Life is complicated. Most of us know this but we absorb stories and narratives we learn from birth as if they are true for everyone and everything. The reality that confronts us with age and experience challenges us to rethink some basic assumptions and recalibrate the stories we tell ourselves about the world. As a young person with a big heart I learned first from my mother and then from compassionate friends and later from contemporaries in university that helping others was the central cause of life. In broad strokes this was a vision from the political and religious left, that those in power, a small clique of older white men, controlled money, power and culture and our role was to stop them and create an alternative way of being. It wasn’t complicated but it was hard work. Many of those around us preferred the day to day issues of politeness, working hard, playing by the rules. Getting people to think about structures, systems, social justice, this was challenging.
So off I went to change the world; feminism, more money and programs for the poor, rights for gay and lesbian people, a more inclusive culture, and understanding for people living with mental illness, these were my causes. In university, graduate school, and seminary I pushed hard for these movements; organizing efforts to get the US out of Central America, boycott South African products and investments, remove pornography from the campus and ban frosh activities like frats that brought strippers on to campus and use only inclusive language. To this day I have a lot of satisfaction in doing this good work and I feel I made a good contribution to the cause as I was one of the few in our group who knew how to talk to working class people.
But along the way the journey proved more complicated than I imagined. Young women rejected feminism in droves, many preferring to stay home and leave behind promising careers, not because of the sexism they faced in society but because they wanted to be stay-at-home mothers. To this day all of the voices I hear who reject working for a female boss are women and when a couple tell me they want a male Minister to marry them it is always the bride who is making the request. In the United States and Canada working class people often vote for right wing parties whose economic policies favour the rich. If you want to understand that development you need to read Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. And over time all demographics have become increasingly disillusioned with the effectiveness and competency of governments to deal with social and economic challenges.
This was NOT the way it was supposed to be. For myself the larger causes of inclusion and justice never wavered. But increasingly I saw entrepreneurial people, efforts and solutions as more effective than static, one-size-fits-all, government programs and bureaucrats. That was true for me both in the community, in government and in the larger church I serve.
I still hold to all the goals I had for society back in my early adulthood but I now think that people who are on the margins cannot completely receive self-worth from a program or a redistribution of wealth or power. As someone of the left I still believe that we who have power and wealth need to put what we have on the table, in the form of taxes and surrendering power, but we cannot just give others what we have and expect things to be different unless those on the other end of covenant feel the power they assume and this brings deeper joy to their lives. I think many of the creative and dynamic entrepreneurial programs I have witnessed (Habitat for Humanity, L’Arche, mixed housing projects, open green space and community gardens for people from different demographics to meet and interact) have been more effective over the long-term than the static government programs I saw in the 70’s and 80’s.
Which brings me to my central point. We need to get out more. One reason that many of those on the left have not wrestled with some of the complications and messiness of the work of social justice is that they so rarely talk to people with a different opinion than their own. The number of people on the left who advocate for social justice but don’t really know someone who would benefit from the programs they push for is troubling. That disconnect does not help the cause and it creates problems not only for the way the advocacy is framed but also for the programs themselves. Knowing people very different from yourself is not limited to people from other cultures who have exactly the same ideology you have. There is also the working class man around the corner you pass by every day who fixes your car or the personal care worker who looks after your mother. Knowing a little bit about their story, their needs and their aspirations helps.
I’ve learned that persons who have been marginalized need and want to find a path to empowerment with their own efforts, that it is not just the goal of full inclusion but also the sense that one has played a part in getting there with one’s own efforts. Moreover, what that full inclusion looks and feels like may be very different to the person on margins than it appears to be for the person who is seeking to mend a broken world using their own power, to surrender their own power. I think I knew this in my gut way back when but pushed that down in my consciousness because I trusted that those leading the cause knew more than me. I’ve lost that trust.
If anything I believe in the cause of social justice and full inclusion even more today than I did then. But knowing the very people I want to see included in our society has helped me understand more about the means and the ends of this important and life-giving work. And so it continues…