Posts Tagged ‘privilege

03
Jul
20

To Be Free

Birds flying freeDuring most years, the topic of freedom is something we trot out once a year… like our Christmas ornaments and tax returns.

When the calendar hits early July, we religiously unfurl the red-white-and-blue bunting, light M-80s and Black Cats and thank God and our forebears for the freedom we enjoy as Americans.

But this isn’t most years, is it? This is 2020… the cute little year that turned into a Gremlin when someone forgot the instructions and FED IT AFTER MIDNIGHT!

In one way or another, we have been engaged in a non-stop FREEDOM FORUM for the last three months.

It has been said that those who value freedom most are those to whom it has been denied. And right now, many of us feel as if that is a perfect description of US.

We have been imprisoned in our homes by the coronavirus… yearning for the freedom to enjoy bars, restaurants, and movie theaters.

We have been imprisoned behind all manner of face masks, yearning to see emotions freely expressed on faces of someone besides our spouse and/or pet.

We can’t travel. We can’t go to baseball games. We can’t go to church (well, some of us can’t anyway). We can’t go to our monster truck rallys and tractor pulls the way good Americans should.

“FREEDOM!” our anguished voices cry. “FREEDOM!!”

Seriously?

Are we seriously going to equate this moment of temporary inconvenience with the struggles endured by oppressed people for centuries?

Do we actually dare draw a connection between the shuttered neighborhood multiplex and the systemic denial of essential human rights?

“You can’t tell me to wear a mask! I’m an AMERICAN! I can do whatever the hell I want!” is the crusader’s cry today.

Right now, on the eve of our annual Independence Day celebration, might be a great time to step back, take a breath, and recalibrate what we mean when we use that hefty, consequential, multi-layered word.

It might be time for us to be reminded that freedom comes in many different flavors. There is, of course, the lowest-hanging fruit, the freedom of personal license… the license we each have to wildly swing our fists around in the air if we so choose. A freedom that abruptly ends at the tip of our neighbor’s nose, I might add.

There is political freedom in all its different global iterations.

And we can probably also talk about emotional freedom… our ability to “feel all the feels,” as the kids say.

But when it comes to the freedom that is really worth embracing and celebrating, there is no freedom that can hold a candle to the freedom Christ came to bring us.

Jesus – bearer of Ultimate Truth – tells his disciples that, “… you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32, NRSV). Paul reminds his church in Galatia that, “For freedom Christ has set us free… do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, NRSV). Paul also finds it necessary to keep the eyes of his beleaguered Roman believers focused on the new freedom that is theirs when he writes: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Romans 8:2, NRSV).

Friends, freedom in Christ is the ultimate freedom. It is freedom to live. It is freedom from the bondage of sin. It is freedom from death. It is freedom from worry about the future. It is freedom to be the unique, unrepeatable human being God created you to be, no matter what.

Let’s use today – and every day left to us – to celebrate THAT freedom, shall we?

(But let’s keep the fireworks to a minimum, OK?)

29
Jun
20

Child of Privilege

Shaking hands across a deskI remember the interview very well, even though it happened more than 30 years ago.

It was an excellent job and I really wanted it. I had some of the necessary qualifications, but certainly not all.

And yet, at the conclusion of the interview I was rewarded with a smile, a firm handshake and that truly delightful question, “So, Russell… when can you start?”

I also remember that time a few years later when I stopped to fill my gas tank. This was back in the dark ages before the invention of credit card scanners on gas pumps… if you can imagine such a medieval thing.

I pulled up to the bank of pumps furthest from the cashier’s office. There I saw a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read, “Please pay before pumping.” I shrugged and began walking toward the main building. No biggie.

Right at that moment, the cashier – a white man about my age – turned and saw me through the window. He immediately offered a dismissive wave of the hand as if to say, “Hey, buddy… that’s OK. Go ahead and pump your gas.”

I finished filling my tank and went inside to pay. “Hey, thanks for letting me go ahead and pump my gas first,” I said to the man as I fished out my wallet.

Yeah, sure,” he replied. “We’ve had a bunch of ‘drive-offs’ here lately, so we had to start asking people to pre-pay.”

And then he added, “But you looked OK.”

What he really meant to say was, “You looked white.”

These are two of the more glaring examples of times in my life when I have been on the receiving end of white privilege.

They are troubling, to say the least. What should be even more troubling are the countless times I have received unmerited privilege and been utterly oblivious.

For example…

… all the times I have not been pulled over by the police because I “fit a description.”

… all the times I have not been closely watched as I browsed among the clothes in a suburban department store.

… all the times I have not seen another person cross the street or clutch their purse tightly when I approach them.

… all the times I have been able to make a major purchase with nothing more than a cursory credit and employment check.

… all the times I have not been amazed and delighted to finally see someone on TV who looked like me.

… all the times I have been in a classroom led by a teacher and surrounded by classmates who looked like me.

… all the history lessons I have learned that were filled with people who share my skin tone.

…  the multiple talks my father did not have to give me about the extreme caution I must exercise when driving in a different part of town.

… all the stories I have not heard about how people who look like me are more inclined toward criminal behavior.

… the tendencies toward diabetes and high blood pressure and other ailments that I did not inherit simply because of my race.

The list literally goes on and on.

I will readily confess: turning down an offer of unmerited favor is hard. In fact, I am not sure I have ever done it. If someone wants to grant ME a privilege they might withhold from someone else, my inclination is to receive it, say, “Thank you very much,” and walk on.

In the same way, folks like me who compete on a playing field tilted wildly in our favor rarely speak up to challenge the justice of that field.

But we should. Especially if we take the sentiments of Dr. King seriously in his letter from the Birmingham jail. Seeking to incite the consciences of well-meaning, well-mannered white clergymen, King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The Good News of Jesus Christ was never intended to function strictly as a tool of individual sanctification. Yes, it begins its work deep in the heart of one person, but it was always our Savior’s intention that that individual spark of saving grace would spread a flame of mercy and justice and peace over the face of the earth.

Now is the time.

We are the people.

Let the hard work commence.

So be it.

12
Jun
20

I Can’t Know

Grieving peopleBy my not-totally-rigorous estimate, I have officiated at close to 100 funerals during my career as a pastor. This total was boosted significantly by one memorable week in 2014 when there were three.

Every one of these formal church services was preceded by many hours sitting with and consoling grieving family members. In some of those situations, I was also privileged to spend time with the person as they slowly died.

I was taught this in seminary, but also learned by direct experience that there are things you say and things you DON’T say to people when someone close to them dies. And right at the very top of that “DON’T” list is the phrase, “I know exactly what you are going through.

Because you don’t.

Because you can’t.

Even if your father died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79 after undergoing numerous surgeries and chemo therapies and you are talking to the son of a person whose father just died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79 after undergoing numerous surgeries and chemo therapies, you still don’t KNOW what they are going through.

One journey of pain is utterly unlike any other journey of pain. Every journey of pain is unique and unrepeatable.

And yet, even though you stand entirely outside that person’s experience, there is still a “compassionate ally” role for you to fulfill in that journey.

First, you need to discover the role. Then you need to fulfill it.

In the wake of the horrific lynching (let’s call it what it was) of the black man named George Floyd by a group of white Minneapolis, MN police officers, a lot of pain has been brought to the surface. In most cases what we are seeing is a pain that had been bottled up for centuries that is finally exploding.

This crime provided a moment that has led to some long-overdue, national soul-searching.

In an eerie parallel of the scenes surrounding the death of a loved one, some folks are responding to the pain by releasing their own pent-up pain. Some are responding by trying to deny, dismiss, or rationalize the expressions of pain they’re witnessing. Still others are struggling to find a way to respond… knowing that this particular pain is not part of their lived experience, yet also aware that they dare not turn their backs on it.

Number me as a member of that last group.

I want to come alongside those who are now in pain. I want to minister to them. I want to do something more redemptive and more effective than clucking my tongue and saying, “Ain’t it a shame.” I want to figure out a way to somehow engage in the struggle without making the mistake of saying, “I know exactly how you feel.”

Because I don’t.

Because I can’t.

Because I’m white.

In his letter to the church folk in Galatia, Paul told them they were called to, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, NRSV).

And as much a fan as I am of most of his work, I have to confess I am having a hard time getting with Paul on this one. The burden of systemic racism and oppression is not one I will ever be equipped to carry.

And yet somehow, despite my shortcomings, I know there has to be a “compassionate ally” role for me to play in this struggle.

Continuing to shine a light on it might be one option. Refusing to allow our national angst to be swallowed up by the next news cycle might help keep the dialogue going and the solutions flowing.

Educating myself about the depth and nature and duration of the pain might be another.

Standing up visibly with those who are hurting the most might be another ally role I can play.

Supporting the cause financially is certainly another.

What else?

 

I’d love to know what you think…

04
Jun
20

Things I don’t have to do…

George Floyd protestsBut let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24, NRSV

In my life, there are a lot of things I HAVE to do. I have to help out around the house. I have to pay my taxes. I have to regularly demonstrate my love and affection toward Joan. CORRECTION! I WANT to regularly demonstrate my love and affection toward Joan. I have to obey the law. I have to behave graciously toward my neighbors.

But there is also another list. Here below I present only a partial list of things I don’t have to do… simply because I am a white male.

  • I don’t have to carry around the knowledge that I might be pulled over by the police at any time, in any part of the city, even if I am flawlessly obeying every traffic law.
  • I don’t have to have a carefully-worked-out script committed to memory in the event I am pulled over by the police and questioned.
  • I don’t have to make sure I am holding a young child’s hand on one side and a cute dog on a leash on the other side whenever I want to take a walk outside, just so I don’t arouse the suspicions of my white neighbors.
  • I don’t have to monitor the way I walk through any retail store, constantly making sure the clerks don’t find a reason to suspect me of shoplifting.
  • I don’t have to sit down with my two male children and have a serious talk with them about how lethal it is to wear the skin tone they were born with.
  • I don’t have to wonder if this evening’s jog might be the last one of my life.
  • I don’t have to sit down for an entire evening of mindless televised entertainment and wonder why I don’t see anyone on the screen that looks like me.
  • I don’t have to feel the pressure to be twice as qualified, twice as astute, twice as eager, and twice as willing to be flexible as white candidates when I apply for a job.
  • I don’t have to worry that I have a substantially higher chance of being wrongfully convicted of a crime than a white person. Specifically, if I were black, I would be SEVEN TIMES more likely to be wrongfully convicted for murder, THREE-AND-A-HALF TIMES more likely to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault, and FIVE TIMES more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes than a white person, (according to a study by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, University of California Irvine.)
  • I don’t have to worry if my family doctor (of a different race) is actually listening closely and working carefully to diagnose my health concerns.
  • I don’t have to lose sleep wondering whether my children are being afforded the same opportunities and given the same tolerance and understanding in their classrooms as the children of white parents.

And finally, I don’t have to feel a sense of mind-numbing rage at the report of yet another citizen of my race and ethnicity being murdered in cold blood by the police simply for the crime of being my race and ethnicity.

As an older, white male, I have the luxury of being able to scan the news, shake my head, say, “Ain’t it a shame!” and then go right back to watering my lawn and wondering what’s for dinner.

I pray God will afflict my heart and the hearts of millions of others with the same pain that lives DAILY in the hearts of those denied that luxury.

02
Jun
20

The Magic Bullet

Wheat germEarlier today, I was busy in the kitchen, whipping up a new batch of my famous homemade granola. Before you get too excited about my domestic skills, it is literally one of four things I know how to make… and then only by carefully following directions.

As I carefully measured out the ¾ cup of Kretschmer’s Wheat Germ, I suddenly flashed back to my childhood. I remembered when my father proudly brought home our first vacuum-sealed jar of Kretschmer’s Wheat Germ. He announced that it was an amazing superfood, packed with all manner of vitamins and nutrients and – no doubt – secret superpowers, too.

Dad told us that the way to eat it was to just sprinkle it on our breakfast cereal, ice cream, waffles, or anything else we might eat. And then, as I imagined it, we would just stand back and let the magic happen.

 

I am sure I was daydreaming about the incredible biceps I would soon sprout and the amazing strength and endurance I would be blessed with in a day or two.

Three weeks and MANY sprinkles of wheat germ later, nothing.

Bupkis.

Nada.

I was sorely disappointed with wheat germ and – to be honest – a little dismayed with my dad for promoting such a worthless product. I was still too young to realize there were little things like sleep, exercise, and a balanced diet that were all critical elements in my quest to be a 10-year-old he-man.

I wish I could say that this was the last time in my life that I have caught myself believing there must be some kind of quick fix, magic bullet solution to life’s challenges.

Take this present moment, for example; I want a COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow.

I want an effective economic fix right NOW.

And maybe more than anything else, I want a Harry Potter-style wand to wave at the pernicious evil of systemic racism to make it vanish completely FOREVER.

As a privileged white male, I have to confess that I have been walking around with my head in the clouds. Until this nightmarish year began unleashing its fury on us, I had convinced myself that, in the area of racial justice, things in this country were vastly improved compared to the world of my 10-year-old, wheat-germ-eating self.

“Guess again, paleface,” scream today’s headlines.

It is unthinkable that we still live in a place where a person cannot jog, go to school, shop in a clothing store, play on a playground, walk in a neighborhood, or wear a particular kind of clothing without a legitimate fear of being killed because of the color of their skin.

It is horrifying to think that the scales of justice are STILL being tipped unequally by presence of something as benign as melanin.

This week, I have had my nose rubbed in a reality that my African American brothers and sisters face 24 hours of every day of their lives. The difference is that I can turn away from it and think about something else any time I choose to.

They can’t.

This whole situation just really sucks, and I want it to go away… NOW! SHAZAM!

But see, as long as I keep seeing the problem as existing somewhere OUT THERE, it’s not going to go away. Not now. Not ever. It is exactly like the quote (mistakenly) attributed to Benjamin Franklin says; “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

I am complicit. I am part of the problem. As long as I relish my white privilege and passively cluck my tongue at the “bad people” out there, I help perpetuate the nightmare.

I cry out with King David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10 NRSV).

And then I pray, “Show me, Lord. Show me how you are calling me to stand up and act on your behalf in the pursuit of justice.”

 

But today, I weep.

24
Jan
20

Unreasonable

Sweet little old ladyShe was such a sweet lady.

Petite. Probably in her late 70s. Pretty pink knit hat and matching sweater. Cheerful, smiling disposition.

I’ll call her Gladys.

And the way she phrased her request as just as sweet as she was.

All of which served to make the utter unreasonableness of her request easy to miss.

It was about 10 minutes before the service was due to begin. There I was, tuning up with the other members of the praise band at our new church. Since it was my first time to play with them, I wanted to go over a couple of the numbers I felt a little shaky about.

During a little break in the action, Gladys walked (sweetly) up to the leader of the praise band, smiled, and said, “I know I probably should have put in earplugs before coming today, but I wonder if I could ask you to turn your volume down a little bit.”

Mind you, this was for a group made up of two acoustic guitars, three vocalists, and a bass guitar. No drums. No keyboard.

Elijah was a bit taken aback. As he paused, trying to formulate a reply, Gladys continued and said, “Or I suppose I could just sit way in the back.”

Elijah finally found his words and politely replied, “Let us see what we can do.”

Gladys smiled (sweetly, of course), thanked Elijah, and started back to her seat.

After Gladys left, we actually didn’t make any adjustments at all to the volume settings of the microphones or the guitars. We just went on with the service with the exact same settings. Afterward, though, Gladys came up and (sweetly) told us that it really hadn’t been so bad after all.

It was not until much later that I stopped and thought about the nature of sweet Gladys’ request. I am sure to Gladys her request was entirely reasonable. I am sure she believed she was saying, “My ears have difficulty with loud music. Could you help a sweet, little old lady out by turning your volume down a smidge? Please?”

In reality what Gladys had said to us was, “I know you have set all of the sound levels of your instruments and microphones for the best possible listening experience of the entire congregation. But I’d like to ask you to forget THEM and change all of that to accommodate ME.”

“Yes,” Gladys had also said to us, “I could have taken steps to mitigate the issue for myself beforehand, but I didn’t. So I am asking you to kindly elevate my individual needs over the needs of the entire congregation. Thanks.”

Sometimes in life, we all have to deal with unreasonable requests. Sometimes the requestor is surly and unpleasant about it. (Hey! Turn that damned noise DOWN, moron!!”)

And sometimes they are endearing and sweet. Like Gladys.

The question – in either case – is how to respond to an unreasonable request. I wonder…

  • Is it ever necessary to comply with an unreasonable request?
  • Conversely, should every unreasonable request be rejected, out of hand?
  • Should we try to educate the person about just how unreasonable their request really is?
  • Are some people more prone to be on the receiving end of unreasonable requests than others?

Not surprisingly, Jesus had a few things to say about dealing with unreasonable requests. This probably has to do with the fact that he lived in a land and at a time of unreasonable requests.

As he preached there on the hillside one day he said, “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”(Matthew 5:39-42, NRSV)

Something to think about the next time you face an unreasonable request…

… even if it does come from sweet little Gladys.

28
Aug
19

Escapee

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I do not begrudge anyone a vacation in a Caribbean nation. In fact, I just returned from one myself. But then yesterday, as we were fleeing Puerto Rico just barely ahead of Tropical Storm Dorian, this dialogue began taking shape in my mind. I was prompted to share it here…

Us and PR sunset

I’m here on vacation in this pretty place.

I live here. This is home.

It’s so exotic! I love all these wild-looking plants and strange creatures running around.

Every day we scratch out a living from the soil. Some days we do not succeed.

I just wish the roads weren’t so bumpy and poorly maintained.

Praise God for the means to travel from one village to the next.

I wish we didn’t have to go through these poor villages on our way to the beach. They are so depressing.

Last week a speeding rental car ran over my son’s puppy, right in front of his eyes. He cried for days.

One thing I love is how cheap everything is! But you really have to know how to drive a hard bargain.

I created these myself. I am thankful God gave me the ability to work with my hands.

We couldn’t spend a lot of time in the pool yesterday. It was just too hot.

Often in the evening we can stand outside and feel a cool breeze coming in from the east.

I am so glad there is that big grocery store nearby. That way we don’t ever have to run out of ANYTHING!

Today we all ate. Tomorrow… we will see.

The problem with being so far outside the city is all the loud sounds of the birds and frogs and crickets when you’re trying to sleep.

The song of the jungle sings us to sleep. It is peaceful and relaxing.

I think I remember reading something about a little political trouble they had recently here. Not sure what that was all about, but it all looks pretty OK now.

Most of us learned long ago not to look to our political leaders to help change anything. It is a vain hope.

Uh oh! Looks like that tropical storm is headed this way. Better change our flight and get the heck out of here before it hits!

I live here. This is home. Let us board up the windows and pray for a safe passage.

18
Jul
19

“Am I Safe Here?”

Frightened person“Am I safe here?”

Think back; how many times have you asked yourself that question… today?

… in the past week?

… in the past month?

Can you even remember the last time you asked this question?

If you are a member of my demographic cohort, your answer is likely the same as mine.

My answer: I can’t honestly remember when I last showed up in a situation, looked around, and wondered about my personal safety.

Unless, of course, it was a situation where I voluntarily endangered myself… like scuba diving, rock climbing, or hang gliding… none of which I have done lately.

However, if you are a woman, or a dark-skinned person, or gay, or someone who wears any type of ethnic garb, your answer is very different.

Even though it is not yet noon, you have likely already asked this question one or more times.

It might have been in a neighborhood store, at the post office, on the bus, in your workplace, or just driving your car down the road.

You noticed the gaze of another person lingering on you a little longer than made you comfortable. You saw their eyes narrow slightly as they seemed to be sizing you up. They might have drawn a purse a little more closely to their body, shifted uneasily in their stance, or even crossed the street.

And you asked – as you have so many times before – “Am I safe here?”

Freedom from questions about personal safety is one of the hallmarks of privilege.

That’s just a fact.

But the question is: what will we do about it?

How can I, today, let people know they are safe around me?

29
Jan
19

You Belong

ice-cream-bikeThree doors down from the house I grew up in lived a family named the Thompsons.

There was Mr. Thompson, Mrs. Thompson (that was back in the time when kids didn’t know adults’ first names) and their three sons.

If you were one of the kids who got invited to hang out at the Thompson house, you knew you had really MADE IT.

You see, the Thompson family was in the ice cream business. They maintained a fleet of those big three-wheeled bicycles that carried a big freezer in the middle and a line of jingly, chimey bells on the handlebar (see photo). And if you DID get invited to hang out at the Thompsons, you knew it meant unfettered access to free Creamsicles, Fudgesicles, Bomb Pops, ice cream sandwiches, and all manner of frozen confections.

And yes, I am proud to say that I was a regular guest at Chez Thompson. That is, right up until the day when I committed the cardinal sin of actually ASKING them if I could have a Fudgesicle. You see, Thompson house protocol dictated that while ice cream might be offered, it was never REQUESTED.

It was a moment that provided me with one of my earliest memories of how it feels to BELONG… and then – in the twinkling of an eye – to NOT belong anymore.

And although it would be a stretch to credit this insight to my experience with the Thompsons, it amazes me to this day how much of my life has been a search to BELONG.

People much smarter than me have recognized the need to BELONG as a universal human longing.

We want to feel a sense of belonging in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in formal and informal groups of every kind.

But I don’t know… do you think it’s possible to overemphasize belonging? Can we concentrate so much effort on where we “fit in” that we start to make belonging an end in itself?

History is replete with examples of the damage that is done when we start putting a lot of energy into trying to figure out who belongs and who doesn’t.

Taking a quick inventory of my own belonging, I have discovered that I am part of an uncomfortable number of DOMINANCE groups. Here is what I mean by that: I am white… I am male… I am a Baby Boomer… I am American… I am middle class… I am Christian… I am college-educated… I am straight… I am married… I am a homeowner… I am able-bodied and of (mostly) sound mind… I am an oldest child.

I could go on, but you get the point. If there is a group that has been granted privilege and position in today’s world, I belong to it. And for most of those groups I just listed, I did absolutely nothing to qualify for entrance.

I just showed up.

Which is why I just want to take a moment to appreciate the courage of people who – for one reason or another – often find themselves on the outside looking in.

 

I have never personally experienced having doors slammed in my face because of my skin color or my gender or my religion or my nationality or my sexual preference or my physical ableness. I cannot imagine the ongoing pain of regularly hearing – directly or indirectly – “Sorry… you just don’t belong here.”

As a pastor, I can console you with the reassurance that every person matters equally in the eyes of God. I can show you the places in the Bible where God tells the Israelites to welcome the alien and the stranger, or where Jesus goes out of his way to include people that everyone else turns their backs on.

Because it’s all true.

But I can’t help wondering if that reassurance helps at all.

Dear God, please grant these your comfort. Help them know the warmth of your loving embrace. Fortify them for the days ahead and let them experience the wideness of your welcome.

And maybe, while you’re at it, break open the hearts of the privileged just a little wider.

AMEN.




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