We are seeing in our world right now is the very real, life-long, damaging result of us and them thinking.
This is the type of thinking that sows seeds of separation, that values one group above another, that believes that power—not peace, not goodness, not love—is the ultimate goal.
We know that human nature has a tendency to create “in groups” and “out groups.” Any group psychology class will teach you that this is part of our deeply seated survival mechanism. Early on in the existence of humankind, we learned that we are safer in groups. We fare better when the tigers appear, we work together to hunt and gather, we have more people to help keep watch and protect us from dangerous intruders.
But those base, survival tendencies, even though they preserved our lives early on, unchecked, uneducated, uncleansed, create a life full of suspicion, fear, and division. These ideas always put anyone different on the “outside,” never letting them close enough to be a threat.
And that’s how objectification happens.
The very definition of the word objectification means to turn something into an object. To put it at a distance and feel no emotional or spiritual connection to it. That something or someone becomes something you can use to get what you what. Something or someone who doesn’t have legitimate feelings, goals, hopes, perspectives of their own. The objectified person becomes a flat, two-dimensional image to us and we relate not to the real person in the flesh, but to our ideas—flawed as they are—of who we think that objectified person really is.
Many years ago I was one of the first wave of children in Indianapolis Public Schools to be swept up in the wave of bussing to inner city schools. This was the result of an order signed by Judge S. Hugh Dillon, and I’ll never forget the day when they passed out pink sheets of paper in the last period of my seventh grade English class. I was one of 12 or 13 kids who got a pink sheet. The teacher, Mrs. Moser—one of my favorite teachers ever—looked at our confused faces and said, “Just take it home to your parents.”
In the hallway, kids gathered. “Well, I’m not going to any black school,” said one. “I’ll stay home first.” Another spoke up, saying, “My mom says they’re starting a school at our church so we don’t have to go.”
I was confused. I didn’t understand anything about this. I went home and gave the slip to my mom, as Mrs. Moser suggested. She read it and looked up, “Okay,” she said. I told her I didn’t understand the other kids’ reactions. Why were they so set against going? Why would churches create their own schools just so white kids didn’t have to go to school with black kids? Didn’t Jesus love all the children, I asked, red and yellow, black and white?
My mom looked at me with a kind of weary sadness on her face. “People do all kinds of things when they’re scared,” she said. “Is there something to be scared of?” I asked her. My mom said, “Probably not. But just go and see, and if it doesn’t go well, we’ll figure out what to do then.”
That turned out to be some of the best counsel of my entire life.
IPS School 51 was a huge, three-story elementary school at 23rd and Olney on the near northside of Indianapolis. It was a 45-minute bus ride each way, through busy city streets that showed me things I’d never seen before—neighborhoods that were struggling and almost empty; blocks that were busy and full of life. I loved the school building from the moment I set foot in it. It was built in a different era than my concrete-block elementary in the suburbs: there were wide hallways and staircases, all with creaky wood floors, big windows that let in lots of light, and a view from the library—on the top floor—that enabled you to see over the city for miles.
And yes, we kids were scared. We were all leery of one another. None of us chose to be thrown together this way, and we carried with us thoughts and opinions—and maybe prejudices—we had learned at home and in our respective neighborhoods. At first we all just kept our distance from one another, but as the weeks went on, we started to get to know each other a little more. Smiles were shared, as were lunch tables. We started to work together on projects. I loved all my teachers—from Mrs. Hawkins in Home Ec who was like a big sweet mother hen to our compact, intense Math teacher who had one wild eye and would smack you with a map pointer if you got out of hand. Most of my teachers were African American and I understood from their demeanor and their leadership that we were welcome there and everything was going to be okay.
And everything did turn out to be okay. Of all my years in public school, the two years I spent at School 51 created my best school memories. The plays we put on. The time in the library. The wonderful teachers. The growing ease that developed among the kids in my class. When we first arrived, I noticed a group of four black girls that always hung around together—I thought they’d probably been life-long friends. There was Kay—she was tall, quiet, and stern, she was always a bit aloof, hanging back, surveying the scene. She seemed so strong and wise to me–I thought she would probably grow up to be a leader in anything she did. Deniece was her best friend and she was an amazing athlete; she could beat every one of the boys in any competition that we had. Flora was my favorite; she loved nature, like me, and had a soft heart and a friendly smile, and her best friend was Regina, who was tiny and smart and funny, tossing in quick jokes anytime you talked to her, trying to make us laugh.
We spent two years together—seventh and eighth grade—and then went on to different high schools. We came from different places but in that shared classroom space, in that shared time, we came to be at ease and feel safe with one another. We were equals, classmates, friends. The world could use more of that simple peace today.
Probably 25 years later, I saw Kay in a store in Indianapolis. To make sure it was her (even though she looked almost exactly the same), I asked whether she’d gone to School 51 in middle school and she said she had. She was still tall, beautiful, strong. She was still was on the stern side, not filling the space with a lot of extra conversation. I asked her how things had been going for her. There was something I thought like a weariness in her answer. “It’s okay,” she said. “I got married and had kids and have a job I like.”
“That’s good,” I said. “Same for me.” I remember asking if she ever heard from Flora; I wanted her to know that time had been meaningful for me.
But today I wonder with more nuance and more pain how Kay and Deniece, Flora and Regina’s lives have truly gone. Almost 50 years after middle school, have they had the opportunities they should have had? Have they raised sons they were afraid for, daughters they counseled on how to stay out of a system that was armed against them? After observing the protests and the aggression of the police that has been in ample evidence in the media, I see both my ignorance and my privilege in a new way. Those of us who have been blind to the double-standard in our society have done so because we were privileged to be able to overlook it. And that’s a freedom we didn’t earn, something afforded us simply because we were born with a skin color that didn’t make us a target of an unjust system.
In Psalm 51:10-12, King David asks God to
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore me to the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
We Quakers have long been champions of the idea of “that of God in everyone,” and in the past, that cornerstone belief has led us into some truly God-inspired moments of action on the part of those who have been oppressed, imprisoned, and devalued. But it is important that in 2020 we don’t fall back on successes from the 1800s, or the early 1900s, or efforts during World War II. This moment is our moment, a moment when we need the light of Christ to illumine our hearts, to show us where there is any prejudice or hardness within us, and to ask the spirit to teach us a better way.
One of the things I love most about Friends is our determination to live sacramental lives. We aren’t Christians in name only; we don’t choose a commandment or two and live them out on Sundays and forget about them the rest of the week. We do our best—continually, over time—to live up to the light we’ve been given. We want there to be right order in our thinking and our living, in our prayers and in our actions. More than anything, we want to be part of God’s good work of Light in this world, contributing to the ocean of light that ultimately—and for all time—really does flow over the darkness of rejection and hatred, oppression and idolatry.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day the larger Christian church celebrates the arrival of the Holy Spirit when the disciples were in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks. As the story in Acts 2:2 says,
“Suddenly a sound like a mighty rushing wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
We can hope and pray that we, too, are being visited and led by the Holy Spirit as we learn a new way of being in the world than we have ever known before. An openness to the language of others’ experience. A welcome to voices that have too long been silenced. May they lead us and teach us, even when it hurts, even when it feels unfair, so that we might with God’s help move closer to a more just union on our way to becoming the Kingdom of God.
I would like to close with a few verses of Still I Rise, a powerful poem written by Maya Angelou. I am aware that as a white woman I am speaking words and a language of oppression that because of my privilege have not been my own. But I hope, with Spirit’s help, to use my voice and my heart, my spirit and my prayers, to do what I can to say, “I’m sorry” and “I care” and “I want to do better,” especially to Kay and Deniece, Flora and Regina, and all those in my community who know the pain of our system so well.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
May God bless each and every precious child of God this day, protect them with his peace, give us the measure of grace we need to open our hearts and souls to one another and create a better world. Amen.
- OT Psalm 51: 10-12
- NT Acts 2:2
- Angelou, Maya. Still I Rise. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise