Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Transfer of oppression

It took only a few weeks after our bewildering arrival here: a phenomenon that up till that point, had only been rumor. One afternoon, I heard a dog yelping in pain over our back wall. When I peeked over, there were our neighbor kids, teasing and then beating their dog with a sizeable branch. What do I do here?

  • Option 1: Tell the children to stop. If a parent hears a mzungu doing this and is shamed... Well, where did the children learn to beat something? Not sure that Option 1 is a good selection.
  • Option 2: Talk to the parents. No relationship at this point due to the rare sight of the parents and the large wall between us. Parents possibly feel shamed by a female mzungu mysteriously telling them how to parent, i.e. for their children not to do something that is culturally acceptable. Hmm. Possibly not the best for neighborly relations.
  • Option 3: Pray for the dog and the kids. This feels like falling short in action (i.e. being a big chicken). But it also feels like the best route for a new foreigner. Since choosing Option 3, problem has not been heard.
Though I'm limited to my own exposure, friends have now spoken of people kicking puppies, throwing rocks at animals, etc. I've also witnessed people mocking children to the point of clear fright, anger, or tears in the children. It's not everyone. But it is disconcerting.

So I've turned this over and over in my mind. I've rehashed some of what I gleaned from Strength in What Remains, an excellent examination of the genocides of Burundi and Rwanda. The author suggests that poverty has a way of wearing away at the perceived value of human life: Death and suffering surround the impoverished. Neither are uncommon. On the contrary, they are considered normal. Therefore, suffering and death, and injustice of so many kinds--even inflicted by another--may not seem as heinous, wrong, or out of place.

As one father recently remarked to me upon my congratulations of his wife's pregnancy, "For what? Children here are only born into suffering."

Tying this even further together recently was a paragraph from Unbroken, an account of a World War II Japanese Prisoner of War. Author Laura Hillenbrand explains a phenomenon known as transfer of oppression, where soldiers--who were reportedly beaten and brutalized as a standard part of training--then brutalized others who fell into their paths, especially those beneath their power. It seems this often took place in POW camps, where inferior officers would visit violence on prisoners.

Many of us have heard of a version of this phenomenon in abuse victims who can in a few cases become abusers themselves. But as God's Gospel so often does, He used my dismay here to reveal what this has looked like in me.

For years, I've been troubled and ashamed by a couple of memories that stand out from my freshman year of high school. For years before, I'd worked to befriend a girl who'd struggled with a low placement on the social totem pole. She eventually started coming to our church, and spent some nights sleeping over at my house. But that year--a tough year for me personally, as a social outcast on the cheerleading squad--I remember a few moments where I joined laughter directed at her, or even initiated it. She remained loyal to me. I was the one who, finding myself the brunt of so many jokes and so much disdain, seized the opportunity to prey on someone less fortunate. In His mercy, God has forgiven me. But I have yet to find her in order to apologize for deepening her grief.

Perhaps that's one of the greatest lessons I find in all of this cultural learning: It's when I'm tempted to make someone else "other"--to make an "us/them", or to point out the speck in a culture's eye--that I see the plank in my own.

Over and over, it increases my thankfulness for the Gospel.


Soaring High said...

Oh Janelle, I can remember so badly wanting to fit in in JH and HS that I rejected a friend who I had known since the crib! She wasn't as cool as the cool girls and to this day I want to appologize but can't find her. I pray that I instill respect and God's love for others in my children and help them to navigate this world where life seems to have less and less value.

Seth said...

Just want to say that this is a beautiful perspective on how much we need the Gospel all our lives. Thanks for the thoughtful post!