On a Consistent Ethic of Valuing Life

One friend described me saying, “Leslie’s a pacifist, but she’s a fighter.”  I kind of like that description!  When people hear the term pacifist, they often think of passivity, but the reality is that I am far from passive, and my journey into pacifism is a result of this.

As a Christian, I believe it is wrong to take the life of another human being.  I am a pacifist.

All throughout my upbringing, I was taught that abortion was murder, and therefore, wrong.  I believed it, and to the dismay of some of my liberal friends, I still do.  I don’t believe abortion justly falls under the umbrella of women’s rights.  I believe the fetus is an incredibly vulnerable human life that deserves protection, just like it does out of the uterus.

But here’s where I moved from traditional “pro-life” (aka – anti-abortion) to a consistent ethic of valuing human life.  In Sunday School one day, I raised the subject of just war and abortion.  I don’t remember how I framed the question, as it was decades ago now, but I was never satisfied with anyone’s answer.  If we as Christians believe that abortion is the unjust killing of a vulnerable human life, wouldn’t the rates of abortions justify the bombing of abortion clinics?  No one said yes, and yet they all believed in just war theory…arguably any war theory.  In my experience in American White Evangelicalism, cultural rules and boundaries are equal influencers in life decisions as Scripture, though no one would frame it this way.  Basically, it was culturally obvious that bombing an abortion was a ludicrous thing to do, but culturally obvious that nationally sanctioned bombings of other nations was respectable.

Basically, in my teen years, I came to the conclusion that, to be consistent, I either had to be a pacifist or join the ranks of defending abortion bombers as equally justified alongside World War II bombers.  The pragmatist in me decided that being a pacifist was the safer bet, and as I’ve grown and matured, I absolutely embrace the ideals of true pacifism.  I believe that genocide is wrong.  I believe that abortion is wrong.  I believe that euthanasia is wrong.  I believe that the death penalty is morally wrong, never mind horrendously archaic and carelessly sentenced.  I have told my family in writing that, if I am ever murdered, I do not want my murderer put to death.  I believe that war is wrong, and I do not think that Christians should serve in the military.  I do not keep weapons in my house, but my dogs will do a number on you, so don’t get any ideas!

I chose to write a blog entry on this topic because someone put the following comment in response to my support of a Christian Democrat running for presidential office:  “Anyone who supports abortion is not demonstrating the Christian faith. I do not respect this man.”  Ouch!  Comments like this are spiritual abuse and manipulation, and I will not vote for a man with the complete disregard for human dignity and human life shown by our current president.  I will not succumb.  I have good friends who have had abortions, and many times, it happens due to male manipulation and pressure.  Based on our current president’s sexual lifestyle, I would be very surprised if he hasn’t paid for abortions.  I don’t care what supreme court judge he nominates, to call our current president pro-life is a disgrace.  I wouldn’t even call him anti-abortion.

You see, there is not a single presidential candidate that demonstrates a consistent ethic of valuing human life to the extreme that I believe it should be valued.  A president’s job includes authorizing the killing of human life.  It just does.  (One of many reasons why I would never run for president…my religious views would prohibit me from doing the job.)  I believe that it is important to vote.  I believe democracy is important.  While our system is very flawed, and we have a long way to go in improving equal access and representation in our voting system, I still believe it is important to participate in the process and exercise our right to vote.

I am not a Republican, and I am not a Democrat.  I believe both parties have strengths in various areas, and I believe that various voices are needed at the table to make the decisions that are best for our nation.  I sift through the candidates, and I consider who has the most consistent value for all human life, in speech, in deed, and in policy.

A few other thoughts on abortion specifically:

The number of abortions in the US has consistently been going down every year.  There are much more effective ways to reduce abortion rates than voting for Republican presidents who, to date, have not proven effective at changing abortion law.  Services to women and children have been proven more effective in reducing abortion rates, and as a general rule, Democrats tend to pass budgets and policies that support more of those services.  Even if a Republican president did indirectly change abortion law through the appointment of very conservative supreme court justices (unlikely), it would simply return the power to each state.  Very few states would actually criminalize abortion, and for those that did, the result would simply be that women travel to neighboring states for procedures.  The best protection this would provide for unborn children is cutting back on impulsive abortions of convenience, which, admittedly, is something, but not much.

We need to be careful how we talk about abortion.  When people talk about abortion politically, they are often horribly under-informed on the vast array of procedures that initiate doctors to click the abortion box on paperwork.  I have friends who have had pregnancies terminate of natural causes that were still marked abortions.  I have had friends who have made the hard decision to terminate a pregnancy because choosing to let the pregnancy take its natural course would have ended the lives of both the mother and the developing fetus.  I have also had friends and family choose life who were advised to otherwise, and sometimes it turns out beautifully (for instance, my husband is alive and affirming value in the lives around him) and other times it turns out incredibly painfully (saying goodbye to a child within minutes or months or years).  If you choose to vote based on this one issue, please be incredibly careful with your words.  As Scripture says, “The tongue can bring death or life.”

I, Too, Have Put My Life on the Line for This Country

I often feel like people say they served to protect our country as a way to stop voices of dissent, and dare I say, revolution.  This gravely concerns me because I believe that one of America’s most important freedoms that we need to protect is the freedom to question those in leadership.  Leadership is hard.  I’m a leader; I get it.  But the populous must be free to question the decisions and belief systems of voted, public leaders.  If I ever run for office, I know that I will be signing up for public scrutiny and questions.  It’s not easy, it’s not comfortable, but it needs to be part of a healthy, free democratic society.  I am always under-impressed when a public official acts offended at this questioning and accountability.

I am a pacifist, so I don’t carry a weapon, but this doesn’t mean I’m a wimp or naive and entitled.  (Don’t worry – I won’t run for president as a pacifist.  I recognize that my religious beliefs would interfere with my ability to do the job.) . I put my life on the line for this country 180 days a year for 5 years and continue to do so many days each year on an ongoing basis.  You see, I am a public educator, and one who opened a school six short months after the Sandy Hook shooting.  What I didn’t know at the time was that this would become an alarmingly frequent pattern in our country.  I am here to protect and to serve our students, our next generation of voters, the same people that military personnel sign up to protect and serve.  More specifically, I am the top office in a public school building.  This means it is my responsibility to put myself in harm’s way to protect the lives of staff and children if a gunman walks into the building that I am in charge of protecting and serving.

I don’t carry a gun because I don’t believe that “good guys” killing people is better than “bad guys” killing people.  (As a matter of fact, I don’t believe there are “good guys” and “bad guys” at all, and I strive to dismantle these mentalities in staff, students, and families.)  I don’t carry a gun because I believe that choosing when to end a human life is God’s decision, not mine, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a fighter.  As one friend described me, “Leslie’s a pacifist, but she’s a fighter.”  I have no problem asserting my authority and making people leave the premises as needed.  I have no problem grabbing the nearest chair or desk and using it to knock an armed intruder unconscious or break his knees.  I am trained in restraint and am comfortable incapacitating someone until help arrives.  I believe in protecting people.  I believe in protecting our rights.

And I believe in standing up to a bully in the highest office.  I have been a school leader under two different presidents, and I can tell you that the way the president behaves impacts the way students behave, as well as the systems that impact their existence.

I am incredibly thankful to live in a country where I can speak up when I see a leader harming our country.  I am also comfortable living and working together with those who believe differently than I do, including those who believe it is in the best interest of some human beings to kill other human beings.  That being said, I expect people to respect that I protect and serve the American people every day, not with a gun, but with my mind, my words, and my actions.

I Found My Categorical Placement!

My entire life, I have felt like I don’t quite fit into the categories people create to define each other. In truth, this has brought me a lot of pride, to be indefinable, and a lot of frustration, as people just never quite “get” me. As I was exercising on my bike this morning…that is propped on an indoor stand between my bed and my closet, with my “Happy Light” shining on me and listening to a TedTalk  (just trying to paint a picture of my oddities for you)…I was introduced to myself. I learned from this TedTalk that there is a category of people labeled “originals.”

I am an “original.”

Many of you will respond like my husband, “Yes, you are!”

But really, it’s a thing!  While being categorically labeled as an original doesn’t feel very original, I’m super excited to discover why the things that drive everyone crazy about me are also the things that help me make a visible impact on society.

Below is the TedTalk:

 

If you took the time to listen to the whole TedTalk, you now understand me and how my brain works a little bit better. Fast to start, slow to finish, pauses to think a lot in between, and yes, I use Google Chrome!

Through sabbath rest, reflection, reading, conversations, counseling, and the current status of my career journey, I am learning to trust my own expertise.  In counseling one day, I mentioned in passing how I used to think all the people in high positions in public education knew way more than me but that I have figured out no one truly knows what they’re doing and everyone is just finding their way and doing their best.  In similar passing fashion, my counselor said, “We call that Imposter’s Syndrome.”  We move on.  I thought she was saying that everyone pretends to know what they’re doing, but no one really does.  A few weeks go by, we’re talking again…this time about whether all the pressure I feel is coming from the inside or outside, and I shared an example about an advisor of mine who I respect highly and holds an MAE from Harvard.  I was expressing how hard it is to sift through his advice, taking some pieces and leaving others, without feeling the pressure to follow everything he says because he’s super smart (don’t know if I said smarter than me…may have) and knows his stuff.  She quickly replied, “on paper.”  I suddenly thought, “She thinks I’m really smart and know my stuff.”  Mind blown.  So I decided to Google “imposter’s syndrome” after that session to see what she was really saying in her brief comment a few weeks prior, and I found this:  themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposters-symdrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one.  Wait a second!  After just the introduction to the article, I realized this therapist (with a PhD) was saying I was underestimating my own expertise, not overestimating others’ expertise.  (For those of you who read the article, I’m probably a combo of “The Superwoman” and “The Expert” in the article.) Again, mind blown!

I guess I’m a smart, competent, successful “original.”  Who knew?!?

We doubt our ideas, not our value as a person.  We fear failure, but we fear failure to try even more.  There are many of us out there, and apparently, we are the people that really change the world, which is the scariest, most exciting outcome I could dream of!

Here’s to trusting my own expertise in the coming months and years and continuing to generate a high volume of ideas worth trying, to find the ones that will truly make a difference in our society.

Roots

I’ve been mulling this subject around in my brain from many different angles. A forest of tall, strong trees has a complicated system of roots on the forest floor, like the ones pictured above. They’re beautiful, really, in their own way, but one could easily get tripped up on them. The same seems to be true with people.

I come from a forest of tall, strong trees, both literally and figuratively. I grew up in a remote area of the Pennsylvania Blue Ridge mountains with natural forest land all around. I had plenty of time to explore my world, play imaginatively, and regularly refresh my soul as a young child. My parents guarded these opportunities for me that seem so simple and yet so often missed. We did not have a television hooked up in our home (and yes, TV was prevalent when I was a kid!), and I was not allowed to join any sports teams or other activities that required daily meetings or practices until I was in high school because my mother firmly believe that kids should be kids.

I’m so thankful for this because I nearly suffocated in high school, and some of that was likely because I was an introvert living an extrovert schedule. Once I hit high school, my average day looked like getting up at 5:50 a.m., catching the bus by 6:45 a.m., getting to school by 8:00 a.m., practicing with my sports or theater team after school until 5:00 p.m., traveling home until 5:45 p.m. (thank God for the life-saving 40 minute commute that allowed me to process my thoughts once I was old enough to drive), eating dinner, doing homework and instrument practice, and going to bed in time to get up and do it all over again. And that was just on normal days, let alone concerts, recitals, games, tournaments, and stage productions! My family has a running joke that I always scheduled “free time” first when planning out my limited evening, but if I didn’t, I feared I would never get that far. (And, unbeknownst to my mom, she kind of instilled that as a value early on.)

I have an amazing heritage of stability, commitment, and strength. My great-grandmother lived to be 100. One of my grandfathers lived to be in his 90s, and I have a living grandmother who is 102 and counting. I also just spent a few days with my family celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Now, that’s commitment! But that’s not all. Every single one of my siblings and I are in our first marriages and still committed and rocking the family life thing on a daily basis. When we were home, I couldn’t help but note that when we mentioned all being in town to celebrate my parents’ 50th, that another set of siblings with whom we grew up were in the area to celebrate their parents’ 50th, and another set of siblings said, “We just celebrated our parents’ 50th a year or so ago!” And there were others at the party that I knew had also been married for more than 50 years. Amidst today’s marriage statistics, that’s amazing! My parents’ had a circle of friends who knew what commitment looked like, and I got to grow up around all of that.

So why do I live twelve hours away? Why do I have a hard time visiting for more than a few days at a time? Truth is, if I had stayed in the area into young adulthood, I would have been only a shadow of the person I am today. I always viewed the world a bit differently than most with whom I grew up, but I didn’t have the framework, life experience, and confidence to embrace choosing a different path without completely relocating. From afar, I can more effectively name the things that are wrong and do them differently.

Oftentimes, people are so constantly focused on what is wrong and trying to fix it that we forget to notice what is right and build upon it. But other times, we see so much that is right that we are afraid to name that which is askew and work to engage multiple perspectives to come to a more accurate and all-encompassing truth. Like most white people, there were many things in my growing up experience that were just plain wrong. Like most American Christians, there were some things in my upbringing that were treated as unquestionable truth that were simply interpretation, perspective, political opinion, and culture. And for some reason, I needed and still need wide-open spaces to identify which is which and make and maintain the shifts needed to be a healthy, whole adult.

But that doesn’t minimize the foundation of a healthy existence that my parents provided for me in a supportive, loving home. As I work with people daily, I am constantly reminded of the amazing foundation for a healthy life that was provided me through my family.

Over the past few weeks, I took my children to celebrate and connect with their roots. We celebrated marriage and life-long, loving commitments. We celebrated and enjoyed the beautiful lands of the northeastern United States that are filled with wonderful memories for me and provide me with a connection to the land I rarely feel in my current location. We walked the streets and parks of Boston and Newton that I walked as a child, that my father walked as a child, that my grandmother walked as a child, and that my great-grandparents walked. I sent my dad a picture of my son walking in the park that was my dad’s old stomping ground.

We traced our roots together as a family, and I come from a family of tall, strong trees, so our roots are a little messy. But they’re beautiful and they’re needed to support life and health and another generation of tall, strong trees.

As we drive back toward the Midwest, I imagine a day in the future when my adult children take their families to a little corner of northeastern Pennsylvania and say, “This is where my mom grew up, and I have a lot of great memories visiting here as a kid.” Who knows where their journeys will take them? Only time will tell what pieces of their upbringing give them life and what pieces they will need to adapt and choose a different path. But one thing I know, they will always have a beautiful, messy network of roots holding them up amidst a forest of tall, strong trees.

*I recognize that, in my work as a community developer and educator, asking people to remain in a setting that threatens to wither and suffocate them for the sake of the community is a big ask. I know that some people, like myself, will need to relocate and find a new space to feel whole and to thrive, but I know there are others who are strong enough to remain in an environment, embrace the gifts and the things that are beautiful in the community, and work to exemplify the change of those things that need to change. To those individuals, I tip my hat and say, “You are stronger than I. Thank you for remaining in this place with your gifts and contributions, and please tell me when I am holding you back with pieces of your youth that you need to let go.”