Christianity · Politics

On Santa Claus, Jesus, and Trump

Shortly before Christmas, when I was four, I challenged my mother on Santa Claus. I asked (as I imagine many children do), “If he’s fat, how can he fit down the chimney?” My mother answered, “I guess he’s magic.” The answer was acceptable enough. He rode a flying sleigh around the world in one night and evidently had a cadre of elves who could secure thousands of Barbie vans and Baby-Come-Back dolls without ever making themselves visible at the mall. I guessed he probably was magic. And if my mother said it, it was true. This was the woman who once spent ten minutes at a grocery store bakery counter insisting that she be allowed to pay for a doughnut the cashier had forgotten to charge her for the previous day.

Two years later, when a friend told me at a sleepover, “Santa Claus is really your parents,” I was disproportionately (although not uncharacteristically) worked up. Several years later, I took up the issue again with my mother:

“But I ASKED you about it. I gave you a chance to tell me, and you just said, ‘I guess he’s magic.'”

“Well, you knew we didn’t believe in magic.”

“WHAT?? Mom. We believed Noah put ALL THE ANIMALS on the ark, that three men were thrown into a furnace and didn’t burn, and that a pack of lions’ mouths were sealed so they wouldn’t eat a guy who spent the night in their den.”

“That wasn’t magic. That was God.”

Okay, yes. I had been taught the distinction. I knew God wasn’t magic. Still, for a four-year-old raised to believe in the supernatural, accepting Santa’s ability to navigate chimneys as magic is not a giant leap.

Believing in the supernatural became increasingly hard for me as I got older, as deeply ingrained as it was. In high school, I was terrified of looking stupid, and I felt, increasingly, that talking about the Bible as literal truth made me look that way. In college, as a literature student, I began to see the broader picture -the horrific damage that had been done to people and cultures in the name of missions work, the warring among religious groups over the power to control the narrative, and the many world views that felt as real and true to the people who held them as Christianity felt to me. It became harder, and less desirable, for me to believe that ours was the only truth. I would have preferred to be selective and piece together my own theology, but I was deeply afraid to do that, or even to raise hard questions. Christianity was the core of my identity, and I feared that if I pulled one thread, it would all unravel for me.

In my early adulthood, I made a firm decision to take the Bible, in its entirety, at face value. I said to my mom, “Maybe we’re wrong. But so what? If it turns out in the end that none of it was true, I won’t be sorry to have lived my life striving to be like Christ.” And there I remained, for many years. I clung to Jesus, his words, and his life as the core of my faith. I taught Sunday School. I served in church leadership. And as for all the issues that continued to make me uncomfortable, I hoped and trusted that if God was who I thought He was, He had it figured out and I would have to live with not knowing the answers.

And then it was 2016. And the Republicans put forward a candidate who was “different.” For awhile it was funny, like the idea of Arnold Schwartzenegger being governor of California. Then it became serious. He made anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and blatantly sexist statements. He called people losers and mocked them like a seven-year-old, he lied openly, and he talked about wanting to punch protesters in the face and “joked” that he would pay legal fees for supporters who did. It made sense that a few isolated, angry white men yearning for pre-civil-rights days would relish the idea of Trump as president. But I genuinely expected that Christians would be at the front of the line speaking out against his behavior. It seemed obvious. He was everything we are called not to be. How do we claim to promote Christian values and even consider placing someone openly hateful in our highest position of power?

Then the audio recording came out -the one where he bragged that he forces himself on women because he can. Because he’s a star. And that should have sealed it. But it didn’t. Supporters came out in his defense. Christians compared him to King David, using his sexually violent language to validate him as God’s choice. He claimed he could walk out on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and people would still support him. And by this point, he seemed to be right.

I stood by as people already skeptical of Christianity had their beliefs confirmed. Evangelical Christianity was aligning itself with hate and claiming “conservative values” as its justification. Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics -everyone but Christians -spoke out for the vulnerable, for the poor, for the oppressed. Christians defended, rationalized, ignored.

Even though I suspected he might win, when the numbers came out -81% of Evangelicals voting for Trump  -I was stunned and devastated. And in the next few months, I circled all the way back to the beginning: to the ark, the lions’ den, a childhood firmly anchored in a loving, merciful, gracious God who so loved the world that He sacrificed His only son. And I wondered what happened. I had chosen to embrace the whole, despite doubts and apparent contradictions, because it all felt worth it if it led me to a life of love, compassion, and kindness. If that was the core, I could live with some discomfort and tension. But the election and all that led up to it suggested that it was not the core. Reeling from what felt like the sudden ripping out of my life’s foundation, I pulled the thread. As I feared, it has left me unraveled and a little lost.

I have been told that I just don’t understand the big picture, that I’m too narrow-minded, that I’m just being influenced by people. I’ve been reminded that I’m studying education, not theology, which I suppose implies that I have no business suggesting that anything is wrong. And maybe it’s true. Maybe I thought I understood the major tenets of Christianity and I never actually did. Maybe a faithful Christian just accepts the assurances of Christian leaders that this is all worth it for a conservative Supreme Court, or that we shouldn’t judge each other for our political choices. But none of that helps me to know what to do now.

I miss my church and the people I came to know and love. I miss feeling grounded in a faith community. I miss being certain. But I don’t know how to be a part of it right now, or how not to. It helps to know I’m not alone -that there are others, some who actually do study theology, who are equally shaken and also struggling to find a place. And I trust that we eventually will. We will either unite around our core and find reconciliation, or we will crumble, and I can’t believe we will let ourselves crumble.

But even if we do, it doesn’t have to be over. Learning the truth about Santa was a necessary step in my coming to understand Christmas as a celebration of God’s gift to the world. Maybe we’re experiencing something similar right now, on a much larger scale. Maybe we will let it all unravel and slowly put it back together again. And maybe we’ll start with God’s love, mercy, and grace and work from there.


“Bittersweet and Strange, Finding You Can Change, Learning You Were Wrong”

I grew up a conservative Christian in a white, middle-class community. As a general rule, this context worked well for me. My parents trained me from birth to do all the things that would position me as a “good student” in school. I learned to read fluently and with expression, I took great pride in producing error-free writing, and I NEVER had my name on the board. I was a well-bred churchgoer as well. I won prizes for memorizing the most Bible verses in Sunday School, I sang hymns in the shower, and I cast scolding looks at my teenage peers for giggling during talks at youth group. My family was often compared to the Cleavers, and while our family life was not nearly so neat, we certainly had all the Cleaver trappings -two parents, a stay-at-home mother, nightly dinners together, a wood-paneled station wagon with a dog in the back.

I also had deep-seated insecurities. I read slowly and couldn’t keep up with my peers in advanced classes, and I went to lengths to hide it. I was clumsy and socially awkward, and I could never figure out how other kids knew what to wear or what music to listen to. I chose to avoid homework rather than face the possibility of not understanding it, so I spend middle and high school lying, copying, and living in fear of being caught. I felt at home at church but also always felt on the outside of my peer group. I knew all the rules but was never fully included.

When I look back now and reflect on how I became an arrogant, critical, judgmental adult, I come back not to my successes but to my insecurities. I grew up knowing I was a fraud and desperately trying to hide it, so I built my identity around my achievements. I may not have been a contributing member of a Christian community, but I knew the doctrine and followed the rules. I became an English teacher. I found that I was fairly successful at teaching students to read, think, and write the way I had learned to read, think, and write. For all that I had never figured out, I had developed a strong grasp of English -the structure, the convention, and the power of language. As incompetent as I grew up feeling, I had completed college and secured a place in middle-class life as an independent adult. I believed my students could too, assumed they should want to, and looked to my own knowledge and experience as resources to share with them.

I believed that language and literacy were the keys to educational success -because they had been mine. And I knew that I held those keys. That belief, and my own experience, left no room for valuing of multilingualism or varieties of English other than the “standard.” I knew that my mother’s reading to me as a child had given me an edge, so I believed every parent should do the same. The students whose experiences had been different were, in my conception of language and literacy achievement, behind. And rather than question why my own set of values was so rigid, or exploring how this diversity of experiences might deepen and enrich the discourse of my classroom, I set about the work of catching those students up.

My conservative Christian values played into the educator I became as well. I accepted that single parents, or even same-sex parents, could raise successful children, but I never accepted that any family configuration was equal to the “traditional” nuclear family. I viewed students from other family backgrounds as disadvantaged, which undoubtedly shaped my expectations of them. I attributed my own success as an adult -as I defined it- to the code my family and community had lived by. And again, rather than question the power dynamics that make Christianity so advantageous in our society, I took for granted the rightness of the code.

People close to me believe that leaving my job and coming back to school changed me. And of course it has, but my classes, professors, and classmates also gave me words to voice and explain the discomfort I was already feeling in my job. As steeped as I was in my own beliefs and practices as a teacher and administrator, I knew, as many educators know, that what I was doing wasn’t working. For all our talk of equity and access, the same groups of students continued to come out ahead, and the schools in the same communities continued to be featured in the newspaper. I thought much more about language than I thought about race and class, but of course they are closely linked, and my own beliefs and values and whatever limited “success” I attained had as much to do with the fact that I was white and middle class as the fact that I grew up a conservative Christian and spoke a valued variety of English. Those things aren’t unrelated.

I have always cared deeply about equity, as most public educators do. I just didn’t see, until I stepped outside and began interacting with people who had either studied the world through different lenses or just lived different experiences, how the standards we choose to set as a society both reflect the values of the people in power and necessarily open up access to some and limit it for others.

I’m in the very early stages of understanding all of this. For now, it has made me obnoxious on Facebook but not particularly powerful in my ability to effect change at any level. I have much more to learn, and I am fortunate to be following the footsteps (and breathing the dust) of many, many people who have understood all of this for many, many years. And because I am both proud and deeply insecure, facing all that I didn’t know was initially painful. Believing that I had spend a 20-year career working toward equity only to learn that I had made countless decisions as a teacher and an administrator that in fact furthered inequity was hard. But it was only briefly hard. Then it was freeing, because then I could talk about it, because then it wasn’t just about me anymore, and because then I was empowered to question and challenge -and to begin working to avoid falling into the beliefs, assumptions and patterns that reinforce the status quo.

“Learning you were wrong,” as Disney reminds us, isn’t all bad. It opens up some pretty exciting doors.


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.


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.