A Matthew Christmas

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Christmas

The Christmas Eve homily stressed the need for an adult Christmas narrative. There is the children’s narrative with angels and shepherds and wise men we patch together from the theoretically-inconsistent stories in Luke and Matthew and set up in our Nativity scene. And, the pastor stressed, there is a place for that narrative. But there is also a time and place for reading each narrative as it was written and understanding the meaning of the narrative to the people who wrote it and used it in worship.  In the Matthew narrative, all the main characters fear for their lives, a deranged king who fears a usurper orders the slaughter of babies, and the Holy Family are refugees fleeing into Egypt. This year the Matthew narrative seems apt. Anyone who is paying attention to the climate news and the political news and the economic news is afraid. Anyone who is paying attention knows that there is tremendous suffering going on in the world right now.

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Nicolas Poussin, Massacre of the Innocents, artable.com

Here and now, when the nights in our hemisphere are long and the news is bad, we light a candle in the darkness and contemplate the hope that we will survive and that something new is yet now being born that will bring light to the world.

Religious Observance Policy Limitations

My campus’s religious observance policy is pretty good, although vague around the edges. First, we are urged to avoid scheduling mandatory exercises on days when “significant numbers of student would be impacted.” In practice, this means try to avoid Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana; the updated version of the policy also mentions Eid al-Adha although, candidly even avoidance of Jewish holidays for exams is hit or miss and there is very little public attention to Eid on this campus.

Second, and this is the part I want to both praise and comment on, we are to provide a non-punitive alternative for any student who says they have a religious conflict with a particular date. There are reasonable constraints on this: the student has to tell the instructor the relevant date(s) within the first three weeks of class (not the night before an exam), and there can be “reasonable limits” on the total number of days requested. The policy explicitly says that “students’ sincerely held religious beliefs shall be reasonably accommodated with respect to scheduling all examinations and other academic requirements” and that “A student’s claim of religious conflict, which may include travel time, should be accepted at face value” because “there is no practical, dignified, and legal means to assess the validity of individual claims.”  Pretty good.

So where are the problems? Continue reading “Religious Observance Policy Limitations”

form and content, protest and repression

Warning: this essay is partly a personal religious reflection although it also contains significant sociological content. In it I reflect on a sermon calling protest a spiritual exercise and a meeting about training Black young people to avoid challenging or talking to police and the significance of the juxtaposition of these two events.

The Madison protests reconvened this weekend without me. A friend estimates 20,000 at Saturday’s rally featuring Michael Moore – a large crowd by any normal standard, although a decline from last weekend’s high of somewhere between 70,000 and 120,000 (depending on whose estimate you believe). Today the pro-Walker and anti-Walker protests were said to be a few hundred each. The real action is out state, with recall efforts and other attempts to “flip” Republican Senators, as well as the escalating pressures on the Democrats in Illinois – their pay is frozen and they are being fined $100 a day, among other attempts to force their return without any concessions. Walker’s refusal to negotiate on any point is both alienating the state’s moderates and raising his cachet in national right-wing circles.

There was a guest sermon at church today – the pastor’s brother, a Mennonite activist from Pennsylvania who spoke on engagement as a spiritual practice, the idea that instead of separating the spiritual from the world, you should be spiritual in the world. The scripture was Isaiah 58:3-7 :

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.  Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

You find God when you are working for justice and helping the poor and oppressed. His own current political agenda is the movement against gun violence, which is trying to target merchants whose businesses are major sources of the guns that end up being used in urban crimes. The sermon was full of positive comments about the Wisconsin protest and how God is on our side as we challenge authority and work for the poor and oppressed. He wore a “We are Wisconsin . . . And we are winning” t-shirt. During joys and concerns, one congregant stood up to give thanks for her son, who’d been one of the protesters sleeping inside the capitol and then outside in the snow and rain – everyone clapped. If you think Walker’s budget cuts are good or that public employee unions are bad, you’d feel very uncomfortable in that congregation right now. We have a taken for granted assumption that we are all on the same side in this. I couldn’t help but remind myself that activists whose foundation is religious are often on the “other” side, supporting issues I really oppose, and the ways in which their communities surround them with people who don’t challenge their assumptions.

Don’t get me wrong. I think I’m right and the people around me are right. I truly and sincerely believe what I believe. And I truly do believe that we are doing the work of God when we work for justice. But so do the people on the “other side” of issues I care about think that God is on their side. I can’t help but note that God mostly tells people to do the things that a whole system of socialization and experience has taught us are the right things to do. It really isn’t enough just to engage, it matters what you are engaged about, what “side” you are on, and how you go about your engagement. Content matters, not just form. I’m struck every Sunday about how the hymns we sing, the messages we hear, the content of our joys and concerns all reinforce one set of understandings about what Christianity is “really about,” while other people’s churches emphasize other messages from the same core texts.

Or, backing away from religion to the broader context of protest and rebellion – it isn’t enough just that people protest. It matters what they are protesting about, what their goals are. The same vessel of protest carries both the tea party protests and this current mobilization. If you oppose the mobilization, you’d stress that the energy of the effort is union members organizing to defend unions – and you’d be right. It is primarily a mobilization of people through their well-organized channels for the purpose of maintaining the right to have those channels. It’s a defensive mobilization. Can we, should we bring the same concepts to bear on protests we like and those we don’t like?

The way protest and activism are being lifted up, and the comfort we all have with protest, brought me back into reflection about my other weekend activity. I spent Saturday morning at a training session for religious people to work on issues of racial disparity in criminal justice, part of an effort to found a local Gamaliel Foundation group. (I’m an attendee, not an organizer.) There were two choices. One group went off to learn about how to observe court sessions, to be a witness holding the system accountable.

I stayed for the presentation on how young people are being taught to avoid escalating encounters with police. The speaker is the former gang member and drug dealer I mentioned in a previous post. One component of the plan is small cards (the size of business cards) advising young people how to behave when stopped by police. The card contains a (small) color graphic of a tall white person in a police uniform facing a shorter black person. It says (in rather small print, obviously):

“Along the continuum of decision points in the juvenile justice system from initial law enforcement contact through disposition and beyond, the decision to arrest is the first and arguably the most powerful indicator of future impact on minority youth, their families and affected communities. Upon initial contact with law enforcement respectfully provide your name, name and phone number of your parent/guardian and clearly state that you wish to remain silent until your parent/guardian is present.”

The young people are urged to give their true name (to give a false name is obstruction of justice, a felony) and then to shut up. In trying to explain or defend themselves, young people often provide police with the basis for criminal charges. The idea is for the young people to carry the cards on them so they can hand them to the police if they are stopped – the hope is that the police will recognize that the young people have been told to do this and thus, hopefully defuse police anger at the young people for refusing to talk. I’m wondering if youth are also taught breathing exercises or other techniques to calm their anger and frustration when stopped unfairly. Survival here means NOT protesting, not rebelling, not standing up to power. The “protest” is to resist becoming a crime statistic. The adult trainer is very clear that sometimes the young people have done something wrong, but they will make the situation worse if they talk to the police and confess. It is also important for young people to understand who police are and that talking back to police is very different from talking back to other adults. Another card tells them that Educational Resource Officers in schools are real police officers and they must not talk to them without their parents present.

So young Black people need to be taught not to challenge authority as a survival strategy, just as they were taught in the South before 1960. It is a necessary lesson if these kids are going to make it out of adolescence with their hopes intact, but I reflect again (as I have so often before at these kinds of meetings) just how much self-control African Americans need to be able to get through the day in a racially-stratified society. How bad White kids are allowed to be and to get away with it, and how little tolerance Black kids are offered for misbehavior. And I cannot help but reflect that all this energy devoted to avoiding confrontation with police and avoiding arrest limits the capacity for Black protest mobilization.

And it is not just children. As I mentioned before and confirmed in further conversations, one of the Black parolees who was supposed to be speaking at these events has been picked up on a parole hold each time he asks his agent for permission to go to an event addressing issues of racial disparity in criminal justice And “driving while Black” stops – endemic in this community, as elsewhere, constantly force Black adults to endure disruptions to their plans and the self-control to remain calm in the face of unwarranted surveillance: Where are you going? Where are you coming from?  Why are you here on this street at this time? Account for yourself. Do you have any drugs or weapons?

I need not to over-do this, I need to put it in context. Black people are agents, and there are lots of Black folks challenging political structures as well as trying to protect young people and provide help to those damaged by our system. As I have mentioned before, there is constant attempt by Black adults to create a sense of personal and political efficacy among young Black people. In fact, the speaker in our group came with his wife (who is also his business manager) and his small children. He said he makes a point of bringing his small children to meetings because he wants them to see him doing his work. Another Black attendee also brought a small child. People are working hard to train up their children for active, engaged citizenship.

But still, the contrast is looming. Tea partier or unionist – the carriers of protest in the past few years in this country have been overwhelmingly White. Look around at who feels entitled to protest. Look at who feels safe enough to turn out into the streets in large numbers. And then look around to see whose voices are missing from the public assembly. Look around for who teaches their children they are entitled to speak up, and who has to teach their children how to survive repression by keeping quiet when confronted with police.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? “

Parenting

I was reflecting even before church about some of the hard things parents have had to do, and then the minister brought up one of them in a wonderful Easter sermon. Here are the things I was thinking about: (1) The parents who paid for and accompanied their adult child overseas to get sex change surgery and have been supportive even as they have had to work through their own confusion and grief over the loss of the son they once had and their fears about their new daughter’s quite serious other health problems. (2) The father whose son murdered his daughter, who has stayed connected with his imprisoned son even as he lives in the depths of grief and anger about the loss of his daughter and the enormity of his son’s crime, and others’ anger at him for staying connected with his son. (This father is the minister’s brother-in-law.) (3) The parents whose son died in an automobile crash this year, who have had the courage to embrace the depths of their sorrow and to go on living without him. (4) The parents who are respecting an adult child’s wish to have no contact with them, even as it breaks their hearts and they don’t know what is wrong.

My reflections were triggered by a conversation the other day that began with people complaining about their parents. These conversations take a new twist when you have been a parent. As I’ve often said, it was parenthood that forced me to confront my own deep imperfection. From parenthood I also learned about the clutching fear when a child has an ailment that has no cure, and about the pain of realizing you have hurt someone you love and are charged with nurturing. Grief is part of parenting even if we have the good fortune to avoid tragedy. We grieve the baby who is gone forever, and then the young child, and then the teen. This grief is an essential part of parenting – if we cannot let the baby go, the child go, the adolescent go, we hinder her growth to healthy adulthood. Sometimes we are called to love our child when he has taken a path that seems wrong to us. Sometimes we grow to understand that the path was “right for her,” and sometimes we have to stand by and love a child who has done something irredeemably wrong, not making excuses, but being together in the pain and the shame. And yet, amid the inevitable sorrow and fear, there is great joy and meaning in being connected with one’s offspring, with watching the unfolding of a new person, and with feeling your own growth in the process.

Easter is the day when Christians celebrate life arising from political persecution and death. Non-Christians draw similar religious or secular lessons from other stories. And we all learn from nature, from spring emerging from winter and the brutal realities of biological life.  John (12:24-25) links them: “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” (Edit: The translation is Eugene Peterson’s The Message.)

The Bible and Current Events

Bible Study night. Sometimes the Bible seems pretty apt to current events.  From Jeremiah 5:21-31.

21Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears, but do not hear. 22Do you not fear me? says the Lord; Do you not tremble before me? I placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail, though they roar, they cannot pass over it. 23But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart; they have turned aside and gone away. 24They do not say in their hearts, “Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives the rain in its season, the autumn rain and the spring rain, and keeps for us the weeks appointed for the harvest.”

25Your iniquities have turned these away, and your sins have deprived you of good. 26For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others. Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings. 27Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, 28they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. 29Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this? 30An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: 31the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule as the prophets direct; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?

The OT is pretty clear that the major sin to worry about is oppressing the poor.

Sociology and Spirituality

From Jay MacLeod Ain’t No Makin’ It, third edition, p 504 (the last paragraph of the methodological appendix):

When I visited Chris in prison and he asked me about my faith, I suggested that spirituality can arrest our inertial drift into self-deception.  My faith in a forgiving god allows me to face up to the truth about myself and to deal constructively with my sin.  The United States is even more prone to self-deception than I am.  We are in the grip of denial and resistance to the reality of our social sin, and sociology can help the world work through its ignorance of itself.  Spirituality and sociology have parallel vocations. Spirituality reveals the truth about ourselves. Sociology reveals the truth about our society. Both spur us to struggle for justice, for in the end my redemption is linked to yours.

This resonates for me.

Bibliographic note: MacLeod wrote what became the first edition of Ain’t No Makin’ It as an undergraduate thesis; he went on to be a community organizer and then an Anglican priest.  In case you don’t know the book, the first edition was based on observation and interviews with poor White and Black boys in 1983, the second edition caught up with how they were doing in 1991, and the third edition finds them in 2007.    The popular hook in the first edition was that the “Hallway Hangers” whose lives centered on substance abuse and crime were mostly White, while the “Brothers” who avoided misbehavior and tried hard in school were mostly Black, so the discussion of the impact of class and structural constraints ran against some of the usual grains. The “where are they now” follow ups pull this book apart from most in the genre.  It would be a good book to teach from. Probably the most useful policy implication is MacLeod’s argument that poor youths — and adults — should know the structural constraints they are up against if they are to avoid self-blame, despair, and self-destructive behavior.

Update:  Here is the publisher’s page for the book.  Most of the “hits” for this title in Google are to term paper vendors. Watch out.

sunday school

By request, if not popular request. This post is about an amusing experience in teaching Sunday School from inside a liberal Christian point of view. If you don’t share that point of view you may find it upsetting or just weird.

First, a little context. I agreed to help teach a Bible curriculum to children 2nd through 6th grade. The pastor’s agenda was to get the children familiar with the general layout and organization of the Bible. The curriculum mostly focuses on games identifying the order of the books, and looking up words to fill in the blanks of worksheets. My own additional agenda is to give them tastes of the actual content of the Bible.

It is Pentecost and curriculum lesson uses the first part of Acts 2, the coming of the Holy Spirit. It seems logical to me to lead up to this with what comes before. I begin by saying, “In the past few weeks, we’ve been studying the Gospels. How do they end?” The children think I’m asking a books of the Bible question and list the Gospels. I say, “No, I mean, what happens at the end?” After some confusion, one child says, “Jesus gets killed.” The children start discussing how he was killed, they are not sure. Continue reading “sunday school”