Luke 4:14-30 [Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege by Sindelókë (adapted in places for our purposes and for brevity)
The original text in its entirety can be found at: https://sindeloke.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/37/]
Picture a little house somewhere in New England, maybe in New Hampshire or Vermont. Someplace cold-ish but not cold. Inside this little house live two animals.
One of the animals is a dog, a big dog with thick fur. The kind of dog that would be at home pulling sleds in the Iditarod.
The other animal is a small lizard or a gecko, the kind you’d find in the rainforest. Neither of the animals have ever been outside of this house. It is their entire world.
Now, the house often feels a little warm for the dog. He was built to be out on the tundra. Fortunately, he is big enough to reach the air conditioning and his paws are strong enough to push the buttons. He really cranks it up. And though he’d prefer it to be even colder, he’s pretty comfortable most of the time.
It’s a different story for the gecko. She has no fur. In fact, she’s cold-blooded. She’s far too small to reach the A/C and even if she could, her fingers are too tiny to push the buttons. For her, the house would feel cold even without the A/C but the frigid temperature the dog sets makes her feel sick and sluggish. She does her best to find pockets of warmth near lamps and such but the cold seeps into her and affects everything she does.
Remember that the gecko has never known anything else. This is just how the world is – cold and painful and unhealthy for her, even dangerous. But somewhere in the back of her mind she wonders if maybe it should be different.
Maybe she could feel the warmth she feels by the lamp all the time.
Maybe the dog shouldn’t be the only one who has a say in the temperature. After all, they’re partners, aren’t they? They share this little house. They affect each other. Maybe the dog will understand…
So one day when she sees the dog reaching for the A/C she says, “Hey, dog. Listen, it makes me really cold when you do that.”
The dog stares blankly at her for a minute and then turns the A/C down a little more.
Now, the dog isn’t a jerk. He cares about the gecko. He just doesn’t understand what she is talking about. He’s never been cold in his entire life. The word “cold” is completely meaningless to him. He lives in an environment that is well suited to him. It is almost completely aligned with his comfort level. He has tools to survive and control built right into the way he was born.
So the gecko tries to explain it to him. She says, “How would you like it if I turned the temperature down on you?”
And the dog says, “Uh… yeah that sounds good.”
What she really means, of course, is “how would you like it if I made you cold.” But the dog has no concept of what that means.
And of course the gecko can’t make him cold. She doesn’t have the tools or the power. Their shared world is built in a way that does not allow her to affect him with discomfort or pain in the same way that he can affect her. She can’t make him understand her experience of the their world and so he keeps on hurting her.
Remember the dog and gecko. We’ll come back to them in a bit. Now, picture the lives of the people in the synagogue with Jesus. They’ve been living under Roman rule for decades, for as many as three generations. Even though the Empire allows them to follow their own beliefs and to mostly worship as they see fit, they’ve been ruled by people who have declared themselves gods and even forced the Jews to put statues of the emperors in temples and houses of worship. Their lives outside the walls of the synagogue is a life of just barely getting by. 70% of the population of the Roman Empire lived in what we would call poverty, 1-2% of the population held 50% of the wealth. Jesus’ audience that day may well have been subsistence farmers and fisherman, laborers and even slaves who worked for wealthy landowners. Most likely, this was the only life they’d ever known.
And then Jesus arrives. Returning home he announces the start of his ministry, and in his inaugural address to his hometown he preaches this message of salvation – the poor will receive the good news! Captives will be freed! The year of jubilee, of God’s favor, is being proclaimed – a year when debts are forgiven.
His listeners must have been thrilled. We’re finally saved! Jesus, one of our own has come to release us from oppression, lift us out of our misery, and make life better.
And Jesus’ response to them is “no, not you.” Well, more accurately, I think his response is “no, not just you.” Jesus is proclaiming salvation for all. More importantly, Jesus is saying “there are others who need my help – our help – because, as bad as you think your life is, theirs is even worse.”
I’m going to use a controversial word to describe what Jesus is doing here. He’s pointing out their privilege. Yep, that’s where this is going. Aren’t you all excited? That’s a word that stirs up feelings, right? It was no different then. What happens when Jesus says all of this to them? They try to throw him off a cliff! So, now when we talk about these kinds of things, that word “privilege” is brought out and there are still strong reactions to it. This past fall I was trying to write an announcement for the bulletin for a discussion of privilege and after about three hours I realized that there was pretty much no good way of saying it that was going to be in the least bit appealing to anyone. “Privilege” is a word that seems to have some sort of moral judgement attached to it, right? It’s a hard thing to hear.
But we want to attempt to unpack the concept a little, and try to see privilege not as an insult, but as a reminder. A reminder that I carry around certain advantages that I am mostly unaware I have earned by virtue of nothing more than being born as I am. We’ll start by sharing some of our own personal realizations of our own privilege.
The first time I really became aware of my own privileges was when I was told that being over 40, I had certain protections in the job market. (Protections against ageism) I was really surprised by this. What do you mean I need protection? I’m embarrassed to say that I was a little offended. I had always been the normative. It had never occurred to me that such a basic element of who I was could be a disadvantage for anything. Which lead me to the realization that I was privileged in almost every way.
But why are we talking about this now. This is Martin Luther King Jr Day. This is the day we get to look back over our civil rights successes and remember our protest songs and celebrate. Schools and bathrooms and lunch counters and buses are integrated. Everyone gets along. We’ve even had an African-American president! We have overcome racism, right?
We like to think we have. We’ve even heard people talking about living in a “post-racial” ..society but then something seemed to happen last year. All of the sudden there were was race-related unrest seemingly everywhere. There was a conversation that we should have been having but so many of us didn’t realize it. The work wasn’t finished after the civil rights movement.
And so recently we’ve begun to hear another conversation, and the word “privilege” has entered our discussion on race. This idea of white privilege first emerged in the 80’s with Peggy McIntosh. In her work in Women’s Studies, she noticed that many men could readily understand how women were at a disadvantage in our society. We can all agree that far, right? However, many men could not see that the disadvantage of women equalled an advantage for men. That is the essential question of privilege: If one group is disadvantaged, is the other group not therefore advantaged? According to McIntosh, “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”
To many, “white” is not a racial identity, it’s not a label we use, it is simply the cultural norm. There is History and then there is “Black” History. We talk about the color of President Obama’s skin but not about the 43 men who held the office before him. How often do we tell stories that only use labels for people of color? As McIntosh says, many people “are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us.’”
What we often fail to see is how this system bestows disadvantages on some but also advantages on others. And when this is pointed out, it usually feels like a moral judgement, which inevitably shuts down the conversation. It sounds like we are being told we’re racist and no one wants to be told they’re racist.
Think of the dog in the opening parable. He was blind to the fact that the system in which he lived was constructed to favor him over the gecko. But he truly didn’t understand. He had no frame of reference for understanding. It was simply the world as he knew it. But, as Sindeloke explains, when it is pointed out to him that the system gives him certain advantages over the gecko, his first response may be to say, “What? No, I’m not [hurting you]. This ‘cold’ stuff doesn’t exist, I should know, I’ve never felt it.” Thus shutting down the conversation.
We need to be talking about this. As difficult and as uncomfortable as it is. It’s so easy to pretend that racism and segregation are problems from decades ago that we’ve already overcome. We need to name that different kinds of privilege exist. As a straight, cisgender, Christian, white, man the advantages I have had in my life are so pervasive and constant that they are basically invisible to me. I could choose to talk about race issues today simply because it’s Martin Luther King day – the one day of the year I’m reminded about race. I could just as easily have chosen to continue to ignore the topic.
I can use Dr. King’s words as my own and not recognize the way that I appropriate the stories and struggles of people whose history and experiences are entirely different from mine. I put together today’s service and gave almost no thought to singing songs about overcoming a battle that isn’t mine. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – or closing hymn – is known as the Black National Anthem for its power in voicing the cry for liberation and affirmation for African-American people, but I can choose to sing it and no one will question me. So I realize that I need to learn more, to listen for the voices of people of color who can teach me what I don’t know so that I can follow Jesus’ call to stand up for justice and equality.
And we get it! This isn’t easy to talk about! It’s uncomfortable and it’s scary. We’re talking about change. Change in how we see our own lives. By acknowledging that I may have certain advantages, it’s scary to think of losing them because my life is hard too. But the fact that I would be scared of losing something must mean that some part of me acknowledges that I have something to lose.
Jesus challenged those in the synagogue – and Jesus challenges us -to change. Jesus was no stranger to hard work. In the narrative presented by Luke, Jesus’ journey towards ministry begins in the Jordan River receiving a baptism of repentance. He is then led into the desert by the Holy Spirit to face his own temptations, defeating his own desires of self-sufficiency, power, and glory. In Luke’s telling, Jesus has justice come from the desert to Nazareth to preach this message. Jesus calls on other to do the hard work of repentance and change but only after he has done it himself.
Change in our lives is difficult, loss of what we know is painful. But Christ’s resurrection only came after his crucifixion. The rebirth of our call to follow Christ can only come after we allow our resistance to God’s call to die away. The journey goes past the cross, beyond the empty tomb, to God’s kingdom.
The people listening in Nazareth didn’t realize that even though Jesus was calling on them to make that journey with him, he had no intention of leaving anyone behind. God’s kingdom was for all humankind, not just a select few who had already received an advantage over others. They were blind to their own privilege, but Jesus was proclaiming a vision for the world that brought sight to the blind, release to the captive, freedom for the oppressed, and erased all advantage and disadvantage. To join him on that journey, to join him in that kingdom, means acknowledging that there is uncomfortable work for us to do.
So there is good news here. Good news for all humankind. There is a hope for a better world; a kingdom of peace, love, justice, and equality for everyone. And there is good news for me too. In this new kingdom, Jesus has promised healing to the blind, even those who have been blind to their own advantages. We can proclaim that now we see.
And having seen, we need to act. Peggy McIntosh said, “disapproving of the systems won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitudes. But a ‘white’ skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us.” The first step is to begin talking.
Here is some more good news: as a church called together in Christ’s name we have a safe place ruled by grace, love, and respect where we can have this conversation; where we can have any difficult and uncomfortable conversation that God calls us to. Together, we can talk about these things and make mistakes – and we will all make mistakes. It may be scary but we cannot allow our fear of a misstep to keep us from making the journey.
So in the spirit of grace and trust we enter into that sacred conversation. And we join our voices with those who have been disadvantaged by our cultural systems. We will not be blind any longer. There is hope for something better but we will only find it together.
In the words of Dr. King – “Somehow we must come to see that in this pluralistic, interrelated society we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And by working with determination and realizing that power must be shared, I think we can solve this problem, and may I say in conclusion that our goal is freedom and I believe that we’re going to get there.”
We shall overcome economic practices that keep the rich and the poor poor
We shall overcome the captivity of broken systems of government, law enforcement, business and education,
We shall overcome our blindness to our own privileges
We shall overcome a prison system that imprisons people of color at staggeringly disproportionate rates from white people
We shall overcome so that all of God’s children are able to live a life of God’s favor, so that we are all full citizens of God’s Kingdom
Because that is the good news that Jesus preached in Nazareth, that King preached in Selma, that we are each called to preach in Sudbury, in Boston, wherever we find ourselves.
Recognizing that we haven’t yet overcome, we commit to enter the wilderness to do the hard work of changing our ourselves and the systems that guide our lives, …
We open our eyes to the invisible advantages we possess, The times that the temperature is just right for us, that we believe we’re the only ones who are suffering and oppressed,
If we commit to doing the work together then – only then – we can declare together that we shall overcome … so let’s join our voices together singing….