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.
10 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with Privilege: A Personal Reflection by Elise M. Edwards”
How are you doing
Thank you. I particularly resonate with your comment: “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.” and how it relates to your earlier remark: “I’m typically focused on what I can do to use the privilege I have responsibly.” Ultimately, I simply do what I can … for me, that usually falls in the realm of helping animals live better quality lives.
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Thank you for your comment and for your care of animals! We do what we can.
Great post, Elise. Except for male privilege I have just about every other privilege there is–and have been aware of it from an early age. I grew up the daughter of a minister who preached a passionate Social Gospel. He was one of the white clergy who answered Dr. King’s call to solidarity and activism. He and his minister father before him preached and lived Matthew 25: 35-46. I was naked and ye clothed me…And of course the Sermon on the Mount, which enjoins us “be ye therefore perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.”
Growing up, I took these passages seriously and literally, with one result being that I never felt/feel I have done enough. There is always another mile to walk, coat to give away, person in need. Truly. If you have not given away all you have, then you haven’t given enough. I begin many prayers by apologizing for having any difficulties in life when I have so much unearned privilege, to the point where it became clear that Jesus (as I know him) was bored and annoyed and would cut me off saying, “tell me when you’re done with the list.”
I had never heard the term supererogation before. Now that I have I think it’s ruled much of my life, not because I have done anything that could be described by it, but because I believe that I should and have failed. Or believe I have failed. I discount the smaller, daily, less visible actions because they are not heroic and sometimes/often have no social or political relevance.
So in answer to your question “What are you doing to navigate the complexities of both having and not having privilege?” one of the best things I do is to pray every day “show me my part, however big or small, don’t let me miss it.” Then the next challenge, if I am willing to face myself as I am, including having privilege in a world where so many people and other living beings are in dire straits, is to trust that my prayer will be/is being answered.
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This is so beautiful and powerful. Thank you for sharing. I hope you’ve come to find a more grace-filled way of seeing yourself in relation to the divine, not needed to prove yourself while also remaining motivated for social justice. Figuring out the blurred lines between obligation, responsibility, and supererogation can be tough, but ultimately, I think it’s healthier if we understand that there is some distinction in theory, if not practice.
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Thank you for your good wishes and wisdom, Elise. All the best to you!
I am not a Christian so take what I have to say with a grain of salt. Personally I do not like the idea of kenosis or self-emptying. In Christian theology it means that an omnipotent God took on a body and thus “emptied” himself of “his” omnipotent power. I believe the idea of omnipotence is a theological mistake. If Goddess/God is always in relationship, then she never had omnipotent power in the first place. Taken as a model for human behavior, I do not think self-emptying (whether preached by Christians or Buddhists) is what is needed. Yes we need to give up the kinds of egotism that lead us to believe that the world was created for and revolves are “me” “my family” “my communtity” “my nation” “my race” etc. This does not require us to empty ourselves but rather to recognize that we are and always have been in relationship in an interdependent world and thus that it makes perfect sense to love our neighbor as ourselves. Valerie Saiving spoke a long time ago about the dangers of a theology based on giving up self for women (and others) who do not have a strong sense of self and self-esteem in the first place. That’s my theological two cents for today.
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This is so beautiful and powerful. Thank you for sharing
I’ve been thinking about how to answer your question for about 24 hours. I guess I have some privilege: I’m a white woman with a Ph.D. Race and education. I mostly agree with Carol that we live in an interdependent world.
I don’t think the standard-brand god is omniscient or omnipotent. If he were, why does he let the women of all three of his religions suffer in so many ways? As women, we need to recognize our own power and privilege and teach men to pay attention. This is about one cent’s worth of theology–thealogy. Cheers!
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This is so thought-provoking and interesting: what privileges do we have that we don’t know about? As a member of an ethnic minority, and a woman, I don’t think of myself as a very privileged person – but I, too, have them. I have a white husband, live in a beautiful city, and do not have to worry about paying one bill or another – I always have enough to pay mine, have been to great schools, and do not have any physical or mental disabilities. That definitely makes me someone who has some privileges!