Thursday, September 19
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:12-13)
Modern Christians are quick to acknowledge those tragic times in the past when the Church used coercion to harm hundreds of thousands of people. The Inquisition (1250-1450 AD) and the Crusades (1095-1492 AD) come immediately to mind. Those shameful periods in our history attest to how tempting it is for all people possessing power — even those who follow “the Prince of Peace” — to use violence to advance their desires. Sadly, when Christians became the dominant religious force in the western world, they went from persecuted minority to persecuting majority.
While we confess those ancient sins of coercion, Christians must also acknowledge that privilege continues to be manifest in the Church. “Privilege” is the foundation on which institutional coercion is built. The word comes from Latin “privilegium,” meaning a law for just one person. In our modern vocabulary, we deﬁne privilege as a set of unearned beneﬁts given to people who ﬁt into a speciﬁc social group. Society grants privilege to people because of certain aspects of their identity, such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, geographical location, ability, and religion.
Think about privilege as the other side of oppression. What are ways in which you might be oppressed? Are you disadvantaged because of the way society treats aspects of your identity? Are you a woman? Are you disabled? Does your sexuality diﬀer from the majority? Are you poor? Do you have a mental illness or a learning disability? Are you a person of color? Are you gender non-conforming? All of these aspects of identity can make your life diﬃcult because society disenfranchises people who ﬁt into those social groups. We call this oppression.
But what about the people society doesn’t disenfranchise? Whether they are aware of it or not, those folks are empowered by society because their identity falls in the majority. We call that privilege. It’s deﬁnitely easier to notice the oppression we experience than the privilege we enjoy since being mistreated leaves a bigger impression on us than being treated fairly.
There is not enough room here to have an extensive discussion of privilege, intersectionality, and how individuals can experience privilege and oppression at the same time. Suﬃce it to say, privilege means that under the exact same set of circumstances you’re in, life would be harder without your privilege. Being poor is hard (being wealthy is a privilege). If being poor is hard, being poor and disabled is harder (being able bodied is a privilege). If being a woman is hard (being male in a patriarchal culture is a privilege), being a black woman is harder (being white is a privilege). If being a black man is hard, being a gay black man is harder (being heterosexual is a privilege).
By the way, you can be privileged and still have a diﬃcult life! Privilege doesn’t mean that your life is easy, but rather that it’s easier than others’ lives. But here is the shock: it is not necessarily a bad thing to have privilege. In a sense, Christians would say everyone should experience privilege! Everyone should expect to be treated fairly! God desires everyone to be treated with respect. The problem is that some people aren’t treated that way in the world as it is now. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well, “true peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
We live in a time when Christians are beginning to recognize the Church’s privilege in our culture. As those who seek to oﬀer the peace of Christ without coercion to the world, we must learn how to use our power and privilege to address injustice and oppression. We must tear down the institutional barriers that (often, unintentionally) make people feel like second-class citizens in our worship services.
As members and friends of First UMC Oak Ridge, we acknowledge that many in our congregation have privilege in our culture. What matters now is making sure we use that privilege to transform the world as God desires. Our goal is not to point out people’s privilege to make them feel guilty. Simply feeling guilty does nothing to advance God’s kingdom on earth. We want all people to use the power and positions they have to make a diﬀerence.
Our goal is to fulﬁll our Christian calling to welcome, empower, and invite ALL people (including those who have been coerced and oppressed) to follow Jesus Christ. We do that by recognizing our own privilege, listening to people who experience oppression, working in community with coerced groups, and using our God-given gifts to transform the world as the Holy Spirit leads.
Here are some questions all congregations must consider:
• Do our language and programs focus so heavily on families, especially those with children, that singles, widows/widowers, single parents, etc. feel left out?
• Are ALL people really welcome? How might the way we dress make some uncomfortable? Do we assume everyone knows “church etiquette?” Is our congregation gracious to new people? Do we introduce ourselves?
• Does our congregation look remarkably alike or represent the diversity of the community?
• Is our worship leadership representative of all ages, races, cultures, genders, etc.?
• Do our worship services assume people know what is supposed to happen next or do we provide adequate direction and explanation for new folks?