Thursday, July 18, 2013

Privilege, part 5: Do Justice

I've written about how we talk and think about each other across privilege lines.  But even if we got rid of all our personal prejudices, overcame all our fears and learned to treat each other with perfect love face-to-face we'd be a long way from loving our neighbors as ourselves, living as members of one another and of the Kingdom of God.  
At Quaker Spring one Friend was moved to read aloud from James 2:14-17:
"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."
I think that what James says about faith and deeds could also be said about love and justice.  I often hear Friends wrestling with the personal-love end.  I wish I more often heard us wrestling with economic justice in our own lives.
 I sometimes hear Friends speaking with outrage about the unjust overconsumption of the super-rich, and about how much good their surplus wealth could do if it were distributed among those who are in need.  I sometimes think similarly about Friends who seem accustomed to extensive travel, expensive retreats or fancy food.  But I also am rich.  I know this statistically: according to (where I figured my income at $7,000, factoring in a share of the money that supports the nonprofit that gives me room, board and transport) I am in the top 18% globally; the $70 a year I spend on snack food would provide more than a month of meals for a child in a refugee camp if I donated it to the World Food Project….I know it personally, too.  I've shared meals with people--adults and children, immigrant and native-born--who have routinely gone hungry.  I've never had to face that.  I've helped people who were being evicted from housing that was somewhere between run-down and unsafe move into other housing that was just as bad.  I've never lived in housing that sickened or endangered me. I'm rich. 
In this world of finite resources and rising populations, I can't help realizing that my wealth is connected to the poverty of other people, including the people I mean to love and help.  At the same time that I make things to give to newly-arrived refugee families I keep on buying gasoline, which contributes to the political and ecological crises that create more refugees.  At the same time that I was helping to welcome and care for injured migrant workers I was going to the store and buying vegetables from the farms where some of them had worked--from the place where one man collapsed from working sixteen-hour days behind the onion harvester, inhaling and swallowing dirt, and also getting dehydrated because the water wasn't safe to drink until it had been boiled; from the place where another man was ordered to clean a jammed fan while the machine was running with the result that he lost several fingers.  I keep growing more and buying less, but I am still part of this system. 
I support and participate in efforts to change this system through legislation--to raise the minimum wage, strengthen environmental and labor regulations and so on. But I don't think that's adequate.  I think that so long as some of us consume far more than we need other people are going to end up with less than they need. So long as some of us do little or none of the physical work required for our sustenance other people are going to work themselves to exhaustion to meet our needs and theirs.  So long as we keep demanding a large supply of cheap energy the polluting extraction techniques that we deplore will continue to be used.  If we want a just and livable world I believe that we actually have to use less, to do more of our own grunt work, to live poorer. 
 I am not suggesting an anxious and joyless refusal of anything not required for survival. I think there is a place for indulgence, for taking something extra to celebrate.  I also think--and my observations of our neighbors from different backgrounds seems to bear this out--that is is easier to have a satisfying celebration when we're not used to having just what we want all the time.  How much is enough? Where is the balance between self-care and self-indulgence? I wish I was part of a larger faith community that wrestled collectively with these questions.
In my twelve years on the Catholic Worker farm I've found that starting to climb down the ladder brings its own satisfactions.  Manual labor, done capably and communally and in moderate amounts, is strengthening and satisfying to the body and the mind.  It also makes the consequences of my faithfulness or unfaithfulness, attention or carelessness, immediately visible; this is salutary if not always comfortable.  Limiting purchased entertainment opens up time for walking, writing, praying.  Being somewhat outside the usual class system makes it easier to see and relate to people from a wide variety of backgrounds, if not to fit easily with any group. 
I don't think that all Friends need to take the particular way down that I am taking.  I do think that we all need to revisit John Woolman's query about whether the seeds of war--and oppression, and estrangement, and the destruction of the world we all depend on--have nourishment in our possessions.  We need to reexamine what it means that we are members one of another: that we are bound together invisibly in God, so that our faithfulness helps and our unfaithfulness hinders others in ways that are hidden from us; that we are also bound together invisibly in an economic system that provides our comforts at the cost of people we usually do not see and often fail to imagine. We need to offer each other spiritual challenge and encouragement and practical help as we try to match faith with deeds and love with justice.
" Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings, contrary to universal righteousness, are supported; and hence oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul. And as this spirit which wanders from the pure habitation prevails, so the seeds of war swell and sprout, and grow, and become strong, until much fruit is ripened. Then cometh the harvest spoken of by the prophet, which "is a heap, in the day of grief and desperate sorrows." 
     Oh! that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not. "    --John Woolman, A Plea for the Poor

Monday, July 15, 2013

Privilege, part 4: What Makes Us One?

We who are trying to follow God may believe that we are all members of one body, but we don't seem to know how to talk to one another very well.  At Quaker Spring I heard a Friend say he didn't know how to talk with uneducated people.  I've heard some Friends (and one thoughtful commenter on this blog) express fear of worshipping with non-Quaker Christians. I've heard some non-Quaker Christian friends speak of the near impossibility of sharing fellowship with Catholics, or Protestants, or non-Christians. I've heard friends whose faith informed their politics say that they don't know how to pray for or what to say to Republicans (or, about as often, Democrats).  
I find this puzzling. I grew up talking and working and worshiping with a widely assorted group of friends and relatives--people who worked on assembly lines and in offices, people who paid others to clean their homes and people who were paid to do cleaning, people who felt God in silence and in ritual and in loud emotional music, people who felt sure that God was calling them to protect the unborn by restricting abortion and people who felt sure that God was calling them to protect the rights of women by de-restricting abortion... I grew up meeting with a conservative Christian homeschooling group and a progressive unschooling group (also containing many Christians). I never fit neatly in a group of People Like Me, but I learned to connect with some variety of people.  
I still do encounter some obstacles to relationship. One Friend at Quaker Spring spoke of the fear that people from other groups will be angry because of what they've suffered.  I could relate. Some of our immigrant guests, upon coming to my country, have been exploited by employers and harassed by neighbors who looked like me and spoke my language. Some friends who are outside the church have felt attacked or dismissed by my fellow Christians. To be in relationship with them I have to be willing to hear some hard things.  Sometimes the only right response I can see is to listen, acknowledge the hurt and pray for hurting person.  Sometimes apologies or reframing questions seem to be in order.  This isn't easy but I don't see it as a relationship-breaker.
I wonder what to say to people who seem to be making destructive choices. If they're choices I have sometimes made--to hide in daydreams, to tell lies in order to impress, to worry more about pleasing people than about helping them, to focus narrowly on the self in pride or shame, to ignore and thus continue neurotic behavior--I can speak of my own experience in a way that sometimes seems to open the conversation to a deeper level.  Choices that don't even tempt me--drug use, alcohol abuse, persisting in destructive romantic relationships--feel harder to address. But this difficulty doesn't pertain to any specific class or race or ideology.  
I can find it daunting when people speak with absolute certainty that all decent people must agree with them about something.  If I disagree I have learned how to ask questions about what shaped that conviction in them and tell them stories about what has shaped my own conviction.  If I agree, but respect and love faithful people who don't, the conversation can be more difficult.  But the difficulty isn't such that I would willingly give up relationship in order to avoid it.
I think I'm hearing some more basic fear of Others in addition to these specific concerns. I can picture a couple of basic steps toward dealing with this disunity. One is to make ourselves available for relationship to Others.  That means living, working or worshiping at least part of the time in places that are not restricted to People Like Us.  I would guess that most Friends don't live in obvious gated communities.  Money can function as an invisible gate.  If we live in expensive neighborhoods and go for spiritual renewal to expensive retreats, our chances of getting to know people outside our comfort zone are reduced.  Our stated assumptions can also serve as gates.  Even at QS I noticed my own discomfort with a query about how we treat people who are poor or otherwise different from us, which seemed to assume that none of us are or have been poor.  I spoke from my downwardly mobile position, and some other Friends spoke who had grown up with a kind of poverty I have not experienced myself, lacking safe transportation or adequate food.  But I think sometimes people keep quiet in the face of our assumptions. 
Most essentially, I think we need to look carefully at what binds us together.  If we can't talk to Others, it may be a sign that we are talking about the wrong things.
I heard many Friends at Quaker Spring express appreciation for our open conversations about our experiences of God, the guidance we have received in the course of our experiences, our attempts to be faithful to that guidance, and the things that block us from listening and obeying.  I also heard some people saying that they didn't have these conversations in their home Meetings or their local communities.  
If we truly believe that God is real, that we are part of God, that we are one in God, these are precisely the conversations that we need to have. We need have them in order to deepen our understanding and obedience by confessing our failings and our faith to one another. We need to have them so that our attempts to do justice in the world remain rooted in faithfulness to God, not in our own notions and resentments.  And we need to have them in order to rediscover our membership in one another.  For it is only in God that we are all one.
I know that "God" is not the word seems right to some people as they describe the Spirit that they serve.  But it's the word I have, so I am using it here.  When I talk about my experience of God's presence and God's guidance and my response and listen to the experience of others who are trying to remember to orient themselves to the Center rather than treating their separate selves as centers, I often find that we understand each other across barriers of theological language, ideology, class and culture.  When we come back to the center we can hardly help understanding one another.
This centering cuts through most of the barriers that often divide us.  In that sense it is very open.  But it isn't undemanding; it isn't the same as tolerance or niceness or trying to make everyone feel comfortable.  What we find at the center is the life and light and joy in which we are eternally renewed and made one.  It is also the refiner's fire that burns away those things in us which hold us back from union.  It demands everything.  If we are united in this we won't dismiss each other because of surface divisions, and we won't try to soothe, cheer and please each other.  We will hold each other accountable; we will bring each other farther into God.
This connection, both to each other and to God, is, I believe, what matters most.  It's hard to find adequate words for it; it goes beyond anything we can catch in words or actions.  But I do believe that it bears fruit in this world that is visible and nameable, and that this fruit includes the doing of justice.  Which is what I plan to write about next time.

Link to part 5 (the last in this series)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Doing Good Badly*

I think sometimes our efforts to correct or reach across the privilege gap end up being counterproductive.  Maybe this is because we've grown up with such different assumptions that we fail to understand each other.  Maybe it's because our motives are mixed.  Or maybe it's because we don't take enough time to get to the root of the problem. 
The next post will be about what I see as a root issue.  For now, here are a few kinds of backfiring outreach that I have observed, among Friends and elsewhere:
1. Offering help and refusing to accept it 
When my family was new at the Catholic Worker some people advised us that when rich youth came to the farm we should get them to work hard and think about social justice, and when poor youth came to the farm we should hold parties for them and give them things.  My mother, who grew up far from wealthy though adequately fed, didn't like the sound of that division.  What many of the 'poor' kids wanted was to help, to have something to offer, to be competent and generous.  My brother helped some kids from the subsidized housing complex fix their bikes.  They asked if, now they'd learned the basics, they could help him fix bikes for someone else to use.
I've heard some people speak of feeling dismissed in this way by Friends who apparently saw them as disadvantaged, offered them help of various sorts and refused their offers of help with practical work and with discernment.  Perhaps this is meant to convey  "I've had life too easy and you've had it too hard; let's even that out."  But it can come across as "I don't need/want anything you can offer; you're not good enough."  And it can hinder God's work among us.
2. Praising someone for being Diverse rather than attending to what they actually do and say
As a teenager I was active in various religious and political groups. Often I'd jump into a discussion among full adults with what I thought was a different and valid perspective.  They'd say "Oh, isn't it wonderful to have young people involved!" and then go on without addressing the substance of what I'd said.  This might have been because I was missing the point; if so I wished they would tell me directly.  
3. Making assumptions about what is liberating for the other person, without listening to them to check this
I've repeatedly been present at this conversation between Friends or other somewhat liberal folks: A man is explaining that monogamy/fidelity is a patriarchal/capitalist concept which treats women as the property of men, and that free love or some variant thereof is a much more equitable arrangement, and that he is glad to be part of a time in which sexual arrangements are more favorable to women.  A woman, often looking harassed, is expressing discomfort with or disapproval of how uncommitted sex often works out and a sense that commitment or restraint is helpful.  The man pauses politely to let her have her say and keeps on with what he was saying…. I'm not saying that this debate always breaks down by gender, only that I observe a recurring pattern. I notice this one as a woman and a pro-commitment type.  I likely don't notice when I am doing something similar to other people.
4.  Being nervously guilty rather than present and responsible
Randy described this general pattern much more eloquently than I can in his comment to part 1. 
I know I've done this. I've let my worry about whether I could be unconsciously exuding racism get in the way of being really present to guests from other races and cultures.  I've been distracted by bursts of guilt from being present and listening to the kid from the ratty apartments in town who asks whether we also run out of food until somebody's stamps come in.  I've wasted energy in fretting about the nuances of my attitudes when I should have been looking more carefully at the ways in which people were harmed by by the food I ate and the gas I used.  I've let the white noise of anxiety fill the space in me which needs to be left open for the voice that calls me on into right relationship.
It's that voice, and the things which block us from hearing it, that I want to get back to in my next post. 
*I stole this post title from a chapter heading in Wayne Muller's excellent book Sabbath; basically, he describes doing good badly as the result of acting headily, desperately  and in haste rather than stilling ourselves and listening to each other and to God.

Link to part 4

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Privilege, part 2: Prejudice

This is where I've heard most Quaker conversations about privilege begin: with the assumptions that we carry inside us about what Those People must be like.  I know that I struggle both with what I assume about other people and with what they seem to be assuming about me.
I struggle with other people's assumptions most in the matter of class.  I've known a few people who assumed that as a woman I was weak or foolish, or that I ought to be submissive to or afraid of them, but these people were unusual in my world, and I generally didn't especially like or respect them.  I found it fairly easy to confront them if that seemed useful, or to ignore them.  I come into contact with many more people who make assumptions about those of us who work with our hands, or didn't go to college, or take some form of government assistance.  I really like and respect some of those people.  I also seem to have a lot of sore spots around this issue.  I am still trying to learn how to respond constructively. 
 We've had (non-Quaker) guests tell us that people who receive 'welfare' of any sort are lazy and live high off the hog. Upon further conversation it often turns out that they don't know any of us 'freeloaders' personally, and also don't know that the majority of working-age food stamps recipients actually have jobs that don't pay enough to feed their families, or… I try to tell them a bit about my life and the lives of the people I know, and to ask them what experiences have shaped their opinions.  I don't always do this gracefully, because I struggle with my own uncertainty about taking Medicaid as well as my indignation at the thought of other people I know who struggle to make a decent life for their families while dealing with the challenges of poor health, lack of transportation, and lack of decent local employment opportunities.  I am learning to acknowledge my defensiveness; this seems to have a disarming effect in person.  (Not online. Does anything help online?)
Even among Friends I hear some statements that trouble me: "He doesn't talk as though he's had much education, and he works at Price Chopper, and I think he's pro-Bush; what does he think he's doing at Meeting?", "I'd love to deepen my antiracist work by forming relationships with local people of color, but I can't--the only people of color in my area are menial workers."   Those shocked me when I heard them, but they were explicit enough to be easily addressed.  "She didn't go to college, but she's really rather bright…." is so mild that it seems oversensitive to say anything about it; but I think some Friends who might say this might object to the statement "He's gay, but he's really rather strong/decent…"  "Eighty thousand is a minimal salary if you want someone really responsible and spiritually mature…"  isn't directly negative abut anyone, but it seems to suggest a valuation of those of us who work for less, or for nothing.  I'm still trying to discern when it is helpful to speak up about these little things and when it's better not to. 
Then there are my own harmful assumptions. In  the aftermath of confusing conversations on race, mentioned in the previous post, I have tried to watch my mind. I haven't seen much there by way of race prejudice.  But I do see myself making other false and destructive snap judgments based on superficial characteristics.  Overweight… self-indulgent, undisciplined.  Lots of makeup… shallow, looks-oriented.  Lots of jewelry, or clothes with prominent brand names… consumer showing off; not someone I want to talk with.  Large sharp-looking piercings or prominent tattoos… this one's trying to scare people; steer clear.  I know these assumptions are wrong in both senses--incorrect and morally inappropriate. I know plenty of people who are obvious counterexamples. I know plenty of alternative explanations for all the characteristics I tend to judge about. But the assumptions are still in there.  I try to make myself fully and quickly aware of them and remind myself that they're not true.  And I think I keep them to myself...but perhaps they are more obvious than I like to think.  When they are obvious I hope people will have the courage to tell me, and I hope I'll have the grace to listen well.
I think this thought-correcting process is straightforward, if not easy, for characteristics that aren't under the other person's control: race, gender and orientation all the time, weight and poverty most of the time.  I think it's more complicated when it comes to the things that are at least partly matters of choice: religion, voluntary poverty, wealth, manner of dressing (again, unless dictated by low income), language and behavior, etc.
I do sometimes look at other people and feel concerned about the choices they're making.  Either concerned for my own safety and equilibrium around them (I have selfish but, I think, legitimate reasons for avoiding people who are using foul language or using drugs or drinking a lot), or for the well-being of the other person.  I think it can be a disservice to stay quiet about those things in the attempt to avoid giving offense. I've been helped sometimes by people speaking directly to me about their concerns about rude or shortsighted things that I was doing.  I'm aware that some people are also concerned choices I have made deliberately, including being Christian, being celibate and eschewing formal education and employment.  Sometimes I am able to hear these concerns and respond in a way that seems to deepen the relationship or at least to do no harm.  Sometimes not.  I've tried to get a handle on what makes the difference as I try to figure out how to talk to other people about choices that concern me.
It helps if the concerned person has taken time to get to know me as a person rather than simply identifying me as a member of a group.  It helps if they ask what led to my choice rather than assuming that they know.  It helps if they tell me what in their own lives has caused them to be concerned about the choice I'm making.  Those are simple things to remember, and I'm getting better about sticking with them.  There's also something else that's harder to pin down.  I keep looking at my motivation for talking to the other person.  I try to keep my mouth shut if I find that I mostly want to tell them off, or to disassociate myself from them, or to make them stop making me uncomfortable about my own choices.  I try not to speak unless I can remember all the way down to my bones that, however different we may seem, we're one in God.
I'd be interested to hear how you deal with your own assumptions and other people's, and how you decide when to speak and when to remain silent. 

Link to part 3, Doing Good Badly (it's shorter, I promise!)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Privilege, part 1: living with the questions

The issue of privilege kept coming up at Quaker Spring--in informal conversations, in Bible studies, in evening plenary sessions.   I think it's a conversation we need to have.  I'm still learning how to have it. 
I've been on the edges of Quaker conversations about racism before.  Often I've found them daunting or confusing. I know racism is a real and damaging force in our society and our Society.  I know I continue to contribute to it economically, in spite of my efforts to realign my economic life.  I know I continue to benefit from an economic and political system that perpetuates it.  I am looking for better ways to work on this issue. I am troubled and confused when I am told--usually by white Friends--that I, being white, necessarily harbor fear, contempt and stereotypes about darker-skinned people, and that I communicate these reactions and stereotypes unconsciously through my words and my behavior.  I don't perceive these racial stereotypes in myself (I do have some other stereotypes going--more on that in the next post), and they aren't specific about what's harmful in my words and behaviors, and I am left to guess.  This guessing can be counterproductive. Some years ago when my community was often involved in hosting migrant workers--Latin American, of varied hues--I realized that I was burning up a lot of emotional energy worrying about whether and how I was exuding Subtle Racism.  I'd read one book that mentioned long-haired white women messing with their hair in a way that seemed designed to point out how different it was from the hair of, say, African-Americans.  I tend to fidget with my hair when I'm nervous.  I'd worry about appearing racist, mess with my hair as I worried, catch myself doing that, worry about what it might convey, and then fidget more due to nerves… My mother advised me to worry less and just carry on treating our guests like people.  It seemed to work, from my perspective.
But I do know how limited my perspective is.  I've tried to understand race privilege by analogy with class privilege.  I've been painfully aware of that issue since I began to study economics in my early teens.  That awareness drove me to the Quakers and then to the Catholic Worker.  Now I regularly eat, work, talk and pray with migrant workers and social workers, kids whose parents have maids and kids whose mothers are maids.  I hear the things people say explicitly and imply indirectly about people of other classes.  I see people from different backgrounds struggling to find common ground.  And I notice how often the folks with more privilege just completely fail to notice what's going on with the folks with less.   I'm learning how to speak to people when they seem to be unseeing others.  I hope someone will speak to me about the ways in which I'm blind.
At Quaker Spring we didn't divide out different issues, most of the time; we mostly looked at privilege across the board, whether it pertained to race, class, gender, religion, orientation… I heard some good and painful connections being made.  I heard some stories and observations that stick in my mind as a challenge to my life.  And I think I heard a conversation that didn't fully come together because different people were talking about very different questions.  
It seems to me that there are two distinct, though connected, sets of questions at the heart of our discussions about privilege: 
 How can we build true community? What obstacles prevent us from seeing one another clearly and engaging with one another honestly and lovingly? How can we remove these obstacles?
How can we do justice? What in our personal and political lives deprives people of the vital goods they need? How can we remove these seeds of oppression?  
I kept wanting to talk about the second set of questions.  More Friends were focused on different aspects of the first set.  At first I found this frustrating.  Now I'm seeing the value of it.  In a small group discussion on Luke 6:17-26 another participant observed that we don't really change our lives until the way they are bothers us so much that we can't sleep at night, and that we don't get bothered in that way until we learn to see the people who are being hurt as part of our community.  I think that's often true.
So in the next set of blog posts I'll write about some of the obstacles I see to community and to justice, and about possible ways of healing. This whole question was going to be in one blog post, but it got way too long.  I hope to put a new post up every day or two, depending on how exigent the garden and the guests are.  I think the first set will be on obstacles to community--outright prejudice, inability to communicate or imagine across boundaries, unseeing, and unhelpful attempts to help--and the second on justice and what gets in the way.  This is just what I can see right now.  I hope to hear from you about the questions, obstacles and cures you see. I hope to keep learning how to see people clearly, how to challenge people lovingly, how to accept challenge honestly, how to live rightly.  I know I'm going to need help.

Link to part 2: Prejudice