When writing about “Christians as Exiles” last week (here) I got to thinking more deeply about this subject. I started wondering if any group of Christians were really living as exiles in this country. Then I read this article about a group of Catholics protesting the Catholic Church’s treatment of the LGBTQ community with the outrageous tactic of dirtying their hands and how they were turned away at the church door and told they needed to wash before entering the church. Those good folks are exiles.
But you know who isn’t really an exile? A white, straight, male Christian. Not usually at least. But I’ve had this line of a song, written by a a group of straight white dudes (the ones from Third Day who wrote the song “Alien” on the album Conspiracy No. 5), stuck in my head recently, “I am just like the alien, the fatherless, and the widow.” No, I want to say to them, you’re probably not just like those people. They’re not aliens, they live as people with fully realized constitutional rights who’s citizenship is not questioned on the basis of their skin color or accent. They’re not widows, who in the context of this song stand for economically and socially marginalized women. Members of the band might indeed be fatherless, and that’s sad. But even if they lost a parent early in their lives, they were probably still decently cared for through their childhood and don’t face a society that shuns the bastard child. Life can be tough and we all can feel like the lowest rung on the ladder sometimes. That’s normal. But to specifically identify marginalized and oppressed groups of people that by definition you can’t be part of and say you’re “just like” them is at best obnoxious and patronizing and at worst flatly offensive.
Listen, I’ve had bad days. I’ve had times were I felt like no one listened to me or wanted to be my friend. Days where people treated me badly for no good reason. Days where I felt that I stood out or was judged for just being me. But it would wildly inappropriate for me to say, “Today I felt really black because people judged me before they even spoke to me,” or, “Wow, I am like a gay person today, people keep giving me all these weird looks!” I can’t say those things because I’m not black or gay. I don’t actually know what it is like to have those experiences. To speak from my position of privilege, as a straight white person, as if I did not possess those privileges denies the existence of those privileges and belittles the difficulties the non-privileged face.
However, facing difficult situations can make us better people and help us build our empathy muscles. Identifying with other people, especially people who face greater challenges than yourself, can be an excellent opportunity to turn feelings into actions. Having a feeling that you associate with a certain group of people is just a fact. You feel this certain way and it reminds you of how you assume this group of people feels. That’s uninteresting. You know what would be interesting? If your feelings changed your behavior. Feeling like an alien? You could resolve to show better hospitality to people who are not close friends or family. You could donate money to refugee support charities. You could write your legislators about passing immigration reform. Feeling fatherless? You could call your own dad or granddad or uncle for a long chat (you know they’d love to hear from you). You could spend time with your own kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews to emulate what good parents look like. You could volunteer some time in a mentoring program for kids who, for whatever reason, need an extra role model and friend in their lives. Feeling like a widow? You could spend some time with your own family members who have lost a spouse and lovingly remember them together. You can invest money in micro-loans to empower woman-lead households to lift themselves from grinding poverty. You could spend time just being with your own significant other and appreciate all the things you love about them.
The narrative of Christians as Exiles can lead to these strange scenarios where some of the most privileged people co-opt the difficulties faced by the least privileged on sketchy and forced theological grounds. This is another dark side of this narrative. But if Christians and non-Christians alike refuse to allow this narrative to continue in a way that disrespects and harms people we might be able to put it on a new track, one that leads to greater humility, empathy, and just actions.