Several years ago, I sat in an adult Sunday school class in an American church. Around me were several people whom I would have no hesitation to call fundamentally good. My wife and I were two of the three people of color in that room, of about 15-20 persons. I can’t recall what was the topic, but Jason (not his real name) – a good Christian man – declared that if a Muslim moved into his neighborhood and next door, he was going to move. Jason was no ordinary American man. He had lived in many parts of the world, unlike the average American. He and his family had been guests in many other people’s countries as his line of work took him there. He served, side by side, with people of other colors, religions, ideologies and politics, in the United States Military. I repeat: Jason was a good man. My wife and I had been welcomed into his home many times, sharing food, laughter, and good conversations. He was a generous man, who didn’t hesitate to assist me with chores. Yet, Jason was prepared, not only to move, if a Muslim family moved in next door – but also ready to denounce his neighbor just because he would be a Muslim!
Dylann Roof was presumed to be such a good American boy that the Black worshipers at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC, welcomed him into their prayer meeting. Roof shot and slaughtered 9 of them right there as they prayed. As he pumped bullets into these good people, he uttered hateful, racist, and white supremacist rhetoric. Robert Bowers, also an ordinary-looking man left his home, about five miles away from where I write this blog, to drive to the Tree of Life Synagogue, two miles from here in Pittsburgh, to shoot and kill 11 worshipers. He too, uttered explicit anti-Semitic and white supremacist rhetoric.
But back to Jason. Jason would not kill anybody – at least, I’d wager so (except in his legal military duties on the battlefield). Years later, though, I saw Jason defending the Confederate flag, and making comments about people who had different political positions than his. He might have considered those comments as uncompromising of his faith, but I saw them as intolerable and uncharitable. Something about Jason gives me a clue about the complexity of human thinking. Jason could tolerate a Black couple being his house guests, but not a Muslim as his neighbor. He could welcome a Black man as his friend but embrace the Confederate flag at the same time. It would be easy to write off Jason as a racist. I am not sure he is, and rather, doubt it. However, while I cannot claim to know everything about privilege, I’d hazard a guess that Jason, Roof, Bowers, the terrorist who just slaughtered 49 people in Christchurch, and all white supremacists (I do not say Jason is a white supremacist) are victims of privilege, while being, in various degrees, perpetrators of privilege.
There is now a raging scandal involving rich White American parents who have criminally rigged the elite university admissions system – a system already more favorable to the rich who can legally claim privileges, based on their “generous” contributions to these institutions. Anand Giridharadas is an American journalist and writer. Commenting recently on this scandal, he makes an ominous observation. He opines that this kind of behavior, even without the crime, perpetuates entitlement. These kids’ parents are already rich and entitled through the privilege their riches afford them. Their kids, who can attend any school for which they qualify and be fully paid for, now get to attend elite schools, snagging spaces better deserved by poorer (and many times, colored) kids who depend on scholarships to make it there. Giridharadas imagines a time in the future when these same kids – now adults – start managing some hedge fund, carrying the same sense of privilege and entitlement (I thought he was going to say become a congressperson or senator!) and the tyranny, dishonesty, and further criminal behavior this would unleash on ordinary Americans. He is perfectly right in viewing all this as injurious to civil society – not just deserving students cheated out of college spaces.
I view the flip side of privilege as marginalization. Justo Gonzalez, a Hispanic American, born in Cuba, makes a few observations about marginalization (which partly explains something about Jason, and all racists, bigots and terrorists who claim religious moorings, because Gonzalez’s premise is in the events in the biblical book of Acts, chapter 6 and following). Says Gonzalez, “once the church begins to give positions of leadership to these who are even more marginal than ‘the people,’ even these common people turn against it.” In other words, for Jason, the New Zealand slaughterer, and the craftsmen and Proponent-in-Chief of the American “Muslim Ban,” Muslims are OK, so long as they aren’t elevated to being “fellow Americans” or “fellow New Zealanders” or “my next-door neighbor.” For Dylann Roof, Black people are OK, so long as they aren’t “fellow Americans” or marry White women; they are OK so long as we “send them back to Kenya where they belong” as Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) declared of President Obama years before he, Meadows, was declaring to the world that he was not racist. For Robert Bowers and the white supremacists of Charlottesville, Jews are OK, so long as they “do not replace us.” And for the current American president, those white supremacists are “very fine people.” Gonzalez makes the telling declaration, that sounds so apropos to current realities: “The marginalized are welcome, so long as there are not too many of them and they do not threaten the privileges of the center.”
Can we doubt that it was privilege and marginalization at work when white slave traders, negotiating with traitorous African chieftains, both viewed other Africans, lacking privilege – but not dignity – as potential commodities for trade and property? Can we doubt that it was privilege at work in the Jim Crow era, that lynched so many human beings as though they were hogs, or declared “separate, but equal”? Can we doubt that privilege is at the heart of any deceitful political moves to reduce voting rights for the marginalized? I see privilege at work in church institutions and other countries as well, even where all the people are the same color. But that is a subject for another time.
I don’t know all there is to be known about privilege, but there sure seems to be much of it blowing up in our faces in America, and the world around, lately. It is sinful, requiring confession, repentance, and transformation, during this Lenten season for anybody in America or elsewhere, who call themselves Christian. Shall we do it?
 Gonzalez, J.L., Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 1996, p. 38.
 Ibid, 42.
Michael Friday is an organizational leadership specialist, working through Transition Ministries, American Baptist Churches, USA. He is author of And Lead Us Not Into Dysfunction.
Photograph by Michael P. Friday. Panoramic perspectives will show that privilege and marginalization live right next door, separated by very thin lines, but both legitimately belonging to the same space.