Affirmation, Genocide, and Everything In Between

I was driving my step-daughter to the gym yesterday when she spotted this bumper sticker:

It was the first time either of us had seen this particular graphic, but it instantly reminded us both of another that's been around for awhile:

Tolerance, coexistence--these words are commonly interpreted as societal ideals, the next stage in the evolution of Western culture, a Utopian paradise of peace and good will. I'm sympathetic with that hope, but I'm of the opinion it falls far short of what our society should really be striving for.

Starting in the early 1990s, when I was pastor of a Reconciling Congregation (a United Methodist Church that seeks full inclusion of gays and lesbians in its ministry), I have been working for on what educators call a "scope and sequence" of accepting diversity. It's a framework for understanding the historical development of cultures both toward and away from being at peace with minorities. This morning, I finally put this framework together as a graphic, which I'm calling the Acceptance Spectrum:

I break the spectrum into ten levels. These are artificially delineated, and based entirely on my own reading of history and experience of working with one particular minority. The inspiration for this was the realization that tolerance fell far short of what my congregation was striving for and, at least within its own walls, accomplishing: the affirmation, even celebration, of diversity.

Civilizations can both evolve and devolve on this spectrum--and yes, I consider the right side of the scale, affirmation, to be an evolved state, whether everything to the left of it more primitive. A nation that has been at a state-imposed level of tolerance can, with a regime change, descend all the way to genocide in a frighteningly short period of time. The incursion of an invading force can quickly infuse a population with suspicion, paranoia, and bigotry, awakening long-suppressed prejudices, leading to bullying, persecution, and acts of violence against a scapegoated minority. The differences in question may include but are not limited to skin color, language, clothing, religion, philosophy, sexual orientation, and marital status. Not all these distinctions are visible, and often a member of a persecuted minority can pass in public for the persecuting majority.

What follows is a stage-by-stage definition of this framework, including notes on how a nation can progress (or regress) from one to another. The occasion for writing and publishing this is a series of attempts by state legislators to pass laws protecting discrimination, most likely in reaction to a sense that the United States is poised to begin accepting same-gender marriage at a nation, so I'll start with the high-point of the framework, and work backward to the apocalyptic extreme that is far too present in recent history.

Affirmation: As an education major in the early 1980s, I experienced a guest lecture by an advocate of bilingual education. He talked about how the ideal for American society ought not be the melting pot so much as the tossed salad, a mixing of distinct ethnicities adding their unique qualities to our national identity without giving them up. Ever since, I've seen this as an ideal for civilized countries, and there's no likelier place than the USA to accomplish it. When we affirm each other's differences, we embrace the beauty of diversity, the amazing complexity of human existence. Individual neighborhoods and congregations may continue to be peopled primarily by affinity groups, but cities, states, and the nation as a whole are a rainbow of colors, languages, customs, orientations, religions; and all of this is seen as strengthening the culture, and is celebrated at all levels.

Acceptance: There are many municipalities in America that have already accomplished this level, and still more that are poised on the brink of it. Acceptance means letting go of personal prejudices, truly living and letting live, and while the Chinese New Year celebration or the Gay Pride parade may not be your cup of tea, you acknowledge that these observances are important to their respective communities.

Toleration: As a Methodist minister in Great Britain, I learned that I was, whether I liked it or not, a member of the local Anglican parish, and that my congregation owed its existence to the Act of Toleration of 1689. In that year, Parliament passed a law mandating that all Protestants had the right to gather and worship in their own ways. This came at the conclusion of a century of bloody civil war fought over theological differences, which itself followed on centuries of persecution of religious minorities. The British had learned the cost of religious conformity the hard way, and concluded it just wasn't worth the effort. Their answer was not to abolish the national church, but simply to acknowledge and allow the existence of other churches. That is what tolerance is about: not so much "live and let live" as "live and don't kill." I tolerate my neighbor's yapping dog, the leaf blower down the block, loud music across the street, but I really wish they'd go away; at the same time, I'm not going to actively pursue their elimination. Toleration is where many European cultures were in the early nineteenth century with respect to their Jewish communities. That changed.

Integration: This stage really should stand apart from the scale, as it is more of an American artifact than any other. Still, it was, and will be again, a step in our evolution toward toleration. One does not have to learn to live beside people one never meets. Keeping them in a ghetto, keeping their children in segregated schools, forcing them to use separate facilities, one can spend an entire lifetime never having to cross paths with them. Beginning with the military, the US government began enforcing an end to such separation after World War II. Schools were integrated with the help of the National Guard in the South, and with busing in the North. Fair employment and housing laws forced neighborhoods and workplaces to integrate. This didn't prevent white flight: the movement of persons of color into neighborhoods often resulted in the development of suburbs, as white elites migrated away, setting up enclaves outside city limits. Over time, though, there has clearly been progress.

Occupation: As I mentioned above, integration had to, in some cases, be enforced by the presence of the National Guard. This was not the first time troops were sent into the South to require the fair treatment of persons of color. After the Civil War, the South was occupied by the Union army for a decade. In the end, though, as resistance to civil rights heated up, the army pulled out, leaving the South to put in place a new oppressive regime, which came to be known as Jim Crow. It would be eighty years before the troops returned to finish the job. The point is that at times, throughout history, progress has been enforced at the point of a bayonet. In more recent times, this has been the case in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Discrimination: Troops are brought in to correct an unequal ordering of society that has turned violent, whether over protest or persecution. Throughout history, though, there have been entire nations that exist for generations with a status quo of discrimination that never turns to violence. The Arab Renaissance of the Middle Ages is a case in point: Christians and Jews lived at peace alongside Muslims, and were welcome in many circles of power to an extent unknown in Catholic Europe. Even so, there was never any question who was really in charge, and things could, and did, turn ugly with a regime change. For centuries, Jews held positions of power in the financial sector because laws restricted them from participating in other parts of the economy.

Segregation: In many nations, segregation operates in parallel with discrimination, but in some, it is a heightening of that practice. Jews were integrated into many European cities prior to the Holocaust, though ghettos of primarily Jewish residents still existed. As the Nazi persecution evolved, Jews were evicted from their homes in predominantly Gentile neighborhoods and forced to move into homes in the historic ghettos, rendering them much easier to find when the next stage of destruction was launched. In the American South, entire black communities existed apart from white communities, in large part to avoid the much more violent persecution that occurred when African-Americans were easier to find. Throughout the South, Jim Crow laws required persons of color to use separate, substandard facilities from those used by whites.

Persecution: When discrimination and segregation fail to chase unwanted minorities away, it is a short transition to active persecution. Acts of shaming, graffiti, looting, and ultimately violence against persons underline the inequality of the culture, and is punctuated by the disinterest in, or even involvement in, that persecution by civil authorities.

Pogroms: The word comes from the treatment of Jewish communities by Gentile oppressors in Europe and Russia, but can also be applied to raids conducted on African-American communities by white racists. Destruction of property, terrorism, and public murders typify these acts. The message is clear: Your presence in our region will no longer be tolerated. Find somewhere else to live.

Genocide: Sometimes a minority population simply will not leave. Sometimes they have nowhere to go. At such times, oppressors may turn on them on a national scale, attempting to wipe them out. Tools of genocide do not have to be as institutionalized as they were during the Holocaust: ethnic cleansing can have the same effect, as can mob violence. The goal in all cases is to end the existence of the hated group, and see to it that there are no subsequent generations to exact vengeance on the oppressors.

Working backward in this way is a grim task, but important: we cannot afford to forget how quickly an entire nation can move from tolerance to destruction. The slope is slippery, and every step of progress is countered with angry cries for retreat from traditionalist forces. All it takes is one bigoted politician to turn an entire nation against a minority, damaging relations with that minority for generations to come.

And now here's the glimmer of hope I promised at the conclusion of my last post on the Talibanization of America. It's easy, in the face of such forces, to become discouraged, to imagine that there is no true progress, that all history is a cycle of baby steps toward acceptance being dashed by headlong plunges into genocide. What can one person do in the face of such movements?

A lot. Everything, in fact. Neighborhoods and workplaces may, in the beginning, integrate because they are forced to. Integration becomes the norm when the people who are integrating interact. It's hard to hold onto traditional prejudices against homosexuals, to view them all as perverts and mortal sinners, when your partner on the beat, your classmate, your friendly neighbor is gay and, from every interaction you have with him, a human being just like you with hopes, dreams, fears, a family, a history. Relationships are the answer.

Having a relationship with someone who is different can quickly move an individual up the scale from uncomfortable forced integration to acceptance and even affirmation. If the other is a person of color, or has some distinguishing ethnic or religious characteristics (an accent, a garment or piece of jewelry), the existence of difference is unavoidable. If, however, he or she is passing, keeping that difference locked away to avoid discrimination, it can be much more difficult to make the connections that will heal an individual of bigotry.

This is why it is so essential that "religious liberty" laws like those being proposed in Idaho, Kansas, and Arizona be defeated, and that laws marginalizing minorities be repealed: as long as hostility is sanctioned by the state, persons with a choice will keep their distinctions to themselves, and their neighbors can go on believing they don't know anyone who's "like that." They probably do, but those people are afraid to share that aspect of who they are with someone who's clearly hostile to such people--or simply may not consider it relevant.

My invitation to all of you is to step up and take that chance. If you are a member of a minority, whether or not it's obvious to the people you work or live with, have a substantive conversation with one of those people. Share your common humanity--and find a way to talk about how it feels to be different. And if you're not part of a minority; if, like me, you're very very white, Protestant, straight, as genetically privileged as it's possible to be, then start some conversations with the others in your world. Again, be substantive. Learn about what you have in common with them, and also what makes them different from you. Celebrate those differences.

In the process, you will be changing the world, one person at a time, helping your community, your state, your nation evolve into a people who judge one another not by the color of their skin, the gender of their partner, the cadence of their language, the nature (or complete lack) of their God, but by the content of their character; and even then, in the judging of that character, find something to affirm and celebrate.


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