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Bless All the Dear Children

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on February 17, 2013


At the Christmas carol and candlelight service our family goes to each year, I had a hard time singing “Away in a Manger.” The very mention of children, the image of a baby in a manger, reminded me of Newtown. The third verse of the song was where I had to stop singing:

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Bless all the dear children in Newtown, in Aurora, in Oak Creek — in the far too many places where mass shootings have taken place. Bless all the dear childrenwho die on street corners in Chicago or LA from the everyday gun violence that is all too common. Bless all the dear children who have lost their lives, or become orphans, or who have experienced trauma in the wake of gunfire.

For Christians who sing “Away in a Manger,” we are reminded of a central truth of the Christian faith: God came to live among us, taking on human form. He was born to poor parents of little means. Before anyone called him Christ, he was a vulnerable child lying in a manger. While we celebrate this miracle with carols and candles, we must also pause to ask a sobering question. If Jesus were born today, would he even have the chance to grow up? If Jesus were born in Chicago or Newtown, would he become a victim of gun violence before his seventh birthday?

I started caring about guns the day I accidentally tried to break up a gunfight in the side yard beside my three-flat. I didn’t know I was breaking up a gunfight. I was only planning on yelling at my teenage neighbors who were making too much noise. But then one kid pulled a gun on another kid and I ran back inside my apartment. This is when I learned I shared a building with three gang members and their guns. A week later I remember looking out my window and seeing my 14-year old neighbor holding a Glock behind his back as he watched the kids from the high school across the street leave the building. Bless all the dear children — even the children who think they need to carry guns.

Like many people, I started caring about guns when gun violence came too close to home. This week for our nation, gun violence has come too close to home.

Today, my family still lives in Chicago, just a few miles away from that three-flat where my gun-toting teenage neighbors and I lived. But today I see things a bit differently. Having a kid of my own is teaching me the urgency of now. I know I must be part of creating a world that’s safe for her to grow up in — something Reinhold Niebuhr might have called an “impossible possibility.” In the same week of the Newtown tragedy, federal appeals court judges in my own state struck down the last remaining statewide concealed carry ban in the country. And these judges were sitting on a bench in a city where gun violence claims more than 400 lives each year.

I often tell my students that finding solutions to complex situations of injustice requires creativity and imagination. We can’t point our finger in one direction and refuse to see the complexity of the problem at hand. As we reflect on the multiple causes of the Newtown tragedy and other mass shootings, I hope we take time to listen to the stories of the survivors, for these stories will help us think creatively about just policy. Because the burdens of gun violence are being borne by victims and their families, their stories must be privileged as we move forward. Their words and stories must be raised over the voices of the gun lobby or even over legal precedent.

Its time for a new conversation, one that refuses to debate only the legal permissibility of guns but one that imagines what shape just policy might take in response to an increasing climate of violence and aggression. What is legal is not always what is moral. We might start by remembering that most guns were created as weapons of war. So, if we want our streets or our elementary schools to stop looking like war zones, then we have to do something about guns — especially the guns that cause so much damage.

We also need to look for the everyday ways we can choose peace over violence. We must not overlook the little acts — the small gifts of grace — for these can also radically reshape our world into a place of peace. Children give us a moral example of these small graces through their natural propensity for love and creativity. We can begin to respond to Newtown and other tragedies by following their lead. We can allow children to become a moral lens for how we shape our society. If we seek to create a society that is safe for children and others who are vulnerable (such as those with mental illness or those living at the margins of our society) then we open up space for the flourishing of all creation.

Tonight, as I was (not) singing “Away in a Manger,” I listened closely to the words beyond Bless all the dear children. Here the carol gives us a mandate: And fit us for heaven to live with thee there. I began to ask myself how we could ever be fit for heaven when our culture seems to love guns more than peace. How many tragedies will we experience before we stop waiting for heaven and create peace here on earth?

This week, Newtown is teaching us how to be fit for heaven. In the midst of this tragedy there were people who threw themselves in the way of harm to protect those in their care. And after the tragedy, the town has pulled together to care for each other in the midst of this deep and abiding sorrow.

Yet these sacrifices should not have been necessary. Certainly we are capable of imagining a world where we all bear away the burdens of violence so no one has to bear it alone. In this season where we talk about peace, my prayer is that peace will be more than a greeting on a Christmas card, but will become a guide and a goal for our moral imagination. Perhaps this is how we will learn to bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.


“First World Problems”

In a class I’m teaching on Ethics at Lexington Theological Seminary, I recently gave a lecture where I argued that the work of ethics involves creating new language – a concept I learned well from one of my own advisors, Aana Marie Vigen. I gave the example of women theologians in Africa (such as Musa Dube) who are using the term “Two-thirds world” instead of “Third-world” to name their reality. The old terminology of “third-world” is outdated, and to many, offensive. The terminology was coined in the 1950‘s to name countries who were not aligned with capitalism and the West (the first world) or communism and the USSR (the second world). In popular speech, the designation “third-world” now refers to countries that some would call “developing” or “emerging” states. It is a comparative way of talking about poverty and a lack of infrastructure. The more apt designation “Two-thirds world” reminds us that those in this category make up the majority, not the minority, of our planet’s population.

As we talked about this, one student asked me what I thought about the chatter around “first world problems.” To be honest, I haven’t quite made up my mind. I think in some ways, the concept is an important pedagogical tool. It can be helpful when it is used in a constructive way to remind us or others that people in other places deal with different, and often more painful problems. One student chimed in to say he calls “first world problems” “luxury problems.”

So yes, perhaps the concept has a place. However, I really don’t like the “we’re so lucky” attitude that sometimes accompanies it because that doesn’t lead to justice. Too often, when I tell people about my work in sub-Saharan Africa, they respond by saying something along the lines of, “We should count our blessings for all we have,” or “I bet its a sacrifice to live there.” Not really. Its not a blessing to consume too much, as our overdeveloped culture does. Its not a blessing to be unable to live with less, even if we’ve learned how to make fun of it.

I have friends in places like Kenya or Tanzania who, by the standards of the West, would be considered poor. I’m not talking about gut-wrenching-can’t-feed-my-kids poverty – we should never romanticize that. I’m talking about everyday folks who make ends meet but live well-below what’s considered poverty in the US. Yet many of them lead lives that are full and flourishing, filled with family and commitments to their community. This reminds us that material wealth is sometimes not wealth at all.

So my question is this – can the concept of “first world problems” lead us to justice? Can it be a tool in helping us curb our consumerism? Can it lead us to give more or become more aware of life outside our borders? Or will it only be something trending on Twitter that leads to no real change?


On finding your voice…

shapeimage_2-8This past Friday night, I bundled up my three and a half month old in her Moby wrap and met my good friend downtown for a protest. We joined 2,000 people and marched through downtown Atlanta, asking the state to grant clemency to Troy Anthony Davis, a man who is sitting on death row because he never got a fair trial. While Davis has been in prison, another person has confessed to the crime and seven of the nine witnesses have either recanted or altered their stories. The trial, which took place in 1991, was fraught with police coercion and judicial mistakes. No murder weapon or DNA evidence ever linked Davis to the crime. In short, there is too much doubt surrounding his case. (You can read more about it here.) If you’ve been following the story, you know clemency wasn’t granted. As I write, the case is still undecided. A one hour delay has been granted on the night Troy Davis is set to be executed.

On Friday night when we got home, my little girl had a new trick. She had learned to scream at the top of her lungs. Something about the protest brought it out in her. She found her voice – she learned to be loud. In fact, she practiced her scream – a happy, loud scream – all night long.

As an ethicist who loves a good metaphor, I couldn’t help but but be thrilled that my daughter found her voice at a protest. As I tucked her in bed that night, we prayed for Troy Davis. We prayed for justice. We’re still praying. As I write, I know that it is possible that the state I call home will silence another voice – an innocent voice – for the sake of consistency and process. There’s too much doubt, and death is irreversible. All we can do is pray for justice.

Tonight, as we watch the news and wait, my baby girl can’t sleep. For some reason, she’s not herself. She’s fussy and needs to be held. I hold her tight and hope for a better world. I hope that this vengeful, unsafe place where she was born will become more just because we’re learning to lift our voices together. I’m glad she’s learning that sometimes, you just have to scream.


The importance of being present

shapeimage_2-7One of my favorite spaces of contemplation these days is the space where I am a parent. My sweet little girl is starting to grow up. At three months old she’s moved from the lethargic-but-cute baby stage to the look-at-me-please stage. As she grows, we’re watching her personality form and blossom.

This week, she’s teaching me about the importance of present. I can no longer get away with reading a book or looking at my iPhone when I hold her. While she’s sometimes content to play on her own, at other times she needs undivided attention. Eye contact has become all important.

This week on NPR’s Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett interviewed Sherry Turkle, who directs the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. The interview was about making technology a little more human. It was about unplugging, or rather, learning when and how to “plug in” or “unplug.” My favorite part was the reminder that we need to be present with each other, especially with our children. That putting down a phone (or better, turning it off) lets those we are with know they are more important. It creates room for meaningful conversations and interactions.

During my time living in East Africa, there was a way of being that I found foreign to western culture. It was a way of being present. If you were on your way to meet a friend, and ran into another person along the way, you didn’t rush off for fear of being late. That would be like telling the person you encountered that the person you were going to meet was more important than they were. And when you showed up late, it was always understood. Life had happened along the way.

Technology is important to our lives, but it is not all important. I hesitantly admit that my daughter already has her own “iPhone.” Its a cast off from a family member and its sole purpose is to play the tibetan waterfall soundtrack that helps her sleep. But she already loves the bling of technology. She stares at iPhones and cameras that take her picture. She even “talks” to her grandparents via video chats, mimicking their facial expressions and sending digital smiles. But even in this technology-loving family, we’re trying to tread carefully. We’re hoping to teach our daughter how to unplug as well.

Too often, we stay plugged in. We don’t let life happen along the way. We are so accessible to everyone and everything that no one has our full attention. Life is better lived when we learn the importance of eye contact.


On not getting healthcare…

shapeimage_2-6So, I haven’t blogged in a while, but I have a very good reason – a brand new baby girl who is now three months old. I’m discovering that I love being a parent and am grateful for the lessons it is teaching me. One particular lesson however, I think I could do without.

After my experience with childbirth and insurance companies, I’m learning first-hand that women’s health is very low on our national agenda. While pregnant, I attempted to learn everything I could about natural childbirth. I was determined to be an agent during the process of giving birth. I wanted my choices respected and honored. But soon after I arrived at the hospital in active labor, I realized that even with my birth plan on file, I would have to fight for every decision. My requests were ignored and when the labor went badly (due to a medical error) I felt like a bystander as other people made decisions about my body. I ended up having a C-section, a procedure I believe could have prevented if intervention had not led to more and more interventions.

Looking back, like many parents in my shoes, I say I’m just glad its over – glad my baby is here. But now, I’m dealing with more issues. Like the fact that I now can’t get insurance without a three-year exclusion policy on C-sections. Because I’m “self-employed” (which is a fancy way of saying I am a newly graduated Ph.D. with no real job), I don’t benefit from a group policy that could carry the burdens and disperse the benefits of group insurance coverage. Instead, the underwriter at my new insurance company took seven weeks (and way too many phone calls) to tell me I would be covered, but I couldn’t be covered for a C-section because I was a “risk.” In the process of determining my risk, the insurance company lost my application, mistakenly told me I was denied coverage, and asked me twice whether it was myself or my husband who had the C-section. Then, in their infinite wisdom, they made a financial decision that will limit my health options. A three year exclusion – I’m a risk until 2014, when the Affordable Healthcare Act finally fully kicks in and insurance companies (hopefully) will not be able to discriminate on the basis of gender or pre-existing conditions. The irony is that I have to choose between my current insurance (which doesn’t cover my expensive birth control) and this new insurance (which limits maternity care).

With these options, women like me will be forced to piece together healthcare from private and state options, and hope, in the end that we won’t go broke. Perhaps when my daughter grows up, she’ll live in a world that values maternal health and sees it as an important good, necessary for the well-being of society. But this will never happen as long as healthcare remains a for profit system. Because when healthcare is commodified, then our bodies also become commodities, losing their value in the process.


A little counterfeit money…

shapeimage_2-5To be honest, I’m not much of a cash girl. I prefer to swipe the plastic and deal with the consequences later. I’m not a big spender either – pretty frugal in fact – but sometimes my love of lattes and iPhone apps gets out of control. So my sweet husband and I decided to tighten up with a budget. Its a good practice – a spiritual practice even – to know where you’re money is going and be a good steward of what you are given. We’ve been going to a budget class at church based on the Dave Ramsey system, and Dave’s answer to our money woes is create a budget and only spend cash. Gasp! Did I mention I hate cash? Its too real – which is just the point. Real money is harder to spend. We learned that in budget class too.

So our budget class homework for the week was to spend cash – and only cash – as we worked from our new budgets. Wes and I were pretty excited to try this out. So I made the bank run and grabbed our cash for the week. As I left the bank I was nervously looking over my shoulder, a little scared someone would see the “I’m carrying cash” look on my face and mug me. Perhaps these are leftover fears from living in Nairobi where ATM’s are guarded with guys who have guns, but I digress. I made it home fine, but there was one problem. I asked for small bills but got all hundreds. So Wes took the money back to the bank to exchange the huge bills for manageable money. When he did, we found out one of our bills was counterfeit as it was promptly seized by the bank. So for now we’re out $100 and a little scared to spend anything else that came out of that bank envelope.

Of course, the entire funny money fiasco completely stopped both of our days. Wes was stranded at the bank, Jack the dog was panting in the hot car, and I was at home, listening to Bank of America’s on-hold music. (I will mention that they finally called me back an hour after I openly aired my grievance on Twitter.) This interruption gave me a bit of time to think about money and the dishonest little thief who created my fake bill. I stared at the 100-dollar bill on my desk and Ben Franklin stared back, mimicking my disgruntled facial expression. Because I’m knee deep in a dissertation, and because I’m not good at waiting, I began to think philosophically about counterfeiters – about people who get greedy and hurt others. Greed explains a lot of the ethical conundrums in our world. Too often, someone ends up short because someone else has taken too much.

This past Sunday our pastor, Julie Pennington-Russell, preached an excellent sermon titled “How much do I really need?” She started the sermon with a great story from Leo Tolstoy titled “How much land does a man need?” The story begins with a man who heard that land was being given sold at a ridiculously low price. When he approaches the sellers, he learns that the land is being sold “by the day,” and whatever boundaries he can mark out in a day become his land. There’s only one catch. If he doesn’t return to the place he started by sundown, he’ll lose his money. Well, the man paid his money and set out to mark the boundaries of his land, but as he walked the land kept getting more beautiful. He finally made his first turn, but again, the more he walked the land was more beautiful still. The sun was already starting to set as he made his third turn. The man was determined not to lose his money, so he ran and raced until he reached the place where he started just as the sun was setting. Then he promptly fell over and died. His servant picked up a hoe and buried him there. Tolstoy ends the story by answering his own question – How much land does a man need? Six feet – enough to bury him from head to toe.

As I start my new budget this month, I’m reminded of how little I need. The boundaries of my life due not need to be gregarious or grand. I can live more fully if I do not measure my life by the things I own. After all, a bigger yard just means you spend more time mowing.


Blogging on Ethics in Public Spaces

                                                                                                             Picture from an IDP camp outside of Nairobi, Kenya
Picture from an IDP camp outside of Nairobi, Kenya

After a summer of flying around the globe for this and that, I’m glad to announce that I’m back at home, in the US, with fast, fast internet. So, my hiatus from blogging (which was all too infrequent to begin with) is now over. In fact, I’ve even redesigned the blog and am promising myself I’ll be here once a week to ramble about what it means to do ethics in public spaces. On this site, I’ll be tackling different subjects as they come up and sharing what I’m learning from others. The first installment will come this Monday – as soon as I figure out what to write about. I hope you’ll journey with me, and contribute when you’ve got something to say. (Guest bloggers are always welcome!)

On another note – I should probably officially apologize for making fun of Twitter all these years. I gave in and finally joined the Twittering-world today. As soon as I figure out how to speak in 140 characters or less, I’ll be tweeting @imaginejustice. I swear I’ll never tell you what I’m eating for breakfast or that I’m shopping for lettuce.

While I’m introducing the new blog, I’ll share a quote – one of my favorite – that I’m using as a bit of inspiration for the site:

Injustice flourishes because those who love justice are singularly lacking in creativity, content to denounce the structures we see causing harm, inept in producing other forms of art, other economic structures, other political systems. – Sharon Welch

This quote is from Sharon Welch’s book, After Empire (p. 19). The book is an amazing read – this is one of the many quotes I have underlined in my copy. So often we look at the world and see something that is unjust but are helpless to imagine anything different. We too often think inside boxes and re-quote what we’ve always heard rather than imagining something new. As a Christian ethicist, I think and live within a faith tradition rooted in creation, a space where God breathed something new into a spaceless void. I think this is the task of faith and the task of ethics. Abraham Joshua Heschel called it being “co-creators with God.” This is the work of justice – to imagine something new – to not only denounce, but to creatively imagine.

So here, in this small space, I invite you to imagine with me…


On how to grow veggies in a sack…

shapeimage_2-1This past weekend, I took a break from my research to help plan a permaculture event with the Diocese of Victoria Nyanza. For this event, we hired a facilitator from Catholic Relief Services to come in and teach us how to grow veggies in maize sacks or old tires. This type of gardening is important in cities like Mwanza, where plots are small and there is no room for a proper garden. Here, most people live on the hills surrounding the lake and don’t have the flat land needed for traditional farming. Yet, most everyone here came from somewhere rural, so they have the needed skills for gardening, they just don’t have the space.

For this seminar, members of our HIV/AIDS support group were invited to attend at no cost. This was a particularly important event for this community because people living with HIV/AIDS need to take their medicines with food. Good nutrition is of upmost importance. And for many in Tanzania who are HIV positive, poverty resulting from their illness has severely compromised their food security. These kitchen gardens are easy to maintain and can provide an important source of nutrition. And of course, with enough sacks of veggies, you can even start a small business.

When thinking about development, sometimes the simplest methods are the most effective. A project that builds on existing knowledge (such as knowledge of agriculture) is a great place to start. As a city girl whose tomatoes have always come from aisle 9 at Kroger, I am often sad that so much has been lost. My grandpa was a farmer, but I have no real knowledge of how to make things grow. Fortunately, the same is not true for most of my friends here in Mwanza. Here, we don’t sell produce indoors so we’re still connected to the earth where food grows.

Personally, I left inspired. I think there’s a kitchen garden in my future. But it will have to wait a bit since you probably can’t grow one out of a suitcase.


The case of the missing cell phone

shapeimage_2Last week during my fieldwork session, my field assistant’s cell phone went missing. At the end of the session, when she realized the phone was gone, she panicked. Without alerting any of us as to what was going on, she pulled everyone back in from the packed vehicles and made people dump their purses. I was horrified. The conversation got heated and too quick for my slow swahili ears to comprehend. I tried to bring order, but no order was to be found. Even when the phone was found in the car (the person who stole it abandoned it when everyone was called back inside), peace was still out of reach.

I spent much of the week thinking about the incident and worrying that this would completely sabotage the sense of community we had created in the fieldwork group. On the advice of my affiliate here in Tanzania, I sent everyone a text message during the week letting them know the problem had been resolved and that I loved each of them very much and hoped they would return the following week.

Preparing for this week’s meeting, I was worried the issue would resurface. Everyone knew who stole the phone, but I still wanted to avoid accusation. St. Thomas Aquinas once said that a person who steals when they are in need is not morally culpable for the sin because the greater sin is their being in such great need. I don’t know if this applies to cell phones, but I could certainly understand why someone might steal. Almost all the women I’m working with are in need. All but one of them are widowed or separated; almost all are working small jobs that probably don’t cover their basic expenses. I knew a wrong had been done and needed to be rectified, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it without it leading to someone being accused or feeling the need to leave the group.

But when we gathered together again this week, there was a sense of peace in the room. The person who stole the phone was initially withdrawn and isolated as we gathered. However, when we addressed the issue together, some of the women in the group shared some profound things about forgiveness and unity that allowed us to move past the event. It was agreed that as a group, we would forgive and put this behind us and “never speak of it again.”

In this event, I learned several important things. The first is the obvious lesson of forgiveness. In this group, the unity of the whole was more important than seeking justice through accusation. Justice was reached without judgement. The second thing I learned was that the women in the group were most disturbed that a theft happened in the space where we were meeting together. The space of sharing we had created was seen by many of them as a safe, almost sacred space. The women were upset not because they thought they were being accused, but because this space of trust had been violated. When we met together again, the main goal of forgiveness was that we as a group move on and accomplish what we set out to do.

In the end, I think trust was restored and a lesson was learned. And I’m pretty sure my field assistant won’t leave her phone sitting on the snack table again.