“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.”
I recently attended my 40th high school reunion. I saw and talked with people I literally had not seen in 40 years. It was a rich and wonderful experience that I will cherish for a long time. As is generally the case at reunions, most of the conversation consisted in catching up on the details of people’s lives: Where do you live? What kind of work do you do? Married? Kids? However, in a few cases the conversations became more personal and substantive.
I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Minneapolis, and so not surprisingly many of my former classmates had gone into business or professional work and had become quite wealthy themselves in the process. Yet, I was struck by the number of people who spoke of using their position and wealth to benefit the “less fortunate.” One friend had retired in his early 50’s after a lucrative legal career and now is supporting a number of non-profits. Others left their careers to actually work for non-profits. Another left business to go into ministry. One person had started a non-profit even as she continued her work. I heard of others who had turned their business surplus into foundations giving money or things such as clothing or furniture to needy people. These were sincere, good-hearted faith-driven people who were trying to live out their convictions amidst their significant financial success.
As I listened there was a question that kept stirring within me as folks talked about their efforts to help “the poor.” There was something in the language that troubled me; it was all about what we are doing for them. There was an inherent divide between we who have and they who do not. I left those conversations pondering how to move from talking about they to we? In other words how do we breakdown the dichotomy that creates givers and receivers, haves and have-nots.
An unidentified Australian aboriginal activist was once quoted as saying: “If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.” What the poor and oppressed of the world need is not charity, but justice. They don’t need missionaries and do-gooders, they need allies.
Recently at the Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed Conference, I heard Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, director of the Center for African American Studies at the University of Texas speak about “Seven Rules for Allies of the Oppressed”. I paraphrase them here for our consideration with my comments in brackets.
1. Allies know it is not enough to be liberal; we must be radical enough to want to work to change the system. [As long as we seek to “help” others while maintaining our power and privilege, we perpetuate a capitalist system that has historically marginalized women, people of color, immigrants, and gays/lesbians. Charity is not enough, we need systemic change.]
2. Be loud and crazy. [When women, people of color, or poor people speak out they are considered “hysterical,” ”threatening”, and “out of control.” Our position and privilege allows us the freedom to be loud and possibly heard.]
3. Do not tell an oppressed person to be patient. [The poor and oppressed are always told to “wait,” but as Frederick Douglas said over 150 years ago, the powerful do not give up power willingly, it must be taken from them.]
4. Recognize that racism, sexism and homophobia are structural. [The disparities that exist along racial, gender and orientation lines are built into the system, that’s why the system must be radically changed.]
5. When called out about your racism, sexism, homophobia or other –isms, don’t cower in embarrassment, cry, try to cover, or accuse the other person of being unfair. Instead be grateful they took the time and had the courage to expose you. [This is a hard one for folks of privilege, but so true; I speak from experience as one who has been called out more than once.]
6. Support alternative possibilities. [The rationale and strategies that created oppression will not resolve it; we need new paradigms.]
7. Don’t work to make the world better for the oppressed. Instead work to create a world that we would want to live in with all others – a world that provides equality, dignity, humanity and justice for all people.
This week we saw the Congress and President pass legislation that further requires the poor of our country to go without so the wealthy and corporations can bear no burden. As people of faith and conscience, we should be considering whose side are we on.
Will we continue to perpetuate a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many?
Will we continue to perpetuate the myth that our system is fair and just, or will we choose to be allies with those that suffer?
Will we perpetuate the we-they divide, or will we see that our liberation is inextricably bound up with those who suffer poverty, discrimination, and oppression in our world?