Jesus, Privilege, and Status

Bishop Michael Rinehart

privilegeWhen you walk into a room, look around. Who has the most power? Who gets the best seat? Who has the right to speak first or interrupt? Who sets the agenda and has the greatest ability to turn their will into reality, change intent into action? Jesus was aware of power dynamics and had a very specific approach to them. We should too.

I recently visited a congregation during a leadership transition. It came up that one of the council, the male in the room, who happened to be president, was unhappy with the ELCA because of a phrase a bishop elsewhere in the country had used: white privilege. When he brought it up, I just listened, and then let the conversation move with the agenda.

After the meeting I leaned in to the chair and asked if I could offer an alternate viewpoint on privilege. He agreed. The meeting had broken up, and people were drinking coffee and eating cookies, but the room leaned in to hear our conversation.

I took the conversation away from race to get us out of the war zone and into a similar, but different arena. “Are women in this community paid the same as men, for the same job?” It was quiet, but people thought about it. “Are men paid more than equally-qualified women for the same work?” No one answered, but I saw a couple women nod imperceptibly. They didn’t want to speak up. This too is an expression of power in the room. “If a man and a woman, equally qualified, apply for the same job, who is statistically more likely to get the job?” Again, there was silent, but tacit understanding. “It wasn’t long ago that women weren’t allowed to hold certain jobs, vote, or do other things. This is simply to say that society gives more privileges to men than women. This is not any one man’s fault. It just is. Men aren’t bad. We just need to acknowledge that we’re not on a level playing field.” A few nods.

When I moved the conversation back to race and racial privilege, the conversation got more lively, and, in this all-white group, I got some pushback, as expected. But I also saw some lights come on. A new narrative was being created for understanding privilege and power, different than what they had heard in the media. “If a black person and a white person run for mayor, both equally qualified, who is most likely to win?” No answer, but I could see wheels turning. Frankly, no one has had this conversation, in this way, in this town. The pundits are controlling the narrative. These are good people. They want things to be fair. Sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to power dynamics. It is a privilege: those in power don’t have to pay attention to power issues. They don’t affect them.

But Jesus did.

Wealth

When you walk into a room, who has the power to sit wherever they want? When you walk onto an airplane? A football stadium? If you are fortunate to have substantial wealth, you are accustomed to sitting wherever you wish. You may not always fly first class, but you have the ability to do so if you wish, and anyway, you can afford to fly, period. If you go to a Texans game, you can afford a $2,000 seat, if you want. Many can’t afford a $70 seat, plus food and parking, especially for a family of four. That could cost more than a week’s wages at minimum wage. If you go to the theater or a concert, you can get the seats in front, if you wish. You have that option. You can even shell out for backstage passes and meet the band. Money buys access. When you have financial resources, you get used to sitting where you want, or at least knowing you can, if you wish. The room is open to you.

Money gives you access to education. See money for business transactions, access to health care, access to safe neighborhoods, and access to multiple opportunities not shared by others.

There is nothing wrong with this. There is no sin in having resources, whether you inherited them or earned them. What’s important is to be aware that you have this privilege. Do not assume everyone else has had the same opportunities. Do not assume everyone sees every seat in the room or on the bus available to them.

Recently, I was in a multicultural meeting being held in a room where there were fewer chairs than people. It was interesting to see who went in and sat right down, front and center, oblivious to the problem and who stood at the back of the room. As U.S. Americans, we are used to having enough, and sometimes oblivious to inequity. We risk being unaware of the space we are taking up physically or verbally. And people of wealth take it for granted that they will automatically have a seat – a good one.

Jesus encountered the same phenomenon in his day. He noticed how people sat at a meal:

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
-Luke 14:7-11

We have here, a Christian ethic, taught by Jesus himself.

First of all, Jesus noticed. He paid attention to power dynamics. He noticed who had power, status, and wealth, and how those things were exercised. How do you recognize power in your community, in your church? How do you steward your own power? When you walk into a situation, are you looking for who has power and who does not? Who is abusing their power? How do you invite those with less status to have a role?

Second, Jesus taught his followers not to go to the front of the room, the front of the line, the place of privilege. He encouraged them to take the lower place, to wash the feet like a servant.

Third, he approached power from a pragmatic point of view. Don’t sit in front because, at the very least, it could be embarrassing. You could get asked to move to the back of the bus, to the back of the room, to the back of the line, with everyone watching. They’ll all see how presumptuous you were or perhaps simply unaware.

I don’t think Jesus was just talking table manners here. As he often does, Jesus is offering a life teaching that can be lived every day, on many levels. There is a deeper ethos here. Check your privilege. Let others go first. Share. Do not push your way to the front of the line in life. Pay attention to those who cannot get to the front, for reasons often beyond their control.

Jesus continues the lesson:

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
-Luke 14:12-14

We often look up the social ladder. Making friends in high places gives us access to the halls of power and privilege. It gets us a seat at the table. Jesus encourages his followers to take a substantially different approach to life. Look down the social ladder, to those with less power, wealth, privilege, and opportunity, and offer them a seat at the table. He invites us to set aside our own interests for a moment, to put them in check so to say, and focus instead on the interests of others.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
-Philippians 2:4

The apostle Paul sees in the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, an ethos of power:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,  did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Paul sees that Jesus has status, divine status. But he sheds that status, emptying himself to be with us in human form. Therefore, God exalted him. This is a quintessentially Christian way of being in the world. Humility is the character of Christ; therefore, it is the character of a Christian. To be “in Christ” is to follow Jesus’ way of being in the world.

In Michael J. Gorman’s, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, this point is made clearly:

  • In 2 Cor. 8:9, Although Christ was rich, he became not rich, but (so that) by his poverty we become “rich.”
  • In Rom 15:1-3, Although they are “strong” they must not please themselves, but humble themselves and put up with the scruples of the “weak” so that the body might be built up.
  • In 1 Thess. 2:6-8, Although Paul’s status as apostle allowed him to make demands, he did not, but rather he was gentle.
  • In 1 Cor. 9:1-23. Although Paul has the apostolic privilege to have a wife and get paid for his work, he does not exercise this privilege, but (v. 12) endures these sacrifices for the sake of the gospel.

To be a Christian, to follow Christ, is to be consciously aware of status and to willingly give up power to the least, the last, and the lost.

So when someone says “male privilege” or “white privilege,” they are simply acknowledging that the playing field is not level. And there are many other kinds of power – wealth, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, position, and citizenship, for example.

Consider U.S. American privilege. We take it for granted that we can travel anywhere and live anywhere we wish. I have friends who just moved to a different country. U.S. American citizenship is a huge privilege. A U.S. passport is a powerful document. If you have one, you can go to Brazil and visit Rio. But a Brazilian passport does not guarantee you access to the U.S. If you are Mexican, you cannot assume you can move to the U.S. and live here. You’ll be lucky to get a visa, and that visa will likely run out unless you have a lot of money and education. If you stay after your visa runs out, you are undocumented. If you go home, you may wait 15-20 years to get another visa, due to the small number of visas the U.S. gives out and the huge backlog. There are currently millions of visa applicants waiting.

This is nothing new. At the time the New Testament was being written, it was a big deal to be a Roman citizen. Roman citizenship came with privileges. It was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen or jail a Roman citizen without a trial. Roman citizenship could be bought for a hefty price, and many people went into debt to get it. Some, by accident of birth, were ineligible or unable to afford Roman citizenship.

Paul’s revolutionary message was that race, gender identity, and economic status counted for nothing before God (Galatians 3:28). You may not be a citizen of Rome. You may not be an Israelite, and therefore not a child of Abraham, ineligible for salvation from the Jews. But as far as the God of Christ was concerned, you were citizens of a greater empire, God’s country, God’s kingdom, where status is turned upside-down.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
-Ephesians 2:19-20

To follow Christ, is to see the world through different eyes. It is to live into that upside-down empire. It is to have the mind of Christ, who though he had status by being “in the form of God,” did not exploit that status, but took on the form of a servant, “in the form of a human.” He divested himself of power for our sake. He turned his eye to those of “low degree.”

Have this mind among you.

 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is the name.
God’s mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of mercy,
according to the promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Luke 1:46-55