I have been having a really difficult couple of months. As I inch closer to my first degree (my mom is gonna be so proud), I realize that I am expected to conduct myself with more wisdom and clarity. One of the things that I have really been wrestling with has been unseen power structures and hegemony (from the Greek hegemonia, “leader”). Hegemony, as I understand it, has a lot to do with assumed power and expectations of control. I’m not saying this is the dictionary definition, but it is a basic explanation of how I see things.
So what is hegemony to me? Hegemony is that deep-seated, unconscious expectation that being a certain something (white, Anglo-American, Protestant Christian, hetero, able-bodied, male [the list could go on]) somehow ‘earns’ me better position somehow. However, some of those things I listed are not things that I have earned or chosen at all. I did, however, choose to be a Christian.
In fact, it is my choice to follow this guy called Jesus of Nazareth, that called me out of that hegemony, whether I knew of it or not. So I started to try to reverse certain extant power structures – I faced my own fear and (that which I was asked to inflict) by trying to deploy to combat unarmed, I encountered the violence of my life by living in what was the most violent ghetto in the US, I confronted my complicity in war by listening to those whom I had caused tremendous pain, and I often give myself to causes that do not directly benefit my race, my orientation, or my gender.
But is hegemony simply hiding deeper in the recesses of my mind? And if so, if it is indeed an unconscious, abstract structure, do I simply remove myself entirely from the cause of social justice? Does my race, religion, gender, orientation, and nationality keep me from forcefully advancing the Kingdom of God? If so, do I not simply reinforce socio-cultural isolation by merely working within my own in-group?
I really like the quote that came from the Aboriginal liberation movement in the 1970’s, I think it captures my entire religio-political position beautifully; “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
This is probably my favorite quote of all time. But it has a hidden meaning that often goes unnoticed. It calls those who historically been oppressed to remember that even their liberation remains bound up in that of their oppressor. I, a former oppressor, am not free until you are, but neither are you fully free until I too am liberated, until I am not seen as an oppressor but an equal. Nobody is free unless all are free. There were rich landowners who worked with Jesus, members of the dreaded Sanhedrin, even terrorists (Simon and Judas were both likely members of the sicarii)! Somehow they lived in the tension of being and having something that their oppressed fellow disciples were and did not.
A character central to this little dilemma I am in has been the publican in Luke 18. Jewish publicans often served as tax collectors (we know the character in Luke was Jewish since he entered the Temple, which pagans rarely were allowed), which meant taking money from the poorest of the poor to give to Empire. The poor guy knew nothing but to beg forgiveness for his associations. He knew what it meant to serve Empire and see its effects; he knew what it was to need not just the mercy of God, but of his neighbor. Whether or not his neighbor was ready, willing, or able to grant it is another matter entirely.
I know that as long as America oppresses anyone, I too remain oppressed. This does not move me to disassociate myself from America, but to work even harder as an American to work against our injustices and ignorance. Especially as I organize around service members and violence, I recognize that it is through my weaknesses that I am called to be strong. Switchfoot hits it on the nose in their song “Dare You to Move” (The Beautiful Letdown, Columbia, 2003); “Maybe forgiveness is right where you fell.”
My liberation is tied up with those who “my people” oppress. We do a different sort of damage to ourselves than is incurred on those we shock and awe, of course, but we are in fact damaged. The only way I know to step outside my own associations is to listen and stand with to those who are voiceless: the poor, the imprisoned, the minority. My joy is multiplied as their grief is divided. As they forgive my associations, as we see ourselves in and through each other, we move toward liberation together.