It seems to me that part of our collective problem is we have misidentified the name of this storm. We are focusing on racism because these recent outbursts of violence are coalescing around our differences in skin color. But racism is not the name of this storm. It’s the symptom of a much deeper existential disease – a much more besetting sin. Until we can properly name it, we cannot even begin to pray for deliverance.
So what is the name of the storm? What is the underlying besetting sin? It comes down to one word – privilege. Privilege is the disease and it is undergirded by the deadly sins of pride and anger. Privilege is insidious precisely because when we have it, we cannot see it. Privilege sits in our blind spot as we participate with others who share privileged class and create systems to protect that privilege. Any threat to that privilege is met with reactivity and violence – and the blood of God’s murdered children attests to this.
This morning’s message is going to make you squirm – some of you much more so than others. What I ask of you this morning is to breathe through your discomfort today. I ask that when I speak today of things that make you defensive, and make no mistake you will get defensive, take a deep breath, let go of the need to be right or defend your privilege, and step into the humility needed to grow more like Christ. I entreat you to do as St. Benedict asks – open the ear of your heart and listen deeply today. I ask you on behalf of the children of God who are dying because the protection of privilege is turning into a matter of life and death.
Privilege is the setting up of some traits and characteristics as desirable and others as less than or even undesirable. It is human nature to do this and it is instinctual – part of our primitive brains. But as humans created in God’s image, we are more than just a collection of instincts and we operate with more than a reptilian brain. If we possess these desirable traits, we don’t reflect on them or how others who do not possess these same traits might be harmed by not having them. In our blindness, we create systems which continue to uphold and reinforce the privileged status and keep those without that privilege in their place.
You’ve probably heard it said that the wealthy operate by a different set of rules. That’s a statement commenting on the privilege of a high socio-economic status. Those of a high socio-economic status have largely influenced the tax structures and laws which have been made to preserve their privileged status (and not just in our country, but in others as well). This is an example of how one “privilege card” is used to create a system to benefit those who hold the same card.
Think of privilege as a hand of cards you have been dealt. You didn’t ask for this hand of cards – it was largely determined long before you were born. Theologian Walter Brueggemann spoke to our clergy conference a few years ago and said, “If you are straight, white and male in America, good for you! You won the genetic lottery.” And he’s right. While there are many other “privilege cards” in our hands, the storm of violence we are facing is really a battle fought on three major fronts over race, gender and sexual orientation. And God’s children are dying because of people who are bent on protecting their privileged status by any means necessary.
This past April, at the University of Mary Washington, Grace Mann was strangled to death. She was a member of Feminists United who dared to speak out about the sports teams on their college campus and how the young men were perpetuating a culture of sexual harassment with jokes about rape and violence against women. This included the use of social media to harass women, physical threats, assaults and rape. Grace was a part of the Feminists United group which called out the rugby team in particular. When the rugby team was suspended for performing a sexually demeaning chant at a party, Grace was targeted for retaliation. Reports say some members of the rugby team said it was time to “put the bitch in her place.” Steven Vander Briel, a former member of the rugby team, has been charged with her murder. The protection of the privilege card of gender killed another child of God.
Sexual orientation is another major front over which the issue of privilege is playing out. Gay bashing, trans violence, harassment of LGBT youth to the point of suicide, and the fight against same sex marriage are all designed to keep “those people in their place” – it is the defense of heterosexual privilege. If two people of the same sex want to get married, this isn’t going to “ruin marriage!” For crying out loud, straight couples have been screwing up marriage all by themselves – we don’t need any instructions on that. But in all seriousness, marriage as a legally protected status is imbued with privileges! And fearful people who don’t want that privilege challenged are fighting back.
Tragically, our own sacred texts become grounds for fodder in the protection of privilege. While we don’t hear it much today, the Bible was used to justify the enslavement of blacks – all the way back to when the first slaves came through the middle passage to Jamestown in 1619. The Bible’s texts have been used to keep women “in their place” and justify male dominance and privilege. I cannot tell you how many times I have been hit with the clobber passages from 1st Corinthians and 1st Timothy which out of context tell women they are not to speak in the assembly. Proof texting used to keep me “in my place” and under the thumb of men. I have news for anyone who tries that game – my place is anywhere God calls me … get over it! Our LGBT sisters and brothers get clobbered with Biblical proof texting too … all meant to reinforce and protect privilege.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” We are perishing. We are shedding blood over the protection of privilege and God’s beloved children are dying. We all have a hand of cards dealt and some carry more privilege points than others. But let me ask you this – what does the word “privilege” even mean in the Kingdom of God? It’s been said that if God had a refrigerator, all of our pictures would be on it. And I would add each of those pictures would have this caption: “My dear and beloved child.” So can there be privilege in God’s eyes? I suggest the answer is no … a resounding NO! It is in the realm of human eyes where privilege exists.
Now at this point, I know those of you holding lots of high value human privilege cards are really struggling. Don’t lie and say you aren’t … this is hard stuff. I know it is. I carry the high value privilege cards of race (white), sexual orientation (straight), socio-economic status (upper-middle class), education (advanced college degree), and others. I lack the privilege card of gender – and that has made me aware of this privilege problem. Red carpets are not rolled out for me like they are for you men – especially in a vocation like this where the preference for male clergy is still dominant although denied because we want to think we are progressive. I live in a world where I have had to navigate sexual street harassment, threats of physical violence, and even sexual assault. All of that behavior comes down to the protection of male privilege.
Now I know, the reaction of those of us carrying the privilege card is “but I’m not like that!” And very likely you are not. But in carrying that particular card of privilege, you participate (often unknowingly) in a system which is doing everything it can to protect the privilege. Your participation is most often silence. And this is where Jesus’ response to the storm helps inform us about what we can do. In response to the fearful disciples, Jesus rebukes the wind and the sea – “Peace! Be still!” and the storm ceases. The storm of privilege protecting violence can be stilled … but it will take more than one word. It will take many words and deeds over time. It will take those of us who hold the high value privilege cards to engage and call out those who are actively trying to protect their privilege. So where do we start? It can seem overwhelming. Let me suggest a course of action for you to take beginning this week.
First, in your prayer time this week, ask God to help reveal to you where you hold privilege in our society. I’ve given you a head start – if you are straight, white and male, you hold three cards. But there are others I’ve mentioned. Take an honest inventory of the desirable traits our culture values – how many do you have?
Second, with your inventory, ask God in prayer for the courage to engage and listen. Ask God for the gift of humility to enter into this process. This process needs a lot of humility to counter the disquietude and discomfort you will feel. I guarantee you will feel it … but like lancing a boil, it will feel better as you begin to heal from the wounds that privilege is inflicting on you. Even if you have privilege, you are wounded by it!
Third, pick one of your privilege cards and engage someone who does not carry that privilege card. This calls for you to “check your privilege” and listen deeply with the “ear of the heart.” Do it in small doses as it is hard work and when you engage someone without the privilege card you carry, they may be wary and reticent to talk about this with you. Be patient, take your time, build relationship, bridge the divide. Straight married guys? You have it built in … talk to your wives and daughters about the gender based harassment they are facing every single day.
Fourth, with an opening of your eyes and hearts to the problem of privilege, be attentive with a new consciousness about where it is happening and, when you hear or see acts of micro-aggression, call it out! That’s right – call it out. When you hold a privilege card and another person carrying the same card makes a comment or joke which reinforces that privileged status, call it out for what it is. Whether it’s racism, sexism, homophobia – call it out! If you remain silent, you are reinforcing and participating in the protection of your privilege. Call it out. Tell the other person their comment is not funny and hurtful to others. Expect push back … it will happen and often takes the form of telling you it was “just a joke” and “where’s your sense of humor?” When I get that, I just look them in the eye and say, “Oh I have a sense of humor. But your comment was not funny. It was [fill in the blank with the appropriate ‘ism’].”
Calling it out is what Jesus did to the storm and it ceased. Privilege is not dismantled from the outside in …but from the inside out when those who have privilege stand in solidarity with those who lack it and dismantle it from within. This is revolutionary work. This is the kind of work Christ did among us. It’s work which demands the conversion of our hearts and minds. It is the mission of the church to continue Christ’s healing and reconciling work. We are called to it, by the power of the Spirit we can do it and the lives of God’s beloved children depend on us to do it.