Painful Lessons

After graduating from Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College) and before becoming a “divine” at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, I taught high school English and Latin in Leesville, Louisiana. I hadn’t taken a single course in education, and I didn’t have a teaching certificate, but I convinced the School Superintendent of Vernon Parish that my double major in Classics and Philosophy would suffice.  Desperate to fill out his roster, the poor guy took me on as a utility player.  

That was back in 1974.  In its wisdom, the Louisiana Legislature had banned any form of sex education in the public schools.  Teachers were forbidden to mention the “S” word or to allow the topic to be discussed in their classrooms.  

That was OK with me.  I wasn’t much older than the seniors in my Latin class and, as much as they might welcome the diversion, my ninth-grade English students had plenty on their plates learning how to write a solid paragraph.  (My goal had been to teach them how to write a convincing essay, but I lowered my sights when I realized that several of them could barely read.)  Adding sex to the curriculum would have been a bridge too far.  

The principal at Leesville High took full advantage of having a single male teacher on his staff.  He assigned me to take up tickets at sports events, to serve as an umpire for girls’ softball games, and to drive the cheerleaders’ Volkswagen minibus to away games.  In these days of hyper vigilance, it’s hard to imagine assigning a young male teacher to such tasks, but that was Louisiana in the 1970’s.  Laissez les bons temps rouler – at least when it came to athletics. 

Back in the classroom, however, more than one Big Brother was watching. In addition to keeping the topic of sex out of the classroom, we teachers also had to make sure we didn’t offend the many students who belonged to conservative Christian denominations, among them Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Christ.  Some students were not allowed to celebrate birthdays.  For others it was Christmas.  And depending on the topic, many students were forbidden to attend school assemblies. 

Innocent of any instruction in educational theory or practice that might have made me more cautious, I made it through that year without getting censored or fired.  I didn’t know enough at the time to fear irate parents or lawsuit-leery administrators.  I suppose you could say my naivete kept me safe.

If I were teaching these days, naivete wouldn’t cut it.  I’d have to avoid causing my students discomfort by discussing “divisive” concepts, such as slavery, racial discrimination, and the persistent influence of white supremacy.  A bill before the Florida Legislature (SB 148) declares that a student “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”  

God forbid that white students should feel “discomfort” hearing about slave-holding founding fathers or that black students should feel “anguish” when they view newsreels of the attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

I used to feel a twinge of “psychological distress” every time I mounted the pulpit at First Presbyterian and looked up at the galleries where enslaved human beings looked down on their “owners.”  

I certainly don’t want the children of any race to be paralyzed by “guilt” or “anguish” for what their forebears did or suffered, but I can’t imagine how anyone can become educated without experiencing at least some discomfort.  

Without pain there can be no enlightenment.   

The Idolatry of Nationalism

John Witherspoon Satue

Statue of John Witherspoon in Paisley, Scotland

The New York Times reports that at a ceremony in Paris for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, President Emmanuel Macron of France rebuked the nationalist impulses that are reshaping the world today.

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” Mr. Macron told world leaders at the ceremony. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying: ‘Our interest first. Who cares about the others?’”

I couldn’t agree more.  Love for God and neighbor is the heart of any Biblical ethic.  The prophets said this over and over in the Hebrew scriptures, and Jesus teaches the same in the New Testament.

The command to love God includes the prohibition of idolatry:

 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:1-5)

The Reformed Tradition is particularly sensitive to the allure of idolatry.  The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lists as one of the tenets of reformed theology:

The recognition of the human tendency toward idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word God.

In short, nationalism is a form of idolatry, and out of idolatry flows tyranny.  When we put nation before God, it’s not long before we find ourselves bowing at the feet of tyrants. Presbyterians, of all people, should know this.

It is precisely this “recognition of the human tendency toward idolatry and tyranny” that prompted the framers to build checks and balances into the U. S. Constitution.  We can thank Presbyterian John Witherspoon of Princeton for teaching this to his student James Madison.

Merci beaucoup to the President of France for prompting the theological memory of the folks in my branch of the Christian family tree.