by Karl Stevens
In her Adult Forum video, “Revolutionary Themes in Exodus,” Paula Jackson points out that the first plague, the river turned to blood, reveals the violence that’s already inherent in the world. Pharaoh has been using the Nile as the means of murdering the firstborn Hebrew children. The river is full of blood, but this can be ignored as long as the water runs clear. However, God is not content to let privileged people rest in their safety, untouched by the horrific things that are done in their name. Everybody suffers when the water is turned to blood, and that’s the point. The poor and oppressed have been suffering all along. They can’t be relieved of their suffering until the rich and powerful have a change of heart. And God’s plan is to give privileged people the experience of suffering, so that they can’t ignore it and will learn to hate it, not just for themselves but for everyone – and because they’ve experienced it and hated it, they will assist in the change that needs to happen in the world.
I am a rich and privileged person, both by the world’s standards and by the standards of the city that I live in. Because I am rich and privileged, I have segregated myself off from suffering – I might think of the suffering of others once or twice a day and decry it in my mind, but I am not involved in the day to day suffering of my near neighbors. I might give to worthy causes and go to marches and meet with my representatives to try to make systemic changes that I believe will make life better for people. But, again, by virtue of where I live and where I work and who I choose to call my friends, I am experientially cut off from the suffering of others.
Reading Exodus forces me to face this fact, and to wonder what hidden rivers of blood run through my own life. A recent On Being post by Christena Cleveland helped me see this even more clearly. The post, entitled “So Much of the Privileged Life is About Transcendence,” made me aware of my own theology of transcendence. Most of the time I look for God in transcendent experience – in the yoga studio, or in contemplative prayer, or in nature. I don’t know how to look for God within the context of my own suffering, let alone the suffering of others. Cleveland points out that this is the spirituality of privilege:
The privileged life is all about transcendence, living a life that lies beyond the limits of ordinary experience. It’s about avoiding, escaping, or anesthetizing systemic/societal pain. It is quite effective as a system of transcendence in that most privileged people are deeply disconnected from the ordinary experience of many.
She comments on The Magnificat, the Song of Mary, a hymn to God offered by a poor, young, woman of color. Mary, she says, is offering a different form of spirituality, one that isn’t about transcendence but imminence:
Turning our attention toward systemic pain is not something we typically associate with spiritual nourishment and liberation, but what if it is? What if we can’t truly experience the hope of the Divine until we are able to experience the Divine in the most hopeless situations? Throughout human history, the oppressed peoples of the world have, out of necessity, intentionally turned their focus on God in the midst of the most painful experiences.
This is, of course, not just Mary’s theology and spirituality. It’s the spirituality of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and of all of the people who follow them into exile. Their spirituality is not about avoiding pain – it’s about being honest about pain. In order to access this spirituality, we need to do at least two things. We need to be in real relationships with people who are suffering systemic injustice – not caring about them from a distance, but waking up with them and taking the bus with them and checking in with them throughout the course of the week. These need to be friendships, love relationships, the kind of neighborliness that will cost us something. And we need, as Cleveland suggests, to add things to our prayer practices. Commenting on a spiritual retreat she went to, she writes:
I wondered whether a focused, curious meditation on the devastating effects of environmental racism in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods would have also been designated a spiritual activity. I’ve never been to a meditation retreat that included a “contaminated water meditation.”
Neither have I, but I want to. And as someone who plans and leads retreats, I want such meditations to be part of the spiritual work we do collectively when we’re on retreat, and individually, in our day to day prayer and meditation practices. I want a spirituality of immanence and hope, not just a spirituality of transcendence.