What’s Keeping You Behind the Fence?

We didn’t have a television in my childhood home and activities centered around our church, so the news didn’t penetrate my little life bubble. Even if it had, the people around me were very conservative and not very open to the changing social dynamic. I wasn’t aware of much of the struggle for equality and dignity black people face.

Display at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia

This past week, we went to The National Center for Civil and Human Rights. It’s located here in Atlanta, but I had never visited. As I walked around the museum, little bits of memories floated up. There was a display about the activities of southern anti-integration politicians trying to enforce segregation. I remembered that George Wallace had run for President and that my father was a supporter.

Down a little further were old TVs playing newsreels of protests and sit-ins where white people, police and civilians, battered people dressed in their Sunday best singing as they marched or sat peacefully at lunch counters. The loathing was palpable in the actions of these white men wielding bats, batons, and lead pipes. How could they hate these men and women, mostly black but some white, they had never met? Why was their rage so out of control? What was beneath the emotion on their faces? These scenes of brutality bring up a heavy sadness.

I sat for a while reading the history of school busing and remembered how on edge all the students were as we tried to navigate the new normal of integrated schools. I had forgotten that the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education was in 1954, and Ruby Bridges integrated a New Orleans school in 1960. However, Florida’s middle and high schools were just integrating in the mid-seventies. I was in quite a large school, and even though going from sixth grade in a small elementary to seventh grade in a large middle school is terrifying at any time, we were all very much on edge. Every bump and jostle in the hallway exploded with harsh words and threats with box cutters and pocket knives. Cops roaming the hallways caused even more dis-ease.

My only personal encounter with the violence was in gym class and seems minor looking back on it. I was twelve years old when I started seventh grade. We had to change clothes to an ugly t-shirt and shorts uniform and shower during “physical education.” The locker rooms were very crowded. Embarrassed and uncomfortable, I tried not to look at the nakedness of other girls, some of them a few years older than I was. I don’t remember whether I accidentally invaded a black girl’s space, or we just happened to cross glances, but anger flashed from her eyes. She challenged me to a fight after school. I didn’t even know her name but was afraid I would run into her for the rest of the day. I ran for my bus as quickly as possible when the closing bell rang.

Remembering that moment in the context of the Civil Rights Museum, I let the memory wash over me. Neither of us had any nonviolent communication training as those who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. had undergone. Teachers and administrators didn’t have assemblies to educate us on respecting other people’s differences and similarities. We were just thrown together and had to figure it out. My parents certainly didn’t even talk about integration with me, and perhaps hers hadn’t either. Or maybe she was more aware than I was and reflected the feelings she had heard expressed. Underneath the anger, was there fear? I’d be willing to bet that neither of us had help processing the events of that day. I didn’t even mention it to my parents.

I moved into a room where a multi-media presentation surrounded me with graphics—first, a chain-link fence.

Display at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia

And then hands raised in the sign for peace.

Display at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia

I sat in the middle of the room for quite a while, thinking about the juxtaposition of the fence and my desire to live out the peace of Christ in the world. Not the stereotypical southern type of peace that is really conflict avoidance. The appearance of peace at any price. I want inner peace, or Shanti, the Buddhist and Hindu threefold inner peace of mind, body, and Spirit —the type of peace that God offers us through the gift of the Spirit. That peace allows me to stop and think, to inquire before I respond.

The fence and peace.

On this day, when we honor Martin Luther King’s life and work, I want to reflect on how I can hold myself to the standard Jesus taught of loving not just friends but enemies. Even the people I just don’t like but wouldn’t call enemies exactly are my friends or neighbors.

What is the fence that keeps me from experiencing God’s peace and truly loving my neighbor? Those I disagree with politically and theologically? The people who exhibit patriarchal, hierarchical, or authoritarian behavior? What do I not see or am avoiding?

Lord, open my eyes to the beauty in all your children.

You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies.

Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.

This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.

If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.  

In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

Matthew 5: 43-48 (The Message)

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