Friday, March 20, 2015

"No, it's not!" "Yes, it is!" "Is NOT!" "Is SO!"

A firestorm continued this week in the Christian circles I orbit, both online and in real life. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and president of Samaritan's Purse, issued a "Listen up and submit to authority and you won't get shot. Respect authority, it's as simple as that - Romans 13:1" post on Facebook. To which Sojourner's replied, "People of color have been submitting for centuries and are still being unjustly shot, imprisoned, fined and harassed - Jeremiah 22:13. There's more to this issue than a simple command to submit."

To which the cries of "Division! Division! You're creating division!" erupted on both sides of the debate. Shouts of "race is no longer an issue" countered with "yes, it is!" "No, it's not!" "Yes, it is!" "No, it's not!" "Yes, it is!" Name calling flamed. Apparently you're a right-wing racist if you agree with Graham and a race-baiting libtard if you agree with Sojourners. (Note to self - don't read the comments! For the love of maintaining a single shred of hope of human decency, don't read the comments.)

On whatever side you fall on this*, there is clearly division among the followers of Christ, which was the subject of my Bible study this morning.

*Full disclosure: Up until several years ago, I fell just inside the "right-wing racist" camp of "We're a post-racial society; don't make these issues about color; if people take individual responsibility and show respect they'll be treated fairly; study and work hard and you'll succeed." When writing my first novel I had immersed myself in research on the Civil Rights movement, including my own family's role in that movement, so clearly we were far beyond the days of the illegality of interracial friendships. I had nothing but respect and admiration for law enforcement, especially since the three times in my life I'd been pulled over for speeding I got off with a smile and a warning. I did waver in that camp on occasion because I worked for Child Protective Services and with Big Brothers Big Sisters, so I saw that racism did rear its head every now and then, and clearly not everyone had equal access to justice. But that couldn't be the result of institutionalized racism, could it? Sure, there were racist nut jobs still roaming around, and the number of racial hate groups had risen dramatically since Obama's election, but that was no longer accepted nor condoned. Sin prowls, but we were alert.

Then, in preparation for our adoption, I began reading and researching issues surrounding transracial parenting and I got involved with a transracial adoption group and I heard the stories of adult adoptees and other people of color. And my thought process on the amount of racial injustice still present and accepted in our society began to waver even closer to that dividing line. Still, having a transracial family in the 2010s was accepted. We were warmly embraced by our community and my son was and is loved as a child of God, a child to whom God gifted a gorgeous amount of melanin.


I work as a school counselor, so I know that many children face mean comments and exclusion and taunts based on physical appearance. Our school works diligently on teaching empathy and respect, on being an upstander and loving others. Despite these efforts, meanness still persists - both intentionally and as a result of immaturity. My son has faced taunts about his skin color and hair style (dreadlocks). He has been singled out for chastisement in a group of squirrely (otherwise all white) boys and followed in stores (until the clerk realized I was his mother), but by the same token he has taunted others about their racial features and he has a tendency toward mischief. I work daily to teach him to respect and love all God's differences in external appearance, to cherish uniqueness while understanding we are all God's children, and to make amends to those he hurt. At the same time I empathize with his hurts and try to give him the tools to stand up for his unique identity.

Then Trayvon. And Ferguson. And Tamir Rice. And John Crawford. And Kendric McDade. And...and...and...and those in my transracial communities saying, "Yes, this happens. The last fifty years of progress have not erased the previous three hundred plus years of legal and institutionalized racism. Expect it. Teach your son. Give him the tools to get home alive. But also demand change. Stand up and say, 'No More!' Ask your white community to hear our cries for justice." As above, when writing my first novel I had immersed myself in research on the Civil Rights movement, including my own family's role in that movement. Much of what I heard in the "submit" side of the conversation sounded tragically familiar to segregationalist sermons preached in 1957. We still have far to go.

*So, still full-disclosure, I suppose I have moved into the camp of "race-baiting libtards". That is, I believe race is still an issue. I believe we have more to overcome. I believe my white, middle-class existence has offered me advantages and shielded me from much of what others in different circumstances experience. People are still treated unfairly due to their race, from micro aggressions and implicit bias to wage gaps despite education to the school to prison pipeline to discrimination in law enforcement to racial incarceration. There is racial injustice embedded in the very fabric of our society. "Respect and submit" alone will not cure these ills.

I don't know what to say about the cries of division. Because there is a divide. Both sides on this claim Romans 16:17, "But I warn you brothers to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned." The teaching we have learned includes both commands to respect authority and demands to seek justice, defend the oppressed.

My hope is that the Church (and those outside the church, but the Church is the community with which I'm connected) can all move away from "is not!" "is so!" and toward empathy. Can we hear others' stories and read the research with the goal of trying to understand, even if we may not agree? Can we be pro law enforcement, agreeing on the goal of respecting those who protect and serve? Can we ALSO be pro systematic reform, agreeing that the previous 300 years of institutionalized racism and bias hasn't been entirely eliminated in these last 50? Can we both respect the law AND ask the law to respect the citizens?

I will teach my son to respect the police. I will teach him the ten rules to follow if he is ever stopped. Can I also ask you to pray that he not be stopped simply because he fits a "profile"; that the system treat him, and all others like him, with true justice? Because I want him to respect authority. And I want authority to respect him.

Get Home Safely - Ten Rules of Survival if Stopped by the Police

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life

Paul and I are in the midst of reading Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Curtis at a writer's conference in Indianapolis in 2001. I had JUST, as in days before, talked about revisions on a manuscript I'd submitted to Holt with the woman who would ultimately be my editor for Jericho Walls. So I was at the same time flying high with possibilities yet paralyzed with fear because I had NO IDEA what I was doing or how to pull off these rewrites. Mr. Curtis was a voice of encouragement and calm. In my copy of Bud, Not Buddy he inscribed, "Dear Kristi, Congratulations and Keep Writing!"

So Bud, Not Buddy is near and dear to my heart. I read it to Sam when she was young - seven, probably. For her, it was a fun book with glimpses of the realities of the Great Depression. But, trigger warning, it has some TOUGH themes for kids from hard places. Bud is an orphan. The book opens with Bud in an abusive foster home. He escapes and decides to look for his father, making the trek from Flint to Grand Rapids, Michigan during the racial and economic unrest of the 1930's. So don't read this book unless you're ready to have some deep conversations about death, first parents, abandonment, racism and classism. But if you are, I've co-opted a few of Bud's Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life.

Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life #1:
Use stories as a springboard to deep conversations. You may not think your child has questions or is internalizing opinions from the wider culture about race, religion, class, death, but he does and he is. Studies show that children begin to form concepts and to classify others around age 3. Stories provide  a context to discuss those concepts and classifications. Talking about Bud's quest to find family, his relationships with those he meets on the way, complicated interactions with law enforcement, and the interracial dynamics of the band allows us to more fully explore those complex topics in our own real life.

Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life #2:
Use stories to expand your own reality. We tend to cluster in homogenized groups, so those around us reinforce our own preconceived ideas or beliefs. Stories open a door to think critically about those beliefs, to consider the rationale behind other ideas. Bud, Not Buddy brings to light different ideas about unionizing, about responding to racial injustice, about interacting with police, about poverty, about family.

Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life #3:
Use stories to build empathy. On needs only to read a few twitter feeds to realize that we live in a divisive world where those expressing different viewpoints or marginalized realities are at best misunderstood and at worst publicly derided. We struggle to hold space for those who think, live, believe differently. Studies show that literary fiction improves the reader's ability to understand and care about others' experiences, to walk in someone else's shoes.

Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life #4:
Use stories to build empathy. Bud faces trials and traumas in his short life, so much that he says "my eyes don't cry no more." But he keeps moving forward. He holds tight to the stories his momma used to tell him, and the love with which she told them. He escapes those who seek to do him harm, and he connects with those who try to help him. In this life we will have trouble, but take heart...

Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life #5:
Use stories to help your very active child fall asleep at bedtime when Daylight Savings Time means that it's still light outside. Enough said.