By Norris Burkes

Sept 7 2019 (2)

I took my first airplane flight out of California when I was 17. I still remember the astonishment I felt over magically emerging three hours later into the southern culture of Baylor University.

That was a different day when passengers breezed through metal detectors and were divided into smoking and nonsmoking seating.

These days, speaking engagements and family visits have put me on more planes than I could have imagined back then. But no matter how much I travel, I’m not sure I’ll ever become comfortable with the security checkpoints.

On a flight some years ago, I entered the security line huffing and puffing for a flight that was to leave in the next 20 minutes.

Shockingly, the security agent raised a halting hand to my chest and said, “You’ve been randomly selected for special screening,” he said, as he directed me into a cubicle. In other words, specially selected to “hurry up and wait.”

With military ID in hand, I insinuated he might let me pass as a way to “thank me for my service.”

But he wasn’t persuaded. He pointed to the squiggly line the gate agent had slashed on my boarding pass. Military service didn’t matter. I was a marked man, to be treated like every other suspected terrorist.

My heart was thumping with anxiety. I wanted to tell him that my mother didn’t raise a highjacking fool. I wanted to explain that I was a chaplain and a retired lieutenant colonel, but I could see he wasn’t the kind to grant a colonel kernel of sympathy.

Inside his walled world, the officer instructed me to raise my arms while he buzzed my torso and procreative parts with his search wand. He wasn’t granting me any special passage.

Inside my head, my privileged voice was telling me, “You’re above the rules,” and “Rules are made for bad people.” I know that’s crazy, but sometimes the voice sounds so completely trustworthy that I’m sure it’s OK to adjust the rules for my benefit. That voice can sound so honorable that I’m sometimes sure everyone else will trust it too.

It’s the same privileged voice recounted in Matthew’s gospel when a group of religious leaders sought special placement in the Eternal Security Line.

The men came to the Jordan River seeking baptism from Jesus’ crazy-eyed second cousin, John the Baptist. They were seeking baptism, not for its life-changing possibilities, but because they’d heard it was the cool thing to do. Moreover, they assumed J-the-B would welcome the notoriety of dunking such a holy entourage.

Instead of being honored by their presence, the Baptist dude exploded on them, calling them a “brood of vipers.”

“What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river?” he asked. “This is about your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”

If you are honest with yourself today, I suspect you sometimes recognize the deceptive voice of privilege. It’s the voice we use when we insist that people accept us simply because we’re a Christian, or because our family is rich, or because we speak English or because we are tall white men. Or because we are a chaplain.

We use this voice when we need to believe that we are extraordinary. When the voice works well, it becomes self-perpetuating. We believe that our ability to escape consequences only proves how exceptional we are.

But as my Baptist friend said more than 2,000 years ago, there is no special privilege before God, where all of our self-justification becomes deadwood.

In fact, “deadwood” is a most apt description, because that’s exactly how I felt knocking on the locked jet-way door.

I was astonished to find that the pilot was also feeling privileged as she exercised her option of leaving without me.


Contact Chaplain Norris at or 10566 Combie Rd
Suite 6643 Auburn CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715