Privilege in Arizona (and beyond)

A friend and I have a competition going about whose home state is more crazy (she’s from South Carolina) and last week she ceded that with the passing of SB1062, Arizona was definitely winning.

The legislation is pretty troubling, not to mention confusing. To be clear, SB1062 is an amendment to a previous law, and will allow business owners to refuse service to individuals based on religious beliefs. It now sits on the desk of Governor Jan Brewer waiting for a signature.

In the days since the law passed both houses of the Arizona legislature, many voices have urged Brewer to veto, including both of the states Republican Senators, the conservative Mayor of Mesa, and even 3 of the state senators who voted for the law in the first place. With that much pressure, it’s hard to see the law not being vetoed…though I put nothing out of the realm of possibility for politicians in Arizona.

While the law bothers me, there’s another trend that is much lager which worries me more. In this law, as in laws regarding women’s rights, marriage equality, and basically every issue related to race you can think of, our public sphere has decided that people’s abilities to be in control of their own lives doesn’t belong to them. According to our political debates, women need a government to tell them what they can and can’t do with their bodies, those who identify as gay need the state to tell them whether or not their love is the same as a same sex couple, and people who are Black need to be told whether or not their lives are as valuable as the lives of a person who is white.

I am about as privileged as it comes in this country. I am a straight male who is white. I went to college on the generosity of my parents, and had the social capital to get into graduate school. I am 27, and in an age in which many of my peers cannot find work due to the economic crisis, I am working full time in my chosen career. The social and economic system works for me in just about every way. I have never been pulled over because I looked “suspicious” and no one has ever questioned my ability to achieve what I set out to achieve.

What troubles me about the existence of these debates in our society right now is something I cannot fully relate to, but which I am aware of. It’s not just that these laws exist, or that there are people who have their rights restricted, or whatever; it’s that I am not, nor will I be, the subject of many of these debates. No one will ever debate my freedom to marry who I choose; no one will argue my right to birth control or try to regulate what I can and can’t do with my body; someone who looks like me will never be made to stand trial for their own death (see Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis); and no one will ever argue for whether or not I am allowed service in a restaurant.

Beyond the laws, the fact that we are debating them at all strikes me as undemocratic. Democracy literally translates as “self-rule,” something which cannot exist if those freedoms have to be approved by someone else. How can we practice self rule if the self is not in charge of making the decisions about very personal matters? How can we claim to live in a country that values democracy if we leave decisions about who can participate in day to day life to folks not affected by those decisions?

In terms of the Gospel, I am reminded that Jesus often encounters people whose lives have been controlled by others perceptions and political power. In John he walks up to a woman at a well, someone avoiding a crowd because she has been so ostracized, and rather that dictate to her some command or mechanism of control (which, it seems like she was expecting) he creates space for her to be who she is. In Luke, he encounters a tax collector name Zacchaeus. Rather than pronounce some form of requirement for fellowship, he simply welcomes the worried man to come down out of his tree and join in a meal.

Throughout the Gospels, this is Jesus’ method: folks who have been persecuted, whose lives have been determined from elsewhere, whose statuses have been the subject of public debate and discourse, are welcomed into the presence of the living God. They come into spaces where their lives and identities are no longer the topic of public discourse.

I’m getting tired of hearing debates about who can control women’s bodies, or whether or not those who identify as gay can express their love in a traditional ceremony, or whatever. And if I’m tired of them, as someone whose life decisions and identities will never be in question, I can only imagine how bad it has to be for the millions of people in this country whose lives are up for debate daily.

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