The Promise and the Practice: "A Parable on Privilege" Reflection
When I was in middle school, I was taught that every person, to some extent, holds a set of prejudices that impact our perceptions of others. We were asked to think about what our prejudices might be, and how they might inform our relationships and our movement through the world. I knew immediately that my bias was against wealthy people. I say “was,” but really, it’s a prejudice I cling to even today. As a private school teacher who became an arts administrator who became an opera singer who became a music director for choir and theater, and who found his way into a Unitarian Universalist context, I recognize that wealthy people have funded my entire adult existence. My career has taught me to curb my lack of enthusiasm for the rich in support of the greater goal of professional success.
My prejudice against the wealthy stems in part, from the fact that I’ve never been wealthy myself. Every person in my family has had to work extremely hard to earn and save every dollar they have ever had. And, I am certain that if I ever became wealthy, my feelings would likely shift. I am a church musician for a living, however, so wealth is not a prospect I can expect to ever experience.
Beyond those reasons for this prejudice of mine, I’m also troubled by some of the ethics around wealth. There’s a story in the Christian Bible that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s recorded in 19th chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew. It goes kind of like this… A young, rich man approaches Jesus and asks what he can do to help bring about the Beloved Community. Jesus replies by pretty much telling the man to go do all the right things: treat people well and spread love. The young man says that he’s already doing all those things, to which Jesus responds, “Then go sell all your stuff and give your money to those who have less of it.”
As the story goes, the rich man went away deep in despair. It does not tell us what decisions he made, but I am willing to bet he held on to his wealth. This is the story that leads up to the famous passage that warns it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to participate in activating the Beloved Community.
In the innermost part of my being, I believe that it is unethical to be wealthy in a society where there is also poverty. My sensible self, however, recognizes that there is a lack of justice in that conclusion, too: there is nothing inherently wrong with being rich. And, an argument can probably be made that there’s nothing inherently wrong with not sharing one's wealth—unless of course you’re a Christian, in which case your faith demands it of you.
No, there’s nothing wrong with having a lot of money. The trouble comes in how we manage the power it gives us. The trouble comes in how we use that wealth and power—through both action and inaction—to stifle the lives of those who have none.
By now, I’m sure you think I’ve forgotten that I’m offering these reflections in a service dedicated to examining institutional White Supremacy.
Here, try this: For decades, we have been preaching the message of how inequality and injustice are pervasive in our Unitarian Universalist systems and institutions. Every time, there’s a resurgence of energy from the well-meaning White liberals who comprise the bulk of this faith. They say, “We get it now. We finally see it! What can we do to help?”
More often than not, those of us doing the preaching—those of us willing to be caught in the middle of this hopeless mess, steadfastly clinging to hope—respond with instructions: which books and articles to read; which classes, workshops, and rallies to attend; encouragement to recognize and own one's own privilege. We offer reminders that the beginning of dismantling the unfair systems of White Supremacy is in learning to recognize the points of privilege in one's own life.
All of that is true… but it’s also weak. So well-meaning White liberals come back and say, “Great! We’ve been doing that and we’ve learned a whole lot, but we still feel like unintentional racists. What can we do?”
This is where we—those who bear the burden of teaching—too often respond with something like, “Well done, good and faithful social justice advocate. Go and tell everyone you know of what you've learned.” So our well-intentioned siblings in faith do that and feel good about it—yet racism persists, and a decade later, those same people are confused about what they missed the last time.
Here’s what we should be saying:
“Denounce all your privilege and give it to those with none.”
Talk about an action item! I guarantee that would get folks’ attention. Sadly, it will likely also mean they will go away, deep in despair, doing nothing at all.
I believe, however, that we do not talk explicitly enough about the fact that every person's privilege is tied to our corrupted system of capitalism. This is true in our country, and it’s also true in our Unitarian Universalist congregations. For a person to denounce their privilege, they would have to be willing to give up all that they have mythically come to believe they have earned. If we're serious about dismantling the idea that White people are better than others, it means White people have to stop accepting better salaries and benefits packages than their colleagues of Color. It means preaching about living within your means instead of below them—to stop spending less money than one can afford to—because our money has an impact on others. It means preaching against unethical gentrification. It means White people finally believing they should not have everything they want just because they are able to access it through use of their inherited social capital.
Look, as a Black man, White people often frustrate me—but there's nothing inherently wrong with being White. And if you ask me, there’s nothing inherently wrong with lacking racial diversity. That is, unless you're a Unitarian Universalist and your faith demands it of you. The problem is around the ethics of Whiteness—how White people manage the power they have claimed. The trouble comes in how that privilege and power are used to stifle the lives of those who have none.
This moment in our tradition calls for both introspection and a charge for bold commitment. We have practiced hope. We have practiced making promises.
Now we we must promise action.