By: Nichola Torbett
During the summer between third and fourth grade, I moved with my mom and sister into a new school district. In my new fourth grade classroom that fall, one student was designated each day to take the attendance slip from the teacher, leave the room, and…do something. All I knew is that the chosen one would come back a few minutes later without the little pink slip. After a few weeks, my turn came. I took the little pink slip, walked out the door as I had seen other kids do, and had no idea what to do.
Now, at this point, you may be wondering why I didn’t just ask the teacher where I was supposed to go with it. That is exactly what another teacher asked me when she found me wandering the halls in tears several minutes later. I didn’t have an answer then, but looking back, I can see that by the age of nine, I had already figured out that I was supposed to know things, that knowledge was not only power but protection from being taken advantage of. To this day, it is hard for me to ask for directions. In unfamiliar neighborhoods, I duck into alleys so that no one will see me consult the map, and I am adept at reading subway maps surreptitiously out of the corner of my eye. When someone gives me information, I am always tempted to tell them that I already knew that.
Being a knower feels safe to me, and yet I am coming to see that, like so many other forms of safety and invulnerability, being a knower is a trap. It’s a trap especially for me as a white cis-gendered person with middle class connections and especially when it comes to Kingdom justice. Let me explain.
When we co-lead anti-oppression workshops, my friend Lynice Pinkard and I will sometimes use an exercise called the Privilege Walk. We begin by asking workshop participants to line up in the middle of the room. Then we read a series of prompts asking them to step forward or back: “If your family has ever been forced to move because you couldn’t pay the rent or mortgage, step back”; “If you have never been followed or treated with suspicion when shopping, step forward”; “If you often are referred to using gender pronouns with which you do not identify, step back.” As you might guess, the white, straight, cis-gendered, financially stable men end up with their noses pressed against the front wall, and everyone else is arrayed behind them according to their various degrees of privilege or lack thereof. (It is also important to remind participants that there are invisible people standing so far back that they are outside the workshop space.) Then we ask participants, “If everyone remains facing forward, who can best see what is going on in the room?” Almost without fail, everyone agrees that those toward the back of the room have the most perspective on what is happening. Then we ask, “Who has the most access to publication, microphones, public media, and other forms of ‘knowledge production’?” Again, almost without fail, everyone acknowledges that those at the very front of the room (and those with the least perspective) are most involved in shaping what constitutes knowledge in the dominant culture.
By participating in this exercise and others like it, I have come to see that much of what I think of as “knowledge” is actually more like “what I can see from here,” and that my perspective is actually quite limited. I simply can’t see enough to grasp the breadth and width and depth of change needed for justice to be established. If I long for God’s Kingdom to come, I desperately need wisdom that can only come from outside myself. Needless to say, this is humbling. It is vulnerable. And it is thrilling.
It’s thrilling because some part of me knows that my own liberation is at stake. I cannot free myself from within the self-serving, self-justifying ideas developed and disseminated by people with a stake in preserving the status quo, and I certainly don’t know what anyone else needs to do to get free.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1: 27-29). My knowing will not save me. Salvation comes from humility, from weakness, from vulnerability.
I like to think that the “wise men” in Matthew’s gospel might have had a similar realization. Learned astrologers from one or more of the historic oppressor nations, the magi come to bow down to Jesus, an infant representative of historically oppressed people, because they desperately need the new consciousness he represents. Scripture tells us that when they came to the end of their journey and found the new star rising above the place where Jesus lay, they were overcome with such joy that they fell to their knees in worship.
There have been moments, these past few months since Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson and the black community has begun to rise up, that I have felt a similar Spirit-induced swoon in the face of leadership that is largely of color, queer, and something other than cis-male. I admit it is disorienting to find myself so thoroughly decentered. I don’t know how to know in this new landscape. I can’t rely on any of the usual certainties. My ego is offended and anxious. I often find myself wanting to either take over in our action planning meetings or go entirely silent for fear of saying something stupid, neither of which is helpful. (There is a set of principles here (link to https://baysolidarity.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/protocolandprinciples/) that were developed by the Bay Area Solidarity Action Team, a group of mostly white allies who want to take action in ways that support and follow the leadership of the black community; I recommend them highly to all similarly disoriented white folks.)
And yet, despite the disorientation, the anxiety, the uncertainty, my spirit is nearly exploding with joy. God is doing a new thing, and Herod cannot contain it! I cannot contain it within any of my frameworks for understanding what is possible. Which means anything might be possible, including freedom and justice and love beyond my wildest dreams.
It is enough to bring me to my knees in hope and joy. Praise God.
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