I’m guessing you’ve seen this photo before. It was taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression, and has come to represent much about that era:
I saw this picture over the weekend at the Nelson-Atkins art museum in Kansas City, Mo. (It’s a terrific institution, by the way.) It was part of a broader exhibit highlighting the Depression-era work of Lange and other photographers, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott and Peter Sekaer.
It was stunning. It was, in fact, difficult emotional work. One of these photos is a powerful document. Dozens of them tell a story, immerse you, make it difficult to leave these lives in the past.
A couple of quick observations.
• Here’s another Lange photo from the era. My only thought: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
• These pictures were taken all within the lifetimes of my grandparents. It’s both forever ago and just that close. The conditions that millions of Americans were living in — in makeshift shacks, built from mud or items rummaged from the trash, or simply not having enough to eat an being required to flee across the country in hopes they’d find some way to make a living — are those we associate, in modern America, with “third world countries or with pre-modern ways of living in our own. Truth is: What we think of us civilization — of a largely middle-class society, anyway — is both recent and fragile.
• This may be a weird response, but these photographs made me angrier yet about McCarthyism.
Let me explain.
If you were a person surviving the 1930s, bearing witness to what was going on around you — but not privy, at this point, to the destruction of Russian life under Stalin — it seems really easy me to see why a black person or a poor person in that era might’ve embraced, for a time, Communism. It makes all the sense in the world! To be judged for such conclusions by Cold Warriors — to lose or risk losing one’s livelihood in the 1950s because one got tired of all the poverty and oppression in the 1930s — is just … ugly.
• Finally, I’m reminded of the importance of bearing witness. To see what’s going on around you is difficult, sometimes. To document it — honestly and unflinchingly — is to increase the potential for a healthy response. God bless the people who do such work.
The “Dignity and Despair” exhibition runs through Nov. 26. Anybody in the Kansas City area between now and then would do well to see it for themselves.
The Mennonite has an open call for contributors writing about their experiences with Scripture. The call says:
The Mennonite, Inc. welcomes your original submissions and contributions for our October 2017 print magazine issue and corresponding online content focusing on Scripture: Texts that move and shape you.
Submissions are due no later than August 1, 2017.
We welcome written reflections—personal stories, biblical or theological reflections, poetry and more (800-1200 words), as well as original photography, multimedia products (including, but not limited to, original song or music recordings, music playlists, videos and vlogs) and artwork on the theme.
Submissions could consider these or other questions related to the theme:
What is one Scripture passage that was a “theme text” or that has been particularly important to you throughout your life? Can you tell a story of how you discovered this text and what it has meant for you and your community?
Can you tell a story of a time when Scripture transformed your understanding? Or when Scripture challenged you? Encouraged you? Sustained you?
From the 16th century on, Anabaptists have emphasized reading and interpreting Scripture in community. How has your understanding of Scripture been shaped by the communities where you have encountered it? What are some of the places, spaces or communities (congregations, friends, neighbors, strangers, family, enemies, Bible study group, etc.) that have shaped your understandings of Scripture?
What Scripture passages have you wrestled with or found confusing? Can you tell a story of how you approach and engage these passages?
How have your understandings of Scripture evolved or changed over time?
Are there regular practices that you engage as you read Scripture?
How has Scripture moved beyond simply reading the text into your life and the life of your community?
How has Scripture shaped your identity and sense of place in the world?
I hope some of our readers take up this challenge–I’d love to hear what folks have to say!
Talking across racial lines about issues of race and racial conflict will never, ever be easy, but if the church isn’t a place we can do this productively, where is? To do it productively requires humility on all sides. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If you want people to change, you have to show them mercy and grace. A white Evangelical friend of mine dropped out of a racial reconciliation group in his city — a group he joined because he’s serious about it — because it turned into a weekly ritual denunciation of Whiteness™.
If that’s what the encounter in church between blacks and whites comes down to, then there will never, ever be racial reconciliation. If facing the legacy of racism in the church in a healing way can only be done by whites hating themselves for being white, then all you will get is bitterness and defensiveness.
Here’s what’s crazy-making about this:
• Yes, it’s true that “all have sinned etc etc,” but when it comes to matters of race in America, it’s inescapably true that white people have sinned — or, more passively, reaped the rewards of that sin — much, much, much more than black people. “All have sinned” feels like a way to spread responsibility for sin when, as a matter of historical fact, the sinning is pretty localized. To white people.
(Note to critics: I do not deny black people can be prejudiced. But. There is no comparing the suffering of white people at the hands of blacks to the suffering of black people at the hands of whites. There will always be exceptions, but this is the rule.)
• In fact, Dreher offers no guidance to doing racial reconciliation in the church except this: Don’t make white people feel bad. But I’m not sure how racial reconciliation is done in the church if white people don’t feel bad. If white people can’t recognize the sins they’ve committed or how they’ve probably benefitted from the racial sins of others — even if it’s something as simple as having somebody, classwise, to feel superior to even if you’re at the bottom of the heap — if they can’t repent of this, how are our African-American brothers and sisters supposed to take us seriously?
• What Dreher’s formulation does, then, is put the work — emotional and otherwise — of racial reconciliation on the people to whom we need to be reconciled. There might be something Godly about that, but it’s also a bit superhuman, and it’s not fair for white people to expect that.
How to do racial reconciliation in the church, then? I don’t know. But I’d suggest:
• Being willing to accept one’s own responsibility for sin.
• To disregard the deep human need to offset one’s own sin by pointing out the sins of others.
• To pray a lot.
• And listen some more.
We’re going to have to practice humility. We are, on occasion, going to feel bad.
And no. I’ve not done nearly enough of this kind of work as I should.
Let me tell you a secret: I’ve got a chapter in a forthcoming Oxford book. [Above, two women, one in a red sweater and one wearing a blue top, face the camera as they drink from coffee mugs. The woman in the red sweater has leaned in close to her friend to share a secret.]
[Imagine us circled around a table upon which rests two cups of coffee. Soft but serious music plays in the background, like we’re in a commercial for a new pharmaceutical drug.]
You: It’s so hard to keep up with the news these days.
Me: Yes. Things are happening so fast!
You: Like, in Arkansas, state senator Jason Rapert got a new monument to the 10 Commandments installed on the grounds of the capitol–
Me: And then some guy drove his car through it! [Shaking my head.]
You: And what’s with the Kentucky governor supporting a new effort to teach the Bible in public schools?
Me: Matt Bevins? Yeah, he said the the curriculum won’t violate the Constitution but will just present the Bible in historical and literary context. Then out of the other side of his mouth, he said that “even atheists” should be able to get something out of the Bible because its got “a lot of wisdom” in it, which lets us know that he has a religious audience in mind. I’d be cautious if I lived in Kentucky,
You [putting your coffee cup down with frustration]: I wish there was some resource I could turn to for help understanding these debates–where they come from, why they are important, and why we can’t seem to settle them.
Me [reassuringly patting your hand while wiping up the splatters of coffee on the table with a napkin]: It’s okay, friend! We’ll find you the help you need. In fact, I’d like to share a special book with you that might just do the trick! [Reaches into bag and pulls out The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America, edited by Paul Gutjahr.]
With 42 chapters examining how the Christian Bible has been produced, interpreted, and used; its role in American art, history, and culture; and how specific traditions, including Judaism, Catholicism, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and Mormonism, have approached it, The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America* offers readers insight by top scholars of religion in the United States. You’ll learn about how the Bible appears in the law, education, and politics as well as pop culture and sports.
Me: You can pre-order your copy at Oxford.com, or tell your local librarian that you think the library should add the book to its holdings. The current projected date is late fall 2017, which will be here before you know it!
You: But will it be soon enough to help me slog through the most current religion news?
Me [with a wink]: Well, friend, that’s why you have me and Joel Mathis at SixOh6!
*Side affects of reading The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America may vary. Talk to your spiritual advisor or a religious studies professor–or just post your questions here–if you have any concerns.
You write: “Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power.”
I’ve got a story to tell, one that’s out there on the public record, but one that hasn’t been much remarked upon.
It takes place during the Obama-Romney campaign of 2012. During the campaign, Mitt Romney was proving reluctant — as Donald Trump was, after him — to release some pertinent personal financial information. So Sen. Harry Reid, then the leader of Democrats in the Senate, decided to make a big deal about it.
Saying he had “no problem with somebody being really, really wealthy,” Reid sat up in his chair a bit before stirring the pot further. A month or so ago, he said, a person who had invested with Bain Capital called his office.
“Harry, he didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years,” Reid recounted the person as saying.
“He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years! Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain,” said Reid. “But obviously he can’t release those tax returns. How would it look?
Why? Because there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Reid is telling the truth. He’s offered no witnesses and no proof of his claims, only a “somebody told me” statement that wouldn’t get within a million miles of passing muster in a court of law. And when challenged to present his evidence, his response is that Romney can prove Reid’s allegations wrong—by releasing his tax forms.
Politically clever? Yes. Distasteful? It absolutely should be.
Fast forward to the fall of 2016. Trump versus Clinton. Her emails have been hacked; Trump has asked the Russians to release them to the media. It’s all very suspicious. And Harry Reid, serving out his final days in the Senate, makes his move. He writes an angry letter to James Comey.
In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity. The public has a right to know this information. I wrote to you months ago calling for this information to be released to the public. There is no danger to American interests from releasing it. And yet, you continue to resist calls to inform the public of this critical information.
Here’s the thing: Reid was right! He was telling the truth! We found out later that Republicans had warned President Obama they’d accuse him of politicizing intelligence if he went public with this — and Obama, probably figuring Clinton would win anyway, decided to keep his mouth shut. Reid’s letter to Comey, when made public, represented one of the best possible chances to get this issue fixed firmly in the minds of the American voters.
Reid is saying that he has been told the FBI has evidence of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And he’s not just saying this information came from mysterious and unnamed national security officials; he’s saying Comey himself has left him with this impression.
But there is no public evidence to support Reid’s claim of actual “coordination” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And were that to be the case, it would be a scandal of epic proportions.
Asked what evidence exists of such a connection, Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson cited classified briefings.
“There have been classified briefings on this topic,” Jentleson said. “That is all I can say.”
Asked whether the letter means Comey has shared such information directly with Reid, Jentleson said, “Refer you to the language in the letter.”
This is the political equivalent of Reid lighting a match, dropping it on a dry ground and walking away.
The Post then mentioned Reid’s false allegation against Romney. And it included this old quote from Reid:
Is there a line he wouldn’t cross when it comes to political warfare?
“I don’t know what that line would be,” [Reid] said.
It was, in retrospect, a missed opportunity.
In 2012, when Reid made his first, pretty clearly bogus charges, there were no end of defenders. Why? Because, I was told, Romney hadn’t released his tax returns so who was to say Reid was wrong? And in any case, the other guys fight dirty so why shouldn’t we? We’re tired of always being the weak ones, right?
The problem being: When Reid’s credibility mattered most, when he could’ve used some “trust me” to help steer the nation on a different course, he’d spent it all on a crappy lie he probably didn’t even need to make in order for Obama to win.
Going low, politically, has its short-term rewards. It can be justified on that basis. But who wishes Americans had paid more attention to Harry Reid last fall? A lot of the same people who lauded his earlier lie.
Hey: Politics ain’t beanbag. It’s never going to be as clean as I like it. But there are costs to wallowing in the dirt, and they’re not just moral prissyness. They matter. We’re all living with how they matter now.
A conservative friend — I think we’re friends — linked angrily today to this piece at The Millions. It wasn’t hard to see why. Check it out.
So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged, The Communist Manifesto, or The Bible. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?
This was offered as proof of the censorious nature of “progressivism.” And the piece’s commenters agreed:
It’s called freedom. It may be dangerous to you, or you may dislike it, or disagree with it, but none of those three personal views gives you the right to stop anyone else from reading it.
The moment you decide your role is to act as a gatekeeper shutting out the unworthy books, rather than a guide opening the door to new ones, you’re part of the problem. You’re no better than any other small-minded librarian/bookseller impeding access to books of which they do not approve.
What a load of elitist arrogant BS. And the author probably thinks they are being open minded. Keep doing you liberals.
One small problem: While the quoted paragraph above does indeed express the problem the writer, Douglas Koziol, was wrestling with, it doesn’t at all reflect his conclusions, or the fullness of his throught process and actions in getting there.
All of this is to say that I’ve yet to find a way to tactfully handle the subject. Even now, I fear that I’m slipping into a haughty and unproductive tone—that of an ideologically perfect soul who can’t seem to break through to the rubes. And that’s the last thing a bookseller or writer should be.
I can hide the stacks of Hillbilly Elegy in the back (if my boss is reading this, I’m just kidding). But I suspect that the most fundamental thing I can do is also perhaps the most trite: I can try to start conversations. Independent bookstores have continued to thrive in the face of the Amazon-ization of everything precisely because of their human component, and what is more human than honest-to-god conversation? But in order for this to be effective, it would require equal parts listening. Listening to what made the person gravitate towards the book in the first place, listening while withholding judgment, listening as if I don’t know all the answers.
What a powerful conclusion! Overcoming a censorious instinct to embrace humility, embrace listening and embrace understanding! We should want much more of this in our society than we’re getting right now. We should be praising Koziol for his honesty and his conclusion.
But instead, most of Koziol’s readers are acting like folks who, having heard the setup of a “knock knock” joke without hearing the punchline, have decided to condemn the evils of doorbells. Too bad. Reading to the end could’ve saved a lot of heartache.
Years ago, I was visiting the home of a politically conservative couple in rural Kansas. They were a generation older than me and very gracious hosts. We were on the patio, eating dinner, when the wife suddenly picked up a fly swatter and used it to smash a box elder that had landed on her chair. “Damn Democrat,” she muttered as she shook its guts into a nearby planter.
Above, a box elder bug. What happens when we use metaphors that show contempt for people with differing political views? When are such metaphors funny or useful? When do they shape our feelings about actual people?
I tried not to give that moment too much credibility, but I replayed it many times in my mind since, especially since the 2016 primary season. Around that time, I began a side project following “Deplorable” Facebook pages, pro-Trump social media spaces that, in the words of one, are for anyone who has been accused of having an “-ism” (racism, sexism, nativism, etc.). The total disrespect that members of these boards have for others (including other members who sometimes ask them to stop with the most violently racist and sexist memes) seemed another version of smashing of the box elder bug.
And your comments earlier this week, about our race to the bottom, our movement from tribalization to demonization to the Russia scandal, reminded me of it again. You argued that both Democrats and Republicans get tribal and demonize each other. Consequently, we justify whatever means we can use because, after all, the “other guy” is going to do it too. Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power. It’s a game of controlling the ball but never moving it forward, just as GOP leadership has done in these first 100+ days of the Trump administration.
I don’t think it’s too Capraesque to say that we can have leaders who do good well. We just have to want that more than we want the other things we are voting for, including racism. We have to say that playing fairly matters to us, that we won’t defend politicians who cheat, fearmonger, scapegoat, obfuscate, undermine democratic participation in our institutions, and obstruct justice. Why would we want leaders who do those things? (And, trust me on this one, there are plenty of people on Deplorable social media sites who see Trump’s lies, bigotry, and cheating as absolute positives. Their support for Trump as “God Emperor” is evidence, I think, of the need for civics education.)
Did voters get what they deserved in the 2016 election? Until the shadow of Russian interference in the election is gone, we won’t know. At minimum, though, it was clear in the primary line-up that we didn’t care enough about character to support candidates who were competent and had the character both to serve and to lead a divided nation forward toward a more perfect democracy.
Can we get there? Yes. You asked, though, how. How do we go high when they go low, whatever our party affiliation and whoever we see as the “they”?
I think we have to punish politicians who lack character by voting them out of office and calling them out when, during their tenure, they fail to live up to basic standards of civility and decency. That also means, though, that we need better options–which means more people of character stepping up to serve in elected roles, which means lowering the financial barriers to running. We can also improve civics education, making public service integral to civil life, so that the question “How do I serve?” is one everyone asks.