When living in Norfolk several years ago I happened to be completing a speaking engagement on an RAF base not far from our home. It was about a week before Queen Elizabeth was due to visit to inspect the camp.
I was given access to one of the married quarters that would be used to show the Queen how this section of her loyal servants lived. The room had been given somewhat 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, and a toilet that had been soundproofed just in case HRH needed to spend a royal penny. In addition the whole house had been repainted.
This taste of unreality is what the Queen experiences everywhere she goes. Each of numerous 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 magnolia paint'. Magnolia being the standard cover-all colour of choice by builders and decorators up and down the United Kingdom.
It is not directly the queens fault of course. She cannot truly know what she doesn't know. In a similar way 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 freshly painted world compared to the world experienced by those who do not fit into these categories.
Now there is understandably nothing I can do about these categories; 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 this is not the reality for others who are not offered such a privilege.
Secondly, I have a responsibility to both listen to those who do not have the advantage of privilege and to become part of movement of change.
When I come to engage with issues of race I must first acknowledge my position of privilege in that I 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 issue such as immigration but I know that my path is eased by the colour of my skin.
Similarly when tackling issues of gender I can never fully know how it feels for a woman to deal with systemic gender bias.
Likewise when addressing issues of sexuality I am also privileged. I have been struck by some of the arguments raised against the proposed inclusion of homosexual marriage that seem to suggest those with a more traditional view are being victimised. It is my view that this stems from a lack of appreciation for the privilege position of being heterosexual in our society. We can never know what it is to face the kind of rejection and negative treatment experienced by our gay friends and family.
In first century Palestine it was thought shocking connect with Gentiles, Romans, Prostitutes, the sick,and Tax Collectors yet these are the kinds of people that Jesus related to even at the risk of being condemned himself. In doing so he showed us that no earthly constructed privilege hierarchy could truly define the value of human beings. He came to show us that all are equal and all are equally loved by God.
At the beginning of his major sermon highlighting just how things were meant to be in a kingdom where God was in charge he declared that the poor in spirit were to be known as blessed. The ptochoi pneuma (spiritually breathless) where to be makarios (free and unfettered).
Challenging the place of privilege, even in ourselves, is turning the system upside down so that inequality is shown for the evil 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 Christ-like and 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.