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Complex Privilege

One day at about three in the afternoon [Cornelius] had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius! … Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.”
- from Acts 10:3-5

Cornelius lived a life of privilege. Wealth. Respect. Access to power. Privilege, privilege, privilege. Except in one area.

Cornelius was both a Roman centurion and a God-fearer. He worshipped the God of Israel instead of the Roman civil and household gods. But as a Gentile and a Roman, Cornelius would always be on the outside of his worshipping community.

His work and his allegiances would have made him unclean. His ethnic background would have made the Jews – who worshipped the same God he worshipped – suspicious of him. He wouldn’t be allowed to fully enter the Temple. He wouldn’t be welcomed in the homes of those who shared his faith.

Cornelius, the person of peace and the man of privilege, would have been a perpetual outsider in his “church.” Yet he still believed. He participated as much as he could in the worship of God. And God noticed.

When Cornelius reached out to Peter he was reaching down (to someone “beneath” his social standing) but he was also reaching up (to someone who had better access, it was thought, to God). In inviting Peter to his home, Cornelius ran the risk that Peter would call Cornelius a “Gentile dog” and refuse to go along, shaming Cornelius in front of his servants and creating an escalating confrontation.

We can easily underestimate the complexity of privilege and the dynamics of power. You may think you have complete freedom to reach out to someone who is different from you and yet find yourself encountering roadblocks when you make your attempt.

If we encounter complicated power dynamics when interacting with our bosses and our in-laws, how much more will we encounter them when attempting to cross economic and ethnic divides?

Where have you encountered roadblocks as you’ve tried to reach out? Have you ever felt like you just don’t have the power to cross a divide? What did you do when you encountered that feeling?

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