Friday, November 12, 2010

Privilege, Power, and Pentecost: Long Over-Due Reflections on My Freshman Experience

As a final assignment for my recent course, Theology, Ethnicity, Gender, I was charged to write a sermon I would potentially give that pertained to course content. This is what I came up with:

I remember my first class as an eager first-year student at Eastern University, a Christian, liberal arts college outside Philadelphia. The course was titled, "Living and Learning in Community." INST150, its name according to the registrar, was more or less an introductory course to the university's curriculum framed by "faith, reason, and justice." [A quick aside] Those of you that know me are aware that I am neither short of opinions nor slow to offer my perspectives. What many of you may not know is the drastic narrative of transformation and change that has undergirded my theological and ethical convictions over the past ten years. [Back to the story] So I purchased the books for INST150, walked towards Walton Hall, and took my seat in the conference room where I would participate in my first-ever college course. The primary text was a collection of articles and excerpts from publications that were then bound in a book. First-year students were then to mull over and discuss the content with one another, in community, hence the course name. My professor was an African American woman who was fairly new to the faculty. I was unaware in that moment how much she would influence and shape so much of my thinking in the days ahead.

One of the assigned readings was a paper written by Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege and Male Privilege." Needless to say, as someone who grew up in a very conservative, right-wing Christian experience, many of my worlds were colliding. I was beginning to experience some of the most intense personal cognitive dissonance to date. I was in a course being taught by a minority faculty member. This was a personal first, as my childhood education was far from diverse. I was being taught by an educated woman in a religious setting. This was not only a fairly new encounter, but also did not resonate with my readings of Scripture as reinforced by my context, i.e. only men were able to do such a thing and women were to be in submissive roles in family and church life. After all, that's what the Bible says?! Then I was asked to read an article that suggested I was in a position of power and privilege as a white American male. This was also an uncomfortable and offensive first, as all I knew was my white experience. I read the article, which I still have, jotted some ignorant remarks in the margins, and intended to reject the article then and forevermore.

Then there was the final exam. I cruised through questions that pertained to worldview, personal spiritual formation in the academy, and even missional praxis in the emerging and post-modern context. No problem. Then there was a question that asked us to explore the notion of white privilege and male privilege and how that has implications on faith, reason, and justice. I was irate. How could the professor dare ask such a question on an exam? How irrelevant to the gospel? How naïve to demand us to respond to the liberal notion of on-going racism and gender discrimination? So I wrote something to the effect: As a white male, I find this question absurd and inappropriate. To suggest white privilege and male privilege is irrelevant to what it means to be a Christian and explore the Christian faith. I refuse to respond to this question any further. I closed my blue book, handed it to my professor, refused to make eye contact, and walked out.

I was not sure what sort of grade I would receive. To be honest, I feared my future at Eastern even in my first class, thinking that I was about to fail my first exam. But that was o.k. If I was going to fail an exam because of white privilege and male privilege questions, I did not want to be there anyway.

But…I got an "A" and proceeded to graduate from Eastern, Magna Cum Laude. I wonder what would have become of me should my professor have responded to my hatred and discriminatory behaviors, some would even say racism, with a well-deserved failing grade versus a generous and forgiving offering of not only a passing grade, but an absurdly gracious "A." Would I have stayed? Would I have explored further? Or would I have chalked it up to another example of angry minorities holding grudges about long-gone experiences of injustice? I am not sure. But she gave me an "A," and I stayed…and I am so grateful that I did…

It can be a difficult and confusing experience to encounter diversity and the plurality of truth, especially within ecclesial contexts and conversations that pertain to Christian theology and faith. We prefer set systems that affirm our personal experiences and interpretations and aid us in the ability to transfer them, even impose them, onto another. We prefer to reduce mystery to certainty. We prefer confirmation of what we know to be true versus challenges that pertain to what we may be missing or have failed to consider. And this is particularly difficult when we possess a certain level of control and power and then are asked to consider full or partial surrender to the unfamiliar.

I wonder if that was the experience of the first Christians we encounter in today's text, Acts 2:1-13. What was believed to have been a narrative of the restoration of a particular ethnic people, namely the Hebrew-speaking Jews, was now being opened up to a cultural mosaic and diverse collection of languages, experiences, and ethnicities. Even the Galileans were given the Holy Spirit and being considered valid members of this new people of God in Jesus the Messiah. There were Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and Mesopotamians. Women and men from Judea, Cappodocia, Pontus, and Asia. New believers from Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and Libya. Even the Arabs were to be welcomed members of this new Way called the church. Many were amazed, as the good news of God's movement of justice, peace, and redemption, wrapped up in the life and work of Jesus, was now being spoken by all sorts of people, not only the Hebrew-speaking Jews.

"But others sneered and said, 'They are filled with new wine.'" (2:13)

I would have sneered. I would have exclaimed blasphemy. I would have written off this experience of the Holy Spirit as ridiculous and inappropriate. How dare it be suggested that those other than my communities, my experiences, my traditions, my assumptions, my interpretations be considered equally valid within this Jesus Way?

Pentecost never ended. It continues. The beauty of the emerging culture all around us is that we are now beginning to refocus our eyes and unclog our ears to the work of God's Spirit and the witnesses to the gospel of the kingdom coming to us from places other than our Western white temples of American Christian theology. It is as though a violent wind has rushed over our steeples of Christendom, our cathedrals of patriarchy, and our doors of colonialism. Only then for God's liberating Spirit to invite us to pay attention to the voices of the other and those whom we have so often ignored, rejected, or suppressed due to difference.

Here is my Midrash of this text:

Now there were Christians who came through these doors, into these cathedrals, and under these steeples. At the sound of the rushing wind, those gathered were perplexed as they began to hear voices other than their own. Astonished and amazed, they began to ask, "Are these not foreigners and minorities, voices from the margins? How is it that they are able to bear witness to Jesus and the good news of the gospel relevant to their cultural experience?" There were Black and Latino theologians, speaking of God's liberation of the oppressed. There were Koreans and Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese, and Asians from all over, engaging their foreign experience and philosophical traditions in light of the Scriptures we call our own. There were Native Americans, Aborigines, and First-Nations people who spoke of the community of God's people who quest for the reconciliation of all things through Jesus. There were women, of all colors and cultures, speaking in equality with men, who testified to the beauty of the imago Dei as male and female. All were amazed, yet perplexed, and wondering, "What does this mean?" Still more, there were those who sneered, "Apostasy. Heresy. Flawed plurality. They are liberal drunks, theological relativists."

Where do I sit as the rushing wind blows over, around, and in me? How will we as a congregation respond to the movement of God’s Spirit that invites us to encounter the gospel as incarnated in diverse cultural experiences? What does this mean for us?

A few years ago I traveled with a group of high school students to Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. Their founding pastor, N. Gordon Cosby, a white male, was very much a part of the Civil Rights Movement and quests of reconciliation. He once wrote, The Church of the Holy Spirit is full of variety. Sameness and conformity are the demands of alien spirits." Yet homogony is precisely what we quest for, especially when we are those in positions of power and privilege.

If you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, you may hear echoes of another ancient narrative within the Pentecostal anecdote. In Genesis 11, humanity strived to build the tallest tower known to creation in the land of Shinar. They carefully crafted and burned strong bricks to construct a grandiose architectural structure. The people of Shinar longed to make a name for themselves and, more importantly, squelch the cultural sprawl and diversity that slowed their thirst for power. Sameness was the name of the game, as “one people” with “one language” quested for tall towers of hegemony that sought to thwart God’s mission, “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the whole earth as God’s co-creators of culture and diversity.” And like Pentecost, a violent wind rushed over and against the plains of Shinar, overthrew the imperial structures and scattered them throughout the known world….only to be gathered once again in the new multicultural, multiethnic kingdom of God we find in Acts 2.

Have we done just the same? Have we preferred hegemonic towers of sameness over conversant communities of diversity? Have our theological and ecclesial conversations only built with the linguistic bricks of Western Christian systems and doctrines, failing to embrace the tools of cultivation found in alternative Christian traditions and experiences? May we not fear the crumbling of our powerful and privileged towers, for only in such deconstruction can resurrections like Pentecost happen.

My tower began to crumble as I sat in that INST150 class, challenged to read about voices and experiences different from my own. It is a shameful awakening to know that I had prized my power and privilege so much that I was not only naïve to its reality, but also unwilling to discuss it within the context of Christian community. However, my professor’s grace, surely a gift of the Spirit, made room for my dissent and space for my ignorance. Yet still, it challenged me eventually to cease my snickering and engage diversity. It was a new beginning in my journey along the Way of Jesus. It is a journey that I am still on. Over the next few weeks, I invite you to join me, as we live and learn in community, questing to uncover the beauty of God’s kingdom found in its plurality. And may that same Pentecostal wind blow over, in, and through us just the same.


**I just recently read in "Say to This Mountain," by Ched Myers, et al., a statement that deeply parallels my experience above. in regards to Jesus' encounter with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7), "Jesus must have been rattled to the core by what he learned from this woman regarding the gospel. We woo may be rattled to the core as we allow our eyes to be opened. Jesus' friends and associates must have thought he was nuts at times. What will people at your work and church and in your neighborhood think if you begin pointing out the privilege pervading everyday life? Do it. When fear threatens to stop you, face it squarely, and look into the eyes of this woman and this Jesus' (86). To further the irony, Myers incldes a reference to the very article I mention above...