This complicated, imperfect world: an essay

I have always been hesitant to rock the boat; to challenge another’s opinion. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I don’t often get my feet muddy or my hair wet. The dirt splattered across my pants comes from my daughter jumping into a rain puddle, not me. I am usually complacent, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.

little-girl-sandals-mud-rain
Photo courtesy of Michael Krueger

This was made clear to me after a pre-November 8 conversation with a friend.

We had only been driving together for a few minutes. It was close to midnight and the street lights illuminated the road. My daughter Clara and I were visiting family in Milwaukee, and my parents had offered to put her to bed so I could see a movie with a friend. Adam and I had left the theater and as we drove down the road, our conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election and social policies directed at the poor. Adam works at a bank in Milwaukee.

Almost immediately he began to share with me his frustration over customers who receive government benefits: people, often minorities, for whom he cashes government-issued checks.  He’d recently counted out money–income she receives without working for it, worth more than his own paycheck–for a woman he assumes is a single mother who “chose to have multiple kids by multiple fathers.” Adam continued to provide example after example of people rewarded for poor choices, supported by his tax dollars with no incentive to change: a system, he sees, as broken.

In that moment my mind flooded with memories of our collective past and stark realities of the present. I thought of white privilege: of how blessed we both were growing up each with two parents in stable homes in safe, affluent neighborhoods; regularly attending Mass (and actually, to be honest, he more so than I). I thought of my own stories of encountering the working poor while living at a Catholic Worker house in La Crosse. I thought of socioeconomic studies that demonstrate racial and economic disparity.

In the end though, all that I managed to say was: “Yes, it doesn’t always make sense, but every person has dignity and is deserving of dignity.”

“Michael,” Adam quickly retorted, “You can’t honestly tell me that woman is equal to you in any way. She’ll never be. I love you Michael, but you just don’t understand how some things in our society work.”

This is where the true test comes in. No matter how much I disagree with his statement, to him it’s absolute truth. There will be other examples from Adam’s work and stories in the media to confirm his bias, and new life experiences and encounters to affirm my own.  He is tired of being labeled racist for “calling it like it is.” I will not change his opinion, and he will not change mine.

And yet we still plan to see each other the next time I’m in town; still plan to share our beliefs; still plan to disagree.

So does this mean we live in a broken, polarized society; one that is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility, impassable and unforgiving? Yes and no. I believe we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flashpoints erupting and boiling over in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces; lead-tainted water; Standing Rock Reservation; “Lock her up” and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks.

But what we have to be mindful of and profusely share is that we’re also immersed in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy. Sometimes it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective. In a 2012 TEDx Talk, Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, remarked, “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”

We are called to stand with compassion and not hesitate to step out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world … this complicated, imperfect life.

Watch for a second post tomorrow–a poem, composed by Michael–that encapsulates this “complicated, imperfect world.”

About the Rabble Rouser

Michael KruegerMichael-Krueger

Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison with his wife and young daughter, and recently joined efforts to begin a Catholic Worker community there.

Thanksgiving in the midst of this mess

“It’s getting ugly!” “Society is starting to collapse!” One might be tempted to scream and cry when the headlines are scanned; when turmoil bubbles up and splashes upon any sense of security and comfort that has been shielding our privileged lives.

The mess of injustice can burn us or it can mobilize us to be who we are made to be. This is the time for us to give of ourselves; to share compassion, kindness, solidarity and prayers—we have been practicing for this since the time of Jesus Christ. Yes, we Christians must indeed stand with the vulnerable and weak right now; we must protect and care for those who are oppressed and suffering with all our might. We must pay attention and help all people unite as peacemakers, as people who nonviolently resist the hate crimes and violence that are ripping communities and our nation apart. Yes, we must resist nonviolently, even willing to do so to our death–Jesus already showed us the way.

The heartache is real, the challenge is intense; the truth is disturbing and can mess up our comfort zones and our temptation to avoid. And it should. We have a lot of work to do.

But, tomorrow is THANKSGIVING. A day to feast, to pause. A day for loved ones to sit around tables and eat, eat, eat; play games and laugh, and tell stories. Can we afford to take a break?

Yes. We must. We absolutely must.

Thanksgiving is a day to practice the essentials; to lean into those we love and gain strength, to connect with our roots and remember who we are and how we’re meant to be.

Many of our families are likely to be split over the issues, to be a collection of folks who sit at different spots on the political spectrum. This day of thanksgiving—no matter who we spend it with—is a day for us to practice what we believe it will take to heal our hurts and mend the broken, messy society. We can avoid controversial topics and keep all things light and cheery (and that’s OK; that is healing and important too) or we can look into the eyes of those who are near us and try out those dialogue skills, even awkwardly. We can ask, “How are you doing, really?” and “What are you worried about right now?” and “What do you believe will help us be better?” We can listen (with compassionate curiosity), love unconditionally, tell true stories, and imitate Christ. We can practice self-sacrifice.

Thanksgiving is a day for gratitude. We can closely examine the beauty that surrounds us in faces, in food, in the dance of color and light. We can think about all the things we have learned, that have been exposed and broken open. We can consider how we’ve grown since last Thanksgiving and how God is guiding us through.

We can make “thank you” our mantra of love. A lot is good and we really are blessed, abundantly. To pause and celebrate the goodness is not only healthy, it is necessary; only in our gratitude and relationships shall we have the strength for the mission we are made for, a mission of love and joy.

There’s a lot of beauty in the endless opportunities of this sacred feast. This is an important time and by God’s grace we are ready. For this we can also say “thank you.”

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

"evening light" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Evening Light” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

 

 

counter-culturally powerful

Yesterday I asked a section of my students to raise their hands if they thought power is something God gives us.  Only half of the students raised their hands.  When I asked the other half what they thought they spoke about how power is something people earn because of their success.  “If we are all children of God, aren’t we equal?” I asked.  Not really, I was told, status sets us apart.

I believe that the electric energy of equality has the power to unite all.

"Light's great uniting power" By Sister Julia Walsh, FSPA

Within the core Christianity is a belief that all people are children of God. We are all made in God’s image and likeness, we are all people of dignity.  Everyone is holy and is worthy of honor.  God is alive within all of us.  Although our diversity helps us all to be more whole, no one is better than anyone else.  God sees as us equals and loves us all equally.

But then there’s the way society sees it.  Common culture tells us a totally different story.  Before we can read, we learn about winning and losing.  Competition is fun.  From a very young age we are taught that success and achievement are about accomplishing more, having more and earning more.  In the dynamics of capitalism, we base power upon wealth.  The rich and powerful seem to perpetually oppress the poor and powerless.  Perhaps it is because of this that we blame the poor for their problems and we are convinced that the rich are powerful because they deserve it.  Competition and consumerism connect with our experiences of power.   The fanfare of the Super Bowl is a manifestation of these attitudes.

The principles of non-violence imply that all people have the same power. No one is actually more powerful than anyone else,  just as in the eyes of God no one is better than anyone else.  The problem is that power is abused, misused, misunderstood and unknown.  Those who are more wealthy begin to believe they have the power to control, lead and guide. Those who are poor haven’t experienced the wealth and goodness of their own power.  We don’t really need to empower others, we need to encourage them as they desire to unleash the power they already have.

As we try to be faithful Christians, the tension between God’s ways and the world’s ways seems to keep us moving in circles.  When we want to experience what power really means we look to Jesus for grounding and growth.  The early Christians had some pretty good ideas about all this:

“Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him. You know the word [that] he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all..”   -Acts 10: 34-36

We know Jesus loves all.  Jesus has been with us through our highs and lows.  Jesus’ humility is power’s true way.  Into the broken, hurting, bleeding cracks of creation Christ is crying.  He’s with us and showing us what is real.

Powerlessness and being powerful blend together in a place of true humility.  We know we are nothing without God and this knowledge sets us free.  As we bend to God’s power, we are enlivened for God’s good mission.  We’ll build unity so that status no longer sets us apart.  Energized to be together, we love like Christ loves: with great humility.  May it be so, amen, indeed.