take off your shoes
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a wedding of dear friends. There are many things that I could say about the seeming lack of concern around safe Covid practices by many of the guests, but what stuck out to me most was this singular moment. The rehearsal dinner took place at a former rectory turned AirBnB. At the entrance, a large sign posted by the hosts declared a simple request: PLEASE TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES. To assist in this effort, the hosts also offered plentiful shoe covers that are easy to slip on. I saw that there were some people in the house already but I was confused that I did not see any shoes in the doorway. My wife wondered aloud if anyone had taken off their shoes and a bridesmaid walked by with a smile saying, “no, we all just kept them on.” Hearing the voices of our ancestors, we still dutifully took off our shoes and entered into the party as the only people of color.
This, perhaps, is one of the simplest examples of embodied White supremacy.
You may think that this is a silly and superfluous conclusion so I will help break it down:
- The hosts made a simple, non-confrontational, non-politicized request to take off shoes before entering into their house (which was exceptionally clean)
- The hosts provided easy-to-use shoe slip covers to make it even easier
- The White guests figured it was not a sign of disrespect to do what they wanted in someone else’s space
You may also know this fable from the plethora of stories of White American tourists trouncing over cultural norms in other countries. Or through the examination of American history towards indigenous people. However, the stories around shoes embody deeper meanings from my own personal experience as the son of Taiwanese immigrants.
Like most kids growing up, I invited my friends over. In my Southwest Ohioan case, my friends were of White Midwestern Evangelical stock. I loved hosting and throwing parties, running tangled LAN cables up and down stairs connecting computers and gaming consoles. As most Taiwanese households are trained, shoes must come off at the doorway. Visiting my friends’ houses, I would always take off my shoes and would be appalled at seeing them walking around with their shoes on. Understanding this cultural difference, I was always proactive in reminding my friends to take off their shoes before entering into my parents’ house — even sometimes putting up signs with big, bold letters as a reminder.
In retrospect, it never occurred to me that after years (some up to a decade) of coming over, I still had to remind some of my friends to take off their shoes. Given that those who forgot also often intersected with those bantering to me about my parents’ English or making various Asian jokes, I mourn that I never addressed the disrespect that they had for me or for my culture. That after a decade of friendship, they still couldn’t take the time to remember or respect this cultural norm clearly states something.
In Exodus 3:5, Moses saw the burning bush and God responded, “put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” Why was this command given? The fire dwelling in the bush was the direct Image of God, as referenced by v2 as “the angel of the LORD.” The bush was a Bearer of the Image. As Gregory the Theologian noted, the shoes are a sign of death, that which was a result of the Fall from Eden. Thus, to be present even before a Bearer of the Image of God is to be on holy ground which demands respect, putting off one’s own way to enter into something set apart.
The inability to respond to a simple request as a sign of respect, after numerous reminders, is a clear sign of disrespect. To think that you can just walk into someone else’s space and do whatever you want is denying their dignity as a fellow person. That the slightest inconvenience to you as a guest is seen as an affront to you or treated with indifference shows that you believe you and your cultural norms are superior to those of your host. This superiority denies that this other person also reflects the image of God and claims that somehow your own image is a clearer reflection.
Many people are wondering what to do in response to the communal awakening and acknowledgement of AAPI hate and violence. I propose an easy first step — show some respect and take off your shoes before entering an Asian household. From there, you can move on to ever deeper layers of solidarity and mutuality. Disrespect in the small things, regardless of being through indifference or antagonism, is the ground cover in the forest of White supremacy.
who is mammon
but the beast who devours flesh
that which seeks
to deface the image of God
who is mammon
but the king of property
in exchange for fresh life
who is mammon
but the great objectifier
power to transform
life into meaningless bits
who is mammon
but the man who believes
that a piece of rock
is worth more than the thief who steals
depart from me
for I was hungry, and you said I was lazy and took away my food stamps
I was thirsty, and you poisoned my water with lead and gas
I was a refugee, and you built a wall to keep me out
naked, and you masturbated at my image
a criminal, and you demanded that I lay dying in the streets
Reclining at the dinner table with Jesus and other disciples, Judas saw a woman enter into the room. In shock, he watched as the woman annointed Jesus with expensive oil, worth an entire year’s wages. What a waste! Has this woman not heard anything of what Jesus has taught? What need is there for beauty when the Kingdom of God is at hand? Didn’t Jesus just teach about giving to the poor? How could He just accept this? We could have sold this and used the money for better things! Judas frowned with indignation.
Jesus looked over at him and then spoke to the room, “Do not judge her. The poor you will always need to care for, but I will not be with you for much longer.”
Judas rolled his eyes. Jesus and his mind reading again. You’d think he put his skills to better use than just sitting around.
As Jesus and the other disciples continued to dine and laugh, Judas grew more sullen. No one else seems to be understanding the message of Jesus and that He is the Messiah. How can we be caring for the poor if we aren’t rich? How can we be caring for the weak if we aren’t powerful?
A thought ocurred to Judas. Maybe I need to help Jesus fulfill His mission by putting Him into a position where He has to use His power!
Judas slipped off into the brisk night to find the authorities. Finally, the time has come. As he negotiated the details of how to arrest Jesus, Judas figured that he might as well get paid! This is the real Kingdom work that none of the other disciples are willing to do – plus we can always give some of this money to the poor, he thought as he walked off with thirty pieces of silver.
In the midst of darkness, Judas approached Jesus and his fellow disciples, greeting Jesus with a kiss and a wink, “Rabbi, now is your time! The Kingdom of God is here!”
Jesus smiled softly as the commotion of the lynching mob descended upon Him.
Judas watched in expectation as Peter drew a sword and struck a man – yet Jesus stopped him.
Judas stood confused as Jesus was led away. Ah, I guess Jesus is waiting for a bigger crowd.
Judas followed Jesus to observe his trial before the Sanhedrin. Surely now.
A rising, anxious feeling began to situate upon Judas as he stood in the crowd that mocked Jesus before Pilate. This has to be the moment! Look at the size of the crowd. Now everyone will know of Jesus’ power.
As Jesus was crucified, each strike of a hammer into a nail brought Judas lower to the ground. A group of people around him mocked Jesus. “Surely, if He was the Son of God, He could bring himself down from the Cross!” Judas could barely watch, but the eyes of Jesus scanned across the chasm and found him, gazing lovingly at him with sorrow. Judas wept. Lord, is this not your time? Is the Kingdom of God not at hand?
white / male supremacy
Chanequa Walker-Barnes (adapting prior work by Andrea Smith) drew a framework on four pillars of White supremacy: Commodification, Extermination, Demonization, Indoctrination. Commodification is the process of exploiting people for their labor. Extermination is killing people or their cultural mitosis. Demonization is marking people as an other and enemy. Indoctrination is when people are forced to assimilate and adopt the supremacist culture. I posture that this framework can be more broadly utilized to reference any form of supremacy.
While many have drawn connections as to how White supremacy may have played a role in a White, Evangelical man (whom I purposefully refuse to name here) targeting massage parlors with Asian workers and murdering eight people, the murderer specifically gave his reason: “sex addiction.”
As a former and recovering addict, there are two clear things that are off:
- Anyone who has gone through any recovery program likely has heard of the 12 steps, the first being on acknowledging personal powerlessness over the problem. This man instead sought to enact power over others and blame them for his own failure.
- When Jesus mentions in Matthew 5 that “if your right eye” or “right hand” causes one to sin, it is better to cut it off than for the whole body to perish — he clearly is not instructing people to destroy others. Matthew 15:19 is direct: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”
Misogyny and toxic masculinity are just different sides of the coin of male supremacy (which seems a more relatable word than patriarchy which is used by scholars). Misogyny is how women are commodified, exterminated, and demonized. Toxic masculinity is how men enact misogyny upon themselves, refusing to acknowledge their God-given capacity for empathy and nurturing. Just as White supremacy is built upon a myth of “not a single drop of color” — male supremacy is built upon the lie that man is the exact opposite of anything associated with woman.
The White, Evangelical man? He had commodified women, either virtually or physically from his use of porn and seeking sex workers. He had demonized women, seeing them as the enemy and the source of his problems. Finally, he acted from the position as a male supremacist to kill women that he did know. It is not a stretch to see how his chosen venues of murder were also directly tied with having commodified Asian women, demonizing Asian women, and finally seeking to kill Asian women. There is no evidence that any of people killed were sex workers nor are all sex workers Asian (the latter being another conversation on the fetishization and exploitation of Asian women). After attacking three separate Asian massage parlors, his next move was to go to another state to continue his rampage on similar locations. Yet other, very explicit “porn industry” related businesses nearby were not targeted.
In many ways, as a Taiwanese American, feel numb to this violence and yet another sign to how white supremacy is a culture of death. But as a man, I also know that I have a role in dismantling male supremacy in myself and then in the world around me. Justice and healing always begins with ourselves.
St. Joseph, pray for us, especially men to serve and love as you did. St. Mary, pray for us, especially Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Paul Andre Michels, the other four women who were killed, and any people who have been exploited for sex. Jesus, have mercy on us sinners.
the mother of creativity
The proverb is one many of us know: “necessity is the mother of invention.” Yet within this proposed axiom lies a darker truth – that chaos is what ushers forth creation. This myth is as old as human history, with the Enūma Eliš recounting how the desecration of Tiamat, a goddess and mother who represents chaos, gives birth to the creation of the heavens and the earth, the rivers and the stars.
Yet in the account of Genesis, we see how creation takes place not because of chaos, but because of an outpouring of love. As the Trinitarian Creator spoke, “it was good.” Man was created not to serve the gods, but because God’s love overflowed to those made in His image. Soon after, of course, man created the first clothes. The need? They were naked. The cause? Having acted to separate themselves from their Creator. The means? Through destroying the life of a fellow creature to attempt atonement.
Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician and philosopher, wrote that “necessity is the mother of futile dodges.” What comes through “necessity” is not true creativity, but a shadow. Beauty and love are not born through chaos, but beget by Love itself.
This truth is sadly non-resonant within the very communities that claim to follow the loving, creative God. A “dignity of work” is twisted into a “dignity of suffering, struggling to put food on the table while working multiple jobs, being sucked into a whirlwind of debt, living on the edge of chaos.” If man has no need, then would he not live a life of laziness? If man is not forced to work, then would he not simply be a drain on society?
This line of thinking strikes against the justice of God, who created with interdependence embedded into to the source code of life. We must rely upon the rest of creation for sustenance, we must rely upon one another for support, we must rely upon the Creator for salvation. It is only through this interdependence, this common love, this foundation of support that we are able to create further beauty.
In our current era, the dignity of being must be made explicit. Human life is sacred, from conception to natural death and all the parts in between. We live in a consumerist, competitive world that thrives on chaos and sees it as a form of beauty (see the side hustle and the gig economy), but chaos only begets more chaos and death. We know its impact on our lives, our friends, our communities – how many GoFundMe campaigns have we seen for basic needs, including healthcare?
The time for an unconditional, universal basic income is now. Studies after studies have shown the efficacy of universal basic income in improving the quality of life, the quality of being for families, and especially children. From Pope Francis to Mitt Romney, leaders around the world see the value of unconditional payments for the common good. People don’t work more, they work better – choosing to try new opportunities or spend time on the things we really say matter but devalue financially such as caring for family.
Unconditional basic income begets the dignity of being. And this unconditional love for our fellow humans, our common humanity, will be the mother of new beauty and creativity.
a shared mythology
How does a country whose revolution, inception, and existence are intertwined with sin, do any good? How does a country whose mythology is built upon lies and misconceptions find a common story? Ibram X. Kendi proposes that denial is the “heartbeat of America.” And in eviscerating this denial, what remains? Or as the Aspen Institute asks, “who is us?”
We likely all know the oft-repeated slogans. No taxation without representation! A country of immigrants founded upon principles of freedom and equality. The greatest democracy in the world. In every lie, there is a kernel of truth. How do we begin to process that our revolution was for refusing taxes for national defense while trying to infringe upon indigenous land? Or that embedded within our Constitution is a clause delineating that Black people are less than human? Or that throughout our history we have sought to disenfranchise those who were deemed as others or to keep them out entirely or to violate treaties made with those who already resided on the land?
We are a country that both developed a vaccine for polio and utilize non-consensual cell lines of Black people and aborted children to develop new medicines. We are a country that stood against the rise of fascism in the world while fostering racism at home. We are a country that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” while passing the Chinese Exclusion Act. We are a country that has developed incredible technological innovation while devouring natural resources around the world to expand the bottom line. We are a country which has brokered peace deals amongst warring nations while having some of the greatest gun violence in the world on our own soil.
From all of this we can indeed find our common story – we are a country of innovators. Pioneers. Explorers. None of these facets are a moral good, and so often they have been twisted for demonstrable harm and evil. These qualities are also not exclusive to America, but they are the soul of our country.
America is filled with so many generations of those who moved to start something new, to build a better life for their families. Too often, this has resulted in the erasure of cultures past – whether by oneself or systematic violence. As spoken by Dr. Jose P. Rizal, “A person who does not look back to where he came from would not be able to reach his destination.” We must never forget where we came from. We must never forget Whom we came from. Only from these points can we begin to take on the audacious task of building a true multicultural society that carries forward a culture of life for all of its people to the ends of the world. Despite all of the fallen nature of our country’s founders and foundation, this is our call: to be innovators of new and beautiful things rooted upon justice and mercy.
banality of violence
We would like to believe that the world is dichotomous – a constant struggle between Good vs Evil. The world is easier to understand in these stark categories. Pure Goodness must mean there is Pure Evil; I must be in the forces of Light battling the forces of Darkness.
This Dualism, however comforting, is a heresy. The term banality of evil was proposed by Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher, on the evil of a Nazi SS leader. Evil was not simply deeply manifested, but occurred through seemingly, uninteresting series of decisions. Ruha Benjamin spoke about a concept of bureaucratic violence when the family of Tamir Rice received an ambulance bill from the city government for their son who was murdered by city police officers.
A flawed understanding of theology is that we all have a little Nazi inside of us – that evil is simply waiting to manifest inside each and every one of us. A fuller understanding is that we all have the capability of doing violence, even through a series of banal decisions. The question of Evil can be understood as a distortion of Good. How often are evil, sinful acts interpreted, in the moment, as evil or sinful? The cleverness of the Serpent was the thread of truth within the Lie – “You will gain knowledge of good and evil”; “You are just doing your job.”
With the murder of Daniel Prude, one can see, in the aftermath, how a series of banal decisions that may seem easily justifiable in the moment are, in reality, deeply problematic. A note in red letters to change documentation on Daniel Prude that just says, “make him a suspect.” Language that euphemizes violence such as “stabilize the individual on the ground” and “the officers’ actions and conduct … appear to be appropriate and consistent with their training.” Emails trying to delay release of body cam footage to avoid “misinterpretation.” Lies about an “enormous backlog of work” to explain the delay.
This is how systemic violence often occurs – not through deliberate intentions of evil, but unexamined intentions of good. One lie leading to another. One person’s banal action setting up another’s. One person’s silence permitting the violence of another. This is what it means to be complicit, and it is well within the capability of any of us to participate.
An honest question lies regarding the consequences to an individual who has participated in communal violence – can they be held personally responsible for any single action? Can anyone? Too often, we search for a scapegoat in the demand for justice, while none of the cogs of banality have changed. A sense of filial fallibility or culpability is likely just – leaders should be held accountable for how their leadership has permitted (or encouraged) such actions. However, what we must realize is that the real consequence occurs beyond the individual and to an entire community – a cultural separation from God.
Pope Francis has focused attention on how pervasive a Culture of Death exists amongst us. The murder of someone innocent is obvious. Even the murder of someone who is guilty is now also understood to be a part of the Culture of Death. The banal and bureaucratic violence exists as a foundation to these more explicit forms of violence. The Culture of Death is nourished by euphemistic language that dehumanizes violence; it is cultivated by a focus on self-protection instead of self-sacrifice. It exists because we justify little lies, distortions of truth, as a means to an end.
In the end, we are all held accountable for our actions. We are not exempt from unintended consequences of our actions. We must pursue a Culture of Life and our individual actions play a role in the development of such a culture. The first battle rages within ourselves, that we choose love over banal distortions. At the same time, we must remember that the responsibility is also beyond the individual. This is a communal responsibility to create and hold accountable systems to work for Life.
cognitive dissonance (and the barrier to reparations)
Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize.
Yesterday, I experienced an incident where a co-worker stated, “I don’t understand this, it looks like Chinese to me.” I just froze, and then (to my dismay) tried to ignore it.
This is an experience of Othering that I became numb to from past experience, and I have sought to become more cognizant of this kind of behavior.
However, what I deeply appreciated of this co-worker was that they immediately caught themselves and followed-up with, “I shouldn’t have said that.” Since then, the co-worker has also apologized.
When we do something that was wrong, why is it so hard for us to confess wrongdoing?
The co-worker actually is married to someone of Asian descent (intentionally vague for anonymity). What we have seen in recent times are people using family / friends as a cover for wrongdoing. “I couldn’t have said that.. I couldn’t have done that.. I’m definitely not… Because I am married to.. Because I have a friend who is.. Because.. Because.."
What does having daughters or a wife have to do with a man doing a sexist act? What does having a black friend or husband have to do with doing a racist act?
We use our past, our friends, our families as shields to defend and justify ourselves. We see an image of ourselves as one person which is in contradiction to that action we took. We see ourselves in relation to others which is in contradiction to the action that could be harmful to others. I’m thankful that my co-worker apologized without invoking any of this.
Confession sets us free. I am so grateful to be Catholic and have the sacrament of reconciliation – it is truly a grace that God has provided as the pathway to once again be in right relationship with Him, and with others.
Why then, do we struggle to confess personal wrongdoings? Why do we struggle to confess corporate wrongdoings?
To admit wrongdoing is to destroy the ego. To confess is to die to self.
It only takes another step to see the same behavior from institutions and those within them. We see an image of our country in contradiction to its history. We see an image of the Church in contradiction to its Mother and its Foundation.
The struggle to confess seems to be situated upon a cognitive dissonance and a belief that "good works” and past righteousness are atonement for wrongdoing. What does having done many “good works” have to do with a man doing a sinful act? What does having done many “good works” have to do with a country having harmed others? St. Basil, on his discourse On Justice and Mercy, stated, “If you give alms to the poor after you have despoiled them of their goods, it were better for you neither to have taken nor given.” It doesn’t matter how many “good things” someone does, sin is separation from God. It doesn’t matter how many “good things” America has done, harmful actions still need to be addressed. And if unaddressed, it was better to not have done the “good things” at all.
At the end of the sacrament of reconciliation, the person confessing is called to true repentance in making amends and reparations for wrongdoing. The quicker we are to confess, the quicker we are to find healing. The sacrament of reconciliation is a true gift of grace from God to renew right relationships. Only then can we even begin to discuss making amends and reparations.
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
The Hebrews asked, “Are you sure that the that your widows are being neglected? All widows matter, not just Hellenist widows. Maybe some of your widows are stealing from the other widows. We all know that the real problem is Hellenist on Hellenist crime.”
However, the Hellenists were insistent.
The Hebrews responded, “Okay, we will make sure our food distributors get sensitivity training and anti-bias training. Maybe there were just some bad apples who neglected your widows.”
Yet still, the Hellenists persisted.
The Hebrews were frustrated. “So perhaps there is something wrong with our food distribution system, but that doesn’t mean we should abolish it. We will now ensure that we also serve Hellenist cuisine too and increase the leadership of our distribution to include more Hellenists.”
The Hellenists continued to raise the injustice.
The Hebrews finally relented. “Hellenists, select from among yourselves people of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to lead the food distribution for everyone.”
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly.
In this Teenie Harris photo from 1952, we see a Black woman making pancakes at a downtown Pittsburgh grocery store in the image of Aunt Jemima. You see another Black woman sitting at the counter next to a White man. This was the image of “equality” in the 1950s.
In 1969, we find a snapshot of Black Youth protesting in Pittsburgh – “Down with tokenism; equal job opportunities for all now!” The hope was for a new sense of “equality” that wasn’t just about a couple of Black people being hired by a company.
In 2020, we see a multiracial protest for Black lives in East Liberty.
And it is in the midst of these protests that the lightbulb seems to have finally gone off. What is true “equality”?
But it is not about concessions. It is about justice. It is about ceding power.