Dealing with Privilege in the Beloved Community
Oct 18, 2020
For this week’s Events and Happenings at Reservoir, click “Download PDF.”
For this week’s spiritual practice led by Vernee Wilkerson, called “Shelter,” click HERE.
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The other week I got to talk with a man who knew my maternal grandfather. I called him Pop Pop, and he died in 1997, just a few months after dancing at my wedding. I knew he loved me and was proud of me, and I miss him still. And other than family, I hadn’t talked to anyone that knew him in a long time. It surprised me how much that meant to me.
The story my family tells of Pop Pop is that he grew up poor in Brooklyn, during the Great Depression. He served his country in the navy, worked with his brother in construction, and then set out on his own as a home builder. He worked long and hard with his hands, building house after house, creating homes for others and a good living for himself. He spent little, saved and later invested wisely. Until by the time he died, he was one of those millionaires next store you never would have guessed. And he left not just a legacy of decency and sound advice and love to his daughter and three grandsons, but he left us each enough funds to buy a house and get a debt-free, home owning start in life.
That’s one story, one I was told, again and again, and it’s all true. But it’s not the whole story.
Pop Pop may have been poor, but he had a brother who worked as a civil engineer on public works projects, a profession that was barred to people of color and even to many recent European immigrants. So in the navy, Pop Pop worked in construction and was shielded from the danger of the front lines. After the war, he bought his first home with a basically no-interest loan from the GI bill, which gave all kinds of government handouts to white veterans. He then built houses for white families in the suburbs of New York City, at the same time white families weren’t just having babies but were fleeing from cities in fear of their new neighbors of color. Pop Pop worked for himself, but he built houses quicker because he hired working class day laborers from the city next door to the suburb he had settled in, paying them a fair day’s wage, but never keeping them long enough to pay them more or give them benefits. And on it goes.
This story’s true too. It doesn’t make my Pop Pop an evil man, but it does reveal his privilege, that he benefitted again and again from special opportunities, often barred from or afforded at the expense of Black Americans, as well as other people of color. This is some of the systemic racism in my family line, part of why my mother, my brothers, and I got the help we did in life.
Today, I want to explore how the gospel, the good news of Jesus, speaks to all our stories of privilege, advantages we have through no merit of ours, as well as advantages that have been taken from us, through no failing of ours. It’s one sermon, so there will always be more to say, but I want to suggest at least one way we can respond to these stories in light of the good news of Jesus.
Let me read an excerpt from the Bible’s little letter called Philippians, written by Paul of Tarsus to the house churches of the seaside port of Philippi in the mid-first century. I’ll read a bit from the third chapter.
Philippians 3:4b-9 (NRSV)
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
Now this is interesting because Paul is a Jew living under the colonial Roman Empire. And he’s writing to a mixed Jewish-non Jewish audience. They all would have known that Jews like Paul were mocked constantly by Romans. Their religion, their culture, their customs were the butt of many jokes. They were scapegoated sometimes when problems occurred. Jews were expelled from Rome by one emperor around this time. So Paul could have written to Philippi and discussed his real grievances as a Jew, or as a Christian, under the empire. Paul was both of those things and at the time, being either Jewish or Christian in the Roman Empire gave you less privilege. And later in Philippians, Paul does speak to the spiritual power and perspective that help him navigate suffering.
But privilege is intersectional. You can have more in some areas and less in others. And Paul’s aware that within his own community, his lineage, his family, his childhood, his training, and his way of life gave him access to all kinds of benefits others didn’t have.
But now as a follower of Jesus, he questions those gains. In fact, not only does he question them, he sees them as losses.
Paul’s accumulated privilege – whatever unearned benefits he had in life – he calls it all a pile of crap. Our Bibles usually translate this “rubbish”, sometimes politely “dung,” which is a word almost no one ever uses unless they’re at a cow farm. A “heap of crap” would catch the mood better.
Why is this? What difference has Jesus made in the way Paul sees his social location?
Well, he sees that the truly good life comes from a relationship with God in Christ. Having higher status than other people, having extra privilege others don’t can make you feel good about yourself, it can make you feel special in a way. But it can’t make you know that you are loved, that you have transcendent meaning and worth, that no matter what happens in life, you belong on this earth God made. Knowing Christ does all of that, though. It tells you that you are loved, you are worthy, you matter, your life has infinite dignity and meaning.
And socially, we see throughout Paul’s letters, this is supposed to translate not just to belonging to God, but belonging to a community of radical equality before God. Where people who have all the privilege in the world belong, but no more than anyone else. And where people who are despised and rejected in the world’s hierarchies of privilege belong no less than anyone else.
This is easy to talk about. It sounds beautiful to say radical equality, or beloved community, or everyone belongs, but it is way harder to do.
Because the truth is, if you have relative privilege, you always feel you belong. And if you have a relative lack of privilege, you can see in a second all the places that are not making a home for you.
If you have housing and a shower and clean clothes, talk to someone who doesn’t have those things. They know in a second when they enter a public place if they’re welcome or not. Almost always, not.
If you’re white, and you listen to the experience of a person of color about the neighborhoods and vacation spots where they feel safe or don’t, that highways they feel safe travelling on, well, it might be eye opening. It was for me, when after my marriage to Grace, who’s Chinese-American, we took our first trip to an all white, more homogenous pocket America and then realized based on our experiences as an interracial couple there, that most of this country’s geography wasn’t open to us, not on terms we’d want. This topic of where people of color can safely travel in America came up in our community group again this week.
The flip side of this is true as well, for those of us with relative privilege. I learned this concept of white sprawl from the social psychologist Christena Cleveland, that white people – being taught we belong everywhere in this country – can have a tendency to go anywhere we want and not consider the well-being of other people who were there already. A few years back, I realized that was still true of me, when I showed up on a facebook page for thousands of Asian American Christians with a want ad for a position at Reservoir Church.
On the one hand, it worked out well. That’s where I met Lydia after all. On the other hand, though, people were like: yo, get out of this space. You (meaning me) rolled into someone else’s living room with a want ad, without asking if that was OK for you to do that here.
Truthfully, I hadn’t thought to ask for permission. Obvious in retrospect. I felt bad about that and had to try to make amends. But I did it because my life in America hasn’t taught me I need permission. It’s like the modern, personalized version of Manifest Destiny. “This land is my land.”
Now what does all this have to with Paul, and the rubbish of his ethnic and religious privilege, and the importance of knowing Christ? Everything. Here’s why.
On religious terms, people of privilege are prone to pride – seeing ourselves or being seen by others as better or more important or more deserving than we really are. This is the pride of a mountain. I’m invulnerable. I’m worthy. I deserve my spot. Look how big I am.
And on religious terms, people without privilege are prone to abnegation – being negated – seeing ourselves or being seen by others as less important or less deserving than we really are. This is the negation of a valley. It is done to us by others. “Look how vulnerable you are. You’re unworthy.” Or those messages can become internalized and said to ourselves: “I deserve my lack of place. See how small I am.”
Pride and abnegation. The puffing up of a false mountain self, or the tearing down of a false valley self.
Some theologians have called pride and abnegation the original sins. They both lie, they both keep us from God and our true selves, and they keep us from one another as well.
Pride tells us we’re less vulnerable than we are, abnegation – whether in our own eyes or others – tells us we’re more. Pride tells us we don’t need God, abnegation that we are defined by our neediness. Pride tells people they deserve it all, abnegation that they are undeserving. It’s all a lie, it’s all sin. Jesus wants to level it all.
Every valley lifted up, every mountain be made low. That the way of the Lord will be clear for us all.
Paul saw this first hand.
In Acts 16, when Paul travels to Philippi, the first woman he meets is named Lydia. She is a surprise.
See, Paul only went Northwest up to Philippi because he had a vision. He was having some struggles in Western Asia and had a vision of a Greek man, a Macdeonian man saying, Come and help us. So Paul did. But when he arrived in Philippi, in the heart of Macedonia, he looked for a Friday evening prayer meeting. And in Paul’s faith and culture, you didn’t have a valid Friday evening prayer meeting without a certain number of men being present. But the book of Acts tells us that Paul found just women instead.
So Paul had to adapt his vision – it wasn’t a Macdeonian man at all with whom he’s going to start this church, it was a Macedonian woman who would be that faith community’s first leader.
This was Lydia, likely like my grandfather, both a hard-working go getter, maybe in part a rags to riches story. But also a daughter of privilege. One who had advantages in that she was freeborn, she had access to some capital to start her business, she likely had networks among people of wealth, which helped her in her trading.
The second woman Paul meets in Philippi isn’t really a woman at all, but a girl still, a girl who was a slave. The Roman empire had millions of slaves at the bottom of its pyramid of privilege. There were public slaves, like those that built public works or in the case of Philippi, worked the mines in the hills around the city. And there were private slaves, like this girl, who were used to support the whims and the economies of their owners.
Paul does the work of an abolitionist, helps free her, which gets him beaten and arrested and eventually driven out of the city.
All to say, though, Paul knew first hand what children of privilege looked like. In some ways, he was one himself. He saw how people of privilege could use their power for good and for justice in the world. He too did that. But he saw the spiritual danger of privilege as well – how it could give us an illusion of independence, of invulnerability, of not needing God and neighbor, how it can make us untender, ungenerous, and so not resilient when hard times come.
And Paul knew first hand what children of suffering looked like. How they or their ancestors were robbed, used, their bodies or dignity or possessions stolen again and again. He saw the ways that can tear people down in other’s eyes, and sometimes be so internalized that we are self-abnegated, torn down, unworthy in our own eyes.
And for all of us, Paul’s gospel invitation, his good news in Jesus was toward freedom.
What does it mean to not be defined by the ways that this life and our history have laid us low, called us lesser or unworthy? And what does it mean where we have privilege, to treat it like the heap of crap, like the rubbish that it is? To shed ourselves of the accumulated toxins in our place in the world, to let go of that which be-fowls us, which weighs down and needs expelling?
There’s a lot we can do, but it starts by telling the truth about ourselves and one another.
If we lie about ourselves, or believe unexamined the lies that have been told about us, we don’t make room for an honest relationship with God and we cut ourselves off from honest connections with others too.
If I see myself as a child of merit alone, then I’ll look down on the people who haven’t got what I got.
Truthful stories about ourselves and others, stories that admit that none of us succeeds or fails alone, that we are all tied up in generational and societal fabrics of blessing and curse, of unmerited privilege and undeserved suffering – truthful eyes that see all this let us all be people of grace. This lets us all be people who see that none of us are above needing God and one another, just as none of us are less loved or blessed by God either.
The good news says God loves you in Christ. None of you higher or lower than the other. And with his own example, Paul tells the children of privilege that their gains are rubbish. They ought to humble themselves, tell the truth, be content with less, and use what they have to empower and liberate others. And he tells the children of suffering: God loves you in Christ as well. Rise, shine, for your light has come. Let’s tell the truth about your dignity together as well. Be free.
This fall, our community groups have been sharing a lot of stories about where we come from in an effort to tell honest stories about ourselves and to hear honest stories about one another. I hope we keep doing this as we make our way toward beloved community.
I’m going to encourage us to pray honest prayers we well, and we’ll end with one that appeared at the end of a recent letter from Pope Francis.
Join me in praying if you’re willing.
O God, Trinity of love,
from the profound communion of your divine life,
pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love.
Grant us the love reflected in the actions of Jesus,
in his family of Nazareth,
and in the early Christian community.
Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel,
discovering Christ in each human being,
recognizing him crucified
in the sufferings of the abandoned
and forgotten of our world,
and risen in each sibling, each human,
who makes a new start.
Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty,
reflected in all the peoples of the earth,
so that we may discover anew
that all are important and all are necessary,
different faces of the one humanity
that God so loves. Amen.