Thursday, February 24, 2005

The two sides of Princeton

The halcyon environs of Mercer Street with its boutiques and extravagant restaurants is deceptive. So also are the majestic buildings which dot the campuses of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. Often unacknowledged is a darker side of the town, darker both literally and figuratively. Recent news of immigration raids in Princeton and surrounding cities have torn a small gash in this proverbial curtain.

Behind the manifest wealth of the town is a thriving population of immigrants from Guatemala and other portions of Central and South America. These individuals play a silent, hidden role as they clean offices in the dark of night, cook food at the rear of restaurants, and clean houses on the weekends. Their struggles are muffled by the loud chatter of economic and intellectual success.

This stark divide was perhaps most pernicious in my mind at PTS. When students or faculty speak of the seminary "community," little thought was generally given to these individuals. Let me be clear; I do not exclude myself from such an arrogant posture. However, as Christians, I hope we can all do better in appreciating and perhaps even privileging the experiences of our sisters and brothers whose daily existence rests on a tenuous line.

On the one hand, this country depends on their labor and will look the other way when necessary. On the other hand, vile xenophobic rhetoric too often litters political discourse and seeps into cultural perceptions.

I know nothing of the experience of depending upon seasonal work for sustenance. However, Justo Gonzalez's reading of the parable of the workers has been particularly enlightening to me:
When this story is read in most churches, there is a general reaction that the whole thing is unfair. It is just not right that people who worked more should be paid the same as people who worked less. In that social context, all that is seen is the injustice, and the sermon then usually argues that God's grace is above justice.

In contrast, when the parable is read in some of our poor Hispanic churches there are people who immediately identify with the laborers, for they understand the plight of those who must go early in the morning to stand at a place where someone may come in a pickup truck and hire them. They may be lucky one day and find a whole day's work. Other days, they may spend hours waiting, and find nothing to do, or be hired only for a couple of hours. They clearly understand, because they have experienced it, the conversation between the landowner and those who are still standing around at about five o'clock: "Why are you standing here idle all day?" "Because no one has hired us." Then comes the surprising finale, where the landowner pays those who only worked a couple of hours a whole day's wage, and the reaction is not one of mystification and outrage, as in a middle-class congregation, but rather of joy and celebration. They can see that this is not an act of injustice, but rather an act of supreme justice. Those hired at five o'clock were not at fault in not having found work earlier. They were actually standing there all day, hoping against hope that someone would hire them. In a sense, they had more hope and stamina than those who were guaranteed a job early in the day. The fact that no one hired them does not mean that they will not have to eat, or that their needs will be lesser. They too need a day's wages in order to survive. Thus, the landowner's act in paying them a full day's wage is not a show of grace that goes against justice, but rather of a grace that understands justice at a deeper level than is customary. The landowner pays them what they justly need and what they justly deserve, not what society, with its twisted understanding of justice, would pay them. Common justice would wash its hands of any responsibility for these unfortunate ones who did not find enough work to earn a living. This utterly just landowner, in contrast, pays them what they need, and what they should have been ready to earn had they been hired earlier. (62-3)