This is the text of a talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival 2014. The theme of the Festival was “Travelling Light”; my talk was originally called “Travelling Heavy”, and I summarised it for the programme as follows:
Christianity doesn’t travel light. It is weighed down with history, much of it shameful. But if we don’t understand our past we can’t understand how it continues to form us, and we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. What would it mean for us to deal with the burdensome history of Christendom?
I want to start by telling you three stories, that may or may not be familiar to you.
The first story is about the 2014 Winter Olympics, which took place in Sochi, Russia.* Not long before the Winter Olympics took place, Vladimir Putin passed a law banning ‘non-traditional sexual propaganda to minors’, which is to say that there was a ban on anything that could be construed as pro-LGBT propaganda. It wasn’t very clear exactly what was being banned, or how thoroughly it was being banned; there was some ambiguity over whether wearing a rainbow lapel pin would count as propaganda to minors, and the Russian government said different things at different times about whether non-Russian citizens would be arrested for breaking the law. But there was a huge outcry in the UK and the US. Celebrities wrote op-eds. Stephen Fry wrote an open letter. Gay rights activists loudly argued that we should boycott Russian vodka, or even the Olympics as a whole. Lots of people I know, including lots of Christians, shared articles on Facebook and Twitter, and talked angrily about how terrible it was that Russia were doing such awful things to their LGBT population.
But there were some problems. Western reports of what was going on were full of inaccuracies. They failed to understand what the new law said and what it actually meant. Lots of people circulated horrific videos of people who had been tortured by Russian vigilante groups, linking these events to the new law. But mostly people didn’t bother checking where those videos came from or what they actually showed. It didn’t occur to them that it might not be ok to spread videos which showed the faces of the people who were being tortured so that they were easily identifiable. People repeatedly claimed that what was going on was that people were being tortured because they were gay, when actually it was more complicated than that.
One of the groups whose videos were circulated targeted not gay people but paedophiles. If you take a group that thinks all gay people are paedophiles, and you circulate their video, saying that it’s about Russia’s persecution of gay people, then one of the things you’re doing is actively confirming the idea that all gay people are also paedophiles. Similarly, these same vigilante groups didn’t start out by targeting people they thought were paedophiles; they started out by attacking immigrants, foreigners, people of colour and Muslims. And yet, again, next to none of the outrage in the West was directed at the racism of these groups, or indeed of Putin’s Russian more generally.
Another problem with the outrage over Russia was that almost all of the criticisms came from Westerners. Hardly anyone mentioned that there are already groups in Russia working for LGBT rights; even fewer people actually quoted any of those people. Sometimes what Western activists asked people to do was the direct opposite of what Russian activists were asking for, like the boycotts of vodka and the Olympics.
You know what else hardly anyone mentioned? The fact that Britain has a terrible record for dealing with LGBT people. The fact that we regularly send LGBT asylum seekers back to countries where their lives are in danger, or refuse to believe what they say about their sexuality, or lock them up in detention centres and deport them when they try to expose the terrifying rates of sexual abuse by guards which take place in those centres. Hardly anyone mentioned that when London hosted the Olympics in 2012, the British government used it as an opportunity to evict people from their homes, arrest people before the event even started because they might have caused trouble, and sell off public space to private companies.
Here’s a brief history of LGBT rights in Russia. In 16th and 17th century Muscovy, same-sex sexual acts were disapproved of, but were legal and more or less tolerated. But when Western Europeans started to come to Muscovy, they began to write home about how shameful it was that same-sex sex was tolerated, describing it as a sign that Muscovy was primitive and barbarous. So when Peter the Great came to power he made a great effort to ‘westernise’, and part of that westernisation was the introduction of laws making sodomy illegal. When the Russian communist revolution happened, these laws were swept away, although later on both homosexuality and abortion were banned because of worries about the declining Russian birthrate.
These laws were liberalised again in the late 80s and early 90s, in part because American and European organisations funded Russian LGBT campaigning groups. But around 2000, this funding ran out, and Russian political, religious and social culture became increasingly conservative, and opposition to gay rights became a sign of Russia’s rejection of Western values. One Russian who was quoted at the time by Buzzfeed, of all places, said this:
You stupid idiots kill people all over the world, Iraq, libya, afganistan, syria etc. You interfere internal politics of many countries. And now you stupid idiots try to teach us how to live? Go fuck yourself and your president and leave us to decide OURSELVES on how to live and rule OUR country. Just understand that you opinion mean nothing here.
Here’s the thing: Russia’s attitudes to LGBT people have always been bound up with their attitudes to the West. The Western world has, for centuries, tried to force Russia to conform to their ideas about what a ‘civilised’ society should look like; a few centuries ago that meant disapproval of homosexuality, and now it means gay rights. But our basic attitude is still the same.
A term that gets at some of what’s going on here is homonationalism. Homonationalism is a way to describe the process by which Western countries appropriate the language of gay rights as a part of their claim to be better than other countries, which are seen as less civilised. Even though queer people are still discriminated against both in our laws and our cultures, the language of gay rights, along with the language of freedom and democracy, becomes part of the language of Western superiority and imperialism. Because we are so tolerant and so socially advanced and sophisticated, we are justified in intervening in the affairs of other countries which are less tolerant. Even if that intolerance is directly connected to the history of Western imperialism and oppression; even if the origins of that society’s rejection of gay rights can be directly traced back to Western homophobia, somehow we claim that our recently discovered and very imperfectly realised commitment to gay rights gives us the right to interfere in other country’s political systems. David Cameron literally said that he wants the UK to “export” gay marriage around the world; and in the letter that Stephen Fry wrote about Russia and the Sochi Olympics, he contrasted Russia with the ‘civilised world’ and described David Cameron as a man who knew the difference between right and wrong. I’m not quite sure how this global gay marriage trade that David Cameron is so eager to get in on fits with the global arms trade which the UK has so vigorously supported. But it seems to me like there are some important questions we should be asking about why it is that of all the countries in the world with terrible records not only on gay rights but on human rights more generally it was Russia, rather than Britain’s political allies, that became the focus of media attention
Sometimes it’s easy to think that we are doing something new and good when we campaign to stop bad things happening in the world. But we don’t always realise that, for all our good intentions, we’re not breaking with the past, we’re just repeating it.
My second story is about sex work in Cambodia, and it’s mostly based on what Melissa Gira Grant has written about in her recent book, Playing the Whore. In that book, she tells the story of a New York Times writer called Nicholas Kristof, who went on a trip to Cambodia, where he was hosted by the Somaly Mam Foundation, an NGO headed by a Cambodian woman with harrowing stories of her own experiences of abuse and, torture and enslavement. Together they set out to rescue Cambodian sex workers. Kristof told stories of setting out in armoured cars ‘bristling’ with AK-47s to rescue young girls from heartbreaking conditions. He live-tweeted a police raid of some Cambodian brothels. One one trip he even bought two girls from a brothel and took them back to the villages they came from. The stories were grim but familiar to anyone who’s read accounts of charitable attempts to rescue women from sexual slavery.
But Gira Grant also tells the story of her own visit to Cambodia, and it’s very different. She didn’t go with a big NGO, she went because she is a sex-worker’s rights advocate, and she was invited over by a group of Cambodian sex workers. She didn’t go to rescue anyone; and she didn’t take the police with her: she went to listen. And what those women had to say didn’t fit the narratives that are so familiar to us in the West. She found that what happened to sex workers who were rescued by the police and by well-meaning NGOs was that they were sent to ‘rehabilitation centres’ where they were detained for months without charge. They were crammed into spaces that were too small for them, sometimes as many as thirty or forty in a single cell, and many reported being beaten and sexually assaulted by the guards. Some of them who had HIV were denied access to antiretrovirals. Cambodian human rights groups reported that several women were beaten to death. The raids which led to these awful human rights abuses were the Cambodian government’s response to the conditions of receiving aid money from the US government, which require countries receiving their money to demonstrate their commitment to eradicating prostitution.
Not long after Melissa Gira Grant’s book was published this year, it turned out that Somaly Mam, the Cambodian woman who had become an international figure because of the work she did to save women from sex work, was a fraud. She had lied about her own experiences, and she had convinced some of the girls her charity worked with to lie about theirs. The Cambodian press had been reporting on these issues for several years until finally the story made it to the Western media, and eventually Somaly Mam was forced to resign. Nick Kristof said that, even though it was sad to discover that not everything he’d reported was true, at least they’d rescued some women; surely that counted for something?
The sociologist Laura Maria Agustin has a name for the sort of organisation that Somaly Mam ran – and that a lot of Christians are involved with. She calls it the ‘rescue industry’, and she defines it like this:
The Rescue Industry is an ever-larger social sector dedicated to helping and saving prostitutes, sex workers, and fallen women. By defining women as victims, Rescuers find their own identity and meaning in life.
Agustin argues that the people involved in the Rescue Industry aren’t really interested in what the people they work with want; she says that in the US as well as Cambodia, well-intentioned people often fail to help the people they are working with because they are so sure that women involved in sex work are helpless victims who need saving that they won’t listen to what those women actually say about what they need and want, about what will help them. She says that ‘although much of this work goes on under a feminist banner, colonialist maternalism describes it better.’
And in the same way that Western outrage at Russian attitudes to sexuality isn’t new, the rescue industry isn’t new either. The historian Annette Burton has written about the crucial role of the figure of the prostitute in Victorian colonial feminism. She argues that Victorian feminists made a big fuss about the suffering of sex workers in the countries which had been colonised by Britain because the idea that women were naturally empathetic meant that they could claim to have a unique insight into the suffering of these women, and because by doing this, those Victorian feminists could demand the right to be involved with politics: who else could speak for these poor, damaged women? It certainly never seemed to occur to them that those women might be able to speak for themselves.
The third story I want to tell is about Joseph Kony and a Christian charity called Invisible Children.** To recap for those of you who don’t remember the Kony2012 video which went viral a couple of years ago, Joseph Kony was a Ugandan warlord who led an organisation called the Lord’s Resistance Army, which committed all sorts of terrible crimes against Ugandans, and was particularly known for its tendency to kidnap children and force them to join it as soldiers. And in 2012, a Christian charity called Invisible Children made a video saying that 2012 was the year to finally stop Joseph Kony. The video talked about how awful Kony was, and said that the reason he hadn’t been stopped was that most of the world had never heard of him. And the way to stop him was to make as many people as possible aware of his existence, by putting up posters and wearing branded bracelets, and by emailing US politicians to convince them to send troops to Uganda to help the Ugandan army find and capture Kony.
The video went viral but it wasn’t very long until there was a backlash, mostly from Ugandans, who pointed out that – surprise! – things were a bit more complicated than the video had made them seem. What the video didn’t talk about was the way that in the mid-1990s the Ugandan government had forced thousands of people out of their homes into camps which were supposed to protect them from Joseph Kony. There were reports that the government had murdered people and burned their villages, first to force people into the camps and then to make them stay. By 2005 there were 1.8 million people living in these camps, and the poor conditions there were killing as many people as the Lord’s Resistance Army ever had. The attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement were scuppered first by the Ugandan government, and second by the refusal of the International Criminal Court – who feature pretty heavily in the Kony2012 video – to offer an amnesty to Kony.
During the controversy which followed the Kony2012 video, the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole wrote a series of tweets about it, which also went viral. I want to read them to you.
- From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Saviour Industrial Complex.
- The white saviour supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.
- The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.
- This world exists simply to satisfy the needs – including, importantly, the sentimental needs – of white people and Oprah.
- The White Saviour Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
- Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.
- I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.
I chose these three stories for a couple of reasons: firstly because they’re all issues that I have seen Christians get very passionate about, especially Christians who care about social justice and making the world better, and because I’m guessing that at least some of you will have been involved at some point in a campaign like these. I know I have.
I think that a lot of us, maybe especially at Greenbelt, realise that the Christianity we have grown up with or experienced or inherited doesn’t always care about the right things, and often ends up hurting people. And lots of us have started to care about social justice, about LGBT rights, about sex trafficking and sex work, about Africa (because that’s one of the things we do, isn’t it, we talk about ‘Africa’ as though it’s a single place and not a continent full of very different countries with very different political situations). And I don’t want to say that we should stop caring about these things, that we should stop wanting to make the world better. But I do worry that we’re in danger of repeating exactly the logic of Christian colonialism that we think we’re undermining.
In the blurb for this talk I talked about being weighed down by the shameful history of Christianity. And I want to suggest that a really important element of that burden that we carry is what Rudyard Kipling describes as the ‘White Man’s Burden’. The name comes from a poem that Kipling wrote, and I want to read you a couple of stanzas from it:
Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.
Take up the White Man’s burden, In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit, And work another’s gain.
Take up the White Man’s burden, The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.
So the ‘White Man’s burden’ basically means that, as far as Kipling is concerned, White British people have a duty to go and solve the world’s problems. It’s not an easy task, he thinks. Trying to civilise uncivilised nations is hard work, and the people you civilise – half devils and half children – probably won’t thank you for it. But we have to do the work anyway: only we can solve famine and sickness; only we can save these poor people from their misery.
This poem is famous because it captures the attitude which characterised the British Empire. We didn’t go and take over huge swathes of the world because we wanted to massacre whole groups of people, steal their land and plunder their resources, at least not officially. We went because we believed it was our calling, our duty, because we thought that those people needed us, that they weren’t capable of self-determination. We didn’t go to enslave; we went to set people free.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that colonialism was bad; that its assumptions were racist, its practices brutal and its consequences ongoing and terrible. You probably don’t need me to tell you that many of the worst things that the British Empire did were done in the name of Christianity and Christian values. But what worries me is this: I read that poem and I recognise myself in it; I recognise the contemporary church in it. And it seems to me that we’re in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past, of using the language of social justice and having a heart for the poor and wanting to make the world better to dress up attitudes that are just as naïve, just as racist, just as colonialist, just as sexist as those of the Christianity of the past that we think we are leaving behind.
So what should we do instead? I have three suggestions that I’m going to talk you through. First, I think we need to realise that we are complicit in the brokenness of the world not despite the fact that we’re Christians but precisely because we’re Christians. Christianity is one of the names for our sin. Second, I think we need to realise that there is nothing we can do about it. And third, we need to realise that, for many of us, the gospel isn’t good news but bad news.
So: we have sinned, we can’t save ourselves, and the gospel isn’t such good news after all. I hope you’re excited!
Christianity is one of the names for our sin. Classical theology has often described sin as human beings’ attempt to put themselves in the place of God. But here’s the thing: for most of the history of Christianity, that’s exactly what the Christian church has done. Very early on, Christians started to understand God in terms taken from the Roman Empire: God was seen as the Lord and King of everything that existed, and the church came to understand itself in terms of imperial bureaucracy, administrating God’s rule on earth. Early on, this meant that Christianity was (seen as) politically radical and dangerous, because Christians set up the rule of God in direct opposition to the rule of the Emperor.
But then Christianity and the Empire became the same thing, and ideas about God that had been threatening and subversive became ways of legitimising the existing order of things. By equating God’s rule with Christendom it became possible to conquer other countries by military force in the name of their salvation. What happened in the Enlightenment only made things worse in lots of ways: both philosophy and theology shifted from an understanding of the world as existing primarily in relation to God to an understanding of the world as existing primarily in relation to the individual, and to a very particular sort of individual: the wealthy, white, educated, heterosexual man. The roles that had traditionally been associated with God, and by proxy with the Church and the Empire, of ruling the world and bringing it into submission, became increasingly confused with the roles of human beings. When people talk about white saviours, people like us who think that we have the power and responsibility to save the world from itself by whatever means necessary, who see the world as the stage on which we get to play out our fantasies of being like God, they’re talking in part about these ways of thinking that we have inherited from Christianity.
When we worry about the bad things that people have done in the name of Christianity, and when we want to be Christians in a way that’s less damaging, there are two main ways we try to get out of the mess that we’re in, to shake off the burden of the past.
The first is to talk as though all of the bad things that Christianity has done were later developments, and that if we want to get back to a version of Christianity that makes the world better and not worse, we just need to get rid of all that later stuff and go back to what Jesus really said, or to what the early church did, or to some other point before everything went wrong. But here’s the thing: however much we regret what has happened in Christianity, however much we wish that the bad things didn’t happen, they did happen; and they continue to shape us.
When we sing hymns about how the blood of Jesus washes us white as snow, we can’t pretend that it doesn’t matter that those same Bible verses were used to justify slavery, because whiteness is better than blackness. When we talk about mission and conversion, we can’t pretend that it doesn’t matter that those same ideas were used to justify colonialism and genocide, because somewhere along the way Christianity became Christendom and spreading the Gospel came to mean extending our empires and destroying other people’s communities and cultures. Even if there was a point where the Church was perfect and untainted by racism, sexism and colonialism, we can’t get back there.
The second approach that we sometimes take is to try to leave our past behind. We describe ourselves as post-evangelicals, because we have left evangelicalism behind us; or as progressives, because we have progressed past certain aspects of Christianity that we no longer think are necessary or helpful; or we are emergent because we are a new thing emerging from the dark ages of Christian past. And it’s not that I don’t think nothing new ever happens in Christianity; it’s not that there aren’t some things about the Church I would really love to leave behind; it’s not that I don’t think that some things get better. But my worry is this: that sometimes what we do when we think we are moving forward is that we are failing to learn the lessons of the past, and we are failing to understand how it still forms us.
So here’s what I think: to be a Christian just is, inescapably, to inherit the complicated legacy of the bad things that Christianity represents as well as the good things. And the closer we are to the model of the God-like individual that Western culture has come to see as the most perfect of all human beings, the more likely it is that we are formed by the dangerous and damaging aspects of Christian culture. To be white, to be male, to be straight, to be cis, to be able bodied, to be educated, to be wealthy, is to be formed by a culture that wants us to think that the world exists for us, for our benefit, by a culture that will treat us as the closest thing to God, whether we want it to or not.
And however good our intentions, we can’t escape that. Christianity is, for many of us, the name of our entanglement in sin.
So what can we do? In Malcolm X’s autobiography, he tells the story of an encounter with a young woman. He says:
I never will forget one little blonde co-ed after I had spoken at her New England college. She must have caught the next plane behind that one I took to New York. She found the Muslim restaurant in Harlem. I just happened to be there when she came in. Her clothes, her carriage, her accent, all showed Deep South white breeding and money. At that college, I told how … the guilt of American whites included their knowledge that in hating Negroes, they were hating, they were rejecting, they were denying, their own blood.
Anyway, I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke to before more affected than this little white college girl. She demanded, right up in my face, “Don’t you believe there are any good white people?” I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I told her, “People’s deeds I believe in, Miss-not their words.””What can I do?” she exclaimed. I told her, “Nothing.” She burst out crying, and ran out and up Lenox Avenue and caught a taxi.
When I read that story, what it most reminded me of was the story in the gospel where a rich young ruler comes up to Jesus and asks what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him that he must keep the commandments, and the young man says, I have kept all the commandments, what else must I do? And Jesus says to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” And Matthew says that ‘When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.’
I think that, often, one of the hardest things for us to hear as Christians is that we can’t do anything. What if all our good intentions, all our money, all our privilege, all of the tears we cry over the terrible things that happen in the world are not worth anything?
It is painful to approach those who are suffering, those who are oppressed, and to offer our help, and to be told that our help is not welcome, it’s not wanted. But too often what happens when well-meaning Christians want to help is that we blunder into a situation so desperate to feel like we are the good guys, like we are innocent, that we are worse than useless.
When we kick up a fuss about gay rights in Russia, there is a very good chance that we make things worse, because the more that Putin is attacked by rich white Westerners, the more he gets to look like the defender of Russia against Western imperialism. And the easier it is for David Cameron to look like he’s the good guy who really cares about gay people, at the same time that he is imposing increasingly punitive conditions on LGBT people who come to the UK seeking asylum or pursuing brutal cuts to local government, social housing and healthcare, all of which are vitally important for LGBT people.
When we kick up a fuss about sex trafficking and prostitution, we make it easier for states like Cambodia to arrest and imprison sex workers, and we make it easier for the British government to tighten border controls, because fears about sex trafficking have always played into anti-immigration agendas. And we make it easier for governments both here and abroad to buy into the idea that sex workers are powerless victims, and so we make it easier for their voices to be ignored.
When we worry about arresting Joseph Kony we encourage Western governments to send troops and military equipment to Uganda, and to make sure that an army that has committed plenty of atrocities on its own is even better equipped than it was before; and we continue to believe that it is countries like Uganda which are dysfunctional, violent and in need of our attention and concern. And so we are surprised when we learn that the police in the American town of Ferguson responded to the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by putting the whole town under martial law and teargassing peaceful protestors.
What should we do, then? One answer that I think we need to hear is this: nothing. We need, somehow, to lay to rest our own sense of entitlement, the deeply ingrained belief that because something makes us feel sad or guilty or ashamed, it is therefore up to us to put it right, the assumption that our good intentions are enough. We need to realise that one of the worst things that our culture teaches us is that the world depends on us, that everything that happens in the world is really about us. We are not gods. The world is not the stage on which we are to play out our dramas of salvation. Other people do not exist to be the objects of our charity, our mercy, our kindness.
Because here’s the thing: the gospel is good news, but it isn’t just good news, especially for us. Mary in the Magnificat says that God casts down the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly, that he fills the starving with good things and he sends the rich away empty. Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. He says that the poor and the hungry, and those who mourn are blessed; but woe to we who are rich, for we have already received our comfort; woe to we who are well fed, for we will go hungry; woe to we who laugh now, for we will mourn and weep.
Too often, I think, we want to skip what’s difficult in the words of Jesus and go straight to the bit where we get to be innocent, where we get new life and freedom. And sometimes that’s for good reasons. Too often the church has preached blessings to those who are already rich and has delivered woe to those who are poor; too often we have encouraged the well-fed to feast on food that has been stolen from the poor. Too often judgement has been passed on those who are already marginalised and excluded. For some people the gospel really should be about liberation. For those who are imprisoned, the gospel means liberation. For those who are oppressed, the gospel means freedom. But what we need to realise is that some of us aren’t imprisoned. Some of us are exactly the people whose private property prisons exist to protect. We’re the jailers.
Some of us aren’t oppressed; we are the ones in whose name other people are oppressed. We’re the oppressors. And for us the words of Jesus which promise us life are also hard words because to get to that life we first have to go through death.
I want to read you something that the black liberation theologian James Cone said in an essay on Christianity and Black Power, that’s been making me uncomfortable ever since I first read it. He’s talking about the struggle for racial justice specifically, but I think it has wider implications too. This is what he says:
The liberal is one who sees ‘both sides’ of the issue and shies away from extremism in any form. He wants to change the heart of the racist without ceasing to be his friend; he wants progress without conflict. Therefore, when he sees blacks engaging in civil disobedience… he is disturbed. Black people know who the enemy is, and they are forcing the liberal to take sides. But the liberal wants to be a friend, that is, enjoy the rights and privileges pertaining to whiteness and also work for the ‘Negro.’ He wants change without risk, victory without blood. The liberal white man verbalises the right things and intellectualises on the racial problem beautifully. He roundly denounces racists, conservatives, and the moderately liberal. But he is still white to the core of his being. What he fails to realise is that there is no place for him in this war of survival. Blacks do not want his patronising, condescending words of sympathy. They do not need his concern, his ‘love’, his money. It is that which dehumanises. It is that which enslaves. Freedom is what happens to a man on the inside; it is what happens to a man’s being. A man is free when he accepts the responsibility for his own acts and knows that they involve not merely himself but all men. No one can ‘give’ or ‘help get’ freedom in that sense. In this picture the liberal can find no place. His favourite question when backed against the wall is ‘What can I do?’ One is tempted to reply, as Malcolm X did, to the white girl who asked the same question, ‘Nothing’. What the liberal really means is, ‘What can I do and still receive the same privileges as other whites and – this is the key – be liked by the Negroes?’ Indeed the only answer is ‘Nothing’.
However, there are places in the Black Power picture for ‘radicals’, who are prepared to risk life for freedom. There are places for the John Browns, men who hate evil and refuse to tolerate it anywhere.
What would it look like for us to let go of all of the privileges which are conferred on us as the direct correlate of the violence which is done to other people? What would it look like to let go of the desire to be saviours for people who neither need nor want our help? What would it look like to be a radical who is prepared to risk life for freedom? What would it look like to let go of the whiteness, the maleness, the heterosexuality, the middle classness which allows us to feel like the world revolves around us? What would it mean to put down the white Christian’s burden which weighs us down and deals death to those around us? I don’t know. But I think that those are the questions we need to be asking.
* My discussion here draws heavily on the following posts:
LGBT Rights in Russian and our Western Fantasies
Truths behind the gay torture images from Russia
Scott Long looks at the torture images from Russia
Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression
**I’m drawing here on the following pieces:
The White-Savior Industrial Complex
What Jason didn’t tell Gavin and his Army of Invisible Children
Not a Click Away: Joseph Kony in the Real World