“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.”
A Life of Privilege
My cousin is a carpenter. He lives with his wife and two young children in rural Minnesota, in a weathered Victorian house high on a hill. The house, when I first saw it, was a husk. Narrow boards had been affixed to span chasms in the floor that would be mended when the better wood arrived; sunbeams shining through tarped holes in the ceiling dappled dusty corners. The work would take time. My cousin’s work room was on the top floor, and nailed onto a shelf above his drafting table was a small, 4” x 8” piece of plywood, on which he had painted the words, “This is a privilege.” This—this dubiously redeemable house, so unsuitable he and his wife and new baby had to live in an apartment while the work progressed—was a privilege. The resilience and optimism of that sentence in that environment winded me. I took a photo.
That was two years ago. I have looked at that photo a lot since then, and its real meaning has become clear. I think of that sentence when I read the news. “Sikh community asks for hate-crime probe after man is told ‘go back to your own country’ and shot.” (“This is a privilege.”) “US losing its national identity, 71 percent of Americans say.” (“This is a privilege.”) “Jewish leaders demand probe into toppled headstones.” (“This is a privilege.”) I now understand what my cousin meant. It is a privilege to have both the agency and the opportunity to improve something you love. It is a privilege to be able to improve something you love through working with your own two hands. It is a privilege to love something so much that you would take real risks on its behalf.
This hard, ceaseless work of improvement is the privilege of every American, native born or newly arrived. Like the sacred covenant of baptism binds us to God, the sacred covenant of citizenship binds us to each other. Two hundred years ago, in a letter to John Taylor, John Adams wrote, “Liberty, according to my metaphysics, is a self-determining power in an intellectual agent. It implies thought and choice and power.” Let us exercise our liberty on behalf of one another. Let us work together to improve and strengthen our union. This is our privilege.
Appointed readings for today: Jeremiah 7:23-28, Psalm 95:6-11, Luke 11:14-23