Jason C. Stanley

ponderings of a dad walking humbly & seeking justice

Tag: Virginia

Guest Post: A Crack in the Glass Ceiling

Inconceivable-the-princess-bride-3983999-260-300

by Rev. Lindsey Baynham

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that 2016 has been the year of realizing what might be inconceivable is not. The year where the impossible is attainable and made real. To describe this feeling, I’ll use the phrase “glass ceiling”. The origins of this phrase are credited to the mid 1980’s when women were referring to this imaginary barricade of glass that prevented them from advancing, particularly in the workplace:

“Women have reached a certain point—I call it the glass ceiling. They’re in the top of middle management and they’re stopping and getting stuck. There isn’t enough room for all those women at the top…”[1]

But what if there was enough room?

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Beyond the Hashtag

from catchwordbranding.com

from catchwordbranding.com

You have probably seen, or even tweeted, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. It has been used in response to the kidnappings of Nigerian school girls at the hands of the terrorist group Boko Haram. Celebrities, politicians, the First Lady, and everyday people like you and me have tweeted the hashtag. In all, over a million tweets have beckoned for the return of these Nigerian girls.  And that’s a good thing. The more voices that rise up, the more awareness there is about an issue, like how selling girls into slavery is not okay.

And the use of the social media has reached the attention of those that can indeed do something about this. The U. S. government has since gotten involved to aid the Nigerian government in locating the over 200 kidnapped girls. It took the hashtag, first tweeted by Nigerian mothers, to get the worldwide attention it has today. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all over the world, including the United States, every day. The hashtag got our attention.

Blogger Merrilyn Akpapuna, a 20-something Nigerian, recently wrote this about #BringBackOurGirls:

We may not be able to physically save these girls but what we can do is talk. Our voice is our power and if everyone is talking about this, we increase the likelihood that something will be done about it.

Our voices are important. Our voices, like that of the Baptist in Mark’s gospel, are crying out in the wilderness for repentance. Our voices, like that of the whale-swallowed Jonah, are calling for a change in evil ways. Our voices have power.

But it occurred to me that maybe the hashtag is too easy. Not just #BringBackOur Girls, but any social activist kind of hashtag. Maybe we hide our voices behind the hashtag instead of truly raising our voices against an injustice like sex trafficking. There is a level of comfort when we tweet a hashtag from our smart phones while not disrupting the normalcy of our lives.

The work of justice is disrupting.

In the process of pondering these thoughts and writing this post over the last few weeks, Caitlin Dewey wrote an article titled “Is tweeting a hashtag better than doing nothing? Or about the same?” in the Friday, May 9 edition of The Washington Post. In the article Dewey raises some of the same questions I had been pondering. She also outlines how hashtags have become a form of “slacker” activism.

Is hashtag activism just being lazy? Well, it’s debatable, as Dewey highlights. As a Christian, I accept that I am called out of my comfort zones to pursue justice with peace and compassion. But, I also recognize that for some tweeting a hashtag with social justice implications (#JusticeforTrayvon for example) may be coming out of a huge comfort zone. But for the rookie or the veteran tweeter, it seems to be easier to tweet a commonly tweeted hashtag to show support for something and call it activism, justice work, or a good deed. Whatever we call it, it becomes comfortable and easy.

The other week I was in Washington, D. C. stepping out of my own comfort zone by advocating for bills or changes in bills that were before the Senate and House. I never imagined that I would end up on Capital Hill doing something like this. But when an issue or an injustice becomes deeply personal to you and people you care for, it moves you beyond the hashtag.

Injustice moves us beyond our comfort zones.

One of the things I was advocating for on Capital Hill was the Adoption Tax Credit Refundability Act of 2013 (S 1056/HR 2144). While the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 became a permanent fixture to the tax code, the refundable portion of the credit which was made permanent for two years (2010 and 2011) is no longer in effect. This new act will restore that refundable portion creating financial flexibility to families who are interesting in building their families through adoption. 

Here’s more information from a press release after the bill was introduced in May 2013:

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, one-third of all adopted children live in families with annual household income at or below 200 percent of the poverty level.  Despite the common misperception that only wealthy families adopt, nearly 46 percent of families adopting from foster care are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.  Many of these families’ tax burdens are so low that they cannot benefit from the adoption tax credit at all unless it is refundable.

While I could have stayed in Lynchburg in the comfort of my home and hashtagged my heart out, there is something to be said about stepping out of your comfort zone. And going to Capital Hill was way out of my comfort zone. We were meeting with staff of Senators and Representatives from Virginia. We maneuvered through the labyrinth of the basement hallways of the Capital. We ate lunch in the Senate offices cafeteria. We awkwardly waited outside of the offices of politicians.

All of this stuff we did on a casual, normal Wednesday, that I never dreamed I would ever do, made a difference in me. It gave me some experience in how politicians become aware of bills that could indeed make a difference. It challenged the myth that our voices matter (they do, by the way). I grew in understanding about advocacy, but also from hearing the stories of others. And none of it would have happened it had not stepped out of my comfort zone.

Stepping out of our comfort zones is a good thing.

But, it is also something that requires a little bit of responsibility on our part. We do not just simply raise our voices. If we are going to go beyond the hashtag and step out of our comfort zones to raise awareness, we need to be aware ourselves. Merrilyn Akpapuna, the young Nigerian woman I mentioned earlier offers some great advice:

So, do more research about this incident and talk about it on social media using the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. If you are a global citizen [something I continually strive to be] who is altruistic enough to care about not just the citizens of your country but the human race, you will agree that these are Our girls. So let’s start talking and say hey better me!

So, let’s get passionate, let’s tweet some hashtags, and let’s raise awareness of injustices around us. Let us also do our research, be aware of what we want others to be aware of, and let’s be courageous enough to step out of comfort zones beyond the hashtag.

Philomena (2013)

Philomena received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress: Judi Dench, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score.

philomena-movie-posterOne who is persistent continues firmly and strongly in a course of action, no matter the risk or difficulty. This is Philomena Lee. Journalist Martin Sixsmith, who was reluctant about writing a human-interest story, first told Philomena’s story. Sixsmith would later publish the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.

The film Philomena is based on that book.

Judi Dench, one of the greatest actresses of our time, portrays the aging mother in search for her biological son. Philomena’s story begins as a teenager when at one moment of weakness with a young man lands her in a home run by a collection of nuns. There she gives birth to her son, and watches powerlessly as an American couple takes him home.

For fifty years she wonders what happened to her son Anthony. On the occasion of his 50th birthday, Philomena seems unable to shake the desire to find out what happened to him.  She returns to the nuns to inquire, but they tell her that they have no information on him. She doesn’t let go though. She remains persistent. This is when she meets Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Martin had recently lost his government official job due to a scandal. Reluctant to do a human-interest story, he does it in an effort to turn his image.

The two embark on a journey to the United States in search for Anthony.  The journey is very much the frame of the story. And like all great journey stories, both characters learn a lot about each other and about themselves. It is a challenging journey because Martin and Philomena are two completely different people, age difference aside.

Philomena favors romance novels, while Martin prefers a more intellectual read. Philomena is not well traveled, resulting in her being awed by such wonders as the waffle maker at a Washington, D. C. hotel. Martin, a former government official, doesn’t see the wonder in such minor details.  But perhaps the biggest difference is religion. Philomena is deeply religious, making Martin stop on the side of a rural road in Virginia so that she can go to confession. While Martin is not religious and does not see the reason for it.

 Philomena: Do you believe in God?

Martin: Difficult to give a simple answer.

The two learn that the nuns were selling the teenage girls’ babies to wealthy Americans. They are able to track Anthony down, who was raised as Mike Hess and worked in the Regan administration. As they uncover the truth (I don’t want to spoil it for you) about Hess, Martin seems surprised and worried about how Philomena will respond. “I knew that,” she said.

Philomena has Martin stop the car at a rural Virginia church so that she can go to confession. “What I had done was a sin. Not telling people was a sin. Which was the greater sin of the two?” Philomena wonders aloud, still struggling with guilt of having sex as a teenager. Martin argues that she does not need to ask for forgiveness, the church needs to ask for forgiveness. Martin reasons that what the church did to her was unjust. “You don’t need religion to be happy,” Martin says.

And that scene sums up the struggle that both Philomena and Martin face, and so many of us, with religion. Institutional religion has good days and it has bad days. On the good it is just, on the bad it is unjust. Through the centuries, we know that this is true.  Martin recognizes that outsiders, like himself, look into the church and see the injustice, while those on the inside, like the nuns, cannot and are not willing to change. Philomena knows the reality of institutional injustice because she has been on the receiving end of the injustice of the institution. However, she does not stop believing in God. She is faithful. She is persistent.

Jesus tells the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18). In the story, the persistent widow seeks the judge to ask for justice. We are not told the reason for the cries of justice, just that the widow is persistent. The judge, worn down by the nagging, finally agrees to give her justice.

The story implies that disciples, or followers of Christ, are to be persistent in their prayer life, while also seeking justice. Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, Luke uses the encounter between Jesus and the sisters Martha and Mary to illustrate the importance of balance in our lives. A balance of being with Jesus (Mary) and doing for Jesus (Martha) is necessary. Philomena represents this balance. While she is persistently seeking her son and justice for the wrong that was done to her, she is persistently faithful to her God.

And because Philomena has found this balance, she is able to forgive when others find it too difficult. When Philomena and Martin return to the nuns to find the truth about her son, Martin is angry with the nuns for what they had done. He sneaks through the building to find the one remaining nun from when Philomena was a teenager to demand some answers. In the heat of this powerful scene, the nun refuses to acknowledge that she did anything wrong, making Martin more angry, telling her that if Jesus was present, he would push her out of her wheelchair, clearly drawing on the image of Jesus turning over the moneychangers’ tables.

Philomena, on the other hand, forgives the nun. Philomena becomes the only one who is willing to welcome change, and it begins with forgiveness.

_D3S1363.NEFThe film is possibly one of Judi Dench’s best films. Dench is fabulous in this role. At the time of filming, Dench was 79 and slowly going blind. The director chose so many times to fill the screen with Dench’s face, even when she had no speaking part. By doing so, we can appropriate more the complexities of Philomena.

Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, gives a commanding performance. Possibly one of his best. He manages to balance the humor with the intensity of accompanying Philomena on this journey. Both Dench and Coogan should be recognized by the Academy.

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