The following presentation was offered on November 19, 2013, during the Gustavus Adolphus College “Building Bridges” fall preview event, a student-led social justice movement, which gathered under the theme, “Disposable Communities? Demanding Environmental Justice”. Alongside Professors Richard Leitch, Laura Triplett, and David Obermiller, my brief thoughts focused on how theology can provide a critical lens by which injustice is interpreted and the struggle for sustainable life is promoted.
As Taro Gomi so brilliantly proclaims in the breathtaking children’s book: Everyone Poops: “All living things eat, so… Everyone Poops.”
Or, is it? Is that “The End?” Is that all there is to the story of poop?
While some would like to believe so, this evening we gather to say, “no”. Because, the mere proposition that everyone poops cannot, should not, and therefore will not, be the end of the story, as the subsequent logical question is, of course: If everyone poops, then where does it all end up? Where does it eventually go? And ultimately, in our present day context of globalization and so-called disposable communities, if over seven billion people poop, then who, out of that seven billion, is ultimately up to their eyes in it, and who has no choice but to deal with it?
And this all leads us to the follow-up, and perhaps even more critical question, surrounding the need to question: “What exactly are we talking about when we are talking about poop?”
What is poop?
I offer the question, because for me, as one of the Lutheran tradition, I wish to respond by offering an alternative to the common premise of Everyone Poops. For when we speak of poop, and when we make the claim that everyone does indeed poop, we are not simply and solely speaking about the material that comes out of our bodies. To the contrary, it is also – and perhaps even more – about the ways in which we as humans materially waste each other by what we do with our bodies.
In light our “Disposable Communities” theme for this evening, and in the context of demanding environmental justice, we are tempted to view Everyone Poops in a strict physical sense, or under the umbrella of gastroenterology and/or sewage distribution around the world. However, I would like to start by making the case that everyone poops not simply as a physical reality, but as a theological assertion. Or, to put it differently, as a statement of theological conviction within the Lutheran tradition, I believe we are all imperfect people living in an imperfect world, and we simply cannot help ourselves from defecating on one-another.
For example, from large scale genocide to small scale gossip… From mass murder to everyday acts of aggression and hatred… From systemic economic exploitation to the appalling denials of ecological destruction…
Each day, through our words, deeds, and various other capacities, we as humans do things to one another that is nothing short of defecation.
It is not to say that we are not good people, but it is to say that even good people cannot help themselves from doing terrible things. In the Lutheran tradition we call this Simul justus et peccator – in that we as humans are simultaneously saints and sinners, meaning that even the best person among us is capable of wrongdoing, and even the most wicked among us has the capacity for good works. Which means, from a Lutheran theological perspective, we can make the case that everyone does indeed poop, for we all – at some point or another – harm others, and also, we all know what it is like to be harmed by others.
And so, the question therefore becomes one that Lutherans have asked for generations: So What does this mean?
If everyone poops, and if we know from experience that the poor and marginalized of our world are the the ones most often pooped upon, how do we even begin to respond? How do we seek justice in a world in which far too many are treated as disposable? And perhaps most of all, how can we seek solutions when we know that we are also a significant part of the problem?
For the next few moments I will briefly outline a theological proposition in response to our current social position, and I will do so with a concept from the New Testament, commonly called koinonia.
The essential meaning of koinonia is that of “communion by intimate participation”. The word koinonia appears nineteen times in most editions of the Greek New Testament, and can be translated into terms such as “fellowship”, “sharing”, “participation”, and “contribution”. More specifically, koinonia is a derivative of the word “koinos”, which is a word for “common”, which makes koinonia a valuable approach to building community, as koinonia embraces a strong commitment to “kalos kagathos” (καλοκαγαθία), meaning “good and good”, an inner goodness toward virtue, and an outer goodness toward social relationships.
And so, what koinonia means for us, in the context of our theme for this evening, is that since everyone poops, we all are fully honest and open with the reality that we all are a part of the problem, but also part of the solution, for every life anywhere is connected with all life everywhere. Which means, injustice anywhere is felt by everyone everywhere, and kindness bestowed upon anyone anywhere has a ripple effect upon everyone everywhere.
And so, what this all means is that, when some communities are viewed as disposable, we all are at the risk of disposal, and when some are lifted up, we all rise alongside them. Which therefore means, the search for global justice requires far more than the common approaches of relief and development, but what is required is a systemic change that occurs through sustained koinonia, which happens through mass levels of engagement for the sake of restructuring society for the sake of those most vulnerable.
This process involves consciousness raising, transforming laws and policies, trade rules, and corruption, and daring to live out the sociological implications of one’s theological affirmations.
And so, my friends, there is clearly far more that can – and should – be said this evening (and I will leave it to the more distinguished speakers this evening to fill in the cracks that I have most certainly left!). However, in this brief time I have to speak, I simply wish to conclude with the following:
For years I have been told that if you give someone a fish they will eat for a day, but if you teach them to fish they will eat for a lifetime. My response is that it all does little good if we all continue to take dumps in the pond.
And as citizens of a country that is well known for its ability to defecate in a lot of ponds – both near and far, we should especially make time for pause, reflection, and even confession, and then proceed to resistance, reform, and even revolution.
In other words, we cannot overlook the fact that, we live in a nation that has been “building bridges” across numerous so-called borders for a long time, but sadly, those bridges have been built in order to transport our so-called waste to the so-called other side while taking what we want from others back to our so-called side.
But my hope – and my prayer – is that through an embrace of koinonia, and in the practice of communion through intimate participation, we will one day come to the realization that in our world today there is no such things as “the other side”, for there is ultimately only one side, and we all are living on it.
Which therefore means, our role may not be to build bridges, but to take over the bridges that are already in our midst, so that our bridges will be used to promote good will instead of merely generating dollar bills.
In the end, my friends, if we are truly called to love our neighbors as we wish to be loved ourselves, and if all people in all places should be viewed as our neighbors, and if justice is what love looks like in public: Then we have some work to do.
As human beings we are not merely passive characters in a grand story that has already been written, but we are active co-authors of a narrative that continues to unfold in front of our eyes.
Which means, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to shape and share our future.
We have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to ensure that no one is disposed of, because each and every life on this planet has dignity and value.
We have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to fill our lives with deeds that matter instead of wasting them away in the search for momentary comfort and entertainment.
We have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to resist the pressures to conform to the rat race of consumerism and instead promote life in its fullness for all people and in all places regardless of gender, color, nationality, sexual orientation, religious affirmation, and political affiliation.
We have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to say enough is enough, as the time for justice is right about now.
And so, I thank God for this opportunity to be with you this evening, and I look forward to living out my responsibilities alongside you.
May God bless you and all the good that comes through you. Amen.
The Rev. Brian E. Konkol serves as a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. An ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), he holds degrees from Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI), Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN), and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). He blogs athttp://briankristenkonkol.blogspot.com and tweets @BrianKonkol