Tag Archives: social justice

Good Times, Bad Times

So, are humans a disease to this planet or demigods of power, possessing nearly unlimited strength and resilience?

Am I the only person wondering if the human race has long outlived the patience of any divine being?

2018 is weird, man.

*****

I was raised in conservative Fundamentalism, a sliver of Christianity that’s thankfully grown much smaller since the 20th century.  A lot of people like to define Fundamentalism by its strict code of rules, a feature which drew sharp lines around my desires, behavior, and dreams as a kid. But I think Fundamentalism is better defined by its warped understanding of sin and Grace. Perhaps those both arise out of a core misunderstanding of God, one that shaped my view of the universe well into my mid-20s.

The Fundamentalist God is a jerk, honestly.  As a child I envisioned God as a lot like my dad: a good person at heart, but easy to make angry, and dangerous when he was mad.  I knew God hauled around the cosmic baseball bat of Consequences™ that we always heard about in sermons, how “be sure your sin will find you out,” and how maybe God could be bargained with if you showed you were serious about abandoning sin for the straight and narrow.  “Hey, God, if I promise to never do this again, could you maybe not let my cat get killed this summer?”

An abusive Father who accepts bargains. That’s the Fundamentalist God, no matter how much pastors talked about “grace” in sermons.

One of my friends in graduate school came to me sobbing one evening to confess that he’d cheated off my quizzes throughout undergrad. He was terrified that his girlfriend wasn’t going to marry him – she’d said as much –  and as part of his holy dealmaking, he was coming clean and confessing his sins so God might bless him and not take away his chance at being a husband.  (They eventually got married. I don’t know if he even remembers doing this.)  I’m glad he got his cheating off his chest, but even at the time, I was taken back by the blatant economics of the whole situation.

What’s odd to me about Fundamentalism is how badly it misunderstood sin. I guess it makes sense for a movement founded on a concept of purity to redefine sin as both a horrific impulse that defines humanity at its core, AND an external influence that can and should be avoided at all costs.  I’ve written about this before, here and here and especially here, so read up if you’re unfamiliar with those thoughts.

The critical point is this: properly understood within Protestant theology, sin is an internal impulse, a flaw in the human system, like someone beat a steel rod into a 90 degree angle and then tried to straighten in out again.  The Hebrew words for ‘sin’ are fascinating: words like “pollution” and “twist” and “guilt.”

We humans are bent at the core, and we can’t unbend ourselves well enough to work out the kinks. The entire Story of Redemption expands from here.  God the Father sacrificed God the Son, who lived a perfect human life free of sin and its pollution and twistedness, so that we can be given – as a free gift – the right-ness we humans do not possess since the Fall.

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I’ve come to doubt nearly everything Creationist that I was taught, mostly because astronomy and evolutionary biology have mountains of evidence on their side, coupled with my long study of how literature works (and Hebrew itself). I mean, we went to the Field Museum in Chicago last summer and I saw — no lie – half a dozen fossils that could easily be the “missing links” that Answers in Genesis people mock. When the evidence is staring you in the face, it’s hard not to realize that literally 24-hour, 6 day creationists are doing argumentative backflips to maintain a highly literalist interpretation of 3 chapters of the Bible, mostly because they’ve also built a theological house of cards that uses literal creationism as a keystone to the entire house of literalist evangelical bullet points. Pull out the keystone and their structure collapses.  (Not that Christianity itself collapses. Evangelicalism is a mere blip within a two-thousand year history of the Church. Thank God.)

http://www.instagram.com/p/BU7edPQg8Hr/

 

That aside, and truly that’s a discussion for another day, I have no problem believing in the special creation of Adam and Eve, of humans being created in God’s image (though we’re not really sure what that means), of God giving his special creation a level of choice with unparalleled and destructive consequences.

I am a firm believer in the Fall, of humanity given a choice to trust God or no.  From this flows the whole problem of evil.  I don’t have an answer for you. Go climb the wisdom of the ages and seek for yourself. It’s complicated.

It’s because I believe that God gave Man a choice, and we failed in that choice, that I believe firmly in Redemption, in Grace, in Love, and in genuine Evil. (Thanks to Milton, the Fall is a fascinating moment in the story of mankind, and Satan should be ever thankful to Paradise Lost giving him such a rich character. “Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”)

And that Fall, that permanent twist in the soul of every human who’s ever lived, this is on my mind a lot in 2018.

*****

Let me tell you, 2018 has been an experience.  A rip-roaring ride through the best and worst that I’ve seen of humanity with my own two eyes.

Let’s see. In the past couple weeks, I’ve seen people vilify immigrants and justify that by raising American border laws to the level of a moral code. Those same people have shrugged at the separation of children from their parents in the same of “discouraging illegal immigration.”  I’ve witness a profound ignorance of the effects of American foreign policy on other regions of the world. (Short version: why is life so bad in Latin America? Go read up on imperialism, colonialism, and the American war against communism during the Cold War years, then the War on Drugs in the past 30 years. If you just read about the history of the 20th century till now in Latin America, you’ll get the picture.)

I’ve read the news from Syria with one eye open, barely. It’s devastating. Also South Sudan, Yemen, the massacre of like 150 Mexican candidates for election.  We’ve got wars in several spots of the globe. Meanwhile, our president is punching every ally in the eye as he lumbers through a NATO summit on his way to meet with Putin, the latest Russian strongman.

I’ve watched multiple reports of Americans screaming at people they think are immigrants to go home — as if Americans didn’t steak every single scrap of this nation’s land from the people who were here already.  We glorify rich men, men of power, puss-grabbing men who lie boldly and get away with it.

Our planet is heating up. Our love for red meat and fast cars and air conditioning has spread to the developing world, where the overrun of environment impact from these Western practices will likely raise the oceans and flood island nations and costal cities globally by the 22nd century.

But hey, we’ll all be dead then, right?

Why care for the poor when we can blame them instead? Why provide health insurance when we can instead make it easier for insurance companies to make money off of death and disease? Why tip the balance in support of workers rights when capitalism runs off exploiting labor for the benefit of owners and stockholders?

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Nobody warned me that my 40s would be a time of such…. anger.

I watched two particularly well-written episodes of GLOW last night (season 2, episodes 4 and 5). It’s a light Netflix dramedy about an early 80s women’s wrestling show, based on historical events. I love the acting and the casting, and the story’s been solid through both seasons.  The two episodes we watched last night tackled first the “exploitation” nature of the wrestling show and its use of racial and ethnic stereotypes as entertainment. You could argue (as I’ve learned from my hubby, who’s been absorbing movie criticism on YouTube) that such shows provoked people – those with an already developed sense of irony – to recognize the actual exploitation that made such shows work. But it’s still hard to watch a black woman throw herself into the ring under the moniker “welfare queen” and not hear the dogwhistle of racism in Reagan’s (and Nixon’s) politics which made that character so relevant to the early 80s.

Episode 5 showed us a Weinstein-esque encounter between a central GLOW character and a station executive. I cringed the whole time. I felt sick to my stomach. I felt angry. Look, I have almost never attracted sexual attention from men during my adult years – I chalk it up to being fat and not particularly attractive. But I know this is what so many of my sisters put up with every day at work. Whether it’s getting catcalled or hit on or treated to the soft misogyny of low expectations as a woman or dismissed or talked over during a meeting or having our ideas absorbed by the male manager who brought them up to someone up the power structure, a power structure we didn’t have access to …. we women know what these things are. We’ve lived them.  I’m angry.

*****

Lately my attitude has been pretty dark. Not as in “not hopeful,” though I have no reason to assume America will drag itself forward rather than backward.  I do tend to think that history progresses, and I’m thankful that many people are actually aware of concepts like white privilege, soft racism, or the highly negative mental health impact of constantly telling LGBTQ+ people they’re either sinning or an abomination or (at best) a mistake. That’s progress.

But I’m thinking it’s good that God promised not to do another worldwide Flood. Because I’m ready to burn the whole thing down, right here and right now.  We humans are a piss-poor example of the Divine.  I’m tired of the exploitation of the poor and weak by the strong and rich.  I get the imprecatory Psalms now, much better than I did when I was a young person.

Psalm 5 NIV
from Bible Gateway

James Dobson Has ALWAYS ‘Sided With Patriarchal Oppression in the Cause of Political Power’

Hello everyone, I’m Dr. James Dobson. You know, last November I believe God gave America another chance with the election of Donald J. Trump. But he now needs the presence and leadership of Judge Roy Moore to make America great again. And that’s why I’m asking my friends in Alabama to elect Judge Roy Moore to the United States Senate. Judge Moore is a man of proven character and integrity, and he has served Alabama and this country very, very well. I’ve known him for over 15 years, but recently I’ve been dismayed and troubled about the way he and his wife Kayla have been personally attacked by the Washington establishment. Judge Moore has stood for our religious liberty and for the sanctity of marriage, when it seemed like the entire world was against him. I hope you’ll vote for Judge Roy Moore for United States Senate.

via James Dobson Has ALWAYS ‘Sided With Patriarchal Oppression in the Cause of Political Power’

Reason 6648394756 “I can’t even” with Evangelicals anymore.

  • Donald Trump is an immoral man, a man who uses words viciously to cut down everyone around him, to belittle women and immigrants and the disabled. He’s a liar. His riches come from family inheritance plus immoral business dealings and dumb luck. Back in 2016, if you claimed you supported Trump because he was against abortion or some similar trope, I rolled my eyes at you and shook my head at your foolishness. But now? In 2017? When you’ve seen what we’ve seen? You’re no longer a fool. You’re a wicked person grasping for political power instead of living out the Gospel.
  • Roy Moore was batshit crazy before the pedophilia allegations rolled in. (I’ll deal with those in a minute.) His definition of “religious liberty” makes sense only if you’ve lived in M. Night Shyamalan’s Village for the past 3 decades, listening only to Rush Limbaugh froth at the mouth while jerking off to NRA magazines. He’s not heroic or patriotic or Christian in any fashion that’s good for the outside world or the people of Alabama. Running him as a candidate was obnoxious. The Alabama Republicans who stamped approval on him during the primary are just as guilty and just as deluded.
  • Pro tip: If you’re accused of sexual abuse in 2017 after the fall of Harvey Weinstein in the middle of your Senate bid, you should step down. Full stop.
  • If you’re still supporting the GOP because they’re the party against abortion and gay marriage while they’re also dismantling our social welfare system in the name of a libertarian fever dream of “small government,” at least have the balls to claim that political ideology on your own, without dragging Jesus into it.
  • You can’t have Jesus on your side for abortion or the definition of marriage, and then shove him under a bushel for everything else: feeding the poor, assisting widows and orphans (or foster care kids), addressing systemic oppression of the poor or minorities, attacking a private prison system that abuses those who are incarcerated, pursuing a “war on drugs” that disproportionately harms black and brown people while allowing the opioid addiction crisis to run unchecked in rural areas. Go read the goddamn Old Testament for once, especially all the prophets.

Is there a connection between ‘innocence’ and ‘privilege’? 

I came across this excellent piece by Shannon Gaggero about her realization that her (white, middle-class) kids experience innocence differently than children in other households may.

Put simply, maintaining children’s “innocence” is an opportunity available only to parents who are already working from a position of privilege within mainstream society, usually through a combination of sufficient financial/socio-economic standing, social “capital,” and racial identity.

Preserving my children’s innocence is an act of preserving white supremacy – A Striving Parent

Shannon describes children’s books, resources, and talking points she uses with her very young kids to help them see injustice and respond to that in appropriate ways.

*****
Several years ago, my colleague Jack and I were asked by some VBS organizers at our church to teach the “missionary story” to a group of preschool children. [If you know anything about me, you should be chuckling right now…. the last time I worked with preschoolers, I was a high schooler helping out in my small church’s VBS and wondering what I’d done to make the universe assign me such tiny humans whom I didn’t understand at all. (My lifelong habit has been to work with post-pubescent beings.)] Jack doesn’t have kids of his own yet but he’s got a pile of nieces and nephews and seems to be better at translating toddler behavior into something understandable.

Anyway, the missionary story – for those of you who might not have been raised in VBS culture –  is that moment when a VBS worker attempts to compress a complex, nuanced story of someone’s cross-cultural ministry experiences usually in a colonial or post-colonial society into a 5 to 10 minute Golden Book of missionary fervor.

[That comes across as too harsh; I loved hearing missionary stories as a kid because they were human and interesting and a little more connected to what I could envision as day to day life than Bible stories. I’m a little worried that most of the adults in the churches I’ve gone to aren’t aware of the imperialist baggage of white missionary activity among populations in Africa, India, or Asia and how that probably hindered their work for the sake of the Gospel. But that’s a topic for a different day.]

Jack and I had been asked to share a missionary story with pre-K kids for the sake of cross-cultural education. A mission we could get behind for sure. So one of us dug out of our closet a CEF story book about Mary Slessor, the legendary Scotswoman who labored in West Africa for decades and adopted many children who would have otherwise been murdered due to the local custom of treating twins as demon-possessed.

Slessor’s story in the CEF book opens with her childhood, making mention of her upbringing in poverty with a drunken and abusive father. Jack was telling the story on this first day, softening the language into something more palatable for 4 and 5 year old ears: “Her father was a very bad man. He was mean to Mary and to Mary’s mom.”

I’ve told this story myself to groups of kids at Good News Clubs (another high school / college era activity) from a variety of backgrounds. At the time, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that some of the kids listening might know far too much about domestic violence. At least I grasped the poverty angle.

But as an adult with several years of teaching experience, I knew this was a touchy moment in the story. I also knew that it might be hard to explain to 21st century white middle-class parents why their little kids were coming home talking about domestic violence. I figured the innocence of church kids would preserve us. Most people raised in similar circles (Christian, conservative, white) don’t clue in to social justice issues until they’re far older.

I’d forgotten about the kid in the room from CHC.  CHC is a local charity, one of the very best I’ve ever known, operating group homes for foster children in our area. Despite nearly shutting down when South Carolina went through a phase of refusing to place kids in group homes in a burst of idealism that hardly matched the dire need for foster care in our state, CHC weathered the storm and – as you might expect – is running at capacity. Their kids attend church with the resident houseparents, and in this case, VBS.

I’ve forgotten his name, this beautiful little boy with curly hair and a toothless smile. He was impish – small for his age, a wicked grin, always into everything, fighting every boundary. I didn’t know his story, but every instinct told me he could be a handful.

Yes. “Handful.”That’s how we describe the children who howl or bite or rage against the dysfunction and/or drug abuse and/or sexual assault and/or generational poverty and neglect which ground up their families and spit them out into a state system that tries to provide a pale resemblance of family life and normalcy. 

This boy, I’ll call him “Mark,” was listening to Jack tell Mary Slessor’s story today. And he knew. He understood. His 4-year-old body knew what it meant in real terms when Jack said, “Mary’s father was a bad man, a mean man.” So he contributed. This was a story he could grasp. “My mommy is bad. She hit my sister on the leg.”

Later, “My mommy tried to hurt me with a knife.”

I wrote about this at the time, but I bring it up again because 7 years later, I still can’t get that moment out of my mind. I was horrified to confront in that moment a glimpse of what this child had already experienced, a sin-drenched violation of maternal instinct. And I was equally terrified that the other kids would realize what he was saying and start asking questions. And that we would soon be in the middle of a preschooler crisis and then a horde of angry parents would appear at our door with pitchforks.

That, my friends, is probably as close as I can get you to a teacher’s inner monologue. Every lesson, if you’re doing it right, teeters on the edge of incredible discovery and deep learning, but that always comes at the risk of stabbing straight into one of the questions we adults cannot answer, like why mothers of 4 year olds would try to stab them. Or why the richest nation on earth has such a drug problem. Or why South Carolina can’t seem to do anything about the generational poverty that chews up its citizens. And if your lesson crosses over into those churning waters where the real learning happens, your animal brain begins to tingle with fearful anticipation of the phone calls you’re going to get from parents or school board members when they realize your discussion of Dickens robbed children of their innocence.

Friends, I ask this in all sincerity:

How can parents know whether preserving the purity and innocence of their children – whether toddler or teen – is wisdom or idolatry?  

I’ve seen this many times in my work with teens and young adults: healing the wounds of dysfunction and pain requires interaction with healthy, functional peers and adults. So if all the healthy, functional families cocoon themselves, who’s left to walk alongside the wounded?

What can this look like, if it’s done well? Is a school community capable of this? Is it a church responsibility? Can a family accomplish this kind of ‘education’ on its own, apart from church or school?

Martin Gladwell on Higher Ed

I was stunned recently by three episodes in Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, ReVisionist History, pertaining to higher education. He rips into rich colleges for leaving the poor behind. That’s gotta sting…..

Gladwell’s episodes present only his point of view, a potential downside to any podcast,  but their strength is in their novelty. Few public voices are willing to say “out loud” that the nuclear arms race in “amenities” within higher education may be immoral – genuinely, truly against the morals of a system that ought to care about the people who live in it. And while no systemic change comes from a dreamer yelling and shaking his fist at the sky — which is kind of how Gladwell comes across — systemic change will not happen unless someone first points out the problems. And it helps if the person doing the pointing is hella famous with a really big megaphone.

Episode Notes
1. “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” — Stunning storytelling gives this episode outsized impact. It’s a carrier for the message that there are 36K “poor smart kids” in the US *each year* who do not make it into college but  have the academic chops to do it. Aside from a moral argument about capitalism eating poor people because it can do that, this episode sets up an economic argument for helping poor kids reach their full potential — as a nation, we need all the capable, smart people we can get.

This episode fights against the myth that poor people have the same level of access that non-poor people do. Truth is,  as exemplified by  Carlos, they don’t. They’re held back by the ancillary effects of poverty, of dysfunctional families, of not having the social capital to know how to navigate the system. Lots of evidence out there that poor kids apply to far fewer colleges, rarely try attending good ones even if they get in, do not understand the financial aid process, and drop out of good colleges in higher numbers because of family disruptions or even just feeling massively out of place living with a bunch of rich kids. Campuses rarely address the cross-cultural disorientation of someone poor or working-class on a campus with kids who aren’t.

2. “Food Fight” — I would disagree with Gladwell’s assertion that private colleges are more at fault than public ones for leaving poor kids in the lurch. That said, the episode uses the quality of cafeteria food as a proxy for an institution’s financial priorities, acknowledging the dangerous waters of a consumer-driven higher education market. Give the people what they want, or they won’t come. Fine, but what if the “people” want you to spend money immorally? Should we consider investing in filet mignon instead of scholarships for poor kids an immoral choice? This is the question Gladwell presents as he compares Vassar to Bowdoin college. Vassar has chosen to buck the designer-college / rich kid college trend, so the cafeteria food is pretty bad. But a lot more poor kids are going to Vassar now…. and the leadership thinks it’s worth endangering their brand to do so.

I have a two gripes with this episode.

First, Gladwell is right to focus on private colleges, but that’s too easy of a target. I don’t think public and private institutions should be judged by such different standards here –not since states have slashed public funding for colleges so drastically that many public institutions rely on tuition revenue. Not when South Carolina (and Georgia and several other states) use lottery money or other public revenue as direct funding to students, who then select in-state colleges. Yes, private colleges in SC receive huge portions of their budget from SC Life and Hope scholarship money carried to them by the students they pursue, but state schools like Clemson also receive a vast sum of money from the same scholarship funds. While Clemson also gets millions more directly from the state — and I agree that our state colleges SHOULD be funded with a view toward improving education for SC residents — its focus isn’t on fixing SC education. Clemson wants to be rich and famous. Our flagship state institutions are fighting for prestige just like the top-tier private colleges.

Just like Bowdoin. It looks different when you’re talking about cafeteria food, but it’s the same disease.

In SC, the colleges on the front lines of education to the underserved are the state campuses of USC in rural areas, the HBCU schools, and the tech schools. Everyone else is going after the smart kid who has money to pay tuition. And the 2-yr colleges, as Gladwell pointed out, are horrifically underfunded.

[I recall Obama trying to bring light to the plight of community college funding early in his presidency and getting nowhere. Maybe it isn’t a federal problem to fix. But SC can’t even muster the political will to fix its damn roads, so there’s not much hope in my mind that the SC legislature will raise revenue to support Tri-Couty Tech either.]

Second – Who’s responsible for the amenities arms race in higher ed? Obviously it’s a joint problem. Parents let their kids buy a $25K/yr education and borrow the money for it. Colleges panic and are afraid to do what Vassar is doing – see financial aid as a moral issue, and force the colleges in their region to talk about it.

I’d like to think that as a society we would collectively agree to address this issue, but realistically, people with power (=money) rarely give up that power willingly, and especially when that would mean denying their own offspring a leg up in the world. Because that’s what money buys in higher education – if you have the money to get into the Ivys or top tier colleges, you’re going to take advantage of that because of the range of opportunities it will open for you later: networking, job promotions, rubbing shoulders with top academics and famous names (like Gladwell). Even in SC, going to Clemson (which will probably cost you at least $5K out of pocket these days unless you’re a Palmetto Scholar, and the net price cost is actually $16K) means you join a huge network of alumni who essentially run the Upstate, especially in business, engineering, and architecture.

So I don’t think we people are going to “fix” this ourselves. It will continue, and get worse, apart from external intervention. I don’t know what that intervention should be, but we can’t say Gladwell didn’t try to point out the harm this thinking does to many students who never get into college, and the loss that represents to their communities.

3. “My Little Hundred Million” – the episode in which Gladwell is flabbergasted by the president of Stanford. It’s pretty hilarious, actually. I appreciate that Gladwell isn’t trying to be a neutral observer here. His central theme is that decisions about money and funding are, at their core, moral choices when we’re in the realm of education.  So what does Stanford need with another hundred million?! Why are they still pursuing funding??

Gladwell demonstrates that a decent investment of philanthropy from someone of means into a middle-sized college in an “average” area can spark landmark improvements, far beyond the raw value of that money by itself. But at a Stanford or Princeton, it just gets thrown into the enormous endowment pile.

Gladwell’s Stanford point. A college with an endowment in the BILLIONS is not hampered IN ANY WAY from doing any research it wants to do.  But the effects of even a modest $10m gift to a medium or small school is huuuuuuge — Stanford is already helping pretty much every one it’s going to help. Glassboro State in New Jersey, the focus of this episode, is now helping hundreds more people in its region get credentials for engineering fields.

Some have criticized Gladwell’s argument here in noting that well-meaning but ill-informed donors do a lot of damage by giving big piles of money to colleges and tying their hands, forcing those colleges to start programs the region doesn’t need, or linking the money to a narrow cause which isn’t future-proof. But the donor at the heart of this episode funded a college in a highly populated area to start programs that are sorely needed both in NY/NJ/PA and across the nation. Win-win.

Imagine a rich Saudi prince gave Lander University, a small school in a small SC city away from the corridors of power, twenty million dollars to open an Islamic Studies department. Some might see this as donor meddling, the poster child for philanthropy gone wrong. But let’s consider that for a moment. Assuming the college officials weren’t stupid and set up expectations that the Saudi donor doesn’t control anything about the programming, what benefits might come of it?

Well, SC knows almost nothing about foreign cultures. It’s one of the biggest problems of the state. The Upstate does ok in the urban areas because of Michelin, BMW, etc, but that has zero effect on the rural areas. So there’s the possibility of greater human diversity within Greenwood Co, a perk in itself.

Are there jobs out there for people with knowledge of the Middle East? Um, yes! That would be a brilliant move for a small SC college — to anchor a program in a growing field. The State Department, the military branches, the CIA, and global business are all going to be looking for people with a rich understanding of Islamic culture. It’s not going to change anytime in the next century.

Now, if someone simply gave Lander money to start a program, it would probably be better for the state as a whole if Lander also got to pick the field, and select something more immediately beneficial to SC. Health care is obvious; advanced innovative manufacturing would be good too.

But Gladwell’s point is this: $100mil invested in SC’s education system would actually change lives. At Stanford or Princeton, it doesn’t. No more than Stanford is already doing cutting-edge work.


In short, I thought this was a brilliant trio of podcasts. Not perfect by any means. But brilliant.

If i were to poke at Gladwell …

– He glosses over the fact that every poor kid who gets into school is going to need a whole village of support behind him, or it’s a pyrrhic victory.
– He gets preachy. I generally agree with him, but moral outrage isn’t going to lay the groundwork for solving the problem by itself. (However, we’ve got to start somewhere, and too few people are even bothered by the moral travesty of feeding rich kids lobster while many other kids will never get close to the educational or social advantages of college.)
– He isn’t addressing what I think is the actual problem: the assumption that every intelligent person needs to go to college, that there are no viable alternatives for intelligent kids to gain personal enrichment and broadening experiences except by going to college. We don’t fund gap year programs; we don’t send poorer kids to Europe or even to other parts of the state. Generational poverty eats lives and traps them, stripping people of even the ability to imagine a better life for themselves.

All that aside, I hope Gladwell continues to prick our consciences with ReVisionist History. Go check out the podcast series.

Shotguns as Sacrament

I’m not going to wade into the deep aftermath of Orlando – that space is already thick with people screaming at each other, and surrounded by those weeping too hard to read the political debates about gun control, immigration reform, definitions of terrorism, the interplay of race and fear, and how tone-deaf Donald Trump can be at a time like this.

I’m pretty sure you can find all of that for yourself thanks to Google.

But a friend of mine said something on Facebook that stopped me cold: “For some people in the discussion, guns are tools. For the others, guns are a sacrament.”

She went on to point out the Messiah-like thinking that many Americans attribute to gun ownership:

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 5.53.41 PM

See, I think she’s on to something there.

In the American Religion of Individualism, we have rituals and liturgy. We bear the marks of the faithful on our bodies and in our lifestyles and in our encultured practices of what we purchase and support. (I *highly* recommend James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to unpack that idea further.)

And many of us have fallen into the trap of seeing the Right To Self-Preservation as one of the highest virtues. Just as John Piper, who was viciously slammed by many conservative Evangelicals when he dared suggest that Jesus did not intend us to shoot home intruders dead should the unthinkable happen.

The issue is not primarily about when and if a Christian may ever use force in self-defense, or the defense of one’s family or friends. There are significant situational ambiguities in the answer to that question.

The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanor and heart-attitude of the Christian life.

Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, “I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me”? My answer is, No.

Source: John Piper: Why I disagree with Jerry Falwell Jr. on Christians and guns – The Washington Post

Piper went on to reasonably suggest 9 reasons why retaliation isn’t a Christian response, and taking another human life – even when that action would be justified – may not be the most Christian response. And ooooohboy did that set off a klaxon resounding across the Internet, calling every gun-owning pastor and theologian to write a counterpoint.

Why is gun ownership such a rallying point for conservative Christians?

Is it because we have succumbed to the idea that we deserve political and personal power, never mind the New Testament promises that Jesus’s Kingdom is not of the sword?

Is it because we Christians refuse to be the minority? Because we refuse to give up our rights so that others may share in power?

Is it fear? Are we so afraid of non-WASP people and gay people and immigrants and “terrorists” that we cannot even consider that Jesus may call some of us to love others to the point of sacrificing our right to own an assault rifle (a weapon created solely for the purpose of murdering humans)?

Are we unwilling to follow God’s commands to “Honor the King” and “Obey the rulers who have authority over you” and to recognize that the government is an agent of good in the hands of God to bring justice to evil doers?

Just, uh, go back and read that sentence again. Because the Bible calls government an agent of righteousness. Setting out to destroy government in the name of God (as a cultural value, at least) may not actually be biblical.

Is it because we, too, worship at America’s altar of Individualism?  

We may preach grace for salvation, but we sure live as if succeeding in this life depends entirely on us, as if protection is entirely a quotient of gun ownership, as if mass shootings are merely a failure of an individual to be mentally healthy or subscribe to the right worldview tenets, as if personal responsibility is all that’s needed for someone to bootstrap their way out of poverty.

Karl Barth wrote a meaty essay about The Church and the State. As you might expect from a man who survived Nazi Germany, the idea of the Church gaining political power and military might made him start twitching.

Here. It’s a long read but you should give it some attention. Because Barth forces us to consider the limitations of the Church in grasping power in the political sphere. We are not here to build a political partnership with the Republicans (or Democrats). We are not here to write gun policy. We are not here to demand our rights above others (like the children slaughtered at Sandy Hook, or the night club dancers in Orlando, or the movie theater victims in the West, or…..)

Barth, Community, State, and Church (PDF)

And when we Christians lose sight of our mission, when our Americanism clouds our judgment so that we cannot remember the Great Commandments, we do a disservice to our countrymen.

Am I arguing for pacifism? No.  And before you jump all over me, I own guns. Always have.

But you are not a Savior. Your gun is not a Savior. You are not going to be the Hero in some medieval morality play where a Bad Guy walks in and threatens your family or people in your ChikFilA during lunch, and you protect everyone else by pulling out your concealed pistol.

No. While you may save lives that day, you also fed into the insistence that weapon ownership is more important than having a conversation about whether our “rights” have gone to far. And that inability to even consider that we Americans might be wrong in our approach to gun ownership is the biggest problem we’re having right now.

When really sensible, expected limits on weapons like assault rifles have become to taboo to discuss, we must acknowledge there is a problem.

But hey, don’t take my word for it…

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Good reads this week

I fell out of the habit of cataloguing the stuff I run into as I traverse the ‘Net for work and pleasure. It was a good habit; I’m going to restart it.

An old one (from 2014), but still very good. Rape culture is borne out of the idea that men need sex to be happy, he argues, and that’s bullshit.

Nerdy guys aren’t guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick as long as we work hard. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by getting the girl.

Source: Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds – The Daily Beast

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I read this, and then I got angry. Perhaps you will too.

I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation.

Source: Here’s The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read To Her Attacker – BuzzFeed News

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One of my recent games of Arboretum. Isn’t it lovely??

If you like beautiful card games, you should try to get a copy of Arboretum. It’s one of my favorite games of 2016. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find a copy these days. So while you’re waiting, and if you like game mechanics, read this:

Source: Meaningful Decisions: Dan Cassar on Design Choices in Arboretum — Cardboard Edison

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Gawker has been running a series of stories told directly from adjuncts in higher education. It’s an ugly, unfair, horrible mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into.  College now rests primarily on the backs of these underpaid and under-resourced junior faculty. At some point, the house of cards will fall. In the meantime, it’s grossly unfair to the adjuncts and it shortchanges students too.

The Educated Underclass – series (Gawker)

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I don’t usually post sports stuff, but everyone around me remembers Clemson kicker Jad Dean missing the field goal that cost CU a key game about a decade ago. I think you could hear the roar of anger across the entire Upstate.

Well, here’s the rest of the story:

Former Clemson kicker Jad Dean’s life has been a journey through football and faith.

Source: Former Clemson kicker finds peace in faith – Reignite My Story

 

Trust the process

“The Process.”
We should print it in big, bold letters because that’s how this idea rolls:

The Process.

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I’m teaching this semester, and despite all of my emotional hand-wringing in my last post, I genuinely enjoy it. I’ve got a good class and so far they’re working to do what I ask and stay engaged. They keep showing up every day, an effort that I genuinely appreciate.

I’ve got goals – big, lofty ones and realistic, smaller ones – that I’m working to achieve in my students and in myself.

One of my goals is to improve my own pedagogy by unpacking and implementing some of the ideas I’ve learned in the past few years about active learning, student-centered learning, and critical pedagogy.

Active learning happens when teachers choose learning activities that engage the student in participating meaningfully in the learning process. This reduces the time given to passive receiving of information (lecture, watching videos, in-class reading) and gives that time instead to a variety of techniques which demand involvement, ranging from basic discussion to group projects, collaboration, thinking activities, improv, building, prototyping, communicating, creating.

Student-centered learning is a similar concept; it probably involves a lot of active learning but each occupies a different axis within educational practice. I like to define it as the broad attempt to move the student to the center of the classroom experience, usually by pulling the teacher off the center stage. This doesn’t mean that the instructor is less important, but it does raise the value of a student’s voice and it implies that students have agency over what they learn and how they go about it.  A student-centered classroom puts the questions raised by the learners at the center of lessons, and teachers who pursue this model invest a lot of work into teaching students how to ask deeper questions, research for more than a pat answer, and fuel their studies through internal motivation (what the student wonders, loves, wants to know).

Critical pedagogy is a term that could take weeks to define. If you go forth into the wilds of the internet searching for an explanation, you may return scarred and terrified — yet, at its heart, critical pedagogy offers us an important focus for human education. Let me compress these ideas into something straightforward: critical pedagogy builds on the work of legendary Brazilian educator and lawyer Paolo Friere, who worked with the poorest of the poor in his native country. He realized that literacy means nothing to people who own little and feel they cannot control much in their lives. Their relationship to “power” is totally broken as they live out the realities of social injustice. Yet even “uneducated” people are rich with experience, and if someone takes the time to teach them how the world works, how power structures work, how they can step aside and critique the way their world is working, even the poorest people can begin to take charge of what agency they do have and turn it into something useful to make their lives better.

Friere recognized that whether a student comes from poverty or privilege, he or she can be enriched by learning how to critique power structures, act as agents as change to achieve greater justice in their social structures, and enjoy the freedom and joy that comes from being someone who understands better how the world could work.  Friere’s writings are infused with explosions of joy and theological presuppositions that I find quite refreshing. He might be one of the most “Christian” educators I’ve ever read.

So.  For me, this means changing the following about my habits of teaching:

  1. I want to move my students into the center of my classroom experience. That means less talking from me, and more work on my part to generate strong questions or learning prompts to drive students deeper into their own inquiries.  Believe me, it’s a whole lot easier to just lecture….
  2. I want to master the skills of facilitating better discussions, both as a class and when students are working in small groups on tasks. That means sharpening my own critical thinking and analysis skills, but also shutting up and listening more than I talk.
  3. I want to be more aware myself of critical perspectives on texts, toward the daily news, of national crises like the Ferguson / Charleston shootings so that I can model for my students what it looks like when we step outside of our contexts and critique those contexts through a variety of lenses.  My lens tends to be shaped by what I believe are biblical concepts of human dignity, social justice, economic systems, power relationships, etc.
  4. I want to resist stepping in too early to rescue students as they labor—often with great anxiety—to give birth to a new idea or understanding of the world mediated through their reading or writing or experiences. Being able to give “the right” answer feels very heady, like drinking from an authority fountain. I think professors and instructors secretly love that feeling.  But our drinking comes at the expense of our students’ growth.
  5. I want to facilitate better relationships among my students, forming us into a discrete learning community that displays love and care for each other as well as concern for the broader world. This is much more difficult, I’ve found, in college where my contact hours are much fewer and students in my class may see one another only during my period. If teaching is relational (and it IS), then I need to also acknowledge that learners are related to one another. Asking them to step into difficult, challenging spaces with a group of strangers will never do.

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I titled this post “Trust the Process.”

The thought hit me recently as I walked down the hall from the day’s lesson that I’m gambling a lot on my insistence that teaching writing be grounded in teaching students better thinking skills.  I think a lot of us find it easier to grind through grammar exercises and assign writing prompts that focus on the pedantic, nit-picky final stages of the writing process.

Those stages are structured and codified.  I can easily recognize a comma splice. I can mount an argument to defend the Oxford comma or criticize overuse of linking verbs.  I can quote handbook sections in response to unclear pronoun referents, and dump the responsibility on the students to figure out how to fix those broken sentences in their latest papers.

And while much writing instruction claims to talk about the thinking behind the writing, much of what we DO in the name of writing instruction doesn’t actually do much to force students out of incomplete, inadequate thinking patterns into new ones.

It’s my firm belief that if I spend a lot of time shoving students into better habits of mind, proving to them that fuzzy thinking can never produce clear writing (only clear thinking can), then in the end—even if things are really rough around the edges right now in their papers—they will emerge in three months as better thinkers and therefore better writers.  And that improvement will stick, if I can fundamentally alter the way they approach thinking about a question or a problem.

And if their thinking changes, even in small ways, that brings them closer to being people who have a shot of developing the ability to step out of themselves and ask the hard questions about their situation. Why aren’t we accepting more Syrian refugees?   Why haven’t our legislators reformed the US’s abysmal Gordian knot of an immigration system?  Why aren’t Christians who claim to be guided by biblical morality demanding reforms in immigration as an outworking of the Gospel in their thinking?  Our power structures are broken.  Our economy smashes some people so that others can consume the excess. Our politics descend to angry ranting.  My friends, these things ought not so to be.

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My experiment may fail.

I’m not assessed to death like K-12 teachers are, but my day of reckoning will come when the final papers (argumentative essays) enter the pile for the committee to read in May and assess how well my students’ writing stacks up against the course rubric.

Some English professors are all about the fine points of grammar and argumentation, popping veins when students try to modify the word “unique” (pro top: unique means “the only one of its kind”; don’t tell me something is “really unique”) or misplace the adverb only in a sentence.   I’m convinced even they would agree with me that moving students toward clearer thinking is worth more.  I’m also convinced that I can teach students how to cope in a world that demands good spelling and decent sentences … but that must come alongside sharp and clear thinking.

So I guess we’ll see….