I am an infuriating parent (Yes, I am sometimes also infuriated, but that’s a discussion for another day). I find phrases that apply to multiple situations, that might hold true over decades, and then I repeat them ad nauseum until my children want to file for emancipation. When they were in the early stages of language acquisition, I heard parents absentmindedly remind their whining children to “use your words.” I understand where this phrase is coming from, and what it is supposed to accomplish. I’m not a fan.
Despite the fact that I don’t tell my kids to use their words, we have to teach children to articulate their perception of their needs, wants and opinions. In our house we use, “speak up.” I say it to them when they are 2 and can’t get the right sounds out, when they are 5 and whining, when they are 9 and punching someone, and when they are 15 and moodily brooding. “Speak up,” I say! Articulate how you feel and what you need. It is crucial in relationships to speak up when you feel uncomfortable, wounded or treated badly.
I suppose we learn to use our words, but many adults don’t know how to speak up. Some of us don’t feel worthy, or are uncomfortable with discomfort, or struggle to find the right words at the right time. There is another reason though. Increasingly, our cultural norms teach us to stay quiet. Norms can be subtle, hard to acknowledge or even recognize, but they hold great power. Lately I have observed the power of norms to help people betray their own stated values. In the cultural context of Nashville, we are taught it is bad manners to disagree. It is rude to argue publicly. It is “getting political” to express concern over dehumanizing policies or speech from an elected official. For many Christians, it is “losing sight of Jesus” to speak up against oppression. It is causing trouble to defend a peer when they are treated unfairly.
Instead, we are taught to stay loyal, even through silent support. Stay loyal to the power in charge, loyal to your tribe, loyal to the status quo. We are primarily committed to our hive, not our convictions. We easily get the two confused, and our cultural norms reinforce the idea that speaking up is not a good idea. I understand these impulses, but as a person trying to imitate the convictions and habits of Jesus, I can’t follow them.
The life of Jesus, as recorded in the Biblical text, is a tale of speaking up. When he publicly announced he was the Messiah, Jesus claimed that he was the One the prophets spoke about. In the early days of the Kingdom of Israel, and later of Judah, the people had a king, but God also gave them a prophet. Prophets spoke up. They reminded the people they had a loving God, and they reminded them God cared about how they treated each other. They challenged kings who led with corrupt power or who led the people to care more about idols than about doing justice and loving mercy. Jesus indeed came to fulfill those prophecies, preaching good news to the poor, and challenging news to the powerful. Over and over he spoke up to defend the vulnerable, to challenge the greedy, to address brokenness. He enraged people with his willingness to rock the boat. He was murdered for speaking up.
And yet, I see the community of folks calling themselves Christians around me rejecting that life altogether. I hear pastors warning against those who speak up, as if they are an example of those who have lost sight of the Gospel. I see the discomfort at lunch if a person utters concern about the policies or bigotry of a “Christian politician.” If the hive says support that person, then an individual in the hive better not speak up in a way that might undermine them, even as an act of faithful obedience to the teaching of Christ. Having lost the will, and atrophied our ability to speak up, we keep our heads down and remain silent when the people who represent us behave and speak badly.
I recently heard about an elementary school in Tennessee where the kids are celebrating Thanksgiving with costumes and a play. The handout told parents their kids could choose to be an Indian or a Pilgrim, and should dress as such. In addition to using a word to describe American First Peoples that they themselves have described as offensive, the assignment contained no suggestion of intercultural awareness, humility or curiosity. I understand why a parent wouldn’t want to speak up. No one wants to be “that parent.” A parent might not feel like they know enough about history to speak up, or might not have time to get involved. What if you did though? What if we could speak up in a way that created new possibilities and offered a way forward for the teacher?
I know one parent who felt uncomfortable but did not speak up. Another taught me how to imagine speaking up in this context. She read the assignment and then asked if she could meet with the teacher. She spoke up with solutions, not accusations, with honesty, not blame. It went something like, “When I read the assignment I was very excited the kids get to celebrate this holiday. I was sad when I saw the word Indians instead of Native Americans. I think this simple change teaches our kids culturally competent language, and helps all kids feel welcome in our classroom. I wanted to offer a few ideas on how we could honor the legacy of First Peoples that we celebrate at Thanksgiving, since our history together is much more complicated than a shared harvest meal. I also totally understand that it might be too late to change for this year, and if we can’t I wanted to let you know I’ll keep my daughter home that day. I want her to understand that pilgrims learned a lot from Native people, and they also abused their trust and treated them badly. With a little tweaking this lesson could teach us to celebrate our good moments and learn from our mistakes.” This is a lot! I get it. But our kids and their teachers deserve parents willing to speak up to improve learning. Remaining silent in this instance teaches a class full of kids false history and to use a word hurtful to other Americans. When is the dignity of other people worth risking your comfort and capitol for? In what situation would you be willing to speak up?
Speaking up is seen as a threat to the status quo because it is a threat to the status quo! Importantly, speaking up does not have to be denouncing. It can be an invitation to reflect, to align one’s actions and behaviors, to be a part of a larger community. Speaking up can start a conversation that never ends where we share the work of making meaning together. Speaking up can inform, creating space for curiosity and examination. This week if you find yourself sharing a large table with a group of people from various hives, can you find courage to speak up when hurtful words are spoken? This Thanksgiving, instead of stuffing down your wounds or discomfort, try to speak up, and see where the conversations leads.