My Privileged White Life – Charles Rush (1/15/17)

My White Privileged Life

Luke 6:27-31; Matt. 7:10-12; Matt. 22:39-40

Our scriptures this morning in the teaching of Jesus are said to be found in every major faith tradition. It would come as no surprise that some formulation of the “Golden Rule” would come from Christianity since Judaism is a faith that was first given to slaves in Egypt who were seeking to find their own independence and freedom, their own place at God’s table. And we read them again today, on Martin Luther King Day, to remind us of the higher vision that we have in the United States to open the playing field to all of our citizens and keep that playing field even that all of us might realize the potential that is within us.

It hasn’t been that way for the majority of our history as I was reminded again this week. On the day before the national college championship football game, the New York Times had the obituary for Willie Evans. When Willie was in college at the University of Buffalo back in 1958, he was an outstanding halfback that led his little college to an 8-1 record for the year, demolishing Harvard and Bucknell in the last two games of the season so that they got a bid to the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida.

The stadium where they held the Tangerine Bowl was actually administered by the Orlando High School Athletic Association and they had a rule that prohibited black and white players from playing together, so the Tangerine Bowl committee wrote the coach at Buffalo that their star player, Willie Evans, would not be allowed to play in the Tangerine Bowl.

At the time, the team made news by boycotting the Tangerine Bowl in solidarity with Willie.

The next night, we all watched the national championship game where the Clemson Tigers beat the favorite Alabama Crimson Tide in a spectacular last minute play. At any given time during that game, probably 18 of the 22 players on the field were black, a testament to what our world can look like if we just give all people access to the field to show what they can do.

I was an infant when Willie was denied his day just for being black, but I remember that world, because my people were the tail lights of history on basic civil rights. We were pulled forward, our heels digging into the soil of the past, recalcitrant, unbending.

I’m amused reading these articles and books, written by graduates of Wellesley and Bowdoin college, that discover, much to their amazement, that their life has actually been quite a life of privilege simply because they were born white.

In the deep South, in Mississippi, Louisiana where my ancestors were from, in Memphis where my grandparents live, in Little Rock, Arkansas where I went to elementary school, you lived white privilege every day, several times a day. It was not subtle, even as it was being legally dismantled and culturally transcended.

I was born into a world that had a two-tiered class system. You had white society and the help who worked for them. And it was to be ever thus, even as it was legally coming to an end. So my childhood was William Faulkner meets Rod Serling from the “Twilight Zone”, an echo of an earlier time that had outlived itself and everyone knew it but us.

It started before you were old enough to be aware of it. Our maid growing up didn’t usually refer to me as ‘Chuck’. I can’t remember when but early enough, she would refer to me as “Mr. Chuck” in front of other adults. So did the maids that worked for my grandmothers and it continued for that generation through the end of the 60’s.

There were lots of daily interactions between blacks and whites that pointed up this deference, from the fact that maids wore uniforms and we wore whatever we wanted to wear, to the way that grown black men looked at the ground when they were being challenged by a white man, lots of these mannerly ways of interacting between the races in this inequitable system. So manners kind of took the place of morals.

We never questioned that whites and blacks lived in two different realities. White people had cars. Black people took the bus. White people lived in the City Center. Black people lived in shanty towns outside the city.

I remember them from my childhood, driving from Little Rock to Memphis. The white towns were right on the two lane highway, with electric lights, gas stations, and a diner that was open. Kinda like Mayberry with Sherrif Andy Taylor.

Then you’d go through cotton fields that lined the Mississippi river on the flat lands of the upper delta. And you would see black towns that were usually off the highway a bit, with no lights- usually just a single light, no gas stations, no commerce that was visible from the road of any kind really, rural, houses that weren’t painted. And the thing I remember the most as a kid is that some of them had no screens to speak of. The bugs in this area are formidable. I always wondered how they slept without screens or electric fans. People walked. Occasionally a man would have a very old truck. Dogs without collars.

I remember some of the houses didn’t have grass. No outdoor faucets, no suburban hoses. No indoor plumbing either. So the grass couldn’t grow. So some of them would rake the dirt in front of their shanties in these lovely patterns that were pleasing to the eye.

Wretched poverty. As a child, peering out the window in the sweltering humid air in the middle of the summer, you knew it wasn’t right. But I never remember hearing any white adults saying anything about it at all.

I saw the movie, “The Help”. It was hard to watch but they depict the way the deep South went through the 60’s like the rest of the country, suddenly developing these modern suburban homes with air-conditioning, manicured lawns, and the weekend parties with high-balls and suits. It was the Madmen era for White people in the South.

But the premise of the movie I found incredulous. If white women had been able to identify with the plight of black women in the early 60’s, there would have been no need for the Civil Rights movement. I just don’t remember any examples of empathy.

Black people were just supposed to know their place and accept that, of course, they would only ever earn a third of what white people made, that they would only live where most banks would not lend, so their property was worth a third of what suburban property was worth, so their schools were perpetually inferior, so very few attended college and those that did were only eligible to attend black state schools or historically black colleges if they were exceptional students.

This started to change in 1965 but it was really slow to change because there were precious few economic opportunities for self-development for black people in the rural South. Corporate America had a minimal imprint. Today, Memphis is the hub for Fed Ex.

But in the 60’s, I remember driving with my uncle in his truck. He was my only relative that didn’t go to college and he was only 12 or 15 years older than me, so it was very cool to be with him. He worked at a warehouse, a huge plant, right on the Mississippi river. He was a foreman, even though he was only in his early twenties, and there were dozens of middle aged black men that worked for him because the company wouldn’t allow black men in management positions, no matter what experience or education they had.

When Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, he was there because the sanitation workers were on strike. They were on strike because they were paid abysmally low wages. All the drivers of trucks in Memphis were white. All the guys that actually picked up the trash were black. And one of the main arguments that Mayor Loeb of Memphis used for not paying the black trash collectors more money is that one of the perq’s of their job was they got to salvage anything in the trash that they picked up that effectively supplemented the small wage that they City of Memphis was paying them. That was a serious argument and black people ought to know that we aren’t about to pay them what we would pay white people.

I just want to point out that this was 1968. This is not ancient history. It is within the lifetime of quite a few of us gathered here today. The history books remember Mayor Loeb as a throw-back Southern racist for his orders of police brutality during that strike and his over segregationist policies.

But it was more complex than that. Mayor Loeb was born Jewish, graduated from Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and then to the Ivy league at Brown University in Rhode Island. He converted to the Episcopal church after he became Mayor. It is a plot line you might read in Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men. I don’t have any sympathy for Mayor Loeb, but he wasn’t a figure that was as far away from our people or as long, long ago as we might think.

My family fled the South. My Dad went to work for I.B.M. and sold computers in the early 60’s. Ross Perot said that selling computers to companies in the early 60’s was like selling umbrellas in a rainstorm, everybody wanted one.

I once asked my father why he did that because he knew that IBM stood for “I’ve Been Moved”. He said, “In the South I always would have been someone’s boy”. He meant by that, there was a fairly strict social order and family name really determined your destiny economically and socially in the South. There was very little mobility.

We moved to Arlington Heights, then an all white suburb of Chicago on the north side, then to South Bend, Indiana, another all white suburban development, and then to Fairfield County in Connecticut (Weston and Westport). My high school had one black student who was from Bridgeport (then nearly all black) on a gifted and talented program, where he lived with a white family during the week I believe.

We left behind the crude mores of the South that were based on white privilege. Our richest guy in the deep South was Sam Walton of Walmart, simple world, simple product. I had no idea of how sophisticated privilege could be.

Big houses on plots of several acres, surrounded by stone walls, little hidden driveways that are a quarter mile long, lined with primrose. I remember asking my girlfriend (at 15) what her family was doing for Christmas. They were going skiing in Val D’Isere. I had no idea what she meant, not even how to spell it. I finally tracked it down in the library. They went skiing in the French Alps.

My grandparents had never been to Europe, let alone fly us all over for a few days of skiing over Christmas. I had no idea there was a Westport Commuter Club, with their own train car, where men could play bridge and sip scotch on the way home.

William Paley, the President of CBS, lived near us. Sometimes you would see his helicopter pick him up for work, flying right over head. Now that is how you commute to work. I’d never known anyone that had a limo driver. I had no idea that some people went to private school their entire lives and then to the Ivy league and then get networked into investment banks like Goldman Sachs.

I had never seen grandmother’s on the upper East side that had the concierge make dinner reservations for their family at exclusive clubs when they rotated between their properties in Bermuda, Manhattan, and Nantucket. The Metropolitan Opera Club, fundraisers for MOMA, the Hampton’s. Wow, this is sophisticated privilege. The sum total of what I didn’t know.

45 years later… I take it for granted in the sense that it is just part of our world. If New Yorker’s have a common commitment to any one thing, it would be privilege. We believe in it in the sense that this is how we live our lives week in and week out. We work hard for perq’s and we measure things in terms of perq’s.

We don’t have racial privilege exactly. We believe in economic privilege but it has a strong racial cast as it must because a lot of us here didn’t really have access to the playing field until the last generation.

Princeton University didn’t accept women until 1969. Before that, for a short 200 years, our top institutions of higher learning were almost exclusively open only to white men. Wake Forest didn’t admit a black student until 1964 and he wasn’t African-American. He was an aristocrat from Ghana, who had probably been educated in the British system.

It is true that the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Harvard University accepted some blacks, and a decent number of women but they were the exceptions that proved the rule. It was an all white guys society for the most part.

Even when I graduated from Divinity school in the 80’s we had like two black guys, 5 Asians, no Hispanics, and two women. When I finished my PhD we had one woman, one African-American (who went on to be the Dean at the National Cathedral in Washington). That was 1990.

Why? Because their families were educated and encouraged them to become educated. They went to the best schools because their parents went to the best schools because their parents did too. We had a short 250 year head start when the playing field was effectively limited to just one segment of the American population and it tilted the playing field considerably.

When I first moved to Summit and spent the morning down on the trading floor with the bond traders at Merril Lynch, it looked like the Princeton lacrosse team with ties, yelling orders for multiple millions of dollars. And it looked that way because it was largely the Princeton lacrosse team with ties on. Today, you walk around the trading floor at Morgan Stanley, it is so quiet, you could be in a library, everyone on their multiple screens like the ICU at a hospital. And the floor is littered with the Valedictorians from high schools all over the globe. It is amazing. But it only started in the 80’s and got going in the 90’s.

We are proud of that. We should be. It is why almost all of us moved here. We want to compete with the very best. “If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere.” I once asked my father why he moved to New York in the 70’s. He said simply, “There was nowhere else in the world that you could bring a good idea together with people that would fund it.” And that is true.

We have people that can make three-four generations of wealth in one generation now and largely make the world a better place at the same time. It is amazing.

The challenge for us is to open the playing field for everyone. We want everyone to realize their potential. It may not be possible but that is our goal. I couldn’t help but think about that watching Clemson beat Alabama in that incredible game.

When I was a kid, that game would have had 18 white guys and 3 black players. That night, the field had 19 black guys and 2 white guys. I was looking at the faces of those African-American boys, thumping their chests in victory, feeling the adrenaline rush that comes from being on TV in front of the whole country and playing the game of their lives. 2017.

It brought back to mind another scene from my past from 1977. I was in college and we went back to Memphis to visit my grandparents for the holidays. My grandmother, now aged, wanted to surprise my brothers and sisters by having the maid that we grew up with visit. Only my grandmother and her maid, were caught in the mores of their generation.

She asked me to go pick up Mary across town. I agreed. By then, over half of the white people had left downtown Memphis and fled to the suburbs of Germantown, really building a whole new city, and African-Americans populated the downtown.

I got to Mary’s place and she was dressed in her uniform. My grandmother wouldn’t have her just to visit and she wouldn’t have felt comfortable coming in any other way. I’d become a sophisticated East Coaster and I had forgotten or I just didn’t think about how their generation hadn’t changed.

I bounced out of the car and hugged Mary. She almost broke my ribs. I forgot how tight her hugs were when we were kids. We got into the car and Mary got in the back seat. I said something like “Mary hop in the front seat so we can talk.”

She said, “I’m fine right here Mr. Chuck”

I said, “Mary, come on hop in the front seat.”

She said, “I’m not getting in the front seat Mr. Chuck.”

I realized I was about to accidentally be a complete jerk, so I dropped it, and made polite conversation with her. She was aged now too.

It was a “Driving Ms. Daisy” moment, laden with the pathos of frustration, self-deprecation. Proud, strong willed, just like my grandmother, following cultural mores because that is the way things were done. But I don’t know which was worse, the fact that she had internalized a self image of subservience or that my extended family and my wider cultural home had consistently formed it for her.

I was watching the end of an era, one that I was glad to be done with morally.

It wasn’t so great back then if you were black… or gay- and Hispanics or Asians were barely on our social radar.

We are far better off with a rich diversity of people that can bring what they uniquely bring to our complex society. We are far better off where everyone is included and out and open to live their lives in freedom. And we will be far better off when we level the playing field so that everyone can participate competitively.

We have these discussions so that we can remember our common history and think about ways that we can include more of our citizens for whom the American dream is elusive. How do you make a meaningful recompense for the generations of oppression that afflicted slaves, their children’s children for 250 years?

How do we honor the real sacrifice they had to make? What should this generation do to right the ills of previous generations? Liberals and conservatives will have different answers to those questions.

But we are united that we want to live in a society that is open to all, where everyone has access to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as Jefferson put it in those great ideals.

And we at Christ Church want to intentionally live as a pluralistic, multi-cultural congregation, pulled together by the Spirit of love and empathy, embodied in the Golden rule, a love that is profound enough that we can, in the words of St. Paul, transcend “Slave and free, Male and Female, Jew and Gentile”- and if Paul was living today he would add “Straight and Gay”.

St. Paul hoped we would ‘heal up the broken of spirit, be understanding and compassionate towards one another, and put on love which blends all things towards harmony that we might live in peace. I hope you will join us for the dialogues that we will have and form friendships with people not like you. And may we all grow and become better for knowing each other. May our children live and thrive in hope and promise because of what we create together on our watch, in our time to set a new direction. Amen.

 

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.

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