The margins of privilege: a lesson in justice, mercy and humility

As I was driving today, I was putting thoughts together to write a piece about human perspectives on privilege. I thought I might opt for another term, like inherited advantage, since the term “White Privilege” has been used and misused and misunderstood to a point where those with said privilege have conditioned themselves to dismiss it as propaganda.

The thing is, I received a call shortly after arriving at work that my son’s gravestone monument is ready to be set in two days. Something like that will interrupt your thoughts. Makes you stop what you’re doing. Makes you remember a beloved life lost. Makes you remember things you thought you had forgotten.

The movie, “The Jerk,” starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters came out in 1979. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first movie I ever went to see with friends. It opened with Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, stating, “It was never easy for me. I was born a poor, black child.” Well, I was born into a white, relatively middle class (for rural America) family. I am a female, so that created its own set of issues related to power, safety, protection and vulnerability during my formative years in the late 20th century. As a woman, I’ve experienced sexual molestation and physical violence from men I thought loved me. As a white woman, I’ve experienced rejection and abuse because of my relationships with men of other races. I’ve experienced homelessness and isolation and marginalization from some advantages of having been born into a white family. I’ve been terrorized by Klan-minded church members, more concerned about my relationships than my safety. That’s my experience, but not my whole message.

When you are born with advantages that you did nothing to earn other than arriving here on earth by way of your birth parents, you don’t understand what it’s like not to have them. How could you? Why would you even try to imagine it? It would be very hard to convince someone who is born into a white American family with a sufficiently large home – maybe two – who graduated college without paralyzing debt, who landed a great spouse and a great-paying job and who enjoys plenty of food and vacations without being questioned or harassed that those lovely things aren’t due to his or her pious living, belief in God, and otherwise-perfect choices over the course of a lifetime. Very hard. As hard as leading a camel through the eye of a needle. Especially if going through that eye means having to let go of some of those unearned trappings to which we feel attached and for which we feel entitled.

I think “choices” is a great place to pause. Because not everyone has the same array of choices. The very heart of being privileged or having advantages means having a wider, better assortment of choices. Of course, not everyone with advantages makes great choices. I’ve made some pretty rotten choices myself. But sometimes, a bad choice is the better of two pretty awful choices.

My son died by suicide last year. It was a bad choice in my estimation, but I suspect he felt it was the better of his limited array of perceived choices in that moment. He had some advantages: he was smart, good looking, had a decent job, had a family who loves him, had talents and skills that were still developing. He also had disadvantages: he wasn’t able to complete his college degree due to issues surrounding ADD; he was biracial with green eyes and was often mistaken as coming from a nationality or culture that people in America fear post-9/11; he fought mental illness/depression; he had a job with terrible medical benefits that could barely be called benefits at all; and he had limited financial resources due to the types of jobs he was able to secure and a lack of saved resources coming from a single-parent/absent father household. This week, I’ll witness his gravestone being set in place. That shouldn’t be happening according to natural order, but I don’t have another good choice.

Growing up as I did, belief in Jesus was often conflated with American patriotism, local privileges and cultural standards. There was a prosperity gospel element to it, equating poverty with immorality. There was, in my neck of the woods, a racist element, left over from the era of slavery, that equated being from a non-white race to being immoral. I knew something smelled rotten. I rebelled against it, even if I couldn’t properly or articulately identify it from within the context of the rotten smells. I separated myself as best I could.

“Nose-blind” they call it, when you can’t smell your own stink while it surrounds you.

Assuredly, following Jesus requires a complete rejection of those conflated ideas. These are interesting times in which we live. Much is being uncovered in terms of bad theologies that are unjust, unmerciful, unloving and not at all like Jesus’ example. I’m glad to see these things being identified and confronted.

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I’m also painfully aware that these core issues still surround us. In light of these previously-hidden-and-protected, and recently-spotlighted sins of our humanity, I recognize and acknowledge that I have more, better choices than very many of my neighbors. Some of that is entirely because of my appearance – something I had no part in creating. I’m not a wealthy woman in our culture’s terms, not by a long-shot. I’m still (again) a single mom working two jobs for pay and two more without pay, just trying to keep things floating. I’ve seen terrible things that have taught me where to look. I know how to utilize my advantages. I also know that, when you see others doing better than you in your most insecure and myopic view, it can make you hold on very tightly to what little you might perceive that you have, fearful of falling lower in esteem or losing traction in some regard.

But any response to others that is birthed in fear is probably the opposite of what you’re being asked to do by Jesus.

Choose to give generously to people outside of your social circle and sphere of influence. Expect nothing in return.

Choose to speak up when you see someone being mistreated, regardless of who the offender is. Offer help and encouragement to the one in harm’s way.

Choose to go out of your way for a suffering friend or loved one or stranger. Yes, go out of your way. He or she is likely unable to make a move toward you or any other help.

Choose to be a good listener and lay aside any defensive responses when someone says you’ve hurt them. Be willing to reconcile differences without attempting to make another person into some alternative version of you.

Choose to love people first.

These things are just, merciful, kind and humble. These are great choices that anyone can make.

When healing doesn’t come

When healing doesn’t come … what do the faithful do?

I think we all have our ideas about how we are supposed to manage our faith. If we have faith in God, then we believe God will do what God promised to do. But, for Jesus followers, did Jesus promise to heal every ailment we pray to have removed? Sometimes, it seems that is exactly what Jesus said: “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Paul might argue the opposite … while Paul pleaded with God to remove “the thorn from his flesh,” God insisted that Paul would experience sufficient grace because God’s strength is made perfect through our weakness.

My mother struggled with healing that did not come for her, as faithful and trusting as she was, and regardless of how many of us agreed in prayer with her for her healing. My son struggled with healing that he was unable to find, regardless of all of the prayers, treatments and lifestyle changes he made. Therein lies the tension that shows up in all things – when do we recognize which direction to adjust our sails? What exactly are we supposed to have faith in if not God’s amazing ability to give us what we ask for, like a magically powerful vending machine?

Many believers crumble under an undue pressure to somehow increase their faith in these times, but the main object of our faith – the target, the goal – is what gets lost. We have to place our faith in God, not in what God can or will or won’t do. We have to trust God in life and in death and in eternity. I’ve never been more wildly or rudely introduced to a concept before in my entire life. We have to trust God in life and in death and in eternity. I think about all three of those statuses often these days, as I attempt to reconcile the life and loss of my son. I prayed so fervently for him … I and many others. I have to trust that God answered our prayers in ways we may never understand while on earth.

As we dig in this spot, let’s ask a deeper, more difficult question: how do Christ-followers uphold faith in the face of mental illness? What is the distinction between our soul and our spirit and how does our spirit maintain a strong connection with God-inside-us (Holy Spirit) when our soul becomes so sick and broken? How do we reconcile death as a result of mental illness as opposed to physical illness, which seems to be more revered – a more honorable way to die? I believe strongly that the Church is faced today with figuring out how to encourage, embrace, pray for and support its members and community members who are struggling with mental illnesses. If the statistics are correct, about 25% of the population is affected by depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder or other personality disorders – which often occur together in the same person. If we’re honest, we know we are surrounded by these hurting, beloved people and we don’t have a clue how to properly support them.

We don’t know how to offer hope, because we don’t often feel hopeful for them or we attribute their words and actions to bad character flaws or bad choices – but if we can’t do anything else, we must offer the hope that is found in Jesus. If Jesus only offered one thing to humanity, and if that one thing was hope, then that is all we need. Hope heals. But if that hope doesn’t keep us on earth longer, then that hope in Jesus will take us into our eternity. The Church must be the source that offers the hope of Jesus to our broken members, communities and world. Healing and restoring a broken world is the mission Jesus initiated in His ministry on earth and it is the work He will bring into completion through eternity. That is also our mission and our hope.