Friday, September 26, 2014

Co-option should be no option

      The news from the Jefferson County schools has gone far beyond the borders of that county.  It has been reported nationally, both on television and radio.  For those readers who have not heard, hundreds of high school students are walking out of classes to protest some proposed policies of the Jefferson County School Board.  One of the issues that they're protesting has to do with teacher compensation.  The one, however, that is gaining the most notoriety has to do with curriculum changes in teaching U.S. History (specifically Advanced Placement U.S. History).  Proponents of the changes want greater emphasis placed on the "positive aspects" of American history, and less on the "more regrettable" side of our past.  Increased "patriotism" is one of their objectives.
      The students, of course, believe that the definition of "patriotism" that the school board is asserting is NOT the only possible definition, and that the board is promoting a particular political agenda.  The students are adopting a form of civil disobedience that has been part of American history for some time, but that, according to the new curriculum, might receive little attention in future courses.  Their action, the students believe, is truly patriotic.  In short, the students are refusing to "buy in" to (a) the school board's agenda of "cleaning up" American history and/or (b) a particularly narrow definition of "patriotism".   They are doing us a favor, I believe, in reminding us of the temptation to give in to someone else's vision of how things should be.
      I've been thinking about this larger issue over the last few days -- not because of the protests in the next county over, but because of a meeting with a very different group of students, the DU Interfaith Advocates.  This group of students is passionately committed to creating a better world/future by bringing folks together, despite any religious differences, to achieve common goals.  Whether by serving together, studying together, eating together -- their belief is that we're "Better Together".  And that belief flies in the face of a culture that seeks to divide us into ever smaller groups, all in competition over (supposedly) limited resources.
      The passion and the energy those students bring to this enterprise is amazing.  The meetings start at 60 mph and accelerate from there.  Ideas fly around like crazy.  "Should we send students to this conference or that one?"  "Who should we get to cater this event?" "I think we should visit that house of worship!" "We need to get signatures on the application now!"  "Let's partner with one of the Greek organizations to provide community service!"  "We should devote a part of each meeting to watching?learning something about another religion!"  And on it goes.  It's like a feeding frenzy; the hour-long meeting passes in seconds.  It's great.
      This "style", however, mirrors a wider cultural phenomenon of "busier, faster, louder".  And we're all subject to that allure; it's so much a part of the "air" that we breathe that we hardly notice it any more. And so I challenged us at the last meeting to consider what kind of change we are trying to effect.  If our meetings are as frenetic and un-reflective as the society around us, aren't we selling out to a system that, ultimately, will wear us down?  Do we get to know each other, appreciate each other, while we're so busy talking around each other.
      I suggested a "protest", an act of "holy disobedience":  let's start the meetings with a minute or two of silence so that we can bring our whole selves into a different "space" (to create a "holy space") for our time together.  As a partial result of more a more deliberate way of being in communion with one another, we might, ultimately, be able to offer a viable, even more attractive, alternative to those forces that would divide us one from another.  Not business-as-usual, but community-as-optimal.

Chaplain Gary

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