Frankly, My Dear, …

Yesterday I got to have a conversation with my nephew, newly returned from a semester’s study at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. I listened as he talked about his experiences in Egypt, and then we talked about why things work the way they do there as compared to here in the USA, and also compared what works best here and what works best there. Since I have lived more than 10 years each in three different countries on three different continents, this is the kind of conversation I love the best. And I was impressed with Jesse’s appreciation of the inherent logic of Egyptian culture and his ability to take a critical look at his own culture, yet being clear that he is not a relativist and there are things he can’t condone. I threw myself into comparisons of university systems, political structure, crime, the situation for women, Christianity and Islam etc.

Then it occurred to me to wonder what a homeless man or woman in Seattle or Cairo might think of these issues, and whether s/he would consider those issues important or assess them in the same way Jesse and I were. 

I could almost hear God saying, kindly and gently, “Susanne, this is a sweet and lovely conversation, and these are charming ideas. I love you dearly. But frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn what you think.” Then I remembered what the prophets say over and over again, which I forget over and over again: The true measure of the moral condition of a society is measured by examining the situation of the marginalized in that society.

For the first time in my life, probably, I saw my opinions for what they are: the opinions of a woman who is among the wealthiest 6th percent of this planet’s inhabitants by virtue of being a middle-class Norwegian living in the USA. I may be well-intentioned, but my vision is horribly distorted by the circumstances in which I live. And my concerns are correspondingly irrelevant to God’s purpose for the world and the majority of God’s sons and daughters. 

Even with this insight and my desire to take God’s view of human life, I have to wonder whether I will ever be capable of understanding God’s purpose for me and others. Can I understand God’s purpose for the church? Do I have any hope of comprehending what true community looks like, when my community consists mostly of Quakers like me, who think we are living simply and being environmentally friendly – all the while being among the top percentiles of wealth and knowledge on planet Earth?

If there is hope, it is only with God’s grace.

Lord, I humbly acknowledge that I know nothing. I pray that you would open my eyes to the things that I cannot see with my human eyes or understand with my human comprehension.

Query for prayerful imagination:

How might God’s priorities for the world look different if I were at the middle – 50% of the people in the world own more than I do and 50% own less than I do? 

– if 75% of people own more than I do? 

– if I were in the bottom percentile – if 99% of the world’s people have more than I do? 

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3 Responses to “Frankly, My Dear, …”

  1. Jesse Scharff Says:

    I was raised in a liberal Catholic family: my parents requiring me to accompany them to mass less and less as I grew older. Maybe it was a part of their own plan to allow me to find my own path to faith, even though the role of spirituality has always been central to their lives. I went to college and encountered a number of new thoughts and perspectives on religion – ultimately leading me to pursue a theology major with a concentration in comparative religion.

    My personal spirituality has occasionally intersected with my academic study of religion. This became particularly true during my time studying abroad in Egypt. Originally, I was struck by the wonder of the ubiquity of religious expression in every day life in Cairo. I observed a level of religiosity I’ve never experienced before in the United States and wondered whether this emphasis on piety and devotion every single day between both the community and the individual in relation to the divine was something missing in the my country. As most young and intellectually curious people might do, I began questioning my own faith in juxtaposition to Islam, the dominant religion of the environment in which I was immersed.

    Ultimately, I determined that I personally preferred my own interpretation of Christianity which emphasizes the value of every human life and encourages human beings to be tolerant, loving and peaceful. While Islam is a religion that constantly emphasizes God’s mercy, it is in constant tension with God’s justice. Additionally, the Qur’an and the Prophet’s traditions establish a chosen (exclusive) community and a portrayal of a divine entity encouraging the community’s violent self-defense. These concepts are inconsistent with my own hopes and beliefs about the nature of the divine. I have no answers, however. I have only what I’ve been taught, what I’ve thought through myself, and what I’ve determined to be how the world should be.

    During my time in Egypt and growth spiritually in the face of a different faith and very different living conditions, I decided to relate to the divine in a pretty safe way. I discovered a number of societal practices, some physically harmful, some economically harmful, some psychologically harmful, that I found appalling. As my aunt mentions, I became less of a relativist there in rejecting the “this isn’t bad, it’s just different” for an objective “this is wrong.” Because of the circumstances of my upbringing, I began to simply try to express my gratefulness for everything that I’ve been given. Though I may not have any answers as to the nature of the divine, or whether or not one exists, I don’t see any downside for reflecting on all that I have in the world. A major part of this personal change (growth?) came from my observation of the poor who have virtually no opportunity for anything more.

    I suppose I have to conclude that I also know nothing, and that maybe this all of this intellectual exercise is being viewed as sweet and charming, but ultimately less important than other forces in the world. I would like to believe that my spiritual journey navigating the differences between my understanding of Christianity and Islam meant something. I would like to believe that even my culture’s most obscene practices are less so than those I’ve observed abroad. I would like to believe that my frequent expressions of gratitude are heard and appreciated. But I don’t know.

    To more specifically respond – it is easy to practice my type of gratitude-expressing faith when I am part of the top 6th percentile my aunt describes. I sometimes catch myself feeling pride in being able to find room for gratitude when I observe others with what appear to be better lives than mine. It’s probably not about me, however.

    If I were at the 50th global percentile in terms of wealth, would I be able to express the same gratitude?

    If I were below 75% of the world? Below 99% of the world?

    I expect there are many who can and many who can’t. I don’t know. I don’t doubt that my own perceptions of God’s priorities would look very different if I were not in the top 6th percentile. Could I continue to express gratitude if I lived at the varying levels of wealth described above? I don’t know, but I know that anyone lower than my level of wealth who still expresses gratitude has a greater kind of strength than I have in this respect. I saw that strength a great deal in Egypt – so there’s that.

  2. Susanne Kromberg Says:

    Sometimes I overstate things just a little to make a point that might be hard to pick up if the statement were more nuanced. Now is perhaps the time to be more nuanced. I quite agree that our thoughts and feelings matter to God – God gave us a physical body with all its senses and abilities for a reason! As with all created things, though, there is a good side and a dark side:

    The good side is that our thoughts and feelings can help us grow closer to God and thereby closer to living as God calls us to. That calling, I think, has to do with seeking the greater good of all people, with special concern for the marginalized, those who in one way or another are kept from bringing forth favorable circumstances for themselves. We are called to understand as best we can what truly would be for the good of all and to act on behalf of all, and we can’t do it in a paternalistic fashion. It’s not sufficient that we – from a distance – form an opinion on someone else’s behalf and act upon it. If we are to act for the good of all, we need to understand what is truly important for all.

    The dark side is that our thinking can be a tool for making unimportant things seem important, or self-oriented things seem important to the greater good of all.

    My new insight is that, whereas I used to think of the privileges of education and reasoning abilities as a strength, I now suddenly see them, too, as potentially leading me to care about the wrong things – things that don’t work towards the greater good of all.

    Several things have contributed towards that over the last few months: Firstly, seeing how the wealthiest of us seem to be LEAST able to know God’s abundance. Secondly, seeing that many relatively impoverished people oftentimes seem the MOST capable of knowing God’s abundance (probably with the exception of those who are in very real danger of death themselves – or their loved ones). Thirdly, Jesse said in response to my query that he thought it quite likely that marginalized people (except perhaps those who are fighting just to stay alive) are not outcasts and pariahs in Egypt to the extent that they are in the USA, and that they are relatively better off there!

    By Old Testament standards of the moral wellbeing of a society, that may mean that Egypt is in better shape than the USA! On the other hand, female genital mutilation is rampant in Egypt, and there are very real and active limitations on what people can say and do in Egypt.

    The bottom line is that I really truly cannot say which is the “better” system based on my own understanding. I don’t think I can know it without talking to marginalized people in Cairo and in Seattle and gleaning from their wisdom.

    While I celebrate my God-given insight and awareness, I have to be aware of the temptation to think about the things that are closer to MY experience as the best measures of a society (higher education, my individual freedom, involvement in social justice issues, women’s health and participation in society). Those things may, in fact, not be as valid a measure of a society as the issues that would interest a marginalized person (shelter, adequate food, dignity), something about which marginalized women and women have the expertise, not me!

    Even then, I wouldn’t know how to weigh all these different factors against each other. I couldn’t be an objective judge for the same reasons as above. Only with God’s help, and only in community with people who bring a balancing perspective, could we hope to discern what is truly the better good for all.

  3. Susanne Kromberg Says:

    A more concise way of saying the above is that one of the insights I gained during my conversation with Jesse was that even my education and resourcefulness can, in fact, be things that blind me to the Truth. It shouldn’t surprise me – yet it did – to discover that even education and resourcefulness has a dark side!


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