Let Them Eat Tacos

It’s been a busy week in East Haven, Connecticut.

On Tuesday, the FBI arrested four East Haven police officers on charges of false arrest, excessive force, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The charges were related to many years’ worth of abuse that Hispanic members of the community have suffered, including racial profiling,  harassment and beatings. In its indictment the Justice Department accused the East Haven police of “biased policing, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and the excessive use of force”. The New York Times called it “a  harrowing picture of arbitrary justice for Hispanic residents.”

One would hope that this kind of news would receive widespread attention and outrage, but in today’s world that seems to be the luck of the draw: sometimes people pay attention and sometimes they don’t. This time, thanks to the remarks of East Haven’s mayor, Joseph Maturo, the wider world is all over the story.

On Wednesday, Maturo was interviewed about the arrest of his police officers by a reporter for WPIX (Channel 11), who asked what he intended to do for the Latino community in light of the charges. Maturo replied, “I might have tacos when I go home. I’m not sure yet”. During the nearly five-minute clip — which immediately went viral — Maturo became more combative but never truly engaged the question. He returned repeatedly to the taco statement.

So today, I helped deliver around 500 tacos to the mayor’s office in protest of both his insensitivity and the larger issue of racism in our area. This brilliant idea was hatched by Reform Immigration for America, which invited anyone outraged by the mayor’s remarks to text them and order a taco to be sent to the mayor. It was enacted by Junta for Progressive Action, the lead organization serving the Spanish-speaking community in the greater New Haven area.

We were a small group, led by Junta’s Acting Director, Latrina Kelly. The restaurant that had agreed to make the tacos was in over its head: the protest orders kept flooding in until within just 24 hours, they’d received over 2,700 texts. The media attention had also made the restaurant owners and workers nervous: they requested anonymity, and accompaniment for delivering the tacos. So, off we went, about a dozen of us carrying trays and trays of tacos. We walked in through the big glass doors of town hall and were met by literally dozens of reporters and television cameras, everyone jockeying for position.

The mayor had fled just before our arrival (what a surprise), but Latrina delivered her statement to him anyway, with poise and passion. When it was all over the tacos were delivered to a local soup kitchen, with the exception of one tray left for the mayor, along with a printed copy of the statement he missed out on hearing.

It’s clear that the mayor regrets his tone-deaf comment about tacos. It’s less clear whether he will use this as a wake-up call. East Haven is surely filled with thousands of men and women of every ethnicity who want their town to reflect the values of inclusion, civility and equality before the law. It will be up to them to make sure their elected officials — and their police officers — fulfill those aspirations.

Primitive Theology

News began to filter out of Haiti Wednesday morning and through the day, revealing to the rest of the world the full and catastrophic dimensions left in the wake of Tuesday’s earthquake. By today there is still no clear understanding of how many are dead and dying, but the numbers will surely reach into the tens of thousands. If international aid on an enormous and sustained scale is not organized and delivered soon, the toll will go on rising for months.

That’s how it works among the poorest of the poor. Catastrophe strikes dramatically in the form of earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, and for a few weeks or months your town or country hits the headlines, your suffering eyes look back at us from the photos, and people who live elsewhere, who live in the unimaginable comfort of running water and supermarkets, scramble to find the best place to send their twenty dollars. And then it all fades out of the world’s consciousness as the next disaster bumps yours off the front pages.

But for you, living in Haiti or Nicaragua or Darfur, the crisis never ends. You were at the rock bottom to begin with, already suffering what is for you an almost normal level of calamity. Now you’re living about as close to a definition of hell as any person could conjure, and you know — because in one form or another you’ve seen it before — that “recovery” will almost certainly mean a new plateau, a new “stability” in which daily suffering is even more profound than what you were living out before the earthquake.

Into the unspeakable injustice of this reality steps televangelist Pat Robertson. On his Wednesday television show he said, “…something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, uh you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil.  They said we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French. True Story. And so the Devil said “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

Set aside for the moment that Robertson is not obligated, unfortunately, to cite his sources for this extraordinary declaration. Think instead about Robertson’s notion of God. It is a primitive theology that imagines a Devil with whom one can make a pact: “Okay, it’s a deal!” It is a cruel, senseless theology that posits a God who routinely (eternally?) punishes any single person — much less generation after generation of people — by sending natural disasters to ravage their nation. The Christian Broadcasting Network should be ashamed to have such manifestly un-Christian poison spewed over its airwaves, but Pat Robertson is well-known for this kind of venom. Shame at the cruelty of his own statements or on the part of those who send it out into the world appears to be beyond their moral powers.

So it falls to the rest of us to lift up not only the voice of compassion but a sustained attention to the literally unimaginable suffering that now unfolds in Haiti. It falls to the rest of us to name the Holiness that can move through us, putting our compassion into action. It falls to people of any faith who put connection ahead of blame to not turn away this time, once the media has lost interest, and to sustain our commitment in the weeks and months ahead so that Haitians might not live perpetually in the hell that is created not by Robertson’s “Devil” but by the insidious and far more banal devils of colonialism, racism, corruption and poverty.

Today the New York Times described a scene from last night in Port-au-Prince, where hundreds of people camped outside a wrecked clinic afraid to sleep inside any building because of the aftershocks. “With no electricity, stars offered the only illumination in the city, which, with its suburbs, is home to nearly 3 million people…Then the singing began. Those gathered outside in tents, on lawn chairs, sitting in the middle of empty streets, sang their hymns. One phrase in Creole could be heard repeatedly both inside and outside the hospital walls, as if those voicing the words were trying to make sense of the madness around them.

“Beni Swa Leternel,” they sang. “Blessed be the Lord.”

Racial Politics and the Color of Faith

When I took my first preaching class in seminary, now well over twenty years ago, I remember a professor telling us, “Preach the truth as you understand it, and remember: if you’re not making someone mad at least some of the time, you’re probably not doing your job.”

This week Barack Obama felt obligated to distance himself from his longtime minister at Trinity UCC, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, because of things that Wright has said about race in America. It’s too bad. Dr. Wright is widely considered one of the best preachers in the country, and he has taken Trinity from a dying inner city church to a vibrant congregation of over 8,000, with vital service missions from Chicago to Africa. Whether or not you regard his words as true or incendiary, Dr. Wright is of course not running for President himself. He’s a preacher, and for decades he’s been doing a better job at it than most ordained ministers can ever dream of.

Preaching is different from political speech not only because it’s supposed to focus on a spiritual message rather than on winning votes. It’s different because of being part of a conversation, week after week, between a minister and his or her congregation. The conversation is always particular: the reason the gospel message lives on through the centuries is that people continue to hear it according to their lives and circumstances. A preacher’s job is to help them do that, and sometimes we do it best by being provocative and shocking.

In an earlier chapter of this controversy (which remains a surrogate racial attack on Barack Obama), Dr. Wright was interviewed on Fox News. He said then that Trinity’s philosophy does not “assume superiority or does it assume separatism… When [we] say an African-centered way of thinking — African-centered philosophy, African-centered theology — we’re talking about something that’s different, and different does not mean …superior or inferior.”

This is simply truth-telling: there is always a center from which we view our world. Where we stand affects what we will see and hear and how we’ll receive it. It is an undeniable truth that the default center of our nation – in terms of history, power, language, definitions, institutional control, wealth, privilege and most anything else you could name – has been and is white. And so still, in our time as in the past, in order to be black in America and also be strong, confident, proud and independent, something is required beyond what the general society is willing to give. That “something” has resided for generations in the black church.

Black liberation theology and African-centered churches do not teach a doctrine of separatism or hatred of white people. They teach power, pride, self-reliance and faith to black people. For those of us willing to listen, they teach white people to notice how heavily the scales are still tipped for us. Whatever our class background, whatever our other struggles, whatever our political commitments: because our bones come wrapped in a Caucasian package, we walk through this world affirmed at every turning in ways invisible to us. It is not racism to name this truth. It is a form of racism to ignore it.