During my mid-life crisis, one particularly depressing day, my wife Laura said she thought me entitled. I was incensed. Who did she think she was?
Okay, yes, I am a white man from Alabama. And yes, I once had my picture made outside the Super Dome in New Orleans, summer of ’87, attending the Republican National Convention. Yes, I was “conservative” in those days, by any and all measuring sticks, socially, politically, religiously. Conservative, too, in my attire, and in the company I kept: I stood there in my navy blue suit, red and blue striped power tie, starched white shirt, with Jerry Falwell’s arm around my shoulder.
Seven years of theological deconstruction later, I found myself walking down a dirt street in a Nairobi slum. Laura and I had been working there for six months. We had made many friends, loved our work. I was a different person. No more hankering after photo-ops, no more power ties for me. I now proudly shopped at Goodwill.
On this particular day, a Somali man jumped in front of me, blocking my way, staring at me.
Somalis had come to Nairobi, so I had been told, thanks to U.S. foreign aid. Having escaped civil unrest and famine, they received housing subsidies as refugees. The Kenyans understandably resented the Somalis. The U.S. foreign aid drove up rents, and deepened the hardship of the Kenyans’ daily subsistence.
I had grown prejudiced myself. Another day I was stopped at a jammed intersection. A Somali crossed in front of my Jeep, and looked me in the eye. He reared back and, with nonchalant contempt, spit at me.
So here I was some time later, back on this dirt street amidst the piles of burning garbage, this Somali man blocking my way.
I was startled. His face was too close to mine. His eyes looked wild.
He shouted: “who are you?!”
I found myself shouting back: “who are you?!” He briefly looked dis-oriented, regained his cockiness, and sauntered off, without another word.
The memory of that brief episode often bubbles up in my consciousness.
I think it may have something to do with my wife’s insult.
I think it may be because of what I did not say to that Somali, but was nonetheless thinking: “who the hell do you think you are? I’ve come over here trying to help, be of service, bear witness to the Kingdom of God, put up with endless inconveniences, and you dare question me? Who the hell do you think you are?”
Perhaps it’s taken me more than two decades to realize the lesson presented that day: beware your sense of entitlement, maybe especially when you busy yourself with acts of justice and mercy and peace-making. It is neither by your power tie nor the Goodwill clothes on your back by which you shall be judged.
But your smugness and entitlement? Well, really, who do you think you are?
This piece is from The Lenten Reader edited by our friend Michael McRay, with pieces by the likes of Shane Claiborne, Janet Wolf, Becca Stevens, Naomi Tutu, Jarrod McKenna, David Dark, Jeannie Alexander, Lindsey Krinks, Ingrid MacIntyre, Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, and more. Sign up by to receive free daily readings from The Lenten Reader by clicking here.
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