when being white hurts for once

It’s possible I didn’t get into a Ph.D. program because I’m white.

I don’t mean that as an excuse or a complaint or really even a literal statement. In reality, there are lots of reasons I didn’t get into a Ph.D. program, and my race isn’t among the top five you’d hear if I told you the story. But it was something I had to think about both during and after the application process: If it came down to a choice between me and someone of a minority race, all other things being exactly equal, the other person would “win.”

In theory, I think this is absolutely good and fitting for any academic program, especially in the liberal arts, and especially at the highest levels. In these fields, our personal backgrounds and perspectives influence our work even more than in others. Because of that, the academy is much, much poorer if it fails to cultivate a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. And the world is much, much poorer if it’s not represented well in academic and theological circles; people who can’t see themselves in the thinkers they’re hearing about often aren’t going to connect with the ideas. There’s really no one sitting around saying, “I can’t relate to this theology; I wish another wealthy white lady would write one.”

In theory, that makes sense. In practice, it’s not just nerve-wracking or hard to swallow. It hurts. It hurts, on a personal level, to hear that your perspective is valued less than someone else’s; and it hurts very practically, when you’re forced to compete for your dream, to know there is the potential that it will come down to something so far outside your control.

But just because it hurts me doesn’t make it any less right.

I’ve listened to the academic arguments and the personal pleas of my minority classmates and friends enough to know that they feel that same hurt every day of their lives. They don’t blame me as an individual and they certainly don’t revel in my pain, but they do ask me to see affirmative action as a conscious effort to reshape a world whose culture—whose unconscious efforts—often discount, demean, and defeat them.

This all came to mind when I read Dr. Christena Cleveland’s latest blog post, “How to be last: A practical theology for privileged people.” Of course, you should read it and then read it again, but here is the synopsis: Dr. Cleveland gives a brilliant retelling of the parable of the workers in the field—the one where some people work all day, and some work for only an hour, but everyone gets paid a full day’s wages. She points out that this parable illustrates that saying of Jesus: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. This isn’t just a saying; it’s a vision of God’s kingdom. The Bible says (and social psychology happens to confirm) that in our sin-stricken world, where history and culture have conspired to place some people’s value, opportunities, lives, and comfort so far ahead of others’, putting everyone on a level playing field isn’t enough to bring about equality and justice. As she puts it,

We experience the kin-dom of heaven when people from oppressed groups lead and people from privileged groups follow…If you’re a privileged person, here’s what I have to say to you: You have an invaluable role to play — and that role is last. When you inhabit your role as last, you play a crucial part in forging and maintaining the equitable balance of the kin-dom of heaven. Furthermore, your freedom is in being last. Your pathway to a more just world is in being last. Your liberation from the shackles, alienation and dehumanization of privilege is in being last.

When someone says the first shall be last and the last shall be first it sounds like a nice saying. When someone says your place is to be last, you realize it’s not nice at all. It’s far more than nice; it’s redemptive, and redemption is a purifying fire, and it’s hard, and it hurts.

Some of the comments on the post reflect this hurt. There’s defensiveness, anger, and dismissal: running away from the fire. There’s calm debate: seeking to get around the fire. And there’s this:

My brain says This is absolutely what needs to take place.
My emotions say This is undignifying.

I think that’s a guy walking through the fire.

It sounds like this guy knows that what our culture calls “dignity” isn’t what the kingdom calls blessed. But we rarely know in our bones those conclusions we mentally assent to, no matter how firmly we think we believe them. We know in our bones what we experience. That’s why Jesus demands obedience: sometimes you can only learn the truth of something by doing it.When you’re used to measuring value and accomplishment in status, money, and power, it can take a long time to know the joy of undignity. When you’ve spent all your life being told you were meant to lead, it’s not immediately apparent how there could be freedom in following.

Since Trump was elected, the same word has been on a loop in my mind: humility, humility, humility. When someone becomes the leader of a country by bragging about wealth, power, deceit, and violence, humility has become a foreign concept. I can’t get away from that this Advent: they will know you are an alien when you worship a peasant baby as king. They will laugh at you when you pursue humility. They will despise you even as they secretly respect you when you begin to attain it.

Some of us get into the “social justice” game or “kingdom of God” talk because we think it will make us heroes. But God gets us into the game so it will make us humble, and so it will make us free. Work to free others long enough, you discover just how many of their iron chains are matched with your own invisible spider-web chains, chains you never noticed before you learned how to see. Clinging to “dignity” and even to dreams that revolve around achievement and status are two of those chains. Jesus, the teacher of hard sayings, is the one who frees us all from them. There are no heroes.


zooming out

Or, Join Me in Big-Picture Abstract-Land, Where I Always Have One Foot Anyway.

This week’s blog series about work has been my final project for a class, in lieu of a research paper. I had a few research ideas, but I felt restless about settling down to dig deep into one (which is really unusual for me), and I wanted so much to talk about this down-to-earth subject in a more down-to-earth way. As a bunch of individual posts, they’re fine, but as a series and as a final project I still feel a bit of a need to defend my scattershot approach and connect them all here.

Most basically, I wanted to throw out some ideas in hopes of starting a conversation, from one angle or another, about the meaning of work for Christians. Work is one of those subjects that can reveal on the ground what we really believe about things like money, time, community, inequality, the value of culture, the value of humans, what we should and shouldn’t make sacrifices for as individuals and as societies. Whether we’re talking labor politics, employing a lawnmowing kid or a church staff member, choosing whether to accept extra hours or promotions at our own jobs, debating the value of a college degree, making a meal for a new mother, or contemplating retirement, we take all sorts of our own values, needs, and desires into account along with cultural realities and assumptions. But work is such a pervasive part of life, our attitudes about it so inherited and enmeshed, we rarely take a step back to look at those premises: what is an acceptable amount of vacation time, after all? What do I mean when I say “the satisfaction of a job well done?” What makes my own time worth the amount I’m paid for it? Why do we pay people like childcare and hospice workers – the people to whom we entrust our most precious and vulnerable loved ones – so very little for such exhausting and thankless work?

Personally, I suppose that in many ways the fascination goes back to my slightly defensive post about my own vocation to the Christian life. I still think that dithering about vocation with regards to career is mostly just a refuge for people overwhelmed by the privilege of having plenty of choices, causing them to miss the “Love God, Love your Neighbor” forest for the tiresome “But Who am I Really?” tree. But as much as I don’t want to take myself too seriously, I am still someone who does have all of these choices in things big (where to live) and small (which chocolate to buy), and I find I must take the choices seriously. My own life is so insistently intertwined with the rest of the world’s, the one choice that seems closed to me is indifference.

What I mean to say is that, amidst a larger unanswered question about the significance of my having money, choices, family, health where others don’t, the question of how to leverage these for love and for justice remains. Often I think I should become a subsistence farmer and stay, literally and figuratively, out of other people’s business. Other times I think I should go into politics or business and get myself allllllllll up in other people’s lives. Most of the time I think what I wrote in that post – that it’s important to live simply and love others and listen for the voice of God wherever I find myself. Perhaps some extraordinary call will come to me someday. Or perhaps I have already, unknowingly, done the most significant act of good I’ll ever do, something small that will have an undetectable butterfly effect of earth-shattering or earth-saving proportions.

In the meantime, I think my questions about work tend to distill down into a question that is at the heart of our understandings of justice and love, with regards to any issue: What is enough? With how much should one be content, rather than greedy; for how much should one be hopeful, even demanding, rather than complacent?

How many choices are enough? How much money is enough? How much leisure is enough? When is a job purposeful enough? And deep in my well-intentioned, needy beating heart: When have I done enough?

I think that God is enough. Really, I do, however silly and naive that may sound. I believe that God works miracles big and small, making profundity out of housework, making feasts out of loaves, making humble and generous believers out of Scrooges. And I believe that through Jesus Christ, God comforts the dead and the mourning, and makes all things new.

Yet God sees fit to make requirements of us. To do justice, paying employees a fair wage, removing ex-felons’ barriers to work, making possible the celebration of Sabbath for all. To love mercy, giving without question and assuming the best of even our enemies.

And to walk humbly. To take our Sabbath rest and learn again that we are not so important. To give thanks for what we have when we wish that it were more. To give thanks for what others have when it doesn’t seem fair. To work in the kitchen when we’d rather be up front, and to give our sermon or song when it would be easier to hide from criticism. Whatever our work is, day by day, to offer our best to God and be held by the knowledge that God treasures even gifts that seem small –

That is enough.

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