Talking About Privilege

Earlier this week, I participated in a conversation with some colleagues at the University of St. Thomas School of Law on Amy Julia Becker’s book, White Picket Fences: Turning Toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege.  I can’t say our group was very mixed; it was a somewhat self-selected group of white, upper middle class, heterosexual folks, all of whom are well-aware of their privilege.  But we had a good and worthwhile discussion.

While I can’t express agreement with everything Becker writes in her book, there were a number of lines that prompt some good inquiry.  Let me share a few random quotes from the book with some questions (some of which we addressed the other night) her statements might prompt reflection on.  (Her statements are in quotations and my questions in italics.)

“Perhaps the reason knocking down the wall of privilege is so hard for me to envision is because it would require more sacrifice than I am willing to bear.”

What sacrifices do you think are required for you to help knock down the wall of privilege?

“I used to think that privilege provided a foundation for personal growth and for discovering a purpose bigger than me because it took care of my material needs.  But time and again I have found that the provisions of affluence suck me into a web of self-centeredness where I focus on myself, my own resentments and disappointments.”

Do you think this is inherently the case?

She raises the question “whether identity is always about power and privilege, about some group being oppressed and another asserting superiority”

Does identity always do that?

“Privilege means being given a special status – legal or social –  by virtue of something you didn’t’ earn.”

Is that a good definition of privilege?  Do you have a better one?

Addresing Unjust Economic Systems

Yesterday I offered a reflection at the Church of St. Thomas More in St. Paul on the parable in Luke’s Gospel often referred to as the parable of the dishonest steward.  It is a challenging parable; one commentator wrote that “the seeming incongruity of a story that praises a scoundrel has been an embarrassment to the Church at least since Julian the Apostate used the parable to assert the inferiority of the Christian faith and its founder.”

I don’t think we can make sense of this parable without understanding the context in which Jesus was speaking.  There were two classes of people in Jesus’ time (and therefore in the crowd listening to him): the very rich and the very poor.   And the poor were always at the mercy of both the rich landlords who demanded the lion’s share of their crops and the Roman government who exacted exorbitant taxes from them at every turn.

I suggested in my reflection that one possibility is that this parable is Jesus’ way of highlighting the gross dishonesty of a system that cheated and robbed the poor daily., as well as pointing to the harsh reality that it is a struggle to be honest in a system that itself is excessively unjust and dishonest.

I offered a few examples in our own time:  It is wrong – actually illegal  – for a parent to give a false address in order to get her child into a good school.  But if the alternative is a local school that can’t provide a decent education, is it so difficult to understand the parent’s behavior.

It is wrong – illegal – for someone to enter the country without documentation – but how do we expect someone fleeing from persecution in their countries to behave?

It is wrong – illegal – to sell loose cigarettes on the street – but if that is the only way to get a few dollars to buy something for one’s family to eat, can we really be unsympathetic.  (I think of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family.)

Jesus’ comments in this passage about dishonest wealth is clearly directed, not to the poor, but to those who are wealthy, suggested by the fact that the steward in the story received no monetary gain from his dishonesty.

You have to admit, as my examples above suggest, that the society in which Jesus lived is not very different from our own, a system that makes it easy for the rich to get richer and extraordinarily difficult for the poor to achieve economic stability.  In that sense, the parable invites us to reflect on how our own economic systems make it difficult for some people to live fully within the law, and perhaps even makes living an ethical life difficult (if not impossible) for some people.  It also asks us to examine to what extent we are complicit in the operation of that system.

Update: You can listen to the entirety of my reflection here.

The Hope of Our Call

It is easy these days to feel discouraged about the state of our country and world.  Easy to feel our efforts are too little to be meaningful.

Today’s first Mass reading is a reminder that we must never give in to discouragement and weariness.  In his Letter to the Ephesians Paul’s exhorts us to

live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace; one Body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call.

We are all called to build God’s kingdom – everyone with a unique set of gifts and talents.  However difficult that may seem at times.  Indeed, Jesus’ promise was never that it would be easy – but we are called to face the difficulties, not sit back and lament the.  And part of that call is hope.

Imagine what the world would look like if everyone lived into that call! If we lived a life worthy of the call we have received!

Imagine what that could look like!

Figs and Roses

Someone wrote a Facebook post this morning about her breakfast of figs and yogurt.  It brought this memory to mind.

The man stood each night in the shadows in the alley between his house and the house next door, only about four or five houses from the one we lived in.  An elderly man.  I remember him always wearing a jacket and tie, as well as a hat, but it would seem strange if he wore that during warm weather.

I was nine or 10 years old at the time.  I’d see him every night when I was walking the dog in the evening.  You could easily pass and not see him if you weren’t looking in his direction, he was that still.  Truth be told, I was a bit frightened of this specter as I passed him.  I was not the only one; most of the kids on the block avoided him.

But one night I said hi as I passed him, and after that, greeted him each time with a waved hand or a word as I walked past with my dog.  He would respond with a silent movement of his hand in return greeting.

Then one  night he motioned me over.  I was a little leery, but walked a little in his direction.  Right next to him in front of his house was a beautiful rose bush.  He snipped one off and gave it to me.  We exchanged a few words and I went on.  After that, when roses were in season, I’d sometimes get another.  Then one night, when I walked by, he waved me over with a smile and held out a dish that had something on it I had never seen – a fresh fig.  He apparently had a fig tree in his backyard and it was fig season.

I loved figs the way we had them at the holidays – dried figs sliced open, with a piece or two of walnut meat inserted and powered sugar dusted on top.  They were really good.  I never thought about what figs looked or tasted like before they were dried.  As good as those holiday figs were, they were nothing compared to the wonder of a fresh fig.

I’ve loved fresh figs ever since; I almost dance with delight when I see them in a store.  And almost every time I eat one, I think of that elderly man, long dead by now.

I think he just appreciated someone saying hello.  And a rose or a fig was his way of saying thank you.

Season of Creation

What Pope Francis is calling “the Season of Creation” began on September 1 and continues through October 4.  the Pope is encouraging Christians around the world to pray for the care of creation and to consider ways to act.

You can find the full text of Pope Francis’ statement here. message, and I encourage you to read the message in its entirety, reflecting on how you will respond to his invitation.

Among the key themes of his statement are the following:

  • We care all called to protect creation, and we have not been doing such a great job in doing so.  He writes, “Something good in the eyes of God has become something exploitable in human hands.”
  • This is a time to enhance of efforts toward sustainability.  Francis encourages us to adopt “simpler and more respectful lifestyles.”
  • This is a time to urge our governments to enact better climate policies.  He encourages “prophetic actions” to, among other things, encourage governmental measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

How will you respond to the call – during this Season of Creation and beyond?

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What Are You Washing Your Hands of

We just returned from a river cruise on the Rhine, and my vacation included visits to a number of churches, basilicas and cathedrals.  While I’m too jetlagged to share any intelligent commentary, I thought I would share several images that particularly struck me.

I liked each for different reasons.  The fourth one – someone’s rendition of Pilate washing his hands – totally arrested me.  As I looked at it, I could feel Jesus asking, “What are you washing your hands of?”

Good question to ask ourselves.

My Friend Martha

Today is the Memorial of St. Martha, friend to Jesus and sister to Lazarus and Mary.

We meet Martha in two primary episodes in the Bible: the first when Jesus is dining at the home of his friends, and the second when Jesus show up after the death of Lazarus.

The first episode is a short one. Luke tells us:

As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feed listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.

It is interesting that when Jesus chides Martha, he didn’t say, “Why can’t you just be like Mary?” (Something more than one parent or teacher has said about a child when comparing the child to a sibling.) I suspect Jesus knew Martha never could be Mary, just as Mary never could be Martha.

We do need to recognize at the outset that we are all different. We possess different gifts and personalities.  The common reaction to this Gospel episode, when Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part is to say what Jesus didn’t say: Silly Martha – she should have been more like her sister Mary.

But we need to remember something. It may be that she needed to let go of some worry and anxiety.  But here is a woman in a time when women didn’t speak up to men, and they certainly didn’t chastise them. Yet Mary has the boldness to speak her piece with Jesus. Many women of her time would have held their tongue. But Martha spoke what was on her mind, understanding that being in relationship with Jesus means speaking what is actually on our mind and in our heart. Not saying only what we think we are supposed to say.

We can’t move forward with God unless we are honest about what is troubling us. It may be that Martha’s point was misplaced; indeed, from Jesus’ reaction we know it was. But that doesn’t change that had she stayed silent, she would not have learned from Jesus. Only her honesty and courage in speaking up allowed her to do that.

So Martha represents honesty and boldness.

She also represents a take-charge organization and efficiency that the world could not operate without. Someone does have to do the cooking, change the sheets if Jesus and his friends are going to stay overnight. Someone had to make sure there is enough wine for everyone and so on. Martha, in the words of Joanna Weaver “is an administrator extraordinaire – a whirling dervish of efficiency with a touch of Tasmanian she-devil thrown in to motivate the servants.”

So we do need Mary’s receptivity and ability to just sit at Jesus’ feet.  But we also all need some Martha in us.

So on this day, let us learn from Martha – as well as from her sister Mary.