What I Really Want to Change

I am taking a summer class on writing narrative non-fiction, called “Writing to Change Your World,” led by the super-cool founder of our local alternative press. One of my first assignments was to spend half an hour reflecting on “What I Really Want to Change” with my writing. I thought I’d share my reflections here

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There are things I want to change, “imaginable goals,” as it were, but perhaps there is a deeper sense in which it seems appropriate not exactly to know the change I truly want. If the change I am after is an event or occurrence that is dependent upon the presence or agency of something or someone outside of myself, then it seems fitting that, in a real sense, I should not be able to imagine the exact manner and mode of the transformation I want to occur. What I really want is to give my life’s work over to movements that are struggling for public recognition and political affirmation of the dignity of those lives our society has rendered marginal and exploitable, those Franz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” Not bandaids on broken systems. Not just cameras on uniformed bodies as black blood runs through American streets. I’m talking about systemic overhaul, the kind of all-or-nothing transformation sought by revolutionaries and radicals. The Czech dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel defined revolutionaries as ordinary individuals committed to “living in truth.” They don’t really ever know if, when or how the change they hope for will be realized, but nonetheless they make their feeble but revelatory attempts to live into an unseen world no longer organized around the deceits that mask the violence and injustice of the powers that be. I think this need for one’s life to bear witness to the truth is born in the wounds of history, and I want to write in a way that gives voice to that human need by tending to those historical wounds.

As an institutionally homeless academic, trained broadly in Christian theology and ethics, one of the “imaginable goals” I have is to become a writer whose work shows that questions of justice and truth, questions about the very nature and character of our politics and religion, cannot have real authenticity without a willingness to examine our relations to those very real others whose lives, labor, and dignity are implicated in our own. My inspiration for writing is the work and witness of everyday people – ordinary neighbors and citizens, church-members and activists, writers and intellectuals, mothers and sons– all of whom are driven in various ways by the need to hear and expose fundamental truths about the forces that structure our common life. Using theology and other, less-niche genres of writing and research, I want to help people understand that honesty about the character of our society and our most basic social institutions (religion, politics, economy) requires “keeping track of power,” to use Cornel West’s phrase. I want to help Christians and people of other faiths move away from individualist conceptions of sin and violence, freedom and responsibility, and to help them think these life-and-death matters in structural, social, and political terms For example, racism in America is less about personal beliefs and feelings to do with skin pigmentation, and more about a history of privilege and power for some at the expense of others. When Katrina hit, Kanye had his reasons for declaring “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” but those reasons only make sense within the larger context of a city within a city, an underclass whose existence had long been disregarded through systems of political corruption and economic exploitation. It probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference to stranded New Orleanians if our president had only had more black friends. Their physical abandonment had deep roots in education policies, housing districts, economic agendas and structures of control that clearly communicated their value and place in the system.

I do not know the scope of the difference I can make in this world, but I hope my work can shed a little light on those old ghosts who still possess our body politic; if we cannot truthfully name our most cherished demons, the work of exposure will never give way to the painful exorcisms of justice.

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