Privilege and the Table

For the past few weeks, I keep reflection on an idea from Jonathan Martin’s sermon we posted on a couple of weeks ago (more from him in Episode 2 of the podcast…launching next week!).

The idea was, when we see something that bothers us or makes us angry, we need to let it be a mirror to the things that are going on in our own lives. We need to ask how we are participating in the problem. So this week, Allen and I are going to hold a bit of a mirror up to ourselves.

Allen and I are educated, Christian, heterosexual, American, middle-class, married, white males.

Each of these categories make up parts, but not all, of our identity. And what each of them speak of is privilege. These are the “privileged” categories because they are associated with dominant culture. Which means being a member of each of these categories typically means we take for granted that we are members and others aren’t. As Geoff Hoffclaw says, it also means we get opportunities (and the benefit of the doubt) when others do not.

So we want to talk a little bit about privilege. If you fit any of the categories above, you experience privilege is some way, so this is an important conversation. (Sidenote: If you fit all of those categories listed above, this post is inspired by Geoff’s post that I just linked. Go read it. Now. And follow the links. Amen.)

communionbreadwineBut before we talk privilege we have to talk about hospitality. We did a series awhile back on hospitality, and I think this is THE missional and evangelical issue for the 21st century. When we practice hospitality, we are enacting the Table wherever we find ourselves. So very quickly, and all too briefly, here’s what happens at the Table.

At the Table, ALL are welcomed. It does not matter your categories, history, color, shape, or size. You have a place at the Table.

But when a diverse group is welcomed and accepted in one place, there have to be other elements at play. Our culture tells us in diverse groups we should just not talk about the differences (e.g. we should be “colorblind”). But at the Table, we welcome the differences. We name them so we can learn and grow. We celebrate the ways people are different. Difference is not a problem to overcome, but a resource which makes everyone at the Table better.

Difference which is celebrated also has to leave room for us to disagree. Recognizing the ways other people are different from us means they have a valuable perspective on the world which I do not. Therefore difference at the Table is essential for not only my own transformation, but for the transformation of the world.

Which is why The Table is what brings good news to the poor, the marginalized, the excluded, the silenced, the underrepresented, and the oppressed. The Table says: When you don’t have a voice elsewhere, you have an essential voice here.

Therefore the Table also has to acknowledge the different reasons why people’s voices are not heard. The Table works towards eliminating those barriers so difference can be seen, received, and given as a gift.

But what about those of us who come to the Table as privileged people? How do we sit at the Table humbly and experience the Good News of Table?

One thought before I begin: I use the word “we” here a lot, which I kind of hate. I do not use the word “we” to set any group of people against another. In this post, I am talking to people of privilege, which includes myself. So I say “we” because this is as much a post for me as it is for other people of privilege. I also hope no matter who reads this does not see me as trying to distinguish certain groups as better than others. Privilege is a real issue which must be addressed. But it must be addressed because of the worth and value of all of humanity. When privilege is not addressed there is a (not so) subtle communication that some people are more valuable than others. Addressing privilege is one way we can move forward to get us to the point where difference is seen as a gift rather than a liability. Also a big shout out to my friend Suzie for previewing this post with some non-white male lenses and adding some suggestions.

So here are three thoughts for how to enact the hospitality of the Table as a “privileged” person:

1. Acknowledge your categories of privilege

why-its-important-to-think-about-privilege-and-why__1500x670_q85_crop_subsampling-2My list of categories above is not arbitrary. It has been a long journey of acknowledging those things. And there are lots of other categories we could use, but the ones I have listed are some of the biggest.

There are two easy responses as we think about our categories of privilege. One is to think by privilege, I mean “better than others.” But by privileged I simply mean we have categories our culture tends to say are more valuable or acceptable. When my category is the “standard,” I never have much reason to reflect on my membership to the category. This means I have blindspots to how the world really works and functions and I desperately need people who are different to help me be honest about life, and to learn and grow into deeper, richer, and more expansive ways of living and being in the world.

Which could then lead to the second response: Guilt for having privilege. I am not entirely out of this category. I often wonder if as a white male I should say anything, ever. But as I have conversations with people who are not white males I always have people say they appreciate me acknowledging my categories and how they affect the way I see the world.

Acknowledging my categories also allows me to be aware of the way I am complicit in marginalization. It holds a mirror up to the ways I have used privilege to set myself over and against others. But the goal of the mirror is never guilt. It is transformation. So there need to be a few more things in place to keep us aware as well as help us move beyond guilt.

2. Learn the preferential option for listening.

The director of my doctoral program has a saying he begins every class with: Listen to understand. Speak to serve. This is a huge lesson for those of us with privilege.

Christena Cleveland has written a remarkable set of posts on this. Rather than jumping to “fixing” things, we need to learn to stand in solidarity with others and listen well. Which means we also need to ask big, important questions.

I have often heard people dismiss the experiences of those who are different because they assume they are “whiners” or use a particular category as an excuse for whatever is happening. We can’t do that.

I heard Richard Beck once talk about the preferential option for listening (my summary of what he talked about). The “preferential option” comes from liberation theology, which says since God is close to those on the underside of society that is where we need to start as Christians.

Beck took this further to say if we are privileged people and we hear others (no matter what categories) speak of their marginalization or struggles or oppression, we need to assume what they are saying is true. We cannot dismiss something because we have not experienced it. We need to ask better questions and try as best we can to get on the inside of other people’s experience. We need to listen with humility and stand in solidarity.

3. Finally, we need to use our voice to advocate and eliminate barriers.

When we really start to listen, we will understand there are an incredible amount of barriers those who are different that we are face that we do not. We need to learn to use privilege for the sake of others.

As a person of privilege, people often listen to me without starting from a place of doubt and skepticism. So I can say some of the hard truths that advocate for others and actually be heard. As I said before, too many people of privilege dismiss the voice of those who are different. I have the unique opportunity to use my privilege for the sake of others, and I will be heard in a different way.

My word count on this post is higher than I would like, yet we have still only scratched the surface. But I hope those of us who are Christians can begin to have honest conversations about privilege, learn to listen well, and continually pursue helping underrepresented and silenced voices be heard. It is a long and difficult task, but when we engage in it we join God at the Table in being broken and poured our for the sake of the world.

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