August 30, 2020
One of the topics covered in the book we just read on Race is “privilege.” To be sure, it is a lightening rod kind of a word, and honestly, I’m a bit concerned that in raising it now a portion of our gathering will lose interest in hearing what I have to say. But, what I’ve learned about privilege is 1. it’s not saying that you didn’t work hard for whatever successes you’ve had, 2. it’s not saying that you don’t have hardships and struggles, and 3. it’s not saying that there’s only one kind of privilege. In fact, everyone experiences privilege in one way or another, though some certainly are more privileged than others. Privilege means simply “advantage.” And often, the advantages of privilege are not due 100% to your own efforts. The author of the book we discussed, “So You Want to Talk About Race” gave her own experience as an example. She talked about having a college degree, studying at all hours of the night to earn the degree while taking care of a small child, and holding down a job. She worked hard, certainly harder than I had to work, to get through school, but she also acknowledged that her degree wasn’t fully owed to her own efforts. She had a mother who taught her the value of an education. She was a neuro-typical and non-disabled child, exactly the kind of child her school was equipped to teach. She had enough security in her home and nutrition as a child to be able to concentrate on her studies. She goes on, but you get the point. She’s not guilty of doing anything wrong. In fact, she put her advantages to good use, which should be applauded. However, she notes that she’s been eligible for management positions in her adult life because of her degree whereas more capable co-workers who lacked some of her advantages growing up were passed over because they hadn’t been to college. She recognized that the deck wasn’t stacked fairly or equally.
As I see it, the importance of being able to acknowledge one’s advantages has to do with removing blind spots that keep us from a fuller, more compassionate, more understanding, and ultimately more loving view of another. The Apostle Paul talks about “letting love be genuine, living in harmony, treating one another with mutual affection, not seeing yourself as better than another, but rather associating with the lowly.” Removing our blindspots, putting ourselves in another’s shoes, and recognizing where our advantages keep us from easily relating to another’s perspective is, I believe, an important step in becoming the kind of people Paul implores the Roman Christians to become. We love more powerfully when we can more fully see and understand one another.
This comes into play as I think about Kenosha and the recent killing of Jacob Blake by a police officer. I’ve read and heard multiple arguments about the importance of compliance when dealing with the police. Police have difficult and dangerous jobs when it comes to serving and protecting and it is important that people comply with the police when they intervene. This is true for everyone, the argument goes. You can’t fight the police off and then reach into your car without coming across as a threat, no matter who you are.
This sounds reasonable to me, of course, but then I have the advantage of being white and having lived in white neighborhoods my whole life where I was never profiled, or harassed, or treated in a way that would cause me to have distrust. The thing is, there are reasons for distrust among populations of color. Did you know that black drivers are 23% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers? They are more likely to be searched. They are more likely to be arrested. They are more likely to be shot. Even if not shot they are more likely to be harassed, handcuffed, and subject to force. Adding to the threat that a person of color experiences is the backing of a criminal justice system where 60% of prisoners are black or brown, yet they make up only 20% of the population. The ugly statistics on incarceration rates go on and on, and you can look them up easily enough. I’ll just add a bit about the consequences though. Imprisonment for 1 year takes 2 years off a person’s life span and reduces annual wages by 40% after release. And children of incarcerated parents suffer all kinds of problems across a range of health, educational, and social measures, so that the effects of mass incarceration make long-lasting impacts especially on people and communities of color.
What all of this says to me is that the matter of compliance isn’t such a simple one. When our experiences are so radically different and so impacted by color it is reasonable to think fear, anger and distrust would come into play much more readily for a black man like Jacob Blake than for someone like me. If I can see that then I’ve removed (at least partially) a blind spot, I’ve become more understanding, and perhaps I can become part of a process that makes for a more just and loving society where compliance is the same experience for everyone.
This all comes to mind not simply because of the events of our times but also because of the scriptures that we’ve read today. The Exodus passage continues with the story of Moses having been saved by Pharaoh’s daughter, growing into adulthood as Egyptian royalty, encountering God in the burning bush, and then hearing God call him to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into liberation. I’m still stuck on Pharaoh’s daughter though. I recently learned that her name was Bithiah, which is noted elsewhere in scripture. Bithiah, according to one of the long genealogies in 1 Chronicles that no one pays attention to, married a man named Mered. Mered was not Egyptian nobility as you might expect. Rather, Mered was member of the tribe of Judah. In other words, he was an Israelite. Bithiah, the princess, the Pharaoh’s daughter, married a liberated slave. When Moses (with a little help from God) parted the Red Sea waters and crossed the people from the burden of captivity into the newness and uncertainty of freedom Bithiah must have been there. Here’s how one author puts it, “In the end, it seems, the princess became part of the family, linked not just by adoption but also by marriage. The noble-woman attended by servants became a wilderness refugee, wandering with her new clan for 40 years in the shadow of Sinai. She gave birth to her own vulnerable children and named her daughter after that brave girl at the riverside [Miriam]. Bithiah became Jesus’ great-great-auntie, an unlikely ancestor winking from his family tree.”
Of course, by “great, great auntie” she means distant relative and member of the family. She means to show how an Egyptian royal sacrificed her privilege for the new, liberating, life-giving, and utterly un-determined thing that God was doing. More than her advantage as a woman born into power and superiority she valued God’s action on behalf of a whole set of people who had been oppressed. She surrendered her power in order to be witness to God’s power and will for a better and more just way.
Jesus says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Bithiah, I think, found life. And, I think we’re invited to do the same. In some ways finding life in Christ means sacrifice. It means surrendering ourselves to the love and movement of God. It means a willingness to see our own advantages, put them into perspective and good use, and in some cases sacrifice them for the betterment of others. But, this kind of sacrifice, this “losing of life” isn’t a death without resurrection. It is an emptying that fills us. To be a bit cliched, it is a “letting go” that leads to a “letting God,” which ultimately is the only hope we all share.
 Ijeoma Oluo “So You Want to Talk About Race,” page 86.
 Fania E. Davis, Race and Restorative Justice, page 67.
 Liddy Barlow, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, Aug. 12, 2020, page 20.