St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians is struggling to maintain his authority within the Corinthian community he founded. After his visit and evangelization of Corinth, others had arrived preaching a variation on the gospel Paul had initially preached, probably a variation that placed emphasis on the following of Jewish ritual laws. These “super-apostles,” as Paul calls them later in II Cor. 12:12, point to mystical experiences and great acts of power as evidence for their authority. Paul, in defending his authority in the Corinthian community, does not deny his ability to lay claim to similar mystical experiences and acts of power, but instead places emphasis on the sacrifices he has made on behalf of the gospel as the mark of his authority.
St. Paul’s statement in II Corinthians 12:10 is paradoxical. He states, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” I am not often content with those things. Weakness I can deal with. I know, to some extent, my limits. Hardships and calamities I can deal with, too, as they seem to be the nature of the human experience. Admittedly, some people have more hardships than others, and sometimes I become irritated with the unfairness of how some seem to suffer more intensely than others. My hardships being, to return to a theme from an earlier reflection, relative “tempests in teacups” compared to those of others also helps me handle them with relative equanimity.
It is the insults and persecutions that get to me the most. There is a malevolent intentionality behind these. On these counts, too, I am relatively fortunate. I do not suffer persecution, and rarely encounter insults. Of course, that is because I am perceived as a member of the preferred group in our society. I am perceived, and therefore treated, as a white, educated, middle class, gender conforming male. As such, I avoid the insults and persecutions that others may suffer.
This week, however, I came face-to-face with just how much my privileged position clouds my impressions, and the way I speak, of the experience of the marginalized other. I was also challenged as to whether I had any right to speak out on behalf of the marginalized other, and I would like to address my responsibility to speak out on behalf of the other first.
There are two forces that compel me to speak out. First, I believe firmly that the gospel compels all followers of Christ to not only seek out and embrace the marginalized other, but we are also instructed to act in their interest. Latin American liberation theology calls this a “preferential option for the poor.” When we are empowered to make decisions and take action we are compelled to consider first and foremost how our decisions and actions will impact the poor. I interpret “the poor” as all who are disenfranchised in society, whether economically, socially, politically or in any manner. This is also what I mean by the “marginalized other,” a person who has been pushed to the edges of society.
Beyond the gospel mandate for a preferential option for the poor, I also believe that those of us who do live within the privileged classes of society have a responsibility to confront the systems that grant us privilege at the expense of the marginalized, using our privileged position on their behalf. I have my privileged position in society through very little merit of my own. Yes, I did work hard for my education, and I do work hard for my current economic position, but I also had access to these opportunities for hard work partially because of the privileged context of my birth. Were I born in a different context, I might not have had the opportunities of which I now take active advantage. I think of all those people born in developing countries who lack access to the many resources we in the United States take so much for granted. What would have been my chances to be where I am today were I born in such a context? Did I “earn” the context of my birth, and therefore did they “deserve” theirs for some reason? I think not.
But I digress too much. This past week while reading about the tragic burning of eight black churches in ten days I became impassioned to join my voice to those crying out with the question of “#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches”. Some answers to the causes of the fires have been discovered. A fire at Fruitland Presbyterian in Gibson County TN, has been attributed to lightening, and another at Greater Miracle Apostolic Church in Tallahassee, FL, has been attributed an electrical fire caused by a fallen tree. The fire that finally broke national news silence at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, SC, has also been ruled as caused by lightening. At least three of the fires, including the one at nearby College Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church in Knoxville, TN, are being investigated as arsons. That still leaves two fires with undetermined causes.
Social media networks, particularly Twitter, came alive with indignation that the mainstream media had not been reporting on these fires. In joining my voice to the outrage about the media silence, I raised the snarky question about why the media was not reporting on this recent “attack on religion.” I was immediately challenged that this was not an attack on religion but an attack on blacks. I initially defended my statement, wanting to use the rhetoric of the “attack on religion” to shine the light on the problem. However, I also began to reflect on how my position of privilege and my use of language were leading me to appropriate the experience of the black community and universalize it as an attack on religion rather than recognizing the reality that it was not an attack on religion, even though the specific targets in this instance were churches, but was rather an attack on black men and women through the medium of their places of worship. This same difficulty arises when one rephrases the “black lives matter” slogan as “all lives matter.” “All lives matter” ignores that the black community’s experience says that their lives are devalued. The cry “black lives matter” is a cry of pain and anger in the face of systemic discrimination against black lives. When I, as a white man, say, “Oh yes, I know. All lives matter” I am minimizing this cry of pain and anger by subsuming and universalizing the message, even if that is not my intention.
When we hear questions like “#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches” and statements like “black lives matter,” we need to be careful not to try to universalize the statement or discount it. These are profound cries of a community that knows firsthand what St. Paul is saying about the experience of insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. We need to listen like the Corinthian community to the message and allow the other to speak with authority just as St. Paul claimed the authority of apostleship from his experiences. We also need to be wary of allowing our positions of privilege to cloud the message we are hearing or to misrepresent the voice of the marginalized. When we speak from privilege we make the mistake of the “super apostles” in relying on our privilege. When we listen with our whole heart and allow the pain and anger of the experience to touch our deepest being, then we can join hands with those who have experienced marginalization and together experience the promise of the Lord when he said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect through weakness.” (II Cor. 2:9).