Sunday, March 27, 2016

Judge From Within the Perspective of the Other

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. --Harper Lee (1926-2016), To Kill a Mockingbird

Once in a place of power, after the 4th century, the Church began to interpret Scripture in a very different way. Once Pharaoh is your benefactor and protector, there are many questions you can no longer ask. You can't ask about liberation of slaves in Pharaoh's house, nor do questions of justice or equality make it to the cocktail party. And if you do ask such questions, you will not be answered, but quietly--or savagely--eliminated. That was made very clear in Exodus.

Once Christianity was protected by the emperors, once we moved from the catacombs to the basilicas ("palaces"), we could no longer feel the rejection that Jesus experienced by being born poor in an occupied country. We changed sides, and therefore we changed our point of view: not from the bottom up, but from the top down.

The top was where most clergy henceforth resided or set their sights. That has been the perspective from which much of our preaching and Scripture interpretation came: white, European, uniquely educated, mostly comfortable, usually celibate males. I am one myself, and we are not all bad. But we are not all. When history and religion are exclusively taught from the vantage point of the people in power--which is almost always the case--we can't see the reality right in front of our noses. We live out of a bias that is unrecognized: privilege and easy access to privilege. This is what St. Francis, for example, was trying to reform.

In country after country that I've spoken in over the years, the laity have come to accept that the bishops and priests look out at reality from the side of management and seldom from the side of the laboring class, where Jesus unquestionably resided. When and where we did have servant leadership, the church flourished; where they didn't, we often experience, to this day and with good reason, a virulent anti-clericalism.

Let's turn to another example of how privilege prevents us from seeing reality. I had naively thought racism was behind us when I was educated in the 1960s. Those of us who are white have a very hard time seeing that we constantly receive special treatment just because of the color of our skin. This is called "white privilege," and it is invisible to us because it's part of our culture's very structure. Since we do not consciously have racist attitudes or overt racist behavior, we kindly judge ourselves to be open minded, egalitarian, and therefore surely not racist. Because we have never been on the other side, we largely do not recognize the structural access we enjoy, the trust we think we deserve, the assumption that we always belong and do not have to earn our belonging. All this we take for granted and normal. Only the outsider can spot these attitudes in us.

"States of sin" are always incapable of critiquing themselves, which is largely why they are sin to begin with. Evil depends upon disguise and tries to look like virtue to survive. We would be smart to hear Mary's "Magnificat" in which she subversively says that God "brings down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly" (see Luke 1:52). No wonder this courageous woman was chosen to be the mother of the one who told the truth. Jesus must have learned some of it from her.

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