Monday, November 13, 2017

White Privilege


            According to Miriam-Webster’s dictionary, “Privilege is an advantage that one person, or a group of people, has, usually because of their position or because they are rich.”

            Well, I'm privileged because I am rich. And yes, I know that talking about personal finances verges on breaking some social taboos. But I'll risk it to make a point.

            So, not unlike many of my friends, Irene and I have money. In fact, though we are not one-percenters, we are financially better off than upwards of 90 percent—maybe even close to 95 percent—of Canadians.

            Because we are comparatively rich, Irene and I were able to help our children complete graduate educations in law, medicine, and anthropology.

            Because we are rich, we might buy a 40-foot yacht when we retire, to live on for a few years while we cruise the southern seas.

            Because we are rich, we can—and do—give ten percent of our after-tax income to charity—half to church, and half to other charities.

            Because we are rich, we travel. Lately I’ve had the privilege of going to South Africa twice, to Grenada and Costa Rica, to Haida Gwaii, San Francisco and New York. The only reason I haven’t been to more places is that I don’t have time.

            Because we are rich, we can buy a new car whenever I need one, without worrying about how much it costs. Or a new furnace. Or new clothes. Or electronic toys.

            Mind you, I do not feel guilty about being rich. We have wealth partly on account of good luck, partly because we are careful and save, partly because we have great jobs, and partly because of our parents. Some people may have cheated to become rich, but not us. And so, by the way, we also don’t mind being taxed at a higher rate, or government policies meant to advantage people who have less than us. We have plenty of advantages, after all. It’s a privilege.

            But now, I want to say two more things. First, as is the case with wealth, I am also privileged, I have advantages, because I am white.

            I don’t worry that the police will card me when I walk or stop me when driving because I look suspicious. They never have, in fact.

            And if the police, or a social worker, or a boss, or teacher or a store loss prevention officer do scrutinize me, I do not expect to be arrested, or beaten, or shot, or put to the bottom of the list, or not be believed or failed; and when scrutinized, I won’t think I need to be extra polite, or play possum, or talk nice, or even put up with the scrutiny if I don’t like it. If I complain to the authorities, in fact, I know that they will treat me with deference and respect. It is a privilege I enjoy.

            When I grew up in my family, I did not hear stories of how my parents and grandparents were kidnapped by the government, told to lose their religion and language and culture, as well as often beaten or otherwise abused by their teachers—all the while being prevented upon graduation from getting good jobs or acquiring generational wealth. And I did not have to grow up in a family or community where many of my elders could not speak of these realities because they were traumatized and suffering from post-traumatic stress.

            When I grew up, I didn’t have to live in a community with unsafe water and no jobs and high rates of teen suicide. I grew up with all sorts of advantages. I was privileged.

            When I grew up, my parents never needed to warn me about how to deal with systemic racism. My own children, though, have to teach my black grandchildren how to be meek, mild, and unfailingly polite and submissive in the face of authority, just to survive. And I won’t even get into the complexities of being a black child in a white educational system.

            Because of white privilege no one thinks that I am likely unqualified for any job, or received my job because of minority quotas or affirmative action.

            White privilege is someone killing fifty people with a machine gun and being labeled a lone wolf rather than a terrorist. White privilege is believing that Las Vegas was America’s worst mass murder in the past hundred years, when in fact, many more blacks or First Nations people were murdered in other incidents. But who remembers that stuff, anyway?

            And of course, not remembering? That is white privilege.

            White privilege is a fact of life in North America. As with wealth honestly come by, we should not feel guilty, on that score, for being white.

            But second—both the privilege of wealth, and the privileges that go with being white together mean that many of my friends, fellow church members, and neighbours have the advantage of power. We can influence politicians and corporations and public opinion. When we speak or spend people will notice and even listen. Privilege comes with advantages, even advantages--such as power--that we never sought. What should we do with such power?

            Psalm 146, just one of many Old Testament passages that describe ancient Jewish ideals with respect to power, is as good a Biblical passage as any for seeking guidance on what we should do with our privilege and the power that comes with it. If the Israelite who wrote this Psalm had been transported to our day, he or she would have argued that God wanted justice for all the oppressed—for the poor, the racialized, the mentally ill, the veterans, the physically disabled.

            God wants food for the hungry (146:7) and education and opportunity and respect for them too.

            God wants us to set the prisoners free (146:7), especially the overrepresented First Nation and Black prisoners in Canada’s prison system.

            The ancient Israelites believed in a God who wants us privileged types to open the eyes of the blind who can’t see their privilege (146:8), and to put remedies on every corporate and political and church agenda.

            God wants us to do all in our power to lift up those who are bowed down, to make right what our parents and grandparents made wrong.

            Why? Because while being wealthy or white are not in and of themselves something we should feel guilty about, the privileges that go with being wealthy or white are not a right either. Privilege is an advantage, says the dictionary. It is, by definition, admitting that the playing field isn’t even.


            So if we have privilege, we need to understand that the best of our shared religious heritage suggests that what we need to do with it is execute justice for the oppressed and lift up those who are bowed down. Privilege, if we have it, is the cosmic salary we must spend to help make this world right.

Monday, October 30, 2017

If Not for Answering Prayers, What Is God Good for?


            God does not answer prayers—at least not in the way we pick up a ringing phone or stop our car to help a neighbor push hers out of a snowbank. That, at least, was my conclusion in the previous blogpost. So, if God doesn’t answer prayers, what is God good for?

            This, of course, is a very contemporary sort of question, the kind that health and wealth preachers love to wallow in. Modern people want a pragmatic, sensible God who is useful, who blesses us and America (and Canada, too, maybe). God provides salvation in the hereafter, gives the church a reason for being (and a means of providing some with jobs and sometimes even power), and God is useful for unleashing passions that can overcome almost any political obstacle or tribal enemy and even inspire terrorist acts.

            I don’t like this sort of useful God. But if not good for answering my prayers, what is God good for? Why bother?

            Reflecting on this—I, and other theologians, have begun to imagine that God might not exist at all, at least in the sense that God is a person, place or thing as usually understood. I am trying on the idea that (perhaps) God is (certainly) not a substance or essence, a strong arm or a genie who snaps his (almost always “his,”) fingers. This explains all unanswered prayer, at least. There is no person, place or thing to do the answering.

            Instead, maybe God is a Spirit in the Vocative Case, a “weak force,” a cosmic plea hidden in a three-letter puff of air (interpreted, amplified, and corrupted by scripture and its authors), praying to us. God might be an inspiration (or better yet, an expire/ation) rather than a sovereign being who sits on a throne somewhere—even if such sitting is understood to be metaphorical.

            A Spirit in the Vocative Case? What might such a God be (leaving aside for a moment that by “Spirit,” I do not mean some “thing” one could put under a microscope or find with a P.K.E Meter)?

            Well, maybe a Spirit in the vocative case might be something like the call of the wild.

            Almost forty years ago I taught Jack London’s famous novel The Call of the Wild to my grade nine English class. You probably remember the story. A brave, well-trained, and strong dog, Buck, is stolen from his California home. Buck is shipped to Alaska to be a gold rush sled dog. He has a rough time of it. Ugly owners use, abuse, and starve him before he is finally adopted by a good man. This man, in turn, is killed by local Yeehat indians. So, Buck leaves human society behind and becomes leader of a pack of wolves.

            There is both much to commend this book and to condemn it. The Yeehat episode is particularly unsavory and racist. Ultimately, Buck’s life turns out to be a short course in Darwinian evolution, where Buck has to overcome technology and clubs, stupidity and ugly leaders of the pack in order survive. When the book opens, Buck is a pet dog, albeit a big one; by the end he has survived all thrown his way by civilized humans to find his true self. He has answered the call of the wild.

            What is this call? London never stops to define it, though he describes it. Buck “loved to run in the dim twilight of the summer midnights, listening to the subdued and sleepy murmurs of the forest, reading signs and sounds as a man may read a book, and seeking for the mysterious something that called -- called, waking or sleeping, at all times, for him to come.”

            And again, “Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.” 

            This call of the wild, a vocative spirit in its own right, is not a being or substance or essence. It is not the cry of anyone one thing or even of many things. The wild itself, where the call originates, is also ever elusive, some “thing,” (maybe) that cannot be contained. We drag along our canteens and thread and needle repair kits and camp stoves in search of it, but thinking we have arrived, the wild is defeated by paths through the woods, campsites neatly arranged, and fire pits that have been in use (perhaps) for millennia. The wild recedes forever in the presence of our axes and knives and maps and the scraps of garbage we never quite manage to pack out. The closer we get to the wild, the more we realize that we cannot have it, or hold it, or pocket it, ever. And yet it calls.

            And for all the (literary) power of its call (powerful for some, perhaps, but not powerful overall) the wild is weak. It retreats under the onslaught of human tinkering. We cannot preserve it because even the act of preserving is to civilize, theorize about, and nurture—all actions inimical to the wild.

            God is as weak as the wild, and calls to us as the call of the wild did to Buck. God has no army (unless you count Swiss guards or terrorists or misguided nationalist troops), no place to lay his head, no kingdom other than the one that might be planted in your heart. God is weak, and God’s call is for a hope, a dream, an imagining, a utopia, a shalom that God has no power to bring to pass. Unless, perhaps, someone, some tribe, some Horton hears the God’s vocative case for such things. Maybe. And of course, when they hear, they haven’t even begun to understand. And when they understand and build, the thing called for is lost. Still, God doesn’t so much answer prayers as waft over us as a prayer of his or her own (or something’s or no thing’s own. Wouldn’t want to nail God down at this point!).

            Or, as Caputo writes, “God does not exist; God is a spirit that calls, a spirit that can happen anywhere and haunts everything insistently. I have found it necessary to deny existence in order to make room for insistence.”

Monday, October 16, 2017

Is Prayer Bogus?


            Here is the thing. Prayer—at least as imagined or practiced by most people—is bogus. And when they stop to think about it, people get this. In a roundabout way, even Christians understand this. When asked about unanswered prayer they shuffle their feet, scratch their heads, and wring their hands. And eventually they come up with explanations for unanswered prayer that feature mystery, inscrutability, or their own lack of faith—answers designed more to justify prayer while getting God off the hook than they are designed to make sense.

            Non-Christians, on the other hand, laugh. Facebook is full of their memes. A mouse praying, “And please don’t let the cat hurt me.”
Or Morpheus (looking inscrutable himself) saying, “What if I told you prayer doesn’t help disaster victims?” And, of course, there is the Jean-Luc Picard's famous meme, with apologies for the language, "Why the fuck are you praying to the same God who let this shit happen in the first place?"

             Of course, some people believe their prayers have been answered, at least occasionally. So, they keep at it. It looks to me, however, that what is really happening here is intermittent reinforcement. You will remember all about this from your Psych 101 class. A desired behaviour can be cultivated in someone even if that behaviour is only infrequently rewarded. So, for example, a door-to-door salesperson may learn to put up with many disinterested potential clients, and even the occasional slammed door, so long as the salesperson makes at least the occasional sale. Or again, someone may play the slot machines—and even lose a lot over time—in the hope of a big win, especially if that person is rewarded in the meantime with occasional small wins.

            Add in a few Bible texts that seem to suggest that if you pray long enough, with enough energy, and with great faith you will get what you want, and bingo, offering others your “thoughts and prayers,” becomes popular, low-risk pastime.

            I will not argue that there is no place for prayer. When I was in seminary, I was taught that the model congregational prayer, for example, should include adoration, confession and thanksgiving along with supplication and intercession. The Psalmists’ most common type of prayer was actually lament—sad dirges about everything that goes wrong.

            But people usually fast when it comes to confession or lamentation and choose for a steady diet of supplication and intercession instead. When it comes to prayer, if we’re not praying like soldiers in foxholes, we are usually praying like kids in a candy store. Most Christian prayer is mostly about getting what Christians want.

            In a further defense of prayer, though, my wife reminded me this evening that prayer is more than just getting in a word in with God. Prayer can be emotionally satisfying. For example, prayer with another person can be a very, very intimate way of opening your hearts not only to God, but to each other. Prayer alone in your closet can be very cleansing or centering or promote self-examination. And any prayer can make one feel as if he or she is coming into the presence of God—a holy moment, possibly—even if we have no idea what God really thinks of our prayers.

            I agree with her. Though praying for these reasons is not what most people aim for when they pray, and though these motivations for prayer are not often discussed in theologies of prayer, that does not mean they are not good reasons. They are.

            Ultimately, though, the issue for me is that people only intermittently get what they want out of prayer, and then fool themselves into believing that next time they may be more fortunate, all the while rationalizing that such beliefs are somehow consistent with (their favorite) Biblical texts. For me, it looks like prayer is a beautiful idea, like a perpetual motion machine, that just can’t do what Christians usually ask of it.

            And then, leaving prayer aside, I begin to ask the same questions about God in general. As a child, I memorized these words from the catechism. “Providence is the almighty and ever-present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and so rules them that . . . all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.”

            Really? What good father does not heal his children when he can, does not bless them with plenty, or pluck them from tsunamis, or encourage them with success when he can? Even Jesus said, “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11).

            Really? Where is this Father?

            I don’t know, for sure. That is why I’ve turned to John Caputo’s ideas about “the weakness of God,” for answers, of late. You see, maybe the problem with prayer is not that we want good stuff, but that God just can’t deliver, regardless of what Jesus seems to suggest in Matthew 7.


            But more on that Father in the next post.