Take Away My Privilege!

A sermon based on Luke 13:1-9
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I stand before you a long time privileged guy. Unless I upset people, which I sometimes do, I am almost always provided polite treatment and instantly considered at least an equal virtually everywhere I go in this city and county and state and country. I take it for granted that I deserve to be, and will be, treated fairly and with respect and on an equal plane with pretty much anyone else wherever I go. In fact, if I encounter impolite or unjust or other inappropriate treatment and make a noise about it, my complaints tend to not only get an audience, but are acted upon far more often than they would be for, well – this is a painful truth – for more than half of you sitting here today.

See, the way things work– and a number of us take this for granted, is that my skin color and gender and straightness give me a “fair treatment” status throughout the culture that women, LGBTQ and People of Color can only imagine. The universal fair treatment status I get, is not universally applied, nor is it fair.

The thing is, as a Straight White male I am encouraged to say what needs to be said, to stand up for what I think are problems large or small whether it be to a store manager, a polling booth operator or a police officer. As a rule I am not expected to suck it up and “take” unfair treatment. I don’t routinely get followed around in stores as a suspicious customer. People want my business. I don’t have laws passed to make it harder for me to vote, people want me to vote. If I get stopped or approached by the police I am considered non-threatening. The profiling on me is: “Not likely a threat. Go easy. Be polite.” Simply put, I am privileged and I am treated as such. One could say in the ethos of our culture I am entitled to the epitome of fair treatment.

Even if people do not know I am a minister, I get special treatment almost all the time, almost everywhere I go– and if I don’t get special treatment, someone will try to remedy the problem if I complain about it– especially because the legal training I was privileged to have taught me where to ask for remedies, who to ask for remedies and how to ask for remedies.

Things are tilted quite a bit more in my favor. Caucasian men as a rule get paid more, have better access to education and jobs and all kinds of services. We are what is considered “the norm,” the ones for whom the supposed neutral way of doing things makes sure fairness occurs. The result is I get fair treatment as a matter of course that half of you do not, I’m “more equal” than a whole bunch of you here today and a whole bunch of others in America.

In a nation that prides itself on equality – if we are honest about it, which I am trying to be this morning– I am more equal to earthly powers (large and small) in our day-to-day lives than those of you who are women, LGBTQ and People of Color. My life matters. It matters more culturally than many of your lives.

If that makes any of you uncomfortable, and it should, it makes me very uncomfortable. I think it is outrageous that anyone – anyone– can be treated in the culture as more equal than others based on physiological attributes. I am not better than anyone in this room or anyone outside it.

That’s not to say that my life doesn’t matter, my life clearly matters. The other straight White males lives here today clearly matter equally with mine. But women’s lives need to matter equally with mine. LGBTQ’s lives need to matter equally with mine. People of Color lives need to matter equally with mine. Black lives need to matter equally with mine.

I doubt that there is anyone in this room that disagrees that all lives need to matter equally. They surely matter equally with God. They surely mater equally to Christ. They surely are meant to matter equally in the Declaration of Independence and our amended Constitution and the laws that we presently have in place in America.

As Americans and Christians we can safely laud the ideal that all lives matter. We can seek justice and love kindness by stopping prejudice against women, LGBTQ and People of Color. And the Bible supports this: Proverbs (24:23) tells us “Partiality in judging is not good. And God showed Peter we “should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Act 10:28). Paul tells us “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Rom 13:9-10). Paul also makes it clear that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek (Galatians 3:28). Paul understood that racial differences are to no longer exist with Christ. And of course Jesus instructs that we are to love our neighbor as our self; that there is no commandment greater than that. (Mar 12:28-31). Hear the equality in that commandment? Love of self and neighbor is to be equal . . . And that is of utmost importance.

The folks around Jesus in our reading this morning are talking about earthly power not treating lives as mattering equally. Roman lives, like my life now, culturally mattered more. Pilate, Rome’s power monger in Palestine, caused a senseless blood bath at the temple killing Galileans as they worshiped God. It was an act of Roman racial oppression of the Jews, especially aimed at those from a particular area. Galilean lives mattered, but not to Rome. And apparently, like today, some people were blaming the victims, claiming something akin to “God put the Galilean victims in harm’s way, so you, know, what are we to do?”

That’s an awful theology. We hear it still today and it’s not rooted in Jesus’ teachings. Listen to Jesus’s response in the lesson to such nonsense:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

The people that Pilate oppressed and massacred did nothing to deserve the fate that befell them. The murdered Galileans’ sins did not bring about their oppression or their deaths. God’s judgment did not fall upon them. Because Galilean lives matter. They were no worse than anyone else, their lives mattered to God . . . but not to Rome.

And Jesus noting that the living will perish as the massacred is not a threat by Jesus that God will cause or judge them in such a way as to be oppressed and massacred. Jesus is talking about what will happen if the way things are continue unchanged. If oppression of people does not stop we are all at risk. If Jesus’ followers slough it off as God’s doing; or agree with Rome that some lives can be oppressed; or focus on all lives instead of those being oppressed; or otherwise not dare to stand up and do what must be done to stop oppression the unfairness will go on and on and on.

And it is going on and on in America. I know no man who’s ever wanted to be treated as women have been. I know no Straight who’s ever wanted to be treated as LGBTQ have been. I know of no White who’s ever wanted to be treated as People of Color have been. And I know no one – no one– who’s ever wanted to treated as Blacks have been.

I’m in a position of great privilege. I get special treatment that everyone should get. I consider my position of privilege a tool to work at dismantling that privilege. Some argue we cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, but I don’t think it applies when “masters” do the dismantling. Whites can work to take down the oppressive institutions our ancestors built, the ones that allow some to unfairly benefit, and we can all then work to rebuild them so all benefit equally.

Whites, particularly White males, need to say “Take away my privilege!” We need to demand everyone gets treated the same as us. And Jesus, a male Jewish Rabbi, gives us the model. Everyone Jesus’ culture taught him to oppress, he embraced. He used what status he had to take down institutionalized oppression and removed his own preferential status. Consequently Jesus and the early church treated as equal everyone anyone hated and oppressed: criminals, women, children, lame, blind, sick, poor– even tax collectors. They were treated as equals.

Jesus used his status to take down barriers. We can even hear all races being welcomed by him and the early church, as Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, Ethiopians, Gentiles Jews and, yes, even Romans are provided love and compassion. The Jesus Following was about making a level playing field. It’s still supposed to be about that!

That’s why Paul says there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. It’s why he declares we are all one in Christ Jesus. And Jesus bought this way for us –as Cliff sang– with his blood, not because God wanted the sacrifice but because earthly power did not want to change their oppressive ways. So they come in the night and steal Christ and beat Christ and kill Christ. But God lets us find Christ again in one another, in our quest for oneness and in that oneness.

But we cannot just talk about it, and say we like the idea. We need to make that oneness become a reality. We need to seek justice so there is equality. We need to love kindness so there is universal fairness. Not by saying “all lives” matter as a nice platitude; not by thinking “seeking justice and loving kindness” are neat things to do, but by doing those thing so that all lives matter as a reality. A reality that makes women’s lives matter as much as my male life everywhere, all the time. A reality that makes LGBTQ lives matter as much as my Straight life everywhere, all the time. A reality that makes People of Color lives matter as much as my White life everywhere, all the time . . . A reality that makes Black lives matter as much as my White life everywhere, all the time. It will not happen until all of us work toward changing it so that my life experiences the same level of mattering that every other life in this room encounters, and out there encounters–and visa versa. That will mean one of two things: (1) Everyone must insist being treated in the lesser way that women, LGBTQ and People of Color are treated; OR (2) Everyone must insist women, LGBTQ and People of Color are treated in the greater way that Straight White males are treated.

We all know that the second option is the choice we need to aim for –fair treatment for all. In order to do that we need to change, in the language of Lent, and in Jesus’ words in the lesson: we need to repent–which means turn around. We need to change course so that humanity and each of us are not as we presently are, but our better selves, best selves.

Lent is about contemplating a change of course, of repentance and then living into it by actually seeking justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God . . . not talking about it, doing it! Jesus in the lesson today applies his teaching of repentance– turning onto the right course– to evil acts of humans, like racial oppression by Rome. He’s advocating humanity change the course of our ways that are unjust and unloving, to the Way that is just and loving. To bend Jesus metaphor at the end of the lesson into a pun, he wants us to give a fig!

We have to work to save the world from the earthly power’s ways and move it toward God’s Way, which of course also matches the American ideal way, that everyone is equal. And not just in theory but it reality, everywhere, all the time. We need to repent. To change our course to a Way that leads all of us to be the better selves we are supposed to be. Unless we repent we will remain off course corporately and personally. Groups of people will be oppressed like the Jewish Galileans– and women and LGBTQ and People of Color– especially Black lives in our culture.
If we don’t repent some of us will remain unequally privileged, like the Romans . . . and like me. We need to turn onto the right course, the Way of equality for all. And not because God is going to violently punish us, but because we un-Godly punish ourselves by not making lives matter equally. Which is ironic since here in this room we all want lives to matter equally, and out there in town and in the community the vast majority want that too. But it takes work – and make no mistake about it dodging the work is sinful, it misses the mark God’s aiming us at.

In Christ’s famous parable of the goat and sheep he can be heard to tell us that when oppressed lives are cared for Christ is cared for. Christ lists the oppressed lives, poor; sick; imprisoned; stranger. Christ explicitly singles them out as particular groups of lives that are not mattering. His followers did not ignore his point or diminish it by arguing back “Christ, um . . . all lives matter.” Christ’s point, like the point in the lectionary reading, and like the point of the Black Lives Matter movement and our the point of out banner that was stolen, is that the listed lives are not mattering equally to humankind, and “by God” they need to. So please . . . please, work to take away my privilege!