Sunday, January 22, 2017

Women's Voices

Last fall women went invisible.

After months of harassment on Twitter and Facebook, a young woman from Maine created Pantsuit Nation, an invitation-only "secret" Facebook group where women could share their stories.

It wasn't the only such group, but quickly became the largest. It was launched just weeks before the election and grew to 4 million women, "a troll-free internet oasis for Clinton supporters."

Not just Clinton supporters found their way there. For many reasons, the campaign season was rough on women who dared to express themselves in public spaces. When a presidential candidate says on air what Donald Trump said about Megyn Kelley, it's no surprise that his followers outdid themselves in pouring obscene scorn on any woman who chose not affirm their Twitter-troll-in-chief.

Pantsuit Nation has had a bumpy ride: the founder declared the group couldn't be used for activism, banned anything but positive stories, then announced she'd signed a contract to use posts in a book by the same name. A huge defection prompted some review, but in the meantime new secret groups were launched. I'm part of several localized groups focused more exclusively on action.

In a way, the phenomenon of Pantsuit Nation reminds me of the way women of a certain age have often left the dinner table to go to talk in the kitchen over dishes. Shut out of the primary conversation, they continued their own, in a separate space, far from the interrupting, sometimes belittling voices of men.

Last fall women withdrew for good reason. 

Writer Bethany Mandel described her frightening experience after unwittingly awakening trolls:
 After the South Carolina primary, I made an offhand remark on Twitter about Trump’s legions of anti-Semitic fans. It wasn’t my first time commenting on this; I’ve even written about the phenomenon in these pages. But the response was unlike anything I’ve seen before on Twitter. I was called a “slimy Jewess” and told that I “deserve the oven.” Not only was the anti-Semitic deluge scary and graphic, it got personal. Trump fans began to “dox” me — a term for adversaries’ attempt to ferret out private or identifying information online with malicious intent. My conversion to Judaism was used as a weapon against me, and I received death threats in my private Facebook mailbox, prompting me to file a police report. 
Bethany Mandel's experience was not unique, as a Women's eNews article makes clear: 
When women make strong comments or venture into political waters they face threats. Harassment of female journalists online seems to be growing at an alarming rate; and it dovetails with new research about women and speech.
The Pew Research Center, which has been following online activity since 2000, found in 2014 that threats are directed far more at women than men. And in 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland created bogus online accounts and then sent them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.
In the light of online abuse: 
Many women are simply going quiet, after being told that these threats are just from stupid trolls who are harmless. But women fear that someday, one of these trolls will climb out from under his bridge and actually make good on his threat.
In a way, threatening cyber behavior was mirrored in the televised interviews between Trump and Clinton. In the second interview in particular, set free from his podium, Trump prowled the stage, standing too close behind his opponent, grimacing over her shoulder, interrupting loudly and repeatedly: "No." "Wrong." "Wrong wrong wrong."

As a PBS headline observed: 
For many women, watching Trump interrupt Clinton 51 times was unnerving but familiar.
Tweeted Chicago-based writer Britt Julious: “Thoughts & prayers to every woman watching the #debates & getting painful flashbacks to dudes talking over them at work, school, home, etc.”
“The sad thing,” said Christina Emery, an author from Swansea, Illinois, “is that I’m so used to men interrupting women — especially when they want to change the subject — that I didn’t pay much attention to Trump’s behavior. . .
“Many women watching Trump’s treatment of Clinton feel a sickening sense of familiarity with patronizing behavior directed at them during every work day,” said Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli, a vocational psychologist in Austin, Texas. “Women become exhausted by the experience that no matter how much they accomplish or how hard they work, a man with a fraction of their knowledge and achievements stands ready to critique them.” 
For me, the great grief the morning after the election was the certainty that many had voted for Donald Trump not because of policy or position or reason or righteousness but because the sound of a strong, clear woman's voice is enough to make them angry.

Part of the emotional exhaustion, both before and since the election, has been tied to that certainty that no matter how hard a woman works, there will be attempts to undermine and silence her, not just by men, but by women who have believed the lie that power and authority belong only to men. 

For me, the Women's March on Washington was a healthy response to the months of going underground, of watching women reporters harassed, of choking on one more interruption.

Across the country, across the globe, women put words on poster board and traveled to sing, chant, laugh and cheer with busloads of other women.

Why march? 

To say what needs to be said:

We will not respect a man who can't respect women.

We will not be silenced or frightened into submission.

We will continue the work toward full representation.

Real power belongs to us all. 

We are all equal heirs in the kingdom of God. 

For me the marches were also a move to reclaim public space. Those women who went invisible joined others in planning, organizing and showing up to say this nation belongs to all of us, not just wealthy white men, not just those already in power. Women, girls, young, old, people of color, recent immigrants, those marginalized by gender or class, disability or background gathered to reclaim the public square.

At the end of the day, the many signs were left around the White House fence, a message for the man inside.

Will he listen?

Does it matter?

My prayer is that women will stay visible.

That our voices will stay strong.

That together we will insist on a world where every voice is heard. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Still Dreaming

Eight years ago I sat between two coworkers, one Black, one Hispanic, to watch the inauguration of our first African American president.
It was the middle of a workday. We found a TV, rolled it to a corner of the building where we hoped we'd find decent reception, and took our lunch breaks early to watch.

It was an unplanned celebration. I remember we stood to our feet at the moment of the swearing-in, then cheered with the crowds in the moments after.

Then wiped the tears from the corners of our eyes, hugged each other, rolled the TV back to its closet and went back to work, the other two to their tasks as custodians in our large suburban church, me to the youth ministry office and my preparations for Sunday.

I'm not a Democrat. 

I'm not sure their political affiliations.

What we were celebrating was a leap toward a long-held dream, a dream Martin Luther King Jr. shared when we were all kids, hoping for a seat at the table.

We've heard the words of King's dream.

In my own mind, it goes like this:

I have a dream of a world where every child, of every color, every gender, has good doctors from birth, good teachers from the earliest years, access to libraries, books, music, parks, beauty.

I have a dream of a world which believes that we all do best when we all do best. A world that ensures every child has what's needed, that every child has an even chance to learn and thrive and use his or her gifts wisely.

I have a dream of joyful interchange between people of different backgrounds and cultures, a world where difference is seen as rich opportunity rather than threat, offense or danger.

I have a dream of a world that makes room: for unexpected voices, for unsuspected contributions.

I believe it's a dream rooted deeply in the scriptures King quoted in so many of his speeches: a prophetic dream, spoken by God's messengers across the ages, from Samuel, to Daniel, to Isaiah, Micah, Christ himself. 

I've been working toward that dream all my life, in ways small and large, often behind the scenes, often without well-defined role, job title or mission statement.

Reading excerpts from King's writing again this week, I was struck that he didn't plan to become a prophetic voice, had no ambition of becoming a legendary force for change.

He was 25 when he was hired to be pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. His plan was to be a "rational" pastor: to preach, teach, visit the sick, do what good he could.

He was 26 when he met with city officials to ask for change of the rules regarding bus seating. Still 26 when Claudette Colvin, then Mary Louise Smith, then Rosa Parks were  arrested for refusing to give up their seats to white passengers boarding after them.

He was 27 when his home was bombed. 27 when he was arrested for conspiracy in leading the bus boycott. Still 27 when the US Supreme Court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional.

In several sermons and other writing, King told of an important point of decision. He'd become the focus of attention, had begun getting receiving threats. He was just turning 27, still new to his first church. His first child was just months old.

One night, after his wife and child were asleep, his telephone rang: 
I picked it up. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” 
In fear and grief and weariness and indecision, King began to pray in a way he'd never prayed.
I prayed out loud that night.  I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage.) And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.” I wanted tomorrow morning to be able to go before the executive board with a smile on my face.  And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”
That experience and a growing reality of prayer and knowledge of God's presence carried King forward. A decade later, just months before he died, he spoke of the difficult path toward justice: 

I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted.

We are in one of those rocky places. Our president has ignored concerns about Russian influence in our most recent election and lashed out instead at John Lewis, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the original Freedom Riders, a tireless activist on behalf of civil rights. Lewis was badly beaten on at least three occasions, jailed repeatedly for his non-violent protest. Since his youth he's been working toward the dream King described, serving in public office as city councilman, representative in Congress and for the past nineteen years as senator from Georgia. 

On Tuesday, protestors were removed from confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's pick to be Attorney General. 1424 law professors from180 law schools in 49 states have urged Congress to Sessions' nomination, calling attention to his prejudicial statements against African Americans, his promotion of the myth of voter-impersonation fraud, his opposition to the Voting Rights Act, "his robust support for regressive drug policies that have fueled mass incarceration." 

As President Obama reminded his audience in his eloquent farewell address:
America is no fragile thing.  But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured. . . .
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy . .  .
Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands.  It needs you.  Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.  If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try to talk with one in real life.  If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing.  If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.  Show up.  Dive in.  Persevere.
Some of my friends will be marching in protest this week, in Philly and DC.

Many are making calls: asking Congress to block nominations that that threaten our schools, our national safety, the long journey toward justice.

Some are sitting outside legislators' offices. 

Some are exploring a run for office. Starting advocacy groups. Learning all they can about how our systems work, where they're broken, what needs to change.

My own work on redistricting reform continues. 

I'll be hosting a conversation Tuesday night on Berks County TV about inclusive democracy and the way our current redistricting process undermines real representation.

I'll be talking Wednesday afternoon on a conference call to a group of advocates committed to systemic change, meeting Wednesday evening with a community group eager to learn more about how our electoral process.

I'll be networking Thursday at a town hall meeting, joining other organizers in Harrisburg on Saturday to focus on areas of injustice in our state and look for ways to work together to keep the dream of justice alive.

On Friday? No, I won't be watching the inauguration, the swearing in, the smiles and cheers. I'll be spending the day in fasting and prayer. Lamenting this setback on the road to justice. 

And I'll be reading the prophets, as King did so often. 

Sinking my heart deeper into the dream God offers those who hear.

A dream of justice rolling down like water.

Dream that dream with me.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Epiphany: Power and Prayer

In the church calendar, Epiphany is the remembrance of the coming of the magi.
Massacre of the Innocents,
Bertram of Minden, Hamburg, c1400
The giving of strange gifts.

The slaughter of the innocents.

The star shining in the darkness drew inquirers from afar to confront the darkness of Herod’s ruthless power. While Joseph and Mary, warned by an angel, traveled on to Egypt, their sisters were left weeping for their tiny sons sacrificed to Herod's unhinged pride. 

Epiphany reminds us: there are times when the spiritual world leans in.

Times when the course of life is changed.

Times when invisible power is visibly on display.

For me, Epiphany happens most often in church, when I catch a glimpse of God's grace flowing through us. We don't bring it, we don't make it. Yet when we reach out our arms to embrace the weary or wounded, God's grace flows in us, through us, around us, in ways that can leave me fighting back tears, or so shaken I need to kneel in prayer until God steadies me.

But the spiritual world is not just grace and light and angels singing.

Epiphany reminds us. This intervention cuts two ways.

There are darker forces: principalities and powers. Systems of oppression with a spiritual reality so strong it can make your skin crawl.

I've felt it on street corners in Kensington, where I worked with kids whose parents were trapped by addiction and depression and generational anger.

But I've also felt it on the green manicured lawns of a hotel complex in State College. I went there to take part in an early frackingprotest. A natural gas conference was underway inside. I remember watching participants watch us through a hotel window, catching the eye of one of the leaders, a man I later learned was CEO of one of the most flagrant abusers of lax regulation. There was a look in his eyes of such unbridled power, such unfettered greed, such infinite disdain, I had to look away.

That look has haunted me.

What nexus of evil can take a human soul past normal moral restraint?

What whispered lies can convince a loosened conscience that power is all that matters?

What weapons do people of truth hold to ease the grip of systemic oppression, manipulative distortion, unrestrained grasping for privilege, power and gain?

That will be the question for 2017, played out on a global, national, local, personal level.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. 
I grew up in a household where I walked this struggle daily.

The day started with my grandfather's bellowed profanity as he rattled from locked room to locked room, a large, loud man, always angry, often drunk, a powerful force of darkness held hostage by darker forces more powerful than he.

And at the kitchen table, my much smaller grandmother: Bible open, pencil in hand, looking for wisdom and strength for the day ahead. Probing God's promises of provision.

C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia put the story into form I could understand even as a child: Edmund, held hostage by the icy snow queen Jado. Peter and Susan, trying to make sense of things with their own native strength and wisdom. Lucy (that was me) certain the only solution was to wait for Aslan, find Aslan, use whatever tools he gave as bravely and faithfully as a younger sister could.

I'm still Lucy, still watching the battles around me play out.

Still watching and wary when I see that look of power and pride that is certain evidence of alignment with evil.

Still willing and ready to confront the enemy with whatever unexpected tools I'm given.

Like Lucy, wandering through the wardrobe to an unexpected world of drama and intrigue, I've wandered through an open door into a political realm I was  not prepared for.

I've described some of that journey in earlier posts: my slow awakening to systemic injustice, my growing awareness of the need for political engagement.

For several years now I've been trying to sound an alarm: there's a dangerous struggle underway. We need to be on guard.

Like Lucy's dismissive siblings, friends and family have shrugged off my concerns: enjoy your hobby. We have better things to do.

But evil is leaning in around us: grave brokenness in our political structures.  Ridicule of women's voices. Loosening restraint on racist harassment. A gathering storm of wealth and power unmoved by human sorrow.

While children die in Syria, families huddle on makeshift boats in icy Mediterranean waters, strongmen boast of nuclear power, the lovely modernist myth of progress lies trampled in the mud.

We are not the first generations to face times of uncertainty, fear, rising hatred, unprincipled power.

Like generations before us, we have the same choices:

Pretend there's no need for concern.

Retreat and hope for a better day.

Watch in silence as history unfolds.

Or prepare for the challenge and learn to stand firm.

The apostle Paul, writing from prison in Rome to Christians facing danger and division, reminded the believers in Ephesus: 
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm.
 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.
 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.
 There's no way to know where this next year will take us.

We are in uncharted waters.

The largest discrepancy ever between popular vote and elected president.

Wealthiest cabinet ever, with less education, less government experience and less diversity than recent cabinets and unexplored ties to international corporations and white supremacist groups

A public alarmed, aware, on guard.
We all have a place in this next chapter of the story.

More than ever, we will need to arm ourselves with truth.

We will need to grow deeper in discernment, more able to recognize lies.

We will need to talk more honestly with our children, our grandchildren, about our everyday choices: kindness in the face of unkindness. Courage in the face of bullying. Resolute resistance to racist jokes, sexist comments, homophobic language.

More than ever, we will need to use what privilege we have to pry the door open for those closed out.

To be messengers of good news.

Agents of light and love.

Looking forward to the work of the year ahead, I wrap myself in prayer. 

We are not equal to the task, yet we've been told to pray on all occasions, for all requests, all needs, all troubles.

My own work on redistricting reform has led me down paths I would not have imagined. The challenges each day are beyond my experience or wisdom. Unexpected opportunities demand unexplored resources. 

The same is true for all of us. We wrestle with forces far beyond us: powers of this dark world, spiritual forces of evil.

Yet the power at work within us, through prayer, obedience and faith, is greater.

In that same letter to the Ephesians Paul wrote: 
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead. 
I pray that we live in that space this year: in the knowledge of hope, the riches of faith, the great power at work within us, far greater than any power of evil or death.

Please pray for me, as I will pray for you.

Gentile da Fabriano, Flight to Egypt, 1423, Strozzi Altarpiece

Earlier Epiphany posts: 
A Jungle Gym Epiphany, Jan 10, 2016
What I'd Give You, Jan 3, 2016
Epiphany and Filoxenia, Jan4, 2015
Balaam's Oracle, Magis' Star, Jan 5, 2014