Why “Christian Soldiers?”

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I have struggled and struggled, trying to understand how so much of Evangelical Christianity has gotten entangled with the National Rifle Association. As our country tries to process our latest mass shooting incident, and I watch devout Christians on social media circle the wagons around their guns, all the while offering “thoughts and prayers” to the families who lost loved ones, I am baffled.*

Upon his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, when an apostle cut off the ear of a Roman soldier, Jesus admonished him, saying in the book of Matthew, ” “Put up your sword. All who take the sword die by the sword.” And though Jesus did speak of violence to come, it was the violence of persecution and martyrdom. Not war.

But as I meditated this morning, for some reason I found myself singing an old Sunday School song:

“I may never march in the infantry,

ride in the Calvary,

shoot the artillery. I may never

fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army. Yes, sir.”

There were hand motions, complete with a military salute. And I realized that somehow, over the millenia, we have equated faith with war and violence. There were the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the witch trials. After World War II, and during the Communist scare of the 1960s-1980s, many Christians wove patriotism, militarism, and Christianity into a camouflage fabric. The Constitution, and particularly its Second Amendment, have been granted the same reverence as the Bible, as though both writings, penned by a group of men in the late eighteenth century, are as inerrant and Divinely inspired as the Bible itself. After the Newtown shooting in 2012, English journalist Jonathan Freedland made this observation:

“If you really want to know why the US can’t kick its gun habit, take a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC. You don’t even have to look at the exhibits. Just study the queue. What you’ll see are ordinary Americans lining up, in hushed reverence, to gaze at an original copy of the United States constitution, guarded and under heavily armoured glass. It is no exaggeration to say that for many Americans this is a religious experience.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/21/sacred-text-us-gun-habit

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I myself have tried to gently discuss the idea that the Constitution is not above needing change, that in the 200 years since it was written, the world has changed and that elements of the document that was written so long ago could use revision. For a Constitutional Believer, that is a non-starter.

And then, there’s this: somehow, many Christians have come to believe that bearing an AR-15 is a sacred right, endowed by God and sanctified by the same Jesus who told Peter to put away his sword.

How did we get to a place where we are teaching seven year olds that being a Christian is equivalent to being a private in the United States Army?

Songs like “His Banner Over Me Is Love” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” reinforce this perception- Christians are here to do battle: battle against the people whose life choices are disagreed with, battle that requires a bump stock. We are an army, and armies need weapons.

The Armor of God that Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesians is this:

“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.’ Ephesians 6: 13-18.

Righteousness, faith, truth, readiness, salvation, the word of God. Paul says nothing about swords, bows and arrows, axes, slings, spears; or the modern day equivalent of handguns, rifles (bolt action or semi automatic), and shotguns.

I became truly aware of this conflation of militaristic patriotism and faith when I took a job teaching in a private Evangelical school in south Texas. I was required to lead my students in the pledge to the “Christian flag” along with the pledge to the Stars and Stripes. And though I had been raised singing about shooting the Lord’s artillery, I was flummoxed. I had never heard of a Christian flag. I felt sick. I began to really encounter this enmeshed belief system in which loyalty to America was synonymous with loyalty to Jesus. I  decided not to lead or say that particular pledge, having students do it instead while I quietly stood by. And since my eyes were opened, I have come to believe that loyalty to the Republican party is included there (I learned this when a Christian friend accused me of hating the country because I voted Democrat-the friend was not kidding). In the last two weeks, I have added loyalty to the NRA to the mix. Not for all Christians, no. But for enough.

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I have found myself wondering, amongst the money that is spent on guns, how it compares to money spent on feeding the poor. For each donation to the NRA, does the Christian gun advocate donate equally to a relief organization? Maybe.

In her blog “Just a Jesus Follower,” Anna Dimmel cites the New York Times:

“The NY Times recently published an article outlining the top 10 career recipients of N.R.A. The numbers speak volumes regarding the amount of control they have ‘bought’ inside our government.

It’s just gross.” It is, Anna. It really is.

America is not God’s Chosen Nation. That was ancient Israel. We are one of many great nations. God is not wrapped in a robe of red white and blue. Jesus doesn’t wear a camo hunting jacket and red trucker cap emblazoned “Make America Great Again.”

The Divine is greater than jingoism. Jesus would not have carried an AR-15. It’s time for some American Evangelicals to remember whom they profess to serve. Even more, it’s time for the compassionate, loving Christians to speak up. They can change the conversation if they will just gird themselves in that powerful and true armor of God.

Here’s Anna Dimmel’s blog:

 

https://justajesusfollower.com/2018/02/22/christianity-vs-the-nra-finding-a-different-perspective-on-gun-control-and-violence/

*In the interest of full disclosure- I am what some would probably called “lapsed.” Maybe “Lost” or “Fallen.” My frustration with some of the issues I have described here, along with the church’s treatment of women, and other more personal issues, have left me unable to face organized church. But I do love God. Jesus is a friend.

The Magic of Menopause

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When I was about twelve I saw an Oil Of Olay commercial in which a devastatingly beautiful woman, probably in her thirties said,” I don’t intend to grow old gracefully, I intend to fight it every step of the way.” That, my friends, is my mantra. My mother in law has been trying to tell me I am getting older and need to accept my adult limitations since I became a mother in my twenties. I used to say phooey to that, though it’s gotten harder since I hit my fiftieth birthday.

I wore a two piece swimsuit into my forties (not a string bikini, I was never that much of an exhibitionist, even at sixteen), I love rock music and I love the sun. There lies the rub. I love to bake. I love to swim, bike, and float. I love to read outside. My forehead looks like some crazy speckled brown chicken egg with creases across it. That’s why I wear bangs. Sometimes I consider growing out my bangs, then I pull my hair back and take a good look at what the sun has done to my forehead and I know I am doomed to banged hairstyles until I just do not care anymore.

Last fall I had my hair braided at the renaissance festival. The large frizzy haired earth mother asked me if I wanted my bangs braided in or left down. “Down,” I tell her,” I am not ready to show the world my awful speckled wrinkled forehead!” She laughed and told me I would eventually get over it and not care.

I am pretty sure she is wrong.

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I have been blessed with a nearly wrinkle free face. I turned fifty last year, and I still have no crow’s feet except when I smile, no lines around my mouth. Just the strategically hidden forehead. When I meet new people and they learn my age, they are usually surprised. I have very few gray hairs, they didn’t start showing up until I was forty eight.

I think it’s partly because I drink water and don’t smoke. But also because of Clarins and that very Oil of Olay that I saw advertised as a kid. When I was in my late twenties and between teaching jobs, I worked for the cosmetic company Clarins, and spent a week in training. Oh, I was excited! I had a red Clarins coat with brass buttons and slept in a hotel in Tulsa at the company’s expense, and I spent the days in classes learning all about skin care ingredients and regimens and self tanner. While I worked for the company I had access to all the products, and I got hooked on skin treatment twice a day: serums and multi-regenerante creams and even a bust lifting gel- all mine to use. I skipped the self tanner because I loved to lay out, and as my old youth minister said, I could get a tan just standing in the shower. When I went back to teaching and had to reduce spending, I switched to Oil of Olay. I remembered that commercial from the 1970s, and my Grandma June had used it, that seemed like a good recommendation to me; and I have applied it faithfully ever since, though I did move from the regular stuff to the anti-aging stuff ten years ago. Fortieth birthdays require such moves.

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My face and hair haven’t caught up yet. But my knees and back have. Oh, yes. I may look younger, but with four ruptured discs and two grinding knees, I walk like a 98 year old granny if I sit in one position for too long. Two nights ago I almost fell out of bed because I couldn’t make my joints bend fast enough to catch me when I stood up to go to the bathroom for what seemed like the fifty second time overnight. My hands hurt if I try to sew, my eyes require reading glasses, and to my horror I have started snoring if I try to sleep on my back. God, that is humiliating.

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But the worst is coming. It’s happening right now. The Change. That mythical transition from Mother to Crone. That evolution from fertile to dried up husk. That proverbial factory shut down. If mothering is magic, what is it when you lose the ability to become a mother? Is it still magic? I don’t really know just yet.

I don’t have hot flashes. Thank all the goddesses that ever lived in moons or trees or clouds or water. No hot flashes.

For me, it’s been about anxiety and insomnia. Oh, and gushing. And clotting. And cramping. And headaches. And desert dryness. And pudge.

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Right now, it feels like really dark magic. It feels like pain and loss. Do I want to have any more kids? No, not even a little bit. I am not even very excited about the prospect of being a grandparent. I am not that cliche’ mom asking my kids when they are going to make me a grandma. I will love on the babies of extended family or former students. That’s enough for me.

I am embarrassed that it’s even happening. But it’s nice that I don’t have to shave my legs as much. Though if there is even a musical about it playing in Las Vegas, aptly named “Menopause the Musical,” I guess I shouldn’t feel so lonely about it. Maybe it’s something to laugh about?

Here’s the thing: with age, you’re supposed to get wiser, right? More at peace. Calmer. Sophistication personified. I feel like a drooling monkey, squishy in all the wrong places, troubled by memory loss and inflexible joints (seriously, who thought PiYo would be a less stressful workout?)

I know that true beauty comes from the spirit within, and that “pretty is as pretty does.” I try really hard to be kind and positive (really, I cannot imagine any more damaging ager that negativity, except cigarettes. Those are brutal). However, I also think I would like to be one of those ladies who can rock heels and an age appropriate pencil skirt, whose skin is smooth and moisturized, and whose aura oozes confidence and magnetism.

Getting older sucks. Seriously. But…

Two of my favorite people in my entire life were my grandmothers. And they got older. They did. And I adored them anyway. And so did their husbands. And their children. And their grandchildren.

My grandmothers were awesome. Both were elegant and loving, and gifted in their own ways.

Maybe you have seen “The Age of Adeline,” a film in which the main character, Adeline, experiences a scientific miracle that halts her aging. She is forced to watch her own daughter age into an old woman, she can’t spend a life being married, she protects herself from all long term commitments and ties, lest someone discover her secret. Played by the stunningly beautiful Blake Lively, she looks perfect in every era of fashion, from 1920’s flapper to 1960’s hippy to today’s beaded column evening gown. You think you would make a pact with the devil to have that time, and that figure, for all time to come! But at the end (spoiler alert!) she does begin aging again, and that first grey hair, after 80 years of being ageless, is a miracle to her.

Aging is, unbelievably, a gift.

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So, here’s what’s coming, though not gift wrapped with a pretty satin bow: a wattle neck (dear jesus, I will need strength and humor to get over that), floppy arms, long boobies, and spotted hands. A cool gray pixie, a la Judi Dench. Continued efforts to stay fit, like the 85 year old lady in China who works out 90 minutes a day at home. Sewing for my eventual grandbabies (they are inevitable and I know I will love them when it happens). Gardening and developing a green thumb for my fairy garden. Time on my patio watching birds. And hopefully, with concerted effort, the grace of my grandmothers.

Chapter: Rotten Apples and  the Death of a Vintage Stapler

When I started my teaching career, I bought five things.

First, an EZ Grader.  If you grew up prior to the computer age, your teachers all had one. They were mint green and used a sliding graph to tell you what the grade should be depending how many questions were incorrect. My fifth grade teacher used to let me hold hers and call out the grades to the class as we corrected our papers. When I was teaching, I saved that privilege for myself. I still have that EZ Grader. It’s in a box in storage, the edges are fuzzily frayed and one edge has split so that the card slides out if I am not careful. I love it with a deep passion.

Second, oil pastel crayons and a Carson Dellosa clip art book for making bulletin board pieces by hand. My university most definitely did not endorse buying pre-made bulletin board supplies. We were not allowed to use those brightly colored corrugated borders in our college work- it was the lazy way. We hand crunched butcher paper or pressed out hundreds of seasonal shapes and stapled them one by one around the edges of the board. This philosophy is what led to my toddler standing in front of me, arms outstretched, tears on her face, as I wouldn’t pick her up so that I could keep cutting out calendar pieces (like that bee- I had a calendar with that bee with the dates written on the wings) for my first classroom. My mother in law saw this moment and very wisely told me that I would not have those little arms to hug me forever and maybe I could find another way to do bulletin boards. I started using the pre-bought corrugated stuff, and my students learned in spite of it. Thanks, MIL- you were so right!

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Third, a vintage Swingline stapler that I found at a garage sale. This one was brown and metal and hardcore, nothing like the plastic ones that you get now. I used it to staple papers and hang student work for all twenty two years of my career. And when I left the classroom for an office job, it broke that very first week. No, I am not making it up. I kept it, just in case I ever figure out how to get it working again. But also as a reminder that the stapler, just like me, made it for as long as it could in the world of the classroom, and that its duty was done.

Fourth, an apple pencil holder. Apples are ubiquitous for teachers. It just so happens that I love them. I think it’s because my Grandma June had, hanging in her home, a beautiful piece of polished driftwood with a blue barrel full of apples painted on it by her own hands. It said “Thank you, God, for the simple goodness of a shiny red apple.” I first saw it hanging in her bathroom in the sweet little Tudor inspired 1920s cottage that my grandparents lived in in New Mexico, it traveled to their Texas lake house later, and when I married, my Pop gave it to me. It has been hung in every house we have lived in for thirty years.

I have been given apples of every kind: big red delicious apples, apples on mugs, apples on jewelry, apples on Christmas tree ornaments, apples on tee shirts. And mostly, they were sweet.

The sweet moments in teaching came from hugs, from pictures, from watching kids get a concept. Sometimes parents would recognize my work and say thanks with a spa gift card. One of my favorite teacher gifts is a wind chime that has been hanging in my flower beds for twenty years. The kids whose moms went in together to buy it for me are now thirty years old and having kids.

After seven years of elementary classroom teaching, a therapist was helping me sort through tons of issues, and asked “If you could teach anything, what would it be?” My completely spontaneous answer: “Theatre.” And the very next year, I was offered a junior high theatre position in my district. Sometimes, the Divine One hears a heart wish and moves things to make it so.

I taught theatre for fifteen years. I directed plays and musicals and taught students about pantomime and improv. I once had a student who was so terrified to stand up in front of her peers that we started by just letting her come to the auditorium with me and one friend, and she practiced standing and saying her own name. It took four years, but she was performing pieces in front of the class and playing a character in a booth at the Renaissance festival by her graduation day. Those are the sweet moments. Those are the kids that make the job worth almost every heartache.

Because sometimes, just every once in a while, there’s a worm in the apple. Or it turns out to be rotten to its core.

For one thing, for a truly introverted human being, teaching is a complete drain. No matter the age of the student, they require utmost attention and have unceasing needs. Sometimes it’s the need for a shoe to be tied or a Friday folder to be found in a messy desk. Or maybe it’s the need to have a discreet lice check in their scalp. It could be an extra hour of reading tutoring after school. When the students are in high school, they often need advice, or  a hand to hold while they sob. No matter what their age, all students need advocacy. Unlagging, unflinching, untiring advocacy.

You may have figured out by now, with my wounded mom, my worn out dad, and my penchant for heroes like Mary Poppins that I wanted to be that advocate. Most of the time, I did pretty well. But there were times when my words got the best of me. There were times when I said something I shouldn’t. What I discovered about myself was that my gas tank could get seriously depleted, and when it did, I had a hard time being sympathetic. Or I left everything in the classroom and had nothing left to care for my husband, kids, or self.

Teaching nearly killed me. It was both blessing and curse, and if you ask nearly any educator in this country today, they will tell you the same thing (if they are honest). I am in a Facebook group that is secret and private and full of teachers whose stories of cruel school administrators, spiteful parents, and apathetic students reverberate with frustration and anger. Sometimes, these teachers post victories. But when they need encouragement, they come to their secret colleagues and they wail. And the group rallies around them, patching them up so they can get back on the battlefield. So many of my teacher friends have had to leave the profession.

As I grew up, teaching was never really on my radar as a potential career. I tended to bounce between singer, nurse (until I realized how gross their job is), interior decorator, and psychologist (I got more sophisticated, but maybe not more practical). I followed family tradition into a private Christian liberal arts college, where getting your MRS degree was still a primary goal. Upon bailing from a vocal music degree (I should have been singing show tunes instead of German lieder) I drifted into an Elementary Education degree plan. It’s what all my friends were doing, and it was a good career for a young woman who wanted to raise a family. It was also a “Godly” career choice- Jesus loves it when, if a woman has to work outside the home, she at least does it in a way that serves people and gets her off at the same holidays as her kids. Great reasons for choosing a career, right?

I got off to a rough start. The act of teaching is actually pretty natural for me- planning and executing lessons made sense. I spent hours turning my classroom into a colorful environment full of books and words. I graded papers. So many papers. Every kind of paper from first grade simple addition to third grade science journals to college level essays.

But what I struggled with was the kids who were difficult. I had not been equipped to deal with the attacks. I took them personally- I internalized them. Sometimes I lashed out.

But sometimes, I was lashed at.

One morning, just as I was about to walk out the door into the dark predawn to head to school, I saw a news story that both surprised and yet did not surprise me. In California, a teacher beat up a 15 year old student who became aggressive in an attempt to get her makeup back. In the cell phone video, the student can be seen bumping up against the teacher, talking trash and bullying the teacher until the teacher snaps and advances on the student, fists flying . The teacher and student end up on the floor, rolling and kicking and pulling hair, all while another student records the action with a cell phone. I imagine most people would be shocked, dismayed, and indignant. I was, for about three seconds: “How could a teacher do that? Doesn’t she know that our job is to protect these students?” Then I remembered.

Once,  I came upon a couple having an argument in the hallway. It was my conference period and I was on my way to the front office. These two were in the middle of what looked like a pretty ugly disagreement. It was in the middle of the class period, so the halls were empty and quite frankly, it looked like this young woman might be in physical danger if I didn’t get them separated. I told them to return to class, then watched until the young lady got back into her art class. At that point, her boyfriend pinned me into a corner, balled up his fists, and seethed threats and innuendos into my face. I was all alone, the halls were deserted, we were out of sight of the security camera, and this was a 17 year old kid who definitely had the physical strength and stature to do me harm. I managed to keep a poker face until he finally left me, then I got myself to the front office and fell apart.

On another occasion I had to break up a fight between two girls and ended up punched so hard I could not move my arm at all for about an hour and had bruises in the shape of knuckles on my bicep for weeks.

My husband worked in a post secondary trade school, where a student cut the brake lines on a teacher’s car in retaliation for what the student believed was an unsatisfactory grade.

Teachers have to practice drills with their students to protect themselves and their students in case someone goes rogue terrorist. Remember Sandy Hook.

Acts of aggression against teachers are not just physical. Every day, teachers contend with insults and defiance. Social media is used to rake teachers over hot coals of insolence. You may have seen the video clip  of 68 year old bus aide Karen Klein being taunted for over ten minutes on a bus. The insults and language she endured are appalling.

Teachers are told over and over to rise above all of these unacceptable behaviors. They must be ever professional and calm, always responding to verbal or physical disrespect with cool detachment. Most of the time, in fact, nearly all of the time, teachers somehow manage to calmly walk away and fill out a discipline referral or call a parent, knowing that very little may be accomplished.

The mother of the young lady who threatened the teacher did not seem at all remorseful that her daughter had acted so inappropriately. She was full of righteous indignation that a teacher had defended herself. I just do not get that. If one of my kids advanced on a teacher like that, I think I would have some serious parenting issues to address.

This is from an article by Tim Walker in the National Education Association’s online publication:

“According to a recent article published by the American Psychological Association (APA), 80 percent of teachers surveyed were victimized at school at least once in the current school year or prior year. Teacher victimization is a “national crisis,” says Dr. Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who served as chair of the APA task force on Classroom Violence Directed at Teachers.  And yet, the issue is generally ignored or at least underreported by the media and given inadequate attention by scholars – a deficiency that has widespread implications for school safety, the teaching profession and student learning.”

The article goes on to explain the prevalence of harassment and violence against teachers, behaviors that are perpetrated primarily by both students and parents.

The American Psychological Association says:

“Each year, 253,100 (7 percent) teachers are threatened with injury…

  • 78,500 (31 percent) male teachers
  • 174,500 (69 percent) female teachers”

Teachers sometimes find themselves in highly charged environments. The students significantly  outnumber them and they are, in truth, only protected by trust in student adherence to the social contract and their reluctance to get in trouble.  Most of the students I encountered every day had absolutely no desire to harm me or anyone else. But all it takes is one simmering kid to boil over and hit, push, stab, or shoot.

Look, I am not saying that the teacher in California did right. What I am saying is that when big adolescents who outweigh educators lift a hand and  threaten harm, teachers might respond like any reasonable human. They might just hit back.

When students smear teachers on social media, they might just want to frame their own social media responses in defense.

When students steal from teachers and trash classrooms and belongings, teachers might just wonder what life in another profession looks like.

I know it was part of what drove me to a place of self abuse and hospitalization. After my hospital stay, I managed to teach for four more years. From those last four years,  I still have so many moments that I am proud of, so many students I deeply loved, shows that won awards and nominations, and even a master’s degree in my teaching field. But for my own health, I had to leave the profession.

Sometimes, it’s not JUST about the students.

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