Social conscience teaching focuses on ultimate values. What makes for a satisfying life? What is my role in the big picture? Why do some have so much and so many others have so little? Society has conventional responses, but the heart of social conscience teaching involves considering alternative perspectives which oftentimes contain unconventional wisdom.
On Tuesday my students and I had the opportunity to hear Australian Scott Neeson of Cambodia’s Children Fund share his story. Before starting CCF in 2004, Scott was president of 20th Century Fox, releasing such hit films as “Titanic” and “Braveheart”. However, at age 44, he took some time off just as he took on a new top executive position with Sony and traveled to Southeast Asia. Taking a tip from an NGO in Phnom Penh, Scott ventured to a local garage dump. On that visit he met two young girls that were simply trying to survive in one of the most dangerous and toxic environments on the planet. Later he discovered that a mere $40 US/month would remove these girls from the dump and provide them with a new life.
Returning to his job, Scott had nagging concerns about his legacy. What would he leave behind? Who today remembers the highest grossing films of the 1970’s or 80’s, he asked himself? By contrast, rescuing two girls out of a garbage dump and providing them with an education, he reasoned, would reverberate in these girls’ futures for generations.
The turning point, Scott explained, occurred when he got a call from one of his colleagues in the entertainment industry while at the dump. One of his megastars was having a meltdown on the tarmac. The star had requested his private jet to have X-box, but being Sony, Playstation was installed. The actor refused to go on board. Standing in the dump, Scott heard the star protest, “My life was not meant to be this difficult!” This sealed his decision: Scott was moving to Cambodia.
While Scott preferred talking about his work with CCF more than telling his life story, for my affluent students and myself we were taken by his life-changing decision. What could compel a man to take a 98% cut in pay? Why would one trade a life of fame, fortune, and extraordinary achievement for threats to one’s well-being (he has survived two kidnapping attempts and he takes a security guard with him to the dump after dark)? Why would one give up the perks of Hollywood for seven-days-a-week in a garbage dump?
One of the students probed deeper, asking for advice about a concern. He and his class had just had just gotten back from a weekend service trip to an orphanage in China. They cared for the kids deeply – and then he felt like they had re-abandoned them by returning to Hong Kong. Previously, his teacher had responded to his query with the rationale, “Is it better to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all.” Scott listened intently to the question, and then simply said, “I loved and didn’t lose. I made a choice to go back there and do this.”
The Story of Zacchaeus
As a Christian teacher, the life lessons that I remember most distinctly are often tied to biblical stories and archetypes. Scott’s account brought to mind the well-known story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19). Working on behalf of the Roman occupiers, this Jewish tax collector was considered a traitor to his people, gaining handsomely from his treachery. Despite his occupation, Zacchaeus was attracted to Jesus, a radical itinerant teacher who challenged the Roman and Jewish elite. Being short of stature, he climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus as he approached. On a symbolic level, Zacchaeus’ vantage point above his fellow Jews represented his powerful, but reviled place at the apex of Jewish society. He found himself looking down on Jesus, who walked along ministering to the very same people that he was oppressing. Perhaps Zacchaeus, like Scott, had heard a lot about poverty, yet had remained “above it all”, rationalizing his disengagement.
When Jesus reached the tree, he did not castigate this man whom he must have known, but rather called him by name, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” The crowd muttered against Jesus’ offering of table fellowship to this Roman collaborator. Yet following the visit, Zacchaeus announced his decision to give away much of his wealth, a first step towards healing the social rift that his work had served to sustain.
As an affluent teacher teaching even wealthier students, I ask: what psychospiritual process brings about such a dramatic shift in one’s life such as we witnessed this week in Scott Neeson’s story? Reading about Jesus’ teaching, I wonder: what motivated Zacchaeus to reverse course and become committed to undermining the same harsh taxation system that he had once promoted?
This week I had the chance to reconnect with a former student, Annette, who six years ago won our service award at HKIS. We enjoyed getting caught up with each other’s lives. The next day she wrote me an email, “I have a question that has been on my mind for the past 4 1/2 years. What is that quote that was in that Oxfam article – something about ‘to stand and do nothing for those in need’ . . . something equivalent to worsening the situation?”
I found the Oxfam poster and the Freire quote: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”
Social inequalities do not fade easily from our memories. For Annette, Zacchaeus, and Scott, these questions seem to return again and again, begging for a response.
For Annette, she remembered a poster as she considers her first job. For Zacchaeus, meeting Jesus, the radical teacher, broke down all of his previous justifications for benefiting from an oppressive system. For Scott, rescuing children on the margins offered a qualitatively more satisfying legacy than producing the world’s most successful films.
As listeners of these stories, we are curious to perceive unconventional wisdom at work. Yet it is not so unorthodox as to be unthinkable. Although significant risk is involved, we do not doubt Scott’s sanity in coming down from the zenith of Hollywood success to the garbage dump of Phnom Penh. Recreating the Zacchaeus story in our mind’s eye, we do not imagine that he has been swept away by some otherworldly vision. Rather, Scott’s and Zacchaeus’ choice speaks of a wisdom that, while courageous, is not beyond our ability to imagine.
So, we continue to teach, hoping that our students as well as ourselves will be able to hear of that unconventional wisdom that may lead to a more satisfying life. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also” (Luke 12:32-34).