On May 10th, 1869, a photograph commonly referred to as the “Champagne Photo” was taken at Promontory Summit in Utah. It is an elaborately staged image of the ceremonial completion of the transcontinental railroad. Photographer Andrew Russell shows two engines nearly touching, surrounded by a large group of proud, white men shaking hands and raising bottles – a captured moment in US history.
Recently, I had the honor of viewing an exhibit by artist Zhi LIN entitled In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads. He tells a different story. The Chinese laborers who did much of the backbreaking work, who likely had just laid the final rails, were deliberately removed from the iconic scene. The photo’s image is distorted and false, managed through the lens of whiteness, belying the real story of labor, violence, and racism.
Lin’s exhibit includes a reenacted video of the scene, called Chinaman’s Chance (2014). Shown from the perspective of the marginalized workers, it keeps the viewer off to the side, unable to access the central moment. Lin reminds us who has control of the “dominant…narrative,” and evokes the frustration of being excluded from the recorded story.
In today’s Gospel, the man at Bethesda has been unable to access the healing waters for most of his life. Jesus breaks into the story, liberating the man, healing him right where he lay. Then Jesus tells the man to move, to take up his mat and rejoin the fullness of life.
Racial justice demands that we break forth from the perspectives that bind us and others, questioning images and narratives in the systems around us—especially those capturing the story from a dominant perspective. Lin and Jesus draw our attention to the marginalized, suppressed places. They remind us that self-congratulatory stories of breaking champagne bottles are often at the expense of the lives, stories, and freedom of so many others.
This Lenten season, let us take Jesus’s questions to heart.
What do you see? Do you want to be healed? Are you willing to move?
Marilyn Nash teaches Ignatian Spirituality at Seattle University and is a spiritual director & consultant for Jesuit works, faith communities, and individuals particularly regarding spiritual discernment amidst a culture of racism.