Posted in musings, poems

side by side in the common good

What is the duty of the person who sees injustice, oppression, or need, and has some ability to protest or make amends?

Is it to step daintily around the problem, hoping that the filth and blood will leave your feet unstained?

Is it to click a few “Likes” on a Facebook page, or write a vaguely angry status, and then move on to happier thoughts without even a prayer?

Is it to give thanks for your own more comfortable situation, and avoid the suffering that your happiness may not be lessened by their pain?

Of course not.

It’s easy to see that, on paper; it’s harder to see it happening in your life, everyday, in the major decisions and the small choices: in your quickened steps and averted gaze as you walk past the homeless man with the cardboard sign; in your fear of personal heartache that prevents you from fostering or adopting a child in need; in your unobtrusive isolation from the other in jobs, neighborhoods, and churches made up of people who look and think like you. Every little thing builds up, until one day you have completely blinded your mind and numbed your heart to the ache of the world around you, content in your own personal happinesses, and you don’t even realize the small and withered thing you have made of yourself and your life – your one precious and beautiful life, that could have been a source of good to better the whole world.

In the 1950s, a poet named Maurice Ogden wrote a poem called The Hangman about a village where everyone is murdered, one by one, by an ominous hangman of whom they all live in fear. Each time another is hung, the rest of the villagers sigh in relief and continue with their lives, until at last only the narrator of the poem is left – and he realizes that the hangman has now come for him as well:

“…’I answered straight and I told you true,
‘This scaffold was raised for none but you.

‘For who has served me more faithfully
‘Than you with your coward’s hope?’ said he,
‘And where are the others who might have stood,
‘Side by your side in the common good?’

‘Dead,’ I whispered; and amiably,
‘Murdered,’ the Hangman corrected me.
‘First the alien, then the Jew…
‘I did no more than you let me do.'”

“Side by your side in the common good” – for we are not solitary and independent creatures, no matter how much our culture values individualism and autonomy. We need each other. We need to receive help from each other, and we need to give help to each other, both for the common good of our community and for the private good of our own soul. It is so easy to let our fear and our desire for comfort and convenience shutter us away from the needs and gifts of other people, especially people not quite like ourselves, but it leads to broken homes, neighborhoods of strangers, and the general fragmenting of society that is so painfully being put on display this election season.

I write this not as someone who is living this out well, and has the answers figured out. To be honest with you, I’m only just beginning to see how my own fear and selfishness have prevented me from following God boldly in the midst of a broken and hurting world. Will you come join with me, hand in hand, to learn again how to share our hurts, carry each other’s burdens, and sing each other’s songs of joy and of lament?

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