Why do We Fear Our Children and Blame Everybody Else?

On Friday, April 4, 2008, high school art teacher Jolita Berry was attacked by students in her classroom. Berry teaches (taught) at Reginald F. Lewis High School in Baltimore, MD, a school noted for its history of violent incidents. A grainy video of the assault, captured on a cell phone camera, found its way onto an Internet site for public viewing. You can read more here.

Recently, 6 teenage girls lured a fellow cheerleader into a house and beat her into unconsciousness while 2 boys acted as lookouts. The victim may have permanent damage to her hearing and sight. The girls videotaped the violent assault with the intent of sharing the video on MySpace. You can read more here and here.

Aside from violent teens, these stories share some shocking parallels:

Bystanders either did nothing, or actively encouraged/supported the attackers. In the Baltimore incident, the other teens are shouting encouragement. In the cheerleader incident, the other teens are standing watch. This kind of behavior is nothing new, as we all had to read about the Kitty Genovese incident in high school.

The attackers (or others) blamed the victim. The high school teacher was accused by her principal of provoking the attack. Christina Garcia, the mother of one of the attacking cheerleaders, blamed the videotape victim as well (live on NBC). The attacking cheerleaders justified their actions because, apparently, the girl they bludgeoned for 30 minutes called them sluts. Again, this is nothing new. We’ve been blaming the victim since Cain killed Abel.

The victim is severely traumatized—both physically and emotionally. Lolita Berry is petrified of going to that building again. The teenage victim will, in all likelihood, take decades to recover from the psychological trauma her attackers inflicted; as I mentioned above, she may also have damage to her hearing and sight.

The fourth, and most disturbing, similarity is the fact that both of these incidents were videotaped, for the purposes of the enjoyment of others. These videos almost immediately found their way onto the Internet (MySpace, YouTube, etc).

Video accounts of violence have often shocked our nation. In the Civil Rights era, our eyes were opened by the televising of policemen brutally assaulting civil rights protesters with fire hoses and dogs. In my high school days, we were all traumatized by watching the brutal beating of Rodney King by police—over and over and over again. Those who captured these incidents on tape did so to alert the public, to see that justice was done.

This is different. There is not only a reckless abandon in these attacks; there is also a disturbing, infectious joy. How many people watched these videos? How many of us watched and said, “I’m glad that’s not me/my child?” How many have watched these videos with a savage glee? How many of US, through our own poor stewardship of our nation’s youth, have unwittingly aided and abetted these attackers? We—all of us—may as well have been part of the crowd that cheered on Lolita Berry’s attackers. We may as well have been one of those who beat that young cheerleader.

Which brings me to my point: We have failed our youth. We are afraid of our youth.

We are afraid of our youth because they are the first indicators of trouble in our society. Remember learning about ecosystems in high school? Youth are the most fragile creatures in our society’s “ecosystem;” when it becomes polluted, they get hurt first. Our youth are crying out for support and limits, and we ignore their cries because they remind us that all is not right in our world. We are afraid of our kids—especially the “bad” kids—because of our own complicity in corrupting them.

Let’s face it: the average American teen is exposed to violence, sex, drugs, and alcohol FAR earlier, and on an exponentially greater level (and in a far more organized, media-supported, government-condoned basis) than the teens of fifty (heck, twenty) years ago.

For example … I cannot get in a checkout line in Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, or anywhere else, without being confronted with an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine (at a child’s eye-level, no less) with the headline, “Have Dirty, Sexy Sex.” (Because what 3-foot-tall person would not want to have dirty, sexy sex?) I cannot turn on any TV news channel without being bombarded by violence and scandal. It’s a no-brainer for the media; stories are chosen because they are attention-grabbing: salacious, scandalous, shocking, horrifying. (As Homer Simpson calls it, “Infotainment.”)

It’s nothing personal. Just good business. Sex and violence sell. Kids love professional wrestling (which, as Linda Richmond would say, is neither professional, nor wrestling. Talk amongst yourselves). Just yesterday I saw a family in the local supermarket—their 6-year-old child was wearing a T-shirt advertising the wrestling merits of a large, oily, muscular man in a spandex loincloth (whose job is to not only beat, but humiliate other oily, muscular men—and women—in front of crowds of people). And who could forget the WWE Family Values Catchphrase of the early 21st century: “Suck it!” (Thanks, Vince McMahon, for improving our childrens’ vocabulary).

We are ravenous consumers in a society that sells sex, violence, and humiliation. That is our complicity in these attacks. We also fail in another, more important way. Not only do we allow media to teach negative values; but we also fail to teach our children good values.

I hear excuses for why people don’t come to church all the time. My favorite is “because of all the hypocrites in church.” I get it—hypocrisy is a sticking point for so many people—so much so that it keeps us from doing the right thing. Many parents do not teach their kids good values because the parents find themselves unable to live by good values. (I knew parents who taught their girls to become teen bullies; their excuse? It’s better than being a victim). When we are confronted by our own sinfulness and hypocrisy, we are meant to rely on forgiveness and grace to create a better world. Instead, we get defensive and shift the blame to other people.

I believe that we have not even begun to comprehend the damage we have done to our youth (not to mention ourselves) by our casual, cavalier treatment of sex and violence.

To make things worse, we continue to both fail and fear our youth, when we tell them that their actions have no consequences.

The principal of the Reginald F. Lewis High School told Lolita Berry that she provoked her attacker by using a “trigger word.” (I believe Ms. Berry told the child that she would defend herself). That may well be. But you don’t tell that to someone who has just been victimized. And the principal’s words carry no weight because he has shown a history of not supporting his teachers, as well as a history of allowing violent incidents at his school. Violent teens are not disciplined at this high school, according to video interviews with Berry and her union representative.

I have been working with youth in a variety of settings for almost 20 years. I have seen more than my fair share of systems where the adults fear to give the kids any consequences. This is all nothing new. Youth have been shocking their parents with acts of violence since, well, Biblical times. Take David and his son Amnon. Amnon shocked his father when he raped his sister Tamar, then threw her out on the street because she reminded him of his sin. Jacob’s children horrified him when they slaughtered the entire family/clan of the man who raped their sister. You could argue that times are different now, but word of mouth spread those stories around the ancient Middle East only slightly slower than MySpace or YouTube. (Jacob knew as soon as the incident was over that his reputation as a father and a man was ruined--far and wide).

These stories hit home for me on many levels. On three occasions (all in high school), I have been threatened and/or attacked by large groups of people (I won’t delve into the reasons here); one attack left me with a severe concussion. My parents witnessed me throwing a car battery across our garage after the most recent incident, so I went to a psychologist, who told me that the attack was my fault. I’ll never forget that piece of wisdom. (I guess I have to give myself some credit--even then I knew the guy was full of shit).

These experiences drove me to, later in my life, work at a residential care center for emotionally disturbed teens. We worked with street kids, drug dealers, victims of sexual abuse, kids who had been locked in closets for months on end. What shocked me most was not the abuse these children had suffered at the hands of their parents. No, it was the fear shown by the staff at this hospital. The air was rank with adult fear (which smells, apparently, like nicotine and sweat). Most of the work involved breaking up fights, or restraining teens who had decided to “go off.” (“Going off” usually involved lots of noise, scratching, biting, kicking, throwing furniture, etc). None of us got off easy—every member of that staff was hit, punched, bitten, scratched, had bodily fluids thrown at them, etc.

It was in this context that I “lived into” the way we fear our youth. The adults outdid each other trying to play favorites with the kids. Those who had extra money (I didn’t) arrived for their shifts with treats for the kids. If a child disagreed with a consequence, they only needed to complain to another staffer to get the consequence removed. Staffers who attempted to hold kids to consequences were sabotaged. (I remember being left alone with another staffer during a two-hour riot on the teen unit. No other staff person responded to a hospital-wide alarm code. We were being taught a lesson). All of us loved those kids; that’s why we kept coming back to work. All of us feared those kids, which is why we were so good at undermining and backbiting each other. We weren’t afraid of the kids because they might punch us in the face. Rather, we feared those kids because we had failed them, and who wants to be reminded of failure?

I believe that this is the reason we fear our kids: we, as a society, have failed them. Our most troubled teens are our most troubling reminders of our failure. This MySpace video is just one of many glaring examples of how we are failing to meet our childrens’ cries for us to give them support (read: limits and consequences). Of course we fear them. And what have we been doing about this? We act like Amnon, who kicked Tamar to the curb so he wouldn't have to look at her. We kick our nation's youth to the curb when we don't hold them accountable.

I see a couple of options for those of us who care:

We tuck our tails between our legs and teach our children “winner values”—what they really need to know to get by in today’s world. Bully or be bullied. An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth. Don’t ever apologize or accept responsibility for anything. These values will help you to get ahead and prosper throughout your life cycle—all the way from kindergarten to the nursing home.

We stand up and teach our kids good values: to respect the dignity of every human being; to accept responsibility for their decisions and actions; to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Obviously, I’m advocating #2. And when our children see us fail to live up to the values we teach (and they will), we teach them grace and forgiveness.

Then maybe, just maybe, if my son gets roped into a situation involving peer pressure and a videotaped assault, he’ll do the right thing and make me proud. Heck, even if he does the wrong thing, I hope he’ll accept responsibility for his actions.

Then maybe he’ll learn about grace. Then maybe he’ll get to see just how much his father—and his Father in heaven—loves him.


The Truth - what are you going to do about it?

Late Thursday night, April 3rd, a decision was finally rendered in the property dispute between the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the 11 congregations supported by the Convocation of Anglican Churches in North American (CANA).  

The decision before the court was whether or not a "division" had occurred in the Episcopal Church, and was it legal for the 11 dissenting congregations to apply the odd statute known as 57-9.

I say "odd" because Virginia is the only state in the union (and I'm happy to be proven wrong here) that has a law like this.  Roughly, the law (Virginia Statute 57-9) says that when a religious group experiences a "division," member congregations may determine, by a majority vote of its members 18 years and older, which branch of the divided body they wish to remain a part of.

This is odd because most states' laws suggest that the church property and assets must remain with the originating branch of the division, and that dissenting members must strike out on their own.  But I digress...

In his 83 page Letter Opinion, Judge Bellows denied the Episcopal Church's claim that our current fight is small potatoes (my words), and affirmed CANA's claim of a division in not only the Episcopal Church, but in the Anglican Communion, writing:

"[The Court] blinks at reality to characterize the ongoing division within the Diocese, ECUSA, and the Anglican Communion as anything but a division of the first magnitude, especially given
  • the involvement of numerous churches in states across the country
  • the participation of hundreds of church leaders, both lay and pastoral, who have found themselves "taking sides" against their brethren
  • the determination by thousands of church members in Virginia and elsewhere to "walk apart" in the language of the Church
  • the creation of new and substantial religious entities, such as CANA, with their own structures and disciplines
  • the rapidity with which the ECUSA's problems became that of the Anglican Communion, and the consequent impact-in some cases the extraordinary impact-on its provinces around the world
  • and, perhaps most importantly, the creation of a level of distress among many church members so profound and wrenching as to lead them to cast votes in an attempt to disaffiliate from a church which has been their home and heritage throughout their lives, and often back for generations.
Whatever may be the precise threshold for a dispute to constitute a division under 57-9(A), what occurred here qualifies." [Note: the bullet points are mine]

These are very strong words, indeed - and it reads like an indictment.  A point by point replay of the entire ordeal is recounted in Judge Bellows' opinion (accounting for most of the 83 pages), making for heart breaking reading, I assure you.  And, for the most part, I think that his recounting is true.

In receiving this opinion, however, there is a vast chasm of difference between the Diocese of Virginia's reception of the opinion and CANA's reception of the opinion - nee, I dare say, there has been, all along, a campaign of misinformation perpetrated by CANA that has completely skewed the reality of the whole ordeal.

Yes, I know, BOTH sides are engaged in propaganda...clearly.  One would have to be blind to not see that.  But there is a kind of propaganda that has truth on its side, and then there's a kind of propaganda that is so pernicious that it is worthy of the best Soviet-era information campaigns (or, humorous that it rises to the level of Baghdad Bob claiming that the Americans were being killed by the thousands even as we drove through the streets of Baghdad in tanks) - and it is my claim that CANA has been engaged in a pernicious campaign of lies, backed up by emotional and spiritual claims of superiority, yet all-the-while living in complete denial, and claiming to be utterly the victim.  Woe is me.

Here are some examples of what I am talking about:

1.  The 11 Churches in Virginia are being sued by the Diocese.

In the current actions regarding 57-9, currently before the court, the Diocese of Virginia is the DEFENDANT.  Now, for all you legal newbies out there - when someone is the Defendant in a case this means that the other party is the Plaintiff, and Plaintiffs are the ones who bring legal questions before the court for suit.  If you need me to break it down further... the Diocese is being sued.

This claim, that CANA is "being sued" is one of the most pernicious because it makes them out to be the victim of "Big 'Ol Diocese" in their insatiable pursuit of money and property.  You can find this claim in writing in almost every single press release that CANA has made about this court action (here, for example).

But, in the spirit of TRUTH, it should be noted that the Diocese DOES have a suit pending against the CANA churches.  This suit regards Statute 57-15 of the Virginia Code, and is a move to prevent the transfer of church property out of the name of the Diocese of Virginia and into the name of CANA churches.  Only when this case comes before the court - and only then - would it be TRUE to say that CANA is being sued... but for now, the Diocese is a defendant.

2. "The Episcopal Church and the Diocese abruptly broke off settlement negotiations in January 2007 and filed lawsuits against the Virginia churches, their ministers and their vestries."  

This, too, is false.  While it sounds like the truth, it is not, and here is why:

The 57-9 Lawsuits were filed in January 2007 by the CANA churches FIRST - dates don't lie.  A parallel action on the 57-15 question was filed AFTER CANA filed the 57-9 suit.  

The "abrupt" end to the settlement negotiations is also false in the sense that the Diocese of Virginia some how walked away from the table without provocation or reason. 

While it is TRUE that the Ministers and Vestries were named as parties in the suits, what is lacking is the whole truth that there was a settlement a few months later that removed them as named parties to the suits.  Half truths are what we call lies.

3.  CANA is a Victim.

 "We do not harbor any ill will toward anyone" - Jim Oakes, vice chairmain of CANA's Anglican District of Virginia, has said.  And while, you, Jim, do not harbor any ill will toward anyone, I'd like to point out that "we" is probably an overstatement.

I'm pointing this out as FALSE under the heading of "Statements that make CANA sound like a victim".

If "WE" do not harbor any ill will toward anyone, then how do you explain...

Stand Firm - On many occasion, the articles and especially the comments of CANA-minded Anglicans on this blog are down-right unChristian, and certainly don't seem to support the idea that you (in the plural sense) don't harbor any ill will toward anyone.  Wishing ANY other human to be punished by burning in hell, insulting other people, disrespectful and slanderous comments and intentionally allowing people to publish and comment with FALSE information is and out and out sin by even the most liberal of standards.

And from a recent posting on Babyblue - "The Washington Post quotes comments from a political organization called the 'Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.' That is the organization that the [Former] Secretary of the Diocese of Virginia, Patrick Getlein, has just joined as a key staff member. His responsibilities there include directing the organization's strategic communications. Watch that space very carefully." [Emphasis mine]

How can you claim to NOT harbor any ill will, and yet your own people, writing anonymously I might add, single out a person like Mr. Getlein for this kind of smear campaign?  

The truth is that CANA is so hell-bent on making themselves out to be the victim of big ol' baddy Episcopal Church that it has ignored its own sin and dis-grace.  The truth is that CANA is not a victim.  Speaking from my own experience:

CANA churches in the Diocese of Virginia began a strategic withdrawal campaign about 10 years ago, beginning by refusing to support the larger church with financial contributions even before the consecration of Gene Robinson.  Further, CANA leaders refused to have conversations with people that they disagreed with.  They isolated themselves and their churches from the community, pulled away from the table, and they created an environment of hostility that made it impossible to listen (on either side, mind you).

The TRUTH is that CANA churches harbor AS much of the blame for this whole thing as does the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia (notice that I do not hold TEC or DOV harmless).

But this campaign of misinformation has got to stop.  Start telling the Truth.

4.  God is on "our" side.

The first thing to say is that God is not on either side of this tragedy.

Look at the Letter Opinion by Judge Bellows again.  He admits to stopping short of using the word "schism" because, and only because, of its religious connotations.  What we have here is a schism - a rending of the Body of Christ into, at least, 2 parts.  What we have done, on both sides, is that we have ripped our Lord in two.

Even as we both salivated, waiting for the judge to render a decision on who gets what, we have left the Body of Christ in pieces, re-crucified so that one of us could claim that we were "right."

Hypocrites.  Pharisees.  Brood of Vipers!

All of you - all of us!  How dare we do this to the church?  How dare you claim a victory when your brother and sister Anglicans across the street or across the world are hurting and in need?  How dare WE split and divide the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ into neat little pieces?

You say that GOD is on your side - or in John Yates' letter to the Falls Church, "God has provided wonderfully" - but I say that God must be tragically disappointed in us all for what we have done to the church.  He is not providing for you - he is weeping over our inability to live and worship together in unity (John 17).


I am sick to death of CANA trying to claim innocence in this whole ordeal.  There is your truth, and there is THE Truth - and believe me, you have a long way to go, at least in the public.

This is the truth.

What are you going to do about it?  


Living in a Blogger's Paradise

Well, not exactly. Maybe it should read something like living in a blog-free world and I am a material girl. Oh, well. So it seems that even once a month is not possible to keep up with the blogosphere. What with Facebook and email and voicemail and vacation and parishioners dying and Jesus rising and babies getting the stomach flu and Battlestar Galactica coming back (in just three short days!!) on top of a real nail biter of a democratic primary - it is amazing that I even have time to open my laptop, let alone press any of the keys on it let alone press enough keys to make words, then sentences or any sense at all. Ah, the good intentions we all have...am I right? Am I right?

So...apologies to the one reader out there (you know who you are) who wanted a post at least once a week. I am carrying two very lazy boys and doing my best. One is getting married, the other is just trying to catch up on sleep and hold a parish down. And me? Well, I am just trying to start a Sunday School, do the taxes, clean up baby puke, and eat every few days. Nap when there is a quiet moment, but that's not often. I can promise a moment here or there once a week, but I can't promise brilliance. Just sub-par word vomiting. Hope that keeps you going.