In my life, I have been pulled over by a police officer perhaps half a dozen times. One was for a broken taillight and the rest were for speeding.
Every single time, my heart rate rose and my palms got sweaty. I was nervous. I felt guilty. I knew I was in trouble.
But never, ever, did I fear for my life during a traffic stop.
Never have I ever felt unsafe in the presence of an authority figure.
And never, after one of those stops, have I received a ticket.
Contrast my story with that of a woman named Sandra Bland, who was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change on July 10 this summer.
Maybe her palms got sweaty. Maybe her heart rate started to rise. Maybe she was nervous or had feelings of guilt. Maybe she knew she was in trouble.
Maybe she feared for her life.
Maybe she felt unsafe in the presence of an authority figure.
Maybe her fight or flight instinct kicked in.
As the conversation between her and the officer escalated, Sandra Bland was arrested.
Will you pray with me.
Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts and minds be holy and pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Three days after Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal when she changed lanes, she was found dead in her jail cell.
It was my first day back in the office after my renewal leave, and I decided that morning that I wanted to do this series in worship.
Because we live in world where I, a white woman, am pulled over for speeding and I am sent on my way without a ticket, and where another person, an African-American woman, is pulled over and ends up dead.
Maybe she took her own life. Maybe she was murdered.
I honestly have no idea. And I’m not sure that it matters, because either way, the result is the loss of her life.
And to be honest, I can’t know the heart of the arresting officer to know if he treated her differently based on the color of her skin.
The problem is, I have heard her story too many times.
In November of last year, Bishop Julius Calvin Trimble, our bishop, shared his story as part of lecture at Cornell College:
In 1974, when I was a second year college student, I, along with my younger brother James, went to visit our older brother in California. He lived near Palo Alto, California and was working for Hewlett Packard as a computer engineer. While traveling to his apartment in his Volkswagen Beetle we were stopped by police who questioned my brother and asked for license and registration. Even though he produced his license, registration and work identification we were still told to exit the car with hands up. Additional squad cars arrived and with guns drawn on them, three young African American men were handcuffed and taken to jail. We remained handcuffed for about 45 minutes and were then released after being told that my brother’s car was not stolen but we looked out of place and suspicious driving in that community. My older brother, John, now a college professor, was, at the time of the incident, a graduate of Northwestern University and Stanford University. 1974 was a long time ago, but thousands of African Americans have similar stories. A recent CNN special highlighted one college student in New York who had been stooped and frisked over 100 times. (http://iowabeencouraged.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2015-01-06T11:01:00-06:00&max-results=1&start=6&by-date=false)
What I do know is that this is not the regular experience of my white brothers and sisters.
What I do know is that this is not about conflict between African Americans and police officers. That might be one facet or symptom of what is going on, but that’s not what this is about.
We, all of us, have stopped seeing the image of God in the eyes of another person.
We have become comfortable in our own stories and situations, in our own class or race or gender, and we have stopped reaching beyond them to be in real relationship with other people.
We have started to believe that their lives don’t matter to us.
Perhaps Jesus saw this happening around him when he told a story to a man who would have been his disciple:
There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’ (Luke 10:30-35, MSG)
The priest decided that the life of this man didn’t matter.
He responsibilities to attend to and couldn’t defile himself.
The Levite decided that the life of this man didn’t matter.
He had an image to maintain.
They had other things to worry about.
They were special.
They were different.
And that man didn’t matter.
The Samaritans were mixed race people who were often thought of as lesser than their Jewish cousins. He would have been bound by the same rules as the priest and Levite when it came to touching a bleeding, dying man.
Yet the Samaritan stopped.
The Samaritan believed that this life… that every life… holds the image of God and is of sacred worth.
The Samaritan went out of their way to show love and care and mercy towards this person.
Privilege can be defined as a right, immunity or benefit enjoyed by someone beyond the advantages of most.
It can be defined as the position someone holds that exempts them from burdens or problems.
Privilege is always social. It describes our relationship to other people and how we are either the beneficiaries of that position, or we are the group that privileged status is being compared to.
Religious Privilege is being a Priest or a Levite instead of a Samaritan and feeling like you are immune from having to stop and check on the welfare of another human being.
Male Privilege is making 17% more money working the same job than your female counterparts.
Class Privilege is being able to choose to eat healthy food if you want, because you live in a neighborhood with grocery stores or you own transportation to get you there and back.
Ability Privilege means that as a healthy person, you don’t have to think about your daily pain level when planning activities and events.
Racial Privilege is getting a cut, opening the first aid kit, and the flesh-colored band-aid matches your skin tone.
And what we discover in this world is that we are never simply one of these things.
Some of us experience multiple advantages and privileges based upon who we are.
Some of us experience a mixture of them all.
Some of us find ourselves at the intersection of multiple social disadvantages and burdens.
Our world today is not the Beloved Community envisioned by Dr. King or the Kingdom of God lifted up by Jesus and described by Paul.
It is not a place where Jewish and Palestinian kids can go to school in peace.
It is not a world where transgender women and straight women experience the same judicial system.
This is not a country where black boys and white girls will grow up with the same opportunities.
And the biggest problem is that we who experience the advantages often don’t even realize the privileges we hold.
We are so caught up in our own experiences that we don’t see that of others.
Just this last week, I got an email from our Commission on Persons with Disabilities in our annual conference. In the process of planning annual conference worship, I tried hard to include people who spoke various languages, genders, ages, ethnicities… and the email was a gentle reminder that no one who led worship had a physical disability.
Privilege is looking up at the stage at annual conference or up in the front during worship and knowing that the person who is there looks or talks like you.
I know how important that is, because I remember when I looked up at the stage and saw a woman preaching and I thought… I could do this.
Yet, because of my social location, providing that same opportunity to someone who was differently abled didn’t even cross my mind.
But it does now.
In our video this morning, Bishop Warner Brown, the President of our Council of Bishops tells us that:
Hope occurs in the places where we meet people. It involves where people live, where they work, where they face the challenges of life.
Hope occurs in the places where we meet people who don’t look or talk or move like us.
Hope occurs when we let love and not fear rule our actions.
Hope occurs when we cross over the road to where we see someone who is at a disadvantage – whether they have been injured or oppressed or are struggling or are behind – and we stop to see the image of God in them.
Hope occurs when we shed our own privilege and step out of our comfort zones to meet someone where they are.
Hope occurs when we listen more than we speak about our life experiences.
As we hear in 1 John, chapter 4:
This is love… not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his son to sacrifice his life for us.
And if God loves us in this way… so we should love one another in this way.
Love without fear.
Love without privilege.
Love without question.