Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hiding in plain sight

A long-buried memory stirred for me this week.

October 21, 1966. I was just starting elementary school, six years old. People seemed somber, hushed; mourning. That day, in the village of Aberfan, a colliery spoil tip collapsed after heavy rain.  The resulting landslide engulfed an elementary school - a school just like mine - and 116 children, as well as 28 adults, lost their lives.

I can't get back into the head of the child I was then, but I think I learned something about pollution that day.  Not pollution as slow insidious poisoning - that would come later - but pollution as waste piling up in plain sight, a process which it is obvious cannot go on for ever but which it is nevertheless convenient to ignore.

After the disaster, a huge sum of money was raised by public subscription.  But money could not bring back the lives lost or compensate for the damage done.  No more than the efforts this week by Penn State students and alumni to raise money for RAINN can atone for the sexual abuse of children.

I learned on the Environmental Justice retreat last week how our society unloads the burdens of waste, contamination and pollution disproportionately onto communities of low status: minority, low-income, whatever.  It is not hard to see this if one is ready to look. Several times in Dr Ana Batista's tour of the Ironbound area, I heard her say "We brought a team from the EPA" (or somewhere like that) "to look at this, and they took action the next day." But so often it is in the interests of the National Coal Board or the football program or the rich or the wealthy or the powerful - no, let's be honest, it is in our interests - not to look.  What change would we have to make, if we looked?

"The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them", said Jesus, "and their great ones exercise authority." That is the way of the world. There are the strong, the important; and there are those who can be overlooked. "But it shall not be so with you."  Jesus identifies himself not with the powerful and authoritative, but with the weak, with those on the bottom of the ladder, the "least of these", the overlooked.  Be careful who you overlook! (Matthew 25:45).

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