Make Straight the Paths: Privilege, Inclusion, and Embracing the Future

Sixteen years ago, the US Bishops wrote, “A table is where people meet to make decisions—in neighborhoods, nations, and the global community. Many people have no place at the table. Their voices and needs are ignored or dismissed” (A Place at the Table, 2002). Increasingly, diverse voices are making themselves heard, and making room for themselves at tables that too often exclude them. We see this represented in popular culture, with the most successful films of the past year including Black Panther (a superhero film by and about people from Africa and of African descent), Coco (a children’s film celebrating Mexican culture), and Wonder Woman (a film about a heroic woman from an island of strong women, which was also directed by a woman).

The beauty (and necessity) of this moment comes also with the challenges of fear and resentment, which generate conflict. While more and more of us are beginning to recognize how privilege and power blind us to the dignity and gifts of others, many still view acknowledgment of this equal dignity as a threat. If more voices can be heard, they fear, their own voices (and influence) will be diminished.  As the actress Tessa Thomspon recently said about negative reaction to herself as a person of color being cast in a movie role based on a white comic book character: "If you're accustomed to privilege, anything else feels like it's taking something away from you.” 

This is a sentiment that echoes what I have heard in parts of Latin America, where marginalized indigenous populations are mobilizing for greater inclusion and representation politically, economically, and socially. In the case of Thompson, I am struck by the compassion of her assessment as someone on the receiving end of hateful rhetoric. She continues, “So when you suddenly see brown people where you thought there should be white people, it feels like your world is caving in on you. That's sincerely what I feel, because I don't understand where else that kind of vitriol would come from." 

The sense of the world shifting beneath our feet, with power and privilege being questioned and disrupted by calls for inclusion, is central to the Gospel. In addressing my own privilege as a white man and US citizen, I look to St. John the Baptist as a witness to managing these shifts. It certainly would have been easy for him to develop an ego, place himself at the center, and hold onto “his” place at the table. After all, as the Gospel of Matthew writes, “It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: ‘A voice of one crying out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” (3:1-3) But for all his preaching and prophecy, perhaps the greatest example he provides to us is in recognizing that the future is coming, and choosing not to stand in the way. He proclaims with humility to his followers, “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11) The most important thing he has to say, then, is that he is altogether not that important.

Contrast this with the Scribes and the Pharisees: they see Jesus speaking out of turn, they see the forgotten and ignored suddenly able to stand and speak, they see the limits of their knowledge and authority exposed, and it terrifies them. Whereas John the Baptist stepped out of the way and followed the future, these people crucified it. They caught a glimpse of the Reign that Jesus points to—where all manner of outsider and vulnerable people have a place at the table—and tried to shut the door. I suspect that John knew and trusted something that they could not: that they were not being “sidelined” or made irrelevant, but being blessed with the opportunity to participate in something greater than themselves.

The Gospel shows us repeatedly that abandoning privilege and power in favor of togetherness leads to true joy. Standing in the way, however, brings shame, fear, and anger. One of the clearest examples of this occurs when Jesus heals a woman physically incapable of standing upright (Luke 13:10-17). The healing occurs on the Sabbath, which sparks outrage from the leader of the synagogue. Jesus responds to this critique by exposing deeper truths about his accusers: “Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering?” (Luke 13:15) In that moment, Jesus challenges the crowd to see the woman’s plight as one they actively helped create. He continues, “This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?” (16)

Thus, the crowd can no longer simply see this woman as a mere victim of circumstance, but as a child of God whom they choose to marginalize. Reflecting on our current conflicts over who “deserves” to be seen and heard, what we often fail to remember (and trust) is that justice brings wholeness. We cannot experience the fullness of life if we refuse to see the world (and ourselves) honestly. In his proclamations and actions, Jesus affirms the dignity of the woman and her place at the table, and widens the lens with which the crowd views this moment. While those opposed to the recognition of these truths “were humiliated,” those who embraced his message “rejoiced at all the splendid deeds done by him.” (Luke 13:17)

As the psychologist Susan David reminds us, "Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” When I began teaching twelve years ago, I worked with African-American students living in tough socio-economic conditions. At first, things seemed to be breaking down for me: the world was not truly what I believed it to be, and I was not truly the person I thought I was. But these were false constructs, a weak shell constraining stronger truths. Continually struggling to break free of these constraints has meant for me an endless well of discovery, meaning, compassion, and love from which to draw. As new relationships are formed, new truths uncovered, and new possibilities to follow God’s future revealed, I become more spiritually whole and content.

Of course, I could have chosen to reject the discomfort of these truths. In fact, I at times did and do, to the detriment not only of my spiritual health, but also of the well-being of every person whom my power and privilege affects. We each, in our way, have the power to prophesy or crucify. We need to look at the world as one we not only live in, but create. Thinking back to those films mentioned earlier, we can only appreciate their significance in light of the realities they are challenging—realities we too readily construct and accept. As the author Iljeoma Oluo notes: "When I take my kids to movies and none of the characters they see look like them, it's the studio that is making it about race when they decide to make up entire universes in which no brown or black people exist."

We are called to be more like John the Baptist and the crowd, who rejoice in authentic justice (even with all of its discomfort and sacrifice), and less like the leader of the synagogue (who holds firm to the rules and structures which secure his power over others). John uses his prophetic voice to point to something greater than himself, just as Jesus uses his to amplify the voices of those at the margins. Both suffer death for their prophetic witness, but with the perspective of time and history we recognize that the oppositional figures, too, have long since passed. What remains, then, is memory and impact. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name.”

The challenge for us today is to treat inclusion as an opportunity to participate in the Reign of God.

0