Monday, June 27, 2016

Symptoms, Not Causes

Last week I spent three days in Washington, DC with 700 or so strong, outspoken women and a handful of men courageous enough to join the League of Women Voters. We were wrestling with issues of democracy: 
  • Roll-back of voting rights in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act
  • Vast infusions of undisclosed donations that followed the Supreme Court Citizen’s United decision declaring corporations are people.
  • Erosion of public trust in the structures and systems of government.

We’ve heard the stories in the news: five hour waits to vote in poor communities in Arizona. 

Illegal purges of voter rolls in states like Georgia and Ohio.  

The speakers I heard brought the headlines alive with context and stories and troubling insight into underlying issues. 

Amanda Taub spoke on the rise of American authoritarianism, describing the way rapid social change can become an occasion for whole groups of people to look for scapegoats to blame. Powerful, punitive leaders can stir anxiety into fear and sweep laws aside with a promise of protection from encroaching others who bring unwanted social change.  

Jennifer Lawless focused on the dangerous dismantling of trust in public institutions and the undermined legitimacy of those institutions when the majority withdraws from engagement. 

Arturo Vargas, of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, spoke, in tears, of the obstacles put in the way of a growing Latino population. He insisted that his people care deeply about their communities, yet find it difficult to translate that concern into civic engagement when so much is done to ensure their votes don’t count.

Kristen Clarke, President of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Christine Chen, of the Asian Pacific Islander American Vote, described new forms of voter suppression and ongoing barriers to full inclusion of minority voters. 

Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot, gave a masterful overview of the struggle that shaped the Voting Rights Act of 1963 and continues to play out in polling places and courthouses across the country.  As he said with passion: "It is fundamentally immoral to try to win elections by stopping people from voting.” 

The primary focus of the convention was democracy, voting rights, the forces undermining the ability to reach good solutions that serve the common good. But we also spent time looking at some of the fallout of our political dysfunction, acknowledging that every political decision has real-life human outcomes. 

My friend, Jennifer Levy-Tatum, presented insights from our year-long criminal justice study, demonstrating in tragic detail that little shifts in sentencing legislation can throw thousands of families in to poverty and ruin more lives than anyone imagined. Speaking to a room packed with men and women from other states she shared just a little of what we’ve learned, about county jails packed with people waiting trial for months. Defense lawyers with schedules so tight they meet clients just before a trial begins. Mentally ill men and women kept in solitary confinement rather than receive appropriate treatment. Pregnant women giving birth in shackles. Millions of tax dollars invested in building new prisons rather than putting money into teachers and schools to give poor communities a better path to the future. 

In the news between our meetings, like the rumble of thunder, we heard ongoing coverage of the Orlando shooting. 

In the days since, disruption on Capital Hill has captured the news, with civil rights hero John Lewis and others pleading for the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, to allow a vote on gun safety bills. 
The temptation to place blame runs high.

For some, President Obama is the cause of all our current woes.

Others point to the Republican Party.



Hillary and Bill Clinton. 

But what if people are symptoms, not causes? 

Donald Trump didn’t undermine our ability to weigh facts and fiction. That started long ago, with philosophical relativism, deconstructionist theory, the post-modern dismissal of objective reality and absolute truth.  A culture that still believed firmly in objective truth would have little patience with Trump’s obvious lies. 

Gays haven’t destroyed our families. That honor goes to a dizzying stew that could include slavery, pornography, birth control, growth of women’s rights and opportunities, loss of job security, oppressive work hours, addiction, abuse, a “me-first” philosophy endemic to our current culture.

Governmental dysfunction wasn’t invented by Paul Ryan or his fellow GOP representatives, or by President Barack Obama. It’s been built into the system, with steady intent, over long decades of determined self-interest by leaders from both sides eager to bolster their own standing. 

Hate, fear, suspicion, prejudice? We can’t pin those on any one group, religion, race. They’re our constant companions, held in check by compassion and self-control, or fanned into destructive fire by careless speech and lazy patterns of thought.

As Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus,  
we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places. 
 What are principalities and powers? 

Are they spiritual forces? 

Oppressive systems? 

Embedded patterns of action and thought that hold whole continents captive? 

Scholars and theologians have written reams on the question. Walter Wink alone wrote five books on the topic: Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1996), Engaging the Powers (1992), When the Powers Fall (1998), and The Powers that Be (1999). All address the disordered worldview that puts trust in violence rather than love and prioritizes wealth over justice.

There is much to learn about what it means to wrestle with principalities and powers,  but the meaning of the first part of Paul’s observation seems very clear. We aren’t doing battle with mere humans. Individuals aren’t the cause of our deep dilemmas.

Omar Mateen, the man who opened fire in the nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and injuring 53 others, was certainly the immediate cause of death and injury.

Yet he himself was and is a symptom of complex forces: misguided notions about race, religion and power, conflicting ideas about gender and belonging, a cultural love-affair with weapons and violence.  He’s not the first American man to turn his inner agitation outward in an explosion of deadly power. Just the latest and most visible.

It’s always easiest to scapegoat.

And always dangerously wrong.

Any real solution to our current morass will involve attention to causes, courageous engagement, selfless service, a renewed willingness to seek and speak the truth, great wisdom and compassion. 

No one person, no one party can make that happen. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Political Persistence

I spent time this past weekend at the state board meeting for the League of Women Voters of
Pennsylvania. One of our goals was to revisit vision and values.

Vision draft:  informed, engaged voters; effective, responsive government. 

Values listed: non-partisan, respectful, fact-based, trusted, persistent.

We will need to be persistent indeed if we hope to realize the vision. Only informed, engaged voters will make possible an effective, responsive government. Only an effective, responsive government will create space and motivation for informed, engaged voters. It’s a chicken and egg sort of construct. And both chicken and egg are in very bad health.

This week was the 100th anniversary of a parade in Chicago asking the Republican party to include a plank supporting women’s right to vote.

In spite of a heavy storm, over 5,000 women showed up to march in the rain, while inside the convention hall, a group of anti-suffrage women testified that women did NOT want the right to vote. According to a Chicago paper:
As if timed to the instant, through the doors of the hall came the drenched and bedraggled marchers for suffrage. They pushed up to the platform, they massed down below, they scattered out over the hall and still they came pouring through the doors…as the shock of surprise yielded, several of [the delegates] on the platform smiled in understanding amusement, as if the incongruity of that outworn charge had at last been comprehended.
 The Republican Party did adopt a suffrage plank, as did the Democratic Party two weeks later. Four years after that, the 19th Amendment, extending the right to vote to women, was finally ratified.

That change was the fruit of over a century of work led by a persistent, passionate, very brave band of women.

The gathering in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 is often listed as the start of the suffrage movement, but read the biography of Lucretia Coffin Mott and it’s clear the work began decades before. 

As a young teacher at a Quaker boarding school in New York, she learned that the fee "for the education of girls was the same as that for boys.” Yet, “when they became teachers, women received but half as much as men for their services.”

“The injustice of this was so apparent," Mott recalled in an autobiographical sketch, "that I early resolved to claim for my sex all that an impartial Creator had bestowed."

Married at 18 in 1811, Mott became a Quaker minister in 1821 and spoke often and passionately about the systemic immorality of slavery. When shut out of the American Anti-Slavery Society by white Christian men, she helped found the Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, one of the first racially mixed organizations in the country.

While organizing to end slavery, the group also worked to build literacy and leadership skills in black communities, provided shelter to runaway slaves and raised funds to improve living conditions for impoverished black families.

That work was done under the constant threat of violence from white males attempting to silence them. 

Mott's persistence awes me. Her courage inspires me.

I’ve posted before about my work for redistricting reform in Pennsylvania. We had a setback this week, as the Government Reform Caucus decided not to endorse the bills we’re supporting. Pennsylvania politics as usual.

The next day I had a long conversation with an older man who wanted to make clear change is not legislatively possible: “The Republicans have had that legislature LOCKED DOWN for fifty years.” 

He repeated the phrase “locked down" with gusto multiple times: it’s locked down, it won’t change, and any Republican who votes for reform is committing political suicide.

Maybe so, but at last count the bills we endorse had 13 Republican co-sponsors.

And as I reminded him cheerfully: I’m part of the League of Women Voters. We don’t think change is easy, but we tend to be persistent.

Even so, I find myself marveling at the persistence and sacrifice of Lucretia Mott. She did not like politics, based as it inevitably is on moral compromise.  Yet she saw the connections among the issues that concerned her: freedom, literacy, peace, alleviation of need.

She was 47 when she was forced to sit – in silence - in a separate women’s section at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London. 55 when she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized their own women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848.

She was 71 in 1864 when she helped found Swarthmore College, one of the first coeducational colleges in the country. She was 73 in 1866 when she helped organize and became the first president of the American Equal Rights Association, formed “to secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex."

She was 87 when she died in 1880, three decades before women finally received the right to vote.

Next weekend I’ll be attending the national League of Women Voters Convention in Washington, DC. On Saturday morning I’ll be leading a caucus on building coalitions and finding allies for redistricting reform.

Reading through the history of the work is a little discouraging. Lots of names. Lots of bills. Only a few states where real change has been accomplished.

In his farewell speech in 1989, Ronald Reagan said that “high on his agenda” would be “talking up the need to do something about political gerrymandering. This is the practice of rigging the boundaries of congressional districts. It is the greatest single blot on the integrity of our nation’s electoral system, and it’s high time we did something about it.

The League of Women Voters, in states across the country, has been working on this since at least 1990. That’s three rounds of redistricting ago.  If the practice was a blot on the integrity of the electoral system back in 1989, it’s now a spreading, smothering stain.  

With the constant improvement of mapping systems, the fine-tuning of data mining and the millions of dollars invested by both parties in capturing state legislatures, gerrymandering has made competitive elections almost impossible and has eliminated real choice at almost every level.

Reform coalitions have come and gone as invisible funding sources co-opt good intentions and inevitable discouragement saps energy and interest. 

Even so, there are redistricting reform coalitions in more than a dozen states. I’m hoping to meet the leaders during my time in DC.

We’ll be voting at the convention on a new redistricting position, created by a national task force that has studied the problem, researched solutions and drafted recommendations.

The position recommends an end to the conflict of interest that allows politicians to draw their own maps. It endorses adoption of independent commissions with strong standards for transparency, public input, fairly drawn lines.

I’m sure it will pass with strong support.

At the same time, I don’t envision anyone marching in the streets. Redistricting reform is a complicated issue and most Americans have trouble focusing past the first bullet point.

Somehow Lucretia Mott was able to make the connections clear: faith in God, confidence in the equality of all, reverence for life, sacrificial hospitality, literacy, voting rights, a longing for peace.

We are fractured, distracted, easily swayed by sound bites and simplistic answers.

Captive to an entrenched system that offers us little choice and pays little attention to the real needs, hopes and dreams of the average citizen.

In Pennsylvania, we have crowded jails, crumbling roads, immigrant families held in substandard detention facilities. We have the two most underfunded school systems and the most inequitable school funding structure in the country, outrageous property taxes, overlapping jurisdictions, a bloated, expensive government that accomplishes little and captures national attention for its incompetence and corruption.

Not long after the convention in Seneca Falls, Mott wrote: "Any great change must expect opposition, because it shakes the very foundation of privilege."

We are in a time of great change, and it’s hard to say where that change will lead.

As I worked on this post, I heard the sad news: fifty dead in Orlando.

The sixteenth time our current President has addressed the press to speak of a mass shooting.

Our electoral systems themselves make it less and less possible to come to agreement on issues like guns, immigration, taxes, war.

Anger feeds anger; hate breeds hate.

Violence encourages greater violence.

Will the foundations of privilege be shaken, as Lucretia Mott prayed, or will the foundations of democracy be fractured instead?

From where I sit today, it’s hard to say.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Still Learning as We Go

Yesterday was our thirty-ninth anniversary, celebrated by helping my in-laws finish a move into a new residence, then a drive from Lititz, PA to Brentwood, MD to deliver furniture to our son, who just bought his first house.

I was reminded of our own move into a West Philadelphia apartment, thirty-nine years ago, and our simple, semi-country wedding, on a bright June afternoon in an old Baptist church in Carmel, New York. Our friend Harry officiated, reading the service from a small black Book of Common Prayer. He had just recently been ordained, and was so nervous he accidentally turned two pages at once. If he hadn’t listened when I whispered to him that he’d skipped a page, we would have missed the marriage vows completely. 

I was twenty-one. I’d graduated from college three weeks before and spent those weeks sewing my wedding gown and a bridesmaid’s dress for my friend’s wedding on Long Island the Saturday before. Whitney, the groom, handsome in grey cutaways, had just turned twenty-three, and had just that week found us a second floor apartment in a creaky old row house in West Philly. 

Looking back, I’d have to say I was clueless about marriage, love, adulthood, and a whole host of other things. The marriages in my own family had all ended sadly, as far back in the family tree as anyone could remember. I had thought maybe I’d put off marriage completely, yet there I was, promising to “love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live.”
We weren’t given much advice. Our premarital counseling consisted of an awkward dinner and an hour of stilted conversation at Harry’s dining room table, with his wife and small son down the hall. I’d read Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant to Be, so I had some vague idea of equality in marriage, but we’d also been hearing reverberations from Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts, which seemed to me to treat wives as permanent teenagers. A Gothard enthusiast told me, not long after the wedding: “You were under your grandmother’s umbrella. Now you’re under your husband’s. Remember that.” Living under an umbrella seemed a bit constraining. I still shudder when I think of the patronizing tone, and the limiting, constricted image. 

Whitney had grown up in a well-ordered home where the governing principle seemed to be “learn as you go along what pleases the Lord,” the Living Bible rephrasing of Ephesians 5:10. His parents were steeped in scripture, interested in following the lead of the Holy Spirit, and not very concerned about defined gender roles. In points of conflict or disagreement, their default mode seemed to be prayer, then acquiescence, with a shared resolve to learn along the way what God had to teach them. I watched, intrigued, as they navigated conflicts, changes, crises, with surprising harmony and good grace. They’re still learning as they go along, more than sixty years into marriage, still good friends and partners, still playing Scrabble every evening.

Is theirs a complementarian marriage? Egalitarian? I’m not sure they ever gave it much thought. In fact, refreshingly, the idea of “who is in charge” doesn’t seem to be much of an issue: God is in charge, and together, still, they look at the example of Jesus, ask for wisdom and discernment from the Holy Spirit, consult others, including my husband and me, and wait for a sense of unity and peace. 

We’ve followed that same model through grad school, job changes, financial constraints, selling and buying of houses, moves from Philly to Virginia and back to the Philadelphia suburbs. We’ve parented three children, hosted one wedding, given shelter, over the years, to a mix of extended family, friends in transition, cats, hamsters, fish, birds, a legendary lizard and one very stubborn beagle. 

We’re never talked much about “men’s jobs” or “a woman’s place.” Whoever is nearest the baby changes the diaper. Whoever has the skill or interest does the job that needs to be done. I helped our kids edit their school papers: I was a writing teacher, so that made sense. He taught them golf and basketball: he played both in college, so that made sense. I remodeled our bathrooms, removing and installing toilets and sinks, something I learned helping rehab a house the fall I was sixteen.  He makes great omelets, something he learned as a short-order chef in high school. 

He tells better bedtime stories than I do: his imagination is wonderfully random, and endlessly amusing. But I do a better job reading at bedtime: he’s more apt to fall asleep mid-sentence.

For the most part, I taught our kids to swim; I taught swimming at camps for years, and had more time with them in the neighborhood pool. For the most part, he taught them how to drive; he thought it would be a fun Sunday afternoon activity, and he’s far better at parallel parking than I am.

Yes, he mows the lawn, operates the power tools, and is more likely to be the one lugging heavy furniture up and down stairs, although I did my fair share this weekend, and masterminded the packing of the van.

But he cried as much as I did when we left each child at college for the first time. Which proves not a whole lot – except that we both love our kids, and would love to keep them nearby forever.

But we also want them to learn, and grow, and find their way to the lives God has for each of them. There’s no umbrella here for them to stay under. We told each one, when we said goodbye at college, and at other transition points along the way: “We trust what God is doing in you.” In each that’s different. In each it’s a joy to watch.

They aren’t here to please us, make us look good, make us happy. And we’re not here to do that for them, or each other. We’re here to please God, to learn how to use the gifts he’s given us, to share his love with each other and those he brings across our paths. 

Marriage is a mystery, a means of grace, and a daily challenge. We are very different people, with very different personalities. I’d love to have a backyard full of chickens and a house full of neighborhood kids and noise. He’d like a townhouse with no lawn to mow, no clutter of any kind.

I like meandering down back roads, floating lazily in my kayak in the nearby lake, wandering through the woods listening for bird song. He prefers focus: if he’s going somewhere, he wants to get there sometime soon, whether by foot, boat, car, or golf cart. For him, the idea of going is to get there. For me, the idea of going is to see what's happening along the way.

Marriage offers a place to learn all those lofty words the Bible invites us to grow into: patience, forgiveness, humility, forbearance. 

Grace: that takes on new meaning with each new year, each new season.

And love: the kind of love that invites us to die to our own plans, our own preferences, our own love of comfort, our own visions of what might be best. 

Submission is like one of those lovely Celtic knots: there’s no telling were it starts, no telling where it ends. Together we submit to each other, the needs of the family, the callings God leads us to, the cry of the broken world around us. The pattern emerges as we go, beautiful, complicated, so interwoven it’s hard to tell: is it one strand, or two? Maybe three.

Here’s the passage we live under, live into, rest in, taped for years inside a kitchen cupboard door: 
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19) 
We aren’t there yet, but we’re learning as we go along. Still. Almost four decades on.

For that I'm very thankful. 

(This is a re-post, with slight changes, of a post from 2012, A Learn as You Go Along Marriage).