The Cross of Privilege

It was a cold day in Atlanta as we trudged through Midtown towards the Amnesty International offices where we would be engaging in a training to become facilitators of Amnesty’s Dismantling Oppression Workshop.  I had a few expectations of what the workshop would entail and thought that I was relatively well prepared for becoming a facilitator of the workshop for other Amnesty groups throughout the Southeast.  As far as I knew, I had lived a fairly normal life.  I didn’t come from a super wealthy family and had attended public high school and was attending a public university for my undergraduate studies.  There really wasn’t too much about my life that I felt was noteworthy or of any particular importance as it related to other people.  All in all, I felt that I was the exact same as the person to my left and to my right as we all stood in a single line, shoulder to shoulder, for our first exercise of the morning.

That first exercise was something called the privilege walk.  The facilitator of our training also stood in line with us with a sheet of questions and directions for us to take as a response to the question.  For each question, participants either took a step forward or a step backward depending on how you would respond to the prompt.  For example, if you were a white male you were told to take one step forward.  If you were not white you were to take one step back.  If you were a woman, you were to take an additional step backward.  If you were able to take a vacation in the past year, you were to take one step forward.  If you were lesbian, gay, or bisexual take another step back.  If you were transgender, you were to take an additional two steps back. The exercise continued in this fashion until we reached the end of exercise.

At the end, we all looked around to see where we were relative to those that were in the training with us.  Many of us were surprised to see where we stood in relation to each other and to see that we were not, in fact, just like the person to the immediate left or right.

I was definitely surprised to see that I, ordinary little ol’ me, found myself out in front of just about everyone in the group.  I think there might have been one other person that was on the same plane as me, but it became abundantly clear to me that I had access to the most privilege in our group.  In fact, if I had been given the instruction to take one more step forward, I would have run into the wall of the room!

It was something of an epiphany for me to see just how remarkable my life had been up to that point.  I had not thought of how many things in my life, which I considered ordinary, were actually vestiges of privilege that allowed me to do things that other people simply could never dream of doing in their lives.  It was a moment that caused me to pause and to consider what having access to privilege really meant to me, and it was a moment that caused me to ask myself how I would make use of that privilege as I moved into the reality of being a young adult in a rather tumultuous and, as far as I could see, unjust world.  It was a moment of revelation, a moment of self-reflection, and a moment of calling.

In today’s gospel reading, Mark tells us that those of us that wish to follow Christ have to be willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus.  In Mark’s narrative, we are at the exact mid-point of the gospel, and it is a new teaching within Mark’s narrative.  The teaching is Jesus’ first teaching about discipleship in the story, and it is a teaching that conveys precisely how counter-cultural following Jesus would be in the culture of Jesus.  The first part of that counter-cultural discipleship was to deny yourself, which meant denying your family, your kin, and to solely follow Jesus and His teachings.  To leave a family in the first-century was no light matter.  It meant giving up your access to work, to inheritance, to safety, and to your only system of social welfare if you were to need it.  Family was your world and provided you with all that you needed; family defined who you were within the broader culture.  And here Jesus teaches his disciples that they must give all of that up in order to follow Him.

The second piece of that counter-cultural teaching is the instruction to take up your cross and follow Jesus.  To take up one’s cross was to turn and face the very real prospect that being a follower of Jesus would lead you to your death and not just any death.  It would lead you to the most humiliating and painful death imaginable in the time of the Roman empire.  To follow Jesus was going to mean bringing shame upon yourself and your family.  You would become a spectacle for all to see while hanging there on a tree waiting for the mercy of death.

Now it may seem odd to put privilege next to taking up the cross to follow Jesus, but I am curious if perhaps privilege is, in fact, a cross to bear in a world of tragedy.  In many respects, privilege is something that is granted to us by virtue of where we come from.  Like the disciples, the privilege that I enjoy in my life is a direct result of the history of my family and the stations that members of my family have held.  The interesting thing about this is that it means that I have the ability to continue to participate in the counter-cultural ministry of Jesus as I walk the walk of  a disciple.  I am able to take the privilege that I have and use it in order to help other people.

Thus, as I sat an considered my position in that spread out line of people on the privilege, I was not simply considering the fact that I have privilege by virtue of my background.  I was also considering what I could do with that privilege to serve the greater good, to lift up others, and to celebrate the goodness of God’s image.  The question became a question of discipleship; was I willing to give up privilege – to the best of my ability – in order to work for the common good?  In the end, I was questioning how my privilege was, in fact, my cross to bear as a follower of Jesus.

The question is one that deserves thoughtful consideration even more now than it did when I was in college.  In our contemporary era, privilege plays a huge role within the fabric of our society.  Those that are fortunate enough to come from a privileged background are able to attend good schools, have access to higher education, to healthcare, and to the luxury of leisure.  For those of us that have access to this kind of privilege, our question must become how we are able to use that privilege in a way that works towards transforming humanity precisely because we consider it a cross to bear in the ways that we follow Jesus.  But for that to happen, we must push beyond the easy ways of reaching out to our community in efforts to share God’s love with others.  Jesus is asking us to go the extra mile, to take up that cross, and to deny ourselves precisely because we see human suffering in the form of poverty, lack of education, or racial inequality.  When we see massive migrations of people and when we learn of another devastating shooting incident, Jesus pushes us to think about how the privilege enjoyed by many in the United States can become a resource in preaching the counter-cultural message of denying ourselves for the sake of others.

In the end, the question is not simply about privilege or how it may or may not play a role in prolonging oppressive systems, which also prolongs the suffering of people groups.  Instead, the question is how do we understand discipleship as something that is going to lead us to the same kind of pain that Jesus endured precisely because we remain committed to dismantling oppression and suffering.  Discipleship is not something that is passive.  It demands that we step out into the world to walk alongside those that have suffered because of oppressive systems.  Discipleship pushes us out from this place, this holy gathering, to confront the causes of suffering in the world and to work towards ending that suffering.  It pushes us to begin asking difficult questions of how things are and how they could be different if confronted by the love of God as shared by God’s children.  It is taking a long hard look at how we might be able to recommit ourselves to our ministry in the local community, the nation, and the world in order to be more responsive to the suffering that we witness around us.

Our cross of privilege is one that is difficult to bear if and only if we are willing to use that privilege to demand change in the world around us.  In a very real sense, discipleship demands each of us, as followers of Jesus, to join the ranks of the downtrodden, the weak, the oppressed, the refugee, the homeless, the sick, the orphaned, and the many others that suffer, and it pushes us to use our tongues to sustain the weary with our words as we call for the love of God to be the guiding principle in all that we do.

The cross of privilege can be an easy one to live with if we are using that privilege only for the benefit of ourselves or those that are close to us.  The cross of privilege becomes a burden when I begin asking myself how I can use my privilege to work for the betterment of another person’s life.  The cross of privilege becomes difficult when I turn to look outward at the world and begin asking how I can use my privilege to spread the love of God to all of God’s children.  The cross of privilege becomes difficult to bear when I ask how Jesus would want me to use that privilege in order to end the suffering and pain that exists in the world.  The cross of privilege becomes a burden when I recognize that my voice can be a voice that sustains the weary and questions the status quo.  The cross of privilege becomes a walk of discipleship when I am willing to exercise my own prophetic voice through that privilege and when I am willing to face the scorn of the world in response.

The cross of discipleship is difficult because it is counter-cultural.  Following Jesus was countercultural in his time, and it is countercultural in our own time when understood the depths to which Jesus is calling us.  Just as taking up the cross meant humiliation and pain in Jesus’ time, so too will taking up our own crosses result in being discounted by the mainstream culture and enduring the pain of humiliation.  The road of discipleship is difficult and insists that our attention be focused on the eradication of suffering and oppression.  It insists that our satisfaction does not come from the easy first steps of surface level improvements but that it comes from a lifetime’s walk of bringing God’s love out to all the world.