Where All Things Are Permissible

It is difficult for Americans to imagine South Dakota as a place. People from east of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers or west of the Rocky Mountains, when meeting someone from South Dakota, express shock that a person would be from such a place. Perhaps only Wyoming rivals North and South Dakota as a blank void in the imagination of America. Yet even Wyoming has her jewel: Yellowstone National Park.

It is no surprise that 210,000 gallons of oil have leaked into the soil of South Dakota, for South Dakota is exactly the kind of place Americans expect oil to be spilled. For viewers in New York and California, the ocean is a less remote and more tragic place for oil to spill than South Dakota, about which they know nothing.

That the oil leaked into ground adjacent to an Indian reservation removes it even more from the imaginative grasp of millions of Americans.

The very rational, pragmatic concerns of Reasonable People are much easier to imagine for the average American, though they are less concrete. Oil powers the global economy, after all, and the American economy. It influences the price of milk. Oil must remain cheap for all to thrive. The safest way to transport crude oil to refineries is by pipeline. Trucks and trains pose too many risks. Surely one wouldn’t argue that a land ought to remain unspoiled in the face of the needs of millions for the lifeblood of the earth which has accrued to humanity. Shouldn’t we strive to strike a balance between environmental concerns and the needs of our human economy?

Never mind that these commenters know nothing about the place they would balance their scales.

As for the Indians, their tribal representatives negotiated passage of the pipeline through reservation lands. Who else were the oil companies to negotiate with? That the tribal councils are notoriously corrupt wouldn’t occur to such a Reasonable Person, but before they saw the news of the spill on their Facebook feed they never had a thought about South Dakota or remaining tribal lands.

Anyway, according to environmental officials, though the leak was large, the location is “very rural, which is very positive,” and “the location of this is not in a sensitive area.” Very positive indeed.

Author and Essayist Marilynne Robinson writes, “Wilderness is where things can be done that would be intolerable in a populous landscape.”[^1] In this sense, everything is permissible in South Dakota. The vast, empty, horizon embracing flatness of the place allows us to deceive ourselves. Such a place absorbs any amount of oil along with the silenced thought that such a disaster reveals the fundamental sin of our present age—our failure to imagine our neighbor. In our hurry to balance the scales, we fail to imagine a South Dakotan, an Indian, or the earth as our neighbor.

[^1]: The Death of Adam, 247

The Might of Your Own Hand

With Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and the Baltimore riots sparking dialogue in the church about race and justice in America, it is impossible to avoid discussions of privilege. Except, for some of us, the reaction seems to be to resist discussions of privilege entirely. This effort at willed ignorance stands not only against the reality of privilege, but also against the Christian witness about the gifted nature of our existence.

This is privilege: a road made straight, a route constructed without the labor of one's own hands, traffic and street signs made to fit one's own understanding of the rules of the road.

It is strange to be alive at all, is it not? Then it should not be so strange to imagine people born with advantages beyond their own responsibility. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1943 that it is natural to look back with special thankfulness upon the joys of life, the unflagging support of friends and family, a way made smooth. Many Christians seem to have lost this thankfulness in the intervening 72 years. If they have not, then I wonder why so many react defensively to the concept of privilege. Bonhoeffer says: "no one can create and assume such life from his own strength."[^1]

This is ancient knowlege, not a product of some newly devised postmodern liberalism. Moses says,

Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.[^2]

He goes on to say that to forget this is to forget the Lord God and worship other gods. If wealth is anything in our present situation, it is a god. But wealth is perhaps too ambiguous for this discussion.

Being itself should be the basis of any Christian investigation of privilege. Life, from the Christian perspective, is a gift. Combined with the image of God within each person, the gift of being is the basis of equality for all humanity. This basic equality is erased by our economics, ethics, politics, and cultures. We erase our gifted equality. We sin.

Of course, part of the Christian witness is also an affirmation of our status as forgiven beings. Sin does not have the last word. But here I want to hold on to repentance as a precondition for grace. In relation to inequality, to repent is to contend with privilege. One must ask, how straight is my road? Is it smoother than my neighbor's road? What advantages have I reaped without the labor of my own hands? When has my labor yielded a greater harvest than my neighbor's when our efforts were equal? Have I often reaped more even when my efforts lagged? When my neighbor has been unable to work as I have, has s/he perhaps been burdened by something I do not see or cannot understand?

But one must go further than questions. Bonhoeffer would say that to stop here is "cheap grace." Answers to these questions aren't available in isolation. Life is a gift, and it is as Jesus says:

When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.[^3]

Contending with privilege is the same. First ask imaginative questions, then be reconciled to your neighbor. Only then may you be reconciled to God.

In the future, when confronted with discussions of privilege, simply repent. Turn away from defensiveness and toward your neighbor. Remember your life is a gift. Be reconciled to your neighbor, and offer your life back to your maker.

Advent1, 2014

We go immediately from the the secular, civic celebration of Thanksgiving to the deeply quiet divinity of Advent. There is no thanksgiving, nor celebration, and for American Christians God feels far away. I know because in response to the ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri I have repeatedly witnessed the following sentiment from Christians on Facebook: “Jesus just isn’t getting through to us.”[^1]

Let’s leave beside the fact that this is a reductive statement that discounts the complexity of American racial issues and the nature of sin. Let’s also leave unanswered for a moment the following questions: what Gospel, which Jesus, what message, whose interpretation?

My immediate response to this sentiment is no kidding, do you think he’s gonna get through to us? I don’t know what magical way people expect Jesus to use to get in touch with us, but it probably ain’t gonna happen in a morally superior Facebook comment. My utterly polarized social media feed, which thrashes me back and forth between emotionally fraught opinions, political stances, and activist outcry, is certainly evidence that hardly anyone is undertaking a quiet inward or outward search for Christ.

But it’s appropriate that God feel distant at Advent. The Old Testament lectionary text for Advent1 is Isaiah 64:1-9. The divine felt distant for Isaiah too. He implores God to tear open the heavens and come down, to make the presence of the divine known when it so often is hidden. He also knew, as we do, that the winds of current events and public sentiment pull us away from the divine attitude and that those who call on the name of God are few.

Not a big surprise at this time and in this place that Jesus isn’t getting through to us. For that we’d have to listen. But to whom? Well, it's Advent and we're looking forward to the incarnation of God. So we better do this listening incarnation style. If we listen, really get low and listen to our fleshy, frustrating neighbors who make errors[^2], who suffer, who hunger, who thirst, who reside in prison,[^3] who rage, who burn, who pray on the street, and who mourn the loss of their sons—if we listen to them we might hear Jesus whispering to us from his lowly birth in the manger.

Or go ahead and turn up the volume on the Christmas tunes. Maybe Jesus is kickin' it there.

  • [^1]: Actually, this is a direct quote.
  • [^2]: Read, “sin”
  • [^3]: Matthew 25: 34-40

Violent Aberrations

While gun control is a touchy subject, it is nonetheless one worth wrestling with. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting there are hosts of bills concerning the regulation of firearms before state legislatures across the country. Indeed, a bipartisan bill that would require background checks to purchase a gun was before the US Senate just yesterday. It would have passed but it failed to gain a 60 vote super majority and was filibustered off the floor by Senate Republicans.

So gun control is in the news daily. I've been thinking about it. And I think I have a take on the issue that I can stand and that might prompt interesting conversation no matter who I'm talking to.

I want to preface this by saying that I don't agree with the tired old line "guns don't kill people, people kill people". It seems obvious to me that limiting private access to assault weapons and high yield hand guns should also limit deaths from guns in the United States. I understand that there arguments that refute this, but I don't find them convincing.

That being said, while it is the nature and purpose of a firearm to deliver a huge amount of force to an object from a distance, and this fact may make it easier to carry out violent acts upon animals and humans alike where the physical manipulation of a blade, for example, might not be so easy, a gun doesn't have a mystical power to turn a person into a killer. So the question is, what about our society, as opposed to a country like Canada (where gun ownership is also high), leads people to carry out acts of destructive violence against other human beings? This isn't the politically practical question, but it is the question conservatives and liberals alike should be asking themselves and discussing together.

As the beginning of an answer to my own question, I propose that violent acts like Sandy Hook, the Aurora theater shooting, and -- yes -- the Boston bombings, are not violent aberrations within an otherwise peaceful society. Instead, these acts of incredible violence happen against a backdrop of subtly violent interactions that make up our systems of economics, politics, foreign policy, law enforcement, public education, physical health care, mental health, entertainment, religious observance, and sports. We come ever so close to having an at least tangential discussion about these issues when we talk about mental health. However, usually we end up demonizing the mentally ill as the perpetrators of violence while ignoring their victimization at the hands of a society that has largely forgotten its human responsibility to see to their well-being (including in the piece linked above by Gabrielle Giffords) and so we redouble the violence against them through the discussion itself.

We encourage this violence and take part in it to our individual benefit and to our collective downfall. While I support gun control, and believe it not only to be constitutional in general but also specifically constitutionally mandated, it is really only so much blabbing in the face of the problems that really beset our society.