Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lent Two: Eluding Privilege

When we’re considering what to give up for Lent, privilege is rarely on the list of options.

William Brassey Hole, Forty Days in the Wilderness,
England, 1906
Yet Jesus’ second temptation shows him sidestepping an invitation to demonstrate his privilege as the Son of God: 
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:“‘He will command his angels concerning you,    and they will lift you up in their hands,    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Matthew 4:5-7 
There are moments in the gospel narratives when it seems the Pharisees would happily have welcomed Jesus into their leadership club if he’d only agreed to share their privilege, endorsing theirs with his own. But he insisted on eating with sinners, talking to women, honoring Samaritans, touching unclean lepers. From his days in the desert to his death on the cross, he deftly eluded any privilege thrust his way, weaving his way toward the margins until he finally hung outside the city, taunted and reviled by those who passed by.

This eluding of privilege was no accident. Paul tells us in Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
A few sentences later, Paul describes his own task of eluding privilege in his quest to know and be like Christ:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law,a Pharisee; as to zeal,a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under th law,blameless;But whatever gain I had,;I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.
Part of the goal of Lent is repentance and sacrifice, but part is the pursuit of deeper knowledge and joy. Paul understood that it was impossible to fully know Christ while holding on to privilege, and he was articulate and self-aware about the forms of privilege he could claim: religious birthright, exceptional ducation, endorsed experience, sanctioned racial identity.

He chose to count it all as loss.  “worthless,” in some translations. “Liabilities,” in another.

The Academy Awards last week stirred ongoing conversations about white and male privilege: all of the actors nominated were white; all the directors and screenwriters were male. In the fallout, the International Business Times reported that “the Oscar winners are voted on by members of the academy, and there are 6,028 voting members; 94 percent of them are white, 77 percent are men and 86 percent are over the age of 50.”

I’m not that interested in the Oscars, and no, I didn't watch them.

But I am interested in whose voices are heard, whose stories are told, and whose voices are excluded.

I’m also interested in the way privilege -acknowledged or not - becomes a liability and snare.

For years I attended the National Youth Worker Convention and grieved at how rarely there was an opportunity to hear from women, or non-white males. I watched with dismay as male youth leaders left the room at the start of the one set by a female band, and I listened to the disrespectful side conversations during the one female plenary speaker of an entire weekend. Apparently, I’m not the only one to feel concern: an online exchange about lack of diversity at one Christian convention prompted religion correspondent Jonathan Merritt to do a simple count: he found 19% female representation (20% at the National Youth Workers Convention, that’s an improvement, but not an impressive one), and 13% minority speaker representation. Minority female? Not sure – but from what I’ve seen, 1% might be overly optimistic.

This is not so much a political issue to me as a spiritual issue.

Read scripture, or church history, and the evidence is clear: it’s hard to hear God, or to represent him well, from a position of privilege and advantage.

Prophets, reformers, monks, desert fathers and mothers: their lives all suggest that the first step to listening well is breaking free from the voices of flattery, status quo, self-promotion, rationalization.

I started this week praying to see my own privilege more clearly, and looking for ways to set that privilege aside.

I’m not sure it can be done without completely breaking free from the systems and structures that hold privilege in place.

But I have some ideas about where to start.

Back in Philippians 2, Paul says 
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,  then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
We can't look to the interests of others when we've never taken time to learn what those interests are.

We show our value of others first by learning to hear what they have to say.

But look more closely at the example of Jesus in his encounter with the Samaritan woman by the well:
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, 12th Century
 Tbilisi, Georgia
We all know how low this woman was in the social and religious hierarchy. She's a woman. That's low.
She's a Samaritan. That's lower still.
She's been married five times. Still lower.
She is currently living, in an unmarried state, with another man. Lower.
If the Samaritan woman isn't at the absolute bottom, she's got it pretty well in sight.
But here's the amazing thing. Jesus finds a way to place himself lower, to lift her up to the superior position.
"Will you give me a drink?"
Jesus doesn't come to her with answers or gifts or power or miracles or a sermon or a program or an invitation to come to church.
Jesus approaches this woman and simply asks for help.
He asks her for help. And it blows her heart wide open. 
When we start from a place of privilege, we assume we have the answers.

But we've never even taken time to understand the questions.

Our wisdom is one-sided, and our good news one-dimensional, until we find a way to elude the privilege that blinds and binds us.
Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.