First, Inspiration from Others Regarding Proximity
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.― Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Solidarity is therefore not a form of disengagement with those who are not poor. It is instead an engagement with the whole world from the vantage point of a deep connection with those who have been excluded, confined to the margins of society, or made poor by the economic systems and structures of that world. It is the practice of aligning one’s hopes with the poor and marginalized by placing one’s self in proximity to those people. (Italics added)― Matthew Colwell, Sabbath Economics: Household Practices
Then, Some Brain Science
Let’s get something out of the way. I am a childhood trauma survivor. The trauma I experienced was “complex,” and the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that I contend with daily is complex as well. That matters because trauma- especially complex trauma experienced from birth (and even in the womb)- dramatically impacts how the brain forms. So these days I understand that for someone with Complex PTSD like myself, I can frequently be driven into the “back of my brain” where the fight/flight/freeze mechanism drives behavior and higher thought (which is centered more or less in the “front of my brain”) is shut off. This response (being driven into the back of my brain) can be “triggered” by almost anything, and it almost never leads to good outcomes, especially relationally. So my therapeutic work now is focused on trying to essentially “hotwire” my brain. I’m grateful for the concept of “neuroplasticity,” which posits that the brain can change throughout life. New neural pathways can be formed even as adults, and these new pathways can work around old ones that trigger a trauma response.
All of this is important because so often my own behavior is incomprehensible to me, when I’m in the front of my brain, that is. Why do I repeat the same mistakes relationally throughout my life? If I believe as we read in the Bible that it is our duty to “owe nothing to anyone,” why do I rack up debt, work hard to get out of it, and then do it again and again and again? One clear answer is trauma, and this reminds me of the Apostle Paul, who said in Romans 7:15 that “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” From what we know of Paul’s life, he was undoubtedly a trauma survivor, among other things. Of course, I’m not a clinician, but just as Paul was limited in his understanding of the world by the first century context in which he was rooted, I too am “limited” by the context that I bring to the text, and Paul’s words here sound awfully familiar. I can relate. In the passage Paul refers to various laws “at war within him,” one of them being the “law of sin.” There’s a lot to unpack there and voices far more authoritative than mine to listen to when doing that theological work (some of which will be referenced below), but for now I just want to notice that I often feel the same way- every day I do the opposite of what I want to, and however we conceptualize sin, I know that trauma and the brain’s response to it is part of the picture.
Next, Some Good “Christian” Guilt
So, with this bit of brain science as a backdrop, I’ll say that as a childhood trauma survivor raised in the “Bible belt” of the southern United States, my entire life has been marked by guilt. That has been especially true as an adult, knowing that as a male of European descent with access to the many privileges afforded to “white” citizens of U.S. empire, I and my family occupy an outsize place in the world. We consume more resources, produce more waste, and accumulate more wealth than our global neighbors, and all of these practices are unsustainable. Our vantage point is from “over,” not “under” (more on that below). Not only compared to how most people in the world live today, but especially when compared to how most people have lived throughout history, we’re fabulously wealthy. When we became homeowners for the first time we bought a modest house by “middle class” USAmerican standards. This is the house we “owned” for about a decade:
Meanwhile, much of the world lives like this, or worse:
When reminded of this truth, guilt is my go-to response. Sometimes, that guilt is followed by an attempt to do “better,” to “get small.”
Getting “Small” in “Paul’s Slavish Shoes”
There are many good ways to think about this when I’m in the front of my brain. A lot of that good thinking, when I’m able to do it, has been informed for me by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove‘s book God’s Economy and by some great theological work done by our Philadelphia faith community, Circle of Hope. As Circle’s founding pastor, Rod White, wrote:
We often forget, as we turn our “imperial gaze” on the “others” who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those “others.” He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the “others” in their towns and villages. So he writes from “under” not “over.”
One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied things up by using the word servant instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.
Here Rod and the good folks that make up Circle of Hope are doing some heavy theological lifting, working with Paul’s writing to push past some of the barriers that we “white” Christians in USAmerica, so far removed from the context in which Paul wrote, bring to the text. While trying to understand this with Paul’s “slavish shoes” on, what I continue to be struck by is the idea that we need to get “small,” that we need to work at following Jesus from “under,” not “over.” How can we really love a Savior if our day to day lives seldom afford us an opportunity to need much saving?
Solidarity Requires Proximity. Being the church does too.
Another big influence that helps to inform my thinking on all this is Ched Myers and his work with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries. Our first real exposure to Ched’s thought was in Sabbath Economics: Household Practices by Matthew Colwell, a follow-up to Myers’ seminal work, Sabbath Economics. As quoted at the top of this page, Colwell writes:
Solidarity is therefore not a form of disengagement with those who are not poor. It is instead an engagement with the whole world from the vantage point of a deep connection with those who have been excluded, confined to the margins of society, or made poor by the economic systems and structures of that world. It is the practice of aligning one’s hopes with the poor and marginalized by placing one’s self in proximity to those people. (Italics added)
Elsewhere (in Prophecy and Passion: Essays in Honour of Athol Gill) Ched himself wrote:
Above all…Christians must work with and for the poor in solidarity. As Jesus says to his community in Mark 14:7, “the poor will always be with you.” This passage- notoriously misunderstood and misused by preachers and politicians alike- is not about the inevitability of poverty but about the social location of the church- a place where the poor can find good news!
All of this, then, when I’m in the front of my brain, motivates me to want to get “small,” to get closer to experiencing life from “under,” not “over.” Perhaps some day I’ll know better what it’s like to walk in “Paul’s slavish shoes.” Writing this now in uncertain times as COVID-19 overtakes the world, it’s clear that a reckoning may be on the horizon for materially rich and poor alike. That said, what I know right now is that not only does solidarity with the “least of these” require proximity, but of course following Jesus does too. When my wife and I lived in Philadelphia and were daily a part of Circle of Hope, the faith community I referenced above, I learned for the first time that “the church” is a people, not a place, that “we are the church.” But you can’t be the church together without proximity, without being close. Perhaps in what could very well be a new era of pandemics (due to climate change and extractive consumer capitalism) we will imagine new ways of being proximate to one another while maintaining “social distancing.” Either way, proximity matters.
Because proximity matters, especially for the church, we must be together, in one way or another, as much as possible. And if as the church we are called to “alternativity,” it is only by being proximate to each other that we can build “small” alternative social and economic structures from “under, not over.” Proximity is what makes solidarity possible as we learn how to share in a gift economy. Likewise, as the world is being remade before our eyes, we materially wealthy “white” people need to be close to the materially poor so that they can school us on what it means to trust God for our daily bread. We need to be close to our Indigenous elders so that we can learn what it means to live in harmony with the earth. Moreover, we must be close to those who have long lived “under” the thumb of empire so that we can be freed of our “imperial gaze” and see Scripture as its writers and first hearers did. In short, we need to re-learn how to be proximate to Jesus. This blog is about that journey.