Power and access is at the heart of every justice issue. So it matters greatly how we do life together in our pursuit of peace and justice.
I could be a real asshole when I was in High School.
For all my talk about being a Christian, for admonishing people to avoid alcohol and drugs, for waiting to have sex in marriage, I could be an absolute jerk to people. I know that there are friends that I said sexist and insensitive things to, thinking it was funny. I know I told and laughed at racist jokes, mostly for the shock value of saying something you knew was wrong. I made fun of people, and judged them like so many teenage boys do. I’d like to think that I reserved my insults and ignorance to a narrow group of people, but then don’t we all?
What I do remember clearly, is that I took special joy in embarrassing the bullies and “too cool for school” kids in my class. I was never at their level of popularity or coolness, but I could kind of hang out with them at times. I was just in enough to usually avoid their harassment. For the most part I could hang out with most groups at my school, or at least I believed I could, you’d have to ask them how it was on their side. At any rate, I was around enough to watch the popular guys tear down and make fun of the less popular people in my class. Sometimes I laughed along and sometimes I kept silent.
But at plenty of other times I took pride in being able to dish it back at the bullies with sarcasm and wit that they couldn’t keep up with. I saw myself as a protector of the “little guy.” I thought I was doing something Jesus would have done by standing up for “the least of these.” But in reality, I was just bullying the bullies. I was just funny enough and just quick enough that I could get away with it. I thought I was making the school more peaceful, and in one sense I suppose I was moving the target off of some of the more picked on classmates. But ultimately, I was “helping” by adding violence to an already violent setting.
Not understanding what it is to be just is something that I find characterizes much of the non-profit world. Many of us involved in works to alleviate the suffering or marginalization of people employ methods of organizing, leading, and communication that add violence to an already violent setting. Out of great love, we make decisions for others, bar marginalized and oppressed groups from the administration of resources, speak of those groups in terms that rob them of dignity and characterize the group as “them,” not just as a pro-noun, but as signifier of their categorical separation from “us.”
Out of great love, we do great violence.
And our use of scripture is often one of the places we rob marginalized groups of their name and value. For instance, the scripture that I paraphrased above that illustrated God’s concern for “the least of these,” is often used by middle class and rich white people to admonish one another to care for the black and brown poor through charity. The “least of these” are literally seen as less than us. All the while, no effort is made to understand the systemic and patterned injustice that keeps those groups separate and unequal. Our vision of how inequity is created is not challenged or expanded. Instead we maintain ideas that tie God’s blessing to the “have’s” and God’s curse to the “have not’s.”
And not only that, this is operationalized in the vision-process, leadership, program development, and administration of “justice organizations” who don’t do the necessary relationship building work to establish a just method of justice building. I have participated both consciously and unconsciously in this not changing. But as one of my friends, Dr. Jeanette Rodriguez says, “Nothing changes till it changes.”
The reality is that if marginalized or oppressed people do not co-create the new reality and take leadership in every aspect of it’s birthing, then injustice cannot be overcome. Power and access is at the heart of every justice issue. So it matters greatly how we do life together in our pursuit of peace and justice.
This is something that I know, but don’t claim to practice perfectly. In fact, the longer I work with these ideas, the more I realize that to make these claims is to invite harsh criticism and critique into everything I do as a leader. Sometimes I want to stop trying and just embrace my power and privilege for selfish splurging. And at times I suppose I have. But I also believe that my liberation is caught up in the liberation and wholeness of my “others.” Such a belief precedes a commitment to accompanying one another on the road to restored and reconciled relationship.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book from Bjorn Peterson, “Rich Young Ruler”(CC)