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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Privilege, Power, and the Cycle of Gospel Living: Lessons from the Kaleidoscope Institute

In March, I was fortunate to attend a powerful intercultural training week. The Catalyst program, hosted as a partnership between Luther Seminary and the Kaleidoscope Institute, served as a deep dive into difficult issues of race, culture, privilege, and power. I'd like to talk a little bit about that and share a powerful exercise with you today.

As a white male growing up in the United States, I have historically been minimally aware of my privilege throughout my life. However, I have had some moments of unsettling clarity. There was the time when I was pulled over with a group of my African-American friends in a car and I was the only one who was not asked for his ID. There was the time when I asked my friend why he couldn’t just have his dad pay child support (like my dad), so he wouldn’t have to quit the team and get a job to help his mom pay her bills. Then there was the time I walked out of the school with my black friend to cut class and the hall monitor asked him where he was going as I kept on strolling. Ultimately, these moments have been there -- but I have never quite experienced my privilege as strongly as I did during this Kaleidoscope training.

During a power assessment exercise where we quantified our power and privilege, I could only sit there with my jaw dropped. We were asked the question, “Which of these categories (ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc.) is the privileged group and which do you belong to?” Participants were supposed to give themselves one point for each. I had the highest score in the class with 11 out of 12! I found myself feeling embarrassed.

Many people are resistant to the idea that they are privileged or have power, because it can be embarrassing to have someone else paint you with that brush. The beauty of this exercise is that it allows the individual to define who has privilege and then determine for themselves if they, in fact, belong to the privileged group. To those of us who scored high in the power assessment scale, Kaleidoscope founder and director Dr. Eric Law explained that our job as a follower of Jesus in most spaces is to be quiet and let others speak. This kenotic act gives power to others and enacts what he calls “The Cycle of Gospel Living”. For those who score low on the power assessment scale, God is calling them to speak up more, to be heard, and to be taken seriously.

Power is not necessarily a static thing. As Christian public leaders, our role gives us positional power in the room beyond what we may possess as individuals. God is calling us to wield this power in a way that creates opportunity for others. When I was a student here, Luther Seminary professor Dr. Dwight Zscheile once told our class that leaders should never do or say anything that cannot be done or said by someone else in the group. In other words, if you aren’t adding something new to the mix, you should allow the wisdom to emerge from the group. A great facilitator is one who can draw out holy wisdom from others and barely be noticed.

“Willingly giving up power? This is not fun or easy at all!” we say to ourselves. Yes: it is actually very painful. It is like a death that we experience, a death as our ego-self frets over its ability to survive. But: at this season of Easter, aren’t we supposed to believe that death doesn’t actually get to have the last word? As our power is poured out for others, we are also filled with love that allows old things to pass away and new creations to emerge.

So, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to take up your cross, die daily, and make room for others. And then, as you sit in the pain of your sacrifice, may God lift you up and raise you with new life and hope. You know, that whole Easter thing!

Happy Easter! Take a deep breath and take in the beautiful story of the Risen Christ.

Peace, Dave

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