"Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother's womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple; who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked for alms. And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.' So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. Then Peter said, 'Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.' And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them - walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God. Then they knew that it was he who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him."
In a very short while, I will return to a place I once knew. I loved this place dearly and most often remember it with nostalgia. But when I am honest with my feelings, I remember primarily that this was the place where I learned about suffering.
I learned about suffering there in many ways. I suffered in relationships. I suffered in pride. Mostly, I suffered physically as the billowing pollution squeezed my lungs and besmirched my face. But in addition to these personal sacrifices, I witnessed the painful, blatant, and twisted suffering of others. This was in itself its own kind of suffering.
The suffering of others was visibly present every day, from the elderly trash collectors who had been pushed off their land to the mangy dogs who scrounged for food until they wound up dead in the streets. These things, however, were commonplace. These were the things that after the first few weeks ceased to cause me inner turmoil or distress. They wove their way into the fabric of society the way many of Dickens' most pathetic characters find their own important places within the narrative. These things were wrong and broken, but they seemed to have their place.
But there was one place where the suffering was so great and so visible that it continues to haunt me. If I used the bus to make my way downtown, I had to get off at a particular stop and cross a bridge to enter into the shiny wealth of the city's finest shopping mall. Upon exiting the bus, I would start to walk quickly, holding my breath, trying to mentally prepare for the sights that awaited me.
The bridge always contained beggars, and it always contained some of the most pitiful the city had to offer. All were maimed, most with their eyes gauged out. Some had been burned so wretchedly that they looked like living mummies. They sat in silence, often perfectly still, simply waiting for benevolence to find them. I was told early on that most of them had a pimp, Slumdog Millionaire style, and that giving them money would be fruitless. One day, I passed a man kowtowing violently against the sidewalk. A mixture of drool, sweat, and blood flowed from his head as he methodically beat, beat, beat his brow against the cement pavement. A crowd had gathered around him to watch, but no one acted to stop him. No one moved, they simply just gazed in silence as he begged for their assistance.
In the power of such ensnaring suffering, I felt completely powerless. I didn't speak the language, and I couldn't cause disturbances of the "peace." For the duration of my walk across the bridge, I shared physical space with these people, but the chasm that spanned my plenty and their need seemed as big as the whole earth. The barriers which separate people are often larger than space; the languages, systems, governments, alienation, gender, and myriad other issues stared me in the face and pointed at my inadequacy to bless, to heal, to comfort, to bring justice.
The more frequently I walked across the bridge, the more my soul screamed at God. I started to pray when I passed them by - internally mournful, screaming prayers. It was the only thing my mind could latch onto as the panic arose within my soul.
One day I remembered the above passage from Acts. There was no way for me to do anything for the beggars - or was there? I started to consider whether I truly thought prayer was "doing something." When I, a child of God, am in the presence of suffering and pray, do I understand that I am actively at work? Is my understanding of prayer, of God, of myself as joined to Christ full enough to believe that when I pray, I am not being passive? According to scripture, is prayer not the most aggressive thing I could do? Like Peter and John, I looked at these humans living in terrible suffering and I understood that my hands were tied. But, my status before the Redeemer is not hindered by the evils of the world and so I prayed.
These are the reflection that regularly got me across the bridge, but now, as I contemplate returning, I've begun having doubts. Yes, prayer is the primary weapon against evil, and yes, it was a good response to what I witnessed. But to my sorrow, I have realized that I never looked these people in the eye. In my rush to get across the bridge and in my desperation to deal with the turmoil in my soul, I really was still primarily focused on myself. I prayed for their deliverance because I felt uncomfortable. I rushed across the bridge because I didn't want to feel the pain. I never made eye contact because the possibility of making a connection was a degree of terrifying my mind couldn't hold.
One of the most striking phrases in the above passage is the sentence, "And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.'" This description of the connection between Peter and the beggar is terrifying. Who has this kind of confidence when dealing with the brokenness of the world? Who dares to look suffering in the eyes and request that it look back? I can't image what results would ensue from consistent interactions such as this one. I shrink from asking myself what might have come about if I had truly looked at the suffering on the bridge. I don't know what would have happened. But I know it would have challenged both me and those begging.
Right now, I am afraid of returning. I am really afraid of being confronted once again with the degree of suffering found in the world. But mostly, I think I'm afraid of myself. I'm afraid of how I respond. Will I rush across the bridge or will I look into the eyes of those who live a life I cannot fathom? Am I more afraid of the first, or of the unknown answer to the latter? I do not know.
"Have women ever really been suppressed in China, I often wonder? The powerful figure of the Empress Dowager immediately comes to my mind. Chinese women are not the type to be easily suppressed. Women have many disadvantages, have been prevented from holding stenographic positions or judicial posts, but women have ruled nevertheless in the home, apart from those debauchee households where women have become toys. Even in these homes, some of the concubines manage to rule their lords.
And what is still more important, women have been deprived of every right, but they have never been deprived of the right to marry. To every girl born in China, a home of her own is provided. Society insists that even slave-girls should be married off at a proper age. Marriage is women's only inalienable right in China, and with the enjoyment of that right, they have the best weapon for power, as wife and mother.
There are two sides to this picture. Man has undoubtedly been unfair to woman, yet it is interesting to see how sometimes woman has her revenge. The total effect of the subjection of women consists in the general recognition of the inferiority of women, in women's self-abasement, in their deprivation of the social advantages of the men, in their lesser education and knowledge, in their cheaper, harder and less free lives, and in the double sex standard. The oppression of women is more the invisible sort, resulting from the general recognition of their inferiority. Where there is no love between husband and wife, the husband may be very autocratic, and in such cases the wife has no other recourse but submission. The women merely endure family autocracy as the Chinese people endure political autocracy."
My Country and My People, Lin Yu Tang, 1935
Does anything change in this world? While trying to slog through My Country and My People last night, I read the above paragraphs, horrified by the snobbish few of women's travails in China that Lin Yu Tang takes. As he tries to explain and defend his culture to the West, his own arrogance and misogyny is revealed.
With his words still rattling through my head, I read two very sad articles today revealing that nothing has changed in China. The first looks at the recurrent attempt by failing Chinese leaders to blame their worse deeds and ultimate demise on a "dragon lady" - a common slight of hand trick that has existed throughout Chinese history to paint women closest to the scene of political intrigue as overly sexual, conniving, trouble makers in order to hide where blame ultimately lies. The second looks at the story of one woman's forced abortion currently taking Chinese media by storm and discusses the ins and outs of China's one child policy.
What links them together? Despite almost a century of social upheaval, Lin's words are as true today about Chinese women as they were at the beginning of the last century. Marriage is women's only inalienable right in China... "the oppression of women is more the invisible sort, resulting from the general recognition of their inferiority." China believes itself to be a liberalized society, but it's exactly this assumption that will keep it from rising above its discriminatory past and present. Change cannot happen until China is willing, as a collective society to drop the arrogant platitudes concerning change and take a long hard look at the invisible, underlying, and completely prevalent attitudes it has towards its women.
Please read these articles and pause to reflect for a moment on the needs of your sisters. Their greatest need is for a worldview change to rip throughout China from top to bottom and back up again.
A few weekends ago, my brother married his longtime sweetheart and our close family friend. These two are some of the most beautiful people I know, inside and out, and they put a lot of careful thought into the details of their wedding. Aesthetically, they have an eye for beauty, and spiritually, they have a heart for justice.
This was particularly evident in their choice of engagement ring. I interviewed my new sister-in-law recently and thought you would be interested in hearing her answers concerning the issues surrounding diamonds. And make sure you check out the Marlene Harris website...
1) Dish about the ring! What do you like about it?
"Exquisite" is the word I think of when I think of my engagement ring. It is a new ring designed in an antique style. The thing I like the most about this ring is that I have never seen another quite like it and there is a lot of beautiful detail work. I also like the effect of having many small diamonds surrounding the larger diamond; making it extra sparkly.
2) Did you choose it or did your fiance choose it?
My husband (then fiancé) chose the ring with the help of two very tasteful sisters who both knew me well.
3) Where was the ring bought? And why?
The ring was purchased from Marlene Harris who is a small business jeweler in Blawnox, PA (right outside of Pittsburgh). I believe Daniel chose to go there because a number of our friends had bought their engagement and wedding bands from Marlene and he had heard good things about her collection.
4) Are you happy with the ring?
I am happy with the ring. I do not know if I would have picked it because I had something much more simple in mind but I am very happy with it.
5) Why did you want a conflict free diamond?
A conflict free diamond was very important to me because, particularly in Africa, diamond sales have been known to support slavery, violence, and in general the exploitation of communities and peoples. I knew that this ring is likely the most expensive item that I will own and I did not want the money to support the suffering of individuals. I also did not want to feel guilty about something that so beautifully symbolizes the covenant that Daniel and I were to make to one another and to God.
6) How important was it to you to have a conflict free diamond?
I felt very strongly that I wanted a conflict free diamond. Daniel and I had a conversation about it so I was confidant that he would keep my concerns in mind. I definitely would have been disappointed if he had not gotten a conflict free diamond.
7) When did you first think about wanting a conflict free diamond? What caused you to consider it?
My family has a good friend from Sierra Leone and I remember him talking about how his country had very valuable resources, particularly in diamonds, and yet his people were living in severe poverty and devastation because of exploitation and oppressions that had taken place in that land. I believe that was the first time I was made aware of the issues surrounding the diamond industry.
8) Can you explain the issue of conflict free diamonds to us?
A conflict diamond is a diamond that has been illegally smuggled and sold on the open market. The proceeds of these sales have been known to financially support violence, slavery and manslaughter. In Sierra Leone the diamond industry supported a brutal civil war that devastated the country and destroyed the lives of many. The rebel forces that had control of many of the diamond mines would smuggle the gems to dealers who would then place them on the open market. The money from these sales went to support the rebels in their merciless campaigns. These forces were known to use amputation as a weapon against villagers and would also enslave their captives forcing them to dig, at gunpoint, in search for gems. Although the civil war is now over, the effects and devastation remain. In a 2007 National Geographic documentary called Diamonds of War: Africa's Blood Diamonds, it was estimated that 60% of Sierra Leone’s diamonds are sold illegally and placed onto the open market. In addition to supporting potentially dangerous organizations and groups, the profits from these diamonds are not shared with the people of Sierra Leone because there is no way to tax the profit sales or registration of the stone. This is just one example of the devastation that conflict diamonds can have on a country and its people. Other African countries have also experienced the effects of this illegal market. Here is a link to a page that has more information on this topic.
9) What advice do you have for couples thinking about buying a diamond?
Do your research. This may be one of the biggest purchases that you make, so just think about it and make sure you are on the same page.
10) What thoughts do you have for someone who does not have a conflict free diamond and starts to feel concerned about the issue? How should they feel about their ring?
Well if you really want to find out what the origin of your diamond is then talk to your jeweler. No matter its origin, the diamond that your husband/fiancé gave you has meaning because it symbolizes his commitment to you. That alone makes it special and the chances that your diamond was illegally sold onto the market is still relatively low.