The Degenerating Notion of Nobodiness
I confess that I am often overwhelmed by the cacophony of good and honest causes that call out in dire need for supporters. Because of donations made in lieu of flowers at many funerals, it sometimes seems I am on every list of every drive that comes to our area. Similar donations in the names of deceased friends and relatives who requested a particular charity be remembered also keep me well-informed of need. Long after the donation is processed, I remain on these lists. I am inundated by causes that legitimately cry out for help, calling me to see the world through the eyes of a child, a recovering drug addict, victims of sex-trafficking, cancer, and natural disaster. Whatever your belief-system or creed, the haunting crescendo of heartfelt cries is never easily met with a deaf ear. There is so much need. So much injustice.
"When the foundations are being destroyed," cried an ancient writer, "what can the righteous do?" When need is deep and poverty unplumbed, when hopelessness seems one long, uninterrupted lament—from screams of natural disaster and tears of economic disaster to the silenced cries of injustice across the world—what can I do? When the decision to support one cause is a decision against supporting another, when our time and money and attention can only go so far and can hardly touch the depths of the issues around us, we can become not only paralyzed to make the decision, but inclined to take a large step away from all of it. And I, for one, often euphemize my mental retreat to the one asking for support: "Not at this time," "I will think about it," or even worse, "Let me pray about it." For behind my words is too often a manifestation of indifference. "Wait" almost always means "never."
In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responded to fellow American clergy who were asking him to wait for a better time to pursue the cause of justice in the South. "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait,'" he wrote. "But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill with impunity your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society....when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."(1) To call for those suffering to wait is to institutionalize our apathy.
The Civil Rights Memorial outside the Southern Poverty Law Center, Montgomery, Alabama. Sculpture designed by Maya Lin.
Though at times unconsciously taken, our steps away from the center of the world's pain and its places of injustice to a space where we can clear our heads and find perspective are invariably steps toward putting it out of our heads. Requesting time to think, we are requesting time itself to stop. We are asking those with urgent needs to pause for the sake of our own relief. We ask those affected by injustice and hunger, darkness and pain, racism and religious persecution to cover their faces in a degenerating nobodiness while we step away from it all to that place where half-truths offer a less taxing way. But as Dr. King observed prophetically, "Justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"(2)
In a similar vein, when Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us, he did not say it with the despair of one who looks around and sees how vast is the need and poverty of a hurting world. He did not say it with apathy or indifference, needing time to step away or find perspective. On the contrary, he said it knowing every face in the immense crowd of nobodiness, knowing every name we would try not to learn when the pain of others becomes unbearable. He said this living in time where tears are real, yet conscious of eternity when tears will be no more, showing us the mindset he longs for us to hold: a non-answer is very clearly an answer. "Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me," he said with painful clarity.
The cries of the oppressed and the weary will continue to resound though many of us sit in comfortable apathy and languid affluence denying our own obligation. And the call of the vicariously human Christ can be heard in the midst of it all, urging us to set aside all that entangles and follow after him and into the very heart of it. The poor and the downcast, the oppressed and the victimized will indeed always be with us. Where we remain awake, it will be overwhelming. They need justice, they need mercy, they need us to remain awake and aware—even as Jesus seems to tell us that it is we who are most in need of them. When Jesus told the crowds that the poor would always be near, he said it as if it were a promise that he, too, would be near. He made the comment knowing that throughout most of history the Son of God would not be with us in the flesh. But in the table prepared or the defense offered, in the standing beside the one reeling in loss or leveled by racism, he is indeed there among us. He is both the hand extended to the weary and the eyes of the one in pain—destroying the degenerating notion of nobodiness two faces at a time.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 292.