I’ve been reading To Kill a Mockingbird to Caroline for the past several weeks. We’ve been at it a long time, what with other things happening in the evenings. And Robert’s been reading Ender’s Game, so we alternate nights. It also doesn’t speed things along when I preface each section with a rapturous “Oh I *love* this scene.” The rabid dog… The night before the trial begins…
Anyway. That book, plus a conversation with a friend yesterday about our Presbyterian system of governance (he’s teaching a polity class next semester) reminded me of the following anecdote.
I recently read The Mockingbird Next Door, in which author Marja Mills describes her friendship with Harper and Alice Lee. The book was just OK, but one scene stuck with me.
The Lees’ pastor was describing the turbulent 1960s in which the southern churches were fighting hard over civil rights. At one particular regional meeting of the United Methodist Church, the church was preparing to adopt a committee’s report concerning the scourge of racism and segregation. Of course, the racists and pro-segregationists were threatening to bog the process down with various amendments, speeches and delaying tactics. There they were, clutching their legal pads full of vitriol, and the atmosphere was tense. Then this happened:
Before their leader could get to the floor, a wee woman from Monroeville, Alabama, got the attention of the presiding officer of the conference. Miss Alice Finch Lee went to the microphone to make her maiden speech to the Alabama– West Florida conference of the Methodist Church. Her speech electrified the seven or eight hundred delegates there— I was there. It consisted of five words.
She said: ‘I move the previous question,’ and sat down.
The conference applauded enthusiastically and voted overwhelmingly to support her motion and then adopted the committee report without further debate.
Like a boss.
Video: Robert’s Rules in action in a very NSFW clip from The Wire. “Robert’s Rules say we gotta have minutes for the meetin’, right?”
This video made the rounds recently on Facebook (ironically enough).
I’ll admit, I found the video convicting. I think technology-free zones—what Sherry Turkle calls “Sacred Spaces”—are very important. The dinner table. The carpool line at school. Our loved ones should not have to fight to get our attention in these and similar places.
I’m pretty tired of the preachiness around technology. The news is not all bad! My smartphone is a powerful tool that helps me organize and manage a very complicated life. If you walk by Robert and me in a restaurant and one of us is on a cell phone, it’s probably because we got a text from the babysitter, or we’re checking movie listings. Save all your tut-tutting, please.
And as for all these so-called zombies looking down at their “idiot machines,” unless you’re playing Candy Crush or watching Netflix, chances are good there’s a human being on the other side of that screen. Are those relationships unimportant because the person happens to be living somewhere else? Tell that to family members who rely on Skype or FaceTime to connect with one another.
Remember the Little House books? The Ingalls family left the Big Woods of Wisconsin and saw the rest of their family… like, never again. Do we really want to go back to that for the sake of some kind of technological purity?
For the next few days I’ll be with a group of pastors, Christian educators, and other church leaders at Austin Seminary exploring “spirituality in the smartphone age.” My hope is that together we’ll start constructing a theology for our digital culture that is embodied yet connective, realistic yet hopeful, and most of all, helpful to people trying to navigate this world we now occupy.
This technology is here to stay. We need to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves about it. That requires more nuance than you’ll get in a viral video, no matter how gripping it is.
President Bartlet: Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?
Will Bailey: I don’t know, sir, but it is.
-The West Wing, season 4 episode 14, “Inauguration, Part 1″
Yesterday I attended a workshop led by Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?*: Christian Identity in a Multi‐Faith World.
McLaren likes to mix things up in his work, blending Bible, theology, history and anthropology. He talked about our evolutionary history as a species—a story of expansion and migration from the southern part of Africa to all of the world’s major land masses in about 130,000 years. What allowed this expansion to happen? Our identity as tribal beings, McLaren argues. We cohere into groups. We put on our “tribal paint.” Sometimes that’s literal identifying marks—gang signs? hipster glasses? tricorn hats and NRA t-shirts? Sometimes it’s a religious or political doctrine to define who’s in and out.
And we band together against common enemies and threats. “When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves,” he said, quoting this article by Jonathan Haidt in the New York Times, called “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness.”
Jesus, by contrast, breaks down this tribal identity in the gospels, constantly lifting up the dignity of those on the margins and outside of the club. It’s interesting to relate this posture of Jesus to the idea of his being “without sin,” or fully divine as well as fully human. Is there something about our tribal, with-us-or-against-us mentality that is fundamentally flawed, even sinful?
Sure, it’s the evolutionary mechanism by which we expanded and thrived as a species. But now a new evolutionary shift is necessary—because our tribe is the whole human race. Globalism means that what impacts people across the world will inevitably affect us here, sooner or later. Just look at climate change. Yes, more vulnerable populations will feel those effects sooner than more affluent ones. But we will all be affected, no matter what our tribe.
Or take Ebola. This past summer, when the death toll was confined to West Africa, I heard lots of genuine concern and sadness expressed… often followed by the sotto voce comment: “I just hope it doesn’t come here.”
Well, Ebola is on our shores now. How could it not be thus? As David Wilcox sings, “There is no more far away.” We may still have our tribes, but these tribes mix and infiltrate and bump up against one another on a massive scale, the likes of which we’ve not seen in those 130,000 years. Our ability to survive and thrive will depend on our ability to transcend our own tribalism, in effect to go against our own evolutionary wiring.
As a Christian, I see Jesus as the model for that work, though there are other models as well. But we know it when we see it—stunning examples of people going beyond their own self-interest and those of their immediate tribe. Sacrificial love. Love that costs something.
Consider this heartbreaking story from StoryCorps about nurses in Sierra Leone, and how difficult it has been not to offer basic human expressions of care to those who are grieving. Imagine not being able to hug someone who’s lost 10 members of their family.
One day, an Ebola-infected mother brought her baby into a hospital, Purfield recalls. The mother died, and the baby was left in a box.
“They tested the baby, and the baby was negative,” says Purfield. “But I think the symptoms in babies and the disease progression in babies is different than adults.
“So the nurses would pick up and cuddle the baby. And they were taking care of the baby in the box,” she continues.
Twelve of those nurses subsequently contracted Ebola, Purfield says. Only one survived.
“They couldn’t just watch a baby sitting alone in a box,” Dynes says.
The title of this post is from a popular Christian hymn called “The Summons” by John Bell. It’s been going through my head since the Ebola outbreak began. Those nurses who cared for that infant, refusing to let it just be a baby in the box, “kissed the leper clean.” But it may have cost them their lives. I hate that it did—I want such heroic love to be rewarded. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not helpful for the good ones to die—we need their like to propagate. And I want nurses and doctors to take appropriate precautions.
But perhaps such stories can live on, to tug at our humanity and to inspire and direct us to seek out the path of sacrificial love, regardless of tribe.
*Why did they cross the road? To get to the “other.”
This morning as I drove home from breakfast with a church member, I caught the last 15 minutes of the Diane Rehm show on NPR. She and her panel were discussing the upcoming midterm elections. One of them shared a recent poll, in which only 15% of respondents said they were “closely following” the midterm elections. Among voters ages 18-29, that number is 5%.
The topic turned to voter turnout, especially among young people. How can we get young people to register and vote? Diane asked, and enlisted each panelist to make his or her best pitch for voting.
Now, I’m not a young adult. (As my friend Jarrett put it, “If you’re happy Apple put the U2 album on your phone, you’re not a young adult anymore.”) And I’m a committed voter. But as I listened to the panelists’ responses, I thought to myself, “There’s no way young adults who aren’t voting will be convinced by these reasons.”
And–of course–I was struck by how similar their reasons were to those reasons we give why young people should be in church.
It connects you to a larger community. Guess what? There are many ways to connect with community. Young adults go to work or school, they pay their taxes, many of them volunteer, and many seek to live ethically in how they spend their money and their time. They don’t feel they need to vote/to attend church in order to make a contribution; there are other avenues.
It allows you to be “part of the solution.” Don’t like what church has to offer? Get involved. Don’t like your options for governor? If you get involved in the process, and bring your peers along, the candidates will start to respond to issues you care about. But young adults are involved in all sorts of community service and activism. They see themselves as able to make change. They just do it differently than pulling a lever or showing up on Sunday morning.
And they ended with the old saw, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Eh, I don’t know about that. First of all, because for better or worse, we Americans (and others) see complaining as a birthright. That’s why #firstworldproblems is a thing! But also because millenials’ lack of participation is a statement, if we bother to listen. Their silence in our churches and at the polling places is not apathy. It’s a clear message: “This has no relevance for my life whatsoever.” Our job isn’t to convince them otherwise. Our job is to ask, “What if they’re right?”
I’m not telling people not to vote. I mean, come on. It’s a small expenditure of time to do basic research and get yourself to a polling place (though one party wants to make the voter registration process harder, through a variety of tactics designed to alleviate the non-epidemic of “voter fraud”).
There are people out there who will say that both parties are corrupt, and they aren’t that different, so why bother. I am not one of those people. Yes, I’ve never seen such a bunch of do-nothing, gridlocked dysfunction as I do in our nation’s capital, and the day Citizens United was decided was a dark day in our democracy. Still, I vote. In a fallen world, the lesser of two evils is a choice we need to make.
Similarly, I think Christian community provides something distinctive that you don’t get other places. (Other religious communities provide their own distinctives.)
But I can’t exactly fault young people for not being jazzed about deciding there are better uses of their time than choosing between Corporate Candidate Chet and SuperPAC Steve at the ballot box. And let’s not dump on them for not jumping on board with church, when what “church” often means is “the way we’ve always done it… until you’re around long enough for us to trust you to suggest ways we can change.”
The whole Diane Rehm discussion–and the discussion so many churches have–is backward. The question isn’t how to convince young people to show up and vote, or to go to church. The question is, what is it about the “product” that they find utterly un-worth their time?
Why do we frame this as a problem with the millenials and not with ourselves?
Robin Williams in The Birdcage, one of my favorites.
I don’t feel a need to comment at length on the events of last week. Many have already done so, and done it better than I could. But I did want to share two links that, taken together this morning, gave me a bit of hope and perspective.
The investigation began with rail and bus commuters travelling into Chicago. Dozens of them were recruited into one of three conditions – to engage in conversation with a stranger on the train, sit in solitude, or simply behave as they usually would. Afterwards they mailed back a questionnaire in which they answered questions about the experience.
The returned questionnaires showed it was those commuters who were instructed to strike up conversation with a stranger who’d had the most positive experiences (sitting in solitude was the least enjoyable, with behaving as normal scoring in between).
We tend to avoid conversation because we think the other person won’t want to engage—but the research showed that was not the case: “[Study participants] predicted that over 50 per cent of strangers would likely rebuff their attempts to talk – in fact, this didn’t occur for any of the participants who were instructed to chat to stranger in the earlier studies.”
I’m pretty introverted in public spaces. And it’s taken some time to feel OK with that. I’m a mother of three and a pastor—I engage with people a lot; I don’t need to do it everywhere. Still, I sometimes challenge myself to strike up a short conversation with a stranger, and it always feels good to do so.
We are made to connect.
The second link is this video from The Dish, called Suicide Breeds Suicide. Jennifer Michael Hecht, who wrote the book Stay: A History of Suicide and Philosophies Against It, addresses the issue of “copycat behavior” following a suicide. For example, she reports that young people whose parents commit suicide can be three times as likely to attempt suicide as a result.
I don’t like the phrase, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Robin Williams suffered from a life-long illness. His struggle, while it seemed to wax and wane at various times, was as permanent a condition as he could possibly imagine. Still, there are folks out there who believe that the world will be better off without them in it. That’s demonstrably false, according to the research about suicide contagion.
Hecht puts it like this: “If you don’t kill yourself, you are saving someone’s life. …I don’t want to dwell on the guilt of what you do if you harm yourself, I want to dwell on the wonder of how much you meant to people you don’t even know. …The one thing we need to add to that is gratitude, and I don’t mind starting it: I’m grateful. You’re my hero. Thank you for not killing yourself.”
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers, who had experienced suicidal feelings, responded to the video:
When I was at my lowest ebb, I definitely knew that if I ended my life I would hurt others around me – my family, my friends. But in the two or so years I struggled with those feelings, I can tell you it never once occurred to me that killing myself might lead someone else to end their life. Such a thought would have been abhorrent to me, and I couldn’t help wondering after I watched Hecht’s video whether suicide prevention counsellors make that point to those at risk of harming themselves. I think if they did, some of those people would step back from the brink. It’s one thing to hurt yourself and rationalize that your pain is greater than the pain you’ll cause others through your death; it’s quite another to think you might be compelling some of those who knew you to step into that abyss themselves.
Watch the whole thing here—it’s short:
We are made to connect.
And we are made connected. There’s no avoiding it.