Category Archives: Tolerance

Offensive


I’ve been in exactly one play in my life. I was in the eighth grade, and I no longer have any idea why I tried out. In retrospect, it’s pretty surprising:  I was an awkward, introverted teenager…being in a play wasn’t remotely who I was. I vaguely remember being encouraged to try out by a teacher. I did, and I got a part. It wasn’t a lead part, but at least I got to participate.

After weeks of practice, we gave three performances…one during the day for the school, one in the evening for our parents, and one at a regional competition. I learned a few things from the experience. The main thing I learned was that I could pretend to be someone else. That was hard for me, not just because I was shy, but because I’m pretty logical and fact-based. I’m not creative, and taking on a role really stretched me. I learned to put myself out there in public. I can’t exactly say it changed my life, but it was a step on the journey I underwent during high school to come out of my shell. And I enjoyed being part of the troupe, included at an age where exclusion is often the rule. I’ve always looked back fondly on the experience.

Except. I’ve long forgotten the name of the play, its plot, or any of the other roles. What I do remember is my character. You see, I played the comic relief, pretty ironic for me. My character had the best lines, generating laughs in all of our performances. I  also had the best costume and was the most memorable. It was an awkward role to learn, but once I did, I knew I’d done it justice by the audience’s reaction. It was a blast. Except that now, with the wisdom of adulthood, I realize that my character was offensive…highly offensive. You see, I was the black maid, Mammy.

I wore an old dress, an apron, a kerchief over my pinned up hair…and blackface. Just walking out onstage in my small Kansas farm town got laughs. I got even more laughs when I delivered my well-rehearsed lines in a high-pitched shriek. Let’s just say that my character was not the brightest bulb in the box. Looking back now, I’m mortified. I was a naive 13-year-old, in an all-white, rural community. We had one black student in my entire school career, and she stayed only a semester. Obviously, the play was an overt indicator of an uninclusive culture in the late ’70’s. I had no idea that I was being offensive.

I’ve been thinking about this experience over these last couple of months. No matter whether or not you’re happy with the outcome of this ugliest election, it’s held at least one undeniable lesson for our country:  that any belief that we’d evolved to some post-racial America was a delusion. The signs were there all along that prejudice is still very much alive. But fifty years after women’s liberation, the first black president, and the increasing heterogenization of our country’s demographics, some of us had been lulled into a false complacency that we’d moved past all of that. That illusion has been shattered; the ugliness is still very much among us. 

“Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.

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Inclusion


One of the faith questions I’ve struggled with the most is the belief of so many that there is only one true religion. I was born into a Christian family in a Christian country, and so that is my faith. I believe in it strongly, particularly in its messages of love, inclusion, and redemption which resonate with me. But in spite of my own deep belief, I struggle with the notion of Christianity as the only path to God. I have friends of many faiths from all over the world and have adopted two girls from Buddhist China. When Megan was critically ill, prayers for her were sent up to heaven by Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. I simply cannot accept that the God of Love that I believe in so strongly would doom my friends and billions more to separation from Him, simply because they were born in a non-Christian country…a choice that was His, and not theirs.

However, John 14:6 seems to definitively state that Jesus is the only path to God, that “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That seems pretty clear. Yet I recently read a perspective pointing out that this passage says only that Jesus is the gatekeeper to God. What the passage does not say is what filter Jesus will use to decide who will pass through to God. It’s a critical point. Neither that passage, nor the rest of the chapter, says that Jesus will only pass Christians through. Jesus as gatekeeper to God is probably a strange notion to non-Christians, but to me it reassuringly aligns to a possibility that we’re all worshipping one God after all.

I’ll never understand why human nature inherently creates ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Why must we be right and everyone else wrong? Science has proven that there are no genetic differences between races. I also see no evidence that a different God created my Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist friends…it seems to me that we all come from the same place. The Bible consistently depicts a God of Love; I believe simply that He loves all of His wonderful people from a wide variety of faith backgrounds. Including me, a Christian from America.

“I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.”  –Khalil Gibran


Selfish


I once participated in a team building exercise where we drew pictures of our lives and then explained briefly how each picture described who we were and what mattered to us. New to the team, I knew one of my co-workers was talkative, but was unprepared to be taken blow by blow through his life for over an hour. I remember none of the details except hearing about every decision and unfortunate twist which landed him with us, instead of a bigger, more important job like his classmates from whatever Ivy League MBA school he’d attended. I otherwise enjoyed the exercise; it was a great way to get to know my new team mates, including learning to avoid the Ivy Leaguer.

Someone wise recently oberved to me that all people are selfish to some extent. It’s true, we can’t help it…it’s Darwinian to focus on our needs. Besides, who feels what happens to us more than we do? If it’s good, we want more; if it’s bad, we want it to stop. And yet…I ran to the neighborhood store this weekend to pick up a single ingredient for dinner. I was in such a hurry, that only halfway to the car did I remember that I’d asked for $20 cash back with my $2 purchase. Just as I turned around, the kid who was in line behind me was there in the parking lot, handing me my money. He was maybe 20 and looked to be someone all this talk about building a wall might have kept out. I hadn’t even looked his way when he came up behind me in line…it would have been easy for him to take that bill and disappear. Instead, he left his place in line and followed me outside the store to return it. He was back in the store before I could do anything more than say ‘thank you’.

So, yes, we’re all selfish. But we’re also all human…kind and honest and caring. Genetics has scientifically disproved race as a legitimate difference between us. We must call out the examples which prove this, to balance against the stories we see in the evening news. Just as important as fighting our individual selfish nature, it is crucial to fight against the selfishness of the mob mentality. We are all in this world and this thing called life together.

“Moral evil is the immorality and pain and suffering and tragedy that come because we choose to be selfish, arrogant, uncaring, hateful and abusive.”  –Lee Strobel


Pause


I’m not entirely sure why it was important to me to visit this spot where 49 innocent people died. I haven’t been able to read any of the stories of the massacre, especially of the calls made to mothers by loving sons who were about to die. I knew I would cry, and hard. The whole thing is utterly horrific. But still I had to come.

My Mennonite ancestors were persecuted and driven from their homeland more than once. In America, they became champions of social justice, facing danger to march in America’s civil rights movement. Until this last year, I would have said that LGBT rights was the last major civil rights battle left in this country. But the recent upswing in xenophobia and discrimination against entire races and an entire religion…one whose billion plus adherents share a common father with Christianity…proves that the war rages on.

And so I came, to honor 49 souls whose lives were cut violently short. I wept at the rainbow-themed artwork, the teddy bear and lit candles, the photo ID badge, the childrens’ crayon drawings. I came for them, but I also came for me. I came to make a tiny personal stand against hate and discrimination. I came, for my own humanity.

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.


America


I’m especially proud to be an American this week. I’ve always been proud to be part of Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”, even when we haven’t always lived up to our ideals. This week we did.

Our Founding Fathers constructed our Constitution explicitly to protect the rights of the minority from the will of the majority. The unelected nature of our Supreme Court justices, now receiving much attention in the blogosphere, is one of the most tangible signs of this intent. The Founders wanted the justices beholden only to their conscience, not to an election cycle, popular sentiment, or special interests. Our two chambers of Congress, one responsive to the majority, through a need to run for re-election every two years, with the other able to act in longer-term interests, is another part of this design. This protection of minority rights is a crucial component of our national DNA, and, I would argue, is the single most distinguishing characteristic of our city on the hill.

The Founding Fathers understood well the power of the majority to oppress the rights of the minority, so clearly and repeatedly demonstrated in history. They wanted America to be different, to be special. It has been, and it is. Yesterday we demonstrated that yet again to the world, standing up for equality and for the dignity of every human being created in the image of God. Jesus stood for the rights of all, whether or not society agreed with Him; He also modelled overwhelming love. Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision which supports both love and human rights. Love…and America…won.

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life…And how stands the city on this winter night?…After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong, and true to the granite ridge, and her glow has held no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”  –Ronald Reagan, January 11, 1989 farewell address


Montgomery

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I spent three days this week in Montgomery, Alabama. Few cities in America are as associated with as specific a moment in history as Montgomery. Other cities are known for their landmarks or their cultures or even their food. Montgomery is known for its pivotal role in America’s civil rights movement.

We’re taught, of course, about the civil rights movement in school. We learn the names of those who played prominent roles:  Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers. We think we know the story, but we have been taught only a pale, sound bite version. The whole truth always has many more layers than can be fit into a history textbook or regurgitated on a test. For example, I learned this week that George Wallace’s portrait still hangs in the state Capitol, just blocks away from a very different, and more famous, picture of him displayed at the Rosa Parks Museum. I learned that the Civil Rights Memorial, run by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has stricter security than the airport I took to get there. I learned the names of 40 victims, some of them innocent children, who were murdered in the ten years between Brown vs. Board of Education and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. I learned that the Confederate flag hangs still today in the House chamber used for the state of the state address. Think of the message that sends to all of the schoolchildren–and all of us–who watch this annual event.

Much progress has been made, but much remains to be done. Today the battle against racism has shifted to more of an economic one. Today there are new front lines in the civil rights battle around LGBT and disabled communities. The history in Montgomery is important to remember because we must not forget the fight is not over. Until all people are judged by the content of their character, and not by their differences, none of us should feel safe, lest tomorrow we find ourselves the ones who are different.

“It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home.” –Carl T. Rowan

 


Two Classes Of Citizens

Sneetches

A friend recently ranted on Facebook about someone who had no use for her until he found out she could help him. I understand her anger–I remember well my own first such experience.

I was a fresh college grad, and the head of our small internal audit department cubicled right next to me. Day after day, he ignored me without so much as a hello, until my first promotion. Suddenly, he was super chatty…the difference was stark. I was appalled. I was ok with him when I thought he was just socially awkward. I suddenly was not when I realized he was only a status-conscious jerk. Ever since, I have had the least use of all for those who believe in two classes of citizens:  those who they believe can help them, and those who can’t.

I can tolerate obnoxious jerks, as long as they’re equally obnoxious to all of us. I’ve even become near-friends with some of them, as I got to know them and discovered they have value to add. I can also handle neurotic, flawed people who struggle to maintain healthy relationships with others due to their issues–I don’t mind going more than halfway. But I can’t stand someone if they’re only being nice to me because they think I can do something for them. I can’t trust them…they’ve made it clear the only person who will ever matter to them is themselves.

I believe in the value of every human being, even the jerks. But I’ll also admit to the irony in struggling to find value in those who don’t feel the same way. Heaven knows, this world doesn’t need more second class citizens.

“Play fair. Don’t hit people. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.” –Robert Fulghum, Everything I Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten