My Internal Political Struggle

I struggle daily with the tension between being vehemently opposed to and repulsed by pretty much everything Donald Trump is and stands for, and knowing that he is a human being made in the image of God and therefore worthy of respect and care. Almost every day, it seems like there is some new statement or action by him (or his surrogates) to horrify and worry me, and confirm that he should not be president and in fact could be dangerous for the country and the world. To me he is the personification of the emperor with new clothesa textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder, and he lacks the thoughtfulness, humility, compassion, and temperate personality that I look for in a president.

The list of things he’s done and said that offend everything I believe in is long: derogatory comments about women, Muslims, Mexicans, people with disabilities, and others; a penchant for schoolyard bullying tactics and personal insults; stoking the flames of conspiracy theories (e.g., that President Obama was not born in the U.S.); inciting, condoning, and not condemning violence at his rallies; shameless lying, even after repeated fact-checkers have proven statements to be pants-on-fire false; shameless pandering to various groups (e.g., to evangelical Christians) to get votes; support for torture that is morally wrong not to mention illegal; promises to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; suggestions that he might ban Muslims from entering the U.S. or require U.S. Muslims to register; support for white supremacists and authoritarian (dictator) leaders; playing to our worst fears, especially of “the other.” This list doesn’t even include his well-documented questionable business practices and multiple affairs.

I keep thinking I can’t be surprised or shocked by anything else Trump will say or do, but then there he goes again, with some new thing to outrage me. Or, he gives a speech that is completely incoherent (with sentences that defy any kind of grammatical structure that could actually be diagrammed!), all about himself, and devoid of any actual policy content. Journalists repeatedly ask him to explain how he would actually implement something, and he deflects their questions with some version of “believe me, I’ll do it, and it will be the greatest” but he gives no details.

Part of me understands Trump’s appeal, because I can understand the frustration, fear, and anger of people who feel they have been left behind in the new global economy or feel like the world they felt comfortable in is slipping away. I also understand frustration with “politics as usual” and the inability of Congress to work together to get anything done, and the hope that someone from outside the political system can make a difference. But a large part of me continues to be genuinely flummoxed by his appeal. Surely we are better than this, I think. Surely the American people don’t want someone representing our country on the world stage, or making decisions with potentially devastating consequences, with his temperament, unchecked narcissism, tendency to lash back at anyone with petty insults and name-calling, and repeated habit of saying whatever comes to mind without regard for how it might inflame a situation.

I also suffer from a significant case of cognitive dissonance when I hear many evangelical Christians unreservedly support him. I’m not so much bothered that he might not be one himself or that he can’t speak religious language that sounds convincing to those of us who have grown up in the church. After all, there is no constitutional requirement that the president be a Christian. Rather, I am bothered that many Christians seem to overlook (and in some cases even condone implicitly if not explicitly) so much of what he says and how he acts that is antithetical to many of the values we hold. I am deeply saddened by the undertones of racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and mean-spiritedness that have come out in the open and threaten the monumental efforts the United States has made to welcome and embrace everyone. Think Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Not being politically correct has come to mean it’s now okay to express out loud the worst that’s in us. (See my earlier post, “A Defense of Political Correctness.”)

BUT: Donald Trump is a human being; he is made in the image of God, just as I am. He is someone’s son, husband, brother, father, grandfather, and friend. As members of his family have demonstrated in their speeches at the Republican National Convention this week, there are people who know a different side of him than what he has shown to the public before and during this campaign and who seem to genuinely respect, care for, and love him. He feels like an enemy to so much of what I believe is right, but Jesus said I am to love my enemies.

What do I do with my daily struggle? How do I reconcile the need to show respect and care for Donald Trump the human being who has faults just like the rest of us with the importance of speaking out against the no-holds-barred campaign he has run, the nasty way he has behaved toward others, the policies he has proposed that I believe are wrong and/or immoral, and the kind of president I fear he would be if he stays true to form? How do I deal with the internal struggle of knowing that as a Christian I am obligated to love a person I really really dislike and who I believe is wrong on so many levels?

I recently wrote an article for our denominational publication called “Heart Check,” in which I analyzed one of my favorite Bible verses: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). In that article, I noted, “Simultaneously comforting and convicting, the verse challenges me to pursue peace when it feels difficult or even impossible. With such extreme division, polarization, violence, and hateful speech these days, the challenge to live at peace with everyone feels greater than ever.” I went on, “I constantly ask myself: do I truly value all human life? Am I choosing to value those who seem unlovable, who commit unspeakably cruel and evil acts, who don’t value life themselves? What difference might it make if I do?”

I don’t think it’s possible for me to over-state my opposition to Donald Trump’s candidacy for the president, but I hope it is possible for me to do so without de-valuing him as a person.

 

The Woman Card

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Me among supporters of women’s suffrage at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY; October 2010.

Yesterday, May 15, 2016, was the anniversary of the day Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. The first Women’s Rights Convention had been held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY. In 1869, as the United States was considering the 15th amendment to the Constitution giving African American men the right to vote, Stanton and Anthony believed that once that happened, there would be no further interest in working for the right of women to vote as well. Whether they were right in their assessment is beside the point for what interests me at the moment, which are the dates.

In 1848, only 100 years before I was born, the first women’s rights convention was held, and more than 20 years later, in 1869, the women’s suffrage association was formed. It took 51 more years before the 19th amendment was ratified, finally giving women the right to vote. My maternal grandmother, who was born in 1888, wouldn’t have been allowed to vote until the 1920 presidential election, even though she was married and had five children with a sixth on the way. My own mother was born almost nine years before women were allowed to vote. Women were given the right to vote only 28 years before I was born. It took 132 years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified for the men in charge at the time to FINALLY allow half the population of the United States to have a say in the election of their leaders. Less than 100 years ago, women couldn’t vote. Every time I think about all that, I have to just say, “Wow!”

We are not all that far removed from denying women (who, according to an old Chinese proverb, “hold up half the sky”) the ability to participate in choosing their leaders. So when one presidential candidate in 2016 accuses another of playing “the woman card,” saying that the only reason people vote for her is because she’s a woman and if she were a man only five percent would do so, the comment is personally offensive to me as a woman who less than 100 years ago wouldn’t have been able to vote at all, much less for a woman. I’ll admit that my reaction is at least somewhat influenced by my negative opinions about the person who made the accusation, but it goes beyond that to the visceral feelings such comments stir up in me.

The charge of “playing the woman card” puts women in an impossible bind. First, it suggests that nothing the woman has done in her life is important besides being a woman. A long resume of accomplishments doesn’t count. The charge confirms what many women have often felt: they have to work much harder and be much better than their male counterparts to be considered equally competent and skilled, and they are held to higher standards than men.

Second, it is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations. If you do play the card – that is, use the fact of being a woman to your advantage, perhaps by acknowledging with some pride that you’ll be the first female senator or governor or president or chair of a board or pastor or bishop – you’re called out for doing so. You’re seen as being qualified only because you are a woman and not because you have relevant credentials and experience; you’re accused of pandering; you’re said to be acting like a victim. On the other hand, if you don’t play the card, you’re seen as running from what could clearly be an advantage in some circumstances. After all, women can offer helpful and unique perspectives on the issues, simply by virtue of being women. Or you’re seen as betraying other women (and young girls) who look to you as a role model for their own aspirations. Or, you’re accused of “acting like a man,” whatever that means, and denying one of the most fundamental parts of your identity.

I believe that calling someone out for playing the woman card is evidence of the ongoing presence of sexism (defined as prejudice and discrimination against women simply because they are women) in American life. Of course, I can’t prove it and many people won’t admit it, but that’s certainly what it feels like when a woman with relevant qualifications and experience is accused of playing the woman card. Is there a “man card” and who’s playing that?

Thank goodness I have the right to vote. If this were 1916 instead of 2016, I wouldn’t be able to!

 

 

 

 

Three Birthday Wishes

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One of the earliest photos I have of myself – another treasure from that vintage suitcase. Circa 1948, Matopo Mission, Southern Rhodesia.

As I celebrate my birthday on primary election day in Pennsylvania, in the middle of one of the oddest and most frustrating presidential campaigns ever (in my memory, at least), there are many things I could wish for, but I’ve limited myself to three wishes. One relates directly to presidential politics, one looks beyond this year’s election to the future, and one is more personal as I edge ever closer to my seventh decade.

I wish for a U. S. political system that is fair and based more closely on the concept of one-person, one-vote. An upside of this crazy political season has been the exposure of a system that doesn’t really operate that way. Instead, it relies heavily on arcane and complicated rules and the behind-the-scenes machinations of Republican and Democratic Party officials; during the primaries, it disenfranchises many voters who choose not to register as Republicans or Democrats; it allows states to enact new laws and procedures that in effect make it more difficult rather than easier for many people to vote; it feels like wealthy individuals have undue influence on the outcome; it rewards gerrymandering by both parties. While I understand how difficult it would be, both logistically and politically, to change the system, I believe democracy would be so much better served if we could. Perhaps one positive result of the 2016 presidential election cycle will be some steps in that direction. I wish….

I wish for a world in which my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren can survive and thrive. That kind of world is in many ways summed up in the “fruit of the Spirit,” as enumerated in Galatians 5 – a world where love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control abound. Just writing those words makes me feel like my wish is a pipe dream, completely unattainable, and the stuff of unrealistic idealism that doesn’t recognize the realities of evil in the world. But, what if everyone truly tried to embody those characteristics? Or as a start, what if everyone who claims to be Christian did?

In the world I wish for, my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren will:

  • Live with hope and optimism that they can make a positive difference in the world, rather than be ruled by fear and apocalyptic pessimism
  • Be part of systems that are generous and compassionate toward the dispossessed and marginalized
  • Have plenty of clean air and clean water, along with beautiful natural spaces to explore and enjoy
  • Live in safe neighborhoods, not threatened by random gun violence or other threats to their well-being
  • Be able to get an excellent education and quality healthcare without saddling themselves with huge debt
  • Have equal opportunities and not be discriminated against, regardless of their gender, race, or ethnicity
  • Learn how to be peacemakers and resolve conflicts in ways that don’t depend on violence and hateful rhetoric
  • Be willing to forgive and show mercy to those who might not deserve it
  • Recognize that their own freedom should not come at the expense of others
  • Treat others the way they wish to be treated

I wish to be able to age well. When I think about what my parents were like at the age I am today (68), I remember them as already seeming old, even though they lived to be really old (91 and 93, respectively). When I think of myself, I don’t feel old; in fact, except for those periodic aches and pains (like the “crick” I’ve had in my shoulder for the last few days), I feel like I’m still in my 40s. But I have one child who is in her 40s, and another who is approaching that milestone, so clearly I’m not. I might not be old yet, but I’m certainly well on my way!

At my annual wellness exam in February, the nurse checked my mental status – something I assume is a standard part of wellness exams for those of Medicare age. She gave me three words to remember while she conducted some other tests, and then instructed me to repeat the three words. This test always panics me a bit: what if I can’t remember the words? But I had no trouble, and in fact still remember the three words: apple, table, penny. If I remember the words all the way to next year’s exam, will that prove that there is no cognitive decline?

If I had my wish, good aging would include the continued pleasure of good and loving relationships with family and friends, interesting hobbies, travel, meaningful activities, and being able to contribute to a better and more peaceful world. It would be free of excessive pain and devastating disease, and it would not include cognitive decline. But I know that what I wish for may not happen. I have some control – for example, I knit, read, play word games, and write, which are all activities that are supposed to keep one’s brain active – but there are many things I can’t control. When the inevitable aging process begins to take its toll in significant ways, I wish for the patience and grace to accept it and not become a difficult person, filled with anger, bitterness, depression, and regrets. I may not want to “go gentle into that good night,” but I also don’t want to resist it so much that I make myself and everyone else miserable! I want to age well, and then to die well.

Three wishes for my birthday. Which ones will come true?

 

The Grandmother I Never Knew

IMG_0645Among the old family photographs in the vintage suitcase was a letter from my grandmother, Alice Steckley Sider, who lived in Ontario, Canada, to her sister Ella in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I never knew my grandmother, from whom I got my middle name, because she passed away during a flu epidemic in 1920, just three days after giving birth to her fifth child who died the same day she was born. My dad was only eight years old when his mother died. The letter is dated February 18, 1919, a little more than a year before she died on February 29, 1920, exactly two months shy of her 32nd birthday.

When my father left home in 1930 and came to Pennsylvania, he lived in Carlisle in the home of another of his mother’s sisters who was married to Ella’s husband’s brother. He worked on the Lehman farm until he began attending Messiah Academy to finish high school. I remember my great Aunt Ella. Because Carlisle is not far from where we lived in Grantham and because of my father’s connection to the Lehmans from those years of working on their farm, we visited periodically. And today, one of my dearest friends is Aunt Ella’s granddaughter and my second cousin, Wanda Lehman Heise.

Ella and Alice

Ella Steckley Lehman and Alice Steckley Sider. I think my daughter Dana looks like her great-great aunt Ella!

Also in the suitcase was a photo of my grandmother and Ella. It’s one of very few I have seen of Alice. She was the fourth of 14 children; Ella was the third oldest, born in 1887, and Alice was born the next year in 1888. They had two older brothers and two more brothers immediately after them, so they likely were close as the first girls in the family and because they were only about a year apart. Perhaps that explains the photograph of just the two of them.

I have no idea how this particular letter ended up in my parents’ possession. Perhaps Aunt Ella gave it to my dad on one of his visits, knowing that he would value something tangible from the mother he lost when he was so young. For me it is a small window into the life of someone I obviously never knew but wish I had. Like her husband and my grandfather in his letters in later years to my father, Alice writes a lot about special evangelistic meetings at church and about her desire to be faithful to the message being preached by various ministers well-known throughout the Brethren in Christ Church at the time. Maddeningly for me almost 100 years later, she doesn’t write much about family life, although my dad is singled out for his scholastic achievements, which doesn’t surprise me because he always did well academically. I just wish she had said more!

Here’s the letter, slightly annotated [in bracketed italics] and edited to make it easier to read. Originally, it was one long paragraph. I retained most of the non-standard grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

————-

Marshville, Ont., Feb. 18th, 1919

Dear Sister Ella,

Your kind letter came to hand a couple of weeks ago, also read a letter from Mary [next younger sister, born in 1892, also living in Carlisle] last Monday so thot I would answer your letter now, and then I will write to Mary later perhaps when the meetings are over as it is hard to get at writing while the revival is on.

Well, our Bible Con[ference] is now in the past, but not forgotten. We surely had a refreshing time from the presence of the Lord. He gave us such beautiful weather and good roads for the three days and we had a lot of visitors. There was a lot up from Bertie [another Brethren in Christ Church some miles away] every day. A number of them came up with their cars, and they would go back and forth, some of them every day. Bro. Shoals came home and Bro. Ed Engle with him. My, he is a lively little man and full of the Holy Spirit and fire, and Bro. J. N. Hoover was here too. He had been holding meetings at Pelham for two weeks or more previous to the Bible Con, so he consented to stay and take in the Conference. Tommy Doner couldn’t be here to talk on his subject so they got J. N. Hoover to take his place. We had a glorious time together. It was time well spent and we felt richly paid for all our trouble. The altar was full of seekers on Monday night before the Bible Con. I wasn’t there but I thot something must have happened because Jesse [her husband, my grandfather] didn’t get home till 12 o’clock. Father and Mother came home with him. Jesse went to Fenwick on Monday P.M. after them. They brot Rhoda and Mary Brillinger [cousins] along with them.

Tuesday was our day to take lunch to the church, so I was glad to have Mother here to help me on Tuesday morning. They had it divided into three parts. There was 27 families to provide lunch for the Con. so that made 9 families for each day. Each family was to take 45 sandwiches either salmon meat or cheese and 35 cookies, 1 large loaf cake, 4 pies and 1 qt of pickles, but a number of us took more sandwiches than that. We was afraid there wold ‘t [wouldn’t] be enough. We had company every evening for supper and every night over night. I didn’t go nights while the Con was going on, as it was too much for the children to be there all day and at night too. My if we could only remember all the good things we heard. I guess there will be an account of it in the Visitor [Brethren in Christ periodical] after while. The Spirit of the Lord is working among the people. I think there has been seekers at the altar every night except two nights since last Monday. Bro. Shoals and Bro. Engle left again last evening for Ohio and Bro. J. N. Hoover left last Friday night on the midnight train from Welland for Merrill, Mich.

We had quite a snowfall yesterday and last night but hardly enough for good sleighing. It is thawing [or snowing, word is not clear] again today.

[shifting abruptly from the snowstorm back to the revival meetings] A number of the members have been digging thro[ugh] and got into the liberty but there are still a number who are all bound up and have no testimony. My prayer is that every one of them may get to realize their condition and plunge into the fountain and be made whole. I’m so glad that I ever went thro[ugh] with God until the fire fell on my soul. [This language about plunging into the fountain and fire falling on one’s soul was typical of the revivalist/holiness movements of the time.] It is so precious to know that we are right with God and that we are just filling the place he would have us fill.

I hope you are having good meetings in Carlisle. Norman Wingers were up to the Con. on Thursday. You know she was Margaret Shoffner, one of the orphanage girls. My, they have a fat baby. They call him Murray, and she is getting so stout herself. Well it is nice that you can leave your baby with Grandma when you go away. It isn’t so tiresome for you. My baby is so afraid of everybody [probably a reference to her youngest child Elmer, about 14 months old at the time). If any stranger takes him he will just cry as hard as he can. I wish he wasn’t so afraid. Lewis [my dad, her oldest child, who was then seven years old] likes going to school. He is learning fast. The teacher talks about putting him in the 1st book. You know they have different books than they had when we went to school. They have the Primer first and then the 1st book comes next. He can read pretty good already.

Next time you write, let me know what the Roseoline [some kind of medication, ointment?] cost you – that is the charges and all – and I will send you the money. It was nice for you and Abram’s [Lehman, Mary’s husband] to take in the Philadelphia L. F. [can’t read the initials for sure and don’t know what she’s referring to]. I suppose Mary enjoyed it. Well I must close and get to work.

Lovingly your sister Alice and family

—————–

 

To Vote or Not to Vote

One of my birthday presents this year is the opportunity to vote in the presidential primary here in Pennsylvania. What a birthday present! I can’t remember a year when I have been so frustrated with a political process that seems broken on so many levels: 1) the season is way too long (more than two years, thus creating a “lame-duck” president way before any rational meaning for that term); 2) the process costs an obscene amount of money, some of it from dubious sources (to say the least!); 3) honesty, truth, and basic decency have all been sacrificed; 4) candidates pander to the worst in people, especially their anger and fear; 5) it seems like it is becoming more difficult rather than easier and more convenient for some people, particularly minorities, to vote. And the list of my grievances and frustrations could go on and on.

I’ve even begun to wonder whether I should vote at all, given the level of my dissatisfaction. I come from a faith tradition that discouraged voting in political elections. My spiritual ancestors believed in being separated from the world, including politics (think the Amish as a contemporary example). Their reasons included the fact that their ancestors were persecuted by the state, which, according to Brethren in Christ historian E. Morris Sider writing in 1986, “confirmed that those who were responsible for the political life of the country were evil men; thus politics were evil, and thus the Christian must have nothing to do with such matters.” Another reason was that they were also “convinced that to engage in the electoral process was to hazard the right to conscientious objector privileges during times of war.” During the first century of the denomination, “the non-voting position was the accepted one…which suggests that the position was deeply embedded in Brethren in Christ tradition.” To vote was to be complicit in the system, and to perpetuate or reinforce the coercive nature of politics and the compromise of values inherent in the system.

Times have changed, and now the vast majority of Brethren in Christ people in the U. S. vote in national, state, and local elections. Our interpretation of what it means to be separated from the world is different than it was in the early days. I myself have voted in every election since 1972, which was the first presidential election after I was old enough to vote. I take the responsibility seriously, and believe it is important for me as a citizen of a participatory democracy to have a voice, to try to influence the system more in the direction of the values I consider important: the common good, justice, peace, compassion, care for people who are disadvantaged and marginalized both here and elsewhere in the world, care for the earth, careful stewardship of resources, respect for the essential dignity and worth of everyone, and so on.

Most of the time, especially in presidential or statewide elections, I have voted for the candidate who I believed best embodied those values and proposed policies that advanced them in ways I support, and I felt good about my vote. Sometimes, I will admit, I have voted for someone who, as the saying goes, was “the lesser of two evils.”

Perhaps “the lesser of two evils” is a bit strong. I don’t think I would usually put it that way, especially since I try to be careful about what I label as evil. But it is true that I have not always been particularly enthusiastic about my candidate of choice. I have even significantly disagreed with the candidate on certain issues, but I have voted for him or her because I was even less enthusiastic about and/or disagreed more strongly with the opponent(s). Knowing that no candidate will ever completely match my values, most of the time I have been able to make peace with a vote that was clearly a compromise choice.

Which brings me back to the non-voting stance of my ancestors, and why the election of 2016 feels like a watershed moment for me. I’ve heard people say this time around that they could never vote for certain candidates who have been running for president. Sometimes this is for no other reason than partisan politics, but sometimes it is because the candidates don’t embody enough of the values they consider important. There are conditions this year under which I would not be able to vote for anyone in good conscience.

I don’t think I’ve ever said before that I would abstain from voting for reasons of conscience. Realizing that has made me reflect again on the nature of compromise and settling for less than the best, or less than my ideal. We all like to say that we won’t compromise our values, but the reality is that we compromise all the time. We believe in and practice the art of compromise – the ability to negotiate solutions to everyday problems and disagreements in our homes and workplaces where everyone makes concessions and there is genuine give and take. Even when it comes to deeply-held values, our self-interest sometimes ends up taking precedence – for example, when we condemn sexist and racist behavior but like proposed economic policies that will be personally beneficial, or when we are worried about hawkish tendencies but like the commitment to racial justice and women’s rights. I suspect that no one can really claim to be a purist; we all make compromises and it’s not always a bad thing when we do.

But how much compromise is too much? At what point are we making compromises that our personal integrity and commitment to certain values and beliefs simply cannot tolerate? When I have trouble making up my mind which candidate to vote for from the party in which I’m registered and can’t imagine ever in any lifetime voting for the candidates on the other side, is that a sign that perhaps I shouldn’t vote at all? When I am genuinely worried about what would happen to the United States if certain individuals would be elected president, does that mean I have put way too much trust in politics and the choice of a president and need to disengage from the political process and focus on things with more eternal significance?

April 9 was the 71st anniversary anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who spoke out against the evils of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany. I mention Bonhoeffer’s resistance not to make any comparisons with Hitler in our current context (just as I am careful about what I label evil, I am also careful about making Hitler comparisons) but to point to something he said that feels very relevant in these difficult times: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

When I am tempted not to vote this year because of the mess that our political system is in, because I can’t decide between pragmatism or idealism, or because I simply don’t much like any of the candidates, I wonder whether that is a form of being silent in the face of great wrong. I don’t want to wake up the day after the election, not having voted, only to find that someone I think could do great harm to the country and the values for which it stands has been elected president. I want to know that at least I have made my voice heard through my vote. So I will probably vote, first by voting on my birthday in Pennsylvania’s presidential primary, and then in the general election in November, and I will be grateful for the freedom to vote for the candidate of my choice.

And in the meantime, I will work at overcoming my fear of speaking out and not be silent in the face of great wrong, and I will remind myself repeatedly that this election will not usher in either the end of the world or the kingdom of God!

Lessons from the Suitcase

I’ve been delving into family history lately, occasioned by an event and a suitcase. In November 2015, Harriet Bohen Bert, my mother’s last remaining sibling and for whom I was named, passed away at the ripe old age of 98. My father’s siblings are all gone too, so Aunt Harriet’s death marked the end of a generation.

Some years ago, Aunt Harriet wrote her memoirs, and recently one of her sons loaned his copy to me. I read the memoir with interest (each typewritten page carefully preserved in a plastic sleeve and inserted in a binder), especially the sections where she recalled her early life with her grandparents, parents, and siblings, including my mother.

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My paternal great-grandmother, Sarah Heise Steckley (1860-1953)

Following Aunt Harriet’s death and the family reminiscing that ensued, I took temporary possession of a vintage suitcase of old photos that my brother has had ever since we cleaned out our parents’ home at Messiah Village many years ago. The photos were not organized in any way, just stuffed into the suitcase for safekeeping and because it didn’t seem right to throw them away, so my first order of business was to sort them into categories: my mother’s side of the family; my father’s side (two categories here because of the number of photos – his mother’s Steckley family and his father’s Sider family); my immediate family (my parents and siblings); school and other photos of their six grandchildren (my children and nieces and nephew); and random/unknown people and a few smaller categories. Some of the photos I could easily identify, some had names written on the back, but quite a few were unidentified in any way. The oldest photo I found was of my paternal great-grandmother, Sarah Heise Steckley, which was probably taken around 1871 when she was 11 years old (see photo).

Some observations and lessons from the suitcase and the photos it contains:

  • sevengenerations

    A treasured photo combo: seven generations of Bohens. Top photo (circa 1914) from left to right: Walter (my grandfather), Herman (my great-grandfather), and Jodokus (my great-great-grandfather), with my mother Gladys Bohen Sider on her father’s lap. Bottom photo: My mother, daughter, granddaughter, and me at my dad’s funeral in 2003. Almost 90 years separates the two photos.

    I am fortunate in knowing from whence I came. On both sides of my family, I can trace my ancestors back to Germany. My father’s side: According to the genealogy book, Two Hundred Years with the Siders, a man named Georg Seider arrived in Philadelphia from Germany in 1752. His son Jacob, thought to have been born about 1758, married Maria Wenger, a Mennonite woman, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In 1788, Jacob and his brother-in-law and their families became part of the first generation of River Brethren (later Brethren in Christ) and emigrated to Canada in 1788. I am a direct descendant of Jacob; he is my quadruple-great grandfather. My mother’s side: Jodokus Theodore Bohen was born in Germany in 1827 and emigrated to the United States in 1854, settling in Illinois. After his wife’s death, he moved to Kansas, where he lived with his son Herman until his death in 1917. Herman’s son Walter was my mother’s father (see four-generation photo, top left).  My maternal grandmother’s Book family ancestors emigrated to America in 1769, also from Germany. The Book family, including my great-grandfather Adam Book who was born in 1858, lived in Lancaster County until 1877 when they moved to Kansas. Clearly, I have a strong German heritage!

  • My active involvement in the Brethren in Christ Church is not surprising, given the fact that my maternal and paternal grandfathers and great-grandfathers were all ministers in the church, with my two paternal great-grandfathers also serving as bishops. Letters from my Grandpa Sider to my father after he left home are filled with church news (see my blog post, “The Grandfather I Never Knew”), and a 1919 letter I recently discovered in the suitcase from my Grandma Sider (written only about a year before she died) to her sister in Pennsylvania also includes church news. Both testify to the important place the church and Christian faith had in their daily lives, which continues for me.
  • I wish I had asked more questions when I had the chance, when my parents were still living. My dad wrote his memoirs (focusing on his missionary career), so I have some of his perspective on his life, but I wish I had asked my mother more about her early life and her perspective on how her life unfolded. She might not have told me the whole truth, because she would have worried about how what she said would affect other people, but I should have asked. I wish I had recorded some of their stories. I especially regret not having either recorded or written down a story my mother used to tell about her family’s move from Kansas to California in 1923. She and her two oldest siblings traveled with their father by car, while her mother and the three youngest children traveled by train. She used to describe in graphic detail the harrowing aspects of that car trip, including doing her 12-year-old best to keep her brother quiet so he wouldn’t bother their dad with persistent questions while he drove, a motel fire one night, and the meager amount of food they had for the journey (they were very poor). She also talked about how they arrived at the Upland Brethren in Christ Church in California on Thanksgiving Day looking quite bedraggled and dirty, and how the church people welcomed them warmly. Fortunately, my Aunt Harriet wrote a short account of the family move to California which preserves many of the details, but it’s still not the same as that first-hand account I could have recorded from my mother. These regrets are a reminder that I need to write more of my stories as a legacy for my children and grandchildren (and perhaps a nudge to them to ask me questions!).
  • Photographs need to be identified by date, location, and the people in them! While some of the photos in the suitcase had information written on the back, many of them didn’t, and I’ve had to rely on my own family knowledge or consult with family members who are still living. Identifying printed photos is one thing, but one also wonders what will happen to all the hundreds and even thousands of digital photos we store on our phones or upload to our computers. They’re easy to access and share now, and in many cases are floating out there in cyberspace, but what about 50-100 years from now, when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren are wondering about their ancestors? One thing I’ve starting to do with old printed photos that I scan to the computer is include a description in the file name and documentation, but I still have a long way to go.

Did my parents wonder whether their children would ever care about this suitcase of old photos? I know I wonder sometimes how much my children will care about all the mementos of the past that I’ve saved, and whether they care as much as I do about our family history.

I have been amazed at how Alecia, my oldest grandchild, likes to figure out and know where she fits in the extended family. She’s able to understand complicated family relationships that stump many people (like second cousin once removed, etc.). Recently, I was showing her a photo of a large group of college students in 1932 that I found in the suitcase. I had not been able to identify anyone in it until I did some research. I couldn’t even find my own mother in the photo because the faces were so tiny and difficult to see. Within seconds of looking at the photo, however, Alecia correctly pointed out my mother. So maybe there’s hope that the family legacy will continue! (See this blog post on the Brethren in Christ Historical Society’s website for information about the photo.) Maybe Alecia’s name – a form of Alice which is my middle name and the name of my paternal grandmother – is a sign that she will be the one to continue to preserve family history! Can I bequeath that responsibility to her?

A Defense of Political Correctness

In the most recent Republican Presidential Debate, the moderator prefaced a question to a particular candidate with a comment that he had made political incorrectness a hallmark of his candidacy, and then asked the candidate directly what he would like to say at that moment that was not politically correct. He didn’t really answer the question, but he also didn’t object to the premise.

In fact, during this election season, several candidates are wearing their political incorrectness like a badge of honor, and they are being praised and supported for saying out loud what many people are thinking but feel like they can’t say because it’s not politically correct. Their political incorrectness is often wildly popular, and nothing seems to be off limits to say, even when it’s insulting, mean-spirited, sexist, racist, xenophobic, or profane.

“Telling it like it is” is not a bad thing; saying what you’re honestly thinking even when it goes against the grain of what’s generally considered appropriate in polite society is also not necessarily a bad thing. Honesty, truthfulness, and forthrightness are important for genuine conversation and dialogue, especially on controversial and difficult topics. But the question is whether it is possible to be honest and forthright without offending someone’s sensibilities or demeaning others. Which gets at the heart of “political correctness.”

Merriam-Webster defines being politically correct as “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people,” and “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” Wikipedia’s definition acknowledges that sometimes it feels like avoiding offense is taken too far: political correctness is “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

I agree that sometimes political correctness can be taken to extremes and sometimes seem ridiculous. I also believe that at the heart of political correctness is caring about what our words can do to hurt people and recognizing how our language sometimes does not respect and honor their dignity as individuals. When we stop to think about whether what we are about to say in all honesty and forthrightness might hurt someone, is that giving in to the gods of political correctness, or is it kindness, simple decency, and respect? Is it possible that this kind of self-editing might actually help make us more sensitive to the needs and feelings of other people?

Here’s a relatively minor example from my own life.

People First is the title of the newsletter for adults with mental illness that used to be published in partnership with the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Services where I worked before retiring last year. I used to unthinkingly and without intending any offense write or say “mentally ill person,” or “handicapped child.” Then I learned about the importance of “people first” language. As part of my job, I listened to people with mental illness and the parents of children with disabilities talk about their value as human beings first apart from their disability, and I changed not only the way I talk and write but also how I think and what I believe. People are more than their disability; they are people first who happen to have a disability.

In a nutshell, that’s the point. People are important and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and our language should reflect that. When I hear some in the current crop of presidential candidates and their supporters proudly state their disdain for political correctness and their desire to “tell it like it is,” without regard for who might be offended, hurt, excluded, or defined in a way that diminishes them, I wonder if the candidates have ever thought about why so-called political correctness might sometimes be a good thing.

It also occurs to me that often it’s the people with the power who are the first to criticize political correctness. A local example illustrates this. Late last year, some students demanded that administrators rename “Lynch Memorial Hall” on the campus of Lebanon Valley College because of the racist connotations of the word “lynch.” The building was named for a former president of the college, and had nothing to do with the horrible practice of lynching African Americans. When I first heard this piece of news, my instinctive reaction was to agree with many others that this was taking political correctness too far. After all, the word has absolutely nothing to do with the practice of lynching; it’s a family name. It seems like there are much more important things to be upset about than the name of a building that just happens to be the same as an abominable practice. BUT, and this is a big but, I am not African American; I don’t have ancestors who on a daily basis feared being lynched, and the word does not conjure up horrifying and painful mental images that I’d rather not be reminded of every time I see the name of the building. (I believe the issue was resolved by using the former president’s whole name, rather than just his last name.)

At its best, political correctness reminds us of the real people who are at the other end of our words. It makes us think before we speak. It helps keep our discourse, whether spoken or written, less inflammatory and more civil. It includes rather than excludes, and it should make us think about how we might be using our personal power and privilege to demean and minimize the feelings of others.

P. S. After I started writing this blog post but before I finished it, an article called “Why I’m a Politically Correct Christian (And You Should Be Too)” from Sojourners popped up in my Facebook newsfeed, and adds an important perspective to what I’ve been trying to say.