Slow Food and Home Cooking

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I wrote this post three years ago as a guest writer for a Food and Faith series at The Local Cook. It was fun to write and a great way to apply some of the things I was learning in my seminary classes to real life. When my child was a newborn, I assumed I would never cook again. The thought was just too overwhelming. And I was pretty sad about it. I love cooking, I value the slow food movement and the thought that I would have to consume freezer casseroles for the rest of my (young adult) life made me depressed. But I’ve been surprised and delighted to find that I’m cooking more than ever, thanks in part to a baby that goes to bed early. We got a grill in the Spring and I grilled my heart out. Husband’s birthday was over the summer and I made an awesome ice cream cake. We celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house and I contributed quite a number of dishes. And  I make dinner nearly every single night…with joy! So, though this post is nearly 3 years old, it still feels really relevant in my life.You can find the original post here and the full series here

It’s About Time

As Americans, we have a strange relationship with time. Most of us understand time as rigid, segmented, limited and linear, where as many other cultures, particularly agrarian cultures, recognize time as flexible, elastic, relaxed, unlimited and circular. For us, time is tangible and extremely valuable, like a commodity (“Time is money.”) We can save it and spend it and (heaven forbid) waste it. And we dedicate time to those things we care about. We take time to be with our friends and family. We carve out time to spend with friends. We make time to complete a project. We give time to causes we care about.

In the words of Syed and Joyce Zafar, intercultural experts from the Compass Diversity Group, “Americans have internalized the clock to a degree which is beyond the comprehension of many cultures around the globe.” Our lives are literally run by the clock. Frankly, we can’t imagine life without it. Because eating is such a necessary part of our everyday life, we shouldn’t be surprised that our relationship to food has been affected by our time obsession, as well.

Good food takes time. It takes time to grow, time to cook, and time to eat. But really, who has the time? As a full time graduate student who is going through the ringer of finals week, taking the time to cook can easily become a tiresome, mundane chore. I would rather spend my time doing things that I care about. But more often than not, the time I “save” by eating something prepared by other people (either in a factory, a restaurant or a grocery store), is spent sitting on the couch with my laptop surfing Facebook or reading food blogs.

My sister recently attended a parent support group meeting in which the topic of once-a-month cooking came up. The idea involves dedicating one day to cooking and freezing all your dinners for the month in order to save time and money. For many families with very busy schedules and hectic lives, once-a-month cooking is a welcome relief. As a full-time student with suppers waiting in the freezer, I can speak from personal experience! But I do worry that our seemingly insatiable desire to save time is contributing to our ever-growing separation from the process that brings food to our tables. Poet and farmer, Wendell Berry, laments the way our fast paced culture has privileged the convenience and efficiency of food over its quality and care. And this has radically changed the way we think about food. Where it comes from and how it was made doesn’t even cross our mind. We no longer grow our own vegetables or slaughter our own animals. Instead, we rely on a vast network of farmers, laborers and workers to pick, process, package and prepare our food.

Cooking is the one part of the process of the food cycle that demands our time and attention. And in our extremely busy lives, cooking can become a sort of Sabbath from our weekday habits of hurried, careless eating or pre-prepared, processed food.  In many ways, cooking can and should be considered a spiritual discipline. The slow and careful process of washing, peeling, dicing, stir-frying and seasoning are all ways of thanking God for the wonderful gift of food. And as anyone who has ever eaten the seeds directly from the rough hide of the pomegranate knows, food tastes sweeter when you work for it.

This past Lent, I gave up prepared foods (i.e., eating out). Or, to put it another way, I took on the disciplines of slow food and home cooking. The experience opened my eyes to how much I depend upon other people to prepare my meals. Before Lent, it was easy to leave the house without a packed lunch, knowing I could buy something at school. It was convenient to swing by my favorite taco joint on the way home from class or grab a burger from the grill truck parked on the side of the road. I saved a lot of time eating food prepared by some anonymous person with unknown ingredients from distant places. But should ease, convenience and efficiency really dictate our eating habits?

Committing to home cooking involves patience, care, commitment and planning. During Lent, I ate breakfast at the crack of dawn before heading to class. I would pack my lunch, even if I was running late. I would spend some time in the afternoon making my dinner instead of catching up on the latest episode of Lost. My entire life had to change. But, in my opinion, it changed for the better.  Here’s how.

1) I waste less: Unless you are fine-dining, many (affordable) places give you food in throw-away containers. There’s no way around it. Add it all up and you are throwing away tons of plastic and paper every week. But as I started cooking more at home, I was consistently using reusable, washable containers (i.e., plates for dinner, tubberware for a packed lunch, etc.). Furthermore, the food I would buy at the grocery store would go bad before I could use it. Cream would curdle, apples would go grainy, lettuce would rot. Now, I eat everything I buy. Grocery shopping is actually a meaningful, useful activity again!

2) I know where my food comes from: Along with this discipline, I’ve made a commitment to buy much of my produce locally and in season. So, most Saturday mornings, I head to the farmers market where I buy sweet potatoes from the woman who dug them out of the ground and raisins from the man who grew the grapes! I buy bread from the baker, chard from the farmer, and ground pork from the butcher. I know their faces and they know mine. I can ask them about their ingredients and how their crops are holding up. There’s something deeply right about that.

3) I’ve become more self-sustaining: I usually hate mundane tasks (cleaning, organizing), so I was surprised to find that cooking is, in fact, a pleasurable experience! Being fully dependent on my own cooking has taught me a) that preparing food is a gift, not a burden and b) that cooking is a joy. In a small way, baking your own crackers or cooking your own stew is empowering. I don’t need to rely on massive food corporations like Kraft to feed me. I don’t need to eat Nabisco crackers made in a plant a thousand miles away. Cooking embeds me in the holy, everyday work of the household. And that’s worth my time.

4) I’ve learned not to eat alone: In my own cooking, I find it difficult to prepare food for just one person, which is the way it’s supposed to be. When I made my own granola and crackers a few weeks ago, I had a ton left over to share so I sent some off to friends. Eating is most satisfying when done with others. This is what companion means – a friend with whom you break bread. Starting a few months ago, some friends and I began meeting together every other week for a locally-sourced potluck. At our meals, friends gather to share their gifts of time and attention. We feast upon freshly baked bread, sweet potato fries, arugula salad and white bean chili, all made with attentive, caring hands.

The truth is, if we want to embrace slow food and good eating, we need a radical realtering of our concept of time. We must embrace every moment as a gift, rather than a commodity to be saved or spent.  This means developing a heightened sense of gratitude for God’s gifts, including the gift of food.  And I cannot think of a better way of thanking God than the common act of cooking, which brings us into closer connection with God, our neighbors and creation. The practice of cooking as a discipline helps us embrace the miracle, mystery and sanctity of food in our everyday lives.  As Wendell Berry writes, “The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 103.

Questions for Reflection (share your response below for any one of these for an entry in this week’s drawing)

  • Do you or your family have eating rituals that are linked to the seasons (not just to particular holidays?) How about weekly rituals?
  • If we embrace the idea of “slow food,” how can we make sure that preparing it doesn’t become a burden?

Challenge to Action (post one of these on your blog and add a link below to the specific post about this challenge or email me before Friday for an additional entry into this week’s drawing).

  • Make a slow meal; soak beans, simmer soup, knead bread. Invite friends to share it–or make the meal a potluck.
  • Make a list to share of creative ways you can cut down on time cooking without using processed / convenience foods.
  • Get local: Are there resources in your area for those who want to learn how to preserve food? Extension offices, community-supported agriculture farms, food co-ops and others often offer seminars in canning, drying, freezing, etc.
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Ultrasound ambivalence

Like most things about pregnancy, and life in general, I’m prone to ask questions about things typically deemed as normal or “a given”,  partly because I like to be prepared, partly because I’m an idealist (do I dare admit it?) and partly because I don’t trust the status quo.  Hospital birth? Eek. Circumcision? Hmm. Prenatal testing? No spanks. But ultrasounds weren’t on the list. We’ve all seen the movies: the squirt of the transmission gel on a big, round belly, the painstaking movements of the ultrasound tech wielding the sensor, staring up starry-eyed at the ultrasound screen as you gaze upon the strange being living inside of you. Ultrasounds are part and parcel to the pregnancy experience. They’re nostalgic; after all, ultrasound technology has been in use for nearly 50 years. But over the years, the use of obstetric ultrasounds has increased exponentially, occurring early and early in pregnancy.

When I started spotting very early on in my first trimester,  the first thing the doctor did was give me an ultrasound. Before 12 weeks or so, these ultrasounds are transvaginal, definitely more invasive than the abdominal kind. Most OB offices won’t do ultrasounds before 12 weeks for a few reasons. In those first few weeks, barely anything is visible – just an empty-looking gestational sac. And babies grow at varying rates during this time. I had hoped that an early ultrasound would put my mind at ease (“No, you’re not miscarrying because I see an egg sac…”) but instead, they became one of the main sources of my early pregnancy anxiety. After continuing to spot for some time, and after the 3rd ultrasound without seeing much, the doctor had me do blood work to measure HCG levels. As my previous post stated, mine didn’t rise “properly” (though there are several studies showing that many healthy pregnancies don’t fall into this doubling pattern – my mother-in-law experienced this with both her pregnancies), and this combined with the ultrasound had the doctor calling me after hours saying “Things don’t look good.”

When I went in for my 4th ultrasound to confirm that, indeed, things did not look good, I saw an egg sac and a fetal pole – good signs that the pregnancy was progressing normal. “This is why we try not to do early ultrasounds,” said the doc. “Babies just grow at different rates.” Well then, did I have an ultrasound-happy obstetrician? Should I have refused the first few ultrasounds? Shouldn’t she have told me that spotting in early pregnancy is normal and we won’t find any results on the ultrasound for another week or so?

On average, a woman with a low-risk pregnancy will have 2-3 ultrasounds total her entire pregnancy. By the time I was 13 weeks, I had already had 6, not counting the basic anomaly scan at 18 weeks. Did all of these ultrasounds put me at ease? Yes and no. Yes, seeing my little babe’s heart flutter on the screen helped me rest assured. But those random and uneventful weeks when ultrasounds weren’t necessary (usually, the midwifes will just check the fetal heart rate with a monitor), I found myself worrying that they were missing something. Because my pregnancy was so closely (and literally) watched in those first few weeks, I get uneasy when so much time passes without peering inside my womb.

My mother and women in her generation went almost their entire pregnancies without the use of ultrasound technology, with only one or two scans. Before this century, the first time parents saw their children was outside of the womb. Nowadays, ultrasounds are used to determine any number of fetal or placental anomalies way before due date, as well as identifying the sex of the child. Most would argue that these are positive advancements. And I would argue that, certainly, being prepared for your child and all its possible needs sure beats being shocked. But I can only wonder if ultrasound technology (not to mention prenatal testing in the form of blood work and amniocentesis), is contributing to the Too Much Information epidemic of which most modern pregnant women are suffering.

A close friend from mine went in for a routine ultrasound during her pregnancy, which ended up being a rather traumatic experience. The ultrasound showed a soft marker for Down Syndrome  (heart calcification), which meant that their child had a 1 in 400 chance of having an extra 21st chromosome. Most of the time, the calcification clears up and has zero effect on the child. But instead of being reassured with the statistics, my friend and her partner were ushered into a room to meet with a genetic counselor, though they had previously mentioned that no such counseling was necessary (as abortion was not an option). Several months later, they welcomed a healthy, ‘normal’ child into the world, though they spent the last few months of pregnancy wondering with some trepidation about the fate of their child.

My sister experienced something similar during one of her routine ultrasounds. The tech found choriod plexus cysts in the fluid around the baby’s brain – pretty non-threatening in and of themselves, but a soft indicator of genetic abnormalities like Edwards syndrome. Most of the time, these cysts will clear up by 24 weeks, and the midwife reassured my sister that she likely had nothing to worry about. Nonetheless, the waiting time is always stressful, even if you feel called to welcome all life into the world. Of course, at 24 weeks, another ultrasound showed that the cysts had cleared up.

There are plenty other stories like this, with expecting parents encounter disconcerting news through an ultrasound that later turns out to be a non-issue. Before the advent of ultrasound technology, how many healthy babies were born who, while in-utero, also had heart calcification and or plexus cysts?  How would we ever know? Are ultrasounds giving pregnant women too much information to stress over during an already stressful season of life?

Plenty  of women use ultrasound technology to determine the sex of their child. And though this seems pretty benign (and often is – again, who doesn’t want to be prepared?), there is one sinister effect: sex-selective abortion. Yesterday, I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast called “Misadventures in Babymaking,” about the the one-child policy in China. According to the podcast, the natural sex ratio at birth in all human populations is 105 boys to 100 girls, because baby boys are fragile and die more often in infancy. In China, however, the ratio is more like 121 boys to 100 girls. This is known as the “Missing Women Problem,” which dates back to an observation Amartya Sen made in 1990. He compared the total number of women in all of Asia (not just China) with what should have been the natural sex ratio, and found that a hundred million women were missing, i.e., 100,000,000 baby girls were never born.  Some estimate that that number is now 160 million missing women. The son preference spans many different countries, including China, India, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Armenia, Albania, Azerbaijan – places with very different political, economic, religious and cultural perspectives. Yet the one thing that ties these countries together is the ultrasound. In the words of Stephen Dubner, “One piece of technology. 160 million missing women.” Dubner also points out that the ultrasound machine didn’t create this kind of problem, but it does enable it: “‘Son preference’ already existed, but along came a new birth technology that let mothers do something about it. Technology has consequences – often unintended ones.”

Sex-selective abortion, like the 90% abortion rate of fetuses with Down Syndrome, is disturbing on a number of levels. But what’s especially chilling is that ultrasounds are not 100 percent accurate. I know several women who were told they were having a girl that turned out to be a boy (or vice versa). I’ve also heard countless stories of women pressured to abort their “severely disabled fetus” that turned out to be perfectly healthy (or a perfectly wonderful disabled child). Ultrasounds, though useful in moderation, have become like gods dispensing knowledge that determines the future of our children. We should all find this worrisome.

But I also know that ultrasound technology has enabled women with poor fetal diagnoses to connect with their in-utero children who will almost inevitably die after birth. My friends Dayna and Eric learned that their child had a fatal birth defect, anencephaly, at their 20 week ultrasound. They also learned that their child was a boy, and so they named him Ethan and spent the next 5 months bonding with him and preparing for his birth and his death. Their story is heartbreaking and lifegiving, and if it weren’t for that fateful ultrasound, they would never had known how little time they had with their son.

So, all that to be said, I feel ambivalent about ultrasounds, as I do with most medical technology surrounding birth.  I know some women refuse ultrasounds for their entire pregnancy, perhaps in protest of the above, perhaps because a few studies show ultrasounds may have a negative effect on fetal outcome, or perhaps because they find not knowing more comforting than knowing too much. Whatever the reason, I admire these women. So brave! So at peace! So old-school! Yet, I can’t help but continue to cling to the reassurance the ultrasound gives me, and rejoice in the brief glimpse of the little stranger growing inside of me. I’m still amazed by the grainy black-and-white picture on my fridge that shows 2 tiny feet and 10 tiny, fully-formed toes.



Jesus, the racist?

It’s difficult to peg Jesus, but we so often try. To the Marc Driscolls of the world, Jesus is a violent, manly, “heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dude”. To the average mainline liberal, Jesus is loving, non-judgmental, tolerant and open-minded. For others, Jesus is a personal guardian angel who walks with us, or a great moral role model for daily life.

But what do we do with Jesus in Matthew 15? A Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus to cure her demon-possessed sister. She is desperate. She is assertive. She is terrified. But what does Jesus do? According the NIV, “Jesus did not answer a word.” Not a single word. He meets this woman’s desperate cries for help with total silence. It was only after the disciples urged Jesus to “send her away” because her crying was disturbing them that Jesus turned to her, saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Only. Jesus said “only.” Not all. Not many. But only. When the woman debases herself to kneel in front of him, screaming, “Lord, help me!”, his response to her is shocking and scandalous: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” She is not even human to him but a dog, unworthy of his attention or his grace.

Who is this Jesus? He is not the assertive, responsive go-getter of the “muscular Christianity” movement (though his dismissiveness towards a woman is not so far off), nor he is the loving, tolerant, peace-loving beatnik of the liberals. And his actions (or un-action) seem hardly exemplary or caring. This Jesus in Matthew’s 15 chapter explodes the categories we so often place him in, reminding us that he doesn’t fit comfortably in any of them.

In this story, Jesus should make us uncomfortable, mad, concerned. This is not the Jesus we thought we knew and our explanations for his actions hardly make up for the trauma of rejection and total loss of human dignity that this poor woman experiences in the story. Could this possibly be the same Jesus who welcomes even infants into his arms, who heals the unclean and the outcast, who has come to set the prisoner free? Or is this a different Jesus? A schizoid Jesus? A misogynistic, racist Jesus? Can we really worship this Jesus?

What does it mean to worship Jesus, God Incarnate, a man born into flesh and time, culture and history, ethnicity and sexuality? What does it mean to worship a human,  a human that is also God? To say we worship Jesus is, in part, to say that we worship a Jewish male, son of a carpenter, son of Mary, son of David. It is to say we worship a person, not just an abstract being. As we’ve been reading in Torrance, we cannot say that we worship Jesus without his Jewishness. To do so would be docetic. Therefore, to worship Jesus is to risk rejection and come face to face with our own un-chosen-ness, our own damnation. We are Gentiles, the faceless mass of non-Jews who are not a part of God’s covenant, who are “hated”, not “loved.” We are the Canaanites, the rejected and the lost and the done-for.

To worship the Jewish Messiah is a bit absurd. Maybe even Jesus thought this was the case in Matthew 15. Maybe even Jesus was surprised. Can I, the messiah of this peculiar and particular people, Israel, really have anything for you? “Lord” she calls him. “Lord, help me.” She is no lost sheep. Is she? She is no Israel? Or perhaps God is expanding our understanding of Israel through this man, Jesus. Perhaps Jesus himself doesn’t even know it yet. And maybe this woman, this Canaanite, is the bearer of this strange, radical message – The Jewish Messiah is the Messiah for the world, for all people. Our of Israel comes salvation for all humankind. And somehow or another, the Canaanite woman knows this, even before Jesus and his disciples.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Does he still not know what this woman knows? That she, too, is a child of God?

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Who is the master here? To whom is this woman submitting? What aspects of her identity have been debased, laid low? To whom is she loyal? To whom does she seek help and counsel? To whom does she kneel?

Jesus is astounded. Something has been revealed to him through this woman, this desperate, pitiful woman begging for her daughter’s life on her knees. Jesus has seen true faithfulness, a faith he rarely witnesses in his own (Jewish) disciples. This woman, an outsider and an outcast, has spoken back to God with humility and courage. This woman has bent the knee to the Jewish messiah.

Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Skin bleaching products: Becoming (literally) white

Another post from my Race & Theology blog for my Black Church Studies class:

I found this video through TrueCampaign.org, showing an Indian woman with “darker skin” whose lover left her for a lighter-skinned woman. At the end of the commercial, she sees an advertisement for Pond’s skin-lightening cream that “gives you a radiant pinkish-white glow.” Apparently you can choose between “pale white” or “pinkish white.” And yes, the cream is actually called “White beauty”. It doesn’t get more in-your-face obvious than that.


Perhaps the most interesting thing about the 45 second commercial occurs right at the beginning. The camera first shows the man taken back his half of the heart necklace (presumably a symbol of their relationship) and kissing her goodbye, sad music playing in the background. This is not a “bad” breakup, the result of infidelity or basic incompatibility, for both are very forlorn. Yet, the viewers are made to believe that the breakup was somehow inevitable and fated. This man simply could not be with this woman because of her dark skin, no matter how much he loved her, no matter how much he wanted to be with her. Her skin tone created a great, impassible divide between them.

How do we know this? Because, 10 seconds later (or, three years later, according to the commercial’s “time”), the woman spots her former lover on the street with a very fair-skinned woman, who is presumably not Indian at all but Caucasian – ultimately white. He shares a moment of recognition, perhaps even a moment of regret, but then turns back and walks down the street, arm-in-arm with his lovely, white bride. Magically, this woman sees an advertisement on the street for Pond’s “White Beauty,” the answer to all of her problems and all of her insecurities. As she watches the commercial (just as we are watching it), she fingers the her half of the original heart necklace, still around her neck, clearly indicating her motivations and plans.

This is the first “episode” in a series of Pond’s commercials. There are five episodes together and they read pretty much like a soap opera. After the woman lightens her skin with Pond’s miracle cream, he sees her and begins to have regrets, ultimately leaving his current white girlfriend to return to his formerly dark, newly white lover. Good thing she whitened her skin.

I was pretty appalled by this when I first saw it. It’s so…obvious, so raw and naked. “White beauty”? They’re kidding, right? But skin lightening products are not abnormal. They’ve been around for a while, in various forms. We shouldn’t forget that pale skin was the beauty norm for centuries (and only recently has tanned skin among white women become the norm – a sign of the leisure class who can afford exotic travel and long weekends at the beach). Pale skin meant you lived life in doors in high society, feasting and dancing and barely breaking a sweat. Dark skin meant time lower-class labor in the fields. Later, with the advent of colonialism and modern slavery, darker skin meant racial mixing. Men and women alike used lead-based powder to whiten their skin, which (should be obvious) often lead to lead poisoning (pun intended).

Nowadays, most mainstream cosmetic companies offer such whitening products. However, as white women seek the ultimate “bronzed” look, skin lightening cosmetics are being marketed to brown women, as seen in the Ponds commercials.  There is a website that’s actually called “Whiter Skin.” And this one, Fair and Flawless, is particularly interesting because it shows women of “color” who are ALL THE SAME SHADE! Also, be sure to check out F&F’s FAQs:

“Myths and misconceptions abound when it comes to caring for skin of color. Choosing to lighten the color of your skin, and to improve its texture and tone for a smoother, more even skin color, are deeply personal decisions. Some might ask:

  • Why would you want to lighten your skin at all?
  • What about the dangers of skin lightening?
  • Who cares about discolorations, scarring, or uneven skin tone?

Well, you do. And that’s why you’ve chosen one of the F&F Collections for Skin Care.”

They ask the question “Why would you want to lighten your skin at all?” and the answer is, “Well, you do.” Nothing else. No explanation. So bizarre. I read a story a while back about women in Nigeria who couldn’t afford “real” skin-whiteners, so they put straight bleach on their faces and came away with severe burns and scarring. It’s a really pervasive problem – the cult of white beauty.

I would like to explore more the “cult of the tan” in white beauty culture, because I think it has something to do with exotification and commodification of the brown body. Like skin bleaching, tanning has great health risks and, when done without restraint, can cause serious health problems. Perhaps I will explore tanning in a later blog post. But for now, please check out the Dark is Beautiful campaign, which  seeks to draw attention to skin color bias, and “celebrates the beauty and diversity of all skin tones.”

Good Samaritan? Not in a Crowd.

As I do most days, this morning I bypassed the soul-deadening front page headlines of the Post for the light-and-fluffy Style section, hoping to catch up on celeb gossip (Madonna’s getting a divorce everyone. I know. This isn’t news.) and the advice columns. Instead, I was confronted with this highly disturbing article entitled, “The Impassive Bystander: Someone Is Hurt, in Need of Compassion. Is It Human Instinct to do nothing?” The title in and of itself should intrigue, if not bristle and disturb. There are 6 pictures accompanying the article taken from a security camera in a psychiatric ward waiting room. A woman slumps over in her chair, then falls to the floor on her face, convulsing. She lays like this for a little more than an hour as bystanders look on…two patients sitting across from her, a hospital staff person who nudges her with her foot (and leaves), a police officer who, after 15 minutes of “assessing” the situation fetches some nurses. The woman is finally rolled away on a gurney and declared dead.

You can watch the video on YouTube and I encourage you to do so. It’s morbid, yes, and you should squirm in your seat. You have become, in a sense, a passive bystander, watching a life slipping away right before your eyes. But in this case, there is nothing you can do. Now, what is most nauseating is watching the passive bystanders in the video, those within arms reach of this woman as she lies helpless and dying on the floor. You must ask yourself, “What if?” – What if the other patients had summoned the nurses right from the start? What if the hospital staff woman who nudged her with her foot had actually knelt down and checked her vitals, as is protocol? More importantly, perhaps – What if you were in that waiting room? Would you have put your magazine away, risked looking foolish or intrusive, and checked on her?

I read a book in high school called The Social Animal, a social-psychology book from my dad’s PhD days. The author outlined a number of experiments and real-life situations regarding this bystander “syndrome” with which we are infected. I found them shocking. One of the most famous examples (also cited in the article) is the murder of Kitty Genovese back in 1964. As she was stabbed multiple times and cried out for help over the 30 minute span, not one of the 38 people in her New York City apartment building who had seen or heard portions of the attack came to her aid. The larger the crowd, according to social psychologists, the higher the diffusion of responsibility. We assume a herd mentality in crisis or situations that are unfamiliar to us. We look to others, to the crowd, and mimic their responses. If others aren’t helping him out, then the person lying on the side of the road must be okay. 

As a species, our desire to please others and conform far outweighs the desire to do right. More often than not, doing right involves going against the grain, risking foolishness and sacrificing social ease. To break the fetters of herd mentality/social conformity takes a strong (and perhaps ethical) force of will, indeed. The article states it well: “Most of us do the right thing only when others are doing the right thing. Real heroes are the ones who break out of the group norm.”

I can’t help but think that the Good Samaritan, already a social despised outcast, assisted the bleeding man on the side of the road because he knew he had nothing to lose. He had no reputation to keep like the Levite and the priest. He already didn’t “fit in.” He was, in a sense, not burdened by the norms of social conformity. Aren’t we, as Christians, called to throw off this conformity, this indifference in the face of injustice, this diffusion of responsibility, and become Christ’s hands and feet? Shouldn’t we, as Christians, be the first to respond to those in pain and crisis, without a second thought? We as the Church are called to be peculiar, to embody a different way of being, one that values acting on ethical impulses rather than ceding to passive reservation. It’s time we started being okay with feeling foolish in front of other people, even if that means we lose our friends, our reputation, our livelihood. Even if that means we may get a stranger’s sweat and blood on our hands as we help them off the waiting room floor.

Why I am a pacifist…in email-essay form…

A friend recently asked me to speak more about pacifism and my prediliction towards it. Though I could lay out some points, that’s borning and impersonal. Instead, I thought I would post this email I wrote about a year ago to my professor-friend from college. He had asked me to read Coetzee’s novel, “Disgrace,” and my response to the text was one promoting non-violence. He prompted me to speak more on the subject, given that he had disagreements. The email ended up essay-length, but I’ve shortened it slightly and modified it for varying reasons. Here it is…

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You are right to say that I am not attracted to pacifism because it is politically correct or trendy in bohemian circles. In fact, the pacifism with which I sympathize is neither. Non-violence as a practice is, in fact, a political nightmare. To assume that nation-states would ascribe to such a philosophy is ludicrous. And non-violent practice is hardly trendy anywhere, even in the hippie circles of Southeast Portland. For most, opposition of the Iraq war (or the death penalty, or nuclear power) is still founded on rational, political principles — this current war had little just cause, was poorly executed, contained no exit strategy, etc. In case of the death penalty, very often it is issues of racism that fuel its opposition, not the loss of life of the inmates. Practical non-violence opposes these things, but not because the mechanisms of war or capital punishment contain some kinks. Pacifism opposes the mechanisms themselves.

You suggested I should revisit the United States’ decision to enter WWII. This war, what many would consider the only “just war” we’ve fought in the 20th century, is often used as a response to opposers of war (all war). If we are going to applaud America for its decision to enter and to end WWII, I can only reflect on the hundreds of thousands of Jews, Roma, etc., who were killed in mass the 6 years prior to Pearl Harbor. Reports of such a holocaust made the last page of the New York Times. And what of the hundreds of thousands of civilian lives lost in the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Have we forgotten these atrocities? Of course, we responded out of self-preservation…I would expect nothing more. This is the job of nations.

What would the world look like without our declaration of war? I can only imagine. But if we are going to ask this question, we have no choice but to ask, “What does the world look like because of our declaration of war?” WWI, the War to End All Wars, served to jumpstart the blood shed during the 20th century — over one hundred million lives lost (that’s 8 zeros) in violent conflict, more than any other century combined. WWII brought us international terrorism, bio-chemical weapons, and the nuclear bomb (all three have only prompted more armed conflict throughout the decades, including most recently IraqX2, Afghanistan, and North Korea). Peace resulting from war is only a temporary stalemate. History bears this out. To me, history does a fine job of validating and verifying that war rarely, if ever, contributes to a just and lasting peace.

What of the colonized, the American Indians slaughtered by European invaders, the indigenous peoples of Africa, India, and the Pacific trampled upon and enslaved by outside enemies? Do they not have the right to respond to this violence with violence? I have no right to answer, as I sit in my comfortable desk in a comfortable corner of the world where I am more likely to colonize than to be colonized. But I will say this: Rwandans, in violent retaliation of French colonization, destroyed not their French oppressors but one another. More than a million Rwandans died in 1994; their French colonizers remain alive and well. The Hutus’ held to a perverted sense of justice (destroy the Tutsi) prompted by colonialist preference of the more “Aryan-looking” people, the Tutsi. In this case, violence beget violence; no justice was served.

Can we envision a human experience without violence? Impossible. You say so yourself. We encounter violence daily, the swatting of a fly, the anger of a spouse, the birth of a child. In many ways, it is the experience of pain and suffering that makes us more fully human, that brings us into fuller awareness of ourselves and of God. Jesus (whom I wish to emulate) understood this. According to him, we are to be “born anew,” implying we must experience pain (violence) in order to experience wholeness. We must die to our old selves. We must taste death in order to experience life. This is a paradox, a coupling of opposites used to convey Truth (Reality). Jesus was no stranger to pain being a part of the human experience. And, considering the time and place into which he was born (living under the oppressive regime of the Roman empire), Jesus undoubtedly was no stranger to destructive acts of violence. We must remember that his crucifixion was a legal, just punishment under both Roman and Jewish law.

I don’t mean to use this word violence abstractly or arbitrarily. Violence, by its most common definition, is defined as the use of aggressive force to bring about the destruction of another, usually through physical acts, but also through other means, as well. I am primarily concerned here with acts of violence against other human beings, though very often, the destruction of the Earth is intimately related to human aggression.

I do not bring up the examples of war and genocide to make the argument that pacifism is somehow the solution to rid the world of violence. Rather, pacifism is a way to orient ourselves in a world that is filled with violence. It operates under the assumption that violence is an inevitable (if not overwhelming) force in the world, and that we, as people of faith, wish to respond differently. Pacifism does not eliminate pain or suffering from our experience. In many ways, to act non-violently (turn the other cheek, walk the second mile) is to experience pain, but a constructive pain, much like the pain of consensual intercourse or birth. The ego and the body may suffer, but the spirit remains whole. Essentially, to react to violence with non-violent means is to refuse to hate; it is this hate which poisons the soul.

I am not proposing that we do away with the prison system, that the police force serves no purpose in society, that UN peacekeepers should enter war-torn countries carrying flags rather than guns. Nor am I saying that there is no need for restraint or punishment of violent offenders. I am not prescribing a universal ethic here, because I do not believe we can live peace-promoting lifestyles without the presence of community (Peck would argue this, also). Communities, particularly the Church, are bound to a history, a story that has been unfolding for centuries. Pacifism is nothing new; it was the foundational ethic of the early Church. Pacifists must have memories of the past and hopes for the future in order to live non-violently, peacefully. Pacifism is of no importance to one who has no association with a common story and lives under the assumption that this present world is all there is and all there ever will be. Ultimately, pacifism is an ethic of the Church, and a messy ethic at that. But, nonetheless, it is an ethic upheld by a common story rooted (ideally) in the life and teachings of Jesus, and it is an ethic lived with the knowledge that the Kingdom of God is now, here. We no longer wait for this Kingdom…we live it. And I believe living it involves promoting peace in the face of violence.

If violence and destruction are synonymous, couldn’t non-violence and love, as Peck and Fromm, define it, also be? To practice nonviolence is to extend oneself for the growth of another, to desire the maturity and wholeness of another human being, unconditionally. To practice nonviolence, to love, is to believe that all persons, even the most vile and destructive, are subject to grace. It is, as you say, to leave the work of God up to God. It is to believe we are all capable of great violence and we are all in need of forgiveness, grace, reconciliation, and love. Think about it — to act nonviolent, to place our faith in peace rather than destruction, allows us to be free from fear! After the ex-pats and diplomats are gone from Afghanistan and Iraq, who remain? The pacifists. There is nothing left to fear, not even death. If I am going to place my faith in anything, it is the transforming work of non-violence and reconciliation I have seen at work in Northern Uganda, Rwanda, Iraq, Palestine, Northern Ireland, Cambodia, Guatemala, Columbia, the projects of our US cities, etc.

At this point in my life, I have no use for an impractical nonviolent ethic. As a member of a l’Arche community, I am called to live peaceably on a daily basis, through my thoughts and words and actions. Marilyn, who suffers from an anxiety disorder and occasional lashes out at me and other assistants, desperately needs to live in a place that promotes peaceful conflict resolution. I must respond to Marilyn’s violence non-violently for both of our sakes. This includes swallowing my pride and enduring her anger, until she comes to the realization that I am not the cause of her anger but a presence of peace and unconditional forgiveness. This does not mean we let Marilyn run wild but we take steps to ensure her safety and the safety of others, so that everyone’s personhood is respected. In fact, Marilyn established the steps we as assistants would take in order to deescalate her anxiety. It’s been a long struggle for her, but she has come a long way. The peace of l’Arche has been transformative in her life. She would be the first to say this.

I remember us talking about things we would die for. Is life even worth living if we have nothing to die for? What if I chose to die for my enemy? Could you respect my life and my faith to respond without violence? I guess I should be appreciative that the “last thing on your mind would be non-violence,” but does this not betray my life, my experience, that in which I have placed my faith? These are hard, uncomfortable questions, I know. But please know that I do not take any of this pacifism “stuff” lightly. I am young, I am idealistic, but I am also living in a world ravaged by war and obsessed with death. As I said, I do not seek nonviolent means because its sexy or any easy fix to the world’s ills. I seek it because I have faith in it, because I am bound to a story that has been defined by it, because the story of Jesus fascinates me and gives me hope. Whether or not you agree with me, or think I’m raving mad, or choose to agree to disagree, I do hope that this essay-like response has shed a bit more light on why I find pacifism to be compelling. And I hope (and expect) that you will continue to hold me to the consistency of my position on this and other subjects.

Truly,

Heather

Blame me for war….

I was up at TJ today, running around the track with Terrence for a while, and then I headed inside to lift weights. The lady at the reception desk greeted me as I came in, but there was a visible change in her face when she looked down at my shirt and read, “Blame Me For War” on it, along with a quote from Jacques Ellul. Her face sort of melted into confusion mixed with disgust. I was self-conscious the rest of the time I was at the gym. My cover has been blown, I kept thinking. What if someone asks me to explain? What would I say? “Uh, well…I think Christians are to blame…I mean, I’m a Christian….er….the Church must be the agent of change in our society and we can’t rely on government to….well, as a follower of Jesus, I’m supposed to die rather than take the life of another, so essentially, it’s my fault. Sorry I’m not dead.” As you can imagine, this would have gotten me strong up on the weight machine at Thomas Jefferson Community Center. I half-heartedly lifted ten pounds over my head a few times and left. I ran home…fast.

Being a social misfit probably isn’t the worst part of being a pacifist (or someone who likes to think she is). It’s the tangible, earth-shattering reality of the belief itself…a belief that isn’t simply talked about and or screen-printed on t-shirts. It’s lived. It involves the whole of ourselves, our bodies and our minds and our very souls, to be put on the line for the one’s we hate the most. Anyone else find this disturbing and unreasonable, perhaps even wrong? I left Tj tonight without having to say a word about my sympathies with pacifism. Maybe that’s why I left – so as to escape the questions, the prying eyes, the looks of disgust.

It’s fine to slap pacifists slogans to my bumper or my chest, but I’m still full of shit. How am I a pacifist if my first response is always to defend my ego? How am I a pacifist if I can’t stand my somewhat unstable next-door neighbor? How am I a pacifist if I curse and fume at the television whenever Bush decides to open his mouth? How am I a pacifist if I respond to Linda’s questions with short, dismissive answers? How am I a pacifist if I’m consuming goods that economically and environmentally oppress? How am I a pacifist if I fuel my car with gasoline drilled in a war zone? How am I a pacifist if I role my eyes instead of responding to Hazel’s emotional needs? How am I pacifist if I hoard my belongings and ignore the beared man on Glebe Rd who wants nothing more than a few bills? I think it would be just as accurate to replace “pacifist” in these sentences with “Christian.” I’m in the process of becoming a Christian, but I have such a long way to go.