to see or not to see?

I finally read J.M. Coetzee’s classic Waiting for the Barbarians last week.  Without giving too much away, I can tell you that it is an allegorical story whose central character is a magistrate living on the frontier of an unnamed Empire.  As the Empire clashes with the aboriginal people (“the barbarians”) and appropriates their lands, the magistrate finds himself in a series of situations that challenge him to confront his complicity in a system that is brutalizing people and destroying the land.

The book is, in my opinion, brilliant and timeless, and it makes me think about what it means to be a participant in Empire and about our choice to either see or ignore the damage being wrought by a system in which we are complicit.  Seeing is a central theme of the novel; one character is blind, another wears sunglasses, and the word “see” is used repeatedly and symbolically.  It challenges us to ask ourselves:  What unseen forms of violence am I complicit in?  And once I’ve chosen to open my eyes and see them… what next? 

Since reading the novel I’ve been thinking (and talking with friends) about this issue of the violence we see and the violence we don’t see.   Traditional religious moral systems seem best-equipped to deal with questions of person-on-person violence.  Thou shalt not kill.  Thou shalt not steal.  This makes sense since the roots of religion are based in a time when societies were highly localized, and thus violence was as well.  Economies were local, and even institutionalized violence (e.g., warfare) was more personal than it is today.

But things are different now.  War is increasingly distant and depersonalized, and typically has economic motivations at its foundation.   We use natural resources like oil and gas without considering the probability that those resources came from lands that have been razed and polluted, with indigenous people forcibly relocated.  In a very intimate and personal way, our consumption habits have violence and exploitation as their underpinnings.  Today, if I buy a cell phone or a computer it might contain “conflict minerals” that are funding brutal armed conflict and mass sexual violence in DR Congo.  If I buy a chocolate bar from the grocery store, chances are the cocoa was harvested by child slaves in Cote d’Ivoire.  My clothes could be made in Asian sweatshops, my tomatoes grown by exploited migrant workers, my sugar harvested by child laborers in South America.  The list of goods produced with forced or exploitative labor goes on and on: shoes, diamonds, gold, nuts, corn, sesame, coal, cotton, fireworks, toys, cumin, tea, surgical instruments, soccer balls, olives, hazelnuts, furniture…  I’ll pause to take a breath, but a 2009 U.S. Department of Labor report lists 122 products in 58 countries that are produced using child labor and forced labor.

So in today’s society, in which structural violence reigns supreme and each of us is seemingly-inextricably entrenched in systems of consumption that harm unknown Others, how are we to interpret Christ’s teachings about loving our neighbor?  What if the supply chain that brings us our laptops is cluttered with both killing and stealing?  If a child slave is beaten so that I can have a cheap candy bar, am I responsible for that sin/wrongdoing even if I personally have never beaten a child in my life?

This is our injunction:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

My question is: In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, who, precisely, is our neighbor?  And how are we supposed to show our love for her/him?  On an earth that is equipped with finite resources, is it loving our neighbor to use more than our share of resources, or to support institutions that encourage us to do precisely that?

I would argue that in many ways our traditional moral systems do not keep up with the challenges of the times.  I don’t think I am necessarily living morally if I simply refrain from killing someone with my own two hands; although it is admirable to refrain from personalized violence (“the violence we see”), I am looking for answers on how to avoid engaging in depersonalized violence (“the violence we don’t see”).  It seems to me that part of religion’s task is to remain morally relevant by providing moral instruction on how to love our neighbor in a world that is, in so many ways, more complex than it ever has been—and in order for this to happen, we will have to rethink our relationships with Others and work on developing moral systems that are based on our interconnectedness with not just our next-door neighbors, but all of the neighbors who share the Earth.


9 responses to “to see or not to see?

  1. Brad May 6, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Love, love, love this. You’re speaking my language here, and I believe that seeing and understanding structural violence and structural sin and our complicity in it is essential to the full power of the Atonement. I plan to write more about this, but for now:

    “But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved.”
    —Father Zosima, The Brothers Karamozov

  2. missy. May 6, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Oh, I love that quote. If I were to write an extended version of this post, Brothers Karamozov would have to come into play.

  3. margie May 7, 2011 at 11:57 am

    It hurts to think about our own complicity in violence and exploitation of others, but think about it we must. We are a long way from curing this global ill, yet without the awareness you and others have provided we would never get there. Thanks for the nudge to our consciousness to continue the fight. Will we go from here and be perfect in our correction? Unlikely! Yet by the end of the day, because of our attention, something more will have been done in that endeavor than would have been done without your post. May we continue everyday to do more.

  4. nat kelly May 8, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    “What unseen forms of violence am I complicit in? And once I’ve chosen to open my eyes and see them… what next? ”

    EXACTLY! What next? What do we do?!

    This is beautiful Missy.

    A question I have a hard time answering, and which my husband and I sometimes argue about, is trying to determine a reasonable level of consumption.

    We consume less than a lot of other North Americans, yes. We don’t have a car, we hardly ever buy new clothes, virtually all of our furniture is second-hand. But we both have cell phones, we are computer-crazy, all the food we buy is covered with endless amounts of packaging and shipped in from who knows how many countries.

    When I want to wrap dishes in cloth towels instead of saran wrap, my husband looks at me like a crazy person. But I think about the destruction I might be causing, and I just never want to step into a store again!

    My question is, after awareness, what are our options?

  5. nat kelly May 8, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Also, I should mention –

    It is definitely not useful to live your life overcome by guilt. Our actions need to stem from love, not guilt and shame.

    I was recently talking about this with a friend of mine who is a community/labor organizer. After getting back from several months of working with campesinos in Chiapas, Mexico, she could hardly stand to eat in the United States, because of all the waste that is so inherent in our system. She was tempted to just shut herself up in her apartment. She felt horrible enjoying anything, because she couldn’t detach it from where it came from.

    But in the struggle for equality, what are we struggling for? For folks to be able to sit with their loved ones, have good health, and enjoy those things that help to make our lives feel really human. If we aren’t allowing ourselves to live fully human lives, what is the point of fighting for it for others?

    Still, finding that balance point….. I could sure use some pointers.

  6. missy. May 11, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    nat, how I wish I had answers to these questions! Sounds like we are struggling with some of the same questions. Brad mentioned above that he is planning on writing a post with similar themes; I am expecting him to provide us with some answers 🙂

  7. mfranti May 11, 2011 at 3:41 pm


    This is a fantastic post. I wish we could have had more discussion around it. Maybe we’ll run it again when our traffic picks up.

    And Brad, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this issue too.

  8. Brad May 13, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    In the works, ladies. 🙂

  9. Winterbuzz May 14, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Missy, this is great and I’ll be referring people to this post over and over again. Structural Violence has been on my mind lately, and I do think that seeing is believing with most people. We can’t see the violence of our actions so they don’t exist. i’m like Nat, I need options and ideas and balance….

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