Well, it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and though that proverbial arc bends towards justice, it still has a ways to go.
That is, more or less, what I told my six-year-old this morning as he was getting ready for the day. How to explain that today we celebrate a hero of resistance and reconciliation, but that there is still so much to resist, so much yet unreconciled? That is the tension we live in, isn’t it: an in-between space of celebration and lament. Too much celebration and you’re living in a delusion; too much lament and you lose sight of hope. The Church, the people of Christ, has a long way to go in fully inhabiting this tension. We want shalom, and we want it now. Too many of us want to believe we are living in a post-problem world. It’s a convenient narrative, to be sure.
My children are mixed; my husband is white, and I’m Asian-American. No pun intended, but it comes with a heritage that is a mixed bag. There are some problems in this world our family can choose to ignore; there are others, however, particular to mixed families. No one yet has asked why mommy’s skin is brown, and daddy’s is fair; no one, yet, has declared that we don’t “match,” as I’ve heard declared about other interracial couples. At this stage of the game, my kids accept their reality. Talk of race is not something to ignore, or something about which to be ashamed; at the same time, we are matter-of-fact about matters of power and discrimination. Days like MLK Jr. Day are a convenient entry point into these conversations, but they can’t be the only entry point. The story of racism and ongoing complicity of privilege is not just for the history books, it is current events: it is the air we breathe. And we all want to raise just, upright, law-abiding citizens: some of us, I dare say, want to raise fighters, resisters, revolutionaries. People who do not normalize hate but who fight for the good. Lord knows we need it in these times.
How to do this? I’m learning, for sure. The other day I sat in a lecture where the speaker drew a favorite analogy of Christian speakers everywhere. It’s about counterfeit money. It goes something like this: People who are learning how to detect counterfeit bills don’t spend a lot of time learning about what fake money looks like. Instead, they spend their time studying real money. That way, when a counterfeit comes along, they will know in their gut it doesn’t add up. They’ll have been so familiar with the real deal that they can spot a counterfeit easily.
It struck me at that moment that raising children is the same way. How do we keep them on the straight and narrow?, we ask. How do we make sure we are raising adults with integrity, compassion, and courage? From the time they are in utero, it seems, we wring our hands over the choices they have yet to make on the school bus, on the playground, at the frat party. And beyond.
It makes my head spin to worry about these yawning futures. Intuitively, we know that they work we do today, day in, day out, somehow informs those choices they will make down the road. And whether we realize it or not, the way we are living our lives in front of them today is teaching them: this is real. The way we parent, the way we do marriage, the way we show masculinity (toxic and fragile or secure and self-giving?), the way we show femininity (passive and manipulative or courageous and gracious?): this is real. The values with which we surround them help inform their vision of the good life, whether it be security, success, material wealth, pleasure, justice, inclusion, faith.
It goes deeper than that. The communities that we choose to have them in shape their idea of who gets to be included, and, more tellingly, who gets excluded. The authorities they know in their lives tell them who gets to have power: Is it men? Are there women? What is the color of their skin? The accent with which they speak – northeastern American, or are other voices important to be heard? Other languages?
One of the many reasons I love my church is that it is really good at having different voices up front. The pastor has the leading voice, of course, but those who pray, who give testimonies, who invite the congregation into mission and service, and yes, those who preach: they are men, and they are women. They are white, and they are black and Asian and Latino. It is not perfect; no church is. But for Easton, CT, that’s a pretty diverse roundtable. It goes further than checking off the race box, even the gender box: it’s about authority, and it’s about power, and who gets to share in it. Power, I argue, is the real issue of our day.
My aforementioned oldest, the six year old, loves power. Of course he does; he is a little boy. He loves superheroes and policemen and ninjas. For a while there, much of his dinner table conversation revolved around a TV show about Lego ninjas. For a while there, it was fine. Kind of boring, but fine.
Most boys will want ninjas and Batman and Optimus Prime in their lives: that’s inevitable, and a harmless part of being a kid in our culture. These figures send messages about heroism that are generally benign; I have even been known to quote Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” But we ought not stop there. The stories we give our children, even in childhood, shape their sense of the good life and how to participate in it. So why not populate their imaginations with real life heroes who resisted evil and shared their power and fought on the side of justice? These are the stories that will shape their vision of what is real: what is good, and what is worth fighting for. And, with that, what it looks like when people miss the mark, and how to respond to it.
One book we’ve gotten as a hand-me-down, the Children’s Book of Heroes, is a beautiful look at heroes through time: historical ones, like Abraham Lincoln., Mother Teresa, Annie Sullivan, and Jackie Robinson, as well as fictional ones, like Odysseus, a knight named Sir Roland, and a little black girl named Tashira.
And then there are the Magic Treehouse books, for which Sam has fallen hard, and he’s gotten his three-and-a-half year old sister obsessed, too. These books about a time-traveling brother and sister pair are so good that they’ve basically come to form the backbone of the Language Arts, Social Studies and Science aspects of our homeschool. Through the Magic Treehouse series, Sam has learned about figures like Squanto, George Washington, and Clara Barton; he’s introduced to a staggeringly broad swath of history from the Ice Age to Pompeii to the Civil War and beyond.
As with anything, there is much to critique about the Magic Treehouse, but the books have provided a handy starting point in our conversations. Just this morning, I asked Sam, in not so many words, why he thought racism was a problem during the time of the Civil War. “Because… they liked having slaves,” he replied slowly, the wheels visibly turning. And yes, doesn’t power like to maintain itself? It’s a conversation that is ongoing, but we’ve started it. Because institutionalized racism and the maintenance of power are not one-off conversations to be had on the third Monday in January. In fact, to reserve the conversation for times like these are to distort our children’s understanding of the nature of racism itself, of the insidiously corrupting nature of power itself. It’s the air we breathe. And to ignore these issues is like living in a smog-filled room your whole life, without ever knowing how fresh the air could be outside. Or pulling others out into the fresh air with you.
In these early years, raising the resistance is a delicate matter. We ride that tension of despair and hope, celebration and lament; they are so small that feeding them too steady a diet of either is unhealthy. But that’s exactly why we train them up in the way they should go: we point them in the right direction, we populate their lives and their imaginations with heroes who don’t ignore nor buckle under evil, but overcome it. And we parse out our wisdom in doses, as they are ready, as they mature; we talk honestly about the issues of our times, the way power is abused, the way groups are marginalized. We equip them with stories and with strategies. We teach them to pray. We feed them the Word that reminds them to welcome the stranger, to love your enemy, to pray for those who persecute you, to lay down your life for others as Christ did for you. To rely on the Holy Spirit in all of these things.
We want them to have such a rich, steadfast vision of the Good that they are so accustomed to it, that they are satisfied only under those conditions, that they simply cannot stand the bad, that they must work to change it. That in places of power they look around and notice there are people missing, and invite them in. That under oppression they resist, and persuade others to do the same. That they, like Christ, will do this under great cost to themselves.
When it is tempting to fall into despair over the state of things, we remember Fred Roger’s exhortation to “Look for the helpers.” With due respect to Mr. Rogers, I want to add to that: “Be the helpers. And raise them up.” In a world that is hurt and hurting, fight for the shalom. If we raise them right, they will, too.