Tag Archives: imperial gaze

Andres the refugee: Lessons in powerlessness from Honduras

Way back in the 90’s I took my first MCC immersion trip to El Salvador and Honduras. It was before cell phones worked well, so I had one scratchy phone call to Gwen in two weeks – that was a first. I remember the trip as my baptism by fire into the reality of white supremacy and empire thinking. This week that memory has seemed important.

When our group took off for San Salvador, I thought I was a rather “with it,” comparatively-activist kind of guy. I wanted to go to El Salvador before the war was over. I was already upset that the U.S. was complicit in all sorts of evil deeds and had hidden a titanic military base at Soto Cano. I felt a lot of love for people in Central America, especially since I came from Southern California where Spanish speakers were childhood friends. I soon found out I was less with it and loving than I thought, but that’s how I started.

We talked to Army officials, U.S. Embassy reps, church leaders, activists, and MCC workers. We met Jon Sobrino, were forced off our bus by eighteen-year-old soldiers with automatic weapons, and took a ride out into the far reaches of Honduras, almost to Nicaragua, where a village had waited up into the night under the one, public lightbulb to greet us. It was a very educational trip. But the most lasting memory has to be of Andres.

Mesa Grande Refugee Camp — Wikipedia/Linda Hess Miller

My upending memory of Andres

I admit that this incident is one of those that may have a lot more meaning than the facts deserve. I was having an “aha” moment, so who knows what really happened? We were in a refugee camp in Honduras for Salvadorans who had been driven out of their homes by the war. They expected to be gone until the soldiers passed on, but that never happened. Many years later they were still stuck in a strange limbo. Some had come as children, literally naked. One person who had fled with nothing but the clothes on his back was Andres. In his imprisonment, he had become a Christian and the catechist for the camp. We were meeting him because he was one of the leading people who should be seeing a group of well-dressed “dignitaries” from the United States.

He was very kind and very hospitable. We sat in his house made of cast-off scraps of wood. I still remember being fascinated as I watched chickens walking in and out of the walls. This sweet, godly, respectable man kept enlightening me as they pecked about. We might as well had come from the moon, as far as Andres was concerned. He had never been to San Salvador, the capital, from which we had just driven. I think I asked him if he ever wanted to own a car. He said he had not considered that, since he had never been in one. (That is one of my memories that makes me wonder if this really happened. Did he actually say that? You’ve never been in a car?). The longer I got to be with Andres, the more I loved him. My preconceptions about him began to fade into the background the more he talked – preconceptions like, “Surely he would want a car” and, “Surely he would like to go to the capitol city”). He was happy with his house and honored to be the catechist. Unlike all his visitors from the U.S. that day, he was content. He did not have big ideas about how to make everything better, and made me a bit ashamed of myself for cluttering up his honest, simple life with my expensive sandals.

Eventually, we were finished with our overwhelming two weeks and sitting in room in Tegucigalpa for the final debrief. At that point in my life I was especially not a crier. But when it came time for me to share, I uncharacteristically burst into tears. “I feel so helpless,” is what I remember saying. Maybe I was just feeling, “I can’t do anything.” I had come to Central America equipped with health, energy and assurance that I could be a part of something great. I would end the war, figure out rural poverty and go back to the U.S. equipped to organize great things to resettle refugees and effect reconciliation. Instead, I was sitting beside the road in Teguci-whatever crying out to Jesus. When He called to me, I told him I wanted to see. The scales of my “imperial gaze” were not removed, as of yet, but I certainly felt blind.

A few, certainly not all, of the lessons I need to learn

As we were in the middle of the always-overdue crisis over racism and police brutality in the United States last week (white supremacy, imperialism, militarism, inequality, etc. etc.), my mind turned to Andres and the things he began to teach me about being powerless and changing things, way back when.

1) People get along fine without western culture

I had never seen just how huge my list of assumptions about reality actually were until that trip. I thought I was a Christian – and I had been in trouble for how radical I was! But the Bible looked a lot more like Andres than like me. Whenever invisible people become visible to the rulers, it is always disturbing. Andres still disturbs me. I never really knew I was a ruler until I sat on a three-legged stool he made out of firewood in his house and realized he was getting along fine without me and my late-capitalist culture, or whatever it is that’s happening.

2) Not everyone wants to trade community for commodities

How in the world can one be so wise and content with a chicken walking through one’s walls? I could not keep my eyes off that chicken! Later that day another refugee family invited several of us to dinner. We shared a soup featuring their one potato as they happily watched us eat it. We investigated to see just how coerced they were to do this, but we were assured they really thought it would be a hoot to entertain us. Is it more amazing that we were flabbergasted or that they shared their potato? Even as a Christian, I am still tempted to have an economic answer for everything.

3) “Poor” people often have ways to get along in the shadow of the monsters that rule them just fine and don’t need instruction from the monsters when they finally deign to see them.

The world has always been full of monsters. Jesus announced their doom when he rose from the dead after they killed him. I was so full of power, I really wanted to fight those monsters. But after that debrief, I began to think that witnessing to their doom by embracing resurrection in their shadow was my best hope at having a life in a world where Bill Barr is Attorney General. Ever since, I keep trying to find a way to live an alternative in Christ in the shadow of the doomed monsters. They are passing away, after all, and what they thought was the Lord’s powerlessness will upend them forever. Plus, even they need a place to which to escape after they have killed and raped and despoiled the earth. I sat with Andres and felt like I deserved to die from my complicity with the monster from the north, but his gentle ignorance of my political plight and deep wisdom of our common spiritual future comforted and directed me.

4) Fighting it out for justice as if it amounted to percentages of a limited pie doesn’t make sense unless you want the pie.

We’ve been having the endless argument again this week after the looters smashed up corporate windows and messed up too many small businesspeople, too. “Thou shalt not steal” vs. “It’s not stealing; it’s just a bit of reparations for what was stolen.” Everyone is stealing, as usual, because in our society we live in a capitalist box. It seems to me that God is knocking on the box like (decidedly white, admittedly) Jesus in the famous painting, standing at the door. Behold, if there is not a better life than succeeding in the capitalist free-for-all, the vortex of injustice, that’s sad. Andres couldn’t have cared less about my car. How did he get so happy without a car? How did he seem so wise without knowing about my 401K? How could he know anything if he was not prepared to fight off the monster lurking in Soto Cano?

I take heart that the protests seemed to get free of the violence this weekend and turn into the morality that is uniting people around the world. But economic inequality is not going away any time soon, if ever. I’m glad I’ve met people all over the world, who don’t follow that inequality around, but follow Jesus instead.

5) There is an alternative that Anabaptists like to talk about but rarely find in North America.

I am happy we talk about the Third Way, and we (I mainly know about Circle of Hope) represent an alternative in a lot of ways. But we spend an awful lot of time sorting out the first and second ways, or whatever binary the media loves to amplify. I admit, I love to fire up my computer and read all the news every day. I might spend more time on that than time in meditation most days! I know an awful lot about the awful Trump, tromping across the street to run humanity-loving Episcopalians off their own porch. I suspect Andres never had a computer.  He missed the endless arguing; he missed the moralizing about moralizing, fury about fury and, exclusion over excluding. Maybe I am over-idealizing him, but I remember him as being strangely at peace. I not only want that peace, I want to make it.

I know I am making “points” as I go along telling these little stories. I’m not trying to tidy up my experience or yours – not really. It’s more of a confession. If you are a so-called white person, you probably have some of your own confession to make. So I am not trying to whitesplain anything, just trying to learn old lessons better. My lessons are not final and it would not be surprising if they aren’t the ones you want or need to hear. So let’s be friends. I just thought I’d tell you about a good man in the middle of nowhere who was driven out of his home and ended up in a refugee camp. He learned faith and it made him remarkable to me. Maybe he had an easier situation in which to learn faith at that point than we have in the belly of this beast – good for him. But maybe we can do it, too, instead of biting and devouring one another in reflection of the monster.

I think MCC made a decent investment by baptizing me. I certainly became better friends with the refugees of the world and with a lot of other people I probably would have continued to otherize. We are so preoccupied with stealing in the U.S., the country has ended up with a lot of stuff. When we ship it off to people with one potato periodically, I feel like some justice is done. Even better, when we get to know them and figure out our whole way of looking at things may not have much of a Jesus lens, love gets a chance to bloom. Then I feel we might be able to see a little bit.

For the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.

Last week about thirty of us slaves of Christ were doing some theology about Paul’s teaching in the New Testament and how it could inform how we think about our “social action.” The two-tiered idea we explored has proven helpful to many people so far. See it for yourself at the Way of Jesus.

One of the places where we could see Paul’s two-tiered thinking was when he related to slaves. In this day, when people are into the idolatry Trump preaches, in which young people are chained to their survival jobs and debt, when white supremacists are trying to re-enslave African Americans, and in which we are all tempted to bow in fear before the Tweeter-in-chief, we may need to think about freeing the slaves more consciously than ever.

Be small

First, if we want to get anything out of Paul’s thoughts on slavery, we have to remember that when he speaks to women, Gentiles and slaves seriously as members of the church, his respect is subversive. We often forget, as we turn our “imperial gaze” on the “others” who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those “others.” He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the “others” in their towns and villages. So he writes from “under” not “over.”

One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied  things up by using the word servant  instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.

Slaving

Once in Paul’s shoes, we can see what he is talking about. His thoughts are a lot bigger than whether a person is going to gain social or political freedom. That achievement would be frosting on his hope cake. The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us. Here’s just one example of how he thinks:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” – Colossians 3:23-4. That last clause should read: “It is for the Lord (master) Christ you are slaving.”

Everyone who is thoroughly trained in democratic equality and the centrality of human choice (the general God-free zone of Western thought these days) is likely to think those lines are heresy; it might even feel icky to read them, taboo. Slaving?! Paul has none of those qualms. He finds it an honor to be a slave in Christ’s house as opposed to being a ruler in a house of lies. God is a “master” beyond anything Hobbes, Rousseau or Ayn Rand could imagine.

The world in its present form is passing away

So when he goes on to talk to slaves, locked in their situation with masters, benign or despotic, Paul has a variety of options for them. His first tier thinking makes him completely free to do the best he can with what he’s got in the day to day, passing-away, fallen world. So he says to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord…. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.” — Colossians 3:22, 25

Elsewhere, of course, he advises slaves to get free if they can. And he tells Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother, or to just charge him whatever it costs to set him free.

There are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond to such ideas, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.” Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we experience the hope that we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.

How do we take action?

So what do we do in the face of the oppressive masters beating down on us and the world? Pray harder, safe in our salvation? Absolutely. But that is not all. We are already taking action in many more ways. I think we summarize what we do well in our statement of our mission.

Loving the thirsty people of our fractured region,
we keep generating a new expression of the church
to resist and restore with those moved by the Holy Spirit.

We resist. I am Christ’s slave. That is a defiant statement of resistance. My existence is resistance. I will never be a slave to a human, no matter what one does to me: buy me, imprison me, or take away my livelihood. I will always belong to the Lord, forever. And, as Jesus demonstrates, in a very real sense, Jesus will belong to me forever. He has made Himself our slave.

We restore. I am an obedient slave. My work is well-ordered. Jesus is the Lord of all and we are making that known and effective, day by day. We restore by reorienting people’s identities to align with their salvation. We restore by relentlessly loving in the face of hate and indifference. We restore by telling the truth in the face of lies. We restore by sharing our resources and making peace. And, I think most important, we restore by practicing the kind of mutuality that creates an alternative community that is not allied with the powers that dig up the world and destroy connections between God and people like hurricanes blasting through our village.

Our existence is the fount of our resistance. We can only hope that the country will be put to right soon. But even if it isn’t, we know who we are and we know what to do.  Being knit together in the love of Jesus is more important than ever, isn’t it!