“How could someone film that video and not step in and do anything about it?”
“How did all this start?”
“That’s terrible. Everyone is from the same species, mom. It doesn’t matter what your skin color is.”
“This land we live in wasn’t even ours to begin with, was it mom? And we took it be force...”
It’s really hard to tell your kids the truth about their heritage.
I always wondered what it would be like to be the child of a murderer.
Now the truth hits: I already know.
When I contemplated how I wanted to share with my kids the uproar that was happening in response to the murder of George Floyd, I thought, well, “I need to reassure them that most police officers are good; I don’t want them to be afraid.”
And then it hit me harder’n that danged proverbial freight train: if my skin was another color, I wouldn’t have the option of reassuring my kids, “Most cops are good.”
I’d tell my kids to be careful, to be respectful, to stay out of the way of the men in blue.
As I have so often in recent months, I found myself staring directly into the hardened eyes of my own privilege...
...and then seeing I was still perched in that ol’ apathy-chair I’d already been lounging in for so long.
Because, cops murdering black folks in cold blood?
This is nothing new.
How many similar stories have been in my news feed over the past years?
Lots. Too many.
And I should have cared then, when the first video aired, when the first article was penned, when the first person of color cried out.
Hell, I shouldn’t have needed any nudging; I could have just paid attention to what was taking place around me.
Recently, I am scared of my own hypocrisy.
Do I only care about racism because of all the protests happening across the country? Is my only concern that I will “miss out” on taking a loud stance right now, when everyone else is?
Those are REALLY not the things I should be concerned about.
This is my time to face the realities of racism.
It’s time to listen to stories, to comprehend what it feels like to be racially profiled and abused.
To ask, “How can I help?” and “What can I do?”
And indeed, this has been going on for years...why has nothing changed?
Let’s not make celebrities out of those who suffer.
Let’s humble ourselves, tune our ears to this channel we're unaccustomed to listening to.
Author and political science professor Nicholas Buccola takes issue with white people’s attitudes in embracing being “liberal” or “against racism”.
He explains that so often we white folks will deal with people of color as a symbol while refusing to see them as fellow human beings.
He goes on to warn that the gap between seeing someone as a symbol and perceiving them as a threat is small.
Buccola writes about a letter author James Baldwin shared with his nephew.
In the letter, Baldwin urged his nephew to do this with white people:
The really terrible thing is that you must accept them. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.
Sit with that a while.
Have you ever learned something about a person you trusted that changed the way you saw them? Like, you learned they carried a dark and horrible secret, or had done something really heinous?
When I was a youth, there was a gentleman many of us looked up to. In fact, when we went on school outings, we would sometimes spend the night at his house.
Then one day, it came to light that this man was actually not the spiritual hero he (and we) had taken him to be. Instead, he was an evil predator: for years, he had been abusing young boys under the guise of “missionary”.
I remember feeling like the world I knew was shattering.
And indeed it was.
My reality assumed this man was good, a spiritual leader, a worthy mentor; since that wasn’t true, what else wasn’t?
As I have grown older and faced similar revelations, I have learned that it is okay to have your perceptions of the world fractured for the sake of truth.
The horrible disorientation you initially feel is the gateway to true freedom.
This is the parallel I drew as I read Baldwin’s letter.
Maybe you are more enlightened than me, and I hope you are. But in my universe, racism really wasn’t that big of a problem anymore, and I lived in a relatively just and equitable society.
Now, I am seeing that is so very far from the truth.
I’m facing the times I’ve behaved insensitively and unjustly.
I’m examining the places where my thinking is fucked up.
Baldwin continues talking about us white folks:
Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
And I say, let the universe shatter. It’s worth it. You are worth it. He is worth it; so is she; so are they.
As I’ve engaged in self-examination, I’ve drawn a few conclusions about why it’s so fucking hard for me to listen.
Who knows? Maybe some of these apply to you too.
1) Spending all of my time in one “camp”; hearing only one perspective.
For example, I used to think that all Christians believed in a literal seven-day creation. As I wrestled with the impossibility of all of the Genesis account being literal, I believed I was a lone questioner. I wondered if I could even still be a Christian. Once I opened up and stepped out of my smaller circle of church goers, I found that in truth most Christians did not believe in a literal Genesis account and that in fact those who did were part of a relatively new sect of Christianity, historically speaking. Learning that there were more viewpoints than just one set me free...
2) Community and friendship are so important. Sadly, I have found it to be true that close circles of friends have a tendency to develop their own sets of unspoken rules.
What does this mean for you, a member of said community? Well, once you step outside of the rule-defined boundaries, you are “out” of the group. And, sometimes, thinking for yourself, changing your mind, involves going against the rules of your given community. In order to think for yourself, or change your mind about something, you have to be willing to face rejection. Are you willing to do that, for the sake of those whose voices are not being heard? Am I?
3) Black and white, either-or thinking.
Richard Rohr calls it “dualistic thinking”. There are certain issues which cannot be understood in an either-or sort of way. Mystery is one example; so is grace. When we are dealing with systemic racism, and when we are hearing folks cry out for justice, in order to stay in our “camp”, we often try to label “sides” and then call them either good or bad.
Here are some examples:
We fear change. We like sameness; the status quo. The antidote? Imagine life without the privilege you have. As you listen to stories, imagine yourself in the position of crying out for justice and never receiving it, knowing your voice will be ignored or belittled. Imagine the frustration and helplessness.
5) Believing we aren’t responsible, that racism is not our problem.
“Well, racism isn’t my fault. I love all people.” I think it’s becoming pretty clear that systemic racism exists, my friends. As James Baldwin put it, “I didn’t do it either. But I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it too, for the very same reason.”
So where do we start, with the listening?
Here are a few places:
After we listen, we cannot be afraid. We must act.
In Baldwin’s words, “Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger.”
Here are a few ideas:
Rearwards. Back to front. In reverse. Toward the rear. Inverted.
Guys. Life has never been stranger.
As I have put my finger on the pulse of emotions since the beginning of everything Covid, the rhythm, to my ears, sounds something like this: frenzied panic, fear, grief, grief, more grief, and now, finally, an exhalation and a quiet waiting.
By quiet waiting I mean the kind of waiting that comes before a hurricane touches down, the kind where you do everything you know to prepare, mentally and physically, but you have no clue when the storm will hit, for how long, or what sort of havoc will follow.
All this has gotten me thinking, a lot.
I bet you’ve been thinking too.
I’ve been pondering my thinking and its own inherent backwardness.
My Focus on Lack
Because nothing is ever good enough.
Nothing is ever enough enough.
And it never will be.
I have enough food, but I grieve the limited selection.
I have a wonderful family, but I grieve the loss of “hanging out with friends”.
I have a good marriage, yet I worry it will fall apart in the absence of dates.
You know what happens when I focus on lack?
I am blinded by it.
I am blinded to both beauty and to pain.
Because I am so lucky to have fun children and a best-friend husband.
And yet shame on me if I sit all comfortable-ish in my little house with my sweet family and do not have an awareness that for so many this is a dark time filled with abuse and fear.
Heaven forbid I sit here with plenty and do not have my eyes and hands open to the folks who are unsure where their next meal will come from or how they will pay their bills.
May I not be blinded by my own privilege.
Have you heard the explanations as to why Covid 19 is hitting communities of black people harder?
They come close, too close, to blaming the extra-hard sickness strike on genetics.
As blogger and podcaster Yolanda Williams points out in this excellent
article, “Systemic racism has biological impacts on the health of black people.”
Because, “Stress from hypervigilance, microaggresions, code-switching, navigating the never-ending cascade of white tears and playing white fragility bingo also contribute to the biological effects of racism.”
Williams goes on to cite a podcast episode in which she discusses the scientific basis of these claims with epidemiologist Dr. Theresa Chapple.
I must open my eyes and my heart.
I must see myself as part of the problem here.
Can I also be part of the solution?
And what are these terms Williams is referring to? What do they mean?
Microaggresion: “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”
I grew up overseas.
I remember being a young girl and running around in a dress, long hair streaming behind me. Yet the folks in the country I was living in called me a boy.
Because I did not have my ears pierced, a cultural tradition which was the only accepted signifier of female gender.
I grew tired of being mis-seen in this way, and begged my parents to pierce my ears so I could relax and quit having to explain who I really was all the time.
I also recall, when, living in Bolivia as an adult, a woman declared, “You Americans have it so easy; when you cook, all you have to do is open cans of food and eat them.”
Definitely a critique and a hard reminder of our privilege in America as well as, on the flip side, an insult.
Funny, not funny.
Microaggression, I think, is often unintentional and based on ignorance.
I am guilty of it, for sure.
It doesn’t hurt me, though, to think a little before I open my mouth, to remember that everyone has a right to autonomy and to speaking their own truth.
Code-switching: “any behavior of adapting to fit a new set of rules”...
People who are not born into the dominant white culture are often forced to code-switch in order to be seen, heard and respected.
Read this article for some excellent examples and explanations: https://metro.co.uk/2020/03/03/what-is-code-switching-12221478/.
When have I made someone else feel they must be just like me in order to “fit in”?
How can I change my attitudes and behaviors?
White fragility bingo: Reminding folks, “You’re not the only ones who have it bad, you know…” as a way of avoiding our own culpability. See this facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/allyhennypage/posts/presenting-white-fragility-bingosome-people-are-visual-learners-and-need-to-have/1293805774103063/
“‘White Tears’ is phrase to describe what happens when certain types of White people either complain about a nonexistent racial injustice or are upset by a non-White person's success at the expense of a White person.” Read more here: https://verysmartbrothas.theroot.com/white-tears-explained-for-white-people-who-dont-get-i-1822522689.
There is inequity in our world, in our societies. Some folks are on the front lines, doing dangerous work, while others hold jobs which enable them to stay at home safe and sound.
Check out this article.
By changing our mindset, shifting our focus, we can use this time of "in-between" to examine our hearts and minds, to change and be purified, to repent and apologize, and then to become humble learners and servants.
Because I have so much to learn from other folks who have completely different life experiences than I do.
Like the author of the blog Indigenous Motherhood who has some wake-up call words for those of us who feel our children hinder us, our "me time", or our careers:
“In our traditional kinship systems, children were the at the center of the family system.”
“And the idea of children being seen as a disruption to daily living was non-existent.
During this pandemic, the invitation that exists is be mindful of that, and to make these concepts a way of life.
Be mindful of any thoughts or feelings that may come up that are oriented around seeing children as a disruption, an annoyance, or an inconvenience, when they’re home with you.
Because this style of thinking derived from residential schools and the forcefully implemented colonial education systems.”
I challenge you, friends, read this article, let the thoughts soak in deep.
What can you learn from the author’s unique perspective?
Where have we gone wrong? How have our societal systems hurt others?
For further exploration, check out this article and explore the links at the end.
My Belief that Might Makes Right
It’s easy to read a Facebook post I disagree with and then explode, either all over myself or, more regrettably, into that little white rectangular box labeled “comment”.
Our tempers tell us that if we just scream and stomp vociferously enough, then everyone will listen.
Over the years I’ve learned the only result to these loud declarations of mine was antagonism.
Recently, I heard a story about Ghandi’s grandson.
Arun was having trouble with anger, justified anger, actually, against kids who had been bullying him, so he was sent to live with grandpa Ghandi for a while.
Ghandi had Arun make an “anger tree” with two branches, one for “active violence” and one for “passive violence”.
Every day, Arun was instructed to add to the tree, noting the manifestations and the corresponding results of each type of violence.
Ghandi explained that anger was a powerful force that, when released into the world, always found a home somewhere new, where it was recycled, weaponized and re-inflicted.
The only way to break the cycle was to channel anger’s energy into something good, like compassion.
“Use your anger for good. Anger to people is like gas to the automobile - it fuels you to move forward and get to a better place. Without it, we would not be motivated to rise to a challenge. It is an energy that compels us to define what is just and unjust.” (from The Gift of Anger by Arun Ghandi)
Might doesn’t make right in my interactions with the adults or the children in my life either.
When I explode, I immediately shut down any opportunity I might have had to work toward resolution.
Not just that, but forcing my children to comply with my demands does nothing to nurture a caring nature in them.
You know what does?
My own attitude and modeling…
If a child complains of being tired when asked to do something, I have always offered to do the task with him or her, to help.
This has resulted in my son clearing the table for my daughter because “she said she was tired, so I wanted to help,”
In one of my daughters hopping up to grab forks when we realized there were none available,
In the kids cooking and joyfully sharing what they have created with one another.
We are so not perfect as a family by any means.
But I have seen the greatest results when I have lain down “might” and embraced and even served my children with grace and kindness,
When I have invited my children to share in the power of household decision-making, asking them what they would like to do and what their goals are,
In seeing that the way to win my children’s participation in something I’m invested in is to first enter their worlds and care about their passions.
My Desire to Hold Onto Safety, Security, Money
“There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money away, all of it.
Your heart is beating, isn't it?
You're not in chains, are you?
There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.”
-Mary Oliver (Felicity)
I read this poem, and now I can’t shake the memory of it.
“Or giving your money away, all of it.”...“Your heart is beating, isn’t it?”
Though my knee-jerk reaction in these hard times is to hoard, that is not what will fulfill me.
You see, you can wait and wait and save and save and then, have.
And you will find that once you have that one thing you were waiting and saving so long for, you will receive the gift of a great big unsatisfied feeling and then,
You will begin looking for some new way to be filled, fulfilled.
Which leads me to realize that all that hoarding and holding on is really just a search for satisfaction, and maybe hoarding is the wrong place in which to find it.
Backwards writing can be understood if you just loosen up a little.
And reflections may be upside down, but they highlight natural beauty in a mystical manner that can just take your breath away.
And so, I urge you friends, in this time of uncertainty, if you have time, use it to introspect, to repent of wrong thinking, to be purified, to see, really see, those around you.
If you are suffering and can’t come up for air, please reach out and ask for help.
Not only have many of us been right there where you are now, wondering where the money for bill-pay will come from or the food to fill the hungry stomachs, but also, I know I have been a part of the problem itself, and now I’d like to also be part of the solution.
If you have been my victim, I’d like to apologize.
Sometimes the hurt I’ve doled out has been unintentional.
Will you do me a favor, though? Tell me where I’ve gone wrong, and why?
And do the same for others.
Let them know how what they’ve said makes you feel.
Let’s all learn and grow and do better.
Because while we don’t know what’s coming, we do know we will sorely need one another.
Three years ago, if you would have told me my son would soon be diagnosed with a dangerous form of cancer, I would have…
Just to name a few...
But that cancer, it morphed and grew right here, in our own house, beneath our collective naive nostrils.
When the diagnosis came, it was the last thing we ever expected.
And honestly, there is nothing we could have done to prepare ourselves for it.
We simply had to walk through it.
I remember wishing it all away, wondering, hoping that maybe, maybe it was all just a nightmare.
Yet, we had to wake each day and face reality's glare.
And, we survived.
Have we been traumatized? Yes.
Do we now live in fear of the next bad thing that will happen? You bet.
I would never want anyone to trivialize, sugar-coat, or glaze over our experience: “but look at how you’ve grown,” or “at least xyz didn’t happen”.
That would suck; it would not help...
What I am amazed by, though, is that we DID walk through hell.
You see, shit happens.
You cannot stop it.
“You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it... "oh no!", you have to go through it!”
We all fear lots of things.
And I think, beneath it all, what we all really fear is death.
Some of us dread the finality of it.
Some imagine walking through the suffering and the grieving involved and do everything they can never to go there.
Most all of us fear the witnessing of death, from either the side or the front lines.
And now friends, we are facing an unexpected sickness that is spreading faster than wildfire.
We cannot predict who will become sick when, for how long, or how severely.
We are frantically clearing shelves in grocery stores, hoarding resources and fretting over the news.
And the news?
How sweetly it alerts us to every new death.
How thoughtfully it stirs up new fears within us, ones we had not yet imagined, like “Will the internet break, since everyone is now working from home?”
And guys? We are scared.
We are the generations nurtured on sci-fi and fantasy, the children who imagined zombie apocalypses and planets ruled by apes.
The empty grocery store shelves, those people wearing face masks garbed in hazmat suits standing precariously in empty subways? These images conjure fear, fear and more fear.
We are scared, yes.
But I want us to remember.
I want us to know.
We stand on the backs of our ancestors, ones who weathered plagues and wars, who survived holocausts and depressions.
Shit is happening again, just like it has so many times past.
We didn’t have time to prepare for it, and we don’t know how bad it will get.
But here’s the truth: we really can’t control shit. Not any of it.
We cannot control the invisible. Not at this time anyways.
And we, the collective world community, WILL PASS THROUGH. We will see the other side.
One day, our children’s children will read all about it in their history books.
“My grandma told me about that,” they will exclaim.
Now that we have settled that, what do we wish to be remembered for, when the proverbial storm has passed?
How we protected ourselves at all costs?
Anger and vitriol, the spreading of lies and rumors, frosting shit with shit?
Or, how about as... the people who pulled through, they who were resilient?
They who stolidly accepted life for what it was and dug deep for the courage to do the right thing, the loving thing?
Because there really is only one element in all of this we can control, and that is our own thoughts, words, attitudes and actions.
And when you stop, take that deep accepting breath, you will see the single mother struggling to feed her kids, suddenly without a job or school lunches, the horrendous endless suffering in Syria-what will those families do if they contract the virus?-, or, heaven forbid, the lonely death of an elderly man or woman.
We have a job to do still, friends, in this world God loves.
Let’s focus on controlling that-which-we-can-control, and leave the rest to rest.
International news headlines always come to me in full color and with surround sound.
I attribute this to the fact that I grew up in another country.
I hear on the news about Syria, and I see a child, half-clothed, running, lost and scared, mouth wide with fear, eyes wild, confused, choking down snot, dripping tears, tripping ‘cross potholes dotting dusty streets, and wondering.
Where’s mommy? Where is she? Where did she go?
The child’s fear of abandonment having indeed become his reality.
I see mother’s rocking dead children, cradling them desperately, wrestling time itself.
If only. If only. I would have protected you with my very body, my own life, little one. If only.
I see spouses helplessly seething, beholding in agonized helplessness their beloved’s beautiful bodies being pillaged, plundered.
I am yours and you are mine. I, me, you, us. It isn’t enough. It’s. Not. Enough!!!!
I see family’s leaving homes which once felt cozy and safe in great haste, wondering whether they will ever again find such an abode, knowing that if, in the off chance they do, their deepest selves have been uprooted so as to never rest, really rest, again.
Home is gone. Rest is gone. I am displaced, alone.
I tell my children bits and pieces. They must know. They must know this world is not safe, easy or just for so many. They must know the privilege they have been born into. They must be inspired and moved and indeed unsettled.
To whom much is given, children.
And the questions come. What can we do?
Indeed, friends, what can we do?
We can refuse to live in fear. We can step outside of our pet politics and our favored political parties and SEE the real people behind every press release. We can let our hearts break.
We can refuse to remain ignorant. Research, friends. Read articles from a variety of news outlets. Do not let your hearts harden. Keep an open mind.
We can enlighten those around us.
We can volunteer and give.
I won’t even pretend I’m an expert on world events or humanitarian crises. I won’t pretend I’ve done a great job of giving or volunteering.
But I refuse to let my own faults and shortcomings keep me from writing my heart. Every little bit of good we do is worth it.
Love matters. Compassion matters.
I’ve been convicted of late as a light has been shone on my desire, indeed lust for, safety, security and peace.
Have a listen to these podcasts:
Looking Through A Lens of Compassion
It’s deeply ingrained within my crusty American heart to store up wealth for my future, for those “just in case” moments.
Not to mention that I just love a good shopping trip; the feeling of carrying armfuls of bountiful plenty home is intoxicating and as good as any drug.
But, am I called to love money and security? Is my spirituality to be measured in how much I have, in how good a steward I’ve been whilst doling out my monthly 10%?
Long have I pondered the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14-30), because upon first reading it, it made no sense.
I could not understand why the servant who had been given one talent and then buried it (in order to save it for his Master) would be so harshly condemned.
Hadn’t he been careful with the money he was given? At least he did not go out and squander it, right?
And why were the servants who took risks with the money they’d been given praised?
Why does the parable describe the Master in this way: “[...] a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed [...]”, considering the Master seems to be a depiction of Jesus?
The parable indicates that it was right to take risks with the money because of the qualities of the Master (mentioned above).
I’m sure there are a myriad of deep meanings to this parable, and that I am only skimming the surface, but here’s what occurs to me as I ponder it:
I’m pretty sure this means I need to step out of the way and let my heart soften. I need to let go of the fear which encourages me to hoard safety and security, abundance and fun.
I can do this because I am part of a kingdom that doesn’t value wealth or power or hoarding. It values growth and giving, risk-taking and fearlessness.
I confess that even writing these words terrifies me. I know them to be true. I know it, deep in my bones. But I’m afraid.
If I let my heart soften, what will God ask of me?
In the stillness and dust which settles in the wake of that messy question, there hangs this portrait of abundance, multiplication.
And I’m simply sure I’m supposed to show up every day, whatever that means, with a soft and tender heart, unafraid.
In the wise words of Anne Lamott, “If you give freely, there will always be more.”
She leaned forward, gripping the steering wheel, heavy-footed and radiating positive energy. Every few seconds she turned to me with a new detail, “He’s so wise!”, “He keeps himself so well-groomed”, “He tells such good stories!”
— ”Have you heard the pineapple story? It’s SO good!,” interjected one of my fellow female passengers...—
Every time our chauffeur turned to me with new, glorious descriptions of the amazing keynote speaker, her pupils dilated and sparkled animatedly.
I was a young teen, and I was canister-ed in a humongous van with several other girls from my church. They were all chattering and interrupting, filling me in on the amazing things I would learn at the conference we were about to attend.
I’ve always been annoyed by “people worship”, and I was unimpressed by the flattery. However, I couldn’t help but feel curious about this “great” man everyone was going on about.
The man’s name was Bill Gothard. You can google him if you want to; you’ll find he’s not quite as loved as he once was.
It is here I must interject, red faced, that my motives were not pure; I really could have cared less about the seminar.
I had a crush on a few of the boys in our church, who happened to be brothers to some of the girls in the van, and I was trying to make a good impression.
I remember, upon entering the convention center, feeling as though the vastness of the glass-windowed lobby vacuumed up my breath.
Women roamed the halls in packs, swarming into spacious tiled bathrooms.
Most wore dresses— not cocktail dresses, mind you: hand sewn, modest dresses.
As I navigated the busy hallway, I chuckled to myself— women lined the sidewalk outside, using the convention center's one-way-glass as a mirror, combing their long hair and re-applying lipstick, unaware that everyone inside could see them.
From inside, it looked as though they were silent circus performers repeating a simple routine: comb, apply, comb, apply, comb, apply.
Upon nearing the spacious room where the conference was to be held, I veered left into a restroom; it was bizarrely hushed.
The counter was lined with women soundlessly jostling each other, craning their necks to view their reflections, applying makeup.
I wondered why everyone was so concerned with their makeup and with how they looked. We were, after all, attending a seminar to learn more about God and the Bible. (Um, well, most of us were…)
Why did our appearance matter so much?
I still remember the one fleeting moment during the conference when excitement overtook me: I was handed a pencil and an empty workbook, all my own.
Oh, how I still love new workbooks and studying and assignments!
Now, however,when I recall this seminar and that crackling new workbook, I feel sick.
I want to stomp on that workbook, rip it to shreds and burn it; it was, after all, garbage wrapped in this beautiful, terrifying paper called Religiosity.
Looking back, I’m grateful my parents did not embrace this man or his teachings.
Many of the young women who attended that conference with me were scarred for life; years later, the world learned that Bill Gothard himself (a single man) had made inappropriate sexual advances on several young women who had interned as his secretaries.
It was at this conference I was introduced to the following diagrams:
This diagram illustrates the “Umbrella of Protection”. As long as us young ladies remained under our umbrella, we were told, we would be safe from the devil. Otherwise, he would certainly have us for lunch.
This diagram juxtaposes the “godly” family structure, protected by God, against the “worldly” family structure, governed by Satan. Talk about stretching a metaphor!
One of the most chilling aspects of the second umbrella is the statement (I apologize for the blurriness) that ordering your family incorrectly “disempowers the husband”.
Now, back to my story. Although my bullshit sensors were blaring at this point, and although my parents themselves never became followers of Gothard’s teachings (thank God), I couldn’t shake the fear induced by these illustrations.
Who in their right mind would want to have that dreaded dude Satan leading his or her family?
I wish I would have known then what I know now: that this whole illustration was an example of what I call Christianized patriarchy. And patriarchy has very real and lasting effects on people.
So What Is Patriarchy?
In simplest terms, patriarchy is a system in which men rule over women.
Dictionary.com defines patriarchy as “a form of social organization in which the father is the supreme authority in the family, clan, or tribe and descent is reckoned in the male line, with the children belonging to the father's clan or tribe.”
Imagine with me for a moment what sort of cultural “needs” would lead to such a system. Why would it be important for the father to be the supreme authority in a family or tribe and for male children to inherit their father’s wealth?
Here are three detailed descriptions of patriarchy:
Most scholars agree that though patriarchy has been the basic structure for many societies, it has not always been the chief societal structure.
Remember my question earlier, about what sort of culture would benefit from patriarchy?
Not a hunter-gatherer culture, according to most scholars.
Most hunter-gatherer societies are thought to have been egalitarian: every member was equally important and job-roles were fluid.
People in hunter-gatherer societies, I’d imagine, were more concerned with having enough food to eat and surviving than with anything else.
Many would posit that hierarchical societal structures such as patriarchy emerged when societies became agrarian and began amassing wealth.
Agrarian societies needed to find ways to pass on wealth; what better way than to pass money along to other family members.
The focus on amassing wealth and passing it along family lines gave more authority and leadership capabilities to some (the wealthy) than to others.
What Are The Defining Characteristics of Patriarchal Societies/Structures?
From this short history and definition of patriarchy, what would you say are some of its defining characteristics?
My list includes: power, hierarchy, obedience to authority figures, structured living and rigid roles based on gender and age, dominance of the powerful/wealthy over the weak/poor.
Check out this series of slides, which gives an overview of patriarchy and also highlights how patriarchy manifests in a society: https://www.slideshare.net/nivi88/patriarchy-in-society.
One excellent point this slideshow makes is that patriarchy is a system which affects both men and women.
Men are hurt by patriarchy, and men can do just as much as women to open people’s eyes to the invisible patriarchal rules we follow.
For many years, my husband lived with the heavy burden that he, and he alone, ought to be the sole financial provider for our family: that was his job!
He was not allowed to pursue a career which interested him; he had to pursue a career which would provide.
Furthermore, in much of the church culture we were immersed in, “being a man” was all about speaking loudly, vying for power, jostling for authority, and being invested in sports.
My husband is quiet, sensitive and emotional. He does not desire the limelight. He is not a die-hard sports fan.
Under this patriarchal delineation of manhood, my husband wondered where he fit.
As a young woman, I also received a loud message about how to be a worthy woman, thanks to patriarchy:
It is a constant challenge for me, as a homeschool mom, to educate my son and daughters to see women as equal to men, and to know there are a myriad of ways families can be structured.
I strive to show them they don’t have to think or live according to “patriarchal” norms.
While I do stay home to educate my kids, I treat homeschooling as my job/career.
My husband and I partner on housework.
I am careful to also spend time pursuing my own interests, passions and friendships.
As you saw above, growing up, I had many friends whose parents followed Bill Gothard’s teachings.
I also had many friends and family members who did not follow Gothard, but believed women should submit to their husbands. This meant that in the event of a disagreement, a husband’s word on the matter was final.
I recall hearing a child being instructed by a parent that his parents’ words to him were essentially God’s words to him.
I also remember witnessing a child being punished because, when his father instructed him to do something, he (the child) questioned it.
He questioned what his father told him because his mother had told him something different.
The child was wondering who he was supposed to listen to. When the child queried the father about this dilemma, the child was punished severely.
This was presumably to show the child that the father’s word is always the final word.
As I have been researching patriarchy, I have come across an interesting debate over whether or not America is a patriarchy.
I have also read several online debates over whether or not the Bible is patriarchal (does it promote patriarchy?).
I think this conversation is complicated; it can't be right or fair to summarily label a society, a family, or a book as 100% patriarchal.
Cultures and systems are highly nuanced.
For example, though the family structure Gothard taught about placed fathers above all other family members, it also taught that wives had this special ability to hear a sort of cautioning wisdom from the Lord.
If a wife received this special wisdom from God, the husband was admonished to listen to her.
This gave women a great deal of power over their husbands.
I think arguing over labels distracts us from addressing real problems.
What if, instead of spending our time debating whether or not someone or something is patriarchal, we instead use the “characteristics of patriarchy” as a filter through which to run the “water” of our lives?
We ought to look at our families, churches, schools and governments and ask whether all people are being treated with equal dignity and respect, regardless of their wealth or gender.
We also ought to be asking whether or not all members of society are given equal voice and opportunity.
The Negative Consequences of Patriarchy
Some would wonder why I am making such a big deal about patriarchy.
After all, compared with much of the rest of the world, we American folks (especially us white middle class folks) have SO MUCH.
I have a friend who immigrated from Venezuela to Colombia. Her major life concern right now is figuring out how to get dinner on the table for her two growing boys.
Yet, I believe this conversation is important: it is in questioning and dismantling unjust systems that we begin to help this hurting world— the world needs empowered women.
Let’s apply the “filter of patriarchy” to our modern lives. Where do we see patriarchy at play?
Though I have recently seen some magazines and TV ads promoting a more positive view of women, many headlines and commercials for women are all about how to make a man happy (often by becoming prettier and slimmer).
Here are four examples:
-From Cosmopolitan: “4 Words That Seduce Any Man. Any Time.”
-Also from Cosmopolitan: “Times He Wants You To Be Jealous”
-From Woman’s World: “10 Years Thinner”
-Also from Woman’s World: “Lose up to 130 Pounds”
Do you see how these ads are all about helping women become more desirable?
What a harmful message we are sending women when we tell them their value lies in their appeal!
Something makes me think this is the message the women at the Gothard conference I attended were receiving as well...
Another area in which we can apply our “patriarchy filter” is in the workforce, where men have historically received higher wages and been given more opportunities to hold positions of power.
Take a look at these statistics: https://www.dol.gov/wb/stats/stats_data.htm.
One cannot help but wonder why women are paid less than men for the same jobs?
Is it because men are considered to be more valuable?
Is it because of the myth that only men should provide for their families financially while women stay home?
Is it because of the false notion that women aren’t as good at being leaders as men are?
Wage equality would mean that:
Another area in which we can apply the “filter of patriarchy” is in the area of sexual assault.
Women who are sexually abused are often accused of inviting the abuse, while men are rarely held accountable for their actions.
I don't know about you, but I have heard many of these statements over the course of my lifetime:
Perhaps they (the women assaulted) were wandering in dark alleys they shouldn’t have been in.
Maybe they (the women assaulted) were wearing “slutty” clothing.
Maybe they (the women abused) were not being submissive enough to their husbands, or maybe they weren’t adequately “meeting his needs”.
This list of myths about people who are sexually abused sheds light on many of the cultural assumptions surrounding sexual abuse: https://www.ourresilience.org/what-you-need-to-know/myths-and-facts/
Do you see how often these myths let the perpetrators off the hook?
Do you see how this is about excusing those who hold more power?
I remember being teased by a group of boys when I was a young teen.
The teasing hurt deeply.
I was told, however, “those boys were just being boys” and, “they actually like you” (because if they didn’t like me, they wouldn’t be paying me any mind).
One of the areas in which I see patriarchal injustices in our society (and especially in the church) is in the implication that it is a woman’s duty to satisfy her man sexually, while downplaying or overlooking her right to pleasure.
I cannot help but wonder if, in those agrarian societies which first embraced patriarchy, women who “had a man” were more privileged and protected, and therefore focused on pleasing, and keeping, their men.
I will be writing more extensively on this topic in a future post.
We can apply the “patriarchy filter” to the treatment of men in our society as well as women.
As I mentioned earlier, many boys are taught they must grow up to be the providers and leaders in their families. They are admonished to be strong and not demonstrate too much emotion (“big boys don’t cry”).
Carolyn Custis James addresses the harmful effects of patriarchy on men in her book Malestrom. She warns,
“It isn’t overstating things to say there isn’t a man or boy alive who isn’t a target. The malestrom’s global currents can be violent and overt, but also come in subtle, even benign forms that catch men unawares. The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species—causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons. The repercussions of such devastating personal losses are not merely disastrous for the men themselves, but catastrophic globally.”
Read more of her thoughts here: https://carolyncustisjames.com/2015/04/23/the-manhood-crisis/.
These are just some of the many ways in which patriarchy has affected our society in negative ways.
Patriarchy, The Bible, And The Church
As we have seen, patriarchal ideology is definitely at play in our society, and its effects are not beneficial.
As a child, I was taught that a system in which the man is the head of the family is biblical. Does this sound as patriarchal to you as it sounds to me?
Many scriptures were used to support this:
I believed that in order to be a woman of God I needed to be submissive to my husband.
I always wondered about single women, though. They were really not able to be “godly” without husbands, were they?
Guess what many of the single women I knew were taught (overtly and covertly)? That until they found husbands, they were under the authority of their fathers.
As I grew older, I saw so many ways in which "Christianized" patriarchy was harming women with the church:
I was tired of hearing “God’s wisdom is not our wisdom” as an explanation for why this hierarchical power structure must be followed.
What if there was another way to see scripture?
What if patriarchy was a societal structure in which the writers of the bible found themselves but not necessarily a god-ordained system?
I thought about slavery.
Many slaveholders used passages in the bible such as “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything” to condone slavery as biblical.
Yet most Christians would agree that the only reason Paul wrote these instructions to slaves was because slave-holding was a facet of the society he lived in. They would say there was a general redemptive bent to Paul's instructions.
What if the same thing were also true of the biblical instructions for women, specifically wives?
In other words, what if Paul’s thoughts on women and submission had more to do with the patriarchal cultural system he was writing from than with patriarchy being a God-ordained system?
After all, we can’t ignore other passages in scripture such as Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.”
As we have discussed in a previous post, Christian complementarians have coined the term “equal yet different” to address this issue. "Yes, we are all equal," they say, "however, we have different roles: leader and submitter."
Yet, what if equal truly means equal?
Thanks again for all your thoughtful comments, critiques and stories, friends. I really appreciate you.
Tune in next week for a deeper exploration of my journey into “what the heck is the Bible saying about patriarchy?!”
Follow me on Facebook to stay up to date on my latest posts. Comment here or on Facebook and share some ways in which you have felt the heavy weight of patriarchy in your everyday life.
Click on the links to catch up on Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
We as writers understand how much words matter.
For example, there is a difference between calling people “invaders” and calling them “refugees”.
Pause for a moment and reflect upon the term “invader”. What words come to mind when you hear this term?
Now, do the same with the term “refugee”.
Buried somewhere beneath all the rhetoric, news reports and politics are flesh and blood people; the people who are having heated debates on the one hand, and the people who are being argued over on the other.
I wonder if we could pause amidst all the squabbling and squawking to ask why there are so many children — without grown-ups or caretakers— showing up in our detention centers.
So far this year, 56,278 unaccompanied children have come running into our country.
I can’t help but ask, “Where are these children coming from, and why are they here?”
Before I share what I have learned, I would like to note that many of these children are fleeing with an adult who is not a parent. The adult and child are separated once they are apprehended coming across the border.
Where are these children coming from? Why are they here?
There is a segment of Central America known as the Northern Triangle. This segment includes the countries El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Many of the people “caught” trying to cross the border into our country are from this part of the world.
One of the main reasons children are fleeing these Central American countries is because of increased violence towards women and children, including kidnapping, murder, rape and torture. Here is a very informative article: "Fleeing For Our Lives: Central American Migrant Crisis".
If your daughter were nearing puberty, and you saw the “writing on the wall”, the “ticking clock” to impending horror, would you not do everything in your power to protect her, including fleeing to another country and seeking asylum?
As an aside, these folks are not just fleeing to the United States but also to neighboring countries. They are desperate.
Other reasons children are fleeing are that they are targets of human trafficking, or because they are being recruited into gangs.
Can we really call these little ones “invaders”, friends?
Imagine a child showing up on your doorstep today, alone, cold and hungry. Would you really slam the door in that child’s face, trembling with terror, then begin to rant and rave about your own limited resources and this child’s desire to “take advantage” of you? Would you not help this child?
The only "side" we should be taking is the side of the victim...
My dear friends, do we not pay taxes to our government in the hopes our government will use our money well?
Do we truly want our government to be “threatened” by refugees, mostly children, seeking asylum? Are we okay with the negative rhetoric being used to describe these suffering citizens-of-Planet-Earth?
Would we like for our government (which is, after all, “of the people, by the people, for the people”) to swivel from a defensive posture to a more welcoming, prepared posture?
Do we want our government to place these least little ones in detention centers and treat them as though they are common criminals? Wouldn’t we like for our government to better use our tax dollars in addressing this humanitarian crisis?
Perhaps refugees aren’t on your mind. Perhaps they are not a priority for you. Perhaps your mind is currently flooding with all the “in-house” needs our country would be neglecting if it used our tax dollars for immigrants and asylum-seekers.
I would like to point out one more fact.
In 1992 the United States ratified a United Nations covenant entitled the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”, or ICCPR for short.
Among other things, this covenant grants children certain rights, including “the right to security of person” and “the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
When our country places children fleeing inhuman, degrading, and cruel circumstances into detention camps for extended periods of time rather than welcoming and caring for them, it is not keeping its agreement to uphold their basic rights.
If we can agree on anything, let’s agree that the United States can do better.
Let’s call our representatives and let them know what we’d like to see happen (and what we are unhappy about). If you are unsure who to call or what to say, click here for helpful information.
Let’s either volunteer or give money to organizations currently assisting these refugees.
Here are some organizations you can give through: Ciudad Nueva, Border Perspective, SEEK, RAICES, and World Relief. While these organizations were recommended to me by a party I trust, as always, do your research before giving.
Let’s refuse to use asylum seekers and refugees as ammunition for our political canons.
Let’s research, taking some time to think for ourselves about the situation, rather than gulping down spoonfuls of whatever our favorite people are saying about the situation along the border.
Finally, and most importantly, let’s refuse to use words that harm, and instead embrace words that heal.
Hey, you. I'm glad you dropped by...
I'm a busy mom of three asking hard questions about my faith.