In these days of concern and protest over police violence against people of color, and with what is hopefully a burgeoning awareness on the part of the rest of us of the extent of our white privilege and the blindness that accompanies it, what does the gospel lead us to do? One of Pope Francis’s more pugnacious pronouncements is that the only acceptable ideology is the ideology of the gospel. In other words, our principles need to be drawn from the example of Jesus, and if they seem to outsiders to be a product of one political ideology or another, that is just too bad. They grow out of the gospel. We are not liberals or conservatives. We are gospel radicals.
So, for example, the preferential option for the poor might sound like a liberal platitude, but it is God’s preference in the words of the Hebrew prophets and in Jesus’s proclamation of his messianic credentials in Luke chapter 4. Because God chooses the poor, as liberation theologians have taught us now for half a century, it is our responsibility to side with the poor. Indeed, to walk with them. We have no choice, but when we see how little this principle is truly employed in our society, whether it comes from leftist politics, bleeding hearts or the gospel, it is obvious that some of us have a voice, while others are silent or silenced. The majority stand at the margins of political life and cultural opportunity, wondering their turn will ever come.
What does it mean to be marginalized? Many of us do not know, because it has never happened to us. Wealth or education insulate us from marginalization. Whiteness also works in this way for many, even for many of those who have neither wealth nor an advanced education, simply because the color of their skin bestows privilege upon them. But those who do know what it is to be marginalized hear it in the deafening silence with which their vision of the world is received by the rest of us. They smell it in the stench of white racism; they can measure it by the gap between rich and poor in our new gilded age; they encounter it in patriarchy; and they taste it in the gall of lack of opportunity and, often enough, lack of hope.
The most salient feature of marginalization is lack of voice. The dominant discourse of our society reflects the perspective of the wealthy and the educated, if not simply the rich and famous. To be a liberal representative of the privileged classes is to believe in and perhaps even to work for the expansion of our privilege to include more of those who do not currently benefit from it. So we might favor expanded educational opportunities, greater access to fair housing and employment, and so on, and who would not agree that these are laudable ends? They do not, however, adjust the power relations in society. Being the beneficiary of the largesse of the powerful is only minimally satisfactory. It is surely better than nothing, but to quote once more from the lexicon of liberation theology, it does not raise a person to true subjecthood. That person remains the object of another’s attention, or in many cases still the victim of social oppression.
True subjecthood for oppressed peoples is an enormous challenge for society. It cannot happen without reversing the social hierarchy of those who are in and those who are out. The marginalized need to occupy the center, the former center needs to migrate to the periphery and be silent for a time. This reversal can only happen in one of two ways, either by revolution or conversion. If a violent reversal of power relations is not to occur, there has to be a true change of heart that will be measured in the abdication of social and cultural power in favor of the voice of those who have been silent for millennia. It is just possible that the new awareness that is breaking over white America that the tale that black Americans have told forever about the many instances of police brutality is, in fact, not an exaggeration, but unvarnished truth, just may be the catalyst for systemic change. If white America is not to be pushed aside, it must step aside. We have to escape our hegemonic captivity to the myth of America as the land of the free, and learn about its dark underside.
How will change happen? White America could step aside in a vast act of altruism in the service of justice, but that would be an unlikely miracle, with perhaps too much negativity in its strategy. A better course of action that might more gently produce the same result would be to accept Gustavo Gutierrez’s call for walking with the poor, for caminando con los pobres, for the warm human act of accompaniment. When we walk with the other or, as is sometimes said, when we walk in their shoes, we learn to see the world the way they see it. Achieving this requires generosity on the part of the systematically disadvantaged and humility on the part of the oblivious oppressors. Humble walking above all requires listening, not talking. And listening is a profound act of decentralization. One of the most comforting datums to emerge from the recent turmoil in our cities is that young people of all races believe that the single most important step we can take to address racism lies in community building. Our challenges of racism will begin to dissipate when white America learns to stand aside and stand beside, to listen to the voices, the experience and, yes, the creativity of the other. That way lies healing.
Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.