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Conviction, Conflict, and Broken Bridges

A few major media outlets published pieces around the holidays last year about family relationships hurt by the election campaign. I’d been frustrated by conversations with family members, and it bothered me that I had to avoid talking to some of the people closest to me about a topic that felt more important than any other at that time. Some of my family relationships felt constrained, and a little superficial, but they were not damaged. I didn’t believe politics had that kind of power. On Thanksgiving Day, I posted this:

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Bob, my brother-in-law, while passionately anti-olive, did not vote for Trump and does not support the border wall. Bob was bringing levity into a sensitive climate like only he can. More than anything else, he was messing with me, and everyone, including me, found it funny.

In the past year, I’ve lost a few acquaintances over politics. A former colleague unfriended me with a touch of dramatic flair when I wrote a post in support of Black Lives Matter. At the height of the Clinton email controversy, a cousin blocked me -an act I thought we reserved for maniacs trying to break into our homes to set our pet hamsters on fire. I’m certain I’ve been unfollowed by a number of people, and I’ve had others tell me they just scroll past most of my posts. And that’s okay. I don’t unfollow people I disagree with, but I understand why people do, and I respect that decision. I also understand the frustrated responses of people who sign on to social media sites to see photos of their friends’ cruises and cute animal videos and find their feeds flooded with political rhetoric.

More recently, though, the very real threat that political division poses to relationships has hit me hard. Last Thursday afternoon, I received this text from someone close to me:

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The post in question was the essay by Ta Nehisi Coates that appeared in The Atlantic that same day. I hadn’t commented on it except to say, “Well worth reading.” I did find it well worth reading. His argument is compelling, if painful to read. Not as painful, though, as the text, which knocked the wind out of me.

Of course I do not dislike our country. I am patriotic to a fault. That’s why I am losing sleep over the current state of our nation. I also did not see the essay as “hateful.” I saw it as exposing and countering hate.

But none of that matters. Not the merits or the flaws of the essay or my rationale for sharing it. Our conversation (if one could call it that) ended this way:

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All that matters to me now is that this post (and, I assume, other posts conveying similar sentiments) seem to have ended a relationship that, while difficult, has always been deeply important to me.

Before about two years ago, I used Facebook exclusively as a forum for self-deprecating humor and to share cute pictures of my niece and nephew. I cringed at posts condemning public schools as dens of iniquity, but I never engaged with those doing the posting. It didn’t seem worth the anguish. But then I changed contexts, and I recognized the urgency that people around me felt to challenge unfair policies, to point out implicit racism and other biases in dominant responses to current events, and to push for social justice. They used social media for political purposes because their lives were political. They had to be. These people were fighting for their communities, for their students, for our education system, for our society. They lived these causes because they had experienced in real and concrete and sometimes tragic ways the effects of injustice.

And suddenly being silent felt arrogant. It felt like a function of privilege to choose to keep my social media page benign, funny, trivial. Not everyone has that choice. At the same time, I realized I had a network that many of them didn’t have: a predominantly white, predominantly conservative, predominantly evangelical community. People who generally had not been exposed to the ideas my colleagues were sharing and the questions they were raising, just as I had not been. I knew I had people in my network who would want to hear these perspectives and who would be challenged and enriched by them, just as I had been. I also knew many people would hate them, and that worried me. I could have stayed silent, but to stay silent was to be dismissive of a struggle of which I’d been largely unaware but from which my friends and colleagues, and even my students, were battered and exhausted. I felt ill-equipped to join them, but I knew that in this very small way, I could help. And it felt like the right thing to do. It also felt like an important part of my own learning experience. I had to engage in order to understand.

Now, this week, I’ve taken my first real blow. It’s nothing like the blows others have taken. It’s laughable compared to the blows others have taken -those whose passions and gifts and positions have placed them on the front lines. But it hurts, and I find myself sort of stuck, as I imagine others have before me, to an exponentially greater degree.

I can’t change my political views. They have changed before, and they may change again, but right now they are consistent with my understanding of the world. They have, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, put me at odds with some important aspects of my upbringing, and I’m working to resolve those tensions, but overall I feel less tension among my politics, my faith, and my work than I did five years ago. Becoming conservative again for the sake of relationships is not an option, even though last Thursday I wished it were.

I could revert back to a social media page full of stories about out-of-control laundry and fun pictures, but that too feels unreasonable now. As angry as I have been at the evangelical community, it is my community. Its leaders are my leaders and its members are my friends and family. I am one of them, and I am in this with them, even if I stand in disagreement with the majority on major issues. And this country is my country. I still cry when I stand to salute the flag during the National Anthem, even as I stand firmly and proudly alongside those who exercise their right to remain seated. I am compelled to fight for the Church because I am deeply connected to it, and I am compelled to fight for our country because I desperately want it to be its very best -with liberty and justice for ALL. And I know that our country is not its best, nor is the Church. There is work to do. And I know my friends at the opposite end of the political spectrum agree; we just disagree on how to make it right. But we won’t make it right if we don’t talk about it.

I also know that I will likely be fine whether I enter the fray or not. I am sure of my salvation, and my rights are secure. But that is not the case for everyone, and I bear that responsibility too.

I am fumbling on social media. I share arguments that I find persuasive, and then I read counterarguments that are more persuasive.  I inadvertently plagiarize people, thinking I’m presenting an original idea. I say things in hurtful ways, sometimes unintentionally and sometimes in the heat of the moment. I’m trying, but I’m making a lot of mistakes.

I cherish my relationships, even the hard ones. I know that my most challenging relationships have made me better. I hate that political strife comes at the cost of relationships. I wish it didn’t have to. But I can’t pull back, because that would come at the cost of my integrity, and that’s a price I can’t pay.

 

Featured Photo Credit: Dave Schumaker, Flikr. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/rockbandit

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Perspectives on Healthcare

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could miss anyone else’s point in this age of thoughtful and informed civil discourse, but here we are. So for what it’s worth…

I’ve never had to pay attention to health care. I always just had it. I didn’t even have to understand my insurance, and I never bothered to try. I went to doctors when I needed to and someone took care of bills. That’s not true for me anymore because I no longer have guaranteed employment, and now I have a history of cancer that will likely affect my premiums, possibly dramatically and devastatingly. So I’m more personally aware of the fragility of access to health care than I’ve ever been in my life.

But that’s not the point. At all. The outrage over the House’s repeal of the ACA isn’t about people’s individual situations or about the specifics of the new bill. It’s about the whole. We’re at odds over whether we as a society should take responsibility for each other. We’re arguing about school choice for the same reason. If I have good health insurance and can see the doctors I want, then the system is working well. If my kids’ schools are well resourced and I’m happy with their teachers, then public education is fine.

Jen Hatmaker suggested in her last book that we use this “benchmark” to evaluate our positions: “If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn’t true.” That resonated with me deeply. When we base our political stances on what we know, based on our own perspectives, we miss so much. It’s easy to assume that if we can get through college, secure a good job, move into a nice neighborhood, and sign our kids up for competitive soccer, ballet, swim team, or whatever -everyone else should be able to do the same. But we’re wrong. Everyone isn’t positioned the same way. And that is OUR problem because it reflects the system and the social values that we are all responsible for creating.

The images of the overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and undeniably wealthy crowd celebrating at the White House yesterday served as a symbol of the power imbalance that we keep trying to deny exists. Those are the people the system is working for. But if it isn’t also true for the (fill in the blank -single mom, woman of color, transgender person, immigrant), it isn’t true. And we’re all responsible.

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What’s Left?

When our legislature failed to reach compromise and Republican Senators forced a rule change to push Gorsuch through, we gave up any notion of an independent Supreme Court. Maybe we never thought we had it, or maybe it just seemed worth it to get Roe v. Wade overturned, but whatever the logic, it’s gone. The traditions and processes that were in place to protect the Supreme Court from political extremes are no more, if they ever were. So one of our major institutions designed to keep power in check and protect civil rights is permanently undermined.

When we allow people in political power to denounce any media outlet they disapprove of as “fake,” when we perpetuate that label and seek to discredit everything they report, we give up the notion of a free press. Maybe the press made the mistake of making their leanings too transparent, or maybe the proliferation of actual fake news during the election campaign chipped away at public trust. But again, whatever the reason, one of the pillars of our democracy, whose job it is to hold those in power accountable, is permanently undermined.

So what’s left? What are the democratic institutions and traditions that we trust and are willing to invest in for the sake of our nation’s future? Separation of Church and State? Yesterday Trump declared that in this country we worship God and that he was bringing “Merry Christmas” back, so it looks like we’re willing to give that up too. Law enforcement and intelligence? Nope. We’ve granted the President power to insult, bully, and dismiss any official whose actions feel threatening to him. The legislative branch? Apparently not. They were the swamp we wanted drained. The presidency itself? A society that deems inexperience and a penchant for name-calling positive qualities in its president wouldn’t seem to have a great deal of respect even for its highest office.

Tomorrow, many of us will eat hot dogs and set off fireworks to celebrate our freedom. But I’m not feeling particularly secure in my freedom right now. I’m feeling vulnerable to abuses of power. Is that just because I lost the election? I don’t think so. I’ve lost elections before, on both sides. But even when I didn’t like the decisions being made by those in power, I trusted that my rights were protected by forces that transcended political party. Those forces are what I’m worried about -not the party in power.

If you are feeling secure in your freedom right now, are you sure you aren’t mistaking satisfaction with the status quo for confidence in our democracy? Is it possible that it just feels good to have the erosion of protections working in your favor? What if someone with the same disregard for democratic process that Trump has shown, but at the other extreme, rises to power? What if the people in power don’t share your interests, privilege a religion other than yours, maybe even see your power and privilege as a threat to freedom and equality for all? If those people begin to cross the line and abuse their power in the interest of setting things straight, do you trust that our democratic institutions are strong enough to hold their power in check, protect your rights and freedoms, and keep our democracy grounded while we ride out the wave?

There are large numbers of people in this country who have never enjoyed the freedoms that many of us feel we have, and that obviously can’t be ignored. But it worries me to see us carelessly dismantling the structures that make freedom possible at all. If we agree on nothing else, we should be gladly joining hands to preserve and strengthen the traditions that keep this experiment running, even with all its imperfections.