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Interdependence Day

I will not be celebrating Independence Day.

The truth is, the United States has never been an independent nation. Built on stolen land by stolen labor, sacrificing Natives and Africans and their descendants to the mythology of “manifest destiny,” greed, oppression, and white supremacy, this has never been a nation of liberty and justice for all.

In fact, this nation has been built upon the deliberate stealing of liberty (and life) from others. According to activist and writer Kevin Alexander Gray, speaking to Black Agenda Radio:

They celebrate the 4th of July as Independence Day because it’s the day after the abolitionists, or the people who were against slavery, relented and allowed the anti-slavery clause to be taken out of the Constitution.

The ignoble myth of white supremacy that permeates the foundation of this country and underlies the policies and institutions that form the context of our lives has been rearing its ugly head so much lately that it cannot be as easily ignored or denied as it has been in the past. The recent massacre in Charleston and the burning of 7 African American churches add 16 more reasons to the hundreds of thousands to awaken to the reality of racism that undermines best ideals of this nation. Our country has failed to atone for, or even critically examine, its history of racial oppression.

While the Confederate flag comes down throughout the South, despite protests from some who insist on clinging to the euphemism (read: lie) of “heritage, not hate,” we have yet to deal with the heritage of hate that permeates our entire nation. I cannot cheer the removal of the Confederate flag one day and wave the Stars and Stripes the next. Our Star Spangled Banner first waved o’re the land of the slaughtered and the home of the slave, and 150 years after abolition, slavery is still the condition of those incarcerated in a merciless prison industrial complex that disproportionately targets African Americans. Marginalization and exploitation have been the hallmark of black lives in the United States since before it was founded; while the forms of oppression may have changed, the essence remains. Celebratory flag waving is unbecoming of a nation that is being called — by the near daily spilling of black blood — to repentance.

This doesn’t mean there are not good things to say about the democracy that has expanded upon this soil for African Americans, women, the LGBT community, ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, and more, through generations of struggle. But the struggles for equal opportunity, recognition, and dignity are far from over, and much regression is occurring in an age of hyper-corporatism and militarism.

I have long been critical of the 4th of July as a holiday, wary as I am to celebrate a nation born in blood – mostly blood of others – and continually spilling blood overseas. We are only “exceptional” as the “greatest purveyor of violence in our time,” as Dr. Martin Luther King has said, having the world’s largest military by far and being a leading exporter of weapons. I have cringed at the notion of watching bombs bursting in air, when the shocking and awful bombs that burst apart Iraqi and Afghani and Libyan skies in just recent years have left thousands of men, women and children dead. We are a nation of drones and extra-judicial assassinations, a nation of black sites and torture and dirty, dark, classified (but open) secrets. As Robert Koehler says, “The darkest, most highly classified secret of all is that we’re always at war and we always will be.”

I have also long known that the violence we export overseas is taking its toll here at home, too. In spending trillions blowing apart land and people overseas, we are diminishing our resources here at home. A slower and less direct violence than the instantaneous death administered by bullets and bombs is the diminution of education, health care, housing and job opportunities, all sacrificed as budgets are slashed while military spending increases year after year. I have long been critical of our nation which deprives its citizens, ostensibly for the sake of protecting us, while engaging in military activities that make us less trusted, less respected, and more vulnerable to attack.

But this year, further connections between the violence abroad and the violence at home have been brought into stark clarity. And it is the already-marginalized communities – African Americans as well as Latino, Native, and Muslim (or those mistaken for Muslim) Americans (all in their own different ways) – that suffer most from the police state that our nation has become. The “fight the enemy” mentality is the driving force behind foreign and domestic policy, and racial profiling means suspected “enemies” often have black and brown faces. I am sure that the “War on Terror” mindset is at the heart of law enforcement’s infamous record with the African American community. Or, perhaps more accurately, deep, systemic racism is at the heart of law enforcement’s infamous record with the African American community, and the “War on Terror” mentality is racism on steroids. I am not accusing all officers, but I am calling out a historic pattern of injustice. And law enforcement is just the tip of the iceberg. The reality is that the fear mentality cultivated by constant war feeds racial prejudice in a nation where African Americans have been marginalized by generations of denied access to quality education, jobs, and housing, first by law and then by phenomena like razing neighborhoods for highway construction, mortgage restrictions, white flight and riots, gentrification, and more.

I knew racism never truly ended in this country. But I had thought it was getting better. I did not know it was still so deadly. I know better now. And so while I have long been critical of the 4th of July, mourning the blood America has spilled overseas, I must also mourn the blood spilled right here, not just in the past, but every. Single. Day.

But even if we could trace a line of steady progress toward equality through our history, I would be wary of the notion of “independence.” “Independence” holds positive connotations like overcoming oppression or unhealthy addiction, to which I have no objection. But (beyond the ways pride in the notion of independence serves to valorize the violence of the American Revolution and disguise the destruction left in the wake of claiming land already home to another people), in American mythology, the concept of independence is also tied to an ideal of rugged individualism that makes me wary. As a Christian, but also as a human being, I do not believe we were made for independence, but rather for relationship. The emphasis on individualism in our nation undermines our responsibility to live for one another. And in some ways, an emphasis on individualism can be used as a weapon.

American individualism is saturated with the theological hermeneutic of “personal salvation,” whether or not an individual American actually believes in God. The emphasis of the “Great Awakening” — which Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas characterizes as the advent of American Protestantism — on saving “individual souls” provided early American slaveholders with a Christian support of slavery while at the same time absolving them, in their minds, of the responsibility to treat slaves with any respect or compassion, let alone question the morality of slavery altogether. The emphasis on “individualism” erased the notion of collective social responsibility, while the emphasis on “souls” allowed for the harsh treatment of black bodies. (For more, see Dr. Douglas’s superb book, What’s Faith Got To Do With It?: Black Bodies, Christian Souls).

Today, the notion of individualism aids in white denial and the perpetuation of marginalization. It divorces people from their understanding of history and social context. It aids in the mythology that racism is a thing of the past simply because attitudes have changed, while deep institutional structures of racial prejudice remain. Because these structures were formed collectively, by generations of widespread prejudice and laws that enforced them, they cannot be changed by individual changes of attitude. Yet, white people can and often do use their own attitudes as a measuring stick to judge whether or not they are racist, absolve themselves of any responsibility to dismantle structural racism, and fail to recognize the ways marginalization subconsciously reinforce subtle notions of racial bias. Correspondingly, black individuals are blamed for not “rising” to the top because the structural violence, built so deeply into American society, is not recognized for what it is, hidden behind a mythology that emphasizes success as the result of individual hard work.

No one in the world has ever pulled himself or herself up by the bootstraps. No one in the world is completely self-reliant. We need each other.

There will be a joyful atmosphere this weekend, and I will be a part of it. But I will not celebrate the false notion of independence.

Instead, I will celebrate our interdependence, our need and responsibility for each other. I will celebrate the good in our nation that is not exceptional, for what is beautiful in our nation is beautiful in humanity everywhere: kindness, compassion, generosity, mercy. I will celebrate with an ever-expanding love that reaches beyond the boarders of this nation to everyone all over the world, whose lives are deeply connected to mine.

And even as I celebrate how far humanity can go with mutual love and respect and self-giving to one-another, I will repent of the damage that individualism and American exceptionalism are causing at home and all over the world. I hope you will join me, for I cannot do it alone.

Happy Interdependence Day.

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Absolute Power

“The existence of the approximately 14,000 photographs will probably cause yet another delay in the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as attorneys for the defendants demand that all the images be turned over and the government wades through the material to decide what it thinks is relevant to the proceedings.”

This was the Washington Post a few days ago, informing us wearily that the torture thing isn’t dead yet. The bureaucracy convulses, the wheels of justice grind. So much moral relativism to evaluate.

“They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation,” CIA director John Brennan said at a news conference in December, defending CIA interrogators after a portion of the 6,700-page Senate Intelligence Committee report was made public.

Serving the nation means no more than doing what you’re told.

God bless America. Flags wave, fireworks burst on the horizon. Aren’t we terrific? But this idea we celebrate — this nation, this principled union of humanity — is just a military bureaucracy, full of dark secrets. The darkest, most highly classified secret of all is that we’re always at war and we always will be. And war is an end in itself. It has no purpose beyond its own perpetuation.

This is the context of torture.

At least this is what occurred to me as I reflected on the most recent non-news, that the existence of multi-thousands of photographs of U.S. black site operations are out there somewhere, classified but known and pulsing. What more can we learn that we don’t already know?

“On Nov. 20, 2002, (Gul) Rahman was found dead in his unheated cell. He was naked from the waist down and had been chained to a concrete floor. An autopsy concluded that he probably froze to death.”

So the Los Angeles Times informed us in December, in an article about two psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who were serving their country in the early days of the War on Terror by developing the CIA’s torture methodology.

“When he was left alone,” the article reported, describing another detainee’s experience, “(Abu) Zubaydah ‘was placed in a stress position, left on a waterboard with a cloth over his face, or locked in one of two confinement boxes.’

“In all, he spent 266 hours — 11 days and two hours — locked in the pitch-dark coffin, and 29 hours in a much smaller box. In response, he ‘cried,’ ‘begged,’ ‘whimpered’ and grew so distressed that ‘he was unable to effectively communicate,’ the interrogation team reported.

“The escalating torment, especially the waterboarding, affected some on the CIA team. ‘It is visually and psychologically very uncomfortable,’ one wrote. Several days later, another added, ‘Several on the team profoundly affected . . . some to the point of tears and choking up.’”

And a few weeks ago, The (U.K.) Telegraph, quoting from the Senate Intelligence Committee Report, described the experience of Majid Khan, who “was raped while in CIA custody (‘rectal feeding’). He was sexually assaulted in other ways as well, including by having his ‘private parts’ touched while he was hung naked from the ceiling. . . .

“‘Majid had an uncovered bucket for a toilet, no toilet paper, a sleeping mat and no light. . . . For much of 2003 he lived in total darkness.’”

And the awkward part of all this, for defenders of the military bureaucracy, is that these torture procedures produced no information of any value. We sold our soul to the devil and got nothing at all in return. Bad deal.

Whatever details about the torture program remain classified and buried, these stories, along with plenty of shocking photographs, are fully public. There’s enough data here to open a deep conversation about what it means to be a nation and what the limits of power ought to be. What I see instead is a sort of official resignation — on the part of media and government — to the inevitability of out-of-control power in the pursuit of self-defense.

Philip Zimbardo called this phenomenon the Lucifer Effect: the utterly corrupting nature of total power over others. Reports of CIA torture are rife with observations that the interrogators were out of control. The information they sought from the utterly powerless detainees in their keep was a treasure to be extracted, like oil or diamonds from the bowels of the earth, and no technique was too inhumane, too morally odious, to achieve that end. Call it human fracking. It’s for the good of America.

The awareness that must emerge from a decade-and-counting of torture revelations is that absolute power over others does not keep us safe and should not be pursued. And torture is only a minute fraction of the wrong we promulgate through unchecked militarism, the aim of which is domination of the planet.

Step one in the unhealthy pursuit of power is the dehumanization of “the enemy.” The consequences of what we do after that will always haunt us.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

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An Honest Prayer

Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest author Matthew Distefano.

A change of mind is needed in America. In Greek, the word is metánoia. Racism is alive and well, regardless of what some may say. The list of victims our country is producing is growing by leaps and bounds.

Freddie Gray

Eric Garner

Walter Scott

Unfortunately, we now must add Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson to that list. From what I have witnessed in the news, the victims and their families, as well as the many members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, have all displayed a beautiful model of how to forgive even those who commit the greatest harm. I believe our Lord would say, “Well done, good and faithful servants” (Matt. 25:23).

Now, what I want to say in the following will likely upset some people, but it is what I believe to be true. In the second sentence above, I mentioned that it is our “country” that is producing victims. I did not flippantly suggest that. We, as a nation, produce victims. Sure, the white man who murdered those nine black people is responsible for his actions. He should face consequences and he needs to repent. However, he is not solely responsible. Anthropologist René Girard coined the term “interdividuals” to explain the way in which humans should define themselves. We are our relationships and all of us, for better or worse, beautiful and disgusting, are our brother’s keeper. When Cain asks the Lord “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the implied answer is “Yes!” So, when a white man kills 9 people in a black church, he is not a lone gunman, but rather, a product of systemic racism.

Take a look at the drug laws in America. Huffington Post columnist, Saki Knafo, reports that blacks make up 45% of those in state prisons for drug offenses, compared to 30% for whites. And yet, the rate of drug use amongst blacks is lower than that of whites. John McWhorter, of the CATO Institute, writes:

If the War on Drugs were terminated, the main factor keeping race-based resentment a core element in the American social fabric would no longer exist. America would be a better place for all.

Many of the stereotypes large groups of white people have about “black people committing more crimes” are in some way caused by the War on Drugs. It is a racist war and is directly correlated to an increase in violence. Thus, any accusation that “blacks are more violent than whites” is a false cause fallacy; as violence is caused by the coercive nature of the War on Drugs, as well as its racist underpinnings.

And now there is this business with the Confederate flag. The fact that we are even having this “debate” on whether the flag should stay or go tells me one thing: racism is so much a part of our culture that many would rather hold onto some symbol of supposed “heritage” than have empathy for the black people against whom it has been used as a racist, destructive image. The Swastika is a symbol with a storied past that predates Nazism—thousands of years even—yet we do not hear people arguing some extra-Nazism heritage to justify it flying proudly over a state capitol. Let’s drop the bullshit and get rid of any racist symbols, even if there are alternative meanings behind them.

Racism does not develop out of some lone wolf. Rather, it manifests because of hundreds of years of history built on a foundation of an “over and above” mentality. It is time we move forward as a country and as a species. We must end all of the satanic “powers and principalities”, as Paul would call them, that have plagued us for far too long. The systemic sins of this country have lead to far too much blood. We can be silent no more.

Black lives matter.

All lives matter.

Here is my honest prayer—I hope you will join me.

Father,

Please comfort the families of those who were murdered in cold blood in Charleston, SC. Please overwhelm them with your loving presence, healing the broken and bringing peace to those who mourn today. I pray that my fellow brothers and sisters in this giant family step up and step up big to aid in comforting those who grieve the most.

I pray that the citizens of that city, state, the citizens of the country I live in, as well as the citizens of a planet I share residence with—every single person—renounce the satanic principle of racism and bigotry. We have seen too much hatred and violence, too many scapegoats, too many “others”, too many victims, too much blood, too many families destroyed, too much pain, too much grieving, too many tears…all of it must end.

Please help us all to see the satanic systems that are in place for what they are—human constructs meant to oppress and hold down, accuse and blame, destroy and destroy well. Please give us the courage to confront these powers and principalities boldly.

Amen.

 MattMatthew Distefano is writing his first book on universal reconciliation and advocate for non-violence. He lives in Northern California and is married with one daughter.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.”

 

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What Will We Learn?

Editor’s Note: This article is used with permission from Frances Fuller. It first appeared on Frances’s blog. 

I happened to be in Burlington, N.C., when a man asked me, “Are those people (the Arabs) just wired differently than we are, so that they like to fight?”

Of course, you can guess what I said. They are not. Violence is not an Arab trait. It is a human trait.

The history of the world illustrates this, the Middle East conflict being a mere example. We humans have always tried to solve our problems by killing others. Another horror in our own country reminds us of this. It happened several days ago in Charleston, South Carolina. In a church.

(In some other countries people may be asking, “Are those Americans just wired differently than we are, so that they kill people for the color of their skin? And in a holy place?”)  We don’t understand it ourselves and are wondering: What kind of monster could do this?

According to the news: a 21-year-old, white male, a “quiet” boy.  One who had expressed ridiculous fears: “black people are taking over the world.” One who knew enough history to regret that the Confederacy lost the Civil War and so intended to re-ignite the conflict. A racist who used his birthday money to buy a gun and carried it into a church. That’s not all, of course, but enough to make my point.

We would like to believe that everything about this event was surprising, an anomaly that no one could have predicted, that the young man had mental problems and just snapped. But let’s not fool ourselves.

Once one of my grown sons astutely observed that he and his siblings could do nothing without their parents knowing the antecedents. It is true. Their adult behavior started in childhood. Not only could we see everything coming, but we contributed, intentionally and not. Dylann Roof, too, dropped clues along the way, and he did not get where he is all alone. None of us ever has. Whether we are high achievers or drop outs, good neighbors or criminals, we had help to become who we are.

Because of this certainty, I often have troubling thoughts about young people who have committed crimes. Not long ago, for instance, a few miles from where I live, a teenager from an affluent family, broke into the home of an elderly couple and murdered them in their beds. He was deemed a monster and incarcerated for life, with no opportunity for parole. I kept looking at his picture in the paper and thinking. He is a kid. For all of his life he has been someone’s responsibility. How did a family, a California community, a school, a culture manage to shape him into a murderer? I know he did not get there alone, but only he went to prison.

I think a lot, too, about some of the people we call terrorists, because I have met some of them, in Jordan and Syria and Lebanon. Charming and kind young men, when they feel that charm and kindness are appropriate. Men with a sense of history, looking for a cause. Men who feel oppressed, bear grudges and harbor fears that easily become hatred. Often educated and jobless, they need a reason to hope. They did not get where they are alone but are products of a situation, society, peer pressure, the values of their culture. When they get guns in their hands, they feel better—powerful and in control. In their shoes, a lot of us would join their militia. But we are not in their shoes, so we support other young men, dear to our hearts, to go far from home and fight them. To know somehow the participants of war on both sides is to expose the heart to an unspeakable grief, similar in a way to being a shamed white Christian, watching black brothers and sisters weep in South Carolina.

So where has this thread of painful monologue taken me?

Only to the obvious, that Dylann Roof has antecedents also. He is a human being, a young human being, a product of the world he grew up in. A short time ago he was a child, listening, absorbing, imitating his elders. He did not become what he is without help, deliberate or accidental. It took history, family, friends, culture, country, all of us.

Now, the society that nurtured him and permitted him a tool of destruction will condemn him and incarcerate him for life, if not kill him.

But what will we learn?   Can we face the truth that we are racist? Can we master in ourselves the evil human impulse to kill? Do we have the courage to teach our children Jesus’ way, that it is better to absorb violence than to commit it? Are we willing to work together, all of us in our diversity, to create peace in our own country? Are we smart enough to prevent terrorism all over the world instead of preparing for perpetual war? Are we grieved enough to take drastic actions and get our world off this dangerous road?

 

 

FrancesFrances Fuller spent thirty years in the violent Middle East and for twenty-four of those years was the director of a Christian publishing program with offices in Lebanon. While leading the development of spiritual books in the Arabic language, she survived long years of civil war and invasions.

Frances holds degrees in Journalism, Creative Writing and Religious Education, and she studied Arabic at Georgetown University. She and her husband, James Wayne Fuller, live now in the foothills of the Sierras in California. They have five children, ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Her book, In Borrowed Houses, has won multiple awards and is available from Westbow Press, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.

Photo credit:  Mohamedou Slahi photo: International Committee of the Red Cross

Before The Dawn

Each year, throughout the Muslim world, believers participate in the month-long Ramadan fast. Here in Kabul, where I’m a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, our household awakens at 2:15 a.m. to prepare a simple meal before the fast begins at about 3:00 a.m. I like the easy companionship we feel, seated on the floor, sharing our food. Friday, the day off, is household clean-up day, and it seemed a bit odd, to be sweeping and washing floors in the pre-dawn hours, but we tended to various tasks and then caught a nap before heading over to meet the early bird students at the Street Kids School, a project my hosts are running for child laborers who otherwise couldn’t go to school.

I didn’t nap – I was fitful and couldn’t, my mind filled with images from a memoir, Guantanamo Diary, which I’ve been reading since arriving here.  Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s story of being imprisoned in Guantanamo since 2002 rightly disturbs me. In all his years of captivity, he has never been charged with a crime. He has suffered grotesque torture, humiliation and mistreatment, and yet his memoir includes many humane, tender accounts, including remembrances of past Ramadan fasts spent with his family.

Describing his early time in a Jordanian prison, he writes:

“It was Ramadan, and so we got two meals served, one at sunset and the second before the first light. The cook woke me up and served me my early meal. Suhoor is what we call this meal; it marks the beginning of our fasting, which lasts until sunset. At home, it’s more than just a meal. The atmosphere matters. My older sister wakes everybody and we sit together eating and sipping the warm tea and enjoying each other’s company.”

I’ve never heard Muslims complain about being hungry and thirsty as they await the fast-breaking meal. Nor have I heard people brag about contributions they’ve made to alleviate the sufferings of others, although I know Islam urges such sharing during Ramadan and aims to build empathy for those afflicted by ongoing hunger and thirst. Mohamedou relied on empathy to help him through some of his most intense anguish and fear.

 I was thinking about all my innocent brothers who were and still are being rendered to strange places and countries,” he writes, describing a rendition trip from Senegal to Mauritania, “and I felt solaced and not alone anymore. I felt the spirits of unjustly mistreated people with me. I had heard so many stories about brothers being passed back and forth like a soccer ball just because they have once been in Afghanistan, or Bosnia, or Chechnya. That’s screwed up! Thousands of miles away, I felt the warm breath of these other unjustly treated individuals comforting me.

 A judge ordered Mohamedou’s immediate release in 2010. But the Obama administration appealed the decision, leaving him in a legal limbo.

From 1988 to 1991, Mohamedou had studied electrical engineering in Germany. In early 1991, he spent seven weeks, in Afghanistan, learning how to use mortars and light weapons, training which would allow him to join the U.S.-backed insurgency against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul. He was one of Ronald Reagan’s celebrated “freedom fighters.” In early 1992, when the communist supported Afghan government was near collapse, he again went to Afghanistan and, for three weeks, fought with insurgents to overtake the city of Gardez. Kabul fell shortly thereafter. Mohamedou soon saw that the Mujahedeen insurgents were fighting amongst themselves over power grabs. He didn’t want to be part of this fight and so he went back to Germany, then Canada and, eventually, home to Mauritania, where he was arrested and “rendered” to Jordan for questioning, at last arriving in Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Force Base on his way to Guantanamo.

1-12-14-white-house-rally Witness Against Torture

Photo credit: Witness Against Torture rally at White House, Jan. 12, 2014 photo: Witness Against Torture campaign

I wonder how he is feeling as he observes Ramadan without his family for the 13th consecutive year. I wish he could know that growing numbers of people in the U.S. believe he should be released and want to help atone for the suffering he has endured. Martha Hennessy, who arrived in Kabul with me several weeks ago, hurried back to the U.S. to face charges for protesting against U.S. legitimation of torture only to learn that both of the Witness Against Torture campaign cases scheduled for trial that week were dismissed.   Perhaps public opinion now requires that the U.S. Department of Justice recognize that activists’ right and duty to protest the cruel abuses of U.S. torture policies.

I wish Mohamedou could visit Afghanistan again, not as part of a training camp for insurgents, not as a terrified, shackled prisoner, but as a guest of the community here. A former U.S. military person dropped by the Street Kids School on Friday morning. The U.S. Air Force trained her to operate weaponized drones over Afghanistan. Now, she comes to Afghanistan annually to plant trees all over the country.   She feels deep remorse for the time in her life when she helped attack Afghans.

I don’t believe in training anyone to use weapons, but as I read Mohamedou’s words about his brothers who went to foreign countries as fighters, I thought of the Pentagon’s recent practice runs, over the New Mexico desert, training people to fire the terrifying Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a bunker buster bomb which is 20 feet long, weighs 15 tons and carries about 5,300 pounds of explosives. People in the U.S. should consider how their horror at the violence of U.S. enemies encourages and exonerates the far more crushing violence of their own government, engaged at this moment in conflicts throughout the developing world and armed with weapons capable of extinguishing all human life within minutes.

On this fast day, I remember that many U.S. people worry, like anyone anywhere, about the hardships a new day may bring, in a dangerous and uncertain time that seems to be dawning on every nation and the species as a whole.  In the U.S., we carry the added knowledge that most of the world lives much more poorly – in a material sense, at least – than we do, and that were the sun to truly rise upon the U.S., with familiar words of equality and justice truly realized, we would have to share much of our wealth with a suffering world.

We would learn to “live simply so that others might simply live.”  We would find deep satisfaction in beholding faces like those of my friends gathered for a friendly morning meal before a day of voluntary fasting.  Or, like Mohamedou,  find warmth in the imagined breath of others sharing involuntary hardships. “Another world  is not only possible,” writes author and activist Arundhoti Roy,  “she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” U.S. people must know that life in the daylight might also be the start of an unaccustomed fast.

When will day break? I haven’t a clock nearby to tell me when, but I can’t go back to sleep. When I see the children adapt so readily to the schooling denied them, when I watch my young friends struggle eagerly to take the small steps allowed them, sowing seeds of mutual understanding or planting trees in Kabul, and when I read such grace and dignity in the words of Mohamedou Ould Slahi after years of torture, I have to believe that a dawn will come. For now, it remains a blessing to work alongside people awake together, even in darkness, working to face burdens with kindness, ready to join with kindred spirits near and far, faces aglow with precious glimmers of a coming day.

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org). While in Kabul, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers (www.ourjourneytosmile.com)

Photo credit for top image:  Mohamedou Slahi photo: International Committee of the Red Cross

Soldiers of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division salute the American flag as the United States anthem is being played during their departure ceremony at historic Fort Snelling May 22, 2011.  1st BCT will be deploying to Kuwait in support of Operation New Dawn.

Demons of War: Recovery from Moral Injury

Colonel Theodore Westhusing had a highly successful military career. He was a professor of philosophy and English at West Point. At 43 years old with a wife and three young children, Westhusing felt morally dutybound to re-enlist as a soldier in the Iraq War. As a philosopher of war, Westhusing received his military training in moral decision making. His doctoral dissertation emphasized the morality, ethical values, and virtues of American wars.

Despite his success, his life had a tragic ending that was the result of moral injury to his soul.

In 2004, Westhusing was honored with the very long military title, “Director, Counter Terrorism/Special Operations, Civilian Police Assistance Training Team, Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq.” He was to supervise Iraqis who were being trained as civilian police officers. A few months into his deployment, General David Petraeus praised his extraordinary ability to work with U.S. contractors and Iraqi leaders.

The Moral Injury of a Soldier

But in 2005, Westhusing faced a moral crisis. Based on an anonymous tip, he discovered enormous moral failures within the U.S. military. Those moral failures called into question his trust in the moral authority of an organization that was asking soldiers to kill and die for a perceived moral good. Those moral failures included illegal activity – for example, contractor’s severe mismanagement of resources, forged resumes that claimed background with elite forces, equipment theft, inadequate training, and employees bragging about murdering Iraqis.

Westhusing was morally compelled to report his findings to General Petraeus, who pressured him to deny the truth behind the anonymous tip. Westhusing initially complied, but continued to feel a moral obligation to report his findings. After a heated argument with Petraeus about the morality of the situation, Westhusing’s personal crisis came to a boiling point as he struggled with the demons of war. He committed suicide with a gunshot wound to the head. In his suicide note to his commanding officer he wrote,

I didn’t volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored…I don’t know who to trust anymore…Why serve when you cannot accomplish the mission, when you no longer believe in the cause, when your every effort and breath to succeed meets with lies, lack of support, and selfishness?

Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini tell Westhusing’s story of moral injury in their book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War. Moral injury is described by Brock and Lettini as resulting, “when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.”

Like the other personal stories of soldiers in Soul Repair, Westhusing was trained by the military to be a moral agent for good in the world. Among other things, this meant standing up for justice and discerning between innocent civilians and non-civilian combatants.

But as soldiers are trained on morality, they are also put through “reflexive fire training.” This training conditions soldiers to shoot before making any moral decisions. The goal of “reflexive fire training” is to literally bypass the moral decision making of a soldier so that they are enslaved to an immoral ability to shoot to kill anyone.

Following the work of Gregory Bateson, mimetic theory calls the message to “be moral, but don’t be moral” a double bind. It’s a situation in which we are told to do something, and then told not to do that very thing. Brock and Lettin point to this double bind when they write,

Few major social institutions teach moral integrity, courage, personal discipline, humility, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and commitment to the lives of others better than the armed services. And none works so thoroughly to compromise, deny, dismantle, and destroy the very values it teaches. This is the paradox of war.

Sadly, Westhusing isn’t alone in suffering from the paradox of this double bind. Soul Repair reports that the demons of war have caused more harm than many of us have imagined – Brock and Lettin claim, “Veteran suicides average one every eighty minutes, an unprecedented eighteen a day or six thousand a year. They are 20 percent of all U.S. suicides, though veterans of all wars are only about 7 percent of the U.S. population … Veterans are also disproportionately homeless, unemployed, poor, divorced, and imprisoned.”

The Moral Injury of the U.S.

Mimetic theory also teaches us about scapegoating. Many in the U.S. demonize soldiers, labeling them as killers fighting an unjust war. Others valorize soldiers, honoring them as heroes. Both are methods of scapegoating soldiers. They are convenient ways for us to avoid our own moral injury. Dealing with the burden of immoral and unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is not just the responsibility of soldiers – it’s our responsibility as a society. America’s very soul is morally injured by these wars and by the fact that we turned a blind eye to the suffering of veterans after they go through the hell of war. The way to heal from moral injury is not to conveniently scapegoat soldiers or ignore the suffering of veterans, but to take responsibility for the harm that we as a nation have caused soldiers by sending them to war.

Soldiers know on a deep moral level that in committing great harm to others, they have committed great harm to themselves. They don’t need our society to project our demons of war – our own moral injury – upon them as we point the finger of accusation against them. Soldiers have suffered enough moral injury. We need to take responsibility for our own.

We begin to take responsibility for our collective moral injury by listening with a non-judgmental presence to soldiers as they tell their stories. Even saying thank you to soldiers implies a judgement that stops a soldier from talking about the pain of moral injury. Brock and Lettini claim that soldiers “need the civilians in their lives, those of us with whom they must learn to live again.

They continue,

To listen to veterans requires patience with their silence and with the confusion, grief, anger, and shame it carries…We must be willing to engage their moral and theological questions with openness and to journey with them as we are mutually transformed in the process.

Mutual transformation from moral injury to healing should be our goal. As individuals and as a nation, the only way we will heal from the demons of war is to stop scapegoating one another and take responsibility to love to our neighbors, especially our neighbors who have fought in immoral wars, as we love ourselves.

Photo: Flickr, The National Guard, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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The Supreme Court: Why Christians Can and Should Support Marriage Equality

Today’s Supreme Court decision that ruled same sex-couples have the right to marry nationwide has many Christians asking a question, “Can faithful Christians support same-sex marriage?”*

I believe that not only can faithful Christians support same-sex marriage, faithful Christians should support same sex marriage.

First, the can. Many people think the Bible is a stumbling block when it comes to this issue. They feel that they can’t support same sex marriage because the Bible is against homosexuality. But what if we’ve misunderstood the Bible? That’s the case that James Alison makes in his lectures The Shape of God’s Affection. Alison points out that heterosexuality and homosexuality are modern concepts. The terms were coined around the 1860s and it’s only been during the last 60 years that we’ve come to a scientific understanding of sexual orientation in general, and homosexual orientation in particular. Pre-modern people generally assumed all people were naturally attracted to members of the opposite gender. Although the percentage is often debated, we know now that roughly 4% of human beings are naturally attracted to members of the same gender. Why does that matter? There are 7 passages in the Bible that we moderns use to discuss homosexuality. The problem is that the people who wrote the Bible weren’t talking about our modern concept of homosexual orientation. To impose our modern concept of sexuality on the Bible is to misunderstand the very important critique the Bible makes in those 7 passages. Indeed, those passages denounce sexual sins, but they are the sins of gang rape and cultic prostitution. The ancient Hebrews and the authors of the New Testament were concerned about sexual abuse and believed the sexual humiliation of another was a very bad thing, but they were not commenting on homosexuality as we understand it today.

Let’s take the verse most often referred to in the New Testament: Romans 1:26.  Previously, Paul stated that many have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” It is “For this reason,” Paul continues, that

God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The New Testament scholar Neil Elliot wrote an essay called The Apostle Paul on Sexuality. The essay supports Alison’s argument that the biblical authors weren’t talking about homosexuality, but about sexual abuse. Elliot claims that Romans 1 was principally about the Roman Emperor Nero, who led a very infamous and active sex life. Elliot quotes ancient historians and claims:

Nero’s sexual passion for his own mother was “notorious,” … but then Nero “practiced every kind of obscenity,” defiling “almost every part of his body with men and women, usually under threat of force” … His cruelty and sexual predations paled, in the eyes of the Roman aristocracy, next to his profligacy with money: when he had devoured his personal fortune he turned to “robbing temples.”

In the Romans 1 passage, then, Paul is not against our modern understanding of homosexuality, but rather against sexual abuse and excessive sexual indulgence.

Now for why Christians should support same sex marriage. The speech made by Washington State Representative Drew Hansen provides an important theological account of what God is doing on this issue. Representative Hansen is a Christian committed to the way of Christ who voted for Washington State’s same sex marriage bill when it came up a few years ago. Hansen said, “What if God is doing a new thing in the church right now on this question?  I mean, remember, as Christians we believe that it is the stone the builder rejects that becomes the capstone.”

This is a crucial point for Christians. Hansen illuminates the “truth about God” that Paul referred to in Romans. Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man, the One who reveals who God truly is and what it means to by truly Human, is the Cornterstone that the builders rejected. As the Son of God and the Son of Man, he has become the capstone to our theology and to our anthropology. By being rejected, Jesus radically identifies with those who are rejected by other human beings. Theologian Walter Wink reflects on this principle in his essay Homosexuality and the Bible:

God sides with the powerless.  God liberates the oppressed.  God suffers with the suffering … In light of that supernal compassion, whatever our position on gays, the gospels imperative to love, care for, and be identified with their sufferings is unmistakably clear.

It is unmistakably clear because the particularly Jewish Jesus suffered in order to show us that God in Christ identifies with all who are rejected and excluded. In this way, African American theologians can say Jesus is Black. In this way, GLBT theologians can say Jesus is Gay. But here’s the next important point: Jesus freely allowed himself to suffer and be rejected by his fellow human beings so that our pattern of rejecting others would be transformed into a pattern that loves and embraces others. Refusing to allow GLBT people to participate in the joys and challenges of marriage is a way of rejecting them. The Holy Spirit guides us to include people into relationships of love and compassion, whether we are straight or LGBTQ.

When it comes to same sex marriage, the authentic Christian response is not one of exclusion and rejection, but one of love and affirmation.

And that’s why faithful Christians can and should support same-sex marriage.

*This article is reposted with revisions from a previous Raven Foundation article published in 2012.

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His Soul Wrapped In A Confederate Flag

At the bond hearing, grieving loved ones forgave Dylann Roof. This was reported as news, but it was so much more than that. It was the light embracing the darkness.

And white America absorbed this forgiveness through the eyes of the 21-year-old terrorist, who watched the proceedings on a video screen from his jail cell. Whatever he heard and felt is unknown, but beyond him, in the world he believed he was saving, something gave. The solidarity of whiteness — the quiet assumption of white supremacy — shuddered ever so slightly.

The flag, the flag . . .

The fate of this symbolic relic of the slave era is now the big story in the aftermath of Roof’s murder of nine African-Americans. He acted in such clear allegiance to the Confederate flag that politicians everywhere — even Republican presidential candidates — are demanding, or at least acquiescing to, its removal from public and official locations, such as in front of the South Carolina State House.

Not only that, “Walmart and Sears, two of the country’s largest retailers, will remove all Confederate flag merchandise from their stores,” CNN reported.

This is what atonement looks like in a consumer culture.

“The announcements,” according to CNN, “are the latest indication that the flag, a symbol of the slave-holding South, has become toxic in the aftermath of a shooting last week at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.”

A few days later, Amazon and eBay also announced they would remove Confederate flag merchandise from their sites. No longer available, CNN reported, would be such flag-decorated items as folding knives, T-shirts, blankets or (God help us) shower curtains.

Oh Lord. The news so quickly becomes theater of the absurd. Roof’s act of terror has forced mainstream America to begin consciously disassociating itself from the lethal margins of white solidarity, to wake up to what it really means. But this waking up, so far, seems limited to the symbolism of Confederate paraphernalia. All our guilt is being dumped here, while the pain that Roof’s act of terror has caused ebbs and slowly vanishes from the social mainstream.

In fact, an undead racism still stalks the American consciousness and it will, once again, regroup, Confederate flag or no Confederate flag. What this moment of awareness calls for is true atonement for our history.

“I forgive you.” These are the words of Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of Roof’s victims. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Atonement begins with cradling the pain.

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felicia Sanders, who was not only present in the church during the murders but the mother of Tywanza Sanders, 26, the youngest of those killed. As we cradle the pain, we must cradle this as well: the open souls of the murder victims.

What do we value as a nation? Do we value such openness? The killer — who was, as he entered the church, simply an unknown young man — did not go through security clearance as he walked through the open door. He had complete freedom of movement as he entered the historic African-American church, where he was accepted simply for his humanity. Yes, such openness and acceptance are also part of who we are as a nation, but . . . do we value these qualities? Do we have the least faith that they matter now more than ever, now that they’ve been so violated?

A participant at one of the vigils last week for the murder victims “noted how a church’s doors are always open, especially to those in need,” a Daily Beast story reported. “She wonders now how churches can square their mission of public service, charity and acceptance with security concerns.”

Roof’s act of terror has opened a gaping hole in the social fabric. Can we no longer pray together?

But all such questions lead back into the depth of American history and the need for atonement and transformation. A Reuters story, addressing the segregated nature of most American churches (11 a.m. Sunday is “the most segregated hour in the nation,” Martin Luther King once said), pointed out: “The story of this division began in America’s earliest moments, when slaves and freed African-Americans alike were often expected to pray in the same churches as whites, but in areas cordoned off, often called ‘slave galleries.’”

Imagine praying in a setting that defines you as semi-human. Now imagine Dylann Roof walking into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church with a gun in his backpack. Roof was the self-defined semi-human in the church that night, his soul wrapped in a Confederate flag.

The U.S. is enslaved by its past. That’s what no one has said yet. One hundred fifty years after the Civil War ended, we’re thinking maybe it’s time to lower the flag that symbolizes this enslavement.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

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Dismantling Racism, Part 1: On White Privilege, Fear, And Denial

Editor’s Note: With all the work there is to be done to dismantle racism, one post is never enough. Therefore, this is the beginning of a series. Please note, while “racism” is multifaceted, these article speak primarily to the relationship between African Americans and whites. We recognize that other forms of racial prejudice exist.

The altar of white supremacy — a lie upon which millions of black lives have been sacrificed throughout history, continually stained with new blood — is a blight on the soul of our nation. The pillars on which it stands – fear, denial, mythology and pathetic narcissism — must be knocked out from under it. It must come tumbling down.

The terrorizing effects of white supremacist ideology were on horrific display for all to see last Wednesday night, when Dylann Roof stood in front of an African American congregation after spending an hour with them in prayer, declared “You’re raping our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” He opened fire and brutally murdered nine congregants, sending a message that echoed and amplified the violent racism we have seen taking the lives of African Americans every month in this country since its founding. “You are not safe anywhere,” the message says. The media is showing all of us what African Americans have already known – that even places of refuge may not be safe in a country founded upon the lie of racial difference.

Yet there are many who want to isolate this tragedy and deny that it is representative of a much deeper, much broader, much more insidious culture of racism. In an interview with the Today show the day after the shooting, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, was quick to suggest that Dylann Roof was a single, hate-filled individual, an aberration in “the holy city,” “the friendliest state in the country.” While the Confederate flag still flies in front of the capital building, while cars with Confederate plates still drive on streets named for Confederate generals, Governor Haley spoke for millions still under the spell of white denial (the fact that she is Indian-American only speaks to the pervasiveness of white mythology infecting every race). “This doesn’t happen here,” she said.

It happens here far too often. “Here” could be Anywhere, USA. The demon of racism sleeps comfortably in the institutions and policies that underlie the foundation of our country. Its permanent footprints are all over neighborhoods designed to contain black mobility and keep African Americans in poverty. It laughs maliciously as African Americans are disproportionately arrested and given far higher sentences for petty, nonviolent offences committed in equal or greater number by their white counterparts. It steals into the hearts of white police officers and vigilantes and guides their fingers upon the trigger of guns. And it rears its ugly head in countless micro and macro aggressions.

If it didn’t happen here, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Freddie Gray, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice would all be alive.

Tamir Rice’s appalling murder is particularly revealing in the ways it highlights irrational white fear, fear that was made explicitly clear in the racist screed of Dylann Roof. Officer Timothy Loehmann, who shot Rice less than two seconds after getting out of his squad car, while the vehicle was still running, mistook this 12-year-old boy with a toy for an adult and believed “He gave me no choice.” Tamir was reaching for his own toy gun when shot, possibly to show that it was a toy. Reaching implies that he was not holding it, certainly not pointing it, at the time he died. The officer, filled with a culturally-conditioned fear (among other possible fears), couldn’t even take the time to notice the face of his victim and realize that it was a child.

Trayvon Martin was deemed threatening for wearing a hoodie and walking while black. Michael Brown, according to Darren Wilson, “hulked up like a demon” and charged after being hit with a bullet. The dehumanizing fear that refuses to see people, refuses to see children, is something that, like white privilege, must be called out. But like white privilege, it will be denied.

White denial is bewildering. Do we really imagine that after centuries of brutal, humiliating dehumanization, after laws that kept races separate and unequal in treatment lasting through more than half of the twentieth century, after the pernicious lie of white superiority that has been passed through generations, the sins of our past will just fall away with no devastating consequences?

My racial ancestors brought Africans in chains – packed into ships like animals and treated less humanely – to be property. My race is one that demonized fellow human beings for profit. Darker-skinned people were dehumanized, humiliated, flogged, tortured, and killed, and their labor built this nation. Brutality and discrimination followed emancipation, with Jim Crow segregation and lynchings that lasted late into the twentieth century. Black people were sectioned off like lepers, whites refusing to share neighborhoods, schools, bathrooms, or even drinking fountains with them. Sunday after-church picnics that included the hanging, burning and dismemberment of black men regularly drew crowds from in and out of town.

All of this is universal knowledge. And yet far too many white people refuse to acknowledge the vast racial disparities and injustices that continually spring from this brutal, not-too-distant history.

Less is known about the ways in which racism is built into the very structure and economy of modern American life. Less is known about strategic decisions that are made that keep black lives devalued. Black lives matter “as a source of economic exploitation,” as Paul Street writes for Counterpunch.org. Citing the vast disparities in arrests and sentences for African Americans versus whites, despite similar rates of “crime” (mostly nonviolent drug use), Paul goes on to explain how African Americans, by and large, are the “raw materials” of an over $200 billion prison industry. This is how black lives matter to an impersonal economic system built by real attitudes of white fear and prejudice. Little is also known about the ways in which black lives are purposefully pushed aside for “development.” As Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report declares:

The dynamics of racism in a capitalist society demand that people of color – and especially black people – be largely removed from an area as a condition for investment in that area. … White does not just convey privilege; it also conveys value in US society. The added value of whiteness is embedded in things that are bought and sold in US society. … Racism is so embedded in American society… it’s like a part of the furniture. It’s just there, like it’s hot or it’s humid… no, it’s racist.

By virtue of white skin passed along to me through many generations, I have experienced comforts deliberately cut off from many African Americans. The net monetary value of my household has been larger than that of the average black household not because my ancestors have worked harder, but because they were allowed education, jobs, wages, housing opportunities, etc., denied to black people for generations. All of these advantages are still out of reach for many African Americans despite change in the letter of the law, because change in laws does not constitute proper reparations and “white value” remains a determining factor in investment.

And I haven’t even begun to talk about the lack of fear I experience in general when I interact with police officers. I may worry for my children, but I don’t worry that the very people whose job it is to protect them will arrest, humiliate, or kill them. As I strive to find the right ways to tell my daughters about the evils of racism in this country, I haven’t been forced into a conversation before they, or I, am ready, as far too many African American families are.

White privilege is real. I have benefited from it, while some of my friends have suffered because of it. As my colleague Adam Ericksen says to all of his white readers, “I am racist and so are you,” not because we are bigots – not because we have individual animosity – but because we have been born into privilege in a nation built on racial inequality. We are as vulnerable to racism as we are to original sin; it is an inexorable fact. I acknowledge racism and white privilege not to wallow in guilt but to move forward along a path of reparation and reconciliation. Yet to give up white privilege is impossible for an individual; it must necessarily be a communal process of people of all shades working together to dismantle our current societal structure and rebuild on a foundation of equity our nation has not yet seen.

How do we go about this process together? As a white person, I know my job is to listen more than it is to speak, to form more relationships across racial divides and become ever more aware, through the stories of my African American brothers and sisters, of the terrible evils racism continues to foster. Yet I also have ideas to share in my next few articles, both theological and political. I want to explore the harmful Christian theological ideas that have contributed to the infamous legacy of slavery and white ideology in order to expose any toxic remnants and replace them with a healthier, more healing hermeneutic. I want to shed light on the lie of “heritage not hate,” and explore how our national narratives undermine the suffering of African Americans. I want to look at practical methods of social and economic healing. But first, I want to more deeply examine the phenomenon of white fear, which I think is seriously undermining any progress. Your ideas, dear readers, may well contribute to some articles in this series. Please join the dialogue; these conversations are long overdue.

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Nostalgia at Two – Who Knew!

I certainly did not know that a two year old could look back fondly on her babyhood. But my daughter and I think that’s what’s happening with her daughter, Grace. Here’s what Grace has been doing:

  • Grace has been potty trained for almost six months (it was her idea, really, and my daughter just followed Grace’s lead – but that’s another story!). Lately she has asked to wear diapers during the day and she’ll say things like, “Pooping in the diaper” even though she isn’t actually pooping in it.
  • And she will go in the closet to find the changing pad my daughter used when they weren’t home. Grace will unfold it and lay down and insist that my daughter “change her diaper,” but this go-round Grace helps with the changing routine, which she remembers precisely.
  • She will get down on all fours and say, “Crawl like a baby”.
  • She talks about things that happened when she wasn’t verbal, like pooping in the diaper. Here are two other examples: She points to the fireplace in my new house and says, “Fireplace. Don.” Don is her uncle who last Christmas was in charge of building fires in the fireplace in our vacation home in Utah. Grace was 19 months old then. And last summer, when she was 15 months old, her dad twisted his ankle in the park with Grace in his arms. They both fell to the ground and her dad managed to land Grace safely while he writhed in pain. She now points to her dad’s ankle and says things like, “Ankle. Owie,” and gives her dad a hug.
  • When it’s nap or bedtime, Grace enjoys being cradled like a baby. When I hold her in my arms and sing to her the way I did when she was an infant, she stares intently at my face with an expression I find hard to describe. But it’s the same look her mother wore when I held her in my arms in the hours after she was born. My newborn daughter stared intently at my face as I cooed and sang softly to her and I remember wondering at the time if she was thinking, “So that’s where that sound was coming from!”

So what’s going on here? If it’s what it appears, then Grace has distinct memories of being an infant. And these are fond memories for her. She enjoys remembering the time when she was a helpless baby who was loved and cared for by her family. Now that she has language, she seems to be sharing her memories with us.

I’m a bit blown away to think that an infant could be conscious of what is happening to her, conscious enough to form memories about it. Even stranger, was my newborn daughter remembering the sound of my voice reaching her ears in the womb? As I listen to Grace remembering, I wonder if we lose something marvelous as we move from womb to infancy to our toddler years. Perhaps as our abilities to move, speak, and act for ourselves improve with experience, we need to be able to draw on our memories of being loved and cared for in a safer, less ambiguous time.

Grace is reminding us that children are capable of as rich an inner life as any adult. She’s allowing us to glimpse that her growing independence rides on an undercurrent of nostalgia for a simpler time. Hey, it’s not all wine and roses when you’re a toddler. Figuring out how to behave properly, how not to mess up or disappoint or annoy or aggravate the jumpy cadre of unpredictable adults that surround you is a high risk game of trial and error. Grace has learned to say “Sorry” when she suspects she may have done something wrong. When I respond, “It’s okay, Grace,” maybe she believes me because she can remember a time when it was.