Using Privilege

Seth Patterson February 16, 2020

Scripture Acts 22:24–29; 23:6

The book of Acts is the story of what happened to Jesus’ teachings after he had died and the disciples were left alone with the good news and an imperative to spread it. The story of Acts, very likely written by the same author as the gospel of Luke, primarily follows the story arc of Saul, renamed Paul. Paul is very much the protagonist of this story, and because of this—as well as the letters of Paul that make up a part of the Christian Scriptures—much of our understanding of the early church comes from Paul’s ministry. That also means that, in many ways, our current church stands on the shoulders of Paul. Not because he was the only one spreading Jesus’ message, but because his is the story that we have canonized.

In this section of Acts, Chapters 21–24, we see the beginning of the end of Paul. He is finding that the message of Jesus is generating great suspicion from local and imperial authorities. These chapters are quite dramatic in the telling of his story. If this were a film, things would start moving very fast and the tension would begin to build. The audience can tell that the end is coming. In this environment, two things stuck out to me as potentially useful for a discussion here this morning. Here are the two pieces:

The tribune directed that he [Paul] was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him. But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.

When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees.”

Here we see Paul asserting some impressive credentials and asserting his privilege in these situations. First, as he was already tied to a post, he tells the centurions that he is a Roman citizen. And not only a Roman citizen, but unlike the Tribune who had to purchase his citizenship, Paul was born into citizenship. In the eyes of the empire, Paul is a privileged person who is allowed many advantages under the law and is seen as a full person. Then, in chapter 23, Paul reminds the council of Sadducees and Pharisees that he is also a Pharisee and that he was also born into that privilege. In the eyes of both the regional Jewish authority and the large imperial authority, Paul is extremely lucky and holds incredible privilege.

Today we hold incredible privilege together here in this building. This congregation has 160 years of history to establish a powerful foundation. Some time, think of all the ways that Plymouth Congregational Church holds historical, structural and very real privilege in our communities. Just like Paul, when forced to identify ourselves, we can assert serious privileges and advantages in the world. We are very lucky.

It is not just corporately that we hold this privilege either. Each of us holds some privilege in our current society. As a white person, I hold vast social privileges over my community siblings who are not identified as white. As a man I hold vast social privileges in this patriarchal society, especially as a man whose assigned and identified gender match. I am in a heterosexual relationship and for that also hold privilege. Many of you here today hold some or all these same privileges as I do. Everyone here holds some sort of privilege in this society that we live in.

Privilege is multilayered and complex. There is a story about a woman helping a sick man in a restaurant. The woman did not hold any of the privileges of men, of whiteness or of having been born in this country. But, in this encounter with a sick man, who happened to be undocumented, her citizenship gave her incredible privilege to help protect him from legal trouble just because he had a seizure. Privilege tends to be situational.

Privilege is about power. Privilege is the power to have certain things extended to you that another may not receive. Privilege means being given the benefit of the doubt when another would be examined closely. Privilege is not necessarily about wealth or position, although that may be a byproduct. Privilege does not have to be recognized in order to be real. Privilege is most easily recognized by those who do not hold that privilege. Women see male privilege more clearly than men; black, brown and indigenous people see white privilege more clearly than those holding whiteness; children see adult privilege better than adults do; and so on.

Oftentimes, it seems, that when the conversation around privilege comes up, people begin to think that they should feel bad about themselves. Maybe this is because we most typically see our own privilege in the contrast to another’s lack. Maybe it’s because we really want to believe that we have earned everything that we feel is positive. Maybe it’s because it is sometimes used in a way that feels like a weapon. Now, I will never tell anyone how they should feel, but I can say that I do not believe that privilege is something to feel guilty about. In fact, guilt is a useless reaction to our privileges. We had no choice how we were born or how Plymouth was birthed and built. We had no choice as to what society we were born into. I do not believe that it is useful to feel guilty about this. God loves each of us just as we are, no matter the privileges we may or may not hold. It is, though, necessary and useful to examine what we do with these privileges.

It is written in the gospel of Luke, chapter 12: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Or, as it is more succinctly and brilliantly stated by Stan Lee in the Spiderman comics: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So, the question becomes not how to avoid having privilege or feeling bad about it, but rather what do you do with it? How do you/we/I use our privilege in pursuit of being the people that God is asking us to be? In what ways are we turning our privilege into action?

This brings us back to Paul (as so many things do). Paul became a follower of Jesus after he accepted the change that was brought to him in flashing lights. Paul began to meet with the disciples and learn from them. Paul began to preach and teach the message of God’s preferential love of the poor, oppressed, sick and marginalized. Paul began to point people of many backgrounds away from the living imperial authorities and towards a living, loving God. Paul used his immense social privileges to work towards dismantling the very systems that gave him these privileges. And he did so by learning the uprising teachings of Jesus.

Jesus taught that the poor, the sick, the peacemakers, the merciful, the grieving are to be blessed in a world whose systems oppressed and ostracized them. Jesus taught that the most important thing was to love the other as you love yourself in a world whose systems dictated that some people were inherently worth more than other people. Jesus showed love and healing to those who were forgotten in a world whose systems dictated cleanliness and purity above all else. Our current society is not dissimilar from this. Paul learned these teachings by listening to those who were in hiding because of the reactions by those in power. Paul then was able to bring these teachings in a public way precisely because of the privileges that he held. He didn’t assert his Pharisaic and Roman birthrights because it merely served him, but because it served the teachings of Jesus.

What can we learn from these two moments of Paul’s ministry? How can each of us—and especially us together—use our many and varied privileges in order to dismantle the systems that have given us these privileges? First, we must listen to those who do not have a particular privilege and believe them, believe that they see clearly. These are often the ones that Jesus called blessed—the children, the sick, the poor, the oppressed and hurt. It is imperative that we listen to these ones and not the voices of power—even though it is the voices of power that give us our privileges. We must be brave and bold and vulnerable and hopeful because we are loved by God. We are loved by God not because of the powers that our privileges afford us, but because we are lovingly made in God’s image. You are enough just as you are. And you have such incredible potential to make changes in our worlds if you use your privileges.

Even more powerful than you alone is the we. Paul used his privileges to travel the Roman world creating communities. What can this community do if it used its privilege? We have done this in the past to great effect—what’s next? This place—all of us here together—has the potential to work powerfully in pursuit of what God is asking us to be. But we can’t do it in our image. Our image is that of the privileged. We must listen to those who call out our privilege and then use that same privilege to work on their behalf. What wondrous possibilities we have together! May we use our privileges—individually and collectively—to create communities where all are worthy and not just those with particular power. Just like in the earlier reading [“It’s in Your Hands,” by Fannie Lou Hamer], we have the privilege of holding the bird’s life in our control. It is in our hands. What will we do with it?