Thursday, November 19, 2015

There's No Such Thing as Equality

I've been "attending" this online video course by Peter Rollins on Wednesday nights. He's walking us slowly through his latest book, The Divine Magician. I'm really enjoying the experience a lot. Much of the discussion is about Rollins' notion (and certainly not his alone) that our search for fulfillment is really what we need to be saved from; that desire is not really the problem, but the belief that achieving this desire will somehow make us whole.

I asked specifically about the Kingdom of God and the way Christ talks about the Kingdom in scripture. That sure can come off as something to be sought after and it provides a picture of fulfillment. Rollins responded by going back to a dynamic he's spoken of before, but which struck me in a different way this time. He talked about the Kingdom as something that does not exist, but that insists. In other words, the Kingdom is just an idea, a notion - like justice or peace or democracy - that drives us to act. We seek justice; we seek the Kingdom. These concepts bring to mind various ideas about how the world needs to be different. But, Rollins warns, if anyone ever says they've found "the Kingdom" or can perfectly describe it, we'd better be wary of trouble.

I connected this with the old mathematical trope: I can walk half the distance from me to you an infinite number of times without ever reaching you. Of course this doesn't make sense in the real world, but it is mathematically logical. There are an infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1, for example. We can go half the distance 1/2, and then go half again, 1/4. We can do this forever and never, ever get to zero. I think this is analogous to what Rollins meant - that we can move towards justice or the Kingdom or whatever else and do so continually, but we aren't going to reach it. The Kingdom insists; it doesn't exist.

Now there are some eschatological questions raised here - namely, do we think there will ever be a time when the Kingdom is fully realized? That's certainly the traditional Christian hope. I suspect Rollins will address this next week in the course, but I also suspect he'll say it doesn't matter. We should be focused on the now not on the if - that very notion of future completeness can get us right back into the failed self-fulfillment mess that started this post. I'll leave this question for another day (although, personally, I suspect the reality of eternity in Christian thought, that there is no end, probably means there's also no end to the insistence of the Kingdom, but that's just me).

To get to the subject of the title, though, it made me immediately think of our current social battles for equality, particularly this battle between #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter. I think what we're seeing is the insistence of the latter. All lives do indeed matter, at least we all (or most of us) affirm as much. It's an intellectual truth. At the same time we do not exist in a world where it's an actual truth. Life is thrown around and thrown away all the time. Particularly, the lives of minority and historically disadvantaged groups more than others. Essentially the tension is between those saying, "just because we don't see the reality of our belief doesn't make our intentions less sincere," and those saying, "the very fact that our beliefs are not reality speaks to the insufficiency of our resolve."

In the end, though, I think the first step for both parties to acknowledge is that equality is not possible. I think, deep down, we know that #AllLivesMatter will never be a physical reality, but we might hope for a world in which arbitrary factors like race or gender don't predispose one life to matter more than another. No one is really expecting utopia, just a sort of flawed yet unbiased world.

Perhaps we need to take a step further and recognize that equality is not a possible result either.

That is not to say equality can't be insistent in its non-existence, because it has to be. We must be pushed toward equality with constant fervor and impassioned commitment. We're just not going to get there.

The very fact that we're different means we'll be treated differently. Now we can certainly improve the lot of those who are left out or left behind, certainly, but we're not going to get there. And, if for some reason, we DO get there, we create a society in which every individual is seen as equal to everyone else, we're still not going to be equal. Why? Because we're all different, with different abilities, actions, feelings, beliefs. We're different people; we're not capable of treating different people in the same way.

Say we have an unemployed factory worker with three kids and a mortgage in rural Ohio. If the person in question is male, he's going to have an easier time navigating his situation than if he were female. If the person is white, he's going to have a more difficult time than if he were black. This is not good. No one thinks it is, but it is reality.* We can work to make the differences expressed here less different, and that would be great, but we're not going to eliminate them.

This notion, that equality is impossible could seem to undercut the very power of the movement for equality, but I'd argue it may actually strengthen that power. Now, instead of chasing an impossible dream, we are empowered to chase an intermediate one. Does anyone think Martin Luther King believed equality would happen if all people had fair and equal access to the ballot box? Not a chance, but he understood the massive move toward equality it represented. He recognized as much in his speeches, "I may not get to the mountain top with you..." None of us is going to get to the mountain top, but we need that mountain to motivate us. We need the concepts of justice and equality to insist on something different than what we have.

From the perspective of power (as an educated, white, American male) its an extremely helpful statement to make - that equality is impossible, because it removes the burden of fairness. We powerful people are suckers for fairness. We're allergic to anything that might make our lives more difficult. We're the first to call "reverse discrimination" if it seems like the equality train is moving too quickly. Recognizing that equality is not an exact science, not a true reality, moves the discussion from, "will this change harm anyone (namely, me)," to "will this change improve the lot of those who've been disadvantaged (namely, someone else)?"

Power will continue to be power and people like me will probably continue to oppose moves toward equality that minorly inconvenience us just because we can, but the ethical bargaining position from which we operate will not be nearly as strong. We will no longer be able to say, "this solution doesn't produce equality," because that's not the goal. Incremental steps become the only acceptable steps and much more difficult to argue against.

I've rambled on far longer than I planned, so I'll leave it there. This doesn't just apply to equality, but across the board with so called societal virtues. This way of thinking undercuts the perverse ideology that so often bogs down our societal systems and helps us focus more on the moment. I think it is a genuine path forward and something important for everyone to consider.

*I recognize that there are people who would refuse to agree this disparity exists. Rollins has some thoughts on this as well - namely that this is a subconscious form of denial. Likely the believe so greatly in the goodness and rightness of the system that they refuse to see its flaws. Often we are incapable of facing the real brokenness in our systems and relationships, even when they're right in front of our face. You see this played out sometimes when a man is accused of sexually abusing children, often the wife is the most resolute believer in his innocence simply because recognizing the obvious truth is truly too much to bear. Our national narrative of equality and freedom is often so ingrained in us any challenge to it is unbearable and must be denied, disproved, and destroyed.


Odist_Abettor said...

I'm really not sure how I feel about this. I've tried writing a response several times, but the more I read it, I remain uncertain what you mean by equality. Sometimes you equate it to sameness and other times it seems you mean something else. Reaching for equality seems to be more about inclusion.

About desire anyway, that seems like a matter of practical application. Christianity is more than a little obsessed with crossing the finish line of some race, which is probably an affectation of any philosophy presupposing life after death, especially one based on achievement. Theologians may argue it's not about that, but most Christians are Karma-obsessed at least half the time. If one looks at mortal life, however, we don't actually live for some end goal. It's a nice topic sentence, maybe, but wholeness is a philosophical luxury that doesn't pan out upon observation.

Ryan said...

I'd hope that's the point, though, right? At least for me, I've chosen to give my life to ministry - which, for me at least, means challenging people to transformation. I completely agree that most Christians are working for some end goal, even though Christianity itself isn't (and never really has been) about the ends. It's a means based, lifestyle-focused faith. If I have hope in anything, it's precisely that love can make a difference, perhaps even in the beliefs (and thus the actions and motivations) of people.

What I find most challenging about this concept of insistence vs existence is precisely what you point out - what do I mean by equality. I suspect everyone has an at least slightly different picture in their heads - which is good. If we're talking about it as a motivation and not a goal (which is the difference between insistence and existence). We move towards it, not strategize how to achieve it.

If nothing else, I've made a transition from ends based faith to something more immediate. I suspect, whether you'd call it faith or not, you've made a similar transition. I see no reason to give up on anyone else making such a transition as well, especially if, as I believe, that understanding of the means being the ends is a universal principle of existence.

Ultimately, I don't think most equality activists have an end in mind - they are usually bound by insistence. On the other hand, those in a dominant position tend to think concretely (equality means everyone enjoying the privileges I have), which makes communication across those lines more difficult.

I shared this really for people like me, those in power, to maybe have a different means of conceiving of these relatively nebulous notions and hopefully as means of connecting disparate groups of people more appropriately.

I'm sorry if I wasn't more clear - Peter Rollins - who I stole most of this idea from, would absolutely agree with your last statement. He says the message of Christianity is "you cannot be fulfilled; you will never be whole, true happiness is impossible," as a means of freeing people to love and serve others. If we give up on ever being able to fulfill ourselves, we can work for the good of those around us - and ultimately find peace, if nothing else, in that service.

I think it has profound implications for a lot of things. The way we look at equality and society being just one.