Thursday, December 25, 2008
But always...ALWAYS...there has been hope, love, and friendship. I can't thank you enough for all the support and the prayers I have gotten from those of you who come here and read my scribblings. I count a number of you as real-life friends as a result, and that is a wonderful Christmas blessing.
I am a lucky woman.
Luck does not always come in the forms you expect, however.
Not all that long ago, I wrote a long post on my distrust of the institution of marriage (The Triumph of Hope Over Experience). I know I said I would never, ever, EVER get married again.
I meant it, too.
But on December 6th--the Feast of St. Nicholas--Dear Friend got down on both knees and asked me to marry him.
If you had seen the look on his face, you couldn't have turned him down either...
We had to ask the Bishop for permission, which is one reason I didn't announce the news sooner. Bishop Curry has not only given his permission--he has offered to perform the ceremony. That was a true stroke of grace for me--a sign that my past relationship mistakes are not beyond redemption.
It still bothers me immensely that I have tried and failed in the past--I wanted to celebrate my 65th anniversary, as Dear Friend's parents were able to do before his father died last year. "Third time's a charm!" is funny, but painful. It is not what I wanted.
But Dear Friend is who I want. He is who I wanted all along...I just kept thinking that no one gets the total package in one person, so I settled for what I thought was enough. Passion the first time. Stability the second.
Imagine my surprise when I realized you could have passion, commitment, friendship--and God--all in the same relationship...
Dear Friend is the whole ball of wax. He is loving, kind, thoughtful, brilliant, funny, and beautiful--inside and out. He loves God and he loves me--and he is open and candid about both of those things to everyone who will listen. From the moment I met him, he made me feel special. I will spend whatever time God blesses us with trying to return the favor.
We will be married Memorial Day Weekend, when we will also celebrate his 60th birthday.
You may now commence your chorus of "I told you so's!"
I deserve that.
But in the midst of happily eating all that crow, I will beg your prayers--for Dear Friend and myself, our combined five children, and our exes. Love and hope we have in abundance. Pray for grace, patience, and mercy if you will. We will need them all.
Finally, I ask you to pray for those who may not yet take this step--or who are grieving attempts to undo the marriages they have already made. Dear Friend and I are ever mindful of the fact that there are many who want to celebrate their own triumph of hope and love and cannot. In our joy, we do not forget their pain--and we will not rest until all who want to make loving, faithful commitments can do so both legally and in the Episcopal Church.
And now, I'm off to start eating. I hope your Christmas dinner is as pleasant as mine!
Saturday, December 20, 2008
He is tired and ill from sleeping out in the weather, and when he speaks there is a sense of numbness in his voice. He is waiting, but only God knows for what.
I am rendered silent in the face of this waiting. What can I say to a man who has no home?
His name is William, and he left his native Jamaica after a string of 10 devastating hurricanes--only to lose most of his family and all of his possessions in Hurricane Katrina. In the years since Katrina, his life has gone from bad to worse.
He talks quietly of his losses. The job that no longer exists. The woman he loved who was murdered, and the woman he tried to love, but couldn’t--too much pain and anger coursing through both of their veins. The move from “home” to the streets.
I touch his arm lightly, and look him in the eyes as he speaks. It is all I have to offer.
He is matter-of-fact about these things. He does not whine or complain. He just explains…and he waits. For someone to give him the work he longs to do. For a place to call his own. For someone who will be able to love away the pain and the memories.
And I am shamed into silence...knowing that I will go home with Dear Friend when this evening is finished. Knowing that my work--the work I feel blessed to do--will begin again in the morning, and that, tonight, I will be warm and sheltered and loved. Knowing that my waiting is over.
I doubt I will ever see William again, but our brief time together at a Room in the Inn dinner has given him lodging in my mind and heart. He has been my living, breathing Advent lesson, and I have been unable to forget our conversation.
Part of me wishes that I could...
That’s because I ran full tilt into the Wall of Doubt again as my conversation with William went on. This happens frequently when I must put a face to issues of poverty and social inequality.
It is one thing to talk about “homelessness” or “the homeless”--it is quite another to look into the weary eyes of a human being who tells you that he slept in a bus shelter last night because he had nowhere else to go.
The Wall of Doubt is what I encounter every time I am faced with the failure of common decency--and let’s be honest and acknowledge that this is what is at the root of homelessness and abject poverty. These things are based in the failure of human beings to love and care for one another in the most basic ways.
That Wall is the rock on which my faith is tested--the stone that threatens to shatter what little confidence I have that there is a good and benevolent God in this universe.
Much better minds than mine have wrestled with the theodicy problem through the ages. I am under no illusion that I will be the one to solve the puzzle. But the problem takes on new urgency as I consider the fact that there is nothing I can do to help William.
Or is there?
My feeling of helplessness drove me to write to my friend Under There (UT), who blogs at Under the Overpasses. UT runs a shelter for homeless people—and he writes beautifully about those he serves.
I wrote to him about my experience with William and confessed my angst over the encounter:
There are no religious platitudes that will apply here--I've never felt so inadequate in my life. I had absolutely nothing to offer him, except my prayers. But I have to say--that felt REALLY hollow. What good are prayers when you don’t have a job or a roof over your head? When everyone you love is gone?
How do you handle that? At least you have resources to offer--I had nothing but a willingness to listen and some totally inadequate words...
Do we do more harm than good by going to hang out with these folks for a few hours? Do we just remind them that we can go home after dinner...and they can't? I think if I were them, I would be so bitter about that---but I also know that many homeless people feel invisible, and just being treated like a person, rather than a social problem, makes a difference...
I don't want to sound like a guilty liberal (though I guess I feel like one). I just want to know--what can I do that will REALLY make a difference? I told William that I would pray for him every day--and I will keep that promise. But what else can I do?
Thanks, and bless you for reading this far...
UT was kind enough to write me back, and we have engaged in a conversation about helpful responses to homelessness. He has graciously give his permission for me to share his words with you (I have edited some things out for brevity and I have interwoven our conversations to try and give a coherent overview of what he had to say):
You have just discovered why a ministry of presence is so difficult. It's natural for the problem-solver mode to kick in and to say "here, let me help you." The gift of simply listening, as powerless and painfully inadequate to help as it made you feel, was a true gift to that man.
Most of the people trained to help him locate the disappearing resources he seeks are overwhelmed, overworked, and considering another career because of how impossible the task is. When he walks into any social service agency he will be another number to get the facts from and then "next..."
Simply being present and actually giving a damn about what he was saying is incredibly important. Some people on the streets go for weeks without actually being listened to. Everyone is too busy doing good to listen--or the ones who do listen, do it out of guilt and are always sneaking peeks at their watches.
The survival skills of people on the street are incredible. They can tell when someone is feigning interest and when it is real. One of our local social workers at the hospital told me about a lady who, when she asked her what she wanted, replied, "I just want someone to listen to me bitch about what is going on." Pretty profound and honest. Heck, sometimes I want that.
You should feel inadequate. That is normal. Liberal guilt is not always a such a bad thing. Remember that many of our conservative friends feel none at all. I seriously doubt that William felt bitter about anything. If there was someone there who felt that way, he or she probably stayed away from conversation. You may have thought that person was just shy or quiet. But your Jamaican friend knew why you were there and he opened up to you and shared his story. Instead of saying, "Lady, will you find me a job?", he asked you to listen, and it sounds like you did that...You did not show up and run roughshod all over his person, by glibly saying, "bless you, I am praying for you," and then disappear. You gave him your presence.
Yes, on one level, it is not enough—-but on the other hand, neither is the dehumanizing social work that most people experience. He deserves help and you gave one form---now someone or some group needs to give him the other kind...
The day labor thing is a curse...Most of it was based on a very fragile bubble. Most day labor is landscaping or construction-related around new homes and existing wealth. When the luxury houses stopped selling here, the day labor was one of the first things to go. The faltering economy has impacted those who have no commitment from their employers except “Maybe tomorrow” in a very hard way.
There is a sort of word-of-mouth aspect to day labor. People hear from a “friend who knows someone related to someone who heard it from a reliable source” that there is work in this town or in this region. They chase the labor, and often it has dried up before they get there.
Day labor is a great thing temporarily, but unless we train people with GED/literacy and job skills programs, they are most vulnerable. Unfortunately, too many of my guests--immigrants, laborers with low educational backgrounds, people with felonies, etc.--are caught in the cycle of never-ending day labor employment. They deserve better because they want to work.
You learned something very valuable--and, dear Doxy, with the soap box you have built, you should do something about it. Your experience should be voiced in a parish newsletter, blogs, and whatever other official forums you have…people need to know that the homeless are not lazy. They are desperate for work. Most of the ones I know are. Your Jamaican friend would love to have the opportunity to work his way out of crisis with dignity. The number of lazy homeless people is no greater than the number of lazy people in society at large.
I asked UT what he thought that Christians should do to address the issue of homelessness. Here is what he said [emphases are mine]:
I think what I’m trying to get at is the one sermon I can never seem to shut up about--getting the church to lavish its treasures onto the world for the kingdom of God.
Of course, by that, I do not really mean just money. In my humble opinion, the real jewels of the church are the actual people and the gifts they have. We are pretty good at releasing funds for charity, but we never really get to address the root causes of the symptoms that charity relieves.
Justice really demands that we do more than provide overnight shelters and soup kitchens. That does not mean we do away with crisis assistance, but from my perspective (admittedly a basement-level perspective), it seems that we must recognize their limitations and never let them become substitutes for structural changes to remedy the root causes.
I think we need to revamp our existing technologies of compassion to include the brains and the talents of people in our pews who would never volunteer to go down and serve a meal at a shelter. That does not necessarily mean that they have hearts of stone. Their God-given passions may lie somewhere else. They may have gifts that, unfortunately, have only been valued in the secular business world. I have seen what can happen in places like Atlanta when you give bankers, lawyers, architects, real estate professionals and business people a “kingdom vision.” It's like the Holy Spirit kicks them in the ass and says, "Those are your spiritual gifts, doofus--stop feeling second best to the clergy and social workers and get out and make a difference with what you have."
The thrill of discovering "This is what I was meant to do, and I enjoy doing it" makes all the difference in the world. I think the fashionable term for what I have in mind is "social entrepreneurship," but on a much more simplistic scale. Justice demands that we find a way to provide your friend at the RITI with opportunity. He deserves the opportunity to have the dignity of working his way out of the famine he is in. It just seems that is right and fair, or in other words, justice...
Whenever I imagine things like nonprofit day labor projects that employ the homeless, while providing community improvement for poverty stricken areas that are crying out for hope, I know that it means time and effort and it is simply easier to write a check to the local soup kitchen to feed the homeless.
I also know that I--like most clergy types--really do not know how to operate a business and make it thrive--but our parishes are usually packed full of people who do. We need to tap them and give them a vision and then turn their imagination and know-how loose on creating real opportunities. If we do not, charity--without tangible hope for escaping the need for charity--can sap the human spirit by demeaning people who come to resent it as a way of life.
I guess what I am getting at is creating hope based not simply on warm fuzzy feelings, but real jobs that lead to better opportunities out of homelessness.
People want to work. My guests will do back breaking work and come in feeling proud of themselves about it. You may not be able to help your Jamaican friend directly, but that does not mean that you cannot do something. I hope his story continues to percolate through your consciousness and I hope it finds its way to your writer's voice. You are known for stirring things up every now and then, right?
I am sorry, I hate to give you a sermon about it. I am proud that you felt like crap over the helplessness of the situation. It means you are fully human and you have a conscience. I am also more pleased than you can know that you listened to his story. Not many people are willing to do that. In short, Doxy, glad to know you.
UT was way too kind to me. I recognize his desire to encourage people in their generous impulses. It’s all about baby steps.
But I am coming to realize that baby steps are not enough anymore. Jesus didn’t say take baby steps. Jesus said “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” Jesus said “When they sue you for your coat, give them your cloak as well.” Jesus said “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemies.”
The way I read it, Jesus did not believe in baby steps. Jesus was all about real sacrifice. And I wonder what I am willing to sacrifice for William? What will I give up so that he can have a roof over his head and work that will grant him dignity?
Do I really believe anything I say I believe?
As I type this, I am sitting in a warm house, and Dear Friend is bustling about doing whatever he is doing at the moment. There is plenty of food in the fridge, and there is a pile of Christmas presents on the dining room table. I am safe, and loved, and sheltered.
I will write and I will pray. I will do my best to “stir things up.” But it is not enough.
Because somewhere, out in the cold and wet North Carolina night, William is waiting...
Update--UT has posted some additional thoughts on this issue: My Slow and Steady Conversion.
Friday, December 05, 2008
I often leave with more than $10, but I am never going to get rich this way.
Small risks equal small rewards.
I am not a gambler, and I have always been a world-class worrier. My mind has always been able to go from zero to my own impending (and terribly painful) death to total annihilation of everyone on the planet in about three seconds flat.
It is worse when I contemplate dangers to those I love.
To be honest, my descent into madness and my close brush with death three years ago left me with no fear of my own end. God Herself spoke to me (or so I believe), and the experience was one of overwhelming love and concern. So I no longer worry about death--nor do I worry that I am gambling on my salvation or my relationship with God when I fail to live up to Jesus' call to "be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). God was kind enough to relieve me of those fears.
But I still fear losing those I love. And last week, I was reminded of how deep that fear goes.
Seeing Dear Friend hooked up to IVs...watching the concerned looks on the faces of those caring for him...listening to him moaning in pain in his sleep---I was gripped by my old, deep terror of loss. In the depths of the night---folded uncomfortably in one of those chairs they TELL you converts into a bed---I could only cry out my fears in prayer.
So I prayed. And I took great comfort in knowing that other people--all over the world--were praying too. If you prayed for us, please accept my heartfelt "Thank you!"
And I thought. A lot. About life and love. About why we make ourselves vulnerable to love when we KNOW we will be hurt---or will cause pain ourselves.
Why do we gamble, when we know we will lose?
That question has no easy answer. Most of the time, we cope by tucking our fears in a deep, dark place and then we try to pretend they don't exist. We pretend that we, and those we love, will live forever. That we will always be healthy and whole. That if we just do what we are "supposed" to do, nothing bad will ever happen to us.
Sometimes we try and close ourselves off to the possibility of pain and loss, and we refuse to gamble at all.
As a result of my natural aversion to risk, I very nearly chose to be child-free--because I sensed the kind of vulnerability to which I would be opening myself if I had children. My great-grandmother was 88 when she died, and to her last breath, she worried about my grandmother. I knew that motherhood would not end when the baby turned 18--and I wasn't sure I was up for the job.
And, to be honest, when it came to vulnerability...motherhood was every bit as bad as I was afraid it would be. It was worse, even. I worried incessantly about everything. Would my babies be born normal? Would they dies of SIDS? Would they choke to death on a grape or a piece of hot dog, or fall out a window?
Each age brings its own terrors--and I haven't even gotten to the stage where my kids are driving or dating! Sex, drugs, and rock and roll will be knocking on our door soon enough---and I expect the sleepless nights I endured when they were infants to return, as I wait up for the sound of the car in the driveway.
But always--ALWAYS--there is the joy of loving my beautiful children. This is what I almost did not factor into the equation--the potency of the joy of love. My vivid imagination sought to prepare me for all the awful things that can happen in life--but it could never prepare me for that joy...the ultimate gambling pay-off.
I thought of all of that in the nights in the hospital, when I lay awake listening to the beeping of IV pumps and the squeak of the nurses' shoes on the tile floors. I thought of how many times in my life that I have contemplated closing myself off to love and joy for fear of what might happen if I took the risk and opened my heart.
The older I get, the harder it becomes to take that risk.
I thought of that, too, when I looked at Dear Friend (who, it has to be said, is the only man I've ever seen who could still manage to look good in a hospital johnny). What am I thinking, to open my heart again to someone who could break it?
But it is too late for that, of course. Just as it was too late the instant I got pregnant with my children. The heart will break---that is a given. But it will also know joy and love, if I let it.
Advent is a time when I am forced to contemplate that risk-taking. Forced to recognize that we live in faith that there will eventually be a light in the darkness. We have no guarantees that our hope will be rewarded--but we keep hoping anyway.
Ultimately, I believe that we are gamblers because we are made in the image of God. God--who gambled on a crazy experiment called "humanity." Who gambled that we would respond to Her message of love and joy, and poured Herself into human form to walk among us. Who appeared to lose that gamble in the shadow of the cross--but came up with sevens in the final throw.
To be truly human--and to manifest that spark of the divine within us--we must gamble everything on life, love, and joy. I have come to believe that is what Jesus meant when he said:
Luke 9: 23—25What was Jesus' cross, if not to make himself vulnerable? To experience pain and love, life and death--of his own free will?
..."If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”
So I will put it all on the table. I will "deny myself" by ignoring my fear and desire to protect myself from pain and loss, and I will "take up the cross" of loving wastefully--without holding anything back. I will risk my heart and my life to follow my Savior who gave up everything to be fully human and vulnerable to all that flesh is heir to...
The House will always win---of this I am sure. And, at the same time, the payouts to the gamblers will be extravagant.
I'm betting on it.
Monday, December 01, 2008
Mark was in his mid-20s when he died of pneumocystis pneumonia—those who saw him in his last days said he looked like he was in his 70s. He was arch and funny, and his family covered up the cause of his death because, in the late 1980s in Memphis, you didn’t admit that your son had died of AIDS.
There were women too, of course. Not as many—but those who lived with HIV and died of AIDS in the first 15 years of the epidemic suffered a great deal more than they should have. In those early days of the AIDS epidemic, the diagnosis criteria were based on the symptoms exhibited by men. Women often presented with serious gynecological symptoms, which weren’t included in the medical guidelines—for treatment, for clinical trials, or for declaring people eligible for social services.
So much suffering. So much death…
Today is World AIDS Day. I could give you lots of statistics that would probably make your eyes glaze over. If you want those statistics, all you have to do is use the search function for my blog and type in “HIV.”
But what I really want to do today is to remember those who have died, recognize those who are living with HIV/AIDS, and pray for the day when AIDS is a footnote in the history books—along with polio and smallpox.
And, always, I want to encourage you to be tested for HIV. Even if you think you have no risk factors. ESPECIALLY if you think you have no risk factors. (Check my sidebar for links that will connect you to an HIV testing location near you.)
Because the only way we are going to stop this epidemic is to ensure that those who are infected know it, and can take precautions to prevent spreading the virus to others. This means we have to destroy the stigma that surrounds HIV/AIDS by making HIV testing routine for everyone, so that taking an HIV test is not some admission that you’ve been “doing something nasty.”
Today, I remember Mark and his family. I pray for those I know who are living with HIV.
And I pray that all of us will act wisely for ourselves and our partners. That we will have compassion for those who are infected, or affected by, HIV. That we will be the hands and feet of God in the world. That next World AIDS Day, I will be writing a different post…
Saturday, November 29, 2008
You are the best, folks. As many of you know, I struggle mightily with the theology of prayer--but it has been an inexpressible comfort to know that so many of you are praying for us. Thank you for being the face of God in my world.
I had to take Dear Friend to the Emergency Room at midnight last night. He had come to town to spend Thanksgiving with the children and me, and, over the course of the last couple of days, he developed a very serious infection in his right hand--which is now so swollen it looks like something out of a horror movie. The pain is intense. He was admitted to the hospital about 4:00 a.m., where they are currently pumping him full of IV antibiotics and morphine. He is likely to be there for a couple of days.
He is due to preach on Sunday, so he is NOT happy about this turn of events. His sense of duty is so strong that sometimes it overrides his reason. I am running around behind his back to tell the nurses they need to be firm about the fact that he is not going anywhere until he is well. (I'm very firm about that to his face, just in case you were wondering...)
Please pray for him--not only that he will get well (natch), but that he will recognize the need to be good to himself and to accept the help of others.
And, if I may be so bold, I ask for you prayers for me, too. He means so very much to me, and this taps into all my worst fears about losing him, just when I've finally found him.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
I feel a real kinship with Ruth. We are both professional writer/editors, and I think we share a passion for education and matters of faith. I wish I had her skills with knitting and roses, but it's nice to enjoy the beautiful visions and labors of others without the frustrations. Thanks for the vote of confidence, my friend.
Here are the rules:
- Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.
- Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
- Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to this post, which explains The Award.
- Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
- Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.
FranIAm, of course---Fran's blog is always the first thing I read when I open my Reader. As the Quakers say, "Friend speaks for me"--and she does it with such heart and eloquence.
Closeted Pastor--Though we've never met, Cecilia is near and dear to my heart. In ways that are not obvious, her "coming out" story has real resonance for me, so I await each new post with bated breath.
Feral Christianity--This one is new to me, and it's a doozy. Duck is an amazing writer and thinker. Check her out.
Kirkepiscatoid--I am jealous of the extremely thoughtful posts that Kirk does on a variety of subjects. Kirk is on my Short List of Bloggers I'd Like to Have a Beer With.
Shuck and Jive--Another I never miss. John is a powerful and articulate advocate for Christianity---but it ain't your parents' version...
Find one you haven't read, and go be amused, enlightened, or challenged.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
So last weekend, I decided to read a book. A REAL book. With covers and pages and everything.
That book was written by my friend Joel Haas. Joel is one of the most creative people I've ever known. He is a sculptor by profession, but he is also a storyteller--a first-rate raconteur. He comes by this honestly, as his father spent Joel's childhood entertaining Joel and his brothers with a whole universe of make-believe characters who had wonderful adventures.
(Hearing Joel's stories about his father always make me hang my head in shame--I couldn't make up a story for my kids if my life depended on it...)
Joel's whole family history is fascinating. He grew up in Charlotte, NC--where he lived between the Billy Graham family on one side and the John Shelby Spong family on the other. That, as he says, "explains a lot." (Doxy's Note: Joel corrects me about this in the comments. It was his dad who grew up between the Grahams and the Spongs. I still think my version is funnier. ;-)
Joel's father came from a German Jewish family, and Joel's novel, Adlerhof, is based loosely on his paternal family history. It is the story of two halves of the Adler family--one set of individuals who make their way to North Carolina in the late 19th century, and the others, who are forced by circumstances and disastrous choices to remain behind in Germany. (You can read more about Adlerhof at Joel's blog about the novel.)
It is a sobering book, as any tale about the Wilmington race riots and the Holocaust (no link necessary) must be--and I recommend it to you. There are scenes in it that I will remember forever. In fact, I finished it just before Dear Friend's Saturday Mass, and I spent most of my time during the service praying over how awful we humans are to one another.
Joel's novel was doubly poignant for me for me this week, as I mourn the passage of California's Proposition 8. In the wake of so much finger-pointing and so many recriminations about the result of that vote, Joel's book reminded me of what happens when a minority group (whether it be Jews, gays, or African Americans) is blamed for all the ills in a civilization. It reminded me of how craven and cowardly people can be when those in power use their might (and their money) to intimidate--and how "little people" will often use whatever power they have to trample others.
It reminded me of how easy it is to demonize others and to convince yourself that you are doing right in the bargain.
On this day, 70 years after the Holocaust began, I see few signs that we've learned much. Oh, sure...we just had a peaceful election, and--as long as you don't count Gitmo--we don't have any concentration camps.
But we still demonize those who differ from us. We still rush to put our boots on the necks of others, so that we can feel that we are in control. We still live in a world where we must rely on the threat of punishment--rather than the inherent goodness of the human heart--to keep people from hurting others.
As I said before, I live in hope. But that hope is sorely tested on occasion. I do not understand how people can sit by and do nothing when others are being persecuted merely for who they are. I do not understand how people can actively participate in persecuting others. (And let the reader understand, "persecution" does NOT mean "disagreeing with your position." It means taking away the rights, freedoms, livelihood, or personal safety of others.)
I particularly do not understand how people can do so in the name of Christ.
Joel's book was a powerful reminder that we must always be vigilant in the defense of the vulnerable in our midst. That evil only wins when good people stand by and do nothing--or participate in it out of fear or manipulation.
It was also a reminder that there is a price to pay for standing up for what is right.
This is the hard part--the part we don't like to acknowledge...that protecting our freedoms can require great personal sacrifice. On this Veteran's Day, we acknowledge the sacrifice of those who have gone before us, as we honor those members of our military who paid the price for our freedoms.
"Freedom isn't free," as the saying goes---and it isn't only those in uniform who fight for it. I think of Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. I think of Jonathan Daniels and, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I also think of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns who went to jail and endured being tortured so that women could have the vote. And I think of the gay and transgender rioters who fought back against the brutality of the New York City police force at the Stonewall Riots, starting the modern gay rights movement in the process--and the members of ACT UP, who fought to get access to lifesaving drugs for those living with AIDS.
Today is a day to remember the brutal lessons of history--and to pledge ourselves to ensuring that we do not repeat them. It is a day to ask yourself:
- What prejudices do *I* hold, and what am I going to do to remedy them?
- When have *I* participated in violence (rhetorical, physical, economic, or spiritual) against others, and what am I going to do to avoid committing violence in the future?
- Just what sacrifices am*I* willing to make to usher in the Kingdom of God in the here and now? (No fair demanding that others make sacrifices you are not willing to make yourself...)
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
I had made a list of at least a dozen more things that cause me to vote progressive--most of them issue-specific (war, healthcare, taxes, public health policy, etc.).
But at the end of this historic election day, there is really only one more important reason that I vote the way I do.
I live in hope.
Jesus and all God's angels give the same message: "Fear not!" To me, progressive politics reflect that message.
I don't want to live in fear my whole life--and it seems to me that so much of conservative politics is about fear. Fear that someone, somewhere, is plotting to take away what I have. Fear of change. Fear of difference. Fear of "them."
I refuse to live in fear. I live in hope.
I live in hope of liberty and justice for ALL. Regardless of your sex. Regardless of your skin color. Regardless of your creed (or lack thereof). Regardless of your sexual orientation.
I live in hope that we can come together and build a better future for our children--a future where all people have their basic needs (food, shelter, healthcare, education) met...and none are left behind.
(You parents will get this one. I live in hope of ohana.)
I live in hope that people will grant freely to their fellow citizens the rights, liberties, and responsibilities that they want for themselves and their children.
I live in hope that we, as a nation, will one day live into the promise that we Episcopalians make every time we renew our baptismal vows: to strive for justice and peace among all people, and [to] respect the dignity of every human being.
As John Lennon once wrote, "You may say I'm a dreamer." And I will acknowledge the truth of that statement. But I make no apology for it.
In the end, I come back to my first reason for voting the way I do. I am a Christian. I believe Jesus when he says "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." (John 10:10b). I take seriously the need to ensure an "abundant life" for all of God's children.
I believe him when he says "Do unto others as you would have them do to you." (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31) That means that I cannot claim privileges or benefits for myself that I will not grant to others.
I believe him when he says "for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'...Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'(Matthew 25:35-36, 40) There is nothing in that verse that allows me to decide who is "worthy" of help. "Give!", "Care!", "Visit!" Jesus commands. I have no choice but to follow...
I live in hope. I vote progressive.
There endeth the lesson. Thanks for reading.
Monday, November 03, 2008
The world will soon remember why it resents America as well as loves it. But until this unlikely fellow with the funny ears and strange name and exotic biography emerged on the scene, I had begun to wonder if it was possible at all. I had almost given up hope, and he helped restore it. That is what is stirring out there; and although you are welcome to mock me for it, I remain unashamed. As someone once said, in the unlikely story of America, there is never anything false about hope. Obama, moreover, seems to bring out the best in people, and the calmest, and the sanest. He seems to me to have a blend of Midwestern good sense, an intuitive understanding of the developing world that is as much our future now as theirs', an analyst's mind and a poet's tongue. He is human. He is flawed. He will make mistakes. His passivity and ambiguity are sometimes weaknesses as well as strengths.
But there is something about his rise that is also supremely American, a reminder of why so many of us love this country so passionately and are filled with such grief at what has been done to it and in its name. I endorse Barack Obama because I will not give up on America, because I believe in America, and in her constitution and decency and character and strength.
Let the people say "Amen!"
H/T to FranIAm
Friday, October 31, 2008
(For those of you joining the party late, here's the Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)
Up until now, I have focused on macro reasons about why I vote the way I do. This post is more specific--but it is one that speaks to my heart---and I think it is critical to our future as a nation.
I hope to have at least one more post before Election Day is over, but we'll see. There are many other issues that affect my vote--and I may keep talking about this even after the election. I have found that thinking deeply about the reasons I vote the way I do is a very useful exercise...I encourage all of you to try it.
I am passionate about education. I’ve done a lot of things in my life—including teaching in both private and public institutions of higher education. But probably the most important and eye-opening thing I ever did was to volunteer in my neighborhood school before I even had children.
My ex and I bought our first house in a revitalizing urban area in Nashville in the mid-1990s. When we first lived there, we could sit in the back yard and watch our neighbors doing drug deals in the street. A week after we brought our infant son home from the hospital, an angry resident at the “boarding house” (i.e., rooms for rent by the week) across the street set off a pipe bomb in the front yard because he was angry with his landlord.
(That same boarding house was briefly home to mass murderer Paul Reid—who, before he was arrested, tried, and convicted for killing seven people and sentenced to death—occasionally stopped and spoke kindly to my grandmother as she rocked the Baby Emperor on our front porch swing.)
All of that aside, the neighborhood was a wonderful community of people who cared deeply about the area and worked hard to improve it. I served on the neighborhood association board, and my interest was in schools—I had worked as an education analyst for the Tennessee General Assembly for several years, and had a solid knowledge base on education policy, funding, and data. I knew that the middle school in my neighborhood was failing—in large measure because 98% of the kids in it were in the free- or reduced-price meal (FRM) program. (There are both free- or reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs—I’ll use the one acronym to include them both.)
If you don’t know about it, the FRM program is open to kids living at 130%-185% of the Federal poverty line, which in 2008-2009 is $21,200/year for a family of four (in 1996-97, it was probably under $16K/year). For many children, the meals they get at school are by far the most nutritious food they will receive in a day. For some children, they are the ONLY meals they will get.
(Think about what this means to kids over the weekend and on holidays and summer breaks…and if you are moved by the hunger they face, donate to the Backpack Buddies program at the Interfaith Food Shuttle or to Feeding America in your own home town.)
FRM percentage is THE indicator to look for if children in a school are not doing well—it is an almost-perfect marker for underperforming students. Schools with more than 50% of their students on FRMs are almost guaranteed to have a significant percentage (if not an outright majority) of kids who don’t perform to standards set by either their local school boards or the Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)
Most of those kids are Black or Latino. I point this out because race and class have been conflated in the public’s mind. People talk about minority kids who don’t do well in school—and it’s true that minority kids are hugely at risk for academic failure—but they are at risk because they are disproportionately poor, not because of the color of their skin.
Why do I tell you all this stuff? Because my experience with Lockeland Middle School—and with the racism and poverty that led to its poor performance—has shaped my politics and the way I vote in profound ways.
(Lockeland was converted into a magnet elementary school sometime around 2000. There is no one left on the faculty who was there when I volunteered.)
The principal and staff at Lockeland were, quite frankly, incredulous when I showed up on their doorstep. I was White, upper-middle class (in education, if not in income), and hugely pregnant with the Emperor. I had no child in their school—and wouldn’t have one in any Nashville Public School for at least 6 years. They weren’t sure what to do with me at first.
But they quickly got over their surprise (and probably suspicion) and put me to work. I helped them re-start a moribund Parent-Teacher Association. I helped them apply for a grant from the state legislature to repair a room in the school that had been destroyed by arson and to replace the equipment in it—the first grant I ever wrote and got funded. I sold cookies and cupcakes at Back-to-School night to raise money for supplies and books.
And I listened in shock as I heard some teachers talk openly and disparagingly about their students’ abilities and their futures. Watched the “soft bigotry of low expectations” (about the ONLY thing—other than the need to fund HIV/AIDS programs worldwide—on which George W. Bush and I have ever agreed) in action. Watched the principal and other staff work their asses off to try and overcome the societal influences and inequalities that stacked the deck against these CHILDREN—and fail, so often.
I was radicalized by my experience in that school.
I learned that segregating poor children into their own schools was a recipe for academic failure—and a prescription for lifelong poverty. I learned that parents who are too overwhelmed with trying to keep a roof over their children’s heads and food in their bellies don’t have the energy to fight for better schools for their kids—or even to come to PTA meetings. I learned that parents who were poorly educated themselves too often do not appreciate how important education is to their children’s futures—and thus do not encourage academic achievement at home. I learned that parents whose native language is not English are doubly disadvantaged. I learned that not all teachers have their students' best interests at heart.
Mostly, I learned that when there is no community responsibility for educating children, only White, middle- and upper-middle class children get the education they need.
Like many Southern cities, Nashville did not respond positively to desegregation. The movers and shakers in Nashville removed their children from public schools and built their own network of educational enclaves that were “safe” from an influx of poor, mostly Black, children. Once that happened, there was no one left in the Halls of Power to push for better schools—with predictable results.
I vote for progressive politicians and policies because I am convinced of the need to have schools that are integrated—both racially and economically. I have seen the results of not doing so, and they are ugly. In fact, I will go so far as to say that educational segregation is a metastatic cancer at the heart of our democracy.
I am also convinced of the need for accountability for educational results--and the need for us to be accountable for supporting public schools adequately. NCLB was originally supported by a wide coalition of education advocacy groups—in large measure because it required school districts to be transparent about their achievements with different racial/ethnic groups and students living in poverty.
Before NCLB, school districts had been able to hide how badly they were doing with their poor and minority students by offering aggregate achievement statistics. If a district had a predominantly White, middle-class student body, its generally higher test scores tended to mask academic failures among struggling kids—which allowed districts to continue ignoring those children with special educational needs caused by racism and/or poverty. NCLB blew that shameful closet door off the hinges.
Where NCLB fell apart was in mandating student achievement without providing the resources necessary to make it happen—and in treating schools like factories that can produce widgets to spec.
Children, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, are not widgets. Factories that make widgets can cull and destroy widgets that aren’t up to spec. Humans shouldn’t be able to do that to one another, but we do. We are effectively treating poor kids as if they are widgets—we are destroying their hopes for the future and casting them on the economic garbage heap when we do not support public education adequately.
You can talk all you want about how it takes more than just money to educate children, and you can also talk all you want about “throwing good money after bad”—but the truth is that education is ENORMOUSLY expensive and in order to fix what is wrong in our public schools it will take community will, collective responsibility for outcomes, and lots of money.
For most school districts, approximately 80% percent of their annual budget goes for teacher salaries and benefits. When you talk about “throwing money at education,” you are talking about whether you are going to pay teachers decently—and about how many children are going to be in a given classroom.
You want smaller class sizes, and better-educated, more experienced teachers? Open your wallet.
Most school district budgets are based on property taxes—which is great if you live in an area where there is a lot of valuable property than can be taxed. If you live in a poverty-stricken or rural area, or an area with lots of untaxable property (e.g., military bases, businesses that have been given tax breaks to come to, or remain in, an area), you may be SOL.
Of course, lots of people believe that they shouldn’t have to pay higher property taxes for schools. If you send your kids to private school (as my family did me), or you don’t have children (or grandchildren) in the public schools, you may think it’s not your responsibility to fund education for other people’s children.
I will tell you, loudly and unequivocally, that you are as wrong as it is possible to be wrong.(I will also say that I think property taxes are a piss-poor way to fund schools and yet another guarantee that the “haves” will continue to have. Yet another post….)
Our future as a nation depends on a well-educated citizenry. And by “well-educated,” I do NOT mean kids who can fill in a bubble on a standardized test. I mean citizens who can think and reason and ask questions. I mean citizens who understand their responsibilities qua citizens—and who do not shirk their responsibilities to educate themselves about issues, vote, communicate with their elected officials, serve on juries, pay taxes, and be actively involved in the common life of their communities.
Public schools are the only way to get that educated citizenry. They are open to all—regardless of race, color, creed, or income. Public schools are our best hope of leveling the playing field and ensuring that all Americans know the things they need to know to be good citizens—and productive workers. If you want a stable society, supporting public schools should be at the top of your list of things to do.
And that’s another reason I vote progressive. Because for at least the last 25 years (and really more like 40, since desegregation), there has been a concerted effort by conservatives to undermine public schools and the public’s confidence in them. There is a long and painful history of racism and classism in that story—and the end result has been to ensure that millions of American children have received substandard educations.
To me, this undermines democracy and endangers the future of our nation. So I vote for those who support public education.
(And I ALWAYS support bond referenda for schools. Just in case you were wondering…)
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Well...if same-sex marriage had been available in 1987 (when I got married the first time), it probably would have saved me from one divorce.
Maybe P., who was gay, might have been able to envision a marriage to his long-term partner (17 years and counting...) and not put both of us through the wrenching pain of divorce. Maybe he wouldn't have had people at church telling him that the way to deal with his homosexual attractions was to marry me...
So save straight women from divorce! Vote NO! on California's Proposition 8.
Oh, and go read this: John Seery
Saturday, October 25, 2008
I am a feminist. Discovering feminism was like breathing for the first time. All of a sudden, the world finally made sense.
I could finally understand why I felt compelled to seek male approval—even to the point of erasing my own self. (Didn’t necessarily stop me from doing it, I’m sorry to say—but that’s another post…) I could see the social expectations that worked against me in the classroom and the workplace.
Becoming a feminist changed my life. Probably much more than becoming a Christian did, to be honest. Claiming my identity as a feminist propelled me into political activism for the first time in my life, because it showed me exactly how politics could improve my life.
Most important—becoming a feminist opened my eyes to the way that laws and social structures perpetuate inequality. The list was long:
- Unequal pay
- Discrimination against married women, pregnant women, and mothers in the workplace
- Domestic violence laws that favored batterers
- Rape laws that allowed the “justice” system to put the blame on women—or allowed husbands to rape their wives
- Attitudes that sexual harassment was just “boys being boys”
- An assumption that government could intervene in women’s reproductive decisions in ways that would never be tolerated if men were the ones being affected
- Attitudes that taking care of children and home was “women’s work” (and thus underpaying anyone who does those things professionally…teachers, daycare workers, domestic laborers, etc.)
- An economy that rests on the unpaid work of women in rearing children and keeping their homes going
I have never been able to look at advertising, religion, politics, economics, relationships—anything—the same way that I did before I become a feminist. Feminism made me look hard at all those things and clarify to myself what it was that I wanted out of life—and what I was willing to do to get it.
Here’s what I decided. I want a fair and just society. I want a society that doesn’t constrict women’s choices around careers and motherhood.* I want a society that recognizes the important unpaid work that women do—and that doesn’t penalize them economically for taking time out to care for their families. I want a society that recognizes women as mature moral agents, who do not need the government or other unrelated individuals telling us what we can and cannot do with our bodies.
I probably did it backwards from most people, but becoming a feminist is what made me a liberal. Feminism made me aware of, and angry about, the injustices in this nation that prides itself on the idea that “all men [sic] are created equal.” Becoming a feminist opened my eyes to ALL injustice.
I cannot tell you how mentally and emotionally exhausting that was.
You see, it was easy being a conservative. When I was a conservative, I was able to compartmentalize things very neatly. In the conservative world I used to inhabit, there was no such thing as institutionalized injustice. There were “people who made bad choices and had to pay the consequences.” In my little conservative head, that meant being born into the wrong family and attending inferior schools, I guess. Each single issue had its own cause and nothing was connected to anything else. That way, it was easy to assign blame and offer facile “solutions” that weren’t solutions at all—certainly not solutions that cost ME anything.
There was never any recognition that I was just “born lucky.” (See my last post on that one…)
When I became a liberal, I suddenly saw the web of connections between EVERYTHING. Sexism was tied up with racism and poverty. Discrimination (against minorities, LGBTs, the poor) was tied up in misogyny. Racism was used to divide the very people who should unite against those who would exploit them economically and politically.
Life suddenly became a very intricate spider web, and I couldn’t put things in neat little boxes anymore. Solutions got a lot more complicated—and expensive…both personally and politically.
Becoming a feminist and a liberal wore me slap out.
It still does—it requires enormous amounts of energy to keep at the fight, day by day, year by year. But I’ve been doing it for nearly a quarter of a century now, so I’ve learned to keep focused on the end goal. Feminism—although it presents itself as being about improving life for women—is ultimately about improving life for all of us. And that goal can only be reached by refusing to give up or give in to people and policies that maintain discrimination in any form.
I’ve learned when to take a news break and read some poetry—and then I get up and go to a rally, or volunteer for a progressive cause, or write on my blog...or vote. Because I’ve learned that life is complicated, but politics can make it better for a lot of people—not just for me.
I am a mother. I vote progressive because I want the world to be a better place for my children.
Now every mother--progressive, conservative, or somewhere in-between-- says that. But I believe that the world will only be a better place when EVERYONE has a decent place to live, enough to eat, and a good education. I do not believe I do my children any favors by trying to construct a world in which they achieve at someone else’s expense—or live in luxury while children on the other side of the world literally starve to death.
Every day, nearly 30,000 children die of poverty-related illness and starvation.
Read that again.
30,000 children. Dead. Every. Single. Day.
I keep coming back to faith here, but combine it with motherhood and I’ve got no choice. How can we live with ourselves, knowing that this is the case? How—in the name of God—do we justify this?
The answer, of course, is that we refuse to think about it, because addressing it would mean we had to give up our own privileged consumerist habits to change things. We tell ourselves that we cannot “fix” things in Somalia or Darfur because they are too far away. Or we blame it on “those people” who starve their own for political purposes (never asking ourselves about the hungry children in our own backyards).
Or—worst of all—we assume that people in other parts of the world are “used to” losing their babies and children to death, and that they don’t feel the loss the way we do. (I’ve actually heard people make this argument…)
Now this is not all about starving children in Africa. I know that our ability to bring about change in other parts of the world is limited (see Iraq). But as a progressive mother, I believe I have a responsibility to push for domestic policies that safeguard the children here in my own North Carolina community—and international policies that have an impact on children all over the world.
When my children were toddlers, I spent a great deal of time teaching them to share with their peers. In my world of neighborhood playgroups, there was a lot of parental disapproval aimed at those children who, after the age of 2 or 3, wouldn’t share their toys. The last thing you wanted was for your child to be the one the other parents talked about when you weren’t around… (and believe me, they DO talk!)
Unfortunately, sharing does not seem to be natural to human beings—but the earliest humans realized that they would not survive unless they could pool their resources. And small children, when they have proper guidance from the adults who love them, learn this too. They figure out pretty quickly that their time with their friends will be much more pleasant (and last longer!) when they share, than if they are grabby and selfish.
I have difficulty understanding why this concept is so hard for most people to grasp. If you teach your children to share when they are small, why not expect them to keep doing it when they are grown? Why turn greed into a value once they leave preschool?
Voting for progressive politicians and policies is my way of sharing what I have. It is an acknowledgment that the values I taught (and am continuing to teach) my children—the need to share and play well with others—are values worth living by.
Voting the way I do is a way that I live my motherhood outside the boundaries of my own home.
* Doxy’s ending note: I have made the argument elsewhere that one of the reasons I dislike Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is that I believe she did not consider adequately the needs of her family (special-needs newborn and pregnant, teen-aged daughter) when she accepted the nomination—and therefore, I do not trust her to care for my family.
My criticism could certainly be construed as being anti-feminist (as, indeed, some have done). But that assumes that there is only one kind of feminism—and that career and choices in and for the public arena are the only choices a “true” feminist is concerned with.
Obviously, I disagree.
I believe that parents (not just mothers) have an obligation to put their children first, once they have chosen to bring them into the world. Sometimes the direction that such choices will take is not obvious—as those of us who are divorced with children know all too well. Palin may very well have decided that being Vice-President WAS the best way to put her children first. I believe I can disagree—and still hold tightly and proudly to my Outspoken Feminist card.
There are many branches of feminism—liberal feminism being the one that most people mean when they use the word “feminist.” While I am grateful for the hard work that liberal feminists have done, I am not a liberal feminist (though I am liberal and a feminist!). Call me a cultural feminist, if you like—one who believes that the values often attributed to women (nurturing, relational, connected to family and community) are values to be encouraged in the public sphere.
(You can read the “cultural feminism” article at Wikipedia if you like, but I can promise you it was written by a liberal feminist and does not accurately reflect what I’m talking about. One more thing to add to my To Do list…)
Liberal feminism, in my view, basically sought to give women the right to be men (i.e., to give them political and economic power, as well as bodily autonomy), and little else. It has tended to be disdainful of motherhood and family relationships—focusing on ensuring that women have career and political options, rather than on ensuring that society respects the choice of women to be mothers, wives, lovers, and community activists, in addition to being business executives, Congressional representatives, and Supreme Court justices. It takes our cultural standards of success—power over self and others and wealth—which have traditionally been hallmarks of masculinity, and accepts them in toto as the things for which women should strive.
I believe that liberal feminism was absolutely the right place to begin. Changing laws and politics was, and is, necessary—and I am deeply indebted to all of those women who have worked so hard to bring those changes about. But I think changing hearts and minds to value family, children, and a kind, more caring, and less competitive society is the next step.
You see…I want it all. I want open doors for anything that I, or my daughter, can dream and do. I want laws to protect my rights and my autonomy, AND I want a community that supports women and their families.
I want a world I know that I will never live to see this side of the Eschaton—but that does not absolve me of the responsibility of doing my part to create it.I am a Feminist Mother. And I vote.
Friday, October 17, 2008
She was young, Hispanic, and very polite.
As she got close to finishing, she disappeared into the hallway to get some supplies, and all of a sudden, I heard this loud male voice.
He was asking her for directions--and as it became clear that she didn't understand what he was asking, he got louder. And, frankly, abusive.
His last comment? "Jesus Christ! Nobody around here speaks English!" Then he stomped away.
This all happened very quickly--so quickly that, as I was sitting watching this encounter through the open door of my hotel room, I barely had time to make it out from behind the desk and head for the door before he was gone.
But I didn't chase him down the hall. And I wish I had. I wish I had said:
"Did that make you feel like a REAL man? To yell at a young woman who clearly didn't understand what you were asking?"
"Do you realize how hard that woman is working to feed her family? She isn't on the welfare line---she's scrubbing YOUR dirty toilet and picking YOUR dirty underwear up off the floor. She's doing work that fine, upstanding (cough, cough) white Americans like yourself won't touch with a 10-foot pole. Why don't you change places with her for a week and see if you can learn some manners?
"Did YOUR ancestors speak Escamacu or Combahee when they got here? If not, then you need to shut the fuck up."
I am clearly not a nice person to want to say such things---but I'm not a brave one, either...or I would have chased him down the hall.
Jesus wept for both of us today, I'm afraid.
Monday, October 13, 2008
More on voting when I get back. But while I'm away, go and read the Feminarian's take on this subject. Friend speaks for me.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
It’s fashionable right now among the right-wing chattering classes and talking heads to impugn the patriotism of those who disagree with their jingoistic, xenophobic approach to politics. To be honest, I feel the same way about them. I really question whether they truly love this country at all.
Loving your country means more than waving (or wearing) a flag. It even means more than joining the military. I am grateful to those who put their lives on the line in our armed services, but I do not believe that makes them better Americans than the rest of us.
Loving your country means you do your damnedest to protect the ideals on which your country was founded--government by, for, and of the people.
Loving your country means that you don’t allow it to engage in activities that bring it into disrepute, or that undermine its foundational tenets. It means you ask hard questions of those in power and don’t stop until you get solid answers. It means you hold your elected officials responsible for their actions--and you never, ever, EVER give them a blank check with no accountability. (Do you hear that, Congress?)
Loving your country means you participate in the political process. It means you work to ensure free and fair elections. It means you educate your children about their civic responsibilities. It means you don't ever offer an excuse about why you couldn't be bothered to vote.
Loving your country certainly means more than shouting “9/11!” every time someone questions an approach to domestic or international politics…or handing over your civil liberties because some politician tells you that doing so will keep you safe from “Terrorists™.”
Loving your country requires intelligence, courage, skepticism, patience, and perseverance. Waving a flag or slapping a bellicose bumper sticker on your car are piss-poor substitutes for real patriotism. Saying “My country, right or wrong!” or “America: love it or leave it!” makes you an idolater in my book--not a patriot.
I love my country and I have fought for the ideals on which she was founded my entire adult life--as far as I’m concerned, that's the definition of patriotism. I expect better of her than what I've seen for most of the last eight years. Hell, I expect better of her than most of what I've seen since I was born in 1963.
It is no secret that we have rarely lived up to the ideals enshrined in our founding covenants. America deserved better than de jure racial segregation--and people put their lives, and their children’s lives, on the line to get it. We deserved better than sexism written into law--and women and their male allies fought until we changed a lot of it. (Miles to go before we sleep on both issues, but it’s a start…)
We deserved better than Vietnam, and Richard Nixon, and Love Canal. We deserved better than U.S. support for murderous regimes in Latin America and Africa. We deserved more than Iran-Contra and Reagan’s unconscionable silence on HIV/AIDS. We deserved better than Clinton’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the infamous Blue Dress. And we CERTAINLY deserved better than anything we’ve gotten in the last eight years from George W. Bush and his cronies--the “Patriot” Act, Abu Ghraib, the ongoing debacle in Iraq, the current financial crisis, the privileging of bad theology over science in public health…to name just a few.
One of the first things you learn to tell your children when they are old enough to understand is “I don’t always like what you DO, but I love YOU.” That is how I feel about America--and why I vote the way I do.
No matter how many times I am disappointed by my country, I refuse to give up on her. I still believe in America--the America enshrined in those yellowed parchments in the National Archives. That America is worth fighting for, and I’ll fight for her until I draw my last breath.
So I vote for people who share that vision--who believe that what has made America great is not her military might, but her commitment to the ideals of freedom. And I vote for policies that will create that vision…for my children and yours.
I was born on third base. I will not make a liar out of myself by pretending that I hit a triple. I vote for progressive politicians and policies because I’ve been so damned lucky—and I can imagine what life would be like if I hadn’t been.
I have had every opportunity that a woman born into a white, upper-middle class family could have. A loving and supportive family. An excellent education. Financial help--especially in times of crisis in my life. I have not gotten where I am today solely on my own merit--I won the lottery in life. To act as if the playing field is level--or that I somehow "deserve" what I have--would make me the worst kind of liar.
No one can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.* No one. Each of us is called to work on our own behalf, but we do not do so in a vacuum. There is no such thing as a blank slate--you are born into a world that is already set up to work either for or against you, based on the socioeconomic status of your family, the color of your skin, your gender, and your sexual orientation. The only people who deny this are the ones on the positive end of the spectrum.
We all know people who have overcome their backgrounds to succeed in life--and we can admire and respect those individuals. But we cannot pretend that this is the norm. And I believe we must always ask ourselves: Why should we expect anyone to “overcome the odds” of their own lives? Why do we not work to lessen those overwhelming odds for those who face them?
The answer, I believe, lies in our own selfishness and fear.
I spent the past couple of days at the St. Francis Springs Prayer Center in Stoneville, NC. It is a lovely place--conceived, built, and run by a Franciscan monk who saw a great need for a contemplative place where people could meet, pray, and focus on their relationship with God. On the wall outside the office is a plaque that reads: Poverty happens when people stop caring for one another.
I believe that is true. I believe that material poverty happens when we mistakenly believe that we deserve what we have, and cling to it with both fists so that others cannot “take it away from us.”
I believe that spiritual poverty happens in that same moment.
And both material and spiritual poverty are compounded when we build social, legal, and economic structures in such a way to ensure that we maintain our unfair advantages over others. I do not want to live in selfishness, fear, and spiritual poverty. I vote the way I do because I recognize the role that culture and the social structure play in success in life--and I believe we can create structures that open the door wider for everyone, not just for the privileged few. I vote that way because I will not fall into the trap of believing that I have been blessed by God for my “specialness” and that I have no responsibility to help those in my own backyard who were not so blessed.
This does not make me a "guilt-ridden liberal," by the way. It makes me a clear-eyed one, who believes to the depths of my being that every child born in this world should have the right to the same things I had (and have). A supportive family and community. A decent place to live. Food to eat. Health insurance. A good education. Help through the inevitable rough spots of life.
In my earlier post, I mentioned John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. If you don’t know Rawls’ work, I encourage you to check it out. Rawls was a political philosopher who thought deeply about the issue of distributive justice. He asked people to consider how they would build a society from scratch if they could not know in advance what their position in that society would be.
Since I suspect most of my readers are well-educated whites from the middle and upper-middle class, I ask you to do the same. Consider what your life would be like if you had none of the advantages you enjoyed growing up. Think long and hard about what it took for you to succeed—outside of your personal ambition. Good schools? Safe home environment? Medical care? Etc.
Then ask yourself:
- Would I trade places with an African American or a Latino in the current culture?
- Would I trade places with a gay or lesbian person in the current culture?
- Would I willingly put my children in the "worst" public school in my city?
- Would I support the current health care system if I did not have health insurance?
- Would I be satisfied with the current mental health care system if I, or one of my loved ones, had to be treated in it?
- Would I be satisfied with the justice system if I had to enter it without money?
- Would I support our current system of prisons if someone I love had to be incarcerated?
I ask these questions of myself all the time. To you, I will say, that if you answer "No" to any of them, then you need to ask yourself why, and then look long and hard at the kinds of policies you are supporting.
Because if you wouldn't choose to be a minority in this culture, you need to work to create a society where your lot in life doesn't depend on the color of your skin--or whom you happen to love. Because if you wouldn't want your child to attend any school in the system, you shouldn't consign other people's children to substandard education. Because if you wouldn't want to have to go to the emergency room to be treated because you didn't have insurance--or wouldn't want your own child to go without medical treatment for that reason--you shouldn't condemn other people to that status. Etc.
I vote the way I do because I believe Rawls was right---and because I won't condemn people to lives of poverty or misery just to maintain my status on third base.
*Please forgive the poor grammar.
Friday, September 26, 2008
Sunday, September 21, 2008
If you do manage to slog through the whole thing, well...you probably deserve a medal. You surely have my thanks for your patience.
If you leave a challenge in the comments, I probably won't argue with you there, at least until I finish the series. I never finished my series of posts on racism because I got bogged down in the comments---lesson learned. In the course of writing this, I've come to realize that it is important to me to get all the way to the end of it. Call it a spiritual discipline, if you like.
In my last post, I talked about a disturbing encounter I had with a friend who is very conservative. I complained that he wanted me to justify the way I vote to him, but he's never done me the courtesy of explaining why he votes the way he does.
Just as a bit of background---as most of my regular readers know, I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church and attended a school run by that church. As was expected of me by my teachers, I grew up to be a good little conservative. I cast my first vote in a presidential election for Ronald Reagan in 1984.
That all changed because I went to college and was taught to question what I was told and evaluate evidence for myself. I started out as president of the College Republicans at my alma mater, Memphis State University, and ended up pretty much where I remain today---a strongly progressive feminist with deep commitments to social justice and humane economics.
Since my college days, I've spent many years thinking very deeply and seriously about politics. From 1987-1994, I was a doctoral student in political science at Vanderbilt University, and I taught there and at two other universities. Although my specialty was International Relations, I taught just about every political science topic you can think of.
Whatever else I may be, I am not an uninformed consumer of political information.
But my diatribe about my friend got me to thinking---have I ever REALLY articulated to myself, or to others, why I vote the way I do? Other than to say that I think my faith demands it?
So the other day, on my long drive from Dear Friend's back to my house in Raleigh, I started making a mental list. Following is what I came up with.
I don't pretend that any of my arguments are air-tight---but I have arrived at my positions by trying to think deeply and honestly about who I am called to be in this world and what I am called to do, by virtue of both my faith and my humanity. I think about what it would be like to have to look Jesus in the face and answer the question "What did you do for the least of my flock?" I'd like to be able to answer that question honestly and without shame. And, for all the verbiage that follows, that's the reason I do what I do.
I vote the way I do because...
I am a Christian. First and foremost, this is my reason for voting for progressive politicians and policies. Jesus was very clear what our responsibilities on earth are---love God and love one another. Take care of the weakest and most vulnerable, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. (Matthew 25: 31-46) He explicitly says that if you don't do those things, you will be sent away to eternal punishment.
Now you probably all know by now that I don't believe in a literal hell or eternal punishment. But I do believe that Jesus was deadly serious about this issue of caring for others. And the truth is that I, as an individual, do not have the capacity to look after all the vulnerable people in my community. I certainly take it as a duty to do my part---but I consider that part to include supporting progressive social policies that provide a safety net for those who are less fortunate than I am.
(For the political scientists out there, there's also John Rawls' "Theory of Justice" to consider--one day I might need those policies myself! Empathy is a huge reason to vote progressive.)
My Christianity is not some "girly," weak-minded, "why can't we all get along and have a group hug" kind of faith, despite what my friend seems to think. It is no coincidence that my favorite Old Testament character is Jacob, and my favorite story is the one where he wrestles the angel (or could it be God in disguise?) and says "I will not let you go until you bless me!"
That is the story of my faith---an endless wrestling match with God, hard, sweaty, and dangerous. I have been marked by it, as Jacob was. I have been twisted and wrung out and I limp towards God now, one hesitant step at a time. I will never have the certainty that some Christians do---never believe that I know EXACTLY what God wants. The only thing I can do is look to Jesus, author of my salvation, who was very clear about what it takes to do his will.
I have been marked---but I have been blessed, as well. And I will NOT take that blessing only for myself and say "I've got mine. You're on your own." I vote the way I do because I don't see that attitude applauded anywhere in my Bible--and certainly not in the life or words of Jesus of Nazareth.
I believe in a strict separation of church and state. Now, at first glance, this may seem a contradiction to my first statement. It isn't, of course. I don't want government and church mixed because I want my church to be safe from government intrusion, and I don't want the government to have the power to compel me (or anyone else) to believe or worship in a particular way.
In other words...if I wanted to live in a theocracy, I'd move to Iran.
(If you need a Christian reference, just remember what happened to the German churches under National Socialism.)
My Christian values inform my politics, but I don't want to impose them as a condition for citizenship, election to political office, or eligibility for benefits. Given the choice, I'd much rather be governed by our resident self-described atheist, IT, than I would by George W. Bush, who has made a mockery of the "Christianity" he brandishes like a billy club.
I am a Christian who believes we should honor the American social contract by extending help to all those who need it---without religious strings attached. I want my government to provide the social safety net for every American citizen, rather than relying on churches or individuals to do it all.
Churches--and individual acts of charity--are an important part of the safety net, but only secular government can ensure that people are helped regardless of their religion, race, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, etc. No one in this country should go without food, shelter, or medical attention because they don't fit the "right" profile for a religious charity. I believe that allowing such things to happen is an insult to God and a violation of the most basic requirements of us as human beings.
Caring for the "least of these" is not a strictly Christian value---you can find that in almost every religion and philosophy in the world. We can adopt the humanitarian stance embedded in religion without corrupting public policy with religious dogma or corrupting religion with political power.
I believe that confusing religion and politics does violence to all involved--not only legal, social, and economic violence, but spiritual violence as well. That means I don't want my government enforcing religious dogma on people who do not share it. For me, forcing religion on people ranks as one of the most heinous things you can do---it totally corrupts religion in the service of power. It makes a travesty of faith, demoralizes and endangers the one to whom it is done, and demonizes the one who does it.
If you don't believe me, read up on the Christian Crusades---or study the plight of women in Saudi Arabia under Islam.
"That couldn't happen here!" you say? If I hadn't followed conservative evangelical Christian politics, I might agree with you. Having done so, I believe "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." (Wendell Phillips)
I vote the way I do because I don't want the government using religious tenets to deny me the right to use contraceptives or choose an abortion. Those choices have moral dimensions, and my church has every right to declaim on them. Politicians who don't know me or my story have no business doing so.
I don't want the government using religious doctrine to tell me who I can or can't sleep with, or to keep my gay and lesbian friends from getting married.
I don't want the government involved in teaching religion in schools or in mandating that my child's science teacher teach creationism or "intelligent design" in his public school SCIENCE classroom. I don't want government supporting adult-led public prayer in public schools, either. I will teach my children theology at home and at church, thanks very much--I don't need or want the government's help in that department.
We live in a plural society, thank God. That diversity of opinion and belief is what keeps us safe from the theocrats who would impose their tiny view of God on others, and start lighting the bonfires for the heretics among us. Tinkering with the Constitution and trying to play favorites with any particular religion is playing with those fires---and we all know that, when you start playing with fire, you are going to get burned.
Jesus was pretty clear that government and religion were two separate things. In answer to a pointed question tempting him to make political statements, he said "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." (Matthew 22:15-22) This is one of the few issues that will ever cause me to say "If it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me."
I'll always vote my Christian values, but I'll do it in a way that keeps religion and politics as separate as possible.
There will be more to follow. Lots more.