White Privilege and Justice

Let there be no poor among you. Dt 15:4

Let there be no poor among you. Dt 15:4

Thomas Merton based his Christology on the fact that Jesus emptied himself and became a slave. Jesus was fully human. For Merton this emptying was the model for his contemplative journey. Jesus grew in “wisdom, age, and grace.” He came to know Abba Father and to understand his relationship with God. His final words on the cross completed the emptying, the kenosis, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

The spiritual life for each one of us follows the same process—emptying ourselves, letting go of the false self of pretence and privilege. We have to let go and let God. I have been using the Amplified Bible for lectio divina because it gives alternative words and expressions for the words we commonly heart and gloss over. Philippians 2:7 reads: But He stripped Himself [of all privileges and rightful dignity], so as to assume the guise of a servant [slave].”

Jesus emptied himself of all privileges. So must we. When Obama was elected, some falsely sounded the death knell for racism in America. Subsequent events have shown that racism is alive and well in America. Now it is more likely to fly under the radar screen disguised as white privilege. Maureen Dowd has commented on this in an editorial in the Sunday New York Times. Referring to Congressman Wilson’s untoward remark to Obama during his speech to Congress, Dowd concludes, “Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/opinion/13dowd.html) Why did no one complain when white guys were running up a massive debt to be inherited by our children and grandchildren in an unjust, immoral preemptive war in Iraq? Hmmmm!

White privilege is raising its ugly head. I would define white privilege as prejudice backed up by structures to enforce discrimination however subtle it may be. I have noticed “Pray for America” signs all over our North Georgia Mountain community. They went up right after the election. Given the timing, I have often wondered whether the message is, “Now that we have a black man in the White House we must really pray for America.”

Whites, especially white males, have been so culturally conditioned by white privilege, that we act s if our way, our lifestyle, our thinking is the only way. We often unconsciously exercise white privilege to maintain our lifestyle and our domination over others.

White privilege, in my opinion, accounts for the failure of the church to adequately address the structures which keep people in oppression. On any stewardship commitment Sunday, you will hear parishioners commending themselves on how much they do for others. And rightly so; however, this is an exercise in charity, not justice.

Justice is all about right order and right relationships. Relationships that are based on power and privilege can never be right. Yes, people will give to the St. Vincent DePaul Society on the way out the door but will never set foot in the home of a poor person or walk in their shoes. Others will work to raise money to support a sister community on a two-thirds world country but will assure you that they will never go there after they hear about the outhouse in the back courtyard.

To understand the plight of the poor and oppressed, we have to be with them. Then, justice kicks in. We have to do something to change the structures which are keeping these people impoverished. Justice work gets up close and personal because we soon realize that we have to change our lifestyle if we are going to change the structures which oppress two thirds of the world.

Christians who believe in Jesus the Christ have a sacred duty to imitate Jesus. Jesus has the highest honor any human being could ever possibly have—He was the Only Begotten of God. He dropped this privilege in order to serve us, in order to teach us that life is about service to others.

For Jesus service to others took many forms. Eucharist is a do word. In the Eucharist, we are told, “Do this in memory of me.” Do what? Do what Jesus did—challenge the power and privilege structures of his day. He challenged the Roman occupiers and their Jewish collaborators. He challenged them to end oppression and to set people free. His challenge landed him on the cross where he was lifted up so that all things might be made new. We, as disciples, are to challenge structures which oppress and dehumanize others.

Sometimes, we forget that Jesus issued another mandatum at the Last Supper, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher (Master), have washed your feet, you ought [it is your duty, you are under obligation, you owe it] to wash one another’s feet.” Jesus emptied Himself in humble service—washing dirty, smelly, dust crusted feet. He abandoned all pretense and privilege. He is our model. We are to empty ourselves. Peter really got the message. He realized that, if he let Jesus wash his feet, he would have to kneel down and wash the feet of others.

John 3:17 tells us that “God did not send the Son into the world in order to judge the world, but that the world might find salvation and be made safe and sound through Him.” Etymologically, this is another way of saying Shalom—health, peace, inner well being, wholeness, healing. In order to be shalom to one another, we must empty ourselves. The world will never be safe as long as white privilege drives the economic machine and shapes political structures.

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