It’s Time for Christians to Acknowledge Privilege

Why churches need to talk about—and understand—ideas like 'white privilege.'

Open up any social media platform, and you'll likely be confronted with entrenched opinions on the topic of privilege.

Stories like those of Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Ferguson, Michael Brown and Eric Garner have made the issue unavoidable and are holding a mirror up to the face of American culture, forcing us to ask difficult questions. 



But as your Facebook feed will quickly tell you, not everyone agrees that white people, men, or any other social group has any special advantages or immunities over others. Granted, in many cases, it's white people who deny the existence of white privilege and males who balk at the idea that men benefit from the way our cultural system is structured (usually quite angrily). 



Surely Christians are different though, right? Surely they'll take time to stop and really consider whether the system they're a part of is contributing to the marginalization of others. Won't they?

Not so fast.



In a recent letter to the editor of the Moody Standard entitled "Rescinding the Term 'White Privilege,'" Bryan Litfin, a professor of theology at Moody, proposed “five reasons why the term ‘white privilege’ isn’t appropriate for Christian discourse.”



I strongly suggest that if we as Christians allow ourselves to think that talking about privilege “isn't appropriate for Christian discourse,” we're going to find ourselves on the wrong side of this subject. Believe it or not, privilege may be one of the defining issues for the Church in the 21st century. 


Can There Be 'Underprivileged' Without Privilege?

Part of the problem is that, if we're going to imagine that there's a "privileged" people, it's easy to think it's someone else—not us.

All my life I've heard the term “underprivileged.” It was used when we talked about people in impoverished countries or children who needed assistance with school lunches and winter coats. I've never heard anyone take exception to the term.

But for some reason, when you bring up the idea that there are people who are privileged, some people get offended. But how can you have people who are underprivileged without having people who are privileged?

Part of the problem is that, if we're going to imagine that there's a "privileged" people, it's easy to think it's someone else—not us.

The Spectrum of Privilege

If you lined up everyone in the world according their access to healthy food, pure water, shelter and sustainable wages, you'd have the most underprivileged people on one end of the scale, and the most privileged people in the world on the other. If you were born in the West, you're going to naturally find yourself clustered with the privileged.

Where you land is typically outside of your control. That said, there are also systemic injustices that help maintain the spectrum as we know it. Some of the poorer countries suffer from civil unrest and terrible governments who oppress them. Some of the businesses and governments in more privileged countries take advantage of poorer nations by exploiting them and taking their resources.

So, while it might not be anyone's fault where they are on the spectrum, it is the responsibility for justice-minded people on the more privileged end to do what they can to assist the people on the lower end and work to change the broken and corrupt systems that keep them there.

Privilege at Home

This spectrum dramatically changes when you go from an international scale to a national one. People on the lower end of the economic spectrum in America may find themselves higher on an international scale, but within their current context, there are still major challenges. It doesn't help a mother of three struggling to make it in Detroit to tell them, “Buck up, you're doing much better than the average mother in a developing country.”

Race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social class, and disability have a great effect on the quality of life in America (or any country)—and to deny that just seems very misinformed.

'Who Are You to Tell Me I'm Privileged?!'

One of the arguments I hear all of the time goes something like this, “How can I be privileged? I've worked so hard to get where I am. How dare you call me privileged!"

I'm a healthy, white, middle-class man, and I've had virtually no say in any of those factors. This doesn't mean I haven't had to work to succeed; it means that I haven't had to work around many of the economic and sociological boundaries others have. Sure, there are many people of color who are more successful than I am, but by-and-large, all things being equal:

When you look at the pay gap, there's a huge discrepancy when it comes to race, and an even greater one when it comes to gender.

The mythology that, no matter who you are, you can be whatever you want to be if you just work hard makes it difficult to have this discussion. Working hard matters, there's no question about it. But this is by no means a level playing field, and by pretending that it is—or that all cultural barriers can be bypassed by simply working harder—we solidify issues of privilege.

Does Jesus Care About Privilege?

Christians, just like everyone else, are sinful and can take advantage of corrupt systems of power. Yes, there were Christians who fought for women's suffrage, for Native Americans and against slavery, but there are also many Christians who have been on the wrong side of issues of privilege. It's no wonder that there are people who puzzle over whether the Jesus of modern Christianity cares about the issue of privilege at all.

Not only did Jesus abandon the ultimate privilege to walk among us (Philippians 2:5-11), His concern for the underprivileged helped put Him in the crosshairs of the religious establishment. He spoke up for the poor, healed the sick of the racially underprivileged (even at times when it wasn't religiously acceptable to do so—see Mark 3:1-6) and spoke up for and treated women like valued and important members of society. It's obvious that the introduction of Christianity was intended to plant sociological seeds that would drive a stake into the heart of privilege.

Not only did Jesus abandon the ultimate privilege to walk among us, His concern for the underprivileged helped put Him in the crosshairs of the religious establishment.

What Do We Do About It?

Many of the problems we're talking about are systemic. I didn't choose them, and feeling guilty about it doesn’t do anyone any good.

The bigger question is, “What do we do about it?”

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Once we recognize the issue of privilege, we're responsible for our response. We can't simply continue to soak up the benefits of privilege and deny they exist.

It's not enough for me to just reject the idea of privilege. I might get a boost of moral superiority by saying “I reject my privileged status as a white male in America,” but it doesn't change the fact that I'm going to still benefit from this systemic weaknesses in modern American society. So I have to do something else. I have to subvert the system—I have to leverage my privilege for the benefit of others.

In doing this, those with privilege need to be careful not to speak over those who have been marginalized. Instead of acting like we know what it is like to be black, female, gay, handicapped, Muslim or part of any other group we have not experienced from the inside—we need to step back and listen to and raise their voices.

The first step for stronger, more empathetic churches is to break out of our intellectual, theological and sociological cul-de-sacs. It is a lot of work not to standardize and prescribe my perspective for everyone. I tend to think I'm pretty objective, but my objectivity is colored by my limited experience and understanding. It's time for churches in America to provide room for more voices.



We must decide to quit only looking to people like ourselves to define the experiences of people who are different. We must go to the source. Read widely and deeply from people with different perspectives and experiences. Share what you learn.



And remember, our war isn't against people. It's against principalities and powers—including those systemic powers holding others back. 

An earlier version of this post was published at jaysondbradley.com.

Top Comments

Caleb Boquist

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Caleb Boquist commented…

Most of these comments are testifying to the very attitudes the writer was talking about. How about instead of reacting to a word or idea that you think you understand and disagree with, how about considering a perspective that is not your own? If a million people are crying out in pain, claiming that they have been mistreated and abused, can we in good faith stand aside and claim that their cries for help and justice have no merit simply because that has not been our experience? Who are we to tell the beleaguered that they aren't really in pain?

Molly Smith Detweiler

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25 Comments

Robert Mullin

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Robert Mullin commented…

First of all, Mr. Bradley confuses inequality with injustice. The existence of inequality does not guarantee injustice in society. Free markets are volatile and create inequality all the time but it is not unjust and nor is it the fault of Western European people.

Secondly, Mr. Bradley blanket states that all white people are priviledged and should constantly be aware and feal guilty about it. Let us put aside for now how racist a viewpoint that is and instead focus on how condescending and insulting it is. When Bradley says 'check your privilege' he really means 'sit down and be quiet because you are white and all inequality is your fault, so therefore you are not invited to participate in free speech and voice your self interest. You have to check those privileges at the door because of the color of your skin and the good decisions your forebears made that have left you privileged... maybe... unless you are poor, but that isn't likely because you are white!' Except that among the ten wealthiest nations by GDP per capita the USA isn't even in the top 3. Or top 5. Or top ten. USA scrapes in at number eleven Mr. Bradley. Eleven. Only three 'white' countries rank in the top ten and they are all in Europe. It seems perhaps then that you should take your condescending and poorly researched privilege lecture on the road to Qatar, Kuwait, Singapore, Brunei, UAE, San Marino or Hong Kong since they enjoy more wealth, influence and general privilege than 'white' people in North America do.

Third, the gender pay gap is a well documented myth that has zero credibility among economists male and female. A simple Google search outside of the leftist SJW information suppressing bubble would have proven this. That or an Introduction to Basic Statistics course at your local community college. Either one would be sufficient.

Fourth, you are correct insofar that white North Americans are more likely to go to college, but that isn't a result of any kind of systematic oppression, it is a result of cultural values. The Scottish Enlightenment to be exact. One of the values that carried forth from the Scottish Enlightenment was the importance of higher education. This carried forward into American values hence why our grandparents and parents stressed the importance of it to us. High college attendance rates among 'white' Americans is a result of cultural values impacting the choices we make as individuals, not the result of some mythical barrier to other people of different backgrounds. I've never encountered a college application form that asks the color of the applicant's skin. College is a huge investment of time, money and opportunity cost that in general 'white' Americans value more than others. The injustices Mr. Bradley lists after education make sense when in context without needing to be part of the wider 'white' conspiracy. Those with higher education are less likely to go to prison because they are less likely to be arrested in the first place. Those with higher education can get that job interview call back due to being educated and then have shelter because they have that job. Bradley lists these things as bulletpoints connected to race but they are not, they are connected to education and values. Non-white people become wealthy in America everyday because ultimately the free market does not discriminate. Turn on your TV and look at all the hugely successful African Americans. A society geared to only give social and economic advantages to 'white' people could not produce an Oprah, Kanye West, Will Smith, Floyd Mayweather, Neil deGrasse Tyson etc.

Lastly, you say we must wage war against our current principles, but what does that mean Mr. Bradley? Our principles boil down to essential freedoms of speech, economics and self determinism, so what do you suggest? Wealth and property redistribution to make things more equal (even though inequality is not in and of itself unjust)? Who will do the redistributing? The government? A mob of people who feel they are victims? Your problem Mr. Bradley is that you assume one simple cause of injustice in a mythical white male patriarchy that controls all levels of government and industry with the sole intent of oppressing women and minorities. The harsh truth is there are numerous social, cultural and economic reasons for inequality, but there is no evidence that the 'patriarchy' or any one cause, imagined or real, is to blame. The harsh reality is the free market is fair but also coarsening and volatile. It requires the temperament of people who possess the determination to accomplish their definition of success, not those who would cry victim when times get tough.

PS Mr. Bradley your theology is also insufficient to support your claims of 'white' privilege, and although theology is not my primary study (it was my minor) I feel it is necessary for me to remind you that Jesus was born into a people under the harsh subjugation of the Romans. The Romans definitely gave themselves every advantage over the people they conquered often making slaves and demanding excessive taxes among other injustices. Yet, Christ never blames the Romans. He easily could have but He never did. Instead He invited people to think clearly about their own sin, choices made and lack of charity (charity by definition being voluntary and not wealth redistribution.) Two wrongs never make a right Mr. Bradley, and I refuse to be told to sit down and be quiet because I am a man, white and have benefitted from a good work ethic cultivated by my parents and the generations before them who strove to give each successive generation better opportunities. It is ironic that your solution to prevent perceived racism and injustice is in and of itself racist and unjust. Check your racist generalized assumptions next time Mr. Bradley, and perhaps recognize more fully your 'limited experience and understanding' (your words, not mine) before you jump on the intellectually and morally bankrupt social justice warrior/neo-feminist band wagon. Remember that Christ engaged in dialogue rather than attempting to supress it. He didn't tell Romans to 'check their privilege' even when they were killing Him. He only asks that we as individuals do our best to make choices that would honor Him. That we try to live in His example.

PPS Dear Relevant Magazine, please resume being a faith based magazine and ditch the psuedo-socialist rhetoric articles. Thank you and have a great day.

William Dave Powers

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William Dave Powers commented…

http://www.9news.com.au/national/2015/05/05/09/44/bedtime-reading-could-...

Not only "White Privilege" but also "Loving family privilege" It's not fair in loving family's kids get bedtime stories read to them. The church needs to speak up about this travesty .

Nathan Bubna

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Nathan Bubna commented…

The term "white privilege" refers to a statistical reality that is itself not up for debate. That statistical discrepancy between races in our country is not a good thing. That too, i think most can agree with.

Beyond that, opinions tend to diverge on two points:

1) Can or should anything be done about it by [insert institution or people group]? If so, what?

2) Is the term "white privilege" a valid description?

Setting aside #1 for the most part (my personal answer varies widely depending on who/what you insert there), i would like to argue that the answer to #2 is "no", but not for the reasons mostly addressed here.

"White privilege" is not a flawed term due to theological conflicts.
"White privilege" is not a flawed term because it is collective instead of individual.

"White privilege" is a flawed term, because it A) is wildly inaccurate and B) does the job it was created for quite poorly. Let me unpack...

A) The statistical realities it refers to are neither exclusive nor intrinsic to whites. First, most of the relevant economic and crime/justice statistics also strongly favor asians as well as caucasians. And most of the social statistics associated with "white privilege" are purely "majority privilege". These are therefore not fixable without forcing demographic equality upon a population, which almost all people agree ought never be mandated. To rephrase, these "white privileges" are almost all either shared by asians or are the inescapable result of demographics. We would do better to split them into those which are automatic for a demographic majority and thus have no moral or governmental remedy and those which are "white/asian privileges" that we all agree would be better shared by all races.

B) And here is the biggest problem of all. I have yet to see any strong example or statistic in support of the effectiveness of addressing our societies statistical, racial inequities with the term "white privilege". In contrast, i have seen it consistently distract discussions from addressing the real issue and into a debate about terms, the nature and merit of "privilege", or entirely devolve into a series of examples of un-privileged white people (whether groups or individuals). Even in my own heart, i find the assignment of "privileged" to my class provokes me to defensiveness and self-exemption. This is bad people. It's a terribly divisive and unproductive descriptor for a very real problem of racial injustice.

That's the bottom line. It doesn't work. It's a bad term. Flipping issues of injustice on their head and calling one class of people "privileged" is a culturally and linguistically *stupid* way to seek those privileges on behalf of those who are not in that class of people. With the exception of those inescapably endowed by virtue of being in the demographic majority, these things that you are calling "privileges" should not be called privileges. They should be basic expectations of life for everyone in our society. When a class of people fails to enjoy the fulfillment of those basic expectations, we call that "injustice". We call that a "societal ill". We call that a problem. We do NOT flip it on its head and call the fulfillment of it a "privilege". That's not what that word means. And thats not going to work with basic human psychology. We want to arouse sympathy and empathy, not defensiveness and guilt.

My advice: stick to "racial injustice". Stick to "inequality". Drop the "privilege" language. It's not doing any good. Can't you see that?

Robert Mullin

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Robert Mullin replied to Nathan Bubna's comment

First of all, there is no 'white' culture. There is no nation called White. People with white skin culturally vary a great deal. A Scotsman would argue that he has little culturally in common with an Englishman and he would be right, and they live right next to each other! So I take offense at being blanketed under the term 'white.' I have a culture, I'm Scottish and you and everybody else can address me as a Scot.

Secondly, as I explained in my previous comment there is no 'statistical reality that is not up for debate' regarding race. There IS a statically strong case that European and Asian descended people living in the United States are less likely to go to prison, have a job and secure dwelling and it is linked to their cultural values regarding education. Show me the statistics that proves a mass conspiracy against races that aren't European and Asian exists? You can't. The justice system in the United States and the Western World is unbelievably fair.
Third, you cannot equate inequality with injustice. Lack of equality in a society (which will always exist) does not mean that society will be rife with injustice. Again, what is your solution to inequality? The injustices that would be required to equalize everyone's circumstances (whatever that would mean) would be worse than any inequality, imagined or real, that exists currently.

'...they should be basic expectations of life for everyone in our society. When a class of people fails to enjoy the fulfillment of those basic expectations, we call that "injustice".' Wouldn't that be called reaping what you sow? Where in the Bible or in life does it say that the world owes anyone a job and a white picket fence in a comfy suburb? Those things aren't 'expectations' but rather the results of good decisions made and hard work done. No offense, but having a good career and property ownership is a privilege and it is one that can only be earned. America is still the land of opportunity, still creating more millionaires than any other country in the world by far. The fact that America made 1.7 million new millionaires in 2013, before the full economic recovery that is in full swing now, seems to be at odds with your worldview that one can't succeed in America without being 'white.' All of the 'injustices' you mention are the result of individual choices made, not the result of some mythical secret society out to do detriment to racially diverse people. The beauty of capitalism is that it isn't to anybody's detriment that others be successful. There is no logical reason for a secret society of 'white' people to deny racially diverse people of anything. Your argument makes no sense, there is no motive.

Aziz Peregrino-Brimah

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Aziz Peregrino-Brimah commented…

Great, thoughtful and objective write-up. Thanks for this piece!

francis

5

francis commented…

He wrote about war, offspring shouldn't fight.

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