When I was a child, I heard the grown-ups around me talk about people who didn’t know their place. I think it was a way of exercising social control. Children didn’t know their place when they talked back to grown ups or when they were heard and seen. Women didn’t know their place when they publically contradicted men. Men didn’t know their place when they went against the grain. “Knowing your place”—it made me mad every time I heard someone use that phrase.
Recently, I’ve had second thoughts about that phrase, “know your place.” I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t important to know your place and to claim it too. Place is what grounds us, defines us, makes us who we are. Perhaps that’s why writers often pay so much attention to place. It helps to know a person’s sense of place.
The importance of knowing one’s place was brought home to me this week as I sat at a meeting focusing on issues confronting people experiencing homelessness. We were engaged in an intense conversation about concrete steps we might take to make things better. At one point in the conversation, I looked around the table. I was the only person at the table whose livelihood and work did not depend on government dollars. More important, I was the only one at the table who was there because of my being a Christian. Indeed, had I not been a priest, I would not have been sitting at that table. I needed to know my place and the obligations that place entailed. I needed to ask the question, “What does being a Christian demand in this moment?”
That question and my answer to it made all the difference in the world. Things shifted for me, for the people gathered around the table, and for the people we all serve. If only I would ask that question more often. If only I would remember my place and claim it in the moment. I can imagine that sometimes knowing one’s place as a Christian means turning over tables; sometimes it means exercising Christ’s reconciling love; and sometimes it means looking around the table, seeing who is there and who is not there, and opening wide the door to let outsiders in. I’m curious, “What does being a Christian in the moment mean to you this moment?”