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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Listening well as a person of privilege: From pain to hope

This is the sixth and final post in an series  from Dr. Christena Cleveland on listening well as a person of privilege that originally appeared on her blog.

One of my privileged friends and her husband recently made the noble decision to move their young, white family into a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood precisely so they could listen well as people of privilege. Their urban adventure started out well but within the span of a few short months, their house was burglarized and both of their cars were stolen.

Like most novice reconcilers, they weren’t prepared for this amount of fear, loss and pain. While considering whether they should move their family out of the neighborhood and into a “safer”, more privileged space, it became clear to them that the fact that they had the option of moving out of the neighborhood was a marker of privilege. They ultimately decided to stay put, this time with an expectation that their pursuit of solidarity with their oppressed neighbors would likely incur immense pain.

There will be blood
It’s easy for privileged reconcilers to think that cross-cultural journeys into oppressed territory to “make things right” will be fairly straightforward and painless. After all, many privileged reconcilers haven’t personally encountered the relentless forces of oppression and often make the grave mistake of underestimating them. But make no mistake, when privilege and oppression meet face-to-face in pursuit of reconciliation, blood will be shed
This happened on the cross and it happens in our everyday encounters as people of reconciliation. As a form
of death, oppression stands as a formidable enemy that will continue to wage war against reconcilers who live in the “now but not yet.” Reconciliation always has a cost because even the tiniest, seemingly inconsequential acts of reconciliation between the privileged and the oppressed bear the grandiose power of the cross. And while this power ultimately defeats death, the victory comes at great cost and much bloodshed.

The pain incurred in pursuit of reconciliation is no joke because it approximates the work of the cross. If reconciliation work doesn’t bring about great pain, it’s not really reconciliation work. Case in point, the reconciling work of the cross was so violently painful that even Jesus the Great Reconciler approached it reluctantly. (‘Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”’ Matthew 26:39). 

Following Jesus’ footsteps, privileged reconcilers will encounter many forms of pain: physical or verbal assault, rejection from both privileged and oppressed folks, disillusionment in the face of failure, identity and worldview collapse, loneliness, etc. For this reason, it’s important to embrace this pain, feel it deeply and use it to find solidarity with Jesus who knows this pain all too well, and with oppressed folks who have long encountered the pain of an unreconciled Church and society. Privileged reconcilers who experience pain are in the good company of both the crucified Christ and oppressed folks.

There will be hope too!
Not only is pain a powerful point of solidarity with Jesus and oppressed people, it’s also a signpost of the impending victory over oppression. The pain that reconcilers experience should be framed not only by the knowledge of Christ’s death but also by the hope of Easter morning. Pain and hopelessness don’t have the last word! Reconcilers know that Friday afternoon is inevitably followed by Sunday morning, that weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning, and that death precedes life. 

For this reason, reconcilers can fully experience misery and pain while also rejoicing that, in the kingdom of God, pain is a signpost that life must burst forth as it did on Easter morning. If reconcilers succumb to eschatological myopia and only consider their pain outside of the context of the resurrection, they sever pain’s powerful bond with hope. But, when reconcilers straddle the pain of the cross and the victory of the resurrection, they encounter an unshakeable hope in the experience of pain. And empowered with the hope that victory is on the horizon, they can continue to do the work of reconciliation with strength and joy.

Thanks to all who have read this blog series! I hope it’s been helpful. As a benediction of sorts, I leave you with this passage of hope from Romans 8:

Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

And another passage of hope from Habakkuk 2:

3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
it speaks of the end
and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come
and will not delay

Grace and peace be yours in abundance. – Paul (and me too)

How has this series shaped how you listen well? Share below!

Christena is a social psychologist in Minneapolis, MN with an upcoming book “Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart” that you'll definitely want to check out.

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