When I think of Muslims, this is who comes to mind.

The most frequent command in Christian scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” The New Testament even presents fear being the opposite of love, stating bluntly that “perfect love casts out fear.” At first glance, this may seem a surprising idea, but on closer inspection it makes perfect sense. Fear propels us to act first and ask questions later; to reason carelessly; to prioritize self-preservation over compassion. Fear can make us irrational, destructive, violent. When we experience terror, we are often willing to scapegoat or accuse or punish anyone if we believe that doing so will bring our unbearable terror to an end. We become obsessed with restoring our sense of safety and comfort as quickly as possible, and all other concerns can easily take a backseat to that one, compelling priority.

Two nights ago, I dreamt that I was back in the slum in India, hanging out with some of the women and girls I know there. Frequently over the past year, I’ve had realistic dreams about visiting my friends’ homes, eating and talking with them, but this time it was different—the next morning, my former teammate (who is still there) emailed to say that he had visited our old neighborhood and that many of the people there had asked about Andy and me and passed along their greetings to us. He had likely been talking with them at the same time that I was dreaming about them.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, my friends in India are on my mind a lot. Every time someone makes an ignorant generalization accusing all Muslims of being terrorists, I think of the generous and hospitable families in the slum who welcomed me into their lives. I think of the children suffering malnutrition and forced into tedious labor instead at a young age instead of being able to attend school. I think of their parents’ struggles with illiteracy, unemployment, and prejudice from the majority of society. I think about how they could do without any more obstacles placed in the way of living dignified, healthy lives, and I worry about the ways that negatives stereotypes and hatred toward Muslims will affect their lives.

I learned so much from my Muslim neighbors about compassion, loyalty, hope—and, yes, faith. They accepted me into their community despite the fact that we came from different races, different cultures, and different religions. When I remember the risk they took in choosing to get to know me as a person instead of allowing stereotypes to keep me at arm’s length, I can’t help but feel anger at the injustice of others in the West allowing stereotypes of Muslims to erase the humanity of my friends and neighbors in India.

But these are not the only people on my mind. I also think of my refugee friends here in Vancouver. One of them is a young woman from Afghanistan who was forced to flee her country with two young children to keep them all alive. Her daughter, little more than a year old, is nearly the same age as two of my beloved nieces/goddaughters in the United States.

If her case were being handled the way that refugee claims are in my home state of Texas, then she and her children would not be accessing counseling, supportive community, and legal aid to help them cope with the crisis they are in—instead, they would have already been sitting in prison for several months without access to a lawyer, and they would now be looking forward to indefinite detention with no one to help them.

If some of my friends on Facebook had their way, then this vulnerable family would not have even been allowed into North America because they are Muslim. Possibly, they would already be dead.

I think about all of these dear friends every time I hear or read about Muslims being cast as a single, monolithic group characterized by violence. I think about the real people that so many of us are eager to condemn, but whose faces we have never seen, whose stories we have never heard, and whose lives we are willing to hastily cast aside in pursuit of the idol of our own “security.”

The young men playing love songs on their cell phones and flying kites on the roof in my neighborhood in India, my friends’ babies learning to walk and talk, giggly teenage girls walking to school, grief-stricken parents who will risk anything–even a dangerous voyage across an ocean in an inflatable raft–to save their children’s lives: these are all Muslims. Perhaps if we could recognize our own hopes and fears in them instead of directing our fear against them, we would be able to see them for who they really are.

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photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/37890481@N04/6174828711″>Bangladesh, Ramadan 2011.</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>

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Sidewalk Battlegrounds and Breakthroughs

sidewalk

“You’re very beautiful,” the man on the corner commented as I walked by.

His voice was calm; he might not have meant any harm. But he was just one of many men to have offered their unsolicited opinions on my appearance over the past week, one of whom had stepped into my path and gotten in my face as he delivered his creepy line. I had had enough.

I turned toward him, furrowed my brow and said with irritation, “I don’t want your opinion.”

“Oh, okay,” I heard him say in a sarcastic voice as I turned around. “Well, then have a nice day!” he yelled after me as I started to cross the street. His voice grew louder as I got further away. “Actually, don’t have a nice day! Also, YOU’RE UGLY!”

I stared straight ahead and walked resolutely toward the elevated rail station, but my heart rate was up. What I was hearing was a five-year-old’s tantrum coming out of a grown man’s body—and that made me scared. He sounded unstable, and his disproportionate fury told me that this was not a person in control of himself. I didn’t want to become the target of his pent-up aggression about who knows what—stress at work? Rejection from an ex or from womankind in general?

As I sat down on the train, I took a few deep breaths to calm myself down, but I couldn’t help replaying the scene in my mind, thinking of what I would have liked to say to him.

“Listen,” I should have told him. “I am a human being, and I have the right to walk around my own neighborhood and go about my business without having my sex appeal appraised by random men who have appointed themselves judges in some kind of 24-hour beauty pageant! If you just wanted to brighten my day with a genuine, no-strings-attached compliment, then you need to realize that those “compliments” more often feel demeaning— or even threatening—than warm and fuzzy. And if you don’t care how your words make me feel, then it’s not a compliment. So shut up!”

Earlier in the week, I had beaten myself up over remaining passive when I was harassed on the street. I kept my eyes straight ahead, pretended like the guy wasn’t there, just kept walking. You should have said something! My mind screamed. You shouldn’t just let him get away with that!

But of course, now I had been reminded of why I rarely did respond—because these were unpredictable strangers, and it wasn’t worth putting myself in further danger in order to speak my mind. Realistically, a short, reactive confrontation like that was unlikely to change deep-seated patterns of sexist behavior or a man’s lack of respect for women. And if men twice my age really thought that their lascivious stares or pronouncements were doing me a favor, then there was more confusion there than I usually had time to sort out on my sidewalk commute to somewhere else.

Still, it doesn’t always happen like that. Days later, just a couple blocks away from Tantrum Man, an older man weighed in on my appearance as I made my way home from the grocery store.

I could feel his eyes on me as he began: “What a lovely, beautiful—”

“I’m not interested in your opinion. Thanks.” This time I smiled calmly and said this in a neutral voice.

“Well you should be,” I heard him say behind me in an equally casual tone, “‘cause I’m a fashion designer, and you would enjoy it.”

I had to laugh to myself at the absurdity of this reply. But a block later, I was not amused to find that he was still walking behind me. He caught up to me as I was waiting to cross a busy intersection.

“Here it is a lovely, beautiful day, and you got your panties in a wad for no good reason,” he said as he walked up to stand beside me on the curb. His tone wasn’t hostile, but the words were demeaning. (Basic human respect tip: conjecturing on the state of a stranger’s underwear is NEVER an appropriate conversation opener.)

I inhaled slowly. “The reason I’m upset,” I told him, “Is because I can’t walk around here a single day without some guy commenting on my appearance, and I just want—”

“I was just trying to say hi.”

“Well then just say hi. That would be fine.” I explained that “compliments” like his were threatening because I never knew where they were headed or what he might say next. Plenty of guys went beyond “friendly” behavior.

“Like what do they say?” he asked as the light changed. “How unfriendly can they be?”

More insensitive questions—I wasn’t about to go into the details of the times I had been groped, or propositioned by strangers—but he seemed genuinely perplexed by my concerns.

In the time it took us to cross the street, I told him how some of the men who have taken an interest in me on the street have been intimidating, or even violent. “You need to be aware of how some women are going to feel about your comments.”

“Well, I appreciate that,” he said as we stepped back onto the sidewalk. “Lesson learned. Have a nice day!” He turned to walk away with a genuinely friendly wave.

I continued down the sidewalk with a bemused smile, taken aback that he had listened respectfully and apparently been able to receive my point of view.

My experiences with street harassment have taught me two things. First, I am not responsible for controlling men’s behavior. In any given situation, it is completely legitimate for me to prioritize my personal safety and emotional well-being over trying to help men understand the destructive results of their behavior. Often, getting out the situation as fast as possible is the best thing for me to do.

And second, men are unique individuals and human beings who are capable of change. Despite the prevalence of “rape culture” and the many negatives experiences I and other women have had, conversations like this one give me hope for a society in which men and women treat one another with dignity and respect as equals, and in which we are able to empathize with one another’s experiences.

Ultimately, we are all looking for love and respect. I believe that one or both of these unmet needs have been at the root of every negative experience I have ever had with a stranger. Many of the men who catcall women on the street don’t have any social skills in their repertoire for engaging with the opposite sex in a healthy way, and they act (or react) out of their own loneliness and pain. This doesn’t excuse the behavior, or make it any easier to deal with when I’m the target of their dysfunctional efforts at connection, but it does help me to understand it.

Working towards justice and speaking the truth are things that I am still learning to do in love. It’s easier to do when I remember that my enemies are not other human beings, but destructive behaviors and the belief systems that drive them. Behaviors, beliefs, and people can change.

sidewalk1street harassment stories

 

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Things that happened while I was gone

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Over the weekend, Andy and I celebrated our five year wedding anniversary. We were out in the woods on a small island off the coast of BC, building small cabins that will serve as “hermitages” for people on silent retreat who need a place for deep solitude and prayer. It felt good to do some manual labor, to see tangible progress as we worked, and to feel good and tired by the end of the day, in a sore-muscle rather than a screenburned-eyes or overwrought-mind sort of way. Our motley construction crew was made up of people from all over the place, some in their teens and some in their fifties, and it was fun hanging out with people of all ages—that doesn’t happen very often outside of family reunions, and intergenerational friendship is one of the things Andy and I had enjoyed so much about living in India. After spending a long Saturday on the work site, we enjoyed a brisk swim at an isolated beach. There were Canadian geese sitting on the water around us, so it definitely stretched my idea of what summer at the beach looks like!

Apparently while we were hammering away in the woods and sleeping in rustic cabins without electricity and running water, a lot was happening back in civilization, and particularly in the country of my birth.

There was the courageous act of protest by a brave woman named Bree Newsome, who scaled the flag pole in front of the state capitol building in South Carolina to take down the symbol of white supremacy and racial violence that had flown over the seat of the state government there for more than a hundred and fifty years. Civil disobedience is intended to show the moral absurdity of laws through breaking them and willingly suffering the consequences of one’s actions. Bree’s action did exactly that: South Carolina police (including a black officer) were forced to arrest a peaceful black woman, who quoted scripture aloud as they handcuffed her, for the “crime” of removing a banner under which black Americans have been enslaved, raped, murdered, beaten, intimidated, and systematically oppressed for over a century. No scene could have more pointedly demonstrated the righteousness of her cause: the law was against her, but justice was certainly on her side. She now faces up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to $5000 for her heroic act. All of us who follow Jesus can learn from this woman’s sacrificial example.

Also over the weekend, President Obama delivered a eulogy for Clementa Pinkney, a black pastor who was among the slain in Charleston on June 17. I don’t know what opinion you hold of Obama as a person, or a politician—I can’t think of him without remembering the countless drone attacks he has authorized against innocent civilians in the Middle East—but his eulogy for Pinkney is one of the best sermons I have ever heard, and is probably THE most powerful speech I have ever heard from a head of state. Perhaps the fact that, as President, he has made important public decisions with which nearly every one of us has disagreed at some point or another makes him exactly the kind of flawed, imperfect human being who can speak with authority about grace. Seriously, if you haven’t yet listened to the speech, please, please do. It is a heartfelt lament of the ways that we have deeply wounded one another in America, an inspiring reminder of the resilience and love that have continued to grow even in the midst of violence and oppression, and an eloquent call for us to move forward together as a nation towards forgiveness and justice, extending God’s grace to one another in every facet of our lives.

“Justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other,” he remarks at one point. “My liberty depends on you being free, too.” One can hear in these words the echoes of both Jesus’ call to love our enemies, recognizing our neighbor-hood with them, and MLK Jr.’s assertion that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The other big national news of the weekend was the legalization of same-sex marriage across the United States. The reactions of many American Christians have already become an embarrassing adventure in missing the point, but I still hold out hope that we as a Church will be able to let go of our fearful siege mentality and recognize this opportunity to love and extend grace to people who may not share our sexual orientation or our theology. I’ve always been confused by the political kerfuffle over trying to legislate a Christian lifestyle into the laws of the state, since God has never called the Church to control the government. We have been given the task of modeling the Kingdom in our own lives, creating a community that images God’s hospitality and love, and inviting others into freely-chosen, loving relationship with God.

Using legal means to force non-Christians into choices and behaviors that Christians have specifically chosen as disciples of Christ seems not only pointless, but controlling and counterproductive to our true mission in the world. If we send the message to the people around us that we are more concerned about policing their sex lives than about caring for them as people, then we’ve not just lost the “culture wars”—we’ve lost the respect and trust that would have laid the foundations for any relationship with people outside the church to grow. We’ve lost our credibility as God’s ambassadors of love. We’ve lost our purpose as a community.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be involved in wider culture—we certainly should. But even in the realm of sex and relationships, why not concern ourselves with the destructive forces of pornography, trafficking, sexual abuse, and domestic violence that are destroying vulnerable individuals and families and marriages? Which will give a clearer picture of God: a Christian reacting with fear-mongering and angry statements in protest of same-sex marriage, or that same Christian instead demonstrating a mature ability to be gracious with people who disagree with them, whose lives and choices are different from his own? Some Christians have compared homosexuals with Hitler, referred to them as “Gaystapo,” or likened the court’s ruling to the 9/11 Terrorist attacks. Regardless of what we believe about homosexuality, angry antics like these should offend our consciences as Christians. Would Jesus be stirring up fear and hatred at a time like this? Or would he be inviting a same-sex couple over for dinner to hear their story and get to know them as people, refusing to reduce the complex beauty of their humanity down to a single political issue or life decision? I get the sense that he’s probably prompting us to do that right now.

supreme court ruling on same sex marriage

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Winning An Earthquake: reflections on Veterans’ Day

“You can no more win a war than win an earthquake.”

Those were the words of Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, explaining her lone vote against America’s entry into World War II on December 8, 1941. Those are the words that explain my thoughts on this Veteran’s Day/ Canadian Remembrance Day seventy-three years later. Today, I remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have lost their lives in the thirty wars in which U.S. soldiers have fought since the birth of our nation; I remember the lives of millions of non-Americans that were lost in those same wars. I think also of the innumerable families and loved ones of soldiers who have suffered as a result of these casualties.

I think of the 24.9 million American military veterans alive today, many of whom have suffered physical and psychological trauma, and many of whom struggle at the margins of our society as a result. According to U.S. government statistics, nearly one in seven homeless adults as of December 2011 were military veterans, and 30.2% of veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 were unemployed. Another 1.4 million are currently at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

I recognize the acts of selflessness and heroism that have been displayed by young men and women in the intensity of battle over the years, and I respect and remember the people I love who have experienced war. I deeply care about everyone whose lives have been shaped by war in some way or another. But it is that same respect and love for human life which prevents me from being able to celebrate the suffering that has resulted from war.

I don’t believe that the no-win situation of kill-or-be-killed is one that women and men should ever be forced into. I am not against the people who have ended up in this situation, but I am against the ideologies and systems of war that have landed them there. I am against the myth of redemptive violence, against governments advancing their economic and political interests with human lives (especially the lives of the poor, who always suffer disproportionately in war), against the idea that killing the families of other people is justified in order to defend the families of people that I know and love. I do not celebrate the tragic loss and destruction of lives that these wars have entailed, and I do not believe that continuing to depend on violence to protect our freedom and security can ever make us truly safe or free.

For me, this is a day of somber remembrance and reflection. For any of us who would profess a higher allegiance to the Prince of Peace than to any nation on earth, this day is a reminder of the flawed logic of counting one nation’s “victories” over another as long as those victories come at the cost of slaughtering our fellow human beings. This day reminds me to pray and hope and live into creative new ways of engaging with conflict which will one day replace the cyclical violence on which we have come to rely as our first line of defense in any threatening situation. This day compels me to grieve for what has been, and to hope for what is yet to be, believing that the difficult and risky path of enemy love that Jesus lays out is no more costly than the bloody path we have walked up until now.

There is a song by Tom Wuest, based on Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, which we often sing in our community as part of  our collective worship and repentance. This is my prayer for all of us today, for our healing and wholeness:

“In our blindness, lead us down that road.

In our ignorance, lead us down that road.

In our violence, hate and indifference,

We pray Lord you give us new sight.

Let something like scales fall from our eyes,

Something like scales fall from our eyes.

Jesus, lead us down that road.

Lead us down that road.”

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Forgiveness in the thick of it

          In our house, we host a weekly event after Tuesday night community dinners called Creative World Justice. The purpose is pretty much what it sounds like—to worship, learn, and brainstorm together about the creative steps we can take towards promoting justice in the world, as individuals and as a group. We’ve just begun a series exploring violence and nonviolence, and last night I had the privilege of leading a discussion on nonviolence in the Bible, particularly in the life of Jesus.I’ve read these verses so many times myself over the years, and I’ve often taken part in theological discussions and detached, intellectual conversations in which we have discussed violence on an impersonal, even hypothetical level. We hold the world’s problems at arm’s length, arguing back and forth about historical wars, current large-scale conflicts that are far enough away to exist for us only in newspaper headlines, or potential scenarios of aggression or crime in which self-defense would be necessary.

But last night, Jesus’ words and example of forgiveness and enemy love had never felt more powerful. The room was full of people for whom violence is a personal issue. Many of them grew up in violent homes, were abused as children, belonged to gangs when they were younger, had boyfriends or husbands who beat them up, or perhaps served jail time for beating up someone themselves. One woman came into the discussion reeling from the news that a close friend had been the victim of an extremely savage crime this week—one which may yet take her life; it remains to be seen whether she will make a recovery in the hospital or not. Is it offensive or even ridiculous to talk about forgiveness against the backdrop of such vitriolic hatred and evil?

Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness and nonviolence are difficult for us all, but especially for so many people in that room, whose lives have been shaped in significant ways by violence. I really respected the courage of my new friends to take his words seriously and to grapple with them right in the thick of it all. I admired their humility and honesty in sharing the difficult emotions and the fragile places in their lives that have made it difficult for them to respond to violence in any other way than with retribution. Some of them are also very new on their journey with Jesus, and I was inspired by their passion to soak up this new way of being in the world.

In the face of so much raw honesty and pain, I was humbled myself by the reminder that this nonviolent path is not a solution that I have to hand out to people. It’s not anything I have mastered myself, and it certainly is no short-cut or cure-all for the pain. It’s a difficult and lengthy process of inner transformation, and it is a learning curve that we are all on together, stumbling and backtracking and finding our way forward again. But it is a potent anecdote to the fight-or-flight world and the survival mentality that we’ve all been raised with. In fact, it is exactly in the thrall of horrific violence that forgiveness and creative, compassionate resistance are needed: to overcome evil with good.

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Pursuing the Kingdom of God: The battle without and the battle within

          Andy and I are in Colorado Springs for a few days after a twelve-hour drive from northern Arkansas, where we spent three weeks with his family.  We haven’t been doing much, besides sitting around talking with people and trying to keep warm around wood-burning stoves, heating vents, and fireplaces.  But these weeks have left a lot of space for reflection, and He seems to be raising new questions and insights in our minds all the time.  At this point, we have far more questions than answers, but here is a bit of what’s been on our minds.
What a paradox it is that we as humans dread and crave God’s judgment at the same time.  We dread His judgment when we call to mind our own guilt and shame over wrongful actions, evil thoughts, and selfish desires.  We crave His judgment against those who have wronged us or who have wreaked havoc on our society by perpetrating horrible crimes like rape, murder, or other kinds of heartless oppression against innocent, vulnerable people like women, children, and the elderly.  I have been recognizing these two impulses within myself recently: burning indignation against injustice, and yet thankfulness for God’s mercy when I soberly realize the roots of those outward expressions of evil within myself– pride, anger, jealousy.  In Vancouver, it was easy to feel outrage towards a man picking up a desperate woman who was prostituting herself on a street corner, or towards busy shoppers who avoided eye contact with the panhandlers on the sidewalk.  But if I am honest, then I must admit how easily the impulse to pursue what I want ahead of the best interests of others rises within my own spirit, or the way that apathy often finds fertile soil in my mind.  In pursuing the Kingdom of God, we must be willing both to fight for justice in the world, and to courageously face the evil within ourselves and invite God’s purifying flame to test our hearts, separating out the wheat from the chaff.  After all, it is only the pure in heart who will see God.
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