By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit
Everyone knows that America is politically, economically and racially divided—and most popular religious writers are tapping away at their computer keyboards, lamenting these divisions. The problem is: Few of these writers have practical spiritual advice that makes sense to ordinary Americans—for example, the millions of anxious Moms and Dads with kids at home.
This is the Mister Rogers dilemma. He’s gone, and millions of us are yearning for him to reappear like he did in other dark chapters of our history. We want him to give us just a little more of his down-to-earth spiritual advice about healing the painful divisions we have placed between our neighbors. How much do we miss Mister Rogers’ reassuring voice? A documentary about Fred Rogers’ life was a big hit this year—and, next summer, Tom Hanks will appear as Mister Rogers in an eagerly awaited feature film.
The highest praise we can give to Amy Julia Becker’s White Picket Fences: Turning toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege, is to say: Fred Rogers would have loved this book! In fact, it’s the kind of book Fred might have written in his kind, engaging style with truths that pierced like laser light.
The heart and soul of this book is the way Amy Julia describes—in the midst of ordinary family life—how she reaches startling moments of spiritual awareness about the world’s unjust divisions. She describes this through events that any parent will recognize as absolutely true. What’s so helpful about her memoir is the way she regards these moments as doorways. Stepping through such a doorway suddenly reveals the wall (or the fence) in which the door is set. Many times, these are high walls that families and neighbors and congregations have thrown up over many years—and still defend in countless small ways, each day.
THE POWER OF STORIES AT BEDTIME
Just one example: As a good Mom who loves her kids, she reads stories at bedtime. Then, one day, she notices that there are very few black people in her family’s collection of beloved stories. What’s important is that she doesn’t dismiss this new awareness—tossing it aside as an issue far beyond her control. She recognizes it as a doorway—and she steps through it.
And, wow! She begins to look back over her family’s generations of sharing stories with children. Standing on the other side of this doorway, she’s suddenly aware of the huge walls in children’s literature that exclude people who “don’t look like us”—or, even worse, turn those “others” into villains and monsters.
That’s just one example from everyday life that she shares in this book. These are experiences Moms and Dads everywhere will recognize—and, with Amy Julia’s prompting, may come to recognize as defining moments in family life.
Here’s a passage early in her book where she lays out what sounds like a Fred Rogers approach to the challenges we all face. Amy Julia writes:
This book tells a story of my growing awareness not only that I have received unwarranted benefits by virtue of my white skin, Protestant heritage, and able body, but also that these unwarranted benefits have done harm to me and to others. In an era of political division, concerns over the plight of immigrants and the working class, movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and news reports about police brutality against people of color, I am not alone in confronting my place within these systems and seeing pain there. I join these other voices with hope that exposing the pain can lead to healing.
Amy Julia means what she says—and she remains true to that pledge for 200 pages. This is not a book that aims to shame readers or demonize opponents. Amy Julia simply describes, step by step, this adventure in awareness that takes her through the length and breadth of her family life. She is inviting us, as readers, to join her in this search for doorways through walls that can lead toward healthier communities for all of us.
WHY THIS IS PERFECT FOR ADVENT
One reason to order a copy of Amy Julia’s book right now is that this is a perfect book to read in the Christian season of Advent. Most Christians summarize Advent as “preparing for Christmas,” but there is a far deeper tradition we can embrace today. Observant Eastern Christians still observe a strict Nativity Fast for many weeks as they reflect and pray on the lessons of the Christmas story. Chief among those stories is Mary’s soaring Magnificat. Catholics instantly recognize the first few lines of Mary’s song, but the real heart of the ancient song comes later, when Mary glimpses an astonishing vision of a transformed world—toppling injustice and lifting up the vulnerable.
From the middle of Amy Julia’s book, here is her Magnificat:
Perhaps the reason knocking down the wall of privilege is so hard for me to envision is because it would require more sacrifice than I am willing to bear. Perhaps all I am willing to do is name the wall for what it is—a many-centuries-long creation that offers protection and opportunity while also cutting us off from the richness, diversity, and fullness of life. Still, I can hope—even with the tenuous offering of these words—to participate both in the work of eroding the wall and of building something new.
Want to spark a great small-group discussion in your congregation during Advent? Start by reading the Magnificat and then this passage from Amy Julia’s book. Ask group participants to take a moment and write a few lines of “your own contemporary Magnificat.” What walls do you dream, one day, will fall? You’ll spark some spirited discussion!
Want more? Amy Julia’s book closes with a 7-page Discussion Guide. Her guide doesn’t include the questions we’ve just shared—but it does have two dozen other guaranteed discussion starters.
And, here’s another tip: Is this suggestion too late for your Advent season? Consider this also as a Lenten small-group discussion early in 2019.
‘THE GOOD NEWS HERE …’
Like many of the other Christian writers we publish in our online magazine and in our own publishing house—writers like David Gushee and Ken Wilson—Amy Julia is a devout Christian whose faith is the key to her vision of a compassionate world. However—much like David, Ken and other Christian writers we have featured over the years—Amy Julia is now no longer interested in trying to defend the old “evangelical” label.
“I describe myself as a Christian, today,” Amy Julia said in an interview this week. “I wrote a piece for The Washington Post that described why I am walking away from the term ‘evangelical’.”
Why is she abandoning the label? “In addition to becoming a politicized term, evangelical also describes a predominantly white population,” she wrote in her Post column. ” ‘Evangelical’ to many people primarily conjures white Republican, not first ‘a bearer of good news.’ ”
At the core of her new book, Amy Julia is trying to share good news with us as readers.
“On one level, I am talking about real injustices that hurt people. And, I am asking people to do the difficult work of looking deeply into the structures and patterns that have allowed racism to become such a deeply entrenched part of the world our families inhabit,” she said in our interview.
“But the good news here is that, in the process, we come to realize how these walls we’ve built actually impoverish us and our communities,” she said in the interview. “What I’m describing is a process that is freeing! We recognize that our communities can be so much larger, so much richer, if we take down the walls. This process of finding the doorways—and stepping through—is life giving.”
In her book, she distills the underlying spiritual lesson into a single sentence: “We deface the image of God every time we disdain or abuse another human being.”
That’s a lofty religious line of reasoning that may resonate with readers—but Amy Julia also spells this out in down-to-earth terms. She tells us that this process of toppling walls leads us toward freedom, clarity and a deeper faith in God and in the community around us. In the simplest terms, she describes this whole journey as moving “toward Love.”
‘Do You Want to Get Well?’
Ultimately, Amy Julia leaves us with a question Jesus asks in the Gospels: “Do you want to get well?”
The answer is not obvious. In 200 pages, Amy Julia describes how the fits and starts of her own journey wound up shining light into lots of uncomfortable corners of her life. The goal may be noble, but she honestly wonders, along the way: Is this worth the effort?
In the end, her answer is a resounding: Yes! Much like the transformative journey Mary glimpses in her Magnificat, this spiritual pilgrimage holds such an exciting potential that we find ourselves daring to accept the invitation. In Advent, millions of Christians around the world are reflecting on their own repentance—and their response to God’s calling. (And, Christians will do so, again, in early 2019 during Lent.)
If you follow Amy Julia through her new book, you will discover that she closes with this promise—and this question. She writes:
Repentance is not about feeling terrible for wrongdoing, but about turning away from everything—including wrongdoing—that prevents us from seeing and participating in the good work that God is about. Repentance is an invitation to fullness of life, to a connected life, to a life of hope. When we turn away from ourselves—away from the allure of tribalism, away from the temptation of self-justification—and turn toward Love, we begin to construct a vision of the future formed and shaped by hope, by the possibilities of unexpected connections, of mutual blessing, of a world made right.
Do you want to get well?
Care to Learn More?
LEARN ABOUT AMY JULIA’S OTHER BOOKS—Here’s a direct link to her Amazon Author Page, where you will find the other books she has published.
LEARN MORE ABOUT AMY JULIA—Her website is simply www.AmyJuliaBecker.com and offers many more insights into her life and work and writing. You’ll find other columns she has written, including direct links to her pieces in major newspapers and magazines. Her “Contact” link also is a gateway to learn more about her work as a speaker.
EXPLORE OTHER RELATED WRITERS—Our own Front Edge Publishing bookstore has listings of books by other authors that share Amy Julia’s spiritual mission of breaking down barriers. Since our founding, our motto has been: “Good media builds healthier communities.”