Thursday, February 16, 2012

Nostalgia, Conformity and the Prayer Banner

The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head;
woe to us, for we have sinned!
Because of this our hearts are sick,
because of these things
our eyes have grown dim . . .
Lamentations 5:14-17
Tonight the Cranston School Committee will meet at Cranston East High to decide whether or not they will appeal the ruling of a Federal Court judge that the prayer banner at Cranston West is unconstitutional and must be removed.

One politician has issued a “call to arms” to defend the banner, and another has called the student who brought the lawsuit, Jessica Ahlquist, “an evil little thing.” People are angry. The young woman has been threatened and insulted repeatedly.

If Jessica Ahlquist had any doubt that she was right to reject religion, the hateful response of people who call themselves Christians has erased that doubt. And ironically, the reaction of those who want the banner to remain represents a total rejection of the values expressed and prayed for in the banner:

Our Heavenly Father,
Grant us each day the desire to do our best,
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically,
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others,
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win,
Teach us the value of true friendship,
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.

But this isn’t really about prayer. It’s about nostalgia. It’s about mourning for a way of life that is gone. For supporters, the banner represents a time when life was good and safe; a time of shared values and shared goals. People got married before they had kids. Moms stayed home and took care of the kids. Divorce was rare. The middle class was strong. A high school diploma was a passport to financial security. Men worked for the same companies for thirty or forty years and retired comfortably.

Taking down the banner is one more reminder that those days are gone.

And more than that, it forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth that those days never really existed in the way we want to remember them. Our harmony was built on conformity. We told ourselves that the conformity was voluntarily embraced and universally welcomed. But that’s not really true. Gays were in the closet and blacks were at the back of the bus (literally in the south, and figuratively in the north). Racism and sexism were normative. The disabled were kept far away from the rest of us. We claimed to have homogeneity, but we achieved that by denying any evidence of diversity.

In his defense of the banner, talk show host John DePetro repeatedly insisted that since the banner had been in the gym for fifty years and no one had complained, there was no reason to remove it now. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Amy Levin, of Temple Torat Yisrael in Cranston, presents a very different picture when she talks about discussing the banner with members of her congregation who attended Cranston West when the banner was first put on the wall. She recalls,

“I asked them how they had felt as Jewish students sitting in the auditorium with the prayer banner on the walls. They told me that they felt uncomfortable, that their parents felt uncomfortable with the prominently-displayed school prayer in the room in which the school assembled. They told me that in the 1960s, their parents were afraid to speak about against the presence of that school prayer. Fifty years later, Jessica has given public voice to the discomfort of generations of students who came before her. She has voiced concerns that those parents were hesitant to raise fifty years ago. She has been subjected to the treatment that others feared to bring upon themselves.”

This isn’t about faith and prayer. It’s about nostalgia and conformity. Those values may feel comfortable and desirable, but they are not Christian.

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