Privilege, Identity, and Privilege

“Privilege, Identity, and Privilege”

Remarks by Rev. Scott Summerville. Delivered June 11, 2015 at the awarding of the 2015 Gwen and C. Dale White Award of the New York Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. The award was given to Rev. Summerville in recognition of his ministry as “Pastor, Teacher, Peacemaker, and Troublemaker.” He was introduced by Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, chairperson of Methodists in New Directions (MIND.)

11391167_1024080540938201_8178084574482342836_n“…The New York Annual Conference has many advocates for LGBTQI justice. This is a fact about which I am proud and pleased to be a member. Advocacy is the art of speaking for the oppressed and the marginalized. Advocates are important to any social justice movement.

“But in the pursuit of LGBTQI justice in the United Methodist Church, we need more allies. Allies don’t speak for the oppressed. Allies create the opportunities and offer the support for the oppressed to speak for themselves. We need more allies at this time in the life of the movement for LGBTQI justice in our beloved church. We need more people who are willing to hear the painful stories of LGBTQI people and who stand at our side as we tell it.”

Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy

I wish to acknowledge my wife, Mary Ellen, and my son, Thomas, who are with me tonight. I also wish to acknowledge our daughter Meredith, our son-in-law Ben, our granddaughter Zoe, our new grandson, Ronan, born just two weeks ago, my mother Frances and my late father Joseph, who modeled for me a dedication to justice and peacemaking.

It is interesting to hear that Sara Thompson Tweedy believes that I know when to keep my mouth shut. That is why I am still married after thirty-eight years. I learned when to keep my mouth shut.

Thank you to the Methodist Federation for Social Action for this award and for the large cash prize that came with it. [I was planning to invest it in Exxon stock, until someone came up with this rash idea of a petroleum and natural gas investment screen.]

I shall use the odd occasion of being up here tonight to talk about three things. These are: privilege, identity, and privilege. Yes; I know I said “privilege” twice. I am slipping, but not that badly.

I begin with privilege – I will call it Type I Privilege. Type I Privilege is when you can walk away. As a middle-aged straight white English-speaking affluent employed healthy married male citizen of the United States in the year 2015 with medical insurance and a pension I have all kinds of privileges, most of them bestowed upon me by the invisible hand of chance.

The aggregation of such privileges means that there are many things I can simply walk away from; in fact I do walk away from things all the time by virtue of my privilege.

At the last Reconciling Ministries Convocation I met a young woman in her early twenties. She is a daughter of the church – our United Methodist Church – a preacher’s kid in fact, from a conservative area of the country and from an annual conference that has no organized support for LGBTQI United Methodists. She told me that she believes she is called to ordained ministry, and she is a lesbian. There she was, trying to find some little branch on the cliff to hang on to. I really liked her. I thought she had guts and smarts and energy and so much to give. But it was hard to see how she was going to get a chance to show her stuff.

After we talked for a while, she said, “If you do not mind me asking; I know why I am here, but why are you here?” Her question, “Why are you here?” was a question about my privilege – my Type I Privilege – my “I do not actually have to be here” privilege. I can fly to a reconciling convocation on my professional reimbursement account and fly home. I can choose to involve myself in the struggle of this young woman and so many others like her, or I can say, “[Yawn]…. I feel a little weary of it all; I think I will take some time off from contentious matters for a while.”

One dimension of my involvement in MIND is that I am continually made aware of my privilege. I have learned to monitor that inner voice of Type I Privilege that says, “Pssst! Hey! Don’t get carried away! It’s a good ride, but make sure you get out before you hit the hard turns. And please, please – let’s not actually jeopardize any of those sweet privileges of ours.”

What do we do with our Type I Privilege – those of us who were handed so much of it? Shall we use it as a free pass to walk away? Or perhaps the dynamics of privilege are more subtle; maybe there is no need to “walk away.” Type I privilege is like the people mover at the airport; you just stand there and do nothing and privilege carries you along. Type I Privilege offers to some of us insulation from the injustices suffered by others; in the words of John Wesley it enables us “to bear lightly those sufferings not our own.” But Type I Privilege offers another option: it provides those who have it with the opportunity to stand in solidarity with those who have much less privilege to bank on.

From that brief comment on one vast topic, I move to another brief comment on an even vaster topic: identity – identity.

In 1982 I attended a Quaker seminar on community mediation. Spending that time with Quaker peacemakers sparked in me an interest mediation in me that has continued to this day. I do not know how many of you are familiar with WC Fields [I see a blank look of non-recognition on many of the younger faces – look him up!] One of his lines goes something like, “I carry with me a flask of whiskey for snakebite – I also carry a snake.” I have been on a double journey in recent years: selling my snakebite medicine of conflict mediation on one side and being involved in the trouble-making work of MIND on the other. Peacemaking and trouble-making must go hand-in-hand. They must!

Every year I get invited to speak at the orientation day for clergy and Staff Parish Committees who are involved in a pastoral change. I am asked to talk about conflict.
I am not the greatest expert on the subject, but I am free. At this year’s event I told the people that out of all my reflection and work in the field of conflict and mediation there is one word that keeps pounding away in my brain; the word is “identity.”

When we are in conflict – when we experience those searing spikes of painful emotion or those drawn out debilitating periods of stress and pain – a crucial part of getting unstuck and finding relief is to ask, “What is so damned threatening to me in this situation?” If we follow that trail, we will come to know something about ourselves and our identity. A side benefit of conflict – in fact one reason that conflict is necessary for growth – is that conflict can teach us who we are.

When we are involved in intense conflict, we typically experience an existential challenge – a threat to our identity. If a way can be found to establish a zone of relative safety, such that this existential threat is diminished, we can begin the creative work of collaborating and problem solving. In this respect the mediator’s primal responsibility is to be a guardian of the identities of the individuals who are in conflict. The mediator is also a guardian of the identity of the community that is in conflict.

If you will extend this meal for another two hours, I could go on about this subject – suffice it to say that the issue of identity has become the core issue for me in peacemaking. Identity is sacred space; it is holy ground.

This insight is directly related to my understanding of the work of MIND and our struggle to change our church. To deny one’s own identity is to experience a kind of living death. Tragically, we are all too well aware that the denial of identity also leads many to actual death.

To deny another person’s identity – to suggest that an individual’s identity is a mistake – to suggest that identity is something one can change or should change – is sin, because it strikes at that holy place.

To deny an individual the opportunity to give expression and voice to their identity is an act of psychological and spiritual violence. A person cannot be safe or feel safe unless and until they come to an inward awareness and acceptance of their own identity and have supporting structures and relationships within which to express their identity with integrity.

This realization is what has driven my commitment to do everything I can to bring about change in the New York Annual Conference and in the United Methodist Church. We simply cannot step aside, walk away, or be silent when we are participants in a system that assaults the sacred identity of any person or class of persons.

Finally, a word about privilege – Type II Privilege.

I can scarcely express what a privilege it is to stand here tonight with Sara Thompson Tweedy – her courage, grace, eloquence, kindness, integrity – etc! – to share with Sara in this work and to hear her speak kind words of me is such a gift and a privilege. She is such a richly gifted clergy person. She and others of my LGBTQI colleagues are a living refutation of the theology of exclusion that infects our denomination. We need to take the theological offensive, stop debating proof texts, and ask the theological question: “Does the Holy Spirit bestow gifts for ministry only on straight people?”

The theological proposition that the Holy Spirit has bestowed gifts for ministry only on straight people is the absurd and insidious proposition encoded in our church law, with which we declare our willingness and intention to exclude, to judge, and to punish gifted children of God.

My work in this movement has opened to me the extraordinary privilege of coming to know and share life with so many wonderful and amazing people, with such a range of backgrounds, and with such a bounty of gifts.

Before Sara Thompson Tweedy was elected to take the reins of MIND I had the privilege of working closely for years with Benz. What passion, what clarity, and what staggering dedication and commitment she has. I could not and did not attempt to match her efforts, but what a privilege it was to share in a great adventure with her.

Had I more time tonight I could tell you of many others whose lives have intersected with mine and with whom it has been and continues to be an extraordinary privilege to share life and to work together to try do to a useful thing – a hopeful thing – in this beloved church of ours.

Type I Privilege is not a blessing; it is a condition of one’s life. Type II privilege is one of the greatest of blessings. I to bear witness to this: life is good when we are willing to take a risk and trade some of our Type I Privilege for the better kind.

Grace and peace to you.
Rev. Scott Summerville