"I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Son, let this woman be a bride to you in the restoration of my people. Let her be a mother for these people, regenerating souls through the salvation of spirit and water.'" (Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias)

Sunday, May 1, 2016

It's Not Privilege, It's Supremacy

Seven years ago I had the great privilege of leading liturgical music and composing a Wisdom-themed Eucharistic prayer for the major yearly retreat/conference for members of a women's ministry blogging community. The hymns I chose for our closing Eucharist--Debbie Friedman's Miriam's Song, which should be sung at every Easter Vigil, and my own trinitarian Wisdom's Praises--reflected the great joy of connecting in person with sisters I had bonded with online. The "Big Event" also featured the life-changing opportunity to meet Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, a gifted womanist biblical scholar and Episcopal priest who served as our main speaker and liturgical celebrant.

Fr. Wil, who claims the title subversively "as long as that's what you're calling God and the male priest!" shares my passion for the related missions of rediscovering the great women of Scripture and church history, fighting ecclesial rape culture and reclaiming the crucial but forgotten divine feminine tradition in Judaism and Christianity. So she did me the great honor of including my expansive language Psalter in a seminary Psalms class and asking my permission to use the hymn in a chapel liturgy there. Reading her powerful blogposts, which I constantly recommend to white clergy, and our ongoing contact through social media has been a profound part of my own glacial, Screwtape-twisted path toward acknowledging and seeking conversion from my personal mortal sin--deeply entwined with that of church and culture alike--of white supremacy.

Yes, I said white supremacy, and no, I am not a member of the KKK or the Aryan Nation--who at least have the honesty to admit their allegiance to that literally demonic ideology. White supremacy does not consist only in overt prejudice and is in fact more deadly in the repressed, self-deceived form that seduces many of us who identify with progressive politics and religion. I grieve to reflect on how often I fall into denying my racism, distracting myself from it with white knight call-outs of others' imperfections, and congratulating myself on the tiniest steps away from sin and toward simple justice. Worst of all, for those of us hogging all forms of wealth for ourselves and our children, is how we heap shame and scorn on the poor whites driven to despair--and to Trump--by our theft of these common blessings at their expense and their children's.

White supremacy is the profoundly evil and unjust system which has reigned in our country since its genocidal foundation. It is especially dangerous today because of the widespread delusion that racism has been conquered--except, perhaps, in its mythical "reverse" form. White supremacy is a deadly sin because it viciously slaughters the bodies and souls of Blacks and other people of color, and corrupts and endangers our eternal souls as white people who profit from it at a terrible cost to them. This is true even for those of us facing terrible oppression from male, cis, straight, class, able-bodied and/or neurotypical supremacy, and exponentially true for the lords of kyriarchy who enjoy the poisonous fruits of all these evils that break the heart of our loving Creator.

Why don't I say white, male, cis, etc. "privilege"? This is the usual term among white progressives, and I used it till very recently, when I noticed that the Rev. Dr. Gafney's incisive tweets and blogposts were using the stronger, clearer, and truer term. It took some reflection to realize why: because privilege is a good thing, not a bad one, so attempting humility and openness to conversion by "humble owning" of a privilege largely fails in execution. Acknowledging supremacy, a clear evil, is a whole different ball game.

As I have frequently reminded my sometimes wimpy co-parent, privileges are not rights, needs, or entitlements. They are bonus features which are earned by good behavior and lost by bad, and there is usually no injustice or cruelty if children in other families have access to more or different ones. My excellence in creating and leading worship music helped earn me the delight, correctly named as a privilege in my first paragraph, of sharing those gifts with the women at the conference. But had another minister of music been chosen I would not have been harmed, and though I might have been reasonably wistful at the lost opportunity I would certainly have had no right to complain of unfair treatment.

Supremacy, in contrast, consists precisely of injustice, abuse, and oppression. It happens when one person or group enjoys basic human rights--life, liberty, dignity, safety, healthy food, clean water, decent shelter, lifesaving medical care--and uses their stolen power and false authority to deny it to others. No wonder white (and male!) progressives, when finally awakened by grace to the reality of societal and ecclesial racism and sexism as well as personal participation in them, prefer the comfortable, anesthetizing acknowledgment of "privilege" versus the harsh truth of supremacy. If my knapsack is enjoyably full of privileges and yours isn't sharing them with you is a gift I freely offer and you gratefully receive, rather than a duty I owe you and a sin of omission if neglected. If mine is overflowing with rights absent from your near-empty one, though, it is morally imperative for me to take prompt action toward righting the injustice--and woe betide me in the righteous judgment of God and posterity if I don't.

"Supremacy" is a strong and prophetic call to action--an uncomfortable and important call to conversion every time I read, write, or say it. Yet its objectivity and systemic focus may also gently break denial and help avoid some roadblocks in our present understanding of racism as active prejudice and dislike toward people of color. This misunderstanding leads many of us to spend a lifetime, or far too much of it, falsely believing that we are not only non-racist but actively anti-racist just for avoiding these obvious temptations. "Supremacy" acknowledges that these evils are created by the "principalities and powers," in New Testament language, not the personal ill intentions of those of us who benefit from them. Yet it also makes clear that since we do enjoy benefits unjustly denied to others it is imperative for us to first admit this and then work against it as possible in our own vocations and situations.

Besides challenging progressives to better walk/roll our talk, more frequent use of "supremacy" may help create fruitful paths to dialogue and common ground work by avoiding--except when clearly warranted, and even then more appropriately used by victims than by aspiring allies--more subjective and emotionally loaded terms like "hate" and "xzy-phobia." These terms are used freely by progressives and tremendously resented by conservatives, especially those whose present faith does not allow them to assent to all of our policy proposals, and who often legitimately claim that they do not actually hate and fear LGBTQ+ or other oppressed folks.

As Fr. Wil preaches, embodying the work of the women prophets that is one of her central areas of scholarly expertise:

God has entered into our world, into our very flesh, despite our history, theology and rhetoric. The Church has failed in the past to stand up to white supremacist and fascist rhetoric. Lamentably we have another opportunity to confront this evil that is entrenched in the church as well as in the wider world.

In the gospel God sent wave after wave of messengers and servants to do the work that must be done to reform and transform the world. In one reading we are those servants. The work is dangerous and sometimes deadly. The world would rather kill us than hear our Gospel. In a world in which we have to insist that #BlackLivesMatter this is not an exaggeration.

If we do not purify the Church of its white supremacy, anti-Judaism, hetero-patriarchy and transphobia we may find that we are stone that the builder rejects and God will do her work in the world without us.

May Her grace bring strength and consolation to her beloved Black and Brown children suffering and dying under white supremacy, and to us, her white supremacist children, the purifying fire of transformation freeing us from this sin and granting the grace and privilege of joining Her sacred work, and theirs.

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