Master of the House

“Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.” –Matthew 13: 35-37

“Charge ’em for the lice, extra for the mice, two percent for looking in the mirror twice; Here’s a little slice, there’s a little cut, three percent for sleeping with the window shut; When it comes to fixing prices there are a lot of tricks I knows; How it all increases, all them bits and pieces Jesus! It’s amazing how it grows!” — Thénardier in “Master of the House” from Les Misérables

There was an episode of Seinfeld when George Costanza has the refrain from Les Misérables’ “Master of the House” stuck in his head and he worries it will drive him insane.  After weeks like this last one, I always feel similarly, except the catchy refrain I can’t shake isn’t from a musical.  It’s this:

We have a system that works, so there’s no need to challenge it.

That is the refrain I have heard too many times to count this week.  In Facebook posts, in Tweets, overheard in conversations in bars and on the street, echoed by figures in the media, at the Wendy’s drive thru(!), there was an inescapable refrain I encountered everywhere:

We have a system that works, so there’s no need to challenge it.

Ferguson in flamesIn the wake of the Grand Jury’s decision in Ferguson, to not indict former Officer Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, most everyone in my immediate circle reeled and wept and got angry and demanded an end to systemic injustice.  A young unarmed black man was killed by a white cop in broad daylight, and a Grand Jury decided that this is an occurrence so unimportant and so ordinary that it does not deserve to be taken to trial for further investigation.  Most people I know heard this news and reacted with some form of, “No, this matters very much. Police really should not be allowed to kill anyone they want without some kind of real investigation into the circumstances that lead to such a thing.”  And once the “evidence” that the Grand Jury had been deliberating over was released for public consumption, we got angrier still because that evidence didn’t put all our unanswered questions to rest, it actually RAISED MORE.  A white cop with an unbelievable, nonsensical story, accused a young unarmed black man of attacking him in his car, claiming his only option for self defense was to shoot the kid to death from several yards away…and there will be no investigation?  What do you think about that, America?

We have a system that works, so there’s no need to challenge it.

What has been especially….interesting for me [read: infuriating] has been finding the many different versions of this story that people are willing to affirm before singing their familiar tune.  Some will affirm that police are at times too quick to use their firearms, some will affirm that something about this story doesn’t match up, some will comment on the oddities surrounding the Grand Jury process, and almost to a person they will uniformly agree that Michael Brown should not be dead…all before singing again:

We have a system that works, so there’s no need to challenge it.

It’s a very familiar tune at this point.  63% of white people in America are currently singing it.  And it might drive me insane.

Not just because it’s so ubiquitous, but because no amount of evidence to the contrary seems to be able to change the tune for the majority of White America.  Statistics that demonstrate the cold, hard fact of our broken system?  Eh…they’re just numbers.  Stories and examples of our broken system at work, ruining the lives of people of color and low income disproportionately to that of white and upper class people?  Just sob stories for bleeding heart liberals.  Comparing and contrasting 2 cases of police brutality in the same district, with the same prosecutor, in which the ONLY variables are race and the subsequent drastically different outcomes for a black police officer and his white colleague?  Well…ugh

We have a system that works, so there’s no need to challenge it.  



The thing is, no one is defending the system because they actually think it works “just fine.”  Talk to anyone of any color about a speeding ticket they didn’t deserve or taxes they don’t want to pay, and they will be quick to point out the injustices and inconveniences woven into the fabric of our society.  To say that “the system works” and to attempt to discredit or master of the housedismiss those who challenge it is simply to say: I value this system the way it is.  This system works for me.  So like the Innkeepers in Les Misérables, 63% or more of White America is invested in making sure everyone is comfortable and going about business as usual, so they (we) can take liberties here and there, skim off the top, take a little bit more for ourselves.  In asserting that the system is fine and anyone who disagrees is clearly [insert your favorite dismissive excuse here], we are just playing Master of the House, propping up the system with one hand, and taking what we like with the other. It makes total sense, and certainly it’s difficult to blame anyone for enjoying a system that serves them so well.

The problem being, however, we are not the masters of this house.  We have fooled ourselves into believing that everyone can do as they please, you go your way and I’ll go mine, no one has the right to infringe on my own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  Every passing day, we are seeing more and more signs that this is inaccurate.  The climate is rapidly changing around us, and we may be on an inevitable collision course with a world–of our own making–in which humans of just about every color and economic background will be facing grim and difficult circumstances. The world as we know it is literally coming to an end, and we are left with a question: When the planet we live on no longer sustains the way of life we’ve grown accustomed to…what do we do then?   See…we don’t even have to change this unjust system…not really.  It’ll go extinct on its own…unfortunately, if we don’t start preparing properly, a lot of us might Thénardiergo with it.  Remember where the Innkeepers wind up once the revolution starts?

If we can’t change our tune, if we can’t start caring more about the lives of other people than we do about our own comfortable status quo, then we are only continuing down a path of devastation, destruction, and degradation.  Waking up to our world of privilege–and the world of the unprivileged which exists right along side us–is the only way we can hope to change our patterns of living so that we are prepared for the world to come.  Today is the first day of the Christian season of Advent.  It is a time of waiting, a time of expectation, a time of waking up so we can perceive and receive what God is doing in this world of ours.  We know not the hour nor the day, but God is coming to level out this absurdly unbalanced playing field one way or another.  Will we be prepared?

To those of you who are not yet awake to this reality, I pray that the coming month might be a time of revelation for you.  For my part, I’ll play “voice in the wilderness” this time around and share daily posts throughout Advent with images and stories that point to the signs and symbols of our day: The world of privilege is changing dramatically, and one way or another…it will not last forever.   The lives of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar GrantEmmet Till among countless others have already begun preparing the way for a more just world, revealing in their deaths the inherent flaws and fictions in the system we currently have.

stolen lives

To those of you who already know what I’m talking about (even if you’re not on board with the religious language…hopefully you like musicals!), I’ll echo the words of Jesus as written in the book of Mark:  Keep awake.  It’s now our task to not just show others how to wake up, but to build the world to which they will awaken.

If we can’t change the tune of White Privileged America, we must at least sing our own songs along side it, so that it’s no longer an anthem that drowns out everything around it, but part of a larger medley.  We need to insist those who choose the familiar refrain have to, at the least, start harmonizing with those of us who DEMAND a better, more just, more loving world.  As we enter into this season of expectation, please join me in daily exercises in waking up, speaking truth, and preparing our world one day at a time for a new world to come.

One more dawn.  One day more.  And another.  And another.

one more day


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