I have never suffered discrimination because of my racial identity. My mother was adopted from Korea as a young child and my father was born into a white American and English family. For the most part, I have identified as white for all my life. Growing up, most of my peers were white and I didn’t really have any exposure to Korean culture. My Asian ancestry has never really been a source of discomfort for me, and my Asian physical features have only seldom been pointed out as indicators of difference. The one exception to my life of racial anonymity comes from a time when I worked at Starbucks.
It was during a slow block of time during my shift—around 2 or 3pm—when a semi-regular approached the register. He was a middle-aged white man, generally chummy with the baristas, and typically ordered a plain black coffee. I normally spent my entire shift working the bar, but on this day, I was manning the register. As the man approached the counter, I greeted him and asked what he would like to order. The man’s brow furrowed as he silently gazed through the top of my head and fixated upon the menu behind me. Assuming he had not heard me, I repeated my question, to which he responded with a grunt and crossed arms, his eyes still refusing to acknowledge me. When a few seconds had passed, a co-worker stepped in and took the man’s order without any trouble. I was later informed that the man refused to be served by me because he thought I was Vietnamese. Apparently, he had fought in the Vietnam war and was known to make derogatory remarks about Asians generally.
My gut reaction was one of confusion, but I didn’t want to react with offense. Perhaps this man had experienced trauma from his war experience. Perhaps I represented what he perceived was the source of his pain. I didn’t feel personally responsible for his trauma, and likewise I didn’t feel it right that he held a single racial group responsible for it. The experience did, however, provide me with a brief glimpse into what pain the man might be carrying, in the light of which any personal offense I held quickly faded.
Dostoyevsky says in Brothers Karamazov that “everyone is guilty for everyone else.” In the brief interaction in Starbucks the man projected blame upon me for actions that I didn’t commit. Momentarily I felt guilty for something beyond my control and initially it felt unjust. However, once the initial offense faded, I was able to see a fellow struggling human being instead of an instigator of aggression. Perhaps I would have felt similarly if I were in his shoes, I began to experience a sense of compassion.
In our culture guilt is usually utilized to demarcate the limits of moral responsibility rather than to be in solidarity with the human race, as Dostoyevsky seems to suggest. We tend to use personal guilt to confine blame to an individual person or situation. Initially I didn’t want to be held responsible for this man’s pain, especially when I hadn’t personally done anything to contribute to it (to my knowledge). Patience, forbearance and empathy for another are perhaps foreign to a common understanding about guilt and blame. However, such traits of compassion are at the core of what it means to belong to a family, and more, the human family. This image of familial responsibility is laid out in the Lord’s prayer.
St Cyprian of Carthage, a Christian bishop in the third century, wrote of the Our Father:
The Biblical model for asking forgiveness then, is not one of individual guilt alone. In the case of my story with the Vietnam veteran, I was held responsible for things that I personally had nothing to do with. I came to symbolize an unjust war, the lack of care for war veterans and the trauma of combat. However this man is a part of God’s family and therefore a part of mine. So the question I had to ask myself was, “could I share in his guilt and pain?” There was very little I could do in the moment, but instead of rejecting this man and his pain, I experienced grace to resonate with his suffering. I experienced grace to reflect upon ways in which I could repent of a culture of indifference .
In response to the immense suffering in this world, and the guilt that we all share, I cannot simply bow my head in detached sorrow. I want to find ways to begin to think differently and to act differently. Thinking differently about guilt will affect how I pray and how I live. As St. Cyprian suggests, I can ask for forgiveness for the pain and the guilt of the whole world. Accepting responsibility for my culture and for my history is not meant to cripple me with unproductive guilt. It is meant to remind me that I am not an individual unto myself and that I am a part of the ills and cures of this world.
Veneration is the essence of our work at RS. Veneration describes the attitude and the act of respect for “living icons” – people made in the image of God and therefore worthy of profound honor. By implication we all partake of that image, and so share in the pain and guilt of this world. Veneration, then, can also include acts of solidarity and empathy. In the last few months, there have been a number of tragic events circulating the news with plenty of pain and guilt to go around. Instead of distancing myself from the pain in an attempt to exonerate myself of any responsibility, I am striving to turn away from any of the ways in which I participate in a culture of hate and fear. I am connected not only to countless suffering people, I am also connected to those structures and histories that have perpetuated suffering. So, as I pray for the forgiveness of our debts, I also pray for the wisdom to know how to act in ways that heal the wounds inflicted by our sins.
Article by Jonathan Reavis