A few months before the Charleston shooting my pastor sent an email blast that made me cry a lot, in relief, anger and frustration. His confessional stance about white privilege, something that I have for years refused to believe existed, unlocked my own silence about the racism and color prejudice that exists in our world. Here is Mark's short reflection.
I was cut to the quick last weekend by a single tweet. It was from Bruce Reyes-Chow, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and author of the book, But I Don't See You as Asian: Curating Conversations about Race. Bruce's tweet was simple.
Being able to decided that #EricHarris #WalterScott or race will not be prayed or preached today -- this is the liturgy of privilege.
It is amazing how much truth can be conveyed in 140 characters. For the non-Twitter familiar among us, the names Eric Harris and Walter Scott have a hashtag because when one clicks onto them in Twitter it will lead you to a whole stream of tweets that people are posting about their deaths. Eric Harris, you recall, is the man who was being held down by the police, when a reserve deputy intended to stun him with a Taser and instead shot him with his gun. Walter Scott is the man who was pulled over for a traffic stop and ran from police officer Michael Slager, who then fired eight shots in his back and killed him. Each of the deaths has a context. For privileged communities, that context leads to questions about the culpability of the victims, the daily rigors and dangers that police officers face, the need for compliance whenever one is pulled over or questioned by the police. For communities without privilege, that context is the troubling stream of unarmed black men being shot and killed by those whom our society arms and empowers to protect and serve. What Bruce's tweet suggests is that for churches whose congregations are largely comprised of persons without privilege, Sunday's sermon or Sunday's community prayers will address the fear and anger they share. For communities with privilege, the subject may or may not come up at all.
Talking about privilege is incredibly hard. None of us wants to say, "I am privileged," because it feels like the negation of a lifetime of hard work and "doing things the right way." But, I can remember two occasions when I was pulled over by police officers and ended up chewing them out for stopping me without cause and receiving an apology from each of them. I simply have to remember how privileged I was in those cases, because for many persons of color, my big mouth indignation would have led to a very different ending. That's the insidious thing about privilege - it is not something that we consciously create. It is more like the air that we breathe, without even paying attention to it. When I acknowledge that I am privileged - by dint of my color, gender, occupation, education, etc. - I am acknowledging that my view of the world, my assumptions of how things ought to be, and even my discernment about what is sermon-worthy on a particular Sunday, are shaped by having certain advantages. What I imagine is simply my objective reasonable view of the world is really a complex that includes many advantages that life has thrown my way, most of which I am blithely unaware.
What to do? I think the natural responses to becoming aware of our privilege are to get defensive or to feel guilty. I think a more biblical response is to cultivate solidarity, by deliberately tuning into voices that challenge our way of viewing the world - what else can Jesus mean by saying, "Blessed are the poor"? Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza once called for a "theology of relinquishment," where those of us who have a voice very deliberately stop talking in order to listen deeply to those voices we have drowned out over the years. I agree.
It is time for me to listen to a tweet that wipes the fog off the mirror to my soul and gives me a better view of the privilege that I take for granted.