[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
by Kendra Langdon Juskus
In the 2009 film An Education, the lead character, Jenny, an intelligent—but still young and guileless—schoolgirl played by Carey Mulligan, attempts to leave the company of the older, urbane friends she is enamored of once she learns that their sophistication has been earned by the abuse of the less fortunate.
But as Jenny tries to flee their sparkling but duplicitous lifestyle, her beau David, played by Peter Sarsgaard, reminds her that her own hands are stained with iniquity. “You drink everything I put in front of you,” he says, “… and you slam your glass on the bar and ask for more. … These weekends and the restaurants and the concerts, they don’t grow on trees.”
Jenny acknowledges her own complicity, but instead of refusing to continue in it, she chooses to turn a blind eye to the sins she is no longer ignorant of, and to benefit from their advantages, instead.
This is not the path Jesus calls his disciples to walk. His teachings don’t relegate sin to explicit, direct action, alone. Even hatred, he teaches, is akin to murder. What is not done, or what is done indirectly, is at best complacency and at worst complicity in the world’s brokenness. Where the world accepts the status quo of that brokenness, Jesus counsels a more difficult response: compassion.
Many social justice campaigns work to alert us of how going about our daily lives can rob others of their rights. For example, recently there has been a growing, organized protest against Craigslist because the online classifieds network has been listing advertisements for prostitution, largely of minors. Visitors using the site to find cheap furniture or job opportunities have been unwittingly supporting sex trafficking. Now, site visitors who have become aware of the issue are ending their complicity in this arena by boycotting the site or requesting that Craigslist close its Adult Services section out of compassion for the women and girls being exploited.
But where many of us still fail to make the connection between our own choices and the world’s suffering is in the area of creation stewardship. We may know better than to throw trash out of the car window or dump harmful chemicals down the drain. These actions are direct and obvious in their damage to the earth. At this moment in time we are also being reminded, daily, that our addiction to oil has contributed to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
More insidious, however, are the environmental issues that we don’t immediately relate to our own daily choices. Some of these
might include: the depletion of marine fisheries by the purchase of non-sustainably caught fish; the accelerating deforestation of the Amazon rain forest for pastureland as the demand for beef increases worldwide; and the re-emergence of acid rain, caused this time from nitrogen compounds produced by vehicle emissions, nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers, and concentrated animal feeding operations.
Sometimes these issues don’t get wide media attention, so it’s easy to ignore them. Other times we fail to acknowledge them because in doing so we might feel compelled to change our lifestyles, which can be an unpopular, and sometimes lonely, inconvenience. At our worst we choose to look away, justifying our inaction according to social norms or the excuse that one little voice won’t make a sufficient impact.
Liturgical church traditions feature a corporate prayer of confession for people like us. The prayer begins like this: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” Human nature is taken into account with such words, but it is by no means excused. The prayer is one of confession, after all.
When I recite this prayer, I am grateful for the words that take into account my unwitting sins, my ignorance. But I’m also stung by the realization that I have knowingly left some things undone. I have willingly agreed to be complicit, choosing, like Jenny, to favor the benefits that I experience from injustice over the suffering caused to others, the earth included.
Fortunately, the end of the prayer of confession asks, “For the sake of your son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name.” The request is a simple one: for faithfulness, not efficacy, so that no matter how small our resistance or change or growing awareness, we can walk in the Lord’s way of compassion, not complicity.
Kendra Langdon Juskus is the managing editor for Flourish.