blame

An Inheritance of Scars

“WHAT YOU do to children matters. And they may never forget.”

This thread runs aggressively through Toni Morrison’s most recent novel, God Help the Child. The speaker is Sweetness, a woman who shares her family’s wounds from trying to pass for white, or “high-yellow,” for generations. Of trying to blend in well enough to drink at fountains, to try on hats in stores, to use the same Bible as whites during ceremonies. When her child and the novel’s focus, Bride, is born black, “midnight black, Sudanese black ... blue-black,” all the advancement Sweetness and her ancestors strove for dies. She loses her husband (who assumes she has been unfaithful), her social standing as a light-skinned woman, and any love for her child. “Her color is a cross she will always carry,” Sweetness says. “But it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not.”

Bride grows up without the love of a mother’s touch and scorned for being so oddly dark, until she learns to use her color to make herself exotic and marketable. What may seem to be a character living into her identity as a black woman is really a façade in order to regain what was lost because of her skin. Of course, what Bride sees as progress is actually proof that she too has fallen into Sweetness’ obsession with what Morrison described in a recent NPR interview as “skin privilege—the ranking of color in terms of its closeness to white people or white-skinned people and its devaluation according to how dark one is and the impact that has on people who are dedicated to the privileges of certain levels of skin color.” But while race and color as social constructs are themes in the book, they are not explored as deeply or given as much emphasis as childhood trauma.

As in some of Morrison’s other novels, magical realism conveys the battle between the past and the present, the spiritual and the physical, playing a poignant, visceral part in Bride’s journey. Bride goes through a literal metamorphosis, assuming it is penance for gruesome choices she made as a child to feel alive and as an adult to feel powerful. She is numbed to what true progress and success are, constantly trying to put a fragmented identity together until she can no longer get up and must face her trauma and changing body.

The only people in the novel who allow themselves to truly heal are a child named Rain and an ex-convict named Sofia. They speak to the power of self-forgiveness. Too often we carry the shame and hate handed to us by other people’s evil, whether from childhood trauma and abuse or complacency and apathy as adults. While we can and must be held accountable for our own mistakes, we must also be willing to take off the shroud of self-loathing and guilt, and move forward past trauma into self-acceptance and healing. Both Rain and Sofia, young and old, can see the power of blame and regret and refuse to walk that path, while Bride, her lover Booker, and her mother Sweetness will arguably always drag the sins of their forebears behind them.

“What you do to children matters. And they may never forget.”

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Pulling Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps...

WITH THE NEXT election still almost 18 months away, you’d think the media would focus on more important topics in the meantime, such as where Kim Kardashian is spending her next vacation.

But you’d be wrong. It’s officially time for the press to ignore more newsworthy subjects in favor of endless coverage of the election “horse race,” but without the legendary good sense horses bring to such occasions.

ISIS on the move, taking the Middle East back to the 7th century? Forget that. Let’s talk about Jeb Bush’s 2016 run, although the hook could be how ISIS reminds people of the disastrous policies of the last Bush in the White House. Or was it the one before that? I can’t remember. (In hindsight, the Bush parents should have named alltheir sons George, so presidential ballots could be printed in bulk, enough for several elections.)

Interestingly, the latest news about ISIS is that its recruits from the West are having second thoughts about the medieval living conditions so praised by the jihadists. After all, in the 7th century there were no antibiotics, no running water, and only basic cable. But you won’t find the press covering that because “Sarah Palin may be running again!”

Although, to be fair, there is a foreign policy connection, since she has publicly stated “God bless our troops, especially our snipers.” (Such a wonderful ambassador for our nation. Definitely U.N. material.)

Climate change threatening our coastlines? Boring. Cable news thinks Mike Huckabee’s White House prospects are, frankly, a lot more interesting. His new book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, is an alliterative attempt to keep his name before the public. Either that, or he was reading from a Cracker Barrel menu. Regardless, he hopes book sales will be better than his last effort, When Monkeys Fly: My Timeline to the Presidency.

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A Newsfeed of Fear

I GREW UP terrified, my childhood catechized by the violence in Northern Ireland, each week a litany of murder. I grew used to the idea that killing was the story of our lives. This, of course, was not true—there was also beauty and friendship all around us, all the time, not to mention eventually a peace process that has delivered extraordinary cooperation between former sworn enemies.

But the way we learned to tell the story—from political and cultural leaders, religion, and the media—emphasized the darkness. It’s been a long and still ongoing journey for me to discern how to honor real suffering while overcoming the lie that things are getting worse.

Today, many of us are living with a fear that seems hard to shake. Horrifying, brutal videos, edited for maximum sinister impact, showing up in our newsfeeds are only the most recent example of how terror seems to blend into our everyday lives.

But things are not as bad as we think. What social scientists call the “availability heuristic” helps explain why we humans find it difficult to accurately predict probability. In short, we guess the likelihood of something happening based on how easily we can recall examples of something similar having happened before. Because of this, folk who get a lot of “information” from mainstream media may tend to overestimate the murder rate: Most of us have seen vastly more killing on TV than would ever compute to an accurate estimate of real-world rates of killing.

Globalization and cyberspace bring more images and stories than our brains can handle, blending them with our lives to the extent that we consciously have to work to create boundaries between our screens and our psyches. One consequence is that people are skeptical when told that violence has been declining over time, and we are living in what is probably the most peaceful era human beings have ever known. But it’s true.

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Yearning to Breathe Free

“I DON’T BLAME the Border Patrol. I blame our country,” Sister Norma Pimentel told Rep. Jim McGovern on a hot afternoon in McAllen, Texas, last August.

“It’s like a burning building,” explained Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, “and we’re sending them back into it.”

Pimentel was describing the U.S. policy of deporting Central American refugees back to their home countries, while Rep. McGovern (D-Mass.) nodded in agreement. He had just visited the Border Patrol central processing facility, and Pimentel was leading him on a tour of the humanitarian respite center at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

The difference was striking: At the processing facility, children were detained in what McGovern described as “cages”; at the respite center, Catholic Charities staff and volunteers provided food, showers, clothing, medical exams, and an air-conditioned place for refugees to wait for a bus ride to meet family members living in the U.S.

Because of large influx of refugees last summer, initially those who could verify that they had relatives already living in the U.S. were processed by Border Patrol and released with papers allowing them to travel by bus to reunite with family, where they would await an immigration hearing—and possible deportation. But after being dropped off at the McAllen bus station by the Border Patrol, many waited for hours for their bus to arrive—often with nothing but the clothes on their back and papers in hand.

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Blaming the Victim

WHEN I WAS 15, my church youth group was not a safe place. Like most youth groups, there were college-age volunteers who served as counselors and Bible study leaders.

One counselor, Paul, took it upon himself to constantly tell me I wore too much makeup, my clothes were too tight, and that I was a flirt. These actions took place in public for six months while other counselors and students watched and laughed. The interactions came to a head when he commented on my lipstick color and I snapped back at him. He grabbed me, forced me onto his lap, and told me I liked it.

At the time, I just thought Paul was creepy; I now recognize his behavior was sexual harassment. I also recognize that the other members of my youth group, including the leaders, saw his behavior and failed to intervene. Why did this happen? Both Paul’s behavior and the leaders’ silence belong to a larger set of attitudes in our culture—and churches—that allows sexual violence and sexual harassment to become normal, even expected, behaviors.

This set of attitudes is known as “rape culture.” When we fail to confront these toxic attitudes in our churches, we undermine our love for our neighbors, ignore the Bible, and misrepresent God as misogynistic.

The language of “rape culture” emerged in the 1970s as a way for feminists and sociologists to consider why acts of sexual assault were common within U.S. society; since then, it has become an increasingly important phrase for many people working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. While some have raised concerns about the language—fearing that it risks blaming culture instead of the perpetrator—using a phrase such as “rape culture” can help us recognize the broader cultural context surrounding individual acts.

To understand experiences like mine, we must first recognize that rape culture is not just about rape itself, but our reaction to all forms of sexual harassment. This includes:

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Moral Free-Riders

IMMANUEL KANT has been on my mind as I’ve followed the national response to recent measles outbreaks. Kant, a German philosopher, emphasized the danger of a temptation we are all vulnerable to—the temptation to make special exceptions for ourselves. The person who acts against principles that she thinks others ought to follow becomes a kind of moral “free-rider,” attempting to benefit from public moral order without contributing to it.

The spread of disease among the intentionally unvaccinated highlights the free-rider problem faced by parents who seek exemption from vaccination.

Some people believe that leaving their children unvaccinated (or under-vaccinated) minimizes their children’s health risks. If everyone around them has been vaccinated, their risk of infection is indeed low. But when too many people decide to forego vaccination, “herd immunity” is lost and disease outbreaks occur.

In a public without herd immunity, the risks posed by disease far exceed the small risks associated with vaccination. In other words, free-riding does not work when everyone is doing it. Herd immunity does not require universal vaccination, but it does require vaccination of a sufficient majority.

Who should get to be in the minority that remains unvaccinated and yet retains protection from disease? This is who: Babies who are too young to be vaccinated, our elders who cannot mount a robust immune response to some types of vaccines, and cancer patients and people with compromised immune systems all clearly have a claim to be shielded by their neighbors’ immunity. The decision to ask for an exemption for one’s own healthy child is a morally risky decision, one that requires an honest examination of conscience.

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On Chastity and Revictimization

City of God / Photo via The Folio Society

Augustine’s principle of avoiding revictimization and providing care can be applied to those who are sexually exploited. As my colleague Lani Prunés points out, the federal government and most states have Safe Harbor Laws which treat trafficked minors as victims rather than criminals.

These victims didn’t violate their own chastity and, therfore, are not guilty. But an unfortunate number of states don’t provide trafficking victims immunity from prosecution or adequately fund reintegration services. In so doing, we continue to maintain the shame-based morality of Greco-Roman culture in which the victim of exploitation is responsible for the sin and crime of human trafficking.

Legal protections are essential to aid reintegration, but moral protections are also necessary to support trafficking survivors. By funding recovery programs, we can learn from Augustine the value of not blaming the victim. Victims should be given the help they need to reintegrate into society (as organizations such as FAIR girlsCourtney’s House, or End Trafficking are doing), rather than leaving them vulnerable to returning to a dangerous and degrading form of life.

If we allow people to be shamed or forced into crime through a lack of viable alternatives, we are morally culpable like the Greco-Roman society which taught women that their life was only worth as much as their physical purity.

REPORT: Bob Jones University Failed to Support Sexual Abuse Victims for 40 Years

Rolling Stone is not the only one throwing sexual abuse victims under the bus these days. An alarming report released today reveals that Bob Jones University, a historically fundamentalist Christian college, failed to support nearly 40 victims of sexual abuse over four decades.

In January 2013, Bob Jones University hired GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to conduct an independent investigation of the college’s response to sexual abuse allegations.

The report states that BJU officials were not adequately prepared or trained to counsel victims appropriately, often treating victims as blameworthy for their abuse or sexual assault experienced during childhood or adulthood.

In a video statement recorded yesterday, BJU President Steve Pettit issued an apology to students and faculty:

On behalf of Bob Jones University, I would like to sincerely and humbly apologize to those who felt they did not receive from us genuine love, compassion, understanding, and support after suffering sexual abuse or assault. We did not live up to their expectations. We failed to uphold and honor our own core values. We are deeply saddened to hear that we added to their pain and suffering.

'Daddy, why are those people sleeping in the park?'

MY 5-YEAR-OLD daughter, Zoe, is in preschool. This means, as most parents of school-age children know, that there is a birthday party to attend approximately every other weekend of the year.

On the way to one of these myriad celebrations, we stopped by the church in downtown Portland, Ore., where my wife, Amy, is the senior pastor. She had a daylong meeting, and we needed to switch cars, as hers was the one with the gift in it.

As we came down the front steps of the church and onto the South Park Blocks, a local city park, we saw at least half a dozen emergency vehicles parked in a haphazard formation along the street and on the sidewalk in front of a small public restroom. Several officers were standing together, making calls on their radios and discussing the situation at hand. At their feet was what appeared to be a lifeless body, lying on the pavement underneath a blue tarp.

“Daddy,” Zoe said, “what are those police mans doing in the park?”

“I’m not sure, honey,” I said, “but it looks like somebody needed their help.”

“Is somebody in trouble?”

“Something like that,” I sighed. “Make sure you don’t drag that gift bag on the ground. We don’t want to mess up your friend’s present before we get to the party.”

My first thought was, God, please don’t let it be Michael. Michael is a man about my age who lives outside and wrestles daily with an addiction to alcohol, among several other things. We have helped him get sober, only to see him relapse. We helped him get into supportive housing, only to watch him get into a fight and get thrown back out onto the street.

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On Accountability: The Buck Never Stops

healthcare.gov

healthcare.gov

It was a strange, but telling, spectacle when those who billed the government millions for working on its Affordable Health Care registration system denied any accountability for the portal’s astounding failure.

“The other guy did it,” as they say in court. The client kept changing specs, no one did any whole-system testing, other vendors are to blame — blah, blah, blah.

Whatever shred of truth lay in their blame-shifting ran up against another wall of non-accountability. The Republicans did it with their insane sequestration, said Democrats. The Democrats did it, said the GOP. Health and Human Services did it. The Oval Office did it.

In the end, of course, no one will accept accountability, for we live in an age when the “buck” never stops on one’s own desk, if it stops at all.

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