Is it Fair?
July 21, 2019
Reverend Meghan Gage-Finn
Luke 10: 25-37
I think we all have these “driveway moments” occasionally, when we can’t get out of the car yet upon reaching our destination because whatever we are listening to holds our attention in such a way that we have to hear it to the end. My “driveway moments” tend to be more often “pavement moments” on a run, when I am catching up on my podcasts, and the one that most recently got me to slow down and really listen was a story on This American Life. One of the producers of the show, David Kestenbaum, shared what happened in the classroom at his sons’ preschool. The teacher, feeling exhausted by the constancy of her four and five-year-old charges tattling to her about one another’s behaviors and choices all the time, had the creative idea of installing a “Tattle Phone.” She took an empty tissue box and hung it on the wall, and put an old receiver in it. She told the kids if they had a tattle, they could tell it to the phone. For any who have interacted with this age group, you can guess how prevalent was their need to air their sense of hardship, objection, and outrage. After listening to this story, I wondered about installing a Tattle Phone in our house, especially on long, rainy Saturdays, or when the Polar Vortex visits for a week, or two. Perhaps I could try a portable version for the car, or one that could be taken into the grocery store or Target.
Kestenbaum explains that the Tattle Phone became a vessel for all of the injustices the children were experiencing in their little world around them, in their complex and essential community.
Being a radio producer, he thought it would be fascinating to hear what the children were saying, and so, with permission from all of the parents, they installed in the classroom an actual phone with a recording device, and the messages the children offered went directly to Kestenbaum. He explains that as soon as it was installed, the kids started using it immediately and enthusiastically. It was a large, old, red touchtone and bigger than any phone the preschoolers had likely ever seen. In the radio story, we hear the actual messages the children recorded on the Tattle Phone.
“Seamus wasn’t sharing with me and I don’t like it and I am very upset!”
“Eli told me a lie!”
“Ramona is not listening to the teacher!”
“Eli hit Brie.”
Sorry to say, Eli’s name came up more than once!
This phone was their way to air their grievances, large and small and, as Kestenbaum described it as the parent of two sons and a regular recipient of declared grievances at home, the Tattle Phone was “a magic portal into one preschool classroom in America.” In talking with their teacher, he asked her how much of the children’s day is oriented to issues of justice.
She said, “While I couldn’t put a percentage on it, it is the majority of the day.”
Kestenbaum reminds listeners that these preschoolers cannot make breakfast for themselves, “they can barely get dressed on their own, but they are just full of ‘that’s not fair.’”
One child, Simone, while on a family vacation in a hotel with a landline, said to her parents, “Look! A Tattle Phone!” In Kestenbaum’s words, “As if there is some sort of national Tattle Phone network, staffed around the clock by government workers, entering everything into a database.”
Much of their tattling was self-serving- they had been harmed or wronged by another child in the classroom. There were children, however, who picked up the phone because something was not right in the world, and it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with them directly, but they needed someone to know about it. One child said that talking into the Tattle Phone was like eating ice cream. She had a place to name what was imbalanced, what was off in her little preschool society.
But we lose that somewhere along the way, don’t we, as we develop into more multifaceted beings and gain more power and privilege? We grow more comfortable with unfairness and an incredibly skewed sharing of resources. If there were a National Tattle Phone hotline at our disposal, would we bother to use it, especially if we knew it might negatively impact our own sense of empowerment, authority, and advantage?
Researchers have discovered that at a very young age infants can identify with fairness and that they are concerned equal distribution of resources. In a study of children aged two to four-years-old, they started to gravitate toward unfair behavior. When there was an even number of toys to be distributed, children shared with equality across all groups. When there were limited toys for distribution, they chose to share unequally, giving more to their own in-group preferences.
One study author notes, “A concern for fairness is a fundamental feature of human morality: considerations of what is fair and just affect interpersonal interactions, govern workplace behaviors, and play a role in societal decision making and legal judgments.” And I would add, it is a fundamental feature of who we are as people of faith.
Unfortunately, when we learn more and seemingly “know better,” we do not act as a society in any way more advanced than preschoolers who serve their own in-group first, and the resources to be shared for the good of all are much more essential for life and health and wholeness. They are not toys that can be played with; rather they are the building blocks of our civil rights -access, education, employment, freedom of movement, housing, healthcare, protection, and safety.
Even without a Tattle Phone, we have many conversations in our house about fairness, or rather, about what people feel is not fair, and we have actually taken the stance that we do not say, “It’s not fair.” It is not a productive statement and does not foster communication, compromise, or empathy. I have become concerned lately, however, that in teaching this we do a disservice to our children and are raising young ones who, unconsciously, may grow up not ready to engage in matters of justice, who won’t have language or action to say, “It’s NOT fair, and I am going to do something about it!” Instead, they will move through life and community with the unintended belief that sometimes, life just isn’t fair.
We were all once little people making big demands for fair treatment so that our small voices might be heard. Now we may be more likely to resign ourselves to be big people who, with a tiny shrug, wash our hands, and look the other way, because it may just be that life isn’t fair for that person, that race, that group, that nationality, or those who practice that religion.
- To those who are most vulnerable and victimized by the environmental degradation we cause because of our luxuries and excess, sorry- life’s not fair.
- If you are a trans youth who feels trapped and confused inside your own identity, who feels unsafe at school, at home, and in public spaces- I guess life is just not fair.
- To the migrants who seek safety and shelter in our borders, who are separated from loved ones and held in deplorable and life-threatening conditions, or to those who are told to go back where they came from- sorry, life’s not fair.
However we engage matter of fairness and unfairness, our ability and readiness to respond to injustice with compassion and movement is the core of who we must claim to be as Christians. And if we don’t stop to think about who our neighbors might be, and what their lives are like, then we will be all too likely to hide behind the belief that for those who are not us- life is not fair.
As challenging as this is, Westminster has endeavored to teach the gospel, and serve that gospel alongside, our youngest among us, early and often.
I have had the joy this summer to spend time with the children and youth of Westminster, through Day Camp and mission trip experiences. They have explored themes of community, fairness and justice, and the question of, “Who is my neighbor?” They have engaged this familiar text for today from Luke’s gospel, leading them to consider peace and righteousness, within and outside of themselves. This evening 35 of our high school youth and leaders will return from a week in Greensboro, NC, where they worked with Tiny Houses, an organization that provides affordable and sustainable small homes, about 400 square feet in size, for folks experiencing homelessness. I was able to be with them until Wednesday and left feeling impressed by what they were learning and how they were processing their experiences.
After a long and hot workday, we visited the International Civil Rights Center and Museum on Tuesday afternoon, located on the site of the Woolworths lunch counter where four African American college freshman started the nonviolent student sit-in movement on February 1, 1960, an act that served to catalyze the civil rights movement in our country. We saw the actual lunch counter space, complete with the real chairs and remnants of the restaurant and learned of the organization and courage of these four young men, not much older than our high school youth.
The section of the museum that seemed most powerful for the students was called the Hall of Shame, which contained panels of photos of crimes against people of color in our nation’s history. The images were graphic and disturbing and we found we could not look away. Pillars covered in mirrors supported the small space, so as we viewed the history of systematized injustice and abuse, we faced our own reflections. We saw a picture of a young and fresh-faced 14-year-old Emmett Till, alongside the image of his tortured and lynched body in an open casket when he was returned home to Chicago. The students named the difficult feelings that were rising up in them, but they continued to look at decades of immoral and biased prejudice, even as they kept looking at themselves. The overlay of their own privilege, the arbitrariness of it, against generations treated so unfairly and inequitably, stirred something in them. One youth reflected that night, “I had conflicting feelings as a white person, a lot of shame. I wasn’t a part of this personally, but I felt connected to it.” Others were able to name that the 1960’s were not that long ago, and that the lessons they were learning in the museum space were raw and real, but that voting rights violations, problems with our criminal justice system, for example, are still happening.
Our youth are intentional, thoughtful, and hold fast to some measure of hope. But I also see for them the reality of being in that difficult space of wanting the world to know peace like a river, deep peace of the one who is the light for the whole world, while knowing there is still so much work to do in ourselves and for our neighbors. And at the end of the day, it all feels unfair.
In a conversation after dinner with one of our students, he asked me how much it cost for us to come on these trips. He said, “Say it is $10,000. Would Tiny Houses of Greensboro just rather have the money? Could they do a lot more with $10,000, rather than having to keep us busy for part of one week?”
He went on to reason that North Minneapolis is just a few miles away from where we sit in worship each week. There is as much to do here, or in St Paul, or in other parts of the metro area, with those who are experiencing homelessness or racial injustice, as there is to do all the way down in Greensboro. They are our real neighbors by a geographic definition, he argued, and yet we drove 18 hours each way to do what we could accomplish at home, with our actual neighbors. “It is selfish,” he went so far to say, that we chose this larger experience of being together and away in a new place so we can build bonds, rather than being present in our own community. We talked through the importance of trust and connections in a group that empower us to serve and make change, but the notion of how we were engaging with the imbalance in the world hung in the air.
Another student commented on her feeling that their generation, high school students, is not fighting, is not responding enough to the huge concerns they learn about in school and church. Because the order of things has looked favorably upon them, they have the privilege of making a choice as to whether or not to be part of furthering what is good and beneficial for all, moving us all toward balance and equality. What I heard both of these students wrestling with was the lawyer’s questions to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor,” and “What is fair for my neighbor?” Are our neighbors those in close physical or social proximity, or are our neighbors all those included in the scope of God’s love for creation? They were asking not “What am I to do?” so that they might inherit eternal life, but they were asking out of conviction, because of a realization of a sense of responsibility in their walk with God.
One interpretation of this text comes from Fred Craddock who notes that the lawyer is asking Jesus questions and Jesus is answering in typical Jesus parable form. Craddock comments that there is no point in asking good questions if we are not willing to implement the answers. Our students this week have been asking good and informed questions, and are trying to find their way into implementing answers to further the common good as those called by God.
Luther Seminary professor Karoline Lewis offers a new interpretation on this familiar text by asking, “What if the Samaritan was good because he simply made the choice to come near the almost dead guy in the ditch? To approach him? To decrease the distance between him and the man clearly in need of help?” Our youth are coming near- to racism and pain, inexcusable and immoral systems centuries’ old and at play in real time. They are coming near to the ditches in their communities and to the ditches out of which their neighbors cannot climb. And they are mindful of the road on which they walk.
As leaders, we pray that we would live out our baptismal promise to them to come near as well, even as we trust in God’s nearness and leading.
I heard an interview a few weeks ago with children’s author and illustrator Mo Willems. If you are familiar with his work, he is the creator of the “Pigeon” books, among other beloved characters. He said something about the ways he tries to connect with and teach children: “Drawing,” he says, “allows children to visualize empathy.”
This felt like he was describing what our youngest ones were able to experience as part of Day Camp, a way to work out and create space inside themselves to explore what another person feels, needs, and yearns for. During Day Camp, they were invited to draw or describe communities they are a part of, or to draw their dream of peace.
Each morning at Day Camp our young ones sat in quiet and stillness and practiced peace as a new beginning to the day. Each morning this last week, our Senior High Mission Trip group practiced Morning Watch, a time to be alone to listen and reflect, ahead of the unfolding day. Westminster’s summer intern Amelia put together a wonderful set of Morning Watch devotions, and one day included this reflection from Bishop Desmond Tutu:
Busy, normal people: the world is here. Can you hear it wailing, crying, whispering?
Listen: the world is here.
Don’t you hear it,
Praying and sighing and groaning for wholeness?
An arduous, tiresome, difficult journey towards wholeness.
We are all parts of each other,
We yearn to be folded into the fullness of life- together.
Life, together with the outcast,
The prisoner, the mad woman,
The abandoned child;
Our wholeness is intertwined with their hurt.
Wholeness means healing the hurt,
Working with Christ to heal the hurt,
Seeing and feeling the suffering of others,
Standing alongside them.
Our children and youth come near to pain and indifference, alongside the disequilibrium of the nature of humanity. They are listening to the cries of unfairness. May we all be part of the intertwining wholeness to see and feel and stand in the grace of God.
May we all go and do likewise.
 Fred Craddock, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 150-151.
 Excerpts from Reflections on Wholeness, Bishop Desmond Tutu