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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Passports, barriers, and structural racism

The passport on the left has been with me for ten years.  While waiting in an interminable line to pick up the new passport today in Nairobi, I flipped through the pages and counted 229 stamps.  That's a lot of visas, a lot of borders, a stamp as you leave, a stamp as you enter, a scowling perusal of my pages or a friendly curiosity.  There's the sea-shell shaped Seychelles stamp from our 25th anniversary, the green one from the Republic of Ireland, and many, many simple exits and entries from Kenya and Uganda.  

We are world citizens, but at this point in history we all still need a specific place to be from.  Someday perhaps we won't, when the Kingdom comes and there is neither Jew nor Greek.  When the saving all-things-new resurrection power that poured out of the wounded side of Jesus flows into the river whose waters produce trees that heal the nations.  But for now, there are forms, lines, taxes, rules.  

So I'm thankful for my USA passport and the way it allows me to move over the barriers that humans have demarcated to pull in close with those that are like, and keep out those that are not.  Having now lived almost as much of my life as an alien and stranger than not, our USA identity becomes complicated.  We claim it even while keeping a foot over the line outside of it.  We live in the advantages of American security and wealth that follows us even to sketchy distant lands.  But we also look back with incredulous puzzling concern at much that transpires these days.  

This week there were missiles descending in Syria, a show of naval presence in North Korea, the new Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch sworn in, a meeting with China, another school shooting (which continues to help make American schools more deadly than life in Kenya), a governor resigning, and our president's spokesman forgetting about the holocaust as he tried to justify the missile attack by making Assad look worse than Hitler, which was an embarrassing gaffe.  But none of this got a fraction of the attention that United Airlines received when security personnel forcibly removed a passenger for no reason other than they decided to revoke his ticket to make room for their own employees.  Thanks to cell phone video, the entire incident has been viewed over and over.  

It looks to me like the way many people of color have been treated by the police for decades, centuries.  But this time, the man under attack was someone middle and upper class viewers uncomfortably identified with.  A doctor. A paying passenger.  A person unwilling to have his plans altered.  Viewers collectively gasped to realize, "that could be me."  Poor thinking by United, resorting to force instead of raising the stakes until someone bit on the refund.  But maybe this will have a positive effect, shaking up the all-lives complacency of the majority to imagine themselves dragged by security officers with the same disregard that people of color experience day in day out.

Saw this study in Lancet this week:
 Structural racism, the very unequal experience that people have based on their skin color as they navigate life, shows up in disparate health outcomes.  Babies who are black die at twice the rate of babies who are white.

So I feel the crisp promise of a new passport, ready for another decade of border crossing into places where God calls us.  And the appreciation for the government which stands behind us.  But this week as others, we also long to see America embrace her ethos of welcome to all, and long for the day when passports are a distant memory.

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