I recently met with a friend in Downtown Phoenix. Adam is an African-American who is nearing completion of his doctorate dealing with religious forms in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The specific focus is religious practices and Christian engagement during the “Middle Passage,” the horrific middle leg of the slave triangle when Africans were tightly packed in slave ships and shipped to the Americas.
Over brunch, we discussed The Justice Conference that Adam had attended in Cape Town, South Africa. He was so impressed by the quality of speakers as well as the forthright engagement with extremely difficult and seemingly intractable issues of race, land and injustice, issues being openly addressed in a country with a complicated colonial history.
The Christian speakers spoke candidly about colonialism. Rather than shying away from such a hot-button issue, they found it necessary to talk about the imperative role of Christians in restorative justice and reconciliation. These honest and difficult conversations can only be had as space is created through first naming and then deconstructing colonial thinking and theology.
Adam spoke passionately about our need to begin both naming and addressing our complicated colonial past and the remains of colonial theology that still persist in the United States as well.
Most of the leaders of color I know, as well as a number of white academics and pastors, agree. Sadly, the most common response I run into with regard to naming and addressing a colonial legacy in the white Evangelical world is that it’s no longer relevant—“that was a bygone era.” Consequently, the conversation migrates to the belief that calling out white privilege, one of the dominant effects of colonialism, is:
- Questionable (most white folks argue that they have earned what they have while many others are poor and, therefore, can’t be privileged)
- Unhelpful (“Those people won’t work their way out of poverty if they have a victim mentality”) or
- Simply fashionable, politically-correct language that doesn’t lead to any actual change.
Trying to change minds on something abstract, deeply personal and likely unwelcomed can be incredibly difficult. And challenging someone’s worldview or understanding of history is disorienting.
I recently went to a prayer breakfast in the Northwest being held in one of the oldest buildings in town. This building has sculptured reliefs in the top corners depicting naked Native Americans along with wood carvings of Native Americans inlaid throughout the interior, reminiscent of an age when appropriating this culture was seen as sentimental and artistic. The breakfast began with reciting the pledge of allegiance; opening remarks about America as a Christian nation, specifically founded as a Christian nation; restating the theme from last year, which was “Claiming Territory for God”; and stating the theme for this year of “Occupying Territory.”
I know these business leaders to be well-motivated and it certainly isn’t their fault that our city, and therefore the breakfast, was primarily white. But can you hear the colonial language set against an ironic backdrop of colonial exploitation?
And in what has for centuries been a reductionist form of understanding Christian mission, the culmination of the breakfast was a focus to simply win souls for Jesus.
How do you think a Native American Christian living on one of the largest reservations in the country, just an hour north of us, would have understood that gathering and responded to the language used?
This is the very sort of thing Adam meant when he was talking about decolonizing our theology—because our theology has been shaped by colonial categories and language. It is a theology from above that has never fully understood or listened to the American experience from the bottom. Again, I don’t fault well-intentioned business leaders. They are a product of their Evangelical environment.
A nationalistic faith with a reductive spiritual focus doesn’t mean someone is racist. But it is undeniable that the same kind of spiritual rhetoric and understanding of faith allowed Christians in America to oppress others for hundreds of years on the one hand, while feeling spiritually righteous or justified on the other. Our very language has a wedge inserted between spiritual and material issues which cordons off concepts of justice, thereby allowing expansionist language without awareness of the connection between our own history and various forms of injustice and exploitation.
There used to be (and possibly it still exists) an attitude and belief that enslaved people and Native Americans might have “had it bad,” but at least they were being civilized and introduced to Jesus—which meant they were “lucky.” The faith of the privileged person or dominant race failed to address or even recognize the injustices of their practices toward the other.
These days, there is a neo-nationalistic focus that accompanies the same old, over-spiritualized faith (devoid of a theology of justice) that allows us to feel righteous on the one hand while on the other thinking race in America and historic injustices are no longer relevant.
A little over a year ago I was asked to write a book on white privilege. It was the first time I’d ever been asked to write a book rather than submitting my own proposal. But as much as privilege is a hot topic, there are many voices who decry it as unhelpful. One such author argues that injustice can’t be solved by accusing others of advantage in The Perils of Privilege.
She adds, “I’ve never quite sorted out by what mechanism awareness of privilege is meant to inspire a desire to shed oneself of it.”
Let’s be clear: How best to seek restoration for and reconciliation with victims of oppression or disadvantaged communities may be a difficult question. But whether we as followers of Christ have a responsibility to seek such restoration and reconciliation is not.
To the second argument above (that there’s no mechanism for turning a study of privilege into something helpful), I believe Christians have such a mechanism. Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler were intended to expose both his privilege and his unwillingness to lay it down. So, too, our Lord’s parables about stewards and the lesson that to those to whom much is given, of them much is expected. An understanding of privilege seems necessary to handling or stewarding it well.
Most of the people I’ve encountered over the last decade who work for relief and development organizations tell me of a watershed transformation that happened in their lives. Their stories have a similar theme of traveling to another country, being exposed to extreme poverty and becoming aware of their own privilege. This then cultivated a passion to labor in the developing world and a willingness to lay down privilege in order to see goodness flourish.
In short, the awareness of privilege and injustice overcame the base impulses of individuality and consumerism so that life trajectories were changed, comfort exchanged for sacrifice and a life of plenty traded for the bread of doing God’s will.
In the face of arguments that say we should move away from talk of privilege, I simply ask this: If exposure to the developing world and poverty can create a greater sense of moral perspective and responsibility, can’t a deeper interaction with the historic and contemporary forms of racial injustice in our country also lead to a deepened moral perspective and greater sense of stewardship and responsibility?
I was talking to the chaplain of a Christian college recently. He had reached out to me because he had become convicted concerning white privilege and the continued prevalence of racism in America and wanted advice on what he should do. We talked about the need to listen, lament, learn (from people outside his comfort zone), to be willing to lay down or steward his privilege, and not shy away from uncomfortable conversations.
Toward the end of the conversation, he asked me to come speak at the college’s chapel service. I quickly responded that a chapel service might be a great place for us to bring in a panel to lean into this conversation with students, especially on some of the deeper nuances of race and privilege. His reply shocked me. “We can’t do that because our new college president specifically forbade me from ever having the words ‘white privilege’ mentioned from our chapel stage.”
To reject discussions about privilege is to agree with Cain, who said, “I am not my brother’s keeper.” To welcome mature conversations, to reflect on how our society has advantaged some while disadvantaging others based on skin color and culture and address the spiritual implications for life, is to agree with God that we are our brother’s keeper. Is this not one of the reasons why the “Samaritan” features so strongly in the life and teachings of Jesus?
Maybe it doesn’t help if we point fingers at other people, but that is not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the need for honest self-reflection on where you and I sit within the historic realities of race in America.
If we can’t have these conversations from the teaching platforms at Christian colleges, then what are we saying about our pursuit of truth and justice? If not at academic Christian institutions, then where should we look for mature Christian conversations?
The role of the biblical prophets was always to bring a strong and disruptive voice to their own communities. If they were preaching to another community, we’d call them missionaries or emissaries from God. Our own need for course correction or for fresh eyes on our historic reality is why there are still prophets.
Contrary to the view that addressing race, colonialism or privilege divides the Church, holding a biblical mirror to American Christianity is neither unloving at the outset nor divisive on the back end. The Church needs and has always needed the presence of prophetic voices challenging the status quo and bringing reformation.
I love the United States, and there’s no country where I’d rather live; but just as we don’t let our children off the hook for bad thinking, selfish behavior or unreconciled wrongs simply because we love them or think they are better behaved than other children, we should not ignore wrongs within our society.
To the degree we do have a Christian heritage in America, that understanding should be marked with humility more than pride. Our impulse should be more about purification and reconciliation than about reclaiming privilege.
May our understanding of the kingdom be formed from Jesus and the New Testament teaching more than from the vestiges of colonialism and the highly individualized society into which we’ve all been born.
To those pursuing a decolonized understanding of theology that they may better see God in minorities or foreigners, I understand you.
And for those of us who are white or from a Western heritage—who have been acclimated to power structures and hierarchy while being blinded to poverty and injustice—maybe we, more than anyone, should be talking about decolonizing our theology.
is the founder of The Justice Conference, a pastor, and the president of Kilns College in Bend, Oregon. He is the author of Pursuing Justice, The Grand Paradox, and recently released, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, a Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review.