In my years at Westmont, I was active in a ministry on the Westside of Santa Barbara aptly named “Westside Ministries”. One of my partners in ministry has currently gone on to be a co-leader of Westmont’s student organization Racial Equality and Justice, and this morning I read a bit of her reflections (you can find them here).
Out of curiosity I began scanning the rest of the blog, which was “established as a space for critical dialogue on structural inequalities at…universities and colleges”. As I read, I was deeply upset. Each post contained stories of rejection and hurt—professors are belittled; students’ identities are trivialized; diverse representation in conferences is lacking. However what is most disturbing for me is the fact that these are all recent, and they are not just stories from Universities at large, but Christian schools, many of the complaints coming from faculty, staff, and students at Westmont.
I was largely unaware of most of the hurt many Latino, Asian, Black, Pacific Islander, LGBT, working class, or whatever other-case students and teachers experienced at Westmont. When I did recognize injustice, it only led me to thinking of myself as “more aware.” I was a Sociology major. I took classes in Racial and Ethnic relations. I was(/am) a feminist. I went to the conversation café on the intersection between the Church and the LGBT movement. I volunteered with Latino Families. I (admittedly) held myself on a pedestal. But I also come from a place of privilege, and this means that often I can close my eyes to the injustices around me because (and here is the lie that exists in the space of privilege) “it doesn’t affect me.”
I would never say that’s what I thought, but those things didn’t affect me directly. But saying “it doesn’t affect me” is a lie, because although I may not be experiencing the prejudice, it does affect me! When others are dehumanized, hierarchies are established. We are all dehumanized! We are all made in the image of God (imago Dei) and to treat another as though he/she/they are not capable of thinking or doing something due to their race, ethnicity, social status, gender, religion, or sexual orientation is to say that God made some people less than others. There are no hierarchies in the kingdom of God, and in the Kingdom one is not complete without the other. (side note here: even if injustice toward other didn’t affect me in the slightest, it would still be wrong)
The idea of a diverse Kingdom I was introduced to in my missiology class. Not one group of us can completely understand the Kingdom of God. It is both immature and absurd for one group to say they can fully know God. Anyone who has spent time in different churches (especially if this means visiting churches made up of people who come from a different ethnic background than yourself) will know that each church focuses on different aspects of God. This may not be intentional, but specific stories and aspects of God connect deeply with particular cultures. The church we attended near Mavhuza (Dzingidzingi Church) loved to tell the story of Moses, leading the people out of Egypt. Often, the phrase “don’t go back to Egypt!” was repeated, reminding people that God has removed their sin from them and they should continue on the walk forward. People connected deeply with this idea of persistence even when weary. Additionally, at Dzingidzingi Church God is celebrated and praised with loud songs and dance. In my own church experiences, we were encouraged to contemplate God during the time of musical worship—to meditate on him and pray to him. Does God prefer either of these means of worship? No! Because they come from our hearts and are expressions of our person, they are expressions of who God made us to be. And because we are made in the image of God, they are expressions of God himself.
That may seem as a bit off-track from the original argument, but this is my point: we cannot fully know God without getting to know each other; we cannot know each other if we do not see each other as equal; and we cannot see each other as equal until we admit the ways in which we have wronged or dehumanized each other.
How many times have my actions or words been hurtful, coming from a place I have yet to acknowledge? Though race and ethnicity was a major focus of my studies in my last two years at Westmont, daily I become more aware of the place of extreme privilege from which I come. Although it is uncomfortable, I thank God that I live in a place where I can be daily challenged. Not only is Wells Estate a place where I work, it is a community. People actually live there; it is not just my office. There, people bathe and sleep and cook and laugh and cry and hurt…just like me.
But I know that I still don’t see everything, and I know that I still hurt others (microaggressions?), and for this I apologize. I apologize for my pedestal. I apologize for all those times I thought that I understood. I apologize for thinking that because I am more educated than another, I am somehow never in the wrong. I apologize for not listening enough. I apologize for sometimes believing stereotypes. I apologize for when I failed to speak out against injustice. I apologize for all the times I had discussions about racial injustice, but failed to protest against it. And I apologize for all the times in the future that I will fail again.
And with that, I pray that we each can see ourselves rightly here on the earth, looking up to Jesus on the Cross–the only one above any of us.