Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Queen thinks the world smells of magnolia paint

Some years ago I was working on an RAF base in Norfolk close to the town in which we lived. I happen to be there about a week before the visit of the Queen. As part of her tour around the base she was due to inspect one of the married quarters situated close to the main entrance.

My contact invited me to take a look at the house that had been prepared for this VIP visitor. It seems the RAF were keen to show her majesty how this section of her loyal servants lived.

The room, of course, had been given something of a makeover in order to create a good impression; new carpets, freshly laid lawn (borrowed from a local cricket pitch), a chandelier in the lounge. In addition the toilet that had been soundproofed just in case HRH needed to spend a royal penny.

It goes without saying that whole house had been repainted: mostly with magnolia paint. This kind of unreality is what the Queen experiences everywhere she goes.

Each of various hospital wards, charity buildings, factories, and other assorted venues will have been freshly painted just prior to her visit. Hence the phrase 'The Queen thinks the whole world smells of paint'. I added the word magnolia after my visit to the RAF base and the fact that it seems to be the standard cover-all colour of choice for builders and decorators up and down the United Kingdom.

It is not directly the queens fault of course; the Palace doesn't demand cricket pitch standard lawns and soundproofed toilets. In addition she cannot truly know what she doesn't know.

There is a similar emotional truth for all of us as the people we meet will 'paint' the world, negatively or positively, in response to our presence and the preconceived ideas they have. In this way it could be said that each of us 'smells' (or views) the world in our own unique way and we don't completely know how other people perceive things. So it is with issues of race, gender, and sexuality; we can do our best to empathise but we can only know in part.

This is additionally complicated by the fact that some of us occupy positions of privilege. I as a white, western, heterosexual, male, walk around a world that has been freshly painted to my advantage compared to the world experienced by those who do not fit into these often privileged categories.

Now, in one sense, there is understandably nothing I can do about this; without wanting to turn this into a musical 'I am what I am'. It does, however, present me with both a challenge and a responsibility.

Firstly, the challenge is for me to acknowledge the privilege that is delivered to me often without my knowledge; to acknowledge the presence of the 'magnolia paint' and to recognise that our reality is not the reality for the many others who are not offered such a privilege.

Secondly, I have a responsibility to both listen to those who do not have my own kind of privilege and to become part of movement for change. When I come to engage with issues of race I must first acknowledge my position of privilege - in that I personally live in a society that is weighted in the favour of a white person.

The popular press would like to present a different picture when dealing with issues such as immigration, policing, or education but I know that my path is eased by the colour of my skin. Similarly when tackling gender inequality I can never fully know how it feels for a woman to deal with systemic gender bias: no-one has ever considered not employing me because I am in my 'childbearing years'.

Likewise when addressing issues of sexuality I am also privileged in the my hetrosexuality is never brought up as a description of who I am.

Challenging the place of privilege, even in ourselves, is turning the system upside down so that inequality is shown for the problem that it is.

Challenging the place of privilege is declaring that in God's kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first, even if it costs us to do so; perhaps even if it makes us look so Christ-like that it costs us our lives.

So here I am a white, western, heterosexual, male and I admit that the world smells of fresh magnolia paint in a way that is not true for others and I am committed to becoming part of the answer.

Now when I engage in debate with a fellow Christian over some theological issue or other I need to be aware of the worldview that I have. I am often saddened that some tend to speak as if they are coming to the text of scripture without any cultural influences. The suggestion is that we need to understand what the bible 'actually says' and that this is possible without first acknowledging the cultural glasses we wear when we read its pages.

Now I am not saying that because I have begun the journey of acknowledging the magnolia paint in my world that this makes my theology correct. I am saying, however, that we all, without exception, are influenced in such a way; whether we wish to acknowledge it or not.

Nobody, and I feel confident in saying this, takes the bible literally, even if they insist that they do. We all contextualise in order to find a way of appropriating the story to our own situation.

So when the more conservative end of the church accuse me of being a slave to 'popular' culture I can remind them that this is no different to being a slave to 'unpopular' culture. Just because your influences are rooted in modernity and mine have flavours of post-modernity does not mean that you are reading the bible in a plain or literal way. All of us are under an influence. All of us bring magnolia paint to the text. The problem is that some of us will not admit it.

1 comment:

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