A parable on privilege | Lent 1 |14 February 2016


Texts: Psalm 91:1-2,9-16; Luke 4:1-13

On our Learning Tour in Palestine we attended a Sunday worship service near Bethlehem.  Our group of 15 Americans made up half the congregation.  The young Palestinian pastor led the service in Arabic, but at the end of his sermon he addressed us in English.  He urged us to remember them when we returned home, to speak about what we had seen and heard.  To tell their stories.  One of the reasons he gave for why this was so important was this:  He said – “Because America is god.”

As startling as this was to hear in a worship setting, it was important to see.  In their world, our country has the power to save or destroy, to give life or take it away.  It was quite a benediction, for us fifteen Americans to leave that small Palestinian church, having just been told that we are sons and daughters – of god.

We told some of those stories during Advent.  Now it’s Lent, and we are inviting God to trouble the waters again, this time closer to home: Race and racism in America.  And not just racism as a matter of improving interpersonal relationships, as important as that is.  But racism as an environment, a habitat in which we live and move and have our being, a psychological and spiritual field of experience, that we are all caught up in.  Something along the lines of what the writer of Ephesians meant when he said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood” – we’re not out here looking for evil people.  Instead the real enemy, as Ephesians puts it, is “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”  The principalities and powers.

This all sounds a bit serious and heavy, so we are approaching it the way that seemed to be Jesus’ favorite method of overturning the present order – by sitting around a table with friends new and old and enjoying some excellent food together.  The sermons during Lent will be presented as monologues, just one person talking, but they have emerged out of dialogues, trialogues, or whatever you call six people talking together in between bites of soup and bread.  Hexalogues.  Hexalunches.   We’re using the sharing time after the sermon to welcome your brief reflections and thoughts on what you hear.

This reflection comes out of one of those hexalogue/lunches –and there are still spaces open for upcoming ones.

Lent begins in the wilderness.  More specifically, in the wilderness with Jesus.  A hungry, thirsty, famished Jesus.  Forty days of fasting will do that to a person.  A vulnerable Jesus.  A very human Jesus face to face with the psychological and spiritual field of experience of his time, and all the inner thoughts and motivations tied up in that.  Let’s go into the wilderness with Jesus.  Into the wilderness with Jesus, and the devil.

The devil famously makes three offers to Jesus.  Three pitches.  Three business proposals, for how Jesus might go about his business as a representative of God.  The first and last of these temptations, as we’ve come to call them, begin with the devil saying, “If you are the Son of God…”  This phrase could also be translated “Since you are the Son of God…” and we can read that the provocation behind these words is not so much asking Jesus to prove that he’s the Son of God by doing this or that or this other thing, like a series of magic tricks.  But rather granting up front that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, with all the power and authority that title carried in the ancient world, and then challenging him how he will use that power.  The temptations aren’t so much asking for a proof of power, as they are challenging how that power will be wielded.

Let’s go into the wilderness with Jesus.  Into the wilderness with Jesus and the devil.  But let’s remember that we don’t go empty handed.  No blank slate.  We don’t go without a history.  We take with us the full package of who we are in our flesh and blood lives.  Let’s remember to take with us those words of that Palestinian pastor, who told us that America is god, implying that we, her citizens, are children of this God.  The question for us is not whether or not we have power and authority.  That is verifiably true.  It’s not a matter of “If you are the son of God…” but “Since you are the Son of God…”  Since you have been granted this privilege, how will you use that power?

As the six of us sat around the table looking at this passage through racialized eyes, we came to see it as a parable on privilege.  The temptations that come with having power.  With having the social privilege that many white folks have in America.

Come with us into the wilderness, with Jesus, the son of God – ourselves sons and daughters of this god-like power that has cradled us from our birth.

For us at the table, the first temptation felt the hardest to crack, felt the most like simply a magic trick to prove something.  And a pretty sweet magic trick at that.  It’s hard to see what could be wrong with turning stones into bread, and it’s easy to see what could be right about it.  Surveys show… hungry people prefer bread over stones.  And there are plenty of hungry people.  If Jesus doesn’t know this already, he’ll discover it soon, when he finds himself back in the wilderness, this time accompanied by 5000+ hungry people and some nervous disciples.

Think of how many disadvantaged folks you could help if you could turn stones into bread.

So if this was truly a temptation, truly an inner, spiritual struggle Jesus faced down, what’s going on here and what does it have to do with race?

The best parallel our lunch group could come up with had to do with our attempts to be helpful, or to save others, that end up being harmful.

By pure coincidence, at the exact same time we were discussing this, another, much larger, lunch discussion was happening downtown, hosted by the Columbus Metropolitan Club.  The guest speaker was Robert Lupton, talking about his book with the loaded title: Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It.  Fortunately it was video recorded and posted on YouTube.

The event included thoughtful responses from the leaders of the Nationwide Foundation and the Community Shelter Board.  Although the exact language of bread wasn’t used, these leaders lamented that while foundations and organizations are quite skilled at distributing bread to folks in need, there has been little positive shift, and probably some backwards shift, in the plight of poor folks over the last few decades.  Race was not highlighted, but was a subtext throughout the discussion, especially with references to “inner-city neighborhoods.”  The key questions had to do with how people of means, people with power and the desire to be helpful, could work to truly empower others.  Turning stones into bread is easy.  Assisting others in setting up their own bakery co-op is a whole other story.

This raises important questions for how the church goes about mission.  There’s the saying about “leave more than you take.”  At a minimum, we can aim for our mission work to leave more dignity than we take.  Jesus says:  “Humans do not live on bread alone.”

In the second temptation, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offers to crown Jesus as supreme ruler, with one little caveat.  He has to drink the kool aid, which I believe is the technical Greek translation.

This got us talking about hierarchy.  Racism, one person commented, is about power.  It’s about control and authority.  It sets itself up as a hierarchy, and the game plays itself out from there.  The goal of the game is to not be at the bottom of the hierarchy, and, if possible, to join the top.  These are the rules that merged the English and Scotts and Germans, Italians, and Irish into one socially constructed race, whites.  These are the rules that Mennonite immigrants from Europe have had trouble spotting because we have thought of ourselves as a persecuted people, and, without asking for it and many times not noticing it, are the recipients of white privilege.  These are the rules that pit minority communities against each other, scrapping for a limited set of resources and social prestige.  It’s a zero sum game.  If one group goes up, another goes down.  It’s ultimately a game in which everyone loses, the devil’s favorite kind.  Those at the top, the overadvantaged, have an unrealistic view of their own worth.  This is poisonous to a healthy spirituality.  Those at the bottom, the disadvantaged, have an underdeveloped sense of their own worth – Also poisonous to a healthy spirituality.  And the hierarchy persists through the generations, even if it doesn’t always break strictly along color lines.  One person in our group shared a phrase about how privilege works in the hierarchy, sure to stick in the minds of any baseball loving American.  “Some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple.”

The tricky thing about this hierarchy is that it doesn’t need anyone to hate anyone else in order to persist.  This is key to the conversation going on now in our country.  Some folks are proposing that it’s possible to have racism without any racists.  Not that there aren’t racists anymore, but the hierarchy doesn’t need them to survive.  It just needs to keep transmitting psychological conditions and spiritual blindness from one generation to the next.  If everyone keeps playing their part, without questioning the part itself, it keeps going.

Several people in our group commented on how they have intentionally worked to break that generational transmission to their children.  It’s a wonderful goal of parenting to have your own children more aware of racial dynamics than you were at their age.

One way of reading Jesus’ ministry is as one who chose to reject hierarchy at every turn.  He ultimately shatters it from within, occupying its lowliest space, crucifixion, and issuing in an entirely different order, which he called the Kingdom of God, which plays by the rules of mercy and steadfast love.  In our baptismal vows we are opting out of the game of hierarchy, the devil’s game, and accepting the rules of the crucified and risen Christ to govern our lives.

The final temptation of Jesus evoked the most conversation for our group.  Jesus is taken to another high spot, the pinnacle of the temple.  The devil suggests that he jump, and quotes a scripture about God always protecting those who love God – Psalm 91.

We were intrigued with this idea of safety and invincibility.  One of the major ways privilege works in our culture is that you can do all kinds of stupid things and not fear long term consequences.  Or, much more subtly, and something that I’m still learning, privilege means that you can walk around with a general sense of safety.  People give you the benefit of the doubt rather than see you as a threat.  If anyone does harm you, the system is set up to get you help and punish the perpetrator.  Whether you jump or are pushed off the pinnacle, God will save you.

A couple in our lunch group attends toastmaster events, and shared that one of the gatherings was about the Black Code, and the conversation black parents inevitably have to have with their coming of age children, especially their sons.  “The conversation” involves a series of warnings and cautions that black males must be aware of.  I was going to list some of those cautions we talked about, but then on Friday I went with a group to the art gallery openings for Franklinton Fridays at the old repurposed warehouse at 400 West Rich.  And I saw a piece that laid out exactly the kinds of warnings that happen in the “The Conversation.”  Here it is:

This is literally a matter of survival.  If not keeping one from being shot, keeping one out of prison.  Black males know that if they throw caution to the wind and hurl themselves into the arms of society, they’ll land hard on the pavement and might not get back up.

The devil told Jesus to take the plunge, because “God will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.”  Our group suggested a remix that many white folks live with.  “He will command his lawyers concerning you, to protect you.”  Go ahead and jump off the pinnacle, and enjoy your ride on the golden parachute conveniently located in your backpack.

Once again, Jesus rejects the trappings of privilege by quoting a different scripture.  “Don’t test God,” roughly equivalent to a more secularized warning. “Don’t tempt fate.”

If you are a white American, there’s a Palestinian pastor out there who wants you to know that you are a child of god, an inheritor of the power, the history, the culture of America.  If you are a Christian, you have accepted that you are a child of the God of Jesus Christ.  “Since you are a daughter of God…”  “Since you are a son of God…” how will you live with your power?  Let us go into the wilderness with Jesus.