Environment Matters (Part 2) – 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.


Environment Matters (Part 1)

 “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 Minute in about a week.  I know, killer cliffhanger.


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