in Tall Tales

By the Rivers of Babylon

By the rivers of Babylon,
Where we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
“Sing is one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing the LORD’s song
In a foreign land?
-Psalm 137.1-4
I’m taking a course in Washington that focuses on journeying with people who are oppressed and feel abandoned by society, the church and God.
As part of our program we visited a camp for migrant farm workers where we saw the living conditions and heard the stories of some of the leaders in the community. All the workers were Mexican, and all were illegal immigrants. One man told of his family being kidnapped and held ransom by the smugglers. Another man talked of the farms in California that charge more for rent than they are able to make during a month’s work. A third man told us how his nephew had just been killed in a car accident. He asked for money so that they could fly the body back to Mexico. It’s actually cheaper for them to send their dead back across the border than it is to have a burial in the USA.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget her skill.
May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.
-Psalm 137.5-6
I understand what the Prof was trying to do – make the stories real, give suffering a human face, perhaps awaken dormant consciences. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were going about everything the wrong way. It felt more like a peep show than anything else. A quick glance, a hurried intimacy, and then they’re off to the fields and we’re driving back to the classroom.
I’m always left wondering: how do you walk the line between promoting awareness and contributing to the problem? There must be a way in which such things can be spoken of, can be communicated, that does not contribute to the problem. Such things cannot be unspeakable for that only furthers the isolation and alienation experienced by those who have suffered.
I think that being entertained by the suffering of others is a epidemic problem in our culture. Although the emotions such sights arouse in us are not always termed pleasurable it seems that we take pleasure in having such emotions aroused. It is doubly epidemic in our churches where we not only treasure those feelings but then treasure the feelings of sympathy that follow close behind. “Look, I’m crying… I’m such a loving person, such a good Christian.” We think we are loving or compassionate because of our feelings, never realizing that we are apathetic or hateful if such feelings do not result in action.
I can empathize with the grief that causes the Psalmist to conclude:
O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones
Against the rock.
– Psalm 137.7-9
Sometimes it is hard not to resort to violence.

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  1. “Please…please…please…
    Get up off your knees”
    I think that what i’d say the answer to the line between ‘promoting awareness and contributing to the problem’ is in what awareness leads to.
    I think that we should never take people to see pain in the world unless our very next statement is ‘we have seen now what will we do?’
    I grew up where for years our youth group would pray for ‘north town court’ (now called old pine trail) a low income neighbourhood literally steps away from our church. We would pray God help us in reaching these people. We would go for prayer walks in the neighbourhood…all good things, however, i think there comes a point where bono’s words ring true, “Please…please…please…
    Get up off your knees.” Prayer is good, awareness is good, but unless these things lead to action we are simply doing as you’ve said…”We think we are loving or compassionate because of our feelings, never realizing that we are apathetic or hateful if such feelings do not result in action.”
    It only took the small action of putting a basketball net on our church property that has led to a wonderful bridge being built between us and the community around us. It kills me that this wasn’t done years ago…few in our church likes basketball, i never used to like basketball (we’re a bunch of honkey crackers), but over time basketball has come to be my favorite sport–because i have come into relationship with these kids, and they’ve rubbed off on me. The thursday night drop-in and our summer tournament (that grew out of simply putting up a net and talking to kids) gives these kids a sense of worth and that we do care. It also has created relationships…it’s quite the thing to be walking somewhere and have a kid who otherwise i would share nothing in common come up to me and talk to me because they know me from basketball. It’s also quite the thing to watch families of kids i’ve grown to love be threatened with deportation…much pain, much joy…all because I slowly got up off my knees.
    Don’t go to see things…don’t take ppl. to see things unless the very next question on your lips will be, what will we do about this.