Sunday, March 7, 2021

"We Can Get There"

           A Franciscan sent me a little booklet in the mail last week – “The Salvation of Zachary Baumkletterer” by George Mavrodes and printed by the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in 1976. In its brief 31 pages, we learn about how Zachary, our mild-mannered hero, becomes convinced that the most responsible course of action he could take to oppose global poverty and injustice is to model his lifestyle as closely as possible to the conditions of the very poor: owning only one set of clothes, for example, and eating a starvation diet. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t acceptable at all in his comfortable, middle class professional circles of society.

His co-workers confront him, eventually leading Zack to the Assistant Director, who is very concerned about losing a productive worker in whom the company had made a significant investment. Other attempts having already failed, the Assistant Director tries to redirect the force of Zachary’s convictions toward company policies, such as instituting a No-Meat Special in the cafeteria and contributing the money saved to a relief agency. He also teases the idea that Zack could get some press, speak to a Rotary Club, and meet the mayor.

          Sensing that this still wouldn’t satisfy the budding ascetic, the Assistant Director refers Zack to his pastor, whose job, as established religion’s job it often is, was to return Zack to his respectable and comfortable position in society. To his surprise, the good pastor discovers that it was actually two people who spoke at the church that had initially set Zack on this path: first, an economist insisted that “loving our neighbors as ourselves obviously entailed guaranteeing our neighbors an income large enough to live on”; second, a writer put the cruelty of social injustice into real life terms by describing the human beings who suffered. At first, the pastor pushes back: maybe you are taking these points too literally? “Maybe you need to give him a little room for rhetoric, and interpret him a little more reasonably?” Because, we must remember, systems of oppression almost always present themselves as reasonable, natural, even inevitable. We are allowed to have our radical ideas about equality, as long as they are ideas, held in the abstract, and not actually threatening the systems that profit off of suffering.

          There’s more to the little story, but I’m going to skip to the end. For those who remember the tale, Zachary’s quandary is meant to evoke a story about Jesus and Zaccheus. Baumkletterer means tree-climber in German, and the tale is named, after all, “The Salvation of Zachary Baumkletterer.” Our modern Zack didn’t climb a sycamore tree, but he did get a glimpse of Jesus in the words and witnesses of an economist and a writer. So we are led to believe that Zack’s salvation, like Zaccheus’, would be in his wholehearted embrace of social justice, in the redistribution of his wealth, and in living in solidarity with the poor. But that is not how our modern tale ends. Zachary collapses at his desk, nearly starved to death, and is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. His solidarity is judged as not merely misguided, but pathological. The tale ends with these words of reassurance from a doctor:

“I can practically guarantee that [Zachary will] be as good as new, fully cured … . Some of the treatments we have now are just amazing. And when the hair grows back over his temple, you won’t even be able to see the scar.”

The Order of Things

          I wasn’t expecting an old IVP tract to arrive in the mail or make its way into this article. But it’s stayed on my mind. I mentioned that it was printed in 1976, which happens to also be the year I was born, and I’ve spent my lifetime – literally since childhood – trying to navigate these same worlds and even these same questions. How could we, personally and in community, stand up to oppression and injustice, even and especially when we were complicit in it? How could we practice radical hospitality, compassion, and love in community with others? Asking, and exploring answers, to these questions was countered by misunderstanding and ridicule, in many of the same ways that Zachary encountered. And there was always the not-so-subtle threat of rejection that might be in store if any of us had too much success. In the end, I think society found more efficient ways to keep most of us in line than the fate our imaginary hero suffered, but the end result has been largely the same: only the scars are different.

    Although I had an early and fierce devotion to justice issues and movements from childhood, it wasn’t until graduate school that I began finding the tools to develop an appropriate understanding and application of critical social and similar theories. But even then, I had to go looking. It is much easier for a society held up by huge disparities and injustice to sustain itself if we don’t have the tools to critique and resist it. When injustice is woven into the fabric of life, it becomes acceptable. It is difficult to even imagine that life could be organized in any other way. And because disrupting and subverting this order of things brings with it the risk and reality of provoking the wrath of the powers that be, we can even discourage each other from exercising our imagination that another world is possible.

    Historically, some version of this has been the case in many societies for thousands of years. Accumulating power and wealth at the expense of others has been normal. A system that worked to keep the peasants and working class people in line while propping up the ruling class has been normal. It has been resistance to these systems that is surprising, and even dangerous. This is because oppressive systems are built up around, and become dependent on, whole groups of people who are considered second-class citizens. Those second (and third and fourth) class citizens are then expected and required to do a huge amount of extra work to just be able to exist. We are expected to sacrifice our well-being in order to keep the wheels of the political economy turning. This is what makes the oppression commonplace, and our resistance to and liberation from it that is shocking.

Everyday Injustice 

          After all, those of us in the United States live in a nation that insists that it can never afford to pay a living wage, endlessly putting off, for example, the reasonable demand for a $15 minimum wage. All the while, we can always afford to go to war, the most recent violence being President Biden’s decision to bomb Syria. This nation insists that it can never afford to provide health care as a human right, all the while far and away maintaining the largest military budget in the world. According to the National Priorities Project, “The United States has a military budget that is greater than the next ten countries combined: more than rivals like China and Russia, and more than allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, and France.” ( ) And this nation insisted that it could never afford to properly address the COVID-19 pandemic because the economic risks were greater than the health risks. This mishandling has meant that 40% of COVID deaths in the USA were preventable – approximately 200,000 people murdered by our arrogance, crumbling infrastructure, economic and social disparities, resurgent racism, and similar injustices. ( ) 

          All of this could happen because the oppression is normal, embedded in almost every aspect of our society. And yet society as a whole expects those who suffer racism, sexism, disableism, classism, gender and sexuality antagonisms, and the like to not only endure this mistreatment and marginalization, but to do so with absolute patience. Oppression is not polite; it is brutal and ugly. But oppressors often have the power and wealth to hide this brutality and disguise our suffering. And oppressors have the power and wealth to feel relatively unthreatened by our demands for justice; they can afford to be calm and insist on niceness.

          This is why, for example, dozens of my friends, colleagues, and allies traveled to Jefferson City this past week to testify against and protest legislation discriminating against and harming transgender youth ( ). This session there are nine bills to be considered by the Missouri legislature targeting trans youth ( ), which are some of the most vulnerable people in our state and who should have equal rights. But all of us transgender and gender nonconforming folx are a favorite target of the political right, and have been for some time. So we have to do this every single year, year after year. We are expected to be courteous while we ask nicely for the state to kindly stop oppressing us. And while we wait for their decision, we are expected to patiently endure the bullying, assaults, and other direct violence that is common in our communities and families ( ). These patterns are repeated in other oppressive systems, so that oppressed people are expected not only to absorb the oppression, but also to absolve those who participate in it while waiting patiently for them to change. 

Collective Exorcism 

          Unfortunately, when we do speak up, act up; when we do disrupt and subvert, it turns out that people are not, generally speaking, good at listening – especially when listening would force them to choose between knowingly continuing to do something unjust and giving up profit, power, status, or convenience. Which, it turns out, is also why activisits, from biblical prophets to today's protestors, often choose to do shocking and inconvenient things. Sometimes, when we have grown so accustomed to injustice, only something outrageous will jolt us out of our ignorance. Walter Wink draws on the example “of the great symbolic acts of the prophets” to describe “a model for the exorcism of collective evil”. And the point of “collective exorcism,” Wink wrote, “is not in the first place reform, but revelation: the unveiling of unsuspected evil in high places.” (Unmasking the Powers, 65)

          Such unveilings are rarely popular. Often, they are deliberately shocking and inconvenient by design. When I lived in Cambodia, I had the good fortune to be part of a broad network of creative and persistent activists and organizers. One of the more famous actions of environmental activists was felling a tree that completely blocked a major highway. The irony was brilliant. They cut down one tree to shut down the entire highway and, with it, the economic activity of everyone who used that highway. By doing so, they called attention to all the trees that were being cut down, bringing the destruction of rainforest ecosystems and indigenous communities. But it made so many people angry, and the activists were constantly at risk of physical attack. This was not an imaginary risk. Since 2005, around twenty environmental activists in Cambodia have been killed, and many more have been put in jail, assaulted, or otherwise threatened. ( )

          So is it worth it? Does it make a difference? That is a complicated question, with answers often measured in decades rather than days. But, generally speaking, the answer is a resounding yes! For example, another brilliant tactic in Cambodia, in use since at least 2002, is for Buddhist monks to ordain trees. The Monks Community Forest has now protected 71 square miles of land in northeastern Cambodia. The monks cooperate with the residents of six villages (that use the forest) to patrol the area, “making it the largest community-managed conservation site in Cambodia.” Its continued success is based on the shared conviction that “To cut down a tree or hunt wildlife within the ordained forest is considered as serious as harming a monk.” ( )

          Closer to home, we can already see how, for instance, the Black Lives Matter movement has not only helped unveil the evil of police violence, but also decrease it. Though the results were not universal, a study just released last month by the Social Science Research Network demonstrated that cities “where BLM protests have been held experienced as much as a 20 percent decrease in killings by police, resulting in an estimated 300 fewer deaths nationwide in 2014–2019.” Those cities were also more likely to adopt policies such as body cameras and community-policing initiatives. And this progress is despite widespread demonization of the movement. As Aislinn Pulley, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago, insisted:

“We should use that knowledge to know that the work we’re engaged in—the movement, the advocacy, the organizing—is what we need … . And that needs to expand and get broader, so we can join much of the rest of the world in having zero police killings. We can get there. That takes continued and persistent organizing.” ( )


The Genius of Humankind

          We can get there. It requires creativity, cooperation, flexibility, persistence, and love. But the fact that the humans, and human systems, can change is hopeful. It is realistic for us to dream of living in ways that transcends our oppression. Every generation must learn that this is doable and draw our attention to whatever forms of oppression are considered normal and acceptable, name them, resist them, and put justice into practice in our hearts, homes, and communities.

          Reflecting on her own participation in anti-racist work, Anne Braden wrote:

“The first task of whites in these struggles is to be vocal and visible. Often those of us who think we have seen the light on race tend to sit and examine our own souls. That may be a good thing for us to do and it may make us feel better, but it is not going to bring one iota of change in the conditions under which most people of color live or do anything to bring people together across the divide. We must speak out and act publicly and thereby break through what seems to be a solid wall of white resistance. … In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression carried on by those in power, there have been those who struggled for a different world. I believe this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed. Perhaps no one living today will see a major change. But it will come. And living in that world that is working to make it happen lets us know that our lives are worthwhile.” ( )

          It was this insight, or one like it, that inspires our collective resistance today. When we understand what is at stake, we cannot stand idly by. We cannot permit people to earn less than a living wage for their labor, and we insist that $15 an hour is just the beginning, not the end, of our fight for dignity, gratitude, and respect for the working class. We cannot permit entire generations of people to be crushed under student debt, and we insist on, not only debt forgiveness, but tuition free higher education, to help level the field between the rich and poor. We cannot permit people to be without access to quality health care, and we insist on forgiving medical debt and establishing universal health care as a basic human right. We cannot permit voter suppression, gerrymandering, and campaign finance laws that tilt the scales in the favor of the wealthy, and we insist on fair voting access for all. We cannot permit the continued brutality of everyday racism, and we insist on dismantling White supremacy in our communities, schools, governments, laws, police forces, businesses, churches, and every place we encounter it. We cannot permit the continued destruction of the Earth, and we insist on addressing climate change and working together to restore the health and integrity of our living, beautiful, precious planet. We insist on all this and more: for the full rights and dignity of all people, and an end to oppression and exploitation. 

    As Aislinn Pulley put it, “We can get there. That takes continued and persistent organizing.” So we will continue to unveil the evil of all these things, to say it out loud, and live our way into another world.