The role of privilege in our violent world

Rabbi Justin Kerber


I’m scared. Wherever I look, violence threatens. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof speaks about his recent trip to North Korea and why the prospect of nuclear conflict is terrifyingly real. 

The Times reports how soldiers of the military of Myanmar ripped a young Rohingya Muslim mother’s baby out of her arms and tossed him onto a fire, gang-raped her and slaughtered her family – along with 1,000 or perhaps as many as 5,000 Rohingya Muslims killed, 288 of their villages burned to the ground, thousands more fleeing to refugee camps in Bangladesh.  

In our country, police violence against African-Americans is so rampant that protest spreads to, of all venues, the National Football League. A movie mogul is revealed as a sexual predator. Just as climate science predicts, hurricanes grow more frequent and powerful; raging California wildfires incinerate acres, homes and, horribly, living human beings. Puerto Rico is devastated by a hurricane; weeks later, people die for lack of clean water and medicine. Neo-Nazis stage another (!) torchlight parade. The latest mass shooting sets a standard in slaughter.  

At home, a police officer is acquitted of murdering an African-American, and three weeks of protest ensues, scarcely covered by national news. Violence lurks everywhere: physical violence, potential violence, the violence of indifference, of exclusion, of systemic injustice.

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This week, our Torah introduces Noah, a flawed, righteous hero. Chillingly, Genesis 6:11 sets the scene: “Now the earth became corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.”  

The late Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz comments: “Violence: ruthless outrage of the rights of the weak by the strong.”  

Yes, everywhere, the strong outrage the weak, while too many look on without intervening.

Desperate to change the situation, I have little control over it. What I can control is my awareness of my roles in these corrupt systems, large and small, that produce violence and indifference.  Not that I am committing violence against anyone, yet I acknowledge my privileged position in these systems. 

I can see at least three ways I am privileged: my religious affiliation, my membership in the white race and my gender, even as I’ve become newly aware of the fragilities of my privileges.

First, I’ve known for a long time that the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition was invented ex nihilo by the U.S. military during the second World War in order to quell tensions among Catholic, Protestant and Jewish soldiers and sailors. In those days, too, there were calls to halt refugees — Jews fleeing the Third Reich — on the grounds that they might be spies. But my family and I benefit to this very day. Members of my family can leave their homes in Europe and come to this country if they wish. And there has indeed been violence against European Jewish communities. 

Yet, from Syria to Myanmar, Muslims with very well-founded fears of persecution are treated as objects of suspicion, presumed terrorists until proven otherwise. I had taken my own religious privilege for granted, but it is far more fragile than I had believed.

Then there’s my privilege of race. In August in Charlottesville, Va., a new generation of emboldened white supremacists came to march with faces unmasked, chanting, “You will not replace us! Jews (!) will not replace us!” Men armed with semi-automatic rifles menaced the local synagogue.  

I wasn’t just outraged, disgusted or scared, but nauseated. I felt motion sickness from feeling my place in the American pecking order sliding. According to these white supremacists, I’m not white. So what? Well, I’m excited to teach my son to drive soon.  But he doesn’t realize yet that when I teach him to drive, I’ll also have to teach him how to behave if he gets stopped by the police. 

“Hand over your license and registration, be polite and do as they say,” I’ll tell him, “or you could get arrested.” 

But when my African-American friend is teaching his son to drive, he’ll have to say, “… or you could get shot.”

Finally, I have the privilege of gender. Next year, God willing, my wife and I will celebrate our 20th anniversary. Our gay and lesbian friends haven’t had the option to marry that long.  As a man, I’m free of the chronic humiliations and very real reasons to be anxious that women experience all the time. 

Maybe I can’t quell the violence that is corrupting our world today. But I can take responsibility for my own part in it by being self-aware of how race, religion and gender privilege me, even if only for now. 

I might invite you to think about your own privilege. After all, it may not be up to us to complete the task of quelling our corrupted world’s violence, but neither are we at liberty to abandon it.

Rabbi Justin Kerber is a board certified chaplain, visiting  patients at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s  Hospital and SSM Health at Home Hospice. He serves as the rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim Beth Israel in Belleville. He is also a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which provides the weekly d’var Torah in the Light.