We cannot let what it means to be moral be monopolized by those with an agenda to oppress, suppress, and repress. Morality shouldn’t just be about what we CAN’T DO, but what we CAN DO together. A moral people keeps families together to the extent possible; helps feed the hungry and provide shelter to the homeless. A moral people will fight for a government that represents, defends, and lifts up the weak, the broken, and the downtrodden.

Speech at Maine Poor People’s Campaign Racism and Militarism event at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church

(Portland, ME) on May 29, 2018

By Marpheen Chann

My story doesn’t begin on the day I was born. My story, the story of my mom, my siblings, and my family did not start in that California hospital room where me and my mom screamed in unison as I entered this world 27 years ago.

No, my story started on distant shores when an American-backed government and American bombs on the border of Vietnam and Cambodia instilled fear and resentment toward the West and gave rise to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. My story was born on Cambodian fields stained with blood; on empty city streets that echoed with the silence of a people too afraid to speak, protest, or even read. The communist Khmer Rouge waged genocide on people, on the free press, intellectuals, buddhist monks, and minorities; killing over 2 million people.

My mom spent her childhood on the run. Through bloody fields and jungles she ran for her life. She was even at one point brainwashed and had been turned against her own family. And even when they made it to a refugee camp, my mother was forced into prostitution by UN peacekeepers, the “good guys”.

So you can imagine the trauma and pain that she carried with her. It’s not something you can run from or fly thousands of miles away from. It haunts you and it haunted my mother.

She had four of us by the time we moved to Portland and it was hard for her to hang onto us when she was struggling to hang onto herself. My mom became increasingly absent and more dependent on abusive men. We lived in low-income housing in Portland, over in Riverton, and even though we had some food stamps, I still remember going to school with a pain in my stomach and coming home with no hope of dinner. My mom did teach me how to make rice and so often what I’d make for me and my younger siblings was rice and fried eggs. We couldn’t afford real dessert, so I’d treat myself to some milk and sugar.

The state eventually stepped in and us four kids were split into pairs and placed in foster care. We moved around between foster homes and group homes until my adoptive family reunited all four of us in 2003, when I was 12. And, yes, things got better and living with a white, working class family helped get me to where I am today. But while I love my family dearly, our family was an evangelical and social conservative family. We went to church Sunday morning, Sunday and Wednesday evenings and were enrolled in the private christian school housed in the same building. In both church and the school, we were taught to question the “World’s philosophy”; to question Science and climate change.

We were taught that liberals wanted to tear society apart. We were told that Planned Parenthood had an agenda to get kids hypersexualized, to sell the body parts of fetus’, and to make us more like Communist China; that the feminist movement was destroying the nuclear family and made our boys and men gay; and that black and open and accepting liberal churches were somehow less Christian.

Now, I wish in some ways that I could tell you that I was a rebellious teenager. That I fought against all this. But I soaked this all in. I became evangelical. I became a social conservative. I went to church and youth group and family nights and became a youth leader. But I was also struggling with who I was as a brown kid in rural Maine and as a kid that knew deep down that I was gay. Some part of me understood and felt helpless to fight back against that kind of worldview, surrounded by white people and by a worldview that didn’t accept who I am.

Well, look how that turned out. After spending my first year of college at a bible college, I started on the journey of coming out as an openly gay man and a bleeding heart liberal. It took time to get to where I am today. I evolved. I changed. I grew up.

And that’s why I don’t judge my parents for their version of God. Because I know it will take time. And dare I say it, I understand why they believe what they believe. Before they found God, they were struggling with substance use disorder and alcoholism. So I understand that their version of God is what helps them to hang on. For me, being raised as an evangelical, social conservative, now gives me a window into their worldview.

But simply because we understand where they are coming from, doesn’t mean that we allow them to monopolize morality and what it means to love. That we shouldn’t resist false doctrines that teach them that the poor aren’t working hard enough; that racism somehow ended when the civil war ended; that all black and brown people need to do is put in a little more effort; that you can love gays, but still hate how they live and love; that women who want to control their own bodies are sexual deviants; that immigrants are here, not because they’re running from wars that we helped start, but that they’re lazy and living off taxpayer dollars while at the same time, somehow, stealing American jobs; or that taking migrant children away from their parents and losing track of them is somehow ok.

These false doctrines are born of a misguided morality that is used by the powerful and the patriarchy to control, oppress, suppress, and repress a people. And often this misguided morality is preceded by false pretenses of patriotism, love, and salvation – that somehow you can carve a person up into little pieces and declare which parts are good and which parts are evil.

We need to lay claim to what it truly means to be moral and what it truly means to love your neighbor.

We need to lay claim to a morality and love that allows us to look across the vast, wide, and deep ocean of inequality and see that the rising tide of productivity and profits has only lifted the boats of those who can afford to have them; that while the fortunes of the wealthy few rise, the rest of us are caught in the riptides of racism, bigotry, xenophobia, poverty, hunger and homelessness.

We cannot let what it means to be moral be monopolized by those with an agenda to oppress, suppress, and repress. Morality shouldn’t just be about what we CAN’T DO, but what we CAN DO together. A moral people keeps families together to the extent possible; helps feed the hungry and provide shelter to the homeless. A moral people will fight for a government that represents, defends, and lifts up the weak, the broken, and the downtrodden.

So let us write a new story, a new chapter that gives birth to a new morality that doesn’t tear down, but lifts up; a new morality that doesn’t take from those who have little and gives to those who have plenty; a new morality that sees people not as profit-making machines, but as human beings who have a right to health care, housing, and a living wage that allows them to live with the dignity that every human being deserves.

For to be a moral human being means to love your neighbor, no matter the color of their skin, their religion, or where they’re from; and endeavoring in our shared struggle to realize our hopes and dreams of a better, fairer, and more just world.

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