Sunday, February 23, 2014

Affirmation, Genocide, and Everything In Between

I was driving my step-daughter to the gym yesterday when she spotted this bumper sticker:

It was the first time either of us had seen this particular graphic, but it instantly reminded us both of another that's been around for awhile:

Tolerance, coexistence--these words are commonly interpreted as societal ideals, the next stage in the evolution of Western culture, a Utopian paradise of peace and good will. I'm sympathetic with that hope, but I'm of the opinion it falls far short of what our society should really be striving for.

Starting in the early 1990s, when I was pastor of a Reconciling Congregation (a United Methodist Church that seeks full inclusion of gays and lesbians in its ministry), I have been working for on what educators call a "scope and sequence" of accepting diversity. It's a framework for understanding the historical development of cultures both toward and away from being at peace with minorities. This morning, I finally put this framework together as a graphic, which I'm calling the Acceptance Spectrum:

I break the spectrum into ten levels. These are artificially delineated, and based entirely on my own reading of history and experience of working with one particular minority. The inspiration for this was the realization that tolerance fell far short of what my congregation was striving for and, at least within its own walls, accomplishing: the affirmation, even celebration, of diversity.

Civilizations can both evolve and devolve on this spectrum--and yes, I consider the right side of the scale, affirmation, to be an evolved state, whether everything to the left of it more primitive. A nation that has been at a state-imposed level of tolerance can, with a regime change, descend all the way to genocide in a frighteningly short period of time. The incursion of an invading force can quickly infuse a population with suspicion, paranoia, and bigotry, awakening long-suppressed prejudices, leading to bullying, persecution, and acts of violence against a scapegoated minority. The differences in question may include but are not limited to skin color, language, clothing, religion, philosophy, sexual orientation, and marital status. Not all these distinctions are visible, and often a member of a persecuted minority can pass in public for the persecuting majority.

What follows is a stage-by-stage definition of this framework, including notes on how a nation can progress (or regress) from one to another. The occasion for writing and publishing this is a series of attempts by state legislators to pass laws protecting discrimination, most likely in reaction to a sense that the United States is poised to begin accepting same-gender marriage at a nation, so I'll start with the high-point of the framework, and work backward to the apocalyptic extreme that is far too present in recent history.

Affirmation: As an education major in the early 1980s, I experienced a guest lecture by an advocate of bilingual education. He talked about how the ideal for American society ought not be the melting pot so much as the tossed salad, a mixing of distinct ethnicities adding their unique qualities to our national identity without giving them up. Ever since, I've seen this as an ideal for civilized countries, and there's no likelier place than the USA to accomplish it. When we affirm each other's differences, we embrace the beauty of diversity, the amazing complexity of human existence. Individual neighborhoods and congregations may continue to be peopled primarily by affinity groups, but cities, states, and the nation as a whole are a rainbow of colors, languages, customs, orientations, religions; and all of this is seen as strengthening the culture, and is celebrated at all levels.

Acceptance: There are many municipalities in America that have already accomplished this level, and still more that are poised on the brink of it. Acceptance means letting go of personal prejudices, truly living and letting live, and while the Chinese New Year celebration or the Gay Pride parade may not be your cup of tea, you acknowledge that these observances are important to their respective communities.

Toleration: As a Methodist minister in Great Britain, I learned that I was, whether I liked it or not, a member of the local Anglican parish, and that my congregation owed its existence to the Act of Toleration of 1689. In that year, Parliament passed a law mandating that all Protestants had the right to gather and worship in their own ways. This came at the conclusion of a century of bloody civil war fought over theological differences, which itself followed on centuries of persecution of religious minorities. The British had learned the cost of religious conformity the hard way, and concluded it just wasn't worth the effort. Their answer was not to abolish the national church, but simply to acknowledge and allow the existence of other churches. That is what tolerance is about: not so much "live and let live" as "live and don't kill." I tolerate my neighbor's yapping dog, the leaf blower down the block, loud music across the street, but I really wish they'd go away; at the same time, I'm not going to actively pursue their elimination. Toleration is where many European cultures were in the early nineteenth century with respect to their Jewish communities. That changed.

Integration: This stage really should stand apart from the scale, as it is more of an American artifact than any other. Still, it was, and will be again, a step in our evolution toward toleration. One does not have to learn to live beside people one never meets. Keeping them in a ghetto, keeping their children in segregated schools, forcing them to use separate facilities, one can spend an entire lifetime never having to cross paths with them. Beginning with the military, the US government began enforcing an end to such separation after World War II. Schools were integrated with the help of the National Guard in the South, and with busing in the North. Fair employment and housing laws forced neighborhoods and workplaces to integrate. This didn't prevent white flight: the movement of persons of color into neighborhoods often resulted in the development of suburbs, as white elites migrated away, setting up enclaves outside city limits. Over time, though, there has clearly been progress.

Occupation: As I mentioned above, integration had to, in some cases, be enforced by the presence of the National Guard. This was not the first time troops were sent into the South to require the fair treatment of persons of color. After the Civil War, the South was occupied by the Union army for a decade. In the end, though, as resistance to civil rights heated up, the army pulled out, leaving the South to put in place a new oppressive regime, which came to be known as Jim Crow. It would be eighty years before the troops returned to finish the job. The point is that at times, throughout history, progress has been enforced at the point of a bayonet. In more recent times, this has been the case in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Discrimination: Troops are brought in to correct an unequal ordering of society that has turned violent, whether over protest or persecution. Throughout history, though, there have been entire nations that exist for generations with a status quo of discrimination that never turns to violence. The Arab Renaissance of the Middle Ages is a case in point: Christians and Jews lived at peace alongside Muslims, and were welcome in many circles of power to an extent unknown in Catholic Europe. Even so, there was never any question who was really in charge, and things could, and did, turn ugly with a regime change. For centuries, Jews held positions of power in the financial sector because laws restricted them from participating in other parts of the economy.

Segregation: In many nations, segregation operates in parallel with discrimination, but in some, it is a heightening of that practice. Jews were integrated into many European cities prior to the Holocaust, though ghettos of primarily Jewish residents still existed. As the Nazi persecution evolved, Jews were evicted from their homes in predominantly Gentile neighborhoods and forced to move into homes in the historic ghettos, rendering them much easier to find when the next stage of destruction was launched. In the American South, entire black communities existed apart from white communities, in large part to avoid the much more violent persecution that occurred when African-Americans were easier to find. Throughout the South, Jim Crow laws required persons of color to use separate, substandard facilities from those used by whites.

Persecution: When discrimination and segregation fail to chase unwanted minorities away, it is a short transition to active persecution. Acts of shaming, graffiti, looting, and ultimately violence against persons underline the inequality of the culture, and is punctuated by the disinterest in, or even involvement in, that persecution by civil authorities.

Pogroms: The word comes from the treatment of Jewish communities by Gentile oppressors in Europe and Russia, but can also be applied to raids conducted on African-American communities by white racists. Destruction of property, terrorism, and public murders typify these acts. The message is clear: Your presence in our region will no longer be tolerated. Find somewhere else to live.

Genocide: Sometimes a minority population simply will not leave. Sometimes they have nowhere to go. At such times, oppressors may turn on them on a national scale, attempting to wipe them out. Tools of genocide do not have to be as institutionalized as they were during the Holocaust: ethnic cleansing can have the same effect, as can mob violence. The goal in all cases is to end the existence of the hated group, and see to it that there are no subsequent generations to exact vengeance on the oppressors.

Working backward in this way is a grim task, but important: we cannot afford to forget how quickly an entire nation can move from tolerance to destruction. The slope is slippery, and every step of progress is countered with angry cries for retreat from traditionalist forces. All it takes is one bigoted politician to turn an entire nation against a minority, damaging relations with that minority for generations to come.

And now here's the glimmer of hope I promised at the conclusion of my last post on the Talibanization of America. It's easy, in the face of such forces, to become discouraged, to imagine that there is no true progress, that all history is a cycle of baby steps toward acceptance being dashed by headlong plunges into genocide. What can one person do in the face of such movements?

A lot. Everything, in fact. Neighborhoods and workplaces may, in the beginning, integrate because they are forced to. Integration becomes the norm when the people who are integrating interact. It's hard to hold onto traditional prejudices against homosexuals, to view them all as perverts and mortal sinners, when your partner on the beat, your classmate, your friendly neighbor is gay and, from every interaction you have with him, a human being just like you with hopes, dreams, fears, a family, a history. Relationships are the answer.

Having a relationship with someone who is different can quickly move an individual up the scale from uncomfortable forced integration to acceptance and even affirmation. If the other is a person of color, or has some distinguishing ethnic or religious characteristics (an accent, a garment or piece of jewelry), the existence of difference is unavoidable. If, however, he or she is passing, keeping that difference locked away to avoid discrimination, it can be much more difficult to make the connections that will heal an individual of bigotry.

This is why it is so essential that "religious liberty" laws like those being proposed in Idaho, Kansas, and Arizona be defeated, and that laws marginalizing minorities be repealed: as long as hostility is sanctioned by the state, persons with a choice will keep their distinctions to themselves, and their neighbors can go on believing they don't know anyone who's "like that." They probably do, but those people are afraid to share that aspect of who they are with someone who's clearly hostile to such people--or simply may not consider it relevant.

My invitation to all of you is to step up and take that chance. If you are a member of a minority, whether or not it's obvious to the people you work or live with, have a substantive conversation with one of those people. Share your common humanity--and find a way to talk about how it feels to be different. And if you're not part of a minority; if, like me, you're very very white, Protestant, straight, as genetically privileged as it's possible to be, then start some conversations with the others in your world. Again, be substantive. Learn about what you have in common with them, and also what makes them different from you. Celebrate those differences.

In the process, you will be changing the world, one person at a time, helping your community, your state, your nation evolve into a people who judge one another not by the color of their skin, the gender of their partner, the cadence of their language, the nature (or complete lack) of their God, but by the content of their character; and even then, in the judging of that character, find something to affirm and celebrate.

The Talibanization of America

It's a beautiful sunny morning in Portland, Oregon, but my thoughts are elsewhere.

The good news is that, in Idaho and Kansas, cooler heads prevailed. That may still happen in Arizona, as well: Gov. Jan Brewer has already vetoed one law like this one.

That bit of good news is cold comfort, though, when held up against the fact that people can be elected to a legislative office, take an oath to uphold the Constitution, and then with a straight face insist they have a constitutional right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and that to question such discrimination is to deny them free exercise of their religion.

That's the essence of all three of these latter-day Jim Crow laws: if my religion teaches that some aspect of your personhood is sinful, I have a right to deny you service at my establishment--even if, in the case of the Idaho bills, that establishment provides vital medical services. You may already have seen the sign posted by Rocco's Pizza Parlor, but it sums up the essence of this conservative effort beautifully. "Reserving the right to refuse service" is small business code for "take your business elsewhere if I don't like who you are."

We've been down this road before. We fought a second civil war over it (and yes, I'm saying the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and '60s was a civil war). The lunch counter protests, the bus boycotts, Freedom Riders, the National Guard enforcing school integration, busing students across cities to maintain that integration, the Voting Rights Act--all of these battles boils down to the insistence of bigots that they have the right to take out their hatred on people who've never done a thing to harm them, but whose mere existence is anathema.

I'll frame it as a story:
A gay couple walks into a diner, holding hands, and takes seats at the counter.
"Ew," says one waitress to another, "I don't want to have to look at that."
"Maybe if we ignore them, they'll go away," says the other waitress, and that's what they do.
After ten minutes of waiting to be served, and seeing people on either side of them get plenty of attention, one member of the couple raises his hand. "Excuse me? We'd really like to see a menu." The waitress at the counter ignores the request, pretends she didn't hear it. "Excuse me!" he says again, louder.
The waitress sighs heavily, walks over to where the couple is sitting, and whispers loudly: "We don't serve people like you here, so why don't you and your...boyfriend...just get the message and leave?"
There's the setup. If this sounds painfully familiar, imagine it's 1959, and substitute a black couple for the gay couple. Now imagine they insist that they are decent human beings, like every other patron in the diner, and they deserve to be treated just as politely as all those others, and by God, they're going to stay here until they get service. They're not going to make a scene, mind you: remember, they're decent human beings. In New York City, in Portland, in Seattle, in San Francisco, in Washington, DC, they can do that. They may even be able to file a complaint with some city agency. In Phoenix, though (assuming Jan Brewer signs this legislation into law), they are now committing a civil rights violation against the waitresses, who can simply claim that it violates their religious freedom to have to wait on a couple of perverts.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here. Most of these blog posts are read by, if I'm lucky, two dozen people, and I doubt any of you are hate-reading me as a stimulus to your outrage engine. To you, then, everything I've just written is painfully obvious. That's why I'm now going to shift gears, and take this to a more over-arching level: the talibanization of America.

The Taliban, for anyone who wasn't paying attention for the last fifteen years, was (and is) a movement of socially conservative Muslims who took over the government of Afghanistan and then encouraged Al Qaeda to set up shop there. We can thank the Taliban for nurturing the September 11 plot into full bloom. The American invasion of Afghanistan pushed the Taliban out of office and installed an ineffective and corrupt quasi-democracy in its place, but they're still out there, enforcing their hateful dogmas on rural Afghanis, killing and maiming young women for having the audacity to go to school.

To the Taliban, it is heresy to educate a woman. There are many other restrictions they place on women, but that's the one that has garnered the most attention lately, thanks to the domestic terrorism targeting girls and girls' schools. It's reminiscent, in many ways, of the racist campaigns waged against public school integration in this country. In Afghanistan, as in the American South, it sometimes takes military protection to get these children safely to and from school.

I am not suggesting that we're going to need troops to defend the right of a couple of lesbians to go to the movies together. What I am saying, though, is that if you boil down the reasoning of the Taliban--that their religion demands they destroy any progress Afghani women have made in the last century, and restore Afghani culture to pre-modern mores--it is remarkably similar to the rationale behind these laws.

The religious right has been losing its grip on American society for over a hundred years. Christian fundamentalism arose in the early 20th century as a response to the growth of mainline Protestantism with its social gospel and its scientific approach to Biblical criticism. Fundamentalists have opposed the teaching of evolution, the liberation of women, the availability of birth control and abortion, and the bestowal of basic human rights on sexual minorities, and have decisively lost all of these battles. Some have come to accept this, and have taken a "live and let live" attitude toward the inexorable relaxation of Victorian morality. There is, however, a contingent within fundamentalism that will not accept the inevitable, that, like the Taliban, believes it is their responsibility to pull this nation back from the brink of a Romanesque decline and fall into corruption, and we cannot afford to ignore them.

It's easy to laugh off potential laws like those grabbing headlines in Kansas, Idaho, and Arizona, but there's a frightening principle here: bigotry is being reframed as liberty. The Constitution protects the free exercise of religion. What if my religion, as I understand it, condemns homosexuality, abortion, sassy children? (A Kansas bill that would expand the rights of educators to spank children also just died in committee.) What if opposing such sinfulness is mandated by my religion? If that's the case, then my immortal soul is on the line if I don't do everything I can to overturn laws requiring tolerance of such behavior.

If you're still not seeing the specter of the Taliban, I'll add one other cautionary note: there's a great deal of overlap between the radical religious right and Second Amendment purists. These people are armed, and view their right to bear arms with the same fanatical devotion as their right to refuse service to anyone who offends their religiously-justified moral sensibilities. As our nation continues down the path to greater acceptance of homosexuality, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine some of those arms being taken up in that cause. It's happened before: Medgar Evers, the "Mississippi Burning" murders, the Birmingham church bombing, Martin Luther King, Jr., and hundreds of others who were shot, lynched, bombed, burned, not to mention the countless numbers terrorized with fists, clubs, burning crosses, fire hoses, dogs. When people believe their prejudices come from God, that their souls are at stake, that their nation must be saved from corruption, some will defend those beliefs with weapons.

The only antidote to this poison is relationship. But this pessimistic essay is already too long, and most of you probably stopped reading six paragraphs ago, so I'll stop here, and save the hopeful part for another post.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


It wasn't until my second year of teaching elementary music that I learned I was special.

I'm sure the word was in use long before that, but somehow I had never heard it before. And no, I don't mean "special" in the sense of "special education" (which, in education vernacular, has evolved to "sped"). In an elementary school, a "special" takes an entire class of students off their homeroom teacher's hands for a set amount of time. Specials, recess, and lunch are usually the only time during the school day that classroom teachers have for prep--and it's rare that recess and lunch are entirely student-free. Kids have a way of needing their teachers during those periods, whether it's for some one-on-one tutoring, as a reward for good behavior (lunch in the classroom!), or as a punishment for bad behavior (recess in the classroom). Specials in most schools are music, PE, and library; a few schools add a dedicated art teacher to that mix. Two times a week is the norm for each special--or used to be; budget cutbacks sometimes put specials on an every-seventh-day schedule.

In any case, I learned in 2004 that I was a special, and it bothered me. Please don't misunderstand me, I love it that, for many children, my class is the highlight of their day. What I don't like is that music is a privilege, a luxury that can be easily lined out when there's a budget crisis (as happened to my first job in Banks), or held back when a student is misbehaving (as happened to me just last week with some challenging first graders). It bothers me, too, that, as far as many teachers and administrators are concerned, music, PE, library, and, if they're really lucky, art are convenient things plugged in to the schedule to provide contractual prep time. Math, science, and, especially, reading are not special; they're essential.

Music has been "special" almost since it first entered the American curriculum. Puritans eschewed music as frivolous, even sinful. The purpose of education was creating pious, industrious adults. Music was for leisure, entertainment, and contributed nothing to the character of young students.

In time, more enlightened educators realized that music was as essential to human existence as any of the other humanities, though it still was of less importance than literacy and mathematics. In many states, music became a legislated part of the curriculum. This was true in Oregon when I had my first, brief foray into public education.

And then came the ballot measures.

It was like a wild fire, so naturally it started in California. It was promoted as "property tax relief," but really it was an income redistribution, shielding primarily wealthy landowners from paying a fair share of public services like law enforcement, fire departments, and public education. Budgets were slashed, class sizes grew, infrastructure crumbled, and much of what made education enjoyable and motivational for students was recategorized as non-essential. Music, art, physical education, library: all of these went on the chopping block. Many districts worked creatively to minimize the impact, reducing hours, sharing teachers across buildings, rewriting job descriptions so librarians no longer had to be certified, replacing PE with additional recess time, guiding classroom teachers into art methods courses so, again, certified specialists could be laid off. It was harder to do this with music: many adults shy away from the notion that they have any musical ability at all, let alone the ability to teach students to sing, dance, and play music. Still, the demands of budgeting could not be forestalled, and many like me joined the ranks of unemployed art and PE teachers.

When we came back, if we came back at all, it was as a special. The message was clear, as I've heard many a classroom teacher express it: music is a privilege. Don't count on it. We lost it a couple of years ago, and now it's back, but it could go away again. If it does, we'll still get our prep time, but it will mean hiring additional classified staff to monitor extra recess. Instead of learning to sing, play, and move with music, you'll spend more time on the playground.

It's a hard thing to be special, especially when, as any musician worth his or her salt will tell you, music is so much more than that. Music is essential in the best meaning of the word: that which pertains to or contains the essence of a thing. Let's be honest here: once one leaves school, math is really only important to those pursuing scientific careers. The math I use is mostly stuff I learned in primary school. Algebra and geometry rarely intrude on my life, and I haven't used trig or calculus since I studied them in the late 1970s.

Music, on the other hand--

Well, okay, I am, after all, a professional musician and a music educator. But that's beside the point: music pervades my life, as it pervades yours, no matter what you do for a living. It's everywhere. I'm blessed that I have the knowledge and ability to interact with it. For many of you who lack this learning, music is still essential. Put together a playlist of all the songs that matter to you, and you'll have as good a personality profile as can be had. Music ennobles, empowers, inspires. Is it a thing of truth and beauty, presented in the abstract, that is far more portable than any visual artwork can hope to be. It moves us spiritually and physically, imparting grace to our gestures, enjoyment to our progress, a context to our relationships. Music will be with you until the day you die--something that cannot be said of mathematics or literacy.

I am literary, as well as musical, and I have a scientific side as well. I am not writing this to suggest that any of the three Rs should be scrapped to make way for music. What I am arguing is that music is as essential to the curriculum as any of those other disciplines; that an education without music is dry, sterile, and ultimately not much fun.

So please, don't call what I do a "special," and please don't hold your misbehaving students back from my class to teach them that music is a reward, a privilege that can be revoked for bad behavior. You wouldn't withhold a math or reading lesson from them, would you? What I do matters much more than recess. For some students, it may make the difference between dropping out and staying in school. For all students, it will elevate them far beyond what they can be from extra recesses.

In a word, music is as essential to your children's upbringing as anything they'll learn from their classroom teacher. It's so much more than special.

Monday, February 10, 2014

What We Choose to Be

Homosexuality, Choice, and Michael Sam

Is all-star college football player Michael Sam gay by choice, or by birth?

Slate writer Will Saletan makes the convincing argument that, considering all the difficult choices Sam had to make to become the athlete he is, being gay is hardly something he would've picked; and by extension, coming out is certainly something he could have elected not to do. This point has been in my arsenal since at least 1992, when my opinions about gay rights were first confronted by a well-meaning homophobe.

The impetus for this conversation was the 1992 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which was making national headlines for its quadrennial struggle over whether to relax its rules against ordaining gay pastors. In that conference, as at every time the battle has been joined, the church came down conservative, tightening rather than relaxing restrictions. Even so, the very fact that Methodists were having this debate, that it wasn't a simple given that homosexuality always has been, and always will be, a sin worthy of excommunication, led an evangelical church in Talent, Oregon, to boot the Talent United Methodist Church out of the monthly ecumenical gospel singalong. The pastor who called me to deliver the bad news was apologetic, but countered every one of my objections with a scripture verse.

In the years that followed, I acquired excellent tools for matching such prooftexting verse for verse, but I rarely used them, and eventually concluded such battles were pointless. Those who read the Bible as a collection of edicts that reinforce their own prejudices can easily ignore or deny any argument, however scholarly, that challenges such a reading, and pressing the case for more nuanced critical readings frequently causes the arguer to be considered in league with the great Deceiver. "The Bible says what it means and means what it says," one fundamentalist stalwart told me. And no, pointing out that the Bible he was referring to was actually a translation, the choice of every word subject to the personal prejudices of the translators got me nowhere. This is why Bill Nye's presence at the Creation Museum--which has already been turned by Ken Ham into a propaganda piece for his bizarre ideas--was ultimately futile. It's not about reason, and never has been.

This is not to say that evangelicals are unreachable. In fact, over the years I have encountered many persons of the evangelical persuasion who came around and found themselves open their hearts and minds to the possibility that homosexuality was not a sinful choice, but rather an innate orientation. In almost every case, their minds were changed not by logic, but by relationship: if your child, your sibling, your best friend, perhaps even your parent comes out to you, it is very hard to hold onto to the notion that this person is a pervert, a mortal sinner you must eject from your life. Mind you, many conservatives when confronted with this truth have, indeed, estranged themselves from their former loved one, at great emotional cost to all involved. But some, once they have had time to process this truth, come around for the sake of this one person; and it's not that great a leap to say if it can be true for Aunt Trudy, then why not for Ellen DeGeneres, Barney Frank, or Michael Sam?

Reading the Slate piece about Michael Sam, it seems he came out to his teammates at Missouri early in his college football career. He acknowledges that it wasn't an easy thing for all of them to accept, but I expect his openness probably made even the most homophobic of them question his prejudice. It's tempting to urge other gays and lesbians to be less closeted, to come out to more of their families, friends, coworkers. After all, the climate in the United States is becoming more gay-friendly all the time, isn't it?

The truth, though, is not so open or welcoming. Yes, there are more places now where the LGBTQ community can be open about their sexual identity without fear of persecution than has probably ever been the case in the United States; but much of the country remains stubbornly, even violently, homophobic.

I've been on the receiving end of homophobic rage a few times for taking the positions I do, and it can be terrifying: a death threat on the answering machine, a huge pickup roaring by and blasting its horn on an empty country road, graffiti on the church's front door. I can't imagine what it's like to face the prospect of this on a daily basis for simply holding hands in public--something I do without thinking with my romantic partner. So I don't hold anything against those gay people who choose to remain closeted, or if they do come out, are extremely choosy about whom they do it to.

We can't all be Michael Sam, a gifted athlete who, once he is drafted, will be playing for a team that has chosen him knowing who he is. He will have the support of his coaching staff and, almost certainly, his fellow teammates, all of them large, strong, virile men. For most of us, when we come out, whether it is a question of sexual orientation, political stance, ethnicity, or any other aspect of our identity the display of which could subject us to ridicule, rejection, or persecution, we will do so as individuals, far from the spotlight, even farther from the protections that come with it for a celebrity. The choice we will make is not about who we are, but how publicly we live that identity.

Celebrity or not, it is always a brave choice to make one's identity visible to others. Whether or not that choice puts us at risk of physical harm or discriminatory practices, it means exposing ourselves to potential rejection. I've written frequently about my disappointment with church officials paying lip service to beliefs, but never actually challenging the rules that stigmatize those beliefs if doing so would endanger their positions. The point at which doing the right thing means risking one's professional status, power, income, or privilege is hard to cross, and it's understandable that those who hold the most status in an institution are least likely to put it on the line to stand up for those who have little.

Stop for a moment, though, and think about this: oppressed people who rise up against their persecutors, who stand up and make themselves known, who out themselves in the interests of improving the world not just for themselves, but for all who are like them, put much more at risk on a daily basis than you or I (assuming you are, like me, a person enjoying some unearned privilege for racial, ethnic, gender, or orientation reasons) will ever have to face. Yes, it is essential to any civil rights struggle that the people asking for those rights be at the center of the conflict, petitioning for justice. At the same time, it is absolutely vital that they have advocates among the privileged classes.

I was privileged to study theology in seminary with Schubert Ogden, a brilliant process theologian dedicated to making the world a better place for marginalized people. One day in class he told a story about the mythologization of John F. Kennedy. Professor Ogden spent many an election day driving people to the polls. In 1968, he picked up an African-American woman who had never voted before. On their way to the polling place, he asked her why, considering how risky it still was for persons of color to vote in Dallas, she was doing this. Her reply: "If Jack Kennedy could die for this country, the least I can do is vote for it."

I hope the opportunity comes someday for me to make a choice that is even slightly as important as Michael Sam's: to be the change I would see in my world.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Creation Staycation

It's been five days since the Great Creation Debate of 2014, and I'm still torn. Not by the debate itself (which, full disclosure, I've only read about), but by whether it ever should have happened in the first place.

In case you haven't heard about it, Bill Nye, science educator and entertainer (my kids watched his PBS show back in the 1990s) traveled to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, for a debate with Ken Ham, Christian apologist and author of this book:
Judging by the length of the video posted by the museum on Youtube, the debate was nearly three hours long. Judging by the commentary on Slate Magazine, it was also pointless. Nye deftly dissected the standard Biblical creationist arguments and, as might be expected, made the case for science, primarily evolutionary biology and geology. Ham smoothly rolled out sputter-inducing fallacies, unanswerable questions easily answered by Nye, ignored the answers, and layered on even more creationist silliness.

That's why I'm struggling with whether this should even have been attempted. I've given up trying to convince Biblical literalists of the errors of their ways, and have written about that decision several times. Since the issue for them is not really truth (as much as they like to use that word) but faith, the rules of logic simply don't apply. Exposing the contradictions and errors in their reasoning is blasphemy. However calmly, logically, and respectfully Bill Nye may have made his case, whatever he said was essentially a huge middle finger to Ken Ham's dogma. And that is why I just don't go there.

Bill Nye did go there, and has come under fire from the scientific community for doing so. Much of their criticism suggests that his mere presence at the Creation Museum lent credence to its ludicrous mission of evangelizing the ideas that the world is 6000 years old, that humans interacted with dinosaurs, and that all the evidence for evolution only applies to descendants of the critters that Noah took on the ark with him, all of which were prototypes created just a few generations earlier by God. Ken Ham has dedicated his life to propounding this codswallop, building an empire of nonsense for the misinformed who view science in the same way Joe McCarthy viewed Communism, and attempting to debate him from the perspective of science would be an exercise in frustration for the most gifted logician.

It should go without saying that I think Ken Ham's "Dinosaurs of Eden" approach is loony. What grieves me most about it, though, isn't the bizarre ideas it stuffs down the gullible craws of its science-fearing adherents; rather, it's the way it abuses a text that has far more to say about humanity than can be contained in a literal reading of its plot points.

There are two creation stories contained in the book of Genesis. The first is on a cosmic scale, and places humans at the apex of creation. The second is much more intimate, a story of an oasis in which God gets down in the mud and makes a man, blows him up like a balloon, then makes some animals and, finally, a woman to keep him company. Apart from the whimsy of the imagery, the story is a brilliant depiction of human nature: both the man and the woman are innocents. A clever snake talks the woman into breaking the rule against eating from a particular tree. She at least objects at first; the man unquestioningly takes what he's given to eat. Suddenly they both feel naked, and make skirts out of itchy fig leaves to conceal their privates. Hearing God approaching, they hide. Found out, they refuse to take responsibility: the man blames the woman, the woman blames the snake. Realizing their presence in the garden is a recipe for continued destruction, God banishes them, condemning them to hard lives in the real world.

There have been whole libraries written about the meaning of this story. For my part, I've shifted my understanding of it over the years. As a preacher, I focused on the blame game that it plays, the way both humans refuse to take responsibility for their actions. As a teacher, I find it much richer: the two humans appear to be about six years old in terms of reasoning and morality. The woman is extremely concrete in her understanding of the rule about the tree, while the man is sheeplike in his willingness to simply break that rule because she already has. Upon realizing they're in trouble, their first impulse is to hide. Confronted with their crime, they turn instantly to blame. And then they have to leave the garden and work for a living.

As I see it, the whole story is a metaphor for growing up. Children are naturally curious, impulsive, and prone to getting into difficult situations with consequences they never could have expected. Eventually, the nurturing environment of home and school has to be left behind as they graduate to a world of hard work and childrearing. Pointing fingers, making excuses, and crying over the unfairness of it all is futile: we have no choice but to grow up. It's an experience every human being lucky enough to survive childhood has had since the beginning of time.

That's the approach I would take if I found myself stuck in a room with Ken Ham. I'd leave my science hat at the door. He doesn't speak the language of science anymore than I speak Croatian. At best, he's using scientific words as a kind of gibberish. If I had to talk with him, I'd delve into the deeper meaning of the text, see if he could appreciate the real Truth in this spiritual document.

I'm in awe of Creation, by the way. I go to Utah to see the history of the earth revealed, and there's no question but that it's mind-bogglingly ancient. Yesterday, as Amy and I were skiing through the park, I watched two ducks bank their wings to come in for a soft landing on a frozen pond, and I was blown away with what brilliant pilots birds are instinctively. It's easy for me to see why so many, whether or not they believe in the "young earth" idea, place some kind of divine intelligence behind the forces and processes that shaped our world: it's all so elegant, so complex, and it all fits together in such amazing ways. It's also, though, harshly chaotic: the weather that kept us at home skiing has caused dozens of traffic accidents.

I don't know if there is a God behind all this. I like to think there is, but I can't be logically convinced, one way or the other. Science neither proves nor disproves the existence of a Creator. It does describe how our present world came to be the way it is, but it can't tell us why. Faith can bring meaning to the wonders around us, but only the tools of observation and analysis can explain those wonders. These two world views need not be at odds. Casting either of them as debatable is a recipe for frustration.

As for me, I'll leave such futility to the likes of Bill Nye, Bill Maher, and Christopher Hitchens; and spend as much of my remaining time on this earth as I can enjoying the wonders of nature, geology, and human development. Whoever or whatever made this stuff, it sure is pretty.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


Portlanders are calling it Snowmageddon and Snowpocalypse. And yes, it is quite a winter storm: snow that turned my usual 35-minute commute into two hours Thursday afternoon; wind that knocked limbs off trees; more snow that closed schools yesterday, and continues to disrupt business today; and now freezing rain on top of that. It will probably be tomorrow night before the Willamette Valley starts to thaw out.

And it will. Which is why the "mageddon" and "pocalypse" suffixes are just plain silly. Three and a half days of playing in the snow (which is what Amy and I did yesterday and today, both skiing and snowshoeing our neighborhood) do not the end of the world make.

I do have to admit that this weather is out of the ordinary. The last time I lost a full day of work to a snowstorm was December, 2008. Of course, then it was a full week, and the snow and cold continued for a second week, disrupting the Christmas holiday. I was trapped in Forest Grove for that storm, saddled with a car which (I learned to my chagrin) could not be equipped with chains--one of many reasons I no longer drive an Acura. The one bright spot on those lost weeks was skiing around town. But back to today:

My mother spent her first eighteen years in New Hampshire. In 1964, my family moved back there from California, which means that from the age of three until the end of second grade I experienced New England winters. I'm not calling them "real" winters on purpose, as you'll see later in this post. But yes, those winters during my formative years were exactly what winters stereotypically are for persons of northern European descent: cold and snowy. And yes, I did walk to and from school through waist-high snow banks, by myself, in the first and second grades.

In 1969, we moved to Idaho. The winters became both colder and less snowy due to Idaho's high desert climate. Building a snowman usually meant using up all the white stuff in the yard, leaving nothing for forts or snowball fights, but that was okay, because it was usually so cold outside we didn't really want to linger once the snowman was erected, anyway. My last day of school in Filer, Idaho, there was a freak snowstorm, and instead of the traditional squirtgun fight, there were slushball fights after school. There was a week in Emmett, Idaho, during which schools were closed because it was so far below zero it wasn't considered safe to leave the house.

Since 1975, I have called Oregon home, and here I have become accustomed to the sort of winters that cause Oregonians to think of six inches of snow as apocalyptic. Winters here are mild, rainy, with long intervals of gray clouds occasionally interrupted by brilliant blue skies. Temperatures are typically in the 40s, rising to the 50s and 60s for the February false spring, sinking back down in March until true spring arrives with gusto in April. With all those years in this climate, my definition of "real" winter is this: cool, wet, short.

I've lived in other places as an adult: eastern Oregon, Illinois, Texas, northern England. Each had its own real winter weather, with England being the most like Portland. My first winter in Illinois was the longest I've experienced, with snow first arriving in November, and some still on the ground in April, just weeks before graduation. In Dallas, the entire city shut down for two days because there was a slight possibility of snow--which never materialized. Driving home from LaGrande for Christmas, I experienced my first snow-related accident, losing control of my un-chained Celica and crashing into the concrete median on I-84.

My point here is that "real winter" is whatever winter weather most feels to you like home. Until I was in my 20s, I still needed snow to feel that, and those few times that snow fell while I was in high school, college, even graduate school, I always felt a rush of nostalgia. Once I had experienced Dallas, though, and particularly after moving to England, it was mild, damp weather, especially when coupled with the freshness of rain-washed pines, that most felt like home. Real winter weather to me is the kind that permits me to go on with my daily routine--and occasionally to drive an hour or two so I can clip my skis on and do some Nordic trails.

I'm not begrudging the mess this snow has created, though; in fact, it's been something of a gift, making up for the Sun River weekend we had to sacrifice to an upper respiratory infection. (There probably wasn't much snow at Mt. Bachelor that weekend, anyway.) And yes, it is a disruption, but really just a temporary one; by Tuesday, I expect we'll be back to normal, cool, wet, spring just around the corner. That's why I'm calling this snow storm a winterval, and I invite you to do the same, to put it in perspective. Unless, of course, this is real winter for you. Then you may call it whatever you like.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Moving In

I have always been itinerant.

I moved for the first time when I was five weeks old. My father's career as a minister, first in the American Baptist Church, then the United Methodist Church, meant we moved on average every three years. Once I finished my schooling at the age of 30, I kept moving. The longest I've had a single address was the four years I lived in Philomath--my high school years. It appears the moving has, finally, slowed down: our plan is to remain in this house another four and a half years, then move to somewhere in inner Portland, where we may expect to spend the rest of our independent adult lives. That was my parents' story, too: my father's longest appointment was his last, and since retiring in 1990, he and my mother have lived continuously in the house they inherited from my grandmother.

I've changed jobs a lot, too, and not just in my ministry years. I was technically in the Banks district for six years, but the middle two were on layoff, and the last two were half time. I expect to be in my current job, with Reynolds, for a very long time, hopefully the remainder of my career, but until Reynolds restores full time music across the district, I will be changing schools in January every year. (That's how Hartley and Scott have chosen to have their respective halves of both me and the PE teacher: I will do second semester this year and first semester next year at Hartley, then do the same at Scott while she trades places with me.)

The two schools have a lot in common: large student populations, many of whom are English Language Learners, most of whom are on free or reduced lunches; and neither school has a dedicated music room, so I'm again in the gym. One thing Hartley does not have, at least not in my first four days, is anything approaching the level of problem behaviors I faced at Scott. It could be that the PE teacher really whipped these students into shape, and I'm benefiting from her skills at teaching proper gym behavior. I think there's more to it than that, though.

Changing schools as many times as I have, and, before, that, subbing in as many as I did, I've discovered that schools have personalities. Scott's personality was disordered, something that we all inherited from a previous principal who, as near as I can tell, was just marking time to retirement. There was also a clash brought on by a merging of neighborhoods, and an influx of over a hundred children that expanded the school's population by twenty percent. The new principal has worked diligently at taming the wildness of the school, but it's clearly hard on her.

Hartley has a very different vibe. There are still problems of class size--in this case, it's the third grade that is huge--and fifth grades can be just as obnoxious as anywhere else. But I don't get the sense that these children have had their boundaries altered in uncomfortable ways. They know what to expect. There are fewer new faces, and the overall atmosphere of the place is calmer.

Both schools are supportive environments that provide the only stability many of these children will ever know. Both are more than schools to them: they are community.

As for me, I almost instantly became a rock star. Children greet me in the hall with a grin and a wave, are delighted to see me when I walk past the library to lunch, point me out to each other and whisper "music teacher!" to those who haven't yet met me. I do think that, as of today, I have had every one of the 500+ students in the gym, and I've got a good start on learning names. They're like any other children I've taught: sweet, earnest, squirrely at times, hungry for attention and approval, friendly, polite, easily chastened, thrilled to have two sticks to hit together, laughing at the musical jokes I play on them, endlessly creative. As much as I love it here already, I cannot help but ache for the children I left behind at Scott, many of whom I will never see again.

But I won't dwell on it; for one thing living as an itinerant has taught me well is how to say goodbye. It's sad and sweet, and I treasure the notes children wrote me, and the puppy piles of hugs I experienced in my last week at Scott. My job now, though, is to build something new, and considering how quickly I became a rock star here, I fully expect the hugging to commence any day now.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Love and Limits

"Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking."--Mary Poppins, moments before, her work with the Banks family complete, she takes flight, never to see them again.

There's a poignant rightness to that scene, something I recognized from an early age. I've seen Disney's Mary Poppins more times than I can count; I may even have seen it when it was first released in 1964, though since I was three, I don't have any memory of it. There's plenty of meat here for both children and adults: magic that turns chores into play, adventures on rooftops and inside a chalk painting, lessons in the relative worth of money, work, and family, how to recognize a horrible Cockney accent, catchy songs and invigorating dance routines, and on and on it goes. Almost all of it can be brushed away as a feel-good fantasy about a magical visitor helping a broken family come together, with the requisite happy ending one expects from a Disney movie--almost all of it. For there is one aspect of this movie that rung true to me the first time I actually remember seeing it (I was probably six or seven), and which has been in my thoughts all week: that final moment when, as the Banks family runs off to the park, reunited, to fly a kite and discover that Mr. Banks has been not just reinstated, but promoted, Mary Poppins hangs back, has a brief argument with her umbrella handle, and flies away.

I don't consider myself perfect, or even practically perfect, but in that line about sentiment and muddled thinking contains one of the most important truths about teaching: we who choose this vocation are in the business of changing the lives of children for the better. This has to be done with love, for they are, after all, children, and to allow any other emotion to motivate this work would be to enter the realm of exploitation. So we must love our students. But here's the thing: as much as we love them, we must not become attached to them. They will become attached to us--they are, as I will keep reminding you, children--but we must hold our own attachment in check. We must not permit sentiment--by which I mean motives unbecoming of an educational professional--to muddle our thinking.

Mary Poppins models this from the moment of her arrival at the Banks household. She is strictly business, taking charge of both the children and their parents, effortlessly transitioning them into the first of many lessons. As firm as she is in enforcing her expectations, she is also warm and compassionate, and, fully cognizant of the requirements of working with children, injects fun and adventure into everything she does with them. One of her lessons, though, is boundaries, and so she keeps her day off sacrosanct, sending the children to work with their father. And when it's all over, when the lessons have been learned and the family is reunited, and they head off together to fly a kite without so much as a thank you, she takes it completely in stride. She feels a pang of regret--as her umbrella handle points out, just before she clamps its beak shut and flies away--but she refuses to let that interfere with the truth that her work is done, and it is time for her to move on to the next family in need of her healing magic.

I have been teaching since 2002. Since then, I have had thousands of students in my classes. Many I found delightful, some obnoxious; most fell somewhere between  those extremes. I taught with love, and occasionally felt it coming back from students, though never as much as I did at Margaret Scott. At the conclusion of every year, I said goodbye to many of those students, knowing I would not be seeing them again. Some were gone from me as they were promoted to the next level of education. Some would move away over the summer. And in some cases, I was leaving that school, usually for another position, but in one case, due to a budgetary layoff.

One cannot work with children and say as many goodbyes as I have said without having some sense of professional boundaries. If I did not guard my heart against sentimental attachment, I would be crippled by grief for all the children who were briefly under my tutelage, but whom I will not be seeing again.

Wednesday was my last day at Margaret Scott. Many of my classes were in obnoxious mode, restless, unfocused, sensing that something was about to change, unsure what it would be. For my part, I told every class I saw this week that it was their last time for music until next February (I'll be at Hartley School for a full year to minimize the number of moves). Every class had a few children celebrating the end of music and the beginning of PE; to every one of those expressions, I asked, "And how do you think that makes me feel?" But it really wasn't a surprise to me--I know there were a few children in every class who would much rather be playing games far more physical than even the most active of music games can be--and I could tell the overwhelming majority were sorry to see me go. Most classes offered up a loud "thank you" chorus as their home room teachers took charge of them, and many were slowed by spontaneous hug-fests. I felt well and truly appreciated, and was touched by all these displays of affection.

The moment that most reached me, though, came at the beginning of the day, as I was doing my outdoor duty, monitoring arrivals. A fifth grade girl named Mayrin, who has brightened every morning for me with her sparkling smile, handed me a gift bag. In it, I found a handwritten note and a scallop shell that had been taped shut. Inside was a guitar pick. Mayrin was in the choir, and she had seen me go through half a dozen of the flimsy picks I was using. This pick looked used, but it was thicker, more durable, and I used it to play for the last choir rehearsal at lunchtime. Mayrin was paying attention, and knew exactly what to give me: something I could use, wrapped up in something she had made herself.

I won't see Mayrin again, or any of the other fifth graders who either blessed or cursed my time at Scott. They'll be in middle school by the time I come back a year from now. Every child I am reintroduced to will be a year older. And many will be gone: the Reynolds district serves a mobile population. Wednesday I handed all those children on to the PE teacher who takes my place in the gymnasium. And tomorrow I start meeting hundreds of new students who will love me, tolerate me, or despise me because I am teaching them music (rather than PE) in the Hartley gymnasium. I'll teach them for four months and a couple of weeks, then pass them back to their parents, never to see many of them again.

That's as it should be. I work with love and boundaries. That makes me practically perfect--practically because I am always placing limits on how I express that love, and how I permit it to affect me. I can never let it muddle my thinking--to do so would be to fall down on the job, incapacitate me from the tough choices I must make--but I can't keep it from touching me; and that touch is what makes this work, as poignant as it can be, so rewarding as well.

Thank you, Mary Poppins, for helping me keep it real.