Thursday, November 17, 2016

The violence that is in my hands

Crispin de Passe (1564-1637)
Jonah 3:6-9 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

There is an old, old story I think about often.

It's a story about an angry, sad young man from a backwater town in a occupied corner of a world-spanning empire. The story goes that God tells this young man to get up and go to the capital city of this empire -- this violent empire which has occupied and oppressed his people -- and tell them to be nicer and to say they are sorry and to stop committing violent acts. The young man, understandably, does not want to do this. He runs away. There is a storm. A big fish. A prayer. The young man, eventually, goes to the capital city. He tells the people there to stop doing the terrible things they've done. Amazingly, they listen to him. The young man doesn't feel any better, though, because all of the awful things that have happened in the past are not magically wiped away by the success of his mission. He is angry. And God talks to him about how angry he is, and why.

And that's how the story ends. We don't know what happens next. Probably because it's up to us to decide. In a way, it's like one of those old 'Choose Your Own Adventure' stories.

There have been times in my life where I have compared myself to this young man. There is something noble about it, a false humility to it -- to say, "Oh, yes, I ran from God for so long, and then I stopped running and reported for duty, and now I am doing what God wants me to do." That's a nice narrative.

But I am not that young man.

I am a citizen of that capital city. And there are a lot of angry voices who are telling me that this city, and what it represents, needs to change.

To repent. Which is a word, in Hebrew, that just means, "to turn."

In the story, the king of the city listens to the angry young man. In a silly and satirical scene, he orders everyone in the city, including the animals -- what have the cows ever done to anyone -- to put on mourning clothes. It is an act of repentance, at once somewhat foolish and yet powerful in its own right. And he says this: "All shall turn from their evil ways and repent from the violence that is in their hands."

The violence that is in their hands.

And that is the phrase that has been echoing in my head for the past week. Because I have been thinking a lot about what I need to repent from, what I need to return from. I have been thinking a lot about what I need to drop. About the violence that is in my own hands.

Here are a few things I think I need to repent of. Here are a few types of violence I think are in my own hands:

1) Cynical detachment
When I choose a cynical detachment over a critical engagement, I'm using cynicism to try to prevent myself from being hurt. Cynicism allows me juggle the violence in my own hands like a hot coal, trying to keep from being burned without dropping it. It won't work -- and it will burn others in the process. I think I need to repent of -- to turn from -- cynicism and turn towards engagement and connection.

2) Privileged hubris
When I choose snarky humor over real action, or when I dismiss the real concerns of marginalized people and groups because "I just don't think it will happen," then I am revealing the hubris that comes with privilege. I need to turn from privileged hubris and turn towards a posture of humble listening.

3) Standing By
When I choose not to interact and intervene in situations where someone is being hurt, I choose passive standing-by instead of active coming-alongside. I am preparing, this coming weekend, to lead a training for college students on what we call "pro-social bystander intervention" or "positive bystander intervention." We teach students that they have the responsibility to intervene to prevent interpersonal violence and abuse. It's a lesson we all need to learn, not just on a college campus, but in our society as a whole. We are responsible for each other's safety. We have a responsibility to intervene. I need to turn from passive standing by to active intervention and solidarity.

3) White Supremacy
With the election into the highest office of the land of a man who used blatantly racist rhetoric, and that man's appointment to a White House position of another man who is an overt white supremacist, it would be easy for me to deny my complicity in white supremacy. Surely not I? I am no bigot. But there is more to white supremacy than open bigotry. Here is one definition from my friend Alicia at Chasing the Promise, from a dialogue I participated in at a recent conference:
White supremacy establishes whiteness as superior to other racial identities through the elevation of the needs, wants, concerns, perspectives, feelings, and desires of white people over that of people of color. This includes the centering of the theological, rhetorical, aesthetic, and economic priorities and preferences rooted in whiteness as well as the appropriation and rebranding of cultural expressions sourced from people of color.
At the conference which Alicia writes about, I shared one of the ways in which I participate in this system -- by centering my questions and efforts about the church in the issues facing predominantly white churches in this country. In their statement following the election, the Black Lives Matter movement said the following: "White supremacy fortified the decision to disregard racism and sexism as serious variables in the outcome of this election." So you see the tie between white supremacy, and my cynical detachment, and my privileged hubris. I need to turn from white supremacy and turn towards the centering of the needs of people who are different than me -- the centering of the needs, wants, concerns, perspectives, feelings, and desires of people of color.

4) Sexism
Again, with the election of a man who has bragged about sexual assault, and who uses gendered rhetoric that I literally train college students to interrupt and challenge, it would easy to say: not me! But when I fail to listen to the voices and stories of women, when I interrupt or talk over or pretend to have some sort of expertise that I don't, I participate in a sexist structure. I need to turn from misogyny and turn towards a centering of the stories of women.

What I've written here about sexism and white supremacy, I could also write about heterosexism, about ableism. About the hundreds of ways that I center the needs and concerns and stories of "people like me" over and against -- that last phrase is important -- the needs and concerns and stories of people who, in one sense or another, are different than me.

In the story, people put on sackcloth to indicate their repentance. This was a symbolic action which would have been widely understood in its time as a sign of mourning and a break from normal day-to-day activity. But our society sometimes lacks such commonly held symbolism; and, just as importantly, sackcloth would have been more than symbolic. It required a very real divestment of the regalia of power, including a disarming of the populous and the halt of normal economic activity. The symbolism was overt; but a concrete disruption accompanied it.

And so, as I consider what my sackcloth will look like over the coming days, weeks, and months, I'm thinking about action. I'm thinking about concrete attempts to release the violence that is in my hands.

Some of those actions are likely to be continuations of things I'm already doing. Like facilitating Bystander Intervention Trainings at Georgetown. Or working with Friends of Sabeel - North America, whose younger members and staff are working to make the organization more intersectional and more attuned to anti-oppression work in our organizing. Or working with some of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our society, those who experience chronic homelessness and severe mental illness, in my job at the Georgetown Ministry Center.

But a lot of these actions are going to have to come from a place of humble listening and re-positioning. Some real soul-searching and internal work.

So I'm going to write a follow-up post to this one, once I've had a bit more time to do some of that internal work. But those two things -- the internal work of repentance, and the external actions of repentance -- don't happen in isolation from each other. They're not as easily split up as two blog posts.

They go hand-in-hand. And when we're hand-in-hand...well, it's a lot harder to hold on to violence, isn't it?

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