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His Soul Wrapped In A Confederate Flag

At the bond hearing, grieving loved ones forgave Dylann Roof. This was reported as news, but it was so much more than that. It was the light embracing the darkness.

And white America absorbed this forgiveness through the eyes of the 21-year-old terrorist, who watched the proceedings on a video screen from his jail cell. Whatever he heard and felt is unknown, but beyond him, in the world he believed he was saving, something gave. The solidarity of whiteness — the quiet assumption of white supremacy — shuddered ever so slightly.

The flag, the flag . . .

The fate of this symbolic relic of the slave era is now the big story in the aftermath of Roof’s murder of nine African-Americans. He acted in such clear allegiance to the Confederate flag that politicians everywhere — even Republican presidential candidates — are demanding, or at least acquiescing to, its removal from public and official locations, such as in front of the South Carolina State House.

Not only that, “Walmart and Sears, two of the country’s largest retailers, will remove all Confederate flag merchandise from their stores,” CNN reported.

This is what atonement looks like in a consumer culture.

“The announcements,” according to CNN, “are the latest indication that the flag, a symbol of the slave-holding South, has become toxic in the aftermath of a shooting last week at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.”

A few days later, Amazon and eBay also announced they would remove Confederate flag merchandise from their sites. No longer available, CNN reported, would be such flag-decorated items as folding knives, T-shirts, blankets or (God help us) shower curtains.

Oh Lord. The news so quickly becomes theater of the absurd. Roof’s act of terror has forced mainstream America to begin consciously disassociating itself from the lethal margins of white solidarity, to wake up to what it really means. But this waking up, so far, seems limited to the symbolism of Confederate paraphernalia. All our guilt is being dumped here, while the pain that Roof’s act of terror has caused ebbs and slowly vanishes from the social mainstream.

In fact, an undead racism still stalks the American consciousness and it will, once again, regroup, Confederate flag or no Confederate flag. What this moment of awareness calls for is true atonement for our history.

“I forgive you.” These are the words of Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of Roof’s victims. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Atonement begins with cradling the pain.

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felicia Sanders, who was not only present in the church during the murders but the mother of Tywanza Sanders, 26, the youngest of those killed. As we cradle the pain, we must cradle this as well: the open souls of the murder victims.

What do we value as a nation? Do we value such openness? The killer — who was, as he entered the church, simply an unknown young man — did not go through security clearance as he walked through the open door. He had complete freedom of movement as he entered the historic African-American church, where he was accepted simply for his humanity. Yes, such openness and acceptance are also part of who we are as a nation, but . . . do we value these qualities? Do we have the least faith that they matter now more than ever, now that they’ve been so violated?

A participant at one of the vigils last week for the murder victims “noted how a church’s doors are always open, especially to those in need,” a Daily Beast story reported. “She wonders now how churches can square their mission of public service, charity and acceptance with security concerns.”

Roof’s act of terror has opened a gaping hole in the social fabric. Can we no longer pray together?

But all such questions lead back into the depth of American history and the need for atonement and transformation. A Reuters story, addressing the segregated nature of most American churches (11 a.m. Sunday is “the most segregated hour in the nation,” Martin Luther King once said), pointed out: “The story of this division began in America’s earliest moments, when slaves and freed African-Americans alike were often expected to pray in the same churches as whites, but in areas cordoned off, often called ‘slave galleries.’”

Imagine praying in a setting that defines you as semi-human. Now imagine Dylann Roof walking into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church with a gun in his backpack. Roof was the self-defined semi-human in the church that night, his soul wrapped in a Confederate flag.

The U.S. is enslaved by its past. That’s what no one has said yet. One hundred fifty years after the Civil War ended, we’re thinking maybe it’s time to lower the flag that symbolizes this enslavement.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at



A Whole New World

Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest author Matthew Distefano.

Disney’s Aladdin is my daughter’s favorite “princess” movie…well currently…she always changes her mind. I also hear it is Adam Ericksen’s as well. And who can blame them, really? The film features Princess Jasmine, arguably the most gorgeous fictional animated character of all time (although I fancy her attire would not have been permitted given her cultural context). Plus, she is one courageous girl. She boldly stands up to the power structures; challenging the laws and mandates set forth by her father, the Sultan. She does not care about money or fortune, status or fame; but seeks true love, eventually even from a down and out “street-rat” named Aladdin. And speaking of Aladdin: how can one not root for an underdog like him? He has nobody and nothing—scraping together what he can just to survive. He is easy-pickings to be scapegoated by the people—unknown, poor, parent-less and downtrodden.

Agrabah, the Middle-Eastern setting for the film, is ruled with an iron fist. Commit petty theft and it’s “off with your hand”—literally! Sinister Jafar oversees police operations and has his cronies intimidatingly patrolling the streets looking to shake people down. Moreover, poor children roam the alleys, thankful even if they only get a few scrapes of bread. Certainly the Sultan—the “one-percent”—could kick down some of the lavish riches he has. Yet, he chooses to live in what appears to be a temple erected for self-worship. Because of this kind of society, struggling Aladdin finds himself in trouble with the law on more than one occasion. His trouble, however, will also include an unlikely encounter with royalty.

After prophetically releasing a group of white doves from her Father’s courtyard, Jasmine sneaks out of her palace home—clearing the walls for the very first time. Because of her ignorance to common society, she soon finds herself in a bit of trouble while at a bazaar, forcing street-wandering Aladdin to come to her rescue. In doing so, the two develop trust in each other; recognizing the shared desire to be free to be themselves—free from their current situation.

Aladdin—to be free from the oppressive socio-economic situation he is in.

Jasmine—to be free from the system of law she is under.

However, any budding relationship gets cut short by Jafar’s minions and Aladdin is arrested under the false charges of “kidnapping”. As we would find out, because of a prophecy that Aladdin was a “diamond in the rough”, and thus, worthy to acquire the lamp, this is all part of Jafar’s evil plan.

As a sorcerer, Jafar manifests himself as an elderly prisoner and slips Aladdin out a secret tunnel of the jail and toward a “cave of wonders” where this lamp is to be found. In exchange, Aladdin is promised riches beyond his wildest imagination. After turmoil in the cave, Aladdin is able to get the lamp to Jafar but Jafar does not live up to his end of the deal and shoves Aladdin into the cave and thus, trapping him inside. However, Aladdin’s side-kick Abu sneakily swipes the lamp from Jafar which leads to the introduction of “the Genie”.

While the Genie is able to use his magical powers to free Aladdin and his friends from the cave, they are also used to turn Aladdin into a “prince”, something Jasmine does not desire. Aladdin may have had good intentions in doing this—as he knew the law stated “the princess must marry a prince”—but his plan backfires when his false status goes to his head and Jasmine witnesses herself being treated as some “prize to be won”(Philippians 2:6). The Aladdin from the marketplace—the “nobody” in the eyes of society—is what Jasmine desired. He was humble and sincere: a romantic at heart. This “Prince Ali”, as he went by, was arrogant, flashy, and everything Jasmine despised in a man. This status Aladdin thought Jasmine desired was the very thing that initially kept them apart. It is not until some of Aladdin’s humility shines through later that night when Jasmine begins to show some trust in him (although he still is not fully honest with her as of yet).

After the two sail on a romantic magic carpet ride, all is looking up…for around 10 seconds. Shortly after Aladdin kisses Jasmine goodnight, Jafar captures Aladdin; nearly drowning him before the Genie can save his life. Shortly after, Aladdin exposes Jafar’s corruption to the Sultan and it seems like the case is closed. Jafar is guilty and headed for prison, maybe worse. However, being the sorcerer that he is, Jafar is able to break free from the guard’s restraints. Later that evening, Jafar’s right-hand parrot, Iago, is able to steal the Genie’s lamp—making the Genie subject to his new master, Jafar.

Jafar spends wish 1 & 2 on becoming sultan and “the most powerful sorcerer on earth”, using this new power to crush our hero’s hope. However, because of mimetic desire and Aladdin’s quick wit, Jafar is tricked into engaging into mimetic rivalry with the Genie…the very one he is manipulating for his evil plans. Aladdin’s plan to taunt Jafar—claiming he is second to the Genie in power—works brilliantly. Upon Jafar’s third wish; the wish to be the most powerful genie in the world, Jafar enslaves himself in his own “magic lamp” until someone should come along and free him. Jafar’s own desire to be the most powerful genie the world is the very cause of his enslavement.

When we enter into mimetic rivalry—when we desire power and to be over and above others—our fate is enslavement. In contrast, we discover freedom when we give of ourselves and lift others up. After Jafar is defeated, Aladdin uses his final wish to give the Genie his freedom. In doing so, Aladdin risked his chance at marrying Jasmine as they were still under the same archaic marriage law as before. However, because the Sultan witnesses the power of true love, he gives his daughter the gift of freedom—the freedom to love whom she pleases.

I applaud Disney for contrasting these two fates. Mimetic rivalry will always lead to conflict, violence, enslavement, and ultimately, death of some kind. However, the self-giving love of others is what sets us free—free to desire the same type of love our Papa has for us. This theme is prevalent throughout scripture. Jesus, in only doing what He saw His Father doing (John 5:19), was given up for us all (Romans 8:32). There is no greater gift than to be given freedom through Jesus Christ. Without it, our own desires, borrowed from the desires of others, will lead to our own enslavement. Thank God for the perfect Model out of this.

MattMatthew Distefano is writing his first book on universal reconciliation and advocate for non-violence. He lives in Northern California and is married with one daughter.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.”

Flickr, Creative Commons, jamieskinner00, some changes made

Dear White People: Why I Am Racist And So Are You

Dear White People,

For the last 10 years I have led a church mission trip to Edisto Island, South Carolina. For me, it’s one of the best weeks of the year. I take a bunch of kids from a Chicago suburb to run an educational day camp for children on the island.

One of my favorite things about Edisto Island is Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church. We attend worship at Allen during the beginning of the week. Before we even enter the doors of the church, we are greeted with warm and welcoming smiles and hugs by black members of the church. When we walk through the doors, the pastor stops whatever he’s doing and greets us with open arms. After worship, the church invites us to lunch in their dining room.

Rarely do I experience a greater presence of the Kingdom of God than when I’m at Allen AME.

The warm greeting and abundant hospitality shows a spiritually healthy and loving environment. It is exactly what church should be. And it’s exactly how Emanuel AME embraced a 22 year old white man who came to their Bible study on Wednesday evening. They greeted him, accepted him, and loved him during the hour he spent with them. After receiving such hospitality, he murdered them.

In the face of such terror, it is tempting for white people to claim the terrorist is an aberration. That he’s not one of us. He’s the racist one, not us.

But that would be false. White America is racist. I’m racist. And so are you.

I can already hear my white brothers and sisters objecting, “Don’t generalize white people! Stop scapegoating us! I’m not a racist. I even have black friends!”

I don’t want to scapegoat white people. I want white people to take responsibility for the racism that infects us and our culture so that we can break the cycle. The fact is that white Americans live in a society that benefits from the racism that has permeated the United States for nearly 400 years. Because we benefit from racist structures, we are blind to them.

My good friend David Henson challenged white people to be honest in the wake of the Charleston terrorist attacks. Here’s my honesty.

I’ve been blind to racism because I live in a white world. I live in a white neighborhood. I go to a church that’s 95 percent white. I watch television where 90 percent of the faces are white. I shop at stores where white people shop. This is the white world in which I and the majority of white people live. And when a black person enters into my white world, I don’t greet them with arms wide open like the churches in South Carolina. Rather, I wonder to myself, “What are you doing here?”

It’s racist. And as my most prophetic Facebook friend, Dr. Stephen Ray, claims, it’s not normal. It’s sinful.

And it’s white America. Mimetic theory, which guides our work here at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement, claims that humans are not isolated individuals. Rather, we are interdividuals. We are formed by our environment. We learn how to be and act in the world through others. And so the terrorist attack on Wednesday wasn’t the result of a lone gunman who was mentally ill. It was the result of 400 years of white supremacy that teaches us that black lives don’t matter. It teaches that black lives are less valuable than white lives. It tells us that white people should live in white middle class neighborhoods while black people should live in the ghetto.

The terrorist attack on Wednesday was the result of white man who was formed by white American racism – a particularly pernicious form of hatred that infects all white people and continues to murder a countless number of black people. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was wrong when she told the Today Show, “There is one person to blame here. A person filled with hate. A person that does not define South Carolina and we are going to focus on that one person.”

I love South Carolina. The people of Charleston are some of the nicest I’ve ever met. But, as John Stewart pointed out last night, that “one person” who shot nine people in a church was formed by a state where “the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate Generals, who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road.” That’s how white racism works to devalue black lives in the United States.

And white people can no longer afford to deny the violent racism that infects our lives. Rather, we must take responsibility for it. The first thing we need to do is to name it. Yes, name it in people like the terrorist who killed the nine people at Emmanuel last Wednesday. Name it in our political, economic, and entertainment systems that propagate and benefit from racist structures. For example, did you know thatcurrently “the U.S. has a greater wealth gap between whites and blacks than South Africa did during apartheid”? Name it for the sinful, demonic structure that it is.

But just as important, name the racism that infects you. It’s not helpful to just name racism in others if we don’t also take responsibility for the racism within each of us. Name it in yourself so that you can repent from it. And once you repent from it, name it again and again. Racism is so embedded in our culture that its evil will surely return to our lives.

As you name it, let the scales of white supremacy and privilege that blind you from America’s structures of racism fall from your eyes. Work to change the oppressive racist political, economic, and educational systems that permeate our country.  ReadThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Read up on Tim Wise. And as you do the personal work of repenting from the racism that infects you, seek friendships with African Americans. Listen to what they have to say about their experience of living in the U.S.

We can no longer afford to deny the racism that infects white America. It’s time that we dismantle the racism that permeates our cultural systems and our personal lives. Otherwise we will doom our black brothers and sisters to more white terrorist attacks.

Yours truly,

Adam Ericksen

The Rotunda, modeled on the Roman Pantheon, overlooks Jefferson’s “academical village”

The Contradictions Of A Secular University: Another Jefferson Legacy

In my latest post I shared my positive opinion of Joseph Ellis’s award winning book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Ellis ended his study by asking, “What, if any, are the values that the real person who was Thomas Jefferson embodied in his life that remain vital and viable over two centuries after he declared American independence?” Writing in the late 1990s, Ellis found only one that persists. “The principle that the government has no business interfering with a person’s religious beliefs or practices,” he concluded, “is the one specific Jeffersonian idea that has negotiated the passage from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century without any significant change in character or coloration.”

I would like to add one other dimension of American life in which I see Jefferson’s worldview alive and well. Over the course of my twenty-two years on the faculty at the University of Washington, I came to think of Jefferson as the patron saint of American higher education. If the modern secular university is not a product of Jefferson’s influence in a strictly causal sense, several aspects of his worldview are integral to its function and identity. Some have undoubtedly been positive in their effect, but two, at least, have been crippling: Today’s secular university (1) exalts reason but lacks a logical foundation for its dogmatic morals, and (2) exalts democracy but is averse to genuine pluralism. Both are classically Jeffersonian features.

Here’s what I mean:

First, when it comes to their moral arguments, both Jefferson and the twenty-first-century Academy embrace irrationality as the price of rationalism. Rationalism is a philosophy of knowledge that regards human reason as the only path to truth. It posits that the only way to make sense of the world is to put autonomous humans at the figurative center of the universe and rely on human reason to explain whatever it can.

To rationalism the contemporary secular university adds materialism, the unproven (and unprovable) assumption that outside of the physical world there is only nothingness. Everything is immanent, according to today’s secular Academy. Nothing is transcendent. The upshot is that “there is nothing outside the world that may explain anything within it,” to quote atheist intellectual Matthew Stewart.

From these dogma it follows that all moral values are human creations, or “social constructions” in academic jargon. Societies adopt them over time because they are useful or, more likely, because elites who “exercise hegemony” (wield power over the common folks) find them useful. By “deconstructing” these so-called values, academics claim to reveal the more fundamental power realities or social forces that underlie moral truth claims and explain what’s really going on.

And yet, at the same time today’s secular universities are awash in moral claims. Faculty and students speak glibly of “social justice” and “human rights.” They bemoan and condemn a plethora of social ills, from homelessness to human trafficking. This is surely one of the secular university’s most striking features: On the one hand, it rests on a theoretical foundation that denies the very possibility of objective moral truth. On the other, it promotes an academic culture characterized by pervasive, passionate moralizing.

Thomas Jefferson, 1786, by artist Mather Brown

Thomas Jefferson, 1786, by artist Mather Brown.

Jefferson’s approach to moral values differed in the details but was similar at the bottom line. Jefferson’s starting point was what historian Gregg Frazer labels theistic rationalism. Frazer means that Jefferson was willing to concede the existence of God on logical grounds, but reason was always in the driver’s seat when it came to determining his religious beliefs. He rejected as irrational almost all of the fundamental tenets of orthodox Christianity (as outlined in the Apostles’ Creed, for example), was skeptical of the concept of special revelation, and insisted repeatedly that reason was the only reliable guide to virtue.

But whose reason? Well his own, of course. Following early eighteenth-century “Common Sense” philosophers, Jefferson insisted that men and women, by virtue of their humanity, possessed an innate moral sense that naturally led them to seek the good of others. If left free from external interference, this common moral sense would inevitably lead to social harmony. It goes without saying that Jefferson offered no evidence for this utterly hypothetical postulate. He seems to have believed it must be true because he wished it so and because he could imagine it from his writing desk. (Joseph Ellis writes that Jefferson was “accustomed to constructing interior worlds of great imaginative appeal that inevitably collided with more mundane realities. Rather than adjust his expectations in the face of disappointment,” Ellis finds that Jefferson “tended to . . . regard the disjunction between his ideals and worldly imperfections as the world’s problem rather than his own.”)

At the same time, it is clear that Jefferson took for granted that the liberation of the moral sense would free men and women to behave more and more according to his values. As Ellis describes him, Jefferson was convinced that anyone who was both intelligent and informed would look at the world exactly as he did. Although he would begrudgingly acknowledge the occasional exception (John and Abigail Adams come to mind), Jefferson instinctively believed that anyone who disagreed with him was either misinformed or malevelent.

Which brings me to my second point. As Ellis concludes, even a cursory examination of Jefferson’s views of his political opponents reveals “how alien Jefferson was to the pluralistic ethos so central to modern-day political liberalism, which accords respect to fundamentally different values and defines integrity as a civil, if spirited dialogue among opposing ideas.” A perfect example would be Jefferson’s approach to the creation of the University of Virginia. In his final years, Jefferson devoted the lion’s share of his time and energy to the project. The proposed institution—seated barely four miles from Monticello—was to be his living legacy, the institutional embodiment of his philosophical and educational ideals.

More to the point, he was determined that the new university promote his political values as well. Jefferson gushed to a correspondent that “the hobby of my old age will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.” But when rumors reached him that a leading candidate for the school’s professor of government was at heart a Federalist (i.e., a member of the opposing political party), Jefferson reached the limits of his own commitment to “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

In February 1825 Jefferson wrote to his old political ally, James Madison, who was also on the original governing board of the institution. Jefferson noted that he had long believed that the new faculty hires should be left free to choose their own textbooks and approach their subjects of expertise as they thought best. “But there is one branch in which I think we are the best judges,” Jefferson told Madison offhandedly, a field of such importance “as to make it a duty in us to lay down the principles which are to be taught. It is that of government.” Noting that the government professorship could conceivably go to a “rank Federalist,” Jefferson now considered it “a duty to guard against danger by a previous prescription of the texts to be adopted.” In sum, academic freedom was all well and good—as long as it reinforced Jefferson’s political convictions. To his credit, Madison convinced his friend to drop the idea.

If a “rank Federalist” might someday teach government at Jefferson’s university, he made sure that an orthodox Christian would never be appointed as Professor of Divinity. His stratagem for insuring this was simple: there would be no professorship of Divinity. At a time when almost every college in America was overtly church-related and had a minister as its president, Jefferson’s university would be different. Intentionally secular in its vision and design, the school would have neither church nor chapel. Jefferson’s “academical village” would be laid out in such a way as to take the eye naturally not to a house of God but to a temple of knowledge, to the Rotunda—modeled on the pagan Pantheon of Rome—which housed the school library.

With seeming willful obtuseness, David Barton insists that Jefferson’s goal was to create the first truly “transdenominational” school, that he wanted UVA to be robustly Christian, just not associated directly with any particular denomination. Nothing could be further from the truth. In confining religion in the curriculum to a course in “natural theology” to be taught by the Professor of Ethics, Jefferson was insuring that students would be inculcated in theistic rationalism, not Christian orthodoxy. Furthermore, in the very structure of the curriculum they would be reminded daily of the Jeffersonian dogma that revealed religion was irrelevant to the life of the mind.

In sum, Jefferson exalted the “illimitable freedom of the human mind” but balked at instruction that might challenge his political values. He wanted students to explore “every subject susceptible of . . . contemplation” unless that included religious beliefs that he rejected. That he saw no contradiction or inconsistency in these positions is testimony to what Ellis describes as Jefferson’s “capacity to keep secrets from himself.”

That same capacity pervades today’s secular universities. I had many wonderful colleagues at the University of Washington, men and women of integrity and kind and generous spirits, but overall the school was relentlessly homogeneous in its political values and worldview, especially so among its faculty. As is true across the Academy more generally, the school aggressively promoted “diversity,” by which it meant an equitable distribution of students and faculty by race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, among other categories, but it was deafeningly silent when it came to the value of intellectual or ideological diversity.

Jefferson would have understood.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​ from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at 

Image from

Letting Go Of Race

What’s your race?

Most of the discussion around the revelation that Rachel Dolezal, who resigned this week under pressure as head of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP, isn’t black, as she had claimed, and grew up as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl, seems to assume that this question is objective, uncomplicated and neutral. Come on, which is it? You’re either African-American, Caucasian or other. Check the box.

And when a question is objective, uncomplicated and neutral, the answer you give is either the truth or a lie. And Dolezal… gasp… lied. She darkened her skin. She braided her hair. She passed herself off as belonging to a race she did not, in fact, belong to. And because she passed in the “other” direction — from white to black — it’s national news. And she’s somewhere on the spectrum that runs from strange to crazy.

Actually, it’s also national news for another reason. Race is a national, indeed, human paradox of shocking volatility. Its reality is far more sociopolitical than it is scientific and objective — “in the blood” — and to disturb this paradox, as Dolezal did, is to activate a national fault line that sets everything shaking.

She failed to correct a local news report that identified her as a black woman, the Washington Post reported, “because,” she said, “it’s more complex than being true or false.”

And, as Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker noted, the determiners of racial identity “are as arbitrary as they are damaging. This doesn’t mean that Dolezal wasn’t lying about who she is. It means that she was lying about a lie.”

The lie is the one imposed from above, by the conqueror upon the conquered: Race means something. It’s more fundamental than humanity itself.

You can’t talk about race without talking about racism.

And my reaction to the Rachel Dolezal story is intensely personal. While I agree with Cobb and others that it’s a little too easy, for someone whose skin is light and whose ancestry is European, to proclaim status as an African-American when she can disavow it “the moment it becomes disadvantageous, cumbersome, or dangerous,” I applaud her decision not to honor the racial identity imposed on her at birth. I applaud her decision not to be “white.”

A year ago, during a three-day conference on race held at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, I concluded that there was no value in self-identifying as white, and continuing to do so would only muddy my relationship with life. Since the conference, the only racial identity I choose to claim is human. That doesn’t mean I disavow my German-American heritage, or that I know how to relinquish the benefits of “white privilege” (generally invisible to its recipients). It’s just that I refuse, any longer, to internalize the prejudices that unavoidably accompany an acknowledgement of whiteness.

A year ago I wrote: “I grew up in the then-all white suburb of Dearborn, Mich., where whiteness was disguised, simply, as ‘normalcy.’ Race was an abstraction. We were far from its raw edge, unless we crossed Wyoming Avenue into Detroit. We said things like ‘That’s very white of you.’ And much, much worse. The city fathers and the real estate industry were aligned in their commitment to keep Dearborn white. The schools taught a version of history that included such phrases as ‘the first white man to explore…’ I grew up in fortified ignorance.”

The ignorance implicit in “whiteness” is hard to see and painful to acknowledge in the present moment, but is generally obvious in retrospect. Think “whites only” restrooms. Think, for God’s sake, slavery and Manifest Destiny and Indian boarding schools. Uh, sorry about all that. But Rachel Dolezal has no right, the media coverage seems to be saying, to flee from this heritage and self-identify as some other color. You can attain citizenship in a different country, but not a different race.

Well, I for one am tired of propping up the sanctity of racial distinction by acknowledging membership in the politically and emotionally charged identity of whiteness.

As I read about Rachel Dolezal’s adventure in white flight, I began thinking about the various instances of hysterical white convergence I’ve had to separate myself from over the years. A little over three decades ago, for instance, when Harold Washington was elected mayor of Chicago, the majority-white City Council, led by Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, couldn’t handle the idea of an African-American at the helm of their city and created a ridiculous schism in city government known as the Vrdolyak 29. This was sheer racism in action: self-identifying white people attempting to hold tight to their city. They failed; Washington and the city’s non-racist majority managed to govern around them.

In 1963, when I was in high school, Dearborn experienced a race riot when black movers helped a white man and his Japanese wife move into the second floor of a house on the city’s east side. The neighbors’ assumption was that the blacks were moving in: that the home had been sold to black people. Several hundred people gathered around the house, cursing and throwing rocks. The police stood by, doing nothing to break it up or stop the damage. The hysteria continued for two days.

For me, the absurdity and fortified ignorance of being white were summed up by the headline that ran in a local paper, the Dearborn Press (which I came across many years later, when I was researching the incident): “Crowds Damage Home and Car in False Negro Scare.”

The “scare” is alive and well today. Identifying as white means keeping it alive.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at


Rachel Dolezal talks with Matt Lauer (via the Today Show YouTube Channel)

Rachel Dolezal, Matt Lauer, and the African American Experience

The Rachel Dolezal story getting more bizarre by the minute. Yesterday we discovered that while she identifies as black, she sued Howard University for racial discrimination against her because she’s white.

I’m confused and, like many others, I’m offended.

Rachel’s interview this morning with Matt Lauer confirms my reason for being offended. The interview begins with this question and answer:

Matt Lauer: Are you an African American woman?

Rachel Dolezal: I identify as black.

Then Rachel continues to defend herself for 10 minutes, claiming that she identifies with the black experience.

But Rachel is doing more than identifying with the black experience. She’s claiming to be part of the black experience. She said she “had to go there with the [African American] experience…and the point at which that really solidified was when I got full custody of Isaiah [her adopted brother], and he said, ‘You’re my real mom’ and for that to be plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white.” She also told Lauer that she has identified as black since she was five years old. “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and the black curly hair.”

On national television, that’s the story she tells about her “black experience”? She gained custody of her African American adopted brother? I adopted my daughter from China, am I now Chinese? And crayons? I don’t get it.

Now, I don’t know what Rachel has been through in her life, but Jamelle Bouie makes an important distinction in understanding Rachel’s situation over at Slate. He writes that “To belong to the black community is to inherit a rich culture; to be racially black is to face discrimination and violence.” Here’s a bit of information about the modern black experience of racism, discrimination, and violence in the US. FYI – being black in American is more dangerous than gaining custody of an adopted brother and drawing with crayons:

Of course, racism has infected the United States since its founding. It’s been called America’s Original Sin. Events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and McKinney are just a few of the latest examples of modern day racism. As mimetic theory helps us understand, group identity formation is usually constructed in a negative way that pits us over-and-against another group. For example, racism is an identity construct in America that gives white people a sense of superiority over-and-against black people. From slavery to Jim Crow to lynching to segregation to the modern day prison system, racism continues to infect the US.

Unfortunately, this way of constructing identity is bigger than American racism. It is an aspect of the Christian notion of Original Sin. Throughout American history in particular, and world history in general, we find that the easiest way to find group solidarity is to channel our inner hostility against a common enemy.

Mimetic theory calls this the scapegoat mechanism. The demonic aspect of scapegoating is that it feels right because it gives us a sense of “goodness.” But scapegoating, like racism, is based on a lie. That lie claims that another’s life, no matter how guilty or innocent, is less valuable than ours. As such, another’s life can be demonized and sacrificed for our benefit.

It’s hard for me to condemn Rachel too much because we have a bigger problem. Rachel is likely very deluded, but her story shows how addicted we are to the scapegoat mechanism. Just seven days ago, nobody knew the name Rachel Dolezal, but now she has become the lightning rod for our cultural hostility. White, black, brown, whatever color we are, we can now unite against Rachel.

And that’s the problem because next week Rachel Dolezal will be old news. But the cycle of scapegoating will continue as we find someone new to unite against.

Our cultural hostility against Rachel isn’t going to solve the problem. Next week when we’ve forgotten all about her and move on to our next scapegoat, we will still have the problems of racism and white privilege. As a white man, I know that the statistics I provided above doesn’t come close to telling the black experience of racism in the US. I also know that the flip side of those statistics show the clear privilege of being born white. Because I am white, police and security guards do not hover over me, I have never been “stopped and frisked,” flesh colored Band-Aids are always my flesh, I can turn on the television and be 95% sure that I will see a white person, and I know that my middle class white neighborhood will stay a middle class and white neighborhood.

White privilege is summed up by an important study of two economists. They discovered that the vast majority of entrepreneurs are “white, male, and highly educated.” But even more interesting is that in their high school and college years, they were more likely than average Americans to have committed “aggressive, illicit, risk taking activities.” Among those activities are smoking pot, skipping class, shoplifting, and gambling.

But that’s okay because they were privileged by being born white.

In claiming to be black, Dolezal denies the truth about the privileges of being white and she diminishes the plight of the African American experience in America. Neither are helpful. The best way for white people to deal with racism in America is to recognize the privileges of being white and begin the process of critiquing and giving up those privileges.

Rachel Dolezal talks with Matt Lauer (via the Today Show YouTube Channel)

Rachel Dolezal talks with Matt Lauer (via the Today Show YouTube Channel)


The Character of Thomas Jefferson: Teaching The American Revolution, Pt. 6

Editor’s Note: This article, originally published two weeks ago on his blog, is the first of several summer book reviews by Dr. McKenzie. If you have been looking for thought-provoking summer reading, stay tuned throughout the season for more Book Feature Fridays from Dr. McKenzie and the Raven Foundation staff.

It’s Memorial Day Weekend, the thermometer is hovering near eighty degrees, and the aroma of my neighbor’s charcoal grill is wafting through my open window. This can only mean one thing: It’s time to read!

Nine months out of the year I am a teacher, but three months out of the year—perhaps my favorite three months—I am a student again.  It is these three months that allow me to continue to be a teacher at all, to return to the classroom with joy and enthusiasm and the excitement of newfound discoveries.

I had a blast teaching a course on the American Revolution for the first time in my career this past semester, but I finished the term primarily with a list of books that I am determined to read before I tackle the class again. I’ve read five since commencement, and I thought I’d pass along a recommendation of the one I enjoyed most.

The book is American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph J. Ellis. The book is hardly new (it came out in 1997), and academic historians who teach on the Revolution will almost all be familiar with it. I was not, but now I am, and I am glad. I loved it. I had previously read Ellis’s later book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, for which the author won a Pulitzer Prize. Ellis won a National Book Award for American Sphinx, and I have no difficulty understanding why.

The focus of the book, as the subtitle suggests, is Jefferson’s character. Rather than craft a comprehensive biography, Ellis chose to illuminate a series of “moments” or periods in Jefferson’s adult life. In five main chapters he examines the period surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the years Jefferson spent in Paris during the mid-1780s as ambassador to France, his brief retirement from public life in the 1790s after withdrawing from Washington’s cabinet, the first term of his presidency, and the last ten years of his life. This means that there are some important episodes that don’t make the cut, most notably the furor over the Alien and Sedition Acts in the late 1790s (including Jefferson’s authorship of the Kentucky Resolutions), as well as his controversial efforts at “peaceable coercion” as the Napoleonic Wars unfolded during his second presidential term.

Since I’ve previously written about David Barton’s take on the nation’s third president, it might help to begin by comparing America Sphinx with Barton’s The Jefferson Lies. Most obviously, American Sphinx is a scholarly book, whereas The Jefferson Lies is a polemic by a political activist who has very little sense of what it means to think historically. Ellis’s Jefferson is three dimensional and complex; Barton’s Jefferson is a cardboard cutout who looks a lot like David Barton in knee breeches and a powdered wig.

Ellis refuses either to idolize or demonize his subject. Time and again he sketches Jefferson as complicated and contradictory. He idealized the yeoman farmer (those who till the earth “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people,” Jefferson rhapsodized in Notes on the State of Virginia), but he actually spent very little time in the fields himself and, in the main, found farming boring. He preached the virtues of republican simplicity but denied himself few luxuries, living almost his entire life beyond his means and dying on the verge of bankruptcy. Most notoriously, he spoke passionately about the evils of slavery, but offered no realistic suggestions for addressing the institution and took almost no concrete steps himself, other than freeing five members of the Hemings family in his will.

The easiest conclusion—made by many in Jefferson’s day and since—is that the master of Monticello was an incurable hypocrite, that duplicity was woven deep into the fabric of his being. Ellis refuses to make this leap. Admittedly, some of the ways that he describes Jefferson tiptoe right up to the line of moral condemnation: Ellis concedes that Jefferson regularly told correspondents what they wanted to hear, regarding “candor and courtesy as incompatible.” He possessed a remarkable “psychological dexterity” that allowed him to rationalize or disregard contradictions, a “cultivated tolerance for inconsistency” that served him well.

But Ellis insists throughout that Jefferson’s duplicity was “the kind of duplicity possible only in the pure of heart.” In other words, Jefferson sincerely meant what he said. He truly believed in the values that he championed. That neither he nor the world perfectly corresponded with the reality that he imagined was a truth that he never confronted, thanks to a highly developed “capacity to keep secrets from himself.” In sum, Ellis’s Jefferson was not blatantly hypocritical but he was significantly flawed, a figure who “combined great depth with great shallowness, massive learning with extraordinary naiveté, piercing insights into others with daunting powers of self-deception.”

Does Ellis have Jefferson pegged? Perhaps. I don’t know Jefferson well enough to say at this point, but I have no qualms about endorsing American Sphinx. Ellis’s sketch of Jefferson is definitely plausible, and for the most part I find it persuasive. Beyond that, Ellis does several things in the book that I admire greatly.

First, his prose is delightful. Ellis has perfected the art of the pithy character sketch. Thomas Paine, we read, was “a practicing alcoholic with the social graces of a derelict.” John Adams was “a man whose own throbbing ego had lashed itself to the cause of independence.” His powerful oratorical style “seemed part bulldog and part volcano.”

Ellis is also adept at physical description. In graduate school one of my mentors was skeptical of anything that even hinted at artistic embellishment. The historian’s job as he conceived of it is to explain what happened, period. Details that had nothing to do with the chain of causation are details that need not be mentioned. His entire philosophy of historical writing was encapsulated in a rhetorical question still seared into my memory: “Who cares that Taft was fat?” Who cares indeed?

Joseph Ellis cares. Throughout American Sphinx, he goes to great lengths to help his readers SEE what he is describing. We learn that Jefferson was 6’2”, with freckles and reddish hair and eyes variously described as green or blue. When standing his posture was typically erect, his arms crossed; when seated he tended to sprawl like an adolescent, “shoulders slouched and uneven… part jackknife and part accordion.” When Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams were presented to the King of France, Ellis tells us that “the physical contrast would have been almost comical, “like watching a cannonball, a teapot, and a candlestick announce themselves as the American trinity.”

And yet, he is not just making things up, filling in the gaps in the historical record with the product of his own imagination. Every detail is meticulously documented.  Historians who make the past “come alive” can often mislead us about what they are doing, so that the reader comes to think of the historian as akin to a reporter whose job is merely to stick out a microphone and let the facts of the past speak for themselves. Ellis does as good a job as anyone I knew of simultaneously telling a compelling story while making clear that the past is complicated, that our knowledge is incomplete, and that a living, breathing historian is making ongoing subjective judgments in crafting an interpretation. It’s a rare accomplishment.

Finally, I very much admire that Ellis has written this book for a broad audience. At the risk of sounding corny, he knows that his subject belongs to America, not the Academy. Ellis begins American Sphinx by noting Jefferson’s enduring relevance to Americans’ sense of national identity. Americans of a broad range of backgrounds and political persuasions see Jefferson as key to understanding the meaning of the nation’s founding; they are perpetually determined to figure out the Jeffersonian answer to the challenge of the moment.

Ellis notes that academic historians are deeply suspicious of the WWJD (“What would Jefferson do?”) mentality and try to avoid or dismiss the question. “As they see it, the past is a foreign country with its own distinctive mores and language,” he writes.  “All efforts to wrench Jefferson out of his own time and place, therefore, are futile and misguided ventures that invariably compromise the integrity of the historical context that made him what he was.” Make no mistake: Ellis has zero sympathy for the Bartonesque approach to the past that uses history as a weapon in partisan politics. At the same time, he recognizes that academic historians’ determination to prevent such “ideologically motivated raiding parties” has had the unintended effect of “making history an irrelevant, cloistered, indeed dead place, populated only by historians.”

The solution, which Ellis ably models, is to take seriously the questions that the broader culture finds important and address them as responsibly and judiciously as possible. This is why Ellis concludes American Sphinx by asking, in the words of early-twentieth-century historian Carl Becker, “What is still living in the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?”

The answer, if Ellis is correct: “Not much.”

Ellis sketches briefly how Jefferson’s belief in the sovereignty of the states within a larger system of federalism became a casualty of the Civil War. His vision of an agrarian America and his hope that “our workshops [might] remain in Europe] was shattered by the massive industrialization and urbanization of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Jefferson’s urgent plea for limited government was categorically rejected during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and his fear of a large standing army was brushed aside by the perpetual mobilization of the Cold War.

In the end, Ellis concludes that the one truly living Jeffersonian legacy is the one David Barton wrote The Jefferson Lies to refute. As Ellis puts it, “the principle that the government has no business interfering with a person’s religious beliefs or practices is the one specific Jeffersonian idea that has negotiated the passage from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century without any significant change in character or coloration.”

This last leads to my one significant disappointment with American Sphinx. Given his preoccupation with Jefferson’s character, Ellis pays surprisingly little attention to Jefferson’s religious beliefs, and this book is not the place to explore that topic. I have written elsewhere on Jefferson’s complicated religious beliefs and so I’m not going to plow that ground again, but next time I do want to follow up on one other aspect of Jefferson’s influence that Ellis largely passed over. What is living today in the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?  No answer to that question is complete until we have spent some time thinking how the ghost of Thomas Jefferson continues to haunt the American Academy.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​ from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at 


Swimming While Black

“He came into the call out of control, and as the video shows, was out of control during the incident.”

And cellphone videos continue to unravel America’s “law and order” paradigm. You might almost call it the cellphone revolution, as random video clips keep exposing a dark side of our social order that used to be so easy to deny. YouTube has become the gateway to our collective conscience, such as it is.

Nobody was killed (phew-w-w!) in the latest racism-tinged clip of policing malfeasance to go viral — the disrupted pool party in McKinney, Texas — but once again a disturbing buzz permeates the nation, as . . . huh? … a profanity-spewing police officer is shown flinging a teenage girl in a bathing suit to the ground and grinding his knee into her back as he handcuffs her, then pulling out his handgun and waving it menacingly at several teenage boys, also wearing bathing suits and obviously unarmed, all because . . . the (African-American) kids were noisy, and maybe some of them didn’t have permission to be swimming at this particular public pool in a mostly white subdivision?

The usual defenses of such actions — “he was just doing his job” or “they didn’t comply with his orders” — fall short of the mark. The officer, Eric Casebolt, who in 2008 had won his department’s Patrolman of the Year award, was suspended shortly after the video went public and a few days later resigned from the force. His chief, Greg Conley (quoted above), condemned his behavior at the scene; and even the Fraternal Order of Police, generally supportive of every act of police brutality, criticized not the waving of a gun at kids in bathing suits but his “use of profanity.”

None of these official condemnations closes the case. There are too many searing questions raised by this pool-party video for it to be buried and forgotten, and it fits too jarringly into an emerging national context as new as the social media and, at the same time, 400 years in the making: In America, if you’re black, you’re automatically the enemy. If you’re black, you lose. The law is not on your side.

“He came into the call out of control . . .”

That’s a nice way to put it, of course. The mainstream accounts I’ve seen generally describe Casebolt’s behavior in racially neutral language, as though the only factors affecting him were darkly personal; but it sure seems like his actions fit into a long, long tradition of racist policing. That is to say, he went into this call presumably aware that there were lots of African-American teenagers making too much noise at a “white” public pool. Whether or not they “complied” with whatever orders he gave them, he clearly was coming at the situation with brute, intimidating force, not with a sense of calm authority rooted in mutual respect. He came in like a member of an occupying army, not like a public servant. Remember, this was a call about a teenage pool party, not an armed robbery in progress.

When his intimidating tactics failed to create instant submission and “order,” he became, first, physically abusive to a girl in a bathing suit who was, apparently, “running her mouth” with friends; then, with her subdued, he recklessly pointed a gun at some boys standing nearby.

Those defending this behavior are quick to point out how confusing and chaotic such a crowd situation can be. Maybe so, but it’s also true that only the black kids at the party were being handcuffed and otherwise coerced into showing proper respect, seeming to indicate that only the black kids were “the problem.”

“Everyone who was getting put on the ground was black, Mexican, Arabic,” 15-year-old Brandon Brooks, the boy who shot the video — and is white — said in an interview afterward. The police “didn’t even look at me. It was kind of like I was invisible.”

And a 13-year-old girl described to CBS Dallas the Catch-22 that black kids were caught in: “I honestly believe it was about race because mostly they did nothing to the Caucasians,” she said. “They were trying to make us leave, but if we ran, they’d chase after us, and if we stayed, then they’d arrest us.”

Steven W Thrasher, writing this week in The Guardian, said: “It made me cry to see how black life is simply illegal in the United States: driving, walking and now swimming while black . . . makes one suspect.”

He also talked about how his father, who grew up in Ohio, learned to swim as an adult because he never had the chance to learn as a child: “As a child in Ohio, he couldn’t learn to swim in the local segregated pool; and, even though he served in the United States Air Force on Johnston Island for a year, he couldn’t swim.

“I see these black kids terrorized around a pool, and I think of the child version of my father being told he couldn’t go to the pool, as well as the young adult Sergeant Thrasher on that dinky island in the South Pacific afraid because he couldn’t swim.”

Such a memory begins to cloak the McKinney pool party video in a context that is oh, so large, and mostly ignored or dismissed by non-black America. White supremacy — remember that? It’s still with us. “On your face!” it shouts. Its fingers still caress the triggers of guns.

It’s the evil twin of American exceptionalism. It’s why we go to war — in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, in the suburbs of Dallas.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website


Screen capture from Caitlyn Jenner's Twitter page.

A Transgender God: Reflections on God and Caitlyn Jenner

Screen capture from Caitlyn Jenner's Twitter page.

Screen capture from Caitlyn Jenner’s Twitter page.



The Internet is in an uproar about Caitlyn Jenner. And, if you’re like me, you have some Caitlyn Jenner fatigue. You may be thinking, “Not another Caitlyn Jenner story.” So, let me tell you, this isn’t another post about Caitlyn’s transgenderism. This post is about God’s transgenderism. God is transgender.

Why God is Transgender

Some may be offended by the idea that God is transgender, but it’s actually a theologically orthodox statement. “Trans” is a prefix that simply means “across,” “beyond,” or “through.”

God is neither male nor female. God transcends gender. God goes “beyond” the binaries of male and female gender. Thus, God is transgender and if we are created in God’s image, as we read in Genesis 1, then we are transgender, too. Remember the creation story:

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

The God who transcends gender created humanity in God’s gender-transcending image, male and female, not male or female.

God goes across the human binaries of male and female gender to include both genders and every gender identity in between. Gender identity is fluid and much of gender identity is dependent upon cultural norms to tell us who we are and who we are not.

We often use the dualities of “male and female” gender to create a distinction of who is included and who is excluded from certain roles in society. For example, I was born a male, but what does it mean to be a man? For many people, to be a man means that you must fight and protect yourself and your family. When danger comes, men must “man up” and defend themselves, their family, or their country. The manliest of men aren’t afraid of anything. According to many in our culture, that is the universal truth of what it means to be a man.

A Transgender Jesus

If that’s the truth of what it means to be a man, then Jesus wasn’t manly. He didn’t “man up” by protecting himself. Jesus was transgender in the fact that he transcended cultural standards of gender. Jesus’ culture had diverse messianic expectations, but many in his culture, including his disciples, expected the Messiah to be a manly warrior king who would free Jerusalem from their Roman oppressors. No one expected the Messiah to be killed. That just wouldn’t be manly.

If Jesus were manly by cultural standards, he would have led an army against the Roman occupiers. He would have defended his homeland, his family, his friends, even his Manly God against the Romans. But Jesus transcended any manly expectation that would have him lead a violent army against his enemies. Rather, he lived out his teaching to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek.” He didn’t fight back with violence. Rather, when this King was high and lifted up on his throne of glory, he decreed his final judgment upon those who killed. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus said from the cross, “for they know not what they do.”

Jesus Is Not the King We Were Looking For

Jesus confuses my expectations of gender roles. I don’t want Jesus as my King. I want a King who will man up. I want a King who will fall into the gender norm of being a man and defend his people against evil oppressors. I want a King who will reinforce gender norms and my desire to kill the bad guys.

But that’s not the King that Christians get. Christians get a King who nonviolently nurtures humanity into a future of love and compassion.

Does that mean Jesus had feminine qualities? Yes. And did he have masculine qualities? Yes. Jesus took upon himself the fullness of humanity. With a literal reading of Genesis 1, we can say that Jesus was the truly human one, whom God created to be male and female.

What about Caitlyn Jenner?

What does this mean for Caitlyn Jenner? God is transgender, which means that God crosses over our dualities of male and female to include those binaries and everything in between and beyond. That means that Caitlyn Jenner is part of the human and divine experience. But really, I’m not concerned about Caitlyn Jenner. I’m more concerned about our cultural responses.

Why are so many scandalized by her story? Some say it’s a publicity stunt that she hopes to get paid for. Others claim she is deliberately sinning against God’s will. Others claim she is just confused.

As Benjamin Corey states, none of us is in a position to judge Caitlyn Jenner. We don’t know her whole story; only God does. So we shouldn’t be judging her.

Rather, we should embrace her and all transgender people. Why? Because God already has. It is we humans who use categories such as gender to exclude and include others in loving community, but God doesn’t work that way. God seeks to include everyone, no matter anyone’s gender identity. In fact, God revealed at creation and through Jesus that to be truly human means to transcend cultural norms of gender. To be truly human means to be transgender.

I don’t know whether Caitlyn believes in God or not. But I do know this, the God who transcends gender embraces everyone, especially those who, just like God, are transgender.

For more, read my article Bruce Jenner and God’s Response to Transgender People.

Zero Tolerance

Image Available Author: Oregon Dept. of Transportation

Image Available Author: Oregon Dept. of Transportation

As I walked down the hall, one of the police officers employed in the school noticed I did not have my identification badge with me.”

The speaker is testifying before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. He was a high school freshman at the time. Ah, school days!

“Before I could explain why I did not have my badge,” he went on, “I was escorted to the office and suspended for an entire week. I had to leave the school premises immediately.”

It gets better.

“Walking to the bus stop, a different police officer pulled me over and demanded to know why I was not in school. As I tried to explain, I was thrown into the back of the police car. They drove back to my school to see if I was telling the truth, and I was left waiting in the car for over two hours. When they came back, they told me I was in fact suspended, but because the school did not provide me with the proper forms, my guardian and I both had to pay tickets for me being off of school property. The tickets together were $600, and I had a court date for each one.”

Dear Mr. President, the American judicial system, especially as it is applied to low-income neighborhoods, was designed by Franz Kafka. Here it is, the insane truth of its bureaucratic pointlessness, sitting in the public record: “I was at home alone watching Jerry Springer, doing nothing,” the witness concluded his testimony, describing the ultimate effect of his banishment from school.

Take “zero tolerance” and multiply it by the Defense Department’s weapon storage bin and you start to get a picture of what policing and justice have come to look like in low-income America.

This week, coinciding with the release of the task force’s Final Report, President Obama has prohibited the transfer, to local police departments, of: “grenade launchers, bayonets, tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher,” according to the Associated Press. In addition, explosives, specialized firearms, battering rams, riot batons, Humvees and drones, among many other items, are now under “tighter control.”

The point of Obama’s action was, I guess, to scale back the insanity, although he put it a little more gently. Trotting out this sort of gear “can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message,” he said. And AP called it “an attempt to ease tensions between police and minority communities.”

God bless euphemisms! If you call it what it is – oppression, institutional racism, murder – and demand an unequivocal end to it, you face a wall of police armed with this very gear and certain that YOU are the problem.

All this said, I welcome – cautiously, skeptically – the release of the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. At least it opens up a certain awareness on a topic the nation has, otherwise, officially refused to face. The report is full of recommendations for positive (some would say “feel good”) policing:

·         “Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior — mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.”

·         “It must also be stressed that the absence of crime is not the final goal of law enforcement. Rather, it is the promotion and protection of public safety while respecting the dignity and rights of all.”

·         “Noncriminal offenses can escalate to criminal charges when officers are not trained in child and adolescent development and are unable to recognize and manage a child’s emotional, intellectual, and physical development issues.”

·         “Community policing emphasizes working with neighborhood residents to co-produce public safety.”

There’s plenty of room for devil’s advocacy in such observations. For instance, former prosecutor and New York City police officer Eugene O’Donnell noted recently in an interview on NPR that community policing – at least the kind that elected officials and members of the public seemingly like – “sort of frays the hard edges of policing and makes it seem as though everything can be done in a happy way, blunts the adversarial nature of the police job and kind of suggests that people can get along well and there’s no room for conflict.”

There’s a grain of truth here, of course, mixed in with a deliberate oversimplification of the concept of “community policing,” which, however tenuous and flawed, at least begins with the idea that police actually serve the community they patrol and are not an occupying army. Furthermore, it acknowledges that life is complex. Young people are complex. And “zero tolerance” has been four decades of disaster for communities of color, wrecking families, guaranteeing the rise of street gangs and feeding the prison-industrial complex.

Where the Final Report truly fails, in my opinion, is in its refusal to acknowledge the nation’s history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and any current manifestation of institutional racism. While it acknowledges that there’s such a thing as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and cites witnesses, like the one quoted above, who give a picture of what this actually looks like, it opts out of any deep and structural analysis of American society. It fails to challenge, you might say, the nation’s zero tolerance for truth.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at