An image

Have you ever watched big kids throw around an object like a ball that a little kid is trying to get? They throw it just over his head and he keeps leaping up trying to catch it or runs toward one kid who has it and even stretched out his hand as if offering to him only to toss it quickly to another kid.

That’s the image that came to mind when thinking about the way concepts, visions, stereotypes, notions, ideas, movements, all get tossed around. We’ve heard the phrase “ideas have consequences, words have meanings”. When ideas and words are wielded as tools, even weapons, the persons affected by their use would like to grab hold of them, to have some input into how they are used. It’s sort of like people living in an oil-rich patch of the world wanting to have some say over how the oil is extracted, what is done with it, and so forth.

The word that brought this to mind was “macho”. How many times have I listened to people with no knowledge of Spanish, people who never visited, let alone lived in, a Hispanic community, pontificate on the cultural implications of the word ’macho’. They don’t even pronounce it right but they know all about what it is to be macho and to be a woman living in a “macho society”.

If you ask the discussants what they know of las rieleras or how things get worked out in Hispanic families or what might be the differences among Cubans, Mexicans, Spaniards, and Bolivians, they will refer you to an article in a up-scale magazine that “explains it all”.

It’s at that point that the image of a little Mexican person just under the table, jumping up and running around trying to get ahold of this word from his language, this trait from his culture, springs to mind.

What I imagine him saying to herself between pants in trying to catch her breath is, “How do these people acquire the power to discuss me and mine without knowing us?” That is the grand mystery. How did some guys sitting in a conference room in Houston acquire the power to determine the fate of people living in a village on the Niger Delta? Who gave the power to the people with headsets on for simultaneous translation to decide what should be done with the wealth of other people? It is a mystery.

The term ’echo chamber’ is often used when discussing how some person or event or idea gets bruited about despite its having no merit, no basis for import, nothing to recommend, yet suddenly he’s on the cover of Time or it’s the topic of a panel of heavy-hitters. How did that happen?

The explanation is: the echo chamber. Who is in it, though, and how did they get there?

Now the macho thing is easy for me to jump on because I do speak Spanish and I do have some familiarity with the culture and the role of “machismo” (I have actually heard this pronounced with the ’a’ of ’cat’, the ’ch’ of ’chaos’, the ’s’ of ’phase’ and the ’o’ of ’mow’ – maekizmow). I have had many discussions with people living in the culture, have read insightful articles on the topic, and so forth. So in some ways, I can take a position ABOVE the heads of those sophisticates discussing the cult of maekizmo with absolutely no knowledge of the language or the culture – jjust based on that article that ’explains it all’.

However, I get pinched myself when the discussion turns to “born-agains” and “evangelicals”. Yes, I am completely secular. No, I was not raised in a religion. Yes, I find the positions taken by the Christian Right to be inimical to my vision of America. But, I also attended a Pentecostal church for 3 years, often going two and three times a week. My wife was raised in that church. Most of our Black friends have ties to churches like that and some of our White friends do.

So I am very familiar with people who say, “Praise the Lord” when they answer the phone, who begin meals in restaurants with prayer, very loud prayer punctuated by amens and yes lords. I am also very comfortable with those people and love them dearly. I know them to be sensible people who wouldn’t dream of interfering with a school curriculum or a university’s research program. But they do send money to people who do these bad things and they do it in the hopes that, along with the Prayer Warriors in the church, the organizations they support will bring about a better society.

Now it is true that many of them simply do not have enough education to understand the plans liberals propose for bettering society, but nowadays those churches are filled more and more with educated people. Perhaps their grandparents did not “believe in doctors”, but they do. At this point we must be honest and draw a distinction between White evangelicals and Black evangelicals, leaving Hispanics and others aside for the moment. About two thirds of White evangelicals support the Right, about a third do not. My personal view on that is that many more evangelicals are at heart populists, with all the good and bad that brings. But as the churches provide more stability to families, the education level will rise and the lashing out in resentment that has so often characterized populist rhetoric will be replaced by more reasoned and informed discourse (doesn’t that sound nice?).

So when I laugh at Bill Maher’s jokes about religion and guffaw at Jon Stewart’s skits about holy people, I hold in the back of my mind those saints who pulled themselves out of misery (they call it sin) by embracing with fervency a faith that told them they were somebody and that gave them plenty to do to keep them busy. The church my wife was raised in, rife with diabetes and all the ailments Black Americans are heir to, has a very strong program of healthy eating, exercise, and a healthy life-style. After all, the old people picked cotton and loaded dump trucks with their bare hands – they didn’t think they needed exercise. But thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, many now have office jobs and still eat the old way (I have NEVER been able to resist a mess of greens), so they need nutrition programs. What better place to get them than in the church they spend half their life in?

The darker side of this is that many of these people know that the circle of people who seem to hold all the power hold them in contempt, ridicule their beliefs, look down on them as rubes, and try to dismiss them. Unfortunately, that is too often true – many in the educated classes do look down on Evangelicals. Not only is it wrong to do so, it is political dynamite.

After that digression, let me end with a warning to my fellow secular liberals. An awful lot of voters have more in common with those church goers I’ve described than they do with us. If you do not know people like this and think that getting possessed by the Holy Ghost and dancing and flinging yourself about is silly or weird, get to know some of these people personally. In fact, as we say about gay people, you probably already do know some but don’t know you know any. Avoid the preachy ones and the pushy ones trying to save you; there are plenty of others. Attend a service and see what else they do besides raise their hands and shout amen.

OK, I’ll get racial again and in a lot of trouble, too. My experience with evangelicals, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, etc. has always been with Black people. I got close to a fellow teacher who was evangelical. She always thought I was a total secularist until the last year she worked at my school and I said something which showed I was very familiar with the faith. That led to a long discussion in which she revealed that she and her husband, both White, went looking for a church one time and the one they found was Black. Having been members of several evangelical churches, all White, they were surprised to find strong differences between that Black church and the White churches. It had to do as much with “warmth” and being “welcoming” as it did with the music and expressions of spiritual ecstasy. I would seriously expect White churches to be warm and welcoming yet this woman did find a difference. You might want to keep that in mind as you go shopping. Oh…….. and bring your Bible, King James version.

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