Grace for the Privileged

I know a girl who calls someone racist, in public, about once a week, and means it. Almost everyone my age writes angry blog posts about fundamentalists. I glare at small children who stare at the disabled, and then follow up with withering disdain for their parents . . . not to mention how I roll my eyes over students who ask to miss class for their frat-boy shenanigans. The internet gives all the marginalized and/or opinionated  a place to stand and voice their grievances, pointing fingers at what is flawed, short-sighted, and unjust.

This is good in so many ways; we keep people honest (Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism, anyone?) and find community outside the limits of our local church–often a necessity for Christians who love the arts, but live at a distance from like-minded community.  However, on a most personal level, I’ve found that an internet platform allows me to flaunt my “outsideness” and “marginalization” like a bully-stick, and shake my head at those who are “privileged insiders,” who dare to neglect, misunderstand, or frustrate me with their ignorance and embarrassingly flawed worldview.

Now, I want to be very clear here: those who have been intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, or physically abused should be able to speak out, honoring their formerly-suppressed voices and counting all grief as joy when their stories create community and healing with other walking wounded. But how often do we–do I–join the ranks of bullies by misrepresenting “the privileged” as deliberately cruel, or evading any claims to empathy with the “insiders”? Are we honestly certain that the privileged (whether of intellect, education, race, or religion) have no sincere or good-hearted motives for their errors? Are we certain our motives are sincere and good-hearted when we publicly (and often gleefully) denounce our opposition?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about grace, and my own personal prejudice of distributing it. Students with good attitudes and pleasant smiles might fail my English class if they skip all the time, but I’ll wish them well, and wave hello in the hallways. Students who try to scam me, but forget to change the date and teacher’s name from their unchanged (and absurdly irrelevant) high school essay? Busted, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy laughing at the silliness of it all. The same goes for my most personal hatred: those who fear or mock the disabled, and especially those who claim to have a special knowledge about the disabled, but instead propagate offensive and infantilizing ideas in the guise of kindness. However, a few months past, a friend showed me my own thoughtless hypocrisy with gentleness and compassion. I spoke in naivete and privilege, but she, in person, and not on the internet, responded without rancor or judgement.

Here are the main facts of this conversation:

1) I’m white; my friend is Native.

2) The time was Thanksgiving, which I presumed she would be celebrating.

This would have been a good time for someone to call me out as thoughtless and racist, and I know lots of people who would have cheerily done so, had they been around for the pleasure. But such blows are cheap, and while it’s satisfying to see the accused crumble up into discomfort and unhappiness, we also become cheap in our enjoyment of it. Maybe we have more fun calling people sexist, racist, and insensitive than we would if everyone spoke in perfect harmony, never slipping from the currently-acceptable terminology for difference and diversion.

And yet — my friend did not take that opportunity. She simply remarked that she didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but was glad for time with her family and friends. Then our conversation continued, comfortably, and the matter has never been addressed again. That was that. No history lesson needed, no snide remarks about smallpox blankets, and no righteous stink-eye . . . just a soft reminder that not all people are like me, and the inevitable occasion of carelessness does not require policing as much as understanding.

After going home that night, I imagined the situation reversed–perhaps I’d be responding to people I consider to be “aggressive Christians,” prone to Facebook squabbling and street evangelism, or the people who stare at/are shocked by disabled adults. I’ve often presumed that as long as I am aggressive in defense of the weak, then I am doing well. But I think I sometimes misjudge the type of strength needed for an effective blow. I do believe in hard, fast rebukes for deliberate cruelty and small-mindedness; little can be said about those people except that it is better to have a weak mind than a stunted soul. Still, I am not all-seeing, and no-one can fully perceive the spirit’s intent. Maybe we should give more grace to the ignorant by teaching with gentleness and love.

It makes me remember this quiet truth: being in a state of grace is the true, paradoxical state of privilege, and we are thus positioned to give grace to others.

I’m not saying to sit down and watch the weak be oppressed. The weak need protection, from both physical aggressors and the loud voices who would seek their harm. But I am saying this: instead of always adding to the vast sea of pointed fingers, let’s share grace–yes, even with the accidentally cruel, or the unconsciously racist, or the misguided fundamentalists promoting sexist ideology. It’s a lesson Jesus taught us many times: be strong, and flip money-changing tables. Or, break bread and speak soft words to a tax collector. What does that mean for us as bloggers and readers and commentators in an easily-offended age? Maybe breaking bread with a pharisee means considering with all seriousness and respect the argument of someone whose opinion annoys us. Or, instead of looking for occasions to find the error in someone else’s thinking, keep in check our own error of philosophical vigilantee-ism. And, lastly, we should remember this: we, too, will give offense, and have given it. Give thanks for the people who said nothing, in grace, or responded in kindness. Because although we cannot always see the heart of the person who frustrates us, we can pray for open hands of kindness and grace . . . no matter the person’s earthly privilege.

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