By Brian E. Konkol, Co-Pastor, Lake Edge Lutheran Church
I am a white-skinned, able-bodied, primarily English-speaking, heterosexual, male, documented U.S. citizen.
I am a modern day person of privilege.
By definition, my privileged status is an inherited reality that provides special advantages, immunities, rights, and an assortment of benefits that too often come at the expense of those excluded from my members-only caste. When in comparison with those who are not white-skinned, able-bodied, primarily English-speaking, heterosexual, male, documented U.S. citizens, I am more likely to be employed, I am less likely to be incarcerated, and I am expected to have health insurance, enjoy a comfortable retirement, and eventually die peacefully in my elder years. And so, while we often hear about the so-called “American Dream” ideal of equal opportunity, the harsh truth – which is repeatedly confirmed through U.S. Census data – is that people of privilege (such as myself) – regardless of our work ethic or abilities – tend to enjoy a significantly disproportionate level of advantage throughout our lives.
While the consequences of social privilege are alarming for numerous reasons, we are reminded that such systematic inequalities are by no means unique to the current day and age. For example, during Jesus’ ministry he encountered a predominant culture that distributed a wide variety of elite benefits based upon gender, class, ethnicity, and other forms of false favoritism. However, one of the primary distinctions of Jesus’ life, which he continually modeled for his disciples, was a prophetic confrontation with unjust structures of social privilege. As Jesus accompanied women, tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, and others firmly placed on the underprivileged margins of society, he repeatedly sought the reversal of embedded discrimination and disadvantage. In doing so, not only did Jesus promote Good News of eternal life for after death, but he sought to “let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18) for the fullness of life after birth.
While Jesus continually endorsed the revolution of unjust social privilege, and although he taught his followers to do likewise in his name, the harsh reality is that privilege based on prejudice is profitable, which makes it difficult – if not impossible – for those in power to surrender voluntarily. Along these lines, many would argue that the primary reason Jesus was put to death was because of his consistent rebellion against the discriminatory and manipulative power structures of his time. As the religious and political establishment could not give up their profitable placement in society, they plotted to put Jesus to a painful and humiliating death, and as Jesus hung from the cross, they must have celebrated a successful defense of their elite status. However, the resurrection of Jesus affirmed God’s life-giving and life-freeing mission, and in the spirit-led movement that followed, those living “The Way” (Acts 9:2) tried to embrace the radical fellowship of shared life and holistic equality, as was recorded in the Acts of the Apostles:
“Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and good and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:43-45).
It is conceivable that some of the “wonders” and “signs” that sparked collective “awe” was the way in which Jesus’ followers broke through prejudiced structures of privilege by “breaking bread” (Acts 2:46) with one another. In contrast to the ignorance and indifference that came through the chains of societal isolation, those of “The Way” were liberated from historically entrenched boundaries and found methods to live in community as people created, released, and sustained by the God made known to them in Jesus. And so, while the disciples would have their continued moments of struggle and power-hungry conflict, the primary message of restoring community through radical hospitality persisted: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Without question, this proclamation of free inclusivity sparked amazement then, just as it kindles astonishment now.
While we continue to live in a society that unjustly rewards some at the expense of others, the Gospel exposes and crucifies such circumstances, and in doing so, we are set free from the lures of privilege and set free for the sake of others. Through the ongoing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, our identities are not determined by skin color, sexual orientation, primary language, gender, or citizenship, nor is our worth assessed by worldly accomplishments or reputation, but we are ultimately defined by the inclusive love of God that pushes us outside of ourselves for the sake of life in its fullness. And so, as we continue to discern the presence of God’s Spirit during this Season of Pentecost and beyond, may we learn to understand the ways that privilege continues to incarcerate our lives and warp our world, and in response to God’s continued activity, may we boldly expose and crucify the structures that bring profit to some and death to others. As all are fully valuable in God’s eyes, and because we are bound together in one universal community, may such Spirit-led acts bring awe upon all, to inspire a multitude of generous hearts, and to bring forth a life-freeing and life-giving common good for all the world.