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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, October 14, 2016

Why I'm Not Mad at Colin Kaepernick

There is a modern form of religious fervor known as nationalism.  It is a doctrine which holds that the place of one's birth deserves one's ultimate loyalty and devotion.  The cardinal virtue called forth by nationalism is patriotism, displayed through emotionally charged commitment to love nation and its symbols.  The liturgical practice of nationalism involves postures of reverence and obeisance to symbols such as the national flag, enthusiastic singing of hymns and anthems to the nation, and recitation of creeds such as the pledge of allegiance.

While standard Americanized Christian theology has found it easy to merge devotion to God and Country, my own understanding of following Jesus can't help finding contrasting and conflicting visions of the proper loyalties and loves required by nationalism and Christian faith.  The assumption that the modern fiction of borders should create divisions of ontological hostility--meaning that it is right for me to love and support people on my side of a border and wrong of me to equally love and support people on the other side of a border--contradicts most of what the New Testament teaches.  Moreover, adopting a stance of suspicion, fear, and animosity toward those across the border, which much nationalistic religion seems to affirm, requires a Christian to disavow the very virtues that the Lord exhibited and taught.

While Jesus observed among his closest followers a kind of ethnocentrism that is akin to nationalism, he took numerous opportunities to challenge their prejudices.  When they would have preferred to walk around the territory of Samaria, Jesus walked straight through it.  While they would have avoided talking with a Samaritan woman, he was direct and friendly in acknowledging the common humanity they shared.  While they would have denied sharing the good news of Jesus' transformative ministry among neighboring peoples, Jesus lampooned their views by first refusing the request of the Syro-Phoenecian woman, then granting it with compassion and respect for her faith.  There are other examples from Jesus' life and words, but let these suffice to point toward a refusal on Jesus' part to let human-constructed ethnic and national boundaries determine who we should and should not love.

In the New Testament Epistle to the Ephesians, a crucial text further addresses the ways that human beings divide themselves into antagonistic groups.  Ephesians 2:11-22 draws the focus upon the divisions that exist between Jews and Gentiles.  The writer asserts that in the work of Christ, those "who were once far off have been brought near."  The made-up and hyped-up reasons that would keep groups apart have become nothing.  Jesus "is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."  Whatever sorts of ethnic, linguistic, nationalistic barriers that human beings want to erect have been made irrelevant by the love of God in Jesus Christ.

The book of Ephesians is talking about ecclesiology, that is, about what the church is supposed to be.  When people become part of God's family, when they become part of one body, when they are joined together into the household of God, the other kinds of divisions take on a very different meaning.  They are no longer excuses for domination of some by others.  They cannot justify violent behavior; on the contrary, in Jesus' dying, he is, "putting to death that hostility."  They exist as the beautiful mosaic of divine blessing in the world:  not as reasons to resent and reject one another.

Thus, the church should not know boundaries.  If you are a brother or sister of mine, regardless of what political power wants to claim you within its borders, we are in the same church.  If you are my sister or brother, my duty is to care for you and seek your good.  Jesus has set out to "create in himself one humanity in place of the two, thus making peace."  A Christian church should know no nationalisms, no ethnocentrisms, no jingoisms.  When two modern nation-states enter into conflict and war, a faithful church would refuse to join that cause.  The loyalty of the church and its members should be transnational, because we are "no longer strangers and aliens," but one family.

A key difference between the demands of the calling of Christ and the demands of the calling to patriotic nationalism can be found in Jesus' own words in the Gospel of John 15:13.  "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."  Jesus' understanding of love, demonstrated in his own resistance to the empire and its oppression toward the poor and outcast, was to continue his resistance until he was arrested, tried, tortured, and executed as an enemy of the state.  He laid down his life.  Along the way, people suggested he should take up the sword, but he refused.

Here is the difference.  Nationalism asks me to be willing to lay down my life, but first it asks me to be willing to kill other people.  Being willing to die for one's friends is not the same as being willing to kill for national interest.  The religion of nationalism calls for a full sacrifice of one's life and of one's conscience and character.  As a follower of the Prince of Peace, I must not submit to a wholly contradictory vision of the world in which I am expected to be a killer. 

So for decades I have not offered anthemic devotion to country by singing "The Star Spangled Banner."  Nor have I made an idolatrous pledge of allegiance to affirm my ultimate loyalty to the god of nation and war.  A song which glorifies the technology of war and the steadily operating machinery of death asks me to turn from the way of Jesus.

Colin Kaepernick's reasoning is not the same as what I have offered so far.  He is not addressing a conflicting pair of faiths as I have described and advocating what I am--conscientious objection to war.  He is not directly questioning devotion to country as a high ideal.  Kaepernick is protesting for the sake of the high ideals of country--he is expressing a longing for the ideals to become reality.  He is asking for a nation of high ideals, such as equal justice before the law, equal opportunity, and due process of law, to live up to those ideals.  On these matters, I agree with him.  To refuse ultimate loyalty to the nation and to reject the religion of nationalism does not mean that I also reject any good that might rise from the political community of humanity here in the United States.  The ideals of justice, of equality, and of fairness are ideals I also hold.  I appreciate the good that I receive from being a citizen of this nation, and I long for the goodness to overcome the many ways this nation has fallen short of its ideals.  

This particular song upheld as the national anthem was originally written with multiple stanzas.  In public events, people sing only the first stanza.  There is a third stanza which has stirred significant controversy as historians have studied it.  It speaks of vengeance against the enemies, particularly those who as "hirelings and slaves" have spread their "foul footstep's pollution" on the "land of the free and the home of the brave."  Frances Scott Key was a slaveholder, and while fighting in a previous battle at Bladenburg, his troops faced and were defeated by the British who were employing escaped slaves to join in the war with the promise of emancipation.  Some historians argue that Key held a special resentment and hatred toward these slaves fighting for their freedom, which he expresses in this stanza.  Other historians dispute that conclusion, and Key recorded no commentary on the meaning or context of these particular words.  It seems to me to be a compelling argument, and it adds another reason to question the practice of singing such a song with patriotic fervor.

Political dissent is at the core of what it takes for human beings to do better toward one another.  People must be able to articulate and challenge the failures of society to live up to its ideals.  The often unspoken, yet original sin of racism and white supremacy continues to bear fruit of bitterness in the United States.  Challenging the ways that social behaviors fall short of moral aspirations is the duty of those who have eyes to see and a voice to speak.  There was a time in our family's life when my beloved Everly asked me the question that must not be so different from the one Colin Kapernick heard echoing in his own conscience:  "How will we explain our inaction to our children when they ask us why these things have happened in our community?"  The only answer we could have given would be that we had failed our morality, failed our conscience, failed our God.  So we did what we knew we had to do.

I am pretty sure Colin does not think his kneeling is going to suddenly make injustice go away.  But if no one asks the hard questions, demands a hearing, and ultimately enacts resistance in public, there will be no chance of seeing change come.  No doubt, he realizes as other who risk to take a stand against the dominant ways that more people will misunderstand and be hurt than will be awakened and inspired.  There really isn't any easy way to confront systemic injustice.  People will get angry.  They will accuse you of the opposite of what you are trying to do.  But in the words of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan,
You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk.
You may be the head of some big TV network.
You may be rich or poor; you may be blind or lame.
You may be living in another country under another name.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are.
You're gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
I pray for all of us that we can get clear on who it is we are going to serve.  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.  Let me invite you to do the same.  I ain't mad with Colin Kaepernick. 
 


Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Everly and Stand Your Ground

On the weekend in July near the date that marked three years since Everly died, I began writing this post.  It seemed a good time to return to an idea that started to germinate when I was writing a book review back in February.  Kelly Brown Douglas, in Stand Your Ground:  Black Bodies and the Justice of God, addresses many aspects of whiteness and its theopolitical underpinnings.  As I worked through her excellent presentation, certain parts of her argument drew me into thinking about Everly's work over a quarter century of leadership in transforming how mathematics is taught in public schools.  On that weekend, I started to write about ways that Douglas's theological work and Everly's work in math education are challenging the same kinds of problems.  Now, almost three months later as I celebrate her birthday, I'm going to finish it.

Everly's earliest efforts to influence the way that math is taught began soon after arriving in North Carolina, fresh out of her MS degree in math education from the University of Texas in Austin.  Administrators quickly recognized that as a classroom teacher, she had the potential both through example and leadership to reshape math teaching in a way that more students could have an opportunity to succeed in what is too often thought of as a subject matter for only an elite few.  However, as soon as she was elevated to a position of leadership, she began to meet resistance from the experienced teachers who were already sure that the way to teach math had to be pretty much the same way that they were taught math.  In other words, they, who had emerged as some of the few to succeed in math in a previous generation, seemed satisfied to continue the same pedagogy that rewards only a few.  They were among the few who are able to decipher a code of learning targeted at a narrow portion of the classroom.  It is not surprising to me that this first cadre of organized resistance was made up of an all-white group of teachers.

At the time, Everly and I were not particularly sensitized to the way that math functioned as a marker for racial difference in many education systems.  Even though we were in our mid-twenties, we had not previously lived and worked in places where we met and interacted with African Americans on a regular basis.  In the particular communities of Texas where we grew up, ethnic difference was more directly defined by Mexican American and Anglo American communities.  Having moved for the first time into the South, rather than the Southwest, we were only beginning to get direct experience of the racialized structures of education.  Her teaching both in Chapel Hill and in Durham played a role in reshaping her understanding of the role race plays in math education, especially as it became more clear who had access to higher math classes and who did not.

When Everly got the opportunity to become the coordinator for mathematics education in Durham Public Schools, she intensified her study of the way young people learn math.  That led her into conversations across the country about the gaps in mathematics achievement that show up between minority and majority communities.  She became engaged with leaders who were challenging the idea that some people by their genetic heritage will not be good at math.  She found many of the education leaders in Durham and elsewhere unwilling to have those conversations.  Some bosses told her to stop saying "achievement gap" in public meetings.

Before long she had successfully navigated the federal grants process and received a $5 million plus, four-year grant to revamp math teaching in Durham.  The focus of the program was to change curriculum and the culture of math teaching.  She set out to implement a new curriculum based on study of how math is taught in the countries where students achieve highest on international math tests.  Using a teacher-led, grassroots process, she led the Durham school teachers to select one of the reforming math curricula that the National Science Foundation funding was seeking further research on.

Implementing the curriculum would not be possible within the culture of traditional math teaching.  Everly implemented a district-wide professional development which took every elementary teacher and every middle- and high-school math teacher through about 100 contact hours of training.  The math curriculum schedule for professional development in Durham during those crucial years had over 250 times as many training events as any other teaching field.

The curriculum program was called RAMP:  Realizing Achievement in Mathematics Performance.  Influenced by civil rights leaders Robert Moses and Charles Cobb who through the Algebra Project were advancing the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement into reforming education, she insisted that every child have access to learning higher math.  With Lisa Delpit she championed teaching the same level of skills to all students.  She embraced Carol Malloy's research on the centrality of access to higher math as the barrier for black achievement.  This ruffled feathers in schools where principles and teachers had colluded to steer certain students, often by skin color, away from algebra classes to keep only an elite group of high achievers taking the high-stakes tests by which schools would be compared and graded.  Pushback came from parents who were not used to seeing poor or black children in certain math classes.  When those minority students were making good grades in math, the scuttlebutt assumption was that higher math courses were being "dumbed down."

Kelly Brown Douglas talks about the history and continuing legacy of Anglo-Saxon Exceptionalism, a version of white supremacy that identifies intelligence and political expertise as the heritage of a specific group of Northern Europeans.  Elsewhere and other times, similar ideas were expressed as Aryan mythology.  This particularly inherent giftedness of a people group justifies their management, supremacy, and control over the destinies of other groups.  Their Manifest Destiny, as Douglas also points out, demands that they extend their power and influence over greater areas, regardless of the wishes of others who may contest their claim to lands and goods.  As Douglas goes on to argue, the Black Lives Matter movement has risen up to challenge the heritage of these aspects of white supremacist ideology which still lead to systemic repression of minorities, even in a world of "racism without racists."

Everly strove to press this agenda against an entrenched belief that there is one good way to teach math that has been used successfully from eternity.  If only 10% of US students are excelling in math, then how can we believe that the way it is being taught is adequate?  Instead, a false belief in the supremacy of a particular genetic pool, children who really may not even need a teacher to help them understand math, has become a justification for not really trying to teach the rest of the students.

Could it be that children of various backgrounds might be trained to solve problems in different ways?  And could those strategies be effective if not immediately shut down by the canonical and only acceptable form of problem-solving being passed on by the elitist tradition of math teaching?  What if the order of courses (algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2) and the concepts and content of those courses were reorganized in a way that coordinates with brain development, cumulative learning processes, and the usefulness of the math processes for collateral science course learning?  Yet many teachers and successful math student parents assume that "since I learned math this way, it must be the right way to learn it."  Accepting the failure of most children seems far from good educational practice.  Trying to cure the problem by doing the same thing harder and with more testing just sounds dumb.  As Bob Moses has insisted, we need to give up the idea of a "math gene" that only a tiny minority has, and start trying to teach in ways that all students can learn.

Everly found the resistance to these changes daunting.  Some schools in Durham did all they could to "opt out" of change.  Some parent groups, unable to accept success of minority students, pressed to have the curriculum changes reversed.  Everly's doctoral research was showing that the change was real.  White students' achievement was going up.  Black students' achievement was going up even faster and the gap was closing significantly.  RAMP was good for all groups.  But social inertia can't always handle the truth.  People make up their minds based on deeply embedded prejudices that keep them from seeing the light that is breaking in.  Some high administrators decided that they would rather stop the complaints than try to understand and defend the progress.  Everly was "reassigned" within the school district to work on a project she philosophically opposed, a clear invitation to find another job.

She was quickly snatched up by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, and she carried her research and agenda to address the statewide curriculum.  After several years of successful work for North Carolina, she went to the Texas Education Agency to lead a statewide curriculum reform there in the second largest state school system in the US.  She made many important steps there, including having a curriculum reform adopted by the State Board of Education.  It was her last professional action, and the final vote took place while she was in the hospital struggling through her first chemotherapy treatments.

Bodies don't mark off some for intellectual achievement and others for backbreaking labor.  Failure to innovate, to listen, to teach creatively and constructively are the central barriers to achievement in mathematics.  May Everly's tribe increase, and may her work continue to inspire and bear fruit for all children.
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