Issues of privilege – who has it, who doesn’t and what to do about it – are a hot topic of conversation among us. Some argue that people with whiter skin have privilege in our society while others (usually from among those alleged to benefit from this skin-tone-based privilege) deny that they benefit from any such bias, opening themselves up to the charge that they are blind to the privilege that they, themselves, enjoy. So privilege is associated with racism and since racism is an obvious evil, privilege is suspect. And this, without even getting into matters of gender or sexuality. One might imagine then, that the most just societal project is to rid ourselves of privilege and to bring down those who enjoy privilege.
Now, let me be clear. I believe that race, gender and sexual identity privilege exists in this culture. It’s also been my experience that, as a white heterosexual man, I’ve benefitted from such privilege without my effort.*
That said, levels of privilege in human society are an inevitability. When communal creatures, like human beings, get together, a pecking order develops. We will have ways of determining who has say and who doesn’t. Each of us is a full participant in these ordering systems. We have associations and networks that grant us access to particular opportunities and spheres of influence. Many among us suffer from a chronic lack of such access. Honor is given to some. Others wish to simply be respected. What do we do about this?
There are three full chapters, in the Gospel according to Matthew, given over to a sermon given by Jesus, “The Sermon on the Mount.” Some have wondered if Matthew 5-7 is actually a compilation of a number of Jesus’ teachings rather than one big sermon – Jesus’ Greatest Hits – but no one seriously questions the authenticity of the teaching itself.
What’s worth our attention in this world that is so troubled by honor and privilege is the way that Jesus begins his message. Jesus declares that some people are “blessed,” that is to say, honored or privileged by God as an expression of God’s abundant grace.
Jesus says this in the context of a society that was well versed in the dynamics of honor and dishonor or shame. In the culture of Jesus’ day, people were honored for reasons of wealth, influence, ancestry or because they had been granted honor by an honorable patron. Others were dishonored because they were children, because they were women, because they were poor or powerless, because they were chronically ill, of questionable morals or from a dishonored ethnic group. With all of these honor and shame dynamics swirling around him, Jesus stands up and declares unequivocally that the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted are honored. These have standing or privilege before God and in human society, not because they have managed to make their mark in an alternative and morally superior way. They are honored because they have the most-honored, most-holy creator of the universe as their patron. God has become their patron as a sign of divine honor and glory. This is how good and generous God is. God honors the dishonored ones. God blesses those who appear to lack any blessing in this world.
Having laid the groundwork for human honor as a product of divine patronage, Jesus then goes on to help us sort out our own privilege. He calls his honored hearers (and you as well) “salt” and “light.” Salt was valued in the ancient world as necessary for life and as a preservative. Small lamps and torches were a necessity if one was to see or do anything after the sun went down. These are not aspirational identities for us. These are declarations, by God, of things that are true among us.
What do the honored ones do with their blessing before God and humankind? They function as a people who provide preservation and flavor in a rotting and insipid world. They share knowledge and way-finding among the ignorant and lost. They share their access with those who have no access. They extend honor to those who are ashamed. They speak up for those who have no voice. They are free to share their honor because the honor grows in the sharing. This is Jesus’ point when he says “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”. To share privilege is to enter into the abundant honor economy of God. There is no shortage of honor. It need not be hoarded or kept for oneself in the fear that it will be somehow used up or out of the false arithmetic that another’s honor comes at the expense of our own. Nor do we need to fear being somehow dishonored. The honor we carry comes from God, not from others’ reactions to us.
As we move through our days, each of us is presented with opportunities to share honor with someone who is being dishonored. If you need a little more inspiration, I recommend this video, A Trip to the Grocery Store.
May God be praised.
Feb. 8, 2017
* One example from when I was younger: I used to do a lot of hitchhiking – thousands of miles worth over a period of ten years. That I made such trips without concern for my safety was not just a function of my youthful bravado. It was a function of the fact that I was a clean-shaven white boy standing on the side of the road, and people judge by appearances. Men and women, whites, blacks and Latinos picked me up and gave me rides. The reverse would not necessarily have been true. In fact, today, when I tell my hitchhiking stories among young white men the typical response can be described as an enthusiastic longing for such a golden time. When I tell my stories among women or people of color, the response is always the same: dismay and disbelief that one would do something so foolish and obviously dangerous. There never has been a golden, innocent time. I interpret this as one small marker of white, male privilege in our culture.