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Environment Matters (by Kurt Rietema)


environment matters

“But they’re lazy!  Why should we hide that from people if it’s true!”  The frustration and the clash of cultures was boiling to a frothy head.  One of our summer staffers had reached the end of her rope with some of our local Argentine youth.  It was obvious that the kids were being lazy, but I didn’t want it to be true.  Many of them weren’t doing their jobs, but I didn’t want them to be living right into the stereotypes of poor, urban youth.  I knew they were capable of more.  I’ve seen them do it.  This summer staffer came from a place of relative privilege and wealth, just like myself and the vast majority of the youth and sponsors that lived and learned with us each week this summer.  For me (and probably most of you), work ethic was something that was ingrained in us.  There was an ethic embedded within the fabric of our communities that made it easy for us to choose to work hard to the point that it was no longer a conscious decision to do so.  It was a place where it was easy to succeed and difficult to fail.  You simply do what is required of you.  And for us, there were clear, tangible benefits by working hard as well as clear consequences for not doing so.  Though not everyone lived by these standards.  Some of them chose to do their own thing and perhaps rightly earned the classification ‘lazy’.

I was uncomfortable having our local, Argentine youth labeled ‘lazy’ because while the actions (or inactions) of these kids and the ‘lazy’ people from where I grew up are essentially the same, it seems that there is something categorically different going on that begs our attention and demands that we not so quickly deem them ‘lazy’.  In contrast to a place where it’s easy to work hard and succeed and it takes conscious effort to fail, the environment and culture that these urban youth grow up in seem to be the opposite.  Here, it seems that we find a culture that makes it easy (and normal) to fail, and one that requires lotto ticket-like odds to succeed.  Appeals to youth to ‘roll up their sleeves’ and ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’, while compelling (and quite possibly points us in the right direction) don’t seem to appreciate the complexity of the situation.

The logical conclusion might then be that it’s not so much about deficient individuals who lack motivation and initiative as it is about a deficient culture.  Maybe it’s because the ethnic communities found in our cities poorest neighborhoods are too accepting of things like single-parent homes, illegal border crossings, not stressing the importance of education, and having too many children.  Yet I think that’s far too simplistic of an answer itself.  But one thing I’m beginning to recognize is that environment matters.

Imagine being dropped into the middle of the Israelite camp at the foot of Mount Sinai.  What is it you see?  We see a people who had so quickly forgotten what had just happened to them.  Just moments before on Mount Sinai, God had put on the most amazing light and laser show in the history of rock music; he’d walked them through the bottom of the ocean sans scuba gear; and they’d promised to do everything Yahweh would tell them to do.  And like bored teenagers waiting around for their long-in-coming parents to arrive home, Israel’s innocent game of spin the bottle on the desert floor waiting around for Moses to come down turned into only the beginning of their foolish choices.  Only the present mattered.  They forgot their past and they forgot their promised future.  They carelessly dumped their new-found wealth on things that offered instant gratification creating a god like they had in Egypt.  They listened to an incompetent, lying leader who knew better.  They ate, drank, danced, and partied like a Saturday night on the Vegas Strip.  Israel was running wild and their enemies were laughing at them, knowing full-well that they wouldn’t have to do anything because Israel would destroy themselves without outside intervention.  They were their own worst enemies.  How could this have possibly been the people of God?  His chosen ones?

This sounds a lot like the images and stereotypes that we have of the poor in North America.  They don’t have much money, but when they do, they spend it on impractical things that only provide cultural currency among their tribe.  And instead of saving that money for the future to avoid further problems, they use it to drink and party.  They chase after and glorify shameful role models.  They make stupid choices that keep them from any chance of escaping poverty.  They’re lazy and they’re simply reaping what they’ve sown.

But the Israel we see at Sinai was not the same one that entered Egypt 400 years previously.  They started off as a strong family, that had material wealth,  good relationships and reputations, and a God who’d promised them a great future.  Until they become vulnerable.  Until they were exploited.  The oppression that they suffered changed not only the course of their history, but the very collective character of their people.  They entered Egypt as refugees from a food crisis.  Yet they maintained dreams, hopes, and a grand promise that God had given to their father Abraham.  But generations of slavery turned them into a very different, impoverished, destitute, self-destructive people.  Through no fault of their own.  

The irrational choices that we see Israel make only begin to make sense once we remember where they came from.  At the foot of Sinai, Israel thought only about the present because in slavery, the future was never promised.  They were worked to the bone 7 days a week, 365 days a year, because they were expendable.  When Egypt gave them money as they exited, they spent it.  Why?  They’d never had wealth to manage before and slavery taught that soon it would be gone anyway.

For all of the frustrations that we have with the youth that we’re in friendship with in Argentine, their laziness, their coarse language, and the stupid decisions they make begin to make sense when we remember where they came from.  Some of our kids are black.  I’ve come to see that the conspicuous brokenness of the African American community of today that cause humiliation for some and flaunting rebellion among others, are the festering wounds left unhealed after generations of slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement.  Working hard still doesn’t mean advancement or profit for blacks.  Some of our kids are undocumented immigrants.  They’re here in the US for reasons not unlike Abraham’s kids, whose father sent them away because he’d heard that there was grain faraway in Egypt, economic refugees who’d heard there were jobs in America.  Without papers, their future isn’t promised to them. Some of our kids are political refugees from Burma and Liberia, who’d lived quiet lives as subsistence farmers until oppressive regimes decimated those who opposed them.  Their communities, their cultures, their ways of life, destroyed.  Through no fault of their own.

Now, like Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai, these youth are attempting to renegotiate who they are as individuals in ethnic communities who themselves are trying to hold together the fragmented shards of what they had while reluctantly learning to play by new sets of rules and new definitions of success.  Lazy?  Perhaps by some definitions.  Should we let them off the hook allowing them to continue to be helpless victims because of their past?  God didn’t seem to let Israel off the hook.  He still held them responsible for their actions.  So what are we to do? This conversation is about to get interesting…we’ll pick it up in the next post in about a week.  I know, killer cliffhanger.


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