Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Privilege, Job's Friends, and Ferguson

[The following post was written for the website Mormon Liberals, but I figured I might as well share it here too.]

I recently listened to a captivating podcast about the Book of Job. There was a lot of good stuff in it, but one thing that jumped out at me as relevant to the tragedies going on in Ferguson (and elsewhere) was the discussion of Job's friends. When Job is in the depths of anger and frustration at the horrible things happening to him, his "comforters" set him straight: no, it isn't possible that Job didn't bring this malady upon himself via sin--God only punishes the wicked! God blesses the righteous--that's an axiom found throughout scripture! Job, you need to repent and admit you've done wrong!

With hindsight (and/or thanks to the omniscient narrator of the story) we know that Job hasn't sinned, but the crucial point here is that his friends literally could not comprehend that that might be the case. Their identities were bound up in the idea of an immediately just God, one who could never allow suffering of the kind Job experienced to come upon someone who didn't at least deserve it. That was the water they swam in. We are meant to be yelling at Job's interlocutors: "Shut up and listen! Consider that you might be wrong!" But the point is that *we* are Job's friends.

The idea of "privilege" is one way of thinking about why Job's friends reacted the way they did--and why we often do too. I recently read an article that does a solid job of explaining privilege by analogizing it to how bikers and drivers view the world. I recommend reading the whole thing, but the gist is that bikers have to constantly be aware that cars could at any time seriously injure them, while the system allows drivers to barely give any thought to bike riders at all. Drivers are relatively safe and don't have to think too much about getting from point A to point B in safety, while bikers don't have that luxury. The article points out how that does not at all mean that drivers are bad people as individuals--some are very good people, some are jerks, most are meh--but simply that there is a system in place that makes life easier for drivers than for bikers. The entire infrastructure of transportation just makes it easier for drivers regardless of their actual thought process or behavior: "Nice, non-aggressive drivers that don’t do anything at all to endanger me are still privileged to pull out of their driveway each morning and know that there are roads that go all the way to their destination. They don’t have to wonder if there are bike lanes and what route they will take to stay safe. In the winter, they can be certain that the snow will be plowed out of their lane into my lane and not the other way around."

Job's friends had the privilege of health and material prosperity--a/k/a ability privilege and class privilege. Their theological system more or less cohered with their lived experience, so they didn't have to think about how solid it actually was. Job's pain, rather than causing them to ask hard questions about what they had always believed, was seized as an opportunity to explain how right their understanding of the world was.

For white people (like me, by the way), there is an invisible-to-us system called racism that benefits us--whether we want it to or not. It exists in bigger and smaller ways: we don't have to think about the fact that we aren't followed around in stores, or that people don't touch our hair, or that "Jacob Martin" on a resume generates more interest from potential employers than "Jamal Washington," or that a police officer is more likely to think an object in the hands of a black man is a gun than the same object in my hand. We get that luxury. That's privilege. [1]

When African-Americans speak up, protest, agitate, rally, and get mad about the police killing Michael Brown, an(other!) unarmed young black man, the replies from too many whites that "He stole some cigarettes" or "Black-on-black crime is an epidemic, though" or even "Let's wait for all the facts to come in," [2] strike me as too much like what Job's friends said. These responses miss the mark in many ways, but one of them is that African Americans are crying out about an entire system that is stacked against them, and their "comforters" are playing whack-a-mole by nitpicking at their particular examples.

At this point, you might be nodding along, saying "Yeah, those racist ignoramuses at Fox News are the worst!" But that is much too easy. Liberals get in on this act, too: political affiliation does not a cure-all for systemic oppression make. I've heard too many stories about liberal and/or democratic Mormon facebook groups that tolerate harsh misogyny, racism, trans-antagonism, and all kinds of other problematic behavior. Just this week, the Salt Lake Tribune published an article talking about how, for at least some black Mormon women, the Ordain Women movement is seen as focusing on white issues more than those affecting people of color. Again, most of these examples are not done with the intent to harm or exclude (I know that OW, for example, has taken explicit steps to try to be more racially inclusive), but pain caused by ignorance or in spite of good intentions is still pain. Listening and humbly changed behavior are required. The lesson of Job's friends, and of privilege, is that we need to look inside ourselves and be humble enough to lift our siblings up and truly comfort and support them, not tell them why they're wrong.

Privilege is not about hating white people, or men, or anyone else. When I hear an invitation to check my privilege, I hear a plea to live out the creed found in Mosiah 18 to bear one another's burdens. Inevitably, I screw up. When that happens and I'm called out on it, it's easy to feel attacked or argue. The question of the gospel is whether I will be like Job's friends and get defensive and double down on my worldview when someone who is suffering points out my unhelpful approaches, or whether I will stop, listen, and change.

The events in Ferguson were sparked by a tragic killing that unnecessarily took a man's life. But that cannot be all that it is. We need to talk about ongoing segregation in housing, education, government, and every other walk of life. We need to talk about police efforts that disproportionately target people of color. We need to talk about how all of this interacts with class, gender, sexuality, and so much more. Ferguson needs to be a critical time for each of us to look into our own hearts and commit to be better, to admit where we stumble, to be led by marginalized communities who are teaching us how to improve this world.

I pray that each of us can look at ourselves and recognize the areas where we are privileged, where the world is easier for us than others because of unjust systems that often feel invisible to us, the benefited. Let us be Christ's hands to embrace those who are suffering, let us seek out the beam in our own eyes, let us be humble. The rhetoric of privilege is most productive when we find it benefiting ourselves and work to change the systems that perpetuate it. I believe this is what the gospel calls us to do.

[1] And of course racial privilege is just one example; analogous--though not interchangeable--systems support men, heterosexuals, cisgender people, relatively wealthy people etc.

[2] Yes, by all means, I want more facts, too. But if we use that as an excuse to discount the anger and frustration that's being expressed right now then we're part of the problem.

No comments:

Post a Comment