To give you an example of the type of privilege ridden presentations I am talking about, there was a panel of women that included a "humanitarian photographer." I was unaware that there was such a thing until this conference, but the young woman told us the story about how she became one. When she was younger, she really enjoyed photography and thought that it would be a great way for her to travel and see the world while also making money. So she took to the world to take pictures, and then found out there in addition to all the beautiful stuff there was also a lot of poverty and despair. So she decided to become a humanitarian photographer and take pictures of that stuff instead to share with the world. While she was sharing her story, the moderator asked her to tell the audience about the great thing that she just started implementing: release forms. She proceeded to tell us how she recently began using release forms with the individuals that she photographs so that they can give their permission for their picture to be used and are informed about where and how their picture is going to be used. They discussed this idea as if it was a revolutionary idea, and a luxury that they were affording these people. In a way that very clearly suggested that they did, at least not initially, view these individuals as human beings with basic human rights. They talked as if they were entitled to these people's images, to exploit their circumstances for personal gain, and that they were doing them a favor by providing them the opportunity to agree to have their photos taken. Rather than owning the fact that photographers have been neglectful, and wrong, in not having employed this practice previously, they treated it as a brilliant revelation that deserved to be praised. This was the kind of unchecked, unrecognized privilege and entitlement that tended to be a theme in many of the presentations, particularly those of white women.
However, despite the instances like the one cited above, there was also quite a bit of insight offered as well. In this post I am going to give a few highlights from a presentation by Pastor Eugene Cho that I found particularly useful, especially in the context of the work being done in my own community,
Much of the conference centered on the concept of justice being inextricable from Jesus and Christianity. Pastor Eugene Cho led the way at the front of the conference with a great talk about just that. In his talk, he referenced Amos 5 to give us some Biblical perspective. Below is an excerpt from the chapter, and I encourage you to read the whole thing:
10 There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.
11 You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
13 Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.
14 Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is...
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
25 “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
26 You have lifted up the shrine of your king,
the pedestal of your idols,
the star of your god[b]--
which you made for yourselves.
27 Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,”
says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty.
Cho went on to explain that we often try to extract justice from Christianity and call it an agenda, rather than understanding that justice is a fundamental principle of Christianity. He explains that justice must be a part of our worship of God. We often think of worship as our songs and devotions to God, but in fact it is through our commitment to acting in accordance with His will and His principles that we worship God. Cho also cited that justice comes at a cost, and that most often real justice work is not done without sacrifice. He states that "everyone loves justice until there's a cost. There is always a cost." This message ended up being a theme of many speakers throughout the conference, and really got me thinking about the need for people who are espousing to serve certain communities to actually be immersed and involved in those communities in a real and genuine way. As Cho stated, at some point you have to walk through Samaria. In the Bible, Samaria was cited as a land of reproach, a seat of drunkards, which the Pharisees avoided walking through on their route to Galilee in order to avoid contact with the people there. This harkens back to a quote that Cho cited from St. Francis of Assisi, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching”
It is incredibly important, particularly for white people, not to become like the Pharisees, where we cast our vision for moral sanctity and righteousness based on what is familiar to us, without ever truly exposing ourselves to the realities of others. In attempting to do work without fully understanding the fundamental differences between us and others, we run the risk of developing the Great White Savior complex, and becoming "do gooders" rather than actually doing any good. We evaluate and measure based on our norms, and assert our own agendas onto other people without ever stopping to consider what they might actually want or need. By actually walking through Samaria, actually engaging in areas that we are trying to affect, we can better understand how we can be supportive and effective, rather than attempting to cast judgment from afar.
By doing this, we avoid making people into projects, in a way similar to that of the humanitarian photographer. Cho warned that God never intended for people to be our PROJECT. When we reduce people to projects, we dehumanize them, and we forget the reality of mutuality and reciprocity.
For this reason, we must always be open to learning new things. One of the most poignant things that Cho said was that often, "we pray to God to move mountains, not realizing that we might be the mountains God is trying to move." We can become blind to the fact that we may be the very ones who are preventing work from getting done through our approach. This reminds me of the way in which the Bible warns us to take the plank out of our own eye before judging the splinter in someone else's. It is important for people who are doing justice work to engage in constant self-reflection, and to check themselves frequently. Sometimes the first step in being an effective advocate for justice is to evaluate and reassess our own values. I find this to be particularly true for white Americans. We have a culture that is so fixated on material wealth that we often miss other very important aspects of life. As Cho stated, "You western people are so poor. All you have is money." He suggests that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, as we would likely state, but that it is community. I would have to agree with him on that.