Surely We Must See

LydiaDay 17 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National Liberation front, that strangely anonymous group we call “VC” or “communists”? What must they think of the United States of America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem, which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the South? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of “aggression from the North” as if there was nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings, even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.
By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann (photo above with son Isaac), co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.Net

It was one of those first warm spring days on campus. We began pulling up the orange jump suits and covering our faces with black hoods. It was, for me, the first of many years that this physical embodiment would be part of protests. News of the US’s use of torture had been spreading. Images flooded the internet. Suddenly, the sidewalks were packed. Within minutes, it was clear that this protest struck a nerve. We were met with hostile anger and a consistent response- “You are wrong! The US does not torture. We would NEVER do that!”

This sort of myth that the US held some sort of moral authority was new to me. It didn’t seem to matter that we held resource-sited, fact-checked documents in our hands. There was a deep belief that our country had morals, boundaries, and a sense of decency when it came to our foreign enemies. It was our enemies who behaved in violent, monstrous ways. We were a moral authority around the world. I never knew such a belief- having grown up watching my parents being dragged away by the police one military conflict after another, memorizing the numbers and names of “collateral damage,” and reading Howard Zinn with my history text book starting in 5th grade. My assumption always leaned towards the “computerized plans of destruction” that we hold for so many people and places.

We went home for the summer, came back in the fall, and slipped back into those orange jump suits and hoods. I was ready to engage this powerful myth of goodness, but to my surprise it was gone. In the span of three months, the response had changed. “Of course we torture. We have to.”

Today we stand at a moment where there is no longer even a guise of moral authority. We elected a man who does not even pretend to be good or decent. He cheats, lies, sexually abuses women and brags about it, mocks the disabled, and treats immigrants and refugees as scum. It’s enough to make you weep every day. There is no call from those who elected him to hold on to some integrity. Instead, the hate trickles down, having given permission to expose the ugliness within us.

I see it in the children. I will never forget the question asked at the debate when a teacher asked how Trump felt that teachers could not assign their students to watch the debates because they were filled with penis talk, hateful attacks, and blatant lies. But of course, the election seeps right into our children anyway. I remember hearing in the news about the second grade boy who went up to a girl in his class, grabbed her vagina and said “if the president can do it, so can I.” That is logic hard to argue with.

In the suburbs, twenty minutes from my house, students in the elementary school filled the hallways chanting “Build the Wall” and a week later a noose was found hanging in the boys’ bathroom.

The children on my own streets have felt the trickling down as a constant state of fear. Our house is within a mile of Dearborn, heavily populated with immigrants from the Middle East. Children wonder what a registry would mean for their families and feel the reality of the travel ban. The children of Detroit, a city 80% African American, know what it means when the White House’s civil rights webpage changed inauguration day to one advocating for more force and support for the police. And the undocumented children on my own street are petrified.

An eighth grader came home the day after the election telling us that two of their teachers told the class they were glad Trump won. I lay awake that night seething believing those teachers should be fired! Did they have any idea who sat in those desks and how they must be feeling? Some of those kids are undocumented and many of their parents are. This was one of the scariest days of their lives knowing that a man had won the presidency with the clear promise to tear apart and destroy their families.

photo 1My own kids are 4 and 1. They know that we are protesting a president named Donald Trump. Isaac has proposed that we have a meeting to figure out “how we can make Donald Trump more nice.” He says “maybe I could come.” But mostly, they are oblivious to the new reality we are living in. But by the end of this term, they will be 8 and 5. Isaac will be in second grade, old enough to stand in the hallways chanting. What will he cry?

I am raising two white boys- citizens of this country, Christian, English speaking, able bodied. They are everything that this administration seeks to uphold. So, these questions that King poses seems all the more imperative.

While Trump rages on a four-year campaign to destroy human dignity and tear people down to benefit the privileged, it is more important than ever for those of us with privilege to look at these questions King names. He asks us to lay down our assumptions of our national moral superiority and think about our enemies. It is a call to see, to understand, and to speak. The list of the United States enemies is sure to grow larger in these days- both foreign and domestic. It is this list of human beings that we must work to see and understand, to build community with, to create spaces for their stories, and to refuse to become silent bystanders.

So, for now the resistance I can do best, is with these two beautiful, incredibly privileged children. We will spend these four years engaging this paragraph. These questions can manifest in our lives in a hundred different ways. It will come right down to our own home, to our parenting, to how we all engage in pain and conflict. For in these spaces, our children will either learn restorative justice or the myth of redemptive violence. Suddenly, questions of timeouts and punishments seem all the more important.

photo 2We will not ask our kids to blindly trust anything- including us. Instead, we will find the patience to answer with their endless questions. We will admit when we are wrong and ask forgiveness from them. We will listen deeply to them and ask them to listen in return.

We will teach them that moral authority never comes from the flag or any power or principality. But that we find the moral authority in our own hearts and in the discernment of community around the kitchen table.

We will ask them how they are feeling, offer freedom to cry, and never shame their hearts for the sake of our culture’s understanding of masculinity. We will wonder aloud how those torn down by power are feeling. We will think a lot about words- our own and the ones we will teach them. We will begin thinking about language around whiteness and privilege and gender and power.

We will love and know our neighborhood, learning its history, land, and people. We will always keep an eye out our window prepared to run out in a moment’s notice if there is screaming or if we sight the police or ICE or the water shut off trucks.

And of course there will be streets to march and yell in, press conferences and courts to sit in, gardens to grow food in, beauty to delight in, neighbors’ porches to sit on, beds and dinner tables to offer as hospitality, stories to listen to, and people to know. It is all we can do in these days to celebrate our own humanity and see it the faces all around us.

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