This past Monday MLK evening about 6pm, the Chelsea Action group from Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice cautiously navigated the slippery downtown Chelsea sidewalks. The over 75 people were armed with signs and flags in honor of civil rights awareness, but something even more lovely than flashlights shone from the group: Light of a different kind.
“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” Matthew 4:16
These words about the light of God’s presence echo from Isaiah 9:2, where “darkness” is standard imagery for oppression. Darkness in the Gospels seems to refer more often to ignorance and/or evil—basically not comprehending how to see things as God sees things. Ironically, I believe that some people’s greatest oppression comes from well-meaning people who are experiencing their own darkness of ignorance. Ever been there in the shoes of either of these people? I’ve certainly been on both sides of this painful scenario: at least a few times I’ve sadly given simplistic solutions to people whose lives I had no business thinking I understood, and I’ve also been asked to join a person in praying after I shared a bit of my own complicated life, and when I said I didn’t want to, she insisted, and prayed for me out loud then and there. Are you kidding me?
The Bible is a tricky book to understand for lots of reasons, but here’s one of the biggest obstacles for me: The words were written by people who were marginalized, poor, disabled, oppressed, and on the underside of society. However…when Emperor Constantine made Christianity THE religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the Bible since then has been interpreted almost exclusively by the people in the world who are privileged (and therefore hold the power). This distortion is what excites me to uncover as a theologian, so I can see and hear the Bible with greater accuracy in its intended message.
For example, take the words from Matthew 4 above. First, if you are a person whose skin beauty happens to be dark, rather than light, this common metaphor in the Bible for experiencing God as “light” can carry an extra-loaded message about one’s own idea of self being made in the image of God. As a light-skinned person, I need to be aware of the long history of the “white savior” trying to rescue dark-skinned people, especially the indigenous people of this country, AND be aware of the history of trying to protect white bodies from the ignorance/evil/oppression represented by those people with the darkest of skins. I know…sounds crazy maybe. But you and I both know how unconsciously we can carry attitudes that conveniently maintain the status quo.
To use another example, if you are a person who is or has ever sat in darkness in your life, these words draw you into Mystery and Wonder and Awe and Longing the first time you hear them. But only if you are in touch with your experience of darkness. Whether that depression or angst was caused by family of origin issues, a death, a divorce, a failure/rejection, betrayal, health crisis, or an addiction, when we touch the darkness (or the memory of darkness) within ourselves, we are drawn in humble ways to open ourselves to the possibility of light.
However, for people who haven’t yet been broken or crushed by life’s difficulties (or who have neatly tucked them away and tried to forget them), their experience of life doesn’t lead to a softening of the heart, an opening of the soul, a longing for Mystery and Wonder. Instead, it can easily lead into a posture of “all-knowing” — the “all-knowing attitude” that sometimes sounds like simple clichés such as “God always has a plan”… or “start going to the right kind of church”… or “if you just take my advice” you will finally get better because this is the only way to see the light. This is the attitude of privilege. And it is very wearying for people who are deeply aware of their own—or the world’s—darkness firsthand.
The Chelsea Action group was marching Monday night to say We value people who may be different from us and don’t hold the same privilege. There is room for everyone at the table—we’ll help find a way for you because you are “tied to us in a single garment of destiny” (MLK).
That kind of light isn’t oppressive.
That kind of light casts out the darkness of fear for those who find themselves marginalized, poor, disabled, oppressed, and on the underside of society.
Thank you, Chelsea Action.