Sunday, December 31, 2006

White, Straight Happyness

This afternoon, my wife and I slipped away from our three-year-old son, leaving him with his loving grandparents so we could get a break for a few hours together. . .
. . . climbed into my parents' Jeep
. . . did a bit of shopping
. . . stopped by the local Micky D's for a snack
. . . drove to the local movie theater

And chose, because we had a choice, to see a remarkable film, The Pursuit of Happyness.

Now, before I continue, let me put a few things into perspective. This film stars Will Smith, easily one of the most well-known and successful African-American actors in Hollywood. His and the movie's are the story of the American Dream, that belief in the cultural water that somehow, with enough determination, sweat, and toil, people can pull themselves up by their own merit and achievement and become successful in the world's eyes. The movie is set in San Francisco -- home for us -- and a beautiful, most enviable part of the world to live in . . . its beach fronts, bridges, parks, and great restaurants. . . despite its out-of-sight housing prices, visible homelessness, and clear and seemingly intractable racial and socio-economic divisions . . .

But if this is all you are willing to see, please give this movie a miss. Because then you will have not prepared yourself to look beneath the good marketing and Tinseltown big bucks. And you can get those in just about any film these days.

What moved me to tears in The Pursuit of Happyness was not the classic American success story it told with all the clever drama of fine writing, directing, editing, and acting.

What moved me to tears was its patient, plaintive reminders about privilege.

Namely, white, male, straight, wealthy privilege: the often forgotten weight that holds much of the nation's and world's population safely in check for those who can take the food on our tables, a house, a family, a car, and a bank account for granted.

But before I go on some self-righteous tirade, I need to remember who I am.: a priest in charge of an Episcopal Church in Marin County, California, one of the wealthiest parts of the world. So I'm not high on the socio-economic strata there, but I can take for granted things that billions in the world, millions in this country, and many of my colleagues in ministry -- lay and ordained -- must struggle and fight for. I'm white, straight, male. I have an education. I was fortunate that my parents were both educated. We're not enormously wealthy, but we're quite comfortably middle class, no matter what the media says about the squeeze we all supposedly feel.

The genius of the Pursuit of Happyness is that it illustrates how a $5 cab fare for a European-American (straight, I would guess) stock broker is a last meal on a plate for a struggling African-American family. How a mother working double-shifts has to pour back into the pitcher the tea her family didn't drink at dinner. . .if only to save a few pennies. How she is forced to make awful choices between her sanity and being with her child and the child's father. And how spluttering platitudes like 'cause Jesus said won't, in a million years, do a thing to overcome the stress and keep her family together.

Or how a wealthy homeowner with power over millions in pensions can blithely turn down the business offer of a penniless intern and at the same time invite him to prime seats at a 49ers game. How a poor man has to hide his poverty simply to be seen. And how a guy at the office is asked repeatedly to get coffee for his supervisor or move his car for him, simply 'cause this guy at the office. . .is black.

We drove home after the movie and enjoyed a nice New Year's Eve dinner. Daniel had the privilege, and he doesn't even know it as a privilege yet, of refusing to eat what was presented him because he's not hungry. On Monday, I can enjoy a day off without worrying about making ends meet. On Tuesday, I have the privilege of flying with my family back to San Francisco without breaking the bank. On Wednesday, I drive over the Golden Gate bridge back to my office and get to grab a bite to eat from the local market without worrying if there will be enough for dinner later on.

We might not be able to afford a house near the church, but we can look for an apartment, and we can generally afford a roof over our heads, quality childcare, healthcare, and food on our plates. I can afford to worry about whether the hymn we picked or not was the best choice, how I'll best prepare for the next committee meeting, word smith my next sermon, or consider when to plan my next vacation. And then go home and watch TV.

Being white, straight, and male, I can walk away from the struggle for LGBT inclusion in the life of the Church. I can also end a pastoral meeting when I deem it necessary, schedule pastoral visits when they fit in my calendar, and attend to others' needs mostly when I feel like it. And I might just have a chance of getting away with it most of the time. Simply because I'm the one with privilege, I can choose which "issue" or "cause" to be most invested in. And I can walk away, because I don't have to struggle with my whiteness, my straightness, or my lack of power.

Don't get me wrong. I love my work. I feel called to be where I am. That's why I call it a vocation. I love the people I am in ministry with, and I have no intention of leaving them.

But. . .

Tonight, countless throngs in the world will be hungry. Another young man will pick up a gun in Baghdad because there's no work. Gay and lesbian Christians will be turned away from the sacraments of the church, or worse, told again that they are an abomination. A woman will be informed with kind, patronizing tones that she can't be clergy because of her gender. Someone will be turned down for a job because he doesn't look like us, or because she didn't have the right educational opportunities. Someone will receive a bill from the IRS demanding payment of taxes due and try to balance that with paying for needed medications, keeping food in the 'fridge, or making back rent payments. And a homeless mother will have to spend another night under a bridge hoping that Child Protective Services or the police won't take away her children. . .because there was no room or them at the inn.

Do I feel guilty? I'll answer that for now with another question. Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things how I feel?

If there's any valid criticism of ++Katharine Jefferts-Schori's call for The Episcopal Church to adopt the Millennium Development Goals, it's not because it's too much to ask. It's too little. 0.7% is a luxury for us. Frosting on the cake. An extra day out or a dinner or two.

Yet it means clean water, an end to hunger pangs, medicine for a year in a village, a fertile field, or a subsistence job in many parts of the world. Closer to home, it means another month's rent, more food in the 'fridge, or even better schooling for those who don't otherwise have access to decent education. It means another chance for someone who's without hope tonight start to move forward for a more stable future for their families tomorrow.

And we could give so much more than 0.7%, not miss that weekly latte or the dinner out, and still have more than enough for ourselves and our children.

Guilt is not the issue here. Justice is. Right relationship with our brothers and sisters is. Recognizing the gift that we have and sharing out of it, even giving it away like we should with every gift we have. . .these are at issue here.

My resolution for the New Year is to wake up to my privilege, and get to work on the Gospel.

This is a Gospel mission for us white, straight, happy males: to turn our power into good for those who don't share our privilege. . .to cash in a bit more of our privileged "happyness" and power so that others may have a chance at peace and true freedom. To do our part in dismantling the structures that give us our privilege at the expense of others. To begin learning that we, too, are limited people with real needs that money and power cannot buy.

Still blinded by my privilege most of the time, I don't yet have a real clue how to move forward in this Gospel mission. . . only inklings. . . but I pray for a clue. . . and I already know two things:

It will be hard, 'cause Jesus said so. But we have to do it. . . 'cause Jesus said so.


Mystical Seeker said...

I couldn't bring myself to see that movie, even though I am a San Franciscan and I normally like to see movies set in the city. I am not interested in a movie that apparently so completely buys into the myth of the American Dream. The main character is one of the lucky ones who became rich and successful. Bully for him. Unfortunately, the world is full of people who don't have that kind of success. Worse still, the way he becomes rich and successful is through direct participation in whole corporate system that creates such massive disparities in wealth in the first place. I just can't be excited by a movie like this, no matter how good an actor Will Smith is, and no matter how sentimental the movie appears to be.

Jesus didn't become a stockbroker. He stood up to the economic and political oppression of the Empire of his day. Today we live in an Empire that is just as oppressive of its poor. The way to Kingdom of God is not by participating in the system, but by changing it.

Closed said...

Reminds me of something Desmond Tutu once said:

I don't preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn't say, "Now is that political or social?" He said, "I feed you." Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.

I wish that we would do a better job at making this connnection between the Gospel and how we treat one another.