Fighting Against, Standing With, or Building Bridges?

I promised earlier that I would talk about steps we can take towards making our faith communities more welcoming of people who don’t fit the majority profile, whatever that may be in a particular community (I was talking specifically about liberal Quakers and class when I said that, but now I want to broaden it out a bit because I think these issues are neither unique to liberal Quakers nor that the exclusionary dynamic applies only to class). This line of spiritual musing started for me in my January 22 blog on Faith and Class. In blog posts or comments since then, I’ve mused about the privilege of education, and touched on race, economic disparities, citizenship, and cultural belonging, too. Those are just some of the guises privilege can take, and there are others, too. 

Before I write a blog about steps we can take, I want to let you know that – to the best of my ability – all the steps I promote will be of the bridge-building or standing-with variety. One of my growing religious convictions, based on my own experience, is that a “conflicting interests” or adversarial mode rarely changes anyone’s mind. Quite the contrary, the adversarial mode just gets us all more firmly entrenched in our particular positions. My approaches will assume common cause.    

Right now you may be asking, “Why is Susanne writing about overcoming privilege? I thought this was supposed to be a blog about faith?” To me, this is very much a matter of faith, because I believe that one of the ways we show our love of God is by treating each person as a beloved child of God. The Bible tells us that God requires it of us. And societal privilege distracts from the Beloved-of-God view by drawing our attention to things like skin color, language, or style of clothing.

My belief in bridge-building rather than conflicting-interest approaches also arises out of my faith. My faith tells me that there is a Divine Order that creation strives towards, a second “Eden.” It will be a place of harmony where every person will have what they need and no-one’s needs will be met at the expense of another. It will never be fully achieved in this life, we will only know complete peace and rest when we are re-united with God after death. What this means in terms of addressing privilege is that that ultimate goal, whether we have one skin color or another, a large or a small amount of money etc, is the same. God’s will doesn’t contain goals that are different and conflicting. What is good for one is good for all.

So my presumption is that the person with more privileges will feel better when they have given them away. God will stop pricking their conscience all the time, and he or she (or me) will finally be in the place of freedom that we accomplish when we live in accordance with God’s desire for us. The emotion I try to draw upon when dealing with someone I perceive to have more privilege is compassion, not anger. A large task of doing away with injustices is to lovingly convince people with more privilege that it is in their own self-interest to let go of them. So I seek to stand with people with more privilege as well as standing with those with fewer and trying to minimize the suffering of the latter.

I can imagine a few of my readers saying, “Wow, is she naive?!” Perhaps I am. Yet I have arrived at this understanding after being an activist type for over 20 years. I started my activist life working within a conflicting-interests mode in the anti-apartheid movement in Norway, and it’s only in fairly recent years that I have adopted the bridge-building approach. When I take a step back to assess when I have been most effective in addressing injustices, it is clear that – for me – bridge-building is by far the more effective approach! I also think of South Africa’s way of transitioning out of apartheid as one of bridge-building and assuming common cause, and that South Africans were far more effective in righting wrongs than countries like Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Israel/Palestine. It gives me hope that Quakers in Kenya are trying to build an understanding of common-cause among the parties in that conflict. See their pastoral letter to their political leaders and the open letter to the Kenyan people.

As a chaplain and spiritual director, I also am drawn to standing-with. And praying. Many of my posts from previous months talk about that side of my ministry, so I won’t go into that now.

I make no claim to be an expert on conflict resolution. All I can do is go where God leads me, and as I seek to address injustices these days, I am drawn to bridge-building rather than “fighting-against.”

Queries for prayerful consideration:

In what way(s) does God call me to take on injustices: Fighting against, standing with, or building bridges? How about praying?

Poll on Class and Faith

The ongoing conversation on class/education and faith in the Quaker blogosphere makes me curious about WHY something like 9 out of 10 liberal Quakers have college degrees when only roughly 1 in four Americans in general has a college degree (I’m basing this on information from Jeanne’s blog).

Can you help me out by letting me know what you think?   

My questions are:

1. Is there something about Quaker theology that makes it more appealing to the kind of people who get college degrees? Is there something about Quaker theology that makes it unappealing to the kind of people who don’t get college degrees? If so, why?

2. Or is it something about current liberal Quaker culture? If so, why?

3. Or is it something to do with current liberal Quaker practice? If so, why?

4. Or do you think it is just a coincidence? If so, why?

5. Optional: Are you a college graduate? Do/es one or more of your parents have a college degree?

Needless to say, the purpose of asking these questions is to get ideas for what we can do in our liberal Quaker Meetings to make them more genuinely accessible. Stay tuned!

The Spirituality of Privilege

I want to start my blog today with a confession about class and privilege. As I followed the discussion on Quakers and class via www.quakerquaker.org, I said that I find it hard to place myself in any particular class or culture. My mea culpa (or confession) today is that I didn’t see at first how much of a privilege it is to be in the educated class and have one physician parent and one with ministerial education (though he never worked as a minister). The truth I see today is that education on its own is a tremendous privilege that allows me to transcend many of the other challenges my life might have given me. I can navigate around the hurdles of being a non-citizen because of my education, and making my way in the world without a “network” was possible because of my education. I am a privileged person, and I think I can attribute 90% of that to my education. As with most confessions, it feels wonderful to let go of the deceit I have been involved in.

So….. What do we do about educational privilege? Those of us with privilege need to be willing to give it up. Unfortunately there is no such thing as “un-educating”. But we can do something to level the playing field for the next generation. In fact, part of my discovery that education indeed is such a privilege, has come about as a result of my experiences of trying not to take advantage of privileges my daughters could have had in the Seattle School District. Part of the reality of privilege has become apparent to me in the resistance and emotional intensity I met as I tried NOT to use it. 

In a nutshell, the Seattle School Board last year proposed a change that would give high school students greater access to their local schools, thereby limiting their freedom to go to a high school of their choice. The result of this would have been that the high-performing schools in the north of Seattle would take about 900 fewer students from the Rainier Valley in the south, which tends to be poorer, has a much higher percentage of African American students, and where the schools tend to perform less well academically. Although my own children would have benefited from the proposed plan – we live in the north and this would have guaranteed them better access to the good schools closer to where we live – I could not in good conscience accept this at the expense of the kids in the Rainier Valley. As I spoke up at community meetings about how those of us with privilege should refrain from trying to get more privileges for ourselves, I was amazed to see how upset some of the parents became at my description of us as “privileged”. 

What did I learn about privilege by trying to give it up?

Firstly, that the privilege of education is real. I am convinced that I would not have been met with as much emotional intensity otherwise.

Secondly, when we are privileged, we tend not to recognize it. That reinforces for me that we need to be in mixed groups so that others can help us to see our privilege, thereby setting us free to join in God’s movement towards justice by giving up the privilege we have. It’s a huge problem that 90% of liberal Quakers are college graduates: unless the non-grads speak very loudly, it is hard for the college-educated among us to see ourselves clearly! 

Third, I think part of the reason people with privilege don’t recognize our own privilege is that we don’t feel good. Our culture teaches us that we should pursue privilege (wealth, possessions, education, etc) because those things will make us feel safe and good and virtuous. There is some truth to that – we do feel good if we are not worrying about how to feed our children or find shelter for the night. But if we have more than we need, if we have stuff that came to us unfairly, or if our privilege keeps other people from having what they need – we can’t possibly feel good! God will be pricking our consciences all the time. What do we do if we don’t feel good? Our market-economy-run-amuck has a one-size-fits-all-solution: try to get more stuff, more privilege! Our society – our churches in particular – fail in that we don’t speak enough about the fact that many of us would feel better if we gave something away. So when people with privilege feel bad, all we know how to do is seek MORE privilege. It is a very, very sad vicious cycle.  

Fourth, I think many of us who decide to take on the injustices of privilege presume that people with privilege know they are privileged. During the school assignment discussion, it honestly never occurred to me that people in my predominantly wealthy, highly educated neighborhood would be upset with me for describing us as privileged. Even though I know better, I made the mistake of buying into the idea that people with privilege feel good and I expected that they would know they can afford to give up their goodies. But people with privilege don’t feel good, and consequently don’t think they have any goodies they can give up! They are scared that, as badly as they feel, they’ll feel even worse if they give something up.

Fifth, when we combat injustice, I think we often fail to understand just how miserable and scared those with privilege are. We don’t have much compassion. But what I have learned as a chaplain is that a person who is afraid is often to all intents and purposes deaf: only compassion can reach a scared person, and only promises of something good can open the frightened heart. Jesus told us to love our enemies for good reason. We need to speak about how good it feels to give up privilege. And it DOES feel good!

Sixth, my experience is also, if we are privileged, it is easier to accept the fact of our privilege if we are offered both forgiveness and concrete suggestions for steps to take to correct the situation. For most people it is harder to leave the relative comfort of what we know if we don’t know what the next step will be. When parents at our children’s school were offered an opportunity to go into a partnership with a school with fewer privileges than ours, there was immediate and enthusiastic involvement. I think we like to be generous and helpful if we only know how! 

And finally, I think to redress the privilege that education can be, we need to make it a little less lopsided. Today it is geared primarily towards academic knowledge. That hurts us all because it makes for competition. It makes education into an idol. In addition to academic knowledge, our schools ought to teach how to achieve economic justice, compassion for the marginalized, that the important things in life are not things but relationships, and that we can’t feel good unless everyone in the world has the basics of education, food, shelter, and the resources to be productive.  

More Thoughts about Faith and Class

As I have read and pondered the question on class and faith (see yesterday’s post for links), I have also thought about my own background and how it might influence my perspective. I don’t know how to answer more than a couple of questions in the various questionnaires that try to place a person in terms of privilege, so here’s the quick background on my “class” in bio form. 

My father is South African, my mother Norwegian. I grew up in Botswana with two Batswana foster siblings, one of whom died of “witch craft” as a teenager. I spent 10 years in Botswana, then 16 years in Norway, and have been here in the USA now for more than a decade. My life has been lived being tugged between opposites. Who knows what my culture or class was or is? Not Norwegian, not South African, not Tswana, not American. I belonged to the rich elite by Botswana standards, but was poor by Norwegian standards. Here in the USA I’m a “legal resident alien” with few legal rights, but I’m privileged by virtue of education. My profession gives me status, but let me advise you not to go into chaplaincy or spiritual direction if you want to earn enough to pay your bills. 

I spent decades in painful identity struggles, feeling like an outsider no matter what setting I was in. In 1996, I became a hospital chaplain, and here’s what happened: 

One of the reasons I think I do well as a chaplain and spiritual director with the mentally ill is that their pain is real to me, even when the cause for their pain may be a delusion. When a woman believes that the man she loves is trying to kill her, she is in agony, and it makes no difference to her whether it is factually true or not. She is in agony one way or the other. My spiritual responses to that woman are quite similar, whether the man is trying to kill her or not: I address the sense of betrayal, the fear, and the heartbreak in similar ways. The difference in my response would lie in whether or not I call the police and other support services, and how much I would involve her reasoning capacities in my support of her (hardly at all if her fear stems from mental illness).

Another gift of chaplaincy is that I have learnt what is important in life and what is not. Whether I listen when someone looks back on their life as they approach death, or I listen to a grieving family talk about what made their loved one important, what I have noticed over the years is that they rarely talk about work, success/failure, or income levels. Unless, of course, those things caused conflict or estrangement between family members. Because relationships with loved ones seems to be the most important thing to everyone, and the extent to which they lived honorably and/or lived in accordance with their faith can also be important.

Suffering comes in many shapes and forms, and what I have learned is not to judge whether or not it has merit, but to accept each form of it as real, to respond with love and compassion, and to offer hope that the suffering will end one day. The hope I offer is something like this: there is no life without death, no love without loss. I borrow from Ecclesiastes with an added emphasis of my own: there is a time to mourn, which WILL be followed by a time to dance, there is a time to weep and it WILL be followed by a time to laugh. And God promises over and over again that no matter where we are in this life, God will be with us in it. When we mourn, God mourns with us. When we laugh, God laughs with us. 

“I thought this was supposed to be a post on class and faith?!”, you may be wondering. Bear with me a little longer, dear reader.

I said that it was a privilege to be a hospital chaplain because I have learned what is important and what is not. I need to add that that privilege came at a high price. The price I have paid is that I have been with parents holding their dead newborns in their arms. Sometimes it is a wealthy family, sometimes it is a poor family. The agony is no less real either way. It takes me weeks to recover each time I am present in a situation like that. Each visit I make to the hospital is a reminder of just how fragile my happiness is, because I know how easily I could lose everything I love in life. In the midst of privilege, I hurt.

Although I have lost my innocence, I feel I have ultimately gained far more than I have lost. What I see is that the basic human drama is the same, no matter what our class, culture, ethnicity, nationality, faith, or other background. This doesn’t mean culture, faith, etc are unimportant. There was a time in my life when a friendly question of “Where are you from?” was enough to make me burst into tears. So I’m not trying to say that class doesn’t matter. Class matters, as do other identifiers, because they are part of who we are and how we understand our world and how we understand God. And God uses the particulars of our language, culture, ethnicity, nationality, and faith to speak to us. And identifiers like class can be used to include or exclude, they can be used to give or withhold privilege. When that happens it is wrong. And I think my denomination and others ARE guilty in this regard.

Even more importantly, it REALLY matters if someone is starving or suffering any other kind of physical deprivation. 

My musings today are about the solution, and to me the solution to the problem of exclusion and privilege lies in going together to a deeper, more fundamental level, the level at which all human beings are united.   

What we all share is this, as I see it: When we mourn, we need God’s words of comfort and promise of hope. When we rejoice, we need to be reminded of those who suffer. When we are close to giving up, we need to be reminded to persevere. When we are feeling hopeless, we need to hear words of encouragement. When we are wealthy, we need to be reminded to share. When we are poor, we need to know we will be cared for. When we are hungry, we need food. When we are afraid, we need to be made safe. When we feel we are boxed in, we need to hear of God’s freedom. When we stand before a daunting task, we need be reminded to tap into God’s strength so we can survive. We need to be loved and respected.

I refuse to accept the idea that one denomination speaks to the faith condition of one class more accurately than another class, one nationality better than another, one culture better than another, one income bracket better than another. If a denomination addresses one group more than another, I think it has failed.  

Faith, for me, is ultimately about God’s love for every single human being in his or her particularity. Our calling is to be a conduit for God’s love into every person’s life, whatever their condition may be.

Query for prayerful consideration:

What is God stirring up in me with regard to these issues?

Class and Faith

An important discussion is taking place in Quaker blogs these days regarding whether (liberal) Quakerism has become elitist, making it hard for people from a working class or poor background to feel included. Unfortunately I think this conversation has applications in many other denominations, too. www.quakerquaker.org has links to these posts, many of which are truly thought-provoking and prophetic. They are speaking Truth to me, my Quaker faith community, and to many other faith communities, too. I recommend that you check them out.

So, if my faith community appeals primarily to people with certain social characteristics and huge sections of the population feel unwelcome among us, where did we go wrong? We must have gone wrong, because Jesus meant his good news to be available to everyone, not just to a certain social set. And I’m sure George Fox, the man credited with founding Quakerism, also intended his preaching to be the good news for everyone, regardless of social class. In fact, I would argue that most reform movements in the history of the church were intended to make the good news accessible to more people than before.

If we need to have commonalities in social background and life-style in order to function together, has the worshiping body become more like a social club than a faith community?

Some of the directions this discussion has taken in the Quaker blogosphere is to consider how we talk about ourselves, whether Quaker language has become a barrier, and whether different faith approaches simply appeal to different kinds of people. These are all valid discussions. However, I think the solution to the “social club” phenomenon is at a deeper level. It has to do with what is at the core of our faith. When Jesus first introduced himself and his purpose, here’s what he said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV)

Would differences in social background matter as much if, after worshiping together, members of the faith community rolled up their sleeves and went out together to release the unjustly imprisoned, care for disabled people and free people from oppression, and spread the good news to all? My belief is that, when we as a community are more focused on ourselves than on the reason for our existence, differences can break us apart or become used to exclude. If, on the other hand, our worshiping community focuses on joining forces with God to care for the marginalized, I believe social differences would feel like natural variations on creation. People would still have their natural temperamental preferences for form of worship and Quakerism would still probably be a small sect. But provided everyone feels they would be welcome, the problem would have gone away.      

Queries for prayerful consideration: 

Is my faith community more accessible to people with certain social characteristics than to others? What does this say about our faith?

A Time to Mourn

I have been rereading Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving fom Affluence to Generosity. He starts by taking us through accounts of real men, women and children’s experiences of poverty and gives statistics that show just how many people are affected. One of those numbers is that 30,000 children die every day because of poverty. I also have been reading media accounts of suffering in places far away, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, and Kenya, and that adds to the burden. Then there is the daily dose of pain and suffering closer at hand, dutifully reported, too. Add to that the places where suffering happens outside the media’s watchful eye. All of that is painful enough for those of us who know it from experience or have the sympathetic imagination that allows us to know it, even from afar.

And then Ron Sider takes us through the causes of poverty and I get the unbearable feeling that suffering will never end. He has sections on each of these causes: personal choices, worldviews that support inequality, natural disasters, lack of technology, inequalities of power locally/nationally/globally, Western colonialism, market economies, international trade, national debt, the environmental crisis (climate, pollution, overfishing, deforestation, misuse of land) hungry countries exporting food, multinational corporations (economic, political and cultural effects), discrimination, and war. If this is what we’re up against, how can we possibly believe that some day every man, woman, and child will have food and shelter, access to education and the resources they need to be productive?

The lump in my throat grows as I consider how difficult it would be to effect change in any one of these areas. And the world needs to change in every one of them!

When the full futility hits me while I consider the amount of anguish that exists, words fail me.

Surely this can’t be real? My mind tries ideas like “Maybe none of this is real? Maybe I’m really inside a Matrix-type existence, where this other being is testing my response to perceived suffering, but the people I’m seeing and their troubles don’t really exist, except inside my mind?” No, that’s too weird…..

Another thought that comes to me is the concept of the Lamb’s War, which early Quakers liked and took primarily from the Book of Revelation: They believed that there is a spiritual realm that is parallel to this physical one which we inhabit, but the spiritual realm is actually the Real one. Each act we undertake here either strengthens the Light or weakens it in its battle against Darkness. Instead of measuring our lives by the happiness, joy, sorrow, or pain we experience, we should measure our lives by the extent to which Love grows as a result of what we do. 

Ultimately I cannot discount the suffering of the world. The stakes are too high. If there is even the remotest possibility that the vast ocean of suffering is real, I believe God calls me to wade in the water to stand with those who hurt. So I let the tears flow and despair to flood me. Not forever – soon I must return to the hope that makes it possible for me to continue tackling injustice and suffering. But for now I believe that I am called to shed my tears, and they help give expression in this physical world to God’s grief at the suffering of every one of his sons and daughters.

I see nothing that gives me logical reason to hope, but I desperately want to believe it when Jesus says:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:3-12, NRSV)

Query for prayerful consideration:

What do I believe about mourning and faith?

Resurrection Faith Is Incomplete

This summer I spent some time with a group of evangelizers as they considered the hardships and persecution of former Muslims who had recently become Christian due to their mission efforts. These new Christians had been blocked from access to their village well, had been physically attacked, and were ostracized by their own families. The converts’ lives were in perpetual danger, and several of them were considering committing suicide rather than being at the mercy of their attackers and living outside the community and family of which they ahd always been part. Some of the evangelizers were exultant about this persecution, because it signified to them a glorious victory for the cause of Christianity and they hoped that the converts – if they were able to stick to their new faith – would be a powerful testimony to others. I confess I was horrified that the evangelizers didn’t seem to think that the converts’ human suffering mattered much in comparison to the glory of the salvation of their souls. This is what I think of when I think of the dangers of resurrection faith that is not held in balance by the crucifixion side of Christian faith.

As readers of my blog will know, my own faith arose out of an experience of suffering (1/10/08 blog entry), and it was only later that the joyful side of faith, what I call “resurrection faith”, became part of my relationship with God. So when I venture into this topic, I’m not coming at it with a basis in my own experience, but from a reasoning perspective.

What I can say is that I am incapable of comprehending a faith that isn’t affected by physical or emotional suffering, or doesn’t address God in relationship to suffering (theodicy is the fancy word for it). To me, the Bible seems to be full of stories of God’s presence when people suffer, and God’s desire and actions to lead people out of slavery and other forms of misery. Incarnation, whether we’re talking about God in human flesh in Jesus or the Spirit infusing each human on earth as in “that of God in every [person]”, seems to me to require us to embrace the physical aspect of our being, not just the spiritual and other-wordly. Is it possible to be human without encountering suffering?

To care only about the immortal soul at the expense of the physical body seems to me to be wrong. But it is equally wrong to focus only on avoiding physical or emotional suffering at the expense of the immortal soul. I don’t think a soul does well when it is only pampered and stroked and removed from potential pain.

Query for prayerful consideration:

Are hope (resurrection) and suffering (crucifixion) in balance within my soul?