The Problem of Privilege

Yesterday, Nicholas Chamberlain became the first Church of England bishop to say that he is gay and in a relationship. This revelation comes at a critical time within the denomination, which is divided in its position on lesbigay and transgender participation.

Bishop Chamberlain has made church history in his brave coming out. Every church has members who are lesbigay and transgender. Few churches have lesbigay and transgender people in leadership positions who are able to be open, especially when the denomination has not declared itself as inclusive.

I am rooting for Bishop Chamberlain today. In his vulnerability, he is a living witness to the social injustice prevalent within the church. As long as there are people who experience our church community as an unsafe place to be vulnerable – whether as a one-time guest or a full-time bishop – we, as a church collective, fall short. In our refusal to hold the church doors open for everyone, we propagate a system of privilege that is selective in its welcoming of people to God’s table. We propagate a system of privilege Christ worked – and died – to dismantle.

To celebrate Bishop Chamberlain’s courage and vocation, I am sharing a sermon preached a few months ago by a dear friend. I had missed it that Sunday – but my husband came home and said, “I wish you had heard it. It was…amazing.” Katherine, the preacher, sent it to me in an e-mail. Yes, it’s amazing, and it’s a message the church needs to hear. Especially today, the day after Bishop Chamberlain stood up.

Katherine Fortier is a reader-in-training at the Anglican and Episcopalian Church of St. John & St. Philip in the Hague, the Netherlands. This is her sermon, printed with permission.

My message for you today is part of a four-part series in the theme of justice and generosity. We have been using the book of Ruth, alongside complementary passages from the New Testament, to look at God’s intention for how we view inequalities and imbalances in our society, and the way charity can be seen in terms of relationships that offer dignity and value to both sides in the interaction.

For those of you who were not here last week or two, let me very quickly remind you of the story of Ruth. Naomi is an Israelite and an economic migrant who, during a period of famine in the area around Bethlehem, goes with her husband and two sons to the country of Moab. Her two sons marry Moabite women, but later her husband and her two sons die, and she is left in the company of her two daughters-in-law. Naomi is a nobody in that society – a woman, first of all, a widow, and a foreigner, with no husband and no male relative to protect her in those days she would be worthless, no right to own land, no right to inherit, no protection at all. So she decides to go back home to Bethlehem where she has some relatives. Ruth chooses to go with her in one of our Bible’s most beautiful stories of loyalty and love: where you go, I shall go, and your people will be my people, and your God will be my God, and where you die I shall be buried also.

So Naomi and Ruth end up back in the area of Bethlehem, and Naomi sends Ruth out to go gleaning in the fields to get food for them to survive on. The laws of generosity from Leviticus and Deuteronomy mandate that when you harvest your field you must not go back and gather up every last grain, but leave whatever falls or is left for the vulnerable in your society, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner. When you gather in your vineyard, whatever is not ripe yet you are to leave behind and when it ripens it is not for you but for the widow, the orphan, the foreigner.

So Ruth goes into the fields of one of Naomi’s kinsmen, Boaz, to glean and thus we come to the passages we just heard today, how he not only allows her to gather there, but offers protection to her. In this country it is Ruth who is the foreigner, she’s a Moabite, probably speaks with an accent, and she is a woman, a widow. Maybe I shouldn’t give away the ending – spoiler alert – (she proposes to him by slipping in to the foot of his bed at night after he’s been drinking and they end up getting married and having a son – the great great great great – don’t know how many times great – grandfather of Jesus).

Today we are going to hold that story of Boaz’s protection of Ruth as she is gleaning from his fields in one hand, while we listen to the words from the New Testament epistle of James in the other, not weighing one against the other, but seeing how they slot into one another to tell of God’s desire for God’s people, how we should live.

James carries an overall theme of patient perseverance during trials and temptations. Within that context, he writes to encourage believers to live consistently with what they have learned in Christ. He desires for his readers to mature in their faith in Christ by living what they say they believe. James condemns various sins including pride, hypocrisy, favoritism, gossip and slander. James encourages believers to humbly live Godly wisdom, rather than worldly wisdom, and to pray in all situations.

This example from James is that a wealthy person, with fine clothes and gold rings, is privileged and admired and offered the best seat, or the best position. He is treated with welcome and accorded dignity. His social stature is not innate, it is something we give him in the way we treat him. It is not part of his cells, or even his silks, or his rings. There is nothing innately better about the rich man, it is just that he gets better treatment. Privilege comes from the way people react to you.

I am deeply aware of the privilege I have been given all my life – from the time I was a little girl until and including now. I was the right color. I was born in a peaceful and prosperous country. I didn’t do anything to achieve that, it was just my luck. I grew up in the right suburb. I went to the right school. My parents may not have been rich but they had education. And so I was treated in a certain way. Teachers in primary school encouraged me to believe I could do anything. When I misbehaved – and believe me I did – they spoke to me gently about how they were disappointed in my behavior and knew that I could do better. Black kids, and especially First Nation (aboriginal) kids didn’t get the same message when they misbehaved. It was subtle, but it was powerful. I grew up believing in myself. Believing that I had a right to speak, and that whatever I said would be interesting, valuable. As a teenager, my friends and I could hang out in the Mall or on the sidewalk outside the video arcade without being followed or harassed by the security guards or the cops. I have never been stopped and searched by policemen in the street, made to feel ashamed just for existing.

As a young woman in University I was encouraged by my profs, invited back to their office for a cup of tea and more discussion on friendship patterns of boys versus girls, or the neuroscience of literacy development. They believed in me and invested time in my formation. They offered me a good seat right beside them, in their inner sanctum.

Nowadays, when I get on the tram or bus, and my public transit card is out of credit and beeps at me to get off the bus, the driver waves me to a seat and I get a free ride. When I explain to the Museum guard that I have somehow managed to lose my ticket between the cloakroom and the entrance to the exhibit, she believes me. When I arrived at this church with my husband, who happened to be of the opposite sex, and my two little children, I was welcomed with warmth, interest even enthusiasm. How marvelous.

I am deeply, deeply aware that such treatment isn’t right, not unless it is given equally to everyone. Like Boaz, as a privileged person, it is not only my job to realize and to recognize and admit that I am, and not only my job to do all I can to make sure I don’t perpetuate this structure in the way I react to and treat others, but it is also my job to try and help dismantle it, so that everyone in society, everyone, is accorded the same dignity and respect and welcome that I have been accorded.

What is the discrimination in our society?

It could be that someone is privileged and admired and given the best seat because of his gender.

It could be that in our society someone is privileged and admired and given the best seat because of the color of their skin, or because of their sexual orientation, or because of their level of education, or because of their country of origin.

Whatever the reason, when we allow privilege of one kind of person over another, our Bible reading today tells us that “we have become judges with evil thoughts.”

Evil thoughts.

There is nothing subtle or implied about James’ teaching on discrimination, favoritism, and privilege: it is an evil thought.

And it is not just about treating someone badly, it is about treating someone else better. It is not about tolerance – it is about worth, dignity, equality, and justice.

We might be able to look at our own conduct and say “I am tolerant, I don’t discriminate. I treat everyone I meet with politeness and civility. I never say hateful things about immigrants or spit on people in the tram. I would never go into a crowded nightclub with a gun and start killing people just because their sexual orientation is different from mine.”

But, and here is where scripture teaches us to be known as Christians by our love: when they come into our church, do we make sure to offer them a good seat? Not just a nice pew but a rightful place? Do we make them feel welcome and appreciated? Do we treat everyone the same?

Let’s take a look at how Boaz treats Ruth, the immigrant, the woman, the widow. Despite the generosity laws which mandate leaving aside a portion of your harvest for the vulnerable, Boaz has to take pains to protect Ruth. He is aware that others would not follow Gods holy laws and might deny her or mistreat her. So he tells her stay in his fields where he offers protection. He bids her sit beside him at supper, offering her the good seat at his side, and makes sure she gets a generous portion of food, instructs her that she can go and ask for water at any time. But he also has to tell his men not to lay a hand on her. This suggests that there are some, and he knows it full well, that rather than welcome her and help her, there are some even among his own men that would abuse her and exploit her; or who would rebuke her, criticize her, embarrass, and humiliate her. So he does not only do what is right himself, he speaks up on her behalf to others, he comes to her defense and takes on his own relatives and employees for her, the immigrant, the foreigner, the woman, the widow.

His treatment of her is not about generosity. It is not about largesse – it is just about justice. We are not being generous when we obey the law “do not steal.” We are not being generous when we obey the law “do not molest or assault a woman.” So Boaz shouldn’t be lifted up as a model of special generosity. He should be lifted up as a model of obedience to God’s holy laws. God has mandated to God’s people that we should not gather in and hoard every last grain of our harvest and keep it for ourselves. It does not all belong to us. The first threshing, yes, that is ours, but the second sweep, as it were, whatever is extra, God has mandated that that is meant for the vulnerable people in society. The have-nots. The extra could be our goods, our cash, but it could also be our time, our regard and respect, or the seat next to us on the tram.

The story of Ruth speaks to us of God’s design where everyone in society is deserving of enough, deserving to be treated with dignity and where the vulnerable are deserving of protection, not because they have earned it but because that is God’s will for God’s people. The message of James is that we do wrong when we show preference for one kind of person over another.

So as we go out this week, we have work to do if we want to help dismantle the privilege and favoritism in our society. James also says this in his epistle: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”

So let our faith and our understanding manifest itself not merely in what we say, but in what we do. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.


© 2016 Katherine Fortier

© 2016 Anastasia Hacopian





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