Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Breaking Down Barriers

In the book of Galatians we read:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Echoing this powerful statement, Kathy Escobar in her book Down We Go quotes her friend Ken Loyd as saying:

“There's no us and them; there's only us.”

Kathy and her friend emphasize that the Kingdom of God doesn't divide between people. This Kingdom doesn't have a privileged elite and the less-privileged masses. It doesn't respect differences between races, ethnicities, economic levels or genders. Nonetheless, she argues, we perpetuate such divisions in our culture and, unfortunately, in our churches.

“We make friends and build relationships with people who have similar backgrounds, educations, passions and theologies. Individuals and groups with resources and power very rarely mix with people without them, and we see this perpetuated in class systems, racial divides, and the deep chasms between groups we see in many neighborhoods.”

We create and maintain these divisions because they give us a sense of security, comfort and identity. Obviously it is much easier to relate to people who are like me than to people who are unlike me. Also, by focusing on those who are most like me, I can avoid being confronted by unpleasant realities or unwelcome ideas, things that disrupt my settled world. I can label the outsider and by so doing quickly dismiss her or him. Dianna Anderson recently wrote this insightful piece on othering, the process by which we label those who are different than us so that we don't have to encounter and deal with them as individuals and real people. As she says:

“We Other the people we disagree with – when we make them, in our minds, into something so unlike ourselves that we strip them of their humanity and dignity.”

In order to avoid othering, to destroy the walls and divisions we build to separate ourselves from others, Kathy suggests that we must first get in touch with our own spiritual poverty. “The barriers exist because we're afraid to acknowledge our pain,” she states. By building barriers and excluding others we believe we can protect ourselves. We can put ourselves in a superior position as the ones who have it together, who can offer help, assistance or advice to others, to those poor unfortunate “others” who haven't got what the people in our group have. If only they would be like us, then they'd be okay (and society would be a better place.)

Embracing our spiritual poverty, Kathy tells us, opens us to real relationships.

“When we give up self-protection we allow ourselves to feel and care. We begin to weep with others and weep for ourselves. We become acutely aware of the human struggle not only in others' lives but also our own. We let go of quick fixes and simple solutions and embrace the long, hard journey of relationship with other people where we cry together, celebrate together, and feel each other's pain.”

Breaking down the barriers requires us also to give up our positions of privilege and control. If we include those whom we have excluded and treat them as equals with full human dignity, we must listen to their input, value their contributions and allow them to speak into our lives as well. I want to come back to this in a future post and look at a paradigm shift Kathy proposes in how we build relationships across boundaries that have often divided people.

Although I embrace fully this vision of a community in which us versus them has become just us, I must admit that it also makes me incredibly uncomfortable. For example, an organization to which I belong is currently undergoing a significant restructuring. As part of this process the leaders of the organization proposed to eliminate the category of “member.” I, along with many others, responded quite negatively to this proposal. We didn't want to open the doors to just anyone who might want to become affiliated with our organization. We didn't want to risk losing control. As an organization we are still wrestling with this proposal, its implications and how we might become more inclusive without losing our organizational distinctives. As I think of what Kathy has written, I'm re-evaluating my perspective on this question. I'm asking myself why I feel it is so important to maintain a boundary between members and non-members. At the same time I'm asking myself whether Kathy's vision is realistic in this fallen world. I like the idea as a concept, but when I start thinking of what it might look like in practice I become much less bold. As Kathy suggests, I am afraid to make myself vulnerable and to surrender my sense of security and control.

I'm trying to take steps in this direction. I'm trying to listen to voices that I previously would have ignored or even mocked. I'm trying to not other those I disagree with, although I see how easily and often I do it. I'm looking for opportunities to connect with those who can offer me new horizons and perspectives and, just maybe, play a role in transforming me. I'm tentatively stepping outside of my safe and comfortable Christian bubble and encountering the world at large. It's exciting but scary at the same time.

How have you created or perpetuated divisions in your community, society and in the Church? What steps have you taken or can you take to remove those barriers? How does the prospect of this make you feel?

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