The Undeniable Racism of the English-Only Movement

I’m a cashier. It’s not a glamorous or well-paying job, but it’s the best I can do right now. I’m also multi-lingual, I enjoy learning languages because I’m good at it and I enjoy speaking in other languages whenever I get the chance. I happen to be lucky enough to live where I can use two of the languages I know on a regular basis. So the other night, after I had spoken some Spanish to a Spanish-speaking customer, the next guy in line waited until the Latino was out of earshot and then informed me that while it was cool that I could speak other languages, it was not cool for the Latino to not speak English in America. Actually, he used a couple of racial slurs for Latinos and Arabs that even I will not repeat. My guess is that he was more upset that I was speaking Spanish and giving the Latino one less excuse to not learn English. The Latino though, was a repeat customer and I already knew he could speak English; in fact, his English is probably a lot better than my Spanish which needs all the practice it can get. For some odd reason, bilingualism is a threat to the English-Only Movement’s ideology that only English must be spoken in America and it must be spoken all the time. Sadly, my state is one of many with English-Only laws in effect. One lady even made the news for the racist tirade she went on while waiting in the return line at a mall:

Free speech can be painfully annoying when it grants jerks the right to say vile, hurtful, and racist remarks; but I also have the right to free speech and to speak freely in any language that I happen to speak. Maybe being multilingual has taught be a thing or two about being respectful; something that some English-only advocates could benefit from learning. What really bothers me is that the way these people speak, it’s not about patriotism, but racism. It’s the kind of racism that unfairly targets immigrants that are Arabic, Latino, and Asian while not treating European immigrants as anything dangerous or suspicious. It’s the garden-variety of racism that is skin deep when it comes right down to it. There are no shortage of rants on YouTube similar to the one above. A man interrupting a kindergarten concert to chant: “U.S.A English Only!” A profanity-laced tirade of one guy annoyed that somebody else was having a conversation in Spanish on his cell phone with his Spanish-speaking mother while waiting at the airport to catch their respective flights. Shoppers at Wal-mart insulting other shoppers who happen to speak Spanish to each other in their vicinity. A grandmother at a fast-food joint insulting a lady who speaks English with a noticeable accent. “Speak English or go home!” They all eventually say. Funny. Those were the same words their very own ancestors were screamed at when they first arrived on America’s “welcoming” shores. You know what, I think I’ll go on speaking Spanish and I’ll learn Arabic just because I can.

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Effort Matters

“You know how it is, when nobody else is giving it a hundred percent, you realize that it’s not worth it and start letting things slide.”

I blinked. I couldn’t fathom not giving it my all, my best, all the time. How you work says a lot about your character.

Perhaps the theology of work still rolls around in the back of my mind. The story of the workers in the vineyard, the parable of the talents, the verse about working as if you’re working for the Lord, and the lengthy Bible Study I did on the subject while I was in the midst of unemployment, but something in me told me that it was wrong to not work to the best of your ability.

For me, I like to be satisfied in knowing that I did the best that I could and I didn’t hold back or do half-measures. I challenge myself to do well, to do better, to work more quickly, to work accurately so that when my head hits my pillow at night, I know that I worked well.

It’s more than that. I remember watching this comedy, the story isn’t all that important, but one refrain was “Be excellent to each other.” This idea – well, it caught on and paved the way for the world to clean up it’s act and finally be at peace – plus they got good music. In a way, that’s what I believe.
It means to do your best and to treat others exceedingly well. It means to dare others to rise to the challenge of meeting their potential. It means … well, to borrow a quote from another movie:

Akeelah: [quoting Marianne Williamson] Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
Dr. Larabee: Does that mean anything to you?
Akeelah: I don’t know.
Dr. Larabee: It’s written in plain English. What does it mean?
Akeelah: That I’m not supposed to be afraid?
Dr. Larabee: Afraid of what?
Akeelah: Afraid of… me?

I think that for so long, we end up aiming for somewhere in the middle. Sure, we could do more or better if we applied ourselves, but it nobody else is, why bother? Anyone who stands out in any way seems to get too much attention, either good or bad. We don’t want that. We want to be good, but not too good. We want to do well, but not too well.

Let’s face it, people who are excellent, who choose to be the best at what they do – their effort is often rewarded. It’s not that they’ll get a plaque or trophy or bonus, as nice as that would be, but they get personal satisfaction and pride. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want that.

“Hey, I could have gotten everything done, but I choose to do only 2/3 of my work instead.”
“Hey, I could have gotten an A, but I settled for a B.”
“Hey, I could have gotten first, but I didn’t feel like it and took second.”

Pretty soon, that becomes:

“Hey, I could have gotten 2/3 of my work done, but I chose to do only half.”
“Hey, I could have gotten a B, but a C was so much less taxing.”
“Hey, I could have gotten second, but forth was easier.”

Or,

“I could have opened that door, but I didn’t feel like it.”
“I could have said something kinder, but I changed my mind.”
“I could have reached that for her, but it was funnier watching her jump for it.”

Excellence isn’t the worst thing ever. We should strive to leave mediocrity behind us.

On The Road

Sometimes I like to imagine what it might have been like for Jesus’ disciples as they were travelling with him from one place to the next. It’s in the cool of the evening. They have set up camp. They’re sitting down, giving their tired, dirty feet a rest. The disciples – all of them, both “the twelve” and “the women”; the ones who had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs, cook the meals, provide financial support with their own money, were also in close range so that they could hear his instruction.

They’d simply talk. Jesus was training these to be his insiders, so he explained things clearly and simply. The intimate conversations are the sorts of things that the Bible doesn’t clue us in on, but it does indicate they happened. I think about Jesus’ character, the salt-of-the-earth person that he was. He wasn’t a rabbi who was big on the prestige and title. He was just a guy who had a way of speaking the truth and reading people’s thoughts and emotions.

Anyway, I think he had a particular ethic. He was a pacifist in a society where violence was ordinary and commonplace. He was merciful and compassionate; when a sea of people searched him out to be cured of their illnesses, He healed them. Whenever there was a circumstance when the proper thing to do was to shun somebody – Jesus would do the opposite. It wasn’t in his nature to be an enemy of any living soul.

That’s how I’d like to be. I know this world doesn’t make it easy. Some Christians make it harder than it needs to be by insisting that their version is the only way, the only truth, and the only life and only through them and their teachings can true salvation be secured. Jesus had to deal with people like that, people who were technically right if the letter of the law were the most important thing – but they were actually wrong because the missed the spirit.

I’ve been walked through the plan of salvation over and over again by Christians such as these, so determined to win me over to their version that they cannot see the flaws in their foundation. I don’t want a technically correct Jesus that lacks the empathetic spirit of Jesus. What good does it do to have a form of godliness through following these rules, but to deny the freedom-giving power of rule-breaking godliness in the process?

Some days, I wish I were on that road, speaking with Jesus about today. Asking him: how I can make room around our campfire for anyone regardless of who they are or what they’ve done? How can I bring healing balm to those as wounded as I am from extensive fighting on this invisible front? How can we declare a truce and begin talks in order to restore true, lasting peace?

What if God doesn’t judge us by the 10 Commandments?

So the other day I was watching some video supposedly about suicide and it ended up turning into a recruitment video complete with the “Are you a good person?” Test.

You can take it here if you’re ever sufficiently bored: http://www.goodpersontest.com/

At some point, it’ll say: “You may not realize this…

…but those are just five of the Ten Commandments.
By your own admission and the standard of God’s law, the Ten Commandments, you are a lying, thieving, blasphemous, murderous, adulterer at heart.

This masterful approach – isn’t the master’s approach. Jesus was never like: “Are you a good person?

Paul likened the law to a woman whose husband dies; so long as she is married, the law applies to her … but when he dies, she is released. He also says that obeying the law is never sufficient justification for one to enter heaven. So the good person test is in itself a cheat.

The truth of salvation isn’t in obeying the ten commandments, rather it is this:
“God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.” – Romans 2:6-11

So the questions we should expect on the final test won’t be our ability to understand the finer points of the tend commandments, it’ll be more like:
“Have you done good?”
“Have you been selfish?”

I’m afraid too many Christians have all the right answers for the wrong quiz.
Galatians has this really interesting way of putting it – he reminds the Israelites of Hagar and Sarah. He says that Hagar represents Jerusalem under the law that enslaved them as sinners and Sarah represents Jerusalem that’s yet-to-come, free from the law. He says that Sarah’s descendants are the children of the promise who are to live free from sin and free from the Law that defines sin.

I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to create the good person test – but it’s not really designed in a culturally and historically appropriate context.

The master’s approach was to say: “The kingdom of God is at hand!
He gave us the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
He told us that “Whatever a man reaps, he sows.
He told us to do good to those who do evil to us.

If we really want to pass the test into heaven, then this is the way of the master – no other way is the true gospel, the true way, or the true life.

Learning from the Past

I’m fortunate enough to have a German friend. He spent some time here in the states and got a really good chance to get to know what our culture is like. He did spot one area of concern: patriotism.

He explained to me that modern Germans don’t shy away from their history. They saw the role that patriotism played in Hitler’s rise to power. They pledged to teach their history without hiding the truth. You won’t see many people wave the national flag or sing the national song or saying the pledge of allegiance. The same can’t really be said about us and our relationship with our culture’s history – in particular that of the Civil War.

What I know about the Civil War is this. The northern states wanted to abolish slavery. The southern states – not so much. They seceded into the newly-formed Confederation. The northern states kept the name “Union”. The two fought a terrible, bloody war. The Union won. Abraham Lincoln was president. The fact that I know enough about the Civil War to cover seven short sentences tell you how much I’d forgotten over the years because the odds are it wasn’t just that simple and there was more going on.

As far as family history goes, very little about our involvement in the Civil War has been passed down. In one household, the war split two brothers – one fought for the Union and the other for the Confederacy. In another, the husband tried to stay out of it, but he was captured by Confederates and imprisoned. Eventually he was exchanged and managed to return home. Where he convinced all of his relatives who were also neutral to sign up for the Union. In those times he was away from home, his wife had to hold down the fort, sending her kids into the woods to hide so that when the Confederates visited none of them would be taken away. Somewhere, there’s a statue out there with the name of one of my relatives who fought in the Civil War.

Something that’s noticeable about the South, is that it’s spirit is still as rebellious as ever, even though southerners don’t believe in slavery, they don’t like being told how to live. Movies like Sweet Home Alabama show the pride Southerners have in their homeland.

Just the other day I made a joke at my expense as I’m not a local: “You can’t trust us Yankees.”

“Isn’t that the truth!” an elderly woman nearby said.

To be honest, after serving these people I have come to admire that they’re honest to a fault. They don’t sugar-coat what they think. They are hard-working people who know how to take it easy after working long hours farming the land. Living up North, you can get the impression that at least your predecessors were on the right side – but it shouldn’t be a source of pride or superiority over those originating in the South.

Looking around this county – there is a ton of Civil War history that I never really knew about aside from the historic markers you try to read as you fly by them on the road. Even then, there’s a number of historical reenactments that happen every year – though I’ve never seen one.

I suppose with effort people can erase history, eradicate memorials, and re-write text-books, but even without monuments, the history and the heritage of the south lives on in the people who live here. The trick is learn from it in much the same way as my German friend has come to terms with his.

I guess I thought that the Civil War was ancient history and it had no bearing on what’s going down right here and right now, but I’m only just now realizing that I couldn’t be more wrong.

In Memory

Sometimes Science-Fiction has the ability to put reality into perspective. At the moment, I’m thinking of two episodes of Star Trek Voyager: “Memorial” and “Remember”.

In “Remember”, B’Elanna Torres has these strange memories – of a forbidden love that sweeps her into a world in the midst of genocide. The victors erased all evidence of their guilt, but kept around a few memorials as an object lesson: “This is where the Regressives used to live, but they were stubborn and they didn’t like our technology, so we moved them to another world where they could live in peace. It’s a reminder to not be stubborn or backwards.” Voyager might not be able to make the perpetrators pay for their crimes, but at least they can uphold their principles not to support their actions or benefit from their evil. B’Elanna allows those memories to be shared to a young generation who were lied to about their history.

In “Memorial”, the entire crew begins to experiences flashbacks of a battle, the images are disjointed and out of order. They investigate how they could have been caught up in a war against their knowledge. Eventually they discover a memorial broadcasting those events is in disrepair and the battle they remembered had happened centuries ago. They question whether or not they should repair the memorial. Ultimately, they decide to restore it. The words carved on that monument say this: “Words alone cannot convey the suffering. Words alone can not prevent what happened here from happening again. Beyond words lies experience; beyond experience lies truth. Make this truth your own.

I can’t say that I’ve visited many memorials in all my years. I grew up in a state that didn’t see any Civil War action, so I’m neither a Yankee or a Confederate. There was this one memorial, it commemorated the death of a hundred and sixty eight men, women, and children when a guy detonated a bomb just outside of the building they were in. I’ve walked by the chairs, looked at my reflection the water, and stood beside the tree that survived it all. This is a recent history that gives an outlet for our grief.

I do know that somewhere out there is a statue with the name of one of my ancestors who had a connection to the Civil War. He fought on one side or the other, I don’t really know which. I can imagine two neighbors standing side-by-side as they have to figure out how to explain this statue to a child who might ask why it’s there:

“Well, there was a war a long time ago. It tore our nation in two. This man fought.”
“Did he fight to free the slaves?”
“Why yes, yes he did. This statue is here to remind us that the time is always right to do the right thing.”
“Actually, no, he fought for the other side – to preserve slavery. This statue is here to remind us that even if you fight on the losing side, you can still end up with a statue honoring you for killing your foes, fighting for what you believe in, and the status of a hero.”

I’ve never seen this monument, but I do know that not every memorial is ours. These outlets for grief have their time and place, for a mother mourning the loss of her sons who were spent on the battlefield, for a wife to take consolation that the loss of her spouse was for something. What it meant to them – it doesn’t have to mean the same thing to us. If somebody moved it somewhere else, it wouldn’t erase him or what he did. If somebody destroyed it, it wouldn’t alter history one iota. If somebody put it in a public place and explained it to everyone who passed by – it might make some sad and it might inspire others to pick up the banner and continue on where he left off – and that’s the chief worry; apparently justified by all the violence in recent weeks. But there are some who are too reverent to these southern heroes, who only wish to walk in their footsteps and to make our country into the image of greatness that was their time.

Knowledge of history is often written by victors, and it’s sometimes skewed. Details are chosen selectively to present an acceptable understanding. If we’re not careful, we might think the “Trail of Tears” was when the Native Americans walked to their new homeland and cried because they were overjoyed to be given the State of Oklahoma as their permanent possession. We might simplify complex wars to be about just one issue and paint the combatants with one broad brush stroke of “right” or “wrong”. We need memorials to remind us of the mistakes of the past and how they thought they were doing the right thing and it’s a mistake we can easily make today if we don’t know our history. So we must teach it in a way that puts as many nails into coffin of racism as humanly possible.

Maybe we can’t choose our memorials, but we can choose how we remember them and how we react to them. Since at this present time many who bow at the altar of racism are doing everything they can to keep these statues in public places – we have to find a way to learn from the past and rise above the selfish evil of anger and hatred. Let us make a new memorial and make it plain that racism is never the winning the side.

English As She Is Spoke

One day, a Portuguese-speaking man who understood very little English decided to make a phrasebook of spoken English. He had two language dictionaries at his disposal; Portuguese to French, and French to English. The result speaks for itself; translating idioms (idiotisms) like: “Strike while the iron is hot.” To “It want to beat the iron during it is hot.” And “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” To “A horse baared don’t look him in the tooth.” This very serious book – meant to help Portuguese speakers master English, is remembered as a comedic feat and a celebration of ‘earnest jest’. Because we’re so familiar with the English, we can see just how garbled the translation ended up being.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the messages we have about Jesus are just as confused. There are a lot of considerations – our different cultures, our different languages, our different beliefs about the world around us and how we fit into it. It’s a small comfort to read that even Jesus’ own people misunderstood his reasons for being there. It’s so very clear to us that Jesus is the suffering servant, but they were looking for a coming king who would rally the Jews to overthrow their Roman occupiers. Lucky us.
We also have the benefit of thousands of years of this message to be distilled at our level – filtered through countless individuals from different cultures who helped form our theology. Some additions are so highly regarded we tend to believe that they were meant to be there – like the chapter and verse notations we use to help us argue back and forth. When Jesus gave his teachings and Paul wrote his letters, neither of them felt it important to begin a new section: “And now, moving on to chapter four, verse one …”
I don’t know – I guess the expectation weighs heavily. Waiting as long as it takes for Jesus to return again – in full glory and power, to bring our world to a close and our chapter in it to an ending. We will see God in all his majesty and wrath, destroying wholesale human populations who have angered him. It’s a different message than Jesus’ “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus message was simple, it was for anyone and everyone – it was offering hope and community. That is something I wouldn’t mind – but I just don’t see how the Bible can be interpreted to teach it as a timeless truth when we’re dealing with a bit of a Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde God. Or as English as she is Spoke would put it: “Tell me whom thou frequent, I will tell you which you are.”