GRIEVING BOSTON

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Both / And Thinking on Same-Sex Marriage

by Jennifer Harvey

I always straddle a line in presidential elections. Voting democrat usually feels like endorsing a failed, corrupt two-party system. So I’ve voted Green Party more than once. But I never did it when I lived in a swing state and knew the election would be close. I abhor Obama’s complicity in the killing of innocents in Pakistan. But not voting for him and potentially sending Iowa into Romney’s column didn’t seem like a better option.

Still, I deeply respect those who consistently vote their pure conscience—even if they too live in a swing state! It was obscene when Ralph Nadar voters were accused of bringing us George Bush. And even as I cast my vote for Obama the second time, I understood why some friends interpreted this as my apathetic support for his drones.

It’s the ever-present tension between revolution and reform. My heart is always with revolution but, for better or worse, my actions sometimes endorse the incomplete, imperfect but more immediate improvements reform can bring in the meantime. Our world so rarely offers clear-cut moral choices.

Which brings me to same-sex marriage.

There are important critiques out there of this week’s same-sex marriage euphoria. Marriage co-mingles religion and state in ways we should reject. Marriage does not create structural change. Limited resources and political capital in lgbt worlds would be better spent challenging poverty, racism, inadequate access to healthcare, mass incarceration, homelessness among youth, sexual assault. All of these social fractures affect queers more than others in ways marriage rights can’t touch. This is especially true for queers who are trans, of color, female, poor, disabled and the list could go on.

Disclosure: I wanted and had a non-legal marriage ceremony to ritualize and publicly affirm my relationship in the presence of my community. But, I was frustrated when the wealthier and whiter lgbt organizations made marriage the focus, furious when white queers in California appropriated Civil Rights Movement rhetoric for it and still lament the use of resources that would have been better spent on deeper systemic change.

I can go on:

Everyone deserves healthcare regardless of relational status;

Every child deserves a public safety net regardless of her parent(s) relational status;

Every queer deserves to be recognized as inherently worthy, regardless of relational status;

Marriage does not liberate us or mean we’ve realized freedom.

If marriage rights become the lgbt-version of an opiate we are all in a lot of trouble.

Having said all of this, how can I possibly publicly admit my euphoria about this week’s Supreme Court happenings?

Well here it is. My cautious, but insistent euphoria began when I ambivalently went to the Iowa courthouse the day our state court ruled for marriage equality. There I encountered anything but a white, middle-class group of queers rushing in in the hopes they would finally be seen as “normal.” There I encountered a motley group of diversely raced, gendered, classed and beauteous queers, laughing together in a sterile civic building as we insisted those who represent us deal with us as we were. None of us seemed deluded into thinking we would wake up the next day liberated from all oppression. My own giddiness that day had less to do with being legally married and everything to do with disrupting business as usual.

My euphoria has continued to grow in the places where other critiques of same-sex marriage fall short.

Marriage is not an essentially conservative institution. As a humanly created, political institution it is, like all other institutions, unstable and open to change as the result of human challenge.

Marriage does not mean queers have bought in to traditional gender. This claim can only be made by those who have not witnessed representatives of the state frantically scribbling out “groom” and “bride” or of two butch lesbians kissing in the middle of a County Clerk’s office in the Midwest.

More complicated, some of the functions now shorthanded through marriage can’t just be thrown out. For example, we need some infrastructures to protect women who give birth as well as parents and caretakers who do not and the children for whom they are all responsible. Marriage is definitely not the best way to achieve this. It obviously fails queers as so many of our families (like many non-queer families) don’t have a two-parent arrangement. But I get really frustrated when voices castigating the same-sex marriage euphoria ignore complex questions of parental rights and responsibilities and spin off into abstract calls to just abolish the entire project altogether. (A notable exception to this silence can be found at beyondmarriage.org, which articulates an agenda I think is fantastic).

Marriage is not liberation. But I don’t actually think that’s what the euphoria is all about.

I think the same-sex marriage euphoria is less about marriage and more about what this moment represents in terms of the achievement of public recognition. Marriage has been one of the most public symbols of a broader cultural and political disparagement of and hostility towards queer people. Same-sex marriage critics worry that the logic now goes like this: you get to be a “worthy” queer now if and only if you get married. But I think the logic just might go the other direction: namely, “oh we’re finally getting it that queers too have the same worth and dignity as heterosexual citizens therefore even this most ‘hallowed’ institution cannot and should not leave them out.”

To my mind, that’s not an argument for marriage (bring on the church/state challenge—I’m there). It’s certainly not a claim that it’s our most important achievement, that we should all run out and get one, or that we shouldn’t advocate better ways of supporting diverse kinship structures and family protections (thank you Mohan Sikka).

But it is an argument that a certain kind of euphoria is warranted right now. Public recognition does matter—even when it comes packaged by way of a flawed institution (the same packaging in which all of our political progress has come). Public recognition doesn’t change everything but it has a place in a larger vision of social transformation and it’s historic when achieved against such seemingly outrageous odds.

If we can exercise both/and thinking in the voting booth, I don’t see why we can’t do it at the courthouse too. I hope it doesn’t make me a sellout, but this week I intend to keep my critique and have my euphoria too. Reformers and revolutionaries need each other. In fact, sometimes they exist in the same person at the same time.

Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.

Repentance Politics, Repentance Theology

by Jennifer Harvey

Like a lot of other folks, excitement has been creeping up on me. We seem to be maybe, finally, oh so slowly going through a sea change on lesbian and gay rights (I’m not so optimistic that transgender folks are included in this). Cultural acceptance—incomplete still, of course—came first. But it seems like political and even religious acceptance may follow on its heels. Maybe.

But something has started to really eat at me, and when Rob Portman (R-Ohio) came out in support of same-sex marriage last week I finally figured out what it was.

When wrong’s been done there’s a critical moment in the transition to making it right. That moment is when the person or institution that’s been calling the shots (aka, those with more power), stops, gets vulnerable, gets real and says “I was so very wrong. And I’m really, really sorry about that.”

The best and most transformative kind of repair only flows from honest and vulnerable confession.

It’s easy to skip over that moment. When I lose patience with my four-year old, or snap at her for something that’s not her fault, how often am I tempted to just move on? It’s good when I regain my composure, rein in my impatience and improve my behavior. But if I don’t first make myself vulnerable and open (which takes humility—admittedly not my favorite posture) by admitting to her I was wrong, our relationship doesn’t get knit back together the way it needs to. Sure, I feel better about getting back to my “nice mom self” and of course she’s better off when I do, but unless I own up to her that I shouldn’t have treated her that way in the first place the dynamic between us doesn’t fundamentally shift. I’m still the one calling all the shots. It’s only my “I was wrong, I’m sorry” that demonstrates my understanding that I don’t actually have the right to treat her however my mood might dictate.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Politicians and religious leaders are not our parents. But when Portman announced that learning his son was gay made him change his views my feelings were mixed, at best. I was glad his son had the courage to come out. I was glad Portman cared about his son enough to re-think his views. I was deeply troubled that he didn’t realize long before it was about his son, that every gay and lesbian person is someone’s child—talk about a dangerous way to do politics.

But, I was most bothered by the fact Portman didn’t say “I’m sorry.” He never admitted that voting for DOMA contributed to a climate of hatred and marginalization. He never owned the fact that his past behavior has and continues to cause deep harm. I hope he did better by his son and found a way to apologize for exposing him to bigotry and rejection for the first twenty years of his life—an exposure that must have taken quite a toll. Just changing your mind is not enough to make things right.

I’m worried that a similar phenomenon may be happening among Christian churches. Churches are changing. I had a conversation last year with a former teacher and respected mentor who works with evangelical college students. He told me that it’s only a matter of time. He sees young evangelicals every day who simply do not accept what their parents and pastors have told them about gay and lesbian people and who are telling their churches they’re wrong. He said these churches will have to start getting it right or they won’t survive into the next generation. It’s only a matter of time.

I believe him. And I’m so glad to hear it.

But my heart grieves at how it will have been too late for so many. And it’s my grief that makes me worry about what happens if we skip the work of repentance. As happy as I will be when it becomes the norm that “the Church” realizes it’s been dead wrong all this time and publicly embraces lgbt people as fully human and fully beloved, if it doesn’t confess it’s prior position as sin and acknowledge how that sin has damaged lives and spirits then that change is going to feel more like charity and inclusion (on heterosexual terms) than justice and repair.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that the gap between being a recipient of charity and a partner in a just relationship is a wide one.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I certainly don’t want to downplay the courage it takes for faith communities to change their minds and the positive impact it can have when they do. Nor do I want to fail to honor the sweat that committed visionaries within and outside the Christian tradition will have put in by the time we get there (sea change it may be but we have a long way to go). But I do want put on the table, long before we actually do get there, at least one of the criteria congregations must have on their tables if they want to true transformation and healing: repentance, an activity that includes an “I’m sorry.”

It’s one thing to be the charitable, kind mom who corrects my behavior when I screw up. It’s a different matter altogether to get down on my knees, look my daughter in the eyes as I apologize and, in so doing, treat her with the respect and justice she deserved all along.

At the end of the day I don’t actually expect the repentance moment from politicians. But I think churches will find confession and repair are already in their theological playbooks. They’re in the index right under “μεταηοια” (“change your mind and direction”—a word Christians usually translate as “repent!”). I just hope they’ll have the courage and openness to go look. 

Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.

It’s Not Only About The Onion: On Intent and Impact

by Jennifer Harvey

There’s been plenty of brilliant, angry writing in response to The Onion’s tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis. But an admittedly non-scientific reading of my facebook feed tells me lots of white folks are still confused. Just what is all this hoopla about?

We all know The Onion is satire, right? We all know satire’s job is to use the absurd—the offensive even—to make a deeper critique, right?

In this case (so the argument might go), to use one of the most sexist, sexualizing and derogatory terms available to refer to the youngest nominee for Best Actress as she stood on the red carpet looking adorable, elated and yet so very composed is truly absurd. And the absurd here (so the argument might go) could be intended as commentary on the endlessly sexist, sexualized and derogatory ways we look at and talk about women in the public eye. Get it? The tweeter wasn’t calling Wallis the “c” word. Throwing that word at a beloved and obviously innocent female child might have been an attempt to expose the sexist nastiness of Hollywood. Maybe The Onion pushed the envelope too far—satire is always dangerous and good satire is really, really hard. But there was no malicious intent here. Right?

Well, none of us knows the tweeter’s intent. But that’s precisely the point—because the intent is most assuredly not.

Have you ever touched a hot stove? Did you do it on purpose? Probably not. Did you get burned anyway? I bet you did. Then you know first-hand that intent is irrelevant to impact.

It’s taken me a long time to learn this, so I’ll say it again. Intent and impact have (almost) nothing to do with one another.

Just ask anyone who has ever unintentionally put her hand on a hot stove.

Unfortunately, those of us who are white usually confuse the two. The familiar conversation goes like this:

  1. incident happens;
  2. people of color cry foul and describe in painful, often eloquent, detail the effects of incident;
  3. white people respond, often defensive, insisting that motives were pure (or at least can’t be proven malicious).

I totally get why we do this. We know racism is “bad” and when people of color describe its horrific effects we become frantic trying to show that we—or those whose jokes we laughed at (or at least didn’t think were that bad)—couldn’t possibly be associated with that. I get it.

But think about it. People of color are talking about harm—the impact of putting your hand on the stove. White people start talking about motives—whether or not you intended to put your hand on the stove.

Now imagine what it would be like to have a severe burn and be yelling that you need to get to the hospital, only to be met with the numb response “but it was an accident, so surely you can’t be burned as badly as you think.” And, then we sit here—and I’m not talking here about “we” Fox News-loving white folk, I’m talking about “we” liberal-ish, well-intentioned Onion-loving ones (like me)—shaking our heads, asking “why are Black folks always so angry?”

Whether we intend it to or not (pun intended) our obsession with intent makes the damage worse. It also creates so much static we literally can’t hear people of color as they describe impact.

Can we hear this?

Mia McKenzie: 

The thing about being a little black girl in the world is that your right to be a child, to be small and innocent and protected, will be ignored and you will be seen as a tiny adult, a tiny black adult, and as such will be susceptible to all the offenses that people two and three and four times your age are expected to endure.

That’s impact.

Brokey McPoverty:

Black women are routinely stripped of control of ourselves and our bodies.  We are “Little Q” on the red carpet.  We are “c-nts” on the internet.  We are “baby/honey/sugar/shorty with the fat ass” on the street as we go about our lives, minding our own business.  And when we open our mouths to speak against it all when it seems no one else will, we are charged to defend our defense of ourselves.

That’s impact.

Our job is to stop protesting innocence and listen. Carefully.

When we do we might still find it hard to believe our ears. Short of being a target oneself, the best way to understand impact by living in close and sustained relationships with those who experience it. And guess what? We live such deeply segregated lives in this nation that most of us who are white simply don’t have those kinds of relationships. But that doesn’t mean Black folks’ need to say it more carefully or clearly than they already do. It doesn’t mean they should say it with less urgency and anger (remember the stove?). It most certainly doesn’t mean what they describe isn’t real.

To develop understanding and empathy is a learning process. It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen “naturally.” We have to decide we want to and make a concerted effort to do it. We can start (and its only a start) by turning off the “intent” conversation and listening carefully to the “impact” conversation, assuming something critically important is being said.  

Ironically enough, the only way to actually prove good intentions is to stop insisting they are there and instead take the impact so seriously that we admit how much we don’t know, work to change our understanding and behavior, and insist again and again that others do the same.

Until we do, we’ll take moments like the one Quvenzhané Wallis deserved to have—namely an untrammeled celebration of her gifted, accomplished, young female Black self—and drive them into the unforgiving ground of our white racial ignorance again and again and again … 

Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.

YES, ANOTHER NEW YEAR’S REFLECTION

by Jennifer Harvey

I’m ambivalent about New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes they seem like a game. We pretend life changes that are going to be hard no matter what are going to somehow be easier on January 1st. This gives us permission to continue to not work on those changes today and instead indulge in the very things that make us less of who we want to be. Worse, we completely forget that today is always the only day we actually have. Then, within days of the ball having dropped, laughing about how we again didn’t follow through on any of our resolutions becomes this bizarre social bonding activity. This pattern lets us give ourselves or get from others extra permission to keep doing whatever it is was we have always done. I wouldn’t find this so annoying (in myself too!) if we didn’t spend the rest of the year repeating ad nauseum all the things we want to change.

(Okay, wow, this started off as way more of a bummer than I meant it to. Sorry. I’ll reign it in now.)

At the same time, there is something legitimately alluring about fresh starts. Happily the cycle of the calendar builds these in for us—each new year, month, week and even day invites a pause if we allow it to get our attention.

My best pauses happened during my late 20s and early 30s when my sister, Janée, and I kept a notebook together. In it we had written about 20 questions. These went from the mundane—best books or movies of the past year—to the more esoteric and visioning—the most important life change of the past year, hopes for new daily life habits, big picture dreams we wanted to realize in the year(s) to come.

At some point during the New Year season we would take the notebook out over good food and a big bottle of wine. This led to an evening of laughing and, depending on the year, crying and pretty much everything-in-between as we revisited how much change a year had brought. And, how much it sometimes hadn’t.

“Run a marathon.” “Become fluent in Spanish.” These two items brought us to tears with laughter year after year, as I—year after year—sure that I was naming something new, listed the same two goals in response to the “hopes” question.

It was funny. But then came the year that I actually did run a marathon.

I don’t know if naming that hope over and over again at New Year’s time helped make that happen. But when it happened I felt like it had. I also realized that my inability to run a marathon the prior three (or four, five, six) years earlier wasn’t really failure—even then. It had just taken a long time to get the necessary day-to-day life pieces in place to actually accomplish such a big project. I had been working on it all the while.

This tradition became a kind of compass for me. A time set aside to reflect on who I was, who I wanted to be, and what kind of living I needed to be doing to actually grow into that person. Then to reorient…again.

It wasn’t about resolutions exactly. It was more about remembering or renaming our values and trying to say something concrete about what kind of person we each were trying to become . It was about doing that in the presence of another with whom we were on a lifetime journey. It was a way of honoring our respective paths, even while enjoying the chance laugh at ourselves (and each other) about the ways we repeatedly fell short, and sometimes even plumb forgot to remember who it is we wanted to be.

I miss this tradition. We kept it up for a few years even after I moved away from NYC, but it slowly faded as careers and young children in our lives made getting together during the holidays less and less possible. 

Remembering that practice today is what prompted this post.

I hit 41 this year. Forty didn’t really jar me, but when my birthday came this year it dawned on me (duh) that I was going to keep aging. I swear that somehow hadn’t really occurred to me before. I think all the hype of getting to the big 4-0 made me not think even think about the fact aging would keep happening.

A tiny bit of panic set in. And, as much as I hate to sound stereotypical, this season of my life has found me asking myself big questions about who I am and who I still want to be. I’ve done that before. But unlike the years in which my sister and I sat down at her kitchen table, 41 has brought me a different kind of awareness that time and life passes. Realizing, practicing, achieving anything is only and can only be about working on it right now. Today.** Probably only in small bites, yes, but tenaciously and relentlessly nonetheless.

-Yoga.

-Compassion and kindness, in my words, even when I feel grumpy.

-Community.

-Activism for a more just world in my local community, even when I feel too busy.

(Major shout out here to Michelle Alexander’s amazing and awful book The New Jim Crow. This book has gotten me to finally move from just saying things about the racial injustice of our prison systems [note: complete understatement] to actually showing up to do some work with others to try to end it.)

I don’t necessarily think these are answers for the so-called big questions I’ve found myself stewing on (or that I’ve found stewing in me). I’m pretty sure, in fact, I’ve not even gotten all that clear about what the questions are.

But in honor of New Year’s I want to keep trying to make space and time to let them emerge—the questions that is. And, I want to keep trying to make choices in my day-to-day life (always today) so that even when I don’t do all the “shoulds” I keep in a list in my overly judgmental brain, that I am doing my best to honor this fleeting thing we call life by taking my own seriously enough, but with a smile on my face, to actually live it in a way I choose and that doesn’t just happen to me.

So Happy New Year. I miss you Nene! And, no I’m still not fluent in Spanish….

—————-

**Okay, I generally avoid books like this and I’m not exactly recommending this one, but John B. Izzo’s book, The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die does have a gem. It says that the simple secret to a life well lived is stringing together a bunch of really good days. This doesn’t mean days that are saccharine happy or go well for reasons beyond your control. It just means the small bite at a time work of doing something each day related to the things that give you meaning and hope.


Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.

ACCEPTING VULNERABILITY: A (hard) WORK IN PROGRESS

by Jennifer Harvey

I sat in the front lobby of my 4-year old’s school while she enjoyed her weekly dance class three days after the horrors of Newtown. Every time the door opened I looked up. My heart didn’t skip a beat and I didn’t feel scared. But a consuming sensation went through me nonetheless.

The faces of other parents hanging out in the lobby suggested they felt something too.

I can’t quite describe the sensation really. Words are so inadequate this week. But, it had to do with an overwhelming awareness of vulnerability. The awareness was physical. I felt it in my bones, which haven’t stopped aching since I heard the news. The vulnerability is of course about that of my children, but it’s also about mine as a parent.

In his Newtown speech President Obama said that having children is the joy and anxiety of having your heart live outside your body.  In other words the most tender and vital part of you—the place that holds the mystery, beauty and fragility of life itself—walking around, doing its own thing, jumping off couches, running across the street without looking, getting sick, sometimes very sick and…going to school each morning. Doing all of these things while being exposed to the whims of this vast world in ways you cannot control and from which you cannot protect it.

I have heard the kids-as-heart-outside-your-body analogy before and know it to be true. But this week it has made me want to scream.

I’m struggling. I am totally on board with this nation finally getting angry and serious about the proliferation of guns. I’m on board with loudly pointing out that neglect of our collective obligation to support families dealing with mental health issues is not only immoral but shortsighted. As if such neglect won’t negatively impact everyone.

But when I’ve chimed in on those debates this week or vigorously nodded as I read the latest arguments, I’m pretty sure its been part of my manic effort to push that feeling of vulnerability as far away as I possibly can. It’s been part of my desperate attempt to tell myself I can exert some control over reality—a reality that, at the end of the day, is mostly beyond my control.

It’s terrifying to say that aloud.

Life is so fragile. Just because I love my kids more than life itself (when our first child was born I thought “so this is what it feels like to be willing to throw myself under a train for someone else”) doesn’t mean I can protect them or save them.

What does it mean to accept a truth that literally takes my breath away?

A truth that was already true, even before last Friday?

Last year the 4-year old niece of my midwife tragically and unexpectedly died during her young cousin’s birthday party. Several months later the woman from whom we bought our first (and, I’ll be honest, last) round of cloth diapers had a baby born with renal failure. This tiny boy and his amazing family have been through it, and his prognosis a year later remains uncertain. I’ve recently been back in touch with a high school friend whose 2-year old is valiantly battling leukemia right now. Her son has been through more painful and invasive procedures—including eleven rounds of chemo—than most adults endure (or anyone should have to endure) in a lifetime.

Unspeakable.

I wouldn’t begin to imply I know what it’s like to be any of these parents. But I suspect the grief and fear that engulfed so many of us this past week is something they already knew a lot about.

Every story has its own contours that should be honored. But the senseless and incomprehensible reality that children suffer terribly and sometimes even die didn’t suddenly become a new possibility last week. And it won’t stop being a possibility even if we completely destroy U.S. gun culture.

So, yes, yes, yes I’d love to see our nation destroy it—let’s do it(!) (and let’s work tirelessly to find a cure for renal failure and every form of childhood leukemia too). But there’s something else in this whole experience about admitting that as beautiful and joyous as life is, it always holds the capacity—perhaps precisely because it is so beautiful and joyous—to devastate us beyond belief.

I don’t want that admission to make me stop being politically active. Don’t misread me. Two days after the NRA’s “meaningful contribution” I’m so furious I could spit. But, I also don’t want political action to serve as my attempt to avoid that scary but truthful admission either.

There’s a christmas cactus sitting in our living room. Its flowers are so very fragile. Just turning it or bumping into it when it’s starting to bud, even a wee bit, can make the baby buds fall right off. (I’ve learned this the hard way more than once.) The blooms themselves are translucent. Their color is brilliant, but you can almost see right through them. Their fragility lies at the heart of what makes them so gorgeous.

The potential for unspeakable suffering to erupt in our lives is a constant. I suspect this is harder to accept when little ones become part of our living—at least it has been for me. The murders at Sandy Hook Elementary make me desperate to run away from, deny, or think I can exert enough bravado to defeat life’s inherent and unavoidable fragility. But I’m afraid if that’s how I respond to this tragedy I’ll also end up cut off from the possibility of experiencing deeply the wonders of living. Life’s fragility lies at the heart of what makes it so gorgeous.

I know just enough about Buddhism to really appreciate its teaching that the connection between attachment and suffering describes our human predicament. I know just enough about engaged Buddhism to know that trying to practice non-attachment as a response to this predicament doesn’t mean we have to roll over and accept guns in our schools. (I don’t mention my own tradition here, because the loudest voices presuming to represent it this week have managed once again to be completely obscene—but that’s a whole other blog.)

When it comes to my children I can’t begin to wrap my mind around the idea of non-attachment.

Accepting vulnerability doesn’t make a whole of sense right now either.

But if I ever want to fully embrace the simple joy of listening outside the room during my daughter’s dance class again, trying to figure out what that means is where I have to start.


Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.


CHILD ON GOD AND COUNTRY (a.k.a. what’s a mother to do?)

by Jennifer Harvey

This is more transcript than insight. It follows up my Thanksgiving post about Native Americans and U.S.-American myths where I mentioned our 4-year old being taught the Pledge of Allegiance at school.

Turns out, she’s learned the Star-Spangled Banner too—but that’s getting ahead of myself.

The school setting: I love our daughter’s school. Its educational vision centers on a deep respect for children as people, the value of peacemaking and the reality of global diversity. I also really like her teacher who emanates serious attention to learning and has high expectations of her pupils. It was much to the surprise of my partner and I, then, that we recently learned our daughter had been taught to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the morning routine.

The parent setting: I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance because I won’t pledge allegiance to a flag, a nation, or anything external other than to humankind and the elusive pursuit of peace and justice. (I don’t care if that sounds vague or cheesy.) My partner doesn’t like it because of the phrase “under God”—a concept she meets with deep suspicion for a number of good reasons. (As a Christian I’m not put off by the word “God” itself, but share her conviction that this 1954 addition to the Pledge violates the so-called church/state “wall.”)

The recent setting: The Star Spangled banner came on TV during the World Series and our 4-year old piped up: “hey, that’s the song we sing at school!” (What?!?) It came up somehow a few days later that she also knows the Pledge. We were admittedly thrown by all of these revelations.

The car setting: On the way home from our playground adventure last week our daughter started belting out the Pledge. At the top of her lungs.

The transcript:

The Child [TC]: … one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty….Hey, God is invisible! (Her tone suggests she has just discovered something new and very important.)

My Unspoken Thoughts [MUT]: Wow, Chris is going to love this. What do we do with this?

TC continues: … with liberty and justice for all. (She then begins to sing in a deep, dramatic bellow.) Oh say can you see, by the dawnzerly light, what so proudly we have with the flag was still there… (trails off in confusion).

TC (after three more tries): Uh! Mama, I can’t remember the words of the song right. Do you know the words?

MUT: Uh oh.

Me: Yes, I know the words.

TC: Can you sing them for me?

(Okay, so I’m not a pacifist. But, I hate war. I find the celebration of war—even if the celebration is of a “necessary” war, which is not what the Star Spangled Banner is—deeply offensive. So, I’m not inclined to sing the national anthem for the same reason I don’t say the pledge. But even if I were I just can’t stomach “rockets” and “bombs” in proud song.)

MUT: What, when, how, do these very conscious decisions and beliefs of mine translate into 4-year old speak……Ugh.

Me: Well, ‘no’ actually I can’t.

TC: Why not?

Me: Well, that song’s about a lot of things I don’t believe in. So I don’t like to sing it. But, there are lots of people who do believe in this song so they do sing it. That’s why you are asked to sing it at school. But, I don’t sing it.

TC: Well I don’t like that song, and wish I didn’t have to sing it.

MUT: Awesome!

Me: Really? If you don’t like that song, you don’t have to sing it.

TC: But, my teacher tells us to sing it. So….if I don’t want to sing it, but my teacher told me to, what would I do?

(I’m in so over my head. I am not prepared for this conversation, don’t know what it “should” look like, and especially after a long afternoon of errands, play and solo parenting. We tell our daughter all the time she needs to listen to her teacher.)

Me: Well, if you don’t want to sing the song, but your teacher says you have to, you should talk to me and Mommy about it. We’ll figure out together how we want to handle it.

(Yay! I’ve just learned that my 4-year is wise beyond her years. She somehow already knows that there is something wrong with mixing God, war and nation in celebration and song! Then the realization: responsible parenting probably means “exploring” this with her a bit further.)

Me: So, what don’t you like about the song?

(And the obvious, humorous twist.)

TC: Well, it’s soooo long. Way too long. And my foot always wants to go to sleep when I’m standing on the line to sing it for so long. So, I just wish I could sit down instead.

MUT: Sigh. Of course.

I guess the many moral dilemmas of parenting—which we have only begun to face—will remain precisely that: dilemmas for the parent to sort out. At least for now.

By the way, if you’re wondering why we don’t just ask for our daughter to be exempted from the Pledge (since this has come up in two posts now, it clearly doesn’t feel settled to me, and since my partner objects as well) it’s not because we’re afraid of making waves or of not conforming to school culture somehow. There are lots of reasons I don’t want to take up this particular issue at this particular point in our new relationship with public education. But, important in the mix is something to do with wanting to create for both of our kids a larger life context where they are invited, in age appropriate ways, to engage in their own journeys (supported by adults who love them, of course) into their own values. Telling our daughter not to say the Pledge seems to me about as morally meaningful at her age as telling her to say it (in other words, not meaningful at all). It might make me “feel better” but it’s not an obvious fix for the real challenge of helping her to think through the implications of participating or not. That’s what I want to figure out how to do.

For now, I guess, just sharing with her that “I don’t sing it, but others do” seems like enough. At least, it was enough in the car. She didn’t ask me anything more about it and I, therefore, didn’t have to expose my young child (yet) to the horrors of war or the complex moral dilemmas of nationalism.

As she continues to mature, I expect and hope that such a response on my part will prompt her further inquiry into why I don’t and why some do. And that is the kind of supported unfolding sense of her own mind and conscience that I do want to be part of.

In the meantime, she just doesn’t want to have to sing the national anthem because that song is just way too long.


Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.

WE ARE CITIZENS, HEAR US ROAR.

by Jennifer Harvey

Any news story on the  wrangling over the “fiscal cliff” yesterday inevitability invoked the name “Grover Norquist.” Norquist is the founder of Americans for Tax Reform. Last year 60 minutes described him “as the person most responsible, more than anyone else, for rewriting the dogma of the Republican Party.

In the news was Norquist’s “Taxpayers Protection Pledge” which, up until this last election, had been signed by 95% of Republicans in Congress. Those who sign pledge to never vote for any tax increase. Ever. For anything.

There’s much more to be said about Norquist but this blog isn’t really about him.

So here’s the short version of what you need to know about Norquist’s role in the current standoff. Republicans who signed his Pledge have tied their own hands so tightly that despite their missionary zeal for tax cuts and low tax rates they can’t sign a deal that would allow tax cuts to stay in place for 98% of U.S.-Americans (and yes, even Democrats and Republicans agree that this is the percentage we are talking about) come January 1st. Most Republicans in Congress, at least at the moment, are saying they will take us over the fiscal cliff—a choice that means taxes go up for everyone and to the tune of about $2,000 for most middle-class families—in order to avoid “breaking their pledge.”

(Translation: they cannot compromise one iota because they have to protect unprecedented tax cuts from the Bush era for the tippy-top 2% of U.S.-Americans. And, attempting to compromise and engage in actual negotiations somehow means they have no principles because they will have “broken their pledge.”)

Many things struck me yesterday. One was my certainty that most citizens who voted for any of the Republicans involved in this debate are part of the 98% who stand to lose here. Another is that Republicans pride themselves as being the party of fiscal responsibility  gravely concerned about the deficit.

But, the thing that struck me most was that most reporting on the Pledge—aside from an awesome satire in The Onion—focused on which Republicans might break the Pledge, if having signed the Pledge means one is bound to it in subsequent terms in office, and whether the language of the Pledge leaves any wiggle room that would allow a legislator to make a deal having “violated the Pledge.” Norquist was everywhere. I even heard him on NPR’s Morning Edition where he was invited to give his take on precisely these issues.

Why are we hearing about the Pledge instead of about the people?

Norquist is not an elected official for whom any of us have had the chance to give an up or down vote. Norquist is not a political appointee made by any elected official. Norquist is just a citizen. He gets one vote. Just like you and me.

The real news story here is the full naked view of a democracy deeply at risk being put on display for all of us to see. The real news story is the implications for democracy when one (non-elected, non-appointed) person can make an entire political party—I don’t care if it’s Republicans or Democrats—beholden to himself.

I finally got so tired of listening to reports giving Norquist unquestioned legitimacy that I did something I haven’t done in a very long time. I called every single one of my congressional representatives.

You should too.

Norquist has money. But, money a mandate does not make. Citizens who participate give mandates. (And, don’t let bad analysis tell you that the last election was so close that there was no mandate. There was a mandate, and it was given on a host of issues—including taxes.)

I remembered yesterday that some analysts said there was so much hope in the air after Obama was elected in 2008 that citizens forgot Washington only works when we do. I remembered Michael Moore’s letter calling on Obama to—this time around—ask us (that is, citizens) to help. And, I heard Obama himself urge the people to make themselves heard in the halls of Congress.

I frenetically called my legislators almost daily in the lead up to the war in Iraq (I realize that abysmal failure may not be the best advertisement for calling this time around). But even though I felt devastated and furious when we invaded Iraq, I didn’t feel cynical. To me cynicism is apathy with the toxin of arrogance thrown in. The opposite of cynical is engaged. That’s how I felt during the period in which we invaded Iraq.

I felt the same way yesterday.

I don’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat, if you think the proposed tax cuts or hikes are a great or bad idea. I want us to recognize that this stalemate in Congress and a Pledge-to-a-lobbyist-being-given-hallowed-status-on-the-nightly-news is a moment that is all about you and me and our role as citizens.

Call your representatives. I’m not naïve enough to think a call is somehow enough. But I do know that not enough of us call. (And, let’s be honest, when I tell myself “a call isn’t enough” it doesn’t usually mean that I’m too busy doing more than that!) I also know that as I hung up the phone I realized I am the one responsible for whether or not Norquist’s voice is the only one that gets heard.

The good news is that cracks are starting to show. A few brave Republicans yesterday began to speak of “loyalties to their constituents” coming first—before some pledge. They need support from citizens.

Call your representatives. And, if you honestly believe that even the top 2% should be given huge tax cuts on January 1st—well, I’d love the chance to sit down over a cup of coffee, try to understand why you see it that way and explain why I disagree—but, in the meantime, you call your legislators too. Don’t let Norquist do it for you.

It’s time to roar.


Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.

Thanksgiving Thought: When Myth is a Lie (Which Mom Taught Not to Do)

by Jennifer Harvey

I was in fourth grade and The Hobbit—a full-length animated film (a big deal back then)—was coming to my school. Those of us who were part of the gifted and talented program were going to get to see it. My “non-g/t” classmates were jealous. My mom was pissed.

Years later I would learn my mom was already suspicious of g/t and ambivalent about my participation in it. It’s not that she didn’t think I was smart or deserved great education. She just couldn’t quite stomach the idea that I deserved more resources and nurture than any other kid in my class who, she believed, deserved the same. The Hobbit plan put her over the edge. I vividly remember her marching into my classroom, engaging my teacher, arguing with other parents in the week long fracas she created by insisting the school let all the children take part in this special treat.

I secretly agreed with my mom, but begged her to just let it go. My best friend was furious mom was trying to take away our elite treatment and, when mom won and all the kids got to see the movie, Rachel gave me the silent treatment for a week!

So I’ve been preparing to channel my inner-mom as I’ve waited to see what my 4 year old might bring home from school this Thanksgiving week. My mom and I disagree about many, many things politically. But my earliest sense that you stand up for what’s right when people are being harmed or excluded began with her.

School. It’s a new thing for our family. We suddenly have to think about how to engage, expand or even challenge what our daughter might now be taught by other people. What did they teach her about “strangers” and safety—and did we want her to learn this so young? How should we deal with her saying the Pledge of Allegiance—something my partner and I both object to, though for different reasons? What will she learn about the founding of this country? And, the question I dread most: When is she going to come home having made a headdress of feathers?

I’ve long known I’ll have to fill in large gaps when it comes my kids’ education on U.S. history and race. They’ll be taught a cleaner version of slavery than is true. They won’t be told how devastating Japanese American internment was. But I don’t worry they’ll come home wearing some play, dress up version of “enslaved (or free) Africans” or spouting cartoon notions of what Japanese Americans “used to be like” (as if they were no longer here).

Something different happens with Native Americans though. You can’t teach U.S. origins honestly without genocide and massive, fraudulent land theft hovering near the surface. So, we don’t. Instead we make up happy stories and create “indians” who fit the roles we (U.S. citizens) need them to play.

Why do we lie like this? Hint: it’s not just because we’re protecting our kids from horrifying histories, otherwise we would eventually teach them the full story, just like we do with the Holocaust.

And, why am I so filled with dread at the thought of confronting this at my daughter’s school?

The answer to both of these questions is the same. Our account of the founding of this nation is told more through myth than history. Now, when I say “myth” I don’t mean something necessarily made up (though in this case there is a ton of that). Myths are sacred stories—stories that tell us who we are and teach us what we value. The story of Adam and Eve, for example, is a myth. Whether Christians agree that this story is historically factual or not—and, believe me, they do not agree about this—they do agree it conveys the sacred truth that all people are made in God’s image.

Because myths are sacred people get really worked up when you challenge them—even if you do it gently, even when they are blatant lies.

Imagine saying, “slavery was wrong.”

Now imagine saying, “Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who passionately insisted on Black inferiority and real history means we get honest about that, even on the fourth of July.”

The first statement is unlikely to raise an eyebrow. The second—well, why don’t you try it at your Thanksgiving dinner and let me know what happens? Depending, of course, on which U.S.-Americans are sitting at your table, you are very likely to have just run full speed into a national myth.

Naming genocide really messes with our Thanksgiving story. Talking about broken treaties makes it hard to celebrate our founders as the fathers of liberty.

The fact is humans need myths (which don’t have to be religious) to help us live into our better selves, both individually and together. But that’s why embracing myths that are based on deadly lies, lies that continue to harm real people is so wrong. And to allow our children to frolic in utterly inaccurate and deeply offensive “indian play” is to do just that.

I’m a lot less nervous about taking this on as a parent when I remember that I’m only risking people being mad at me. For Native American parents and their children, U.S. myths come at the cost of their communities’ cultural, political and economic survival. So, if being an educator, a citizen and a person-of-integrity means I care about what school does to and for everyone’s children, I can’t possibly be less fearless than my mom.

It turns out we dodged the bullet this year. My daughter came home yesterday with nothing remotely related to Thanksgiving. And who knows, maybe I’ll end up pleasantly surprised and her schools will never teach her that this land was mostly empty, Indians were all alike, now they are all gone, and it’s okay to create stereotyped artifacts about them in arts and crafts.

But I’m almost certain that at some point the feathers will come home. So, what will I do? Well, if it’s Thanksgiving, we’ll sit down and learn about the actual kinds of food and clothing common among the Wampanoag Confederacy. We’ll read what Native Americans have to say about the significance of feathers. We’ll study Squanto’s life story including when and where he met the Pilgrims (I’ll wait until my kids are older to get to the painful part about it being on the land where his people had lived before they were decimated.) We’ll read about Massasoit, and how he came for a feast with the Pilgrims along with his 90 warriors. (And, again, when they are older, we’ll wrestle together with the incomprehensible truth that it was within the life time of this same man who was invited to “our first Thanksgiving” that some of the most unspeakable massacres of Native Americans by Europeans took place.)

As we do this together, over time, I hope the process we are in helps us create and embrace new myths—myths that make it possible for honesty, repentance, and more complex forms of gratitude to be present at our Thanksgiving table.


Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.

IT’S MORE THAN DEMOGRAPHICS…

by Jennifer Harvey

You’ve probably heard a lot about “non-white” turnout post-election. Or that shifting “demographics” decided the presidential election. The more crass version of this refrain, spoken aloud by Bill O’Reilly, laments that the “white establishment voter” is now a “minority.”

Yes, communities of color supported President Obama by huge margins. But, let’s avoid easy conclusions about what this really means—and what it doesn’t.

First, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that people of color have some sort of natural affiliation with our President because his skin tone is of a darker hue. It most certainly does not mean that U.S.-Americans of color uncritically support Obama because he’s Black (just ask Herman Cain how far this goes).

The charge that demographic shifts sufficiently explain Obama’s victory is a close cousin to the exclamatory pronouncement that soon whites will be a minority in the United States. Our public obsessions with this hypothesis are usually accompanied by the thinly veiled idea that white people should be really freaked out by this for some reason.

Worse is the deeper logic at play. If non-white support for Obama is somehow natural, then so is white opposition to him. (And, if this is the case, we may as well pack up all our visions of a vibrant pluralist democracy and go home.)

Yes, race represents real difference in the U.S. But that’s not because race makes us innately different from one another. It’s because the experiences we have in society are dramatically impacted by our race. And, as we recognize in other areas of life, experience can lead to deeply valuable knowledge and expertise.

I often ask my students who should sit on a committee responsible for designing a schedule for final exams week. They always insist it should include students. Now, as a professor I’d love to have exams over in 48 hours. Let’s get it done, pack up, and call it a semester! But my students, who will actually be graded on finals, would never design the system this way. In fact, because they’re most directly affected by it, students know more—literally—about what makes good final exam policy than I do.

In social ethics, we call this the “epistemological privilege of the oppressed.” This just means that people who have the least decision-making power on an issue—but are most affected by it—usually have the most complete understanding of it. Ask a heterosexual person how many federal benefits are awarded to married couples. They’ll probably have no idea. But, a gay or lesbian person is likely to rattle off the number quickly: 1,049. This ability isn’t natural. It doesn’t mean gay and lesbian people come out of the womb with this knowledge—or that we all want to get married! This is knowledge that comes through experience. Being denied access to a powerful civic institution often results in gays and lesbians knowing more about what good marriage policy looks like. (This does not mean heterosexual people are off the hook for learning this).

Instead of reducing Obama’s victory to a mathematical calculation about racial numbers, what if we assumed people of color have knowledge and expertise (born of experience) that we all urgently need, knowledge so powerful that it decided a presidential election? Of course, people of color don’t all know and believe the exact same thing. But what I’m proposing here is that we need to explore the meaning of the racial divide in a different way.

Those who’ve been simultaneously most consistently left out of political decision-making and most negatively affected by an array of U.S. laws, policies and practices sent a message last week. And this is the message: the current administration is striving to implement policies that create a better society for us all.

Republicans are missing the point when they frame the question as, “How can we convince these ‘new demographic groups’ to support the Republican party?” Republicans might instead take seriously that people of color have a well-spring of knowledge about what makes a good society. And Republicans would do well to allow this knowledge to help form their next steps. (By the way, I’m not saying that Democrats or the left hold a corner on this knowledge; just that people of color have clearly demonstrated that at the present time the Republicans are farther from it.)

There are probably many non-racial reasons whites might give for not supporting Obama. But the stark racial divide in the vote means we must take seriously something racial is going on. If racial experience affects knowledge, then it’s safe to assume—given the hard statistical data showing that even in our current economic crisis whites, as a group, are doing better than other groups—white people understandably have some things to learn. Happily (and none of us should take this for granted), our fellow citizens of color keep showing up with a willingness to share their knowledge over and over again. Happily, a shifting demographic may make it more difficult for those of us who are white to ignore them. And, happily, this knowledge is something that stands to make the United States of America a better place for all of us.


Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.