Rock! Paper! Scissors!
Tools for anarchist + Christian thought and action
Vol 1. No. 1
The Movement Makes Us Human
The Movement Makes Us Human
Editor: Joanna Shenk
By: Joshua Kinder
One teacher’s wrestling with what is means to create a classroom where justice and love can flourish.
When Vincent Harding visited Elkhart, Indiana, in 2012, at each speaking engagement he posed this question to the people: “What is the education required to build America into a multiracial democracy?” The Holy Spirit wrote that question on my heart in permanent ink, and after graduating from seminary I pursued a career as a classroom teacher of mathematics.
Since the fall of 2013 I’ve taught at Pierre Moran Middle School, which sits just a quarter mile from where I sleep. Many of my neighbors’ children either have been, are, or will be my students. I am a young, white, male professional living and working in a neighborhood where that combination of adjectives is rare. This is a under-employed, working class neighborhood where more than two-thirds of the residents are people of color. Many are immigrants from Latin America and many are African-American, the descendants of migrants from the American South.
When the school year begins, some of my new students inevitably try to get away with calling me Jesus instead of Mr. Kinder. I have long, brown hair, a full beard, white skin, and a voice that tends to sound calm, so I can understand that I fit the picture of Jesus that comes with dominant Western Christianity. So at the start of each school year, I have a conversation with all my classes about showing respect by using the names that belong to us. And that takes care of it, mostly. Over the course of our year, though, it comes up again whenever a new student joins the class, or on those days I decide to wear my hair down.
It makes me really uncomfortable when students try to call me Jesus, because that is a name that cuts straight to the heart of what I hope to be about in that classroom. At its root, the word education carries a sense of being led out of oneself, or being led forward into a new place. Along with Paolo Freire, bell hooks and others, I know that education is always a process of liberation.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ self-expressed purpose for living and dying was “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” If we say Jesus is a liberator, we must also say that Jesus is an educator, for the two are always hand-in-hand. As an educator who is Christian, my work with students should always center on the fact that God intends for us all to be free.
So every time I hear them call me that name, I find myself staring into a terrifying mirror as I reflect on the purpose of the life of Jesus and Dr. Harding’s question, shared above. Am I really doing the work it takes to build a multiracial democracy? Am I really following the way of Jesus here? Are these kids actually perceiving something of the heart of God in the way I relate with them? What might be a glib act of naming for my students is something that feels like a goad to me. It pushes me to retrace my steps, return to my roots, and confess all the ways my teaching has not been liberative.
When I contemplated what sort of work I might do after seminary, I felt a strong call to do something that would put me in touch with as many of my neighbors as possible. In the Gospels, Jesus does not just hang out with his close friends, but he gets off his butt and spends time among the masses of the disinherited and oppressed. As a disciple of Jesus, I am called to also be among the masses at the margins. As Vincent Harding preached, “If we stay away from the rising beggars we stay away from [Jesus].”
I quickly realized that being in a middle school classroom at a public school would put me in meaningful relationship with hundreds of community members every single day. In my case, most of them are poor, many are people of color, and many are recent immigrants. And let us not forget that children are perpetually marginalized in societies all around the world (“Let the little children come to me” is at least as revolutionary a statement as “Blessed are the poor”). Truly, as I reflect on my work, I am always astounded that there are not more radical Jesus followers working in our public schools.
There are many aspects of my work which do not do anything to build up community. I am not sure that the love of God has much to do with middle school mathematics, for example. Nor am I sure that the Beloved Community has much to do with lunch detentions, school suspensions, and standardized tests. As a teacher, I am overworked and underappreciated: both of these conditions have had significant negative impacts on my own health and household. The work I choose to do has never been easy, but the prize of being a teacher is the recognition that when I am rooted in the love of God, my work in the classroom is building up a new world.
The greatest value of teaching children lies in the lessons they insist on teaching me. I love teaching because I am required to learn about the lives of others. The education required to build a multiracial democracy is uncovered when I allow my neighbors to teach me their answer to the question, “What are you going through?”1 That education tends to lead us both out into moments when our deeper stories seep through to the surface, like ink from a broken pen soaking into an algebra worksheet.
A case in point: within my first two months of teaching, it fell to me to sit during my prep period with a young man whose mother had died due to illness just the evening before. He had decided to come to school because he didn’t want to be at home. No amount of teacher training could have prepared me for the task of sitting with him in his pain. And yet I knew that if God had been with Jesus in his suffering, then God would be present with us in that classroom. So that day, a real, loving connection was made across lines of race and socioeconomic status in part because I was given the courage to “march out...and be counted” in my public school classroom. I came to see that day that building up a new world will sometimes look like weeping with those who weep.
In The Movement Makes Us Human, Vincent Harding answers the question “What does holistic, active peacemaking look like?” by saying, “It looks like a lot of wrestling with the angels--that’s what it looks like. And you get crippled in the process and you’re never the same again, but you can’t run away from that and be whole.”I cannot help but think of my classroom when I think of wrestling with angels. The struggle of teaching and learning throughout the course of a school year leaves both teacher and students permanently marked.
Every one of my students has left an impression on me, and when I reflect on our shared experience I have to consider that these young people have shown me the face of God in their own. They try to call me Jesus but what I haven’t yet figured out is how to communicate that I experience Jesus in them. And it strikes me that what I’ve been learning in my classroom is that a community moves forward when we are all expecting to see Jesus in each other. We are building a democracy when we speak to our neighbors as if their struggles and suffering have everything to do with our own human flourishing, as if the Holy Spirit could speak through their mouths, too.
About the journal
Rock! Paper! Scissors! is a topic-focused, web-publication exploring issues from anarchist, radical Christian and other anti-oppression perspectives. To find out more, read the introductory piece, "What's in a name?"