I recently saw the film, “Elysium”, starring Matt Damon. It is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, but from what I could tell, it wasn’t war or earthquake or zombies that ruined Earth and turned it into a hell-scape where people lived in rubble and struggled to get by. We were the apocalypse—the greed of those who had, and used more, than their share had led to great scarcity, want, and damage for the majority of the planet and her inhabitants.
Of course, we all know this is going on right now, and not in some future sci-fi action flick. The developed world uses the vast majority of the world’s resources while the developing world is forced to get by with the scraps.
This movie is named for an Earth-orbiting satellite where the people with money and influence have gone to escape the mess they made on Earth.
Elysium the satellite is named after a Greek understanding of the afterworld,
“Initially separate from the realm of Hades, admission was initially reserved for mortals related to the gods and other heroes. Later, it expanded to include those chosen by the gods, the righteous, and the heroic, where they would remain after death, to live a blessed and happy life, and indulging in whatever employment they had enjoyed in life.”
Of course, the only gods who chose admission to the Elysium of the film were the people with enough money to self select. They didn’t get to go there as a reward for their good living or righteousness, but because they could afford it.
And their decision to leave Earth for Elysium made clear, both figuratively, and spatially, that they were no longer connected to those they left behind.
As much as that system in the film disgusted me, I realized my life resembles Elysium more than I’d like. While I don’t have a tanning bed in my house that can heal end-stage leukemia (scientists are working on that, right?) I do have access to very good health care. While I don’t have a robot butler, I do hire someone to clean my home every few weeks. While I don’t live in the biggest mansion in town, I do live in a nice home in a safe community, with good schools. I can afford all of the extra school fees for my kids that our public schools are having to impose now that tax cuts are seen as a higher virtue than education for all. I drive a comfortable and safe car. I can afford to take vacations.
I have privilege.
I am privilege. I live it. I benefit from it. It is the habitat in which I live.
But I live in a neighborhood, a community, a nation, and a world, in which my brothers and sisters do not all share my privilege.
What is my connection to them? How am I connected to the people I encounter on the street? What is my connection to the people I will never meet who live across the globe?
Do I bear any responsibility for them and their well being?
Listening to our political discourse, we in the United States seem not very united on this topic.
The Republican candidate for President in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, famously (infamously?) said this to a group of supporters before the election:
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what… These are people who pay no income tax…”[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
To be fair, I wasn’t going to vote for Mr Romney before that video leaked. But this quote crystallized for me the difference in the way we see the world. I just don’t believe the people, my brothers and sisters, who are starving, and homeless, and struggling in this economy are all moochers who are waiting for the government to buy them a pony and a mansion. Sure, there are people who abuse the system (at the top and the bottom) but does that even matter? Because a small number of people might try to ‘play’ the system means we stop caring about everyone?
When Romney claimed his job is not to worry about “those people“, I thought “those people are our people! They are your people! We are all the same people!”
Marilynne Robinson, in When I Was A Child I Read Books, writes:
“There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population. Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, ‘The United States is in a spiritual free-fall‘. When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they disagree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the ‘us’ who presume to judge ‘them’. This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history, and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism.” (p. 30)
I’m thankful for her reminder. The act of denying our connectedness to each other leads to further division and separation. And while I picked on Mitt Romney above, I’m not only, or primarily, talking about the work of the government, although it certainly does inform my view of how the government should function.
I’m also referring to how we treat each other on the street, and how we spend our money, and how we see the responsibility of our privilege.
Is privilege only for our personal and private gain? If so, let’s start building our Elysium now.
But I choose to believe my privilege leads me to look more broadly at who is considered community. Robinson ends her essay with this:
“It is very much in the gift of the community to enrich individual lives, and it is in the gift of any individual to enlarge and enrich community. The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.” (p.33)
So, today, I am pondering our connectedness and our community. And I am thankful for the community that nurtured, educated, and cared for me when I was growing up, allowing me the privilege of the life I lead now. And I am thankful for the many ways I experience community today. But I am most mindful of my call to care for and nurture my community.
Here’s a Franciscan blessing I occasionally use as a benediction in worship:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
Let’s get to it. Thankful to be on this journey, together.