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Archive for March, 2011

I was brought up in a Christian home in an American middle-class suburban neighborhood where no minority families lived. I am a white woman of European descent. I attended a private Lutheran school until 8th grade, then a public high school where I took advanced-placement classes and graduated with a 3.8 gpa. My great-grandfather, grandmother and father all earned bachelor’s degrees, and I was encouraged and expected to do the same. I attended Wittenberg University, a small private liberal arts school, and in 4 years graduated with my B.A. in English Literature.

My parents paid for my schooling, having planned well for the financial future of our family. They did ask me to take out some student loans, not because they couldn’t afford the full tuition, but to give me a sense of investment in my own future, and to teach me how to manage money properly. I was well-cared-for, but I grew up understanding that the creature comforts in my life were privileges, not necessarily rights.

A relative sense of physical security engendered enough courage to send me out to do some globe-trotting, and so I have visited Europe and Central America, as well as spending time in parts of Canada and in 43 of the U.S. states. My travels instilled a basic understanding of our planet’s diverse ecosystems and the many cultures that exist worldwide. I have stood in ancient Mayan ruins, and watched the sun descend over mountains and prairies. I have tasted the salt of the oceans, and found my way through the narrow tangle of the streets of Venice. I have rubbed elbows with some moderately famous folks, and shared simple meals with homeless friends. I have hung drywall and put roofs on Habitat for Humanity homes, and taught struggling high-school students how to write complete sentences and do basic math.

I abandoned my Lutheran roots in young adulthood, only to surprise myself (and just about anyone else who knew me) by finding God on a farm outside of a small town in southwest Georgia. This happened only because I’ve been taught by many wise and patient mentors to be open to all possible outcomes. And so I am currently a married mother of two, a white Christian woman living in the rural southern United States.

From a statistical standpoint, I have much working in my favor: extensive education, a wide range of work experiences, supportive friends and family, a loving husband, healthy children, and so forth. Emotionally and mentally, I have all the support I could need or want. Physically, all of my needs are fulfilled every single day.

As I read recently in William Powers’ memoir Twelve by Twelve, I believe that in order to affect deep spiritual transformation in the world, I must sacrifice my birthright. In other words, I must be willing to shed my many layers of privilege and be willing to learn new ways of doing and being in the world.

My chosen path is an exercise in sacrifice. I embrace a downwardly mobile lifestyle. In fact, my family’s annual earnings are well below federal poverty guidelines. We live in intentional community, committed to daily life with about 25 other adults. We inhabit a small, simple home. We garden and raise our own livestock. We share cars, we don’t own a television or go on elaborate vacations, and our clothes and furniture are second-hand.

Yet, I often find myself wondering if I’m doing enough.

I like the way storyteller Utah Phillips tells the story of his time in a Catholic worker house with Ammon Hennacy back in the 1950’s:

He (Ammon) said, “You got to be a pacifist.” I (Utah) said, “Why?”

He said, “It’ll save your life.” And my behavior was very violent  then.

I said, “What is it?” And he said, “Well I can’t give you a book by Gandhi – you wouldn’t understand it. I can’t give you a list of rules that if you signit you’re a pacifist.” He said, “You look at it like booze. You know, alcoholism will kill somebody, until they finally get the courage to sit in a circle of people like that and put their hand up in the air and say, ‘Hi, my name’s Utah, I’m an alcoholic.’ And then you can begin to deal with the behavior, you see, and have the people define it for you whose lives you’ve destroyed.

“It’s the same with violence. You know, an alcoholic, they can be dry for twenty years; they’re never gonna sit in that circle and put their hand up and say, ‘Well, I’m not alcoholic anymore’ – no, they’re still gonna put their hand up and say, ‘Hi, my name’s Utah, I’m an alcoholic.’ It’s the same with violence. You gotta be able to put your hand in the air and acknowledge your capacity for violence, and then deal with the behavior, and have the people whose lives you messed with define that behavior for you, you see. And it’s not gonna go away – you’re gonna be dealing with it every moment in every situation for the rest of your life.”

I said, “Okay, I’ll try that,” and Ammon said “It’s not enough!”

I said: “Oh.”

He said, “You were born a white man in mid-twentieth century industrial America. You came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons. The weapons of privilege: racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. You wanna be a pacifist, it’s not just giving up guns and knives and clubs and fists and angry words, but giving up the weapons of privilege, and going into the world completely disarmed. Try that.”

That old man has been gone now twenty years, and I’m still at it. But I figure if there’s a worthwhile struggle in my own life, that, that’s probably the one.

Completely disarmed. At this point, I’m not certain that my capacity for sacrifice will ever be enough to cover the multitude of sins that have been wrought by generations and generations of my ancestry. But I will do it anyway. I will attempt to release all my weapons, place them at the foot of the cross, and accept the transformative power of the Spirit.

I have a feeling I’ll be shedding layers for the rest of my life. A daunting endeavor, to say the least. And worth every minute.

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