The professor asked for two volunteers, one male and one female, to go to the front of the room where a small table was set up. Our course was about the church’s role as reconcilers, and that day we were discussing systemic gender inequality.
The female volunteer lay down on the floor underneath the table, looking up; while the male volunteer stood on top of the table. Each one was then asked to describe what they could see. The female volunteer described the black screws that held the tabletop to the legs, the grain of wood, and the dirt she could see. “I see ceiling tiles I think, and I think there might be people in the room but I can’t really tell.” The male responded by relaying everything in the room; the whiteboards on the walls, the chairs, the other classmates, the lighting. Everything, that is, except the table he was standing on and the woman underneath it.
This activity powerfully illustrated to me the effect of systemic inequality. Because men have been in a position of power throughout history, their worldviews have been formed around open opportunities and spacious possibilities. Women, on the other hand, have been shaped by a system of limitations and forces they often cannot see or even articulate.
The professor encouraged us in our attempts to work toward equality to not assume we know what is best for the other person or group we are trying to “help.”
“The work of true reconciliation comes from hearing the story and entering in to the lived reality of people on the underside of the table. They are the ones who lead in this discussion,” he said.
My encouragement to all of us as we join Jesus in the work of reconciliation is simple: grab a cup of coffee and listen. Don’t assume you know what it’s like to be on the underside of the table if you’ve never been there. Listen to the stories of others with the knowledge of your own position in the world until you come face to face with your own culpability in those systems. Then and only then can the roots of systemic injustice be severed and the table be removed.