“This then is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to ‘soften’ the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this ‘generosity,’ which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source… True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity.” (The Pedagogy of the Oppressed)
In his sermon “Shattered Dreams,” (you can find it in Strength to Love, pp. 87-98) Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us of the sad final years of the Apostle Paul’s life. At the end of his letter to the Romans (15:23-29), Paul expresses his desire to come and visit the churches there so that they may be mutually encouraged. He had finished his work in Asia Minor and Greece and was ready to head westward to Spain. He was planning his visit to the Roman churches after a quick stop in Jerusalem to drop off the offering that the Gentile churches had collected for the church. If we take Acts at face value, instead of the long awaited visit to Rome, Paul was instead arrested in Jerusalem and eventually sent to Rome in chains. Tradition has it that he was never released from prison and was ultimately beheaded by Nero in the persecution of Christians that followed the great fire in 66 CE.
King reflects on this painful end:
Paul’s life is a tragic story of a shattered dream. Life mirrors many similar experiences. Who has not set out toward some distant Spain, some momentous goal, or some glorious realization, only to learn at last that they must settle for much less? We never walk as free people through the streets of Rome; instead, circumstances decree that we live within little confining cells. Written across our lives is a fatal flaw, and within history runs and irrational and unpredictable vein. Like Abraham, we too sojourn in the land of promise, but so often we do not become “heirs with him of the same promise.” Always our reach exceeds our grasp.
I have long known that there are many forces working against the just world we seek. Tuesday reminded me just how far “our reach exceeds our grasp.” I guess it’s time for us to extend a little further.
As the results of the election became clearer I acerbically tweeted that perhaps the arc of the moral universe does not bend towards justice. It was half sarcasm, half honest sentiment. Yesterday I spent a lot of time ruminating about the loss of a narrative.
I started paying attention to politics and social issues in the late 90s. Although there were ebbs and flows, until yesterday I could see steady movement towards a more just world. Progress was incremental (far too slow for my liking) but it seemed that we were at least moving in the direction of equality and justice. The small gains we’ve made over the last 20 (50?) years feel lost. Hate and bigotry have been mainstreamed again.
This presents a challenge to me. I work for justice and teach about social change because at some level I believe it can happen. But maybe it can’t happen, at least not in the way that I want it to. I don’t want to let disenchantment lead to inactivity but I feel the seductive pull.
I’m wrestling with two questions and I hope that you, dear reader, might be able to help.
- Is there a narrative to be found? Those wiser, and likely older, was my narrative falsely constructed? Did such a story never exist in the first place? What story do you see?
- Why do you seek justice? What motivates you when despair and disenchantment creep in? How do you work when the results are so tenuous and fleeting?
Chime in. I need some help here.
Some thoughts as I process last night…
Ian was in tears about the result. He asked if he could miss school today because he is worried about what his classmates might say. Since we’ve just sent a clear message that bullying and hate are totally ok–even rewarded–I don’t blame him.
I worry about Ela. The glass ceiling is fully intact and I worry that she will not be given the opportunities that she as a smart and resilient person should be afforded. I’m also worried about her safety because we apparently don’t mind powerful (and not so powerful) men grabbing women by the p***y.
Dylan seems unfazed. I’m glad. As he gets older we’ll continue to work on a hunger for compassion and justice.
I’m listening a lot to this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qv05US9f_vM. A lot.
Apparently I need to keep at it with justice issues. We are so much further away from our ideals than I had imagined. I am doubling down on my commitment to walk with and amplify the voices of those who are marginalized and vulnerable. I will be doing some thinking about my strategies (maybe you have some suggestions for me).
I’ve been reading Paulo Freire with my students. Two ideas he expresses seem apt: 1) Those who are oppressed never do violence first. It is always a response to the oppressors. Whites and Christians did great violence last night. 2) The oppressors cannot liberate anyone. Those who are oppressed are the only ones who will bring liberation, to themselves and to their oppressors. I defer to the wisdom, resilience, and agency of Women, Muslim, Black, Brown, LGBQT, poor, and other marginalized people (we disenfranchise in so many creative ways, it seems that the above have borne the brunt in recent months).
When I was in high school and college I raced road bikes. I loved the hills. I thrived on them. The pain and willpower required to conquer them energized me. The next four years (and beyond) look like a big fucking mountain. Bring it.
I was feeling snarky when I wrote this. Not yet ready to kill these darlings so I’ll share them here. You’re welcome.
“Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord.” (1 Peter 3:6)
When Sarah was a young woman, God spoke to her husband and told him to move his family from the land that they knew. God promised progeny and land. He believed and they left.
They had no sooner left what she knew when her husband gave her to another man to protect himself. God remembered the promise and protected her, not for her sake but for her husband’s.
She waited a long time for God’s promise. She was old. She had endured years of shame as a barren woman. In a culture where a woman’s value is tied to childbearing she was an easy target for ridicule. And now she could no longer conceive. Her husband knew this too. Maybe his heirs should come through her maidservant, Hagar. Sarah consented and gave Hagar to her husband. Sure enough, Hagar conceived and Sarah’s shame increased.
When her husband was 99 years old, two strange men came to speak with him. They told him that he would have a son. Sarah overheard and laughed. Not out of joy but derision. The two men made kind of a big deal about her laughter. It’s not clear why they chastised her—her husband had just done the same thing two chapters earlier.
As they continued wandering, homeless and following the whims of her husband, they found themselves in a strange land again. And again her husband gave her to another man to protect himself. God remembered the promise and ordered the man in a dream to return her to her husband.
At a very old age, far too old to conceive and bear a child, Sarah did conceive. She gave birth to her son, Isaac, a name which means laughter. This time it may very well been an expression of joy.
Not long after, her husband again heard the voice of God, this time commanding him to take Sarah’s son and to sacrifice him. We don’t know how Sarah felt about this; the bible does not seem to care. God ultimately spared the boy and people tell the story of her husband’s great faith.
Sarah died at 127 years old in a foreign land and was buried in a field purchased by her husband.
Several hundred years later an ancient work, The Testament of Abraham, was written to tell her story and that of her husband. In that work she is presented as a wise and pious woman. She helps her husband to see things he is otherwise oblivious to. Later editors of the work did not like this picture of Sarah and took away her agency and insight. Sometimes women have to be kept in their place.
The altar is a jumble of iconic authors and texts: Peter Brown’s majestic tome on Augustine, Three by Flannery O’Connor, a recent copy of the Christian Century. And a Macbook. In the presence of these giants, six brave authors grieve those things written that have already been forgotten, their precious ideas that have floated wistfully into the ether.
The ceremony is archaic. Words are solemnly read and spoken under the soft glow of candles. The language is faintly Christian.
The ritual, like the works lamented, is ephemeral. The moment the words are expressed they are forgotten. The candles too, shining as gentle, hopeful beacons, are extinguished. Wisps of smoke from smoldering wicks slowly dissipate.
The vaguely Christian God remains invisible. Those offering their elegies dare not even mention the name. God too has passed; the sweet stench of the decaying Word made flesh barely lingers.
It is a fine line between lament and nihilism.
They fit so nicely in my hand. Vibrant green covers for the Greek texts, brilliant red for the Latin. They are hard bound, emblazoned with a gold LCL logo on the cover. A bibliophile’s dream. Their beauty so enchanting that Martha Stewart used them to decorate. Her daughter’s kitchen. (But this is supposed to be a merry tale so I’ll spare you the rant.) I run my fingers across the pages and I am happy. I read from them and I am smart.