Grace for the privileged too?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'365::139 - grace' photo (c) 2010, Sarah Reid - license:

This may come as a surprise to some, but I’m more comfortable speaking in front of evangelical groups than progressive, emerging groups. This is partly because evangelicalism is my background, so I know the language, relate to the culture, and can offer something of a challenge to an evangelical audience. But it’s also because I know exactly what not to say to evangelicals, whereas, in more progressive Christian communities, I’m still learning the ropes.

For example, under no circumstances should you stand in front of an evangelical church group and refer to God as “She”… unless, of course, you are prepared to divert the entire conversation to an argument over pronouns and the divine feminine.  (Then go for it!) This fact seems rather obvious to me, having grown up in the evangelical world. Less obvious to me is the fact that, under no circumstances should you stand in front of a progressive, emerging church group and refer to God as “He”… unless you are prepared to divert the entire conversation to an argument over pronouns and the divine feminine.  (That one I learned the hard way!)

Similarly, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been confronted with my own privilege as a straight, white woman. It’s taken many, many conversations with many, many patient LGBT folks and people of color for me to recognize the subtle ways in which my attitudes and language betray prejudices and inadvertently cause pain. We saw this play out in the comment section earlier this week when an open, inquisitive reader asked a question of LGBT readers that included the phrase “gay lifestyle.” Several readers explained how that phrase can be hurtful, given the fact it is often invoked negatively to cast LGBT folks as a monolithic group with a single lifestyle to be condemned. I was impressed with how the initial commenter responded—with an apology and an eagerness to learn more— and for the most part, her follow-up questions were met with equally gracious responses from gay readers. Still, some seemed to assume the worst about the commenter’s motives and attitude, making it hard to keep the conversation going in a productive direction.

This happens sometimes in my conversations about women in the Church. Although I identify as something of a feminist, I still have a lot to learn about feminism. (They didn’t have a women’s studies major at Bryan College, believe it or not!) It can be frustrating when I’m engaged in dialog with fellow feminists, eager to learn more and eager to bring my own experiences to the table, only to be raked over the coals after saying something “wrong” without even realizing it.  Often it’s because I am unfamiliar with the lingo and language, so I leave feeling kinda stupid and shamed. 

We see this play out in the realm of social justice too. Many of us, when initially confronted with our relative wealth and freedom, respond in the only way we know how—as consumers. We switch to fair trade, reassess our spending habits, write checks to charities, and join the Facebook page of a low-commitment justice campaign. Of course, as our convictions persist and mature, we begin to see the ways in which we are complicit in global wealth disparity and injustice, and we begin to think more seriously about policy, about sustainability, about making more dramatic attitude and lifestyle changes, and about problems within some of our charities and justice groups that perpetuate a white savior complex, sometimes doing more harm than good.  As I explained in an article for Relevant regarding Kony 2012, we must move from a simplistic understanding of justice to a more complex one, but that process takes time, and we have to have grace for one another as we go along.

My point is this: There’s a learning curve, especially when it comes to confronting our own privilege.

This is not to say that the underprivileged should let the harmful assumptions and attitudes of privileged slide—far from it! It’s just to say that when we confront those assumptions and attitudes, we have to do so with a person’s overall character and posture in mind. Folks with a generally open, vulnerable posture, who are eager to learn and willing to admit their mistakes, learn the most when they receive enough benefit of the doubt to engage in conversation without it disintegrating into anger and name-calling.

Sometimes I worry that people of goodwill miss out on important conversations because they are scared off, so fearful of saying something wrong and having their character and motives questioned that they retreat to the safe and familiar—often returning to the privileged, closed-off communities from which they came.

I shared an article in Sunday Superlatives last week called “The Distress of the Privileged.” I think the author, Doug Muder, makes a good point:

“As the culture evolves, people who benefitted from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.
If you are one of the newly-visible others, this all sounds whiny compared to the problems you face every day. It’s tempting to blast through such privileged resistance with anger and insult….
Confronting this distress is tricky, because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right. The distress is usually very real, so rejecting it outright just marks you as closed-minded and unsympathetic. It never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them.
At the same time, my straight-white-male sunburn can’t be allowed to compete on equal terms with your heart attack. To me, it may seem fair to flip a coin for the first available ambulance, but it really isn’t. Don’t try to tell me my burn doesn’t hurt, but don’t consent to the coin-flip.
The Owldolatrous approach — acknowledging the distress while continuing to point out the difference in scale — is as good as I’ve seen. Ultimately, the privileged need to be won over. Their sense of justice needs to be engaged rather than beaten down. The ones who still want to be good people need to be offered hope that such an outcome is possible in this new world.”
Read the entire article. 

I can’t help but think of the early church, which included Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slaves and masters, men and women, tax collectors and zealots. You gotta know there were some uncomfortable, vulnerable conversations happening in that context!

Paul’s instructions to the Colossians seem especially appropriate:

“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other…Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”

Obviously, there are people who are unwilling to acknowledge or confront their privilege and continue to wound even after they’ve been told that their words, attitudes, and actions are hurtful; they should be called out, and in some cases avoided for the sake of creating safe communities for the people they hurt. (Please do not interpret this as a call for the oppressed to just get over their oppression and  “forgive and forget.”) But there are also people of goodwill who are quick to listen and open to change, but who still have a lot to learn and are going to make some mistakes along the way. I count myself among them, and I ask my brothers and sisters for grace.

What do you think? Do you know what I mean by a “learning curve”? Have you ever felt cut out of a conversation, or even condemned, because you are new to the dialog and haven’t learned the lingo and language yet?

And is it fair to ask the underprivileged to extend patience to the privileged? Where do we draw the line? Is there a healthy place for anger in conversations like these?

I’m eager to hear a diversity of folks weigh in on this. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while but still struggle to articulate. I could be feel free to tell me if you think I am. :-) 

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