Death and Privilege

Quick! How many kids have been shot to death this year in Newtown, Connecticut?

That’s right, 20. That number is seared on our brains. How sad, how frightening.

“If it happened here it could happen anywhere,” said Danielle Collins, who attended a candlelight vigil in Newtown last night.

No, Ms. Collins, it could not happen anywhere. That’s the voice of privilege. You’re right, though, in this sense: We don’t expect kids to get shot in Newtown or places like it. That only happens in places like…

Quick! How many kids have been shot to death this year in Detroit, Michigan?

The answer is 21, but you didn’t know that, dear reader. Honestly, the only reason I know is because I spent a couple of hours researching it just now. And about that many kids were shot to death in Detroit in 2011, and 2010, and 2009, etc. How many child homicides were there in Newtown in those years? You know the answer without having to look it up.

Newtown is a bastion of privilege: 95% white and less than 2% black, median household income $111,000/year, 9 out of 10 people live in single family homes that they own. Unemployment is 6.1% and the poverty rate is 1.2%.

The comparable numbers for Detroit are: 11% white, 83% black, income $31,000, owner-occupied housing 49%, unemployment 15%, and poverty rate 35%.

Twenty dead kids in Newtown are national banner headline news; the same number of dead kids in Detroit… well, you can find the information if you look hard enough.

This is so unfair. Our white privilege is supposed to protect us from bad things. Our affluent enclaves are supposed to be safe for kids. As Ms. Collins said, if we can’t protect our privilege behind the barricades of Newtown, where can we?

And by the way, this is not about gun control. Oh sure, now we’re all screaming for gun control, but when the twentieth kid was killed in Detroit, the silence was deafening. And really, give me a break – nothing short of a national ban on handguns would have made a difference in Newtown. Remember, the guns belonged to the killer’s mom. Realistically, a retired white kindergarten teacher in an affluent white suburb will never be denied a gun.

No, the gun control reaction is just part of the overall emotional reaction of sadness and fear. We affluent and middle-class white people are afraid, because we never expected that violence would find us. Sure, we expect violence in Detroit; that’s just the way it is, right? We are sad because children are dead, but we are especially sad because the dead children in Newtown look like our own children. The poor, black little faces in Detroit don’t touch our hearts in quite the same way, and so they don’t make the national headlines.

It chills me and it sickens me to say it: our extreme emotional reaction, and the resultant screaming headlines, are about nothing but privilege.

References and credits:

Take Up Your Cross! Alleluia!

A sermon by Jenny Howard
Preached at Central Presbyterian Church, Louisville, KY
on May 2, 2010, the 5th Sunday in Easter

This is written as a dialogue sermon, though it was preached by one person.
Boldface is used to distinguish the second speaker from the first.
Italics are used for quotations from published theologians.

Matthew 16:24-25
Matthew 10:38-39
Mark 8:34-35
Luke 9:23-24
Luke 14:27
(texts below, at the end)

Jesus died for your sins! Human sin is a crime against God, and a just God must punish crime! But, as God is infinite and eternal, so any crime against God is equally infinite and eternal. What human punishment could ever suffice to atone for that infinite crime, you poor finite mortals? That is why God sent His Son, divine yet also completely human, to take the punishment for all humanity, to be the perfect human sacrifice! Jesus’ excruciating death on the cross satisfied God’s thirst for venge— …er, I mean satisfied God’s just demand for punishment! This was an act of grace! Yes, having Jesus killed was God’s loving act of supreme grace! By this your sins are forgiven – your sins, and the sins of all humankind in eternity! In this brutal (yet infinitely just) act of human sacrifice, you should find unspeakable joy! Shout Alleluia! Shout Alleluia! Shout—

Excuse me, I have a question?

Yes, yes, what is your question?

Well, I’ve been reading the Bible—

Good! Good! Scripture is surely the place to seek answers to all our questions.

Um, well, I can’t find the part where Jesus teaches what you just preached?

It’s in there! After all, this doctrine of substitute punishment has been the bedrock of our faith for 2000 years!

Um, actually, it was only about 1260 that Aquinas developed that particular theology of atonement. St. Anselm of Canterbury, some 150 years earlier, wrote something similar, around the year 1100. But before that, that’s not what the church taught.

What are you trying to say?

Well, as I said, I’d like to explore what Jesus himself said about the crucifixion, in the Gospels, you know? May I?

I suppose. I’m sure you’ll find this clearly explained in the Gospels.

I’d like to start with this morning’s Scripture readings. They’re from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the three earliest Gospels. I hear Jesus saying over and over, if we want to be his disciples, we have to take up our cross and follow him. And then I have to ask the question—

Wait a second! You can’t question the Bible!

Oh no, I would never do that! I’m just questioning one interpretation of the Bible that I heard. Isn’t it part of the whole idea of being Presbyterian, being Reformed Protestants, that Scripture is the ultimate authority, not the church’s interpretation, or anyone else’s interpretation?


So my question is, if Jesus paid the price of sin for us, once for all, why do we have to take up our cross, just like he did? Where’s the good news in that? I’ve always thought believing in Jesus set us free – free from our sin – that Jesus set us free when he died on the cross. If I have to carry a cross, does that mean I have to be crucified too? Getting crucified doesn’t sound very free to me. And yet, this is something that Jesus said in these three Gospels, so it can’t be wrong. What did he mean?

I did a little digging, and I found out that Matthew and Luke were both written about a generation after Mark. So Mark’s Gospel is the oldest. Plus, the evidence is pretty strong that Mark was a major source for the people who wrote Matthew and Luke. So I took a closer look at Mark. It turns out that, when this earliest Gospel talks about the meaning of Jesus’ death, it never says that Jesus died as a substitute to satisfy God’s demand that humankind must be punished for their sin – our sin.

Now hold on just a minute there! What about Mark chapter 10 verse 45? “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Doesn’t that say that Jesus was killed as punishment for our sins?

Thank you, I was just going to say something about that. There is that verse, or really half a verse, that says Jesus “came…to give his life a ransom for many.” It might seem to support this vicarious punishment idea. But is that really what the word ‘ransom’ means? Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in their book The Last Week, point out that the word is also used elsewhere in the Bible, and they explain its usage quite well: “The Greek word translated as ‘ransom’ is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin, but to refer to payment made to liberate captives or slaves. [It] is a means of liberation from bondage. Thus to say that Jesus gave ‘his life a ransom for many’ means he gave his life as a means of liberation from bondage.”

And when I looked at this verse in context – I’m sure you agree that we have to read Scripture in context? – I saw it differently. Even within that verse, the first half says Jesus “came not to be served, but to serve.”

This sounds more like a voluntary act than it does like a passive sacrificial lamb. He made a conscious choice to give his life for us – like a soldier who gives his life for his country. Jesus chose to serve his disciples, to serve us, by showing us his new way, the way of salvation, even knowing it meant death. Borg and Crossan put it this way: “How does Mark think Jesus’ death is a ‘ransom’ for many? …. It is not by Jesus substituting for [us], but by [our] participating in Jesus. [We] must pass through death to a new life here below upon this earth, and [we] can already see what that transformed life is like in Jesus himself.” Jesus was saying this is so important that he put everybody else’s good first, and put himself last, and he called us to follow his example.

Look at it this way: Jesus faced death knowing, in complete faith, that new life waited on the other side, and knowing that the only way to attain that new life was by passing through the death of his old life. That’s what he was trying to teach his disciples. Does that make him some kind of creepy precursor to Jim Jones, only with crosses instead of poisoned grape Kool-Aid?

By no means! (I’ve always wanted to say that in a sermon.) Jesus used death on a cross as an illustration of what it meant to serve, rather than be served. As Frederick C. Grant wrote in his analysis of Mark when he was Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Seminary, “Mark…hardly assumed that all Christians must be crucified; the language is certainly figurative.”

In almost every one of today’s readings, right after Jesus says take up your cross, the next thing he says is that those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will find it. Again this is figurative: as disciples, we must make the choice to lose our old life, our old self that wants to be served, so that we can find the new life, in which we serve others. That is how we take up our crosses and follow Jesus.

We are set free by participating with Jesus in this supreme act – set free from our slavery to our wanting, set free from our own desire to be served, and set free to love and serve the world, as we have always known God wants us to do.

Make no mistake, Jesus tells us – it’s difficult and it’s dangerous, this business of putting everyone else first. It will cost us our life, if not literally, then at least in the sense of losing our old self, losing our old idea of who we are. But, oh, the reward! To participate in the life and work and death and resurrection of Jesus – not as something that happened long ago and far away, but right here, right now, we can choose to participate in Jesus’ cross, and in his service. We can choose to follow Jesus – we are not captive to our own sinful ways. By taking the way of the cross, Jesus freed us from that captivity.

And that is good news indeed. That is a source of joy! That gives our lives meaning! That gives our lives holiness! That is something to celebrate! Shout Alleluia! Shou—

I’ll take it from here. Shout Alleluia! Shout Alleluia! Shout Alleluia!
Shout Amen!


Matthew 16.24-25: Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
Matthew 10.38-39: ‘and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
Mark 8.34-35: He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’
Luke 9.23-24: Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’
Luke 14.27: ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’

Poem: Between

This is something I wrote a few years ago, and posted on one of my old blogs. I was reminded of it today, first by a conversation with my therapist about the divinity of Christ, then again by a friend’s comment on my Facebook page. It’s not great poetry, but I still like the feelings and ideas behind it.



Truth lies in the Between
not in the particles of space
not in the grains of time
not in any of them
not even in all of them together.
Truth (or Existence or Being or God) lies in the Between
Can’t have the Between without that which it is between
But the Between is not either thing that it is between
Balance can’t be at either weight
Balance needs both weights but it is not both weights or either one

The clock moves. Time does not move.
People move. Space does not move.
Our thoughts/feelings/lives move. Existence does not move.
Time is.
Space is.
Existence is.
Religion moves. Faith moves. God does not move.
God is.
I do not move.
If movement then not I.

I am broken.
All is whole.
I am whole.
I am in the balance between broken and whole.
I am the balance.

Without brokenness I am incomplete.
Without wholeness I am incomplete.
It’s not a mix.
It’s both/and simultaneously with neither/nor.

I am both and I am neither.

Both what? Neither what?  NO!  It’s
the abstract, ideal Both;
the abstract, ideal Neither.

Truth is not the opposite of falsehood.
If there are opposites neither can be Truth.
Truth is in the Between.
It’s not the grains of time or the particles of space,
it’s what’s between them.
That’s where Truth is.

Between is not a place, not a time.
Then it would be a particle or a grain.
Between exists but only when you know what “exists” means.

I can only be if I rise above being.
Being is in a place, at a time.
To truly be is to transcend space and time.