Privilege is an uneasy reality in contemporary Christianity, worn by some churches furtively like an embarrassing undergarment, and displayed by others proudly like a well-deserved diamond necklace. Still other churches, the ones committed to social justice, point at privilege like so much dirty laundry.
How do we wrestle with privilege in the context of faith, especially if we are Christians who also belong to one of the groups—be it race, sexual identity, social class, or something else—that has been disenfranchised by the church? Are we the aggressors, the victims, or something in-between? It's a question I've pondered personally, especially in regard to the relatively new privilege of marriage offered to same-sex couples.
In Justin Lee's keynote address at the 2016 Gay Christian Network Conference, he explored the notion that privilege is far more nuanced than a dichotomy of haves and have-nots. There are gradations of privilege, he said, and although most of us have at least some aspect of our identities in which we are marginalized, there are also aspects in which we are privileged. A black man may be marginalized for his race, but in the midst of a staircase has the privilege of being able-bodied. A white woman may be privileged for her race, but marginalized in the workforce for her gender. A gay man may be marginalized in his sexuality, but privileged in his social circles for his gender identity over a transgendered person.
One aspect of privilege that Lee, the executive director of GCN, didn't touch upon—and the one that has convicted me greatly during my own season of engagement—is the idea of generational privilege.
In 2008, I voted in favor of Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that sought a constitutional amendment that would define marriage between one man and one woman. At the time I had stopped my six years of reparative therapy, but I was still in a place where I felt convicted that same-sex marriage was not part of God's plan. I could support civil unions, but I couldn't support a spiritual covenant. While I was acting with the best of intentions, my capacity to love stopped at the borders I saw drawn by Biblical law. My heart couldn't understand anything more generous than love inside the lines.
Eight years later, I find myself engaged to a man. I find myself taking advantage of the monumental effort put forth by others to overturn laws like Prop 8 and ultimately win nationwide marriage equality. I find myself benefitting from something I did not earn. The thought weighs heavily on me.
So when Justin Lee spoke of privilege, it reminded me of my new right to marry that so many people didn't have even this time last year. Hundreds of thousands of men and women worked toward marriage equality for decades, and when all their efforts finally came to fruition, I casually stepped in and plucked the fruit.
Like my race and my gender and my economic status, my right to marry is a privilege that has been passed on to me from others. But unlike the other advantages based largely on my family, my right to marry is a generational privilege—one that has come about at a unique time in history that wasn't available to others before.
All LGBT people today share this generational privilege. Whether you've been a champion for the cause or not, we have all been born in a time that offers the LGBT community advantages and protections better than any era in history. Despite our marginalization in culture and the church, we are slowly growing into a position of privilege greater than anything LGBT people of times past enjoyed in their lives. And as acceptance spreads, I feel grateful and guilty for reaping the rewards I did nothing to bring about.
Privilege is a lot like grace: a beautiful gift that is unearned and undeserved. And like grace, we have a choice about how to use it. We can clench it tightly in our fists and guard it as a precious gift all to ourselves. If we do, our privilege becomes a shiny bauble, pretty to look at and show off, but utterly useless.
Or, we can open our hands and use our privilege to further transform hearts and minds around us. How does this take shape as far as generational privilege? It looks like gay Christians stepping up and having hard conversations with family members and friends. It looks like engaging our church leaders even when we've been dismissed by them. Most important, it looks like living our lives as examples: honorable as Christians and authentic to our sexual identities.
Unlike other forms of privilege, the marginalized live in the past. We can't tend to them, but we can acknowledge their efforts and seek to ensure that this generational privilege is passed on to others. We can work to make sure the next generation has a privilege even better than our own.
I guess that's part of my reason for writing this blog along with Tino. Writing about the fears and challenges of our engagement is something I hope will soften the hearts of the followers of Jesus, and serve as one small step in helping people, gay and straight alike, to reconcile issues of faith, sexuality, and spiritual covenant. After what little I've done in the past, it's the least I can do now.