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Readings for Reflection: August 2014
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

A “Second Education”

In her book The Burglary, an account of the 1977 break in of FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, Betty Medsger reveals the names of the previously anonymous participants. One of them, John Raines, tells how he changed his worldview from a socially committed member of the elite leadership to someone who looked through the eyes of those too often dismissed. I believe we see with our “I’s.” John Raines describes how his “I” opened to a larger world.
~ Ruth Zweifler

During his summers in the South, Raines gradually realized that southern black people were giving him what he came to call his “second education.” It changed him forever. This new education was, in some ways, in opposition to what he calls his “first education.” Prestigious schools – Carleton College in Minnesota and Union Theological Seminary in New York before he became a minister on Long Island – were the venues of his “first education.” The lessons taught there, he recalled, were primarily “an education in deservedness. … We were taught to aspire to what privileged white males should aspire to – which was leadership of the country.”

In his first education, Raines was taught to accept the world as it is, full of the coming together of ambiguity and tragedy. “We felt comfortable. We saw the everyday injustices of life, but we were persuaded that life had tragic moral limitations and that we were well qualified to become leaders because we did not bring impossible and disruptive expectations to the social system.”

Learning how to change, rather than accept, official systems was not part of Raines’ first education. In fact, he had never thought about that concept – until 1961 as a Freedom Rider. It was foreign to him. His motivation for going to the South had been to go help those poor people, but he discovered there was much more to it than that. It was a matter of “being invited into danger” in order to change powerful systems. “I was exposed immediately to the power of a resisting community, people who were committed to being nonviolent, despite being treated very violently….”

This “second education,” taught in the crucible of those summers in the South, led, Raines said, to a major shift in “my whole understanding of the law… Judges had always been friends of the family, and we knew policemen were there to protect us, and they did. Now I began to see another face of law and order: control over powerless people, such as the black majority in the South that couldn’t vote. I began to get a different sense of how power is used in society … I saw the law used to inflict injustice upon many people.” Until then, he had no idea that black Americans experienced profound injustice. Repeatedly, on each trip south, he saw first hand evidence that law enforcement agencies – local, state, and federal – failed to protect African Americans, not only from having their basic rights withheld, but also from violent attacks.

Eventually, he defined his second education as an education “in how America looks from below, and how it is lived from below.”

~ Betty Medsger, The Burglary, Knopf, 2014, pp. 470, 471

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