My history with religion is not something I talk about often. I grew up over in Neshoba County just as segregation was being forced out of our state amid racial hatred and distrust—and much of it was promulgated and excused in our churches, including the one where I was baptized and attended for several years as an adolescent and young teen. Not to mention the sexism I encountered there that wanted women to stay quiet, and in a marriage, no matter what happened to her.
This twisting of religion to promote and excuse hate, separation and violence over love, togetherness and safety turned me off from organized faith for a long time, and I still don't quite trust churches enough to attend any particular one regularly. Polls show that I'm not alone.
But as an adult, and especially in the years since I returned home to Mississippi, I have discovered what is so special about not only Christianity, but many other world religions when they're not co-opted by people wanting to use them as weapons. I now enjoy lessons and inspiration from a variety of religions from the remarkable Sufi Muslim poet Rumi, to Christian monk Thomas Merton, to the rich tradition of tikkun olam (healing the world) that most Jews follow.
It is all about one word: love.
I'm not talking about a romantic or selfish love. This isn't an easy love. It's not just about loving your own family or those like you or even those you understand or those you approve of or who share your disdain for rap or country music. It's about loving other people—gulp, even the ones who work hard to be your enemies—despite their shortcomings, not despising them because of them.
But as has always been the case, walking the love talk is hard, even in a state where faith is supposedly king.
I've pondered this conundrum more than usual lately as I've watched another wave of crime hysteria sweep our city and the Legislature as it tries to roll back criminal-justice reforms that could help prevent crime and keep mamas and daddies at home.
I lie awake many mornings parsing questions I can't ignore about my own neighbors, while telling myself to love them enough to prod them to ask new questions. I wonder how many go on neighborhood websites and publicly demonize a person of color as "suspicious" when he's there trying to earn a living and take care of his children—for no reason but skin tone and the fact that his truck is more beat-up than ours.
I ponder how a beautiful progressive friend can say out loud without blinking that she called the police on someone at a gas station because he was begging for money.
I ruminate on why many residents of a poverty-soaked state believe that it's OK for certain schools to be so under-funded that there are holes in the walls and underpaid teachers must buy their own supplies.
I cringe when I hear people of faith fingerpoint at "the family," even as they support policies that continue to put black fathers in prison for lesser crimes than whites.
The same people then might go to church on Sunday, sing hymns and feel confident in their faith. The part of me that tries to "love despite" says it's because they don't know what they don't know, that they're following the herd, that they reject the discomfort it takes to love beyond fear.
I often believe that God, however you picture Him or Her, is looking down at us right here in Jackson, Miss., saying, "No, you don't get to move on until you fix what you did. It's not all in your past. It's here and now." Imperfect, often brutal humans in our past planted the seeds for today's suffering—essentially by dehumanizing a whole race of people in order to have free labor and to build their own wealth and power.
My people were a part of that, I've learned. I can no longer join the chorus of whites who claim, often erroneously, that their families "were too poor to own slaves." Mine did. If you're white, many of yours did, too. (If you're not, yours might have, too.)
But it's actually not the owning-slaves part that He or She wants us to fixate on, I believe. We can't actually change that now. The pressing need today is to focus on what our ancestors' tragic embrace of owning and abusing other people, and of breaking up families for that privilege, has sent forward for us to fix now. The alternative is continued division, distrust, fingerpointing, and the crime that results from ingrained poverty, hopelessness and poor education.
I really believe God wants us to fix this, folks, and as a team. It's not like He or She is giving us a pass on this mess our families created, often from the moment that our immigrant came over in search of religious freedom and then, perhaps, sold it out to greed.
Until very recently (and perhaps still, in some pockets), religion including Christianity was used to justify the very things that created the poverty, division and crime of today. In my lifetime, it was preached from pulpits blocks from where I sit to promote segregation. The Ku Klux Klan considered themselves Christian soldiers, and biblical texts were weaved throughout their guidebooks and gatherings and rituals of hate.
People twisted the beautiful spirit of belief and spirituality to justify abject greed, division and fear. That replaced the love for all, especially the most vulnerable, that all of us know is at the heart of all actual faiths. Christianity isn't the only religion co-opted for hateful reasons—see how some people twist Islam, Judaism and even Buddhism today to justify horrifying violence—but it was the main one in these parts.
We must move past shame and fear into action and building faith in each other. Imagine if each of us in Jackson applied our gifts to just one tiny piece of the puzzle; to each one, heal one. Maybe we show up for a Jackson 2000 (jackson2000.org) dialogue circle on race, and then plan and execute a shared project. We find a way to mentor a young person and show him or her what success, and respect of them, looks like.
We can speak up with love and compassion on social media or a neighborhood site and challenge the too-easy disparagement of "the other." We can decide to eschew partisanship and demand at least adequate education resources for all our children because we know all of our futures depend on it, even if it hurts the prison industry.
We have much to take back and even do over if we're serious about this faith thing. Today's problems can be tackled and, I believe, ultimately solved if we're willing to choose love over fear and turn our pointer finger back on ourselves. Love starts with ourselves. We must learn to love despite, not just because. We must love all our neighbors despite even heinous actions that we can abhor even as we love and mourn for both the victims and the perpetrators.
Most of you know I'm not making this love-despite stuff up; there is clear religious instruction for it from well above my pay grade. Just look it up. Then let's meet on the other side of the line between love and hate.