In my two previous posts, I shared my recent experience talking about privilege at a church near me. Today, I will wrap up this short series with a more personal reflection about privilege from a Christian perspective. Last month, I was thinking theologically about what those of us who have privilege should do with it. But, as feminists and womanists, acknowledging our privilege can be complicated. Most of us in this FAR community do possess some forms of privilege while, at the same time, we lack other forms of privilege. Each of us remains the same person wherever we go, yet our status can change when we switch contexts. As a black woman, I do not have white privilege or male privilege. But I am privileged when it comes to education and class and physical ability. I am a Christian who works at a Christian university in a part of Texas that is culturally predominantly Christian. So that’s a form of privilege. Although as a single woman without children, I don’t fit the cultural norm where I live, my sexual orientation and cis-gendered identity afford me some privilege, too.
In areas where I have privilege, I can earnestly and humbly work to open spaces to people who do not. As a Christian professor, secure in my faith, I can ask hard questions about my own tradition and the way people use it to justify exclusionary practices. I can ask my Christian students to trust me to help them as they ask those questions, too. As the authority in my classroom, I set an agenda where we talk about racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and other systemic evils. Using my privilege in this way has some risks. But hope by taking that on, I am following the way of Jesus, the path of self-emptying or kenosis, as discussed in my recent post.
Self-emptying is different from self-negation or shame. When I use my privilege in the classroom, I do not deny who I am, I do not apologize for what I may have rightfully earned, nor do I apologize for or minimize the power I have that everyone deserves. There are some heroic people who do this – they go on hunger strikes, forgoing their own access to food, to provoke change. Some people put their own jobs at stake by defending others’ labor rights.
As an ethicist, I would label these kinds of actions with the term supererogation. Supererogatory acts are morally commendable, but they go beyond what is reasonably expected or required by duty or obligation. I like to think of supererogation as a moral parallel to the concept of grace, an abundant, unmerited overflow of love and salvific power.
I think that when we are motivated by love and justice, we are often willing to do more than what duty calls us to. But as a feminist, I’m concerned about the ways women take on care for others at their own expense. Let’s not overlook the fact that our duties and obligations often already hold us to high standards. I think we need to know what superogation is for us in our particular circumstances before we agree to it.
At the beginning of this post, I noted that I have some forms of privilege and lack others. When I think about privilege, I’m typically focused on what I can do to use the privilege I have responsibly. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what to do as someone who lacks privilege in other areas, someone who deals with the micro- and macro-aggressions, marginalization, and offenses of being on the underside of power. And yet, those things still happen. And they hurt. Without male privilege and white privilege, I am more vulnerable in some contexts–not just emotionally, but socially, too. So my “supererogation threshold” is lower than others’ might be; I reach the point of self-sacrifice sooner without the protections of power than more privileged folks have.
I must admit – I don’t have much of a theological response for coming to terms with that. I’m not interested in constructing some hierarchy of oppression or privilege where we can each pinpoint our position and argue about who has it better or worse. The theological response I’m looking for is more about where God is than where we are. I believe God is with me when I suffer, I believe God mourns and rages at abuses of power, and I believe God guides and empowers us to right injustices. But what do I do with that?
A few days ago, Xochitl Alvizo invited us to do a mid-year check-in. In the process of self-reflection, I’ve come to realize that I need to be more intentional about nurturing my spirit and body with practices that restore and renew me. I suppose if having privilege calls for self-emptying, having a lack of privilege calls for filling the self. I want to be more consistent with practicing centering prayer in the mornings, so I can feel God’s love and grace on me, enabling me to counter any hostility, apathy, or confusion I encounter later in the day. I want to be more intentional about choosing entertainment and artwork that fills me, too. I choose to watch and listen to programs that depict black women as whole people who take charge of their own lives. I will also continue to fill my home with positive quotes, assurances of divine love and presence, and images of love and the beauty of African-American people and culture.
What are you doing to navigate the complexities of both having and not having privilege?
Elise M. Edwards, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter or academia.edu.
Categories: Activism, Christianity, Community, Education, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender and Power, Justice, power, Power relations, Privilege, Race and Ethnicity, Reform, Resistance, Scholarship, Sexism, Women's Voices