Should I Stay or Should I Go: On Walking Away from Omelas
My offering today shall consist almost entirely of a story, and a peculiar story at that, for which I’ll ask your patience. It’s one that I haven’t ceased thinking about since it happened to me. It concerns a city that I visited during a recent journey, though I can scarcely remember where the city was – somewhere in North America I think, but it also may have been in Europe, or Mexico, or South America. I can no longer recall. I know only that I was there and that I feel compelled to tell you about my visit.
It was, to begin, a beautiful city, one of the most technologically advanced of any I have seen. It was powered by fields of solar arrays, and by the wind, and by the electricity generated by each of those developments. Cars were scarcely even used there, for most people preferred to use the network of high speed rail that existed throughout the city. Those that could used bicycles for transportation, or they walked. When those modes were insufficient, they used a car sharing system that functioned smoothly. Beyond transportation, the architecture was magnificent and bold. There were cutting edge designs, but they were always tastefully mixed in with well preserved buildings and monuments of the past. The old and the new coexisted in what seemed to me a perfect harmony.
I happened to be there on a holiday, during which a great Festival was being held. Much of the population was flocking toward the great park at the center of the city, where a race was to be held, along with music and dance performances. But there were art displays as well, and food vendors – miles of food vendors, all serving the most splendid meals, and at a low cost too. There was an air of excitement among the crowd, and there was genuine, true joy as they all converged on the park. Even approaching the park, there was music to be heard in the streets. Scattered drum circles here and there filled everyone that passed by with a sizzling energy that was infectious. Amidst the faces in the crowd, I witnessed a sea of ethnicities and nationalities, and miraculously, no one seemed to bear anyone else ill will. No one seemed uncomfortable. There were no signs of hierarchy or status anywhere apparent throughout the scene. There was only what seemed to be a genuine openness and good will toward one another.
If they sound one dimensional, or lacking some basic dispositions that you and I share – toward melancholy perhaps, or vice, or ill will or spite, I can only say that these weren’t simple or bland or ignorant people. Each of my encounters with individuals within the city suggested a high level of refinement. They were cultured – they had read libraries of books having to do with the arts. But they were also scientifically inclined, as demonstrated by their technology. What’s even more remarkable, they were emotionally invested in their relationships and in the world around them, and they were, I repeat, as complex and soulful as any people I have encountered. These were not, in other words, naive children, or bland automatons. They were happy. Genuinely and truly happy.
Having observed all of this, I began to wonder how they managed it, and so I began to ask questions of various people I encountered about how the city was organized. I soon learned that there was not a mayor or a king or a President within the city. I learned that they managed to do without a stock market, and that police and a standing army had become unnecessary. As for religion, it certainly existed among residents of the city – they had many beliefs, many practices, many rituals, many gods – but I was told there was no clergy. Over time, I observed that residents of the city were remarkably free about their bodies and about sexual expression too. In truth, the only thing missing from the entire city was any vestige of guilt or shame. Where most of us are either consumed by guilt, or withhold ourselves in various situations in order to forestall any guilt, the people of this city seemed positively unburdened by such emotions. How strange to live in such a way, I thought. But also, how attractive.
Let me offer one final detail that I learned while I was there.
Amidst all that happiness, all that joy, all that refinement and pleasure, there does exist one faceless building. A room exists in the basement of that building, and the room has a single door and no windows at all. Within that room, I learned, there was a child. Just one. It might have been because of malnutrition, or it might have been some congenital defect, but the child looked to be five or six, but actually was rumored to be twice that age. The child, I learned, had not always lived in that room, but he has not been permitted to leave the room since the moment he entered. Time no longer existed for the child. It became only a matter of intervals, of silence, and then of the opening of the door. A keeper provided one meager meal a day for the child.. Sometimes, that keeper brings in guests to observe the child, and they gaze at him in silence. But mostly the child simply sits in the darkness, alone. He used to speak, but gradually, his language has withered. He might whimper a little. He might promise to be good. It matters little. No one is listening.
I soon discovered that everyone knows about the child in the room, for it is no secret. It has always been so. There must always be one – just one – child placed in the room for the society to function. That is the price of all the happiness, of all the joy, of all the prosperity, of all the genius that suffuses that gorgeous city. Not everyone understands it – they don’t need to understand – but they all accept it as a necessary condition. Don’t get me wrong – there are some who wish it could be otherwise. They wish at least to allow the child to come into the light from time to time. They wish at least that a kind word might be spoken to the child from time to time. But it’s not possible. If such were to occur, all the prosperity, all the wisdom, all the joy, all the goodness, every last bit of it would disappear. Those are the terms.
Surely by now you’re thinking that this is a barbarous city, and that its people are an uncivilized and cruel lot. But it’s not so. It’s true, there are many who simply choose not to think about the child. But there are also those who wish to see, who wish to know. They feel a kind of bitter rage against the conditions imposed upon the child, and they shed bitter tears. Paradoxically, it makes them better people. Having seen the suffering, they themselves become more compassionate, especially with their own children. That depth of feeling, of being placed upon the horns of an impossible dilemma, deepens the residents of the city. They feel the weight not of guilt but of tragedy. And it is that very weight that enables them to produce their very best works of art. It is that very weight that enables them to produce their system of ethics. They feel the burden of necessity, and it produces greatness in them. Were it not for the wretchedness of that one, and only one child, the many within that city would never feel the fullness of life. Seen from that vantage, the child in the room is a gift given for all. The lives of the many attain meaning and poignancy through the gift given by the child. The longer I stayed in the city, the more reasonable it all began to seem.
Even so, I began to hear rumors. I heard tell of a very few people in the city who, having visited the basement room where the child is imprisoned, grow silent, and distant. When their visit is concluded, they do not go back to their homes. They do not return to their work. In the evenings, sometimes, these few individuals go out walking, and they walk straight out of the city, and they never return. Where they go, I do not know, I never learned. But they seem to know where they are going. They seem to know that they can no longer remain in that splendid city.
If you lived in such a place, what would you do? Who would you be? Perhaps you would be among those who accept the necessity of the child’s suffering. Because look, in the moral universe we inhabit, someone has always been made to suffer for the good of the many. Maturity requires that we come to grips with that reality. Perhaps you would be among those who view the child as unfortunate, but as a necessary condition of existence. Or perhaps you would be among those who lamented the treatment of the child. Maybe you too would rage at it, while channeling that rage and that pain into works of high culture, those works of mighty, titanic emotion, where deep wells of compassion and fellow feeling can be found. Perhaps you would be among those who, at some level, know of the child, but wish never, ever to think of it, for where do such thoughts lead but to sorrow and impotence. Better to stay above it all, and to enjoy what has been given to you. Or maybe you are among those who simply walk away. Perhaps you would be offended by the city’s cruelty, which is at one and the same time minuscule and devastating, and you would walk through the city gates, never to return. Who among the residents might you be? Where would you align yourself?
When my visit was concluded, I learned of another possibility. There are also those who stay and fight. At the very last, I heard of those who have come to believe that it’s not possible to walk away. For this slight minority, the only responsible action is to stay, and to risk pulling it all down – the happiness, the joy, the technology, the culture, all of it. In such a way, what suffering the child feels might be distributed among the many, so that all might bear it, while what happiness the many feel might be afforded to the child. There are also those, I came to see, who stay and fight. Perhaps you belong among them, among those who stay and fight.
If I have tested your patience with my story – it’s not mine, as it turns out, for it is a story called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, updated recently by N.K. Jemison – if I have tested your patience, it is to make a serious point. Because I have, as it happens, visited Omelas, the city that I have described to you. And I have met her people. I am one of them.
I have met them when I have visited the Middle East, and have heard that the suffering of the Palestinian people, while unfortunate, is a necessary price to pay for the liberal democracy that is the state of Israel. In that tiny country, I have visited the child in the room. I have seen the conditions, and I have spoken with those who accept the necessity of the child’s immiseration. I have also seen those who have walked away, those who are repulsed by the suffering and who simply wish not to be associated with it, or drawn into its vortex. But so too, I have encountered those who chose another path, who chose to stay and fight. They do so behind the Separation Wall. They do so within Israel proper. They do so from places of exile, and they do so from places like Old Lyme. There are those who stay and fight. I’m pleased that next week, we’ll have an opportunity to hear from some of those who stay and fight.
I have met the people of that city – Omelas – here in the United States as well. I have met them in our stories from the Deep North, as we uncovered a society willing that some would suffer enslavement, in order that a great many others might experience something like freedom. I hear them still in all the voices that would erase that disquieting history, minimizing its savagery. But you and I, we have seen the child in the room, for there were many. There still are. Some of their names are engraved upon stones throughout our town. There were those who rationalized it. There were those who walked away. But there were also those who stayed and fought, like Prudence Crandall, like John Brown. There are those who continue to stay, and who continue to fight.
I have met the people of Omelas in debates about immigration, and in our own Sanctuary work. If we are to continue to have the society we wish to have, they tell us – with a robust economy, with jobs for all, with housing and food and resources enough to go around, a sacrifice must be made, one that is both unfortunate and necessary. There are some, we are told, who will need to be uprooted, and removed. But there too I have seen the child in the room – we all have – when Malik, Zahida, and Roniya came to live with us here at FCCOL for the better part of a year. Some understand that suffering to be necessary. A few walk away, figuratively and literally, unable to bear the cruelty. They go and live abroad. But some choose another path. They stay and fight. You were among them, as are all of those who, then and now, scramble to find places of refuge for the displaced and the discarded. There are those who, having witnessed the child in the room, choose to stay and fight.
There are, no doubt, some among you who are wondering what this has to do with church, and with God. Well, I must also tell you that I have met the people of that city, Omelas, in countless churches throughout my life. And I have discovered them in the pages of Scripture, and in tracts of theology. In fact, much of Christian theology functions not unlike the city of Omelas: one person must suffer, that the rest of us might be free. It’s all given poignant expression in the book of Isaiah. There, God wills to take away the sin of the world by making one, just one, innocent person suffer. That notion was later extrapolated from Isaiah and overlaid on top of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul puts it this way: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he writes, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” Oh, my friends, I have been to the child’s room in countless churches, which insist that an innocent man needed to suffer and die so that those who believe in him might find salvation. A question: is it that ingrained logic of sacrifice – that someone else must suffer in order for me to be free – that makes so many Christians complacent about the suffering of others, acceding to the necessity of sacrifice?
There are those who have inherited such a theology and find it ironclad, for in their understanding, those are the terms. And there are those who walk away, never to return, repulsed by the logic of sacrifice. But I have known others too. There are those who stay and fight, who insist on a different understanding of God, one that feels utterly different. In that alternative theology, demonstrated by a long line of witnesses who function as a minority report within Christian theology, we find Peter Abelard and Julian of Norwich, we find Walter Rauschenbusch and Paul Tillich, we find Dorothy Day and the Latin American liberation theologians and Black liberation theologians, and feminist theologians. Each of them in their different way insists that Jesus becomes not the child in the room who comes to be sacrificed. They insist on the opposite, that Jesus is the one who flings the door wide, who enters the room, and who gathers the child into his arms, showing him – or her – a love that had not been shown before by a culture grown sickly from the logic of sacrifice. Is that not the meaning of all the healing stories – of the man cured from leprosy, of the woman cured of her incessant bleeding, of the child raised from the dead? Was not that tiny, isolated corner of the Mediterranean world the room itself, and are not the inhabitants of that land themselves the neglected and malnourished child? Is not Jesus the forerunner of all those who, instead of walking away from Omelas, choose to stay and fight?
And is there not a little room inside of you, where some lost and nearly forgotten part of you sits and waits, having been consigned there by the logic of sacrifice? Is there not a room within us all in which we place the most unloveable parts of ourselves, where we have felt shame, or pain, or rejection? And does not Jesus fling open the door even there, even within the basement rooms of our lives, insisting that the lost and hurting child deep within us is worthy of love and care? Does not Jesus insist that we need not abide the cruel logic of sacrifice, even unto ourselves?
I conclude by posing once again the questions of Omelas: who are you within the story? Where are you located? Where do your sympathies lie? What might a church come to understand about itself through such a parable? There are those who accept as necessary a degree of suffering among the few, that others might live. There are those who choose to walk away. And there are those who stay and fight. Who among them are you? Who, among them, are we?
 What follows is a retelling of a story by Ursula K. Le Guin, first published in 1976. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” from her short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (New York: Harper Perennial, 2022), pgs, 277-286. A supplement to that story, which is also drawn upon, is by N.K. Jemison, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” from her collection How Long Till Black Future Month? (New York: Orbit Books, 2019), pgs. 1-13.