Saturday, October 17, 2009

sufficient evil

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
-- Matthew 6:34 (KJV)

And I’ve carried this burden of privilege all my life, though I did not fashion it. People who had no notion of me passed it down. My privilege is hard for me to see because it hasn’t made me wealthy. It’s also hard for me to see because I’ve never been without it. What would I compare it to?

Long ago, ancestors of mine stole the labor of others and confused it with their own. They imagined that their pile of wealth was a figure of their own hard work, and then they passed it down the generations to those who thought they earned it just be being born.

More recently and locally, my parents did what they could, what they thought necessary, to get me good schools and good connections, the skills of mind and heart, that I would need to gain good things in life. They made a pile of social capital for me, as big as they knew how. As best I could I did the same for my kids.

Our children are not sociology experiments. When we first look in their eyes, we pledge not to toss them in the human lottery to come up any which way. This child, we proclaim in the name of what is sacred, will have a good start. We promise security, nourishment, encouragement and means to independence – which is more than many children ever get. We promise like Billy Bigelow to earn what it takes, or beg, or steal or take it. We promise to be unjust for this child’s sake. If we don’t make and keep this promise we are bad parents. Of course my children are privileged: it was my sacred duty to make them so. And when every valley is exalted, those who are now poor will privilege their children better than they can now.

Linus said he loved mankind, it was people he couldn’t stand. But there’s no love of God when you hate your neighbor, no scrubbed and shiny love in general apart from grimy, paltry love of ridiculous and needy creatures that surround and cling to you. The love of all is just an open set of particular loves – the love of this one, and of this, and this, and this, and . . . the next one might be Yeshua. And Linus, with his abstract love, loves none.

This is what we mean by family values – that we particular persons, few or many, nuclear or tribal, are pledged to each other in ways we are not pledged to the rest. And yet the love of those within our circle is always standing in the way of greater love outside. That’s why Yeshua renounced his family and left his home, taking to the road. He always drew the larger circle. His vision was so big, it shattered family. “If you want to be my disciple,” he said, “you must hate everyone else by comparison – your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters.”* They’re all your neighbors, even the centurions and god help us the Samaritans. And by the way, those brats out there, they’re all your children.

But here we go again, prophet – I can’t be father to all children. You invited little children unto you, but the story says you didn’t father any of them, clothe or feed them. No, I’m not a lily of the field, nor was meant to be; that is not my social location. I’ll make a deal with you. You pay the mortgage, find the health insurance, dive bottoms up in debt to send the babies off to college while dreaming of your next pink slip – then, and only then, will I let you tell me who my children are. Shatter me, prophet, if you must, but it’s my duty to shield my family from the likes of you.

St. Francis imitated Christ, renounced his parentage and wealth, and took to the road. I know that, if I quit my job, scattered my meager assets and left my home to consort with brother sun and sister moon, my children and my spouse would not feel honored by my choice. I have a family and I value them. I cannot, will not live as Yeshua and Francis did.

Imitatio Christi is not for me. We cannot all be Yeshua, if Yeshua is to be himself. Someone has to keep the house where he will knock and enter. Someone has to serve the dinner. Someone has to break the flask of oil, and wash his feet. The basileia tou theou is not all spirit; it has a body and an infrastructure. Christians say the church is the body of Christ, so – feed the holy flesh. Someone must go to market for the bread and wine. Someone must own and operate the kitchen where the poor, and the prophet, are to eat. The prophet needs a large supporting cast. If only stars can enter heaven, then hell will prove to be a tranquil place, a neighborhood where we would love to raise our kids.

What is this privilege I inherit, some of it because my skin lacks pigment? It’s partly what my parents did, and should have done, for me. And partly it’s the detritus of crimes done long ago, washed down through channels that were cut before my birth to my back door. So far I’ve survived, while someone else did not; but my inheritance, taken all together, hasn’t made me rich or safe. My grandpa, who owned property at a time and place when black men couldn’t, left me some money; and when it came I didn’t give it to the poor: I paid my debts and kept myself in business. Note to Francis: becoming homeless doesn’t solve the homeless problem.

I am not rich or powerful. In my seventh decade I’m still just hanging on. And what is my duty toward countrymen of color, more than to love kindness, act justly and walk humbly? A wise kind man of color, who led one of my church’s recent weekend inventories of racial justice, advised us not to accept the blame for all of history. We cannot be guilty of what we did not do. And we cannot be responsible for what we cannot do. To know your duty is to know the thousand things that are not your duty.

When Yeshua said the troubles of the day are sufficient, he was warning not to cripple the moment with terrors of the future. But neither should we sicken it with guilt of the irremediable past. The day is sufficient. Only on this day can I be just.

*Luke 14:26 (New Living Translation)

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