Christian Social Justice

Last Saturday, after a happy hour meeting centered on social justice, four educators and I sat and discussed our schools and the diversity work happening within them. After some extended sharing about my school’s programs, racial demographic, and religious climate, a new acquaintance craned his head toward me in a sort of gesture mixing kindness, solidarity, and pity, and said, “You are in an odd place to be doing diversity work.”

I have been thinking about that comment more and more this past week as I think through the beauty and the complications of having a passion for diversity and social justice in a predominately white, conservative, Christian high school.

Today, I attended this year’s Educators for Social Change conference, and the first keynote speaker Keith Catone said, “I cannot keep calm and carry on, because I am filled with anxiety!” He laughed as he shared this statement. “Who here has felt anxiety recently due to the current political climate? Who has felt anger?” I raised my hand for both.

As Keith spoke about advocacy and agency, especially for the youth in our classrooms, he gave an example of a student-led walkout in Rhode Island, which occurred at 11:08a.m. the day president Trump was inaugurated. He spoke highly of the students’ decision, praising them for their ingenuity, their willingness to walk out during class time and take unexcused absences, their intelligence in asking adult leaders in the area to support them and meet them outside with supplies as they encountered police (presumably there for their protection). He said, as adults, we should not criticize them and ask each other whether they took the right action and what the consequences should be; we should instead be actively embracing the pedagogy of walking out. If we as adults did not “get this election right,” and they as students were not old enough to cast their vote, we should be paying attention to them. We should allow students to teach us about what they’re doing and why. We should let them take the lead and listen in to what they want for their future.

Keith spoke freely about his reservations, fears, and anxieties about a Trump administration. He joked with relative ease, seeming to hold an assumption that each person in the audience was anti-Trump and stood with him. And I understand this assumption in the sense that Trump’s presidency (thus far) and presidential race (in its entirety) has had little to do with inclusion and social justice, which was the purpose for our gathering today. However, I teach classrooms filled with a seeming majority (or a loud minority?) of Trump supporters. I teach in a place where students proudly wear “Make America Great Again” hats and Trump socks, where some scoff at the mere though that someone could be pro-choice or a feminist or support stricter gun laws. Sure, there are students who are pro-choice and who are feminists and who are supporters of stricter gun laws, but they seem to be a quiet minority – or at least don’t relish the idea of locking horns with a boasting Trump supporter in the middle of their school day.

This makes me ashamed and angry sometimes, quite honestly. This makes me reflect.

I have thus far endeavored to be a teacher who does not share my political or social views in the classroom – other than to help them critically think from different angles and play devil’s advocate to their ideas. When students tell me they want to write a research paper advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, I say, “Sure. Why are you passionate about this?” When another student wants to research transgender issues and says that everyone should just “stick to their born gender because all this transgender stuff just makes people uncomfortable,” I nod and say, “Okay. I’ll look forward to seeing what you find in your research, especially the opposing viewpoints.” Students all day contradict each other’s opinions, and in many ways, this is the beauty of America’s fabric. We are a United States who believes diverse views help create a vibrant and functioning democracy. However, I raised my hand today when Keith asked who else had increasing anxiety over the country’s current political climate. I raised my hand when he asked who was angry.

Those who doubt, question, and naysay about social justice work in my school community are probably not as high in numbers as they seem – just loud, persistent, and ever questioning our “agenda.” Yet, their voices make them seem more heavyweight than they are. So to support, for example, a student walkout at the time of a presidential inauguration seems extreme to me in my current teaching atmosphere. And yet, in the audience that surrounded me today, this stance was applauded, seemingly condoned as normal and right. Educators for Social Justice seemed clear in their convictions. But do they share those convictions in their classrooms? And is that right? And why do I stay quiet in mine? Is that right?

The challenge for me in vocally or actively supporting a walkout or any other form of student democratic resistance is this: to defend it asserts that the resistance is right. It assumes that the students are clear in their opinions and well informed and that we stand behind what their voices are saying, that we trust they have thought through it well. And on top of that, to share my political views would embolden some students and parents to think, “Yes! I knew that’s what she thought!” while very likely creating walls between myself and those students and parents who disagree with my views, breaking down relationship and limiting their full engagement and growth in my classroom. And for the record, I am not a proponent of walls, at least when it comes to countries and relationships…

Maybe I was raised not to act as an adolescent without parental and teacher permission, or maybe it is just me, but I know now that there is a moral – even more, a fundamentally Christian – lens with which our school (and I) view resistance and frankly any other earthly action. This lens asks us to analyze our and our students’ actions by filtering them through God’s laws and commands. If one of my students wants to publicly support Trump’s immigration ban, I must ask how that fits within a Christian view. If another student wants to protest the ban, I must critically assess how that fits. I suppose it depends upon how one interprets the Bible’s commands or if they are even thinking about them in the first place… However, with my faith as a guide, I do not believe that I can just support any old opinion that my students form and say, “Bravo! I stand with you! Use your voice and your agency!” I cannot condone just anything that they are swept up in as part of a cultural or political movement. My job is to help shape them, to help them see both sides (or even better, to change the either/or, us-against-them political narrative. Why must that be so?). My job is to sharpen them in such a way that they can make their own decisions in due time, teaching them to do so with their faith and their community in mind.

So, here is what I know:

  • Donald Trump is our president. I am praying for him and need to do so even more often.
  • I am a feminist.
  • I largely don’t worry about our safety as a nation; though I acknowledge that I have no idea what it is like to have my personal security seriously threatened.
  • I do not agree with Trump’s immigration ban.
  • I do worry about our gun laws.
  • I do want to love and embrace the LGBTQ community and let them know that even though their sexual orientation and lifestyle is not condoned by my faith, they have just as much inherent worth, value, and beauty as any other person in God’s creation.
  • I do think there is a huge racial wound still festering in America.

Here is what I don’t know:

  • So much.

 

But I’m willing to learn and to listen to both “sides,” and I want my students to do the same.

And I am left pondering two questions tonight – because I don’t actually think that I’m in an odd place to do diversity work. The one who created diversity – of landscape, of wildlife, of skin tones, of genders, of personalities and opinions – is the very God who I worship. And the Lord expects more from me, from my students, than just for us to be who we feel like being or to say and act on what we think and feel within a cultural and political climate. For that reason, I cannot and must not approach social justice and political resistance the same way that every other school does.

So here it is:

For a faith community built on the belief of Holy Scripture, a community for which unity in the body of Christ is paramount, a community in which any stance “in the minority opinion” sparks (or would very likely spark) criticism or an engulfing divide, how do I help my students take a stand? And how do they speak up and resist injustices without doing more harm to their community than good?

Here is what I have so far:

With love.

Please help me from there.

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St. Louis: A City on a Hill? I Pray.

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I should be working. Grading papers. Or walking my dog. Or making dinner, hydrating myself, making a watering plan for my church’s new fall landscaping, or… a lot of other things.

Instead, I’m preparing myself for tomorrow.

I’ve been largely absent from media this week, especially mainstream media. I had decided to delete Facebook from my phone, post either seldom or more carefully on Instagram, and turn off the TV, for really no other reason than I had little to no time for it, and I seemed not to be using my time efficiently when I had very obviously too much to do.

Then, yesterday, the head of my school made mention of an impending verdict in his address to the student body, all 1,100 of them and the faculty surrounding them. Then my friends started talking about whisperings and questions. And, this morning, Ferguson was mentioned in a letter read to us from the Director of Diversity, a letter that he has prepared to send when the verdict is announced – the grand jury verdict that decides the fate of Darren Wilson and has the power to ignite the passions of millions of people all over our country.

So, afterward, as a small group of four who were processing those ideas, we listened, and we discussed, and we prayed.

We prayed for awareness and sensitivity to others, for deep understanding, for calming of fears, for peace… Most importantly, we prayed for the Lord to be with us. Be WITH us, God… Be before us and behind us and among us. Be at work, and in our midst, and allow us to SEE you and FEEL you with us as we open our eyes to a new day… a new day in which everything and nothing may change all at one time.

Tomorrow, we will open our eyes to a new day, and the verdict may be announced. Maybe. Some reports say 7pm. At that time, I will be home or possibly at a friend’s house enjoying fall drinks and spending time with wonderful women. I will have just finished teaching all day, oddly discussing To Kill a Mockingbird with my students on the heels of a really hard lesson about the Jim Crow Era and the systematic, racial caste system that our country experienced (and to some degree, still experiences) for so long… We will have talked about white guilt, about racial stereotypes, about the sad and incredibly wrong things that have been going on in our country for a long time, about the way the media is such a powerful force to be used for great good or great pain, about the power of our words and our actions and our very loud silence, about our responsibility to stand up and be advocates and leaders for change, about the beauty and fragility of the human heart. And I will send those intricate, wonderful souls out into the streets, to their homes, to their friend’s houses, to their Instagram accounts and Snapchats and Twitter feeds and coffee houses and theaters and living rooms and beds, and these ideas will be swimming in their heads while they receive the news in the coming hours or days… the news that may divide an already divided city.

I am full of fear and hope for this city, for these students, for myself…

I fear what we will do to one another, how we will wound one another in the wake of this verdict. I fear the words and actions and silences that will speak so loudly about the state of our hearts and our understanding and also lack of understanding. I fear for physical pain and vandalism and destruction that may occur to people in this city and in others, all of whom were made in the image of a peaceful and ultimately just God. I fear for friends in my city who are nervous – White, Black, Asian, and Hispanic alike – about how people will respond, about who or what is about to descend on this city, and when we will hear and see with our own ears and eyes.  I fear for the future… and yet I have so much hope. I see my city filled with so much beauty, so much grace, so much peace. I see adults and students everywhere who are peacemakers, who long to see our city united, who are pining for the day when we embrace each other even more than we already do, who are making real and concrete preparations for that. I see students who have wide eyes and open ears and soft words who speak confidently about what confuses them, angers them, fills them with sadness, as well as what brings them needed laughter and joy. I see teachers who love their students well and provide space for those conversations. I see adults who have deliberately placed themselves in situations and conversations and environments that would open their eyes and extend hands across deep lines and divides. I am so encouraged by these things, these stories, these lives, these words and hearts.

I am full of fear, and I am full of hope for my city.

So instead of working, or walking my dog, or making dinner or any of those very important things I could be doing, I am writing. And I am asking.

Will you be aware? Will you be sensitive?

When the verdict is released, will you process in whatever healthy way you can in a safe environment? Will you be aware that others will process this news very differently than you will? Will you be aware that some won’t care as deeply as you? Will you be aware that some will be hurt or sad or angry or confused or all of the above? Will you be sensitive to those reactions, and will you listen, truly listen, with the intent to understand? Will you protect each other? Love each other well? Be a body of people who supports and defends and unites, a city on a hill?

I pray that you will, and I pray that I will…

I will make every effort to do so, and I am already preparing myself to ask for forgiveness when I fall short. Because I’m a woman of good intentions, but boy, do I learn every single day, over and over, what a flawed person I am and how much I have yet to figure out. I will need to process, to listen, to discuss, to pray.

Bear with me. Bear with each other, and love one another well. Today, tomorrow, and every day.

Our city is crying out for it. The structures and surroundings, both manmade and Godmade are ready for it. The city is being prepped and prayed over. The verdict is descending. Will we be ready? Will we be aware? Will we be sensitive? Will we seek peace?

St. Louis, may it be so, I pray.