Fighting the demons of systemic oppression is a holy, but exhausting work – not just for the time and energy that it demands, but for the seemingly endless -isms there are to fight. Carmelo Santos – scholar, pastor, and editor – gives us a word of encouragement this week, though. The ways that evil torments society may be a beast of many heads, but by fully confronting one of those societal ills you eventually end up taking out one or two others with it. So be of courage, friends, and keep fighting the good fight. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
Going Radical in my Front Yard
My fifteen seconds of fame came when as a pastor in the DC Metro area I became involved with the immigrants’ rights movement. There were fasts to reunite families, rallies to agitate Congress to act on immigration reform, and pastoral meetings congressional staff. We even borrowed a page from the Occupy Wall Street movement and were successful in “occupying” Congress for about an hour in order to bring to our decision makers the voices of those most affected by their decisions (or more accurately, by their indecision). And there were symbolic acts of civil disobedience (or, as my elders taught me to think of them, acts of obedience to the gospel).
During one of those events a journalist approached me for an interview. She seemed baffled by the fact that I was a Puerto Rican, therefore a U.S. citizen by birth, and yet I was investing so much time and energy advocating for the rights of undocumented immigrants in our country. She was curious about why I had chosen that particular cause among many other worthy causes, especially since it was one that did not affect me directly. The answer came to me almost like a vision, from which I am still learning. Here I would like to share that vision and some of the insights that I have gained from it. I hope others will find something helpful in them, especially those fighting the insatiable systemic monsters of oppressions in our society.
My vision was really a memory. I remembered the one time that I had decided to do some work in my garden (well, it’s really just a few flowerbeds in my front yard). After mowing the lawn I saw some weeds that were choking the other flowers near them. So I decided to tend to the problem. Now, I don’t know much about gardening but I do know that cutting off a weed won’t get rid of it; in fact, if you are not careful you might end up spreading weed seeds further, and have even more weeds in your garden. Paradoxically, to get rid of weeds in your garden you must not immediately get rid of them, instead you must go radical.
I am using the word radical in its literal sense of going to the roots. I went radical in my front yard. There were three weeds that I was determined to get rid off. First, I grabbed one and pulled hard, as hard as I could, but to no avail. The same happened with the other two. So I decided to dig them out. I chose one of them and began to dig out the earth beneath it. I dug and dug until the roots were finally exposed. I didn’t want any roots to remain so I dug a little more and then grabbed the roots to pull them out of the soil. To my surprise, not only did the weed that I was focusing on come out (the one that I had chosen out of the three possible ones) but the other two came out as well. The surprise to one who knows next to nothing about gardening) was that what I had thought to be three different plants, three different weeds, were in fact one!
They all shared the same root system and so they were really one even though they appeared as many. That’s it; that was the vision/memory that came to me when the reporter asked me why I had chosen immigrants’ rights as my cause. I am convinced that by taking seriously any particular system of oppression, marginalization or injustice in our society and digging deeply into its roots we will be able to find that it is connected to many other social injustices.
Therefore, by going radical on any one of them we are truly fighting against them all.
Alternatively, by settling for simplistic solutions we might end up feeling good about ourselves and feeding the illusion that we are fighting for a just cause when unbeknownst to us we are actually further spreading seeds of violence, hatred, and division. Furthermore, my garden vision also helps me to remember that weeding out injustice is not the ultimate goal of our activism; growing flowers of peace, justice, and loving-kindness is.
Rules for Fighting Multi-Headed Monsters
Another metaphor that I find helpful regarding the struggle for social justice, and that I think complements the vision of the garden, is that of fighting a multi-headed monster. I am, of course, borrowing the image from the book of Revelations, where the beast stands for the Roman Empire, and the heads and horns are its many allies and proxies.
“Divide and conquer” is the favorite motto of the multi-headed beast. It has so many heads (racism, patriarchy, colonialism, white supremacy, etc.), each so monstrous and lethal on its own that it is easy to forget that it is but one head in a multi-headed monster. If the victims of the monster don’t realize that all the heads belong to the same beast then one hears baffling comments along the lines of “my monster is worse than your monster,” or “our cause is more urgent than your cause.”
The monster smiles, and sometimes one of the heads offers itself as the champion or “the voice” of one set of victims against the others, vowing solemnly to help them get back from the other groups the resources that have been stolen from them so that they can achieve the greatness that they yearn. And so they pledge allegiance to the very beast that has devoured their resources and whose insatiable greed has trumped their needs and condemned them to the misery that now afflicts them.
Blinded by their justified frustration, anger, and a myriad of unexamined prejudices, the groups aim their weapons against each other – and forget the beast!
The beast feeds on hatred, ignorance and divisiveness. Therefore, the first rule for fighting the beast of injustice is this: don’t feed the beast!
An apostle who knew a thing or two about fighting beasts, wrote: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” (Ephesians 6:12). This is so easy to forget, but it is so true and so important to keep in mind in order to not allow our efforts to get derailed. We must be very clear about who, or, more accurately, what, the enemy is. Think again about the multi-headed beast. The damage it does to its victims is produced directly by a specific head and its fangs, metaphorically speaking, of course. But what if, like a shark, it grows new teeth constantly so that removing its teeth would be of no consequence. And, what if our beast were like the mythological hydra imagined by the Greeks, so that cutting any of its heads would only result in more heads growing instead!
The actual individuals and groups that perpetrate and perpetuate violence and oppression in its manifold expressions are like the teeth and heads of the beast. They are the ones causing pain and wreaking havoc in our marginalized and oppressed communities and yet the solution does not lie in attacking them or getting rid of them. This is hard to write but from s spiritual perspective they are not the ultimate enemy, in fact they themselves are victims of a form of demonic possession that has condemn them to serve the beast at the expense of having their humanity distorted almost beyond recognition. But Jesus taught us to love our enemies. And that is not a nice or even naïve platitude; it can actually be a very powerful tactic in the struggle for justice and peace, as many of our spiritual elders have shown us.
Thus the second rule for fighting the beast of injustice is this: don’t get distracted, intimidated or overwhelmed by its many heads and sharp teeth, choose one of its heads (even as you keep the others in mind) and track it down to its neck all the way down to the heart.
That is, go radical: get to the roots.
That might not be as immediately satisfying as slashing off evil monsters’ heads, but if what we want is to bring about real change, to find long lasting solutions to the heart wrenching suffering that our communities face, then we must do the hard and unglamorous work of understanding the spiritual roots (or heart) of the systems of oppression that we fight and find effective ways to uproot them.
In the end we must remember the humbling and yet hope inspiring fact that only God’s Messiah can slay the dragon for good. And only the Spirit of God can weed our gardens and turn our desert places into blooming flowerbeds. We get to be part of God’s work of liberation, healing and redemption, but it is ultimately God’s work. That doesn’t mean that we can lower our guard or give up the struggle. On the contrary, it means that we can press on with a sense of peace knowing that our struggle is rooted in God’s work and therefore nothing will be lost.
Therefore, the third and last rule for fighting the multi-headed monster of injustice is this: To remember that every small act of kindness, every word advocating justice, every sacrifice inspired by real love, every small gesture of reconciliation, is a seed that we offer to God, who will use them to plant the garden of a new society blooming with peace, justice and mercy.
Carmelo Santos is a graduate of LSTC’s M.Div. and Ph.D. programs. He currently serves as Senior Pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Annandale, VA, as professorial lecturer at Georgetown University, and as editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics