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Angels and Innocents

By Sikivu Hutchinson

I have a vivid memory of the first time I became aware that children could die.  It was early evening in the leisurely dusk of summer, and after eating with my mother at a local coffee shop, we passed by a newspaper vending machine outside.  A child victim, kidnapped, murdered and disposed of like garbage, stared ominously out at me from the front page of the paper in grainy black and white.  I remember my sense of horror when my mother told me that the child, who was approximately my age, would never see his parents again.  Associating death with old people, I was stupefied by this seeming contradiction.  Although raised heretically in a secular household, I had been corrupted by the prayer-saturated social universe of waxen blue-eyed Jesus’ plastered on my friends’ living room walls.  Alone in my bed that night, I wondered how “God” could have countenanced such unspeakable evil.

Decades later there is an aching space where this child’s life would have been, his personhood “frozen” at abduction.  Violent death by homicide at an early age is a grim reality for many youth of color.  Gangsta rap romanticizes it and dishes it up for the voyeurism of white suburbia.  Mainstream media ignores it or relegates it to social pathology.  Every semester when I ask my students if they’ve had a young friend or relative die violently at least half will raise their hands.  Their tattoos, notebooks and Sidekick phones are filled with vibrant mementoes for the dead.  It is not necessary to go to Iraq, Afghanistan or some other theatre of American imperialism to experience the devastation that the killing fields of disposable youth inflicts.  Yet, God takes care of children and fools, or so the shopworn saying goes.  In the midst of sudden death there is refuge in the belief that the Cecil B.  De Mille epic doomsayer of the Old Testament must have a special place in his heart for this tender constituency.  Pied Piper religionists pat children on the head and whisper into their dewy ears that the murder of an innocent child is part of some grand design.  They dish up the concept of divine providence like hard candy.  They lure sweet-toothed youth with a ready “antidote” to the quandary of trying to make sense out of the senselessness and randomness of evil.  The Wynken, Blynken and Nod bedtime story of grand design is chased down with the simple carrot of eternal reward for slain innocents. The inexplicable is assimilated.  Senseless evil, evil that befalls the good and stalks the innocent, is legitimized as part of the divine’s hardscrabble boot camp for the living. 

If it can be understood, it isn’t God, said Augustine.  In ambiguity then, prayer is the great equalizer and potential redeemer.  As American children we grow up with recurring images of kneeling girls and boys, hands clasped solemnly in prayer.  These images propagandize faith as a normal, natural phenomenon.  The magic bullet of prayer is trotted out as an escape hatch from the small indignity to the unspeakably cruel act of wild-oats-sewing youth.  Bad kids pray obsessively for forgiveness.  Good kids pray strategically in crisp starched pajamas for family members, friends, and Fido to be delivered to the top of God’s check list.  Sinful thoughts can be defused by requesting a special audience with God.  Good thoughts can be “deposited” into one’s virtual piggy bank of moral worth. 

Blasting the hypocrisy of this brand of yo-yo morality in the Doors’ song “the Soft Parade,” Jim Morrison bellows:

When I was back there in seminary school, a person put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayerpetition the Lord with prayerpetition the Lord with prayer…You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!!!

Morrison’s fierce monologue highlights the absurdity of prayer as a form of negotiation.  Clearly, the more meditative personal and intimate benefits of prayer can be therapeutic to the believer.   Yet, the assumption that prayer can be a bargaining chip in moments of crisis merely allows individuals to refuse to accept responsibility for their actions.  Children who are indoctrinated into this escape hatch mentality are forced early on to reconcile an out of control, evil, morally rudderless world with the illusion of a forgiving tailor-made God that they can summon like hocus pocus.  Picking and choosing morality and dividing the world into the Christian “us” and the immoral, unwashed secular/Muslim/Hindu/“them,” “faith-based” children are socialized to see and enforce hierarchies of personhood rather than embrace fellowship. 

Since God sees and “forgives” everything that is petitioned, the moral universe of children is a tiny, confining funhouse of mirrors.  In communities where death at an early age is considered unremarkable by mainstream media and policymakers, the deferment demanded by faith is an insurance policy against social oblivion.  When death is near, it is easy to arm a child with the “faith” that their 15 year-old cousin, killed in a drive-by shooting, has gone on to a “better place.” When death is near, the fear of retaliation for being a “snitch” compels crime witnesses to remain silent.  As a result, homicide cases remain open indefinitely while perpetrators walk around free and clear in the same neighborhoods.  Yet faith allows victims and witnesses to rationalize this seeming contradiction.  God will take care of the evildoer in the afterlife, whilst granting the departed everlasting peace and deliverance in heaven.

And for the parents of a dead child it is said that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.   Having lost a child to a congenital disease, this is bitter refuge and rank fraud.  This reductive homily has been especially tailored to domesticate and seduce women, saddled with a thousand obligations, the primary care of children and infirm relatives, dead end jobs with marginal pay.  It is God’s will that you be eaten alive by the “womanly” stress of always being expected to defer, sacrifice and persevere.  And it is God’s will that you must bite back your Eve-bequeathed rage in silent complicity.

In my infant son’s final hours, I stared down at the phalanx of tubes that separated him from death.  Soon, they said, he will be an angel.  I could feel nothing but the obscenity of divine providence, the mockery of robust babies whisked from the delivery room to pink and blue splattered nurseries without incident, innocent of the antiseptic drone of the neonatal ICU. 

But then, there is the stripped-to-the-bone eloquence of women waiting for deliverance; like that depicted in a story I read recently about a homeless Haitian single mother’s heartbreaking quest for permanent shelter.  Desperately she waits for God to “put something into her hand,” to perhaps give her a sign that she won’t be like scores of parents fated by this rudderless God to outlive their young children.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a senior fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies.


What Would Jesus Do? Uganda, White Supremacy and Evangelical Blood Money

By Sikivu Hutchinson

White evangelicals have taken their corrupt “traditional family values” racket to Africa and hit paydirt. Over the past several months, Uganda’s terrorist anti-Homosexual Bill has been exposed as not just a symbol of African homophobia but a symptom of American evangelical influence-peddling. While the legal battle over same sex marriage has reached epic proportions in the United States, American evangelicals have been quietly wielding “moral” influence over African public policy, spearheading a rabid call for retribution against gays and lesbians in their missionary pilgrimages. During a March 2009 trip to Uganda, evangelical activists Scott Lively and Don Schmierer warned Ugandan leaders of a gay agenda to “take over the world.” Lively and Schmierer have been roundly condemned by human rights and social justice organizations for galvanizing Ugandan politicians to develop the legislation.

As has been well-documented, the Ugandan legislation would “seek to protect the traditional family by prohibiting any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex.” It would also bar “the promotion or recognition of such sexual relations in public institutions and other places through or with the support of any Government entity in Uganda or any non-governmental organization inside or outside the country.” The Bill envisions a vast homosexual conspiracy of “sexual activists” seeking to convert youth and adopt children. It would require those knowing of homosexual acts to report them or risk prosecution, and, as a result, seriously jeopardize the country’s inroads in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

The United States and other donor countries have denounced the Bill. Facing the possible loss of international aid, the Ugandan government is considering revising an earlier provision which would have required the execution of known homosexuals.

After a firestorm of criticism, the evangelicals have also tried to distance themselves from the flap. However, the Ugandan Bill is part of a larger movement of evangelical puppeteering. The Bill exploits anti-gay sentiment and anxieties within African culture about a family structure under siege by “outside” forces, evoking some of the same tensions that African American communities experienced around California’s Proposition 8. Fittingly, the Bill has been bankrolled by conservative foundations and promoted by the far right Christian activist group the Family, a covert network of influential politicians and power brokers. The Family hosts this week’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., an annual gathering for power brokers from the international community.

Stoking anti-gay sentiment through biblical edict and propaganda about potential homosexual corruption of the African family, evangelicals have used Africa as a springboard for a virulently homophobic agenda that has been intensified by the struggle over gay equal rights in the United States. At the forefront of this movement is President Obama’s buddy Rick Warren. Warren’s purpose-driven crew is hugely influential in Africa, funding schools, missions and HIV/AIDS treatment while brokering homophobia.

Warren and his American counterparts have identified Africa as the new frontier and future of evangelicalism. And as such, Africa is fertile ground for the export of hate and right wing evangelical terrorism. Indeed, evangelicals’ hold on Africa is merely an extension of white supremacist control over African self-determination. The colonial legacy of African exploitation by the West, exemplified by the undue cultural and economic influence of Western missionaries, has played a pernicious role in the African psyche. To the extent that African nations have been so besieged by Western influence, their embrace of American-bred homophobia, in exchange for American largesse, is simply part of the package of white capitalist patronage.

For this reason, it is inconceivable that African evangelicals would have the same impact on public policy in the West. In a sweeping expose, the progressive think tank Political Research Associates reports that American evangelicals have long been active in promoting anti-gay public policy through their missionary work in Africa. Because “the demographic center of Christianity is shifting from the global North to the global South,” Africa’s influence on the global direction of Christianity has increased. According to the report, one of the architects of this movement is the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD). IRD is a neo-conservative think tank which has exploited the widespread belief that homosexuality is a western phenomenon that undermines essential African culture values. Scratch the surface and IRD is a radical political organization that has actively opposed the social justice campaigns of mainline Protestant churches and pro-democracy movements in Central America and Africa. Supported by ultraconservative foundations such as the Scaife and Bradley Foundations, the organization is part of a well-financed network of think tanks and nonprofits, many with tax exempt status granted to religious entities.

The staggering amounts funneled into these organizations dwarfs foundation grants and funding to progressive advocacy organizations. As a result, conservative organizations are better equipped to position themselves as lobbyists and power brokers in both the global and domestic legislative arena.

The intersection of dire poverty, underdevelopment and social desperation has historically made African countries vulnerable to the moral profiteering of a bankrupt evangelical movement. Make no mistake, American evangelicals, in their advancement of a terrorist agenda that seeks extermination based on sexuality, will most certainly have blood on their hands. Far from being an isolated act of extremism, Uganda’s shadow evangelical legislature is yet another potent reminder of the global destruction that the Christian right wreaks in the name of Western enlightenment. As the anonymous author of the blog Gay Uganda says, “I am immersed in the middle of a battle for my life. My very life, me and my partner’s. And of all Ugandans that are like me.”


The Morality of Choice

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the film Precious, a teenage African American girl has two children by her HIV infected father. The possibility of abortion is never spoken of and the girl’s delivery of her second child is treated as a bootstraps triumph over the matriarchal hell of her upbringing by a degenerate “welfare queen” caricature. Yet Precious is simply one more example in a long line of contemporary American films that “omit” reference to abortion as a viable life option. Popular glorifications of young motherhood in such white female-centered vehicles as Juno, Sixteen and Pregnant and Knocked Up, promote a conservative pre-feminist vision of compulsory motherhood. In this moral universe abortion is a third rail alternative that only bad women make in shame and secrecy.

When I chose to have an abortion in my 20s as an underemployed college student on the road to a PhD, it was in a climate in which the horrors of the pre-Roe vs. Wade era seemed distant and unimaginable. Now the pendulum has swung back, underscored by the recent debate over abortion coverage in the health care reform bills. Ostensibly drawing on the ban on federal abortion funding mandated by the 1977 Hyde Amendment, both the House and Senate bills drastically restrict abortion coverage in ways that will reduce the access of working and middle class women to safe legal abortions. Hyde restrictions on funding for abortion through Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for low-income women, effectively denied access to poor women seeking abortions. The House bill goes beyond Hyde, prohibiting insurers who participate in health reform insurance exchanges from including abortion coverage in their plans.

There has been very little national discussion of how women of color will specifically be affected by draconian restrictions on abortion in the health care bills’ mandated insurance exchanges. At approximately 6% of the U.S. population, African American women have a disproportionate number of abortions. African Americans’ long-standing allegiance to the Democratic Party has led to the assumption that blacks are unwaveringly pro-choice. However, there is tension between public support for choice among black voters and deeply held antiabortion sentiments in African American communities. A 2006 Zogby International poll showed an increase in anti-choice views among African Americans. Black anti-choice factions have gained greater visibility in the national arena in such influential far right media as Fox News. Internet searches for information on abortion and African Americans yield more references to “black genocide” than to pro-choice African American views. Mainstream black civil rights’ leadership remains steadfastly silent on the urgency of protecting legal abortion access and reproductive justice for black communities.

The overwhelming religiosity of African Americans, coupled with the political ascendance of the Religious Right, has made religious nationalist abortion foes the “authentic” voice of black America by default. It has also made frank talk about abortion’s role in addressing the crisis of unwanted births in black communities virtually impossible. This climate fuels black nationalist and religious propaganda equating abortion with genocide. Hearkening back to eugenicist history, black abortion foes point to a white conspiracy to reduce the black population. However, skyrocketing numbers of black children who are homeless, in foster care and/or Child Protective Services illustrate the gravity of caregiving issues facing many African American families. And black abortion foes offer no viable program for addressing this moral and social crisis. They offer no viable program for the dilemma of an 18 year-old who had her first child at age 12. They’re MIA when it comes to concrete assessment of how this 18 year-old (multiplied by 10,000) raising her second child by an incarcerated older man, develops parenting skills, deals with anger management, gets an education, gets a job, finds health care resources, puts food on the table and grapples with the probability of being a single mother for the rest of her life.

The pervasiveness of popular images in which getting a man and becoming a mother are the end all be all of femininity make it easy to see why some young women decide to forgo abortion. Steeped in a culture where having a child at an early age is not stigmatized, being a young mother becomes an “antidote” to low self esteem and limited life opportunities. It is no mystery then why girls who see their friends get pregnant and have no other meaningful affirmation in their lives decide to sacrifice their youth for the fantasy of a baby’s unconditional love. It is no mystery why girls who are ambivalent go forward with a pregnancy anyway due to ignorance and/or fear about seeking out reproductive resources or lack of access. Because of the deep social stigma associated with abortion and the frayed social welfare net, the burden of educating young women about the existence of alternatives to early motherhood increasingly falls on peers and mentors in their communities.

Historically black women have not had power and control over their bodies. Under slavery compulsory pregnancy through rape and forced breeding was the norm for black women in this country. In the 19th and 20th centuries eugenicist sterilization policies were also imposed on black women to assert racist control over black reproduction. However, noting the connection between reproductive freedom and social justice, Loretta Ross, co-founder of the reproductive justice organization SisterSong remarked, “We understand why African-American women risked their lives then and why they seek safe, legal abortion now. It’s been a matter of survival. Hunger and homelessness. Inadequate housing and income to properly provide for themselves and their children.” Choice is a key aspect of achieving self-determination and sovereignty for black communities in a racist patriarchal culture.

Nonetheless, recent polls such as Zogby and Gallup have shown that there is increasing support for anti-choice, antiabortion views among younger people. In a national culture in which the bankrupt “morality” of the Religious Right is the default position on ethics and personal choice, many young people have a limited a-historical view of the real life implications of restricted abortion access. In the debate leading up to the House and Senate bills, the morality police, led by the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council, were out in full force, lobbying for more comprehensive restrictions on abortion coverage.

These views are reinforced by the Democratic shift in framing abortion initiated by President Obama.  In January Obama lifted a Bush-era “global gag rule” ban on funding for foreign family planning agencies that provide abortion services. Yet early in his presidential campaign he showed his willingness to kowtow to antiabortion forces out of political expediency. He cozied up to antiabortion evangelicals with rhetoric about “reducing” the number of abortions by reducing unplanned pregnancies. He rubbed shoulders with homophobe Pastor Rick Warren at his mega-church in Orange County and gave him a plum position at his inauguration. He re-legitimated Bush’s faith-based initiative program by approving its funding base and tacitly endorsing discriminatory church hiring policies. Obama’s politically expedient approach to choice has bolstered the anti-choice antiabortion agendas of Blue Dog Democrats like Congressman Bart Stupak and Senator Ben Nelson. The aggressive recruitment of the Blue Dogs by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has led to the gutting of any semblance of progressive legislation in the Democratically-held Congress.

In the health care reform charade this will have disastrous consequences for black women and communities of color, who rely heavily on services like Planned Parenthood for preventive care (due in part to the Hyde Amendment). Every state that enacts parental notification laws and late term abortion restrictions further imperils the lives of women of color who generally have fewer health care resources than do white women of any economic level. The crisis of unemployment, unequal pay for equal work, unequal access to health care and a cradle-to-prison pipeline mean that African American women can least afford to be mis-educated about the right to choose because of religious dogma or destructive nationalist blather. In the midst of a dangerously reactionary climate we can least afford to cede visibility to the self-appointed “authentic” morality police of black America. Simply put, abortion saves lives, black lives, and standing on the sidelines while the Religious Right and its black allies hijack our rights is not an option.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for KPFK 90.7FM Los Angeles.


The White Stuff (Atheism & Its Discontents)

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Her name was Sarah Baartman, aka the Venus Hottentot, and she had ass to spare.

Like many Africans staged for public exhibition in 19th Century Europe before her, Baartman became an object of scientific investigation. She was poked, prodded, measured, assessed and ultimately dissected in death by British and French empiricist wizards like the esteemed scientist Georges Cuvier. She was marshaled as resident Other to determine the exact nature of her “difference” from “normal” (i.e., white) men and women. This standard only had weight and relevance in the context of Baartman’s grotesqueness. Her deformations provided white femininity with its mooring as the standard of feminine beauty. Her sub-humanity gave her white male examiners a biological compass (and canvas) that was then translated into immutable racial difference. The sexual deviance signified by her enormous backside literally functioned as an epistemological frame and cover for her interpreters’ own cultural biases and assumptions. Identified as the “missing link,” Baartman’s anatomy was critical to affirming white racial superiority and capturing inexplicable gaps in the ascent from “savage” to “civilized.” Through the lens of the scientist, looking, seeing and interpreting were deemed to be “transparent” enterprises–not naturalized through the cultural position of the observer.

Tim Wise, the foremost white critic/interpreter of the phenomenon of white supremacy, once noted that whites “swim in white privilege.” Like fish in water, whites don’t grasp or see the complexity of white privilege because they breathe it and live it 24/7. It immunizes them in the predominantly white schools, neighborhoods, social networks, media, places of worship and scholarly traditions that they inhabit. It makes the systemic institutionalized nature of racial hierarchy invisible. And it marginalizes race and racism as part of the narrow, sectarian and, ostensibly, divisive concerns of a “minority” lens.

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