I haven’t written much over the last few months. I’ve found endless excuses not to write. I’ve even written things and found excuses not to publish. It’s time to start over and exercise this muscle again.
It’s not like I’m lacking in material; over the last month, as I’ve hopped from Baptist Peace Camp to the Wild Goose Festival to Richard Rohr’s "Conspire" webcast to the Generous Space Camp-Out, the number of workshops, talks and sermons I’ve digested have left me feeling like a spiritual glutton.
So much of the information and wisdom I’ve taken in has already faded into the background radiation of my mind, but there are moments and fragments that got lodged in the foreground.
I wanted to take a few posts to tease out one of the weightier bits of wisdom I gleaned, which comes courtesy of Christena Cleveland, a sociologist and writer who spoke at Richard Rohr’s “Conspire” conference. Her work centers on unity in the church, particularly unity across racial divides. She’s working on a new book called “The Priesthood of the Privileged,” and it was her comments about privilege that hit me hardest.
During my time working at Jacob’s Well in Vancouver, I used to lead workshops about privilege. Student groups would come, I’d pull my bag of little white fishbowl stones out of the cupboard, and I’d tell them to pick up stones if the statements I read applied to them. (This was based on a popular exercise where people would take steps forward or backward, but our long narrow building didn’t have the space, so we improvised!)
Pick up a stone if one or both of your parents had university degrees.
Pick up a stone if you were never forced to leave your home/country because you were in danger.
Pick up a stone if you grew up being told that police officers were to be trusted, not feared.
Pick up a stone if you can buy Band-Aids that pretty closely match your skin colour.
Many of the suburban students could pick up all 25 stones, while our low-income community members in the Downtown Eastside averaged only 2 or 3.
We talked with the students about how each person’s stone tally was entirely outside their control; there were no life choices they could have made in order to pick up a different number of stones. They did not earn the stones, nor were they somehow their “fault.” Even so, having more stones seemed to have unfairly put them on life trajectories that brought them more status, more power, more opportunities, and more safety nets.
We talked about how having lots of stones (privilege) was kind of like starting a video game with the “easy” setting pre-selected. People who are born playing the Game of Life on “easy” would still face some challenges (“bad guys”) over the course of their lives, but their chances of success were much higher than those born playing the game on “difficult,” who would have to work much harder and overcome more obstacles if they had any hope of succeeding.
The toughest part of leading those privilege workshops came at the end, when we tried to discuss what to do with our privilege. We couldn’t change our privilege. We couldn’t get rid of it. We couldn’t transfer it to someone with less privilege. So what positive steps could we take?
We agreed that feeling shame over our privilege wouldn’t help because it would only paralyze us. We felt that it was good to at least be aware of our privilege, so we wouldn’t judge marginalized people so harshly. Sometimes we talked about cultivating humility, lamenting inequality and working for justice. But if I’m honest, those workshops usually ended on an unsatisfying note.
Now, having listened to Christena’s talk, I think I know how I’d answer the question.
Christena described being posed a similar question, mostly by straight, white, middle-to-upper-class men who would say, “I realize I’m among the most privileged people on earth... so what am I supposed to do about it?”
She did not tell them to pursue equality or fairness, because as a social psychologist, she had read studies showing that even when groups of unequal people try their hardest to operate in an equal way, the more privileged members eventually take control. Privileged people are socialized to be in control. Even when they try to seek equality, the status quo prevails.
Maybe this is why Jesus didn’t actually talk about equality or fairness. He didn’t talk about leveling the playing field. Instead, he spoke of inversion, of reversal. He spoke of the first being last and the last being first.
So Christena told these privileged men, “You have an important place in the Kingdom of God. It’s necessary, noble and beautiful. That place is last.”
If you’re privileged, your job is to be last.
Last is the only place where people of privilege find real transformation and freedom.
I want to unpack this counter-cultural idea of pursuing last place over the next several posts, weaving together Christena’s teaching, the work of Eric Law, and the ideas some other wise folks I listened to over the last couple months. Here are the topics I hope to cover over the next few weeks:
- The Spirituality of the Last and the First (the cycle of Gospel living)
- How to be Last (the way of the cross)
- How to be First (the way of resurrection)
- How it’s a Lot More Complicated than First or Last