In January 2022, the McMinn County school board called a special meeting.

This came onto my radar 16 days later when a friend texted a screen cap and asked, “Isn’t this where you live?”

“NEW: the MCMINN COUNTY school board has just BANNED “MAUS”, the Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust — citing 8 curse words and an illustration of a woman that was objected to, with a 10-0 vote.”

“Have you seen this?” I ask my husband as we stood in the kitchen with our morning coffee. “Yeah. It’s gonna’ be a mess,” he replied.

“I think I read this in grad school,” I squint. “Yeah. Our copy’s downstairs.”

More texts came in: local teachers and school administrators, librarians, college professors and a slew of parents. They were livid. I called one church member, a retired librarian.

“I can’t decide if I’m enraged or heartbroken,” she said. “Book banning? I can’t believe I’m seeing this day.”

We talked about politics, education, books and Christian nationalism. The history of book burning, banning and removal is a long, convoluted one. We might roll our eyes or laugh about bans on Mark Twain or Mickey Mouse, but certainly shudder at the Nazi bonfires where great classics went up in flame.

This curriculum removal was not a banning or burning, but it was too close.

“Let me ask you,” I segue. “Would folks be interested in doing some sort of book club or Sunday school on it?”

“Well, I’d be there,” she said.

A few more phone calls to gauge interest, and the question isn’t whether but how. The Episcopal Church has affinity for dialogue and social justice. Our parish is no exception.

When I refreshed social media, the tweet had truly gone viral. Regional newspapers were reporting, and so were The Washington Post and CNN. Art Spiegelman, the author, offered a statement.

Locally, opinions and responses unfolded on community Facebook pages and in person. Friends and parishioners sat in my office with mugs of tea or around our living room with beers. We were angry and worried.

We worried about the inherent antisemitism of this decision. With only a few Jewish residents and no active congregation, intentional education about the tradition and history are essential.

Despite insisting this decision wasn’t meant to exclude Holocaust education, the board made no clear commitments on the matter. Spiegelman publicly speculated that they seemed to prefer a nicer Holocaust.

Many of us wondered this, too. Are we so worried about protecting our teenagers from profanity? What do we risk in keeping students from history? We strained the gnat to swallow the camel.

For Christians, this ought to be a concern. The Apostle Paul wrote that we are grafted into the tree of God’s people, but throughout history we have forgotten our lifeline and often turned with suspicion and violence against Jewish people.

Then there were the culture-war talking points and abstract arguments fracturing our community. Our local moment was now mapped onto a national battle over public education, a test case in how the politicization of history can rob a classroom of its transformative potential.

Alongside our philosophy of education, we had to contend with opaque decision making, neglect of procedural accountability and erosion of public trust.

These matters, too, are the church’s concern. The process of public education in the United States has long been church business, from the Puritan aim of broad religious education to social gospel efforts for child labor reform.

The question of following procedure and transparent governance are matters of Christian values.

Of course, “Christian values” is no monolith. This was the cry of those seeking the book’s removal, apparently the value of children’s innocence.

But for some who were opposed to the curriculum change, Christian values were also key: the values of care for Jewish neighbors and a just truth-telling; of facing hard and horrible things and with hope.

These values are the marks of Christ’s church where, as Walter Brueggemann wrote, “the light comes where others are valued, and where death smells and we stay.” The complexities and conflicts of community faith identity are being uncovered.

The church Facebook event was picked up by local, and then larger, news outlets. Between nursing home visits, prayer requests and worship preparation, I sent statements to reporters. They requested to join the Zoom room, along with hundreds of curious spectators from across the world.

My head was spinning. How could we hope to have any depth of conversation about this book and our community with so many strangers in the audience?

As the public discourse raced and broader attention grew, there was more frustration and worry. With every new printed story, ugly tweet and sound bite, we heard about more of our community and culture from outsiders before we had a chance to look each other in the eye. In our community, that matters.

After several hundred registrations, we limited further participants to county residents.

Author and professor Lauren Winner agreed to join as a panelist along with Nate Powell, co-creator of the March series. A local professor who teaches Holocaust studies, Jack Seitz, agreed to join the conversation, too.

Other community responses emerged. A college librarian and an elementary school teacher announced their bids to run for school board. Teachers sought out extra training on how to teach Holocaust literature well.

Grassroots organizing efforts took hold, addressing policy, accountability and educator support. They planned and held a school board candidate forum and community listening sessions.

People across the country emailed and called, wanting to send copies of Maus to students, and rebellious readers at our high schools were delighted. They formed book clubs and picked up boxes of books from the church parking lot.

Leaders in a nearby Tennessee city had arranged an online interview with Spiegelman. I was tasked with collecting student contributions for a Q&A time. Their questions were earnest and tender, and they brought the massive digital event back to the heart of the drama: students can and should read and struggle with the tough stuff.

One year later, there’s no tidy moral to our story.

Factions of our state and local governments continue their attempts to gut public education. Fundamentalist faith streams dominate the public narrative. Rural residents still struggle to make our complex communities understood to the larger culture, and we still work to hear each other and care for this community well.

But the work of shoring up democracy, protecting pluralism and learning our histories continues, too. The light is coming. This community matters. We stay.

Share This