I’ve been thinking a lot lately about privilege. About what the Kingdom of God is and what privilege has to do with it. How those of us in the affluent Christian West might actually enter the Kingdom of God, and why indeed we might want to.
It all started at the beginning of the summer when I read that pesky story in Luke 18 where a wealthy, powerful man comes to Jesus and respectfully — and quite correctly, I might add — implies that because he has kept Torah since his coming of age, his obedience to God ought to guarantee him entrance into heaven (eternal life). The traditional reading has Jesus suggesting that this man’s wealth is an idol that he worships instead of worshipping God, and the implication is that the man did not go to heaven when he died because he was not willing to follow Jesus without condition while he lived.
For most of my formative years in church I was taught directly and indirectly that this story functions as a simile in miniature. Just as Luke 18 tells the story of one man’s personal decision about Jesus and the impact to his eternal destiny, so too the broad sweep of Scripture primarily concerns personal, individual salvation: the Bible as a love letter from God about how to get to heaven when one dies.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve slowly learned a new way of reading the Scriptures that doesn’t trace a theme of personal salvation but instead watches for this spacetime thing Jesus calls “The Kingdom of God,” which the prophets foretold in mysterious and mystical terms and the Hebrews looked for with eyes squinting into the future. Certainly individual conversion is built into this Kingdom, but it demonstrated over the long haul by incarnational evidence of repentance: love for enemies, compassion rather than self-righteousness, an embrace of suffering on behalf of the Other, and so on. It is not merely a shifting of beliefs or a profession of orthodoxy. It is a changed life — and the nature of that changed life is that it now seeks the Kingdom of God where before it sought something else.
Which takes us back to Luke’s rich young ruler. As I sat there, reading the story not through the lens of personal salvation but instead through the lens of the Kingdom of God, an entirely new understanding jumped off the page. It felt a little like vertigo; I got kind of woozy, seriously.
What if Jesus isn’t talking to this powerful, wealthy man about how to get to Heaven when he dies? What if he’s inviting this powerful, wealthy man to drink deeply of Heaven while he yet lives?
Because Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is at hand with his arrival. As the rabbi likes to say, God did with Jesus in the middle of history what the Jews expected God to do at the end of history. In the person of Jesus, God’s Kingdom has come. Emmanuel, theophany, God with us.
When Jesus suggests he sell all his possessions and distribute the yield to the poor, I don’t think Jesus is testing him to see if he idolizes money. He’s inviting him — genuinely inviting him! — to make his home, for the first time in his uber-religious life, in the Kingdom of God. The catch is that he can only find his way into that Kingdom as a person without — without wealth, without privilege, without a voice, without safety, without social standing. It does not belong to the religious elite nor to those whose social power comes from the color of their skin or their bank account. Not to the ones who keep themselves righteous by never embracing the dirty, diseased Other.
What this poor fellow could not do, then, is walk away from the privilege that his gender, wealth and social position gave him:
I’ve pondered this story all summer, you see because I am the rich young ruler.
Will I spend “life after life-after-death” in the Presence of God? Faith in the full testimony of Scripture tells me yes, and it’s a truth I have cast my entire life upon. But I’m not talking about that life — I’m talking about this one, and the older I get the more I realize just how right Jesus was. The Kingdom of God is hard to enter — perhaps not because we don’t want to but because our wealth and privilege turn us (wittingly or unwittingly so) into camels trying to squeeze through a needle’s eye.
I hate to break it to you, but we all are this rich young ruler. We, in the affluent Christian West, with our theology all neat and tidy saying who’s in and who’s out, with our political affiliations and our ability to isolate ourselves from global suffering and persecution, with our first world problems and our inbred materialism. And frankly, even if we all gave away our wealth, we’d still have a hard time — our privilege is so deeply engrained in how we think about and value ourselves that we are hard-pressed to actually hold real need, real weakness in our own two hands.
Men, apologies up front, but you have it worse than we women do — even when you don’t feel privileged because some other dude has more/better than you or some woman in your life outranks you, your voice still counts in this culture (particularly religious subcultures), your time produces more income, your seminary degree results in pastoral jobs and seats on elder boards, your life doesn’t bend quite so much around the needs of others because it is their lives that are required to bend around yours.
I wonder if this isn’t perhaps part of why women, it is observed, are more likely to be involved in church. Perhaps it’s not our “God-given nature” — a nice cop-out, gents, — but instead the fact that women as a class have less privilege and are thus that one small step closer to entering the Kingdom. It’s not enough though, which is in part why it is easier for me when I’m on a missions trip among the poor, with trafficking victims, or beside the bed of the diseased and dying.
I wonder too if perhaps this isn’t part of the case for having women, the differently-abled, the non-native speaker, the foreigner among us incorporated thoroughly and deeply into our liturgical practices, our pastoral staffs and elder boards, our doctrinal review meetings and our community outreach efforts. If in the Kingdom of God privilege is a disability, then those of us who have it ought to see the beauty in seeking out those without and bringing them in. Perhaps its time that I and any of you who are awaking to the deforming nature of your own privilege start listening and following the least of these.
I don’t know how, yet, to enter this Kingdom. I feel it beckoning and I feel elation because Jesus says “with God all things are possible.”
He will not leave me forever on the outside, nose pressed to the glass, looking in.