I was born into a rich (by global standards) white family in the hills of Colorado. I began existing in this world in 1981. I emerged into a part of the world (into a structure) where people live in privilege, (for the most part) unknowingly on the backs of others. I didn’t come to realize all the links in the system (and I still don’t know most of them) all at once. Through high school and college I learned more and more.
Am I ontologically guilty by virtue of being born into privilege? I don’t think so.
I am responsible for what I know. Once I know about oppression, and especially once I know about my indirect role in contributing to that oppression, I am responsible to do what I can to stop it. And if I do nothing, I am guilty. Furthermore, I’m responsible to learn more and more so that I’m better able to avoid contributing to the injustice. I’m probably also responsible to my neighbors to help them understand their place in the structure and how it all leads to the oppression of others. If I don’t act on that responsibility, I am guilty, and I need to ask the forgiveness of my oppressed brothers and sisters.
I am guilty. I ask for forgiveness. I repent. Again…
I am responsible. What can I do? I’m responsible for so much these days! If climate change and ecological injustice doesn’t kill the world’s poor, nuclear proliferation and escalation of militarism in the world will, and if we all survive that, transnational mega-corporations want to sell us a vision of “life” so paltry that we’re all looking for more of their products to plug into all our holes. Furthermore – the ecological, militaristic, and economic devastation is all linked together in mutual reinforcement, like three enormously grotesque ogres dancing about in a circle holding hands, “Ashes, ashes all fall down.”
That doesn’t even raise the questions of sexual violence, human trafficking, racial inequality, gender bias, endangered species, political corruption, and on and on. All of it is connected, all of it is woven together. Taken as a whole it is overwhelming. It can’t be taken as a whole. None of us are capable.
What do I do? Withdraw from the system, grow vegetables on a quiet acre, live in a one-room cabin without phone, TV, electricity, or anything else that would connect me to a structure whereby I would be oppressing my neighbor. Perhaps some people are called to that answer. But the structures don’t go away when we ignore them. Bonhoeffer: “The question for a responsible person to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live.”
The enormity of the problem does not absolve me from the responsibility for a solution, but it does necessitate focus. God does not ask every person to respond to the same range of issues in the same way. I think that it’s perfectly appropriate to have climate change people, feminist people, anti-corporate people, etc. All of us are responsible. But you and I need to find our area of responsibility, connect with the right people, and apply ourselves relentlessly to the task of service. We need to listen and work together with people who care deeply about other issues. And we need to help one another see which issues really do (and do not) need addressing.
What can I do with this knowledge, with this responsibility?
I have been given a lot of opportunities that other people have not. Should I repudiate the education, the relative financial stability, the loving family, the wonderful and talented wife? Or should I take what I have been given and use it for others. I have a reasonably bright academic mind (to balance my many deficiencies). Should I express my solidarity with those with similar minds and no chance to use them by turning down the opportunities in front of me? Or should I use my mind as best I can to help others see the connections that will help them live more authentically? Am I merely justifying my own ambition with a pretense of charity? Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy.
At this point in my life, that responsibility means living a counter-narrative to the American dream. Pronouncing the difficult syllables, “enough” more often than the TV tells me to. Opening my doors and pockets to the people with open hands and no doors. It means volunteering here and there. It means sending part of the loan money we live on to charities. It means using opportunities as they arise both to listen to voices I don’t usually hear, and to speak for them in other contexts. I don’t want to build a monument to my own self-righteousness here – believe me I feel the lack and deficiency of these efforts far more than any congratulatory ego-rub. This responsibility also means studying theology – because bad theology kills people.
At this point in my life, I think that teaching theology is the way in which I can best contribute to the shalom of the planet in an occupational sense. I’m going to continue on that path until enough of you tell me it’s a rotten idea (or that I’d be no good at it anyway). The theology I hope to teach is the story of the God who knows all the broken places; who lives in the broken places. The story of the abandoned God, for whom there was no room left on the earth (so they pushed him off it, onto the cross). The story of the God who hates our violence enough to absorb it into his own human body.
Today, Holy Saturday, we remember the God who stands in solidarity with the God-forsaken. No one can get further away from God than Jesus has been. There is no experience on earth that Jesus can’t fathom. There is no depth of hell, no condemnation beyond Christ’s presence. What can we fear, if we follow such a God?