I have a terrible confession to make. I am white, male, straight, and able-bodied. Well, okay, it’s not so much a confession as an acknowledgment of my privilege, and I am privileged, very much so. I imagine this isn’t news to any of you who are not one or more of those things. Yet, as obvious as it is, it took me a long time to recognize many of the ways this has been a significant factor in my life. I’m addressing it here because, while it isn’t comfortable for me to talk about, as I contemplate the future of our church community one of the oft-repeated themes I hear is that we intend to be welcoming of all people, to make no distinction by category, to offer an hospitable environment for virtually all comers. This is great of course, it is all-to-the-good, but the nature of our welcome will be very different (and almost certainly less effective) if what we offer is a welcome blind to our own privilege.
Before I go any further, let me just say that it is not my intention to make pronouncements about this. More, I would hope that all I’m doing is beginning a conversation that will help our community process what it means to be privileged and what it can mean to acknowledge it as well. When I acknowledge my privilege I am not saying that my life has been exponentially easier because of it, not directly at any rate. Being born white, male, straight, and able-bodied has not led directly to my being handed either fortune or kingdom. My life has been so much easier than many and not quite as easy as a few. But my life has been generously sprinkled with things that I have been able to take for granted. There has been so much I have never had to question, and most of that has been very, very, basic stuff. This has, indirectly for the most part, just made my life more possible than I comfortably recognize.
Examples abound. I have never had to worry about walking into a bank, or wandering around a department store, and whether people might misconstrue my presence or my intentions. I can pretty much buy any house I can afford in any neighborhood I desire without being concerned that I might not be welcomed (or whether it would matter if I were not). On those occasions (rare as hen’s teeth I assure you) that I have been stopped by the police, I have never needed to be so much nervous as embarrassed at having done something wrong. I can go where I want, eat where I want, shop where I want, sit where I want, and speak to whomever I want without ever having to worry particularly. I never worry about the TSA. I can have opinions and express them. I have rarely gotten the side-eye just for walking into a room. I can stop to ask for help in the toniest of neighborhoods. None of these things gives me even the smallest pause for thought.
In the same way that a fish is unlikely to question the ocean, I do not have to think about my place in the world beyond contemplating what I want to do on any given day. This does not feel like a privilege, this just feels entirely normal to me. What I have increasingly come to recognize is that too few people, even in our little corner of the world, can take so much for granted. Often we like to tell ourselves that others wouldn’t have to worry if they weren’t doing something wrong, but that turns out not to be true at all. There are lots of kinds of privilege that can be exercised, and it isn’t always racial or religious. Sometimes it’s class and economics, sometimes it’s age, or gender, or sexual orientation, or level of education.
We are just often suspicious of people whose lives and experiences are unlike our own. But if we are unwilling or unable to identify and acknowledge our own level of privilege, our welcome will be little more than the admission of token others. That is not the welcome that Jesus laid out, or insisted the disciples practice.
I am not at all troubled by my own privilege, I won’t feel bad for being who I have become, but I am much more aware of it, much more sensitive to its use, and much more hopeful that I might use it in behalf of others as I have the opportunity. A conversation about this can be a very healthy step in developing a deeper and more earnest pattern of welcome in a community. It’s wonderful to know where we want to go, but it’s vital to know where we’re starting from as well.