Nisha is two years old. She lives in Sonagacchi, one of the most notorious red-light districts in all of South Asia. The district, located in a neighborhood of Calcutta, India, is only two blocks long, but is a prison to nearly 12,000 women—many of them trafficked from places like Nepal, Bangladesh and Burma.
Twelve to fifteen times a night, men climb on top of Nisha’s young mother and assault her, physically traumatize her, and commodify her sexuality. The little 150-square-foot room that Nisha lives in is about as big as her world will ever get. Once she’s old enough for sex, it is more than likely she will begin prostituting just like her mother.
Nisha and the community she is a part of need to believe in the possibility of a good God, but they have obvious and legitimate obstacles to believing that God is actually good. This need has become a call to a reeducation, a call to which my community has vocationally committed.
Bearing Witness to Hope
I am part of a movement called Word Made Flesh (WMF). Our community of volunteers attempts to center friends like Nisha in relationships that restore dignity and identity. This commitment is fundamental to the affirmation of our own dignity and identity.
WMF is called to serve Jesus among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. We love Christ among the so-called voiceless and forgotten people of the world. We are contemplative activists who follow the poor to God’s heart.
Yet we challenge the traditional donor-receptor roles by asking the question, “Who saves whom?”
Our activity is based around an intentional spirituality that bears witness to hope and seeks to recover the character of a good God in a world that has legitimate reasons to question that goodness. We practice the presence and proclamation of the Kingdom of God among the poor.
Beginning the Journey
Exploring God’s goodness has been a journey of learning for our community. A sincere, idealistic Christian community, we assumed much about our faith, but it was not until we began cultivating friendships with some of the world’s most exploited people that we started asking tough questions.
In the early days of our community’s social-conscious formation, we were deeply influenced by the writings of Paulo Freire. The writings of Freire encouraged the kinds of questions we found ourselves asking, and it seemed that the questions themselves had become a new form of education—an educational praxis of reflection.
Our community’s culture of questioning set us on a cyclical trajectory of reflection > action > evaluation > reflection and so on. This pattern echoes Freire: “Since authentic reflection cannot exist apart from action, [humanity] must also act to transform the concrete reality which has determined their massification.”1 This path also fortified our early commitments to discovering a contemplative basis for all activity (reflection), engaging in an embodied affirmation of human dignity (action), and considering our communal self-image in the context of the realities we hoped to serve (evaluation).
Freire also nudged us toward what has become our praxis, or cultural distinctive, of reflection within the life of our community. We have built a basic posture of translating our reality through various forms of reflection, interaction, and reinterpretation.
The work of Freire provoked within us an imagination for reciprocal exchanges in all areas of human activity, exchanges that avoided the commodification of the other’s perceived deficiencies or weaknesses and embraced a theologically grounded posture of submission to those perceived mental, social, economic, and even spiritual vulnerabilities.
Freire also influenced us to think differently about how we codified our community’s collective identity. We reconsidered and reimagined traditional institutional structure by rejecting assumed corporate language. This forced us to find appropriate names and terminology for our collective vocation and identity, to dismiss strategic starting points by opting for theological starting points, and to make organic, tactical commitments to organizing our movement rather than institutionalizing our organization.
Practically speaking, after our community passed around copies of Education for Critical Consciousness, we set out to implement what we had absorbed from Freire. In part of the book, he shares from his experience of “culture circles” of dialogue, which are methods used to reflect on one’s reality and move one toward a reshaping of that reality.
In these culture circles, traditional education is reframed by naming its deformations; the practice of education has “not been to exchange ideas, but to dictate them; not to debate or discuss themes, but to give lectures; not to work with the student, but to work on [the student], imposing an order to which [the student] has had to accommodate.”2 After embracing Freire’s approach, “instead of a teacher, we had a coordinator; instead of lectures, dialogue; instead of pupils, group participants; instead of alienating syllabi, compact programs that were ‘broken down’ and ‘codified’ into learning units.”3
David Chronic led an exploration of this process at our community center for children on the streets of Galati, Romania. Our staff experimented with these techniques by juxtaposing pictures of how dogs are trained to sit with pictures of children in classrooms being taught by teachers. In the conversations that were prompted by these images, we discovered that the children who were living and working on the streets overidentified their own self-images with the animals. Their experiences attested to the fact that in their social exchanges, they were more often yelled at, threatened, beaten, and ignored than spoken to with common courtesy. This was a reflection of how they were generally treated by society.
It was obvious that the children needed to reconsider how they had been socialized in order to have a more authentically humanized view of themselves. It was also clear that the community in which they lived needed reeducation on the dignity of all humanity.
We had originally set out with a simple mission—to embody love through solidarity—but we were suddenly surprised to find a reeducation process beginning. The process, facilitated by relationships and reciprocated in friendship, caused WMF to reevaluate itself and subsequently institutionalize a posture of submission throughout our entire community.
The reciprocal exchange of learning took place in the embodiment of love. Our WMF community listened to our friends and lamented with them about how their humanity had been plundered and recategorized by society, about how they were forced to the margins, their voices muted, their humanity reduced to not much more than animals. We needed to learn what it really meant to affirm their human dignity, which required us to grow in our understanding of inclusion—the pressing task was to reclaim identity with, not for, our friends.
It was a group of children who began reeducating us about their humanity. And today we are still surprised by all the ways we are invited to follow our friends who are poor to God’s heart.
Embodying the Ideals
I recently came across an education lecture in which Parker Palmer recounts a simple story with profoundly nuanced implications.4 In 1744 the commissioners of Virginia were finalizing a treaty with the local nations of Native North Americans. As part of the proposed treaty, the College of William and Mary offered complimentary education for some of the men from the various tribes. The elders of the tribes considered and declined the offer and then proposed a counteroffer.
The tribal leaders explained that some of their young men had already been educated in white colleges. The men had returned to their communities unable to participate in the life of their tribes: “They were instructed in all your sciences, but when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, neither fit for hunters nor counselors, they were totally good for nothing.”5
The elders, although appreciative of the offer, suggested a counteroffer that reflected a true spirit of mutual reciprocity: “To show our grateful sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them.”6
Sadly, the Virginian commissioners declined this offer, indicating that they felt they had little to learn from the Native North Americans.
Palmer suggests that the earliest forms of what we now refer to as higher education carried the potential for violence,7 which, as Palmer states, “always involves violating the integrity of the other.”8 He suggests that “every mode of education is a mode of soul-making.”9 Reflecting on the exchange between the commissioners of Virginia and the elders of the Native North American tribes, Palmer says, “It was a more fundamental battle about whose way of knowing would prevail as formative and shaping of the lives of human beings.”10 Our community addresses this same issue as part of our exploration of what we mean by mission.
Given this communal orientation, we reject traditional donor-receptor roles that teeter on the possibility of dehumanizing the other by leveraging an exchange of ideas, resources, or experiences toward the favor of the perceived donor. Our community affirms the need for a cyclical exchange in relationships, one that creates a healthy dependence on the other for a fully realized affirmation of all human dignity.
One of the ways we see this happen in relationships with our friends who suffer in extreme poverty situations is the continued conversation of the possibility of a good God in a world torn apart by suffering. Our friends who are poor often have legitimate reasons to question the goodness of God. Rather than defending a position we hold by our faith, we engage this hard question in a series of even harder questions: In light of growing global disparity, the abuses of globalization, and the horrors of war and conflict, can God’s promises in Scripture be taken seriously?
Throughout the Bible, we read that God identifies with the poor,11 protects the poor,12 defends the vulnerable,13 feeds the hungry,14 sets the lowly in places of honor and the orphans in families,15 and establishes justice for victims.16
Certainly there are isolated instances where these promises are realized. I have been witness to places of hopeful grace and restoration throughout the world. But as a general rule, those who are poor still go to bed hungry, those who are vulnerable are still exploited, and my friends on the margins of society are not honored or esteemed, even by Christians.
What does this communicate about God? Are the promises in Scripture empty and hollow? Is the Kingdom of God an unattainable ideal? Or perhaps we should ask even harder questions. What if we allow the reality of the victims and those who are poor to be an indictment, not against a God whose self-imaging is deceitful, but against the Christian community that has failed to live into the implications of God’s promises? It seems we need a reeducation on embodying our beliefs.
Indeed, our friends who suffer under the cruel reality of poverty become the prophetic presence of Christ in our lives, the lives of the nonpoor. Their faithful, insistent prayers remain unanswered not because God has failed humanity but because we have failed to be God’s answer in the world—humanity has failed God.
Recognizing this as our own failure allows for the real possibility that God is good, and it demands that we seek anew and immediately to live into our faith in God’s goodness. Freire notes that “Integration with one’s context, as distinguished from adaptation, is distinctively human activity. Integration results from the capacity to adapt oneself to reality plus the critical capacity to make choices and to transform that reality.”17 By forming friendships that are characterized by true mutual reciprocity, we are granted the courage to engage in the pain of our shared realities, and this unity is itself a gift of grace, a hope that human dignity thus realized can transform society.
The courage to admit our complicity in poverty, embody this grace, and struggle to overcome this reality is, as Freire notes, real education. He writes, “Education is an act of love, and thus an act of courage. It cannot fear the analysis of reality or, under pain of revealing itself as a farce, avoid creative discussion.”18
Of course, the implications of these failures are absorbed by the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters, all of them theologically our neighbors.
As we Christians collectively seek to bear witness to the hope of a good God, we are confronted with realities of suffering that carry with them a legitimate basis for questioning God’s goodness. However, it is from within these contexts of poverty and suffering that we witness people and communities of faith who carry with them the credibility of resilience and proven hope. These friends press us back into a deeper faith and a reciprocal cycle of reeducation. “Who saves whom?” is answered in these relationships, which testify to hope.
Nisha, my 2-year-old friend in Sonagacchi, has become my teacher. My reeducation has been facilitated by the vulnerability, reality, and resilient courage of Nisha and her community. Rereading her reality as an assault on the character of a good God causes all of us to enter a re-narration of the collective human experience. And like Martin Luther King Jr. so pointedly stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,”19 so, too, is an assault on the dignity and identity of any human an assault on the goodness of God for every human.
1. Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness (New York: Continuum, 1973), 20.
2. Ibid., 38.
3. Ibid., 42.
4. Parker J. Palmer, “The Violence of Our Knowledge: Toward a Spirituality of Higher Education” (The Michael Keenan Memorial Lecture [the Seventh Lecture], Berea College, Berea, KY, 1993), accessed June 6, 2008, at http://www.21learn.org/arch/articles/palmer_spirituality.html.
7. Violence, of course, needs to be defined in every context, so ironically I endnote a footnote from Freire (Education, 10-11, footnote 9): “Every relationship of domination, of exploitation, of oppression, is by definition violent, whether or not the violence is expressed by drastic means. In such a relationship, dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things—the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love. When the oppressed legitimately rise up against their oppressor, however, it is they who are usually labeled ‘violent,’ ‘barbaric,’ ‘inhuman,’ and ‘cold.’ (Among the innumerable rights claimed by the dominating consciousness is the right to define violence, and to locate it. Oppressors never see themselves as violent.)”
8. Palmer, “Violence.”
11. Proverbs 19:17; Isaiah 3:14-15.
12. Psalm 12:5.
13. Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 10:18, 68:5, 72:4, 82:3; Proverbs 31:9; Isaiah 1:17, 1:23; Jeremiah 22:16.
14. Psalm 146:7; Ezekiel 18:16.
15. Job 5:11; Psalm 113:8; 1 Corinthians 1:28.
16. Exodus 23:6; Leviticus 19:5; Deuteronomy 24:17; Psalm 103:6, 140:12; Isaiah 1:17, 11:4; Zechariah 7:9.
17. Freire, Education, 4.
18. Ibid., 38.
19. Quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” as printed in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., James M. Washington, ed., (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), 290.