As I tackled Bobbie to the ground and grabbed his jacket collar I wasn’t thinking about Sunday School lessons or Bible hero stories. When I dragged him down the alley I was just enjoying meting out swift justice. I stood by Sally’s back gate and watched him knock on her door. I wanted to be sure that her hat was returned. I wanted to hear him apologize as I had instructed him to do.
Bobbie was a tiny boy who lived in the next block. Bobbie was a bully. That day on the bus he had crossed the line of what I would silently tolerate. I typically bit my tongue and looked out the window. It wasn’t my place to right all the bus ride wrongs! Keep to yourself and you will be safe.
That day he stole my neighbor’s hat as we lined up to depart the bus. She chased him and was nearly hit by a car as it approached the intersection. Watching her slip on loose stones and slide between the wheels of the sedan was terrifying. The squeal of the tires made my heart skip. I reflexively took off after him as soon as I saw Sally stand and brush herself off. The bully would not win today. Not if I could help it.
Bobbie was still a bully after that. But not to Sally. He even smiled at her when he walked to his bus seat.
I had totally forgotten about that incident until recently. I forgot how I stood at a distance and watched him right his wrong. I forgot how my legs turned to jelly after I reached my home. I forgot my mom’s subtle smile when I told her what had just happened. (I’m fairly certain that she would not have openly approved of my brutish methods. But she approved of my defending the awkward girl from down the street.)
I stood in my kitchen last week and told my husband that I think I may have always been a social justice warrior without realizing it. Never. Never connected the dots from the little girl who chased the bully to the woman who calls out societal wrongs. I never connected the little girl who gathered up the kids on the sidelines of the playground with the woman who searches crowds for lost faces.
My parents taught us to look out for those weaker than us. We were to care for those who lived in the shadows. We were to help without being asked. And never, ever seek recognition. Do good just because it’s right.
That is strangely like teaching us to follow the example of Christ.
Years after the great hat chase, I recall arguing with my father when the Clintons introduced healthcare reform. I, the idealist twenty-something, thought it was a wonderful idea, no matter where it came from. Everyone should have healthcare! Everyone should be taken care of no matter their social class or income! Families shouldn’t have to watch loved ones die because they can’t afford treatment. Those who had the means should help care for those who didn’t! I thought he would agree. Take care of others. That is what we had been taught. That is what my parents silently did for many throughout my growing years. But for some reason this idea was not even worthy of exploration. It was not up for discussion. This was a source of anger.
Since I adored my father and considered him to be one of the wisest people around, I decided that he must be right. He must have known more than my young self. He surely had studied some scripture that I had yet to discover that taught separation of spiritual self from our social and political self. I quietly decided that he had to be right. Stop being a silly kid and thinking that social justice is straightforward— All people deserve dignity and care. Or at least keep my mouth shut.
I gradually stopped paying attention to politics. I naively assumed that those in power were there for altruistic reasons. They were called “public servants” after all. That title alone proved that they had the best interests of the masses in mind in all decisions. They were aware of the weak and powerless. Right? Let the professionals take care of the citizens. Right?
I married, bought a home, had children. I had a comfortable life. My focus became insular. As long as my tiny family was safe and secure, all was right with the world. We never lacked food. The children were nicely dressed. We had a cozy home. Good neighbors. Safe cars. Secure jobs.
We taught our children to be kind to kids at school. We taught them to do their best in whatever they were asked. We tithed to our church. Hey, we even occasionally gave to charity. What stellar humans, we!
Gradually, I found myself echoing some sentiments of conservative friends and family. Questioning the contents of someone’s shopping cart when I knew they used food stamps. Wondering about why that person wasn’t working (but never actually asking them). Assuming that all prisoners were awful humans who deserved to be punished harshly. Condemning a beloved friend when he told me he was gay.
It’s very easy to become calloused and distant when living a comfortable and privileged life. It’s easy to never notice the disadvantaged, the poor, the sick. I could just drive my car through nice neighborhoods and pretend the broken down apartment buildings don’t exist. I could shop at times when only people like me were in the store. I could choose a doctor’s office who didn’t accept Medicaid. I could look the other way at the stop light when the homeless man holds his sign up to the car. Pretend he’s not even there.
I was a church worship director for over ten years. I became part of the Christian machine. The Christian machine looks shiny and nice on the outside. It claims righteousness and the love of God. But it will grind up anyone who does not stay in their designated box. As long as I was an unquestioning conservative, Republican, church member I was in the fold. I even sat in on meetings where good people were vilified and scolded for mistakes made. I watched beautiful families disappear only to find out later that they had felt unwelcome, unwanted, not good enough. (How could we have mistreated people in God’s name? They must have misunderstood.)
Then good riddance to you! If you can’t see that this is the way God wants things to be, we don’t need you here. Shape up or move on!!! You must be running from God. You cannot see that you are blind.
It’s a gradual, subtle decline to becoming a hard and judgmental Christian. We should have standards for who can be a church member, right? We should be all able to dress respectfully for services (Please don’t ask me exactly what this means because I truly don’t know). Proper language please! Don’t be political (unless it involves abortion–then you must be willing to march against it at rallies and clinics). Every life is sacred and precious. But, the Bible says “an eye for an eye” so we should also be pro death penalty. After all, those people deserve to die. Israel must always be supported regardless of the humanity (or lack there of) that they display. And the LGBT community is never to be accepted.
My social justice warrior self slowly disappeared and was replaced by a flimsy copy of the ideal evangelical. The drive for social equality dies a slow and painless death when you only talk to church friends. When you only go to nice places you can pretend that all is fair. All people are given equal opportunities. It’s just that some people squander their chances. It’s just that some folks choose drugs over their families. It’s just that poor decisions land those people in a slum apartment and dependent on government handouts.
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” (Matthew 11: 25-26)
My childish way of interacting with my community was actually pure. It was based in love. It was based on the assumption that all people were special in God’s eyes so they should be treated as such. It was able to look beyond clothing, beyond greasy hair, beyond unbrushed teeth. The childish me saw the person underneath. The childish me never stopped wondering what it might be like to be in their shoes. The childish me reacted according to what I would want others to do for/to me.
The childish me followed Christ’s example.
Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9: 12-13)
I recently visited with a childhood friend after reconnecting on Facebook. As we jumped from topic to topic I mentioned to her that I recently discovered that I have become a social justice warrior. I said it not with pride, but with a sober sense that this choice demands sacrifice. I wasn’t sure if she might be one of those people who I might lose again. This vocation will create anger and distance with some. My speaking out will cause others to call me hateful., regardless that my motive is love. I have seen the disappointment in some family member’s eyes. I can no longer be a cog in the Christian machine. I frequently feel alone in a sea of people who think I’m lost. It’s been a heavy realization, honestly. I haven’t always wanted it. I have tried to put it down occasionally.
She looked at me with kind eyes and simply said, “I’ve not been surprised by a single thing you have written. I have seen my old friend. You have always been this way.”
She had no idea that I would treasure that remark. She had no idea that she reassured me that I was not wrong in changing direction. She may never know that those words were a balm to my wounded soul. “You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” I understood what it meant to truly follow Christ when I was a child. She saw that.
As I grew I made it complex. As I grew, I bought the traditions over the simple gospel. As I grew, I looked down at those who didn’t believe like me. I judged those who weren’t as fortunate as me. I would not admit that to anyone. But, really, I didn’t need to hide it because my friends did the same. Of course, they would never acknowledge it either.
My childhood friend never saw this phase of my life. She never saw me get lost in the machine. She never saw me choose rules and judgement over grace and love. I’m glad she didn’t.
I wish I never saw my father lose some of the simplicity of pure love in favor of some church traditions. I wish I never saw the pain in his eyes when I speak out on certain topics. I wish his pedestal was still as high as it was in my youth. Truth be told, he is a very loving and kind man. He is a pretty darned stellar example of a Christian. He is a thinker. He is still my hero. But like all of us he has some blind spots. I wish I had never noticed. I wish I never knew he was a fallible human. I wish he was completely outside of the machine with me.
And some day when my children meet with old friends over coffee, I hope they remain true to who they are now. I hope they keep the simplicity of the gospel in their hearts. I hope the greatest commandment is etched on their hearts. I hope they always fight for the poor, the lonely, the fringe, the lowly and despised.
Kind of like Christ did.
And if they get swallowed up by the machine, I pray they find their way out. Just as I pray my father finds his way in those tiny areas he is blind to. Just as I did when I started really digging into scripture with the lens of a loving and forgiving God. I pray to never slide down the slope of rules and traditions again.
Because Jesus, God himself incarnate, said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
If Jesus called these the greatest commandments, then I suppose we should listen.