By Derek Penwell
Let us imagine that you live in a circle of eight houses, seven of which have fertile gardens in back -- enough to feed a family. Unfortunately, however, the eighth house has a patch of swampy land that makes growing a garden impossible. Consequently, the people that live there spend their lives on the edge of starvation.
In the middle of this circle of houses is a commons that everyone uses to supplement their own gardens. But the gardening done in the commons, split eight ways, is only enough to give each house a little extra produce to sell for “nice things.”
The sharing of the commons is a tradition that has been passed down to homeowners in the neighborhood for generations. Nobody even questions it. The commons arrangement is just the way things are.
However, one-eighth of the commons doesn’t give the family with swampy land enough subsist on.
But that’s the way it goes, right? Life isn’t always fair. There has to be winners and losers.
Then one day, you’re having a cookout at your house with the bounty harvested from the commons. You’ve invited over a friend, who just happens to be a surveyor. She’s interested by the layout of the neighborhood, and the almost perfect solution of a commons. She thinks this is a great idea.
On her way to the bathroom, however, your surveyor friend happens by an antique survey map of the neighborhood hanging in your study. She begins to inspect it closely, as supper is being prepared. As she looks, she notices that the commons isn’t really a commons at all. In fact, the land that the neighborhood has been using freely to supplement each one’s income is actually a tract that legally belongs to the house with the swampy land.
You immediately realize the implications of this discovery: For years, because of a longstanding tradition, everyone in the neighborhood has been fattening their pocketbooks at the expense of the family that lives on swampy land. In other words, you realize that you’ve been getting rich on the back of the neighbor who can least afford it. You have an epiphany: Your neighbor’s family has been starving, while the rest of the neighborhood has taken the proceeds for itself -- the proceeds that rightfully belong to the starving family.
You feel awful. But it was tradition. Nobody knew any better. That you probably should have been more compassionate toward your neighbor all along is beside the point. Now you know.
The moral question is: Having finally realized that you’ve been treating your neighbor’s family unjustly all these years, what are you going to do about it?
- Stay quiet about it and keep the arrangement the way it is. It appears to be in your best interest economically just to keep your mouth shut. Why say anything at all if it’s only going threaten your otherwise comfortable existence?
- You could privately admit to one or two neighbors that -- if it were up to you -- you’d just restore the commons to its rightful owner. You’re humane, after all, you don’t necessarily want to see anyone starve. But then you might continue by telling your friends that, though you’re personally pulling for the family with swampy land, you’re afraid that if you say anything publicly about the injustice, one of two things might happen: 1) your other neighbors might get mad and vote you out of the neighborhood association; or 2) they might just think the whole arrangement is falling apart and vote to disband the neighborhood association all together. And boy howdy! You could never live with yourself if you were the person who submarined such a great arrangement, which seems to meet the needs of so many people.
- Or you could say, “Now that I know an injustice is being committed, I can’t keep quiet about this practice that threatens one of my neighbors, even if speaking up about it makes everyone else angry.”
Whatever you do, though, now that you know your neighbor is suffering unjustly at the hands of people among whom you live and work, morally you occupy a different place than before the surveyor pointed out the inequity.
So, let’s bring this home for the church folk:
If you happen to be a follower of Jesus who believes LGBT people have suffered injustice at the hands of the church, your response to that injustice -- whether you stand up publicly to speak against it or not -- (as difficult as it is to think about) is a moral question.
If you come to believe as a result of your faith that disproportionately imprisoning and killing young African Americans is an epidemic that is just a public manifestation of institutional racism, how you respond to the shooting of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, et al., makes a difference.
If in the course of your life as a Christian and a participant in the great American commons you become convinced that people arriving to participate in that commons from other countries deserve to be treated with dignity and hospitality, whether you choose to stand beside them in the face of hatred is not a matter of moral indifference.
“What will my congregation/denomination think if I publicly name this injustice?” is certainly a question worth asking. But the more pressing moral question has to do with thinking that that question is more important than “What’s my moral responsibility to people facing an injustice that threatens their dignity, their careers, their living arrangements, their ability to be parents -- and in some cases -- their lives?”
True moral knowledge of injustice without action makes you part of the problem. If you don't think so, ask the folks in the swampy land.