Archive for the ‘Sound Off’ Category
Let me start with a disclaimer: I have not watched the play-by-play of the George Zimmerman trial in the last few weeks. This post is not about what happened at trial or why the women of the jury decided what they did based on the evidence they were presented. While I do think that the prosecution clearly failed, I am not about to dissect the legalities of the case. This is instead a commentary on the wider context of this trial, and what it says about the nation in which we live.
Tonight, George Zimmerman is a free man. The basic story is not in dispute: Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin walking in the neighborhood, and decided that a young black man in a hoodie posed a threat to his safety. He openly admitted to following Martin in a van, calling 911, and hearing the 911 operator tell him to back off and not get out of his vehicle. Yet he did get out, a scuffle ensued, and then Zimmerman shot Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, because he was afraid of him. The jury concluded that this was not a crime, and Zimmerman is not guilty.
In other words, it’s legal to shoot an unarmed black teenager if you are afraid of him.
When you put it like that, it seems crazy. How is this outcome even possible?
This case is only understandable when viewed through the intersection of so many cultural narratives in our nation. I want to spend a few paragraphs naming and explaining those narratives, because they help explain how we got here, and why there is so much tension around this case.
1. Our culture loves guns, and the freedom to use them. We tolerate an absurd number of gun deaths, accidental and intentional, because we associate personal freedom with the ability to arm ourselves. No one questioned Zimmerman’s right to carry a gun, or to shoot someone who threatened him, even if that person was unarmed. If Martin had also been armed, we would have understood and tolerated a shootout on the street of a quiet neighborhood.
The best argument that the gun lobby has is that every American has the right to defend his or her life, liberty and property by carrying a weapon. But in this case, Zimmerman’s right to carry a gun overtook Martin’s basic right to life. Neither Zimmerman’s liberty nor his property were at risk, and if his life was at risk it was only because he provoked a confrontation. Their rights collided–and the verdict declared that Zimmerman’s right to defend himself with his gun was deemed more important than Martin’s right to life. Something is terribly wrong with that.
2. This case unmasks the living legacy of racism, especially the historic fear of young black men. If you doubt this case has anything to do with race, imagine if the man carrying the gun had been black and the dead boy had been white. Would the outcome have been the same? I doubt it. But it’s far more complicated than that. The U.S. has a long history of murdering young black men out of fear and prejudice and a perceived threat. Emmett Till comes first to mind. Or the fictional version in To Kill a Mockingbird, which shows that the story was common enough to be recognized immediately as a cultural reality–a young black man who was perceived as a threat, taken down by mob justice and never given fair hearing in a court of law.
We like to imagine that things have gotten better, that we are beyond the days of lynch mobs, that the Civil Rights Movement ended the fear of violence against African-Americans–but this case brings back all those bad memories and shows us that racism today is as violent and ugly as the black-and-white images of bygone eras. Trayvon Martin’s story is not new–it is very old. Many had hoped (and some had convinced themselves) it could not happen again, but it did. Those who recognize racism’s persistence were not surprised by Martin’s death, nor shocked that the jury refused to convict the man who confessed to killing him. It’s a familiar story–like all of these familiar narratives–even if Zimmerman was Latino and not a traditional white man.
3. This case makes us question our adoration of vigilante heroes and those who take the law into their own hands. As a culture, we worship lone rangers and nonconformists. Think of pretty much every summer disaster flick in the last two decades (or almost anything starring Bruce Willis or Will Smith)–it’s one guy (or a small band of folks) saving the world, because they refuse to play by the rules and follow orders. Whether it’s aliens or asteroids or giant bugs, we love to watch heroes who break the law in order to get justice. We don’t trust the system to take care of problems. We have to do it ourselves.
Except this time it didn’t go quite so well. Zimmerman followed his gut and took the law into his own hands, but he was wrong and he killed an unarmed boy. We turned to the justice system to make it right, but the system failed–just like Zimmerman expected. Just like the movies. Now there are predictions of mob justice for Zimmerman, or retribution by riots. Nearly all will publicly shake their heads at this vigilantism, but we all understand it, and many secretly support it. But do we recognize that it’s the same behavior that started this whole thing in the first place? Do we admit that this problem’s roots in American culture with our worship of individualism?
4. This case amplifies the confusion between the workings of the legal system and the idea of justice. We may refer to it as the “criminal justice system,” but the conviction and punishment of people for committing crimes is not synonymous with justice. Justice is much more than simply punishing people who do bad things. In common parlance, justice is a sense of fairness and equality before the law. In the Bible, it includes a broader picture that incorporates grace, forgiveness, abundance over scarcity, economic security, mercy and peace.
Our criminal justice system, with its “presumed innocence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt,” is designed to punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent, and has nothing to do with fairness or equality, much less the broader conceptions of justice. Even more, it is obvious to anyone who participates in the system that it generally does a bad job even by its own standards, regularly imprisoning the innocent and exonerating the guilty. Prejudice, racism, money, poor lawyers, good lawyers, aggressive police work, lazy police work–all these things can change the outcome of a trial, and none of them have anything to do with justice. Justice is not the same thing as legality. (If you doubt this, compare the Zimmerman verdict with this one.)
We may have been hoping for #JusticeforTrayvon, but only the most paltry conception of justice can be found in the legal system, and even that is a rare find.
These four narratives intersect in this case, just as they do in our culture. I found it helpful to pull apart the web and look at each one individually, as well as looking at the ways they influence and pull on one another in this case. They help me understand how a jury in 2013 can reach the conclusion it did tonight: that it’s legal to shoot an unarmed black teenager if you are afraid of him.
My brain can analyze and dissect and trace threads to make sense of it all, but my heart cannot. There is no excuse, no defense, no reason for the death of Trayvon Martin. The verdict feels like betrayal. I feel angry, sad, frustrated, indignant, powerless, heartbroken. I cannot imagine the grief of the Martin family, the first inflicted by Zimmerman’s gun, the second inflicted by a verdict that seems to say their son’s death was not worthy of consequences. The whole situation makes me want to weep at the sin and brokenness of the world, and beg for God’s “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream.” (Amos 3)
I look at my own son. He will be 17 someday, and walk with that adolescent swagger, talk with that constant tone of insubordination. He may get into trouble, but his blonde hair and blue eyes will offer him a level of protection and privilege that his dark-skinned friends will not share. My heart aches for their mothers tonight, recognizing that this is not a new fear in their lives.
I pray for the safety of your sons, even as I pray for my own. I pray that they will do a better job than we have of negotiating the tensions around guns, race, heroes and justice. I pray that even though the legal system failed to act, Trayvon Martin’s death will have consequences, both for George Zimmerman and for our nation. I pray that a greater justice will indeed come to our land, that one day racism will be no more, that freedom will no longer be measured in our ability to carry weapons but in our ability to live together in peace. I pray for righteous anger that will spill over into righteous action rather than endless violence. I pray for ways to tell different stories than the ones we’ve always known, to free ourselves to truly build a nation of justice and peace, with liberty and justice for all.
Oh, dear God, the Oklahoma tornadoes. Such heartbreak. Christ, have mercy.
On March 2, 2012, forecasters anticipated tornadoes in our area. My son’s school let out early, and when the sirens started up we all huddled in the unfinished basement. The air outside our windows was deadly still, but the internet broadcast from our local television station told us that a large tornado was on the ground just a few miles away. We waited underground in folding chairs, my husband reading a book and my young son playing a video game. I kept my eyes on the screen as reports began to come in about damage in small communities populated by beloved church members and friends.
Then the image changed: a school collapsed, no knowledge of how many students might be trapped inside. My stomach lurched, and I thought I might vomit. I silently ticked off a list of all the young people I knew inside that school, their young lives and fears flashing before me. I grabbed the laptop and slammed it shut—presumably to protect my son from frightening news, but probably also because I could feel the panic overtaking me. Since the storm, I have relived that terrifying moment awake and in dreams. As soon as the sirens stopped, I began to call for news, and passed several anxious hours with families waiting to hear if all were safe and well. Miraculously, no lives were lost at Henryville school that day, although children and adults did die in their homes as a result of the storm.
Today in Moore, Oklahoma, the story has a more grim ending. I know how traumatic the tornado was here, but I can only imagine how that distress is multiplied tonight in Oklahoma. My heart breaks for parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents, and a community gripped by shock and grief.
The recovery ahead will be measured in months and years, not days and hours. I have spent the last fourteen months working nearly every day on recovery efforts here in my community, a disaster much smaller in scale than tonight’s news from Moore and the surrounding areas. I am currently the chair of March 2 Recovery, the long-term recovery organization working to rebuild homes, address unmet needs and tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of our community. I’m not an expert, but I have learned some things worth sharing.
All compassionate people want to respond, to help, to do something in response to tragedy. This impulse is good, because the people of Moore, Oklahoma will require outside aid, volunteers and resources to help them in their recovery. However, many well-meaning people and organizations give “help” that is far less than helpful, and may actually be harmful to the recovery process. I went looking tonight for a list of “do’s and don’t’s” for how to help after a disaster, but I didn’t find any lists that were more specific than “send cash, not stuff.” So I made my own.
As one who has worked closely with tornado recovery efforts in the last 14 months, I would like to offer these DO’s and DON’T’s, so that you can help in ways that are the most helpful, and avoid the ways that are not.
DO NOT send “stuff,” unless you specifically know it is wanted, needed and has a clear destination. The avalanche of used clothing, toiletries, canned goods, furniture and household supplies that pours in after a disaster can become a “secondary disaster” for a community, as organizations are forced to set aside the actual needs of survivors in order to attend to the mountains of stuff arriving at their doorstep. People who have lost their homes won’t need household goods and furniture for many months, and don’t have anywhere to cook your can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle.
DO NOT drive to the impacted area to help unless you are trained and credentialed by a recognized organization. Not only is the tornado debris field dangerous, the crowds of onlookers and unskilled volunteers get in the way of trained relief workers trying to do their work.
DO NOT say dumb things like “I know what you are going through,” because you don’t. Only if you’ve lost a child or lived through a disaster do you have some first-hand knowledge about what someone is feeling. Even then, be cautious. Not everyone will feel the same way you do. It’s doubly presumptuous to say you know what people are feeling if you’ve never even been in a similar situation.
DO NOT offer help in order to lessen your feelings of helplessness or make yourself feel better. Put aside your own needs and desires, and act only in the best interests of others. Don’t do what makes you feel better—do what best helps survivors.
DO NOT forget about this disaster as soon as another tragedy takes the headlines. Recovery will take a long time. Stick with it. The most helpful people are those who come long after the TV cameras are gone.
DO NOT try to theologize disaster away, or say that God did or didn’t do something. God didn’t need more angels, or have any kind of master plan that involved dead children. God didn’t save the children at one school only to harm the children at another one. That’s not how God works. Let God be God, and don’t assign your own motives to the Creator of heaven and earth.
DO: Donate money. But not just today. While organizations like Red Cross and Salvation Army do amazing work feeding and sheltering people in the immediate aftermath, they do not rebuild homes or communities. Local leaders and faith-based organizations pick up the work of long-term recovery, and they will need major dollars for construction, case management, survivor support and more. Sure, send $10 via text message today, but wait to mail a check for $100 or $1,000, and send it to groups involved in long-term recovery efforts. Be careful to give to reputable, established organizations only. No matter what your faith or cause, there’s a group for you.
DO: Volunteer. But not today, or even in the next month or two. Thousands of people pour in to help in the first few weeks, but the work of rebuilding will last for a year or two. Volunteers, especially those with construction skills, will be needed far more urgently 9-24 months from now to help people get home again.
DO: Listen to anyone who needs to tell their story, no matter how many times they need to tell it. Survivors, first responders, clergy and helpers of all types will relive this experience over and over again. It helps to tell and retell it to patient, non-judgmental listeners. Make room for whatever people are feeling—sadness, anger (at appropriate or inappropriate people or institutions), grief, fear, anxiety, even laughter.
DO: Remind others that God is present even in the midst of destruction. Speak of God’s love that overcomes all barriers, even death. Give people room to have their own relationships with God, even if they’re having a big family fight with God right now.
DO: Send messages of love and concern. Whether it’s e-mail, texts, Facebook posts, tweets, letters, cards, notes, banners or children’s drawings, your words can be a source of great encouragement. Send them to local churches through your denomination. Mail them to the fire station or hospital or police station to encourage the helpers who are working 24-7 to aid their community. Share messages with people in the affected area who share your profession, whether it be insurance agents, funeral directors, electricians, servers or retail workers. Indicate that you do not expect a response, but merely send your love and prayers. It will be appreciated.
DO: Pray. It seems like such a small thing, but it matters. We could feel the prayers from around the world bearing us up and giving us strength.
There you have it. That’s what I’ve learned in the last year about life after a disaster—how your help can be most helpful. I’m sure I’ve left things out, and will count on you to add them in the comments section.
This is my small way of helping, through communication about what’s actually helpful. My heartfelt prayers are with the people of Oklahoma, now and in the long months to come.
I heard an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week with Louis Michael Seidman, author of a controversial New York Times editorial and forthcoming book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. Seidman is a constitutional law professor at Georgetown whose editorial was called, “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”
The basic thesis is this:
Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse. Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.
Seidman argues that good government requires that we commit to certain principles (e.g. free speech, equality under the law) not because a document requires them, but because we all agree they are important. Notice he does not attack the Constitution or its contents, simply the obsession we have developed with adherence to the document and its principles, or the principles of its authors.
As one might expect, his editorial has elicited a dramatic reaction, mostly negative. At the opening of the NPR interview, Seidman spoke about hundreds of e-mails he had received, the majority of which are abusive. Many include virulent anti-Semitism and some even threaten physical violence. The anger and hatred are clearly disproportionate to the weight of the editorial.
Seidman summarized his argument in the editorial—that we who are current residents of the country should be free to decide for ourselves what kind of country to have, not be beholden to a group of white men who lived more than 250 years ago. Host Neal Conan responded with a question that led to this exchange:
Conan: If you start ditching some parts because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you do think are right?
Seidman: …Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Constitution. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. And what we need to do is just acknowledge that fact and talk and make decisions for ourselves about the kind of country we want to live in.
Seidman went on to cite examples of sections of the Constitution we disregard, but it was in that exchange that I realized the connection. I have heard that exact conversation many, many times before, with a minor adjustment:
If you start ditching some parts of the Bible because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you think are right?
Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Bible. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. (Fill in the blank here: keeping a kosher diet, insisting that women cover their heads, mixing fibers, etc.)
I would argue that what Seidman is encountering in the harsh responses to his work is not hyper-patriotism, it is another variant in the wider worldview that is fundamentalism. Instead of fundamentalist interpretations applied to the Qu’ran or Torah or Bible, they are applied to the Constitution. The anger, defensiveness and either-for-us-or-against-us politics of Seidman’s harsh attackers resembles the decades-long rhetoric and practice of fundamentalist movements.
Fundamentalism traces its origins to a Christian reaction to modernism, but the term’s use has broadened to incorporate similar trends in other religious and theopolitical movements. To my knowledge, however, it has not been used to describe a non-religious political position or to describe the right-wing movement in the United States that understands themselves as defenders of the Constitution. However, a closer examination reveals that the sentiment represented by Seidman’s detractors, by some within the Tea Party, and by other right-wing coalitions maps on to the characteristics of other fundamentalist groups.
Karen Armstrong, in her landmark history of fundamentalism The Battle for God, does not give a definition of fundamentalism, but follows the lead of Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby’s Fundamentalism Project and offers a set of characteristics of fundamentalist movements.
They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. (xiii, adapted from Marty & Appleby)
Those who seize upon the purity of the Constitution also practice a kind of spirituality. They see central values like freedom, democracy, independence and patriotism (all narrowly defined) under threat from outside forces. Their inerrant scripture is the Constitution, and they appeal to the era of the founding fathers as the authoritative and idyllic.
The most important insight to remember when understanding fundamentalism is that it is a new phenomenon, in spite of its appeals to the past. Fundamentalism is a reactionary move against modernism, a way to fight the cultural changes that threaten former ways of knowing and living. Armstrong distinguishes between mythos and logos. Mythos is the truth that gives meaning to our daily lives. In pre-modern societies, it was the primary form of truth, and never intended to be taken literally. Mythos connects our experiences to timeless, eternal realities larger than ourselves and our era. Logos, by contrast, is the “rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.” (xvi) Logos looks to control the environment and pursues new ideas and technologies. The pre-modern world placed mythos as the primary form of truth, but embraced logos as well. The modern world has all but dismissed mythos, and taken logos as the primary form of truth.
Fundamentalism is a particular and peculiar reaction to this modernity that seeks to take mythos and turn it into logos. As the mythos no longer matches the logos of science, they shore it up by trying to claim it is logos. For example, the story of a six-day creation in Genesis is a myth. Its primary purpose is to tell us that the world is God’s creation, that it is good, and that we humans were also created by God and reflect God’s goodness. It is a story about meaning. Fundamentalism takes that mythos and makes it into logos by arguing that the story of creation is a factual scientific explanation about the beginning of the universe. It is not even a return to something old (which would be a pre-modern coexistence of mythos and logos, with mythos as primary), it is a creative, novel reaction to modernity.
One example of this kind of American Constitutional fundamentalism can be found in conversations about the Second Amendment. It has reared up strongly in recent weeks as the country talks about gun control in response to the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Many who resist gun control consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment, and they grow agitated at any suggestion that we might want to control access to certain kinds of weapons or ammunition. Rather than making an argument about how access to those weapons nurtures a free society, they believe themselves to be beseiged, drawing dramatic lines between “us” and “them,” “real Americans” and those who should “leave the country.” Claiming to be standard bearers for the Constitution, this group of gun advocates appeal to the document and the founding fathers, and dismiss any who disagree as unpatriotic, unfaithful to the Constitution, and underminers of liberty.
Just yesterday, a Tennessee man named James Yeager made the news for posting videos on YouTube threatening to “start shooting people” if they tried to take away his guns. His interview with a local television station contains all the characteristics of fundamentalism listed above. Below is the raw interview with the local television station, in which he initially tries to calm his rhetoric, but eventually gets more agitated. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at least watch the section starting around 2:10, where he talks about shooting people to defend the Constitution. You can also watch the edited news story here, which includes clips from his original YouTube postings.) Since that time, the state has withdrawn his gun permit in response to his threats, but as of this writing there has been no attempt to collect his weapons, and we do not know if he intends shoot people if they do.
Mr. Yeager is not unique. The rhetoric he spouts and the appeal he makes to the Constitution can be found throughout right-wing organizations in the United States, including the Tea Party, NRA, and the conservative radio, television and blogosphere. They are another form of fundamentalism, alongside Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. Just as within faith groups, not everyone who is a conservative member of those groups is a fundamentalist, but fundamentalism is a unique segment found within those groups.
Many of us in faith communities have struggled against fundamentalist perversions of our faith for many years, but they persist and even seem to grow stronger. I’m not sure we have much to say that will open up the conversation or create useful common ground to move forward. However, it seems helpful and insightful to identify the parallels between the rhetoric around religion and politics, and to name both as fundamentalist in their reactionary characteristics.
A few weeks ago, I strung a clothesline in my backyard. Yesterday, I washed six loads of laundry and hung each one outside in the summer sun to dry on my new clothesline and a couple of drying racks that usually stay in the basement. I did not once turn on the dryer.
Last summer, I learned how to freeze all the fresh vegetables we could not consume from our CSA. This year, we are growing tomatoes. Next year, we’re talking about growing our own garden. I really want to learn home canning.
J is talking about baking bread. We are wondering why we should buy bread all the time when we can make it for ourselves, and it would taste so much better. It’s all part of our desire to get away from eating processed food. We love to cook together, to take raw meat and fresh herbs and whole vegetables and transform them into cuisine. We don’t measure or follow a recipe, and try to do it from scratch.
My friends all travel with skeins of yarn and knitting needles poking out of their bags, and sit in meetings and on trains and knit their own clothes. They make scarves and blankets and sweaters and baby things, for themselves, for their friends, for charitable causes.
We are trying to reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose. We have a concern for the environment, for our health, for living more simply and consuming less and reducing our impact on the planet. And in the process, I realize I am becoming my grandmother.
My grandmother gardened, crocheted, cooked from scratch, and hung the laundry out to dry. She did it because she grew up in the Depression, and she learned how to make things stretch and last. I remember as a child watching her dig the last bits of batter from the bottom of the bowl, or rinse out the cottage cheese container to use as storage, or clothespin sheets to the line. I thought it was quaint and old-fashioned, when we modern people did not need to be so frugal. We threw out the plastic silverware and let go of leftovers and ran the dryer just to freshen something up.
Now, nearly a decade since my grandmother died, I am keeping house very much like she did. (Another grandmother still lives. She was raised in the city, but also practices many of these same habits.) Why run the dryer when the sun does the job for free? What’s the shame in hanging your underclothes outside, if it’s in the back yard? Who needs a recipe? Just pinch this and scoop that and do it until it looks right. No, I won’t throw out that plastic container, because I don’t want it to go to a landfill or even to recycling if I can use it again. Why use plastic at all when there are dishes and silver in the cabinet?
We do these things not because it is a financial necessity, but because it is a gentler, more careful and intentional way of living with the earth. The logic may be different, but the lifestyle is the same. What was good enough for my grandmother is good enough for me.
I have been captivated by the story of the trapped Chilean miners. I cried when I read about the note reaching the surface 17 days after the collapse of the mine, announcing all 33 were alive and unhurt. I cried again when I read that rescue might not come until Christmas. I rejoiced when the drill broke through, and rescue came early. I am crying again today at the beautiful sight of each one emerging safe and whole into the arms of his family.
The courage, faith and endurance of these men witness to the power and triumph of the human spirit. It is the kind of story that should be told and retold for generations as a testimony to hope and survival. I believe that what it means to be human is to possess these kinds of stories and understand our life through them.
However, I do want to raise a cautionary query. As I have watched this drama unfold, I have been attentive to staging. This story has been presented to the world as though it were not unfolding before us, but as though it were almost already packaged for television and movies. Just today, as I watch the rescue, we are treated to a camera in the mine to capture the send-off from the other trapped miners, a camera in the rescue capsule that shows exactly what the miner is seeing in transit, along with multiple surface cameras to capture the emotions of the waiting families, the work and determination and encouragement of rescue workers and (of course) the presence and involvement of the Chilean president. Each of these cameras has been positioned with a Hollywood director’s care. Someone is directing this show.
The same has been true of the daily briefings and reporting throughout the ordeal. The way that each of the miners has been given a character and identity (the pastor, the musician, the medic, the MacGyver-like mechanic) mimics Hollywood portrayals of disaster and war stories, where nameless and indistinguishable soldiers take on unique archetypal identities. Each day, we get small bits of news unique to each miner, which have obviously been carefully crafted to portray them as courageous, strong and hopeful. This reporting is thanks to the work of three miners, who have been given cameras and sound equipment. One is the official cameraman, the other two are sound engineers. Another miner has been officially named the group poet, writing daily verse about their ordeal and praising rescue workers. (Excellent article here about daily life in the mine.)
Someone is crafting this story, and has been since the very beginning. The narrative of the rescue workers has been meticulously edited to avoid news of major mistakes, and no one is even talking about what caused the collapse in the first place. Here in the U.S., we are always searching first and foremost for someone to blame. This story is all about the hope and courage and ingenuity of the Chilean people.
The lead hero of the story is Chilean president Sebastian Pinera. He has been at the forefront of every briefing, and taken the privilege of announcing every breakthrough. Today, as the miners are rescued one by one in that tiny capsule, he stands at the side of the families, second in line to embrace each one—right before the cameras. Having watched him throughout this media moment, I believe he or one of his closest advisors is responsible for the attention to media direction. He or someone close to him foresaw the captivating nature of the story (and, I add, without cynicism,) the political opportunity for Pinera to become a hero by connecting to the miners.
Here’s my ultimate question, however: is this a problem? Does it matter? We could have been exposed to every bit of the mass information and daily doldrums of this 68-day ordeal, or we could have been exposed to very little—just a pool camera at the rescue site. We could have received this information via a raw feed, or carefully orchestrated for dramatic effect. What difference would that make, ethically? Is there a requirement that we receive raw information? What amount of crafting and spin on a story like this one renders it inauthentic or unjust?
As a professional storyteller (aka preacher), I spend my time every week reading the Bible and trying to figure out how to craft and spin and retell it for dramatic effect, so that it moves the hearts of the listeners and opens them to the Holy Spirit. The Chilean president and his advisors have done the same thing here, except they are attempting to provoke national pride and honor instead of spiritual awakening. We both know that there is a difference between a great story and a great story told by a great storyteller. Is the story any less true because it has been carefully manipulated and told for maximum impact? Or is it an even better story that way?
Stories like that of the Chilean miners captivate us because they are great human stories, in the same way that great human stories of courage and hope have captivated us throughout human history. I praise God today for their rescue, and pray for their healing and peaceful reintegration into their families. And I also ponder these questions about their story and how it is being told. How much has my relationship and emotional response to this story been crafted and directed by storytellers? And how much does that matter? What do you think?
The first time I was in Summersville, West Virginia was at least 15 years ago. I went to college in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and my friend K and I spent our free time driving around the back roads of West Virginia in search of beautiful vistas, quirky towns and unique experiences.
We journeyed to Summersville one Sunday afternoon on our way to the famous New River Gorge bridge, taking a winding two-lane trail through nameless unincorporated communities. We were hungry, and had no cash. Cash was important, because the local restaurants along the road would not accept a credit card back then. Looking on the map, Summersville appeared to be a sizable town, and we believed there would be a 24-hour ATM there so we could get money for something to eat.
We arrived in downtown Summersville and found at least three different back branches, but not one of them had an automatic teller machine. Not one. We rolled down the window and asked a man walking down the street where we could find an ATM machine. “A what?” he asked. “A bank machine, where you can get money.” “Never heard of that kind of thing,” he said. “Maybe they have one of those down in Beckley.”
Our hungry bellies sighed at another 40 mile journey to Beckley, but we also reveled in the thought that there were still places, in the early 1990s, that did not know what an ATM was. It was exactly the kind of experience we sought in our travels, and I still remember it today.
I have returned to Summersville again this week. A friend and I have rented a cabin for reading, writing and quiet time with God. I was eager to revisit Summersville. The website for the cabin told me that they now had several fast food restaurants and a Super Wal-Mart, so I expected a changed place—at least now they would have an ATM, to be sure.
I couldn’t believe what I found when we got here. Not only is there a Super Wal-Mart, the leader of cheap consumerism and cultural decline in small-town America, but there are strip malls at every turn. Along US-19, where there used to be rolling Appalachians speckeld with color this time of year, there are billboards and signs for every national chain store, hotel chain and fast-food restaurant you can imagine. We sought a local restaurant in downtown Summersville, and could find none.
While I am sure the people of Summersville and the surrounding hillsides are grateful to eat at Applebee’s, get lumber at Lowe’s, wander the aisles of the Dollar Tree and stock up at Super Wal-Mart without driving all the way to Beckley, I mourn the passing of another unique small town.
Bill Bryson’s book A Lost Continent, which I just completed and did not generally like (see review), describes his search for the perfect small town, which he dubs “Amalgam.” He describes its picturesque streets and quaint personalities, and delights in the fact that it could be located in any state in the union. He never finds that small town.
What I fear we have instead is thousands of Amalgams, only they are not the pleasantly perfect models Bryson imagines. In today’s world of mass consumption and large retail and restaurant chains, every town is Amalgam. Every town has the same restaurants, the same stores, the same products. Everything looks the same, tastes the same, feels the same. Something is lost when Summersville, WV looks just like Summersville, KY and Somersville, OH and Somersville, CT and Somersville, CA. I’m not sure why anyone bothers to leave their own town anymore, just to find the same thing in some other place.
This book is the product of the Barna Group, which is like the Gallup of the evangelical Christian world. Barna conducts widespread research on the state of evangelical Christianity and Christianity in general, using mass survey techniques along with in-depth interviews, focus groups and more. UnChristian looks at research about the perceptions young people have about Christianity, particularly young people outside the church. The research contained in the book was fascinating, but I disagreed with many of the perspectives, conclusions, interpretations and proposed solutions given to it.
This book made a big splash when it was first published in 2007, because it revealed such negative perceptions about Christianity from young people. When young people ages 16-29 were asked about what came to mind when you say, “Christian,” they gave these terms: anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in politics, out-of-touch with reality, old-fashioned and insensitive to others. The only two favorable images that ranked higher than these were “teaches the same basic ideas as other religions,” and “has good values and principles.” (28)
The evangelical community reacted to this news with shock and horror. When I shared it in a sermon after I first bought the book three years ago, older members of my congregation reacted the same way. However, people my age and younger (I’m in my mid-30s) seemed to respond, “well, DUH!” We know this reality because it is ours. When we meet people and they find out we are Christian, or attend church, or even serve as a pastor, they immediately believe we are all those things. This is especially frustrating for those of us in the progressive Christian community who desperately try to practice and publicize a Christianity that welcomes and supports GLBT people just as they are, invites conversation without conversion from interfaith partners and puts love, social justice and service to the poor and to the earth ahead of judgments about who is going to hell. UnChristian gave numbers, facts and statistics to our generalized anecdotal experience of Christianity’s unfavorable reputation among our peers.
Kinnaman (as the lead author) writes the truth in bold numbers and alarming quotations from interviews. He tells the stories of young people shunned, shamed, embarrassed and neglected by Christians he rightly calls unChristian. I believe that this act of truth-telling makes this book valuable reading for anyone interested in a reality-check about perceptions of the church and of Christians. That kind of accurate perception will be key to righting our behavior and our witness in Jesus’ name.
The reason it took me three years to go back and finish reading the book (even though I have used it for reference on several occasions) is that Kinnaman’s perspective on our appropriate response is all wrong. My fundamental disagreements run right to the heart of their limited definition of Christianity that limits “true” Christians to those evangelicals who agree with them. The authors defined “true” Christianity in a way that excludes me and millions of other Christians because we do not meet their strict criteria. They have three divisions of Christians: born-again non-evangelical, evangelical and “notional” Christians. Because I do not subscribe to the belief in heaven, as they define it, I am a “notional” Christian–someone who thinks I am a Christian, but really isn’t. You can understand that this immediately makes me angry. (To see if the Barna Group thinks you are a Christian or not, look here.)
It’s this compulsion to draw lines about who’s in and who’s out, to define Christianity not by those who are seeking to live it but by some arbitrary theological premises, and the arrogance of telling millions of faithful people that they are not really Christians that leads to all the descriptions of Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive to the needs of others, and out of touch with reality. For all its attempts to listen to what non-Christians are saying, UnChristian maintains all the judgmentalism and arrogance that non-Christians (and this kind of Christian) are complaining about.
The pinnacle example comes in the chapter about Christians being “anti-homosexual,” which I place in quotes because members of the GLBT community do not use the term “homosexual” about themselves, and the term itself comes with prejudice. The chapter names all the ways that GLBT people, their families and friends have been judged harshly and excluded by the church—then concludes that Christians should continue to pass the same judgments, but be more polite about it. You know, stop yelling and carrying signs, and sit down over dinner and tell someone they are a sinner instead.
You can tell by my tone why it took me so long to make it through the book. The statistics and the insights they provide made it worth slogging through the crappy theology to get there, but I had to keep putting it down and walking away in frustration. No one else is conducting this kind of research beyond anecdotal conversations. However, the book left me angrier and more disappointed than ever, as evangelical Christians took a good hard look at the evidence against them and still could not muster any true compassion or willingness to examine the flaws in their own theology. I am coming to believe that theological certainty and rigidity are the primary culprits that lead one to becoming uncompassionate and unChristian.
Christianity is in crisis, as the statistics in UnChristian document. In order to recover, we need to stop deciding who really counts as a Christian and get on with loving people in Jesus’ name, without caring what they think or belief in the meantime.
Today marks the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” (For the story of the amendment, click here. The vote passed on August 18, 1920. The amendment became law on August 26, 1920.)
This landmark ruling is less than 100 years old. It is less than a lifetime–there are women alive today who remember the time before women had the right to vote in this country. I recall my own great-grandmother sharing her memory of the first time she was ever allowed to vote.
Because we do not have the video evidence that we have of the civil rights movement or the feminist movement of the 1960′s, we tend to forget the hardship and struggle those women endured to earn rights for women. When I was growing up, the only image I had of what a suffragette looked was Mrs. Banks, the mother character in Mary Poppins, who was portrayed as so self-absorbed and wealthy and concerned for her own rights that her children were misbehaving terribly to get any attention at all. She was the contrasting foil to Mary Poppins, the woman who did not care for herself, her pay, her image—only for the poor, neglected children. Mrs. Banks’ image matched the photos I saw of the suffrage movement, pictures of wealthy women dressed in full Victorian attire, marching with signs and pausing to pose for photos. It gave me the impression that the suffrage movement was more like an outdoor ladies’ tea than a brutal struggle for equality under the law.
It is true that many of the participants and leaders of this movement were privileged white women. There is a legacy of prejudice within the feminist movement that persists today against working class women and women of color. Those of us who are passionate about the ongoing struggle for women’s civil and social equality must continue to fight against this prejudice with all our strength. But the status of early suffragette leaders as wealthy and white does not negate the difficulty of their struggle or the cost of their sacrifice. Their portrayal as indulgent flakes like Mrs. Banks is not only false, but it diminishes their intelligence, commitment and determination, along with the importance of their movement.
The struggle for women’s rights was intense, disruptive and even violent, just like any other civil rights movement. Women with no other source of income than their husbands were thrown out of their homes and separated from their children. Single, working women lost their jobs for attending a suffrage rally. Women were denied the right of free assembly and jailed for their protests. While in jail, they were abused. They staged hunger strikes and were force-fed. They sacrificed their families, their security, their bodily safety, their income and more. For a striking portrayal, I encourage you to watch Iron-Jawed Angels, a film made in 2004 about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.
And yet somehow we forget their sacrifice in the long litany of civil rights heroes. This erasure took place within a generation of the suffrage movement. Robert Cooney, director of the Woman Suffrage Media Project, writes:
Suffrage leader Gertrude Foster Brown tells of interviewing one of the women who persuaded the Illinois legislature to grant presidential suffrage in 1913, a key breakthrough in the struggle for national suffrage. She ends her article with this anecdote:
“As I sat with Mrs. Booth and her husband some years ago and they told me the tale of the winning of Illinois, he, strangely enough, remembering better than she the details of the long struggle, it was the listening young people who marked for us how far the world has moved since then. Their son and daughter, then grown, sat round-eyed and enthralled by the story. They had never heard it. Did women, just because they were women, ever have to fight against such incredible odds? And was it their mother who had played the leading role on such a stage? Like most young people they had always taken her for granted–retiring, thoughtful, quiet and kind, just a mighty nice mother–and suddenly they saw her a general, a heroine in one of the great dramas of the world. For this Illinois victory was the turning point in the enfranchisement of twenty-five millions of women.”
So on this anniversary day, let us do three things.
Lucy Stone, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Stone Blackwell, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Frances Willard, Julia Ward Howe—these women and all their anonymous companions deserve a prominent place in our pantheon of justice heroes. Let us remember their sacrifice, courage and dedication, and the true cost of civil rights.
My life today would not be possible without the women’s movements of days past. My ordination, my career choice, my family, my equal pay, my partnership with my spouse, my legal protection from rape and domestic violence, my reproductive freedom, my political activism, my hyphenated name, my degree in Women’s Studies, my protection from sexual harassment and so many more things that are an intimate part of my daily life and my identity would never have been possible even a generation or two ago. I give thanks to God and to those women who made my life possible.
Even here in the United States, there is much work yet to be done for women to overcome discrimination and stand on an equal footing with men. Women still make only $.76 for every dollar a man earns. Domestic violence still takes the life of a woman every single day. Girls can grow up to be anything they want to be—but there is still a dearth of women in top leadership positions in the social, political and corporate sectors. The right to birth control and access to abortion are still hotly debated, and rights are being lost rather than won. Sexual harassment is still ridiculed and date rape is still rampant on college campuses. Women still fight enormous expectations about their bodies, their demeanor, their sexuality and their freedom.
Beyond the United States, many of the world’s women find an even harsher reality. There are still many countries where women do not have the right to vote, to divorce, to leave an abusive husband, to be heard in court, to drive, even to be seen in public without a male escort. Women across the world are poorer than men and more likely to be victims of violence.
We who benefit from the privilege of earlier generations of the women’s movement must recommit to standing together and continuing the struggle, for we still have a long way to go.
Those three acts—remembering, giving thanks and recommitting—are intertwined. Remembering the struggles of the suffragettes moves me to give thanks for the rights I have as a woman in 21st century America. Remembering their courage and sacrifice inspires me to courage and sacrifice of my own, that all women and girls of this earth might have a chance at life, health, self-determination, peace and justice.
Ah, the wisdom of Paul and Linda McCartney! Have you heard it, church folk?
The world is an ever-changing place. Each generation displaces the one before. New technologies render yesterday’s marvels as obsolete junk. Taste, preference and popular culture shift constantly. People die, and other people are born. Old things sometimes want to die. New things want to grow.
Far too often, we in the church forget this cyclical rhythm of life. Programs and ministries of the church are a part of this same ebb and flow. New things grow, old things die. In spite of our fervent belief in resurrection, we seem unwilling to let go and trust that God can birth a new thing in place of the old. Instead, we exhaust ourselves in seeking every means of life support available to sustain a ministry that has no chance of long-term survival. It is not the dying of old ministries that makes us feel weak, exhausted and hopeless as the church—it is the fact that we are drowning in life support for them.
Just today, I was visiting an elderly member who said, “Oh, I hope the Women’s Fellowship keeps going. It’s been such a good thing over the years.” I agree with her—our Women’s Fellowship has been a huge part of the growth and ministry and service of this congregation for over 75 years. They are currently down to less than 15 participants, the youngest of whom is approaching her 80th birthday. They are a shadow of their former selves, when women gathered 100+ strong and wielded significant political and financial power within the church.
However, the Women’s Fellowship is also still a vital and vibrant ministry. They gather once a month for a meeting and program, usually a study of a bible-based book. The group leads our ministry to homebound members, ensuring that everyone receives a visit and a card once a month. They sponsor the education of a girl in Sri Lanka, and make small contributions to various charities throughout the year. Their members are happy and engaged in leadership, and other than occasionally leading Bible study, they thrive without staff or pastoral support.
In spite of their continued vitality, they are still an aging ministry that will probably die out when its current members can no longer sustain it. Like its members, the Women’s Fellowship is nearing the end of its life cycle. Women’s roles in culture have changed. Most women now work outside the home and are not available for daytime meetings. Women are no longer barred from serving as officers and leaders in the church, and they find their opportunities for leadership throughout the congregation. Gender-based groups are giving way to affinity groups based on age, family status, hobbies, interests and time.
As the pastor, I will be there when the time comes to help the remaining members of the group to celebrate the life of the Women’s Fellowship and to grieve its passing. That time is not now, but it is in the foreseeable future. I will help the church to understand what it will mean to lose their ministry to homebound members, and determine how to find new ways to connect with these lonely souls. This work will be difficult and painful at times, but I do not expect it to be frustrating, exhausting and hopeless. I believe it will be holy.
What would be exhausting and defeating and depressing would be the tasks required to keep the Women’s Fellowship alive, the measures of life support. Begging younger women to attend. Moving the meetings to an evening in the hopes that working women will jump in. Investing hours of my time and energy to design flashy new programs and bible studies. Heaping guilt upon women who could attend but choose not to. Taking on the tasks of leadership myself, since there is no one else to do it in the group. We could do all of those things, and chances are that the Women’s Fellowship would still die, albeit maybe a year or two later. Chances are even better that we would all end up feeling bitter, exhausted, disappointed, guilty and hopeless about the future of the church. We would see the death of this aging program as a failure on our part.
McCartney’s words are good advice for the church: “But if this ever changin’ world/In which we live in/Makes you give in and cry/Say, ‘Live and let die.’” Letting something die is not a sign of failure, but a sign of faith—faith that the God of Resurrection can bring new life out of death. That new life will not likely be the victory we expect, the program we planned or the old body we once inhabited, but it will be holy, hopeful, alive and energized to meet the needs of the changing world we live in. And so will be the church that welcomes it.