September 25, 2016 / Power & Privilege: The Invisible Knapsack, Or, Jesus Didn’t Wear Khakis / Sara Wolbrecht / Philippians 2:5-8
Friends, this fall we’re treading important into territory. Venturing into a conversation we’re calling “Becoming We.” A conversation very much formed by where we find ourselves as a new community here at Salt House. In a few weeks our basement will open as a day center for families experiencing homeless, and we have named how we want this to be an experience of BECOMING WE with folks who benefit from the day center. And that really, that mindset, that identity would fuel the very way in which we engage in the world. To know ourselves and our biases and to let God meet us in those places to transform how we see the world and the unique people we share this world with.
And my friends this past week we’ve lived through, was another week in which we have every reason to do this hard, urgent work of becoming we. Another week of racism, death, of black bodies being treated differently than how white bodies are treated. Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. As Jesus-following people, it is timely and necessary and urgent for us to have the conversation we already planned to have today, which is a conversation about privilege and power. Today we ask: How does the Jesus-story influence the dynamics of our own privilege – and what do we do about it?
Let’s pray: God, with a deep breath we settle into this time, opening ourselves up to the hope and possibility you have for us and our world – and with deep humility, we name that we are people who don’t have answers to this, yet who long to see transformation – to see healing, racial reconciliation, peace. May what we say and experience now move us into your trajectory of making this vision, your vision, of the world a reality.
As we begin this conversation on privilege, let’s start by engaging our brains, with defining what the word privilege means, and how we’re using it. When words are thrown around on Facebook and publically – it is so good to take a step back and ground ourselves in an actual definition.
Two Definitions of Privilege: Two definitions to work with. The first is from a scholar and researcher, Peggy McIntosh, who talks about privilege as “unpacking the invisible knapsack.” Like an invisible backpack filled with resources that we get to carry around. Peggy was specifically speaking to white privilege here in this quote, but it carries over into all categories of privilege. She says: 'I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.' – Peggy McIntosh
I find that image of the invisible backpack so helpful. Privilege affords unseen, unlimited resources – that we are meant to remain oblivious to. Second, the dictionary definition is also helpful in wrapping our minds around what privilege is: A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. – Meriam Webster Dictionary
Privilege. Now – let’s move this conversation from definitions to making it more personal and tangible. To name ways in which we have that invisible knapsack, and ways that we don’t.
You see, we are, you and me, everyday, breathing the cultural air where certain groups of people are considered privileged, while another group is not. And in the United States there are historically recognized privileged and oppressed communities of people.
I have a list of twelve identities that are privileged, with their corresponding oppressed people group. And I am going to ask you to be a little bit vulnerable, to take a bit of a risk. I am going to read through this list of privilege, and as I name each of these identities, if it defines you, is true for you, I invite you to stand up where you are. And then I’ll invite you to sit as I name the next one. So people will keep sitting and standing as we name these twelve privileged identities. For those who have difficulty standing you can raise your hand to participate. Are you willing to try this with me?
Pay attention to how often you stand – it may be easier to count the number of times you stay seated, because many of us will stand a lot. And pay attention to essentially, how much privilege you have. Some of this may feel vulnerable for some folks, so feel free to just disengage and not participate at any point in this. Some identities may be hard to choose one, so go with your gut for which is closest to your response, even if you have some editing to make to the statement to really own it.
(I do hope that folks watching online will also choose to stand as pertinent). And again: these are not my categories – but what experts have named as privileged identities in the United States.
Alright. Here we go. Please stand if you are someone who holds the privileged identity of being…
1. An adult, age 30-55. The oppressed identity is being young or an elder. (sit)
2. A man. The oppressed identity is being a woman or person targeted by sexism.
3. White. The oppressed identity is being a person of color.
4. Gender conforming or cis-gender. The oppressed identity is being gender non-conforming or trans. (and if these are unfamiliar terms to you: then you should be standing).
5. Person without disability. The oppressed identity is being differently abled.
6. Heterosexual. The oppressed identity is being lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer.
7. Christian. The oppressed identity is being non-Christian.
8. Owning property, middle-class. The oppressed identity is being low income, working class.
9. Born in the USA. The oppressed identity is born outside the USA.
10. Socially acceptable body size and weight. The oppressed identity is a body size/weight not considered socially acceptable.
11. Native English speaker. The oppressed identity is being a non-native speaker.
12. And finally: U.S. citizen. The oppressed identity is being a non-U.S. citizen.
What did you notice? About yourself? About the amount of privilege in this room? What kind of invisible knapsacks do we carry around? What advantages because of these identities? It was pretty powerful for me to work through this list the first time – I can stand up for every one except for being a man. And if you are like me – and remained seated for one or more – then like me, I would guess that you – like me – also have stories of times when you were discredited, forgotten, overlooked, silenced – or maybe even threatened, hurt, put in danger. Times when we experienced oppression –being unprivileged. What stories we could tell. It is power and reorienting to actually name the privilege we do and don’t have.
We now take this fresh awareness of our privilege, to hold alongside the gospel. The Jesus story. To look and ask about how Jesus engaged with his own privilege and the power in his culture. Obviously, we could spend a week looking at examples. But we’ll turn to a few key places in the New Testament, and hear it woven together in a video featuring Christena Cleveland, a professor and author. It’s filmed in a back room at a conference she was speaking at, and she moves quickly and fluidly through some beautiful and challenging territory. So sit up, tune in, it moves fast – and I invite you to try and grab hold of the one thing, or the two things that you want to remember and walk away with in the conversation on how Jesus informs our privilege and power.
VIDEO: “Privilege + Power” with Christena Cleveland, from The Work of the People, http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/privilege-and-power
Friends, isn’t that good? What grabbed you? Hang on to that. Today, to talk about privilege, we have to name again, as Christena said: Jesus spent so much of his time standing in solidarity with the oppressed.
I love what Christena says about the seven signs in John’s gospel. John uses the seven signs – which are the seven miracles Jesus performs – as this special way of revealing who God is and what the life of Jesus is like. And yes. The only people who witness these miracles first hand – are the very people who are marginalized in that society. THEY see it. Women, broken bodied, hungry people. Who sees the Feeding of 5000? The little boy. Not the rich white guy – the people of power don’t have that kind of access to Jesus.
And that, my friends, is the pattern that is laid before us, the invitation into a life that looks like Jesus’ life. Christena mentions Philippians 2, where the apostle Paul, who pens this letter to the Christians in the city of Philippi, and he lays out this invitation, and I want us to hear it as an invitation for us, too. Our text for today. Notice how this sounds in the conversation about our privilege (on the screen only, The Message):
Philippians 2:5-8 (The Message) Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
This week, like me, were you mad, heartbroken, overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness with what you saw in our headlines? I also wonder, who among us maybe had no idea about what was happening? I refrained from watching the video of Terrence because I can’t watch violence, it just sticks with me for weeks. But I felt so aware that I have the privilege to make that choice not to watch it. It is privilege that allows us to ignore the suffering we see – to not see it as our issue, our own suffering.
Jesus saw suffering – like what we saw this week and in so many weeks in the past years – systemic and individual oppression – and Jesus went right into the middle of it. I love that comment in the video about Jesus not wearing khakis. He could have been the khaki-wearing epitome of cultural privilege. But he gave it up.
Jesus didn’t wear khakis. He didn’t look like someone who had power – but gave up his power as soon as he chose to be someone who stands in solidarity with the powerless.
He gave his privilege up for the sake of leveraging it for those who didn’t have it. My friends, were you heartbroken – AGAIN – this week by our headlines? By racism and black bodies treated differently than while bodies? Then I ask you (as surely as I ask myself): then what will we do today with the privilege we have to stand alongside the oppressed? How will we leverage our privilege?
Christena is right: the life of Jesus compels us to wrestle with, struggle with what it looks like to use, to leverage the privilege we have. There’s no program to follow, it is not prescriptive, but at its most basic level, it calls us to be aware of the cultural air we breathe. The invisible backpacks we and others carry – and don’t carry.
But here’s one thing to try this week as we continue wrestling this out: the list of 12 identities of privilege and oppression, is printed on the inside of your bulletin insert. Please, please, go through and read it again, check the boxes that name your privilege – and hang it up at home to daily remember the kinds of folks whose voices need to be heard. And to recognize the privilege you have that can be leveraged for the sake of the oppressed.
The Jesus story invites us to leverage the power and privilege we have for the sake of those who do not have what we have. To open up that invisible knapsack and hand out the resources, advantages, voice, power to those who do not have it. To give it away – because in the giving away, we start to change the story. In giving it away, we live the Jesus story.
As a final thought, I want to restate what Christena said near the end. And it is harsh and direct – and yet so deeply true. She says: “Can you be a privileged person in our society who’s not standing in solidarity with the oppressed and actually know Jesus? No you can’t. There is nothing to your faith if you’re not standing in solidarity with the oppressed. Because Jesus is standing with the oppressed and you can’t truly see Jesus except through the lens of the oppressed.” Because that’s where Jesus is.
In all of this, in all we’ve covered, friends, let’s ask the questions we always ask: God, what are you saying to me? And what am I going to do about it?
As our response to what we’re hearing, we continue to make room to listen, to sing, and to make space for whatever we need in the next few minutes. And also, today, to begin this time with a prayer of confession, flowing into a song and words that speak the kind of confession we need to speak on behalf of ourselves the oppressed. Let’s pray…