Asking the wrong questions

Last week, a young woman was slashed in the throat in Queens. Apparently, she had offended her male attacker, by ignoring him when he tried to initiate a conversation.

“But why did she ignore him?” I am hoping you are not asking yourself. But I don’t know why I am bothering to hope that. We live in a nation where the burden of proof is on a woman when a man violently attacks her – she is guilty of her attack until proven innocent (which she couldn’t possibly be – otherwise he wouldn’t have attacked her.) In much the same way that any black man shot in by a white man in this country is guilty of his own death. We don’t blame *all* victims, just certain ones – just women who are victims of men, black men who are victims of white men, civilians who are victims of police officers… power confers immunity to blame, powerlessness confers moral suspicion.

But just in case the question is still bothering you, and just in case you didn’t know, women get to ignore men if they feel like it. Women are people, as much as any man, and have agency, and the right to choose who to speak to and when. Being alone is not the same as being available to and bound to recognize every man in the vicinity who exhibits an interest. Theoretically, anyway.

In practice, a woman is guilty from the moment she steps out the door. If she looks sexy, she is an offense; if she is not dressed for the male gaze, she is an offense. If she is young she is an offense, if she is old she is an offense. Her hair, the shape of her body, the color of her skin – no matter what it is, it is a provocation. And when a male speaks, from a seemingly innocuous, “Hello,” to a catcall of lewd appraisal, she has a choice – will she be guilty of responding, or guilty of not responding? Either can be dangerous. To speak can be viewed as having “encouraged” him, to not speak as “insulting” him (no matter how insulting his speech or gaze may have been.) Insult or encouragement: either is an invitation to sex, to violence, to both. And however the story ends, any injury to herself is only what she had coming to her.

But turning from our every woman to the particular child of God who was critically injured in Queens last week: why did she ignore him? Because she had the right to do so? Because she was afraid to respond – afraid to “encourage” him?

If she hadn’t ignored him, isn’t it possible, even likely that her attacker would have ended up cutting her anyway, that we would now be asking, “Why did she speak to him?” And even if not, do we want to be living in a world where we accept that ignoring a man is reason enough for him to land you in the hospital?

We have been asking the wrong questions for too long. Instead we should be asking, “Why did he think that her ignoring him entitled him to slash her with a blade?” We should wonder, “Why are so many men so emotionally fragile that even a perceived rejection from a woman he doesn’t even know is an invitation to violence?”

I was with my not yet 8 year old daughter when she received her first catcall, just a few weeks ago. A man drove by slowly, and called out, “Nice dress, sweetheart!” in a creepily appraising tone. She was confused, “Did we know him?” No. No we didn’t.

“Why did he call out to me then?” I thought quickly – I didn’t want to prejudice her against men. I’m sure parents of black children would prefer not to have to prejudice their children against police officers, either – but realistically, aren’t we obliged to have “the talk” with our children – to be honest with them about what people most endanger them? I sighed. I knew what I had to do.

“Some men think that they have the right to comment on the appearance or clothing of any girl or woman, whether they know each other or not.” I love the shocked look that comes on my daughter’s face when she encounters such rank injustice. “But! Mommy! That’s not right!” I smiled sadly, “No Bunny, it is not right. It is not right at all. That man needs to keep his opinions to himself. You wore that dress for yourself, not for him.”

Heaven help me. It was only the beginning of a long conversation about how her gender places her in our country and in the world – only the start of me saying to her, “Some men think that they have the right…”

Hat tip to Dr. Anthea Butler, who tweeted the link to this news story this morning.

A dishonor and a privilege

I was in the waiting room of an urgent care this morning when I saw him. He was adorable. Vacillating between heartmeltingly thoughtful and thoughtlessly distracted and studiously disobedient, like any four year old. He was running around carrying a cup of water, and his mom seemed torn between letting him have his independence and keeping him from spilling it on the floor, like any mom of a preschooler.

My heart ached as I watched him, because I knew that on some day in the next six to twelve years, he would cross a line created by my people, by white U.S. people – the line between adorable and menacing. He would be the same little boy, but other people – white people – would stop seeing a little boy and see a threat – they would fear him with the visceral fear of a people whose wealth was stolen generations ago from the people of that little boy – a violent theft of labor, life, and dignity. They would fear him because, deep down, they would know that if they were dealt the hand he was dealt, they would feel entirely justified in violently breaking out against their oppressors. And so they would come to expect that outbreak, to project it onto him, so that one day, when he reaches into his pocket for a stick of gum (just like any teenager), some fearful white person might just shoot him. Just in case.

I do not have to worry about the day when my white daughter will be shot by a police officer. And I confess that that is a relief to me. I have never been scared of more than a bump in my insurance rates when a police officer has pulled me over. Or, when I was younger, that the officer might call my Dad, and my Dad would be disappointed in me. I am white, and my husband is white, and my child is white. My sister and brother are white, and their spouses and children are white. I haven’t had to think about police violence, or vigilante violence, or Klan violence.

That’s a big part of what “privilege” means – it means not having to think about difficult things because of who you are. I have to think about being a woman – being a woman is a dangerous thing in this world – but I can choose whether to think about being white.

White friends, if you haven’t thought about it, think about it now. Think about what it means to be white. If you are parents of white children, think about that. Think about all of the things that you don’t have to think about. Like not having to worry about whether your child will grow up to be shot by a police officer, and have the whole police department mobilize to cover it up. Like not having to worry about whether some vigilante will confront and then shoot your unarmed kid, and then be acquitted because it was “self-defense.” Like not having to worry about how your child will carry on after you are killed by white folks who tied you to the back of a truck and dragged you down a road for sport. Like not having to worry about whether you will be choked by a police officer in front of your young child for using your grill on the sidewalk in front of your house. Or being killed because your wife, the mother of your son, does not have the same skin color as you do.

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked Jesus. Jesus told him a story that flipped the question – we are to BE neighbors – to choose to care for anyone who is being knocked down and beat up and having everything taken from them. To anyone who is being shot in the street.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus discouraged the lawyer from limiting the scope of what “neighbor” might mean. For all of us white folks, who are grateful for the privilege of not having to fear violence for ourselves and our families based on what we look like, loving our neighbor as ourselves means wanting that sense of security for everyone.

Mothers know that their children are adorable no matter how old they are. They are precious. I am praying for all of the mothers tonight, especially for the mothers of black children, who knew long before Mike Brown was shot how dangerous their children’s lives are – how fragile their existence is in this country that fears them furiously and violently. Lord, may it not ever be so. May these mothers one night sleep a peaceful night’s sleep, because their children are finally free to walk in the world as safely as my own white child. Amen.

War Stories

Some years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, my husband and I bought a commemorative DVD box set of all the School House Rock videos, plus various other related special features.  My daughter discovered the DVDs a couple of months ago, and it has become her favorite thing to watch on TV.  “America Rock” – the series of School House Rock episodes prepared in 1976 to celebrate the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, has had the effect of making her a very patriotic little girl, planting lots of American flags in the front yard.  (This in turn has made me nostalgic for my own uncomplicated childhood patriotism – and if you are going to get excited about the U.S., the preamble to the Constitution and women winning the right to vote seem like some good things to hang that pride on.)

But unlike the videos introducing children to multiplication and grammar, these videos do gloss over a lot – and glamorize some things that are too complicated to celebrate without reservation.  Like the settling of the American West, or the Revolutionary War.  It is the question of War that has grabbed my daughter’s attention, and what began as one question: “What was the Revolution, Mommy?” has turned into a weeks long barrage of “Tell me about another war…. OK, tell me more about war?… And why did they do that, Mommy?”

As someone who began considering non-violence by the age of eight, and who was firmly committed to it before graduating from college, these conversations have been difficult.  My daughter is really too young to grasp that adults do a lot of things that don’t make very much sense – she still believes that adults are predictable and rational beings, unless we are being silly on purpose, or are too tired to think clearly.  (As a young child, she has witnessed some very sleep-deprived behavior from her parents!)  People are 100% nice or 100% mean, although she hasn’t met any mean people, so there must not be very many in the world.  It will be years before she can grasp that everyone is a mixture of nice and mean, reasonable and unreasonable – and that that mixture is what we mean in the church when we talk about “original sin” – no matter how good we try to be, there is no avoiding that we fail to do the right thing (or even persist in doing what we know to be wrong) in some measure – or, as Paul puts it:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (Romans 7:15, NRSV)

This does not keep her from trying to figure it out.  And in the process, she has learned an awful lot of American – and world – history.  I remember reading somewhere that age 6 is the “age of expertise” – when a child begins to specialize in some obsessive area of knowledge, and come to know more about that subject than many adults.  If military history is going to be that obsession, she is already well on her way.  She has delved into the Revolution – the whos (General Washington, King George, the “minute men,” the “red coats,” the French, the Spanish, the Hessians), the whys (taxation without representation, colonialism, parliamentary politics, war financing), the connected whens (after the Seven Years’ War, before the War of 1812, or, as Hannah puts it, “The one when the British came back and tried again.”), the wheres (Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Yorktown)… and has been puzzling over complex questions such as does being “right” justify taking up arms?  Would Constitutional Democracy have been possible in the U.S. without watering the tree of liberty with blood (as Thomas Jefferson put it – a revolutionary who notably did not fight in the American Revolution himself?)

As we have worked our way through other conflicts (the Civil War, the Indian Wars of the American West, WWI, Vietnam, and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), she has been drawing connections, and struggling with why war happens at all if (as she suggested) it is “always a bad idea to kill people.” (Or, as her friend Nathan added in the backseat, after listening in on one of these extended conversations, “God is sad when we kill each other, and there is lots of killing in wars.”)

She has also been trying to work out how soldiers – usually basically decent young people – could devote themselves to such a “bad idea.”

Just as genocide is a concept that is so beyond a 5 year old that I am keeping it from her at the moment (hence she has no knowledge at the moment of WWII, for instance — though I am unavoidably laying the groundwork, given her interest in Native Americans), so too is the idea of loyalty to the point of violence on behalf of another.  Because so often, “joining up” is not done out of any interest in geo-politics or flexing colonial muscle – but “patriotism” – loyalty to country.  “My country right or wrong.”  As if the generals and admirals and legislators and kings and presidents were the buddy we went to elementary school with.  And that is how good people can give in to a good idea – loyalty is archetypically good, but what about loyalty to entities embodying bad ideas?
She isn’t ready for that idea because she is unfamiliar with adolescent boys and the roots of the barroom brawl, and until she gets a window into that… well, the whole idea of joining the military is likely to be beyond her.  And she is probably going to say some unkind things in her incomprehension.  Just like we all do.  Speak, learn, repent.  Repeat.

I am trying to give her an idea of loyalty on a more global scale (treaties!), and the trouble it can lead to, through our discussions of WWI.  When too many people had promised to stick up for somebody or another if they got involved in a fight, and then they did, and honor demanded that they roll up their shirt sleeves and jump in, escalating a 2 man fight into a full on cue-stick snapping, bottle breaking, chair throwing free for all.

In the meantime, the far more dominant answer to the “why” question – the answer we keep coming back to – is fear – fear and his sister, desire.  These are ideas that a 5 year old can easily understand:  wanting something someone else has, fearing that what she has will be taken from her, or destroyed.  She understands that sometimes she misbehaves out of fear or desire, but she still is puzzled about the killing part.  Why do some grownups reach the point of killing?  We kill because someone has something (oil, land, etc) that we want, or because we think someone wants to take or destroy what we have (our safety, our land, our freedom.)

It has been a difficult few months, working with my little girl through her obsessive concern with state-sanctioned killing and the machines of killing – bayonets and cannons, guns and bombs, planes and helicopters and submarines, land mines and hand grenades… Not long ago, I interrupted her in the midst of her “tell me the story of another war” litany to ask, “It makes me sad to talk about war, Hannah.  Why do you want to know so much about war?”

“I’m just trying to figure it out, Mommy.  I don’t understand about war yet, and so I need to keep asking you more questions.  Can you tell me the story of another war, Mommy?”

And so I took a deep breath, and began, “Did you know that the story of Channukah is a war story?  It is about a miracle that happened during a war a long long time ago, before Jesus was born…”

Dear God, I pray she never thinks she has this figured out.  I pray she can always say, “I don’t understand about war yet…”  Even if it means I must keep on having these conversations in the years and decades to come.  In pain I bring her forth, my beloved child.