Several years ago my Allelon roommates and I had the pleasure of visiting an inspiring crew of folks at the Rutba House* in Durham, NC. We sat around a kitchen table with Rutba co-founder and author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, gleaning stories on what it looks like for them to live in Christian community. As I remember, it was a great conversation. However, the thing that stuck with me the most was not a story or nugget of wisdom. It was a plaque. Hanging there in the kitchen was a small frame with a puzzling quote attributed to Lilla Watson and the Aboriginal activist group in Australia. It said:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.”
Staring at that quote, I realized I had no idea what it meant, and [spoilers!] I still don't. I had been acquainted with the idea of having a learner's mindset (as opposed to coming in with all the answers) when relocating to a neighborhood. But this was something else altogether. What kind of solidarity is it that says "my liberty is bound up in yours"? Sure, I may go into a neighborhood ready to learn some cultural tidbits, but the reason I go is still to take something that I have to offer...right?
Fast forward to a couple of days ago. For the first time, I celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day by reading Dr. King's “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It's not every day you read a great piece of literature whose principles both shaped modern society AND still ring of prophetic witness.*
In his letter, King addresses the church leaders who condemned his non-violent actions and, since King was not from Birmingham, accused him of being an "outside agitator." First, King defends his purpose there by naming the organizations that invited him. He then compares himself to the biblical prophets and the Apostle Paul; he is in Birmingham carrying the gospel of freedom. But his final defense is what brought to mind the puzzling Aboriginal quote and finally started to make sense of it:
"Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
It is easy to imagine King’s liberation being tied up with those suffering injustice in Birmingham. But what about us? What about Abilene? If our liberations are bound up in each other, what exactly are we being liberated from? For the poor among us, we want to see liberation from cycles of generational poverty, becoming productive and independent citizens. But I believe it is more important for us all to be liberated from cycles of exclusivity, entitlement, misunderstanding and apathy. Indeed we have all inherited these social divisions.
This paradigm challenges my tendency toward hierarchy in relationships. It is so easy to see myself as the “have” and you as the “have-not.” While I may actually have something that you need, labeling you as a recipient is an oversimplification of your humanity. Seeing you this way creates an unhealthy hierarchy between us as individuals. The truth is, we have something to work toward together. What if, instead of risky financial decisions or poor health habits, we passed on to the next generation an appreciation of diversity or a sense of discontentment at the sight of injustice?
And so with these quotes from noted activists, I find a new, more personal goal for neighborhood renewal. I had previously bought in to it simply out of a desire to see prospering citizens and a growing sense of community. Now I want to participate in renewing neighborhoods because, just maybe, parts of me will be renewed as well.
*The Rutba House is a community of Christians that has joined forces and resources to share a life of prayer, hospitality and active peacemaking. You can watch a video about them here.
*You can experience the letter read aloud in a great video here.