“It is morning, afternoon, or evening. Begin.”
Thomas Merton, Book of Hours
a thought to consider:
Privileged people who truly understand their privilege will jump at the chance to give up their privilege by going to the other’s church, in their cultural comfort zone, on their turf and on their terms. Quite simply, this is what unity in our upside-down kingdom often requires. Addressing power and privilege differentials often involves rejecting power societal norms that support status differences. It often involves the higher-status group’s voluntarily abdicating its higher status. These are both difficult and potentially painful processes that require individuals to closely examine the ways in which their social identities (such as race, gender, economic status, education level) influence the status, power, privilege, and mobility that society affords them.
Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Fences that Keep Us Apart by Christena Cleveland
something Jesus said:
Whoever makes himself great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be made great. How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You lock the door to the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces—and, you yourselves don’t go in, nor do you allow in those who are trying to enter!
A Roman captain in Capernaum had a servant who was on his deathbed. He prized him highly and didn’t want to lose him. When he heard Jesus was back, he sent leaders from the Jewish community asking him to come and heal his servant. They came to Jesus and urged him to do it, saying, “He deserves this. He loves our people. He even built our meeting place.”
Jesus went with them. When he was still quite far from the house, the captain sent friends to tell him, “Master, you don’t have to go to all this trouble. I’m not that good a person, you know. I’d be embarrassed for you to come to my house, even embarrassed to come to you in person. Just give the order and my servant will get well. I’m a man under orders; I also give orders. I tell one soldier, ‘Go,’ and he goes; another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Taken aback, Jesus addressed the accompanying crowd: “I’ve yet to come across this kind of simple trust anywhere in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know about God and how he works.” When the messengers got back home, they found the servant up and well.
from Luke 7:2-10
Over the past few years on Good Friday, a group of evangelical churches called Serve Our City have gathered together to unite and do good work throughout the city of Austin. This wonderfully audacious group of church leaders have managed to bring in some of the biggest and most popular, DOVE and Grammy award-winning, Christian contemporary music, such as The Newsboys and Michael W. Smith to the greater Austin area. It’s a free concert that donates any offerings to Austin non-profits who wholeheartedly do the work of feeding the homeless and ending their plight, rescuing and rehabilitating sex-slaves, caring for the sick and dying, eradicating poverty and racism.
Although I do attend a predominantly white evangelical church that I adore, and though I do really love our worship team who manages to tell the whole Jesus narrative by blending covers of U2, Imagine Dragons and Arcade Fire with music from Hillsong and Bethel, I was brought up in a traditional African-American church environment. At first, white-culture worship music was foreign to me. My first experience of anything other than Gospel music and traditional Baptist hymns was like stepping into an entirely different world, and I had to figure out how to navigate new worship traditions that weren’t part of my own experience. And so I was thrilled when last year, Serve Our City not only choose a non-profit founded by an African-American woman, but also headlined with DOVE and Grammy award winning gospel musician Kirk Franklin. This was a big deal! Finally, my own culture would be the dominant force in the room and I would get to share that experience with my beloved but very white-culture-dominant city of Austin.
I gathered my redheaded Brit-hubs, my Bebe and Cece Winans-loving in-laws, and my girl, and we headed downtown to THE SHOW. As thousands of us from all demographics of race, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds descended on our town, I felt something that I still can’t properly name. The closest thing that hits the particular emotion carrying me that day is the Yiddish word verklempt—too emotional to speak. Once services began, my emotions were beginning to annoy my teenager, who actually said, “It’s been like five minutes, Mom. Save some for later.” But I cried as pastors representing the white evangelical community, Hispanic evangelical community, and African-American evangelical community took turns giving a Good Friday message. I even cried through the traditional white evangelical praise and worship part of the service. I lost all control of myself when LaTasha Morrison—founder of Be the Bridge and the non-profit being honored that evening—took the stage, and I gave myself a headache from weeping when a police chief took the stage alongside a Black Lives Matters representative. All this was happening while my mixed-bag family sat with an Asian family to our left, a Hispanic family to our right, and two white families in the rows in front and behind us. I barely made it through communion. I had never seen in a church setting such a display of diversity of race and ethnicity filling all the seats of the Frank Erwin Center. And to think that Kirk hadn’t even taken the stage yet. The concert was still to come.
When at last Kirk Franklin opened the concert, he explained to the many white evangelicals who probably weren't familiar with his music what his style of praise and worship was all about. He prepared them for what was to come, saying “We’re going to party for Jesus. Let all the young kids come down front.” And so it began, a throw-yo-hands-up-in-the-air-and-wave-them-like-you-just-don’t-care party! The kids down front went bonkers. I wept like it was the second coming. But slowly but surely, the white evangelical families surrounding me began to leave. Looking around the auditorium, I could see waves of whiteness leaving. By the time Kirk cried out to the audience to turn to someone who didn’t look like you and greet them, my family was the only family left in our “sold out”, nosebleed section, and my father-in-law and husband had to get up out of their seats to walk over to an African-American family seated rows away.
In our story, Jesus and the Roman officer represent two very different cultures—Jewish and Roman. At the time of this story, Roman culture was the dominant, more powerful of the two. To the Romans, the Jewish people were completely inferior to them and hardly even considered people, because they held no resources and no power. A Jewish slave was no more than “a living tool”, as defined by Roman law, and when sick could legally be thrown away and replaced with a newer model. But this Roman officer not only loved his slave, he loved his slave's culture. This is evident in the story by the fact that the Jews he sends to Jesus do not ask Jesus to heal the slave because the slave is worthy – no, they tell Jesus how wonderful the Roman officer has been to them and all that he’s done for them. What’s more, the Roman officer could have sent his own soldiers, who certainly could have forcefully demanded that Jesus heal the slave (Jesus’ response to that would have made an interesting story), but he doesn’t use his power this way. He uses the privilege of being invited into Jewish tradition and so usurps his dominant culture and sends a less-powerful, subservient culture at that time in history to speak to the Almighty on his behalf in a life-or-death situation.
Power is the momentum of privilege in the hands of a dominant culture. The Roman officer could have cared for his servant without ever seeking the help of a single Jew. We can be for racial unity yet never move outside our cultural divides, or ever worship in the church of a different race or ethnicity or neighborhood that we perceive as less than our own. We can always choose to stay comfortable. This is what privilege is. We can choose what we will and will not do. When privilege is put into motion by the powerful it can unleash world-wrecking events—The Holocaust, Japanese Internment Camps, The Trail of Tears—or it can unleash simple but equally damaging events, like waves of white people leaving the auditorium when someone not like them takes to the stage--an event that surely opened old wounds of the non-dominant culture being left behind once again. But when privilege puts its power behind and embraces the disenfranchised or non-dominant culture, it can unleash world-changing events like The March on Washington, the end British rule in India and apartheid in South Africa, or it can simply create heart-changing events like Austinites of all colors, race and ethnicities sharing communion on Good Friday one evening just one year ago.
I need to say that many white, Hispanic and Asian people stayed and partied that night with Kirk Franklin. Their children bopped and swayed and jumped in a multi-cultural dance frenzy that of course kept me verklempt and in tears. From the bottom of my heart, I thank each and every one of those families.
1. Is your culture usually the dominant culture in most of the places you go? Is the music being played by musicians who share your racial identity? Are most of the people in the places you go the same race as you?
2. Outside of traveling to different countries, have you ever had an experience when you stepped into a culture that felt completely foreign to you, even though you were in your own country and everyone was speaking your language?
3. In the story, the Roman officer tell Jesus that he feels unworthy of Jesus coming to his home even though Jesus was poorer than him and a Jew who didn’t own property and didn’t have political or religious power. Have you ever felt unworthy of a person’s company whose status was beneath your own? Or do you sometimes feel that the presence and company of your status is a blessing to those who are of a lesser status? For example, when serving the less fortunate, do you feel a bit of pride or that they should feel privileged to have the resources that you can afford? (I got checked on this when I was told by a woman who runs a food pantry for the homeless that my insistence on donating organic and name-brand goods was unnecessary because her clients were not more blessed by my preferences. They were blessed by food, period—organic or generic didn’t matter. In fact sometimes, her clients preferred the generic brands because they were more familiar to them.)
4. The Roman officer didn’t use his culture’s power to get what he wanted. Instead he wholeheartedly embraced the less dominant and less respected Jewish culture in order to engage with Jesus. In what ways could you wholeheartedly embrace a culture less dominant and less respected than your own in order to better engage with Jesus?
O God, may our dominant or preferred culture be that of a love that makes us forgo our power in favor of lending our privilege in order to change hearts. May we lift our voices and our hands to You and say to each other, "The Imago Dei in me welcomes and honors the Imago Dei in you." Lord, forgive us that we don’t bind ourselves to each other the way You, The Father and the Holy Spirit are bound. Forgive us when we look nothing like you and can’t see anything of you in others we encounter. Forgive us when we leave unfamiliar rooms of new culture rather than embrace them. Lord, I pray that we may all be truly one abiding as one in You so that the world will know the love that You have for all Your cultures who are singing Your story of The Good News for all people.
May the God of Spirit and Truth expand your mind, but even more your heart, to receive His Great and Universal Good News. May you know that no change of heart happens without a change of mind and no change of mind happens without a change of heart. Go. Get started in one place or the other!
adapted from Wondrous Encounters: Scriptures for Lent by Richard Rohr