By Susan K. Smith,
We are so driven by how we have grown up; our perceptions of ourselves are so intermingled with what we have been told by people who love us most. We ingest their words, their ideas, their concepts of right and wrong. Some of what we get from the people we love is helpful, but to be honest, some of it is not.
I heard a story about two Latinx girls who grew up in Texas in the 50s. Of course, the schools were segregated and all Latinx children went to a certain elementary school. Many of the children spoke only Spanish; others spoke English, but as a second language.
One day, the first grade teacher told her students to take out a piece of paper and write down, “I will not speak Spanish in school.” The students did as they were told and gave their declarations, now written on neatly folded pieces of paper, to their teachers. All of the teachers in the school, it seems, had their classes doing the same exercises. In each classroom, the teachers had cigar boxes into which they put the declarations and then all of the students were marched out to the flagpole in front of the school.
As they gathered at the flagpole, they noticed a hole. The teachers placed the boxes with the students’ declarations into that hole and covered the boxes with dirt. It was the day they “buried Mr. Spanish,” one of the teachers said.
The woman telling the story remembers feeling insulted. She was only six years old at the time but had been to funerals and she understood the implications of what had just happened. Incensed, she said in Spanish to a group of her friends, “I will never stop speaking Spanish!” Unfortunately, she recalled, a teacher heard her and paddled her so harshly that the child had bruises on her body. She said she went home, crying and angry, and stayed home for 3 days.
Her father was upset at what had happened but advised his daughter to do what the teacher said to do. He didn’t confront or challenge the school about what its teachers had done in terms of forcing the children to speak only English, and he didn’t confront or challenge the school about its excessive discipline or the specific teacher who had brutalized his daughter.
The story was heartbreaking on a number of levels, but made me think about how we often end up, in an oppressive society, giving more power to the Empire and its policies and practices than we do to God. We are afraid of the “powers and principalities” which bully so many of us. Religious people who say they love God often do not love God enough to trust God and challenge the government on the ways it oppresses God’s people We too often give in and give bad advice – either verbally or through our actions – to our children. The children grow up with warped opinions about themselves; they too often become followers rather than leaders, not trusting God enough to stare injustice in the face and dare it to continue its deadly trajectory.
When we love God, not just with our lips but with our lives, something happens inside. The “greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world” phenomenon kicks in. We feel the presence of God and the urging and nudging of God in the face of evil, wrong and injustice, and cannot be quiet or inactive. We realize that in the face of injustice we are called to act and to show who God is. We refuse to accept the tendency of the Empire to put people down and to shut people out – especially our children. In our very souls, we want our children to know who they are and Whose they are and we teach them by what we do, showing that sometimes, we have to go to the lion’s den and be willing to enter it in order to show God that we understand what is required of us.
When or if we do that, we show that we love who God has made us and that we are willing to “go to the mat” for that same God. We lose fear; we lose shame or timidity and we walk boldly into the fire, if need be, in order to show that God is sovereign, not the Empire and its cronies.
The woman telling the story about having to “bury Mr. Spanish” remembers that day as vividly now as though it happened yesterday. She said little about her father and his advice to her, but she declared then and has held onto her conviction to this day that she as a Latina had rights, and one of her rights was to speak the language she wanted to. She has taught her children the same. At the end of the day, maybe it is loving God enough to love ourselves which will ultimately put the Empire in its place, by taking away its arrogant assumption that it is greater than our God.
It is not, plain and simple.
Amen and amen.
Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith –Writer, author, musician, pastor, preacher and social justice advocate. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and author of “Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives,” which won the 2009 National Best Books Award. Follow Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith on Twitter:www.twitter.com/cassad