How To Survive a Culture War

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Having lived abroad the last few years, my friend group has become incredibly diverse. Though social media often acts as an echo chamber, my newsfeed remains evenly balanced between conservative and liberal, religious and secular. I usually enjoy this diversity, but when current events trigger another round of cultural warfare, I cringe as they dig their heels in and shout.

I have my own opinions on hot-button issues, but I’m also curious enough to continue reading all the statuses, blogs, and manifestos that get thrown around with each new battle. Sometimes I learn something new. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been bludgeoned by an internet troll. Always, I see two sides fearful of what will happen if the other “wins” and willing to do anything to make sure they don’t.

I understand the impulse to fight for what you believe in, but I have a hard time navigating the nastiness that often accompanies it. As I look to my political right and left, I don’t see faceless enemies. I see friends, family members, and peers. I see people I long to understand and get along with.

In order to maintain these friendships and my own sanity on social media, I’ve adopted a few mantras to carry me through the war:

I Don’t Have To Have An Opinion.

We live in the age of over-sharing. Spend a few minutes on social media, and you’ll suddenly know what your coworker had for breakfast and what your high school classmate thinks about global warming. It’s easy to feel like you have to have an opinion on everything…and that it’s your job to share it. But here’s a freeing thought: it isn’t. Sure, there are issues that need a voice, but you cannot and should not take on everything. Better to choose a few key issues and really know your stuff than subject your peers to a bunch of half-formed, crowdsourced opinions on every little thing.

I Don’t Have To Be Right.

One of my favorite phrases in the English language is “I don’t know.” It protects me from being the Great Knowledge-Keeper of Everything and allows me to learn from other people who are really interesting and smarter than me. Being right is, quite frankly, boring. Sometimes even lonely. Being curious about other people’s opinions and experiences is a far greater adventure, and you generally make friends along the way. Even if you have really strong convictions, try not to let rightness be the end-all of your encounters with others. Ask questions, listen, and grow.

Some Things Are Worth Fighting For

Whenever I’m tempted to react to a culture war, I stop myself and ask why it matters. Is someone being hurt? If so, what can I do about it? With culture wars, there’s often a lot at stake. That’s why they get so brutal. But it’s important to channel that passion and indignation in the right direction. For example, if you’re pro-life, consider spending your time and money supporting pregnant women, low-income mothers, and adoption programs. Advocacy is important, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg with most issues. If it’s worth arguing about online, it’s worth fighting for in real life too.

It’s Okay To Unfollow

As I said earlier, I read a diverse group of statuses, blogs, and rants. I like to remain open-minded and learn new things, but even I get angry sometimes. Even I find myself disliking people because of their uber-political social media personas. Even I press the “unfollow” button sometimes—and I think that’s healthy. Knowing your boundaries is key to good relationships, and sometimes that means bowing out of a comment thread or unfollowing a Twitter feed. If you wouldn’t spend all day talking about it in real life, you probably don’t need to read your friend’s every political status online.

When In Doubt, Choose Empathy

It’s hard to empathize with someone who seems to be the antithesis of everything you stand for. But that’s what culture wars force us to do: either demonize the other or try to understand where they’re coming from. When I empathize with people who are very different from me, I often discover that we want the same thing: freedom. We just have different ways of articulating it or different ideas of what it should look like in society. Ultimately, these differences are good—they challenge us and bring balance to our world. But if we constantly live in fear of “the other side,” we’ll never reap the benefits of diversity.

At the end of the day, a little bit of grace goes a long way in these cultural battles. If we can put down our guard, shelf our pride, know our limits, and ward off fear, we have a much better chance of surviving the war with relationships intact.

 


Photo: Grigory Kravchenko, Creative Commons

 

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Raising a Jonathan

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I grew up with all women, and it was pretty much like you’d expect it to be. We had long, complex relational talks. We went on sassy road trips while everyone was on their period. We fixed our own appliances. We didn’t really miss having men around.

Then I gave birth to a beautiful son.

Nothing could have prepared me for him. Motherhood, in any form, is daunting. Raising a boy when all you know is women is terrifying.  When I imagined motherhood, I saw myself championing my children in a world where they would be underdogs. That’s what my mother did for us, teaching my sister and me not to let any man tell us what we couldn’t do.

It never occurred to me that I might have one of those men under my care someday.

Unless the world changes drastically in the next eighteen years, my son will grow up to have more privilege than me. He’ll be welcomed into church leadership positions where I am not. He’ll make $1 to my 77 cents. He’ll see himself represented positively in media and politics. He won’t have to worry about sexual harassment, body shame, or fear of violation. He may not have an easy life, but gender and race won’t be obstacles for him.

My son doesn’t need the scrappy lessons of my childhood. He needs to learn how to handle his privilege.

On one hand, I’m grateful that he won’t face as much adversity. On the other, I know how hard it can be to recognize and steward your privilege. When you don’t have to deal with race or gender issues on a daily basis, it’s easy to become a myopic jerk about them. I’m white, straight, and able-bodied, and it’s taken me almost 26 years to erase the blind spots that those advantages have afforded me. And I’m certainly not done yet. Every day, I’m learning how to lay down my privilege or use it to benefit someone with less.

My husband and I often talk about “being a Jonathan,” a reference to the Biblical story of Jonathan and David. The two are unlikely friends: one is the son of the king and the other has been anointed by God to be the future king. Jonathan, the legal heir to the throne, has every reason to work against David and protect his own privilege. Instead, he constantly defends him and gives him his royal robe, armor, and sword. Jonathan lays down his right to the throne in favor of seeing David’s potential realized, and it changes history. David becomes the greatest king of Israel and sets the stage for the arrival of Jesus.

I love this story: one man uses his status to serve, aligning himself with God’s plan to uplift the underdog, and salvation comes to the world. It’s exactly what I want to teach my son.

I want my little boy to know that he can share his privilege. I want him to learn how to listen without interrupting. How to help without condescending. How to differentiate between what he’s earned and what he’s been born into. How to level the playing field for women and minorities, to give them a fair shot at success.

I want him to raise up the Davids of this world—the would-be kings and queens, the ones God loves and for whom He has great plans. I want him to value serving others over protecting his own self-interest. I want him to know that this is the ultimate form of leadership.

Having a son is scary to me, because I know how much is at stake. I could teach a hundred daughters how to scrap their way through a world that isn’t fair, but that wouldn’t be enough to change the system. Men, white people, straight people, and able-bodied people have to get on board to make the world a more equitable place.

Take, for example, the issue of rape. We can teach our daughters a bunch of ineffective ways to avoid it, or we can teach our sons not to rape. We can remove “boys will be boys” attitudes and teach them instead about consent and respect. If taking advantage of women became unacceptable, we’d see a lot better statistics than what we have today.

My son has been born with the power to change the status quo, and I pray he’ll use it.

I pray he’ll look to the story of Jonathan and to his own father, who loves to serve and advocate for the underprivileged. I pray that my mothering will show him the way, encourage him along, and help him realize a world that I can only dream of. I pray that the Kingdom of God will come through him.

 

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Slavery and Adoption

Ben Sutherland

I went to the courthouse to witness the adoption of a beautiful, spunky little girl. Her parents swore to love and protect her, and the judge declared that she was no longer “Baby Girl,” but had a new name and a forever family. The girl, sensing something worth celebrating, clapped her little hands, and we all laughed and dabbed our eyes.

Of course, not everyone was at the courthouse for such a happy occasion.

As I waited in the hallway, I watched an officer escort a group of young black men with chains around their ankles. You could hear them coming; the metal clinked against the floor. It was impossible not to look up.

I have no idea what laws those men broke, or whether those laws were fair, or whether the law enforcement was just, but I do know that it looked an awful lot like slavery. Heads down, ankles chained together, being herded like cattle towards their fate.

It was straight out of a history book.

As a white, middle-class woman, I don’t have a lot of experience with the criminal justice system. I don’t know anyone in prison. I’ve never witnessed a trial. But I know the statistics: black men in America have a 1 in 3 chance of going to jail in their lifetime. Which means that 1/3 of black men will, at one point, be in chains just like the ones I saw. Some of them will be bound because they are dangerous to society. Some for petty crimes. Some, like Freddie Gray, will die in their chains.

It’s hard to know what to say in the face of such statistics. As I watched the men walk by me, all I could think was how pervasive the spirit of slavery has become in our world. We stamp it out in one form, and it mutates into another. It uses poverty, corruption, and inequity as its allies. It dehumanizes people, treating their lives as disposable. And yet, it’s so easy to ignore.

If you’re like me, and it doesn’t personally affect you, it’s easy to look the other way when men walk past you in chains. It’s easy to assume they deserved it. It’s easy to forget that they’re human. That, as my friend Monica would say, somebody loved them.

Thank God that in a world where there is slavery, there is also adoption.

After the men disappeared down the hallway, I witnessed what happens when people open their lives and hearts to another. At the adoption, the parents were reminded that their soon-to-be daughter would have all the rights and privileges of their family. She would receive inheritance. She would be entitled to the support of both parents. They would be expected to protect, guide, care for, and love her as if she were their biological child.

Even though it was a legal ceremony, it was truly beautiful to watch.

In the Christian tradition, the opposite of slavery is sonshipThe symbolism of the adoption coming after the chains wasn’t lost on me: I believe in this form of redemption. I believe that the spirit of adoption can overcome that of slavery. That’s what Jesus came for, to make us children of God.

And we, too, can step into this spirit. We can adopt the cause of another, sharing our rights, resources, and privileges with those who need them. We can take responsibility for people who are not biologically related to us, treating them like family.

We can listen to them, cry with them, get angry with them. We can stand with them, looking that evil spirit of slavery in the eyes, and say, No more.

Today, I want to say, as I’ve said before, that black lives matter. The lives of the men I saw matter. Freddie Gray’s life mattered. Whoever they were and whatever they’ve done, their lives are not disposable. They are children of God, and I pray today that His spirit of adoption will overcome this epidemic of slavery-spirit in America.

I pray that we will all walk in the spirit of adoption, valuing all people and loving them as our own.

 


Photo: Ben Sutherland, Creative Commons 

 

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Dear White Neighbor

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Last week, “Dear Black Neighbor” garnered an overwhelming response. Today, my dear friend and fellow writer Monica Prince joins the conversation, giving voice to the other side of the neighborhood. I am so honored to have her here, and I pray her words will pierce your hearts as much as they do mine.  


Last summer, the day George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges for the murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, I locked myself in my room and cried.

With every story I heard following Trayvon Martin’s—and there were too many—my heart became heavier. The burden of remembering the names of the slain weighed on my shoulders until I could barely crawl out of bed. I hurt because of the injustice of the untimely deaths of young Black men around the country, taken down by white men in and outside of law enforcement. I cried because it felt like the lives of my people no longer mattered—or, worse, still didn’t matter.

But those aren’t the only reasons for the tremors in my hands or the quake in my voice after the failure to indict Officer Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown.

Dear White Neighbor: I want your presence.

As a teacher of primarily white college freshmen, I spend much of my time teaching my students that racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and religious intolerance are not only unacceptable in my classroom, but in this society. To be apathetic is to condone the violence that ultimately results from oppression. As a Black woman, it is demanded of me to fight for the rights of the underprivileged and powerless. As my white neighbor, I want you to support these fights because, as slavery taught the U.S., Blacks aren’t the only ones devastated by racist institutions. The hate and moral atrocities that surround racial issues seep into the bloodstreams of everyone involved. And that illness will kill us all. I want you to stand with us, in the streets, online, at the voting booths. You have the power to make this world a safer place for all of us—so I want your help.

Dear White Neighbor: Please do not invalidate my anger.

The first thing I hear after something race-related in the news enrages me is that I’m overreacting. The reason so many people in minority communities cry out in anger when one of our own has been wrongly killed is because of one very simple truth: that could be me.

When Darius Simmons was shot by his white neighbor in front of his mother, I thought of my little brother. The panic Trayvon Martin’s mother felt when she heard her baby was gone is the panic my mother feels every time my brother leaves the house. The same way women feel obligated to smile at strange men so as not to provoke an attack—like the woman who refused to give a man her number and paid for the snub with her life—is how Black men feel when they go outside: don’t look suspicious, don’t make sudden gestures, don’t wear your hat too low or your hood up, keep your hands where everyone can see them. This is an unfortunate reality. We cannot be expected to stay quiet and thankful for a life we deserve to keep when others deem us expendable.

Dear White Neighbor: Be an ally, not a savior.

At a party once, someone made an unintentionally racist joke in reference to what I had given up for Lent—“Alcohol? Why didn’t you pick cotton?” A white girl immediately jumped down the throat of the joker, telling him he had been offensive. He apologized, even though I hadn’t taken any offense—he was drunk, it was an accident. The white girl who defended me told me later, smiling and reaching for my afro, “It’s okay, my best friend is Black. I know what it’s like.”

There is a difference between being the white savior—assuming to know how minorities feel and therefore handing out punishments as you see fit—and being an ally in the fight. As an ally, color should be irrelevant. Knowing a Black person doesn’t qualify your understanding of race and ethnic relations, the same way knowing a woman doesn’t mean you’re a feminist.

As an ally, do what you can to be beneficial for the cause. Donate money. Share articles. Go to the front lines and protest. Write your representatives. Vote. But do not tell us how to feel, how to organize, or how to react. Do not assume the actions of a few—like those burning the American flag—are the feelings of the many. Understand that, as humans, our pain resonates and explodes in different ways. Some of us go to the streets, break things, tip cars. Some of us light candles and march down highways. Some of us write poems and blog posts and statuses pleading for peace. And some of us sit in our houses in the dark, drinking tea and crying because we’re too scared to go outside.

No matter how we show our grief, no matter how we show our rage, support us. Institutional racism bleeds into every aspect of our lives, regardless of your race. And if we keep dividing ourselves, blaming each other for the deaths of our loved ones, we will stay sick.

I, for one, cannot bear to be sick any longer.

 


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Monica Prince is a performance poet living in Milledgeville, GA, currently pursuing her MFA in creative writing. She is producing her second full-length choreopoem, Something to Keep Me Vertical, and she spends her days writing, teaching, dancing in her kitchen, and searching for love.


Photo: Jack Johnson, Creative Commons 

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Dear Black Neighbor

Alex Barth

The week Michael Brown was shot, there was a young black man riding his bike in my neighborhood. I happened to look out the window from my desk just as he tumbled over his handlebars, landing face-down on the sidewalk. He lay there a moment, regaining his wits, and I scooted around in my chair, debating whether or not to go outside. I didn’t want to embarrass him, but when it took him several minutes to get up, I went to the front porch to make sure he was alright.

As he finally got to his feet and brushed the gravel off his hands, I asked if he was okay and if he wanted to come inside to clean up his scrapes. When he noticed my presence, his careful attempts at movement became quick and stiff.

“No, thank you, ma’am.” 

I nodded and tried to smile. There was more than embarrassment in his voice and manner. He looked claustrophobic, almost afraid. I could tell he was choosing his words carefully, trying to be extra polite to the pregnant white lady in the mostly-white, upper-middle-class neighborhood.

He picked up—yes, picked up—his bicycle and walked away as quickly as he could.

His “ma’am” rang in my ears all day.

For months now, I’ve been trying to figure out why that word stung so deeply. The thing is, this young man and I are probably neighbors. He can’t have come that far just on his bike, and he certainly couldn’t have carried it that far after his accident. But no one else in my neighborhood—no matter their age or gender—would ever use “ma’am” to address me. No neighbor would ever feel the need to be that polite with me. Not on a normal basis, and certainly not when they were in pain.

Today, as the Ferguson wound is reopened for America (or perhaps never closed), I want to say a few things to my young black neighbor, whose name I wish I knew, and to the other people of color who are my neighbors and friends in this town and across the world.

Dear Black Neighbor: You do not need to be polite to me when you are hurting. 

You do not need to think about my feelings or comfort level, because when you’re hurt, it’s about you. Some white people will want to make it about them. They’ll expect you to be extra polite, extra well-behaved before they’re willing to hear about your pain. But that is not how neighbors should be. That is not how I want to be. I want you to focus on yourself, because you’re the one with blood on the sidewalk, and that makes you the priority. Do what you need to do to feel better. If I can help, great. If I’m getting in the way, tell me, and I’ll move. No “ma’am” necessary.

Dear Black Neighbor: You are welcome in my home. 

I realize now that my offer to come inside didn’t seem like a viable option to you, but I really wish that weren’t true. I meant what I said. You are welcome in my home. You are welcome to rest there, to clean the cuts on your hands. You are welcome when you need a cup of sugar, too. You are welcome for all the small things, and for when you really need help. Neighbors look out for one another. They are not afraid of being in each others’ space. I am not afraid of you, and I pray that no history or media or experiences will make you afraid of me.

Dear Black Neighbor: When you are hurt, I am responsible to help you.

I’m sorry that I ever hesitated to come outside, because it was obvious from the moment you fell that you weren’t okay. I’m sorry, too, if coming outside made it worse. But in a neighborhood, when someone falls on the sidewalk, it should make the rest of us come out of our homes. Even if there’s not much we can do. Even if it’s a little embarrassing. I hope the fact that we care—that we did not choose apathy, we did not stay on our couches—makes up for the awkwardness of these interactions. I hope that one day it will be enough to create healing and real friendship.

I want to be a faithful and good neighbor, in the small moments of daily life and in the crises that rock our nation.

Your life matters. Your pain matters. And I’m here on the front porch, barefoot and pregnant, offering to help any way I can.

 


         Photo: Alex Barth, Creative Commons 
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