Surviving Home

Surviving Home

Through the years, as I’ve listened to various friends talk about growing up in abusive homes, often with alcoholics or addicts, I’ve heard several themes emerge.

As young children, these folks adapted to their environments with hyper-vigilance. They observed every nuance of home life and walked painstakingly on eggshells, always bracing for the slightest crack that would set their parent off. In a context where they were supposed to feel safe and nurtured, they were instead defensive and guarded. Survival skills.

They paid attention to every detail, internally charting patterns of response. Avoiding every known trigger of violence.

The thing is, you could never know them all.

No matter how diligently they watched the signs, how quietly they whispered, how carefully they tiptoed around the landmines, there was always something they didn’t see. The explosions still happened.

No home is perfect, but the childhood security that many of us took for granted was never theirs.

As I’ve listened to various black friends talk about their lives in America, it sounds remarkably similar.

Somewhere along the way, they learned to adapt to white America with hyper-vigilance. They observe every nuance of white behavior and walk painstakingly on eggshells, always bracing for the slightest crack that will set us off. In a context where they should feel free to go about the business of their lives in peace, they are instead defensive and guarded. Survival skills.

It doesn’t matter much that I, a white woman, would never call the police because a black teen is hanging out across the street and I don’t think they belong there. They never know what white person will make that call. It doesn’t matter much that my friend who is a police officer works hard to understand the community, counter his implicit bias, and deescalate confrontations. They never know what police officer will pull their gun. Will shoot. Each white person is a mood, a moment, of the whole, and how can you trust the kindness when you never know when the blows will come? And the blows never fail to come. The system ensures it if the individuals don’t.

Like those children in abusive homes who learned to observe their parents closely in order to survive, these black friends know us (white America) and the systems we have built in ways better than we know ourselves. They’ve had to see what we haven’t – their survival depends on it. Ours doesn’t.

Theirs shouldn’t have to.

And like too many abusive relationships, there is no satisfying white America. “If only you wouldn’t misbehave, then we could hear your message as valid!” “But you’re doing so well! What could possibly be wrong?!?!? Don’t be ridiculous!” “It’s all in your head.” “Take responsibility for yourselves!”

A riot is the self-defense of the systemically and systematically abused. The breaking open of those who have been told in so many ways again and again that what they experience is not real, not oppressive, not killing them.

With every police shooting of a black man who is running away, every report of a white person calling in someone who looks “suspicious,” my respect for black Americans grows alongside my grief. The patience they give that we do not deserve. The strength that endures in the face of our ignorance and denial.

We have a lot to learn from people who are under no obligation to teach us.

But first we have to be willing to see ourselves, not as we want to be, but as we are.

Kids in abusive contexts respond in different ways – some hide, some escape, some try to please, some fight back. All ways to try to survive until your old enough to get out (which doesn’t mean you’ll ever stop trying to survive and using the same ways to do it).

Black Americans don’t have that kind of hope. The hope they can have is a hope that things can and will change, and that they can survive until they do.

May God help them. May God help us all.

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Civility and Non-Violence

Civility and Non-Violence

Civility and non-violence.

They’re not the same thing.

There’s been quite a lot of discussion in the past few weeks about “civility.” In the midst of extreme political differences and polarizing public policy, calls for “civility” have rung out from both ends of the spectrum.

How to engage polarizing discussions is something I’ve been thinking a lot about for the past couple of years – well before Trump’s election. My faith has led me to such different convictions than my family and many friends (themselves people of deep faith and convictions) that I’ve had to wrestle with it.

With some, it’s easier. They may not be where I am, but they wrestle with many of the same questions and can at least accept the possibility that the conclusions I’ve come to might be reasonable or valid. For others, the directions I’ve moved directly contradict some of their most foundational paradigms, and their convictions obligate them to defend what they believe to be true. It can create deeply painful interactions.

I want to stay connected and engaged with them, but it’s hard. I’ve learned to discern how to interact based on the relationship – close family are different from close friends who are different from colleagues and acquaintances. And since most of our interactions are on social media, there can be a mix of friends and strangers in any given conversation. It’s complicated.

About a year ago, in a difficult exchange with a member of my extended family, something clicked for me. I remembered the movie, Selma. When King and the leaders of the movement were planning their march for voting rights, they chose Selma, Alabama because they knew the sheriff there was likely to respond violently. They knew that, however peaceful, they were going to be provocative, and they knew they were going to have to prepare if they were going to respond non-violently.

That’s not easy work. Non-violent protest. Non-violent resistance.

It requires knowing yourself, learning deep self-control and even a different way of seeing. It requires deep confidence – in both who you are and what you are standing up for. It requires the humility and faith to endure unmerited suffering, and trust that it can be redemptive.

It requires something very different from civility.

Civility, in the way we use it, means politeness and courtesy. That’s about social deference, both to individuals and within societal norms. Civility doesn’t work when what you are doing is refusing to defer.

Non-violence does, though.

With non-violence we can refuse to defer, refuse to back down, refuse to go away or be quiet, refuse to be convenient or cooperative, even to the point of persecution or abuse.

Civility itself doesn’t stand for anything. It doesn’t even stand for the dignity and value of every human life – great evil has been done with great politeness and courtesy.

Civility doesn’t stand for anything but keeping the rules, spoken and unspoken. And if what needs to change, what needs to be resisted and protested, are those very rules, civility is impotent. Worse, it can be complicit.

Reformation offends the rules. That’s its point. It can’t be done without deconstruction (and sometimes destruction), but it can be done non-violently.

And that’s hard work – hard work to do, and hard work to figure out how to do and prepare for.

Next week at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC, I’m excited to be on a panel with Brian McLaren, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, and Xavier Ramey about what it looks like to do that work. The session is called Taking to the Social Streets: Non-Violent Engagement on Social Media, and I’m looking forward from learning with these amazing human beings and everyone who joins us for the discussion. We’d love to have you be part of that conversation – Saturday at 2:00 in the Greater Things Tent.

The roots of the word “civility” are in something much deeper than courtesy and politeness. The Latin civilas means ‘relating to citizens.’ It’s about citizenship, and citizenship is about where the power and privilege in a society lies. Citizenship is at the heart of what divides us today – the legal technicalities of citizenship, yes, but also the full privileges of citizenship – both formal and informal. We disagree on who should have that standing, and we disagree on what it means to be a good citizen of America. In this deeper sense of ‘civility,’ it is about what constitutes civility itself that we disagree.

Those who seek to challenge us to live up to the highest of American ideals are actually the most truly civil – even, especially, when their tactics break the social rules of politeness and courtesy. When they make us uncomfortable with our failure and with our denial of that failure.

A man sitting at a lunch counter where he is neither wanted nor allowed is impolite, but he is civil.

Marchers taking up space on a sidewalk or street are discourteous, but they are civil.

A person naming the realities of systemic racism is not polite, but they are civil.

Servers refusing to wait on a customer who has publicly dismissed and demeaned them are discourteous, but they are civil.

Protestors chanting their protest in front of a public official who defends morally repugnant policy are not polite, but they are civil.

But that’s not the kind of “civility” so many people are calling for. They want the politeness and courtesy that keeps them from feeling too uncomfortable – that keeps issues safely in the abstract and theoretical and doesn’t push too hard for costly change. Or they want the façade that politeness and courtesy can give to anger and pain and suffering and oppression.

That civility is killing us. May we find the non-violent response that will help us truly live.

The Power of Pride

The Power of Pride

Pride means different things to different people.

To some it means a colorful festival of diversity, love, and self-acceptance.

To others, it means a celebration of white, cis-gender male gayness that doesn’t feel welcoming to them.

To some, it means a protest against societal norms that have rejected them.

To others, it means a hedonistic display of debauchery.

Like a lot of things, it’s simple and complicated at the same time.

When I was growing up, long before I knew about capital-P Pride, I learned that “pride is the root of all evil.” At its simplest, this understanding of pride is about the centering of self, the elevating of oneself above others. At its healthiest, a warning against pride is a call to self-awareness, humility, and generosity of spirit.

But too often we get that kind of pride and humility mixed up with things like self-respect and shame.

It’s easy for those of us who have felt accepted and affirmed throughout our lives by family, friends, church, and society to miss the struggles of those who are different. We read our own experiences onto their lives and turn empathy inside out, blind to the very different world they’ve had to navigate. It can be hard to imagine that what is inherent and obvious to us isn’t the same for everyone else.

It’s not.

More people than we imagine have lived their lives absorbing a message that they are less. That who they are is inherently flawed, deficient, or unwanted. Sometimes that’s a message we’re told right out, and sometimes it comes indirectly, through silence and a series of persistent no’s. Some of the most painful of those messages come from family and church, which both give us our most basic understanding of how God sees us. When those messages are drenched in shame, it effects everything.

It’s hard to know how to love others if you don’t know how to love yourself.

That’s when pride is something different: the denouncing of shame. The refusal to hide – to just sit down and shut up. The elevation of oneself to the level of others. The adamant love and respect of oneself and others.

That is a pride worth embracing and celebrating! It’s a pride that brings life rather than poisoning it, that makes love grow rather than stifling it. That raises up the lowly and downcast. That proclaims good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.

I refuse to be ashamed of the people I love, or who they love. I refuse to be ashamed of the good news that Jesus isn’t ashamed of them either. I refuse to be ashamed of any shade of the human race or color of the rainbow.

There’s power in that refusal – the power of pride.

Astray

Astray

I recently spent some time with an old friend who has come to believe that God blesses same-sex relationships. They are navigating what that means for their work and ministry in evangelicalism, and that’s not an easy path. I know that all too well.

Shortly after I became publically outspoken in my own advocacy for LGBTQ+ folk, I was challenged by a close family member. “I have to hold you accountable to the truth,” they said. “You are endangering not only your own life, but also the lives of others.” It wasn’t a novel thought. It’s something I was taught in church from a young age: we are to some degree responsible for the choices of those around us.

It’s why we had “accountability groups” and mentors at church. In some cases, it was a big part of the reason we had church. And like many parts of religion, it got something wrong and something right at the same time.

The something right? “No man is an island.” Our lives and choices affect those around us. And we can be blind to our own issues. It’s wise to be in community and to open our lives up to trusted friends.

The something wrong? We tended to create a culture in which we treat each other more like children of the communal parent than adults. Our individual identities can be surrendered to a group identity that cannot be questioned, and our well-being can become dependent on the lives and choices of others. We can see ourselves as having something not unlike a parental responsibility for others.

Many people have influenced me throughout my life, from my parents and other family members to pastors, teachers, authors, and friends. For most of my life that was primarily fundamentalists, and they gave me foundations and tools that are still a valuable part of my life today. Increasingly, I’ve learned from folks outside fundamentalism, people who invited me to listen and think and learn. And no matter how much I cannot imagine being where I am today without them, they are not responsible for the choices I have made.

For all they have given me, I’m the one who had to choose what to keep and what to leave, and what to build with what I’ve received.

In the years since my own convictions about gender, sexuality, and marriage shifted, I’ve had several friends make a similar journey. Some of them have had a front row seat to my own life. My story has become a part of their journey, and that has never failed to bring those words about accountability and responsibility to my mind.

If anything good in my life has influenced others, I’m humbled and grateful, but I honor the choices we each have to make for ourselves. One person’s faithfulness does not always look like another’s. If everyone’s story looked like mine, something would be very wrong.

The responsibility we have in community is to share our lives and at the same time give each other the freedom to live our own unique stories. It’s not unlike being adults functioning well in a family together. We can be invested in each other’s lives without needing those lives to look a certain way. That’s not always easy – when you see someone you love making decisions you are convinced are wrong, you want to stop them. Maybe you’re right (we tend to think we are), or maybe not, but your life is not my story to write even if you choose to share it with me.

Love is not control or manipulation or relational blackmail. Love looks more like Jesus than that.

There are people who love me who are desperately convinced I have gone astray. In a sense, they’re right – I have certainly “strayed” from the particular path they are sure of. But I hope I’ve strayed in the steps of Jesus and only closer to the love of God. And the love of God has many paths, and the footsteps of Jesus venture into all kinds of unlikely places.

Losing Sight

Losing Sight

It’s so easy to lose sight of each other. To see only what we expect or want to see instead of what’s really there. To see one particular sliver of someone and stop looking for anything else.

We do it without even noticing – that’s the problem. We don’t notice what we’re not noticing.

It doesn’t matter enough to us. We do fine with what we do see, it’s sufficient to get us through the day and so we become okay with erasing each other. With caricatures that hide people.

It’s the other way we use masks – not just to hide or protect ourselves, but passing them around to those we encounter, hiding the real people and simplifying the world for ourselves.

The professor. The black man. The boss. The uniform. The head scarf. The pretty face. The old woman. The clerk. The suit.

I see them every day. But I don’t see them. I only see the idea, the caricature I’ve been content to see. And they are more.

They are each a person with a life as full and complicated and delightful and tragic and messy and absurd as mine.

But I can’t handle that.

I’m too caught up in the full and complicated and delightful and tragic and messy and absurd life that is mine, and I don’t have room for them.

Except…

I get tired of going around in the circles of my own life. I keep at it like it’s my job, my obligation. And in at least one sense, it is. But it’s only my job in so much as I can get enough of a hold on my own life to yank it out of the way. To be able to look beyond myself and really see everyone else as so much more than a supporting cast of character roles in my life, my story.

Because the truth is I don’t have a story, not one that is just mine, at least.

We have a story. A full and complicated and delightful and tragic and absurd story that we all make together. Turning each other into villains and heroes (usually turning ourselves into the heroes) as we try to make it smaller and more manageable and easier to tell ourselves as we fall asleep each night.

But that story is a lie, or at least as much lie as the truth. Because the story is always bigger and messier and more delightful and tragic and absurd than we are ready for.

So tell me your version, please. And maybe – hopefully – it will help break me out of mine and shape it and change it beyond what I know. Maybe we can figure out how to tell a bigger story together so we can stop losing sight of each other.

Dancing Reality In

Dancing Reality In

It’s so easy to walk around reality like it’s full of things, like I am an object in a universe of objects. Bouncing off some, rearranging others. Things change – flowers bloom, the trees turn green and then the leaves turn and are gone, I change my mind – but things change. That’s how I think of it.

I’m learning it’s closer to reality to say things are change.

Physicist Carlo Rovelli says the world consists not so much of things, like stones, as of happenings, like kisses. (He has a marvelous interview at On Being.) By high school I’d learned that matter mostly consists of space, no matter how solid it may seem. And reality continues to astound me – there is a sense in which electrons only exist when they interact.

I remember first encountering physics in the “children’s” fiction of Madeleine L’Engle. Later, my college English Lit professor started class with a devotion on chaos theory. Physics has always felt a lot like spirituality to me. And maybe that’s exactly what it is.

I’m not a spirit with a body; I am both body and spirit. Both are me.

And I am at every moment a happening. A laugh, a meeting, a passion, an argument, a grief, a conversation, a dance, a race, a rest, a longing, a kiss.

So are you.

And I confess I don’t always see you that way. I spent too long in books, and it’s too easy for me to see you as a character, already written and bound by what is there.

It’s too easy to see everything as an unfolding story, pushed ahead by what’s already been told.

But the story starts today. Every day. The story is what we make it as we happen to the world. As the world happens to us. As we happen to each other.

And we happen to each other a lot, for good and for ill. For blessing and for cursing. For life and for death.

That’s what reality is.

I’m sorry when I forget, when I start trying to write your story, or think I know how it ends. I don’t.

I hope I can keep hoping, though, for the good endings. I hope we can collaborate – I think we do, even when we’re trying to ignore each other. But I’d like to do it with joy, and with gratitude.

I’d like you and I to dance our way into reality.

Where’s Sunday?

Where’s Sunday?

The symbols and rituals of Holy Week and Easter have not resonated with me this year the way they used to.

Easter has always been my favorite holiday, ever since I was a little girl perched up on a tombstone in the church graveyard for the Sunrise Service and playing in the mountain cemetery where my father was buried under the shadow of three crosses.

Easter always meant something to me, but it became much more of the celebration I felt it should be when I encountered the Anglican liturgy and traditions of Holy Week. Growing up Baptist, we’d tended to squeeze the cross and resurrection into one service on Easter morning, but once I had the opportunity to walk the journey of Jesus through the week of services designed to do just that, it all became even more deeply meaningful to me.

Part of me misses that, because now they don’t resonate the way they used to. But it’s not because I’m numb to them. It’s that other things – things that are part of life today – resonate more vividly now.

Instead of swords in a garden at night, what resonates now is shots in a grandmother’s backyard.

Instead of the betrayal of a kiss, it’s the legal fiction of equality.

Instead of Pilate washing his hands rather than defy the religious authorities, it’s refusals to prosecute and jury acquittals.

Instead of a cross to terrorize all who would defy the status quo power of empire, now it’s a gun.

There is one ritual – one symbol – that still hits me like a punch in the gut: the stripping and washing of the altar at the close of the Maundy Thursday service.

It’s always felt out of place to me at that point in the week, rather than at the close of the Good Friday service. It so vividly evokes the stripping and washing of Christ’s body. The Pietà. A mother holding the body of her murdered child. Washing the body of her child who should not be dead.

That still resonates. Too many mothers. Too many dead children.

Where’s Sunday?

We’ve put resurrection off for them, left the putting right to a final judgement after this life. But even if that’s what’s out there in the great beyond, it shouldn’t be the answer for today, for here. It doesn’t let us off the hook for all we refuse to see and acknowledge, much less put right.

We’ve turned the “first fruits” of resurrection life into an abstract future, discontinuous from this world, that we aren’t responsible for making with the lives we’ve been given.

I suspect that’s why I’m having trouble connecting with most of the symbols and rituals of Holy Week. Life has disrupted my ability to feel the abstract as deeply, to project the story of Jesus over our heads and into a future that’s out of our hands.

In our hands is exactly where God has entrusted the future, God help us.

God’s intervening through us, or He’s not, because we’re too invested in the status quo to cooperate. God’s making all things new through us, or He’s not, because we don’t like what we don’t know. God has “so much more to say” to us, but He’s not, because we’re convinced He gave us everything He had nearly 2000 years ago.

Where’s Sunday? I’m pretty sure we’ve buried it somewhere where it won’t cause any trouble.

I say, let’s go digging. What have we got to lose?