I’ve been thinking a lot about power and privilege, lately. Some of that is because new examples of people abusing it ping my inbox several times a day. Some if it is because I am feeling convicted about the ways I inhabit my own.
Two years ago, after a week’s worth of White Men Behaving Violently, I took to Twitter. “The news this week,” I tweeted, “mostly makes me feel like straight white men should be banned from a) owning guns b) being clergy and c) governing any.thing.”
That tweet caught the attention of some straight white pastors in my church, who were very upset that I would express a sentiment about whether or not they should be pastors in my church. They demanded a defense. They demanded I be fired. They were appalled that someone who worked for a church would have the gall to say something like this.
These straight white pastors were the same ones who have been actively erecting policy and procedure to ban LGBTQ people from being ordained in our denomination. They are some of the same people who regularly demean and dismiss women clergy. It is not lost on me that my tiny tweet landed squarely in the sweet spot of that “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” command from Jesus. That tiny tweet is still doing its work, too: earlier this year, one of those pastors misquoted it in a powerpoint presentation to convince his congregation they should leave the denomination.
I work with straight white male pastors every day. I support their work. My job is literally comprised of asking them what they need and helping to find it for them. My congregation has called & credentialed four people in the last four years: two white women and two white men. I recognize that the uproar over that old tweet is not about me, but about the way that power, privilege and fragility work. The story is always the same.
I am trying to move myself from anger about the same story happening over and over and over again (another straight white man in our context hosted a table read of the fragility script this week) and learn from it. Sometimes, in some contexts, I am on the underside of the power and privilege equation: in the Church of the Brethren, I am part of a tiny minority: less than 1/4 of ordained ministers are women. And sometimes, I am the person with more power: in the Church of the Brethren, we’re so white that we don’t even publish statistics about the racial make-up of our clergy. In most situations, I inhabit spaces of privilege and marginalization AT THE SAME TIME.
Because I am almost always in a position of white privilege, I understand the impulse to respond to challenge with resistance, reluctance and anger. Having our position challenged is not comfortable. I have definitely chosen the road of closing up my ears and retreating into condescension. I have certainly attempted to silence the voices of those whose words are inconvenient to me. I know how threatening this can feel, because I have felt it.
And, because I am sometimes in a position of marginalized minority, I also understand how deeply harmful and violent it is to be consistently silenced, put down, condescended to and shut out of conversations. When this happens persistently, over time, it is toxic and infuriating and does deep soul harm. I have definitely found myself choosing a louder volume or a more sarcastic tone or an all-out assault just to make myself heard. I know how dehumanizing this can feel, because I have felt it.
So: I am trying to learn the ethical jiu jitsu of observing someone’s reaction to being challenged or being silenced and just…letting it be theirs. I am trying to observe how other people inhabit roles of power and privilege and, instead of feeling anger and stopping there, to find empathy in my own experience, to make note of it, and learn. Has someone with a particular role of privilege INFURIATED me, again? Oh, let me study that response and create a reminder for myself to do otherwise when I’m in a similar position. Has someone who’s been marginalized challenged me to hear and see them more fully? Oh, let me take note of the ways they did that so I can be better at asserting my own existence in another context.
I am not good at this. Right now, I am almost always angry. I am trying to learn from mentors and teachers and people who have lived for decades observing and responding to these violent structures of power – to hear their wisdom. I listened to a podcast interview of Ruby Sales yesterday. Ruby Sales is a theologian, human rights activist and Civil Rights legend. She is intimate with the dynamics of power and privilege. In this interview, Sales leaned heavily into her formation in Black folk religion – the tenets of LOVE for everyone.
“Love,” Sales says, “is not antithetical to outrage.”
This is what I’m trying to learn: to be simultaneously outraged and filled with love.