Transforming Privilege

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September 01, 2019

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Last Sunday at 2 p.m. our bells, here at St. James, rang for one full minute. Our bells joined the chorus of church bells that rang at that time across our nation, at the request of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to mark the 400th anniversary of slavery with the landing of the White Lion, a ship carrying “20 and odd” men and women forcibly taken from west central Africa in late August of 1619. The ship landed at what was known then as Point Comfort, now Fort Monroe, in Hampton, VA. This is believed to be the first landing of African people in English North America.

It is here, in this historical moment, that the seed of sin was planted into the very founding of the United States of America, spreading to virtually every American institution in existence. Here, the Americas began their chapter in the story of the transatlantic slave trade, which is to date the biggest forced migration of people in world history. It began the intentional dehumanization and oppression of entire races of people for the sole benefit of some. It laid the cornerstone for one of the most powerful institutions that the world has known, whose roots continue to shackle too many, despite no longer needing iron and key. A mere 100 years after this first landing in 1619 those “20 and odd” African slaves grew to 42,000, 50 years later, when the Declaration of Independence was being signed there were over 127,000 and nearly 4 million in at the start of the Civil War.

Over the past 400 years from the landing of the White Lion in Hampton, VA people of African descent have been formally enslaved for a total of 246 years! We, as Americans, continue to live in the shadow of this gigantic sinful institution, which casts darkness all around us. The central poison of this institution is the belief that some people deserve more power than others. That some people are more valuable than others. That some people are worthy not only to be present at the table of society but to have the greatest seats with the greatest access.

While we recognize this date in late August 1619 as the birth of systematic oppression in the United States, we know that this behavior and narrative is not new to human history. This is very much the type of behavior, policies and practices that Jesus spoke directly against in Palestine 2,000 years ago. Our Gospel today starts out with a note that Jesus was dining with the leader of the Pharisees on the sabbath. Often, varying in different Gospels, the Pharisees are casts as the enemies of Jesus, of which for certain some were. On the other hand, it is important to point out that some Pharisees were not advisories of Jesus. Some of these devoted Jewish religious leaders where following Jesus’ life with interest and awe of what he was able to do, they were curious and not necessarily trying to trap him at all times. It’s also important to note that not only did Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners, but also with the Pharisees. It’s likely that both populations had thoughts and opinions about his interactions with the others, but it did not stop Jesus from being in relationships with both.

Jesus did have some positions of privilege, otherwise he would have never been invited to the Pharisees’ home. What’s important to note is what Jesus did with the privilege. He accepted the invitation, but he continued to speak his truth and used the opportunity to challenge those who were around him.

After Jesus observed how all of those, who were also privileged to be invited to the leader of the pharisees’s home, were jockeying for the seats of honor, Jesus tells them a parable that very much encapsulates the themes of Luke’s Gospel – do not assume that the seat of honor is yours, rather intentionally place yourself in the most humble seat available. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[1] Jesus, also then turns towards his host, the one who invited him and challenged him by saying, do not only invite those who can repay your generosity, but invite those who you know will never be able to repay you. Invite those who are poor, crippled, lame and blind and then you will be blessed.

Essentially Jesus says – look around and notice who is at your table and where they are seated. Jesus also says a lot about the nature of his table. Everyone is welcome at the banquet table he is talking about, those whom society privileges, the Pharisee, as well as those who fall under the sandal or boot of society. At Jesus’ table all truly do belong and none are more worthy than another.

Societal privilege is a very real construct that can have very serious consequences both positive and negative. We have an example here of Jesus using his privilege to speak truth to people who needed to hear it and who also then had an opportunity to change. Privilege becomes very dangerous when it is confused with blessings. Privileges are often aspects of society related to wealth, birthplace, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, access, health, and so on.[2] These things are not divine blessings they are varying systems of privilege that have been built in our society. I am not blessed because I am a white woman who was born in a middle class family in the United States of America – I am given privileges because I was born into a country that prioritizes those who are white over people of color. I am given privileges because I was born into a country that allows women to go to school, have jobs, choose if they want to get married and to whom. I am given privileges because I was born into a family that always had just enough to get by. I am given privileges because I am young(ish) able bodied, heterosexual with health insurance. I could go on an on with the number of privileges I carry individually, let alone all the privileges that are cultivated in this sanctuary.

It is dangerous and foolish to confuse privilege with blessings, and I do believe that God calls us to turn privilege into blessings. Wealth and position can absolutely be a blessing when shared for the betterment of humanity. As our bells tolled a week ago to acknowledge the start of the American institution of slavery we must continue to remember that our metaphoric and not so metaphoric tables in this country are still very much plagued by privilege that limits access to so many children of God. The table of God is built long enough for everyone, but the chairs are few and far between. There are so many who, for generations, who have never found a welcoming seat at the table here in America. This legacy of slavery, that we are continuing to struggle to move forward through, leads so many still seeking a seat, but instead are statistically disproportionally in underfunded schools, in cubic cells instead of college classrooms and neighborhoods struck by unjust housing and lending policies.

There have been many throughout these 400 years who have worked tirelessly to dismantle these institutions, who are desperate to turn whatever privilege they have into blessings, while there have been others who allow a shift in their perceived privilege to lead to a very frightening violent anger as referenced in our first reading from Sirach.[3] For those who believe that we are beloved by God just as much as the person sitting next to us or the person asking for change outside of the Starbucks on Chicago Avenue it should be no threat when we are all welcomed at the same table equally. In fact, we should be desperate to join the number of saints who have been building chairs for those who need it and working hard to invite those whose who haven been told they are not welcome.

As with all anti-racist work, this is a big ask, that can easily overwhelm us all if we let it. Rather than get consumed with the overwhelming narrative, I encourage us all to challenge ourselves to break it down to our personal experiences. The very first thing we all need to do, particularly for those of us who are white, is to learn about and acknowledge our own privileges. Find safe spaces in your life to talk about your privilege, be vulnerable and honest. If you haven’t spent time with The 1619 Project from the New York Times Magazine[4], please do so. It is full of essays and poetry attempting to examine the last 400 years since the start of slavery with an authentic, unbiased lens. Let us all listen to the stories of those from whom carry the generational and emotional scars from this horrid institution and from those whose humanity continue to be wounded as a result. For those who have been willing to share their own stories, who have fought for a seat at the table, who have sore and raspy throats from refusing to be silent I thank you. Please keep speaking your truth.

I call for a serious challenge of us in this sanctuary to begin to think about the tables we inhabit in our lives, at work, at school, in our church, in our neighborhoods, with our families and at home. Heed Jesus’ advice and think through who is at the table and what voices are missing, as well as what voices have silenced or have had to work very hard simply to be heard because of where they are seated. 

As we all approach this table this morning with out-stretched hands I encourage us all, myself included, to say a prayer of commitment. Commitment to becoming carpenters who, like Jesus, are constantly building new chairs and thus crafting new ways of relating to one another and in the world, transforming privileges that separate so many, into blessings that have the power to shine the light of Christ, however small, into the dark shadows of legacy that have been looming for far too long. Amen.

[1] Luke 14:11

[3] Sirach 10:18