I wrote the following reflection almost a year ago. I am pulling it up again today as I wrestle with the gut wrenching feelings I feel as I see headline after headline of stories reporting on how we are killing each other. Reading about the physical, emotional and spiritual violence being done to immigrant families floods me with anger and sadness, and I feel so helpless. Last November my wife and I attended the Fresno Community Chorus concert, “Remembrance & Healing: 75 years after Executive Order 9066 and the incarceration of ethnic Japanese in in American concentration camps.” We attend remembrances such as these and think, “How could this have happened? Never again.” Yet here we are again. This is happening.
Derek Webb, in his song “This Too Shall Be Made Right,” sings, “I don’t know the suffering of people outside my front door / I join the oppressors of those I choose to ignore / I’m trading comfort for human life / And that’s not just murder, it’s suicide / This too shall be made right.” These lyrics have always penetrated me.
What can I do? I do not want to look away. I do not want to ignore my responsibility: there are ways that I participate in systems of injustice – by what I have done and what I have left undone – and I must not allow my feelings of helplessness and being overwhelmed to paralyze me. If I only offer “thoughts and prayers,” I am rejecting the human vocation of peacemaking, the calling to bear God’s image as creator and protector of life.
Today I share with you my reflections from last year, and I urge you to examine the injustice, the deathliness, of Othering – of excluding and marginalizing some and so ignoring God’s foundational command to love the neighbor.
September 26, 2017
We have eaten of that fruit, and we are dying. We have broken covenant, and we are painfully out of joint. We are in exile. And instead of seeing our sin, instead of recognizing the deep need we have for reconciliation, we search for someone to blame. Because we’re “very fine people,” we resist acknowledging our complicity in “this present evil age” – its denial, depression and desperation. We shut our eyes in order to deny all the ways we are threaded into the fabric of injustice. It may feel warm and comforting to us, but it gags others and swallows them up like body bags. But their “blood cries out… from the ground” and eventually it seeps in through the cracks in our self-righteousness: we feel anxiety rising, threatening to drown us in depression. Still we refuse to come to our senses and repent. Instead we desperately patch the cracks: we hold ourselves together with numbness, lose ourselves in amusement, or spew rage and ready for a fight when threatened.
Because we are unwilling to expose the injustice in which we participate, and because we cannot hold depression and despair at bay indefinitely, we turn on our neighbors. “Let us go out to the field,” we beckon, and then we wash our hands of the blood we spill. Death is the end result of our culture of exclusion. When we organize the world for “the powers that be” and those who are privileged by that power, we inevitably view all resources as scarce and orient ourselves in competition against “the other.” If there is only one of [insert valued item here] and two of us, you pose a threat and I must find a way to exclude you. Within this worldview, there are no neighbors; all those outside of my group are either strangers or enemies. If I can segregate you so that you are invisible, then I can comfortably go about my life with you as a stranger. If you will not keep your place on the margins, then you become an enemy. If I cannot silence you, I must discredit you. If I cannot discredit you, I must eliminate you.
I am often disheartened by the number of Christian people who defend this exclusionary pattern. It seems that “believing in Jesus” and “personal salvation” are disconnected from the cycle of exclusion playing out in our families, and in local and global communities. Somehow, Christians are living within an Empire, pledging allegiance to its violent system of power, and congratulating themselves for “defending the faith.” Jesus was executed as an enemy of the state in a very publicly humiliating and painful manner: crucifixion was Rome’s statement of ultimate power and authority used to make a spectacle of any would-be revolutionary. We follow a messiah who ushered in “the upside-down kingdom” where “what looks like weakness can do anything / and what looks like foolishness is understanding / when what is powerful has not come to fight / it looks like you’re going to war / but you lay down your life” (Derek Webb, What is Not Love).
We seem more like the “lawyer [who] stood up to test Jesus,” asking “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Like him, we ask the question assuming the answer we already have in mind is right. Jesus “said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ [The lawyer] answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’” Just to make sure we are certain of our “salvation,” we ask, “And who is my neighbor?” (NRSV, Luke 10:25-29)
Who is my neighbor? What are we asking when we pose this question? Who is in and who is out? Who can I exclude? Who am I obligated to share my precious resources with and who can I ignore and let starve? Who can I steal from so that I might have more? I deserve it, after all. As we “look out for number one,” we calculate who we can “afford” to let on the inside. We are on a limited budget, and so we start crossing people off the wedding reception guest list. Let’s get realistic: there is just not enough to go around. Find a smaller table, because we have got to disinvite people. I know we said, “Liberty and justice for all,” but who is going to pay for that? It costs too much. And so we become us and them. Walter Brueggemann writes and preaches extensively about this “myth of scarcity” plaguing us:
Today, the fundamental human condition continues to be anxiety, fueled by a market ideology that keeps pounding on us to take more, to not think about our neighbor, to be fearful, shortsighted, grudging. Over and over, we’re told to be sure we have the resources to continue our affluent lifestyles, especially with the approach of our “golden years” (which are “golden” in more ways than one). That same market ideology powers the multinational corporations, as they roam the world, seeking the best deal, the greatest return, the cheapest labor and materials. Whether it’s global policies or local poverty-wage jobs, those who fear scarcity refuse to acknowledge any abundance that extends beyond their own coffers.
I hear this myth in the voices of “us” excluding “them.” They are stealing our jobs. They are lazy and cheating the system. They don’t belong here (and so we label them illegal). They want special treatment. They think they are entitled. They need to get over it. They are disrespecting us. Whether we draw lines between “us” and “them” based on race and ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, socio-economic status, religious affiliation, or other identity markers, “we” seek to remove “them” from within or among “us.” The more distance we see and feel between “us” and “the other,” the more we are able to justify ourselves as we dismiss, vilify, and harm “them.” While we take life away from “those people,” we sit around believing we deserve what we have: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (NRSV, Luke 18:11).