maybe white pushback against the African American History Museum is about something more

I shouldn't have been, but I found myself surprised at the white pushback I’ve seen to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, either you haven't read any comments on news articles or visited Twitter.)

Why an African American Museum? I hear. (Um, because these stories need to be told.)

Where’s the White Museum? I hear. (Um, how about every other museum there is?) That was my first response, and I felt like it was right and good. I saw others expressing the same sentiment.

But then I thought a little longer, and I became uncomfortable with the realizations I uncovered. I have to admit now that the National Museum of African American History and Culture tells my story too (and I’m not talking about my three black children when I say that).

throwback picture to when we were an all-white family with only one child and to when I wore suits and pearls 

throwback picture to when we were an all-white family with only one child and to when I wore suits and pearls 

I haven’t been to the museum yet, but I expect there are exhibits on slavery. My ancestors include white slave-owners in the South. That’s my history too.

I haven’t taken a deep breath while standing before this museum, but I expect to read about how our Constitution didn’t value black Americans as full people. My ancestors supported that. That’s my history too.

I haven’t walked into the hard-fought-for museum yet, but I expect to find stories of the Civil War. Maybe I’d find excerpts from states’ articles of secession, as these four cited slaves or slavery 83 times in their reasons. Some notable examples include “we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery” from Georgia and “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world…. a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization” from South Carolina and a commitment to “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time” from Texas. Actually, to spotlight Texas for a moment, I want to quote this too: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.” I’m spending so much time pointing out the racist roots here because I’ve seen recent pushback against them and because I am dismayed by my own history here. My ancestors fought for the Confederate States in that war, and I’ve heard that our family tree includes Jefferson Davis, the president of those states. That’s my history too.

I haven’t gotten to bring my children into that museum yet, but I expect to see stories of black soldiers who fought in WWII and the Vietnam War. My ancestors fought in those wars too, with both grandfathers in WWII and my father a Green Beret in Vietnam. The difference is that they fought to preserve rights already extended to people who look like me while those black soldiers fought for a country that denied them many of those same rights. That’s my history too.

I haven’t yet shed tears in the halls of that museum, but I expect to see stories of white people who stood for segregation in school and communities and who opposed (or still oppose) affirmative action. My ancestors and even some living relatives are among those white people. That’s my history too.

I haven’t had my heart broken to see Emmett Till’s coffin in that museum, but I know he died at the hands of people who look like me. I know he didn’t get justice because of people who look like me. I know his grave was disrespectfully dug up, which is why his coffin can be displayed, as even his dead body was devalued by people who look like me. I know my ancestors were involved in other – maybe even similar – acts of treating people of color as if they weren’t made in the image of God, even though we all are. That’s my history too.

When we, as white people in this country, say a museum of African American history doesn’t tell our stories too, we’re lying. It does. It just tells stories that don’t put us in the best light, stories that show our ancestors on the wrong side of history, stories that we’re simply not proud of.

Maybe your story isn’t like mine. Maybe your ancestors weren’t here at the beginning of this nation. Maybe you want to shrug off our racist past as not being your own. If so, I get that. But I’d also challenge you to think about the privileges we – all white people – get when people who look like us have held the most power in politics and business and churches and education and more in this country. That history is why skin-colored bandaids are made to match us while I have to special order ones for my black children. It’s why shows that feature people who look like me are simply called shows but ones that feature a primarily black cast are called black entertainment. It’s why, out of the top 500 grossing companies in our country, only 5 have black CEOs while the vast majority look like me (or, more accurately, my husband). It’s why for the past 21 years, only 10% of children’s books included multicultural content while it’s easy for white children to see themselves reflected there. It’s why, even in 2003, the same resume from a stereotypically white-sounding name got 50% more callbacks than an identical resume from a stereotypically black-sounding names. I could go on – as this famous piece does – but I think I’ve made my point. Even if your ancestors didn’t engage in the racist acts that mine did, the benefits of white privilege afforded to me are also available to you.

African American history is American history. It is. But as white people have historically gotten to write the history books and control the biases there, we have been able to rewrite stories to favor us a bit more. (One reason black homeschooling is on the rise, in fact, is this failure for public schools to teach history through anything but a Euro-centric lens.) For example, one textbook recently raised eyebrows by referring to those brought by the slave trade as immigrant “workers” with the implication that they were paid or came by choice. Even the misunderstandings about slavery’s role in the Civil War can be traced back to textbooks whitewashing our history.

Maybe white pushback to the African American Museum isn’t about black history. It’s about white history and the discomfort we have in owning it all. And maybe it isn’t about history at all. It’s about the current state of racism in our country and our refusal to see how the past has brought us to this point.

Maybe it’s time to clean out our closets and come face to face with some skeletons there. That will be hard, certainly. We might have to admit that the 26% of white people (and 40% of Trump supporters) who believe black people are lazy (leading to their poverty and other societal issues) can only do so by denying a history in which people who look like me oppressed black people by enslaving them with no pay and then confining them to the lowest wages and the worst conditions in housing and school, restricting them from colleges, job training, and welfare programs, and preventing them from positions of political, economic, or social power. We might have to admit that while we’re quick as white people to decry the black crime rate, the ways in which whites oppressed blacks created higher rates of poverty which thereby result in higher rates of crime (and, while we’re at it, higher rates of absent fathers and homelessness and educational difficulties and other symptoms we like to talk about while ignoring the causes). We might have to acknowledge that many of these realities are recent in our history, such that my parents' public schools didn't admit black children and at least one of my grandparents grew up with black servants who, while not slaves, were paid and treated in a less dignifying way than white household workers would have been. We might have to get comfortable with these stories on the lower levels of the museum, the stories of white people treating black people as subhuman, instead of camping out with the stories of those black stars we regard as superhuman in their exceptionality: Gabby Douglas and Ben Carson and Muhammed Ali and more. But maybe it’s time to look at and own the hard parts of our history too.

Maybe it’s past time.

And maybe once we do, the idea of this much-needed National Museum of African American History and Culture will make more sense to us.

one of those days

All of us have had one of those days: a day we know, for sure, will be recounted again and again. The story of the day will live on as the calendar pages turn and the years change and new generations rise up. Now we might call such a day “epic;” who knows what lingo we might choose in the future.

Last fall offered one such day. Jocelyn has always been heavily involved in the boys and girls chasing each other scene at recess. In kindergarten, she chased them. By first grade, they were mostly chasing her, as they recognized her speed had surpassed theirs. They laughed and ran and played. Then they did it all over the next day.

Well, last fall Jocelyn had a new pink coat. It was furry and soft and came with a matching beret-like hat. She loved that jacket. And the boys, seeing that, snatched the pink softness at recess, and they ran. And she chased. And it was fun.

Until it wasn’t.

Now my girl didn’t just inherit my propensity to hang with the boys. She also inherited my moxie. She decided that day to end the game. She wanted to wear the coat again. She wanted it back. NOW. So the chasing became goal-driven instead of game-making.

The boys? As it often goes in third grade, the boys didn’t clue in to what their girl friend wanted. They didn’t know the game was over. They kept playing.

And then, as they ran, they ended up in a part of the schoolyard beyond the reach of teachers’ eyes. Jocelyn, done with the game, was trapped. The group of boys, still playing along, were clueless. One of them taunted, “We’ve got you cornered! What are you going to do now?”

And so, she punched him.

I heard secondhand that his mouth was bloody. A teacher said his tooth was loose, adding that it might have been a permanent one. Rumor has it that she landed a few kicks and blows among the other boys too.

I love my children dearly, but I neglect my answering machine. I’m a holdout who still has a home phone, and the teacher called that number to talk to us about what happened. Of course, I didn’t listen, not at first. No, I found out about the incident after school when another mom texted me to say, “I’m friends with ____, [bloodied-mouth boy’s] mom, and she asked me to tell you that she is mortified about what happened on the playground and so sorry for what her son did to Jocelyn.”

Naturally, I called Jocelyn over to ask if anything noteworthy happened at school that day. She shrugged. “Maybe during recess?” I offered.

“Oh,” she said. “That. Well, I probably should have made a different choice, but some boys cornered me and no teachers were around and so I hit and kicked them some. I talked to Ms Benson about what other choices I can make if it ever happens again.”

Well, as you might imagine, it hasn’t happened again. The boys in her grade know Jocelyn is not one to be messed with. The boys in other grades have heard too. They know she’s a warrior girl.

Before I move on to the next story, I want you to think about Jocelyn. How would you have felt if you were me? Proud, maybe? (I certainly was.) Comforted that your brave daughter is able and willing to stand up for herself? (YES.) Thankful that she knows other choices can be made. (Of course.) And maybe even unwilling to dole out a negative consequence because she clearly knew right from wrong. (That’s how we handled it.)


Now let’s flip some calendar pages to earlier this week.

We saw the aftermath of a Groundhog’s Day scenario. Another video showed the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of those meant to protect and serve, this time in Tulsa. A video from another city – St. Louis – caught other officers conspiring to falsify charges against a protester. And then a man in my own state was killed by officers who came to serve an arrest warrant for someone else, and none of the stories match in his death, though the authorities are refusing to release the footage of the incident to the public or the deceased man’s family.

If this was one isolated week, that might not be a huge deal. But we all know that’s not the case.

And so, protests – even violent protests – broke out. I’m not saying two wrongs make a right, but I’m saying that heaps of wrongs that haven’t been made right create anger. I’m saying we, as a society, have backed our black neighbors and friends into a corner and told them to stay in their place there.

What are you going to do now? we taunt.

Walk home in your neighborhood wearing a hoodie? You die.

Enter a convenience store? You die.

Pick up an air rifle in WalMart while talking on the phone to your wife? You die.

Walk with a toy gun as a child, maybe 12 or 13 years young? You die on video, or maybe you die in an alley with the police cameras mysteriously not operating.

Legally carry a concealed weapon? You die.

Carry a closed knife? You die.

Walk down the street with your hands in your pockets? You die.

Enter a stairwell with your girlfriend? You die.

Sleep on the couch in your living room? You die.

Sleep in a park downtown? You die.

Sell cigarellos on the streets of New York City? You die.

Sell CDs at a gas station? You die.

Run away without threatening anyone? You die.

Seek help after a car accident? You die.

Start your car after a traffic stop? You die.

Fail to signal a lane change? You get arrested unlawfully and then you die.

Get arrested and transported by police? You die.

Run from an officer who can’t tell the difference between his gun and his taser? You die.

Talk too loudly with your friends? You die.

These aren’t mere stories. They each have a name. In order of the list above, they are Trayvon Martin. Levar Jones. John Crawford. Tamir Rice. Tyre King. Philando Castile. Laquan McDonald. Ezell Ford. Akai Gurley. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Dontre Hamilton. Eric Garner. Alton Sterling. Walter Scott. Jonathan Ferrell. Samuel DuBose. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Eric Harris. Rekia Boyd. (And there are more I didn't list.)

So you’re cornered with examples of systemic racism and police brutality on all sides.

So, what are you going to do now? we taunt.

We see Jocelyn, cornered in the schoolyard, by a group larger than her both in numbers and body size, with no one in authority offering help. And we say “atta girl” when she punches.

But we see our black brothers and sisters, cornered by institutional racism, by a group holding greater privilege (perhaps a group to which you belong, like I do), with those in authority doing the killing and the covering up, while good cops who would never do that sort of thing allow it to continue by never speaking out against those who do. (And those who do speak out, God bless them, are few.) And we shake our heads and insult them when they protest peacefully by taking a knee during the national anthem.

So then why are we surprised when they throw a punch in response, in desperation, in a desire to be seen and heard and validated, a hope that one day the wrongful death of a black man at the hands of a white officer will be met with the same care and justice as the wrongful death of an officer is? No one is saying that black lives matter more than police officers’ do. But our culture and courts are showing that police officers’ lives matter more than black lives.


Why are you making this about race?

I hear this question often. The answer is simple: because. it. is.

Bias studies, like this one, indicate that police are more likely to shoot unarmed blacks than unarmed whites.

In real life, research has shown that for the same crimes, blacks are treated unfairly by our justice system. In NYC, for example, blacks (and Hispanics) are more likely to be detained, convicted, and incarcerated for the same crime of misdemeanor marijuana possession than their white neighbors. In urban areas (Seattle, Chicago, and Baltimore, in this particular study), even after controlling for actual neighborhood crime levels, a higher percentage of young Black men in a community was associated with greater perceptions of crime.

In areas in which we’ve had recent racially charged incidents, the Department of Justice investigations have found disturbing trends in the policing. In Baltimore, they cited a pattern of unlawful use of enforcement against black citizens, including disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests, as well as the use of excessive force and frequent retaliation against black individuals for constitutionally-protected public expression, as compared to whites. In Ferguson, the report showed a greater likelihood to issue citations, use person-to-person force, use police dog-to-person force, and issue arrest warrants for blacks than whites – as well as a lesser likelihood to dismiss charges against blacks than whites – without any indication that people of different races actually committed crimes at different rates in that area.

And if your knee-jerk response is “what about police lives?” I understand your perspective. After all, I’m the daughter of a retired law enforcement officer who devoted his career to criminal justice after serving in Vietnam. I care deeply about police officers, and I grieve their deaths and injuries too. That said, this movement isn’t merely about death; it’s about justice. When a police officer dies, we’re all confident justice will be done, as the offender will be sought and arrested and charged and found guilty and sentenced for the crime. When someone is wrongly killed by an officer, however, that officer will be placed on leave for a while and might lose the job but accountability for those actions isn’t likely. So, yes, police lives matter, and that’s shown in our justice system. Meanwhile, according to the same system, black lives don’t matter or matter less. Furthermore, fewer police officers died in shootings in 2015 than the previous year, even as that year and prior years saw racial unrest come to the surface with greater awareness, largely due to social media and the filming of police brutality incidents. (Now, some statistics show that they might be higher in 2016, but seeing a drop in one racially charged year and a rise in another shows that the race-related strife isn’t the only factor here.)

And what about the resounding pushback about black-on-black crime? Well, FBI homicide statistics show that the majority of homicides committed from 1980-2008 were by white murderers against white victims. Those same stats show that white offenders are more likely to kill children or senior citizens and more likely to commit sex-related, gang-related, and workplace-related homicides than blacks. Furthermore, white offenders were more likely to commit mass murders as well. This wasn’t just true during those years; the most recent year of data available from the FBI shows this pattern too. I could offer other examples as well. The reality is that we live in segregated communities in this country, and we’re more likely to victimize or be victimized by someone in close geographic proximity to us. So until we’re willing to admit that white-on-white crime is a problem and acknowledge that the black community has been taking action against black-on-black crime, the words “but black-on-black crime” feel like dirty distractions drenched in racism.

I’ve only skimmed the surface with the citations above, but – as the mother of black, white, and Asian children – I’ve deep dived into it all. This and this are great resources for reading further on this issue, as well as the books The New Jim Crow, Between the World and Me, and Just Mercy.

Simply put, one of my sons is more likely to have positive encounters with the police than the other, unless something changes.



So what can we do?

1. Be a changemaker.

Just like Jocelyn wouldn’t have been cornered by those boys if those in authority had made different choices (like positioning teachers on duty so no blind spots existed), senseless killings and overpolicing in the black community can be changed by different choices too. Use your online presence to speak out against injustice or to amplify the voices of people of color. Listen well – online and in person – to those whose lived experiences are different from yours without saying “but…” or telling them to hold back their emotion until more facts are available. Contact your local police department to ask what anti-bias training officers currently receive. (The good news in the research is that some kinds of anti-bias trainings have been proven effective.) Once you know that, write your local lawmakers to share what you’ve learned and, maybe even using the statistics I shared above, ask for consideration and funding to better equip officers. Do or say something. Now is not the time for silence out of fear or apathy.

2. If you choose not to be a changemaker, don’t judge those who punch when cornered.

If you won’t do anything more than shake your head at violence toward black communities by some in law enforcement, then you don’t get to shake your head when their anger spills over. I don’t like kids fighting at school, but I was proud that Jocelyn punched that boy. I don’t like violence, but I can’t say I don’t understand why some people feel like that’s the only way to get white neighbors to care. After all, people lost their minds because a black football player didn’t kneel, so if we won’t pay attention to peaceful protests, we can’t act surprised when the peaceful part gets left behind.

3. When you’re part of a system that benefits from another group’s cornering, recognize that.

I was moved by the mother of the boy Jocelyn punched, when she – knowing my daughter’s punch made her son bleed – apologized. She didn’t corner Jocelyn, but as his mom, she’s part of the family system that did. All white people and all officers don’t engage in police brutality against black people, but we do live in a system that privileges white skin (which I unpack more in this post) while others aren’t as #blessed. No civil rights movement achieves success unless those who already hold the rights and privileges stand with those who don’t. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963,

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

While we’re at it, when you cherry pick which of Dr. King’s words you share, remember he was killed for being too revolutionary. He wasn’t welcomed. And about violence, he said in 1968,

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?... It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

In other words, don’t invoke his name against riots unless you’re willing to wrestle with all of his words. As far as other names, the ones I listed above, I could have researched facts about each. I considered offering the sorts of vignettes we do to humanize people, to make them multidimensional, to show that their lives had value before a bullet cut it short. But here’s the thing: THEY ARE ALREADY HUMAN. We shouldn’t have to say Aiyana loved Disney princesses or Terence was about to start community college or Tyre was only 4’11” and not even 100 pounds to say that their lives matter. Furthermore, no criminal records or past drug use or divorce could make their lives matter less.

(Why is it that we share swimming stats for convicted rapists while we malign the memory of unarmed black men killed by police? This is not okay. No one should have to earn their right to be treated as human, but I worry that one of my sons will more than the other.)

Our country has been having a lot of those days: days we know, for sure, will be recounted again and again. The story of the day will live on as the calendar pages turn and the years change and new generations rise up. Now we mark these days with hashtags, daring to say their names and recognize their humanity so that we might know better and do better in the future.

At the end of these days, I pray that my children can be proud of where I stood and with whom I stood at this moment in history. 

the next right step

We changed churches. We’ve changed some patterns of interactions with certain people who had been close to us in the past. And now, I’ve changed jobs.

Well, technically I’m not changing jobs. I’m just dropping one part-time gig to focus more fully on my marriage, children, and writing (and eventually speaking, though I’m not doing much of that by choice this year), as well as getting vested in a new church. I’ve loved my time with Key Ministry, and I’m glad to leave the good work in the hands of a competent and compassionate team there.

I might still write for them from time to time. And I’m definitely going to keep using my voice to speak about issues of disability, mental illness, trauma, and faith. You’ll just find those posts here instead of at the Church4EveryChild blog. My last post ran there earlier this week.

So what’s next?

I don’t know. I’m going to keep loving Lee and the kids. I’m going to keep writing and advocating, using my voice and resources to make a difference and say “me too” to others who struggle. I’m going to rest more and care for myself better than I have historically. I’ll probably do some freelance work, but I’m not in a huge rush with that.

And? I don’t really know for sure what’s next. Nor do I feel the need to figure that out right now. I have the privilege of being a stay-at-home mom without a professional gameplan, and I'm happy to rest in that uncertainty.

All any of us can do is take the next right step. Today I’m doing that. I’m not sure where this path will lead, but I know God writes the best stories. As Mother Teresa said, I’m just a pencil in his hand.

And I’m excited to see what the coming pages will hold.

Outrage, apathy, or - perhaps - a third option?

Brock Turner went viral a few months ago, when he was sentenced a mere six months for the violent rape he committed at a Stanford party. Then he dropped off our social media feeds. Now, as he was released Friday after a mere 3 months, we're outraged anew.

A year ago, we collectively grieved over the image of Aylan Kurdi, a dead refugee boy washed up on a shore after drowning. Then we got quiet again. A couple weeks ago, our feeds lit up again, this time with Omran Daqneesh sitting bloodied and stunned in an ambulance, wiping his dirty hands on the seat just like my boys do. Our outrage and profound sorrow over Aylan had faded but returned rekindled for Omran.

And then, even as news spread that Omran's brother had died, we stepped away from our outrage again.

I get it. I do. We can't live perpetually in outrage. We can't nourish our souls with a buffet of only agony, anger, and anguish. When we feel helpless in the face of our world's trauma, we have to look away sometimes or we'll be consumed. 

But I don't think our only options are to fall headfirst into hopelessness or turn our backs on suffering. There has to be a third way. I'm sure of it. 

If we throw up walls of outrage, they'll crumble in time. Outrage alone can't stand. Outrage isn't self-supporting. Outrage can't be kindled long term. But what if we embraced the outrage as a right and just response to outrageous events but didn't stop there?

What if we build foundations under the outrage to turn it into something useful and sustainable? What if we transformed at least some of that anger into action or education? What if we showed great love by listening compassionately to our neighbors? 

I know why we don't. Outrage is comfortable. Outrage is socially acceptable. Outrage comes in waves that we know will return to the sea of public anger. Outrage feels like a controlled response to a world spinning out of control.

But outrage isn't vulnerable. We don't move past outrage because we don't want to be honest with the next steps. We let our emotional fires dull to a simmer, ignoring them until the next story comes along to fan the flames into a roar once again. The previous inferno is forgotten, as we've moved on to the next one. 

Some fires are frivilous, and some are needed. I'm all for letting the petty pyres burn out on their own. But any flames worth fanning deserve to be seen all the way through, beyond the outrage and into something more. I was encouraged when my Facebook feed filled with people calling for justice when Brock Turner only got six months - three months with good behavior - for rape. For. Rape. I reminded us of the power of our words when people said her life was ruined. (It isn't.) I thanked friends for their outrage, writing for the first time publicly about my sexual assault history. 

And then I watched as we moved on to the next trending story, and the silence around rape dropped off. I shared another story and then another and then another of white rapists getting nothing more than a slap on the wrists, of our "justice" system showing more concern for their futures than for their actions. Sadly, Brock Turner's paltry sentence isn't uncommon. Brock's name is known and evoked our outrage, but we mostly ignored David Becker and John Enochs and James Wilkerson. All three are also young white rapists who got light sentences for their crimes, often with judges expressing more concern for their futures than the futures of the girls they violated. This. Trend. Is. Not. Okay. And our magnification of one case and ignorance of others isn't okay either.

I get it, though. Outrage is exhausting. So I'm not asking you to stay outraged. We can't do that. Or if we could, it wouldn't be healthy or sustainable.

I'm writing this to declare that there's a third way. It's not all outrage or apathy. It's not either ranting or silence. It's not the choice between floods of feelings or numbness. 

The third way is the way of listening with empathy. The end result will be action for some of us on a particular issue. For others, the end result will be knowledge. We won't all feel compelled to do something about every cause, and that's okay. But we are called to care for and love our neighbor, so listening well is the bare minimum for that. 

(Want an example of what that might look like?  Read this story. Listen and listen well to voices like Elizabeth Smart's as she points out the problems with religious purity culture, and sit with that before you push back about how sexual sin matters. Of course it does. But Elizabeth isn't arguing for us to abandon all sexual mores but rather sharing how our language and approach can do harm.) 

And action? We can't all be actors for every injustice. (I've tried. That's a sure path to burn out.) God designed us each uniquely. The beauty therein is that my passion and your passion don't have to be the same, but together we can create a rich tapestry of interwoven actions that collectively glorifying God and edify others.

(For example, some friends as well as other folks I deeply respect created The Compassion Collective as a response to Aylan and Omran and so many other vulnerable children. They chose the third way. Their efforts are a beautiful display of action, and I'm joining in a small way with my financial contributions.)

You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.
— Maya Angelou

Listen well, friends. And, yes, be angry. But don't stay there. Instead, decide that you will learn and maybe even act so that the world might be made different by what is born out of our outrage. 

Stop calling suicide a choice.

A few Sundays ago, we spoke openly about suicide and overdose at church. Our community lost someone to each in that week. I’m thankful we spoke openly about the pain instead of avoiding the spiritual practice of lament, but one word was voiced twice, once by our campus pastor and once by our senior pastor.


I think we choose (pun intended) this word because it makes us feel comfortable. We don’t like to admit that mental illness is real and can be fatal. If someone can succumb to depression like someone succumbs to leukemia, then life feels scary. Anyone can get sick like that, we realize, and that reality is just a little too real for us. And we’re afraid if we call suicide the fatal outcome of depression for some, then we might give permission to those on the brink of life and death to choose the latter.

So we minimize the fear by calling it the choice of the deceased.

But I don’t think that’s fair or accurate. I know when I attempted suicide a couple decades ago, I didn’t see choices. I just saw darkness. I just saw pain. I just wanted to stop feeling so much. I wanted a choice. Genuinely, I did. But the only option I could see was the blade against my skin. Suicide isn’t chosen; it’s the result of when a person’s pain exceeds the resources available for coping with pain.

Obviously, I’m still here. I didn’t die that day. I consider that God’s grace, but I don’t understand it because one of the best friends I’ve ever had did die from depression almost a year and a half ago. How can I call my living grace when she died after having survived previous suicidal episodes?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that Melinda and I were texting earlier that week about the dark place in which she had found herself. We had talked about it the week before over coffee and donuts. Her doctors knew. Her husband knew. Her sons knew. Her mom and sister knew. We were all standing with her, holding her up, cheering for her. She was fighting and seeking help and taking meds and making all the choices you make if you want to live.

Until she didn’t see choices anymore.

Three Sundays ago was the first time I let myself cry at our new church. I hate crying in public. I think it’s fine if someone else does it, but it feels like weakness when I do. (Yes, I’m working on being kinder to myself.) But after talking about the two young men who were no longer living, we sang the hymn It Is Well. We sang that song at Melinda’s funeral too.

Well, some people sang it then. As for me, I leaned over to Lee and whispered, “I refuse to sing this. It. Is. Not. Fucking. Well. With. My. Soul.”

(I don’t think I’ve ever cussed on the blog, but here we are. Someday I’ll write a post about why I think most of the passages in scripture about profane language are more concerned with the sort of vile remarks Trump makes than with certain four letter words we’ve deemed unspeakable. For now, I’ll simply say that in some moments – like this one and like when I replied with the same f word to my friend Lisa’s text a few months later that her four year old son had died – polite language fails us. Or it does me, at least. I'm a work in progress, after all)

I don’t think I chose suicide the day I attempted it. I don’t think Melinda chose it the days she tried or the day she died. I don’t think the two young men in our church community chose overdose or suicide.

I do think, though, that we all make choices every day that move us toward life or death. When Jesus says that he came that we might live life abundantly, I don’t think the takeaway is that life will always feel good. I do think, though, that we can choose life and keep choosing it. We can show up, even when it’s hard. We can defy death and despair by doing the next loving thing. We can look for lovelies even on dreary days. We can sit in the ashes of life and still find beauty. We can hold out support for others when their pain is exceeding their resources, and we can let others extend it to us when we’re in that imbalanced place. We can believe we are enough - even when we don't feel that way - because we were created by One who is more than enough. We can choose joy and bravery and light, and we can encourage others to join us in that choice.

And we can do so without painting those who succumb to depression as ones who rejected joy or weren’t brave or chose the shadows. That’s not the truth. None of us – even those who die from mental illness – are defined by what we’ve done in our darkest moments.

Suicide is a lot of things: A tragedy. A million papercuts on the hearts of those still living. A crushing end to the battle against depression. An anguish-driven explosion, sending shrapnel in more directions than anyone could predict beforehand. A painful reminder that this sin-soaked world isn’t right or just or perfect and that happy endings aren’t promised.  

But suicide is not a choice. And I think we need to stop saying it is.