Privilege and Perceptions
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, 10/27/2013
Based on Luke 18:9-14
Isn’t it marvelous that God is still speaking to us! We can read a text of scripture over and over understanding it’s meaning the same way each time, then one day, you read a scripture and you see something entirely new in it; so strongly that it feels like the text has leaped out of the book and is slapping you across the face saying, ”did you finally get it?” This is called “revelation”, that instance when you realize that the Holy Spirit has helped you understand something a new way.
As I read today’s text in Luke about the story of the Priest and his prayer being compared to the prayer of the tax collector, I just about jumped out of my chair, because the text was slapping me in the face. As I read this passage of the Priest thanking God that he wasn’t like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like the tax-collector, for the first time I see in this story a commentary on “privilege and it’s perceptions.”
A few months ago, the topic at the Hot Cakes and Hot Topics was that of “White Privilege”, and of the perceptions of those with white privilege verses those who do not posses it, and how destructive it is to everyone who lives in this country. Just a few weeks ago I watched a documentary titled “Inequality for all” which discussed our present economic situation and how we arrived to the shrinking of the middle class because of privilege of the 1% in our country, who are able to make the rules that benefit primarily them financially. When Jesus says in the text that only the repentant tax collector went home justified, this film speaks about the eventual undoing of the present social and financial structures because of the privilege and perceptions by this small but very powerful group of people.
For those of us who are lacking pigment in our skin, when we hear the word “Privilege” we generally think in terms of economic status. But when people of color in this country are asked “what does privilege” mean to you, it is far more extensive than how much money someone has; it means words like “access”, “opportunity”, and “equality”. For those who hold privilege, we do not think about those words because we are not challenged for those basic values. We have all of these at our disposal simply by being born white.
When this country was formed, those who migrated to these lands came from a continent that held the Privilege and ruled the world with that mind set. Our country has from its earliest inception not only practiced “privilege” but also has struggled to broaden the circles of who can become included to the benefits of being privileged; the struggle over slavery, the right for women to vote, desegregation within our public schools have been some of the landmark struggles. Presently we see these battles between those who have privilege and those who do not being played out in our immigration issues, in equality of sexual orientation issues, currently focused around marriage status; even the recent shut-down of the government used the debt ceiling as a platform of privilege against health benefits for people who can’t afford it.
Historically in this country, these types conversations were started and lead by faith communities. Of late, the majority of these conversations have been started by the secular section of our society. The church seems to be shifting into the role of the Pharisees found in this morning’s text. Much of the opposition to health care, immigration reform, racial equality, or gay rights comes from our religious institutions. Why is this? Could it be that the church sees its role in this society as protecting a certain stand that benefits those who are in the privileged class? Or have we become so righteous that we regard others with contempt, again as the Pharisee in our text is said to have had for those he was thankful for not being like?
Take a few moments and reflect what privilege means to you. Within your own family structure who has access to the power? Does this access come because of birth right, income, position within the larger family setting? Remember “privilege” consists of “access, opportunity, and equality.” When you were not treated with the status of “privilege” within your family, how did that affect you?
You see, I do not think that the Pharisees in our text was particularly being hateful toward those that he mentioned in his prayer, but rather was truly thankful that he saw himself in favor with God. It was through the understanding of Jewish law that gave him access and opportunity that one needs to come before God to find favor before God. What Jesus points out is that God doesn’t recognize privilege on that level, rather anyone who approaches God with a repentant heart has access to God. This really is a hard lesson for us in white America, because we do not realize that we are a part of a “privileged” class.
Pastor Wayne in his current appeal on behalf of flood victims who have little access for help has been very specific in his use of language. Although many wish to be helpful, we often speak from a language of privilege. When we say the phrase, “We want to sponsor” it is language of the privileged, where if we say, “we wish to walk alongside you” we have now lowered our status to be not above but alongside. When we use words such as “Lord, or King, or Kingdom” we are using language that speaks of privilege. The reason why I have changed the word “Kingdom” to “Kin-dom” in the Lord’s Prayer is because it changes my mental picture of separation (kingdom) to inclusion (kin-dom). Jesus often spoke words that were inclusive, words like “brothers and sisters”, “Father in Heaven”, and about the idea that God’s realm isn’t up there somewhere, but was here among us.
The hazard of being a part of the Privileged is it doesn’t challenge us to see a clear picture of who has access, opportunity, and equality. Privilege sets up a barrier between us and them. If we have come to a point in our faith journey that gives us comfort, then we are living life at the level of the Pharisee, unaware of how we are separating ourselves from our brothers and sisters, of those whom God would call beloved as well. We become a stumbling block to those who wish to experience the blessings of God. We are the log within the churches eye, not allowing us to see the needs of many, the inequality that exists even in our own church family. Like the Pharisee, we don’t mean to be exclusive, but when we do things without understanding what “Privilege” brings, just like the Pharisee, we are not just excluding others access we are also selling ourselves short on receiving God’s full blessing. Once we are able to live life where everyone has full access, full opportunity, and full equality, then we will be receiving God’s full blessing. Amen