Three Birthday Wishes

Harriet-1948 1

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.

sarahsteckley

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.

 

The Wrong Shall Fail, the Right Prevail

The Wrong Shall Fail, the Right Prevail

In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells.” An abbreviated version of the poem was set to music and became the familiar Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Long one of my favorite Christmas carols because of the lyrics, the poem feels particularly poignant and relevant this year. (Listen to one of many versions of the carol.)

When Longfellow wrote the poem, the Civil War was raging, and the Christmas message of “peace on earth, goodwill to all” must have seemed like something of a bad joke. In addition to the horrific carnage and enmity even among families on both sides of the conflict of the Civil War, Longfellow experienced personal tragedy as well: his wife died in a fire and his son Charles was severely wounded while fighting with the Union army. (You can read more about the history of the poem here.) While I haven’t had personal tragedies this year as Longfellow had, I feel like the world has gone mad and I can’t help wondering how we can with integrity sing about the angels’ message of peace and goodwill when all around us is violence and killing, hatred, xenophobia, racism, and discrimination.

Here’s the poem, interspersed with some commentary:

“Christmas Bells”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

These first three stanzas present the greeting-card picture of Christmas, with carols, bells, and everyone coming together to sing the song the angels sang to the shepherds the night Jesus was born: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill to all.” Words and phrases in the poem like “old,” “familiar,” “words repeat,” “unbroken song,” and “world revolved from night to day” all suggest the welcome annual ritual of celebrating the birth of Christ and they remind us of what we are celebrating. You can almost hear church bells all around the world peeling out their carols in “unbroken song,” filling the air with unending beautiful music.

But then come the two stanzas that were cut from the Christmas carol version of the poem:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered from the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned/Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

These stanzas are a clear reference to the Civil War, with families all over the country “forlorn” from the damage done by the war, and cannons drowning out the sound of the bells and their message. The poem continues:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on Earth, “ I said:
“For Hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!”

I feel that despair this year. Hate seems particularly strong, and mocks the message of peace. Since I wrote “On Not Giving In to Fear” less than two weeks ago, after the Paris attacks and in the wake of hateful rhetoric being directed against Syrian refugees, there has been more violence in Colorado, San Bernadino, and other places, and even more hateful rhetoric. The president of a prominent Christian college called for all his students to arm themselves to fight off “those Muslims”; another prominent Christian said that “no Muslims should be allowed into this country until there’s a process in place to fully vet them”; the leading Republican presidential candidate announced his intent to bar Muslims from entering the U.S.; and another presidential candidate called for “carpet-bombing them [ISIS] into oblivion,” which couldn’t help but cause mass casualties of innocent civilians.

For me, perhaps the most frustrating and saddest thing is that a significant percentage of potential voters – ordinary nice people, some of whom probably go to church with me – are cheering on and supporting this kind of rhetoric. They all claim to be Christian (after all, the leading presidential candidate who spouts the most reprehensible ideas said that the Bible is his favorite book), but they don’t speak for me and they don’t seem to be paying much attention to the Jesus who told us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, welcome the stranger; who reprimanded Peter for defending him by cutting off a soldier’s ear; and who told us not to be “afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”

Here we are, about to celebrate the birth of that Jesus. We’ll happily sing Christmas carols that speak of “peace on earth and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled,” revel in the “silent night” when the baby Jesus “sleeps in heavenly peace,” all the while being oblivious to how our words and actions belie the Prince of Peace whose birth we celebrate. I find myself in tears as I imagine how this hateful rhetoric must sound to Muslims and others. No wonder they hate us; no wonder some people refuse to have anything to do with Christianity. While I understand some (but certainly not all) of the anger and fear that is at the root of much of what is happening and being said here in the U.S., so much of it feels so very wrong, dangerous, and bordering on the same kind of extremism that is motivating unspeakable acts of barbarism and terrorism by other religious extremists. There is something profoundly unChristian going on, it doesn’t help our witness in the world, and I grieve deeply.*

This is why I really need the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem during this particular Advent and Christmas season, which does not leave us in despair but resoundingly reminds us of the long view of history and of our faith that somehow, the wrong will fail, the right will prevail, and there will be peace on earth:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

 

*As I wrote this, I realized that my own attitude toward those who are espousing ideas, beliefs, and practices that are antithetical to what I believe is right and good is not always as loving and kind as it should be. I don’t think that means I should not speak out and confront that which is so wrong, hateful and unChristian, but it does mean I always need to do so in a way that reflects this core value of my faith and my church: “We value all human life, and promote understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.”

 

On Not Giving In to Fear

Fear is an ugly thing. A couple days ago I wrote about how my own fears about potential responses to opinions I might express on social media sometimes keep me from standing up for what I believe is right – in this case, how we think about Syrian refugees. I could go on about other fears I’ve had or still have that sometimes cause me significant anxiety: cancer or other serious illness, something bad happening to a member of my family, financial concerns, interpersonal and organizational conflict, violence directed at me or someone I love, and so on. While these are fears I’ve faced personally, there are other more “global” fears that afflict many people to a greater or lesser extent: economic collapse and financial disaster, crime, loss of freedom and our way of life, persecution, death, catastrophic illness, and of course the big one right now, terrorism.

Fear of terrorism, specifically as perpetrated by extremist groups like ISIS or Al-Quaeda, is making many Americans irrational and/or mean-spirited, if you ask me. Witness the following:

  • one presidential candidate didn’t completely disavow the idea of registering Muslims in the U.S. in some kind of database, and said that it might also be a good idea to close mosques;
  • another made the unfortunate (and perhaps unintentional – I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt) comparison of Syrian refugees with rabid dogs;
  • others suggest allowing only refugees who can verify they are Christian to enter the country;
  • national polls show that a majority of Americans want to stop the flow (however small it has been so far) of Syrian refugees into the U.S.;
  • the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill prohibiting Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entry into the United States until security and background protocols are strengthened (never mind that security for incoming refugees is already pretty strict) and the Senate is working on similar legislation;
  • more than half of the nation’s governors have stated they will not accept refugees into their states;
  • the comments sections after many online news stories about refugees are filled with hate, with truly vile sentiments being expressed by people, including some purporting to be Christians.

And we could go on. Presidential candidates and others are playing to our worst fears, and many people are allowing themselves to succumb to those fears against all reason.

This all makes me very sad and disheartened. While parallels to U.S. hysteria about Germans during World Wars I and II and about Japanese during World War II are not exact, they are close enough that they should give us pause. The same attitudes and fears that drove our response then seem prevalent today. Do we really want to repeat what we did when we rounded up Japanese people and sent them to internment camps, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Have we learned nothing from history? And then there is the hypocrisy and blindness of being so concerned about the relatively small threat of being killed by terrorism here in the U.S. that we close our borders to refugees who are fleeing actual terrorism, while at the same time not having the national will to do much of anything about preventing the daily toll of death by gun violence in our streets, schools, and homes.

Fear is a powerful motivator, and I confess that it has motivated me far more often than I care to admit to think and act in ways that I wish I hadn’t. I really do understand the fear. But I don’t want to be ruled by it. Fear is not emotionally healthy and I don’t think it’s particularly helpful either, especially when it turns me into something other than my best self. Plus, for Christians, the Bible repeatedly tells us not to be afraid. During a particularly stressful time of my life a number of years ago, when I couldn’t sleep at night, I would quote Psalm 23 to myself, including these words: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” More often than not, I would soon fall asleep – not because the psalm was some magic potion, or because the fear was gone, but perhaps because I had focused on something other than the fear and been reminded of something/someone greater than myself and my fears.

Fortunately, there are rays of hope, decency, and compassion; not everyone is giving in to fear. Many religious organizations (such as Mennonite Central CommitteeNational Association of Evangelicals, and Sojourners) have categorically stated the need to reach out to Syrian refugees and remain faithful to the clear call of Scripture. My own Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has indicated that we will accept refugees into our state, despite the political backlash he is receiving. Many individual Christians are speaking out about the need to follow the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger,” reminding us that Jesus himself was a refugee; many are making valiant efforts to counteract misinformation with facts, about what it actually takes to be able to enter the country as a refugee, for example. And many are trying to inject the toxic conversation with kindness, compassion, and common sense, often at the risk of being ridiculed and called horrible names. All of these things give me hope that we will all  come to our senses and live up to the values not only of our faith but also of our country.

I want to have the courage to stand up for what I believe is right and not give in to fear, to be compassionate and welcoming to people in great need, including refugees from Syria.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).