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?

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