Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Standing for and standing with -- solidarity with those on the margins

What is the best way to help those who are on the margins -- in terms of social or economic status, power, or in some other fashion?  How you do envision a solution, partial or whole, to the neglect or abuse of those who fall into such a category?

This is a perennial question for those working to improve living conditions for those on the outside -- those excluded based on some quality deemed inferior, insufficient, impure, inconvenient or otherwise undesirable.  A major model employed with particular vigor in the US has been the human/civil model, which has its critics such as Andrew Sullivan (writing below about discrimination involving homosexuals):
Liberalism properly restricts itself to law - not culture - in addressing social problems; and by describing all homosexuals as a monolithic minority, it is able to avoid the complexities of the gay world as a whole, just as blanket civil rights legislation draws a veil over the varieties of black America by casting the question entirely in terms of non-black attitudes.

How does this analysis work for those who support both the legal extension of rights to groups facing discrimination AND who work to address the cultural issues as well? Isn't the description offered of liberalism just another one dimensional caricaturization? The analysis makes liberals out to be a monolithic block while complaining that liberals treat blacks and homosexuals as monolithic groups.

There are issues raised worth considering, yet the cited analysis begs many questions: Is there some pre-supposed contradiction or mutual exclusivity anticipated here? Surely it is important, as some have suggested in other contexts, to stand with rather than to merely stand for the marginalized and oppressed, but does that mean we have to wait until the rest of the culture catches up before some groups can be protected by law? When exactly is it permissible to take such action on behalf of those facing discrimination?

Many approaches dubbed liberal can be superficial, but isn't that because they present and deal with too little too narrowly? If anything such a critique implies much more ought to be done. And many liberals would wholeheartedly agree. The quote attributed to Lila Watson and friends summarizes the dilemma well:

"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together."

Ironically in the same essay Sullivan admits that the problem indeed goes beyond the law:

In theory, a human rights statute sounds like an ideal solution, a way for straights to express their concern and homosexuals to legitimate their identity. But in practice, it misses the point. It might grant workers a greater sense of security were to come out in the office; and it might, by the publicity it generates, allow for greater tolerance and approval of homosexuality generally. But the real terror of coming out is deeper than economic security, and is not resolved by it; it is related to emotional and interpersonal dignity. However effective or comprehensive antidiscrimination laws are, they cannot reach far enough to tackle this issue; it is one that can only be addressed person by person, life by life, heart by heart.

A vaguely similar critique can be found in a passage from From Tattoos on the Heart by Fr. Greg Boyle:

The strategy and stance of Jesus was always consistent in that it was always out of step with the world. Jesus defied all the categories upon which the world insisted: good-evil, success-failure, pure-impure. Surely He was an equal opportunity 'pisser off-er' in this regard. The right wing would stare at Him and question where He chose to stand. They hated hated that He aligned himself with the unclean, those outside -- those folks you ought neither to touch nor be near. He hobnobbed with the leper, shared table fellowship with the sinner, and rendered Himself ritually impure in the process. They found it offense that, to boot, Jesus had no regard for their wedge issues, their constitutional amendments or their culture wars.

The Left was equally annoyed. They wanted to see the ten-point plan, the revolution in high gear, the toppling of sinful social structures. They were impatient with His brand of solidarity. They wanted to see Him take the right stand on issues, not just standing in the right place.

But Jesus stood with the outcast. The Left screamed: 'Don't just stand there, do something.' And the Right maintained: 'Don't stand with those folks at all.' Both sides, seeing Jesus as the wrong size for this world, came to their own reasons for wanting Him dead. Both sides were equally impressed when He unrolled the scroll and spoke of 'Good news to the poor'...'sight to the blind'...liberty to the captives.' Yet only a handful of verses later, they want to throw Jesus over a cliff. (pp. 172-173)
There are many things we can do outside of the law, especially when the truth is that laws don't tend to be taken as seriously if the culture doesn't agree with them. It is important as mentioned to stand with those who marginalized as opposed to just standing for them. Building community through friendship, family and putting ourselves literally in the same places and spaces that are occupied by those who are not accepted. I just don't see these things as mutually exclusive with pursuing social justice via legal avenues.

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