Friday, February 17, 2017

Where is the Love? A Theological Reflection

The following theological reflection was written and shared by Dr. Emily Reimer-Barry at the "Where is the Love?" walk and vigil February 15, 2017.

What does it mean to be a Christian Changemaker in our world today? What are we trying to change and why? I’m going to talk about three changes for us to reflect on tonight: change of hearts, change of minds, change of policies.



Change of Hearts
 “Where is the love?” is an opportunity to reflect on the work we need to do—each of us, individually, to experience conversion towards the other, to prioritize the needs of those who are suffering in our midst. Recall that “compassion” means to “suffer with” someone. When, in Luke’s gospel (Lk 10), a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, he and Jesus have a conversation about the love commandment—Love God, Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan to answer this question—and in that story, the Samaritan’s response begins with pity for the suffering person, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. He cannot simply pass by. He must act. His empathy doesn’t just stay as a felt feeling but leads to action. He cares for the suffering man, and Jesus tells those listening that they should “go and do likewise.” So all of us today are asking, “Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love my neighbor?” These questions require some soul-searching from each of us. And those of us who identify as Christian know that this road leads, ultimately, to the cross. There is no way to bypass suffering. Instead, we must figure out how to become more vulnerable as our brothers and sisters are suffering, how to “suffer with” them, how to bring conversion to ourselves and others through a process of witness, compassion, and mercy in which we commit to sacrifice and suffer with those who are suffering, in order to experience conversion and to initiate conversion in others. “Because they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Change of Minds
            The second kind of change we might seek is change of mind. By this, I mean that we ask ourselves what we know, how we know it, and what we don’t know, and why. Because the truth is that there is a lot we don’t know. Changemakers need good data. But this isn’t easy.

Did you know that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that more than 46,000 migrants have lost their lives since 2000? Around the world, at least 7,500 migrants lost their lives in 2016, and many more are unaccounted for. (https://missingmigrants.iom.int/latest-global-figures)

Did you know that the US govt reports that 240 migrants died crossing the US-Mexico border in 2015, and that some human rights groups estimate that as many as 10,000 have died in the desserts of the American Southwest in the past twenty years? (http://www.borderangels.org/about-us/)

Did you know that the US Catholic bishops have called for a series of reforms to the broken US immigration system? These include: 1) policies to address the root causes of migration, such as poverty; 2) reform of our legal immigration system, including an earned legalization program and temporary worker program with appropriate worker protections and greater efficiency in handling family-based cases; and 3) restoration of due process for migrants.  Our own Bishop Robert McElroy has critiqued the recent Presidential Executive Orders as “the introduction into law of campaign sloganeering rooted in xenophobia and religious prejudice.” Bishop McElroy has said that Catholics “cannot and will not stand silent.” So what will we do then? How we will proceed? Bishop McElroy and other Catholic leaders encourage a careful effort to balance the needs of security with our commitment to welcome refugees amidst the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. Changemakers go beyond he soundbytes to get the data, data which can persuade, data which can change minds.          

Change of Policies & Structures of Injustice
Ultimately, we can start with change of hearts (conversion, listening) and change of minds (openness to new data)—but what we seek is a change of policies. We need to find ways to work together to transform unjust social structures. There is no easy, quick-fix solution. This is going to take all of us working together, in messy, complicated ways.

To work together, we need to be able to dialogue. Dialogue has been a major theme of Pope Francis, and is something he talked about when addressing the U.S. Congress in 2015. There, he told Congress of the importance of a “spirit of cooperation,” and of the need to “cooperate generously for the common good.” Indeed, he told the politicians before him that day that politics is about “building a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” What a challenging message in times of deep divisions today.

For me, key themes that guide my thinking about how to transform unjust structures are human dignity and preferential option for the poor.  The principle of human dignity says that “All human persons are made in the image and likeness of God.”  Human life is sacred from conception to natural death. All people—no matter their age, race, creed, abilities, wealth, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship—are equal in the eyes of God and must be treated with respect. People are more important than things; relationships are more important than possessions. Tonight each of us can ask ourselves what we are doing, every day, to live this out. Do you treat every person with respect? Public policies—about health care, immigration, education, taxation, and everything else—should be rooted in this principle of respect for all persons.

In his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII said that every human person has rights and obligations that flow from his/her very nature: the right to life and a worthy standard of living; the right to share in the benefits of culture; the right to worship God according to one’s conscience; the right to freely choose one’s state in life; the right to work without coercion; the right to form social unions; the right to emigrate and immigrate; and the right to participate in public affairs (8-27). In that document, the pope argued that “the fact that one is a citizen of a particular state does not detract in any way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his citizenship in the world community.” (par. 25).

What powerful words in our own context! The pope’s argument here invites all of us to consider our common humanity as prior to any identification of national identity, citizenship, or social location. So often this kind of analysis is written off as idealistic rhetoric that fails to take into consideration the reality of contemporary nation-states. But aren’t those nation-states constructed by humans in particular historical contexts, with particular histories of power and narratives of control? We can do better. We should try to do better.

That brings me to my second guiding principles, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. (Centessimus Annus (11)  This principle says that we have a moral responsibility to care for the needs of the economically poor and those most in need. Drawing on the Scriptures, this principle says that God takes sides. God is on the side of the poor against the injustices they face. So whose side are you on? God has special concern for those most marginalized. Following the example of Jesus, Christians are committed to resisting injustice, oppression, exploitation, and marginalization of people by identifying causes and building solutions. Acts of charity are important but not sufficient; attention must be paid as well to social structures that dehumanize marginalized persons.
The work we must do will not be easy. Change of hearts, change of minds, change of unjust social structures. Tonight let us commit to that work, individually, and together. Let’s support each other when it seems too difficult, challenge each other when complacency sets in, celebrate small victories when we achieve them together. Because we are all in this together. Thank you.


Dr. Emily Reimer-Barry is an Associate Professor at USD's Theology and Religious Studies Department.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Past Imperfect: From Azalea Trail Maid to Black Lives Matter

At the Women of Impact Luncheon last week, Dr. Emily Reimer-Barry delivered the Keynote Address.  With her permission, we have posted it here for you to enjoy.  We believe that her insights and reflections are the perfect way to end the fall semester and to begin thinking about the work that we will continue to do in the spring semester to make positive change in our own lives and at USD.  
The Hub would like to congratulate all of the Women of Impact award winners.  We are especially proud of Madison Ryan, Student Chair of the Changemaker Student Committee, who won the award for undergraduate students.  

The Hub has also issued a statement of support for the USD students who have raised such important and relevant issues for our campus community.  You can find the statement of support here.

We wish the entire campus community a very restful and peaceful holiday and we look forward to working with you during the spring semester.

Happy Holidays - Mike and JC
                                                                                    

Hi everyone.

I’ve been asked to briefly speak about the Catholic Social Thought principle of Human Dignity. In a sense, this principle is the foundation of every other ethical principle and norm in Catholic Social Thought from condemnation of the death penalty and nuclear weapons to advocacy for immigration reform and access to clean water.

Basically, this principle means that every life is sacred. Period. Everyone deserves a chance to thrive. Around the world, women are making a difference in big and small ways in their communities. Today we celebrate women of impact—around the world and right here at USD. The principle of human dignity means you have inherent dignity that no one can take away from you. No matter what. Speaking theologically: God loves you just as you are. You do not have to do anything to earn God’s love. God delights in you.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we are perfect. And that’s okay.
It is okay. You are okay. Nobody is perfect.

As Steven Wright has said,
If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.

PAST. PRESENT. FUTURE.

Often at the end of the semester we look back at how it has gone—what happened, what we learned, what we regret. Who am I? What kind of person am I becoming? Have you found yourself asking these questions, looking back at the semester’s highs and lows, wishing you had done this or that…

I’m going to go back twenty years.  I call this self-reflection by the tense of
Past Imperfect: From Azalea Trail Maid to Black Lives Matter

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future is contained in time past….
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
                                                            T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

PAST
Let me tell you of my folly. I was not always a feminist. I was not always so concerned about racial justice. I was not always a theological ethicist.

I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, where the last slave ship brought cargo of enslaved Africans aboard the Clotilda in 1859. Twenty years ago, during my senior year of high school, I was an Azalea Trail Maid. Believe it or not, it was seen as quite an honor in my hometown. Basically, 100 female high school students were selected and we dressed up in antebellum dresses and made frequent “appearances” at civic functions and holiday parades. Our outfit included: antebellum hoop dress, lace hat, parasol, lace gauntlets, cummerbund, bow, pantaloons, and shoes dyed to match our dress color. We were instructed to always act “like a lady,” which meant, according to the pink book: “Do not, under any circumstances, complain that you are tired, uncomfortable, hot, cold, or anything to a visitor. Learn to smile under all conditions!”

This is a big thing in Mobile. But as I look at it now, it see how it is terribly problematic. And not just because we weren’t allowed to say we were hot on 95 degree days. While the Azalea Trail Maids had been integrated for many years before I joined their ranks in 1995, the whole idea of teenage ambassadors dressed as plantation owners from the antebellum south is its own kind of revisionist history. And we know it was a brutal history. As an Azalea Trail Maid I would stand outside old plantation homes for garden parties, fundraisers, flower festivals, and the like, without ever a mention of the dehumanizing violence that was forced upon slaves on those plantations 150 years prior.

Why did I participate in such a strange and deeply offensive tradition, rooted in unspoken nostalgia masked as civic pride?  Because I didn’t think to question this tradition. I was socialized to accept it as normal.

It took me a long time to begin to see my privileges and to recognize the invisible systems of oppression that operate “as normal” in our world.  My colleague Karen Teel writes about white privilege as a feeling of being “uncomfortable” in my white skin. This is not because I do not recognize that I am a child of God created with inherent dignity. I am. But it is rather because of the power and meanings human attach to whiteness—which make me complicit in an unjust system even before I do anything in that system. Some of you are beginning to recognize these structural injustices now—because the truth is that we live in a terribly unjust world. But we can change. Things can change. Consider the meaning of “past imperfect.”

PAST IMPERFECT

  • Verb form that combines past tense and imperfective aspect (reference to a continuing or repeated event or state, e.g. used to walk).
  • “Imperfect” comes from the Latin imperfectus, “unfinished,” because the imperfect expresses an ongoing, uncompleted action

Ongoing, uncompleted action.       Like us.

My past has shaped me, but I am not defined by who I was. I was imperfect. I am imperfect. The past imperfect expresses an ongoing, uncompleted action. Aren’t we always “ongoing”?

PRESENT

Twenty years later, I stand in solidarity with student protesters. I profess that Black Lives Matter. That I can do my part to raise awareness of systemic injustices, to condemn hate speech, to do my part to create a world in which every person has what he or she needs to thrive. And we have much work to do together.

Every human life is sacred.

FUTURE

How will you live that out in your own questions, your own commitments, your own lifestyle? How does your past shape your present and empower you towards a future of hope and justice?

I’m going to close with a final reflection about the incarnation—what Christians celebrate at Christmas.

That God became human. What better way to celebrate human dignity than to remember how God chose to become one of us—to enter into the brokenness of the human condition, the messiness of ordinary family life, to teach us about how in our ongoing work for justice we cooperate in God’s plan to redeem the world. Jesuit scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds us that

Purity does not lie in a separation from the universe,
But in a deeper penetration of it.

So as we celebrate human dignity today, may each of us also be willing to look into our own lives and reflect on those areas of work in which we are “unfinished.” Each of us is a work in progress. But we will not be purified in solitary adventures of separation from the universe. No, we realize our humanity most when we stand in solidarity with those who protest injustices, when we deeply penetrate the reality of our broken world. When we meet Jesus in the stable, and the streets, and the soup kitchens, and the dorm study sessions.
Past, Present, Future.
Your story is still in progress. We don’t know how it will end up. And that’s okay.

Dr. Emily Reimer-Barry


Monday, November 23, 2015

"Why Can’t We Be The Model?"

By Dr. Mike Williams

This last week marked an important moment at the University of San Diego as students from the Black Student Union, PRIDE, the DARE Collective, and other allies presented a list of demands with respect to changes they want to enact on our campus.  In this post, I am not going to respond to the specific demands, but instead, I want to voice the reasons why I support their actions and their overall goals, and I why I stand in solidarity with their cause.  I also want to speak honestly about the ways in which I initially responded to the protests and the evolution of my thoughts over the last few days.

Earlier this semester, President Michael Roth (of Wesleyan University) delivered a lecture on the relevance and significance of a liberal arts education.  His main point was that a liberal arts university – such as the University of San Diego – must promote curriculum, programs, and a campus culture that guarantees opportunities for students to learn about, and express, new ideas (liberate), to become passionate about their ideas (animate), to work with others in pursuit of their passions (cooperate), and to take actions to produce the changes they want (instigate).  As I stood in the back of Salomon Hall on Wednesday night and watched students take over the space, respectfully submit their demands, and facilitate a dialogue with other students, faculty, and administrators on the issues that “set their hearts aflame,” I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was watching students model what a liberal arts education, and changemaking, is all about.

This reaction, where I situated their actions into conceptual categories relating to the liberal arts and changemaking, misses the point of the students’ protest, however.  While I can easily situate their actions into these categories, and while do believe that this sort of student expression exemplifies the liberal arts and changemaking, the students might resist this classification.  I know this now after speaking with numerous students, faculty, and administrators after the protest.  The students who protested, it seems to me, are coming from a lived experience where the very institutions and spaces that many faculty and administrators (including myself) believe are there to support their actions are actually perceived as inhibiting change.  This perspective, however, is one that is difficult for many faculty, administrators, and students to embrace.  For those students who can easily step into the changemaker space to take actions on those issues that they are passionate about, this perspective may seem unfounded.  For those of us (faculty and administrators) who have dedicated our careers to advance the interests of students, to advance civic engagement on and off campus, to advance a campus culture that is more inclusive and accepting, this perspective hurts because it is a critique of what we have created. In other words, speaking for myself and not for others, the “work” that I have done at USD is not just career oriented, it is very personal as well.  Thus, the critique, the distrust, and the belief that what I have created actually inhibits change is difficult to endure since it seems to be a personal attack in addition to an attack against the “business” of USD (many student protesters on Wednesday night referred to USD as a “business” rather than a “university” to highlight this point).

Photo Credit: Dr. Greg Prieto
Thus, I think one immediate reaction to the student demands is defensive.  It is to present them with stories about changes that have taken place at USD over the years.  I left Salomon Hall envisioning ways to share what USD has done over the years, and is currently doing, to address their demands.  I also started scheming of ways to “program” events for the students so that they can advance their interests.  Instinctively, I wanted to “help” and “collaborate” because I believe that in my current position as director of the Hub that I have resources that could be useful for the students.  Instead of taking a step back, taking a deep breath, and pausing to listen to the students in meaningful ways, my inclination was to take action with the students, but also, on behalf of the students. 

I am now convinced that such a strategy is bound to fail without first taking the students’ perspective seriously.  To do this, I believe it is necessary to engage with them in a way that can build trust.  As I was speaking with a colleague on Friday afternoon, and as he was presenting many of these arguments to me, it struck me that what he was suggesting I do at USD is something that I consciously do in other communities – specifically, the village of Makuleke in South Africa.  As I self-reflect, it occurs to me that I have not learned anything “new” about my understandings of community engagement and social action, but instead, the students’ protest, and the conversations that have occurred in the wake of the protests, have given me the space to think critically about how I engage students in South Africa versus how I engage students at USD.  Just like other places where USD provides students with opportunities to practice community engagement (such as, South Africa, Jamaica, or Linda Vista), USD is a diverse community and there is no “one size fits all” model on how to engage with students.  I am grateful that the students’ protests have created the space for me to self-reflect and to think about what this means for how the Hub can engage all of the students at USD more effectively.

What this will look like, I am not sure.  I am stepping back from the inclination to design a program to make this happen.  Through listening, through joining community, through practicing empathy, through practicing immersion at USD, I am hopeful that the processes, institutions, and resources that are needed to turn demands into material change will emerge.  At the protest on Wednesday night, someone asked for an example of university that creates a campus climate and space for action that the students demand.  A student immediately responded, “why can’t USD be the model?” – to which there was applause from everyone in the room.  This is the challenge and the opportunity for our campus community as we move forward.  I have always believed in the power of students to create change on their campuses as well as off their campuses.  For me, the changemaker designation at USD is one that holds us accountable to do this.  The reason I love my job as director of the Hub is so I can be a part of institutional change.  This change, however, must come with student energy, with student critique, and in spaces that are autonomous from USD structures of power.  As a faculty member, administrator, and member of the USD community, I stand in solidarity with the student protesters because they are asking difficult questions that require meaningful cooperation.  I stand in solidarity with them because I believe that what we encourage our campus community to do off-campus, we should encourage them to do on-campus: to practice empathy, to listen, to seek out other sources of knowledge and wisdom, and to take action in ways that promote participatory democracy and inclusion.  These practices and goals are not antithetical to our mission as a university.  In fact, these practices and goals embody what we aspire to be at USD.   


*As always, I invite readers to post your comments – especially if my own interpretations of the goals of the student protesters are inaccurate or misinformed.