It's Time for Christians to Acknowledge Privilege

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

BY JAYSON D. BRADLEY GLOBAL / CURRENT May 01, 2015

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?

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:

– I’m less likely to be arrested.

– I’m less like to go to prison if I am arrested.

– I’m more likely to go to college.

– I’m more likely to get called back for a job.

– I’m more likely to find adequate housing.

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.

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?”

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.

Jayson D. Bradley

JAYSON D. BRADLEY

is the content strategist for the Overthink Group, and he writes regularly for MinistryAdvice.com.

5 thoughts on “It’s Time for Christians to Acknowledge Privilege

  1. I just wanted to say that I used this article in my Religion in America course. Our assignment was to select a contemporary article that addressed some of the themes we had discussed throughout the course. Please note that my response is an academic and a secular one:

    http://www.relevantmagazine.com/reject-apathy/worldview/its-time-christians-acknowledge-privilege

    In this piece, JAYSON D. BRADLEY addresses “Christians,” which I am understanding as protestant based on the fact that Relevant Magazine does not specify what denomination they belong. He is imploring Christians to acknowledge their privilege by appealing to their rationality (i.e. privilege exists and marginalized peoples exist) and their spirituality (i.e. the Bible is clear about Jesus’ views on the marginalized and helping the underprivileged). Although he never directs this towards white folks specifically, his articles argues that Christians need to acknowledge Christian privilege, male privilege, American privilege, and most significantly white privilege. This article was originally posted on a blog in November but has gotten more attention recently on Relevant Magazine’s site because of the riots in Baltimore. The article begins with some rhetorical questions that suggest that it only seems logical that Christians would be concerned with the marginalization of others. However, he points out that is it not usually the cause when issues of privilege enter the discussion. He clearly wrote this article as a reaction to an piece by Brian Litfin, a professor at the conservative and fundamentally Christian Moody Bible College , who gave “five reasons why the term ‘white privilege’ isn’t appropriate for Christian discourse.”
    http://www.moodystandard.com/letter-to-the-editor-rescinding-the-term-white-privilege/

    Throughout our class we have discussed the ways that religion could be liberating and enslaving simultaneously (ie slavery debates, women’s rights, etc). Here, religion is presented as a motivating factor to help others in their fight for liberation and the acknowledgement that the world is not just divided between those who do and those who do not. I love this article because it reminded me of the dialogue we engaged with in Walter Rauschenbusch’s The Social Gospel and Andrew Carnegie’s the Gospel of Wealth. Although the original article that Bradley is responding to, by Brian Litfin, is not about how the rich will help the poor by being rich, like the Gospel of Wealth, it is a piece that places privilege in the realm of the Protestant Work Ethic and “God helps those who help themselves” arena. Litfin states, “Consider how some Americans of all races have reached privileged positions today: through stable family units that saved money and passed wealth to their descendants. Most Caucasians aren’t the offspring of slave owners, but merely of hard-working forefathers who did what was right.” Litfin is making the argument that hard-work gives one privilege, which God would celebrate and therefore Christians should celebrate as well. Conversely, Bradley, like Rauschenbusch, does not see privilege or wealthy as bad but instead sees privilege as a responsibility to stand up for marginalized groups because Jesus was a class-leveler. Bradley and Rauschenbusch both suggest that these principles of a social gospel are rooted in biblical narratives and in the life of Jesus Christ. This lends an air of legitimacy to their arguments as biblical proof rather than theology proof. Most significantly, both authors argue that social justice and social awareness should be a Christian’s responses to modern social movements. Despite their similarities, Bradley clearly attempts to place privileged Christians outside the realm of paternalism and seeks to give room for marginalized voices rather than speaking for them, a task that I am not aware Rauschenbusch ever attempted to accomplish.

  2. Ok first of all I am so tired of reading “bloggers” narcissistic bio’s. Are we seriously trying to be Christians who deny ourselves or are we trying to boost the ego just like the rest of the world? Why do we feel the need to be cool and hip? Now on to the topic of “white privilege.” Well all I can say is every white person ought to give up all their power and let others seize it. It seems like the right thing to do and it certainly is trendy isn’t it and that is what Christianity is all about. I should be ashamed of my color. This article plays right into the race war the media is currently trying to add fuel too. Ridiculous!!

  3. Oh and as for free speech well done Relevant if people don’t like this post you will remove it. Come on people wake up and set thyself free from hip trendy neopagan Christianity. In the words of Bill and Ted, Bogus!!!

  4. If you have a stable, nurturing family you are “privileged” regardless of your income or social status. People will be prejudiced no matter who you are. You can’t control the false assumptions of others, but you can respond to the injustice responsibly and they will take notice. Presuppositions don’t have to become your identity.

    Regarding the word “privileged” itself, it’s awfully vague and misleading. I agree with some that a better term might encourage a better conversation.

    The whole inequality discussion was foreign to me until I attended an American college. Personally, I think trying to heal the handful of wounds that existed only created more wounds where there were none before. But that’s just my perspective.

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