Unmasking a Long Crisis

By Tommy Airey, co-founder and curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net

Last Wednesday, this site propped The People’s CDC, a coalition of public health practitioners, scientists, healthcare workers, educators, advocates and people from all walks of life working to reduce the harmful impacts of COVID-19. The People’s CDC is a great resource for orgs and communities on the left committed to keeping all their people safe. Its weekly Covid “weather reports” are clear, concise and hyperlinked to back the stats. Last week, I received an email from a long-time reader who loves Radical Discipleship, but who had “great concerns” about Wednesday’s post. She referred to a recent study (Cochrane) that she claimed “summarizes that masks are not all that effective.” She was concerned that Wednesday’s post was building on a fear that is unwarranted because the “virus has gone to a much less virulent illness.”

I want to respond publicly to this email because I know that these sentiments are widespread, even on the left. Before I do, allow me to offer this full disclosure: Lindsay and I mostly work from home and we do not have children of our own. We have navigated the pandemic with unique privileges. My heart goes out to my former colleagues in the classroom, friends who are working nine to five jobs, folks I went to seminary with who are orchestrating Sunday services and parents of young children trying to make decisions about masks and gatherings in this climate of Covid denial and minimalism.

Trying to keep up with Covid-19 and make it make sense is an increasingly challenging and risky task. The problem is that ordinary people are swimming against a strong current of “open the economy” campaigns funded by white elites taking advantage of statistics that show people of color are more vulnerable to Covid-19. These stats and targeted disinformation have led white Americans to be consistently less fearful of the disease and less supportive of safety precautions for the past twenty months.

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Meek Ain’t Weak

By Tommy Airey

I am someone who spends a lot more time casting a vision for what’s coming next than composting what’s already happened. It is both a gift – and a growth edge. I am learning that the more I slow down and process the particulars of my suburban past, the more I can subvert the sources that scripted my supremacy. One of those old sources was Gene, the father of one of my best friends. He was a passionate and playful pillar of the community. He was also a purveyor of patriarchy – and he had a profound impact on my early years.

Gene dismissed the perspectives of women with a warm smile and a witty joke. He made it clear that he believed that women were the weaker sex. Why? Because the bible says so. One time, when we were teenagers, Gene read us the passage from I Peter that says that wives must accept the authority of their husbands and that real women – biblical women – should stop obsessing over outward appearances, and instead embrace the lasting beauty of a meek and quiet spirit.

When I started studying the original languages of the bible in seminary, I learned that the word meek, in Greek, is praus, pronounced prah-ooce’. It is a divine strength soaked in gentleness, confidence, humility and open-heartedness. The irony is that Jesus used it to describe himself, not women. Jesus was a Palestinian Jewish rabbi who empowered people who were oppressed by professional religion and Roman culture. Jesus preached that God reigns not from the perches of the powerful, but from within the hearts of weary and burdened people.

The message of Jesus, according to Howard Thurman, focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of his people. They had access to divine power and agency. It was rooted in how they responded whenever provoked by their oppressors. Thurman wrote that humility – not fear, hypocrisy or hatred – is the best defense against everything intended to humiliate. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” Jesus said, “for I am praus and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

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Something Else

By Tommy Airey

Thirty years ago this month, I packed up my car and left Loyola Marymount University. I was a freshman on a full-ride basketball scholarship. I drove home. Just fifty-five minutes south on the 405 freeway. Back to Orange County. I left LMU because I was miserable – and I was nineteen. I struggled to emotionally connect with our head coach who tried hard to be funny (but wasn’t) and whose favorite word was “horseshit” – always used as a descriptor for either our team or one of our players. Sometimes it was aimed at me. I did not have a clue how to metabolize what was going on inside of me. It’s just not what young men who change in locker rooms are equipped to do.

Our team – half-Black and half-white in the immediate aftermath of the L.A. uprising – bonded during preseason fitness conditioning. Coach made it clear that, before official practice started in October, everyone had to run a mile in under five minutes. Together. If anyone didn’t make it, everyone would have to wake up at 6am every morning and run it again. Together. Until everyone could do it. At the same time. We had guys who were 6’9” and weighed 240 lbs. We had other guys who never failed to miss the fraternity keg party. We all ran a sub-five-minute-mile on our first attempt. This is one of the reasons I believe in miracles.   

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The Recovery Room

By Tommy Airey

After a thirty-month delay, I finally went in for hernia surgery last week. Lindsay hauled me over to the hospital in Grosse Pointe, Michigan – Detroit’s eastern adjacent suburb. As soon as we crossed Alter Road, everything changed. The mourning turned into mansions. Dr. King gave a speech in the high school gym in Grosse Pointe three weeks before he was assassinated. He talked about the two Americas. Those who grow up in the sunlight of opportunity – and those barely surviving in the fatigue of despair. During the speech, he was shouted down – several times – by white people who did not appreciate some outsider telling them that racism was still a real thing.

The day before my surgery, I drove to the lab in Grosse Pointe to get my pre-surgery blood screening. A Black woman was working the front desk. While I was waiting, an unmasked white man in his seventies walked in asking where to sign in. She pointed to the table and told him he needed to put on a face covering. He looked at me and shook his head, muttering that he had one in his bag. I stared him down. He didn’t sign in. When he found his seat across the room, he looked at me again. I just stared back. We both grew up in the sunlight of opportunity, but I wanted him to know that I would not be signing off on his supremacy story.

Across Jefferson Boulevard from the hospital, the yards of the mansions are lined with election signs promoting the GOP candidate for Secretary of State who got her masters degree in Christian Apologetics from BIOLA and is adamant the 2020 election was stolen. Many signs say, “Vote No on Prop 3,” the reproductive justice measure that got more signatures than any initiative in Michigan history. When we arrived at the hospital on the morning of my surgery, everything was quick and convenient. Parking spaces were abundant and free-of-charge. It was a close walk to the lobby. The surgery wing was a well-oiled machine. I did not wait long to get in.

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By Tommy Airey

“There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved

Last weekend, I hiked with friends on traditional land of Watlala people, about fifty miles southeast of Portland, Oregon. At the trailhead, there were a half dozen Chinook Salmon swimming in the cold shallow water below. They were traveling upstream, from the Pacific to the Columbia to the Sandy to the Zig Zag to Camp Creek. The females, returning to the place of their birth, were preparing to lay their eggs – and then die four days later. Despite all the dams that have been built, there are still a few of these Beings, so sacred to Native people here, who have the strength to swim against the current, teaching us how to give up our lives for the next generation.  

On my two-hour drive back to the Deschutes River, I was pondering the contrast between Chinook Salmon who swim upstream and those who built the dams, white people conditioned by conformity, always moving with the current, not against it. I was thinking about the white people I know who now refer to “wokeness” as a bad word, as a kind of far-left cult that is extreme and dangerous, existing only to shame white people. The conservative talking points are penetrating the language of white moderates and liberals. Right-wing strategists know what they are doing! Wokeness is the perfect pinata for people unwilling to swim upstream and shed their own whiteness.

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Back It Up

By Tommy Airey

The year George Floyd and I were born, Paul Simon came out with a song called “American Tune.” Simon sung it to the melody of a Medieval Christian hymn. It hummed on the heavy, confusing mood of the country, caught up in the Watergate scandal and the bloody Vietnam conflict. It concludes with these verses.

We come on the ship they call The Mayflower.
We come on the ship that sailed the moon.
We come in the age’s most uncertain hours
And sing an American tune.

Last week, fifty years later, “American Tune” made an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. But this time, it was sung by Rhiannon Giddens, a banjo-playing woman in her forties boasting Black, Native and white ancestry. Simon backed her up on acoustic and she tweaked the lyrics at the end.

We didn’t come here on the Mayflower.
We came on a ship on a blood red moon.
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune.

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Supporting Actors

By Tommy Airey, above with his nephews in Southern California

The day after an 18-year-old white boy livestreamed his mass murder spree in the only supermarket of a Black neighborhood in Buffalo, I was hosting another men’s group on zoom. We were sharing early memories of when our tears and tenderness were not honored by adults in our lives. One participant said something that stoked vigorous nodding from the rest of us. “It really wasn’t what I was told,” he said, “It was what I wasn’t told.” We were forced to fill in the gaps of all those silences. We came up with our own scripts saying we were not good enough and would never really be loved unless we met a certain standard of “success.”

The silence is a slow trauma that seeds deep feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness. It tills the soil of the gun culture, the rape culture, the corporate culture, the cancel culture. The silence sustains the default dominant culture, what Dr. Willie Jennings calls “the pedagogy of the plantation.” Unless we are intentionally taught otherwise, we are trained up to possess, master and control everything we come across. In America, men are the main characters, the owners of the plantation. It’s not just the passionate men with their man caves and their big trucks and their unregulated firearms—but also the passive men who pride themselves on staying safe, stoic, nice and neutral, above the fray, hiding their feelings as they over-function to “provide for their families.”

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A New Song

By Tommy Airey, reposted from Easy Yolk

“What I do know is that love reckons with the past and evil reminds us to look to the future. Evil loves tomorrow because peddling in possibility is what abusers do.”—Kiese Laymon

“Oh, sing to the Lord a new song.”—Psalm 96:1

Thirty years ago, four white cops caught on video beating Rodney King fifty-six times were acquitted in Simi Valley by a jury made up of ten white folks, one Latino and one Asian. In the aftermath, a righteous rage fueled the L.A. Riots. At the time, I was fifty miles south, getting ready for senior prom. Six weeks earlier, our high school basketball team won the CIF sectional championship at the Sports Arena, where the Clippers used to play back in the day. We beat Lynwood, an all-Black squad from south L.A. In our all-white minds, we were getting revenge.

When I was a freshman, we got manhandled by all-Black Manual Arts High School in the state playoffs. They brought a cadre of students and parents down to South Orange County, the metro region with the lowest Black population in the US. Their crowd was small but persistently on point. When they scored or made a stop, everyone in their section of the bleachers would extend their arms out like an alligator and chant in rapid succession, “We love it. We love it. We love it.” As they clapped together, the alligators chomped together. Black excellence completely obliterated our home court advantage.

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A Monarch Migration in March

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from Easy Yolk

On Fat Tuesday, six days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I drove out of Detroit while it was still dark. For the first two hours, the slipped disk in my upper back was screaming. This thorn in my flesh, this messenger from Satan, was signaling a lack of emotional support in a world collapsing with the 4 C’s: capitalism, climate, covid and conflict. I drove through all four time zones as gas prices sky-rocketed and the stealth BA. 2 variant spread. On the road, in this mess, I was trusting in Something greater than myself, a divine Presence percolating the world with steadfast love and solidarity. This Force does not sit on a throne. It hovers low like a nurturing mother bird and runs fast like an open-hearted, emotionally expressive father figure.

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Divine Dialysis: A 7-Minute Sermon

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from Easy Yolk

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.—excerpts from Psalm 51

This week, I read Psalm 51 in the wake of dear friends sharing the details of a sexual assault they experienced. My response was rage. I struggled to tap into tears. I was just so angry. At the perpetrator for what he did. At the police for what they did not do. Lindsay asked me if our friends’ story was triggering my own trauma. I wasn’t sure. I needed to go away to reflect—and sit with this Psalm, attributed to David who was called “a man after God’s own heart.” He was also a sexual predator.

Continue reading this post here.