Friday, July 8, 2016

Thoughts on oppression, injustice and reconciliation

It is quite a time to be a U.S. History teacher.

I must confess to a certain level of desensitization as I read the headlines: while my heart still breaks, a small, but growing part of me can't help but think, "yep, it's happened again... no surprise there."  I grew up thinking of racial violence as being a tragic piece of our national history which was squarely behind us, securely bound in the past.

I now realize that this was an illusion--growing up in a school and town with no shortage of blond heads and blue eyes, but very few people with dark hair and dark skin, what else was I to think?

Racial discrimination did not end with the 1960s, as bulky, biased U.S. History textbooks might lead us to believe.  It has been an ongoing reality for so many, and one which I cannot profess to understand first-hand.  But it is undeniable that those tensions have flared over the past few years.  The U.S. of 2016 is not the post-racial America that so many of us wish it were.

It is also quite a time to be a U.S. History teacher in an international school on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

The Christian Academy in Japan is home to a variety of cultural backgrounds, from Korean, to North American, to Japanese, to Filipino, to Australian, to Indian, or some mixture of the above, and even more.  It was so very surprising when I first started teaching there, but over the years, this has become my definition of normal and normative.

While there are occasionally squabbles due to cultural differences, CAJ students are by and large quite sensitive to perspectives other than their own.  It starts, quite simply, as a social skill necessary to survival and thriving in our school, but it ends up being a tremendous asset in academic discussion, debate, and of course, relationship-building well after the students have graduated.

As I process the events of this past week, a few take-aways come to mind:

1) Reconciliation starts with us.  We know how tenuous a relationship is after trust is broken, and this is perhaps amplified on a societal scale.  We cannot assume that reconciliation is someone else's job, and we definitely cannot assume the government will handle it.  No policy, no law, no politician can fix the rift that exists in our nation and it would be both foolish and neglectful to pretend otherwise.  Reconciliation is a calling that we must feel, personally.

2) Reconciliation starts next door.  We don't all live in communities, cities, states, or even countries where the tension between black and white has spilled over into violence, but this does not exclude or exempt us from the task.  Reconciliation is so much bigger than the divide between two given groups--it's a task that involves repairing any broken relationship.  We must be sensitive to who has been marginalized, whose voices have been silenced, whose dignity has been trampled, in our communities and then seek fellowship with those people.  Maybe it will be the poor or the homeless, maybe the single mother struggling to make ends meet, maybe the migrant worker only living nearby for a short while--the "who" and the "how" depend on where we are, and the needs of those around us, but the heart of the task remains fundamentally the same.  I find this particularly convicting, as my comfort zone too often falls short of people I don't interact with on a day-to-day basis.

3) We need to learn how to walk in the shoes of the "other".  So many of my students develop this capacity as a matter of course, but for those of us who have grown up in homogeneous communities, it may take more active effort.  We must recognize that the way we see the world may not be the way that our neighbors see the world.  This is not to say that truth is relative--indeed, if that were true, the Scriptural mandate to pursue justice for the oppressed and the down-trodden would be utterly meaningless!  All the same, we must recognize and attempt to understand such differences in worldview and perspective as we seek to build relationship with those different from us.

4) White guilt is not constructive.  I know that this may not be a popular thing to say right now, but for real, substantive change to happen, we must learn to think more carefully about matters of disparity.  Yes, we must be willing to acknowledge the privileges that we have had, and the opportunities which others have lacked.  Yes, we must be prepared to admit that we have taken comfort and security too much for granted.  But to wallow obsessively in guilt over circumstances we were born into is not only counter-productive, it is dangerous.  We can no more change the circumstances of our birth than we can change the orbit of the planets!  There is a vital difference between "fault" and "responsibility".  The poverty gap, the digital divide, sweeping racial tensions--none of these circumstances are your fault or mine, but it absolutely is our responsibility to do something about them, if we are to take Scripture seriously!  Instead of guilt, our response to disparity ought to be charity--a deep desire to provide those who lack it with a sense of security, comfort and fellowship; a desire to see them provided with opportunities we ourselves enjoy.  All this being said, I offer this qualifier and warning: if you recognize oppression, poverty and want and do nothing about it, you are, in fact, choosing a side.  As Elie Wiesel famously said, "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim."

I close this blog-post so far removed and insulated from the violence in Louisiana, Minnesota, or Dallas, and still fighting the cynical feeling that nothing can be done... but I also feel a renewed call to the broader and ongoing task of reconciliation, a crucial ingredient in justice, and I hope that any who read this may feel similarly called; after all, we are not in this alone!

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