By Bishop Michael Rinehart
Recently a pastor told me a family left the church simply because of a conversation a group at the church was having about privilege. It struck me how this term has become a lightning rod.
I’ve had this conversation with congregations on various occasions, sometimes surrounding a conversation about interviewing female pastors. Other times it is related to race. How do we get past this apparent impasse in the conversation?
At its heart, the conversation is really about the issue of injustice. When we approach it from this angle, I find we rarely get pushback. Everyone knows that life isn’t fair. We see it all the time in our communities. It’s not a level playing field. A child born into a family of subsistence farmers in the Central African Republic does not have the same opportunities as a child born to a millionaire in Switzerland. We all get this. Privilege is simply recognizing that some of us have been born with a decided advantage over others.
There are different kinds of privilege. Wealth, gender, race and more.
We see this in our office all the time. It takes considerably longer for a female pastor to get a call than a male pastor. This isn’t a coincidence. When looking for a call as a pastor, men have a decided advantage over women. When someone uses the words “male privilege,” this is what they mean.
It’s also well documented that when a woman gets a job, she will be paid less than a man in the same position. According to data from the US Census Bureau, the average gender pay gap in the United States is around 19.5%. This means that on average, a woman earns 80 cents for every dollar her male counterpart makes. Women’s median annual earnings are $10,086 less than men’s. That gap can be larger or smaller depending on the state someone lives in. In Louisiana, for instance, the gender pay gap is 30%, the biggest wage gap in the nation.
What should we do about this? Feeling guilty helps no one. It helps if men will start by simply acknowledging the truth of the situation. Arguing that male privilege doesn’t exist, when it’s right in front of us, only proves that it does. Secondly, we can check our privilege. Groups will look at a male and a female candidate for a position and just “intuitively feel” that the man just happens to be a “better fit.” Our bias kicks in. Be aware of this force at work when calling a pastor or hiring a plumber. Third, those in positions of influence can be intentional about giving women, who all too often get passed over, opportunities for leadership positions.
What we do in the synod office is make sure there are women on every slate of candidates we give a congregation. Some congregations push back, “Well, bishop, I’m okay with a lady pastor, but I don’t think our congregation is ready…” We ask them to have a phone conversation with every candidate. We have discovered that often congregations speak with a dynamite female candidate, invite her for an interview, and a call is issued.
Once they get the call, female pastors are more likely to get inappropriate remarks, get touched inappropriately, receive comments on their “outfit,” and so on. Often those in leadership have to intervene and set boundaries for congregations who are new to dealing with women in leadership.
A similar dynamic is present in race. If a white person and a person of color apply for a position, often the white person gets the job. The white person is likely to be paid more. Trusted more.
If your family could afford to send you to college, you have a decided advantage over those whose families could not afford to send them to college. Those who go to college make 50% more than those who do not, according to a USA Today article.
If you are a person with family money, or who went to college and is making it well, good for you! There is nothing wrong with this. Just don’t look down your nose at those who are struggling. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that those who are struggling financially are lazy. They’re not. Many are working two jobs to get by.
For people of faith this stuff gets personal. We see the injustices in the world and are not ambivalent. We are called to be part of God’s healing presence in this world. Ignoring or discounting the injustices of the world heaps more hurt on those who have already been traumatized by the inequities of society.
At his hometown synagogue, Jesus quoted from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
~Luke 4; Isaiah 61
When we model our lives after Jesus’ ministry, we intentionally seek out those who have been dealt a bad hand and walk alongside them, as Jesus did. We listen, learn and love.
The injustice of the world elicits our anger, as Reesheda Graham-Washington and Shawn Casselberry say in their book Soul Force. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” If we take on God’s priorities, we cannot help but be infuriated that so many people are dying of hunger-related causes.
We cannot help but be angry at the hatred and violence in our world. Bigotry will make us mad. That’s okay. It’s a good thing. What’s important is what we do with that anger.
Graham-Washington and Casselberry point out that people who are involved in the work of social justice have often been harmed themselves. Being comfortable doesn’t tend to motivate us to help others. Our work to make the world right often grows out of our desire to see the woundedness in our own lives made right.
Acknowledging the existence of privilege, acknowledging the playing field is not level, does not mean denigrating those who enjoy those privileges. It means being aware of the inequity and serving those in need. It means listening to those who experience prejudice and responding with compassion. It means working to level the playing field, so that all people might have freedom, food and safety. It means tipping the balance so that others might get a chance.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?