The Plank In Our Own Eye and Social Privilege

The Plank In Our Own Eye and Social Privilege June 19, 2019

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Picture of person's eye
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In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s or sister’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s or sister’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5, cf. Luke 6:41-42)

For both Matthew’s and Luke’s Jesus, if one wanted to be a source of healing and help in the wider world, the place to begin was with introspection. What does this mean?

I can’t answer this question for you, but I can share with you what it has meant for me.

Introspection: My Experience

I’m a white, cisgender, heterosexual American man. I have to come to grips with what that means in this society before I can help to make the world a safer, more compassionate place. When it comes to privilege in America, I have to explore my blind spots (the beams in my own eyes) before I can deeply serve others who are different from me.

I’ve learned that I cannot do this alone. I could probably make some progress by sitting quietly, contemplating my place in the status quo. But I’m not sure that listening to the voices within my own head would produce that much change: it would only push me deeper into my own perceptions. What I need is the voices of others.

There are many ways one can encounter others’ voices. As I shared in Like Teacher, Like Student, I have chosen a non-defensive posture of listening to those whose experience is not like my own. I have also encountered others by reading as many books as I can digest from those whose perspectives are different from mine.

Six years ago now, when I was just beginning the process of being introduced to the deep damage Christians perpetuate to the LGBTQ community, I was also at the same time being introduced to the work of the late James H. Cone and Black Liberation Theology.  

One of the beginning truths Cone introduced me to was how much the Church has privileged White theologians’ opinions and contributions. From Cone I went on to understand the great need to center theological discussions and understandings in womanist, feminist, Latin, and queer theologies, as well. I remember well the day I realized how inappropriate it was to consider theology by White theologians “real theology” while downgrading theology done by other kinds of people to a lesser category. I came to realized this as just another manifestation of white supremacy only in the context of theology. I also came to believe that it was not enough for me to say that other theological perspectives were just as valuable as White theology. For me, who grew up in Christianity with only White theologians as my authorities and teachers, these other perspectives are even more valuable because I needed my own view of the gospel broadened.  I needed to remove the beams from my own eyes.

Sitting with these various authors and their work rather than defensively responding was challenging, yet it challenged me to see the beams in my own eyes. It also challenged me to keep reaching out to others I needed to learn from. I had to keep listening to these less privileged and less promoted theologians’ work. 

Again, as a white, cis-hetero, male Christian, I had to choose a practice of listening to those who approach theology and who follow Jesus from a different perspective and experience than my own. These theologians were are no more infallible than anyone else. Like anyone else, they also had “specks” in their eyes that need removing. Yet their experience, the experience they use as they approach theology, ethics, and morality gives them a unique advantage at showing me the “beam” in my own eye. 

I still remember the very first reading list I was given during this time. It included:

Feminist Theology:

Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Overtures to Biblical Theology) by Phyllis Trible

Womanist Theology:

Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams

Liberation Theology:

A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition by Gustavo Gutierrez

Black Liberation Theology:

A Black Theology of Liberation – Fortieth Anniversary Edition by James H. Cone

Queer Theology:

The Queer God by Marcella Althaus-Reid

My world was about to be turned upside down as each of these various lenses helped me to see “beams” in my own eyes. 

I’m still on this listening journey today, and I’m thankful for those who, out of love, have chosen to be in community with me since then, and help me grow in compassion and understanding. I’m also thankful for how they continue to hold me accountable as person who lives in a privileged social location in America. As we work toward a just word, how I use my privilege in the interim matters. The world that actually exists is a lot larger than I once believed, and I’m deeply grateful to those who have taken painstaking steps to show it to me.

Introspection for You

What does it mean for you to prioritize your own eye-beams rather than rush to others’ eye-specks? Both Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels describe our “logs” as compared to other people’s “splinters.” This saying of Jesus in both Matthew and Luke is placed in sermons that are at the core of Jesus’s ethical and moral teachings. Each of the gospel writers felt this teaching about our logs and others’ splinters was central to their story of Jesus. If Jesus taught that we should begin changing our society by starting with ourselves, what would this mean for those of us who live in a social location of privilege in the present structure?

Could this challenge our initial reflex of defensiveness and take a posture of listening to others. Where it goes from there will be different for each person, but we have to come to grips with the fact that the greatest obstacles to a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us will not be the dust in another’s eyes but the beams that are in our own.

For all of us who desire to lean more deeply into the teachings of Jesus and engage the work of making the world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for all, we cannot bypass the process of becoming more keenly aware of our own blind spots.

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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