News with Nuance March 10, 2023
Your Friday dose of News with Nuance: the week's biggest stories, unpacked + more ..
Hi, new subscribers! Welcome to News with Nuance. Our first top headline today is a story I wanted to emphasize because it’s one of those news stories that can be easily cherrypicked and used to support certain talking points: like the “danger” of Mexican criminal gangs, and reasons why America should close its borders and stop allowing migrants and asylum-seekers. If you look further beneath the story of the four Americans kidnapped in Mexico (two of whom were killed), you’ll find the deeper responsibility lies more with homegrown American ills: our deeply dysfunctional health care system and cost of care, and ingrained racism and white supremacy (the victims in this circumstance were Black Americans, likely mistaken for Haitians, who are kidnapped and mistreated on the border with impunity, and their deaths and suffering rarely makes headlines.
Our second story comes from probably my favorite sports columnist, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times, writing about the friendship between Lakers Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, whose jersey was retired and hung next to Bryant’s this week. So much of sports has become shadowed and athletes rarely (for good reason) feel free to speak openly and honestly to reporters anymore. So it’s refreshing to read about the raw emotion and genuine respect shared between Gasol and Bryant, and it’s also a reminder of the tragic loss of Bryant way too soon. He did a lot for the world of basketball. In this March Madness month, when I’ve already watched 7+ games of my own two sons, I couldn’t help but lift up this story, straight from the stuff Hoop Dreams are made of.
Finally, in our corner on Christian Nationalism, I’m sharing with you a piece from one of my favorite experts in the field, friend and writing colleague,. She wrote this week about Beth Moore, formerly an aerobics instructor and anodyne Bible Study teacher who ruled the world of female Evangelicalism, and later emerged as a Trump critic willing to talk about the hypocrisy and sin inside American Christianity. Du Mez writes about Moore’s fundamental humanity, and it’s definitely a must-read — and a reminder of the ways Christian Nationalism seeks to dehumanize us all.
Let’s get to the news … with nuance …
The Headline: Friend who had traveled with Americans kidnapped in Mexico raised the alarm
This tragic kidnapping and murders first emerged to me as a bit of a mystery, and I assumed there had to be much more to the story than had been revealed.
A group of four Americans traveled across the border from Brownsville, Texas, to the border city of Matamoros. Initial reports suggested they were buying medicine. I’ve seen enough episodes of Locked Up Abroad to be suspicious of this story. Were they really going to buy drugs? They had to be involved in the drug trade somehow, right?
Some of my suspicion of the story arose from my own experience. Back in 2018, I joined a pastor friend and her family for a drive across the U.S./Mexico border from El Paso to the once-notoriously violent city of Ciudad Juarez. We had a peaceful day there, enjoying music, food, air-conditioning, and even a show. I figured a lot of the stories about border violence had to be hype, a result of stereotyping Mexicans and racism against non-white Americans, something I’d heard plenty of in my time growing up, unfortunately.
I was wrong in this instance, though, because the four friends traveling from America to Matamoros were in fact not involved in any criminal enterprise at all. Instead, they were accompanying a friend of theirs who was having surgery in Matamoros.
I’ve noticed that much of the reporting has identified this surgery operation as a “tummy tuck,” which is a colloquial name for an abdominoplasty. I think it’s interesting that they’re using the colloquial name because it kind of sets things up for people to potentially victim-blame and suggest that she was traveling for cosmetic surgery. Abdominoplasty is officially classified as plastic/cosmetic surgery in America, however most of the people seeking it are women whose abdominal skin has stretched and become distended due to pregnancies. Pregnancy complications addressed by abdominoplasty often include muscle repair for diastasis recti, a severe separation of abdominal muscles that can make organs vulnerable to injury and cause other problems like balance issues and incontinence.
In countries like France, these procedures are fully covered for women post-pregnancy. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the American medical system grants short shrift to women in much the same way women pay a “pink tax” for required health care purchases, like tampons or sanitary napkins or razors.
It’s exhausting, isn’t it? So here we have a massive tragedy, partially ignited by the high cost of health care in America and our shared failure to care for pregnant people, particularly women of color and especially Black women, who are three times more likely than white women to die in childbirth in America.
So Latavia McGee, whose health story and reason for seeking abdominoplasty I admittedly do not know, I’m merely guessing, makes an appointment for surgery in Matamoros, Texas. Leaving the U.S. for surgical procedures and even dental work is common practice. Costs are often a fraction of those in the U.S., and Mexican surgeons relentlessly target American patients on social media sites, especially Instagram, where they show before/after photos of their patients and advertise recovery suites or houses where patients can be cared for after surgery.
McGee was already taking a big risk by having surgery in Mexico, where there are fewer safeguards for patients than there are in America, and after-care is often spotty and unreliable, much like stories coming out of de-regulated Miami, Fla., another hotbed for dicey doctors practicing plastic surgery, sometimes without a valid license.
I’m sure McGee would have made a different choice if money was not a concern.
Because abdominoplasty is major surgery, McGee would not be able to go to Matamoros alone. Four friends went with her in a rented minivan from South Carolina. But instead of escorting McGee to surgery, instead they were fired upon and crashed their van shortly after crossing into Matamoros. The city has been riled by drug cartel-related violence, and American authorities had advised against travel.
But, and here’s another tragic way in which homegrown American prejudice doomed these four friends in Mexico, the group of Americans was not targeted for being Americans. Instead, according to CNN, Mexican officials said they were likely mistaken for Haitian drug smugglers.
Here again, there’s more to the story. Matamoros is home to a large tent encampment of Haitian migrants. Why are so many Haitians in Matamoros? Well, Haiti is in the midst of a complete government collapse, with no elected officials currently in the house or senate, and a prime minister who hasn’t been elected either. Much of the country is unofficially ruled by violent gangs, and nearly half the population faces acute hunger, plus the threat of death from cholera, myriad other contagious diseases including COVID, and the specter of natural disaster, like earthquakes and hurricanes.
The first country to have a successful revolt of enslaved peoples, and the first free Black-ruled republic in the world, Haiti has a tragic history, much of it rooted in colonialism and white supremacy. Desperate families have little choice but to flee. And so, yeah, it makes sense that some of those desperate folks may have found their way into working with the Mexican cartels as drug smugglers. It’s not like they had a whole lot of choices, especially as America limits the numbers of Haitians who are accepted into this country.
And why were these Americans likely mistaken for Haitians? Well, because they were Black. It’s very unlikely that a van full of white Americans would have been treated the same way in Matamoros, because of racism and because drug smugglers would have been afraid of the very outcry and response that’s happening now.
Americans Zindell Brown and Shaeed Woodard died in the attack. My prayers are with their friends and families, and with Eric Williams and McGee, who were injured in the attack.
People comfort each other after a vigil in Scranton, S.C., on Wednesday for a group of Americans who were kidnapped in Mexico.
Sean Rayford, Associated Press
The Quote: “She simply went for a cosmetic surgery, and that’s it. That’s all, and this happened to them,” (Cheryl) Orange said.
Story by James Pollard, Jake Bleiberg and Julie Watson, Associated Press
The Headline: Column: ‘I miss him so much.’ Pau Gasol takes rightful place next to ‘brother’ Kobe Bryant
And now a story fitting for the month of March Madness. Columnist Bill Plaschke draws us into a world behind the purple curtains of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Kobe Bryant-era. Bryant, whose life was tragically cut short in a helicopter accident on Jan. 20, 2020, was sometimes an enigmatic figure in basketball, less universally beloved than Michael Jordan, more reticent and mysterious than LeBron James.
Sadly, it’s only after death that I’ve come to know more about Bryant, who was a renaissance man of sorts, spoke several languages, and had a big passion for girls basketball, especially his daughter, Gianna.
So I loved reading this story about the bond between Gasol, whose jersey was retired next to Bryant’s this past week, and Bryant, who served as a mentor figure toward him.
Having played on lots of basketball teams myself, I know team chemistry between players doesn’t always click with everyone, for reasons that don’t necessarily implicate individuals. And Kobe was initially frustrated when Gasol came to the Lakers, as Plaschke documents. Soon, though, the two grew to learn from each other and grow together in a way that didn’t happen with Shaq and Kobe. Gasol and Bryant led the Lakers to three-straight NBA Finals and two championships. It was rooted in hard work, and the infamous Bryant work ethic. For the sake of the team and for the sake of Gasol, from an athlete who was once criticized of selfishness.
The Quote: “When he retires, he’ll have his number in the rafters,” Bryant said of Gasol on the video. “The Lakers don’t have those two championships without Pau ... we know that, everybody knows that. I do look forward to the day when he’s there giving his speech at center court.”
This Week in Christian Nationalism and Religious Extremism
While this newsletter won’t focus overall on Christian Nationalism, each Friday I will include a brief update from that week, as it’s both a continuing focus of my work and also, I think, a critical threat to both American democracy and the faithful witness of Jesus’ Gospel, which exists independently of the United States!
In one sentence: Christian Nationalism is a version of the idolatrous Theology of Glory, which replaces the genuine worship of God with worship of a particular vision of America, often rooted in a revisionist history of white people in the 1950s, before the Civil Rights movement or the women’s movement. Christian Nationalism supports a violent takeover of government and the imposition of fundamentalist Christian beliefs on all people. Christian nationalism relies on a theological argument that equates American military sacrifice with Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. It suggests that Christians are entitled to wealth and power, in contrast to Jesus’ theology of the cross, which reminds Christians that they too have to carry their cross, just as our crucified savior did.
This Week: This past week I did a 90-minute zoom lecture and Q&A with my friends from our local Minnesota Ramsey County Library system (hi, to subscribers joining from that event) - focusing on Christian Nationalism, my book, Red State Christians, and recent trends regarding the topic. I’ll likely post the video in next week’s edition of News with Nuance.
For now, I want to share the piece below from one of Christian Nationalism’s most powerful foes, Jesus and John Wayne author and historian, writing here about the recent memoir from one-time Baptist Bible study celebrity turned thorn in white male Evangelicalism theobros’ sides, Beth Moore. I love how Du Mez calls attention to Moore's utter humanity, and the ways that her theology is open to God's mystery, God's truth, and our own changing and fallible interpretation of God, godself. So good.
(PS: I too wrote about Moore in Red State Christians, in my chapter on women. I wrote about how I’d underestimated her and she’d wowed me with her courage. I’ve long wanted to interview Moore, but haven’t been able to yet. She’s a busy woman. But, in case you read this, call me, Beth!!!)
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Thank you for challenging my assumptions about the kidnapping and killings in Metamoros.