Last May, while I was traveling around South Africa, a relatively new Christian told me the story of his salvation. He knew God was real and God was good the day God gave him a beautiful house at a price that was substantially below market value; the person who was selling it cheap had fallen on hard times and needed to get rid of it pronto.
“Isn’t it screwed up that you’re thanking God that somebody else has fallen on hard times?” I asked.
I don’t think he understood my unstated point: that a gift from God for one person should not represent injustice or hard times for another person. Even if we assume that the person who had fallen on hard times made bad decisions about their finances, can we really give God credit for our ability to, vulture-like, swoop in when the pickin’ is good?
Such logic leads to genocide.
Such logic has led to genocide, many, many times in history.
The first book I remember reading by myself was a biography of Harriet Tubman, an African American slave who not only escaped slavery herself but became known as “Moses” because she returned to the South over a dozen times and helped over seventy slaves escape to freedom. I was absolutely captivated by the phrase, “the Underground Railroad.” I imagined a literal railroad carved out of rock, deep underneath the earth’s surface, with poor, tattered slaves creeping along in the dark, only a candle to light their way to freedom.
Perhaps because that book represented a pivotal turning point in my education—the ability to read by myself—it also shaped my political and social consciousness. The first novel I wrote as an 11-year-old was the story of a young woman trying to help a slave escape on the Underground Railroad. As an adult, I’ve spent years of my life in graduate school, studying African history. Justice for people of color worldwide has been one of my abiding political concerns. I am bitterly aware of the privilege of my white skin, just as I’m bitterly aware of the disadvantages I face due to my gender.
(As a caveat to the conservatives who read my blog: I don’t believe the government to be a panacea to the social ills of our time. But it is obvious to me that injustice is built into the very fabric of our society, and thus into the warp and weave of every bureaucratic and religious institution and every policy that our government espouses. As a result, I don’t think we can create a solution without addressing it from a political and religious standpoint. This doesn’t mean that I believe the solution should be top-down—government forcing the people to do something that’s not in their heart to do. God, no. I HATE INSTITUTIONS. Plus, I am a firm believer in grassroots movements for social change, from the people on up. But the very point of democracy, and of grassroots change, is that at some point, we must change institutional structures as well—from governments to churches to schools. Anyway, that was a little diversion to my main subject today….)
As I’ve grown older, my concept of justice has grown increasingly complicated. I’ve come to recognize that righting the wrongs of the past so that the future can be more equitable might mean that a lot of Americans—white people, wealthy people of all colors, and, ah yes, even the educated middle-class, which includes me—will have to give up things they currently enjoy. Yes. Among many other changes, justice will definitely mean that we in the U.S. will need to give up our boats, extra cars, and expensive vacations and spend more money on groceries, on housing, on other things.
My preference, of course, is that we could right the wrongs of the past without anybody currently living having to suffer. But I’m not sure that’s possible. It’s not exactly that I believe a lot of people must lower their standards of living in order for the very most poor to be able to raise their standards of living. But I don’t think it’s possible for those of us in western nations to continue to ignore the fact that our wealth is based on our power; and our power comes at the expense of other people’s power which, ultimately, leads to their poverty. A person in India or China or Mexico who is hungry and living in a cardboard shack on the side of the hill will not say, “I demand a fair, living wage.” No, they will take what they can get, and so we continue to pay millions of workers worldwide a non-livable wage so that we can get our cheap products. “It’s better than nothing” is the basic attitude that supports our ongoing economic oppression of the global south. Of course it’s better than nothing. But it’s not enough, and we who have too much need to take Jesus’s words to heart: “The worker is worthy of his wage.”
To right the global wrong of structural social and economic inequality will mean a dramatic decline in the material wealth of western, developed nations. Morally speaking, we cannot continue the system of demanding cheap labor that keeps millions poor around the world just so that we can enjoy cheap products. Morally speaking, I don’t see how middle-class whites in America can ignore the fact that every day, we still enjoy the benefits of slavery—and that millions of people of color still suffer because of it. Is it such a mystery that the worst schools in the nation are also in the ghettos, which were created by systematic racism that crowded people of color into small, crappy neighborhoods so white society could keep races segregated?
To stop oppressing people, we will have to give up some of our power and some of our wealth—and that will feel like suffering to a lot of people, even if it’s really not.
When I look at the global injustices, I quickly get bogged down with a what to do what to do panicky kind of feeling. The question I always ask is this: What is my individual responsibility to right global wrongs?
This morning, I received an email from a friend that had me asking another question about justice, one that represents a moral conundrum: What is my individual responsibility to right global wrongs when doing so may hurt another person?
In other words, where does justice begin and end?
My friend asked me whether she should sacrifice her career by staying silent about secrets she learned in the course of historical research, secrets that would shame an old woman and that woman’s children. Not revealing those secrets kills the basis of my friend’s argument in the monograph she’s writing. Revealing them allows her to explore important women’s issues within the context of religion. She wondered if she was serving the cause of justice by staying silent, in order to be merciful to this old woman and her children? Or was she furthering misogyny by staying silent? Which was it?
My friend is faced with a perplexing problem: two different definitions of justice, the personal (keeping somebody’s secret so that they can keep their dignity) vs. the global (advancing the cause of feminism). Which cause is more important? Many people would sacrifice one woman’s dignity in order to serve what they see as a greater cause, women’s issues or some other Big Cause. And okay, serving a Big Cause is important. But are we really serving a Big Cause if we sacrifice one person’s dignity in order to do it?
It reminds me of those old Life Boat Questions: Should we sacrifice one person’s life in order to save a million?
This is the logic of war, and it’s the logic of most political movements that advocate for one thing or another, but it’s a logic that leaves me cold. Its foundation is an either-or fallacy that fails to look for alternatives. Is it true that somebody must be sacrificed?
So I ask myself, Is it true that Americans must suffer a decline in living standards in order for developing nations to rise up out of the mire and muck of poverty? Or am I setting myself up with a political either-or fallacy?
My friend’s email went further. One of her friends had recently died in Zimbabwe because medicine for her cancer wasn’t available, and now my friend was wondering whether she was possibly serving the cause for justice if she spent most of her time making meals for her family, making sure they were cozy and warm with a fire at night, books, an apple pie for dessert.
She is not asking a simple question. On the surface, it may appear that she’s asking whether, instead of living a life of American comforts and domestic bliss, she shouldn’t be out there working 80-100 hours a week to get justice for Zimbabweans. And yes, she is asking that. But she’s asking so much more. The average American can’t link their daily life to the poverty of an African nation…but my friend can. Because she’s studied African history, I know she sees the many and varied links that connect the wealth of the westernized global north, including individuals like you and me, to the impoverishment of the global south, like her Zimbabwean friend who died of cancer because the medicine wasn’t available in her country.
So even more than asking whether she should be devoting her intellectual and creative career to the fight for justice, she’s wondering whether the very basis of her domestically blissful life is inherently flawed.
This is her question: If my good fortune comes at the expense of another, is it really good fortune?
If we Americans enjoy access to cheap medicine and cheap goods, and as a result, we have policies that destroy individuals, families, and nations around the world, resulting in a Zimbabwean woman’s inability to buy medicine for her cancer….can we really say we have good fortune?
I will not entertain the simplistic and foolhardy argument that Zimbabwe’s problems are Zimbabwe’s problems alone. Is Mugabe a maniac running his country into the ground? Yes. But are Zimbabwe’s problems a result of Mugabe alone? No. When you look at the history of that country, the political and other problems of Zimbabwe are directly related to colonial policies put in place first by Great Britain, then by the European settlers, and then, post-independence, exacerbated and compounded and made worse by World Bank and IMF policies. In fact, when you look at the history of every single impoverished country, they all have a symbiotic relationship with a wealthy country like ours, always to their detriment.
(P.S. This is becoming a book and I just meant to write a simple blog post on justice. Ha!)
And as to this question, “If my good fortune comes at the expense of another, is it really good fortune?”…well, I don’t have a simple answer to that either.
Back to my opening anecdote about the Christian who thanked God for his new house, even though it represented hardship for another person, and my statement that such logic has led to genocide….
When Americans thank God for the U.S., for the freedoms we enjoy, I wonder if we would still be so grateful if we thought about the millions of Native American who were killed so we could “get” this land? Or if we thought about the lives that are currently being destroyed because of Native American policies we created long ago, destructive policies that have never been rectified, but which were part of the very basis of our getting this land?
I’m not trying to make an argument of “poor noble savage” against “rich greedy white capitalists.” I’m simply pointing out that it was wrong to kill millions of Native Americans 200 years ago, and that it is wrong that we still have policies that continue to impoverish millions of Native Americans by offering inferior education on the reservations and allowing the cycle of welfare to keep generations in its grip. It was wrong to enslave Africans 200 years ago, and it was wrong to create race-based ghettos a hundred years ago, and it’s wrong that we make only half-hearted efforts to change the situation today.
Is it really God acting on our behalf to give us a cheap house, cheap goods, cheap food, cheap cars…when millions of people worldwide work hard 50 or 60 hours a week to give us those cheap goods and cheap food and cheap cars but yet they still live in shacks and fail to have enough money to feed themselves and their families?
I’m full-circle back to the either-or fallacy: to change the system, to bring justice to millions worldwide, means some of us who have never suffered will have to suffer.
The Old Testament disturbs me because it shows a God who would encourage his people, the Israelites, to commit genocide, and then “give them” the land they had just vacated through murder and mayhem.
I’ve never understood the logic of this kind of justice.
This is the same God my friend was thanking when he said God had given him a cheap house.
This is the same God that Americans thank for giving them this land, despite the millions of lives that were sacrificed as a result.
This is the same God that Afrikaners thanked when they went to war to take land from Xhosas, Zulu, the Khoisan.
This is the same God that Mormons thanked when they came to Utah and massacred American-Indians and then took the land as theirs.
And is this the same God we continue to thank for our good fortune as Americans….? Is it really good fortune if it comes at the expense of millions of people worldwide? I would like to believe in a good and loving God but I can’t believe in the “good and loving” God that many American Christians define as being on their side and helping them get the things they both want and need….not when it comes at the expense of other people. Either that’s a fucked up God or those people are sadly, sadly mistaken—they call it “God” when it’s really injustice operating in their favor. (Ah, here we are, back to my either-or fallacy….Is there a third option?)
Daily, my emotional level is kept on a low simmer as I contemplate the multiple ways that American culture, lifestyle, and politics perpetuates poverty around the world. I feel overwhelmed every time I go to the grocery store and realize that, no matter what, shopping means that I’m participating in global oppression.
I realize I must eat, and that the grocery store is my only option as long as I live here….
Where does an individual begin, if he or she wants to right wrongs that exist on a global scale and that we all participate in?
And what does an individual like my friend do when they realize that it’s wrong to expose one woman’s shame in order to change a global injustice?
I wish I had an answer.