Monday, October 6, 2008

Sermon from October 5

I have been back from Uganda now for longer than I was there, which is strange in and of itself. And of all the things that happened while I was there, the thing that stands out most in my mind has nothing to do with Kiva or with the official reason for my visit. The thing that still looms in my mind is the time I was robbed by my servant.

First of all, it is exceedingly strange to me still to use the words “my servant” in a sentence. Strange and very uncomfortable. I tried and tried to come up with a better term, by which I mean a term that made me feel better about myself and my relationship with this man. But the local term is even worse: in Uganda, he would be called “the boy,” or “the houseboy.” I just called him Alex. He called me Mami.

Here’s what would happen. Every morning I would get up and put some water on to boil on my gas cooker. I’d make some tea and keep the rest of the water to drink or use for washing the rest of the day. At about 8:00, Alex would come and knock on the door of my apartment and say, “I clean for you,” and I would say thank you. He would bring in a basin of soapy water and a cloth and would proceed to mop the apartment, bending at the hips and swiping over the floors with the wet cloth. He would take out the trash, tidy my things, and twice a week or so, change the sheets on my bed first ironing them.

All of this came at a price, but at a price I did not understand. “Oh, mami!” he would say, “I am very thirsty. Give me some money for something to drink.” I would give him perhaps 500 shillings, enough for a bottle of soda. Or “Oh, mami! I am a very poor man,” and I would give him 1500 shillings, roughly a dollar.

I never knew if I was doing it right. I never knew if this was accurate, good, proper, unusual, patronizing, unreasonable. Some locals tried to help me, but most of the people I knew didn’t live the kind of exotic lifestyle I was living: in a three room apartment, with electricity, running water, a heated shower, and (huge luxury!) a washing machine.

Not long ago, I got a call from a man who is going to Uganda as a Kiva fellow who wanted to ask me how to go about getting an apartment. He said to me, “I don’t need luxury; I just want to be comfortable,” and I thought, “In Uganda, those two are the same.”

But let me tell you, the luxury was uncomfortable, in no ways more so than in what it showed me about my relationship with others.

As I mentioned at the outset, I was robbed. Probably cheated as well, but certainly robbed. One time, after I’d been in Kampala about two months, I lost the key to my apartment, and Alex asked for a ridiculously large sum of money to have the key replaced. I knew it was a ridiculously large sum, but I also had no way of knowing what the right sum would be and so I gave it to him. What I suspect is that he made a second copy of the key for himself.

One day in May I came home to find the gate locked and no one to answer the door. Eventually, I called my landlady who had someone come over to climb over the 8-foot-high gate and let me in. Alex was gone, and it was very strange. No one knew where he had gone, and the overseer for the house said, “He didn’t even say goodbye.” There seemed no reason for it.

It was only a day later that I looked in the money belt that was in my luggage in my bedroom and realized the 500 US dollars that were in there had been taken.

One thing that was sad about this whole affair is that this US money was in my luggage because it was worthless in Uganda, or at least I couldn’t get it changed at the local Forex bureaus. Because of counterfeiting, they would only accept US dollars printed in 2001 or later. So sadly, though it was quite a bit of money for me, it wasn’t nearly as much for Alex – though still probably worth a lot more than he could earn in quite some time, if he could sell them on the black market.

Please understand that I am not telling this story so you will feel sorry for me. I’m telling this story because this is one of the many stories in which I am still trying to understand what happened in Uganda. I am still trying to understand the relationships there, and especially the relationships between the wealthier west and the poorer south.

Because if there’s one thing I learned during my time in Uganda, it is that these relationships are complicated. And the saddest thing about this story, and the thing I finally realized about the Ten Commandments that we heard this morning, is that in breaking them, we damage our relationships with God and one another.

I think I went to Uganda thinking, not that it would be easy, but that it would be clear that I was doing a good thing and that everyone would see that and respect that. This was real naïveté on my part, I think. But what I did see in being part of microlending was that loaning money instead of giving it away does, I think, change those dynamics of power a little bit. A very little bit.

The dynamics between Alex and myself were very different. They were different from anything I had encountered before. Even though they resembled some relationships I have seen and known, there were huge divides, in terms of culture, status, and position. I could not imagine what it would be like for Alex who stayed in this small compound most of the time, because someone needed to be there to open the gate. What did he do all day? From my perspective, his was a life of tedium and frustration. This is not to excuse what he did, but to remember again that so much of what we think we have earned is a mere accident of birth and history.

I think that by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, he was fully aware of this. The self-righteousness he displayed as the murderous Saul in the book of Acts is gone. The self-righteousness of the new convert to Christianity is fading away as well. I suspect that these things are gradually falling away because of the people he has met. I suspect it because that is what, in part, happened to me. I met good people and bad people and people in between. The best thing that happened to me in going to Uganda was that I no longer considered “the poor” in the abstract and as if they were all the same. I met people I liked and people I didn’t, people who treated me well and people who didn’t. They were no longer “Ugandans” or “the poor” or “Africans,” but Alex, and Joseline, and Sally, and Fred, and Teopista, and Ezra, and Peter. I had relationships with each one of them that were more or less complicated by who I am and where I’m from, but it’s possible that for them, too, they may no longer think of “Americans” or “whites” or “the rich” in quite the same way because they’ve gotten to know me.

Once again I was reminded that this is not about the law: doing the right thing as prescribed by scripture or culture or expectation; but about relationships – relationships founded on grace and love. The law is not about keeping the law because it's the law; the law is about how can we best relate to one another.

I have more to do in thinking about my time in Uganda and the people I met there. I think I went believing that I could love in the abstract, and that may be true to a point. But I also found how much better and how much harder it is to love in the particular, and how very hard it is to keep that law of love. I believe I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to do so.

1 comment:

qoe said...

Mmmm... I am touched by this.

"Hesed" is what you are talking about--relationships based on lovingkindness and regard. What Jesus' great commandment and Hillel's summation of the Torah speak to: the ethics motivating our human interactions.

I think of the Matthew text for yesterday, the parable of the vineyard tenants. So many commentators define the "stone which the builders rejected" as Jesus, and also identify him with the vineyard owner's son, as well. But I don't agree with that.

It may be too simple to read "the stone" as the law of the prophets, or even as the great commandment, an entreaty to ethical, "right" relationships. It makes sense, in this light, that those engaged in wrong relationships (the "husbandmen" of the parable, who organized an uprising, as it were, against the owner of the vineyard) and otherwise not following the law will be broken on the stone or crushed.

In other words, "what goes around comes around", and bad karma debt from bad action will one day be repaid...

And you are absolutely right: following the letter of the law means nothing if the heart is not engaged in the action from the standpoint of "hesed" or lovingkindness.

I think this is really what Jesus is talking about most of the time in his parables, and yes, it was a commentary on the Sadduces and the Shammai Pharises (the Hillel Pharises completely embraced the ethic of hesed, and it is Hillel's teaching which survived into the rabbinic Judaism that survives into the modern era), but I think that the message was really equally intended for everyone hearing the teaching(s).

The more important point of what Jesus is talking about is precisely that it is never on our actions alone that we will be judged, but the intent of heart (or the level of engaged, conscious presence, from the Buddhist perspective) behind the actions.