This week’s installment of “Coffeehouse Musings” is brought to you by the latest mass shooting that took place barely a week ago in California. On Friday, May 23, Elliot Rodger, a college student in Isla Vista, unleashed his “Day of Retribution,” killing six and wounding 13, before eventually killing himself. The fact that mass shootings continue to be more and more normative in a country so stricken and stymied with fear that a collective solution cannot be offered to stem the tide of gun violence warrants a post in itself. Alas, that is a post for someone else, or at the very least, for another time.
What struck me about this latest incident was the incredible privilege that supported it. In his own video and manifesto, Rodger described his targets as “girls who rejected me and looked down on me, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men.” He goes on to wonder how can “an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me?… I am beautiful and half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve more.” He goes on to make similar comments about Mexicans.
The truth is, Elliot Rodger grew up in an entitled world. His “whiteness,” his lineage, his “maleness,” were all reasons why the world should have given him whatever he wanted. That’s the culture in which he was raised, and the culture in which many of our own children are raised. The problem came in when that culture did not prepare him for reality, that the thin veil of privilege is not an equal opportunity employer. Much like the theologically toxic maxim so popular in the Black Church, “Privilege ain’t fair.” Privilege purports power when in fact it is the quintessential example of weakness. It lies. It deludes. It distorts. In his iconic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King echoes this notion when he writes that segregation, itself born of privilege, “distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” Elliot’ s worldview did not equip him to deal with the reality of rejection and denial. His worldview did not teach him that the only body he was entitled to was his own. His world did not teach him to make lemonade out of lemons, it taught him to destroy the tree because it was his to destroy.
Privilege is something that each and every one of us flows in and out of on a daily basis. Levels of education, race, religion, sex and gender-identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status – each of these and so much more become the lenses through which the world sees us and as such, depending on where we are, we are constantly dealing with the ebb and flow of privilege. Male privilege is t
he one that has risen out of this latest tragedy, due in large part to the #YesALLWomen hashtag that has spread throughout the Twittersphere. Many men chose to respond to the hashtag with defensiveness, denying the role patriarchy inherently plays in their own lives, and in doing so they unknowingly revealed their own male privilege. In denying the voice of women to speak their truth, they effectively held up their own truth as the truth. Let’s be clear: male privilege and patriarchy are as pervasive as the air we breathe and much like that air, it is often invisible (unless you live in Los Angeles). Male privilege is why a man is a “boss” and a woman is a “bitch.” Its why a bunch of men can usurp women’s vaginas as community property, bloviating about what they think should be their reproductive rights. It’s why women are still paid less than men for equal work. It’s why a group of African American pastors can get together a few months ago and talk about the collective future of the Black Church and not a single woman be in the room and no one walk out in protest. And it’s why rape is still considered “okay” by ANYONE if she had “led [the man] on” or if “he spent a lot of money on her.”
Patriarchy is real, and so is racism, classism, and all other “isms” that have their root in privilege. We have to tell the truth. As Iyanla Vanzant says, if we are going to move the conversation forward, “we’ve got to call a thing a thing.” Each of us has to own our own individual areas of privilege. I have to own the fact that though I am Black and Gay, I am a cisgender male, highly educated, Christian, and middle class. This doesn’t mean that I am called to be ashamed of who I am or deny aspects of my being. It does mean that I am called to be aware of the moments in which I myself, or society, makes an idol of who I am. My own truth requires me to own the areas of my own life where I have participated in, or at the very least unfairly benefited from, privilege. Each of us has to do that work. Each of us has to tell the truth.
Truth-telling is the only way to move forward the work of liberation for all people because it is only in being aware of our areas of privilege that we can begin the work of abdicating that privilege. As George Orwell has said, “Truth telling is a revolutionary act,” but it by itself is not enough. It’s not enough to know, we’re also called to act. Dr. Randall Bailey, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Interdenominational Theological Center, says that each of us is called to “abdicate our privilege in order to liberate others.” It’s not enough for us to know that privilege exists, but we are called to “come out from among them and be separated,” to refuse to sit a tables where all are not welcome, to refuse to participate in an unjust system.
My fear is that the conversation about privilege that has surfaced, male privilege specifically, will stop at awareness. This generation of Twitter-activist is great at awareness, but we’re not so adept at action. Many will wax eloquent at the horrors of male privilege, but fail to move to the next step to withdrawal from the system. The system of patriarchy, or any system of privilege for that matter, can only survive because people continue to support it and participate therein.
From a Christian prospective, this is what the Incarnation was all about. Philippians 2:7 says that Jesus “emptied himself…” of the privilege that came along with who he was. He took on the form of a “slave” to undo the power of privilege and to set all people free. He too had to navigate the treacherous pass of privilege, balancing his maleness with this Jewishness living in Roman-occupied Palestine, but he did so as an example of how privilege must be abdicated to pursue liberation for others. Too often His Church only supports and colludes with unjust power, denying the full humanity of LGBTQ persons by denying them full access to the sacraments (Holy Matrimony included), continuing to refer to God as “Father” at the exclusion of other images, even leveraging it’s authority as the de facto religion of the United States in the latest attempts to legislatively construct the “City on a Hill.” Jesus emptied himself of privilege and power. Go and do likewise.
My heart and prayers goes out to Elliot Rodger, his family, his victims and their families. What happened is an inexcusable tragedy, but in our finger pointing, let us speak our truth aloud and move the cause of liberation forward for all people. None of us is free until all are free and it is the “truth that will make us free.”
Keep the faith, and make it COLORFUL!