By Rebecca Murdock  |  19 January 2018  |  

Growing up on the west coast, my childhood was filled with countless trips to the beach. Sunday family days, evening youth vespers, volleyball games, and birthday picnics were all simply occasions to spend time by the ocean. Sometimes, I would play in the waves with my friends, bobbing up and down, and other times, I would sit on the shore alone and watch huge waves crash into the sand in a powerful swirl of froth.

When I was old enough to start navigating the waves, my mother taught me one of my most memorable lessons. The waves are beautiful, she said, but also dangerous. If I ever felt that the oncoming wave was too large or overwhelming to jump over, the only way to survive it would be to dive through it. If I did that, then I would come out safely on the other side. The first time we practiced doing it together, she dove under, and I turned around and ran to the sand as fast as my legs could take me. The second time, I got scared and tried to jump over the wave anyway. Next thing I knew, I was being dragged under the tide, sent toppling head over heels, and left gasping for air as the wave ungraciously spit me out on the sand. As I watched Mom glide smoothly under each wave I remember thinking that her technique made no sense. Why would you survive a wave by going through it?

I think of Mom’s advice to this day when I’m navigating large and overwhelming issues. I’ve had to remind myself of it several times lately when navigating my community and figuring out how to deal with people who see things differently. Sometimes, my intuition tells me to avoid them: “I’d rather not hang out with her if she can say that about immigration.” Or to condescendingly jump over them: “Maybe if he were more self-aware, he would realize his ignorant comments.” I try to meet their force with my own force, causing an aggressive swirl of competing ideologies that leaves us both feeling threatened.

The problem I find is that as much as it may seem intuitive to solve a social problem by firing, shunning, shaming, calling them out, or sending them away, we’ve actually done nothing but move them to another corner of the world. “They” don’t actually go away. Beside the whole “not-loving-our-enemies” thing, it’s also an inefficient way to solve conflict, since it guarantees that we will have to reuse our energies over and over on the same problem. These external solutions keep us locked in power struggles that are never-ending: the oppressor hurting the victim when they have the power, then the victim regaining power to cause damage to the oppressor, then the oppressor later starting the cycle again, or continuing it elsewhere with someone else.

The more counterintuitive move when faced with such a dilemma would be to ask “why?” or other questions that would entail moving in toward the conflict. “Why does this man feel the need to put his hands on me?” “Where did he learn that this was an appropriate way to express his feelings?” “Why do I feel the need not to make things awkward?” “What am I willing to lose in this encounter?” Though it might be uncomfortable, asking questions about others, or even ourselves, tends to uncover the social constructs that created such conflicts in the first place. This observation and reflection is crucial, even before using words or actions. While there are casualties of oppression that need to be relieved today, there will be more casualties tomorrow if we don’t find more long-term, sustainable solutions.

More than this, the effect of turning oppressors into victims, and then victims into oppressors, damages both parties involved. The oppressor has been taught what power should look like from a previous encounter where they were victimized in some way, perhaps verbally, physically, or emotionally. These insidious tools are then handed down when the oppressor repeats such practices on new victims. Finally, if said victims ever gain the power to retaliate, they have already been conditioned to think that “people in power” act a certain way, and the victims tend to sharpen their newly gained tools of verbal, physical, or emotional abuse to reuse on their oppressor (or others,) making them the new oppressor. In other words, what we do with power and privilege when it’s our turn to have it depends largely on what we have seen others do with it, especially if it has been done to us.

All of this to say that there is a cycle that needs to be broken, both in order to efficiently solve our societal conflicts, and to protect the “sanctuary of our humanity,” as theologian Miroslav Volf puts it. It is already tragic enough when I am caused physical damage by being victimized…to also have my mental state altered to believe that this is an acceptable way to treat “others” is more tragic still.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m ready for change. It is the day of the woman, of the minority, of the LGBTQ+ person, and of all those who have been “otherized,” to finally be understood. Yet, it cannot be accomplished by using vitriol, shame, strong-arming, manipulation, or any of the other techniques that got us to where we are today. If we want a new order, we have to use new methods – counterintuitive methods – like going straight into the heart of the conflict in order to get safely to the other side. Otherwise, we will, as Volf expresses, simply “perpetuate the old order of oppression while self-righteously declaring ourselves the vanguard of the new order of liberty.”

*Inspiration from Miroslav Volf’s book Exclusion and Embrace.

Rebecca Murdock currently lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan and is working on her M.A. in Systematic Theology at the Andrews University Seminary. She is passionate about the integration of culture, politics, and religion and works with the Adventist Muslim Relations Forum on campus to further dialogue concerning interfaith relationships. She lives with her husband of three years, J. Murdock, who is currently working on his M.Div. in sponsorship with the Rocky Mountain Conference. 

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