Promises, promises

A few weeks back I was teaching a class about the Baptismal Covenant. The class of ten talked about each of the promises we make (or are made on our behalf) at our baptism. I began the class explaining that the Baptismal Covenant are promises. We promise that we believe in God as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed. We make five other promises (with God’s help) to: participate in the faith community, repent of our sins, proclaim the Good News of God in Christ through our lives, love our neighbor, and strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being.

The promises were simple to understand except for the last one. There was something uncomfortable about “striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.” Members of the class thought that this promise seemed redundant. Hadn’t we all ready promised to love our neighbors?

I tried to explain that “striving for justice” and “respecting the dignity of every human being” stepped beyond just loving our neighbor. Striving for justice meant combating injustice, confronting institution or powers that create and perpetuate inequality between us and our neighbors. Respecting the dignity of every human being meant breaking down those official walls and systems that degrade. Still, this did not seem to resonate with my class. Frankly, it did not really resonate with me all that much.

Sure, I understood that there are princes and principalities at work in this world which prey upon the poor and create disenfranchisement, but I did not really know what all that meant. When you usually sit on one side of privilege, you do not really know how the other side lives. You might care, but you can be easily distracted from the struggle for justice when you are comfortable. Little did I know that very week I would be confronted and thrust into the struggle for justice and dignity taking my foster child to her first doctor’s appointment at the free clinic.

I arrived early at the clinic. The waiting room was dirty and almost empty. I gave my information to an angry receptionist and began the process of filling out forms. Then we waited. I looked at the doctors lined up on the other side of the reception window, reading charts and chatting. Meanwhile we waited. Two other women with sick children entered the waiting room. They waited too. Two hours later, the nurse called us into the examining room. On the floor, there were old band-aids and cotton balls. We continued to wait another hour. The doctor came in and looked at my child.

They did not have her records from the hospital. Super. At this point, my blood heated from boiling to molten lava. I was going to give my two cents to someone. I was furious, but I then realized that I was over a barrel. If I said anything, I could guarantee they would give me the old heave ho, but where would my daughter go?

I cannot yet take her to the doctor of my choice. She is still in foster care with me. I did not want to make trouble so I closed my mouth. As I walked out, the same two women sat in the waiting room with their sick children. How long would they wait? As I walked out, I overheard someone on the street say: “What is that woman doing going to the free clinic? Is she on welfare? She could get a job.”

This is the other side of privilege. This is what it is like with limited options, to be treated as less than, to wait because you cannot do anything else. I never really had to wait like that before. At the clinic, they looked at those waiting with disdain and disgust, like they thought this is what we deserved. I cried that my daughter was treated that way. I thank God that she is a baby and unaware of what happened.

I experienced dignity being stripped away from those who must wait. Those who stripped away that dignity did not even know that they were doing it, I suppose. It is just the way the system is.

The system! There it is! I did not understand before, but now I had experienced one of those dignity stripping, unjust systems. I cannot ignore it anymore because I am comfortable because my child is uncomfortable.

That loving my neighbor part of our baptismal covenant automatically leads me to striving for justice and respecting the dignity of every human being. Who knew they were so closely connected? Who knew that you cannot claim to do one promise without doing the other?

So what is the Christian to do? What is our promise to God, to our community, to ourselves? Love cannot exist without justice and justice cannot exist without love. So what will we do?

A change is occurring within me, and that change within me demands action. Therefore I will pray for guidance, speaking to my faith community, and ask for help. I will repent of my willful ignorance of my brothers’ and sisters’ suffering under an unjust system that I have benefitted from. I will tell the truth, proclaim the Good News that Jesus comes to save all of us and wants none of his children to be treated less than. I will love my daughter and try to change this system so it will not crush her or anyone else’s daughter. I will, with God’s help.


Mary DY said…
Powerful experience. Thanks for sharing. I'm listening to Anne Lamott's Plan B (for the second time even). She stated "In order to get into heaven, you need a letter of recommendation from a poor person." How many of us privileged can get that help on our early resume?
Alex said…
Reading this and thinking about it I can identify with a lot of it. Sometimes it's so difficult to do the right thing.
Pam said…
Thanks for this post. I just recently found your blog and so glad for that. I teach in an masters of social work program and am in the middle of class discussions about social work as a social justice profession, the meaning of human dignity, and the need for us to know our own social location and experience of privilege and oppression. I plan to share part of your entry this next session, as you speak so well to the felt experience of systemic oppression. One of my colleagues writes: Privilege is invisible to those who hold it (Swigonski). How very true.

Finally, what I won't share in class, but what I really appreciated, was how you brought this experience back to our Baptismal Covenent. To pray. To repent. To tell the truth. To act in love. Thanks.
Anonymous said…
My pay-the-bills job is in the local assistance (welfare) office. Some of us workers have been on the other side of the desk; some have not; and the difference in attitude is noticeable, to say the least. Sometimes, you really just don't know until you've seen with your own eyes.
Ron Amundson said…
The stripping away of dignity seems ingrained in so-called support systems by design. I was going to volunteer with a homeless outreach some weeks back, and then said no way. Most certainly the outfits stats were amazing, yet dignity, rights, and autonomy of the individual were intentionally stripped away as part of the process.

I thought to myself, how could I follow Jesus and participate in such... and realistically there was no way to rectify the disparity. Not once did Jesus tear down people, or make food/shelter a conditional matter... but such manipulation in this group despite being really sick imho, apparently gives them good numbers, and thus more money to work with. Its just wrong, no matter the outcome imho.

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