Successfully Strange

It was a strange event to be sure.  Successfully strange.  As I stated in my last post, the ONE interns organized an film screening and happy hour event at the Pour House bar in Washington, D.C. that occurred last night.  It also coincided with my last day of work at ONE, a happy coincidence, ending my time on a high note.  The evening transpired without a hitch: interns from Capitol Hill, and from around D.C. poured into the bar, enjoyed the complimentary food and drinks, networked, listened to a brief speech, watched a short documentary, and went home.  Several ONE staff members commented that it was the best and most well attended event that ONE has held in DC for as long as they could remember, and we commemorated our success at the end of the evening with a group picture and a toast.  Good clean American fun. To anyone in attendance, it was a success.  To the ONE staff, it was a success.  Not only was it enjoyable, we generated over 200 new ONE members and signed up more than 15 students to take ONE’s message of advocacy and action back to their college campuses to start new ONE chapters.  But it was, as I have mentioned, strange.

Two particular aspects of the event struck me as strange.  On a macro level, the concept behind the event was slightly bizarre.  From 5:30 to 7 p.m., interns from all over DC enjoyed appetizers such as macaroni and cheese and crab dip and beverages ranging from Shirley Temples to white wine.  We lounged in cushy leather chairs, socialized, and listened to a playlist with crowd pleasers such as Don’t Stop Believin’.  Promptly at 7, ONE’s CEO David Lane engaged with crowd with a brief speech about the mission of ONE and some statistics about the gravity of the situation in Africa.  Though less light hearted than the hour and a half drinking and talking, the speech was jovial and pleasant.  Right after David finished speaking, all the screens in the bar began to play the Lazarus Effect.  Talk about sobering.  The atmosphere of the night turned a virtual 180 degrees in the opposite direction, from light hearted chatter to serious discussion of HIV/AIDS and lack of access to medication in Africa.  Without even looking, I could feel a certain intensity and discomfort settle over the crowd.  Some people walked briskly for the door, while others set down their drinks and watched Zambian men and women discuss their decent into the bed ridden hell provoked by AIDS.  Though the documentary ends on a hopeful note and demonstrates the life giving power of antiretrovirals, the abruptness of the change in atmosphere lingered over the crowd throughout the film’s duration.  In retrospect, it seems as if the night was set up to ease viewers into the film.  It is strange how the suffering of others was juxtaposed against a lighthearted atmosphere, as if the later somehow lessens the first, or at least makes it bearable.

The second element of strangeness occurred at the micro level, as the event was coming to a close.  After the film, one of my fellow interns stood up on a table with a microphone to convey a brief anecdote about his experience as a ONE volunteer, and to relay information about starting a ONE chapter on a college campus.  Right at the beginning of his speech, the televisions that once played a heart-wrenching documentary returned to their usual station, ESPN.  The ESPN announcer’s voice clamored over that of my friend and fellow intern, making it impossible to hear what he was saying.  Instead of hearing a message of advocacy and action, the crowd was informed of Brett Favre’s indecision concerning his retirement. This news, given Brett’s history of indecision, was not so shocking.  What was shocking to me was that the announcer’s message was literally drowning a message of hope and action in a sea of tiresome gossip.  It is strange how often cultural snafus overshadow our attention to more serious issues, such as extreme poverty and suffering.

That being said, the event was largely successful.  For an advocacy organization like ONE, the addition of 200 new members is no small accomplishment.  However, it also illustrated the strangeness of the way that humans attempt to cope with uncomfortable issues, such as the suffering of others.  Christians and non-Christians are equally guilty of letting gossip divert our attentions elsewhere, and of making human suffering as comfortable as possible.  My best friend Courtney Quiros, recently wrote a letter in the Daily Princetonian to this effect, claiming, “The God of the Christian tradition does not explain to us why there is suffering. Part of suffering’s horror is its very unintelligibility. Our attempts to give it reasonableness often end up looking trite, simplistic, or chillingly insensitive.” Our unintelligible response to suffering is generally to make ourselves feel more comfortable, which often comes across as painfully insensitive.  It also can manifest itself, like it did last night, as a message of suffering mitigated by an atmosphere of pleasantries.

Again, my point is not to downplay the effectiveness of the event last night in terms of awareness raising and membership acquisition.  Overall, my time at ONE has been extremely enjoyable and full of events with similar processes and outcomes.  I feel privileged to have been surrounded by so many individuals who work tirelessly to advocate on behalf of those with HIV/AIDS and other preventable diseases.   But as Christian, I must ask myself, and anyone else who claims the same: Are our attempts to respond to suffering sullied by our need for comfort? What can we do to be more proactive and less insensitive? How do we address this strangeness?

I want to close with the intention of addressing these lingering questions more adequately in my final Lived Theology paper, and with the promise that I, as a Christian, will cease to pursue comfort, but rather solutions to the many causes of suffering.

Free Food with a Side of Social Justice

On the desktop of my computer, I have an iconic picture of Martin Luther King meeting with President Lyndon Johnson in the oval office in 1963.  Dr. King is gesticulating emphatically and leaning forward, as in an attempt to imbue Johnson with his passions, and President Johnson, who looks thoroughly bored and unresponsive, is slumped over in his leather chair resting a hand against his surly face.  I love this picture.  It is a great reminder to approach even the most mundane tasks and seemingly disinterested people with an infectious fervor.  Today, I felt a bit like Dr. King must have felt during this meeting with President Johnson, though to a much less significant degree, given that I am not the figurehead of an entire movement to override pervasive racially based injustice.  However, I am a small part of a movement to combat injustice in the form of poverty and preventable disease, and today, my task, along with ONE’s nine other interns, was to venture over to Capitol Hill and distribute tickets for an event we (the interns) planned this coming Thursday specifically targeted at D.C. interns working in NGOs, and also in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  As mandated by the Gettysburg Address, it will be by the interns, for the interns.

Specifically, this event will be a screening of the Lazarus Effect, the documentary about the life giving antiretroviral medicine that individuals with HIV/AIDS depend on for survival, and a happy hour, which I guess some would depend on for survival during the work week.  Really, the purpose of the happy hour is to incentivize those who would otherwise be disinterested, to come and learn about advocacy work on behalf of those who live in poverty and suffer from preventable disease.  It is strange to think that there would need to be an incentive, or that people would be disinterested in learning about potential avenues to overcoming extreme poverty and preventable disease, but it is difficult to actively engage with the lives of others so far away when we have our own issues and concerns.  Nonetheless, during my time at the Senate and the House, I encountered some pretty disinterested people, and found out that the incentive really is important.  This became apparent when I walked into an office on the Third floor of the Rayburn building of the House and attempted to describe our event with as much energy and fervor as I could muster after the 55 offices I had already visited.  The girl I spoke with, who was also an intern, stared blankly at me as I tried to gesticulate and smile enough to overcome her indifference, but not enough to scare her.  In the end, the only thing she responded to was the happy hour.  I told her that the event was going to be held at the Pour House, a local bar, and she said, “Oh, really? Now you have my attention.”  The only thing that kept me from taking her ticket and ripping it to pieces in front of her was the picture of Martin Luther King, and his commitment to agape love.

This interaction reminded me of a book I just finished called Church, State and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement by Sandra Joireman.  In a particularly informative section entitled, “Reformed…and Always Reforming?” Joireman asks the question, “From what source should Christians be drawing their understanding of justice?”  For King, the source of justice was a deep understanding of agape love, and also a deep understanding of sin.  For the girl on the third floor of the House, it seemed to be the circumstantial correlation between free food, reduced price beer and extreme poverty.  While I have no way of knowing her particular religious affiliations (if any), it is interesting to examine the ways in which different denominations of Christianity understand justice, and how that understanding plays out in the public sphere.

Joireman begins this discourse with the Catholic tradition, pointing most significantly to their focus on the common good as the basic source of justice.  In fact, the entirety of the Catholic social doctrine is premised on the idea of the common good as trumping all human institutions that have nationalistic, even, at times, democratic, inclinations.  Therefore, the role of the state is to promote the (transnational) common good through “global solidarity and a preferential love for the poor” (Joireman, pg. 18), even if that results, like it did in Italy, in fascism.  Catholicism assumes a top down role for both the state and the church, which are two separate entities, but are both meant to promote and protect the common good.  However, since the church is presumed to be morally superior to the state, the church assumes a greater responsibility to impose Christian discipline on its citizenry, and is far more capable of determining the common good.  In my simplistic understanding, the main source of justice is utilitarian, that which optimizes the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, and is manifested publicly through a state that focuses on transnational interests, social welfare, and the promotion of Catholicism.

Moving on to the Calvinist, or Reformed Christian tradition, which emphasizes human sinfulness and reform of the whole society.  The glaring difference between the way in which Catholicism and Calvinism approaches an understanding to justice is the difference between the source, the first of which is premised on the common good, and the second on which is premised on human sinfulness.  In the Calvinist tradition, sin is placed “where it belongs, as a warping of what God made good” (Joireman, pg. 57).  The Catholic tradition assumes top down reform enacted separately by church and by state, both operating under the direction of the common good.  The Calvinist tradition enacts reform for the common good, but under the assumption that humans are irrevocably sinful.  Therefore, sin runs throughout all of society, and isn’t sequestered to just the political realm, but is also present in the realm of the church.  Even when Calvinism is present in a state that separates itself from the church, the two are inevitably linked by sin.  The state has a more limited role in enacting the common good and imposing Christian values on its citizenry, because it is presumed that they are equally capable of sin. It is common grace that comes only from God, not common goodness, which compels Calvinists to actively participate in reform in all spheres of life.  The main source of justice, or rather, injustice, seems to be human sinfulness, and is manifested public through efforts to reform all spheres of life, church and state included.

The last tradition I want to examine is that of Evangelicalism, which is premised on both top down and bottom up reform, and on a strong conception of religion as personal.  Unlike Catholicism, for Evangelicals, the state has no role in promoting true religion, because that action would undermine any religious truth.  Furthermore, sin doesn’t seem to be the debilitating affliction for Evangelicals that it is for Calvinists, nor does it seem to be the source of justice.  For Evangelicals, the source of justice can be best understood inside the phrase “soulcraft as stagecraft” (Joireman, pg. 137).  Fundamentally, Christians act as the moral conscience of the state, and can provoke both top down and bottom up reforms toward a more just state.  As Joireman says, “moral men can make decent and just states” (Joireman, pg. 137).  Under this premise, the primary role of the state is to defend the rights of the poor and the downtrodden, not promote true religion or cripple under the weight of sin.

Perhaps Martin Luther King said it best when he claimed, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority” (Strength to Love, 1963).  I would hope that if I was asked to attend an event where I could promote justice by helping to recapture the zeal of the church without undermining the critical functions of the state that protect the interests of the downtrodden, it wouldn’t take free food and drink to incentivize me to go.