“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)
Category Archives: justice
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.
This week we saw a damning public display of discrimination in the name of Jesus. Slow clap for World Vision. As would be expected, I have a few thoughts.
First, the events of this week are shameful. From World Vision–a spineless reversal motivated by money. From conservatives–the retraction of perhaps millions of dollars to “help” those who are poor. From liberals–using people who are poor to make political statements. Shame on all of you.
As you may already know, I think the Christians who, in the name of God, insist on bigotry and discrimination against gay people are on the wrong side of history and theology. This week’s shameful Christian outcry against a policy of non-discrimination and World Vision’s subsequent retraction is horrifying to me. In no way am I endorsing their behavior.
But I am thrilled that this all went down. I have never been a fan of World Vision. Their model is untested, with little objective empirical data to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs. They objectify poor children and market them to support their efforts at development. The dignity, agency, autonomy, and power inherent in every human being is flattened into a pathetic picture of a helpless (black) child who can do nothing without help from the great (Western) savior. Such an image is good for raising funds, shitty for actually fixing the problem. And the events of this week demonstrate this.
If supporting a poor child is merely a marketing strategy when you make a PR slip that commodified child can be easily replaced by another commodified child from another organization.
But I did not need this week’s events to know that World Vision, a Christian aid and development agency, exists for itself. Their longstanding practice of giving away the Super Bowl loser t-shirts is roundly criticized by anyone who knows what good aid looks like. It looks good to Charity Navigator (often a specious measurement tool) because World Vision can claim that they received a $2 million dollar gift (100,000 t-shirts with a “market value” of $20 each) and then distribute that gift relatively cheaply. But… is the gift really worth $2 million? Those shirts are useless, with no value whatsoever in the US (the NFL prohibits the sale of said t-shirts). The NFL can continue to overproduce things that are unnecessary (do we really need our Superbowl Champion t-shirts the day after the Super Bowl?) and look like really good guys by giving a $2 million donation. World Vision looks like an effective charity with low overhead, rich white men pat themselves on the back. Win-win, right? Except that no one really needs a Super Bowl loser t-shirt in Africa. Yes, World Vision has helped give us the impression that these are helpless, useless poor people with no idea how to clothe themselves. But that is just absurd.
They further lost credibility last year when they actively lobbied against food aid reform. Current policy is that food aid be grown in the US and shipped overseas on US vessels. The inherent waste and ineffectiveness of such an approach is obvious. But it is good for US farmers and shipping companies. And World Vision. So when President Obama proposed that as much as 25% of our food aid be locally sourced, World Vision stood in the way. Even though as many as 10 million more people could have been fed by such a policy.
So now you know why I am glad. I hope they lose millions more and that those millions go to more reputable organizations like Church World Service, Episcopal Relief and Development, Lutheran World Relief, and other such agencies that respect the dignity and agency of people, regardless of their economic status or sexual orientation.
A few weeks back (!) I posted on my struggles with privilege. There were many helpful replies and suggestions. You can see the various comments on the original post, at The Episcopal Cafe, and in the thoughtful blog post by my former student, Travis Meier. I had many insights shared by my friends on Twitter. Thanks especially to Kelly Baker, Maggi Dawn, and Greg Hillis (psst… follow them!). In this post I want to tackle two issues around power and privilege that are particularly difficult for me. Again, I welcome your insights.
The first has to do with a common theme of using power and privilege in small things. Greg tweeted at me a quote from Dorothy Day that captures this sentiment well:
Young people say, ‘What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize & transform these actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves & fishes.
Others gave me concrete suggestions places of where I have power. Like treating others kindly, listening to stories of those who do not have power, managing the classroom in such a way that those who are marginalized are given space to share, and so on.
I really like this advice. I know it is true. The bible is full of stories of small acts and marginalized people doing great good (the Christ event, anyone?). And yet my struggle with a suggestion like this is that it feels so small, so insignificant. (As a side note, I really don’t like Mother Theresa quotes.) I blame my dad for my insufferable idealism, but if it is not gonna get at the root of the problem I struggle to expend the extra effort. Privilege strikes again. One of the things I want to work on is doing the small things (and there are so many!).
What about you? How do you deal with seemingly insignificant choices? What strategies for motivation do you have? What small areas of power or privilege are you aware of that would be good for me to remember?
This reluctance to act where I do have power brings up the second issue. I am so quick to give up what power I have. Lauren commented,
Most importantly, you have to fight the feeling of powerlessness. It is the trick of the mind in a racist, classist system. It tricks us all into thinking we have no power to change anything, especially those who have the most power to do so. Amazingly, I find that it is a white men who feel the most powerless. So it convinces me all the more that this is simply a delusion from the master narrative that we have swallowed.
I would add that for a long time I used power unintentionally and I know that I hurt people as a result. It has made me leery of power in general. I am not sure if this is simply a justification to avoid action but I am honestly nervous about unintentional harm. There are so many variables, so many ways that my perspective will be limited (we all know how annoying well-intentioned people with privilege can be–speaking when they should listen, acting when they should empower, etc.). Again, I am curious about how you deal with this tension. If you are in a position of privilege, how do you use your power constructively? Do you have questions you ask before deciding on an action? Do you have checks on your power? If you are a person who has been marginalized in any way, what advice do you have for a person with power? Am I asking the right questions? Is the tone appropriate?
As always I welcome the conversation.
This morning on Twitter @Hope Jahren cleverly tweeted, “‘The poor will always be with us’ — said no poor person evar [sic].” I quickly dashed off a considerably less clever (though is seemed more so at the time), “‘Cept Jesus.” But then I got to thinking…
As I expressed earlier, I am not so confident that the Gospels always give us a reliable picture of Jesus. This particular saying, one that if I had my way would not be in our sacred text, is recorded in three of the Gospels: Mark 14:7, Matthew 26:11, and John 12:8 (Luke, as perhaps would be expected, omits the saying). I get that the conclusion of the saying is an exhortation to give when one “wishes” (a wholly unsatisfying suggestion). I also understand that this can be read as an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:4-11 which clearly states that there shall be no poor among the Israelites and gives specific commands about taking care of those who are. There is also the happy liberation read of the text, which I blogged about in my former life when I was an anti-hunger educator: the verse is best understood as a command to always be with those who are poor, i.e., walking alongside and working with them as they seek justice.
All this said, I am still unsatisfied with the thrust of the text and Hope is right to ask if a poor person would ever say such a thing. Are our Gospels so removed from Jesus’ experience as a poor person on the margins that they could imagine him saying something no poor person would ever say?
I’ve been grappling with my privilege a lot lately. I find that in nearly all my circles I have a leg up without having really done anything. I am a white (though I am well aware of the many sacrifices my Mexican grandfather endured to give my mom her future), male, straight, educated, Protestant (broadly defined). I live in the most powerful country in the world. In my chosen career I am one of the few (roughly one in four) who landed a tenure track gig (at a place I like, to boot!). All of these give me immense advantages to others and I cannot say without significant qualifications (sometimes at all) that I am responsible for any of them.
At the same time I am very sympathetic to those who are marginalized and disenfranchised. I spent four years thinking hard about the issues that keep people from flourishing. Often, those who are privileged are active participants in a system that keeps people marginalized, and in the worst cases poor and hungry. I hate the injustice of it all and I want to see it change.
And yet, because I too participate in the system, I am complicit. But I sure don’t know how I ought to respond. Ostensibly I am in a position that can help change an unjust system. But I feel so powerless against the marginalizing forces that I participate in. I often try to listen and amplify voices from the margins. Sometimes I chime in. Other than that I am mostly a passive (and sometimes active) participant.
What about you? How do you respond to structural inequality? How do you respond to your privilege or lack thereof? What power do you and I have?
As I was expressing relief about the SCOTUS decisions this week (Prop 8 and DOMA, the VRA is another story) I had a friend ask me how I dealt with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Here is my (lightly edited) response:
On 1 Corinthians 6 (and on the issue of sexuality in the Bible, in general) there are a several ways I work with the text.
The first problem is that both of the words in the list (malakoi and arsenokoitai) are really very difficult to translate. The NIV’s translation makes it look clear but the words may or may not be taken that way (the RSV opts for the more ambiguous, “sexual perverts”).
The second would be a time and culture specific argument. If Paul is speaking about homosexuality as we understand it today (which I don’t think he is, I’ll get there in a minute), we have to wrestle with the other things he said (even in 1 Corinthians!) that we do not find authoritative any more. Why is this issue the one we focus on? We no longer find it necessary that women cover their heads in prayer, for example. We also allow women to speak in church (at least in my denomination). Even in the list itself (1 Cor 6:9) we ignore the line about greed which is far more widespread than homosexuality. If we turn to Paul’s other letters, we no longer find the implicit acceptance of slavery in the household codes compelling. In short, there are many places where we recognize that Paul was addressing specific issues that were directed to specific people at a particular time. They are not always timeless truths (I am pretty sure that Paul was not consciously aware that he was writing scripture).
Moreover, when we talk about homosexuality in antiquity, we are dealing with something quite different that homosexuality today. Often homosexual relationships were between men of different power, often men with boys. In this way it was a fundamentally abusive relationship. The one in power took advantage of the one who was weak. This, as with many other sins in the Bible, was about injustice. Today, homosexuality has social and psychological factors that no writer in antiquity would have ever conceived of. I am convinced that Paul was condemning an unjust relationship of power and abuse, something that does not define homosexual relationships today.
Finally, I think that it is not the role of the civil government to enforce “Christian” values. I advocate out of my Christian call, but at the end of the day, the role of the government is to ensure equality and liberty for all. Culturally, homosexuality is not problematic for the vast majority of our citizens. In a democracy we should honor that. At the same time, those places where the majority opinion seems misguided (as in our constant saber rattling and corporate greed) I will continue to speak out against it.
What are your thoughts? What works about these arguments? What doesn’t?