Sunday, June 17, 2018

Suffer the Children: Sunday Morning Sermon

As I write this, it's Sunday morning, time for church. Time to sing with eyes opened or closed, holding a hymnal or reading from a screen, accompanied by an organ or a full out rock band. In whatever style, across our country millions of Americans are attending church services.

My wish for this Sunday morning is that every pastor, minister, or preacher would speak the same words and read the same verses from the scriptures on which they've based their lives.

"Let the children come to me and do not stop them, because the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." Mark 19:14.

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength...Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31

"Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked." Ps. 82:3-4.

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." Heb. 13: 1-2.

I could continue, but I trust you get the point. The scriptures are filled with admonitions toward love, care, and empathy, the opposite of the behavior the United States is showing toward asylum seekers at our southern border. Now, I'm not so naive to think that open borders are possible. I understand that, for various reasons, borders must be maintained and protected, and my purpose today is not to argue or recommend specific immigration policy of a larger scope. But, as a person of faith who values the scripture, as a mother, and as a human being, it seems more than obvious that separating children from their parents as a deterrent and perhaps punishment is cruel, ungodly, and unscriptural. And to use the Bible as a justification for this practice is reprehensible. This has nothing to do with following the Bible. This is about something else. 

I've read some pretty heartless reasoning on this topic lately, and at its core is the stripping of the humanity of those in question. These aren't refugees or asylum seekers, they are "criminals" who have given up the rights to their children by their criminal behavior. This is dangerous reasoning with a long history. Throughout the ages, the only way humans have been able to treat other humans so cruelly is to make them less than human. These are not parents seeking safety for their children. They are criminals who don't deserve our empathy. Of course, it becomes much easier to treat people badly if you believe "They are not our friend...they're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." Oh yeah, some of them might be good people, but good people don't commit crimes, and since these people engaged in a criminal act when they entered the country illegally, they are criminals. And so the circular reasoning continues.

It's true, the Bible does say we should obey the law. Christians in the early church were instructed to mind their own business and live quiet and productive lives (I Thess 4:11), but this instruction came after praise for being "taught by God to love one another" (v. 9). The Old and New Testaments also give many accounts of people who broke human law (secular and religious) in order to follow God's law. Jesus was among these people. And let's remember that there was only one group of people that Jesus criticized harshly -- the Pharisees, and it was because, as he pointed out, "they don't practice what they teach" (Matt. 23:3). I'm sure you can see some parallels here. 

So, this Sunday morning I wish that all believers in Jesus (along with folks of other faiths) would be encouraged to practice what we teach and to invite our government officials to do the same. We are in a position to love our neighbors, to defend the weak, to show hospitality to strangers, and to care for the children, owners of the Kingdom of heaven.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Worlds Collide but Never Touch

A few years ago I gave a talk at several locations entitled, "Living in More than One World." The focus of that talk was race relations, and in it I described the need to understand and empathize with those whose experience as racialized beings differs from our own. Today I'm going to wonder from the topic of race to explore another way that I, personally, navigate two very different worlds: worlds on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

My first world of church going and teaching is a conservative one. I'll call it Conservo World. Many of the inhabitants of Conservo World hold very traditional beliefs about a wide variety of subjects ranging from race relations to abortion to sexual orientation to gender identity and lots of other topics, and although most hold no animosity toward individuals, they sincerely believe they must do their part to make the world a better place (or at least keep it from becoming a worse place). In that world I have many wonderful friends who are kind, caring, decent people.

World number two is mostly comprised of graduate school friends and academic colleagues outside of religious institutions, who, for the most part, land to the left of liberal on the political front -- it's  Libero World, indeed. The folks of Libero World (some religiously oriented, but most not) see themselves as progressives and so believe they must do their part to bring about needed change and make the world a better place (or at least keep it from becoming a worse place). They often see themselves as outside of herteronormativity either by practice or belief.  Again, in that world I have many wonderful friends who are kind, caring, decent people. I've been navigating these two worlds somewhat successfully for a very long time.

Something happened the other day, though, that made my usual smooth navigational system blink. I was at an academic conference populated by Libero World folk and the session leader said something that caught my attention. She mentioned, almost in passing, that fantasy and science fiction are mostly liberal spaces -- in others words, produced and consumed by the folks of Libero World. As a tried and true fantansy/scifi nerd, you can bet I shook off the descending conference ennui and sat up straight at that. Many images flooded my mind, including:

  • standing in line for an hour at the premiere of every Lord of The Rings movie, next to Conservo World friends
  • watching the youth group leader of our conservative church chase my sons across the church lawn, all of them waving lightsabers around
  • listening to the rants of conservative friends of all ages when the latest iteration of Star Wars, Harry Potter, the X-Men, etc., didn't come up to their expectations
  • giving in to my students' begging to show the latest Marvel trailer on the big screen in our classroom
I could say lots more, but mostly I thought of an organization I joined about a year ago called Realm Makers, populated by Christian writers of speculative fiction. I've been to their conference where hundreds of Conservo World folks dress up quite creatively to attend a banquet as Wolverine, Steam Punk characters, Harry Potter -- you name it. They have a very active Facebook group through which they dissect all kinds of scifi fantasy minutia, along with supporting each others' writing efforts. These are hardcore fans, folks, and I bet they'd be quite surprised to hear that their passion resides in mostly a "liberal space." 

What would make this presenter see fantasy and science fiction as a liberal domain? She was kind, professional, brilliant and well educated, but she knew nothing (kind of like Jon Snow) about evangelical pop culture tastes. My guess is that she sees conservative Christians very narrowly, probably buttoned up in straight suits and long skirts and knocking at people's doors with Bibles under their arms.

When the conference was over I went back to the classroom and my content that morning dealt with gender identity. We talked about gender typicality and gender constancy. As I defined these terms, most of my students looked at me blankly. Sadly, a few smirked uncomfortably. But when I described the risk kids who fall outside of traditional gender norms face at school, they became sympathetic and gladly agreed that their role as teachers will be to protect all the children in their classes. Their ethic of care, the same ethic of care I heard over and over at the Libero World conference, was obvious.

What's my point? We have more in common than we think. We may disagree on many issues, and sometimes our beliefs are so polar opposite it's hard to see any common ground. In the media and sometimes on the streets these worlds collide. But if we gave up our assumptions, just for a minute, and took the time to find out a little more about the reality of our lives, if we took the time to touch instead of banging against each other in anger, we might be surprised at how much we are alike.

As for me, I'll keep traveling back and forth between these two worlds, going left to right, depending on the issue. Mostly I land just enough in the middle to make both sides mad at me. So if you felt yourself bristling at this essay, that's fine. I'm right where I'm supposed to be.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Morgan Freeman "Solves Race Issue"

I've been thinking a lot about Morgan Freeman lately, not because he's one of my favorite actors (he is), but because his name has come up on a few occasions as I discussed the issue of racism with a group of people. A few times now someone in the group brought to my attention that Morgan (is it okay if I call him that? I feel like I've known him forever) commented in an interview that he's against the celebration of Black History Month, and that the way to solve America's race problem is to ignore it. Here the interview clip if you're interested: Morgan Freeman Interview.

Now I know that Morgan Freeman cares deeply about race relations in America. The film, "Prom Night in Mississippi" leaves no doubt that Morgan is aware of and concerned about racial tension in America. The documentary shows what happens in the actor's home town, Charleston, Mississippi, when he offers to pay for the high school prom if students, parents, and school officials will allow the event to be racially integrated. Yes, that's right. In 2008, Charleston held it's first racially integrated prom and Morgan Freeman paid for it. It's a fascinating story and I recommend viewing the film.

So why would a person who is obviously concerned about the persistence of racism within the fabric of American culture make such a statement about Black History Month, and why would he propose ignoring race as a way to move past racism? While it's not my job to explain other people's ideas (actually it kind of is, because I'm a teacher, but you know what I mean) it seems obvious to me that Morgan is not advocating for a colorblind approach as it has existed in the U.S. for decades. White people have been ignoring race for a long time now, with unfortunate results for people of color. I believe the actor's point is that Black history is part of American history and should be fully integrated into school curriculum, not pulled out once a year as a tokenistic celebration that most people (read: white people) ignore. When that happens, perhaps it will signal that we CAN stop talking about race the way Morgan suggests. Personally, I hope and pray for the day when all individuals are granted equal access in education, employment, housing, and are treated equally in our criminal justice system. But that day has not yet arrived.

But what I find most interesting is not what Morgan Freeman said about race. Whether I agree or disagree, he's only one person and he's entitled to his opinion. What fascinates me is not the what, but the why -- why do white people quote this one African American voice during discussions of racism, while ignoring the multitude of other statements, essays, books, articles, films, etc., that relate a different point of view? (BTW, a few years ago white people were quoting Bill Cosby in much the same way.) Why do they embrace one person's advice while ignoring the voices of so many others? What do they have to gain?

Derrick Bell, a famous critical race scholar, coined the term "interest convergence" for the phenomena we're witnessing here. Bell said that white people will support equal rights only when it suits their own interests. So, as a white person I can happily ignore any opinions about racism that don't support my view of myself as a non-racist person, but jump on those voices that I agree with, that make me feel better about myself. After all, if a prominent African American actor like Morgan Freeman says I should ignore race, who am I to argue? I can use Morgan's statements, even if he doesn't exactly mean what I want him to mean, to prop up my own distaste of facing racism on individual and institutional levels. And I can feel good about doing so, all the time allowing my own motivations to remain unexamined.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Writing While White

One doesn’t have to look far to find evidence that racism is alive and well in the U.S., where schools and the population in general are becoming increasingly diverse. Equally apparent is that some folks just aren’t having it. When, recently, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and members of the Ku Klux Klan took to the streets of Charlottesville with their message, “white lives matter,” I have to say I was shocked but not surprised. I felt a visceral sense of shock and disgust at the news photo of torch-carrying whites, gathered en masse, shouting their message of exclusion. But I was not surprised at the message itself, because while the current political climate may have emboldened these individuals, their argument is nothing new. I’ve heard the reverse-racism discourse, the argument that whites are the new victims of racism and somehow need protection, many times from white friends, family, and students – people who would never take up a torch and march in defense of their perceived white supremacy. In fact, when I bring up the topic of racism in my classes I’m more surprised if students (usually white but not always) don’t launch into the reverse-racism discourse in the form of anti-affirmative action arguments than if they do. Most of these students have heard these arguments all their lives and have come to internalize the idea that if a person of color (excluding Asians – there’s a whole separate discourse for that) has advanced to an important or prominent position, he or she probably got there at the expense of a white person who worked harder and was more qualified.

In my ethnography of high school students called Race Among Friends,[i] I found that the reverse-racism discourse was prominent during class discussions of multicultural literature. Even among students who were deeply invested in their cross-racial friendships at this small, racially diverse school, the idea that racism is over and that African Americans use the “race card” to gain unfair advantage persisted.  When I started to think more deeply about the fiction these students had read in previous grades, the “classics” of the multicultural literature “canon,” it wasn’t hard to see, at least partly, why these attitudes endure. Many students are still reading the texts on race that you and I read when we were in school: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,[ii] by Mark Twain, and To Kill a Mockingbird,[iii] by Harper Lee. Both of these works still form the foundation of the multicultural canon in many school districts. Both were written by whites, and both depict the internalized racist attitudes that I (as a writer and as a person) and many whites struggle to recognize and overcome.

Much has been written about the racial language and images of Huck and Mockingbird, and I won’t take the time for an in depth analysis here, other than to say that both represent a complicated mix of brilliantly written narrative and hidden racialized meanings played out by the stories’ characters. For example, while some teachers and school districts still struggle over Twain’s use of racial epithets, Jane Smiley[iv] and Toni Morrison[v] point out that it was Twain’s depiction of Jim, the full-grown African American slave companion of Tom and Huck, as a child-like pawn in the hands of two white adolescents, with no voice and no say in his own future, that is truly problematic. Likewise, in the case of the much loved novel (and movie) To Kill a Mockingbird, the very title suggests an unexamined racism far more subtle than whether or not the characters use “the N word” (as my students say) in the story.  The title comes from Atticus’ admonition to his son, “Shoot all the bluejays you want…but remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (Lee 90). Miss Maudie, a neighbor, clarifies: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (90). So, who are the mockingbirds in the story? Lee creates a cast of “respectable Negros” who, like the proverbial mockingbird, know their place and don’t bother anyone. I had to smile a little last year at the distress of some readers over the depiction of Atticus in the Mockingbird sequel, Go Set a Watchman.[vi] How could this book depict the beloved Atticus, pillar of racial justice, as racist? Unfortunately, Atticus’ passively racist proclivities were always there; perhaps we weren’t looking carefully enough to spot them. While it's true that he did his best to defend Tom Robinson in court (putting himself and his children at risk), Atticus never completely disassociated himself from the racism of his time. He told his daughter that racists "are still our friends" (76) and are "entitled to full respect for their opinions" (105). He made light of the role of the Ku Klux Klan (147) and excused the head of a would-be lynch mob as "a good man" who "just has his blind spots along with the rest of us" (157).

My point is that even when white fiction writers are attempting to be anti-racist, it can be difficult for us to fully understand how deep and hidden our attitudes about race are, and we may inadvertently perpetuate racial stereotypes through our work. Lately I’ve been reading a young adult fantasy novel. I’m about 100 pages in, and so far there is one dark skinned character, a man, in the story. He’s described as dark, muscular, and altogether gorgeous; his sensual masculinity jumps off the page and, of course, the white female protagonist is immediately attracted to him. Okay, I know there needs to be some kind of romantic attraction to satisfy readers, but the way this character fulfils the trope of the powerful black male who protects and dominates the white woman is so obvious that it’s startling. Am I saying the author is racist? No more than I am, because I’m guilty, too. A few years ago I published a young adult novel[vii] that explores the awakening of a white teen who comes to understand racism as she forms new relationships with teens of color. I tried my best to vary my characters in appearance and personality and to make them rich and complex. At the beginning of the story, Rachel, my protagonist, meets a group of five students from other school districts who will become her close friends. As I was writing, I decided that I had too many characters to suit my purposes, so I had to make one go away. Guess who left the group? The one Asian-American character in the story. Without realizing it I fulfilled the stereotype of the silent Asian, the “model minority,” who fades quietly into the background. How frustrating that even when I was trying to explore and expose racism, my own internalized dispositions about race popped out and got the best of me.

I don’t think that white people should stop including characters of color in their works, nor should we stop exploring racism in our writing. On the contrary, now, more than ever, whites need to name and expose racism in all its forms. We are at a wretched, horrifying place in our country where racist views are being accepted and promulgated by mainstream authority.  But, as I concluded in Race Among Friends, we whites must think, write, and perhaps most importantly, teach with deeper introspection, examining our own hidden attitudes about race first, lest we perpetuate the very attitudes we seek to expose.

[i] Modica, Marianne. Race Among Friends. Rutgers University Press, 2015.
[ii] Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Brandywine Studio Press, 2008.
[iii] Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner Books, 1960.
[iv] Jane Smiley, "Say It Ain't So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain's 'Masterpiece'" Harper's Magazine 292.1748 (Jan. 1996): 61-67.
[v] Morrison, Toni.  Playing in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1993.
[vi] Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman.  Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2016.
[vii] Modica, Marianne. The R Word. Endless Press, 2015.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Immigrant Anxiety is Nothing New

I recently had the pleasure of sharing my talk about "Living in More than One World" at Calvary Church in Wyncote, PA. (I feel a little like the Sigourney Weaver character in one of my favorite movies, Galaxy Quest -- I have one sermon, and I'm gonna preach it!) Anyway, I'm thankful for the opportunity to share with such a responsive group of people.

Just a quick synopsis of my message for context's sake -- during the talk I explore three stories of people who had to learn to live in more than one world. Story #1 looks at the early life of Moses from the first few chapters of the book of Exodus. Story #2 takes a peek at Ryan King, the protagonist of my middle grade novel, King Me! Finally, story #3 describes my own journey as a white person who needed to learn that my experience is not universal. During this part of the talk I explore the unearned, invisible privileges my whiteness affords me.

As I was reviewing my notes in preparation, the story of Moses jumped out at me for its relevance to our current world situation. Written thousands of years ago, this second book of the Pentateuch begins with the story of an immigrant population, the Hebrews, who suffered great oppression at the hands of their host country. Maybe you know the story -- Joseph and his family migrated to Egypt because of a famine (in other words, they were refugees). The Hebrew population flourished there, and after several centuries a king came to power who wasn't too happy about the presence of the Hebrews. Why? There might have been lots of reasons, but the text tells us that the king was worried because, in his mind, there were just too many Israelites around. "Come," he said, "we must deal shrewdly with them, or they will become even more numerous and if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country" (1:10). Sound familiar? This very rationalization was used to place over 100,000 Japanese people, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, in camps during WWII. As our government has since admitted, many Japanese children, women, and men suffered because of anxiety and fear fueled by racism. 

Tragically, some haven't seemed to learn from either the ancient or recent past. It's becoming common in some circles to conflate the categories "immigrant," "refugee," and "terrorist" as if the words are interchangeable. Of course, they are not. The world is a scary place, I get it. We need to be careful, okay, I think we can all agree on that. But when we let fear take the place of rational thought, when apprehension outweighs logic, when anxiety overpowers compassion, we may find ourselves in an endless loop, repeating variations of the same sad, terrifying story. I know, the U.S. is not forcing anyone into slavery or relocating them to internment camps. But the recent so-called travel ban was so swiftly and poorly executed that, to me, it seemed more an expression of anger and anxiety than an attempt at national safety. Other more horrifying recent suggestions take us closer to the loop, such as watches on Muslim neighborhoods and a required Muslim registry.

Since I started with a sci-fi quote, I guess it's fitting I end with one. From Battlestar Galactica (also found in Ecclesiastes 1:9 and apparently in Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie) -- "All of this has happened before and will happen again." But does it have to? Maybe I'm hopeful, or maybe I'm just stubborn, but I don't believe we're destined to repeat our mistakes. We can stop the loop if we insist our leaders take actions based on logical, reasonable analysis of facts tempered with compassion, and not on rhetoric peppered with conflation and deflection (honestly, some of the arguments I'm hearing lately wouldn't pass muster in a freshman college writing course). Regardless of our political persuasion or who we voted for, we can agree that the role of government is to keep citizens safe. But we can do better than instituting sweeping orders based on fear and devoid of nuance. We must.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

OK, You're Not Racist. Now Prove It.

It's been a few days since the election and it's taken me that time to put my emotions in check and gather my thoughts. As a person who believes that her faith compels her toward social justice, this has been hard for me. I'm going light on social media these days, too, because I'm tired. Maybe you feel the same. So much has been, is being, and will continue to be said about this election that really, what can I add? But there is one thing I want to say before, for my sanity and inner peace, I need to move on. So here it is, for what it's worth.

Several of my friends have posted that they voted for the Republican nominee, but please don't call them racist. Please don't make assumptions about them because of how they voted. Okay, I understand. People make assumptions about me all the time and I don't like it either. Plus, I've learned that calling people racist is not the way to keep dialog open, which has always been my goal. And the truth is, I know these people well. They're my friends and I really don't think they are racist (most of them, anyway). So, maybe they voted the way they did because they want more jobs, or they're pro-life, or they want change, or they don't like the Affordable Care Act, or they felt they had no other choice because as much as they don't like him, they don't like her even more. Okay, whatever. I suppose there are many reasons a person could vote for someone who promotes dangerous stereotypical ideas about entire populations. Let's face it, most of us don't agree with everything any one candidate says or stands for, and when it comes down to it, most of us vote based on an overall philosophical or religious stance, not on everything the candidate or party promotes. I get that.

But here's what I don't get. During the days, weeks, and months leading up to the Republican primary there were so many choices. There were so many people who I considered to be more worthy candidates -- people who were experienced, reasonable, didn't insult others, people I could have lived with. Perhaps you voted for one of them. How did it happen, then, that the one candidate who continually spewed insults and basically acted like a seventh grader (apologies to seventh graders everywhere) became the Republican nominee? How is it that the majority of people who voted in the Republic primaries voted for the one person who created such a toxic environment? There were so many other choices. 

Therefore, I can't help but believe that while you may not be racist, somewhere out there, somebody is. Somewhere out there are a large number of people who agree with the incindiary comments he made about whole groups of people throughout the election season. That is what frightens me the most. 

So, here's my challenge. If you're truly not racist, prove it. Demand from your President a reasonable and compassionate approach to immigration. Demand that law enforcement personnel be both supported AND accountable for their actions. Demand that whatever replaces the Affordable Care Act take into account people who can't afford insurance premiums and who don't make enough money to create health savings accounts. Demand that equitable education for all our children be a priority. 

And don't put up with those people within your sphere of influence who will feel emboldened by the election results to perpetuate stereotypes or make racist statements in their everyday conversations. Whether during a conversation with  Uncle Whoever at Thanksgiving dinner or with your neighbor while you're out raking leaves, shut it down in no uncertain terms. You might say something like, "Yes, I agree we need more jobs, but I don't agree that all Muslims are terrorists. That's ridiculous." Or, "I agree that we need to secure our borders, but I know that most undocumented immigrants are hard working people who are trying to find a better life and support their families." 

With power comes responsibility. With control comes accountability. Now is your time. Prove it.