Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “race

Matrix of Privilege

Red_pill_Blue_pill

We gather on a day when the ugliness of humanity is on full display in our world. You may feel as I do at times that there is nothing we can do to fix, to heal our world. We cannot prevent people halfway around the world, across the nation or here at home from committing terrible acts of violence. But what we can do is mend the parts of the world that are in our hands, that work is difficult enough. We cannot dismantle the systems that wound and kill, oppress and imprison if we will not see them, admit they exist or that and how we have benefitted from them. Today I invite you to see yourselves, the scriptures and the world differently than you have seen them before.

Who are we when we read the scriptures? Whose eyes do we read through? When we hear Jeremiah lamenting for his people where do we place ourselves in the story? Christians like to read as though we were the Israelites to whom these texts were written because they are spiritual ancestors. But the truth is Christianity is much more like the Assyrian Empire than the Judean monarchy that survived it. Christianity became an imperial religion and like the Assyrian Empire invaded and enslaved and plundered. We also read as Americans but it has not been the experience of America to be invaded and occupied, to have our land stolen, our people enslaved and stolen to serve in bondage in a foreign land. It is easier for some Americans to read as Judah, Native Americans still living with foreign occupation can read as Judah. African Americans can read with Judah. But other Christians need to ask themselves difficult questions about power and privilege.

Our national and church conversations about race are also conversations about privilege and power. We must all learn to ask where the privilege and power lies in the text and where it lies in and with us. We are all of us, American and Christian empowered as the dominant group, society reflects our values and holidays whatever our numbers. Some of us have heterosexual privilege; the world assumes we are normal. Some have white privilege and male privilege. Some have able bodies and the ease of mobilities. Many of us have both privilege and peril at the same time and some have multiple markers of vulnerability.

These are hard conversations. Once we open our eyes to the issues at stake we will see them everywhere, even in the scriptures. It is a bit like taking the red pill in the Matrix, we will never be able to unsee the world as it is. We long for the blue pill and tell ourselves that ignorance is bliss. We were happier before people started talking about race all the time, even in church. Maybe not happy, more like oblivious, oblivious to the deaths that you did not see because no one stopped traffic and screamed “Black Lives Matter!”

Who can read as Jeremiah today? Let us listen again: [Gafney translation]

My joy is gone. Grief weighs heavy on me. My heart is sick.
Listen! The cry of my people far and wide—across the land:
Where is God? Is She not in her place?…
Do we not have the best medicine? Doctors?
Why then have my people not been restored to health?
If only my throat were a waterfall and my eyes rivers of water.
Then I might weep day and night for the murdered souls among my people.

Jeremiah’s people had barely survived the Assyrian onslaught. At one point things were so bad King Hezekiah gave the Assyrians all of the silver and gold in the temple and when that wasn’t enough, he had his servants peel the silver off the doors of the temple. The rest of Israel did not survive the Assyrians. The other eleven tribes were invaded, conquered, disassembled, deported, dispersed, disappeared. The people to whom Jeremiah was prophesying were vulnerable. Judah was no longer a truly independent nation. They had a king but were in bondage to the Babylonians who defeated the Assyrians and seized their holdings including Judah. This is not the American experience. This is not the experience of most Christians in the United States or in the West. But it is the experience of Native peoples here in the American west, throughout North, Central and South America, and of peoples throughout Africa and Asia.

How are we to read the scriptures as our scriptures when the stories are not always our stories? Let me tell you, as a woman and as a woman who is the descendant of slaves, there are many stories in the bible that are not my stories, yet the scriptures are still my scriptures. When Jeremiah says he weeps for his murdered people, I see the bodies of my murdered people, in the streets, in their homes, like little Aiynna Stanley Jones—seven years old, shot by a police officer while she slept on the couch. He said it was an accident. He said it was her grandmother’s fault. He was indicted and all charges were dropped. And a seven year-old little girl didn’t get to hug her grandmother on her eight birthday because a policeman shot her. The Babylonian soldiers were the agents of the legal government. There was no one to hold them accountable either. The only tool Jeremiah had available to him was lament. So he wept.

If only my throat were a waterfall and my eyes rivers of water.
Then I might weep day and night for the murdered souls among my people.
Lament is a powerful tool. It is a prophetic response to grief. It heals, transforms and empowers.

Psalm 79 tells the story of what happened next to Jeremiah’s people: The Babylonian invaded. Psalm 79 tells the story of the assault on the temple. The Babylonians tore it apart with hammers and axes. They stole everything that they wanted and burned the rest. The toppled the government and the military and enslaved or deported the people. We have never experienced anything like that in the United States. No terrorist attack has destroyed our government and military. But we have toppled governments and left other nations in ruins. How de we read the psalm, we who have soldiers in a hundred different nations, some of whom don’t want us there? Perhaps we are not the Judeans, but the Babylonians. Who can pray this psalm with Judeans? What happens when Native Americans, whose holy places were just bulldozed by the Army Corps of Engineers to build a now-stopped pipeline, pray this psalm?

And what of the gospel? There the lines of privilege and peril are social and economic. Wealth is privilege. Neither privilege or wealth are evil—notice the rich man for whom the dishonest manager works is not condemned for his wealth. But wealth and privilege do come with responsibility. Privilege is access. My systematic theology professor Kelly Brown Douglas, a priest in our church, taught us to think of privilege as seats in an arena: Some have courtside seats passed down to them that they did not earn. Other folk who might like those seats and have saved enough to buy them will never get the chance because circumstances of birth mean they will never get the chance.

This is the way the legacy of slavery works. As a whole, black people in the United States are financially behind white people in the United States no matter how many individual rich black performers and athletes we can name. At the end of the Civil War many freed persons had no source of income and were forced into wage theft sharecropping in which they had to pay to live in their former slave cabins, and pay for food, tools and clothing, and found themselves in debt they could never pay off. At the same time laws were passed that enabled the seizure and imprisonment of black folk who were not working who could then be sold for labor as a prison gang—but slavery was over. The GI Bill more than any other tool in modern history helped poor and working class white men and their families move into the middle class but black veterans were initially excluded. Unions often excluded blacks in the early days. Each of these practices and many in between meant that no matter how hard they worked black folk could not keep, invest or pass down the overwhelming bulk of what they produced. The disparities in wealth, wellbeing and social standing between ethnic groups in this country isn’t about meanness or individual acts of bigotry. It is the result of centuries of discrimination, profiteering and the plundering of black wealth and labor.

The question our gospel asks through the character of the dishonest manager is what are you doing with your privilege? The manager is bit of a buffoon. He was a terrible employee. He was dishonest. He also used the privilege he had to oppress the people who were in debt to his boss. Debt collectors collected as much as they could and got to keep the difference. That’s just the way things worked back then. Everyone did it. Just like slavery. And just like slavery, there were people who knew it wasn’t right. People who benefitted from it could not imagine their lives without it. When his job is called into question, the manager cut the interest on his master’s loans and just collects the principle in hopes someone will remember his “kindness” and take him in if he gets thrown out on the street. And someone may. Someone may be a better person than he has been. One point of his story is not that you should cook the books, but that it is never too late to do the right thing. Jesus also makes an unpleasant point: no matter how badly money has been made, you can still use it for good things.

I’d like to end with the rich man who Jesus doesn’t critique. He doesn’t get off the hook in my book because wealth and privilege come with responsibility and I am going to hold him accountable even if Jesus doesn’t do so in the parable. The uncritiqued rich man in the gospel did what everyone did. He hired someone to run his business enterprise. He didn’t get his hands dirty with the day-to-day management of his holdings. But he is responsible for what was being done in his name and on his behalf. He was profiting off of the exploitation of the families his manager was cheating.

As I close I invite you to think about the ways in which you are profiting and have profited off of the labor and exploitation of other people whether you knew it or not: If someone in your family got a first generation GI Bill or admitted to a union that didn’t admit black or Hispanic people, you reaped some benefit that accrues interest and passes down to the next generation. I want to invite you to consider your stewardship of your privilege as you consider the stewardship of your fiscal and temporal resources.

Luke 16:10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth [and privilege], who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God, wealth [and privilege.”]

Amen.