the destruction of defensiveness: generation bruh

My oldest son is a teenager, and he calls himself part of Generation Bruh. When asked to expound on what this label means, he responds with hilarious memes of people dramatically being “done.” Mildly annoyed, sarcastically dismissive, mocking the obvious, hilariously put-out…all of his examples are basically combinations of 3 sentiments: Adults are dumb; Not my problem; Boy Bye.  Nevertheless, I have reason to believe Generation Bruh knows very well that America is their “problem”, and that they only dismiss those of us who live in isolated, defensive denial about what America represents.

Last week he was reading about the violence that tragically helped bring about the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement.  Specifically, he was immersed in the details of Emmett Till’s death and its aftermath.  When he looked up I caught his eye and asked him how it made him feel to read this part of our history.  He looked me straight in the eye and said, “It is terrible. I hate it. And I hate reading about how, once again, white men are the worst. I’m sick of it.”  

I was stunned for a couple of reasons. His honesty shocked me.  I was also dumbfounded that his response to the senseless and vicious murder of another human was somehow defensively about himself.  Generation Bruh is done with drama. They are done hearing about all the inequities and hypocrisies of America.  But they know it is there. The challenge facing all of us is how to face the good, bad and ugly of American history and culture without getting defensive or checking out.  

We, collectively, are raising kids who understand our country was founded on an idea of equality and dignity that we have yet to realize. 

Pity for white men is not an appropriate response to our racist history.  And yet, as I talked with him about his fatigue, I realized he is growing up exposed to realities of abuse in law enforcement, churches, medical offices, work spaces, churches, schools and homes.  He is growing up during the era of church sexual abuse, Black Lives Matter, and #metoo.  He is growing up in a world where the most powerful men in our country openly belittle and discriminate against women of every race, the foreign born and people of color. He is constantly bombarded with evidence that our world is unjust, and he only has to look around to see that white males possess most of the power and wealth in our country.

As a white male himself, how is he to navigate this world?  He observes abuse everywhere, and now he contextualizes that abuse with an honest historical examination of colonialism, patriarchy and a racially stratified America.  Perhaps my son is “done” with talking about the need to face historical abuse or to pursue diverse perspectives because he already does this on a daily basis (#sorrynotsorry).  I was not taught to recognize the deep tensions or hypocrisies in American history.  I was taught Columbus discovered America and the intercultural celebration of Thanksgiving was indicative of the dignifying partnerships between new settlers and Natives.  My son, on the other hand, knows that Columbus didn’t discover anything, and that the pilgrims’ approach to Natives was one of theft and displacement. 

The challenge facing all of us is how to face the good, bad and ugly of American history and culture without getting defensive or checking out.  

I was taught Christianity was always a force for good, and that every person who worked hard could improve their prospects. My son knows that Christianity largely legitimized the abusive global power of Empire, and that our laws created generational poverty that hard work cannot overcome.  I was taught that education is the great equalizer, and that if kids would only stay in school they would leave poverty behind. My son knows that many communities fail kids, and that majority minority schools in our city regularly graduate kids who do not read on grade level and will flunk out of college.  I was taught that democracy is fair and that voting gives us a voice.  My son knows that voting rights are not universal to American citizens, and that gerrymandered districts have corrupted our ability to ensure effective representation.  Generation Bruh can act oblivious, but they know things, yall.

We, collectively, are raising kids who understand our country was founded on an idea of equality and dignity that we have yet to realize.  As the Grammys opened Sunday night, Kendrick Lamar rapped while black men in hoodies were systematically picked off, all in front of an American flag.  U2’s Bono and the Edge walked through the men, reminding us, “It’s not a place, this country is to me a thought, that offers grace, for every welcome that is sought.” As if they knew we Americans are not so great at hearing the truth uttered by voices different than our own, Dave Chappelle stepped forward as a translator of sorts: “I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.”  Generation Bruh are growing into American adulthood as the idea of America is deconstructed and resignified.  Their entire nation seems to ask: Are we, as Lincoln said in Gettysburg, “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”?

Can we blame Generation Bruh for doubting, with all their eye rolling and sighing and “lookatthisdude”-ing, that we in America are “dedicated” to that incredibly obvious proposition?  A simple look at our jails, schools, tax code, neighborhoods, payroll, or welfare programs clearly reveal that we are dedicated to no such thing.  We need only listen to comments collected at random from elected officials to know that we spend a great deal of energy governing on the proposition that all people fit nicely into a society stratified by economics, race and gender.  Our kids must grapple with what America is and what their places might be in it.  My study of Generation Bruh encourages me that their attitude of “done” stems not from apathy, but from a deep security that they understand inherent equality, and the open attacks to that equality, better than we do. 

We all need to struggle with our cultural legacies, and with the particularized setting history has given us. I am intimidated and profoundly grateful to have the privilege of helping my kids position themselves as subjects with agency, even as they are contextualized by a history of often failing to embody stated ideals.  Sadly, the wide range of defensiveness I hear from adults reveals the fact that many of us have not moved beyond feeling attacked by any reference to our unjust world.  My hope is that a diverse Generation Bruh can move through feelings of defensiveness or victimization into full agency as they reconcile the America that can be with the America that is.

In the coming weeks I’ll try to help us recognize and ultimately reject defensiveness as a response to the pain of others. In the meantime, adults who interact with Generation Bruh might do well to pay attention to what they see and hear, and join them in wrestling with how to be an American adult.

on women marching and advocating for women

In honor of this weekend’s record-breaking women’s marches, I am posting an essay I wrote last year, after marching in Nashville.  Remembering the varied reactions to the marches and their causes made me wonder—then and now—how to advocate for human flourishing in this particular American moment.  I think we all lose if we buy the lie that advocating for humans and advocating for fetuses are mutually exclusive commitments…

Last Saturday I piled into a car with a couple of 30 year olds, a new teenager, and two women my age (40ish J), and we drove downtown for our Nashville Women’s March.  Some of us had marched before, and some were nervous about their first time.  Some of us were conservative, and some of us were progressive.  Some of us knew immigrants, and some of us did not.  Some of us were prolife, and some of us were prochoice.  Some of us had nothing to hold except a hand, while others held signs attesting to the combined strength of women.  All of us were hopeful, and believed in the power of love and collaboration to spur each other to advocate for all of our civil rights.

We gathered at Cumberland Park and rubbed elbows, hugged, chanted, disagreed, listened, cried, sang and marched together.  I was brought to tears by many of the speakers.  A beautiful black woman with a powerful voice reclaimed the words of Dr. King as she reminded us that progressive white Christian voices are the greatest hindrance to protecting the civil rights of all.  I realized I am responsible for her continued diminished thriving when I tell her to be patient, to wait for equality to come, to lower her voice and trust that things will improve with time.  King’s words, uttered with her own plea, convicted me.  As a follower of Christ I should stand with those whose very presence is treated with skepticism and disdain, just as Christ stood with the broken, came and lived among them, challenging those powers that treated them as untouchable.

An elderly Mexican American, crying through broken English, proudly claimed: “I am America.  I am part of you.  I want to stand with you as your friend and mother.  Will you take my hand?  Will you stand with me?”   She was just a woman, standing in front of thousands of people in a country that sometimes sees people from Mexico as thieves robbing us of our American dream.  She simply asked us to hear her, to see her as a woman, a mom and a grandmother.  She is an American who wants to be seen as a part of our wonderful whole, not as a brown outsider who threatens our unity.   She reminded me that when I place people in groups, when I assume the worst of others, I am ignoring the call of God to move toward outsiders, just as Christ moved toward me and called me, “daughter.”

I was stunned by a Muslim American who reminded me that powerful women provide space for those around them to be.  When I assume an oppressed woman hides under a hijab, I am helping to erase her, stripping her of agency.  This beautiful Muslim woman reminded me that she has her own voice, and asked me to stand with her, not speak for or about her in ignorance. 

If we do not acknowledge the fear, frustration and pain of vulnerable people, are we not dismissing them?  We cannot overlook divisive and demonizing rhetoric that isolates millions in an effort to advocate for ‘life.’

There was another voice that troubled me.  A woman advocating for a woman’s right to choose to abort her baby argued there was nothing to regret or mourn about her past abortion.  Some in the crowd cheered.  Some remained silent.  I said, “I wish she hadn’t said that.  Abortion is always awful.” As a person who believes God creates life, I am broken by abortion, and hope no woman ever has to have one.  I know that many other Christians feel so strongly about protecting fetal life that they vote solely on this issue.  They rejected the national Women’s March because it was decidedly pro-choice in its partnerships.  However, being prolife should encourage advocacy for every life diminished or threatened by societal systems.  If I had stayed home because I was afraid of being misunderstood, I would have missed the chance to support women who want to worship freely, or women who want to be physically safe from groping men, or women who want to make their own healthcare choices, or women of color who desire respect, or women who want to provide for their families when they work fulltime, or women who want to keep their children safe and their families together.  If I had stayed home because I wanted to advocate for life, I would have missed the chance to advocate for life in person, in the crowd.  I respect the agency some prolife friends exhibit in participating in this debate, in speaking up for abortion alternatives, in caring for single moms who, despite working full time, cannot support their kids because we don’t have a minimum living wage in our country.  I respect the consistency many friends exhibit when they come alongside women (before and after delivery) who cannot care for a child but carry one to term anyway.  I respect the sacrificial action these women exhibit when they foster and adopt children whose parents chose not to abort, but whose realities remain desperate. 

However, I struggle to understand my prolife friends who describe chronically poor people as lazy, irresponsible parents, while voting into office those who restrict access to birth control, defund affordable housing initiatives, reduce support for agencies who stand in the gap for poor kids, prevent access to insurance subsidies and reject the notion that a person who works full time should also live above the poverty line in our country.  If we do not acknowledge the fear, frustration and pain of these others, are we not dismissing them?  We cannot overlook divisive and demonizing rhetoric that isolates millions in an effort to advocate for “life.”  Christians should advocate for life, but I am afraid the current position defines life in the narrowest of terms.

Might we be better advocates of life if we marched (for instance) with vulnerable people, hearing their stories and affirming they belong?  Might we be better advocates of life if we fought hard to support alternatives for abortion, taking on the challenge to make sure no child is destined to grow up in a community whose opportunities have been aborted?  Might we be better advocates of life if we worked hard to prevent a situation in which a woman feels her only responsible option is to abort a child whom she has no hope of raising to flourish? 

Powerful women provide space for those around them to be.  Remember that every woman has her own voice, and asks us to stand with her, not speak for or about her in ignorance. 

It is messy and hard and complicated.  I get it.  But I am appalled at the way many of us (on every side) so easily dismiss hurting people we are called to love because we don’t agree with one position.  Americans worship every weekend in congregations who get things wrong.  And we stay.  And we talk. And we call each other to a better path.  Can we not try to do the same in this current arena?  If the sleeping giant of the church would wake up and enter the public sphere with curiosity and compassion instead of judgment and dismissiveness, we could help restore dignity to every life.  We could take in strangers, care for widows, protect orphans, stop abortions, and seek the peace and flourishing of our cities.  Sounds familiar, right?

the disapproval of Dr. King

I read today that in 1966, a Gallup Poll measured Martin Luther King, Jr’s favorability at 33%, while 63% of those polled disapproved of him.   This was over 10 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which launched King to prominence and focused the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement.  This was 3 years after King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech on the Washington Mall, unifying the call for freedom and the need for jobs with his singular voice.  This was 1 year after the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, a march that was attempted 3 times, where white and black civilians linked arms, allowing their conviction and hope to propel them to walk across a bridge and a state, some sacrificing their wellbeing or very lives as civilians and policeman brutally, openly, attacked them.  The violence broadcast in the month of the march woke the conscience of a nation, encouraging the Congress of the United States to support the Voting Rights Bill.  Dr. King was the face of a movement that not only lifted up the spirits of his fellow African American brothers and sisters; he also required the gaze of a country to confront the indignities they suffered by observing the sacrifices they made.

Compassion is the radical form of criticism, for it announces that hurt is to be taken seriously, that hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.
— Walter Brueggemann

Dr. King and the SCLC forced the country to observe their status quo.  Their bravery was remarkable, but it was effective because it created a setting in which African Americans and their white allies were vilified and attacked for doing every day life: for sitting on a bus on the way to work, for walking across a bridge, or for ordering coffee at a lunch counter.  These acts of resistance were brilliant because they were mundane.  Everyone knows what it is like to order a drink expecting to receive one.  Although not many white folks knew what it was like to be black, they could certainly understand what it meant to be refused service just for existing.  To be beaten just for walking in your Sunday best. 

Dr. King was the face of a movement that not only lifted up the spirits of his fellow African American brothers and sisters; he also required the gaze of a country to confront the indignities they suffered by observing the sacrifices they made.

Dr. King and the SCLC reminded the country of visceral, instinctive compassion.  The images captured and scenes witnessed were so uncivil that they “announced that hurt is to be taken seriously, that hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness” (Brueggemann).  Those living in the white majority would most likely have argued that society could not be characterized as full of hate; rather, they were full of civility and kindness and would remain so as long as African Americans stayed in their lane.  This type of delusional break from reality is only possible when compassion and empathy are dead.  This is how the antebellum South could be remembered as a place known for genteel manners, kind hospitality and gorgeous vistas in settings in which bodies were chained, whipped and forced to work in the glare of said gorgeous vista.  We cannot hold onto both ideas at once, so we ignore the ugly and mythologize the good.  Dr. King was both wildly unpopular and most effective because he exposed the average citizen to the flaws in their own mythologies.  Truth tellers are often avoided (Cassandra, anyone?), and Dr. King kept showing the country the truth of the everyday, mundane trauma African Americans experienced, dispelling the delusions that America was a land of respected and kind free people who rewarded hard work.

In 1966, the actions of Dr. King disrupted the status quo in violent ways.  The actions of those in the movement forced people to realize there is a vast difference in order and in peace.  Those “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity”…people “who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” would not and could not find Dr. King ‘favorable’ (King).  Dr. King’s actions boldly broke the beloved mythology of ‘separate but equal’, a centuries-long commitment of society to silence dissent to such a degree that, according to King, “we have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated.”  The demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement proclaimed that the status quo of society destroys the inner lives of African Americans.  They explained that waiting “for more than 340 years for [their] God-given and constitutional rights” leads a person to be “plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’” (King), your own humanity cries out to simply do mundane tasks—like taking a bus, taking a walk, or taking a sip of coffee at a counter—with dignity.  Dr. King’s actions made him unpopular in the moment because he demonstrated the injustice and unsustainability of the status quo so cherished by white people with power.  His actions, and the violent reactions to them captured on film, forced society to engage compassion as they realized everyday, mundane hurt is “an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness” (Brueggemann).  63% of Americans didn’t favor him because his actions destroyed their delusions.

The demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement proclaimed that the status quo of society-protected and nourished by powerful white people-destroys the inner lives of African Americans. 

Dr. King’s words also made him unfavorable with a very powerful group of people in the South: White Christians and their churches.  Dr. King, always willing to collaborate with those who followed Christ in the work of doing justice and making things right for their neighbors, forcefully outed those in the church who chose power over sacrifice, acting as the “arch supporter of the status quo” (King).  Indeed, his words claimed that—especially for Christians—the measure of peace cannot be the absence of trouble, but must instead be the flourishing of all people in great and mundane tasks.  He wrote, “somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny….I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”  For a Church committed to theologies of victory and favor, committed to a status quo maintains power for their glory, such words of interdependence wound deeply, demonstrating why he was unpopular.

In our decade, Gallup found that Dr. King has a 94% favorability rating: He is celebrated, loved and quoted by many.  Next week I will explore the roots of this ‘favorability’, and discuss what honoring his legacy must mean for us. For now, let’s allow the words and actions of Dr. King to expose our delusions about our status quo.  Are we facing the mundane trauma of the marginalized or do we discredit and ignore their hurt?  Do our words and actions honor or destroy his legacy?