The Common Good

Ratio Imaginis

Sometimes it is hard to know even where to begin. We stare at this System, this complex web of human behaviors, and the institutions erected to memorialize them, and we simply do not know where to begin. How do we fix it?

"That's just the way it is," we say. "Some things will never change."

Systems are strange beasts. They take incredible human investment to maintain. They are the spaces by which many of us come to know ourselves, to know our place in this world. We identify ourselves in relationship to them. And yet they are so close to us as to be rendered invisible.

Until they hurt us. Until they step on us, exclude us, enslave us, brutalize us.

And this is when it gets interesting, of course; this is when they do their real work, these systems. You see, this is when we blame them. "It's not me, it's the system." This is when systems are revealed as incredible tools for obfuscating the truth that we are, in the end, responsible to and for one another. We hurt one another. We step on one another, exclude one another, enslave one another, brutalize one another.

And through forgiveness, come to embody what we are called to be: creators of hope, actors of love, and ministers of reconciliation for one another.

Again and again in Scripture Jesus will call us away from systems in order to call us back to ourselves, one another, so that we might love one another better. We often have to escape the systems so that we may love one another. And it will be hard work because we will have to seek forgiveness for the egregious injury that we have done to one another often in the name of maintaining the system. Jesus did not say, "This is my commandment: create a system so that you might better love one another."

And yet, we try. Again and again we try.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, author of You Don't Have To Be Wrong for Me To Be Right suggests that we need to take responsibility for one another more deeply if we are going to live together in peace and harmony. We have to see the systems, for they are real, and then see through them to find one another again.

Holy Writ, he suggests is here to remind us of how to do that and of how often we fail to do that. It reminds us by being a depository of our failures (slavery and genocide) and successes (restoration and healing) as a people of God.

I wonder how many of us listen to Scripture with a positivist ear, with the hope of being told what to do or how to live. If we do, today's readings might be a hard word, indeed. "Thanks be to God?"

Instead, following midrashic wisdom, what if the authors, Rabbi Hirschfield asks, intended some of these stories as a warning. These acts of human brutality are chronicled in the canon so that we might be reminded what it looks like to get it wrong, what it looks like when we replace people with systems, when we forget that we are crafted in the image of God and not in the image of a system.

Yesterday was Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of African slaves in the United States. On June 19, 1865, the last slaves in Texas were finally told they were free — a full two and half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Today more African-American citizens are incarcerated in our prisons than were enslaved in 1850.

It is the system, we say. And we forget the people. We create agendas for social transformation and we forget the people. Human beings are not social agendas. They are only and ever the Imago Dei, the very image of God.

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.org . Follow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist. This post originally appeared on AngloBaptist.org.

Image: by TJ Gehling, Flickr.com

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