Vying For Second
I preached a sermon on Sunday based on James 2:1-17 and Mark 7:24-30 and in it, I explored how there is “nothing new under the sun” in terms of the human tendency to divide ourselves into categories, usually with one group oppressed and another privileged. The texts I focused on highlight racial and class tensions between Jews and Gentiles (the Mark text) and the privileging of the rich over the poor (James). Two thousand years later, the same divisions exist along race, culture, and class lines, but of course now we are also well aware of many other divisions. We see now how we are divided along lines of gender, sexual orientation, ability, illness, body size and shape, beauty, age; the list goes on and on.
Something that I have frankly been discouraged by lately is the amount of bickering that goes on between oppressed groups who are each focused on their own liberation. I see deep racism within the LGBTIQ movement (e.g. accusing communities of color in California for the passing of Prop 8) and on top of that, there’s even a privileging of the LG within the movement, with the BTIQ voices often being silenced. Feminists are often criticised for not taking seriously enough issues of race and class; black liberation theologians like James Cone and Martin Luther King, Jr. leave something to be desired in the area of gender equality. Fat liberation spaces have the reputation for being unfriendly to people of color and sick fat folks (the so-called bad fatties). The list goes on and on.
This can be very discouraging. Frankly, what it almost feels like happening is people are “vying for second place.” Let me explain what I mean by that. When I was a kid and just barely starting to understand oppressive systems, I really only thought about gender and race. Thus there were four categories of people, and I imagined these four being points on a diamond. White men were at the top, of course, but white women and black men each had “one count for, one count against” them, and thus were the equal points, one down from white men. Black women, in this image, were at the bottom of the diamond. So the white men were in 1st place, and the black women were basically screwed stuck in 4th place. But the black men and white women were in a state of flux, fighting over who would get to be in 2nd place. Now this comes out of the imagination of a 10-year-old, and even describing it feels like an insensitive thing to do, so I hope you will forgive me for that. I feel that describing it is relevant because, while my understanding remains nowhere near as simplistic, the idea has stuck with me. Are we all just trying to “vie for second”?
Because the thing about vying for second is that it maintains the status quo. It does nothing to tear down the oppressive system. It is just us, using whatever privilege we do have (in my crude diamond metaphor; our whiteness or maleness) to ally ourselves with the strong. It does nothing for the liberation of others, or even, frankly, ourselves, for as long as we are part of the oppressive systems, whether privileged or oppressed, none of us is truly free.
In my sermon I asked: Are we the rich or are we the poor? This is a complicated question. I cannot draw a line down the middle of this sanctuary, I said, and say, “alright, rich over here, poor over here.” We all have areas where we are rich and areas where we are poor. I may have material wealth, but be privilege-poor in areas like gender and fatness and age. Others may be rich in terms of gender and class, but privilege-poor in terms of race and sexual orientation. It is complicated. Most of us experience a fair amount of both privilege and oppression, and our experience of it changes over time throughout our lives. Of course there are others who have very little privilege, stuck in “survival” mode, without even the privilege of considering this theoretical/spiritual exercise because fighting to stay alive has to come first. So this message is to those of us, myself included, who experience enough privilege that we do have a choice whether we are going to ally ourselves with the privileged or the oppressed.
So for us, the question “Are we the rich or poor?” really isn’t the right question. The question is, what are we going to do with our richness, and what are we going to do with our poorness?
Are we going to use our richness to try to get higher on the hierarchy? To align ourselves with power and privilege and participate in systems that oppress ourselves and others? Or are we going to allow ourselves to be in our poor places, to find the hidden strengths and blessings that come with them, one of those blessings being the empathy we can use to stand in solidarity with those who are poor in our rich places? My 10-year-old self never considered the possibility that the black men and white women might want to give up their fight for 2nd place and ally themselves with the black women stuck in 4th. And yet that’s what I think that those of us who have enough privilege to make this choice must do.
Exploiting our rich places will undoubtedly help us find power and wealth in a material sense. But maintaining the status quo and doing nothing for the liberation of the oppressed does not lead to life, it leads to death. For liberation and freedom are life, conforming to oppressive systems is imprisonment and death.
Let’s stop myopically focusing on our own oppression, ignoring or even perpetuating the oppression of others, and instead ally ourselves with one another in our efforts to forge a new way of relationship with one another. Let’s stop vvying for second, and start living.