Faith, Life Musings

Unlearning Privilege

     Unlearning privilege. I write these words sideways on a piece of paper and draw a box around this phrase that strikes a chord within my heart. Around the room is a group of people, tall, dark, young, older. Hand written posters in Spanish and English adorn the small space, pictures of smiling and resilient faces holding signs that say “Just Hospitality” offer the only decor. In front of us is a white board with words like “Power” “Oppression” “Ally” and “Collective Liberation.” We are defining terms, discussing things like class, capitalism, pennies to the bucket, and sexual violence. They are all related. We are all related by our privilege, by our unearned (or deserved) birthrights of race, nationality, gender, identity, freedom.

I look around the room and get the sneaking suspicion that we are all here for the same reason. Our privilege has become a burden, and we are seeking for ways to relieve its weight, to acknowledge our power, to reconcile our excess with the inequality plaguing our consciousness.
TheBarefootBeat
There’s no sense even trying to compare standards of poverty. Village kids in Ghana play joyfully with so much less than children learning to strain their eyes looking at screens all day.
Teiman, Ghana

By typical standards, I am living below the line of poverty. I am living without health insurance, without a vehicle, without a full-time job or the earnings that come with it. I am living without the cushion of a retirement plan, I am living beneath the privilege and status I’ve been handed and striven for. Yet, I have never felt more prosperous, more abundant in my life. The more I give up, the more I feel I have to give. It is a constant struggle, a tension between feeling immense gratitude and immense guilt for the privileges I can never forgo: my education, my race, the richness of experience I’ve accumulated and stored within the vaults of my heart.

I struggle with privilege the same way I struggle with Grace. My fragile and yet rigid mind can’t comprehend the word “undeserved.” I am used to earning my way through life, accustomed to consequences and corrective actions, to thinking of success and prosperity as achievements within my control. I am intimately familiar with blame, fault, and trying harder. The only ones who are oppressed are those who allow themselves to be, the ones who receive Grace and privilege have somehow worked for it and are now being justly rewarded….but careful that you don’t take it for granted or you’ll lose it. Never rest in the peace of knowing it has nothing to do with effort and everything to do with redemption.
TheBarefootBeat
There’s nothing more redeeming than watching kids play and take care of each other.
Riobamba, Ecuador

I am uncomfortable with Grace and this trickles down to my beliefs and thoughts about privilege. I am weary of arms stretched open wide, grief stricken when I think of the brokenness and despair that had to be because of who I am, uneasy when I think of the sacrifice that can never be repaid. When I can wiggle my way out of the horrifying scene of my unworth and inability to deserve anything I could possibly achieve, when I begin to look away from the cross and look within for reason to believe that I am good enough, that I am holy enough to receive the gift of Grace, that I’m entitled to hold onto it because of what I’m doing, this is the moment it starts slipping out of my grasp. This is the moment I start to see others as deficient, as deserving of their fate. It’s the moment I start comparing and contrasting my privilege with that of others, peering up or peering down from my pedestal and feeling pity or envy or shame.

I don’t think most people understand why I am voluntarily living below my means, or why I am so stubbornly insistent on rejecting the privilege I’ve been given. I’m not sure I completely understand it, either. I am wrestling with the implications of soul poverty, toying with the gift of uncertainty, diving into the dark caverns of faith and hoping I find the hand of Joy to hold onto and steady the rhythm of fear raging in my heart. I am looking to the life of Jesus to discover the radical significance of a King dying as a convict, of a Prince living as a servant, unlearning the privilege of being the Son of God to become the Son of Man, yet never truly forsaking his birthright.

I think this is the tension of grace and privilege embodied in flesh. Coming from a place of privilege and giving it up willingly for the least of these. Not to turn your back on the gifts you have been given (underserved and unearned) but to enlarge the umbrella of your birthright to include the man on the corner (booze crusted beard), and the corporate lawyer (breathing oppression and spitting it back out in sure-fire words that cut like a knife).

It’s receiving mercy and becoming merciful.
TheBarefootBeat
The Mission District, San Francisco

To me me, this is Grace: child-like acceptance, excitedly divvying up the prize to be shared among friends. And this is privilege: to be a child of God, to be created and cherished, to have love beating flesh into living breath, to come from One and realize that we are all already equal. It’s simply time to share with our friends, to willingly give up what we’ve been freely given so that more can partake, only to receive more and more with open and thankful hands.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Christian Meza September 16, 2015 at 9:20 am

    Mariah,

    Believe it or not, I travel the world in search of people like you; like us.
    You are enlightened beyond belief, and I am absolutely ecstatic you exist.
    You exist.
    My name is Christian.
    I hope this isn’t the last we hear from each other.
    Be well.
    Christian Meza recently posted…“Human”My Profile

    • Reply Mariah September 19, 2015 at 10:17 am

      Dear Christian,
      Thank you for the words, for the connection. I am speechless by your kindness. I would love to hear more of your story. I would love to share in your journey. Send me an email! Be well <3

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