Saturday, February 24, 2007

Experiencing White Privilege

In her classic paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”, Peggy McIntosh points out that “whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege.” She says, as a result, whites grow up unaware of with the basic privileges in North American society that come to them with their skin color. This privilege is invisible to whites, but glaringly evident to people of color. McIntosh goes on to offer 50 examples of privileges granted to whites, not granted to people of color. Furthermore, as she points out, with this privilege comes the power to set the intellectual, emotional and social agenda in any given setting.

In the last few years, I have sought to be more consciously aware of the privilege granted to me by society as a white, educated, middle class male. This awareness has caused me to experience myself in some discomforting ways. Recently, there was one situation, where my tendency toward privilege snuck up on me and I did not see it coming.

Recently, I have been participating in an interracial group exploring the topic, “Bridging the Gaps of Race and Class.” At our initial meeting, the organizers of the group indicated that they assumed that all the participants “had passed Racism 101” and understood concepts such as internalized oppression, institutional racism and white privilege. As we introduced ourselves to the group, we were invited to share a challenge we had faced in bridging the race and class gap. When my turn came, I shared that when I am new in a gathering where I am a racial minority among a group of people of color, I often get vibes of distrust from others in the group. My sense is that people are suspicious of my presence and my motives for being there as a white male.

Because I assumed in our group that everyone understood that I had “passed Racism 101,” I didn’t feel a need to explain that I understood that the distrust was part of a historical reaction to a pattern of white domination. I did not state that when I am in such settings, I accept that I must earn the respect of others. In making that statement, I was not being critical, but rather making what I considered to be an honest description of my experience. I also assumed that everyone would accept my statement at face value.

However, I was sorely mistaken. Later when the group broke into separate caucuses of white and black, I learned that some of the African-American participants as well as some of the whites, were quite upset by my comment. I in turn felt hurt and later angry about their reaction. I stewed on the incident for days. In subsequent meetings, my discomfort was magnified by one particular African-American woman who seemed very reluctant to speak with me, and at least one white person who seemed bent on setting me straight. In the subsequent weeks, as I participated by offering what I thought were valuable contributions, I have felt like I was digging myself into a deeper and deeper hole. My internal l response has been to say, “You asked a question, I gave an answer; why can’t you accept that?”

And then it hit me: this is what people of color experience on a daily basis. They think they are “playing by the rules” and then all of a sudden the rules change. As a white male I have been accustomed to making the rules of discourse and then making sure they are followed. I have been raised to assume that when I make a statement in apparent good faith, that statement is accepted at face value. I don’t assume that I will have to that there was not some hidden message or implication in what I said. Furthermore, I don’t assume that I will be regarded with suspicion once I have made my case. Finally, I don’t assume that by “being myself” I will sink into deeper and deeper sense of alienation. What I have come to realize is that in this small incident, I have experienced my white privilege in a way that doesn’t give me an easy out. More than that I have come to realize that because the rules of discourse are often skewed in my favor, I have not developed any resources to react to a persistent questioning of my integrity.

Yet this is what most, if not all, people of color face in our society. I have come to a new appreciation for the pernicious effect racism has on our identity, our assumptions, and our ability to communicate effectively. I am thankful for this group as uncomfortable as it has been, and I am thankful for colleagues and friends who are willing to be honest and set me straight. I have no illusions; I will stumble and stick my foot in my mouth again. I probably won’t even know at first that I have done so. White male privilege for all its benefits, has not prepared me to live in an increasingly multicultural society.

As I look at my children and white friends and colleagues, I think one of the major challenges we face in the next ten years is how to live in a society where we don’t have privilege. To people of color that seems like justice (and it is), but for many whites, including me, it is an uphill climb. We who are white have not been given the cognitive or emotional tools to live in a world that is not white-oriented. In some ways are friends of color can help us, but that is not their job. In most cases we need to make our own way. I am committed to keep on learning about how my white male privilege has crippled me for the world that is here and coming, and I am dedicated to sharing any insights I have had.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

More on Violence in the Bible

Since writing my entry on “Biblical Language and Life as a Battle” over a month ago, I have taken time to read and study more about the place of violence in the Bible. In this study I have come across some good sources such as Does the Bible Justify Violence by John J.Collins, Is Religion Killing Us by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, and Terror in the Mind of God by Mark Juergensmeyer. I also went back and reread portions of John H. Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and articles by Richard Horsley on the political milieu of the New Testament era. These are only a small sampling of books on this important topic.

What all these authors affirm conclusively is that the "violence of God" theme is part and parcel to the Old and New Testaments. In his classic work The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Neibuhr drove home that human beings are a paradox in that we are inherently self-centered and sinful, while still having the capacity to transcend that self-interest in works of peace, justice and love. However, when Niebuhr looked at institutions and nation-states, he said that by design all organized groups are be self-oriented and tend toward polarization and violence. The need for group self-preservation moves the group or nation-state seek its own survival at the expense of others.

This insight helps us understand why even in the Scriptures we find an inherent tendency to divide people into “us” and “them.” Whether talking about the Jews in the Old Testament or the followers of Jesus in the New Testament, inevitably the stories are written from the standpoint that “God is with us and those other folks are against us.” By extension anyone who is against “us” is therefore against God. This dichotomy of “us” and “them” leads to justifiable violence on the part of “us.” So the Jews see God working on their behalf in escaping the Egyptians, conquering the Canaanites and dealing with the various nations that threatened their existence. Likewise, in the New Testament, the followers of Jesus who felt persecuted by the Jewish and Roman authorities believed that in the end God punish would punish “them” as a form of vindication.

Violence is woven throughout human history, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer identifies a five stage spiral of violence that can not only be found in the Bible, but also in all of history.
Violence 1 – An oppressed group experience the economic and political violence in the form of domination, hunger and injustice
Violence 2- The oppressed group rebels countering violence with violence.
Violence 3 – The state responds with repressive violence to quell the disturbance. Or, the oppressed groups gain power and uses repressive measures against their former oppressors.
Violence 4 – There is a dysfunctional deflective violence in which oppressed person do violence against one another – poor on poor violence.
Violence 5 – Violence of all sorts is justified and rationalized by attributing the violence and its result to God. Violence is not only physical, it is now deeply spiritual.

This natural human tendency to return violence with violence and attribute at least some of it to God is found not only in Christianity and Judaism, but as Juergensmeyer points out, in all major religions of the world.

Having said this, what do we do? Some would say that religion itself is the problem and so we just need to get rid of religion. This is Sam Harris’ solution in The End of Faith. While it is true that religion is at the root of much of the world’s violence, religion is also responsible for much of the world’s good, such as schools, hospitals, development projects and community. Getting rid of religion won’t change the human tendency toward self-interest and domination. Such a solution is na├»ve, and betrays a skewed view of religion.

Some like Nelson-Pallmeyer believe that we need to give up the notion that the Bible is some sort of “sacred text,” and recognize it for what it is – a human document with human prejudices and biases written into it. His rationale goes something like this: Since the authority of the Bible (as well as other so-called “sacred texts” like the Quran) are used to justify violence, we need to respond by rejecting the authority of these "sacred texts." This then makes it possible for us to excise those parts of the "sacred text" that run against our modern sensibilities and then religiously-inspired violence can be eliminated. He goes so far as to say that Violence is the true god of the Bible. By removing the authority of God in Scripture, we dethrone the sacred god, Violence.

I think Nelson-Pallmeyer goes too far to say that Violence is the God of the Bible. Moreover, I think he goes too far in saying that we should reject the Bible’s authority outright. What people like Nelson-Pallmeyer want is a god who fits their sensibilities, that feels comfortable, and accommodates their politics. While attractive, such an approach seems to miss the point that God is the ultimate Guide in life, and perhaps some humilityon our part is in order.

However, I am caused to ask several probing questions: Is there not a way one can doubt portions of the Bible without a full rejection of Scripture as reflecting the word of God? Is there not a kind of doubt and challenge to the Bible that respects rather than rejects its authority? Is it not true that the Bible itself has questioned the justification of violence in the first place?

I know that last question is true for me, I challenge the “violence-of-God tradition” because of people like Clarence Jordan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi, who saw in Jesus a model of nonviolence and a model of the nonviolent life. I can accept that human biases and tendencies have found their way into the Bible stories without rejecting the overall authority of the Bible. It is a respect for the Biblical story of Jesus that moves me to question the “violence-of-God” images found elsewhere. In that sense the Bible questions itself and corrects itself.

Furthermore, running alongside the violence-of-God tradition is the tradition of the Suffering Servant found in many passages, such as Isaiah 53, Mark 10.45 and Philippians 2.5-11. In those passages Jesus offers a model of life that counters violence with a willingness to suffer. I think of Martin Luther King who said to his adversaries, “Our capacity to endure suffering will match your ability to inflict it.” In his words and example of Jesus showed that not only are Christians called to reject violence, but they also are called to embrace a way of sacrifice and suffering. Suffering overcomes the violence – in essence this is the message of the Cross and the Resurrection.

The message that needs to go out in this time of war is not that God will vindicate us with divine violence, but rather that God calls us to serve through redemptive suffering. What that means is both vague and frightening, and worthy of more thought and a lot more action. When I think of groups like Witness for Peace, Doctors Without Borders, and Christian Peacemakers, I see examples of people extending themselves to the point of suffering to say “no” to violence.

I cannot reconcile myself to the violence I find in Scripture. I am still troubled by battle language and divinely sanctioned violence that I find there. But in Jesus I see another theme emerging that unmasks and disarms violence through the power of redemptive love and suffering. Concretely, what does that mean for me, for us? I am still exploring.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Joining the School for Social Change

A long awaited dream has finally come true. This summer I will be transferring from Eastern University’s School of Management Studies to the School for Social Change (SSC). Every since SSC opened nearly nine years ago, I have wanted to be part of their mission. This past fall I was invited to join the faculty there and gladly accepted. After several months of negotiation, the logistical details have been worked out. This summer my office will move from Valley Forge, where I have been for several years to Eastern’s Philadelphia campus.

I will be splitting my time between three programs in SSC. First, I will be joining the Masters in Urban Studies program. Currently, I am teaching a Leadership Development course in that program, and having a great time. I hope to also will teach courses in urban theology and Race and Ethnic Relations.

Second, I will be teaching in the newest program “Eastern in the City”, an undergraduate program specifically targeting urban students who might otherwise not have the opportunity to attend a Christian college. Students earn a two year Associates of Arts degree, which they can then transfer to Eastern or any other four year college. This past fall I taught the introductory first year course, “Introduction to Faith, Reason and Justice,” and next fall will also teach a course on social justice.

The third program involves an outreach to urban pastors and community leaders who are seeking to develop skills in the areas of organizational management, community outreach and economic development. Faculty from Palmer Theological Seminary, the School of Leadership Development, and SSC are combining efforts and expertise. Here I hope to contribute my insights from community based education and adult learning. This effort is still in the process of being formulated, but holds great promise.

In my limited involvement with SSC to date, I have found the students to be engaging and the faculty and staff very supportive. There is a strong commitment to the city, and to providing innovative education that reflects the urban environment we seek to serve. While connected to Eastern’s main campus in terms of the overall mission, SSC brings a fresh approach to education that seeks to transform the lives of students, as well as the city.

Joining the folks of SSC in many ways brings together many of my long time passions. Ever since my days as a pastor, I have had a special concern for the people of the city and the challenges they face. Part of my own journey has been coming to grips with the great advantages I have enjoyed in life and desire to give back to others. Inmy studies of adult education I have focused in the area of popular education, or what I have come to called community based adult education, which focuses on ways of bringing folks together to identify and address the problems they are facing in their community.

While I bring expertise in the areas of leadership, social justice, interracial issues and faculty development, I expect I will grow in ways I have yet to imagine. The faculty and staff of SSC are seasoned urban practitioners, and I expect to learn a lot from them. Upon graduation from college, my first job was as an urban youthworker in Boston, MA. Thereafter, I pastured in two urban churches, after moving to churches outside the city, and teaching in adult higher education. In coming to SSC, I have come full circle, and it feels like coming home.