speaking up (even around turkeys)

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.

on loyalty: how to support your bilbo

Notions of loyalty are in the air these days as we think about what it means to live amongst each other. Politicians are accused of disloyalty (or, increasingly, of too much loyalty). A year ago, people clashed in Charlottesville over their conflicting loyalties: to a mythic past, to a diverse humanity, to racial supremacy, to justice. Even this weekend’s theaters told the story of how a stuffed bear’s loyalty calls Christopher Robin to embrace the values of his boyhood.

Loyalty, whether to a person or a cause or an idea, is elevated in our public imagination, as if it were a rare and noble trait. At times it seems the measure of a person: When given the choice to be loyal to a friend or eager to get ahead, what will he choose? When the simple betrayal of principals, dressed up like loyalty to a boss, can make her indispensable, will she choose advancement?

I have observed, in the past few months, a change in the way loyalty functions. Honorable loyalty once arose from the dignity and value of its object. A person’s honesty, or their sacrificial commitment to the good of others, was first established, and then loyalty followed. A person’s loyalty mattered because the object of their loyalty was just and good.

Now, however, the measure of a person seems to be based on his faithfulness to loyalty itself, rather than on the worthiness of the object that requires it. We find value in the act of loyalty, with no regard for the discernment required to decide when loyalty is warranted. This is problematic; being steadfastly loyal to a terrible ideal is not noble. In fact, through their loyalty, such people actively advocate for the destruction of the common good. The transitive property applies: If I decide to be loyal to a person who bullies others and lies regularly, then I have pledged fidelity to a bad actor. In this case I cannot then expect respect, for my commitment reveals a stubborn lack of discernment. Loyalty is only valuable if the object of the loyalty is just.

This obviously applies to politics. Do we value, as a society, blind allegiance to candidates who represent the Donkeys or the Elephants? Or do we value the discernment required to find a candidate each time who happens to best embody values and policies we support? Perhaps more importantly, do we appreciate people who consider the expertise of others and think independently? Do we employ loyalty when a candidate’s way of being in the world embodies the idea that democracy requires space for diverse perspectives? I’m afraid we are so taken with the idea that loyalty is always noble that we have mistakenly replaced loyalty with enabling. 

Sticking with someone through thick and thin is a good thing. Defending a person who has been wronged is a good thing. However, blindly defending a person who once seemed worthy but is now clearly destructive is irresponsible enabling. Bad actors, bad legislators, bad policies, bad leaders keep acting badly because people remain loyal to them. Such loyalty enables their bad behavior. It is not noble or just or a sacrificial determination to stay the course; it is active support for leaders who do harm to the community. The vanishing truth is this: loyalty sometimes requires faithful resistance instead of surrender.

Consider Samwise Gamgee. He stumbles into the Fellowship of the Nine with nothing to offer except his service to Frodo and his growing faith in the necessity of the mission on which they embark. Sure, he is celebrated as a man whose worth is discovered primarily through his faithfulness to and encouragement of Mr. Baggins, but his loyalty increasingly resides with the mission, not with Frodo. When Frodo loses his metaphorical way, as he sometimes does, Sam’s loyalty is evidenced by his correction of and challenge to Frodo. If Sam believed our conventional wisdom, loyalty would mean absolute support of Frodo’s every action, even when he wants to steal the ring or murder others just to keep it. This would have been enabling, not loyalty. Sam’s loyalty might at times have looked like a betrayal of Frodo, but he was in fact more loyal to Frodo’s best self than Frodo was himself. This, it seems to me, rather than some stubborn excuse making, is worth emulating.

I count myself among those who follow Christ, who are committed to loving others sacrificially, as he did. I’ve pledged my loyalty, committing myself to seeing all others as image bearers of God, worthy of my kind care. I’m committed to finding the value of others as a given, not as something to be measured by power, wealth or even efficiency. I’m committed to seeing all the ways that loyalty to power destroys community, and have pledged myself to use any power I might have to elevate those undervalued by the city in which I live. I am loyal to this in all the ways I can muster each day. But I struggle to be “loyal” to “the church” (and even to “Christians”).  I put loyal in quotes here because I suspect some find me disloyal. Although such an accusation gives me pause, I am determined to embody a deeper loyalty. A loyalty so deep that, like Samwise Gamgee, I will challenge those who have exchanged loyalty to Christ for loyalty to a person or political party (and I expect the same correction if I lose my way). I want to be loyal to the church, but that means I must challenge any functional faith that exchanges power and privilege as evidence of God’s blessing rather than confession and the sacrificial fruit of repentance. Loyalty demands that mean-spirited patriotism or stubborn self-interest or racial supremacy or protecting the status quo or dismissing the pain of others be challenged as blasphemy, as fully outside the habits or behavior of Christ.

In these times, we need a deep loyalty, not an enabling one. Question what you protect, who you defend, and who earns your skepticism. It is easy to be either blindly loyal or apathetic, but neither are worthy of all you have to give. Instead, choose what is worthy of your energy, and support that with a loyalty that faithfully resists evil in any form. Be loyal by calling us out when we lose our way.