Showing Up:
Privilege the Oppressed

Second Sunday After Epiphany
January 20, 2019
Scripture Lesson: Luke 4:14-21
(adapted from The Message)
Rev. Jeff Wells, The Church of the Village

There you have it – Jesus just laid out his mission. He quoted from the Prophet Isaiah to share his mission in a way that everyone would recognize as part of their tradition. It’s brilliant! In choosing this one passage out of the whole of the Hebrew scriptures, notice who Jesus intentionally highlighted as the recipients of his mission: the poor, prisoners, the battered and burdened, and the blind. By the way, I am convinced Jesus did not mean only those who were physically blind, but also the spiritual blind and those blinded to injustice and to their own prejudices. In other words, Jesus explicitly privileged the oppressed in his mission statement. He makes the same point in the Gospel of Matthew where he implies God is going to judge us by whether we give a place of privilege to those with the least privilege: poor, hungry, without decent clothing, who have no place to live, are beaten-down and put down and kept down, who suffer mass incarceration, and who are kept on the other side of the border when they are fleeing for their lives.

Virtually every kind of organization and community – secular and religious – is wrestling these days with privilege – especially white privilege, but also male privilege, heterosexual privilege, cisgender privilege, and more. There is an avalanche of books, articles, blogs, and conferences on privilege. Privilege and its effects are being grappled with in university and seminary classes, psychoanalytic institutes, faith communities, and business settings.

Just this week, the issue of white privilege came up in a three-day gathering which I attend with our Bishop, Thomas Bickerton, and about 150 New York Conference clergy. The featured speaker was Tod Bolsinger, Vice President, Chief of Leadership Formation, and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. He was presenting on a book he wrote titled, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. Bolsinger uses the Corps of Discovery expedition, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, as his analogy to talk about the challenges of clergy, churches, and denominational leaders as we try to make our way through uncharted territory, as the context of Christianity has completely changed in the past 50 years. Early on in his presentation, a clergy colleague who is African-American, got his attention, stood up and said she was very disturbed by his use of Lewis and Clark to exemplify leadership. She pointed out that they were both not only slave owners, but known to be particularly cruel ones. This prompted a fairly open and honest discussion about blindness to white privilege and the harm done to black clergy in the room by his use of this example. I had the same concern when I read the first four chapters and I am so glad my friend and colleague had the courage to raised the issue. This was the first time, in my experience, that a large group of clergy in our Annual Conference held a discussion on racism and white privilege that went beyond a superficial level. Of course, so much more needs to be done, but it was a valuable beginning and I believe it pushed some of the white pastors who were present to a deeper consciousness of their own blindness and of the harm that continues to be perpetrated. Let me say also that there is not equal responsibility here for combating white privilege and white supremacy. People of color don’t have to investigate the effects of white privilege and racism – they live them in their bodies and psyches. White persons have the responsibility to learn, to reflect on their own roles, and then to act.

Today, we remember and celebrate the tremendous contributions and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement for 13 years. I am not sure if King would have said it was a privilege or a burden to be thrust into that position. I suspect both.  King was a powerful, inspired, and inspiring leader. Yet, it is important to remember that King did not initiate the struggle for black freedom and he did not lead it alone. In her book, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, Angela Davis writes, “It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.” [1] The exclusive focus on – we might say, “the privileging”– of King’s leadership has often meant diminished attention to other leaders, such as Malcolm X or Huey Newton, and especially, to a lack of focus on black women leaders.

Angela Davis has been a passionate advocate for racial and economic justice, national liberation, and women’s liberation since the 1960s and is still fighting for these causes today. At the height of the black power movement in the late 1960s, she was both a member of the Community Party and a supporter of the Black Panther Party, so the U.S. government tried to eliminate her by framing her up for an attack on a courthouse in 1970. She was placed on the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted” list, arrested and brought to trial. Yet, amazingly, an all-white jury acquitted her of all charges. She makes the point about the importance of avoiding the heroic leader model in her own experience. She writes:

“What I do want people to remember is the fact that the movement around the demand for my freedom was victorious. It was a victory against insurmountable odds. Even though I was innocent, the assumption was that the power of those forces in the U.S. was so strong that I would either end up in the gas chamber or that I would spend the rest of my life behind bars. Thanks to the movement, I am here with you today.”

Davis wants to emphasize the power of the movement, not of individual leadership, even her own. I think Martin Luther King Jr. himself would say we should focus on the mass movement of people and the individual contributions and sacrifices of millions.

I believe we can say the same even about Jesus. There is a problem with Christian theology that tries to portray Jesus as the “heroic leader” who redeemed our sins and attained our salvation for us on our behalf by being martyred on a cross. Too many people use that belief as an excuse to avoid the hard work of transforming themselves and the world. Jesus would himself argued against such a view. In the Gospel of John, he said, “Believe me: I am in my God and God is in me. If you can’t believe that, believe what you see – these works I do. The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even greater things, because…I am giving you the same work to do that I’ve been doing.” [2]
We are to do even greater work than Jesus. He gave us the same work to do, the same mission he had proclaimed: show up with and for the most vulnerable, the most abused, the most downtrodden. Our efforts are not about privileging the role of a few heroic leaders, but about providing the encouragement and the opportunity for all of us to recognize and exercise our agency as in a community of struggle that privileges the oppressed!

The Church of the Village self-identifies as progressive, radically inclusive, and anti-racist. We also say we are striving to build beloved community. We strive to privilege the oppressed. These are not empty or insignificant claims. We are followers of the God of the Oppressed. We work at dismantling racism and white privilege in our own midst and in the world around us. This goes beyond just teaching and preaching about it. For example, our Leadership Discernment and Development Committee and our Personnel Committee are very conscious and intentional about making sure that the diverse character of our congregation is strongly represented in our administrative and program leadership, our worship leadership, and on our staff. I do not mean just token “diversity.” This is putting people in positions of power and authority as a concrete way of undermining white privilege and privileging the oppressed.

As Minister Anita says frequently, she joined the Church of the Village because this is what she thinks the kin-dom of God is supposed to look like. I think many of us came with that same belief. We have a deep desire to be part of a community in which we can affirm and love one another for just who we are. Of course, what we are trying to create and build here is not simple or easy. Some of us have been relatively privileged, while others have suffered much harm. That difference can hinder our ability to listen to and understand one another’s experience or to grasp the depth of pain and the real material and psychological consequences of racism and white supremacy. But I think we are trying very hard to build the kind of relationships and the kind of community in which that can occur. And even as we make mistakes and sometimes fail to live up to our aspirations, I sense a deep commitment from all of you to this work. I believe profoundly in our ability to love, to struggle, and to work together to accomplish this mission. It is hard work and not everyone wants to work that hard at being church. But I believe in my soul that is what God is calling us to do. As uncomfortable and even painful as this work can sometimes be, I encourage all of us to stay in it together for the long haul.

Our efforts in striving to foster beloved community are deeply important and meaningful, and not just for us. They have an impact beyond our own congregation because they help to keep alive a vision and a hope for humanity that God has dreamed of for as long as there have been human communities. Jesus gave his mission to us – to continue the challenging work of turning privilege on its head so that in the end, no one will be privileged above another, but all will have the privileged to know and be known, to give and receive love, to share in the just and abundant life offered by God. May it be so.

Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.

[1] Angela Y. Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement

[2] John 14:11-12, adapted from The Message bible paraphrase.