Let’s talk about privilege

Let’s start with a definition. Lexico.com defines privilege as, “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”

So what does that mean? It means that a privilege doesn’t automatically mean you are better off. It could though. A privilege could be something like a close friend offering you the use of their sports car instead of your regular car. It’s a privilege because sets you apart from others who are driving. But that’s not the only way to look at privilege. As with most things in life, there’s a range. And it’s not concrete with only two options.

Another way of looking at privilege is to say that you benefitted by the mere fact that you didn’t suffer the same things as someone else. So for instance, it would be a privilege to live on a street where there was a snow storm and your neighbor used their snow blower on their property and yours, but not on your other neighbor’s property. You benefited because you didn’t have to shovel, even though your neighbor did. You would have had to had it not been for your other neighbor helping you out, even without asking you.

Maybe that’s not the best example, but I hope you get the point I’m trying to make.

Many of us have privileges in various areas of life. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s just a part of life. It’s ok to recognize this. In many cases privileges aren’t related to anything ethical that we have to worry about. In some cases privileges don’t have any impact beyond the personal relationship you have with someone else, and they don’t have a negative impact on others.

But having said that, we should recognize that there is privilege that is detrimental to people. Again, that’s just dealing with reality.

It is a privilege to not have to talk about or deal with something. While I can enjoy that privilege, not dealing with a problem doesn’t help the people who do have to deal with it and can’t ignore it.

It is a privilege to be able to ignore something and pretend that it doesn’t exist.  It is a privilege believe that your own way must be the “normal” way of doing things and that others should obviously adopt your way. It is a privilege to assume that everyone starts with the same experiences as yourself.  It is a privilege to have things in place (laws, security, politicians, religious figures, culture, language, etc) that support you but not others.  It is a privilege to scapegoat others as a danger to your way of life when you aren’t in danger.  It is a privilege to not see those oppressed or exploited or treated unjustly for generations, to not see that their experience is real, and to not hear the pleas for justice.  It is a privilege to demand that the status quo be maintained when a person benefits from it while others suffer from it and not concern yourself with those who suffer.  It is a privilege when you can demand that all comply with your way of life, praise it as the standard, and shut down anyone who offers criticism of it.  It is a privilege to be able to label someone else even when they don’t agree with the label.

These privileges hurt people. And while these privileges may seem to support the privileged person, they also are harmful to the that person too. Because that person is just as trapped in an unjust system as the direct victims of those systems.

Many of us have privileges in life. The real question is this – what are you going to do with them?

Prayer for September 9, 2020

Prayer for September 9, 2020: Please pray with me. God of mercy, have mercy on us. We desperately need your mercy – especially when we don’t think we do. We need your mercy so that we can be merciful with others and ourselves. Forgive us when we lack mercy with others. Forgive us when we prefer to judge and dehumanize and label and scapegoat. Oh how that must hurt to watch and listen to Lord – especially after you show us mercy. Oh how it must sting. Why do we have such short memories Lord? Why do we think we deserve your mercy, but believe that others do not – especially those we don’t like or disagree with or those that we consider as our enemies. Imagine how the world would be transformed if we showed mercy to our enemies. Imagine how the world would be transformed if we showed mercy to ourselves. Expose us when we are merciless in order to draw us back to a right relationship with you and others. Heal us from our wrath and hatred. Soften our hearts so that our willful stubbornness may come to an end. Amen.

Hardened hearts and their cost

When you hear the story of the Israelite’s exodus from bondage in Egypt to freedom, who do you identify with? Who do you actually come closer to? Those are different questions. Those are questions I struggle with. We want to identify with Israel because it is clear that Egypt are the bad guys in the story. But am I actually closer to the Egyptians?

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.’

“God also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name “The Lord”I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the Israelites, “I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.” ’ Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.”

(Exodus 6: 1-9, NRSV)

The Egyptians are an empire. And empires all act the same. They oppress, they exploit, they kill and destroy. They have privileges that others do not have. They have security that others do not have. They have free movement that others do not have. No one wants to identify with an empire. Yet so many want an empire because of the supposed power that an empire has – the ability to kill enemies to the point that people fear opposing an empire. All the wealth and power that empires accumulate. People who have to obey. In this version of empire, it is easy to turn a blind eye to the abusive and evil systems that empires employ to maintain their grip on power.

What is fascinating to me about the exodus story is when God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.

“…I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgement. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.’”

(Exodus 7:3-5, NRSV)

Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why not soften Pharaoh’s heart so that the people could go and worship in the wilderness?

I think God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to bring Egypt to its knees. Empires believe they are divine – all powerful, all knowing, all everything. Empires are idols. Letting the Israelites go wasn’t just about freeing them from slavery. It was about crushing an empire, quite literally. A devastating destruction of empire brought on itself. A crushing of an idol. Idols don’t go away quietly. They hold on to whatever power they have.

Who are we in this story? Are we the Israelites? The Egyptians? Or maybe we aren’t anybody in this story. Maybe it’s a warning for us.

American Christianity will continue to struggle as long as we continue to fool ourselves into believing we identify with the Israelites – those trapped in slavery, the outsider, the unwanted, those who were exiled from their homes and land, or those persecuted by an empire.

There are plenty of people in this land who can identify with these things – blacks sold into slavery in America, Indigenous tribes whose land was taken from them and they were forced to leave, and Christians who spoke prophetic words warning against these actions – costing them their freedom and sometimes their lives.

But for many Christians, I wonder – are we closer to the empires we read about rather than the Israelites? Are these passages of judgement from God warnings for us – warnings that should bring us to our knees – to crush our own personal empires, the idols we worship in our own lives. That force us to look in the mirror and acknowledge our sin, so that we can repent and be transformed.

If Christianity is just about personal belief and action and it has no public impact, then how is that related to anything that Christ taught? How does that compartmentalization match up with God so loving the world? How does that division of faith and secular lead us to the Kingdom of God? How does that minimization of faith call us to the prophetic task of exposing the empires of our world and our lives for their emptiness, cruelty, and injustice? How does that move us towards divine imagination and the hope of a new restored creation where all people are welcome?

I can’t help but wonder when I see, hear, and read about Christians who claim one thing and then live out something completely at odds with what they claim to believe. Christians who claim a dark skinned Savior who was lynched by an empire and those who abused their authority, yet will refuse to see or even acknowledge that racism exists and is unjust and systemic because it doesn’t impact them directly. Christians who claim to love peace, yet clamor for war and brandish weapons publicly in order to intimidate. Christians who claim to love their neighbor and their enemy, yet label and scapegoat whole groups of people. Christians who claim forgiveness, yet are unforgiving. Christians who claim grace and mercy, yet are merciless when it comes to dealing with others. Christians who are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick, yet refuse to do so and come up with all sorts of excuses for why anyone shouldn’t. Christians who claim to welcome the stranger, yet will defend policies designed to push the stranger away. Christians who claim good news for the poor, yet ridicule and blame the poor for their situation. Christians who are told that they can’t serve two masters, yet will compartmentalize their life to allow multiple masters over them. Christians who are told throughout Scripture that God frees people from bondage, yet will do all in their power to stubbornly and willfully resist a change in an unjust status quo for those in bondage. Christians who hear over and over again a message that says “Do not be afraid,” yet are fully embraced in fear and anger and hatred.

Are we Israel? Egypt? Or maybe we’re just us. And it’s complicated. And messy. And there isn’t a nice uniform way of saying who we all are as a whole. Maybe that’s because there is no whole.

Our job, my job, isn’t to judge. It is to notice though. It is to call the thing what it is – not to sugar coat it or excuse it away. And it is to mourn.

I weep for all who are caught in bondage – whether that bondage is imposed by an empire, or a person. I weep for those who are caught in the bondage of justifying their beliefs that are in conflict with their claimed faith. I weep for those caught in the bondage of willful stubbornness – resistance to God’s grace and mercy.

Forgive me Lord when I refuse to see the bondage I am entangled in. Forgive me Lord when I am the cause of bondage to someone else. Forgive me Lord when I stubbornly resist your ways and your grace and mercy. Crush the idols in my life. Please do not harden my heart – guide me to my knees instead so that I be transformed. Open my eyes to see those who are oppressed and to act on their behalf and to stand with them. Open my heart to see when I am the oppressor who is blind to the image of God in others. Amen.

Prayer for September 7, 2020

Prayer for September 7, 2020: Please pray with me. God who labors, today we pray for all who labor. You are a God who works also. You worked in creation. You worked in setting people free from bondage. You worked in overcoming death. You work in each one of us because we are a work in progress. And you are a God of Sabbath. This means there is a time for work and a time to rest. Evil doesn’t ever rest. But you do. And you call on those who follow you to rest as well. So let us rest in you this day from our labors. Renew us so that we will go back to work rested. Amen.

Protests. Riots.

Protests. Riots.

Same thing, different terms? Different meanings? Sounds like spin to me.

When is a protest a protest and when is a riot a riot? When are people protestors and when are they rioters? Destruction of property? Killing people? Was the Boston Tea Party a protest or a riot? I guess it depends on which side you are on.

I’m not sure that we have a common language anymore. Seems as though we’re more concerned with protecting our set-in-stone view points, rather than observing and listening. And certainly don’t seem very concerned with moving towards the truth. We are concerned with moving towards whatever will confirm our own biases and call that truth though. We are more concerned with protecting our own tribe, rather than trying to understand people who hold a different viewpoint or belief. That doesn’t bode well for us. That comes with a cost – a very high cost.

I’ve seen and heard many comments from people who are upset with protests. Some are upset because there are some protests that destroy property – these folks get lumped together as rioters. Labeling makes it easier to dismiss the whole thing. No worries though, this happens with lots of groups of people who we don’t like. We’ll find any excuse we can to slap a label on people we don’t like. Scapegoating feels good after all. We get to thrust our sins on others and pretend that we are innocent.

Others are upset at counter-protests – people who come to counter protests. These counter protests come bearing weapons out in the open. These protesters seem rather more concerned with intimidation rather than whatever it is they are supposedly defending. I don’t understand why anyone thinks it’s a good idea to show up to a highly volatile situation carrying a gun out in the open when you aren’t someone who isn’t there in some kind of official capacity. Maybe someone can explain that to me. To me it screams out that the arguments held are weak.

Some prefer that the protests happen off hours, out of the way, bothering no one.

If that is your position, then let me say this – If protests were convenient, they wouldn’t be protests. The point of a protest is to make it uncomfortable and inconvenient enough for people to notice there is a problem. The whole point of protest is to interrupt the norm and to show that the norm is the problem, that the norm is unjust. 

There are a whole load of people who are comfortable with injustice because they think it doesn’t affect themselves.  If an injustice doesn’t impact you, then what does that say? Should we stop an injustice that is happening to someone else, or a whole group of people? Or should they mind their own business because it isn’t impacting you? I’m sorry to tell you this, but that’s the very definition of sin – turning inward on oneself.  Let’s acknowledge that there is problem.  Let’s confess that we have maintained unjust systems and practices.  Let’s repent and turn to a different way.  And let us open our arms to transformation – to be changed so that we don’t go down this road again.  

The alternative isn’t pleasant. There’s an old saying that goes something like this – when words fail, blood is shed.

Maybe it would help if we stopped worrying about being right and started listening to why people are protesting at all. Maybe we’d learn something. If we listened, I’m also willing to bet the property damage would stop. So would the counter protests. If we listened, there might even be a chance at improving society – maybe taking first steps towards ending racism and moving us towards a more just society that actually cares about people. But that requires that we see the image of God in people and that we love our enemy. Do we have the eyes to see and the heart to love? Or is that a bridge too far?

Prayer for September 4, 2020

Prayer for September 4, 2020: Please pray with me. God who forms us in your image, we need your help. No, correction – we are helpless. We are caught in systems that keep us in bondage. Systems that are unjust and evil. Systems that destroy and kill. Systems that even hurt and destroy those who think they benefit from them. No one benefits from unjust systems – no one. We are all enslaved in such systems. Lord, we pray for an end to racism, sexism, and every ism there is. We pray for the courage to admit that we have a problem. Let it start with that. When there is recognition of a problem, then there can be confession. And after confession, repentance. And after repentance comes transformation. We can’t skip over these things. Recognition allows us to see the weight we are carrying – to stop lying to our selves and others about our problem. Confession is a releasing of the weight we carry around that is hurting us. Repentance points us in a new direction so we don’t go back and pick up the same debilitating weight. And transformation is new life – freed from the past. A direction. A new future. Hope. Lord, make us uncomfortable enough that we can’t keep ignoring the problem. Set us on the path towards transformation. Amen.

Do we have a race problem?

Do we? Why is this so difficult for white people to talk about? We have white people who say that they aren’t racists and yet don’t want to talk about race. Why? What are these folks worried about?

Tell me, in what other part of life – any part of life – does something get better when you ignore it? Does that work well when you don’t have money and can’t pay your bills? How about when you experience some kind of health situation – just ignore it and it will go away? How about when there’s a problem with a relationship – maybe a marriage? Should we just pretend that there’s nothing wrong? How about with your work? How about with mental health? Or abuse? Climate change? Homelessness? Corruption? Lying? Or even car trouble? Give me one example, just one, in which things improve because they get ignored and we pretend there isn’t a problem.

I’m sure someone will be smart enough to name something, but the problem is with the word problem. I’m not talking about a nuisance. Ignoring a phone call and having it go away isn’t a problem. You’re not in danger from a phone call. You might be inconvenienced, but not in danger. Or ignoring the door bell – not really a problem.

So why the hesitation and resistance to talking about race? Maybe because it might expose us, we might have to be vulnerable. We might have to get out of our own world and look through someone else’s eyes for a time. We might come across something painful. We might come across something that we can’t comprehend. We would not be in control – that’s what all of it comes down to. Race is about power. It always has been. Ever since race became a thing. That happened in the Enlightenment period. People started to be classified by races and then philosophers started to make judgements of worth and value about different races. And races became a convenient way to excuse invading “discovered” lands – those who inhabited the land were inferior don’t you know. Race became an excuse for dehumanizing people – enslaving people and genocide. inferior races were less human. Don’t take my word for it, read some of the writing of enlightenment thinkers.

Here’s a brief history of race from a presentation that Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey gave in Indianapolis, IN last year. These are my notes from his presentation.

In 1684, Francois Bernier published the first classification of humans into distinct races followed by a 1735 publication by Carolus Linnaeus which further classified people based on continental differences.  

Linnaeus arbitrarily classified Europaeus as cheerful, Asiaticus as melancholy, Americanus as aggressive, and Afericanus as sluggish.

In 1779, Johann Blumenbach further proposed five major racial divisions including: Caucasiod (white), Mongoloid (Asian), Ethiopian (later Negroid), American Indian, and Malayan (South American).

Classification of people comes about in order to justify the taking away of other people’s things and enslavement.  Steal their land and people, kill and pillage – You need a rationale for that.

By the 1800’s, the term race had become commonplace and for the first time in human history, racial classifications were used to create and maintain discriminatory social hierarchies.

Immanuel Kant was a proponent of race.  “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites.  The yellow Indians do have a meagre talent.  The Negroes are far below…at the lowest point.”

Speaking of National Characteristics, Kant also wrote: “This fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”

Kant: “The Negro can be disciplined and cultivated, but is never genuinely civilized…cannot develop rationality as Europeans can…among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality.” (E. Eze – Race and the Enlightenment, 1997)

(end of notes from the presentation)

Race isn’t just a problem that we have in America, and it is not new.

I have to ask a few questions to those who don’t think we have a race problem. Did we ever have a problem? When did our problem end? What was the circumstance?

Or, here’s a more dangerous question – would the more accurate description be that you don’t think America has a race problem because you don’t encounter it and experience it directly yourself, so therefore your experience is extended onto the entire nation?  If it isn’t happening to you, it isn’t real?  Why dismiss others who experience racism first hand? Why is our own experience superior to others?  Isn’t that a relativistic argument?  

We have a race problem. We always have in this country – the problem just changes as time goes on. First we had slavery. Then it was Jim Crow laws. Then it was segregation. Now it is the criminal justice system. Maybe we should ask some difficult questions. Questions like – why is there a large segment of black men in prison? Do you really want to make the same arguments that Kant made? Do you believe that black men are more oriented towards breaking the law? Could there be more to the situation than “if they just followed the law they wouldn’t be in jail?” Could you open your imagination to the possibility that there is more to this than a simple flippant phrase designed to end the conversation? Might there some other things in play? Are you open to that possibility?

We won’t have racial healing and justice and transformation until we have repentance. Repentance is the radical reorientation toward right relationships both with God and with others. And we won’t have repentance until there is confession – admitting sin as a society. And there won’t be confession until we admit that there is a problem. We have never admitted that we have a race problem in our country – as a society. Until that happens, we will never get over our problem. We should not expect there to be a change. And we should expect people to continue to suffer.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. it starts by recognizing that we have a problem. That there is sin. That we are complacent in that sin and that we are in bondage to it also – all of us. That sin is racism. It exists whether I experience it directly or not. It exists whether my privilege protects me from experiencing it or not. I challenge my fellow white Christian Americans to name the sin. Say the words – “Racism is a sin.” Say the words – “We have a problem.” Let’s start with that. Because ignoring the problem isn’t working and has never worked. It has cost people their lives. It has eaten away at our humanity. And it is time for it to end. It starts to end when we recognize that we have a problem. So let’s start there. And then move forward towards transformation. We can’t do this on our own. And we aren’t supposed to either. This isn’t about blame and guilt and scapegoating. This isn’t about shaming people. This is about saving lives. That’s the cost of allowing this sin to continue.

A Great Mystery

One of life’s greatest mysteries to me are Christians who claim the name of Christ, yet resist following his way of living and being. I don’t understand it at all.

Jesus has specific commands for us – to love our enemies, to care for the poor, to feed people, to welcome the stranger, to share the Good News, etc.

Yet, there are Christians who refuse to do these things – stubbornly none the less. There are Christians who excuse away what Jesus calls on followers to do. There are Christians who spin it all away. There are Christians who come up with all sorts of reasons why it’s ok to not love your enemies, to not do all we can to feed the hungry. There are Christians who come up with all sorts of excuses for why they don’t have to welcome the stranger.

It just seems that these Christians spend a whole lot of energy and spin to find ways to not actually follow Jesus. And I don’t get it. Why call yourself a Christian if you aren’t actually interested, or even going to make an effort, at actually trying to follow Jesus?

Maybe this has to do with who these Christians think Jesus is. I don’t know. I can’t speak for them. All I can speak for is myself. To me Jesus is the Savior, God Incarnate. That means when he says something, I need to take it seriously if I’m going to consider myself a follower of Jesus. Followers follow – they do what their leader/teacher tells them to do. That’s kind of basic.

Followers don’t come up with excuses for why they can ignore what their leader/teacher tells them to do. Followers listen and read what their leader/teacher tells them so they know how to follow.

To me, Jesus isn’t something that I can put in a box and pull him out when I determine I need him – like a genie in a bottle. No, Jesus isn’t small and controllable like that. Jesus is beyond my control.

To me, Jesus isn’t interested in maintaining the world as it is. He is interested in transformation of the world and people in it. He wants the hungry to be fed, the stranger to be welcomed, the sick to be cared for, the prisoners to be set free. He wants those bound by systems of oppression to be set free. Jesus doesn’t settle.

And when Jesus says that any who will be his follower must deny themself, take up their cross, and follow him – that’s serious business. That means I’m not in control anymore, and that following him is costly – very costly.

But this also means that what he is about is the best thing ever. So why wouldn’t I want to follow?

I just don’t understand the stubborn resistance of some Christians to actually try to live the way Jesus calls us to. I don’t understand why we would make Jesus second or third or even last in importance. I don’t understand why Christians would put their politics ahead of Jesus. I don’t understand why Christians would ignore the plight of the poor. I don’t understand many things. And I probably won’t ever understand this.

Prayer for September 2, 2020

Prayer for September 2, 2020: Please pray with me. God of the cosmos, why do we often have underwhelming expectations of you? You are the God who creates all things, brings order out of chaos, overthrows empires, and conquers death. Yet, we limit what you are about so we can put you in a bottle and pull you out like a genie when we want you. Why do we lack such imagination when it comes to you. You are the God who shows up when it is least expected. And you show up in incredible ways. You transform all you encounter. Please transform our world in big ways. Put an end to injustices like racism, sexism, and economic exploitation. Put an end to hatred and violence. Let your ways reign over us. Amen.