I was walking down the hall, hoping to turn in my Algebra assignment to the principal, who also taught math at this small Missouri Synod Lutheran school. I didn’t have permission to be in the hall because the homeroom teacher hadn’t been there to give it–he had been smoking a cigar in the teacher’s lounge in the middle of the day, as he was wont to do. A couple of boys in my class were also in the hall, grinding chalk up the nose of a bust of Martin Luther, when Mr. B descendend. “Everyone in the hallway gets 20 laps!” he barked–his usual classroom disciplinary measure, meted out when we had P.E. class with him at the end of the day.
He knew very well I had nothing to do with the impertinent activity of the boys, but he always seemed supremely irritated with my nervous questioning of exactly what he meant and wanted. I did it again: “You don’t mean me, do you?? I was just trying to turn in my math!” He didn’t respond, and I followed him back into the classroom full of dread. I’d never been punished in school for anything before. I was determined to do everything right, from classroom behavior to getting straight-As, because that’s what would prove to my father and myself that I was “good” and worthy of respect. I wasn’t much good at P.E., though–would I even be able to run 20 times around the gym?
For the next couple of hours, a potent mix of dread and indignation swirled and expanded in my chest. When at last we stood in a line at the beginning of P.E. class, waiting to hear who would be running laps and who would be playing a game, Mr. B called out my name for laps. Gritting my teeth, I ran once around the gym… and then out the door and up to the classroom, sobbing. I passed the principal in the stairwell, who asked if I was okay. I just shook my head and kept running up the stairs. He didn’t follow.
When everyone else returned to the classroom to gather their things for dismissal, they interrogated me: “why did you run out?” “It’s an injustice!” I cried out. Some of the kids mocked my response all the way until the bus dropped me off at home, but little did they know that I had finally become empowered that day.
No one tried to punish me for that episode of insubordination. I learned that I could fight injustice by resisting the arbitrary patriarchal authority that had thus far ruled every minutiae of my life. I concluded that, as long as I had a general reputation for rectitude, I had the power to call out liars and abusers and be believed by others in the community. The motivation for my perfectionism morphed into a desire to have the power to disarm unjust and oppressive authorities like Jesus did.
My passion for combatting injustice (aided by my academic perfectionism) eventually led me to law school, and a particular interest in legislative drafting and advocacy. But after I graduated and took a law firm job and got into lobbying, I ran smack into this world’s brutal reality: it isn’t virtue that talks in the halls of power–it’s money. And in recent years I’ve realized that’s just as true in the Church as in Washington. (Indeed, a lot of the power players in both are the same people today.)
So to hell with the notions of “virtue” that are defined by men to consolidate the power of those at the top of the hierarchy. Injustice is something I feel compelled to fight, now as much as ever, but with the subversion of prophetic words and scandalous love. Like Jesus did.