Leaving behind Margaret Sanger

Recently, the president of Planned Parenthood penned a letter reconsidering its founder, Margaret Sanger. Sanger was always a a lightning rod, and remains so decades after her death. It is a testimony to her memory that even now she remains such a polarizing figure.

Alexis McGill Johnson, as the CEO of the national brand, has the task of balancing the relationship of race and reproductive rights with Sanger’s place within that conversation. It should be no surprise that this discussion has been happening internally for a long time, with Sanger being a foil for radicals who distrusted the paternalistic history of Planned Parenthood, and religious anti-abortion activists who wanted to break away black conservatives from the reproductive justice movement. Framing Planned Parenthood as the perpetuator of genocide has proven to be an effective weapon, despite its political provenance and outright fabrication. 

The people who build institutions from scratch are rarely saints. They are not respecters of convention. They are often poor managers. Their work makes some people uncomfortable, and others they may hurt. They do not often anticipate future generations, while building the world they inhabit.  They are mythologies, and under scrutiny they often become uncomfortably human. 

Sanger was iconoclastic for many reasons. She worked with black doctors and intellectuals. She challenged powerful institutions. She encouraged white supremacists to have smaller families. She believed in that dangerous idea of “social improvement,” now revealed to be a <ahem> – problematic – sentiment, in a time where the relationship between nature and nurture was even more poorly understood. Yet, she connected women’s independence, poverty, and motherhood in a way that assumed poverty made society worse. And she had a minor, tangential, role in the eugenics movement. Who knows what she would say about the burgeoning field of epigenetics.

Still, she was adaptable in her leadership, collaborated with other leaders regardless of race, and adjusted her approaches when necessary. And this DNA runs strong in Planned Parenthood. If anything, it is what has allowed it to survive longer than almost any other organization and pass from founder to leader to leader. While we should, and must, reject the philosophy of eugenics, we should be glad that her institutional competence has shown to be inheritable as the organization changes. Sanger herself could have imagined critiquing her own organization, and would have accepted a just critique, just as she critiqued those around her. 

Condemning Sanger is a justified political decision. It seeks to shield Planned Parenthood from false accusations concerning its roots, and does so with the honest acknowledgement that the conservative assassination by association of its founders reputation was, by and large, successful. We should acknowledge we lost that intellectual battle, and we need to fight first for providing care in all its forms in the communities who need a voice the most rather than defend our left flank. In the end, that she was not a racist doesn’t matter: enough people think she was. And in an era where personal authority takes precedence over academic accuracy, we need to redirect our efforts. Being an anti-racist while being an ablest, doesn’t help create freedom for women.

The letter does implicitly reaffirm how the enlightenment, liberalism, progressivism, even social democracy itself, were all tarnished by political calculations based on race. The poison of white supremacy runs through all of it. Sanger was certainly a part of those paternalistic movements that sought to incentivize social “improvement.” The only institution that was against eugenics (formally, at least) was, after all, the Roman Catholic church, Planned Parenthood’s perpetual foil.

I was on the board of Planned Parenthood for eight years, and the national Clergy Advisory Board for six. We all understood that her legacy was complicated. Nobody defended her ableism. And there was always an honest willingness to recognize that we were more than her.

I simply seek to point out that the reasons she remains a target are not simply because of her beliefs. She is moral baggage in a broader culture war, and a suitable scapegoat for the sins of white liberalism. And she’s dead. While she can’t talk back, I suspect she would have taken herself down from the pedestal she inhabited, if only to continue the work Planned Parenthood bravely continues to do. Just as Sanger herself made unpalatable choices to the current generation, we will do the same. We make our compromises on behalf of power, because power is what changes things.

She’s gone, anyway, and the work continues. Let her go.

She would probably agree.

God Loves a Bully

Over the last few weeks, several teens over the last few weeks have committed suicide.  The pundits and the prophets have been reflecting about the problem of bullying.

To some, the current discussion seems different than the everyday cruelty of a group of teenagers or children testing out their power, their desire to determine who is in and who is out.  It may be how easy technology connects us to each other and makes harming others easy.  Give a teen ager a cellphone, a twitter account and Myspace and it’s hard to avoid the potential for taunting, teasing and emotional brutality.

Most of us have experienced fickle friendships, inconvenient infatuations, and the occasional betrayal, and  the disinvitation to a party.  It’s not just those who played Dungeons and Dragons and ran the math team; the awkward, poor and pudgy.   Even the talented find themselves harassed by the envious and resentful.

But bullying isn’t just a confined to high school or prisons.  A waitress related the story of a internet tycoon who threatened to have her fired waving around a couple dollars, declaring his superiority; the unemployed are taunted by those who shout at them, “can’t you just get a job?”

The teased are offered advice:  walk away; ignore the bully; say “thanks for sharing” and roll your eyes.   But when these become impossible, the victim becomes both enraged and powerless, at which point they turn upon themselves.
The heart of the Christian story is about bullying, although a more academic word could be “scapegoating.”    The victim takes the place of the rest of the class, who is terrified of breaking the rule of power the bully has.    One person bullies and the others follow.

And the consequence of standing up for oneself, or for others, is intrinsically risky.  It requires being strong enough to tell the truth; to resist manipulation; to take the side of someone who is defenseless.   That strength is learned, and it is fostered through love, the encouraging support of family and friends who can’t always be present.

Christians have themselves been bullies.   Our anti-semitism, gay-baiting and alliance with racial supremacists have enabled sorts of Christians to justify all sorts of cruelty.  And yet, it would take a certain kind of blindness not to see that how progroms, gay-bashing and lynching are analogous to the cross.   The cross signifies this:  we scapegoat people, and it does not have to be that way.  Any religion that denies the brutal fact of this all too human tendency also denies our own inclination and power to hurt others, if only to protect ourselves.

There are good reasons for us to turn away from the cross.   To be so humiliated, diminished, embarrassed is to suck the life out of someone; to render them ashamed and powerless.     This is one reason the cross was so offensive to imperial religion.  Jesus remained weak and powerless – all too human.  What kind of God is this?  A bullied one.  And nobody wants to be on that side.

His response, of course, was remarkable.   It was not to punish those who crucified him; rather, he instead said, “peace be with you.”   The mark of those who follow Christ would be fearlessness in standing against injustice; and reconciliation with those who killed him.  We need not be afraid of the bully; we may pity them.  Instead of fear, a transformation – and an offering of mercy.