Laura Vang '15
Student Director for Conversations That Matter
Hometown: Memphis, TNRead the full interview
Rollins Sermon: April 10, 2008
I used to believe in the market.
In my senior year, one of my college applications asked what I would do with a “free year”, one where I could do anything I wanted. Thinking I was a smart idealist, I said I would get a job in finance, making $100,000 a year, so I could live on $20,000 and then hire 4 other enthusiastic young college graduates at $20,000 each so that they do four times more altruistic work than I could do alone. Very simple mathematics, I thought. The other students might even be better suited to the idealistic work than me, leading to further gains in efficiency. What would the work be? I supposed it might be improving agricultural technology in Africa or starting an orphanage and vocational school similar to the one my hometown church still supports in Honduras-- direct social service to improve the lives of those who are powerless and hungry.
And yet, here I am, 5 years later, and I am no longer vying for a job that will pay well or even for a job where I would do direct social service. I have opted out of both the pre-wealth track and its slightly more altruistic variant, the pre-med track. I am left with a chemistry major, an economics major, and a whole lot of uncertainty.
I struggle with the question of whether the church is really called to continue applying small band-aids to the massive numbers of poor and malnourished individuals that are disenfranchised by our current economic system. As long as the church keeps itself preoccupied with constantly picking up the pieces left by the large corporations of the world, it will be unable to engage with the institutions that have created the problems in the first place.
Yet doing political advocacy alone doesn’t seem to be the answer either. Just two weeks ago, I turned down one of those idealistic jobs that our competitive society approves of as a secular yet altruistic occupation after graduation. I could have been a campus organizer for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, writing letters to senators about climate change, working to increase youth voter registration, fighting against unjust textbook pricing schemes and campaigning against hunger and homelessness. But I refused it, because it was not what I feel called to do—somehow it felt to hierarchical, too established, and too commoditized.
Sadly, I do not see the solution as a political one: unless there is a drastic change in campaign finance laws, or the structures supporting our current political system are changed, politicians will forever compromise, forever sit on a fence smack dab in the middle of U.S. opinion, balanced between what is good for those with little money and what is good for those with lots of money. No matter how many letters are sent, I feel like 98% of the secular U.S. is neatly and firmly seated on a train going in the wrong direction—towards consumerism and away from stewardship.
Our entire economic system makes very little account for future ecological costs, and we are exporting this system to the rest of the world at an amazing rate. Jim Merkel’s choice to live on $5,000 a year, the average income on earth, is inspiring, but he is not an example that anyone will ever model on a large scale, because if he ever went on TV he would become just another entertainment commodity. And it is hard for others to realistically follow his lead if he becomes a performance and not a person. Our culture is one of immediate gratification—everyone wants to package up an experience so that it can be canned and sold. Instead of worshiping God, and seeking to love him over the course of our whole life, I feel like our culture idolizes the innocence and beauty of youth, even as it destroys those very same qualities. Perhaps the saddest part about this for me is that our grandchildren will pay the price for our irresponsibility in ignoring the needs of the natural world.
I believe God draws us to be stewards, but how are we to hear his voice if we are constantly bombarded with advertisements that turn our desires into commodities? How are we to find peace within ourselves if we are constantly and literally bombarding others for fear that we might be bombed ourselves? As long as I watch a commercial, I am allowing my values to be warped into something that serves the interests of a large corporation, instead of God, my community, or my community’s children.
But if I believe we are called to avoid commercials, what are we called to confront? What are we called to do? I think that rather than approaching social justice within a culture of achievement, we need to approach it within a culture of equality. There is need for loving-kindness, for understanding, for breaking bread with others, and for sharing our own hopes and dreams with others.
I heard one of the most inspiring sermons I have ever heard this past Sunday. I am going to pass on what I heard from father Atkins, a man who endured torture in Latin America for his commitment to liberation theology and his stance against the current economic system.
His sermon was on Luke 24: 13-35, about the two strangers who unexpectedly met with the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus— in the meeting, Jesus enacted the two crucial parts of any worship—interpretation of scripture, and the breaking of the bread. However, it wasn’t until they shared food together and became companions that they recognized the stranger as Jesus. Companion comes from the two Latin words for “with bread”: “com” for “with” and “pan” for “bread”. Companions are those who share bread together.
And what is the appropriate response to seeing the risen Lord? It is a 180 degree turn, from running away in fear, to returning with hope and joy to witness to others about the Risen Lord. Father Atkins talked about how the real location of Emmaus is unknown today, but to him, Emmaus is everywhere where people are sharing bread with a stranger. The Risen Lord is anywhere where people are becoming companions across boundaries of race, class, gender, sexuality, and even belief. Because it is in sharing of food that the risen Lord becomes apparent. It was in sharing bread with impoverished workers in Honduras that Father Atkins first truly heard his call to do justice. Bishop Gene Robinson talked about how easy and fun it is to be an admirer of Jesus, but also how it is much harder to be his disciple. We are not called to be admirers but disciples, and this is a calling that involves much more commitment and sacrifice.
Ruby Sales also came to Dartmouth recently. At 16, Ms. Sales was pushed out of the way of a deputy sheriff’s shotgun shot by Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian at the time. He had taken the shot that had been meant for her. Jonathan Daniels is now recognized in the Anglican communion as a civil rights martyr, but at the time, he was just another protester working to register black voters and confront the hatred and fear of white supremacists with love. Even today, Ms. Sales is still doing activism around racism in the current prison system.
However, her inspiring request to me was that I help imagine a different youth culture, an alternative to the current culture that she saw as dehumanizing, misogynist, and consumptive. And for me, I think the culture I see and hope for is already happening in several feeble and separated ways right here at Dartmouth—for me, the new culture is born out of the wilderness, out of the Outing Club’s willingness to get outside and go to contra-dancing on Saturday night because there is beauty in being deliberately old-fashioned. It is tied to the loving community I have found at the Edge, and the many questions and missteps taken in community as we seek to understand what Jesus’s call might look like today. It involves time for prayer and reflection, as well as time for listening to one another. I believe it is also connected to the small but growing community currently organizing around climate change—there were many great Sierra Club folks doing activism during the New Hampshire primaries in Manchester and Concord, and they would be happy to have others join them. This is my alternative culture, and although I still feel like it is lost and confused in many ways, I hope to keep giving it space to grow. I feel inspired by Robert Pirsig’s words in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
“"What’s new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.”
I believe that I desperately need God’s love, and that need to love God with all my heart and soul, loving him above all else. Looking back, I realize that I have let my selfishness and pride lead me to a place where I was so caught up in fear, panic, and short term goals that I was unable to adequately care for myself. The inexorable speed of Dartmouth prevented me from properly seeing the massive problems with U.S. culture and my own role in perpetuating them. In the course of competing, accomplishing, resume-building, and consuming, I closed myself off to my emotions and became a commodity myself. Our system buying and selling had become so ingrained that I felt like I needed to be something of value to others in order to have inherent value myself.
I believe I cannot stress enough how much advertisements have invaded our consciousness and made us believe untruths about ourselves, our society and our world. Perhaps I received more of this than usual as an Economics major, but I feel that buying and selling has been accepted too completely as a means of explaining the world and people’s well-being. Problems arise when progress is seen as more toys, larger houses, and more travel, instead of more love. We should start thinking that something is wrong when sex and physical attraction become confused with intimacy and caring for another. In place of peace and acceptance of our mortality there is fear that death might come to “too soon” to us or our kin. I believe we are going down the wrong path if we think that bombing others first will lead to any kind of certainty or reassurance that we won’t be killed ourselves.
A series of fearful responses to dramatized stimuli is not any kind of life at all. I can feel myself becoming more nervous every time I sit down to watch the evening news, and all of the events on the screen have already happened—I have absolutely no ability to change them. In some ways, I think we can be enslaved more effectively by our own irrational fears than by any outward shackle or cage.
I find this to be a particularly challenging topic because I believe a better world is possible. I believe Jesus’ Good News is that there is possibility for greater joy, hope, and love when we take the time to respect each other and honor our interconnectedness. When I think about what really makes me deeply joyful, I realize that I value caring relationships, not status or possessions. I value sharing food with others, not just a tasty meal. I value working towards goals that challenge me, not evading responsibility. I believe it is in striving to live out our dreams and create something better that we all are most loving, most present, and most fully alive.
That very day, the first day of the week, two of the disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him." Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
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