One of the many important conversations that has emerged in our culture over the past decade or so is the conversation around ‘privilege’ — the structural advantages in a social and political system that make it easier for certain people to thrive based on factors such as class, race and ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. This has been, unsurprisingly, a controversial conversation, which often raises the hackles of people deemed to have privilege, who think the label minimizes their own struggles and hard work, and who then point to initiatives designed to mitigate privilege and marginalization as evidence that these categories don’t exist. I couldn’t help but think of this whole conversation when I read today’s Epistle reading, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Here, Paul addresses his own relationship with privilege, and upon reflection, I think that his example is a great one for us in how to to manage whatever privilege we have in this world.
First, at the outset of the passage, Paul acknowledges his privilege:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (3.4b-6)
If there were any gold standards of how to be respected in his (i.e., first century Jewish, Judaean) society, Paul met all of them with flying colours. He had the right pedigree, the right gender and sex, the right education, and a rigorous approach to the Law, which he both lived up to and was willing to defend against its enemies. While he doesn’t mention it here, he also had the privilege of being a Roman citizen, a fact which helped to mitigate the marginalization his Jewish Christian identity conferred upon him in the broader society, and which he would later use to his advantage (see Acts 16 and 22).
But, while Paul acknowledges his privilege, he no longer puts any stock in the things that the whole system of privilege values: He may be a well-educated and Law-adhering Jewish male, and this confers advantages on him, but none of those things make him better than anyone else:
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (7-9)
His new perspective is grounded in the great equalizing impulse of the Gospel. All of the things his culture looked upon as being important now look actively unimportant compared to the value of his new understanding of God and humanity as expressed in Jesus. The area he addresses head on here is his relationship to the Law. What was once his driving commitment in life he has completely set aside as unimportant; the only status he cares about is the faith relationship with God (and others). This relationship of ‘mutual showing up for’ is available for everyone, irrespective of the Law. And, most importantly, he committed the rest of his life to promoting this great equalizing conviction throughout the Mediterranean world, to his fellow Jews and, particularly to Gentiles. In doing this, he leveraged his education and knowledge of the Scriptures. And, while we may rightly question Paul’s social pragmatism — his reluctance to challenge the existing structural norms of his day — he was adamant that those structures did not have anything to do with God and again promoted an equality of all before God and in the Church. As he famously wrote to the Christians in Galatia:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.27-28)
And, this did have practical implications for him. While he never attacked the institution of slavery, he insisted that Philemon treat his slave Onesimus as a brother (Philemon v.16); while he did not reject traditional gender roles, he also spoke freely with women (which was highly disreputable within the social mores of his culture) and addressed certain women as “apostles” (Romans 16.7); and while he didn’t attack the economic system that led to huge disparities between the wealthy and the poor, he did insist that anyone with excess resources share them generously with those who did not (Romans 15.26f, 2 Corinthians 9.8, Ephesians 4.28, 1 Timothy 6.8; cf. James 2, where the Apostle James demands that the poor be given equal esteem within the Church and that the rich bear the financial burdens of hospitality).
The point is that Paul, a man with privilege, used his privilege to undermine the very things that gave him that privilege. And so we see that privilege is not a bad thing — it’s a good thing to have, that’s why it’s called ‘privilege’ — but that it offers us a calling to use it wisely, not for our benefit but for the benefit of others.
This will be a journey. We know it was for Paul — he resisted God’s transforming grace, after all. And, at least measured by our own standards, he fell short in his pragmatic acceptance of the status quo in society. But, he never lost sight of the full vision of the healed and whole community of all of God’s people. He never stopped working for the full implications of the ‘Very Good’ Gospel, which insists that we are all brothers and sisters and co-heirs, growing up into the ‘full stature’ of Christ, together. As he described this never-ending journey into God’s heart for the world at the end of today’s reading:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
As we continue on this Lent, may we all continue to press on towards that goal, towards realizing that heavenly call of God which we have heard in Christ Jesus. Amen.