On the Rise of Seeker Sensitive Social Justice Work

In case you don’t know: in Evangelical Christianese, there is something called a “seeker sensitive church.” It basically means that the main focus of a church is to get people in the room and keep them there at all costs. A main reasoning behind this is that if you keep people around, you have a chance to effect a change in them. There is some logic in that. You can’t have productive conversation with people who won’t talk to you.

But.

In order to keep people in the room, many times seeker sensitive churches will be super careful not to say anything too challenging, ask too many uncomfortable questions, or push people too far too fast. Therefore a main criticism of seeker sensitive churches is that they tend to produce Christians who never mature in their faith.

I’m seeing this as a trend across several areas of social justice work, especially since the election. Look at all these new people! Caring about All the Things! How can we keep them engaged? The biggest and most obvious example was the often chaotic unfolding of the Million Women March Women’s March. I have been to a handful of white people anti-racism meetings where we spent the first 10 minutes clapping for ourselves simply for being there. Why are we doing that? I don’t go there to feel good about going there. I go there to do the work. Leaders of social justice work, hear me if you have ears to do so. Please, please learn from the fact that seeker sensitive evangelical churches are no small part of what led to a significant number of American Christians who are so disconnected from what the Bible actually teaches that they will vote for Donald Trump.

White people new to thinking about this stuff: we don’t have time to sit around indefinitely theorizing in abstract ways about how racism may or may not be present in our lives. Here’s a spoiler alert. It is present. Racism is all around us. At our dinner tables. In our inner ring suburban schools where middle schoolers are telling concentration camp jokes at the lunch table. In our anti-racism meetings. In our book clubs and passive-aggressive conversations where we all try to be the best at not being the smartest anti-racist in the room. Racism is the toxicity in the water we all swim in. Please swim anyway. People are dying. Asking them to be patient so you can work on your butterfly stroke is….inappropriate.

I’m not saying we as white people shouldn’t analyze or think deeply about how our whiteness affects the way we walk through the world, and how it affects people around us who are not white. We absolutely should be doing that. As we go. In a way that allows us to get rid of our nonsense, not wrap it up in other nonsense and keep carrying it with us. It is essential to this work that we find ways to cultivate a stillness inside us that doesn’t need to disregard the voices of oppressed people in order to exist. We are all bombarded with the false idea that we can only be one thing at a time. We are acting or we are thinking. We are reacting to what happens now or we are considering the long-term implications. If that is the way we understand the world, it is so hard to take the long view in a way that doesn’t erase the people right in front of us. Please try anyway. There is work to do.

I am not without compassion. I get that many people are shocked. The world is a shocking place. Here’s the thing. If your body goes into shock you have to find out why and deal with that. A good first step in most cases of physical shock is to huddle under a blanket and call for help. But most of the time, you have to seek further treatment or your body will go deeper into shock until you die. I repeat: you have to huddle under a blanket and call for help. When help comes, you have to accept it. Very often you have to find the underlying cause and treat that or you will not get better.

Creating a seeker sensitive social justice movement runs a high risk of just putting a blanket around ourselves and never seeking further treatment. I know it’s hard to move when you feel small, scared, and trapped. I spend time feeling that way too. But to quote our favorite misanthropic tv doctor…

Patient: I just want to talk.
House: About nothing. If you talk about nothing, nothing will change.
Patient: It might.
House: How?
Patient: Time. Time changes everything.
House: That’s what people say. It’s not true. Doing things changes things. Not doing things leaves things exactly as they were.

 

 

 

Anxiety: The Worst Best Friend

If you are someone who need things to be shiny all the time this likely won’t sound very optimistic to you at first glance. But if you love someone who struggles with anxiety I would encourage you to consider reading to the end. I’ll describe the hard part honestly, which allows me to describe the hopeful part honestly too. Nobody is just one thing.

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Having an anxiety disorder can be like having an emotionally abusive best friend. It follows you around from place to place and whispers to you confidentially (like it really cares about you), “What do you think you’re doing?”

When you try to make new friends, “Why would they want to talk to you?”

When you try to start a new project, “Who do you think you are? You can’t take this on.”

When you do something outside of your comfort zone, “You shouldn’t be doing that. Someone else could do it better.”

When you are brave in relationship, “You’ve said too much. They won’t want to be your friend now.”

When you are afraid for someone you love, “That thing you’re afraid of is going to happen, and it’s going to be even worse than you think.”

When you are celebrating something, “But what about all the people who didn’t get this thing? Have some compassion!”

When you are celebrating something else, “You don’t deserve this thing. This is a fluke and something bad is about to happen.”

When you think you know something, “You’re probably wrong about that. Someone disagreed with you and they’re probably right.”

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This cycle is going on in my brain most of the time. When I’m doing well (which is also most of the time) it’s just one of many and I am better at disrupting or ignoring it. As I type this we are in the middle of a great weekend. Other times, the cycle is louder and it’s harder. So you’ll have to excuse me (or not; it’s your call really) if I don’t come across as Very Optimistic all the time.

See, I have this friend. I’d like to ditch them. But they’re right juuuuuust enough of the time that I can’t quite shake them. Sometimes I’m terrified a bad thing will happen and then it does. Sometimes people really do die. Sometimes husbands really do have heart disease.

I wish I could pretend Anxiety doesn’t exist. But abusive best friends don’t respond well to that treatment. At least not according to what I have observed. A more direct approach is needed.

So when I can’t handle it internally, I repeat the crazy things Anxiety whispers to me out loud. To a trusted friend, to a therapist, sometimes even in an essay. Because those things wither in the light.

My friends are my friends (and if they aren’t, that’s good information to have; when people show you who they are, eventually it makes sense to believe them).

I can do lots of things. Probably more than I usually think I can, not less.

All criticism should be considered in relation to the source. Relational equity and the amount of wisdom of the person offering the feedback should be examined, as well as making sure that a criticism really is meant for me before interpreting it so. Sit with criticism honestly, not under it coweringly.

We’re at the end of the Christmas season. If you’re into liturgical traditions and things, Epiphany was yesterday and so we’re taking our Christmas decorations down today. My favorite Christmas song is called, “You Are the New Day.” There are several versions of it out there but my favorite one has a couple of stanzas I love and hold on to:

Like a breath I knew would come

I reach for a new day….

 

Hope is my philosophy

Just needs days in which to be

Love of life means hope for me

Born on a new day

 

As I said at the beginning, if you are someone who needs things to be shiny all the time this likely won’t sound very optimistic to you.

But the thing I keep repeating to myself as needed is “Proceed as though this might turn out ok.”

And that’s been an amazingly encouraging thought.

An Invitation to Work

My friend was walking down the street at the college campus where she lives and studies, and, well, this happened.

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I don’t have time to sit around crying indefinitely when this is happening.

There is work to do.

~~~~~

As our kids played at gymnastics yesterday, a friend related to me the story of her relative who went into a liquor store. The man behind the counter sporting a Trump shirt said to him, “We don’t have to serve your kind anymore. Get out.”

I don’t have time to sit around crying indefinitely when this is the reality of people I care deeply about.

There is work to do.

~~~~~

I was able to get to a Black Lives Matter event the other night. I don’t want to report on the details because it wasn’t open to the public in that way. But there were a couple of things that really stuck out to me and weren’t directly about the meeting, so I’ll share some pertinent items I witnessed.

The meeting began with the organizers saying, basically, “White people! Welcome! We noticed there are a lot of you here tonight. That’s great. Welcome to this conversation we have been having! Please know that this meeting is not about you and we will be prioritizing oppressed voices.”

At one point, an angry white HRC liberal lady spoke up and said, “So, do white people have a place in this? Because what I’m hearing you say is that…”

The facilitator was ready, and it was excellent. “I need to stop you right there. There is a place for you and we absolutely need you in this work but this is not the time for that.”

I was very relieved to hear another white person say, “White people’s place in this space is to stand in the back and listen. There is a lot we can learn by doing that here.”

Whiteness is so used to being at the center that it sometimes takes a great deal of work to avoid the impulse to recenter it even when other voices really need our attention before they are snuffed out.

Please try anyway. There is work to do.

~~~~~

Garrison Keillor recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post encouraging the distraught liberal elite with some suggestions for lovely ways to spend their time.

“We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long , brisk walk and smell the roses.”

No, Mr. Keillor. I don’t want to grow heirloom tomatoes and taste artisan beer and ignore what is happening to people I love. And it’s absurd to me that you would even suggest such a thing, let alone say it outright as the thing people should do. It may be that your Minnesota sarcasm doesn’t mix well with Ohio earnestness, but people are getting the wrong idea.

So by all means. Take long walks. Travel around the country (must be nice to be able to afford to do that on a whim!). Heirloom tomatoes and craft beer are delicious! But if that’s all you do, you don’t get to call yourself ‘woke’ or ‘ally’ ever again. You can find joy and beauty in life without saying, “Let them eat cake.”

I understand feeling paralyzed. The America you thought you lived in (the one where Hillary Clinton was going to bring us all together) doesn’t exist, and that is deeply destabilizing. If you can’t get past it just yet, I feel compassion for you. Whether you believe it or not, it’s true. I can feel compassion and frustration at the same time because I can be more than one thing. It may not seem like it right now when the shock looms large, but you can too.

So if and when you are ready, a growing group of us will be over here (not on the elite left, because apparently that’s where people are smelling the roses or something) doing the work to dismantle racism in our daily lives. You are more than welcome to join us. The comforting thing and the difficult thing is that, as I heard recently in a room full of people who have been dealing with this issue for a long time, is that if you are new to this conversation your very first job is to show up, stand in the back, and listen.

America is Not Built on Freedom

America is not built on freedom, but on cognitive dissonance.

By men who wrote the beautiful words, “We hold these truth to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,” and yet owned other people as property.

The constitution grants all men “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” except some men are three fifths of a man.

I have a theory. I think this election has not created a lot of ugliness. I think this election has uncovered a lot of ugliness. I hear my white friends saying, “everything’s about race now.” Now? Now?! Racism did not begin when Donald Trump first talked about Mexicans being rapists. It didn’t start when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. It’s been here all along, we just tried to stitch the wound closed in recent years with things like color-blindness and “I have an asian friend.”
Well, white people, the wound is open. We can either try furiously to close it up again, or we can debride the terribly infected tissue that’s been festering since the first time we landed here. I would posit that cognitive dissonance is more at play here than most of us realize.

In a psychologist’s office, if you come upon an area of cognitive dissonance, they may tell you there are a few ways to deal with it. Let’s agree that for most people, internal consistency is the goal.

Denial

The quickest way to accomplish that feeling of consistency, in the short term, is to disregard everything that doesn’t fit the narrative that makes you comfortable. To ignore the italics.

“She should’ve listened to the cops.” Except she did.

“He isn’t a racist. Look at this picture of him next to a smiling brown person!” Except for mountain of evidence from his own mouth that he possesses and acts on dehumanizing biases toward large groups of people.

“Well, we don’t have all the facts.” Except we have video of this from several angles and they show quite a clear picture of what happened.

“When the last thing we notice is the color of skin
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within.”

I grew up in the country. I remember this occasionally when I randomly hear a Garth Brooks song somewhere and realize that I still know all the words for some reason. With all due respect to Mr. Brooks, “color blindness” (possibly the most well-intentioned large scale effort at denial to date) is not the way forward. At the time it started being advocated for, it made sense to tell people, “Stop talking! Just stop talking because what you’re saying is awful.” But now? We really shall be free when we notice the color of skin whenever we notice it, and we are able to see that it is connected in inextricable ways to the beauty within.

Justification

Justification looks lots of different ways, and is the first line of defense when denial is challenged. It can look like externalizing or like trying to prove you’ve solved the problem.

“What am I supposed to do? I’m just one person, and this has been going on for hundreds of years.” Institutionalized racism is a system-wide problem. But systems are made up of people. “Be the change,” can be more than just a cheesy key chain slogan, if we choose to make it so. It’s a lot of work though, so don’t take it on lightly.

“I live in an integrated city and so I’ve solved racism. That city over there? That’s where racism lives.” Guess what? Living in a city where black or brown people also live doesn’t mean that you automatically ‘get it.’ The city I live in is sometimes described as a ‘liberal hotbed,’ and yet it is painfully obvious how segregated it is. What’s worse? Living in a city where everyone looks like you, or living in a city with lots of people who look all different ways, but only being in close relationship with the ones who look like you?

Change

“I will try to learn about people who don’t look like me.” For goodness sake, google some stuff. There are plenty of really thoughtful essays written by people who don’t look like you. If you are white, please don’t make people give you a free 100-level course when they are already stressed out and grieving because they’re afraid their husband, their cousin, or their daughter is one flat tire or traffic stop away from being the next hashtag. Don’t be that guy.

~~~~~

Continuing to claim that American culture is built on liberty for all people equally is a refusal to confront the cognitive dissonance. I understand wanting to find a way to reduce the dissonance. I suppose I’m just looking to reduce it in a way that actually makes a difference. Maybe that’s the musician in me….I look to the dissonance as a way to move the music forward toward beauty and resolution.

America is not built on freedom, but on cognitive dissonance. And the sooner we admit that to ourselves and each other, the sooner we can begin to truly approach the freedoms we desire.

Clans, Klans and What Connects Us

I am attempting to raise race-conscious white children. So sometimes we have conversations I wish we didn’t have to have. Like this one, which happened as we read Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges together earlier this week.

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“Look at this picture. This is a burning cross. It became a symbol of hate used by men like those three standing underneath it, but that’s not what it was originally for. Do you know where it originally came from? It came from Scotland. In the time of the clans a burning cross was set up on the evening before a battle to rally the troops to fight; for kin, for land, for freedom…it was meant to be a symbol to gather around.”

“Mama, what are they trying to get people to gather around?”

“Well, those men are white men…”

“But mama, they don’t look white…”

“I know. That’s because in the picture they are wearing all white clothing, and their skin, while it is called white, is really kind of a peachy color. Like ours. And they are trying to gather people around the idea of whiteness, and wanting to hurt people who aren’t white. They are trying to get people who think that to all stick together and that’s why they called themselves a klan. Their goal is to join all the white people together under their idea.”

“Are we white people then?”

“Yes.”

“But…what about black people? Like M and N? Are they black people?”

“Yes. Like them.”

“But they are our friends!”

“Right. So if you were going to gather people to be in your clan, who would it be? Would you only want people who look like you?”

“No! Absolutely not!”

“Well, that’s a start. I want you to think about what your criteria is for what makes you think of someone as ‘in your clan.’ Who do you want to be connected to? What is your idea? We’re going to continue this conversation. Probably for a really, really long time.”

~~~~~

For a little more information on the history of the KKK and cross-burning as their attempt to bring legitimacy to their group, you can check out this short and informative article.

 

Just Begin

 

Sometimes, there is no low-impact way to begin. We have to just look for the thing that matters the most to us and move toward it.

~~~~~

“I’d like to homeschool, but I’m not sure where to start.”

“Well, probably with having a kid. Oh, you already did that part? Well, you’re most of the way there.”

~~~~~

 

“I really want to have a cleaned out room, but it’s so messy I can’t figure out what to clean first!”

“Maybe go pick up something and put it away? Then pick up something else…”

~~~~~

“I’d like to talk to other white people about how we can reduce racism amongst ourselves, but I just don’t know how to begin!”

“Have you considered beginning awkwardly?”

~~~~~

When I don’t feel at home with myself I sometimes go and sit at the art museum with Vincent Van Gogh. Fair warning: this post is likely to be equal parts middle school report and shameless fan-girling.

This is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Large Plane Trees.

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From the Cleveland Museum of Art’s website:

“In May 1889, Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to an asylum near the small town of Saint-Rémy in Provence. His doctors soon gave him permission to paint on day excursions to surrounding fields. While walking through Saint-Rémy that November, he was impressed by the sight of men repairing a road beneath immense plane trees. ‘In spite of the cold,’ he wrote to his brother, ‘I have gone on working outside till now, and I think it is doing me good and the work too.’ Rushing to capture the yellowing leaves, he painted this composition on an unusual cloth with a pattern of small red diamonds visible in the picture’s many unpainted areas.”

So, Vincent (I’ll call him Vincent because that is how he signed his paintings and how he wanted to be known) had just moved to a new place, and from all outward accounts his life was not going too well at the moment. He had only sold one painting for money (though people sometimes took them in trade for goods or services), but he saw things and just had to paint them. This piece in particular has become important to me because he couldn’t even wait for the canvases his brother ordered to arrive. He painted it on a table cloth (or possibly a tea towel, but you get the point). He did another work using The Large Plane Trees as a guide. It looks more polished. He took more time. The Road Menders (which you can see here if you like) is beautiful, but I don’t connect to it in the same visceral way.

I took this closeup of The Large Plane Trees during a recent trip to the art museum (don’t worry…I used my camera’s zoom because getting this close to a priceless piece of art is…well, don’t do that).

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If you look closely, you can see the red and white fabric underneath the paint. It shows through in places; he really just had to paint what he saw before the moment evaporated. One of the wonderful (and, I imagine, stressful for him at times) things about Vincent is that he could not help but engage in his environment. His time here didn’t always go well, to put it mildly. But it went, and then it was gone. And by passionately engaging the world, he was able to leave us with some of the most inspiring works of art ever created.

As much as I aspire to remain present, there are times when I really do feel unable to find any point at which to pierce through to the world around me. It feels as though there is this impenetrable barrier between me and any useful thing. But I have found, more often than not, that the barrier that seems so strong bursts like a bubble the moment I touch it by doing the next right thing. I don’t mean that everything becomes fine. Please hear me. That is NOT what I mean. But there’s a reason that Lao Tzu proverb about thousand mile journeys and single steps is still being used to make cheesy (and not so cheesy) motivational posters today. Taking a single action may not fix everything, but what if it fixes something?

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I took my kids to the park yesterday. They needed to run far and climb high and I needed to let them. In the throes of busy-brain, my plan was to find a secluded bench, read articles on my phone, and avoid talking to anyone if I could. When we got there, a lady was sitting on one of the three closest benches. E walked over and put our stuff down within easy conversing distance. Foiled! What do I do? If someone doesn’t want to talk I know how to leave them alone. But what if they want to talk to me? Do I stare at my phone and not talk to them at all, even if they are friendly? Only answer with normal person depth? What even is that?  Make small talk? I don’t think I can do any of those things! “Resting Bitch Face” is completely outside of my skill set!

After a bit of an internal sigh, I decided to poke the bubble and just talk to her, since she was kind and interesting and clearly wanted to talk to me. We ended up talking for an hour and a half. We talked about marriages and divorces and deaths of old relatives and young children. There are lots of things I can’t do. But sitting with people and really caring about what they say to me? That’s one of the things I sometimes do really well.

~~~~~

It doesn’t matter if you know exactly how it will turn out. It doesn’t matter if some of your source materials show through. It doesn’t even matter if your brushstrokes look nonsensical to the Muggles around you. Just begin.

On Privilege (Or…that time I was taunted for my thigh gap)

I went out recently in public for over an hour and nobody commented on my body. Why is this remarkable? Because I actually can’t remember the last time that happened. See, what with one thing and another, I’ve lost some weight unintentionally over last few months. And apparently, people have noticed.

I went out with a group of women a while back. These are fun ladies. We enjoyed girly drinks and talked about what was happening in our lives. One of the women mentioned she’d found these cool new shapewear garments on Etsy that prevent “chub rub” (when your thighs rub together and chafe…an uncomfortable feeling). I nodded along, but apparently not very convincingly because suddenly one of the ladies gestured to me and said boisterously, “What do you care? I bet your thighs don’t even touch! Do they? I bet they don’t!”

I hid my embarrassment behind my martini and waited for the subject to change.

You know what? Having someone make a joke out of your body doesn’t feel good no matter what your body looks like. Being made fun of for having a thigh gap does not feel less crappy than being made fun of for not having one.

Still…I chose not to address it in the moment for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that I recognized that I was coming from a place of privilege in that instance. Looking at magazines or Pinterest even briefly can show you that thigh gaps are, for some reason which completely elludes me, highly desired. If thin people want to see that thin is a way that people can look, that is easy to come by. “Thinspiration” abounds. But you know what? Seeing a body that resembles yours made into something aspirational is weird. I don’t find that affirming. I find it dehumanizing. Much like racism is bad for all of us (even white people, though that is harder to see which makes it harder to get people to understand), reducing any of us to nothing but a body type is not good for anyone.

The woman who made fun of my body is a cool person. I think she may have heard a few too many times that thigh gaps are the way to be, and so joking about it is a way to say, “I’m ok too!” Here’s the thing: my body is not an indictment of anyone else’s body; it’s just the way I look. That means if I was less analytical I would have gotten very defensive when it was mocked. But I get it: seeing a particular shape of a body feature held up repeatedly as the arbitrary “way it should be” gets old. I think mostly what happens for people is that they start out declaring, “It’s ok that I don’t look like someone on tv.” This is good and important and essential and true. But then that morphs into to, “It’s not ok to look like someone on tv.” And then from there it’s not a big leap to, “You look vaguely like someone I saw on tv and that’s gross.” (This is the hard part for me.)

I think this is the essence of beginning to deal with privilege of any kind…realizing that people have been hurt, often over and over again, and that if they are prickly about something it’s often not about you personally. Confronting privilege means remaining clear about this one important thing:

It’s not about you.

Do you need to change your behavior? Maybe.

Does the perception of someone deriding something about you mean that your identity is undermined so you absolutely have to defend yourself? It does not.

It’s definitely one way to go, and it’s a not unpredictable reaction when we feel under attack (witness the “All Lives Matter” counter-movement to “Black Lives Matter”). But defensive privilege often doesn’t take into account where a non-privileged person is coming from. In the case of some All Lives Matter folks, they seem to have missed that the point is not that black lives should matter more than other lives, it’s that they should matter…too. Without that piece of understanding, it’s too easy to get defensive. The reason I almost didn’t post about this (and the reason I usually don’t respond directly in conversation when someone comments about my body) is that saying, “stop making mean-spirited comments about my thin body because I would never call you fat” felt like saying “All Lives Matter!” But I realized recently that it’s not the same.

The point of the Black Lives Matter movement is not, as far as I can tell, to say negative things about other people. In fact, most of the things I’ve read (a whole movement is sure to have a wide variety of voices and should not be treated as a monolith) have been quite careful to say that this is about helping and supporting one group that is under attack, which has the potential to help all of us. I have yet to hear a single Black Lives Matter protester say, “I think white people don’t matter.”

The point of saying “Real Women Have Curves,” as far as I can tell, is to make women who have fuller shapes think that they are real women too. I get that. I can even get behind it to a point. But you lose me when you start feeling entitled to speak to me about my own body in derogatory and dehumanizing ways (and no, telling me I look like that actress you just spent ten minutes describing as “disgustingly skinny” is not a compliment).

Objectifying any of us hurts all of us.

At this point, when someone approaches me in an unkind or critical way, I try to listen and then pause to decide whether I need to change what I’m doing based on whatever I’m presented with. The way I see it, I may need to:

  1. Change my behavior or words.
  2. Point out that maybe they should change their behavior or words (this is only rarely the answer), or at least leave me out of it.
  3. Try to discern what important piece of understanding I’m missing.
  4. Let it go (this is almost always part of the answer).

Back to thighs: these days, it seems Real Women either have curves or a thigh gap. If you think either of those things in an exclusive way, I would like to invite you away from a false dichotomy. Real women have identities. Still, it’s the way we’ve been taught to think about our bodies and it takes a whole lot of work to step out of the framework which tells us that people who look differently than us are a threat. Our culture is full of false dichotomies and it’s HARD to leave that behind. But I promise you, it’s worth it in the long run.