Easter 5C: Acts 11:1-18; Ps 148; Rev 21:1-6; Jn 13:31-35
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, April 24, 2016
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Last summer a video posted by Buzzfeed demonstrated a practical exercise in recognizing whether or not one had privilege and in which forms it might be contained. The exercise was not without fault, but it served in its simplest form to demonstrate that we all have forms of privilege, some more than others, and there can even be a certain amount of randomness to the privilege you possess. Participants in the video were asked to stand on a starting line and respond to certain questions by either stepping forward or backward from that line.
The questions were created by social activist Margo Adair and Sharon Howell and reflected a range of experiences from are you black, step backward, are you a woman, step backward, did you own books, step forward, did your parents own their home, step forward, did your parents work nights and weekends, step back, were your parents well educated, step forward, and on and on. As you watch the video, you notice some people moving forward, others backward”no one consistently moving forward or back”some people are surprised by the questions, not having connected them with privilege before and some people are surprised that they do not have the privilege they assumed that they had.
For me, though, the most fascinating part of this video was the comments it drew in the response section. Many people verbalized strong negative reactions to the video, the questions asked, and the outcomes. Their reaction felt angry and questioned matters of justice. One thread ended up arguing whether or not a person who goes to boarding school has more or less privilege than a person whose parent works nights and weekends as an OB/GYN. The problem with this argument and the many reactionary posts that I read, is not that people are upset at being labeled as privileged or not privileged”they are”nor is the problem as simple as confusing privilege and opportunity”though many do. The problem that I see is that we are confused as to what privilege really is.
Too often, we hear the word privilege and immediately associate it with issues of equality. But privilege is not about equality, its about equity”and I’m not talking about the distribution of wealth kind of equity, I’m talking about power. Privilege is about the distribution of power and who has more power to control outcomes. That distribution of power is not and will never be equally distributed, primarily because of the randomness in which it is assessed. It is not even helpful to speak of the equality of power because it blurs the issue and turns us inward to focus on our fears instead of recognizing our abilities.
If we can begin to reframe the conversation from one of equality to one of equity, we might be able to begin to recognize our own privilege as a gift in which to partner with God to do His work of redemption in the world, rather than a burden that we must defend or be ashamed of. In some ways, we see an example of that in the story from Acts this morning.
The portion of Acts we read this morning describes Peter’s defense of his actions in a Gentile household in Joppa. Peter had gone to the home of Cornelius after having had a vision and a call from God. Cornelius was a Gentile and a centurion. Though God-fearing, he had never converted to Judaism. God sending Peter to Cornelius was an act that would break open the Jesus movement to a mission to the Gentiles. But it was not without struggle.
Peter refused God’s request to associate with that which was unclean”think not only food laws, but Gentiles”three times before following God’s call to him. Even after he gets to Cornelius’s home, he has no plan to baptize him, instead witnessing to Cornelius about Jesus until the Holy Spirit interrupts and falls upon Cornelius’s household as it did the disciples on the day of Pentecost. This was astounding to Peter for two reasons. First, the gift of the Holy Spirit had never been poured out on Gentiles. And, second, the gift of the Holy Spirit had not been given to anyone not baptized through water. It is at this point, that Peter recognizes that God is doing a new thing and he is humbled once again by the Lord’s use of him in this work of redemption.
Peter does baptize Cornelius and his household in the name of Christ, but first says, Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? (Acts 10:47) What we hear today is Peter’s defense of this baptism and the retelling of this story to the circumcised believers in Jerusalem. Again, his defense will hinge on his humility, If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God? (Acts 11:17) But it is more than Peter’s humility that will help to change the Jerusalem’s Council position on Gentiles. It is the equity of power that Peter possesses, his privilege within the community of circumcised believers in Jerusalem.
Now, in any other context, the person with the most privilege in this story would most likely be Cornelius. He is a Roman, a centurion, has some political authority and position. But notice in Peter’s defense that Cornelius’s name is never even mentioned, much less his position. Peter simply calls him that man thus maintaining a certain amount of capital or equity in the power and authority he will use in advocating for the Gentiles. He never equates his amount of power to that of Cornelius’s. He allows the equity with which he has earned in the community of believers in Jerusalem to stand for itself and through his humble recognition of that privilege is able to step aside and allow the Holy Spirit to do its work through him”not only with Cornelius but with the circumcised believers as well. Because once they’ve heard his story, the believers doubts and interrogation of Peter is silenced and they praise God for giving the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.
It is a random set of circumstances that not only gives Peter privilege in this world, but allows that privilege to then be used in transformative ways. Though privilege speaks to systemic, not individual, issues, it can be used by individuals to create good or harm; Peter is able to use systemic points of privilege”his Jewishness, maleness, and status as an apostle”to change the way the early church thought and acted toward Gentiles. We, no less than Peter, are given these same opportunities on a regular basis, though we must be open to them because they come in surprising ways and unexpected times.
Ann, a white, female, middle class, social worker understood her privilege and the amount of equity she had to control outcomes. Simply considering the Buzzfeed questions alone we can recognize that Ann would have taken one step forward for being white, one step back for being female, and then one step forward for being educated. But context matters, just as it did for Peter. The situation you are in dictates the amount of equity or privilege you possess. Ann found herself in a somewhat dangerous situation one day. She had been to visit an elderly black woman in a lower class neighborhood in which many of the houses were in disrepair and the lawns were overgrown. The woman was bedbound and dying. She said she had a difficult time resting because of the level of noise coming from her next door neighbors. Ann had noticed upon her arrival, that a group of young black men, who appeared to be gang members, were sitting on the porch of the house next door listening to loud music. This was the reason the Ann’s patient was not resting. Ann finished her visit and was out the door heading to her car when something encouraged her to stop and approach the young men on the porch.
Now take a moment to imagine the scene”an impoverished, black neighborhood, a middle-class white woman dressed reasonably well, approaching a group of young black men gathered on a porch who appear to look like gang members”drinking beer and listening to loud music. If ever there was a situation in which black men held the privilege”a greater equity of power”this was it and Ann knew it.
And yet, as Ann walked toward these young men, she had a great sense of peace and purpose. She engaged the young men in a non-threatening manner, hoping that the equity she possessed as a bearer of resources in this blighted neighborhood, would be enough to, at least, keep her from harm. She explained the circumstances that had brought her here and the situation next door regarding the elderly woman’s inability to rest or sleep due to the loud music. She then asked them if they could turn down their music and they agreed. She thanked them and left.
The next week when she returned, they acknowledged her as she entered the woman’s house and the woman said they had kept the music down and she was resting much better. The old woman told Ann that she had seen her out of the window in her bedroom walk over to the group of men and she had been terrified. She said she had prayed for Ann the whole time she was over there and was so relieved when she left. But she was thankful Ann had advocated for her with the men as she nor her daughter, who lived with her, would never have been able to do what Ann had done.
This is the kind of equity we hold when we bear privilege. But that kind of equity can hurt and hinder just as much as it can help. Had Ann gone to the young men and tried to boss them around or not been aware of hers and their privilege, had she called the police or been threatening in another way, the situation could have gone south rather quickly. But because Ann chose to recognize the power her privilege allowed her and recognized the power that their privilege allowed them, she was able to by-pass a harmful approach and instead allows transformation to happen. Simply by being open to awareness of one’s privilege is a step toward reducing the impact of privilege on those who have less access to it.
Privilege is a gift and a tool given us by God. Like all gifts we can tighten our stranglehold on it through the fear of losing it by denying its existence or our benefit from it and thereby entering into a sinful nature of privilege. Or, we can recognize that privilege is a systemic issue that we may or may not have desired or even asked for, but that we possess through some random confluence of events mostly beyond our own control. We can embrace that privilege and use it to transform the unjust structures of society like Peter or respond to human need through loving service like Ann.
The Holy Spirit is all around us, moving and acting in ways that we can barely fathom or imagine: by releasing the death-grip we maintain on our own privilege; by recognizing that privilege is about equity, not equality; by accepting that privilege is about the distribution of power and that it can be used for good, we can join with the Spirit to do God’s work of redemption in this world. We can follow the new commandment to love one another. And maybe, just maybe, the vision of John of Patmos will become our reality”I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away¦[d]eath will be no more; mourning and crying and pain [and even privilege] will be no more, for the first things have passed away¦and to the thirsty will be given the spring of the water of life