MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann received an Ally for Equality Award at the Greater New York Human Rights Campaign’s gala dinner two weeks ago. Olbermann, you may recall, made waves for his heartfelt denunciation of Prop 8. Below is a video of his speech, in which he talks about the experiences that awakened him, as a straight white man, to perceive prejudice against other groups and fight discrimination in all its forms.
I especially appreciated this insight, which Olbermann shares at around 9:30 minutes into the 13-minute video:
…We live at a time when everybody—especially, it seems, the purveyors of hatred and prejudice against religions, or races, or sexual orientations, or height, or hair color—everybody actually believes that they are also the victims of some kind of prejudice: the horrors of affirmative action, the destruction of the religious sanctity of marriage, or of course bias in the media. Yet very few of these folks ever make the great mental leap—if you are a victim of prejudice, the specifics of the prejudice become almost irrelevant. It is the hate that counts. If you have been on the receiving end, if you are even for the briefest of moments merely mistaken for a member of a victimized group…if you really are just brushed by this plague of hate, you have been given a gift. It’s brief, it’s cheap, it’s everlasting. You have, as the old saw goes, walked the mile in the other person’s shoes. If you are a victim of prejudice, you should now hate prejudice.
Olbermann understands the wrongness of the zero-sum thinking that calls same-sex partnerships a threat to heterosexual marriage. Shoring up our status at the expense of any group–sinful or not!–is exactly the opposite of what Jesus told us to do. Rather, our experience of suffering should make us more attuned to the humanity of someone else who is now suffering in the same way. This, I think, is one lesson we can draw from the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35.
In our complex, diverse society, it’s not uncommon for the same person to be disadvantaged by some characteristics while actually accruing privilege from others, or to be privileged in some contexts in their life but disadvantaged in others, even for the same trait. A conservative Christian may experience secular-liberal prejudice in her job as a university teacher, and sexism when she tries to buy a car, but when she casts her vote at the ballot box for Prop 8, she is still standing with the interests of the power structure–wielding the church-backed power of the majority to disenfranchise a stigmatized minority. One grievance drives out another.
In my experience, spiritually hungry people who can’t bring themselves to consider Christianity are not stymied by rationalist worries about miracles, evolution, or reason versus revelation. That may have been an older generation’s main concern, but not now. Now they’re upset because Christians seem to be the enemies of compassion and human rights. Someone has to step outside the vicious cycle of entitlement and prejudice. If it’s not us, what kind of gospel are we preaching?