Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On bullies, race, and perfect victims

Yesterday I was all nice and encouraging with my "Yay, mountains! You can conquer them!" post. So forgive me if I am about to give you whiplash by calling us all out today, but come sit down with me at my kitchen table because I'm going to say some hard things. Remember that time I said I was going to speak up, no matter what? This is what it looks like when I speak up.

There's been a anti-bullying meme going around for a while now, I just saw it again the other day.

"We will never, ever get rid of bullying. We should teach kids how to stand up for themselves and cope instead of wearing pink shirts and passing anti-bullying bylaws. We are creating a society of victims."
Can we just stop for a moment? When victims of bullying stand up for themselves, it does not eliminate a bully. Perhaps, if the power imbalance is sufficiently close enough, that bully will back off. They will back off and move on down the power chain until they find someone who is too weak to fight back, and there will always be someone incapable of fighting back, whether on the playground or in the work place. The child who learns to cope by fighting back can't exactly employ those same tactics in the workplace, when the bully has the power to fire him and/or ruin his career. Please stop blaming the victims for the actions of someone else. 

This meme also assumes that all bullies are individuals, but the rise in cyber-bullying over recent years has shown us that such is not always the case. This is why schools teach anti-bullying, why they teach children to accept diversity, and to tolerate different ways of thinking and of interacting with life. The only way that we can truly change bullying is to change the bullies.

No, friends, we aren't going to get rid of bullying. We live in a broken, sin-sick world and every day people make the choice to devalue those around them in both big and small ways. But as a church we are called to more. We are called to speak value and inestimable worth into the lives of every single person around us on a DAILY basis. We are called to speak up for the voiceless. The widow. The fatherless. The outcast. The sick and the dying and the ones who are in prison. We fight back in kingdom ways by giving others a voice. When we wear the pink shirts and pass the anti-bullying bylaws we are saying to the bullied "I see you and you matter to me." And don't let it stop there. One of the four key steps taught in the anti-bullying program used by my son's school is "We will try to include students who are left out." Relationship. Friendship. Inclusion.


Here's the thing that really struck me, though. I cannot tell you how many times over the past week I have seen people laud the black community in Charleston, SC for not fighting, not rioting, not marching in protest in the face of the brutal, racially fueled attack that took nine lives. In many cases, the same people posting the bullying meme are the ones saying "Good for you, Charleston! You coped. Keep on coping quietly over there in your corner, please." Do you know what this sounds like? It sounds an awful lot like "Good for you, n***er. You know your place." It sounds like the exact same speech that allowed slavery to continue, that allowed Jim Crow laws to continue. Know your place. Don't fight back. Don't expect us to make changes, to wear pink shirts or take down our flags. Be a perfect victim, one who doesn't confront the deep seated issues in our country that fester like a wound ready to burst open at any moment. There is a cognitive dissonance between the two views that is often handled by simply pretending that it does not exist.

I am by no means advocating for violence, but this is the thing that the Church, that you who are seated around my table, MUST understand. When the families of victims of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church issued statements of forgiveness to the killer, when they wept and prayed and worshiped together instead of rioting they did so because they are people living into a faith and into a Kingdom that is the only hope for this world.

We cannot expect those who do not have the same hope to respond to injustice in the same manner.
We cannot applaud the meek on one day and tell them to fight back on the next.
We cannot neglect OUR responsibility to stand up in the face of injustice. This is our calling as a people of God.
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." [Luke 4:14-21 NIV]
This is not just the theoretical hope for a heaven where someday everything will be made right. If it were, the people of Israel would not have been commanded again and again to act justly. God would not have spoken through his prophets again and again, condemning the people for their lack of justice, for the blind eye they turned to oppression, for the mistreatment of the stranger and the foreigner. 

Friends, as the people of God we are called to put on that pink shirt. We are called to befriend the friendless. We are called to speak up for the voiceless. It's not either/or, both/and. Turning the other cheek AND speaking out against injustice. Forgiveness AND listening to the oppressed. If we aren't willing to do that, we need to ask ourselves why. Because our silence often says more about what is in our heart than our words do.


I am as white as they come. I don't feel particularly qualified to speak on deep-seated issues of racism and our response as a Church. All I know is there was a fire in my bones that had my butt in this chair, at this screen, for most of an afternoon. My words cannot possibly be enough. Will you please take a moment to read from these other wise writers who can write from a more personal perspective?

The Only Logical Conclusion by Austin Channing

There is HOPE... by Tasha Morrison

Photo by Howard Arnoff via Flickr Creative Commons license

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

For when the mountain wins

Photo by jk_scotland via Flickr creative commons license
Once I had a goal. Not an earthshaking goal, a world changing goal, or a unique goal. Just a small goal. A friend and I were planning to ride in a century. If you aren't familiar with biking lingo (and until we planned this, I wasn't) that's a 100 mile bike ride. I was a very sporadic rider; in general most of my rides were under ten miles. I had a twelve mile route that I rode when feeling especially motivated and willing to try to out ride the mean dog on Gravels Road (which I assume was named after a person and not by someone floundering for the plural of 'gravel'). A month or two before the ride I decided to take my bike up into the mountains and ride from one entry point on Skyline Drive to a location roughly fifteen miles along the Drive and back. This would be my main preparation ride.

I'd like to point out right now that this was pre-Internet days. Or at least, before it became readily available and widely accessed. So perhaps one can excuse my complete lack of knowledge about how to train for an endurance event. I'm fairly certain that if I had actually gotten around to attempting the century I would have lived with regret for weeks after.

On a lovely September day I strapped my hand-me-down bicycle to the back of my little Dodge Omni, filled my water bottle (singular, first mistake), tossed a few snacks and some tire repair patches into my little bike pack, hopped into the car and drove up into the mountains. The weather was perfect, a Goldilocks day of 'just right'.

When you're riding in a car on Skyline Drive, it seems that the road is fairly flat. Sure, you have to drive up a mountain to get there, but the drive itself winds along the ridge lines of the Blue Ridge Mountains. How steep can that really be? As it turns out, it's not so much the steepness, but the fact that a climb can go on forever. And by forever I mean probably only really a mile or less, but it feels like forever when you are on it and the only way you're getting off is to ride the whole thing. As it also turns out, most of the ascending is done on the return trip. It's easy to ignore the long slow inclines when you're headed down them. Or to think that you, who have never biked more than twelve miles at one shot can double that with no problem.

I hit my turn-around point with immense gratitude, and also with a feeling of impending doom. My body was not happy with me. It was beginning to dawn on me that I now had to ride the whole way back. Every mile, in reverse. After a short rest break and refilling of my water bottle I headed off.

I'm not sure at exactly what point I hit The Incline, but it utterly defeated me. If I had had the option to lay down and quit, I would have. I am not sure that it would be possible to pedal a bicycle any more slowly without simply falling over into a heap on the side of the road. I am fairly certain that I actually got off and walked the bike a few times when I thought I couldn't turn another pedal stroke. And as I was chugging along up the incline that never ended, another cyclist flew past me. He rode that incline like it was nothing; like it was fun! And I'm sure that he meant nothing but the best when he called out as he rode past "You're doing great! Keep going!" but I maybe hated him just a little bit for the ease with which he passed me. The jerk could have at least pretended it was hard.

Since I am not lying along Skyline Drive in a tangled pile of bicycle and bones, it is obvious that I DID make it off the mountain. The incline ended at some point. I made it back to my car in one piece. I drank a lot of water when I got home. And I cancelled my plans to ride in the century, citing the lame excuse of "I just started taking Trigonometry this fall and the homework is taking up all my training time." Which was sort of true because Trigonometry was its own damn mountain, but it was also sort of an excuse. The truth is, the mountain won. It was hard, and I decided that I was not up to the task.

So why am I thinking about this nearly twenty years later? Because this morning in cycling class (which is as close to a bike as I get these days) I managed to bump the level of my hills up just a little bit higher, and hold onto them without dying just a little bit longer. I know that indoor cycling isn't half the same as riding outdoors against the wind and up hills that can't be erased with the flip of a lever, but biking up that imaginary hill this morning I couldn't help but think about the time the mountain won and wonder if it would feel differently today. (And then I was so busy thinking profound thoughts and writing things in my mind that I totally missed when the rest of the class sat back down in the saddle for almost forty seconds, which was kind of embarrassing but also why I pick a bike near the back of the room.)

Sometimes mountains win. Sometimes we drag ourselves off of them with tired bodies and aching legs. We've seen the people breezing past us and we've decided that we just aren't cut out for this. We were never meant to be (fill in the blank) because surely if we were it wouldn't still be so hard. We give up, put away the plans and the dreams and settle in to our practical lives.

And then, one day, the dream slips back in. Oh, I'm not going to ride a century any time soon (no bike, no gear, no money, no real desire), but I get a sense of satisfaction when I hit a new gear in class. It's my way of saying to the mountain, "I'm coming for you. I'm building what it takes to beat you."

So pick up that paintbrush, sit down at that computer, look up those college courses, sign up for that race. The mountains that won in the past don't have to remain insurmountable.

It will take dedication.

It will take practice.

It will take determination.

It will take a choice.

Go conquer your mountain.