Long Live the King

It’s hard to put into words what Chadwick Boseman’s massive talent and radiant light have meant to me, my family, and my students. In 42, Boseman brought Jackie Robinson to life for today’s youth in one of the best baseball films ever made. And Black Panther has become a fixture in the class that my colleagues and I teach on religion and popular culture.

For students — and so many of us who are devastated by Boseman’s death at such a young age — the power of Black Panther lay in countering centuries of dehumanizing stereotypes about Black people, Black culture, and Africa. In the jaw-dropping beauty of Wakanda, we find a reality that ought to exist, a reality we wish existed, where Black dignity, intelligence, strength, and joy flourish so vibrantly.

Envisioning Wakanda, and being transported there, gave meaning to so many in a time when racial injustice still somehow prevails — and even gathers fascistic momentum. There is so much to grieve, so much to mourn, so much to fight.

Chadwick Boseman left us, however, with so much. What a beautiful life, and what a beautiful human being. Here are two of my favorite lingering glimpses of him: this segment with Jimmy Fallon, where he surprises adoring, eloquent fans talking about what Black Panther has meant to them, and this Saturday Night Live “Black Jeopardy” sketch, where Boseman (as King T’Challa) learns how to navigate the racial landscape of America.

Rest in power, Chadwick Boseman. Wakanda Forever. ❤

In the course on religion and popular culture (for our 9th and 10th graders), two articles on Black Panther have been especially powerful: Yolanda Pierce’s “African Cosmologies: Spiritual Reflections on the ‘Black Panther’ Movie” and George Faithful’s “Dark of the World, Shine on Us: The Redemption of Blackness in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.”

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in 42 (Warner Brothers).
Boseman as King T’Challa in Black Panther.
Boseman on the cover of TIME.

Posted in Baseball, Film, grief, Humor, Media, Popular Culture, Race, racial justice, SNL, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fascism’s Myth and Lure

Yesterday was the anniversary of the vicious shelling & destruction of Sarajevo’s National Library, in 1992. This is fascism’s clear, enduring threat & promise: to destroy everyone & everything that exposes its lies.

Fascism survives because it tells a seductive story: that the only way to conquer the threats we face is with iron-fisted strongman rule, with “law and order” under someone who is “the bodyguard of western democracy” — no matter the human cost, no matter the body count. Of course, it’s all simply the most lethal form of con artistry & organized crime, (barely) masking a nepotistic regime’s determined effort to rob us all blind.

The truth is this: that if we are truly courageous and compassionate enough, and if we reject insidious racist propaganda & fearmongering, we human beings are capable of the most extraordinary beauty and solidarity. But we have to fight, every day, for humanity to prevail. This is what Bosnians have taught me. This is the only shot we’ve got in the 21st century. ❤️💪❤️

When I’m teaching about fascism, some essential resources include Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them and Ervin Staub’s The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence.

The Sarajevo National Library in flames, 1992
The “cellist of Sarajevo,” Vedran Smailović, playing in the library’s ruins. Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev.

The restored interior of the National Library / City Hall building, in a photograph I took in 2016.
A photograph I took from inside the restored National Library / City Hall building, looking out to Sarajevo’s breathtaking “golden valley.”

Posted in Bosnia, Ethics, Fascism, Human Rights, Peacebuilding, Violence | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kenosha Burning

I hadn’t planned to write again so soon, but news that a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer had shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back started making its way into my Twitter feed last night. Horrific, all-too-familiar details emerged this morning.

Kenosha has a really special place in my heart. My first teaching job was there, in the religion department at Carthage College, where I taught a course on African American religious traditions. Our son Will was born there, and both of our children were baptized in Kenosha’s downtown United Methodist church. We had friends who treated us like family, inviting us to every cookout, every birthday party, every Super Bowl, even though we somehow weren’t Bears or Packers fans.

So it was particularly jarring to wake up to the news that Kenosha is now just the latest center of Black agony and the struggle for racial justice.

It brought back a flood of memories. Mostly, I remember just how hard life in Kenosha felt. It’s such a beautiful place, right on Lake Michigan, between Chicago and Milwaukee. But its best days seem behind it; like so many midwestern cities, the height of its manufacturing prowess was decades ago, and it has been forced to flex its muscle in new ways. At the college, leadership made it clear that the school’s twenty-first-century destiny was tied to its corporate relations, while I had no assurance of a long-term position. (Sure enough, this summer Carthage made national headlines for a draconian proposal to gut its faculty and curriculum.)

I remember the way Kenosha’s massive coal-fired power plant insinuated itself into our lives, its never-ending stream of toxic particulates taking up residence in our lungs and bloodstreams. And I remember our carpeted apartment’s ineradicable chemical odor of scented candle wax, courtesy of a previous resident’s job as a tester for SC Johnson, the multinational chemical behemoth that never loses a chance to remind you that it’s “a family company.” Add a chain-smoking upstairs neighbor into the mix, and the result was that our little ones were sick all the time.

When the kids tried to scream it all out, I’d take them out to the car, just to give my wife and our neighbors a break. I’d sit with them in the front seat and let them play with all the buttons, switches, levers, and lights. When their operatic, squirming play had finally run its course, we’d head back in to the apartment that we could afford but were so desperate to leave.

On multiple occasions, we heard a surprising but gentle late-night knock at the door. Every time, it was our favorite neighbor, not the chainsmoker (who was nice enough) but the one we called “Big Will.” (He was well over six feet tall, and the comical contrast in size between him and our newborn Will delighted us all.) Big Will tended to come home from work pretty late at night, and the reason he’d stop by every so often was to tell us that we had left our dome light on inside the car. He didn’t want us to wake up to a dead battery and an unplanned major expense.

The way Will, who’s Black, looked out for us when we were struggling is something I’ve never forgotten. I hate thinking that he might still be in Kenosha, having to be careful about his every move. I hate that Jacob Blake is fighting for his life. I hate that his kids will bear this trauma and these scars forever. I pray that Kenosha’s leaders — that we all — will do whatever it takes to do better, that we will do whatever it takes to end racist violence.

For resources on Black Lives Matter and the quest for racial justice, visit blacklivesmatter.com and eji.org, the website for the Equal Justice Initiative.

Posted in Autobiography / Memoir, Ethics, Race, racial justice, Raising Boys, Violence | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Masculinity’s Evolutions

I was planning to write sooner. After my second round of chemotherapy ended last Sunday, I thought — based on my experience with the first round — that it would be just a few days before I’d feel like myself again, like writing again, or posting a video to say hey, look, I’m doing great!

But this week, this round, has been rougher than I was ready for. Of course, that’s what my oncologist had told me to expect: that the chemotherapy will have a cumulative effect over the course of my twelve weeks of treatment, with side effects that may become more pronounced over time.

It’s been an unwelcome reminder of my vulnerability, this vague, sluggish feeling of being sick, of being weak.

What I’ve had to remember is that all this is so normal, so human. I’ve got cancer. I’m in my 40s. I can’t just bear down and power through everything. But that’s countercultural: so much of what we see, and absorb from, the surrounding culture reinforces the idea that pain and suffering are forms of weakness, even failure.

As I’ve waited for this fog to lift, I’ve found particular comfort and joy in a few television segments and stories that go against the grain. I’ve watched the Portland Trail Blazers’ rising star Jusuf Nurkić (aka the “Bosnian Beast”) play his heart out in the NBA playoffs as he grieves the loss of his grandmother to COVID; I’ve watched the Utah Jazz’s Mike Conley light up the court after taking time away to be present for the birth of his first child; I’ve watched another new dad, pro baseball star Mike Trout, talk in hilariously graphic — and sweet — detail about what it’s like to change a newborn’s diaper in the middle of the night; and I’ve watched former baseball great Harold Reynolds weep during an incredibly moving MLB Network interview with the director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

I wish these kinds of messages had been more mainstream when I was a kid. I hope it’s marking a shift away from rigid, conventional notions of masculinity that need to be put on the scrap heap of history. (I wrote a short essay about this hope for Unite, a student advocacy organization at Phillips Exeter, this spring: “It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way” appears on pp. 45-47.) If we can evolve past them, a revolutionary human authenticity and solidarity may flourish at last, equipping us to survive what lies ahead. ❤

When teaching and mentoring youth about masculinity, violence, and aggression, I return again and again to resources like these: this short video (“#MoreThanMean“) in which men read vicious tweets aimed at women sports journalists; this short video (“Be a Man“) about a wonderful peer violence prevention program in Bosnia-Herzegovina; this short, powerful NPR piece called “The Power of the Peer Group in Preventing Campus Rape“; and Alan Berkowitz’s short article “The Social Norms Approach to Violence Prevention.”

The Portland Trail Blazers’ Jusuf Nurkić with his grandmother, via his Instagram page

Posted in Baseball, Bosnia, cancer, Gender, Health, Peacebuilding, Popular Culture, Sports, Teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Conversation with Mirela Kulović about Human Rights, Teaching, and Writing

Yesterday, as part of her wonderful new “thought-provoking conversations” series on YouTube, the brilliant Bosnian-American painter Mirela Kulović interviewed me about so much of what I love: teaching and writing about religious identity, human rights, conflict, and coexistence; mentoring and learning from youth; and my collaborations with Bosnian artists, scholars, and activists.

The interview is here!

Posted in Art, Autobiography / Memoir, Bosnia, Ethics, Human Rights, Teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Video Love

Instead of a conventional post, I made a short little video message today, with so much love and gratitude for all your support as I undergo treatment for cancer. (This is also to keep my video production game in shape for when I resume remote teaching this winter!)

❤ Click *here* to watch! ❤

Posted in cancer, Health | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Beirut in Ruins and Rage

Still reeling from the news, images, and stories from Beirut, I’ve been watching the films of Lebanese filmmaker and actor Nadine Labaki. Her latest is “Capernaum” (2018), winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. I’ve taught and written about Labaki’s spectacular filmmaking debut, “Where Do We Go Now?,” a hilarious and heartwarming portrait of a remote Lebanese village where Muslim and Christian women go to astonishing lengths to tame its warring men.

Set in the slums of Beirut, where the legacies of war are haunting and the reality of poverty is suffocating, “Capernaum” has fewer side-splitting moments of relief, but it possesses Labaki’s same extraordinary feel for the power of humane storytelling. Immediately we’re introduced to, and entranced by, Zain Al Hajj (Zain Al Rafeea), an undersized but furious twelve-year-old boy, and Rahil (aka Tigest, played by Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian migrant desperate for work that will support her infant son (as well as her mother, who remains in Ethiopia).

What unfolds is a raw evocation of sheer desperation, a snapshot of a world where millions are fleeing one unimaginable disaster after another. For Zain, a catalyst is his inability to save his beloved sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) from being married off to a leering, prurient landlord. Impotent rage and sorrow make Zain strike out on his own, and in the cold comfort of a run-down amusement park he finds Rahil, who tenderly takes him in despite her own unending struggles. (As a migrant laborer working under false papers, she could be exposed and deported at any moment.) The two strike a deal: Zain will care for Rahil’s baby, Yonas (played by the outrageously adorable and surprisingly screen-ready Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), while Rahil will work as much as she can to support the three of them.

The situation, of course, is utterly untenable. And that’s precisely the point. “Capernaum” reminds us of the traumatic legacies of poverty, war, migration, and trauma, but it’s told with such a big heart, such a careful eye, and such a gorgeous cast that we leave thinking maybe we can make it through. ❤

Zain Al Rafeea and Cedra Izam
Zain Al Rafeea and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole
Yordanos Shiferaw
Nadine Labaki

Posted in Art, Feminism, Film, Human Rights, Humor, Peacebuilding, Religion and Politics, Religion and Spirituality, Social Justice, trauma | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Last year at this time, I was teaching at the Global Citizens Youth Summit in Tokyo about the idea of “memory as a moral compass,” with special reference to case studies from the history of Japan.

Featured prominently in my plenary lecture were this gorgeous five-minute animation of a Hiroshima survivor’s testimony and this 2017 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech by the architects of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, including survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. (For an excellent short piece on the importance of remembering Nagasaki in its own right and on its own terms, see this excellent Time magazine piece by University of Virginia historian Chad Diehl.)

Here is the ethical framework I presented to students and colleagues in Tokyo last year (please note: this is all original work that I have been developing throughout my career; if you share it, and I’d be *delighted* if you did, please cite me as its source):

Posted in Art, Ethics, Human Rights, Peacebuilding, Politics, Religion and Spirituality, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Toll of Greed and Neglect

The news, images, and stories from Beirut — where an explosion of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate has left a gorgeous city and countless lives in ruins — are absolutely gutting. My heartbreak turned to fury this morning when I read this Al Jazeera article by Timour Azhari, which documents repeated warnings about this looming disaster that go all the way back to 2013.

The accounts portray an entrenched culture of corruption and greed among the powerful elite, which for years prevented any meaningful action to protect thousands of human lives. Sound familiar?

The carnage, trauma, and grief from this catastrophe will reverberate for generations to come. It was absolutely preventable, and as I write this morning, it feels absolutely irredeemable.

I am, however, deeply moved by the story I heard on BBC World News this morning of a pediatrician who rushed to a destroyed nearby hospital to attend to a mother in labor and deliver her newborn safely, without any functioning equipment. So many people are working tirelessly to save, and tend to, anyone they can.

In my courses on global ethics and human rights, these are precisely the kinds of situations we explore across the globe (very much including the U.S.), where patterns, and practices, of shameless corruption and neglect have obvious, death-dealing consequences. My perennial hope is that we can forge fierce, lasting commitments to building communities and societies that elevate and celebrate wisdom, compassion, and ethical responsibility, so that there will not be such needless, shattering pain for so many people across so much of the world. We’ve got a long, long way to go. ❤

**You can donate to the Lebanese Red Cross’s humanitarian disaster relief efforts here.**

Highly recommended: In my course on religion, global feminism, and film, we watch Nadine Labaki’s stunning “Where Do We Go Now?” It’s hilarious and profoundly moving, about a group of Lebanese women who band together to pound some sense into their warring men.

Posted in Ethics, Film, grief, Politics, Teaching, trauma | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Sources of Our Strength

One of the reasons I’ve been writing about — and through — my struggle with cancer is that it reminds me that I’m not alone: I’m not alone in the life-giving sense that so many people are pulling for me, and I’m not alone in the more harrowing sense that so many people are waging their own desperate struggles right now, right along with me.

In the political and psychic vortex that is 2020, the scale of our suffering and desperation can be overwhelming. We find ourselves in an absurd, terrifying situation that too many in the world have known for too long: of being at the mercy of a regime whose gangster architects could not care less whether we live or die, as long as they’re safely ensconced in their own luxury towers.

In this nightmare, I am one of the exceedingly fortunate ones. Personal misfortune — my recent cancer diagnosis — is highly unlikely to turn into tragedy for me and my loved ones because I have some of the best shock absorbers the global system has to offer: citizenship, whiteness, conventional (cisgendered, heterosexual) masculinity, physical ability to work unlimited hours, affiliation with Christianity, fluency in English, advanced degrees, a steady income, health and life insurance, and relative distance (so far, anyway) from escalating wars and natural disasters.

Remove any piece of this armor and I suddenly become much more vulnerable in a national and global system some have aptly called disaster capitalism, where our fortunes depend almost entirely on whether we can win this brutal lottery and be deposited in the kinds of safe places I’ve inhabited my whole life.

The only solution to this problem, I’m convinced, is radical solidarity, embodying the absolute conviction that we are all in this together and that our most urgent task is to dismantle this arbitrary, cruel lottery system of life chances. It will not be easy, but in the 21st century it’s about all that’s worth doing. ❤

When I need an injection of hope in desperate times, I often turn to films like “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and “Bringing Down a Dictator.”

The restored 16th-c. “Old Bridge,” Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Posted in cancer, Politics, Religion and Spirituality | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments