Thanks for coming back. I hope that there are a few of you still sticking around after last week :)
Today I want to ask a couple more questions that we as Christians (or any ethical and/or religious people, for that matter) need to consider as we go out into the world of politics, patriotism, and public policy. The questions we’re going to ask ourselves today deal with the issues of honesty and integrity. I hope that even if you don’t completely agree with what I have to say here, you will find some valuable thought to take with you this week.
So here we go:
Can we stop lying to our children by sugarcoating American History?
I love studying history. I love the cause and effect of it all, the subtle connections, the never-ending story it provides. I even love that it has the good, the bad, and the ugly. I wouldn’t want to study history if it were all shiny and happy and victorious, because then it would ring false. We know that our daily lives are a messy mix of good and evil, truth and lies, good guys and villains. How could we expect anything different from history? I don’t just love studying history, I love teaching it, too. Over several years of teaching elementary school, I found that history was about the most fun subject to teach because it lent itself to so many different kinds of teaching and learning. The projects and enrichment activities seemed endless.
But I also found something very frustrating about teaching history, particularly American history, and even more particularly, teaching it from Christian textbooks. When I read about American history in those books, I couldn’t help feeling like we were only supposed to serve up one side of the story. All of these men and women were supposed to have been brave, freed0m-loving, hard-working, God-fearing heroes and heroines. But what of their failings, mistakes, or outright sins? They were not even given a footnote. Here’s what I found, in a nutshell:
- We were supposed to talk about Christopher Columbus praying on his ships as he sailed to America, but not about the Spanish explorers to the New World killing and enslaving the natives.
- We should teach about the Puritans coming to America so that they could create a world where people were free to worship God, but not about how they themselves persecuted anyone who did not follow their version of Christianity.
- Our children should learn about the Founding Fathers seeking American Independence because they loved God and wanted all people to be free from the economic and political tyranny of Great Britain, but they don’t need to know that the American Colonies had a far higher standard of living than any part of Europe in the 18th Century, nor that most of the Founding Fathers were humanists and deists rather than Christians.
- We should teach them about the great soldiers of the Union Army, who fought the Civil War to free the slaves because that’s what Abraham Lincoln knew God wanted them to do, but not about the real causes for the Civil War or about how very little was actually done to improve the lives of former slaves.
- Our children should learn of the courage, determination, and industriousness of the Pioneers who spread our nation westward, but we ought not to mention the countless Native Americans that were killed, oppressed, relocated, lied to, and cheated so that the white settlers from the eastern states could have land to farm and mine.
- We should praise the heroic way in which America saved the world from dictators, communism and genocide by bailing France and England out during WWI and WWII, but gloss over the many pleas from England during the Great War (WWI) for America’s help that didn’t come until the last year of the war, or the fact that while our soldiers were fighting against the genocide and concentration camps of the Nazis, we were busy rounding up all the Japanese Americans and putting them in internment camps because we couldn’t trust them as a race.
That is just a small sampling of the low points in American history. We, as a nation, have been greedy, violent, racist (to everyone from Native Americans, to African Americans, to Italians, Irish and Jews), and dishonest. That is not to say that we haven’t done some great things over the last 400+ years. We have one of the best constitutions out there. We have unquestionably free and fair elections. There are many good reasons why we have been considered the land of opportunity and the promised land by millions of immigrants. Like I said last week, I am extremely thankful that I get to live in America. I may be saddened or disappointed by some of the things I find in our country’s history, and frankly in some of the things we are doing today, but that does not make me any less thankful.
I think there are two reasons we sugarcoat our history, especially when telling it to children. First, we think that if we were to tell the whole truth, people would start hating America, and we would lose all our precious little patriots. I don’t think this is true. I don’t think that if we tell our children the whole story of America that they will become chain-smoking, nationalized-healthcare-dependent, multilingual expatriates somewhere in Europe. I think they will just have a better understanding of the whole nature of man. If, as George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” then we ought to make sure our children know and remember our whole history so that they can avoid repeating the negative parts of it. But how can they remember something they do not know? Are we condemning our children to repeat the failures of the last several centuries?
The second reason many parents and teachers avoid telling the whole history of America to their children is that they feel that the children aren’t capable of understanding it, or that the truth is too unpleasant for children to hear. I do not think this is true. Children are much wiser than we give them credit for, and much more able to process this sort of information while they are young, because they have less rigid constructs of how the world must be. When you are 7 or 8, you are perfectly willing and able to stretch and change your understanding of the world because that is something that is happening on a regular basis as you grow and learn. What is more, children are better able to absorb the personal aspects of history than most of us adults. Teach a child about the Trail of Tears or the horrible segregation of blacks and whites in the South, and those children will be able to empathize and respond with compassion. Tell an adult (who presumably is unaware of these facts in history) about the same things and they will say, “How sad, how unjust. I’m glad we know better now,” and walk away unchanged.
Children are capable of understanding and hearing unpleasant things without being scarred for life. Perhaps not in gory detail, but certainly they can handle a larger measure of the truth than we think. This is even true of the most seemingly sensitive children. For example, I once had a student who was very intelligent, but also possessed a very vivid imagination. Imaginary frights and foes easily took over her mind, and thus she had a very low tolerance for scary or suspenseful stories. One would expect that she would not be able to handle the more unpleasant aspects of history. However, I found out quickly that she could absorb and understanding things that she knew were true, factual history. If you told her about a dragon coming to burn down the school, she would have nightmares about it. But if you told her that thousands of Cherokees died on the Trail of Tears, she would be able to logically process that into her understanding of American history. Let’s stop insulting our children by telling them half-truths and lies.
There is another reason that we out to change the way we dispense history to our children, and that is the issue of our own credibility.We have a culture, as parents and teachers, of consistently lying to our children. We lie to them about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. We lie to them about how we feel. We lie to them about others. We lie to others in front of them. We have woven this culture of dishonesty so deeply into the framework of our lives that a natural part of growing up is the process of pulling all the lies out so that we can reorganize our worldviews. Sadly, because we distrust so much of what our parents and teachers told us, we pull out even the truth that they did tell us and discard all of it together.
Do you never wonder why so many young adults turn away from the faith they were raised with? Think about it: if you tell me that Santa is real, and then he turns out to be a myth, ditto the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny, how is God, or Jesus Christ, any different? They are all just good stories to get me to behave as a child, but are no longer relevant now that I’m in charge of myself. And why should I believe it just because you told me about it? You also lied about how much you liked Aunt Agnes’ lamb stew and about how “beautiful” your sister’s wedding dress was, because those lies made your life easier. Maybe you lied to me about religion, faith, and salvation because those lies made your life easier. Yes, we may have to be selective about how much detail we share from the more violent parts of our history, but we hurt our children more by lying to them than by telling them the truth.
Can We Stop Using the World’s Ways?
I’m not a big fan of politics. I have an especially hard time reconciling the beliefs of Christians in the political realm with their actions within that realm. This has nothing to do with their particular stands on taxes, abortion, marriage, jobs, trade, or immigration. It also is not because I feel that Christians shouldn’t be involved in government and politics. It’s just that I constantly get the sense that the Christians (and the moral conservatives of other religions) are denying everything they supposedly stand for by the way they conduct themselves in the public arena.
Let me show you what I’m trying to say. We’ll transfer this concept into the area of evangelism. Suppose a missionary or preacher wanted to bring as many people to God and salvation as possible. Preaching the Gospel wasn’t working as fast as he wanted, the radio spots weren’t getting enough attention, so he decided to try a new tactic. He mailed out flyers stating that he would personally pay the college education for the children of anyone who accepted Jesus (even though he couldn’t possibly deliver on that promise). He sent out emails to his faithful members, emails full of libelous and scandalous “facts” about the other ministers in town (not a bit of which was true; but his faithful flock passed these “facts” along to everyone on their mailing lists). And how did he pay for all this? Well, because he was doing “the Lord’s work,” he took all the money that was originally earmarked to build a new food pantry and soup kitchen, and he paid for his campaign of salvation.
What were the results? Many people came to the church, curious and excited about the prospect of something for nothing. They heard the Gospel preached, but that wasn’t what they came for. Very few believed and were saved, and several true believers that had been in the church for years were so disgusted with the preacher that they left for another church. And the food pantry/soup kitchen? It never was built. There wasn’t enough money.
No pastor, evangelist, or Christian who is sincere in his or her beliefs would condone any of what our hypothetical preacher had done. He was deceptive, he started false rumors, and he misused the financial resources of his congregation. The sad thing is, when it comes to politics, we seem to think that these tactics are just fine.
I get a few advertisements each week from political campaigns. They have two messages: 1) The other candidate is ruining your life and everything else in this country, and if he is elected, you can pack your bags for the end of the world. 2) Our candidate will make your life better, will stop all crimes, will make everything you disapprove of illegal, and will vastly improve the economy. Anyone who thinks logically can quickly spot the problems here. First of all, a president cannot do either thing so completely. He cannot ruin everything, nor can he fix everything. Now, that doesn’t mean that I think that each candidate is equal; certainly you will find that one of them has more in common with you and seems more likely to improve things to your liking. Second, there is no way for all of the things about “our candidate” to be true. He can’t eliminate taxes and increase spending. He can’t make more things illegal and lower crime. Use your logic, folks!
I understand that this is marketing, and we humans like to hear the simplest, best-case scenarios. But if the election of our leaders is up to each of us, I’d prefer the “us” to be educated about the facts, not just suckered in by shiny promises and fancy-dancy adverts. If we can’t be trusted to sift out the truth from the lies, why should we have the right to decide the fate of our nation?
Have you ever listened to talk radio, especially political talk radio? Here’s a tip: If you have really, dangerously, low blood pressure, just switch on your local talk station. Within 10 minutes, you’ll be just fine. I confess, I used to listen to these shows, mostly because the only other radio stations my car would pick up played a confusing mix of Justin Bieber, Li’l Wayne, and MercyMe. That’s all one station, folks. You see my dilemma. But then I started listening more closely to what these hosts and their guests were saying, and also how they were saying it. I found four themes. 1) Fear – whatever the “other side” is planning, it is going to result in disaster. Therefore you should side with us. 2) Anger – whatever the “other side” is saying, it is evil, it’s a lie, they’re just doing it to make your life difficult. 3) Tunnel Vision – whatever the “other side” is saying is wrong, because they are saying it. Only our (my) way and our (my) opinion is right. There can be no discussion, no variance. Hold the party line, boys! 4) Hypocrisy – the “other side” is always lying, stretching the truth, drumming up negative sentiments, fear-mongering, making false promises. Um, and what is it we are doing? Oh, right, just presenting the objective truth so that everyone will know that we are right. I don’t know about you, but to me, those things don’t seem to be the way that Christ or the Apostles changed the hearts and minds of the people in Israel, Rome and Greece.
What about campaign finances? Now, I don’t want to get into an argument here over legislated spending limits or anything official like that which might be on your ballot this year (it will be here in Colorado). That’s not the point. You can hold your own opinion on who should be allowed to spend how much on what parts of a campaign. The laws are not the issue here. What is at issue is how we as individuals choose to use our money. I understand that part of the thinking behind donating to a party or a candidate, whether you donate $25, or $250,000, is that you are helping change the world by getting your candidate elected. To some extent, that is true. But there are two problems with that. First, how much of that money is really necessary? Is a 600 million dollar campaign 10 times as successful as a 60 million dollar campaign? Second, how much is your candidate really going to change things for the better? A few tax dollars here, a few immigrants there, a couple jobs one way or another – unless they are able to do something radical, there is usually only a modest amount of change.
But imagine this with me for a minute. What if the couple that donated a combined $10 million to the Romney Super PAC or the businessmen and entertains who donated a combined $36 million to the Obama Super PAC had instead donated that money to funds that would target homelessness, hunger in the US, education deficits, struggling single mothers, and at-risk teens (all using proven, effective methods). Would that change our country drastically? You bet it would. And yet, if I asked those donors to give even $100,000 to a jobs program for recovering homeless men or for a crisis pregnancy center that finds homes and jobs for teen mothers and connects them with adoptive parents who will care for their babies, they would probably balk.
Again, I don’t think any law is the answer to this. I think that we need to wake up and realize that no candidate, no president is going to be able to make the amount of impact on the issues that matter to us, whatever they may be, that we could make if we took our money power and combined it, large donations and small ones, and put them towards directly affecting the issues. But maybe we do realize it; maybe the saddest thing of all is that we know our money could be more effective somewhere else, but we are too eager for the power and recognition that comes with being a political backer that we just don’t care.
And finally, the one that really just irks me. The one that makes me wish there were a way to ban certain people from using the “forward” button on their email. Yes, you guessed it: the hyper-indignant, oft-forwarded, absolutely-true, must-read-this, ALL-CAPS-SCREAMING email giving you all the facts that you never knew about who “the other guy” really is, and what will really happen to America if “he” and “his cronies” are elected. Would you believe that Barack Obama is a communist, gay, atheist Muslim who was raised by jihadists and is secretly plotting the Arab invasion of American by giving the banks too much power and letting the Mexicans cross the border? It’s all absolutely true, according to Stephanie Van Winkerflump of the American Society for Political Truth. Or so the emails read. I may have condensed a bit. To prove the point, there are photos, emails, voting records, and YouTube videos. (They can’t put it on YouTube if it’s not true, you know.) I mostly have conservative and Republican friends and contacts, so this is the stuff I get. I’m sure if you were more in with the liberal crowd, you would know that Mitt Romney is part of a secret society along with George Bush (either one – pick the one you hate most) which uses baby endangered animals for their ritual sacrifices, he really has 12 wives (he’s a Mormon, after all), he used his tax shelters and businesses to funnel millions of dollars into offshore accounts to help pay for his 12 wives and 37 children, he leaves his (non-hybrid) car idling in the driveway for more than 10 minutes, and there is some possibility that he is actually an android. It’s all absolutely true, because that guy from that TV show that’s on after the one I really like said so. Celebrities wouldn’t lie. That’s why they get to be so famous.
We pass on all this total nonsense because we like the idea that “the other guy” is so awful. It makes our guy look a lot better. Fact is, if we were to get them in a room together without all the political bunk, they’d probably be a lot more similar than they are different. They’d probably even agree, at least in principle, on a lot more things that we think. But we like the world to be black and white because then we don’t have to use our thinking muscles. Well, let me challenge you, all you political-forwarders out there, next time something shows up in your inbox that presents horrifying facts about the opposition or makes dire predictions about the future, do some research before you hit “forward to everyone who’s ever been in my address book”. Check out snopes.com. Do some googling, and make sure you’re not getting your info from someone else who got the same email. Bottom line: if you can’t be sure that every single thing in that email is true, just don’t forward it. If people already have the same views as you, sending them more lies isn’t of any worth, and if they don’t, then it is just plain wrong to try to convince them of your stance by using lies. If “our” position is the right one, then we shouldn’t need made-up “facts” to convince people of it.