I continue to expand on prayers that have pulled me and others through by exploring the prayer Jesus taught us, the Lord’s Prayer. The version of this prayer in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship follows:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
What stands out to me today is the phrase “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”.
As with the prayer for daily bread, I am struck by the fact that Jesus does not teach us to simply pray “Forgive me my sins” but “forgive us”. Growing up as a white straight cisgender boy in the south, I can remember being around folks who proudly flew the Rebel flag, whistled Dixie, and voted for Jesse Helms in every election. I am embarrassed to admit I remember around the age of 12 or 13, not knowing the scandal around it since, like sex, the scandals surrounding race wasn’t really anything we directly talked about in my home, my parents thinking I believe that my knowing their many friends of color through church and community groups was enough to teach me not to be racist, I grabbed a hat with my allowance money around the age of 12 or 13. I didn’t notice the flag on it but the catchy phrase “American by birth, and Southern by the grace of God”. I can’t remember exactly what momma said when she forbad to wear it with great disapproval, but it was something along the lines of “Don’t wear that fool thing out of my house; it’ll hurt folks’ feelings. And somebody might get the wrong idea about you”.
Now, though I still love me some corn bread, grits, and collard greens and think the south-land here is at times a little slice of heaven, I would not be caught dead with anything on my person that waved a rebel flag, since I know the history behind that image first in promoting slavery and then horrible racist laws. But the fact I could live 12 to 13 years without really facing up to the racist connotations of that image, without being fully aware of the horrible discrimination faced by neighbors and friends who grew up with a different shade of skin than me, demonstrates the importance of acknowledging not just my own failings but the way in which the communities which rear me also fall short.
Growing up in that environment I distinctively remember every election season, when discussions of race reared their head, hearing folks I had been taught to respect and listen to for wisdom, from schoolteachers to uncles to even white leaders in my church (which, thankfully, was a multi-racial church, a rarity in the south), get very defensive. “I don’t know why people think they can hold me accountable for what my ancestors did. For God’s sake, I never owned a slave. I bet my ancestors didn’t either – I’m the grandson of poor white farmers. And you know I didn’t vote for any segregation. Why can’t we just leave well enough alone?”
What is amazing to me as I reflect back on hearing these words early on in my life is that these were not the words of card-carrying bigots. No, these were the words of folks like my parents, good church-going white folk, many of whom worked together with, went to church with, and even had over to their homes and went to the homes of friends of color for dinner. Yet not a person of color I have ever met seems to be able to relate with the sentiment these white patriarchs expressed in my hearing. No, instead, they all seem to acknowledge there is much unfinished business. How could these early role models for me have so clearly missed the ongoing legacy of prejudice and its impact on their very dear friends, neighbors, co-workers, and church-members?
In actual fact, when looked at in a broader context, such comments are actually symptoms of the problem. For not being able to see the pain discriminatory histories, prejudiced traditions, and ongoing systems of discrimination continue to play in the lives of those often quite dear to us – our friends, our neighbors, sometimes our own family, who happen to be a different race, religion, gender, gender identity, or sexuality than us – shows how much we have become swept up in the sin of our own communities of origin.
You see what we are talking about is privilege. Privilege is an inherited sense of expectation that you or your group are the norm in your society, and that you will be treated fairly. In http://www.tolerance.org/article/racism-and-white-privilege Teaching Tolerance lists the following aspects of white privilege that I carry with me:
“White skin privilege is not something that white people necessarily do, create or enjoy on purpose. Unlike the more overt individual and institutional manifestations of racism described above, white skin privilege is a transparent preference for whiteness that saturates our society. White skin privilege serves several functions. First, it provides white people with “perks” that we do not earn and that people of color do not enjoy. Second, it creates real advantages for us. White people are immune to a lot of challenges. Finally, white privilege shapes the world in which we live — the way that we navigate and interact with one another and with the world.
“White people receive all kinds of perks as a function of their skin privilege. Consider the following:
- When I cut my finger and go to my school or office’s first aid kit, the flesh-colored band-aid generally matches my skin tone.
- When I stay in a hotel, the complimentary shampoo generally works with the texture of my hair.
- When I run to the store to buy pantyhose at the last minute, the ‘nude’ color generally appears nude on my legs.
- When I buy hair care products in a grocery store or drug store, my shampoos and conditioners are in the aisle and section labeled ‘hair care’ and not in a separate section for ‘ethnic products.’
- I can purchase travel size bottles of my hair care products at most grocery or drug stores…
section called “hair care.” This is how I experience the world.
“These seemingly benign perks also demonstrate a danger on closer examination. Let’s say that I forgot to pack my shampoo for a business trip. When I get to the hotel, I see that the complimentary shampoo is not the standard Suave product to which I am accustomed but rather Pink Oil Lotion for African American hair. I would be surprised and might even think to myself: “Those black folks and all their lobbying … This is so unfair!” I expect these perks. As a white person, I think I am entitled to them…
“Certainly, white privilege is not limited to perks like band aids and hair care products. The second function of white skin privilege is that it creates significant advantages for white people. There are scores of things that I, as a white person, generally do not encounter, have to deal with or even recognize. For example:
- My skin color does not work against me in terms of how people perceive my financial responsibility, style of dress, public speaking skills, or job performance.
- People do not assume that I got where I am professionally because of my race (or because of affirmative action programs).
- Store security personnel or law enforcement officers do not harass me, pull me over or follow me because of my race.
“All of these things are things that I never think about. And when the tables are turned and my white skin is used against me, I am greatly offended (and indignant). The police department in my community, like so many other law enforcement agencies throughout this country, uses policing tactics that target people of color. Two years ago, I was driving down Rosa Parks Boulevard, a street that runs through an all-black and impoverished area of town, at night. I was looking for a house that I had never been to before, so I was driving slowly, stopping and moving as I searched for numbers on residences.
“Out of nowhere, this large police van pulled me over, blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, and a handful of well-armed police officers jumped out of the van and surrounded my car. I did as I was told, and got out of my car. (“Hands above your head; move slowly!”) I then succumbed to a quick physical pat-down, as well as a search of my car. The officers had pulled me over — not only because of my erratic driving — but also, because, in the words of one officer, I was “a white woman driving down Rosa Parks after dark.” They thought I was looking to buy drugs.
“When I went to the office the next day, I relayed my story to several white colleagues. They shared my sense of violation, of anger, of rage. These co-workers encouraged me to call our legal department and report the incident. I later told the story to a colleague who is black and who lives on Rosa Parks. “You just never have to worry about those things, do you, Jennifer?” she asked and then walked off. In twelve words, she succinctly challenged my sense of privilege.”
What this author describes as privilege for white folks like them and myself also exist for other subgroups that are privileged by our society – such as men, cisgender folks, Christians, straight people, and the list could go on.
A way I heard one speaker describe discovering his own privilege was when he wrote a story for a class on race, and the teacher pointed out that he only described individuals in his life’s race when talking about people of color. “Why do you say ‘my black teacher’ but not point out when someone is ‘white’.” We see this when we discuss marriage, don’t we? So often the debate is about “gay marriage” when, we don’t say straight marriage in talking about the sort of relationship I had for twelve years with my late wife. Subtly our privilege leads us to expect our perspective, our experience, is the only true one. And we other-ize other people’s experience without realizing it.
There is no simple answer to this, and to be clear, most of us carry some form of privilege.
But the inclusion of “us” in this prayer of forgiveness – and invitation to forgive – shows that we cannot deal with the call to personal holiness, personal cleansing, and forgiving without also confronting the ways in which the families, neighborhoods, communities, and societies we are born into, that raise us, and which we must participate in for us to find work, education, basic safety, and healthcare all shape us in distinct ways. We pick up cultural messages about skin color, gender, gender identities, sexuality, class, religion which we must own up to. As we raise our awareness through our spirituality so we become mindful of the ways in which we unconsciously have been participating in these structures of oppression and discrimination, we can begin to respond more openly and compassionately. We can make the effort to build relationships with and listen to the experiences of people very different than us. As we do so, we can begin to see the ways in which our society tramples under foot, alienates, and other-izes beautiful, beautiful people who like us bear the Divine image and carry sacred worth.
This might to a highly privileged person sound like just more “political correctedness” and “race (or gender or sexuality) baiting”. But in truth, this is the Christian journey. For does not Jesus tell us in Matthew 25 that it is in the other whom, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will encounter Christ coming among us and that, when we encounter the living Christ face to face, the Christ will say to us “whatever you did or did not do to these, you did or did not do to me?”
Learning to lay aside our fear of shame and guilt, lay aside our cultural assumptions, admit when we have been complicit in continuing practices that create other’s oppression and sustain other’s pain, and encountering in those different from us the Sacred fire and light that burns so bright, is the journey that leads to life. May we embrace it together this day and all our days.
Your progressive redneck preacher,