When I was offering my speech last week, I was gesticulating as I usually do and I noticed that I had placed a rainbow Band-Aid on my hand (it was my daughter’s, but my knife slipped while cutting an onion and I needed something!). I made a remark about how it wasn’t “flesh tone.” But I told them most bandages I’ve used in my day weren’t my flesh tone, so what different does it make? I began to notice that kind of lack of privilege regarding my skin tone when I read Peggy McIntosh’s article, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” about white privilege. The article came out 26 years ago, and it still rings true. Its purpose is to show people their power and privilege, especially the kind of power and privilege that is sometimes invisible.
Our so-called races, genders, and socioeconomic statuses (job, income, education) give us power and privilege in the United States. We even have a proverb in Circle of Hope devoted to the privilege of the dominators: “In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable.”
We need to be accountable for our inadvertent (or perhaps our malicious) domination. Most of have a little bit of privilege (the fact that you are reading this shows us something). I think accountability starts with self-awareness. It’s hard to get there. Some of us we’ll just deny we have any privileges; we might even be deluded enough to use Paul’s famous saying that we are all “one in Christ” to do that. Maybe we’ll think that somehow, because we are new creations, the worldly privilege that’s afforded us is simply undone. I don’t think it’s that easy. Band-Aids are still “white” colored, right?
Such self-awareness may result in guilt. I think guilt is a good indicator, but a bad motivator. If we get stuck in our guilt, I’m not sure how effective we’ll be. Beating ourselves up over something that just happened to us isn’t so great either. I think we need to be aware of privilege, exercise humility, but also know that that Jesus can redeem our worldly privilege. Paul shows us how we can do this.
In Acts 22, Paul has been arrested in the Temple for teaching about Jesus, like he is wont to do. He is doing what God has given him to do. Paul offers a defense of himself, and as he begins, he simply tells his story. That’s the best that he’s got. His story is a defense of his innocence, primarily, but also as a way to help even his detractors follow Jesus. What’s better than simply being innocent? Getting your enemies to be your friends. And so he tells his story. We’ve heard his story before, about his radical conversion on Damascus Road and his baptism by Ananias, but by the time he finishes, the Jews listening to him cannot handle it and they think he deserves to die.
After Paul’s eloquent speech, his audience is not impressed. It’s quite a bad response. He seems to have failed. They want to kill him. They throw their cloaks off as a sign of protest, or perhaps as a preparation for a stoning. They end up ceasing him and preparing him to be flogged—the tribune probably had no idea what Paul was saying (I don’t think Paul spoke Latin, and the speech was probably given in Hebrew or Aramaic) or at least what the big deal was. Because of the violent Jewish reaction, the tribune really thinks Paul is at the center of the disorder—and he very well may have been.
As they prepare to flog him, Paul sees an opportunity and takes advantage of it. His uses his imperial citizenship to get out of jail. By and large, Paul is not very forthright about his Roman citizenship. In fact, in his epistles, he is so cryptic about it that he never mentions it. For his oppressed audience, such a status is unimportant. For Luke, mentioning Paul’s status may be. Furthermore, in this case, Paul uttering his citizenship protects him from being flogged. The fact that Paul was born a Roman citizen gives him a one up on the tribune, who bought his citizenship. This could be sarcastic (in fact, it was illegal for someone to do that), or the reality. In this case, Paul’s citizenship keeps him from being killed, but it doesn’t save him in the cosmic sense. Paul knows that Jesus and his citizenship in the Kingdom of God is all that saves him.
But what we see here is Paul taking advantage of an opportunity. His speech doesn’t impress the Jews, and it doesn’t convert them. His work is not done—he’s not in Rome yet—but he’s hit a dead end. So he announces his Roman citizenship and that protects him. He uses his world-given power when he can. But he never mistakes that worldly power for true salvation.
It might be hard for us to use our privilege in the same way. There is certainly reason not to. But you have what you have, and you have what God gave you. God didn’t create the systems that give power and privilege to people of a certain gender, sex, or socioeconomic status, but in the United States, it is what it is. Rather than denying that we have it or just being crippled by its guilt, there may be opportunities that God has for us to use such a privilege for his Kingdom.