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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seems that 'wealth is to greed as lust is to war' - is this too challenging or do we need to prep for the standardized test of the Gospel?