I felt it when the Trayvon Martin verdict was returned. When the #yesallwomen conversation was happening about rape culture on Twitter and Facebook, it stirred in me too. And again, when protests first erupted in Ferguson, Missouri. Now last night and today, with the grand jury decision on the shooting of Michael Brown, It’s taken hold and it’s not letting go.
Despite my great desire for the nudging to stop, and my heart-pounding fear at the consequences of paying attention to it, the prompting of the Holy Spirit is too persistent. It’s time for me to say something about the prevailing blindness of the powerful in American society to the injustices their (our) privilege wreaks on the lives of those without privilege.
I don’t remember when I first heard the term white privilege, but I know it was long after I experienced the reality of male privilege as a woman called to leadership in the church. In the evangelical circles into which I craved entrance in college, I was systematically denied leadership roles among men because of my gender. In addition, I was passed over for leading among women because I didn’t believe that gender-based exclusion was part of God’s plan for her people. Even in my own rather liberal denomination, I come up against the systemic sexism of the church weekly. Again and again, I’ve been told that I’m “a pretty good pastor, for a girl”, asked to tell the pastor (my male colleague) to please come for a visit after I’ve just served communion and prayed with a church member in the hospital, and gotten more comments about my hair, my clothes, my shoes than about the sermon I slaved over.
So while I do not and will not claim to understand what it is like to be a black person aching under the burden of white privilege, I believe what black people say when they talk about their experience. I believe my brothers and sisters of color when they say they are systematically harassed by law enforcement in a way that I never have been. I believe black mothers who say they have no choice but to teach their sons things about being safe that I will never have to teach mine. I believe church leaders of color when they say that the gospel white clergy are preaching is too individualistic, and ignores the social dimensions embedded in God’s plan of salvation. To speak that truth to the power of the privileged is something a person does only when they cannot do otherwise. It is scary business to say out loud the very thing you know that someone else has a vested interest in not hearing.
That last part I know because it’s what I’m feeling as I type these words that I intend to make public. My race, my education, and my ordination give me a privileged platform from which to speak, yet I know that to speak what I understand to be the truth will make other people of privilege defensive and quite possibly angry. I stand the lose the goodwill of the people who lend me their ears every Sunday. I risk losing the relatively conflict-free existence I currently enjoy.
But that is nothing compared to what others stand to lose if I, and privileged leaders like myself, continue to stay silent for the sake of our personal and communal comfort. Our brothers and sisters of color are losing their lives to race-based violence at alarming rates (here are just a few recent examples), and losing their freedom to a criminal “justice” system that is anything but just (again, a few statistics). Every day the gulf between white and non-white grows wider economically, educationally, and spiritually.
It’s time for me to speak up, or better stated, to use my own voice to lift of the stories of others whose experience I can’t understand. It’s time for me to honestly engage the real world, making public my struggle with the ugliness, so that others may be challenged to see new things. It’s time for me to choose losing the comfortable peace my privilege affords me, in order to be deeply disturbed by the suffering that is all around me.
And as Advent begins this Sunday, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. This season of expectant watchfulness and growing light in darkness calls us to consider the possibility that God is active in ways we can’t currently see, and probably wouldn’t approve of if we could. The prophets we will read this season remind that people have always wanted shows of military strength to solve spiritual problems, while the incarnation story of Jesus tells us that God has chosen a different way to save us from ourselves.
I invite you who are privileged like me into an Advent attentiveness. Listen to and read the testimony of those whose experience is unlike yours. Allow for the possibility that such experience is as equally valid and true as your own. Keep alert to the Holy Spirit’s nudging to say and do the things you’d rather not. And above all, remember that the people of faith are never without hope that things can be better than they are.