This week’s soundtrack

So I’m in the midst of preparing a lecture for Thursday, for Dr. Amy Laura Hall’s Intro to Christian Ethics class.  I’ll be drawing together themes from the books Home and Jesus Land. (Pray for me, folks.  Seriously.)

This is my internal soundtrack for the lecture so far – songs in no particular order – if anyone has other suggestions about songs that would prove to be helpful companions while thinking through these books, let me know.

 

Tori Amos “These Precious Things” and “Crucify”

Tracy Chapman “Change”

Billie Holliday “Strange Fruit”

The Impressions “People Get Ready”

Dar Williams “Mercy of the Fallen” and “Iowa”

Indigo Girls “Galileo”

M. Ward “To Save Me”

Counting Crows “Round Here”

Cake “Sheep Go to Heaven”

Fleetwood Mac “Landslide”

 

Jesus Land, again

Since having read Jesus Land and posted about it – twice – there have been a couple of interesting developments.  The professor who asked me to read and comment on the book, Dr. Amy Laura Hall, forwarded on my entries to two other professors that I also have great respect for – Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter.  And I read Dr. Carter’s own blog entry on the subject.  And my family’s adoption profile went live at the agency we have been working with.

The last development might not seem particularly relevant, unless you have read the book – which is, in addition to all of the other things I wrote about, a story about cross-racial adoption.

Oh, did I neglect to mention race in my first two entries?  Yep, I did.

Puzzling out that one – why I had focused on the fundamentalism thread, and not even touched on the race thread – had been troubling me ever since reading Carter’s own insightful essay on the book.  Of course, there is lots that I didn’t comment on in the book, and that I still won’t touch on in this third post – I would have to write eight or ten or more entries! – but race was such a big part of the book that failing to mention it is almost like writing a review of Huck Finn and not mentioning that Jim was a runaway slave.  Scheeres, in writing the book, was carrying on a project of her brother David’s – which was explicitly an account of growing up black in a family of white fundamentalists.

As I drew nearer to the time when birthfamilies might be contacting me and my husband to discern if we were a good match, it became more clear to me what was going on.  I couldn’t talk about it because it was hitting too close to home.  Reading about a family that singled out their adopted children – their adopted children of another race – for stricter punishment – for physical abuse – was horrifying to me.  About a month after having discussed with the social worker how offensive we had found the very question of whether we could love an adopted child as much as our biological child, here I was reading about parents that could feel self-righteous, even downright martyrly – for having adopted an African American child, even as they beat that child, then washed their hands of him when he ended up in reform school.  Some of the saddest parts of the book for me were when the teenaged David looked forward eagerly to reuniting with his parents, as his sister hid from him their parents’ ugly feelings – they didn’t consider him part of the family any more.  How could they?! Adoption is forever!  You don’t tell a child you are their mother and then take it back!  It made me ill.

Julia later remembered that her parents had desired to adopt a particular white child – and when she was not available but a young African American boy was, they took him because of Christian guilt – they would be bad Christians to say no.  What of myself and my husband?  Were we open to children of other races only because we felt there was only one right answer – only one Christian thing to do?  Were we worried about how Christian (or not) we would appear to our friends if we showed up at church with a white baby?  Were we using the life of a flesh and blood child to make a point about ourselves to the world around?

But when I thought back on the many late night conversations with my husband, I was reassured – there was one right answer for us because of our upbringing in desegregated schools, and because of our personal convictions, our own ideas about humanity and God’s grace and the cultural construction of race, about giving space for any child we have – biological or adopted – to be different from ourselves (and are! and they will be!), and about love driving us to learn about whatever we need to learn about to care for the child God gives us.

I am not blind to the realities of the world around us.  Okay, I am.  Yes, I am.  But my husband and I believe that that which we do not ourselves experience still exists – in this case different treatment for people who look differently from ourselves.  And we will do our best to prepare our next child to face the world that will not embrace them as we ourselves embrace them.  We are doing the same already for our white daughter – the world has myriad nefarious ways for undermining a person’s belief in God’s love for them – they may not be old enough or young enough or pretty enough or the right gender or stoic enough or expressive enough or smart enough – or have the right color skin, the right texture of hair, the right shaped eyes.  And all of these things have very real consequences.  We must raise children who can exist in the world – but at the same time own that they are not of it.

So no matter who the baby ends up looking like (looking at the statistics at our agency, even with our openness to adopting a child of any heritage, we have about a 50% chance of ending up with a child whose birthparents both self-identify as white) we will definitely be reading the Bible, going to church, and… watching Dinosaur Train.  “…we’re all creatures!  All dinosaurs have different features!”

By their fruits you shall know them

When I was a seminary student, Dr. David Steinmetz shed light on the practice of executing heretics. If you really believe in hell, he said, and if you believe that people who believe incorrectly will go there, then if someone is leading people astray, then aren’t you justified in ending that person’s earthly life, in order to save countless people’s eternal lives? If the wages of sin are (eternal) death, then the stakes are high, and the use of battle language in a more than metaphorical way is justified.

This perspective unsettled a number of my peers. They believed in hell, and yet were convinced that Lutherans executing Mennonites, or Presbyterians executing Quakers, etc etc, was unconscionable. Were there certain doctrines that they were not taking seriously enough? Maybe there were certain doctrines that were once taken too seriously. But how far could you take it? If a very convincing atheist were turning erstwhile Christians against the church and God, would they kill them? No, not even the atheist, even though they felt such beliefs led straight to hell. But Steinmetz had them wondering, at least for a few days, if they weren’t perhaps being inconsistent. A straight line could be drawn between certain beliefs – beliefs my classmates held – and certain actions – actions they were sure were not “What Jesus Would Do.”

Dr. J. Kameron Carter has argued persuasively that we ought to be suspicious of a theology that allows – or perhaps even requires, if practiced consistently – actions that are clearly repugnant and counter to the message of the Gospel. His particular concern is racism/slavery/genocide as practiced by devout individuals with the blessing of the church, beginning in the late middle ages, but he can find plenty of other examples of problematic theology being revealed in problematic practice. If pressed to encapsulate his theological project in a single verse of scripture, I would make the case for Matthew 7:16 – “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Full passage here, with parallels here and here.)

I thought about Dr. Carter a lot as I read the second half of Jesus Land. (See my review of Part One of that book here.)  Escuela Caribe is a sufficient critique of a certain brand of evangelicalism. It cannot be written off as the nightmare of a single crazy individual, as they seemed to have no problem finding “Christian” staff to keep the place going. The abuse and dehumanization was seemingly endless. The staff did all they could to “break down” the miscreant students, and to discourage community. Instead, they cultivated an atmosphere of dishonesty and mistrust — a competitive, rather than cooperative system. They justified all of this because they were, in their minds, saving the souls of the teenagers who were sent to them. But instead, they were turning them from Christ, and damaging their ability to form healthy relationships with other people.

Julia Scheeres was not in the business of writing a theological critique of her time at this school in the Dominican Republic. However, I found myself asking, What was wrong with the theology of those who founded and ran the school that allowed them to treat these teenagers so abysmally? Was it their emphasis on individual salvation – on Christianity as an individual decision for Christ rather than a community practice? Or was it a failure in their understanding of love – that loving entails knowing another, understanding another – and that means first listening to and attending to the other? Did they view forgiveness as conditional on our repentance, as opposed to something that is freely available to all? Perhaps all of these things and more.

Scheeres writes in the epilogue of a return visit she made to the school:
“‘What’s the most important lesson you learned at Escuela Caribe?’ one of [the staff] asked me with a smug smile.
“‘Not to trust people,’ I answered without hesitation.”

What’s the most important lesson that others will learn from us?

While there are many who bemoan that Christians are still so divided (and I have been known to be among them), the seemingly small details that divide us are not always indifferent matters. There are some beliefs that make all the difference in the fruit that we bear – the witness that we bear in the world.