I spoke in my school's chapel in March of 2017. Here is what I said, along with an epilogue written today.
Why do I teach at Woodberry Forest?
I’m an outsider to Woodberry’s culture. I’m neither black nor white; I’m not Christian, I’m not southern.
I teach here because we care about character. We don’t lie, cheat, or steal. We live in a community where we are consciously kind to one another; where, even when I disagree strongly with my colleagues, I feel that I and my family are welcome here. My job description is NOT just to raise AP physics scores; no, I’m directed to know, challenge, and love my students. And I do that. Sure, it may take three weeks for me to learn faces, to tell the difference between a Cooper and a Barker… but I figure it out. (I also know that it took you a lot more than three weeks to understand Newton’s second law… but I’ll forgive you if you’ll forgive me.) I know you. I do challenge you, as everyone who’s been in my class can attest. And I love you, unconditionally. I taught a large portion of the senior and sophomore class… ask them. Ask them if I ever lost faith in them. Ask them how I showed my love through my actions.
Nevertheless, I’m an outsider here.
My mom’s family was Syrian/Lebanese refugees in the 1920s. My dad’s family were refugees from when eastern Europeans were killing Jews in the 1890s.
Dad was born in 1942 - only three months after Pearl Harbor - in California. On a couple of occasions growing up I heard Dad say, “If the Nazis came again, this is who I’d trust to hide my family.” I thought he was joking, using hyperbole. In retrospect, I realize that he was deadly serious.
He knew how a community could and did turn upon the outsider, the other. Dad met Jewish refugees who came to America after the Holocaust. He saw what had happened to the Japanese-Americans who were sent to America’s own version of concentration camps. He always kept, in the back of his mind, a plan to take care of us if things were to turn ugly.
I see your faces… “Oh, no, I thought he was going to talk about physics, but instead he’s going to preach Democratic politics at us.” Relax. I’m not even a Democrat. I’m not condemning anyone’s politics. I have voted Republican. I’m probably more economically conservative than you – you’d be shocked. Cut taxes to reduce the size of government? Watch me. I don’t object to anyone’s rational position on the Affordable Care Act. Or affirmative action. Or any political hot button topic. I’m a debate coach - I believe deeply in political discourse. Argue with me, argue with your friends, argue with your teachers. I hope you listen; I hope you occasionally change your mind under the weight of logical argument. (If you’ve never changed your mind, you’ve been cheerleading, not arguing or discussing.)
I remember some classmates in high school who “joked” about my family. Jeff wrote in my yearbook, while smiling, “I wish your relatives had died in the holocaust, Jew!” He was harmless, I thought then, a friend who went too far. My dad saw what Jeff wrote, and was deeply saddened and hurt. To dad – to the guy who saw the aftermath of the horrors of 1940s Europe – Jeff’s words were setting the stage for a deeper hatred. They were normalizing hate.
Hatred for others is not politics.
When a large segment of this school flies Trump flags months after the election, when some even hang confederate flags, when you joke about black or hispanic or Jewish or Muslim or female people as being stupid or un-American or less important than you… your actions suggest hate, not love. And I, personally, feel hated. And hurt, because my dedication and love for you has been reciprocated with venom.
Please don’t be defensive right now. Remember, I have nothing but love for you. You didn’t intend this hatred and hurt. I know none of you truly harbors any ill will toward me, or toward anyone in this community. I know that, because I know you. You’re just showing which political “team” you’re on, the same way you’d hang a Duke basketball or Alabama football flag.
But politics are not sports.
In a fierce sports rivalry, taunting and teasing and chest-thumping banter is not just okay, it’s expected. You’re supposed to remind Cincinnati Bengals fans like me about how we’ve never won the Super Bowl. You’re supposed to exaggerate your team’s chances, to make ridiculous excuses for your team’s failures. Skip Bayless has made a million-dollar career of not letting facts get in the way of a good sick burn. And as much as the debate coach in me hates him, he earns his money.
Skip and Stephen A have set the example for the sports arguments you all have. And, so what. It’s sports. We care deeply, then we move on with our lives.
But losing a political fight often has real consequences for real people.
In the early 80s, air traffic controllers employed by the government went on strike for better working conditions. My dad was incensed - he was fiercely anti-union anyway, the strike was sorta illegal, and it majorly disrupted the travel necessary for his job. Dad cheered at the television the night he found out that president Reagan had fired all the strikers and replaced them with non-union workers.
He carefully pointed out to me, though, that my friend’s dad Bill was an air traffic controller who had been fired. Dad made sure I understood that one should never, ever deliberately pick political arguments. President Reagan’s action had hurt Bill deeply: Bill became unemployed, facing an uncertain future for him and his family. Reagan’s decision was the right one, Dad thought, but it still hurt Bill’s family, and Dad insisted that we be respectful of that hurt. I watched - on the one or two occasions when Bill ranted about Reagan, my Republican father listened politely, nodded… and let it go. Dad disagreed with Bill, but he still loved Bill.
Politics is not sports. Politics has real consequences for real people. You Falcons fans are sad, but fine, even after a devastating Super Bowl loss. The folks deported back to horrific war zones are not fine. The Muslim Americans who face hostile catcalls from strangers, whose homes and places of worship have been vandalized… they’re not fine. The hispanic families who are targets of suspicion and harassment from their neighbors and the police, despite being legal, tax paying citizens -- they are not fine.
Real consequences for real people. Folks who loudly proclaim themselves to be supporters of the current administration have burned down black churches, destroyed mosques, set upon a campaign of terror against Jewish Community Centers. When confronted, the President of the United States and his cronies have refused to condemn such terror.
Now, I don’t see anyone here personally encouraging violence or harassment. In taking a dispassionate political position, you might not have considered its effects on individual people, especially if you don’t personally know any of the people who would be affected by your argument. “I have nothing against Mexicans or Syrians, and I certainly don’t support violence,” you say, “I just support enforcing the law.”
Well, I’ve heard that rhetoric before. “Teenaged boys are so wild and unmanageable. Let’s enforce the laws we have to keep them out of trouble.”
Should we strictly enforce, say, the laws against underage possession of drugs, tobacco, alcohol? You could go to jail for a long time if you have contraband on dorm. No, it doesn’t matter if it was your roommate’s, you’re still responsible in your room. Oh, and pictures of your girlfriend on your phone -- those are possibly child pornography, punishable by even longer jail time and sex-offender registration for life. Your parents aren’t necessarily safe, either, because if the phone is on their account, if they offered you a sip of champagne at Aunt Matilda’s wedding, they broke the law, too, and face jail time.
Imagine that an armed police task force showed up at the front gate of Woodberry, stating that they intend to search the dorms to discover all violators of these laws. That ain’t so far fetched -- I’ve been on a college dorm when the police conducted a sting against some partiers next door. It was scary, especially for Catherine, who now has a criminal record even though she was merely hauling her laundry when the cops showed up. She was in the presence of underage drinking, and so she was hauled away.
How do you want our school administration to react to such a police operation? Consider two extreme options.
“Well, we do want to see the laws enforced. The dorms are up the hill. Go get those bad hombres out of Woodberry Forest." Judging by the results of the recent amnesty on Turner hall, there might not be a lot of hombres of any sort left here.
Or, the headmaster and the dean of students could meet the police task force at the gate, perhaps alongside the hunting club as they just happen to be making their way to the lake. They could ask to see a signed search warrant; and when the police couldn’t produce one, they’d send the police away until they could. The administrators could then send runners, Paul Revere style, warning of the impending sting. And then teachers could video every action of a police officer on our campus, so that we can be sure that “enforcing the law” doesn’t turn into bullying, into destroying the lives of a bunch of scared teenagers.
Obviously there’s a middle ground between these two extremes. But if it came down to just one of these two options, I sure hope we’d choose the second one. The one where we would actively protect you, the students we pledge to know, challenge, and love.
Jesus healed the sick. He did NOT say, “we have to be careful of contagious disease -- send those lepers back to Samaria or wherever they came from to keep us safe.”
During the election last fall, a campaign post characterized the refugee and immigrant “problem” with the question: If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you three of them were poison, would you take a handful? The expectation was that fear of terrorism would cause Americans to say no, I’d keep that bowl of skittles far away from me.
That’s not what I’d say. I quote Eli Bosnick now:
Do these skittles represent human lives?
Like, is there a good chance, a really good chance, I would be saving someone from a war zone and probably their life it I took a skittle?
I would take the skittles.
I would GORGE myself on skittles. I would take every single skittle I could find. I would STUFF myself with skittles.
And when I found the poison skittle and died I would make sure to leave behind a legacy of children and of friends who also took skittle after skittle until there were no skittles remaining in the bowl. And each person who found the poison skittle we would weep for. We would weep for their loss, for their sacrifice, and for the fact that they did not let themselves succumb to fear but made the world a better place by taking skittles.
Because the REAL question -- the one hiding behind a horrible little inaccurate, insensitive, dehumanizing candy metaphor -- is, IS MY LIFE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS OF MEN, WOMEN, AND TERRIFIED CHILDREN?
And what kind of person, what kind of Christian, would think the answer to that question is “yes”?
As a result of his blindness, Bartimaeus had been shunned by his neighbors, neighbors who (without modern medical knowledge) believed his blindness was a curse that would fall upon them if they weren’t careful. Jesus not only healed Bartimaeus; Jesus welcomed the outcast Bartimaeus once again into the wider community, despite people’s fears. Jesus set a pretty great example.
Folks, none of you here intend to cause hurt to me, or to the many others on campus who feel like I do. I know that, and I do not bear a grudge. Forgiveness is a virtue.
Intentional or not, though, hurt has been caused. And responsible people who inadvertently hurt others attempt to alleviate that hurt. Here are two steps you can take.
Step 1: Acknowledge the hurt that your public political cheerleading has caused. That doesn’t mean you should give up on your conservative politics, nor should you ever be ashamed of your rational political positions. It means, though: take down your flag, stop joking about hateful political policies, and stop making fun of “liberals.” Instead, bend over backwards to show love and respect to those with whom you disagree.
Step 2: Speak out. Say clearly to your friends, teachers, and neighbors, that you do not support hate, even if you (like I) do support lower taxes. Condemn those who commit racist acts with clear, direct language. Call out those who make excuses for hate, even if they be your friends, your parents, or your congresspeople. Actively seek ways to bridge social gaps with those who feel like outcasts, as Jesus reconciled Bartimaeus with his neighbors. Do everything in your power to convince people like me -- people who are outsiders, people who are afraid -- that you still welcome us as EQUALS, both at Woodberry and in America.
Epilogue, October 2018:
The very positive news is, the Trump flags and the confederate flags have come down. I still hear students spreading conspiracy theories, but I think and hope this is out of ignorance rather than hate. Our small community has become much less outwardly hateful in the 1.5 years since I spoke in chapel.
However, I am more scared now than ever. Last week the USA suffered three terrorist attacks in three days, all by American white nationalists, two of the three racially motivated. Hatemongering continues unabated on Fox News and on social media platforms, which unfathomably refuse to take large-scale action to curb racist trolls and propaganda-spreading bots.
It’s time to hold accountable not only those who commit hateful acts; not only those who spew hate online and on television; but also those who stand by and give tacit support to the hatemongers. If you - yes, YOU, reading this - if you will not speak out against white nationalism, who will?