We’ve been reflecting together on how we are called to be in community with those on the margins. I’m torn between being excited by the topic and apprehensive. When done well, living in community with the marginalized is discipleship. When done poorly, it has a tendency to inflict harm on vulnerable communities. Even the language of marginalization is tricky. If we do not name the ways that people have been marginalized, we will not seek justice. Yet, saying that I’m going to live in community with those at the margins holds assumptions of power. There’s an implication that I’m not one of “them”. That I’m being kind by deigning to be with “them.” That the act of solidarity is in my control and is optional. That’s not Christian community.
Community with those on the margins is not voluntourism. Living in solidarity with those at the margins isn’t something that we do at our convenience. It’s not something we do when we need to feel good about ourselves. Charitable giving is a good thing, but does not create community. Any act that we do and walk away from without having created relationships, without knowing names and hearing stories, without all parties being transformed, is not a radical enough act. Community requires commitment.
There were plenty of people who had small encounters with Jesus and went back to their normal lives. This is the experience of the rich young ruler. Those who were transformed had a deeper encounter that drew them into radical acts of community. The disciples left their lives behind. Zaccheus made restitution to those he had oppressed. Jesus himself didn’t just help the marginalized as an afterthought, he lived with and for those that the world labeled as value-less. Following Jesus will demand entering into community with those that the world does not value and make our home with them.
Entering into community requires a radical decentering of self. When we put ourselves at the center of the story, there is a temptation to hear the stories and cries of the marginalized as a personal attack. This response leads to defensive posturing and a refusal to listen, shattering trust. We can see how centering oneself destroys community in the story of Adam and Eve. When Eve is first introduced, Adam recognizes her as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” ‘It’s the recognition of a shared humanity and equal value that creates community between them. The relationship is centered. Soon we see a shift in Adam. When God asks Adam if he has eaten the forbidden fruit, Adam is defensive saying, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree and I ate it.” He is now the center of his own story and is blaming both God and Eve for what has happened. In doing so, he is pushing her to the margins of his story. Living in community with the marginalized means decentering ourselves so that it becomes our story once again. It means recognizing that we belong to and with one another.
Living in community with those at the margins means that we will come to the point where we refuse to imagine ourselves apart from one another. This is the point of community and the foundation for justice. This is love. For an example, we need look no further than the incarnation. God, in an act of love and solidarity comes to us enfleshed. God enters into the human story in a profound way. Now the human experience is held within the very life of God and cannot be separated from it. What it means to be human transforms because there is now a residue of God’s presence in every act of our humanity. God has gone fishing, laughed, shared meals and cried, so those are now somehow holy. God’s being with us has woven our story together with God’s in ways that we cannot disentangle. In the same way, we are called to be with and for one another so that we cannot disentangle ourselves from the shared story.
This week, a white gunman in Atlanta targeted 3 Asian American businesses and killed eight people. This story brings up questions of solidarity with the marginalized. The shooter claims Christianity. Yet he was so central to his own story that the bodies, the very lives of others were seen as props in his story. Props are expendable. Anytime that a Christian sees another who bears the image of God and cannot recognize them as sister, brother, mother…then the church has failed. We must confess that there is work we have left undone.
Yet this incident is part of a larger narrative of marginalization of the Asian American community. It is an increase in hate crimes fueled by racist rhetoric of our leaders. It is tied to our society’s continued justification for and whitewashing of Japanese internment during World War II. It is rooted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the massacres and mistreatment of Asian Americans that preceded that. America has refused to imagine Asian Americans as full participants in the American story. Asian Americans, their contributions, their stories, and their pain, have been marginalized.
What could happen if America refused to imagine itself without the Asian American community. What would happen if the church refused to imagine itself without our Asian American brothers and sisters? What if we said, “You are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh and I will not live apart from you.” What if every time a leader used racist language, they got a call or letter from us? What if white christians joined with Asian American communities that have been targeted to walk with elders down the street, or clean up after Asian businesses are vandalized? What if we decentered ourselves so that we could listen. To hear the pain of our friends without being defensive. How might we all be transformed?