A few weeks ago my husband Nathan and I were sitting at the kitchen table chatting. We were taking some time in that space between the evening chaos of sending children to bed, and the evening work of setting the house aright.
I mentioned the SCOTUS ruling and the church’s letter that ward leaders in the US and Canada were required to read the following Sunday affirming (as they are want to do) the church’s stance on same gender marriage.
I could sense Nathan bristle when I roundly condemned the letter and questioned its purpose. When it comes to LGBTQ concerns, Nathan is…conservative. He attempted to disguise his discomfort with preposterous quips about how Mormon gays and lesbians could solve the ‘activity and membership in the church’ question. But my singular lack of humour at his efforts to make light was not having the desired effect. The air between us crackled with annoyance – most of it coming in waves from me. I stepped back from the emotional charge and tried to assess him clinically and objectively (my academic training has been useful in this regard).
Nathan is white, he’s able bodied, heterosexual, middle-class, has a PhD, has a good job, he’s nice looking, and he belongs to a church that makes exclusive truth claims. Moreover he mostly believes in these claims i.e. that he’s blessed to be the recipient of certain saving ordinances that are exclusive to Mormons (or dead people).
Before you get defensive of my husband, I should also point out that he’s an Aries and he takes any mention of him as a form of flattery – he’s OK.
Suddenly it dawned on me:
“How did you get born with all of the bells and whistles Nathan?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” He replied.
“There is nothing about your race, your gender, your class, or your sexuality that is problematic in society or in the church. You are white, male, able-bodied and heterosexual. You’ve never suffered, nor are you likely to suffer for any of those identities. So how did you get born with so much luck?”
“I don’t know.” He replied frankly.
“Do you think God blessed you with all of those privileges – perhaps as a reward for your valiance in the pre-existence?”
“I don’t know.” He was more thoughtful now.
“Perhaps you subscribe to the notion that there is a reward system in heaven that attributes unproblematic earthly social identities to those who are more spiritually evolved than others?”
He was silent. I could see he was groping for an answer that wasn’t materializing.
“If the God you have in your head dishes out mortal privileges in heaven in order to make it cozy for you on Earth I’m not sure I like your God.” I pointed this out to him in emphatic tones – with a volume to match. And my dudgeon signaled a temporary end to the conversation. I was feeling explosive, and he had retreated emotionally from the discussion. I needed time to calm down and he needed time to think.
We picked up the conversation last week while we were on a two-day retreat in the mountains. As we soaked in the hot pools one thing lead to another and I said to him over the steam and smell of sulphur:
“The thing about privilege is that most of it is stolen from others.
Male privilege is the presumptuous removal of humanity and agency from women in order to afford men political, economic, domestic and religious control.
Racial privilege is the arrogant theft of humanity from people of colour in order to afford white folk political, economic, religious and cultural control and justify their lower social order and economic oppression.
Class privilege is the arrogant theft of humanity from the poor in order to solidify and reproduce a class system that justifies the exploitation of their cheap labour.
Sexuality privilege is the dehumanization, condemnation and the deprivation of those who love differently in order to secure the church’s role in governing sex and ensuring population growth.
Privilege is earned by taking too much – more than is needed or deserved and dehumanizing those from whom the resources, rights or agency are extracted.
Privilege is earned by tipping the human and environmental balance in favour of one group of humans at the expense of others.”
He sat quietly with that for a moment – and then nodded in agreement. “Yup – that’s right.” He said with thoughtful sincerity.
I loved him even more in the moment. Not because I think I’m right and I liked that he agreed with me. There have been plenty of times in our marriage where it’s been the other way around and he has given me something to think about. I loved him more because his need to win and to defend himself was overshadowed by his desire to understand and to be better in his thinking and in his feeling.
In the final analysis then:
Privilege is never earned – it is always taken without permission.
When those who are oppressed learn that their humanity has been stolen – they rage. Instead of trying to check that rage and demand silence – listen to it with humility – because from thence will spring forth sacred reconciliations.