The following is a transcript from November 21, 2013, in Christ Chapel of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN). As part of the “Daily Sabbath” fall semester rhythm, this homily examines a variety of biblical texts in order to consider the nature and consequences of social privilege.
Today is my birthday.
I was brought into this world on November 21st, 1978, at 3:47am.
While I celebrate this occasion like many tend to do here in North America – with cake, cards, and consolation – I am also involved in a great deal of soul-searching existential consideration, which includes reflection on the past, mindfulness of the present, and wonder about the future.
More specifically, this day I look back to the exact moment I was born, at 3:47am thirty-five years ago, and I am continually reminded of how I was given something at that exact moment that I did not deserve but continues to pay dividends, even to this day. In other words, this year, once again I am reminded of how the advantages I was given at the exact moment of my birth continue to get cashed in, day after day, even to this day.
For example, at 3:47am on November 21, 1978 it was determined that the color of my skin was white, then, the physician looked between my legs and assigned my gender as male, and as he did, the first and primary language spoken to me was English. In addition, my body was deemed to be relatively healthy and abled, my orientation – although it was not yet publicly known – was heterosexual, and the citizenship given to me was that of the United States of America.
And so, to review, at 3:47am on November 21, 1978, I was born as a white- skinned, able-bodied, soon to be English-speaking, heterosexual, male, documented U.S. citizen. Which means, from my first moments of life, I inherited characteristics and features that placed me into an exclusive members-only group of people, because I was born as a person placed squarely on top of our social pyramid of privilege. Which means, on a day like today, and in a world such as ours, I cannot help but reflect theologically on what it means to be born as a person of privilege. In doing so, my hope is that as I reflect on my thirty-five years of privilege, you may be sparked to reflect on the years of yours.
However, before we go any further into this stream of consciousness, the first task is to review what we mean when we speak of privilege, as the term is often misunderstood and even more often misused. And so, first things first, when we define “privilege”, we look at two defining characteristics: First, a “privilege” is something that is inherited. Second, a “privilege” is that which benefits some at the expense of others. In other words, as was shared with me this past week by Pearl Leonard-Rock in the Diversity Center, who quoted Peggy McIntosh: “privilege” is an “…invisible package of unearned assets which one can count on cashing in each day but about which was meant to remain invisible.”
As some would argue that privilege is like running the 100 yard dash with a 50 yard head-start, this morning I am mindful not only of my own privileges received at birth, but as a person of faith, I am left wondering how people of privilege – such as myself – are compelled to view God through the theological lenses of privilege. More specifically, I wonder: How do people of privilege – like myself – view God differently than those who do not share my place on the pyramid of privilege? Or, we might consider, since our social context undoubtedly has a heavy impact on our theological content, we are forced to wonder: “How privilege shape the way we view God?”
Along these lines, on December 1st we will enter into the liturgical season of Advent and begin preparations for Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth. As we do, we do so mindful that Christian history is filled with attempts by the privileged classes to co-opt not only this particular season of the Church Year, but also the entire Christian theological enterprise, all in order to illustrate the historical person of Jesus as being aligned with the assets of the advantaged.
In other words, ever since God created us in God’s image, the privileged – like myself – have been trying to create God in ours.
From Constantine in the year 312, to modern day prosperity Gospel preachers, we recognize that countless people from across the generations have constructed images of God from the context of privilege, and in doing so, seek to justify their social advantages as some sort of predestined blessing (…that all others are somehow supposed to accept as being part of God so-called plan!). In doing so, while many in our current day and age have become rather successful as trying to portray God as a white- skinned, able-bodied, English-speaking, heterosexual, male, documented U.S. citizen, the Gospel narratives provides a far different story for us to hear.
As was recorded in the Gospels, and as many have articulated – especially throughout the southern hemisphere, God took what many deem “a preferential option with the poor” through the birth of Jesus. In doing so, years later at the onset of his ministry Jesus displayed such a preference through an accompaniment with the socially underprivileged, as he said in the 4th Chapter of Luke that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he was anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
As a result of placing a particular priority on the underprivileged, the community of faith that followed in The Way of Jesus rallied in a similar sense of social and spiritual solidarity, in a commitment shared in the 2nd Chapter of Acts and in many ways detailed in Galatians 3:28, which reads: “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”.
And so, for us today, once again the Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, for once again we are reminded that God enters directly into our human-contructed pyramid of privilege, tears it down, creates us into something new, and in doing so, reminds us that all are One:
There is no longer white or black….
There is no longer disabled and abled…
There is no longer male or female…
There is no longer documented or undocumented…
There is no longer gay or straight…
There is no longer offender or offended…
There is no longer old or young…
There is no longer Democrat or Republican…
There is no longer home-owner or home-less…
There is no longer any of these sources of identity because, at the end of the day, no matter who we are or what we have done, and no matter where we are going or where we have been: We all are One through God’s abundant grace, justified not by our own works, which is why who we are, is ultimately grounded in who God is.
And so, my friends, while we continue to live in a society that unjustly rewards some – like myself – at the expense of others, the God made known to us in Jesus exposes and crucifies such circumstances. In doing so, we are convicted, resurrected, and set free from the lures of privilege and we are set free for the sake of others in order to tear down the structures that allow some to keep cashing in on the wide variety of chips they never even earned. Which means, although our identities are undoubtedly informed by our various particularities, we are by no means defined by them, nor are we helplessly determined by them, for we are ultimately marked and sealed by the God who calls, gathers, and sends each and every one of us outside of ourselves for the sake of life in its absolute and beautiful fullness.
As we continue to receive the amazing grace of God this day and beyond, may we learn to understand the ways that privilege continues to incarcerate our lives and warp our world. In doing so, in response to God’s continued activity, may we boldly expose and crucify the structures that bring profit to some and death to others.
Since all are fully valuable in God’s eyes, and because we are bound together in one global community, may we strive to bring life in its fullness for all, regardless or the labels given at the moment of one’s birth, so that all – through God’s grace – may have life with dignity and worth.
The Rev. Brian E. Konkol serves as a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. An ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), he holds degrees from Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI), Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN), and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). He blogs athttp://briankristenkonkol.blogspot.com and tweets @BrianKonkol