So Much of the Privileged Life Is About Transcendence

Friday, July 7, 2017 - 4:42 pm

So Much of the Privileged Life Is About Transcendence

The day after the 2016 presidential election, I happened to be speaking at a conference in New Orleans, one of the bluest cities in the South. While wandering the working art studios in the Bourbon Street area, I encountered a local sculptor who, upon hearing that I teach peace and justice studies at Duke Divinity School, burst into zealous tears. Her collar soggy with snot and runny mascara, she articulated the disillusionment that many New Orleanians felt in the aftermath of the President Trump’s election.

“This is so devastating,” she lamented.

“Is there any hope? Where is God in the midst of this?”

Her sorrow didn’t surprise me; after all, over 80 percent of New Orleans’ voters chose Hillary Clinton. However, her difficulty in finding hope and God in the midst of such devastation is one that struck me as both distinctly human and distinctly privileged.

Indeed, as I’ve traveled the U.S. since the election, I’ve witnessed similar sentiments among privileged people (e.g., white and/or middle-class people). I honor the humanity in their vulnerable and sincere questioning. I also believe it is worth pointing out that privileged people’s immediate and enduring theological responses to the election have been decidedly less hopeful than those of people who identify with oppressed groups. This suggests to me that the difficulty in finding hope and God in the midst of devastation has deep roots in many privileged people’s theology.

The privileged life is all about transcendence, living a life that lies beyond the limits of ordinary experience. It’s about avoiding, escaping, or anesthetizing systemic/societal pain. It is quite effective as a system of transcendence in that most privileged people are deeply disconnected from the ordinary experience of many.

In 2017, a woman of color regularly faces food insecurity, violence, and/or housing instability. This is the norm. Since privileged people have agency and mobility, we can typically choose which neighborhoods we want to live in, which schools to send our children to, and which churches to attend. Most privileged people make choices that shield them from the realities of those who are excluded from such stable, safe, and prosperous communities. Intentionally or not, when privileged people choose to participate in economically- and racially-stratified neighborhoods, schools, and spiritual communities, they isolate themselves from the majority of people in their region who experience systemic oppression.

Given that transcendence is central to the privileged experience, it’s not surprising that many spiritual practices that are common among privileged people support a theology of transcendence, a belief that God lies beyond, not within, the limits of ordinary experience.

I recently attended a silent meditation retreat in which we spent all day alternating between walking and sitting meditation. Over course of the week-long retreat, we concluded our daily meditation practice by watching hundreds of chimney swallows gracefully circle the sky and eventually acrobatically swoop into the retreat center’s brick chimney for rest. The meditation teachers invited us to allow the “liturgy of the chimney swallows to wash over us,” and the act of watching this stunning natural theater was coined the “swallow meditation,” thus designating it a distinctly spiritual activity on par with the walking and sitting meditation that we had done all day.

I absolutely loved the swallow meditation and found it to be deeply edifying. And yet, as the only person of color at the retreat, I wondered whether a focused, curious meditation on the devastating effects of environmental racism in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods would have also been designated a spiritual activity. I’ve never been to a meditation retreat that included a “contaminated water meditation.”

Turning our attention toward systemic pain is not something we typically associate with spiritual nourishment and liberation, but what if it is? What if we can’t truly experience the hope of the Divine until we are able to experience the Divine in the most hopeless situations?

Throughout human history, the oppressed peoples of the world have, out of necessity, intentionally turned their focus on God in the midst of the most painful experiences.

Within the Christian tradition it is taught that Mary conceived of the Magnificat while living in dire circumstances as a Jew under Roman occupation, further endangered by her status as an unmarried pregnant woman of color. In her song, she articulates a theology of immanence, the belief that the God of hope is precisely to be found in the midst of uncertainty and distress.

Mary’s theology of immanence has three parts. First, she affirms that God has graced her particular situation, that God is by her side as she experiences oppression in her “lowly” social location:

“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,

and my spirit rejoices in you, my savior.

For you have looked with favor

upon your lowly servant,

and from this day forward

all generations will call me blessed.

For you, the Almighty, have done great things for

me, and holy is your Name.”

Second, she affirms that God is a God of justice who works on behalf of the systemically oppressed:

“Your mercy reaches from age to age

for those who fear you.

You have shown strength with your arm;

you have scattered the proud in their conceit;

you have deposed the mighty from their thrones

and raised the lowly to high places.

You have filled the hungry with good things,

while you have sent the rich away empty.”

Finally, she looks to the future with hope, affirming that God is coming to her aid and will fulfill the promises that were made to her ancestors:

“You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,

mindful of your mercy—

the promise you made to our ancestors—

to Sarah and Abraham

and their descendants forever.”

Unlike the privileged life, Mary’s life as a “lowly servant” fell within the limits of ordinary experience. She was unable to transcend the realities of the oppressed women of color of her day. As theologian Grace Ji-sun Kim teaches us, theology is biography. Mary’s theology grew out of her lived experiences of oppression. Her lived experiences required a robust theology that could withstand the pain and disillusionment that she regularly faced. Her understanding of God had to be intimately linked to her pain, so much so that hope and God were found in pain.

What would it look like for privileged Westerners to intentionally turn toward the very pain that we so often avoid, intentionally seeking out evidence that God is present, active, and bringing hope? Because in the end we must ask ourselves: How can we seek hope and God in the midst of devastating systemic pain if our whole lives are about escaping the reality of such pain?

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Christena Cleveland

is a social psychologist, public theologian, author and professor. She teaches at Duke University’s Divinity School and is the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    I so appreciate your sharing these observations here. Two in particular resonated with my recent experience.
    I am intimately involved with a community of society’s often extremely marginalized people, including people working toward recovery from mental illness and addiction. In my first experience some months ago in a weekly circle of reflective writing, the leader offered a poem and each person wrote for some time before sharing around. As each read his or her response, the optimism was breathtaking, like nothing I had seen among people of privilege I regularly encounter. The facilitator explained that the hope in the room sprang from what each person had seen himself live through (and I would say ultimately shine through with beauty intact).
    A second observation connects with your swallow meditation. So often privileged people forget that it is not that the least privileged people lack the enlightenment to arrange and appreciate delicious forays into nature or hours spent at the yoga studio or retreat. It is simply that access is much more available to some than to others.

  • Mikeljon

    I am grateful for the reminder of the ways my privileges can place me in a position of separation from the suffering of the poor and otherwise marginalized. And I also realize that my narrow use of the word transcend/transcendence in a spiritual context (moving beyond limitations, particularly material bonds) is only a single meaning of the word, that it also means people rising above the bonds of poverty or oppression, either in a spiritual sense or a material sense.

  • Gabby

    Well said.

  • Gabby

    With a disabled (adult) child myself I know how common it is for people who stood by you in less challenging times to distance themselves now so as to simplify their own lives at distance from your pain. I wish you some loved ones who will stand by you really. Finding comfort, hope, or faith are easier if one has a small level at least of emotional support that is always there for you.

  • Linda Grace

    The difference is Trump. Even during the campaign, he presented himself as a racist, a bigot, and a man who uses others for his own gain. He also showed himself to be a liar and an inciter of violence. Previous presidents have done none of those things; indeed, pre-Trump, if a candidate had acted or spoken in this manner, he or she would never have gotten the nomination to candidacy.

    I do agree with you that no politician will save us from ourselves. We need to open our eyes and hearts to those who need assistance – access to healthcare, access to education, access to job training, access to citizenship, etc. Our current administration does not seem to be taking us in that direction.

    • Doug

      Some valid points, Linda, but we’ll disagree on a couple. Regarding your last sentence, you seem to confuse inalienable rights with “access” to certain things. Access is not a “right.” Take citizenship, for example. Not everyone should be granted citizenship to the US – limits are not only prudent but moral as well. What we ought to focus on instead is exporting what we have to other nations so that their citizens don’t feel compelled to come here illegally. Travelling the world as much as I have it is clearly evident that our way of life, initiated by our brilliant Founding Fathers, is the finest in the world. Yes, it’s been corrupted by sin and selfish people, including greedy politicians. Nonetheless, we are the “City on a Hill” for the world (exceptions include the horror of abortion, the moral abomination of the L.G.B.T.Q. movement, and others) and they want what we have. Let’s help them get it in their own land. Replace the evils of communist and socialist economic systems with the gift of capitalism. Replace dictators and despots with democratically elected governments. That’s the best way to give people “access.”

      • M

        Doug, where does Linda say “access” equals “rights”? In fact she never does – YOU are the one who says that access is equated with rights. Then you go off into your own straw man argument about citizenship – apples and oranges, dude. You PURPOSEFULLY miss her point entirely to support your own world view. In fact, Linda’s point was that many people feel the election of Trump is a denigration, a diminishment of our country and its long-held values of tolerance, equality and compassion. He’s a disgrace. Own it – own your own bad choice instead of being in denial.

        And your idea that the “savior” America should export its “gift” of democracy – vs. welcoming those who are EXACTLY like our own ancestors who immigrated to this country for a better life? Wow, that’s convenient for you, Doug. “I’m here now, don’t let anyone else come in – but let’s try to create an American democracy in Syria!” Obtuse and arrogant. Exporting our democracy is a convenient – and might I say, very Non-Christian – excuse to ignore those who suffer and are being killed every day. It’s also just more disguised white colonization and imperialism. Been there, done that, and that way is no longer tolerated, Doug.

        Also, news flash: If our way of life was, as you say, the “finest in the world” than why did so many Trump supporters vote to destroy our system, hmm? Because that’s what they did: they voted for the person they knew would destroy our government; they wanted him to “Drain the swamp!” – because it wasn’t working for them any more – and if they could get their privileged heads out of the sand long enough, they’d see that it ONLY worked for them, and not for anyone who wasn’t white, male, Christian or heterosexual.

        TRUTH: we are NEVER going to return to the white fantasy USA from 100 years ago, where white men had all the power and hegemony, and women and brown people “knew their place.” When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Get used to having to share, Doug. That’s your future. Deal with it.

        I’m not traumatized by Trump – I laugh at the fool, and I’m disgusted by him, and by those who thought that using him as a weapon to carry out their white supremacist fantasy of denigration and diminishment of others might somehow give them MORE again. Decidedly UNCHRISTIAN, Doug.

        There is no greater gift than he who lays down his life for his friends. That’s Jesus’ truth. Is it yours?!?

        Of course, this is all just going to tick you off and you will refuse to consider a word I’ve written because it rocks your own personal worldview that you are some wonderful Christian human being. Guess what: if Jesus game back and saw what so-called Christians are doing to the marginalized and oppressed in this country, and abroad, he’d never stop puking. He’d be flipping over the tables in the temple, Doug, he’d be so pissed at all of you hypocrites.

        I don’t know why I bother to respond to you, as your belief that LBGT persons are “moral abominations” shows just how closed-minded you are. Self inquire into your own hates and demons, your own fears and ignorance. Before condemning the mote in another’s eye, cast out the one in your own.

        • Doug


          Far from your prediction, I was not the least bit mad, angry or upset by your post. In fact, the first time I read it I was smiling and a bit amused. Then I read it again, and was quite saddened. I realized that you really believe what you wrote; that you truly are ignorant (not dumb or unintelligent) about Scripture and history.

          You are the poster child for a victim of the public education (read – indoctrination) system. You have been duped into believing the lies and angry fantasies of a group of truly pathetic people who espouse the MYTHS of: 1) Big Bang as the start of the universe, 2) evolution as the creative system behind mankind, 3) global warming, 4) white privilege and oppression, 5) America as a bad nation.

          Your understanding of Scripture is so limited and biased that you have no clue of what you speak. Please defend LGBTQ using Scripture. Remember that Jesus said to the woman at the well “go and sin no more.”

          If Jesus could rewrite His words today He’d say something close to the following:

          “Many will say to Me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not protest Trump, and wear the Rainbow pin and march in support of LGBTQ rights, and advocate for inclusiveness in the church, and push to support the murder of children?” And He will day to them, “Be gone, I never knew you.”

          This nation took in immigrants who assimilated into our culture, MUCH LIKE WE OUGHT TO DO WHEN WE ARE IN OTHER COUNTRIES. The past couple of decades has seen people refuse to do so, and thus cause great division in our land.

          Our way is fantastic here in the USA – that’s why people want to come! It is why YOU stay here and don’t move to another country!

          President Obama normalized so much perversion during his presidency that President Trump needs to turn back the pages of perversion to get us to a more normal Eaton this country.

          You need to spend time reading your ENTIRE bible and see the vast majority of Scripture that you are completely ignorant about.

          Those who don’t take the teaching ha of Scripture seriously will fall victim to God’s judgement.

          All the best to you in your quest to repent and turn to His (not her) word.

          Praying for you too have your eyes opened.


          • M

            Whatever, dude. Good luck with your next incarnation.

          • Doug

            M, one day perhaps the Lord will open your eyes to see His truth in His Word. Until then, join Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Pres Obama, and others who suffer from utter blindness to truth. All the best in your quest for the truth (i.e. Conservative Principles)

  • NVlachos

    What you’re saying makes a lot of sense and is an unfortunate reality when it comes to white folks. Though I know next to nothing about meditation, I wonder: Does the act of meditation need to be separate from action in the world? That is, can we stand in solidarity with people and participate in their struggles as a way of meditating on Christ’s intervention in the world? I would be 1000% on board with meditation that is integrated with action. Perhaps meditation (like our understanding of God) doesn’t need to be passive and transcendent either but can include intentional presence alongside others as a way of reflecting more deeply, with mind and body at the same time.

  • Heather L Reid

    I would look into the retreats offered by the Peacemaker Order. They do street retreats, Pine Ridge Reservation and Auschwitz retreat for people of all faiths and backgrounds. I grew weary of transcendence in many ways as it denies suffering and often the female body. Got tired of the sun gods theology.

  • Laura

    I agree and disagree with this article. I agree that oppressed communities may have more faith and resilience in the face of strife because (unfairly) they are dealing with a harsher reality than people in privileged communities.

    I also agree that people of agency can take more responsibility for creating equality for everyone.

    However, it seems to me, that lumping all of white/middle class America together as lacking spiritual integrity or faith because they are responding to the results of an election differently than vulnerable communities is an oversimplification. Is how they articulate their religious beliefs during a crisis the only measure of someone’s faith? Their integrity? Perhaps people of agency are used to having more control over their environment and respond differently to crisis. Is that due to their lack of faith, or simply a conditioned response to the environment they were raised in?

    It feels like the subtext of this article is really that ‘liberal/white/middle class America’ doesn’t have the right to despair because they haven’t suffered as much as people in more vulnerable communities. Shaming others (whatever their color/class/politics) for how they deal with pain and fear is the antithesis of what we need to heal our divides. If the New Orleans artist who you used as an example reads this article I have no doubt she will never ask for spiritual guidance from a woman like you, or anyone else, ever again.

    • Doug

      Well stated. Let’s all try to avoid the false “white guilt” that those on the left who cry “we are marginalized” try to wield upon people. Man up! Stop complaining and blaming – take responsibility or go away.

  • letjusticerolldown

    Is there life in laying down one’s life or in the end is there only death? Why treasure hope?

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  • Karl Baba

    I live in the winters in India. The people most oriented toward transcendence that I meet there can be amongst the poorest of all, having very few possessions or privilege outside of the what arises from respect for their wisdom and choice toward the divine.

    Those are the Indians, some other westerners also come spend long times in India and although they are very privileged compared to a yogi living in a mud hut, they often are poor by western standards saving up doing all kinds of things in sacrifice in order to prioritize having sacred time in retreat.

    The foreigners have generally caught on to the new paradigm of working through emotions and past traumas as well as getting in touch with their deep essence as well. Indians taking a more traditional approach of abandoning the world pretty completely.

    To each their own. Some people want to immerse completely in the world and politics and ambition, others have a different calling. I feel like people writing articles like this maybe doing something they themselves wouldn’t want done to them, telling them how to be.

  • Denny John

    Here’s a manifestation meditation:

    “I will do the service I can about the suffering that presents itself with the agency I posses.”

    It’s a simple yet Golden Rule no matter your life circumstance.

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