August 13, 2017

“Privilege is when you think that something’s not a problem because it’s not a problem for you personally.”
–David Gaider

Called Beyond Comfort Zone Walter Brueggemann
We are among your called.
We have heard and answered your summons.
You have addressed us in the deep places of our lives.
In responsive obedience we testify,
as we are able, to your truth as it concerns our common life.

We thank you for the call,
for the burden of that call,
for the risk that goes with it,
for the joy of words given us by your growing spirit, and
for the newness that sometimes comes from our word.

We have indeed been in the counsel of your summoning spirit,
and so we know some truth to speak.

But we are, as well, filled with rich imagination of our own,
And our imagination is sometimes matched and overmatched
by our cowardice,
by our readiness to please,
by our quest for well-being.

We are, on most days, a hard mix
of true prophet and wayward voice,
a mix of your call to justice
and our hope for shalom.

Here we are, as we are,
mixed but faithful,
compromised but committed,
anxious but devoted to you.

Use us and our gifts for
your newness that pushed beyond all the we can say or imagine.
We are grateful for words given us;
We are more grateful for your word fleshed among us.

Hamantaschen (A Poem for Purim) Ilene Bauer
A festive Jewish holiday
We celebrate today,
When children dress in costumes
And much merriment holds sway.

An evil man named Haman
Tried to have the Jews all killed.
The king, whose wife was Jewish,
Saw that deed was unfulfilled.

Since Haman wore a certain hat
Triangular in shape,
We eat three-cornered cakes to honor
Our too-close escape.

Called hamantaschen, they’re delish
And filled with fruit or “mun”
(Which translates into poppy seeds,
And that’s my favorite one).

The Purim story’s read each year
And Haman’s name is booed,
But afterwards we nosh,
With lots of hamantaschen chewed.

Commemorating history
With something we can taste
Takes a little of the bitter
And with sweetness it’s replaced.

What does it mean to be ‘privileged’? Kayti Barkved
Privileges are systemic and intrinsic traits that are associated to being a member of a dominant culture or group in society.  Members of dominant cultures receive these invisible memberships just for existing.  They can cash in on the benefits of being privileged on a daily basis.

For instance, the peak of privilege, in North American society, is living as a white, able- bodied, middle-class, straight, cisgender male.

This does not mean that every single white, able-bodied, middle-class, straight, cisgender man cannot be burdened with problems, or that nothing bad ever happens to them.  What it does mean is at the end of the day, they have access to systems in our society that are centered around them.  They benefit the most from the way our society is structured: jobs, education, medicine, judicial and political systems.

This is not intended to be a guilt trip, but a reminder to all privileged members of our society to think critically of the privileges they are privy to that many others in the same society do not innately receive.

Remember: just because a person is privileged doesn’t mean that person cannot suffer; but if the privileged person does suffer, they are not suffering from their innate and unearned societal privileges.

Vashti: A Poem for Purim Stacey Zisook Robinson
I remember when he crooned,
Come, dance for me!
And I would,
just for him.

And Oh! It was
glorious, all silk and
heat and lithesome.
I moved like fire
I moved like water

And later, he moved
with me, a different kind
of heat, and he called me
his queen.

When did crooning
turn to calling,
and calling to demand?

Dance, he says,
Dance for me, and move
your hips,
and wet your lips
and come – as if I were
his pet, a bitch to lap up
praise from her master,
kept on a collar and leash.

But I am queen.

I am fire,
and water,
and lithe.

I will not dance
when you call.

READING Esther 4:8-17
Mordecai gave Hathach a copy of the orders for the murder of the Jews and told him that these had been read in Susa. He said, “Show this to Esther and explain what it means. Ask her to go to the king and beg him to have pity on her people, the Jews!”

Hathach went back to Esther and told her what Mordecai had said. She answered, “Tell Mordecai there is a law about going in to see the king, and all his officials and his people know about this law. Anyone who goes in to see the king without being invited by him will be put to death. The only way that anyone can be saved is for the king to hold out the gold scepter to that person. And it’s been thirty days since he has asked for me.”

When Mordecai was told what Esther had said, he sent back this reply, “Don’t think that you will escape being killed with the rest of the Jews, just because you live in the king’s palace. If you don’t speak up now, we will somehow get help, but you and your family will be killed. It could be that you were made queen for a time like this!”

Esther sent a message to Mordecai, saying, “Bring together all the Jews in Susa and tell them to go without eating for my sake! Don’t eat or drink for three days and nights. My servant girls and I will do the same. Then I will go in to see the king, even if it means I must die.”

Mordecai did everything Esther told him to do.

—–

 

Privilege:

  1. unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.
  2. a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

We stop along our whirlwind tour of the Bible to visit the story of Esther. Esther has a few unique features. It is the only book in the TaNaKh, that does not mention God. In the apocrypha, there is another version of Esther that makes up for this oversight by having a number of prayers and other mentions of God. The original story is divinity free.

Jack Miles in his book, God: A Biography, traces this trajectory. God is active and present in the Torah and Prophets. But as time passes in the chronology of scripture, God withdraws from the action. Yahweh moves from a hands-on, creator, warrior, deal-maker, provider of rewards and distributor of punishments, to the “ancient of days.” The stories are less about God and more about human beings manipulating life to their own ends.

The story of Esther is connected with the celebration of Purim that occurs in February or March. A Jewish festival has three parts:

  1. They tried to kill us.
  2. They didn’t.
  3. Let’s eat.

The story of Esther, while set in an historic time-period, the Jewish diaspora within the Persian empire of the 5th century BCE, does not recount historical events. There is no record of Queen Esther or Vashti, Haman, Mordecai or any of the characters except Xerxes, the Persian King who ruled 486-465 BCE. There is no record of a Persian edict to commit genocide and kill Jews. There is no record of a response by Jews to kill their attackers, let alone 75,000 of them.

Esther is historical fiction. It is melodrama. The plot, dialogue, and details wink at the reader, that this is an exaggerated tale. The king parties for 180 days straight. He is a bit of a doofus, signing laws about women obeying husbands and killing Jews and then signing another that Jews and kill back. The bad guy, Haman, is in the words of Shakespeare, hoisted on his own petard and strung from the gallows Haman made fro Mordecai. It is an entertaining story.

Esther is a popular story today among Christian evangelicals. Sarah Palin saw herself as an Esther-figure when she became Alaska’s governor in 2006 and then ran for vice-president. She asked one of her former pastors for an example of biblical leadership she could emulate and he told her that like Esther, she had “come to the Kingdom for such a time as this.”

I found that phrase often used by evangelicals in reference to a political candidate they regarded as having a divine calling. It all makes for great theater. Here is something fun to do. Take out your phone and search “Trump for such a time as this.” You will get a number of hits to articles from evangelicals about how Trump is the one called by God to be president in this time.

God’s man for such a time as this” is a typical headline.

It is all from Esther. The privileged queen.

Here is the plot of Esther in three minutes:

Xerxes is the king. He starts off partying for 180 days. After a good time, he calls his queen, the good-looking Vashti to come in and dance for the boys. She say, “I think not.”

The king’s advisors are worried about this and think that this will wreak havoc. Cats and dogs living together. Women not obeying their husbands. So they convince the king to send out a memo to the kingdom that all wives should obey their husbands.

No more Vashti. The king needs a queen. He has a beauty pageant. Mordecai who has an office in the palace and is Jewish encourages his cousin, Esther, to apply. She does. She wins. She becomes queen. Mordecai tells her not to tell the king she is Jewish.

Enter Haman. Haman is the King’s chief of staff. He likes the position. One day he travels around and has everyone bow down to him. Mordecai refuses. It is against his religion. Haman goes to the king and convinces him to send out an edict to kill all the Jews because they won’t worship those in power. He casts lots (purim) to decide what day the slaughter will occur.

Meanwhile, Mordecai unfoils another plot to kill the king. Mordecai’s name is written down in the official record as a good guy who saved the king.

Mordecai tells Esther that she needs to stop the king from carrying out this edict to kill the Jews. He speaks to her privilege. She is “queen for such a time as this.”

Esther invites the king and Haman for supper. Haman is excited to have been invited for supper and afterwards he wanders around happy. Mordecai isn’t happy. Haman decides he has had enough of him and constructs a 75 foot gallows to execute Mordecai.

Meanwhile, the king has a sleepless night. To fall asleep he reads the old records and learns that Mordecai saved his life.

The next day he calls in Hama and asks him how he should honor a great person. Haman thinks the king is talking about him and he says, “Have  huge parade and have someone announce how great this person is!”  The king says, “Sounds good. Mordecai is the one to honor and you will lead the parade shouting his praises.”

Esther invites the king and Haman back for another supper. At this supper, she tells the king that his edict to kill all Jews is a bad idea. “I am a Jew!”  The king is upset. Who made up this rule anyway. She points to Haman. The king has Haman hanged from the gallows he prepared for Mordecai.

The problem of the edict remains. Due to some quirk in the law, the king cannot revoke an edict but he can announce another. So he announces that all Jews can defend themselves and kill anyone who attacks them.

The story ends with a lot of killing. The Jews win. They celebrate by initiating a yearly festival called Purim.

What caught my eye when I read the story recently was this sentence from Mordecai to Esther when he was trying to convince her to speak to the king.

“Don’t think that you will escape being killed with the rest of the Jews, just because you live in the king’s palace. If you don’t speak up now, we will somehow get help, but you and your family will be killed. It could be that you were made queen for such a time as this.”

Esther has access to the king. Esther has privilege. She was born a beautiful woman. That beauty caught the attention of the king who makes her queen. As queen, she has access to social power not available to others. Mordecai speaks to this privilege to cajole her to use her privilege for others.

We talk about privilege more and more in recent years. You can go on-line and take a variety of quizzes with titles such as, “How privileged are you?” The message of these quizzes is to recognize that society is a stacked deck.

When I lived in Tennessee I usually took the bus to Montana to visit family. I must have taken it 8-9 times. A 42-hour trip each way. I remember telling some church folks about my adventure, walking around Chicago and so forth. One of my church members, a woman, said she would never do that because it wouldn’t be safe as a woman traveling alone. It didn’t even occur to me that people might not think it would be safe. That is the benefit of privilege. You go where you want and don’t even think twice about it.

I go where I want. I don’t fear cops. I always find a restroom. I can hold my wife’s hand in public. I can always expect to speak English. I leave stores without my receipt. I can take the stairs. I can interview for jobs and expect I will be judged on merit. There are far more privileges granted me than that. I am not even aware what they all are. That is the beauty of privilege. I don’t have to know.

The problem of talking about privilege with the privileged is defensiveness. When it is demonstrated that we might be privileged in some area we must come to the realization that it is not because of my charm or hard work that allowed me to achieve what I have achieved. It is mostly because of the accident of my birth.

Last week in another context, I said it is better to be lucky than good.

We privileged don’t like to hear that too much. We well may be charming and hard-working. But that doesn’t negate the reality that privilege allows the privileged automatic advantage and access to social power. Privilege is a head start.

Another problem about talking about privilege with the privileged is guilt. That is the feeling of guilt. Guilt wastes a lot of time. No one cares or has time to deal with the guilty feelings of the privileged, especially those who do not have privilege.

Guilt. Defensiveness. Denial. Privilege is all that.

So those with privilege whether by race, gender, sexuality, physical condition, economic status, appearance, education, religion, cultural background, and so forth can either act on that privilege for the benefit of themselves or for others who have similar privileges or for others who do not have privilege.

That is the choice.

“Don’t think that you will escape being killed with the rest of the Jews, just because you live in the king’s palace. If you don’t speak up now, we will somehow get help, but you and your family will be killed. It could be that you were made queen for such a time as this.”

Says Mordecai to Esther. He points out her privilege, her responsibility, and he warns her that not even the privilege of the palace will ultimately protect her.

Privilege, simply put, means there is work to do. If we don’t learn the ways we are privileged, check our privilege, and use our privilege to enact change, then we perpetuate an unjust and unfair society.

Some people have stepped up. White people get involved in Black Lives Matter. Straight people get involved in gay rights. Cisgender people fight for transgender rights and awareness. You get the idea.

My sister-in-law graduated from Syracuse University in the year 2000. At her graduation, I heard a commencement address by Ted Koppel. It stuck with me. You can find it on-line. Apparently, it stuck with others, too. For these last two minutes of my sermon, I will channel Ted Koppel. He said to the graduates:

My concern for you as you leave this place has nothing to do with the quality of your education or the anticipated comfort level of your lives. By most of the standards that can be applied uniformly to most people around the world, you will do well. You have the freedom and the means to travel as no previous generation has done. You have access to more information. Your lifespan should be longer, your health should be better. You have more choices available to you in your leisure time, and because you are educated men and women you are better equipped to compete in the flourishing marketplace that awaits you.

We are richer as a nation than we have ever been before, and yet there is no enthusiasm whatsoever for foreign aid. We are richer individually and corporately than at any time in recent memory, and yet our charitable contributions across the board are down. Our children have access to more information than ever, and yet most of them know less than our grandparents did when they were the same age….

…we who have so much seem to feel that affluence, good health, and global influence must somehow be the product of our own singular efforts.

Some of you surely remember George Santayana’s famous observation that those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. Power ebbs and flows. Empires come and go. The Mongols, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, the French, the Germans, the Soviets–they’ve all had their moments at the center of the world stage, and for some those moments lasted centuries. Eventually, though, power inevitably passes. The question is always, how did those in power use it while they had it?

That is true of nations, and it is true of individuals. You are privileged to live in a time when the United States is the most influential and certainly the most powerful country in the world. But with that influence and power comes responsibility. That too is true of individuals as well as nations. Because we have the means and the tools to help the least among us here at home, we should do it. Not because the government extracts money from us with more taxes, but because voluntarily tithing our wealth is as appropriate today as it was in biblical times.

There is enough food in the world to feed every man, woman, and child; no one should be starving to death. We have not yet found a cure for AIDS, but we surely know how to prevent its spread. Parts of Africa, South Asia, and Russia are in the grip of an AIDS pandemic; that is unacceptable.

If we worry only about ourselves, we will become irrelevant. Your challenge is to turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. You can know what is happening in every corner of the world, and with your particular skills and talents, with the wealth and technology and influence available to you at this time and in this place, you can be a force for good. What a challenge, what a joy. Now go do it.

Ted Koppel from his commencement speech to the graduates at Syracuse University, May 14th, 2000. Not a bad interpretation of Mordecai’s speech to Esther. To paraphrase:

It could be that you were born into privilege for such a time as this.

Amen.