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Environment Matters Pt. 2 (by Kurt Rietema)

the privileged

           Last time we ended with a question: Should we let the poor off the hook for their bad decisions simply because of their past?  Do we allow them to continue to play the helpless victims because they grow up in environments that make it easy to fail?  When Aaron, the interim leader of Israel, turned their church potluck at the foot of Mount Sinai into the scandalous set of a Lil’ Wayne rap video, God didn’t let them off the hook for their choices.  While its clearly understandable that years of slavery growing up in the ghettos of Egypt would affect their psyche, changing them from a people of promise to a self-destructing time bomb, it didn’t matter.  The God who had so compassionately heard Israel’s cries for liberation just weeks before was now poised to destroy them for their disobedience.  God’s message for them was to grow up and to take responsibility for themselves out of a mess that was neither their own fault nor their own creation.  And Israel screwed up.  Likewise, while we empathize with the difficult environments these Argentine youth are coming from, we’re also asking them to do the seemingly impossible.  We’re asking them to do the heroic, to choose the good in places where it’s the hardest.  It doesn’t seem fair, it may lack compassion, but we’re not doing these kids any favors by lowering expectations.

But our questions of responsibility don’t end there just as our Sinai story doesn’t end with an apocalyptic genocide executed by the hand of God.  Moses interrupts.  He questions God’s sense of justice.  Moses appeals to God’s compassion and to his covenant peace treaties.  As a person of privilege, who grew up in palaces rather than Israel’s poverty, Moses advocates on behalf of the person that he would have become without his mother’s subversive act of civil disobedience and of faith.  Moses recognized that just as Israel had grown up in a culture of poverty and slavery through no fault of its own, Moses came to a recognition that he’d grown up in a culture of privilege created through no merit of its own.

Let’s imagine that instead of being dropped off into the middle of the Israelite camp on Sinai, that we land, like Moses did, in the palaces of Pharaoh.  If we had no historical context, we’d probably think that this was the greatest country on earth.  Moses grew up in a world of opulence, a world of luxury with palaces, gardens, temples, flagrant displays of unprecedented wealth and architectural wonders engineered with staggering ingenuity.  Moses likely enjoyed the best teachers, the best recreational activities, and rich travel experiences that exposed him to the best people and places that life has to offer.  Everything around would speak to the glories of Egypt’s achievement.  There would be little to question it.

And then one day Moses went for a walk.  He walked to the construction sites, to the factory floor, to the gritty places among the people who were building it all.  He didn’t see happy, well-behaved people who treated and talked to him with respect.  He saw the raw, ugly, dehumanizing conditions that made it all possible.  Moses was seeing that the glory of Egypt, their privilege, their wealth was built not so much on their own merit as by the the toil of the Hebrew people.  And then he saw an Egyptian, someone like him in life’s experience, beating a Hebrew slave, someone like him in physical appearance.  Seeing himself in both men at the same time caused something within him to snap.  Moses didn’t know what to do with it.  So he killed the Egyptian.  He killed the injustice.  He killed his own privilege.  Moses’ world was coming undone.

It wasn’t by mere chance that Moses ended up in the king’s court.  God placed him there.  Moses didn’t escape infanticide and wasn’t plucked out of slavery so that at least one of God’s chosen, Hebrew people could enjoy a life of wealth and comfort.  God called Moses, a person he’d placed in a position of privilege, in order to relinquish that privilege and turn his back on this way of life in order to bring freedom to those on whose backs this extravagant wealth had been created.  God did this not because he glorified poverty or despised wealth, but because God had a plan to create a new people, a new kind of nation with a new kind of exceptionalism and new definitions for success and prosperity that had no room for the kinds of disparity prevalent in Egypt.

God’s demand for individual responsibility didn’t extend only to the poor Hebrews growing up in the ghetto, it extended to the people of privilege who grew up in Egypt’s palaces. Perhaps our questions are no longer simply if the poor should be let off the hook for their bad decisions, but if the privileged should be held responsible for what they do with the deck they’ve been handed.  Our questions become more complicated especially when they turn back on ourselves.

In the US, we’re no strangers to these kinds of gaping disparities.  Current data from the most comprehensive information about household wealth by race and ethnicity from the US Census Bureau, shows that the median net worth of whites is $113,149 compared to the $5,667 of blacks and $6,325 of hispanics,  Whites have 20 times more wealth than blacks.  Something is direly wrong and it can’t be explained away by merit.  These aren’t questions of politics so much as they are questions of the church.  Right now we’re living in a nation where one political party lets the poor off the hook for their bad decisions and another party lets the privileged off the hook for their unwillingness to acknowledge they’ve inherited advantages they haven’t earned that made their wealth possible.

The prophetic call of the church in this context both for those living in poverty and those in privilege is to ask what we’re going to do with the hands we’ve been dealt.  Are we going to live into our pre-assigned roles where the poor play the resentful victims and the privileged seek ways to protect their advantage and maintain the status quo?  Or are we going to seek God’s kingdom together?  Are we going to believe that another world is possible, living a kind of earthy spirituality that transforms even our social and economic arrangements?  Will we create environments where everyone grows up in places where it’s easy to succeed and difficult to fail?
Because the truth is, as frustrated as I am with some of these local youth and how slow they are to give up their ways of poverty, I’m even slower to give up my ways of privilege.  Like Moses, I’ve taken a walk to where the construction sites are.  I’ve lived in Mexico’s shantytowns where the undocumented flee from.  I live among people that pack our tomatoes and clean my hotel room. But I still have a hard time letting go.  Maybe I’m more hard-hearted and a slower learner than Moses, but I do want to be taught the ways of the kingdom.  And I believe that some of those lessons can only be learned among the poor and marginalized.

     The heart of our ministry in Argentine is precisely this.  It’s an invitation for all us, both the privileged and the poor to be released from our captivities–captivities to our own greed, to our privilege, to our power, to drugs, to resentment, to irresponsibility, to domestic abuse–and to recognize that God has a beautiful future waiting for us.  If only we’d let go.  If only we’d believe that we don’t have to secure it and hoard our manna in jars.   May God help us all.

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