Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Perspective of Privilege

This week in the men's Bible study I've begun attending, the pastor leading the study led us to look at Isaiah 58. This passage, for those not familiar, contains some strong exhortations to:

“loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke.”

The pastor, a friend of mine and a man whom I respect, challenged the men in the group to consider where we might find oppression around us and how we might take part in setting those free who are oppressed and in fighting injustice. The men struggled with this a bit, offering some thoughts about situations in other countries—valid observations worth making. But when pressed to think of examples of injustice and oppression within our local or even national context, they really ran against a wall and what little response they offered tended toward the idea that in America we don't really know oppression or injustice, that all Americans have equal opportunity and possibility to pursue their dreams and develop their lives. Any failures in this area, they essentially argued, are due more to lack of personal initiative than anything.

As I listened to their discussion and looked around the room, I realized that every man in the room was white. Most of them are seniors and many grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930's, so I cannot say that none of them have experienced hardship or difficulty. But at this point in life we represented a very small cross-section of society: a group of white men from middle and upper-class society. We couldn't adequately respond to the pastor's question (who is himself a white male, for the sake of full disclosure) because the simple fact is that we all come from the privileged group in our society. I do not know these men well enough yet to know how much (or little) they have interacted with those in our society who do not come from this privileged position, but regardless of this interaction, all of us see the world from our privileged position. We do not see the oppression and injustice in our society because it is invisible to us. I raised this point in the group and received some acknowledgment of it, but in general the group didn't seem to grasp the truth that we represent a privileged minority and that this affects how we perceive the world around us.

Lately I have been reading a lot from the pens of feminist bloggers, trying to better understand feminism and the feminist perspective on the world and our society in particular. The more I do this, the more I recognize how unaware and uninformed I am. I realize how much my perspective on every issue has been shaped by my background and status as a white male in America. Living overseas for several years has also done great things to stretch me and help me grow in this area, but in many ways I feel that I have just begun to learn. I want to be an advocate for women, but what I understand now is that first and foremost I must learn to listen to them. As Dianne Anderson wrote in this relevant post, I need to recognize that the disenfranchised, the oppressed, those battling injustice, are not voiceless. Rather, those of us in positions of privilege and power do not listen to them. We don't hear them. We don't need to—and probably don't want to—listen to them, because we operate from a position of power and we like the way things are. Who wouldn't?

This doesn't mean that I should remain silent. There is value and purpose to adding my voice to the voices of the marginalized: be they women, ethnic or sexual minorities, the poor here or in other countries, or any other oppressed group. I must stop ignoring them. I must be willing to surrender my position of power and privilege. But rather than telling them what they should do and how they should conform themselves to some standard put in place by the privileged class, I need first and foremost to listen. I need to hear about their experiences and try to enter into their situation as best as I am able, recognizing that I cannot fully become one of them. As Diane writes:

"Essentially: it is a hard road to navigate, but the first and foremost thing in any social justice approach needs to be peace, patience, grace, and mercy. Understand things before you dive in to “help.” You may just learn something worth knowing."

Jesus can serve as my role model in this. After all, he occupied the position of ultimate power and privilege. He had everything at his disposal. Yet, as we are reminded in Philippians 2, he chose to give all of this up. He stepped out of his position of power into a position of servanthood, of powerlessness. This is not the model offered us by many concepts of “biblical manhood.” But it is a model that helps us to actualize Isaiah 58, to become agents of transformation who work toward the realization of God's kingdom on earth rather than just holding on until we can get out of this fallen place.

I've only begun my journey of transformation, but I hope to learn to listen. I want to recognize the injustice and oppression around me and, in listening to those suffering from it, to understand how I can work with them to break those chains and set the oppressed free.

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