Saturday, May 27, 2006

"For Such a Time As This", Esther and the Purpose of Privilege

(A picture of Queen Esther)

I often think about the divine standard given in the Gospel, "To whom much is given, much will be required". As a profoundly privileged black American I meditate on the meaning of this divine standard every day and try to live out its implications. It reminds me of one of my favorite stories from the Hebrew Bible about the purpose of privilege, the story of Esther. Esther had been favored with ascending from being a common person to being Queen of a foreign empire that ruled over her people. A time came when a powerful enemy arose intent upon her people's destruction. She was faced with a challenge, use her position to save her people and risk possible exposure and death herself, or keep silent:

Then Mordecai bade them to return answer unto Esther: 'Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews. For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father's house will perish; and who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this?' (emphasis mine) (Kesuvim (Writings), Esther)

This kind of moral challenge is mentioned at the end of Peggy McIntosh's article, "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women's Studies" (1988)

Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base. (emphasis, mine)

I have to come to understand that the purpose of any privilege I possess, whether earned or unearned is to use it to empower others and serve the cause of justice. To wallow in self-pity and guilt over such privilege is an exercise in narcissism that accomplishes nothing and serves no one. One of the greatest betrayals in human relationships occurs when those blessed with the power of privilege fail to exercise that power in critical moments when it could have made all the difference. Baha'u'llah asks the following question of those blessed with privilege who fail to use it in the service of justice:

If ye stay not the hand of the oppressor, if ye fail to safeguard the rights of the down-trodden, what right have ye then to vaunt yourselves among men? What is it of which ye can rightly boast? Is it on your food and your drink that ye pride yourselves, on the riches ye lay up in your treasuries, on the diversity and the cost of the ornaments with which ye deck yourselves? (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 252)

As I strive to fulfill the true purpose of those privileges I possess, I strive to meet the challenge inherent in becoming a true Baha'i:

Let your actions cry aloud to the world that you are indeed Bahá'ís, for it is actions that speak to the world and are the cause of the progress of humanity. If we are true Bahá'ís speech is not needed...Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute! This is the work of a true Bahá'í, and this is what is expected of him. If we strive to do all this, then are we true Bahá'ís, but if we neglect it, we are not followers of the Light, and we have no right to the name. God, who sees all hearts, knows how far our lives are the fulfilment of our words. (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 80)