This last weekend I was at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting. This is my one professional meeting that I am sure to attend each year because it provides an excellent opportunity to explore new ways to conceive of and articulate a Christian response to hunger and poverty. This year was no exception and as a result I am consolidating some new thoughts on 1) the role of the Bible in moral deliberation and 2) the apocalyptic imagination as a tool for resisting systems and structures that keep people impoverished. These will likely keep me occupied for the next year (or more!) and they will undoubtedly inform my seminary course at Trinity in Ohio this January.
Today’s post, however, will not explore such heady (and pedantic?) topics (I understand if you just breathed a sigh of relief!). I want to reflect on a dinner conversation I shared with old friends from seminary. Over the meal I suggested that in spite of its claims about liberating ideas and free thinking, the academy is an incredibly hierarchical institution. Your academic pedigree–where you studied and where you teach (God forbid you do not work in an academic institution!) determines your credibility. Both of my friends vigorously denied than any such criteria existed. One received his PhD from an Ivy League school and now teaches at a large and well respected seminary, the other from one of the best schools in the south and now teaches at a strong research institution. They denied my experience and assured me I was wrong… as the one who graduated from a good (but not great) university and now works in the church.
The awkward moment (and it was awkward!) revealed to me in a new way the power of privilege. My friends (who are intelligent and generally committed to social justice) are blind to the hegemonic forces of the academy because they are beneficiaries of the system. And they worked hard to maintain the system, insisting that my impressions were surely misguided. As a white, well-educated male who is financially secure and holds a position of (minor) authority in a national church office, it is not often that my experience is denied so flatly. I did not like it.
Here is the scary question, though. How often do I (who am generally intelligent and firmly committed to social justice) do exactly the same thing? Whose experiences have I unwittingly trampled simply because I am unaware of dynamics of privilege in a given situation? Race, gender, class, and age (to name a few–humans are exceedingly skilled at coming up with arbitrary ways to keep people disenfranchised) are all used to create and maintain (often unspoken) power differentials. In the case of my dinner it was an awkward moment. In more critical situations it can be the difference between being fed or going hungry, having access to medical care or suffering from preventable and treatable diseases.
I am not sure about the take aways from this experience just yet. Here are few initial thoughts: 1) Privilege does exist and too often we operate in it unconsciously. 2) The first step to addressing privilege has to be critical self reflection and repentance. 3) The system will work hard to maintain itself and those with privilege must actively work against it (through awareness and education, among other things). 4) If those who are privileged are unaware of the dynamic they need to be reminded. 5) If they are aware but unwilling to address the problem, perhaps they should be resisted.