Privilege is something I am familiar with. This awareness was something that came lately. Most of my life I would have rejected the assertion that I am privileged. As I graduated from seminary in the late 80’s, I was aware that being a tall, white, heterosexual, male, married to the same woman, I had a distinct advantage over some other candidates. This advantage was not based upon substance or skill, but rather upon perception.
But I have been privileged before that. I grew up in a fairly diverse community. Wider community. In the first grade I was bused to a school across town, from a predominantly white school to a more diverse school. In high school our population was diverse, predominantly blacks and whites with a very few asians. I lived next door to Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. My town was a college town. And yet, it was only really a few years ago that I realized that some of my classmates faced issues that I never had to face.
I think of one frequently. He is a ‘Facebook friend.’ He was a year ahead of me in high school. My mother served with his attorney father on a “Planning Commission.” He was recently inducted into my high school’s sports ‘hall of fame.’ After he graduated, he went on to Fisk, then University of Alabama, has done some teaching and consulting on leadership. A great personality, generous, and by every measure I can think of is a ‘success.’ And yet, he has to warn his son about where he goes and and when; how to avoid putting oneself in a ‘compromising’ situation.
There is another I think of. Lives in Costa Rica. A pastor. We were walking down a road one day in the Puntarenas region of Costa Rica, going to the bus. Two huge stone pillars marked a driveway toward the ocean. I asked him, “what is this?” He told me it is a “resort for north americans and europeans.” I said, “can we go into see it?” He said, “you can.” For a second or two I didn’t know what he was talking about.
I am sure that there are many, many, facts in the situation in Ferguson that I know nothing about and that it isn’t nearly as straightforward as I might think it is.
It seems to me though, that the explosion of anger and frustration is not only about Michael Brown. I am just guessing here, because, after all, I know nothing about the situation or the experience. What I do know is that all through my pastoral work, if someone acted out in a way that seemed out of proportion to the precipitating event, I said to myself, “something is going on here I don’t know about.”
So I have said it here. As I write this, however, I realize that I do know what is going on here. The reaction is not exclusively to the Michael Brown situation but the grand jury’s decision to not charge the police officer is a ‘tipping point.’
Is it possible that the police officer used excessive force? Of course it is. Is it possible that his perception of this person clouded his thinking? Of course it is. Is it possible that Michael Brown did something that made the officer think he was dangerous? Of course it is.
This, to me, is the underlying issue. Perception. Anticipation, or more negatively said, profiling, can be an element in shootings such as these. It’s presence is born out in the statistics regarding race and incarceration, and race as a co-efficient to a variety of studies that chronicle the inequality of society. The weight of living in this situation for a lifetime must lead to despair.
Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
When I ask myself, ‘what is going on here that I might not know about’ there are many potential answers, as privileged as I am. But that is the thing that I don’t really know about, that the playing field is not level, that there is not really equality, that it is this sociological and economic inequality that wears down entire classes of people. I have learned about perceptions, that because I so easily walk through those huge stone gates without a question, in no way means just anybody can.
Cornel West, in his book Democracy Matters, lifts up a literary metaphor for this condition, commenting on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,”
Ishmael is the slim beacon of hope, the only one who survives the journey. And he survives in a coffin-raft given to him by his only friend, Queequeg, a man of color – in stark contrast to the white – dominated ship – whose near death prompted the building of the coffin. Ishmael’s survival at the end of the book is therefore due to Queequeg’s agency. The carving of the lid of the coffin symbolizes “a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.” Even as Moby Dick is an indictment of American imperialism it is also a call for multiracial solidarity. (West, Cornel “Democracy Matters” Penguin Books: London, 2004, p. 89)
On the southern part of the Americas, Paulo Freire describes this condition more directly,
Peasants live in a ‘closed’ reality with a single, compact center of oppressive decision; the urban oppress live in an expanding context in which the oppressive command center is plural and complex…in urban areas, the oppressed are subjected to an ‘oppressive impersonality.” In both cases the oppressive power is to a certain extent “invisible”: in the rural zone, because of its proximity to the oppressed; in the cities because of its dispersion. (Freire, Paulo, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” p. 156)
Although Freire is writing about a different culture, the basis of his way forward is important for us. Freire is is describing the creation of an awareness that ultimately is far-reaching; moving beyond a call for a raising of the minimum wage or the end of racial profiling to a solidarity, a ‘cultural synthesis.’ This ‘critical consciousness’ is the fuel for a movement “…beyond the deception of palliative solutions. It is to engage in authentic transformation of reality in order, by humanizing that reality, to humanize women and men.” (ibid, p.164) I am saying that the problem is that we live in a society that values some human beings more than others.
For this preacher, the Gospel (as in the inclusive ‘good news’) is clear about this. There is no hierarchy, their is no division in God’s eyes and by extension, we should make no divisions either. One of my favorite texts of late is from Acts, chapter 8.
8:26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south[a] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”[b] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
The eunuch, this person of bondage, ethnicity, of a foreign race and religion, of questionable sexuality, this person (it seems to me) heard in the words of Isaiah a word about himself. The pivotal question for those holding the power in this situation (who are Phillip and the disciples) is the question asked by the eunuch: “what prohibits me from being baptized?” Philip’s far reaching and widely implicating response is this: Nothing but water. Nothing but water stands between us and the recognition of your full humanity. In a moment of interpretation of the text, brought upon him by the ‘situation in life,’ Philip’s thinking is radically transformed.
In his book, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence, Duke Divinity School preaching professor Richard Lischer writes:
The multiple traumas of the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries have produced a sense of futility among those with a vocation in language. Violence has a way of making a mockery of words. After Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, all the words seem hollow. What does one say after a televised beheading? The proclamation of God’s justice or God’s love meets a wall of resistance first in the throat of the proclaimer, then in the ears of the hearer. … When the message of Jesus Christ can be Nazified or made the tool of racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid, or capitalism, it is time for preachers to shut up and take stock of themselves.” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005, p.5.)
I hope that I have done that in the last few days. And I pray that God forgives and transforms me where I continue to need it.