Category Archives: Social Justice

A Simple Request

A simple request: I ask that we remember—especially when war is in the air, and even more when its scent is disguised as something else—that most people in the world want the same basic things, experience the same basic emotions, have the same basic drives. People want security, acceptance, food, shelter, dignity, means by which to express themselves, and a meaningful existence. It is so perilously easy to villainize and even dehumanize the “other,” but they are so much like us. The “other” is my family.

A second request: That you pass these sentiments on, in your own words if you like, if you agree with them. A wave, or even a handful, of people asking others to remember sanity, justice, and humanity cannot be a bad thing.

Toward More Useful Responses to Suffering

“God is in control.”
These words are often used as an attempt to comfort people going through hard times. More often than not, to that person, it seems like they’re trying to comfort themselves.

The last few years have been tough on us. We’ve teetered on the edge of poverty for sometime now and it’s extremely difficult. I once heard the experience of poverty described as being like that moment where you see someone suffering and you’re desperate to find some sort of solution. It’s like that moment, but all the time. Now, I willingly admit that, while we’re having a rough time right now, it is harder for many of the billions of people around the world living in poverty. But saying “God is in control”, just says to me that you think God wants it this way. That might be ok if poverty were only a short-term experience, but understanding the nature of poverty in this country, and around the world, we know that many will live in poverty for the rest of their lives. Does God want that?

In my view, this is why the concept of human agency is so important. God allows humans to make their own decisions, and out of those decisions comes the cruel injustice of the rich having their ‘beds of ivory’ or luxury cars, while the poor are trampled. It also means that the solutions are not as simple as “God will fix it.”

The key question for those of us who believe in free agency is, “Where is the comfort in that?” (In fact, as Christians, how to comfort the afflicted should be a central question anyway). How do we find hope and comfort in the midst of suffering? Simply saying “it will get better” or “your prayers will be answered” is not satisfying. God hears the cries of the afflicted all of the time.

Perhaps some of the answer comes from what God is doing. We can find some solace in God’s creation, and the small moments of joy amidst the desperation.  We can find hope in the message of the resurrection: justice and peace will win, in the end. But those things can only help so much in the here and now.

For me, when I consider my own sense of desperation and fear for the future, I feel the most helpful thing is to allow myself to allow myself to feel loved and cared for – by my Creator and by those around me. Being loved helps you feel worthwhile, and feeling worthwhile means when the world treats you like shit, you’re going to start taking action to stop it. Being truly loved also means you’re not alone in confronting the cause of your suffering.

As friends and disciples we can minister by simply offering our care and love without suggestions and self-serving attempts to instill hope that their suffering is going to end soon. Offering your solutions is actually a really bad way to show someone you care. Listening and accepting a person’s feelings is far more important. You can’t be part of the person’s solution until you have stood in solidarity with them. At that point we can collaborate with them (and God) to end their suffering (whatever may be the cause).

A compassionate response must always be focused on how the other person is affected and empowering them. Often, our response to suffering in the world is to make ourselves feel better. We see children suffering in poverty, our response is to throw money at it – to offer our solutions so we can start feeling better. Poverty is best overcome by the poor organizing in solidarity with each other to overcome their challenges.

It is the same with our relationships. When our friends or members of our families are going through hard times, our first response is often to offer our solutions or to say something that helps us feel better. What we should know is that we don’t do any good without first fully accepting that person and their experiences, helping them know that they’re loved, and then being prepared to stand in solidarity with them. If you do this, they will truly know you stand with them. Without this, it is harder for that person to be reminded that they are loved, and that God too is standing in solidarity with them.

Pesky Questions: Prayer, Personal Responsibility, and Pat Answers

A few weeks ago, Ricktopher and MLE were in a discussion group with a bunch of church people and the discussion topic was prayer. Everyone was asked to read a quote they were given on prayer and then say something about it if they so chose. Part of the evening went something like this:

Everyone else was saying how comforting prayer is, etc. and only citing positive examples of how prayer “works.” “You know, sometimes it seems like God’s not answering a prayer, but then one day, you’ll look back on it, and realize, ‘yeah, that was answered.’”

When it came to MLE’s turn, she said, “I struggle with prayer sometimes. What about the parent of a child who has a totally curable illness, but because they can’t afford to get them treatment, all they can do is pray? They pray, but the child dies anyway. Are they going to look back someday and say, “Woah, I totally get why my child died of that completely curable illness.”

Someone in the group responded, “Well, we often don’t know God’s ways; why he does what he does.”

MLE replied, “Is it really ‘God’s way’ for this to happen? Is this God’s justice and love? Or it is us humans, flagrantly misusing our agency? (This denomination’s big on personal agency.) (Okay, she may not have said, “flagrantly.”) Perhaps we are the ones not answering this parent’s prayer.”

Often, we don’t want to ask these questions. We’re comfortable in our complacency. But perhaps we’re called to more. Dodging self-examination and the tough questions don’t make them disappear, nor does it help those non-hypothetic people in the world who suffer like those in MLE’s hypothetical situation.

We do ourselves a disservice by trying to be, or at least appear, overly confident in our certainty. Sometimes, we don’t question because we don’t want to appear “weak in the faith.” How sad! Could it be that we cheat ourselves (and others) out of opportunities to explore our struggles with others?

Much can be gained from a rich prayer life, but what is a rich prayer life? Is prayer more than personal pep talks and/or complaints? Is it only for me and mine, with the vague cover all prayer for “peace on earth” or to “be with” or “bless everyone?” Are we ‘doing our part’ by praying; in a sense, releasing ourselves of our responsibilities? The “Well, I’ve done my part” approach.

Are our prayers for peace or for God to be with others any more effectual than those of the parent of that child?

Maybe instead of noncommittally praying for “the poor,” maybe we should ask to be made more mindful of how we can work to end poverty, then square our shoulders and roll up our sleeves.

Note: This post was prompted by a post from the nakedpastor about prayer. It includes a great cartoon featuring a person asking for showers from Heaven and getting so much water that they’re completely immersed. It’s a great post and blog. Check it out! (And, of course, that’s all his content, so please, don’t misuse the image or anything, guys. That’s just not cool.)

The Perils of Over-Thinking a Newsbyte

I was listening to BBC World News on NPR on my way to pick up Ricktopher from work, when I heard something about corrupt people in some African country taking food aid and then selling it; with much of it never reaching those in need. (Ok, I was half listening–I think it was about people loyal to Gbagbo.) I thought a vague image of something akin to, “there’s a hot place in Hell for them.”

I immediately kicked into over-analyzing. I started thinking about personal and corporate guilt, sin, and apologies. About just how many others might be culpable in those sordid transactions. It is indeed complex.

I think, too, about my (and our) culpability and responsibility to right action. Granted, it might take a lot of clicks on wikipedia pages to get from Gbagbo to little ol’ MLE, but I’m thinking more in generalities, as in: Which of my actions (and inactions–yes, a misnomer) help perpetuate injustice and suffering in the world? And, how do I rectify these things?

In his Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One’s Land, Sven Lindqvist recounts his experiences travelling through Australia visiting sites that highlight significant aspects and events in the interactions between Aboriginal and white Australian cultures. He bookends this volume with a discussion of corporate, or communal contrition. He reflects on the experience of a high school teacher beginning each lesson by asking, “‘What constitutes contrition?'” Lindqvist and the other students would then answer:

“I realize I have done wrong.
I regret what I have done.
I promise never to do it again.”

Lindqvist argues that this is far too insular, too easily taken back, and that it offers “precious little comfort to the victim of the wrong I committed.” He suggests this alternative wording:

“I freely admit that I have done wrong.
I ask forgiveness of those I have wronged.
I promise to do my best to make amends to them.”

What really intrigues me are Lindqvist’s ideas on communal contrition. He asks, “Can we feel contrition for other people’s crimes? Can we feel contrition for crimes we have not committed personally, but have subsequently profited from? How can we formulate the criteria for contrition to make them applicable to collective responsibility for historical crimes?”

Lindqvist offers a reworking of the personal contrition statement for communal application:

“We freely admit that our predecessors have done wrong and that we are profiting from it.
We ask forgiveness of those who were wronged and of their descendants.
We promise to do our best to make amends to those who were wronged for the effects that still remain.”

And perhaps as a cautionary note, he adds, “The larger the collective, the more diluted the personal  responsibility. the less intimate the contrition, the greater the risk that it will just be hollow ceremony. A representative steps forward on our behalf, admits the wrong committed, apologizes, pays what it takes and appoints a committee to ‘monitor our practices.'” As an aside, it’s interesting to note what has and hasn’t been done or changed or what have you, in Australia since the government formally said “Sorry” in 2008.

(Maybe I shouldn’t just visualize black Africans in camouflage, but people of other colors, people with money to gain from war, people like me who sip their lattes and don’t consider themselves warmongers, but undeniably benefit from being born rich.) As Lindqvist says, just like there is national debt, so to are there national assets, and I’ve inherited some serious assets.

As I wait for Ricktopher to come out, I think about my initial reaction, it’s understandable, simplistic as it is. We want the bad guys to get their comeuppance, right? But I’m ashamed of how outraged I didn’t feel. It’s like, “Oh, that’s awful…oh, here’s another bit of news.” I’d like to think that if you and yours and me and mine were starving someone would think more than that, feel more than that about our situation.

It reminds me of Peter Singer’s example discussing what we do with our resources and privilege. He sets the situation: “You’re walking along, and you see a child face down in a shallow pond. You’re wearing expensive leather shoes. There’s no chance that you’ll be in any danger if you rescue the child, but it will ruin your shoes.” He then asks, “What would you do?” to which virtually everyone responds, “Save the child, of course.” Ah, so how is it different when we spend that money to buy that expensive pair of shoes that we don’t really need, when that money could literally save people from starving, could give people a better quality of life?

Starving people in a war torn land, and other people have only to pass along those basics of sustenance,  and yet, they sell it to make a profit; knowing that many will suffer because of those actions.
I grow uncomfortable as I read what I had written. Maybe the U.S. isn’t war torn, at least not in the ways we typically use that term, but the rest of that statement could be talking about what happens right here in our backyard.

The choices we make–whether it’s what we buy or don’t buy, whether we find the time to write to that lawmaker or make a priority to watch a rerun of Friends–not only impact the people where we live, but the people we hear about in a newsbyte on NPR.

Featured: Wake Up by The Roots and John Legend

Wake Up
Mix the funky sounds of The Roots and the smooth vocals of John Legend. Listen. It will take you there. We concluded that if God had kept working on the seventh day, this would have been created. Or maybe, God needed to rest up to work up to this level of amazing. Or maybe, this was created on the sixth day and it blew God’s mind and thus the need to rest. Regardless, it’s totally awesome (unless you don’t like funky stuff, then you probably won’t like it).
The song selection excited us as much as the artists performing them. The Roots and Legend covered songs of social justice from the ’60s and ’70s; reshaping them with quality and imaginative style.

Oh. Yes. They. Did.

Featured–Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists by Courtney E. Martin

Courtney E. Martin’s Do It Anyway (Beacon, 2010) is completely engrossing. In it, Martin tells the stories of eight young adults (and some of her own) and their efforts to make the world a better place. Each section is about 25 pages, but again, engrossing, so it’s a pretty quick read. It’s inspiring and thought-provoking. A good read for any activist wannabes, especially us young adults.

Go to the book’s website to watch video clips from Martin and the other activists.

You can also click on the “Discuss” page on the website for some great questions and exercises for further individual or group exploration.

The introduction was what hooked me. You can read the introduction here.

On a personal note: As I was checking the new arrivals section of our local library, I just happened upon this book. Or maybe it found me. As I read about the experiences, thoughts, struggles, etc. of these young adults, I found myself going, “yeah, I totally get that!”

It can be lonely at times. The burden of care and responsibility can be crushing. Dwelling with the world, seeking to know–rather than choosing not to know–it can be overwhelming. So many ways to help, but where to start? What’s most pressing? Where/how am I most useful? Reading this book has offered me some hope and some insights from more veteran trouble/peace makers. Even when you don’t know all the answers, even when you mess up, even when you wonder if you’re really making a difference, do it anyway.