Speaking Up

Two summers ago I went on vacation to Colonial Williamsburg with my wife’s family. As a history teacher I was excited. The sites of the Battle of Yorktown, Jamestown, and  (a fictional rebuilding) of Williamsburg itself are all in close proximity to each other. While this popular area has been built up considerably for the tourist sector I had a great week exploring history.

One morning I found myself checking out a gun display in one of the Colonial Williamsburg museums. After I did this I sat down on a bench nearby and struck up a conversation with a retired teacher from Tennessee. As we learned we were both teachers we both enjoyed talking about the importance of history for a couple of minutes. She then said something quickly, almost in passing. I do not remember the exact quote but she noted that “some people want to get rid of our history. Some people where I am from are trying to get rid of statutes of General Forrest.”

She was referencing the trend for states and communities to take down statues of confederate war heroes. Even still, if I hadn’t read an article about General Forrest a few weeks prior I probably wouldn’t have known who he was. But I had. Let me tell you a couple things about Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

During the Civil War a group of soldiers he led was responsible for the Fort Pillow Massacre where an overpowered group of mostly African-American soldiers were brutally shot down even after the battle was won. These Confederate soldiers were not particularly happy for African-Americans to haven taken up arms against them, you see. After the War, Forrest was named as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

This perfectly pleasant woman I was talking to was mistaken. Mr. Forrest deserves to be studied and remembered as an actor of hatred and a reminder of what the Civil War was fought over. But statutes and memorials to him all over the South? That is nonsense and deserves to be corrected.

Now I am a reasonably well spoken adult. Surely I could sort out how to tactfully and respectfully to explain to this women why her view was mistaken. I have a strong sense of justice and what’s right. So that’s what I did.

Except it’s not.

After a glimmer of recognition of who Forrest was in my mind I mumbled uncomfortably and said nothing. A few minutes later the conversation was over. Now there’s a lot of reasons I could use to excuse to explain my lack of action. I’m a shy introvert who does not love confrontation with people I know well, let alone people I just met. But those excuses would be just a smokescreen. I did not speak up that morning because of of my privilege.

In a great number of ways, my life is a textbook example of white privilege. I won’t go into all of the ways here but my point is this. I have NEVER spoken up much about current issues of race or racism in the past few years, either in conversation or on social media. It has felt too contentious and I have felt like taking sides would be too difficult. But mostly I haven’t spoken about these things because I haven’t had to.

My privilege insulates me from feeling strongly about these issues. It’s incredibly difficult for me to admit this but it’s true. I have opinions or thoughts about events of the past years but it does not feel near to me. Our society insures that it rarely will. Those who have lost family members or feel the reality of racism daily enjoy no such luxury.

I sincerely regret not speaking up that morning to the woman. I suspect that she was a perfectly nice and professional teacher during her career. But she harbors attitudes that allow protests like this past weekend to occur in Charlottesville. This does not mean we demonize each other. It does mean we recognize racist attitudes when we hear them and see them and call them out. I am a nerdy, WASPy, teacher with glasses. I won’t always get everything right. But I will commit to writing more and when I see racism I will do my best to speak up.

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When Churches Do More than Preach.

Over the past 10 years I have become decidedly more liberal in my political beliefs and general worldview. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how this has happened but nonetheless it has. Today I typically find liberal solutions to issues more feasible, just, and factual accurate than many conservative ones. I try to read sources from both sides regularly but everyone has their biases and I think I’m fairly well aware of where mine lean.

However, one thing I have been uncomfortable with as I have driven ever deeper into a liberal worldview is the often clear animus toward religion. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes it is blatant. Many liberal writers (or bloggers, or facebook posters) are quite clear that religion is a pox on humanity and if we just got rid of it the world would be a much better, kinder, tolerant place. I can understand where that view might come from but I also see it as hopelessly out of touch with where many people still are and where society might continue to go.

Given the divisive nature of American society at the moment and the dangerously cruel and incompetent nature of our current president I want to explain a little bit about what many churches do on a regular basis to help society. If religious and irreligious people can understand each other a little bit better I think we can not only achieve more in the future but also avoid political leaders like the one we recently elected.

Churches do far more than just preach a message on Sundays. Many give away significant portions of their money (which is usually exclusively donated by church members) to missionaries doing health care, relief, and leadership training in countries many Americans have never heard of. Many operate food banks. Many can, with one special offering, give thousands of dollars to charitable groups both domestic and international. Many churches have small groups and ministries that not only preach a religious message but offer folks support for all sorts of issues, addictions and emotional baggage. Churches are often small (or enormous) networks that provide things like childcare, education, or just a place to talk to each other. During the holidays many churches do more than just typical charitable giving but go beyond to provide a place where people who do not have family can spend time together. At their best churches want to make the world a better place not only by preaching an “exclusive” message but by helping the poor, downtrodden, widow, and orphan.

To be clear churches also all too often have many significant problems. There is homophobia in some churches. There is Islamophobia in some churches. There is sexism in some churches. Uplifting the institution over the people can create environments where abuse has been tragically too common. Churches are made up of flawed people just like the rest of society. Just as government and society are far from perfect so churches often (regrettably) miss the mark. But I also think if every church closed tomorrow our world would be much poorer from it.

I understand that any entity that preaches an exclusive, religious message may be a bridge too far for many people to accept.  But in a divided society I think it is essential that we at the very least seek to understand one another. Many God-fearing religious folks do not want to bestow theocracy on the US but simply want to help others. Maybe in my attempt to bridge these divides I am being too kind or naive. But in these times I think it is essential that we see and call out the good that we can in others.

How to fix Boston.

On Monday The Boston Marathon filled up in an unprecedented 8+ hours. 21,000 slots snapped up. Inexplicably, that was and is the only chance that many qualified runners will have to enter this, the oldest and most prestigious of marathons. Many people are trying to paint this positively as a win for the popularity of running. I disagree. This event simply showed the overwhelming weakness of the current qualifying and registration system. Here are a few of my thoughts on how to improve the race. Full disclosure: I qualified and ran Boston in 2009 but did not attempt to register this year as my qualification time had expired.

1) Make a waiting list. This seems almost painfully obvious. Boston is not only incredibly popular but an event that requires an extraordinary amount of commitment and luck to even attempt. Between now and April, tons of people will drop out, for various reasons. And the BAA will say, “OK, great. Thanks for your money, now we have a smaller race.” This is absurd.

As soon as registration fills, people trying to get in should be notified that they have been put on a waiting list. Credit cards would not be charged until they move up the list into an actual racing spot. This one move alone would probably get a few thousand more people into the race.

2) Raise the women’s qualifying standards. Boston is one of the few races that require qualifying standards in order to register. They are far from impossible but stringent nonetheless. You have to be a solid runner and train well to meet them. Right now men aged 18-34 have to run 3:10 to qualify. Women of the same age only have to run 3:40 to qualify. Women athletics continue to improve and as running becomes ever more popular surely even better runners will continue to emerge. Elite women are typically only 15-20 minutes behind men. The BAA should move the women’s standards up at least 10 minutes to 3:30.  This would certainly lessen the pool of runners able to qualify and therefore lessen the burden on registration. Will many complain that this makes it harder to qualify? Of course. But guess what, it’s a marathon. It’s supposed to be hard.

3) Lessen charity slots and put a lottery in for those slots. It’s easy to forget with all the well meaning charities out there that a marathon is (and should be) about running. Right now thousands of slots at Boston go to charities. You have to raise a significant amount of money but get to avoid the bothersome task of running a qualifying time. Rich people and big corporations can just pay out of pocket and boom: one less spot for a legitimate hard working runner. Charity runners should be limited, perhaps to about 1,ooo or 2,000 total. Whoever want to do the run as charity should be entered in a lottery. If you’re picked you are in. Charity is great but actual qualified runners should not be penalized for not being a part of an official charity.

I would estimate that each of these changes would allow 2-3,000 more runners a year to enter Boston, at least in the short term. Will people still be left out? Sure, but at least the system will be fairer and make more sense.

Remember the 1st amendment?

A story recently broke in the Boston area that I found interesting not only because of the mild controversy it has caused but because of the (in my view) troubling views of people who have commented on the event.

Here is my understanding of what happened. A group of 6th-graders from the suburb town of Wellesley went on a field trip to a local mosque. This was part of a social studies unit they were in the middle of called, “Enduring Beliefs and the World Today.” Before their trip to the mosque they had visited an synagogue, a gospel music performance, and met Hindus. My understanding is that the primary purpose of the visit was to have a tour of the building. At some point there was a prayer time (Muslims pray 5 times a day so the fact that their visit coincided with one of these is unsurprising.) During this time of a prayer, a number of the students on the field trip decided to join in. From what I have read, it looks like they did little more than line up with the people praying and briefly followed along with their actions. It doesn’t look like there was any coercion or involuntary participation.   A few wanted to join in and were allowed to do so. Strikingly, the least offended people of these student’s actions were their own parents who were helping chaperone the trip.

An outburst of media activity has set people off about this however. Some think having a field trip to a mosque is too much. Some are offended that students were allowed to join in the prayers. And some think that simply having students observe the prayers went too far. To all these people I say firmly, “Remember the 1st Amendment?”

In America we have freedom of religion not freedom from religion. Learning about religion in an academic, non-proselytizing manner is legal. In addition voluntary religious behavior by anyone , student or otherwise, should be legal as well. I never understand people who say prayer isn’t allowed in school. Of course it is. If I want to bow my head quickly before starting a test, I can. If I want to sit by my locker and pray, I can. If I want to start a voluntary after-school prayer club on school grounds, I should be allowed to. And if students asked me to go sit down briefly with people they have been learning about to experience what they are doing, I would, time allowing, let them. It’s called getting an education.

We are blessed to have many freedoms here in the US and it is bothersome to see how woefully blown out of proportion this non-event has become.