Social Justice, Prophetic Voice Memes

My brain won’t write today, so I made memes. I’m thinking of doing more of these pairing social justice issues with prophetic words of scripture, so if you have suggestions put them in the comments and I’ll see what I can come up with.

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If you’d like to share these (please), just right click on them and chose “save image as”.

Oppression, Starvation and Christ

The hallmark of an oppressive system is that it benefits some people while harming others. Because the system does provide benefits to some people, many believe that the system is fundamentally good. The fact that the system harms some people is attributed not to the oppressive nature of the system, but to the failures of the people who are being harmed. This has the effect of shoring up support for the system, even among those who are harmed by it because to admit that you are suffering is to admit your own unworthiness. Any evidence of harm being done by the system becomes evidence that the system is required to protect what is good about the system from those who are unworthy.

Those who are unable to hide the extent to which they are suffering are unlikely to stand up for themselves, because as members of the human race, they inevitably will have faults and failures. Sometimes they themselves believe the narrative which says they are to blame for their own suffering. Other times they are resigned to suffering in silence, knowing that however unjust it may be, their faults and failures will be used to condemn them and dismiss their complaints against the system.

We see a prototypical example of this sort of oppressive system at work in the book of Job. Job’s friends believe that suffering is caused by sin, that this is as it should be, and that Job’s suffering must therefore be the result of some secret sin on Job’s part. In the story of Job, we see that this is not the case. Job was specifically identified as a good man and God himself rebuked Job’s friends for suggesting otherwise. However, rather than understanding God to be rejecting the oppressive habit of blaming suffering on sin, we tend to read this as the story of a man who was an exception to the rule that you get what you deserve in life. A caution against relying on the system to excess rather than a denunciation of the system entirely.

At the other end, oppressive systems claim that those at the top are owed a larger portion of the benefits from the system because they are simultaneously very good and very bad. They are very good in that they are smarter, more ambitious, more fierce, closer to the divine and capable of wielding more power than the rest. They are very bad because if they are not amply rewarded, they will not use those abilities for the good of others. Their demands are allowed to grow, unbounded by anything outside of themselves as the people who support the system trust them to provide for their wellbeing, provided their demands are adequately satisfied.

An oppressive system always relies on an idol at the very top in order to operate. The idol allows the men who benefit from the oppressive system to lay claim to their right to power as the result of being the living embodiment of the idol. An idol may be a god or spirit, such as the ancient pagan gods or anthropomorphic spirits of the earth even ancestor worship. Or it may be an idea about the proper ordering of humanity such as in monarchies, gender roles or caste systems. Or the idol may be a virtue which is elevated above all others such as intelligence, ambition or strength.

Idols, of course, are by definition false gods, unworthy of worship and unable to provide what they promise. The systems which grow out of them are inevitably oppressive, providing benefits to some while leaving others to suffer. Frequently this suffering is incurred in service to the system itself such as those who sacrifice their children to idols or who work themselves into an early grave providing for families they barely know.

While many today view Jesus as either harmless or an advocate for the system de jour, in reality, Jesus subverts every oppressive system. He demonstrates that only God is worthy of the devotion we humans habitually give to idols. Unlike the idol, which is functionally viewed as simultaneously very good and very bad, Jesus shows us the face of a God who is good in all his ways. He does not provide for us according to our fealty, but causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on all the same. Rather than demanding disproportionate benefits in recognition of his worth and power, God demonstrates his worth and power by giving up all benefits and sharing in the lowest human’s suffering. Continue reading

Of Camels and Gnats

Gnats are annoying. Biting gnats leave welts that are much itchier than mosquito bites and when they swarm, you’re likely to wind up looking like an idiot flailing your arms around in a futile attempt to keep them away. Not to mention that you’ll inevitably end up inhaling or swallowing one on accident. For the next hour you’ll feel like there’s something disgusting stuck in your throat or nasal passages. As small as they are, gnats aren’t the sorts of things you live peaceably with.

So you can imagine that back in the days when camels were a normal mode of transportation, if you hired a camel to carry you and your goods on a long trip, and your guide showed up with a gnat infested camel, this would be an issue. A long trip on a gnat infested camel was probably a known cause of nervous breakdowns in the ancient world. So, of course, you would demand that the guide you hired for the trip do something about the problem. Attach fly paper to the camel’s ears and provide you with a climate controlled helmet to wear on the trip or something.

Now, a camel has a thicker hide than a human. But a serious gnat infestation isn’t fun for a camel to endure. Particularly since the little devils will target soft spots like the nose, eyes, mouth and other more unmentionable areas on a camel. Camels aren’t particularly know for their sweet dispositions anyways. So it’s easy to imagine that a gnat infested camel may be a particularly ill tempered beast.

In fact, while you are busy figuring out what to do about the gnats. the people tending to and attempting to load and prepare the camel are liable to get bit, spit on, kicked in the head, crapped on and otherwise injured by the camel. Imagine for a moment if you responded to the various cries and complaints of the people the camel is hurting by telling them to be more careful in doing their job, to stop with all the complaining. Maybe you fire the person who had the gall to come to work covered in camel dung.

Or maybe you’re not quite that insensitive so you say, “once we get this gnat situation worked out, the camel will settle down and you’ll be fine. But right now I need you to shut up so I can deal with this gnat problem.”

Or if you fancy yourself as a sensitive person who understands the plight of dealing with a gnat infested camel, you might say, “the camel kicked you in the head? That’s awful. I know what it’s like. You should see the bites I got while I was sitting on it. I feel your pain. In fact, you really ought to be over here tending to my welts instead of laying on the ground moaning like that.”

It seems to me that as a people, this is exactly how the problems we face play out. We are so fixated on the problems of those who are riding the camel that we end up not tending to the injuries inflicted on less powerful people who have been injured by the camel. Continue reading

I See Rich People. They Talk to Me. . .

The mouse on my computer broke. So now I’m back to writing on my kindle. Which is a marvelous bit of technology, but it has all sorts of quirks which can easily double the time it takes for me to do a post. And the spacebar for the keyboard is gimpy. But since I don’t even have money to replace the mouse, I’ll just have to limp along the best I can.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately that when I finally break free of all these obstacles, I’ll astound everyone. It’s like I’ve been trying to play the game wearing weights. If I could just get free and have a fully functioning computer, a good internet connection and a few hours a day without children, well, you just won’t believe what I can do.

As I was contemplating the rather unpleasant task of writing on my kindle (something I did exclusively for at least six months), it occurred to me that this is why we hear so much more from rich people than anyone else. If you’re rich, you can grab a few hours which you would otherwise have spent playing Sugar Crush and write something thoughtful on your nice computer without any real delays or impediments. Or maybe you’re more of a take my Macbook to Starbucks to write sort of writer.

But when you’re not rich, you have to type out the word six because the six key doesn’t work any more. And putting in a hyperlink requires the sort of planning skills normally reserved for major military operations. It’s like driving one of those cars that you have to roll down the window to open the door. Everything’s just much more work when you don’t have access to resources.

And having crappy, unreliable technology is a first world problem. Imagine what it took for those women in Nigeria to get the world’s attention when their girls were taken! It’s really no mystery as to why people who are powerful and influential are usually white American men. It’s not that every white American man has resources. It’s just that nearly everyone who has resources is a white American man. Having resources removes so many obstacles that what is impossible for other people is possible for them. And that is a big part of our problem.

Having resources doesn’t necessarily make the path to sucess a clear and easy one. You still have to work harder and be smarter and overcome more than everyone else in order to acheive great things. I mean, Paris Hilton’s family says she works very hard and I believe them. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if she puts in sixty hour work weeks. The thing is that my husband has put in sixty hour work weeks pretty routinely for nearly 20 years. And we can’t even afford to buy a mouse.

(The first person to ask why I don’t get a job wins the chance to find me a job with hours that work for our family, arrange the care of our kids by someone who is able to provide high caliber, on demand tutoring, counseling, and training in the ways of the world customized to each child’s needs, obtain transportation, clothing, housekeeping, cooking and taxi services to make that all happen. Good luck. Let me know when you get that all worked out.)

Aside from being bullshit, the connection between who has the existing resources and who gets seen and heard and rewarded is more sinister than we realize. You know the proverbial “they” we always hear about? The ones who tell us what other people think of us and what’s normal and what’s a problem and what’s expected of us and what failure looks like? Sometimes people will joke and say, “who is this ‘they’ you keep talking about?” Well, the answer to that is simple. Continue reading

Churches Don’t Like You When You’re Suffering

Now, I’m not sure if I agree with what this person thinks that the church should be doing for people. I’m actually kind of a fan of doctors, safety nets and mental health services. But this really does capture the way the church deals with the suffering.

I haven’t been involved in a church for a few years for a number of reasons. But probably the biggest obstacle for me was that I dread what happens once I can’t hide just how screwed up my life is. Just the thought of having to deal with the church’s reaction to suffering is exhausting.

All of the “well why don’t you just go get help so you can get yourself fixed” questions that feel like accusations. The way that if I try to explain that I’m already doing what I can, I’ll just get bombarded with more suggestions and challenges and more questions about why I haven’t gotten myself fixed yet. Contrary to what people seem to think, I don’t really need an extra voice telling me that the reason my life is a mess because I’m screwing it up. If fixing my life were easy enough for you to find the solution off the top of your head, it would be fixed by now. Don’t you think?

Churches tend to do pretty OK with an immediate, specific need or crisis. If you need meals made after the baby comes or while someone is hospitalized. If you need help moving. If you’re a single mom and your house needs paint. Things like that many churches do well. But if the problem is long term, perhaps permanent, churches tend to be bad places to be. There are only so many times you can call about your piece of crap car on the side of the road again. There are only so many times you can explain the details of your budget and why you don’t qualify for certain government programs.

Usually what people really need is a $20,000 cash infusion. Or if that’s not possible, just a supportive shoulder to cry on now and again will do. But churches are really bad at that. If you are bold enough to make your need known, you may find a kind soul willing to listen. But the burden is on you to keep seeking out that kind shoulder when you need it. Which gets really wearing. And it just highlights the extent to which the relationship is not between equals. The person who is listening to you cry is not going to call you when they have a problem. They aren’t going to miss you if you don’t reach out to them. It’s like starvation rations for a relationship starved suffering person. It may be enough to keep you from dying outright, but it’s not nearly enough to help you recover. Continue reading

So Much For Soft Hearted and Squishy Headed

There’s a popular stereotype which says that people who worry about the homeless, racism, poverty and other social ills have soft hearts and squishy heads. Those who do not share their concerns will often accuse them of abandoning logic for emotionalism. Because emotions are for silly women, queers and other people not to be taken seriously, of course.

However, my friend Sonya (hi, Sonya!) recently passed on a study which shows that, scientifically speaking, this stereotype is dead wrong. Researchers using brain scans found that rather than being driven by emotions, people who are concerned with issues of social justice make greater use of the logic centers of their brains than people who do not:

Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scanning device, the team studied what happened in the participants’ brains as they judged videos depicting behavior that was morally good or bad. For example, they saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away. The participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they would blame or praise the actor seen in the video. People in the study also completed questionnaires that assessed cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as their justice sensitivity.

As expected, study participants who scored high on the justice sensitivity questionnaire assigned significantly more blame when they were evaluating scenes of harm, Decety said. They also registered more praise for scenes showing a person helping another individual.

But the brain imaging also yielded surprises. During the behavior-evaluation exercise, people with high justice sensitivity showed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain associated with higher-order cognition. Brain areas commonly linked with emotional processing were not affected.

The conclusion was clear, Decety said: “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

This goes a long way towards explaining some of the facebook conversations I’ve had lately. You know the kind; someone saying something idiotic responds to factual evidence that their claims are wrong by jumping to their next talking point or looking for some petty inconsistency in your argument rather than deal with reality. They aren’t being logical, but are driven by the emotional imperative to avoid being wrong. Ahem.

You can read more about the study (conducted at the University of Chicago) here.

The Quality of Mercy

I want to follow up on that last post with an account of a sermon given by a Christian man who is doing what he can to change our broken system. His name is Mark Osler. He used to be a federal prosecutor in Detroit and sent many men, particularly, black men to prison for drug crimes. He did it with the best of intentions, motivated by a genuine love for his home town which was falling apart before his eyes. But eventually, after he left the job to take a position at Baylor University in Waco Texas, he began to question the justice of what he had been involved in. He was seeking ways to bring his work and his faith into proper relationship with each other, and in the process has become one of the most influential lawyers working to change our drug sentencing laws and bring a different sort of justice to people caught up in the drug trade. Justice which is joined with mercy, not justice which demands the sacrifice of the lives of young men of color.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” Osler reads before getting to the less frequently cited sentences. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”

Osler pauses. “Sometimes,” he says with a grin, “the Bible is not very reassuring for a fairly affluent straight white guy from Edina,” referring to the Minneapolis suburb where he and his family live. “But that is me, and this is one of those times. In this passage, Jesus is talking about turning everything—everything—upside down. The poor will have the kingdom, while the rich will face woe. The hungry will be filled, while those who are full will be hungry. Those who are reviled will be blessed, and it’s bad when all speak well of you. This teaching, this idea of turning everything upside down, is dangerous.”

Continue reading

The Least Have the Answers

Back when I was pregnant with my oldest son, I wound up without a place to live. The counselor at the crisis pregnancy center which was helping me navigate this time reluctantly referred me to a homeless shelter/half-way house for single moms as a last resort. She didn’t come right out and say it, but my sense was that she was none too impressed with the way the program there was run.

And she was right. In the year and a half that I lived there, not one of the women who went through the program was able to move from the shelter into independent living. They were all either kicked out or ended up moving into another unstable setting to get away. When I asked the social worker who we met with regularly, she could only think of one former resident who had moved on to independent living after her time there. And that was because she had scored a section 8 voucher. Given that the stated goal of the program was to move single moms from homelessness to independent living, this was kind of a big deal.

A few months after I moved in, the leadership of the program announced that they were re-hauling the program and the house rules women had to abide by. They asked us to write down any suggestions we had for how to make the program more effective and our lives better. Me being me, I wrote a very long, thoughtful list of changes that I thought would help, complete with explanations.

Several months later, the board of the organization put out the new rules. Of all the suggestions I and other women in the program had made, just one was adopted; we would now be allowed to have Christmas trees. Not only were none of our suggestions adopted, but the new rules actually moved in the opposite direction of what we had said would be helpful to us.

After the new rules were implemented, women cycled in and out of the program faster than before. I was eventually kicked out for taking on a second job without discussing it with the social worker. My now-husband arranged for me and our son to sleep on a his friend’s pull-out sofa for a few months while I tried to find someplace safe that would rent someone under the age of 25 with bad credit. I had never met the woman before I showed up with my bags and kid.

The people who ran the program, when asked about their lack of success in reaching their stated goal, would sigh and say it just shows how hard it is to work with people who wind up in trouble. Frankly, if your program is unable to help a compliant, college educated young woman from an upper-middle class background, who doesn’t party, has worked continually since age 10 and has never been in trouble with the law to get on her feet, it’s safe to say that your program doesn’t work.

The reason I’m sharing this story is to illustrate why it is we as a society cannot solve the problems we face. The problem with this program was the same problem that nearly all programs meant to help those in need have. It was designed and run by successful people according to their experiences and assumptions about how the world works. And that’s why that program didn’t work and why most government social programs don’t work and even why so many schools don’t work.

We have this tendency to think that if we want something fixed, we should listen to people who are successful. It makes a certain sense. If you’ve succeeded, then you know how to succeed and can share the answers with others who would like to succeed.

However, before I became a homeless, single mom or got involved with the man from a bad family who is now my husband, I came from a family of 2%ers. My dad and his three siblings all have masters degrees. His dad was trained at Harvard by the Army during WWII and went on to be president of a company. Two of my mom’s siblings are multi-millionaires. So, I was born, bred and raised among successful people.

I’ve seen people at both the top and at the bottom, up close and personal. And I have a secret for you; if you want answers for how to help people who are struggling and failing, don’t ask successful people. Ask the people who are struggling and failing.

The answers which successful people have for how to overcome adversity are the same answers that everyone has. They don’t have anything unique to offer in that respect. They also don’t have any real understanding of the problems people face.

In fact, I can say from experience, when you are successful it’s hard to grasp that there really are problems. It’s hard to understand why what made you successful won’t work for everyone else. From the vantage point of the sort of person who makes rules, starts programs and runs things, the problem must be with the people – they just aren’t willing to do it right.

People on the bottom have answers that people on the top don’t. They know why people aren’t doing it right. They know what the obstacles to doing it right are. They know the obstacles people face even when they are doing it right. They know what people need in order to overcome those obstacles. In fact, if you look at the few social programs which are working, nearly all of them are run by people from the bottom.

Of course, we humans aren’t in the habit of listening to people at the bottom. They are losers, failures, suspect. What do they know about how to suceed? If they were so smart, they wouldn’t be in a position of needing help, right?

The governing board of the shelter I was at didn’t listen to any of the opinions of the women living there in good part because they didn’t trust us. They were like multi-millionaire lawmakers who are reluctant to build a safety net, lest people lose the drive to support themselves. They thought our goal was to avoid being responsible and disciplined and saw it as their job to force responsibility and discipline on us. They couldn’t imagine that we might understand our problems better than they did. They were sucessful people with families and homes. We had failed at life before we had even started. Clearly, they knew better than we did.

This is a common problem; even when people at the bottom can make their concerns and ideas heard, we don’t trust them enough to listen. We look for any excuse to ignore, discount and disagree. We refuse to consider that perhaps the people at the bottom are able to see things that people at the top don’t. We refuse to believe that the world is so hostile or the odds so stacked. And frankly, we often refuse to listen to people at the bottom because the problems they point to seem too large and intractible to be solved.

The thing is that while successful people rarely understand what the problems are, successful people often have skill sets, networks and experience that people at the bottom don’t have. And those things can be incredibly valuable. Someone at the bottom often knows just what needs to be done to help people, but lacks the skills, networks and experience to make that happen. So it’s not that successful people don’t have anything to offer.

We all know that Jesus said that his followers were to serve those in need and to consider the last to be first and the first to be last. Usually, we see this as a call to alleviate suffering, show compassion and grow in love. Which is certainly true. But I also think that these teachings are a bit of a trail of crumbs he left for us as well. That he knew the answers to the problems we face would be found among the least and not the greatest. Besides, Jesus said that what we do for the least of these, we are also doing for him. Might Jesus who says if we love him, we will listen to his words, also expect us to listen to, learn from and take seriously what the least have to say? It is very much how his upside down Kingdom works, no?

Forget Stations of the Cross! It’s stations of the UN!

When I was a Catholic, I went through the stations of the cross several times, including a couple which included props and sound effects. It’s one of the reasons I never felt the need to go see Mel Gibson’s snuff movie – as a former Catholic, I was well aware of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. It was real for me already.

However, since The Passion of the Christ, the movie, accomplished the task of helping Christians experience the horror and suffering of Jesus’ passion and death, the Episcopalian Relief and Development Agency has apparently decided that they can move on other, important topics. Like reducing our carbon food print and promoting third world debt relief. From an article about it on Slate:

This year in time for Lent, Episcopal Relief and Development, the relief agency of the Episcopal Church, began offering a variation on the Stations of the Cross called the Stations of the Millennium Development Goals. It features eight stations, one for each of the global priorities identified by the United Nations in 2000, from eradicating poverty to promoting gender equality. Where each of the 14 stations of the traditional Stations of the Cross represents an event leading up to Jesus’ death—”Jesus is condemned to death” and “Jesus falls the first time,” for example—the alternative version, promoted by Episcopal Relief and Development, shifts the focus to righting global problems. At Station 8, “Create a Global Partnership for Development,” participants are reminded that a “fair trading system, increased international aid, and debt relief for developing countries will help us realize” the U.N. goals. An optional activity at Station 7, “Ensure Environmental Sustainability,” asks that “pilgrims calculate their carbon footprint and come up with three strategies to reduce it.” . . . A suggested activity for Station 4, on reducing child mortality, calls for participants to shade in drawings of children’s faces, coloring-book-style.

Goodness. Continue reading