice (systemic racism) through the structures and policies connected with policing.  Human dignity and just treatment by the police (an expectation of all Americans) are crucial ethical principles offered to guide the behavior of White police officers and the justice system.

[14] Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. (a professor at Princeton University) recently published a book titled Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for our Own.[15]  After exploring Baldwin’s existence in America and his strident critique of the existence of racism, Glaude embraces Baldwin’s charge that we must “begin again.”  I agree with Glaude when he says, “We have to rid ourselves, once and for all, of this belief that white people matter more than others, or we’re doomed to repeat the cycles of our ugly history repeatedly.”[16]  Thinking that White people matter more is a deflection from the real problem: people of color disproportionally experiencing racial injustice at the hands of White police officers and an unjust police system.

[15] Beginning again, then, means encountering the American lie, white supremacy, that White people are superior and have certain privileges they alone are entitled to.  Beginning again means encountering the past and how one was formed.  Human beings are particular with a name, culture, religious heritages, and ways of existing in the world.  White supremacy grounded in a pseudo anthropology (an I-it relationship) with racial injustice and unjust policing as its fruits must get beyond denying the importance of race in the life of American society.  And that means accepting the truth of the history of America in relationship to communities of color.  My proposal is that ethics in a cosmopolitan era is a circular process with, at least, five (5) steps: belief, responsibility, active listening, action, and restorative justice.

[16] In the first instance, then, ethics in a cosmopolitan era begins with anthropology, the power of a creative and just God.  Every human being has been blessed with the imago dei (image of God).  Often in meetings, The Reverend Dr. Cheryl Angela Stewart Pero would introduce herself by saying her name and adding, “Child of God.”  Reflecting her incorporation into the Body of Christ, through baptism, and whose she was, Pero was establishing, theologically and ethically, the meaning of Luther’s explanation of the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed.  “I believe,” writes Luther, “that GOD has created ME together with all that exists.”  Luther goes on to say, GOD protects ME against all danger and shields and preserves ME from all evil.”[17]  There is no hesitancy in Luther’s words.  God has all power, not human beings!  God protects that which God creates.  Every human being reflects the creating power of God and deserves respect, honor, dignity, and justice.

[17] Life during this pandemic has put a great deal of strain on institutions, especially police systems.  Mistrust of those systems is running rampant and contributes to a sense of despondency.  The pandemic (with its racial overtones) has made the lives of people of color unbearable at times.  Are there any resources within the Christian Tradition which justice-oriented people can engage in their daily lives?

[18] The Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55) is a song which testifies to the liberating power of God.  The God who is here praised is a strong God who liberates the powerless and those who are oppressed by people in structures of society.  The testimony of The Magnificat is that a new era is dawning.  GOD, who has all power, will remove those who misuse their power and implement unjust policies.  That is an awesome claim.  There is no indication how God will remove the mighty from their thrones.  There is no indication when God will act.  Quite simply, God is beyond all situations, including the practice and belief in white supremacy.  Belief in the power of the God brings hope that things will be reversed in the world and that is liberating for the poor and powerless.  Faith is critical in believing God will act.

[19] Second, this form of ethics challenges all people, especially White people, to take responsibility for how they were and are formed.  It is essential to hear the stories of people from communities of color.  Those stories are critical for people of color because they establish what it means to be human and to be treated inhumanly.  They are stories about being a moral being.  Stories articulate and clarify who we are and our view of the world.  Stories remove self-deception and exposes pseudo anthropology.  Stories reveal the complexity of life.  Yet, for people of color, those stories will have a single thread, being victims of white supremacy.  In America, and as we saw around the globe, the depth of white supremacy was revealed through people taking to the streets and telling their stories.  White people must give up their comfort and tell their stories of how they have struggled to become human beings who resist perpetuating a pseudo anthropology.  Our times call for White people to be uncomfortable for a moment.  For example, I have often heard some White people say to me: (Richard, if they really know me or Dr. Perry if they do not know me), “When I see you I don’t see color.”  Comments like that are offensive, end conversations, and reflect the depth of white supremacy.  It is inconsistent with the ethos of society, in America at least, which has been built on a racial binary, White and African American (Black) to not see race or color.  Lutheran ethics would surely look different when one gets beyond a form of voyeurism (just listening to stories of people of color) to White people being honest about their own struggles overcoming white supremacy.

[20] Bearing responsibility includes engaging in active listening.  Active listening is more than just hearing the stories of people of color.  It involves setting aside judgment about the stories, character of the individual, and the community of origin of the storyteller.  Actively listening is more about leaving one’s personal agenda and the institution’s agenda aside.  Actively listening is not about whose story is right or wrong.  It involves an internal and external dimension.  Internally some of the questions are: how does that story affect my perception of the person of color and his or her community of origin?  What is preventing me from hearing the lived experience(s) being shared?  Who am I?  What opportunities do those stories provide for more deeply engaging self and the person of color?  Externally the questions are: Am I willing to go beyond myself and my cultural lens and examine the larger message communicated as a member of the White community and its larger cultural ethos?  What would institutional life, especially policing, look like if we heard stories of White people trying to institute just policies?

[21] A fourth element of an ethics in a cosmopolitan era is action.  One of the popular proverbs in the African American community is, “action speaks louder than words.”  What an individual does says a lot about who the individual is and their agenda.  Here my focus is on more than public pronouncements.  Pronouncements are necessary because they establish what a structure stands for.  Meeting the needs of the neighbor is commanded (Matthew 25).  My concern is about POLICIES.  Do individuals in power enact just policies?  Are they asking the right questions, who is missing from the table? or Who is served by the policies?  Are White Americans willing to accept a new understanding of what it means to be an ally?  Are White Americans willing to move into new spaces and be uncomfortable recognizing that God’s grace surrounds them?  Being an ally is more than joining marches for justice.  Being an ally means acknowledging the privilege associated with being White and doing something about it.  Am I, as a White ally, willing to forgo thinking that “I am losing something if I pursue just policies for people of color?[18]  To be an ally leads one to be open to different perspectives and to refrain from affirming the comfort of other Whites.  Being an ally means working for restorative justice in the structures of power.

[22] Finally, there is an element of working for restorative justice.  Restorative justice is the center, the core ingredient for life in a world with people from every tribe and nation.  Some say justice is the implementation of love in society.  It seeks to return human beings to the biblical God who creates and seeks justice for the poor and people left out in church and society.  Restorative justice is about reconciliation with the God of the Magnificat and the God of Aretha Franklin.  Believing in God’s power to remove those individuals running oppressive structures maybe perceived as passive.  However, that belief is having faith in the promises of God to act on behalf of those communities suffering from white supremacy and other forms of oppression.  Restorative justice is about engaging self-deception by hearing the truth of one’s own experience (s), hearing the lived experience (s) of people of color, and sharing one’s own struggle to dismantle white supremacy.

[23] On January 6, 2021, my daughter and I watched the insurrection at the Capital in Washington, D.C. unfold on TV.  Throughout the day, I kept hearing, in my spirit, a song I learned about over the summer.  It was the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin’s song, “Never Gonna Break My Faith.”  Like The Magnificat, Franklin’s song is a song about the reality of life in society with its oppressive structures, faith and hope.  No matter what those who practice white supremacy do and no matter its fruit of racial injustice, God will make it right.  Franklin sings,

“you can lie to a child with a smiling face

tell me that colour ain’t about race

you can cast the first stone you can break my bones

but you’re never gonna break

never gonna break my…

faith and hope ain’t ours to give

truth and liberty are mine to live

steal a crown from a king, break an angels wings

but you’re never gonna break, never gonna break my faith.”[19]

 

During our struggle with white supremacy, African American people and many other people of color hold on to faith.  Faith is having the courage to go into uncomfortable spaces and valuing the difference we experience in the world.  After appropriate introspection about one’s own formation and practices, one can find a newfound interest in the formation and practices of people from different tribes and nations.  Then genuine conversation can occur with the goal being restorative justice.  Ethics in a cosmopolitan era calls us to begin again so that we can creatively live and flourish as God’s people.  In the end, as disciples of Christ, the call is to “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

  1. Name the people, ideologies, beliefs, and events which have formed you? Be specific
  2. What does it mean to be human?
  3. What actions can you take to transform systems/structures of white supremacy and racial injustice? Who can you do that work with?  What are the obstacles?

 

 

Endnotes

[1]This “think piece” was rewritten to reflect discussion at the Lutheran Ethicists Gathering and the events which occurred on January 6, 2021.

[2] Martin Luther Kings, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 173.

[3] Philandro Castile, an African American male, was shot to death during a traffic stop in Minneapolis, Minnesota on July 6, 2016.  See Pat Pheifer and Claude Peck, “Aftermath of Fatal Falcon Heights officer-involved shooting captured on video,” StarTribune at https://www.startribune.com/aftermath-of-officer-involved-shooting-captured-on-phone-video/385789251. July 7, 2016.  Accessed March 1, 2021.

[4] Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. (New York: Vintage Books, 1959), 187-188.

[5] Cree1.0., February 24, 2018.  This phrase is defined as “being lied to, or someone trying to pull the wool over your eyes.”  Available at www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=okey%20doke.  Accessed January 18, 2021.

[6] Qian Julie Wong, “Anti-Racism Isn’t New.”  Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/2/18/opinion/asian-americans-racism.html.  Accessed March 1, 2021.  See also the recent ELCA “Statement on anti-Asian Racism” available at https://www.elca.org/news-and-events/8089.  Accessed March 4, 2021.

[7] I am following the ethnic designations identified in the ELCA’s “How Strategic and Authentic is Our Diversity: A Call for Confession, Reflection and Healing Action,” 2.  It should be noted that the ELCA has a European Descent Association for Racial Justice.  I am using “White” to refer to European Americans.

[8] “Botched police raid of Anjanette Young’s home,” Chicago SunTimes Staff Writers.  Available at https://Chicago.suntimes.com/2020/12/18/22189350/Chicago-police-raid-anjanette-young-lori-lightfoot.  Accessed on February 20, 2021.

[9] “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” September 1991. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 3.

[10] I have been influenced by two authors on the concept of “cosmopolitanism.”  See Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitan: Ethics in a World of Strangers.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006 and Namsoon Kang.  Cosmopolitan Theology: Reconstituting Planetary Hospitality, Neighbor-Love, and Solidarity in an Uneven World.  St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013.

[11] “Paideia,” Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Publisher: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 08 February 1999.  Available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/paideia.  Access date: February 20, 2021.

[12] Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. (New York: Basic Books, 1992), v.

[13] In the discussion of a panel member’s ‘think piece,’ the concept of “active listening” was suggested as a way for moving forward in conversations.  See also my chapter in “Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters…”: A Black Cultural Awareness Resource, A Living Waters of Faith Series.  Written by Richard Perry, Albert Pero, and Cheryl Stewart.  Frank Klos, Editor. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House/Fortress Press, 1988, Chapter 12.

[14] Beverly Wallace, “Hush No More! Constructing an African American Lutheran Womanist Ethic,” in Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives.  Mary J. Streufert, Editor. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 179.

[15] Crown (Random House): New York, 2020.  Kindle edition.

[16] Glaude, 202.

[17] “The Creed,” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 354-355.

[18] See the recently published book by Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.  New York: One World, February 2021.

[19] The reader is strongly encouraged to watch the video of this song.  It is available at https://youtube.com/watch?y=ZLbHi92YOhE.

Richard J. Perry

Richard J. Perry, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church and Society and Urban Ministry at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.