How to be last: Towards a practical theology for privileged people

Last summer, I met with a group of senior executives at a large organization. Though it is overwhelmingly run by white men, the leadership is seeking a strategy to implement racial and gender equity across the organization. During my first consultation with the executive team, I centered the experiences and perspectives of the women and/or people of color. For example, I first solicited input from the handful of women and/or people of color in the meeting. After engaging their suggestions and collective wisdom for an extended period of time, I turned to the white men and invited them to share their perspectives as well. Before I even finished my sentence, one white man, Bill, interrupted me, saying, “I don’t have anything to offer. Since I’m the bad guy in this scenario, I’m just sitting here listening.”

Bill’s response is one that I encounter often, though it couldn’t be further from the truth. (Indeed, as a unique human being he has a unique perspective to share and role to play; as a human being with infinite worth, he’s not categorically nor wholly “bad”; and, it’s evident from his emotional, defensive and judgment-laden response that Bill wasn’t “just sitting there listening”.) So often, privileged people, when invited to participate in the work of justice and equity, end up being paralyzed by defensive shame and a lack of purpose. 

Not fit to be followers

The most effective justice and equity work in history has been led by the marginalized (see: South African Anti-Apartheid Movement, American Civil Rights Movement, etc.). Justice and equity work should be led by the marginalized — by those who have firsthand knowledge of the unjust systems that are in need of dismantling. If the marginalized lead, then the role that privileged people play is a supportive one. However, when privileged people are invited to play a supportive role in justice and equity work, they often feel disoriented, marginalized and role-less. Since they’re not “leading”, they don’t know what to do. Since they don’t have a “leadership” role, they don’t believe they have a valuable role to play. This disorientation and lack of clarity is further confounded by the shame that privileged people often experience when they realize that it is precisely their “leadership” that has led to the current inequities. If we’re honest, many of us who identify with privileged groups in society can empathize with Bill’s angst.

Privileged people are often accustomed to inhabiting authoritative leadership roles: leading in visible ways, playing what they perceive to be central/executive roles in collaborative projects, being the primary architects of the project narrative and goals, and being the final decision makers. Consequently, privileged people have limited experience in supportive, non-leadership roles, and don’t often know how to play them. From a social psychological perspective this makes sense because our society often runs on symbolic capital in which the people with the most (racial, class, gender, religious, etc.) status in society are automatically granted uncontested authoritative leadership roles. Because leadership and high social status often go hand-in-hand, we are socialized to see leadership roles as inherently more valuable than non-leadership roles. The effect is that — in addition to not knowing how to play supportive, non-leadership roles — privileged people have a difficult time recognizing the social value and theological importance of such roles.

In the end, privileged people standing at the edges of justice work are often left wondering, “Well, what role can I play in contributing to justice? If marginalized people are supposed to lead the way, then there’s no place for me to participate.”

Jesus isn't interested in Equality

Jesus of Nazareth, the greatest revolutionary ever, often used stories to describe his vision of a just world. The story of the workers in the Book of Matthew (20:16; The Inclusive Bible translation) offers privileged people a challenging theology of justice and equity:

"The kin-dom of heaven is like the owner of an estate who went out at dawn to hire workers for the vineyard. After reaching an agreement with them for the usual daily wage, the owner sent them out of the vineyard. 
About mid-morning, the owner came out and saw others standing around the marketplace without work, and said to them, ‘You go along to my vineyard and I will pay you whatever is fair.’ At that they left. 
Around noon and again in the mid-afternoon, the owner came out and did the same. Finally, going out late in the afternoon, the owner found still others standing around and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’
‘No one has hired us,’ they replied.
The owner said, ‘You go to my vineyard, too.’
When evening came, the owner said to the overseer, ‘Call the workers and give them their pay, but begin with the last group and end with the first.’ When those hired late in the afternoon came up, they received a full day’s pay, and when the first group appeared they assumed they would get more. Yet they all received the same daily wage.
Thereupon they complained to the owner, ‘This last group did only an hour’s work, but you’ve put them on the same basis as those who worked a full day in the scorching heat.’
‘My friends,’ said the owner to those who voiced this complaint, I do you no injustice. You agreed on the usual wage, didn’t you? Take your pay and go home. I intend to give this worker who was hired last the same pay as you. I’m free to do as I please with my money, aren’t I? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“Thus the last will be first and the first will be last."

If we apply a critical lens to this story, we witness the social dynamics in Jesus' vision of a just world. Jesus begins by declaring that this story — the narrative, social and economic dynamics, emotions, and result — is an accurate picture of a just world (e.g., “The kin-dom* of heaven” in which all share in the kinship and mutuality of humanity). Then he takes his time describing the owner’s laborious process of hiring workers at four different points in the day, each time trekking back and forth between the marketplace and vineyard. In doing so, Jesus the consummate social scientist, describes the powerful social stratification in his society. 

Like our contemporary society, Jesus’ society was rife with xenophobia, racism, sexism, and other oppressive systems in which some people had access to employment based on their social memberships and others didn’t. At the start of the day, the owner of the vineyard goes out and hires the first group people. Given the inequality in Jesus’ society, this group of “first picks” is presumably full of the most privileged people in the labor force; in other words, the most “qualified” according to the unjust social standards. In contemporary terms, these people would be the physically and mentally able, the people who speak the local language, the documented immigrants and/or national citizens, the white people, the formally educated, etc. The privileged people were hired at the start of the work day and earned the highest wages, commensurate with the hours they worked. 

But as the owner returns throughout the day, each time picking among the “leftovers,” (e.g., the people with less and less privilege). His actions proclaim that there’s a need for everyone in Jesus’ vision of a just world, even the marginalized. This revelation alone is revolutionary. To create space for all people, regardless of social status and identity, goes against the social stratification in both Jesus’ society and our contemporary society. However, Jesus goes even further— shocking everyone, especially the privileged workers — by paying each worker the same wage regardless of how many hours they worked. 

Then he punctuates the story with one of his most theologically challenging statements: “Thus the last will be first and the first will be last.” And the privileged people who worked a full day are irate. They can’t believe it! They were expecting equality. They were expecting to get paid more than the people who worked less than a full day. What they didn’t know is that Jesus isn't interested in equality; Jesus is interested in equity. Jesus doesn’t want everyone to be treated equally (e.g., treated the same); Jesus wants everyone to be treated equitably (e.g., each person is given what they uniquely need in order to fully participate in the kinship and mutuality of the kin-dom of heaven). In this story, equity meant that the privileged people, who had benefited from their privilege all day, received the same wage as the oppressed people who were not given the opportunity of full-day employment that the privileged people automatically received. It meant that in an equitable world, the first became last and the last became first.

A ROLE FOR PRIVILEGED PEOPLE

Many privileged people incorrectly believe that a just world looks like a round table at which everyone has an equal seat and voice. But Jesus is showing us here that the table is not round nor is it guided by the law of equality. Jesus’ table is ovular, there’s a clear head (where the oppressed people sit) and tail (where the privileged sit), and above all it’s guided by the law of equity.

Jesus indicates that equality between historically privileged and oppressed people isn’t drastic enough to create the kinship and mutuality of the kin-dom of heaven. Equity is required; a full inversion of the power structure is required. Social psychology research converges on this point: when social interactions between privileged and oppressed groups are intentionally structured to foster equality between the groups, the groups tend to revert back to the existing societal hierarchy (e.g., Moaz, 2000). Even with the best intentions and practices, we fall short when we aim for equality.

We experience the kin-dom of heaven when we aim for equity. We experience the kin-dom of heaven when the first are last and the last are first. We experience the kin-dom of heaven when people from oppressed groups lead and people from privileged groups follow. We experience the kin-dom of heaven when people from oppressed groups are given opportunities and rights that people from privileged groups have long taken for granted. We experience the kin-dom of heaven when the discourse, narratives and strategies are primarily informed by the people at the head of the table, rather than the people at the foot of the table.

So where does that leave Bill and all of the other privileged people who wonder what role they have to play in this epic and holy work of creating a more just world? If you’re a privileged person asking this question, here’s what I have to say to you: You have an invaluable role to play — and that role is last. When you inhabit your role as last, you play a crucial part in forging and maintaining the equitable balance of the kin-dom of heaven. Furthermore, your freedom is in being last. Your pathway to a more just world is in being last. Your liberation from the shackles, alienation and dehumanization of privilege is in being last. Your freedom from the stronghold of power and consumerism is in being last. Your pathway to mutuality and kinship with the people of this world is in being last. Your pathway to the kin-dom of heaven is in being last. Your pathway to resurrection is in being last.

In order to experience the kin-dom of heaven that Jesus describes, we need people from both privileged and oppressed groups to take their assigned seats at the table. Privileged people, there’s a seat at the foot of the table with your name on it.

 

 

*Following the Mujerista theologians, I use the word kin-dom rather than kingdom because it is class and gender inclusive, and because it aptly describes the kinship to which we are called as human beings who are created in the image of a relational God.