Art & Justice Part Three: Margins
The Lord, your Lord and your God,
who contends for his people, says:
Look, I have taken the cup of reeling,
the goblet of my wrath, from your hand.
You will no longer drink from it.
I will put it in the hand of your tormentors,
who said to you,
“Lie down so that we can walk on you.
Make your back like the ground,
like a street for those walking on it.”
—Isaiah 51:22-23 (CEB)
On a recent Sunday evening I was winding down my day when I heard what sounded like metal hitting metal outside. Thunderstorms rise up quickly around here and I assumed that’s what had happened. The sound of thunder and the sound of a car wreck are similar, especially when muffled by my insulated glass windows. And when muffled by my denial.
I wanted the sound to be innocent, to leave me alone for a quiet night with a good book, but as I replayed it in my head it formed into something less safe and comfortable than distant thunder. A peek through the blinds revealed two cars, both with the front ends crushed, knocked onto the sidewalk fifty feet from my front door.
The two women involved in the wreck had opened their car doors and walked away unharmed. They weren’t happy but they were healthy. I was relieved. My main role in helping them out was to try to deflect their anger away from one another and to be a calming presence in a tense situation. They each blamed the other for the wreck and they were probably both right. One of them had probably tried to turn left without looking for oncoming traffic and the other was probably speeding (everyone does on this street). It wasn’t hard to see both sides as I got them to complain to me rather than to one another. I nodded and sympathized with each in turn until people that could really help showed up.
Had there been need of medical assistance I would have been useless. It’s been a long time since I’ve been trained in CPR and from what I hear the recommended procedure has changed. Plus I have a tendency to faint after the adrenaline rush of a bloody situation, so the paramedics might have had a third person to deal with.
But if I had offered medical assistance I knew that I had some protection under the law if things went wrong. We have laws designed to encourage bystanders to help in case of an emergency rather than to stand aside for fear of a law suit. We call these “Good Samaritan” laws.
The colloquial name for these laws is built on a shared story we have about a man robbed and left for dead by the side of the road. In our common understanding of it two leaders passed by without offering aid and then some lowly bloke stopped to offer help. We’re supposed to be like the third guy, offering medical and financial assistance when we encounter someone in need.
This story from Luke’s Gospel is well known enough that its use as a nickname for a set of laws evokes something meaningful for us. Just knowing that “Good Samaritan Laws” exist may give us a strong enough image to realize in a moment of crisis that the law is on the side of those that offer help. If I only knew these laws as “Bystander Tort Protection Acts” then by the time I remembered that they exist and what they were meant to accomplish whatever crisis I was facing would have already passed, and not in a good way.
Charity and justice
We sometimes think of help offered in this kind of crisis as charity. As we imagine ourselves offering charity we put ourselves in the position of someone who has resources offering some of the excess of those resources to someone who doesn’t have them. After the car wreck I was the one that was safe, secure, at home, and outside the crisis at hand. I could be the “Good Samaritan.”
What if I had seen the accident and observed one person flagrantly cause the accident then deny it? The situation would then move from “charity” to “justice.” It would be incumbent on me to correct the injustice of the lie by testifying to what had really happened. That would be the fair and right thing to do to correct the wrong done. In this hypothetical situation one thing hasn’t changed: I’m still outside, observing and offering aid. This is often how we imagine our role in relation to injustices. Someone has been harmed and we step in from outside the situation to help.
Let’s look more carefully at the harm of injustice in order to reconsider this image.
Sometimes the harm done is to specific people by specific other people. An employer fires an employee for seeking safer working conditions, or a rapist lives free while his victim suffers for years from this radical violation.
Sometimes the harm done is by anonymous systems that exist outside of any one person’s direct and immediate control, yet the harm is real in the lives of individuals and communities. A Mexican farmworker’s livelihood is destroyed by the trade practices of the United States so he goes north to find work to feed his family. There he finds a place that needs his labor to keep its food cheap but where anti-immigrant sentiment is intentionally stoked to keep him and his co-workers too vulnerable to demand fair wages and safe working conditions.
We all at times find ourselves on the losing end of either of these kinds of harm. Life among others includes being wronged by others. But some people and communities are so deeply mired in the wrongs committed by others that the circumstances of their lives are saturated by these wrongs.
We have language to describe people in these circumstances: victims, the oppressed, marginalized people. Our language provides us with images to understand the people we’re describing and our relationship to them. To describe someone as a victim or oppressed conjures an image of that person as a recipient of an action. It should lead us to think about who is making him a victim or who is oppressing her. Some kind of destructive interactive relationship is occurring.
For someone to be marginalized an interaction has occurred as well, but a spatial dimension has been added. Someone has been pushed outside the center of things and someone else has done the pushing.
If we begin to care about those on the margins we may want to step from the center to the margins to offer help. This may mean providing aid or it may mean challenging the oppressor. We want to bring about justice by helping the marginalized.
Art, justice, and margins
In this, the third essay in a series where I explore the relationship between justice and art, I want to explore this spatial imagery. In Part One I looked at how artists and justice workers frequently imagine themselves as outside the everyday, the common, in contrast to insiders. I began making the case that imagining ourselves in this position is neither accurate nor helpful. “Inside” and “outside,” like “center” and “margin,” are spatial images connected to our interpersonal relationships. In Part Two I briefly sketched the various practices of imagining justice for ourselves and for others. Images and justice are tied together.
As we try to articulate the relationships between images and justice the two can easily get tangled.
A significant part of making art is tending to images. Part of what I want to explore here is how the images that enable our thoughts affect our actions toward justice and injustice. That’s one connection between art and justice:
Artists tend to images and images matter for effecting justice.
But our images of justice also affect how we make art. The various ways we imagine working toward justice can lead us in radically different directions if we try to incorporate our artmaking into justice work:
Our images of justice affect our art-making.
I’m going to try to keep these two dimensions separate but I may not always be able to—they rarely separate themselves out in life.
In Chapter 5 of Justice: Rights and Wrongs Nicholas Wolterstorff examines justice in the New Testament Gospels:
Metaphors common in present-day discourse about society are those of the margin and the outside. We speak of people as outsiders and as living on the margins. The image in the background is that of a circle with center and circumference. Some people are at the center, some are on the circumference, some are outside.
Notice that in the image evoked by the nickname of our “Good Samaritan laws” a similar logic is at play. The injured ones are outside the safe, comfortable everyday world we inhabit so we need to help them. We read the parable Jesus told from within our contemporary concepts of charity and justice. We ignore the Hebraic world Jesus lived in thereby ignoring important dimensions of the story.
I noted in our discussion of the Old Testament that its writers worked instead with the image of up and down, some are at the top of the social hierarchy, some are at the bottom. Those at the bottom are usually not there because it is their fault. They are there because they are downtrodden. Those at the top “trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth” (Amos 2:7)
When center and circumference are one’s basic metaphors, the undoing of injustice will be described as including the outsiders. When up and down are one’s basic metaphors, the undoing of injustice will be described as lifting up those at the bottom. The poor do not have to be included within the social order; they have always been there, usually indispensable to its functioning. (Justice: Rights and Wrongs, p. 123, italics are in the original)
We saw the same imagery in Isaiah 51:23 at the beginning of this essay. “Lie down so that we can walk on you. Make your back like the ground, like a street for those walking on it.” God’s promise to the ones being walked on is not just to rescue them out of oppression but to invert the whole situation. The trampled and the tramplers are treated together as a single system.
Perhaps the best known New Testament use of this inversion imagery is in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, of Luke 1:46-55: “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52, NRSV)
Both of these passages lead into descriptions of the saving work of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah.
As a part of the extended introduction in Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s song sets the stage for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the next chapter Simeon prophesies to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.” (Luke 2:34, NRSV) Then the child goes on to do just that, though in ways no one expected.
The Isaiah 51 passage sets the stage for a lengthy description of the “suffering servant” that Israel is to expect from its Messiah. From Isaiah 52 through Isaiah 55, Israel-in-exile is given an extended set of images of the one who would save them from their suffering. It doesn’t describe a valiant warrior or a powerful king. He’s a faithful servant of God who is “despised and rejected,” a “man of affliction,” one whose wounds will heal them. He will be brought low to lift them up.
Images of lifting up and bringing down are central to the saving work of Jesus. They are not tangential, add-ons to some other kind of salvation. But this saving work is much bigger than inclusion. It’s a restructuring of our whole life together.
The image of “marginalization” is so strong, so pervasive in current conversations about justice that I feel the need to be explicit about something here. I agree completely with the unrelenting concern for those often described as marginalized. Liberation theologians are right to highlight the bible’s preferential option for the poor. I am not challenging that concern, I’m challenging the image we use to see ourselves as people of wealth and privilege in relation to those whose lives are characterized by oppression.
If we imagine victims of injustice at the margins and ourselves in the center we will expend our energies bringing them into where we are. If we see them as downtrodden and ourselves as on top we have to look much more carefully beneath our own feet.
Bringing them into the center may just incorporate them into the winning side of an injustice. What we may need to do instead is change the systems we inhabit even if in their current form they give us advantages. We may need to change ourselves.
Our images of justice and our art-making
Popular images and stories often valorize the process of moving people from the margin to the center. Sometimes the person already in the center is the one who does the moving. “White savior” movies are the most visible form of this. Dances with Wolves, Dangerous Minds, Avatar, The Blind Side, and The Help are just a few of the more successful movies within this prolific genre. In these movies the protagonist is the person in a position of power yet he or she challenges his or her own community to help a person or group without power that is facing an injustice.
Sometimes the person on the margins is given more agency in the process of moving from the periphery to the cultural center. Hidden Figures has, for the most part, risen to this level. A moment where it failed to do so became a point of controversy about the movie.
Some of these films are based on actual events, some are not. The depiction of a “true story” raises a challenging question. Or rather, the depiction raises two overlapping questions, both of which are normative questions. They deal with standards of what should the filmmakers have done or avoided doing. The first question:
Have the filmmakers acted rightly or wrongly by translating this story to film in a certain way?
This includes questions of how accurate the film portrays true events within the conventions of filmic storytelling. The Hidden Figures controversy, in which an historically false “white savior” moment is added to otherwise true events, falls within this question. The second normative question looks over the heads of the characters in the movie to the people represented by the characters:
Did the people represented in the film act rightly or wrongly in the real world actions that the movie represents?
In its most crude form this question is asking if the heroes and villains in the film were heroes and villains in real life.
Beyond these questions of veracity, though, are the normative questions of image creation, an ethic of storytelling.
White savior stories are rooted in a particular image of justice. When the filmmakers chose which story to tell they had an audience in mind, a conflict they thought that audience would connect with, and a conclusion they thought their intended audience would find, well, conclusive.
In these stories a character that the audience can identify with finds himself or herself in a community unlike the one they came from. They carry cultural assumptions from their communities of origin which are challenged by their new context. After some soul searching caused by their confrontation with this new community they challenge their community of origin to help this new community in a way that only they can. They save this other community. The power and agency they bring with them remains unchallenged, and the power and agency of the community they save remains unacknowledged, even suppressed.
Filmmakers and audiences alike are deeply embedded in an image of justice that makes this kind of story compelling. The team that creates the world of the film brings all the parts together from within a shared sense of what it looks like to fix a problem and save a community.
This imagined world in turn affects the world we inhabit. Audiences receive the story and find it compelling from within the same shared vision of justice. Then audiences re-enter their communities with their kind of justice reinforced. It affects how they interpret the world around them and how they engage with it. Images and actions are woven together into one seamless garment.
We read the Good Samaritan story from within our shared story of justice: It’s a comfortable person stepping out of his comfortable social location to provide help.
Jesus practiced art-making by telling stories. These stories were intended to lead his listeners into a strange narrative world in order to reconceptualize their own world, their position in it, and how their actions might be altered to lead toward justice rather than injustice. Or, more accurately, they would lead his listeners away from one kind of justice, the kind that seems right to humans but only leads to death, to another kind of justice, God’s justice, which leads to life.
I wonder what would have happened if the crime victim in the Good Samaritan story been injured but alert. If he had seen the Samaritan offering help would he have accepted the help? It’s more likely he would have spit on the Samaritan and sent him away, hoping the right kind of person would come along soon.
From what I know about the relationship between Samaritans and the audience Jesus was speaking to these were a deeply divided people. To the faithful Jewish leaders Jesus was among, the Samaritans weren’t some distant pagan people. They were from a nearby land that had broken off from “true” Israel. They were separated brothers and sisters. They were unfaithful Jews. Each side saw themselves on the right side of a split in the community and carried a special animosity for the other. How often do we reserve our most bitter hatred for those to whom we were formerly connected?
To the ones listening to the story the Samaritans were the outsiders, the marginalized. If Jesus had wanted to tell the story we want to hear the positions would have been inverted. The members of his audience would have been encouraged to help a marginalized person. The Samaritan would have been robbed and injured on the side of the road.
Instead, the marginalized one was in a position of power, able to offer help, and gave of himself willingly. It’s not just a sweet story about helping others, it’s a story about loving our enemies. It’s not about inclusion, it’s about inversion. The power dynamics are turned upside-down in a way that forces the listeners to imagine the full humanity and faithfulness of the ones they define themselves against.
Our misreading of the story, as preached in white American churches and codified into our laws, is built on a safe image of justice that keeps us from having to examine ourselves.
When margins are physical
Injustices are sometimes immanently spatial. People have been pushed to the physical margins of our world. We live in modernity, a world remade over the course of centuries by tearing communities and their land apart to consolidate wealth, power, and security in the hands of a few. As Willie James Jennings put it, “. . . colonialism established ways of life that drove an abiding wedge between land and people” (The Christian Imagination, p. 292). We began making this world by creating race as a construct to treat some people as less than human so that we could, without a troubled conscience, extract both resources and people from lands all over the world for our own ends.
We have for centuries enacted spatial practices to build and maintain the division between communities and land. Chattel slavery stole people from their own land then bought and sold them to be used to work land that had been stolen from others. Since the end of formal slavery we have been ever creative at coming up with new spatial practices to divide people and land. The Trail of tears, lynching, sundown towns, internment camps, and legal segregation of schools morphed into redlining, mass incarceration, gentrification, and school resegregation. (I wrote about lynching as a spatial practice here.)
When people are displaced from their physical land or made into outsiders in spaces they have inhabited for centuries the images of “margin” and “inclusion” remain important in helping us imagine the process of righting injustice. From the perspective of those of us who have benefited from the displacement, though, they are inadequate.
If I imagine myself on land that is a neutral commodity, divorced from any people and their history, I can see myself as graciously including people in my physical space when I bring in people that are marginalized. I fail to see the injustice marked by the land beneath my own feet.
Many injustices don’t have this spatial dimension. Wage disparities, racial profiling, gender discrimination, and other everyday ways we treat others as less than human are injustices toward those who are right here among us.
Justice as continual inversion
In all cases bringing about justice should begin with looking beneath our own feet. I need to be asking myself what good things in my life have come to me at the expense of others. This may mean reflecting on the spaces I inhabit, the comforts of my home, or the positions of power and status I enjoy.
Rather than looking at how I might help “children in failing schools” I might look at the homogenous community I inhabit and consider how my own location might be historically and presently intertwined with educational disparities. As I seek to help people who are poor I might begin to notice the ways I participate in consumerism that create the conditions where people can work hard and remain insecure in their food and shelter. If I want a more just world for my daughters I can consider how I might live in my male body in a way that presents an alternative story of masculinity than the one I’ve been taught to tell.
As I do this I can begin to inhabit a different narrative world. Different images for what justice looks like may become compelling to me. If I’m a creator of images I may begin painting different pictures, telling different stories. As I actively participate in images of all kinds — from watching art film to clicking on YouTube videos, reading novels to sharing memes, entering cathedrals to pulling through toll booths — I can begin to recognize the ways they may be telling me stories I want to hear rather than stories I need to hear.
As I write this essay open white supremacy is on the rise and the top governmental office in the land fully supports and legitimates it. It’s alarming and repulsive. And it places us in a time where it’s easy to put ourselves in a position of the good guys, the saviors.
To resist this we can continually look for the various ways we are “up,” where we have power and privilege, and recognize these as unearned gifts. As gifts we can hold on to them lightly, letting go of them willingly and frequently to lift up others.
We can also look for the various ways we are “down,” where we are weak or excluded, and see them as sources of strength.
All of us have places where we are down, though some of us have become adept at hiding or denying them. Just living in a human body makes us vulnerable and in need of the care of others. When I access these places I can begin to hear and understand the stories of those whose lives are much further down. The images they inhabit and share can begin to make sense to me. They may then move me to live differently within the ways I am up.
Almost all of us have ways we are up. Even if our communities are pushed down we still may inhabit positions of authority and privilege within our families and community institutions. As we live simultaneously in positions that are above some people and below other people we can continually turn each position upside-down.
As we seek to participate in a kind of justice that looks like inversion we get to look for new ways to live out justice creatively and dynamically every day. We’re going to need lots of stories, images, songs, and spaces to feed our imaginations. We can start by really hearing the stories we already have available to us, stories that put the downtrodden among us as fully human agents of our shared salvation. We can inhabit the images that allow us to visualize ourselves as below our Samaritans — our poor, our downtrodden, our enemies — so that we can see our interdependence on one another. We can live the way God modeled for us by accepting the status of executed criminal on a cross. Then we can begin generating ever new works of art with our lives.share: by