The Ashes of Privilege

Yesterday, Durham, NC, was encrusted with a thick layer of unforgiving ice. While nowhere near as bad a situation as that of our sisters and brothers in the Northeastern United States, being unequipped to deal with such weather, Durham was not the most pleasant place to be – especially gingerly making your way down the path to the bus stop to get to class at 8:00 in the morning. As my feet almost slipped on ice every few steps, the miserable weather seemed somehow appropriate for the beginning of Lent, a season of penitence.

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I did not go to school that morning expecting much. I was frustrated by the three-inch thick sheets of ice I literally pried off my car that morning, the five mph I had to drive just to get out of the parking lot, and the broken promise of cleared walkways to the bus stops. Snow was in the forecast for later that day, so I was not planning to stay for the afternoon as a precaution. It was just a matter of getting through the day.

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I knew the midday Ash Wednesday service in the chapel would be the only opportunity I had to go to worship today as my church up the interstate was too snowed in to offer anything this year. Almost reluctantly, I found a seat in the chapel and looked over the order of worship. If you do not know anything about Duke Divinity School, you might know how “high church” we are, which is a nice term for can devolve into worshipful pretension (not always). I do not normally go to  chapel in the Divinity School because it usually feels too forced or preachy for me.

This morning, however, it was preachy that I apparently needed.

Duke_Chapel_snowAfter reading a diatribe from Isaiah where the prophet condemned the people for serving “your own interest on your fast day” (58:3, NRSV) and the discourse from Matthew on the same subject (“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” [6:1]), Chuck Campbell, one of our preaching professors, gave a heart wrenching sermon. He read the passage from Matthew again and asked, “What if we took Jesus seriously?” We all sort of laughed because it is genuinely funny that on Ash Wednesday (“when you perform the most public act of piety you will perform in your entire life”) we read Matthew saying, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.” However, Campbell pressed us, “What if we took Jesus seriously?”

The room quieted as Campbell told us as soon as we left the service to go and wipe off our ashes. The proposition was jarring at first. Why? Why remove what is most likely our own public act as Christians? Campbell continued to say that the ashed cross did not mean in Durham what it was supposed to mean. If we walked out of the Divinity School today with crosses on our foreheads, it would be a reminder to our Muslim sisters and brothers that we can worship publicly and they cannot. It would be a reminder to them that our worship is protected and our worship can proceed uninhibited or at least protected. When they saw the ash on our heads and heard the hymns chime for worship at our gargantuan chapel, they would know who had the power. They would know who was in charge. The cross on our foreheads would not be a symbol of mercy, hospitality, friendship, love, or peace. It would be a symbol of exclusion, dominance, and privilege.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others.”

That’s not what Lent is supposed to be about. Lent is about renunciation and humility, not privilege and arrogance. Too often, the season of Lent cannot help but be the latter for Christians in the United States. You see, it is not really possible to fast or abstain from your own privileges. That is not how privilege works. Campbell, alluding to Peggy McIntosh’s famous essay, said Christians have a pretty hefty “invisible knapsack” of privileges in the United States of America:

Christians in the United States, for the most part …

  1. can worship where they choose to worship.
  2. can worship without being threatened.
  1. can rest assured that no politician will be elected for bashing their religion.
  1. can get off school for their religious holidays without any questions asked.
  1. … can generally assume they have a place of worship anywhere they go. (You won’t find a Wikipedia article on “Christian Churches in the United States” with a full list, because that would be absurdly long, but you’ll find one for mosques.)
  1. can lobby for their religious convictions to be the law of the land without much fuss.
  1. can walk around publically with symbols of their religion without receiving derision for it.
  1. can sleep easy knowing no other religious demagogue will make their lives hell.
  1. can know that their faith will never be a genuine obstacle in other areas of their lives (i.e., professional, educational)
  1. can assume they will not be killed or violently targeted for their faith.
Farris Baraket, brother to one of the three Muslim victims of the recent shooting in Chapel Hill, NC, speaks at the Moral March on Raleigh on February 14, 2015.
Farris Baraket, brother to one of the three Muslim victims of the recent shooting in Chapel Hill, NC, speaks at the Moral March on Raleigh on February 14, 2015. To his left, Peirre Lacy, brother of Lennon who was lynched in Bladenboro, NC last year. Back to his right, Rev. William Barber, head of the NC NAACP and leader of the Moral Monday movement.

As Christians, we cannot take off that invisible knapsack and leave it behind. However, we can shift through its contents and get a good look at what’s there. Lent is a season of self-reflection and penitence, and Christians this year have innumerable reasons to engage in such practices (there’s ten quick reasons right up there). So, instead of giving up social media, chocolate, or swearing, take some time this Lent to reflect on your own privileges. No matter who you are, chances are that you have some ounce of privilege that makes parts of your life easier than those around you do. This reality is especially poignant for straight white male Christians like me.

With racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and all manner of the U.S.’s dirty laundry becoming all too apparent these days, take a moment to reflect about how you are complicit in patterns of hate and discrimination. Whether you are personally hateful or discriminatory or not, you have some part to play. My ethics professor remarked yesterday that, being privileged does not mean you are directly culpable for the injustices suffered by others. However, being privileged and being human does mean that you have the responsibility to address that injustice and to make sure you are not supporting or exacerbating “structures and patterns of dominance.” (Luke Bretherton, “Ethics through Hearing Cries for Liberation”). So, you can’t give up your privilege for Lent, but you can give up supporting it.

The good news of Lent is sometimes hard to find when it can be so cold and gloomy (literally and figuratively). Uncovering Lent’s original purpose helps with that, though. Early Christians had to go through a lengthy period of reflection and learning before joining the church. Lent was a special preparatory time for them leading up to their baptism on Easter. While most Christians are not looking forward to being baptized this Easter, they can still take time to prepare for it in Lent. Take the next forty days to fast and abstain from what you will, but also contemplate the reality of the world we live in. More importantly, consider the ways in which another world is possible — and wipe the ashes off your head and do something about it.

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