The events in Ferguson, MO over the past few weeks have been like a social earthquake. The shooting of Michael Brown has revealed again the fault line in American race relations, and one overwhelming theme rising from the discussion is we don’t understand each other. Or to be more specific, whites, on the whole, don’t understand the American experience of people of color. The concept of “white privilege” has come to the fore as we hear continuing testimonies from our brothers and sisters of color. Though discrimination has been outlawed, these brothers and sisters still experience daily the unjust, unbalanced scale of privilege in America, and as a white pastor, I need to listen to and learn from their wisdom and experience in order to more fully embody the Gospel in my life and ministry.
Yet, in the common discourse among white Americans, especially those who identify as “conservative” politically, the concept of privilege is met with confusion at best, or worse, with stringent denial. This cultural confusion highlights how much further we need to go in conversation with those of other ethnicities, and the denials often harken to the worst of our American sins, namely pride, self-justification, and individualism. To move forward, we need more than cultural diagnosis from political pundits; we need the humility to be led in this conversation by our brothers and sisters of color. As we listen and learn, we are able to reflect upon our Reformed doctrines for the resources for understanding and reconciling.
Confusion – What is Privilege?
In order to move toward racial reconciliation, we need a proper understanding of privilege. The explicit, external racism of America’s past is now largely felt in minority cultures as the costly burden of negative stereotypes that each individual must atone for by being an overly model citizen, the “guilty-until-proven-innocent” attitude of the majority culture, where black men constantly see white women fear them, clutching purses closer and walking to the other side of the street, where Latino Americans have to prove they have the right to be citizens.
So, what is privilege? In essence, I experience privilege as a white male because I do not have to deal with these things in my everyday experience. Whether paying for gas, going to the grocery store, or playing with my kids at a park, I have the luxury of being thought well of at first sight and the convenience of having the law work smoothly in my favor (e.g., no random traffic stops). I have been taught by the majority culture that whiteness is normal, and so I impose this white normativity onto the rest of the world. In the Reformed tradition, I do not have to think hard about my white forefathers; however, when asked to name the great black preachers of the Gospel, I’ll struggle to name five. Yet even when we do have diversity in our American Presbyterianism, we struggle to not fall into patronizing tokenism, which robs these brothers and sisters of their legitimately deserved respect. This, in a nutshell, is what I mean by privilege – being the beneficiary of a system that gives me social power because of my race and gender at the expense of others – and blindness to it is a silent killer to our Gospel work of racial reconciliation.
Denial – Privilege is a Myth
In my particular corner of the Church, those statements describing privilege can be highly contested. The usual refutation of privilege involves one of two things: 1) blaming “race-baiters” (e.g. Al Sharpton) for inciting vitriol against whites, or 2) highlighting the exceptions by finding the testimony of a few elite blacks who also deny the concept (e.g. Morgan Freeman or Ben Carson) or by rattling off a few high-profile blacks (e.g. Barak Obama or Oprah Winfrey) who act as evidence that any person of any race can succeed in America. The problem is that these lines of reasoning show that we are not listening to the testimonies of our brothers and sisters of color. First, there are more people of color talking about privilege than those in the left-wing media; in fact, many are also fed up with explicit “race-baiting”. Second, by highlighting the exceptions, we show a disinterest in learning from anyone other than the elites. Thus, we invalidate the experiences of the majority of our brothers and sisters of color. If we want deep, Gospel-centered reconciliation in our churches, we need to be willing to listen; these standard dismissals only serve to shut the conversation down.
In addition to invalidating the experiences of our brothers and sisters of color, a blanket denial of privilege shows blindness to the reality of social systems and perpetuates an Americanized, prideful individualism; we deny that individuals are powerfully influenced by social systems, and as Tim Keller states, “people don’t start out with the same amount of social power.” When looking at an inner-city teen convicted of drug possession, one might say, “I didn’t make him smoke crack.” True enough on an individual level, but failure to think of the systems at play – how black ghettos are at the least a product of both racist housing policy and harmful welfare policy, how individuals are incentivized to participate in risky behavior because the rewards are higher than the risks due to systemic unemployment and no employment opportunities – exposes a prideful and privileged status. We assume that this teen was on an equal footing as ourselves, and they merely responded poorly and therefore justly deserve whatever punishment the law accords. Those who are socially rich have no problem being judged according to their individual standing. Those who are culturally wealthy have the luxury of thinking “I got here on my own.” And here, implicit pride rears its ugly head; if I got here on my own, then why couldn’t they succeed, too? As Christians, our response to the sins of others must always be, “there but for the grace of God go I.” We must avoid at all costs the temptation of self-justification.
If we fail to take into account these experiences and have the hard, humbling conversation about privilege, the whole Church in America is poorer because of our stubbornness. By allowing ourselves the right to feel justified about our social power, we undercut our compassion for those in poverty, regardless of race. Jesus’ mandate to minister with those different from us will be woven with a thread of disdain. Most of all, the worship of the Church will continue to be divided along racial lines, and we will fail to properly live out before the watching eyes of the world the wondrous Gospel of reconciliation.
Resources for Understanding
To love our neighbor well, we need to both address the systems of injustice and interact directly with the individuals impacted by these systems. And as we reflect theologically on systemic issues of privilege and race, the Reformed tradition gives essential theological categories for enriching understanding. First, we have the rich doctrine of creation, where all humans are made in the image of God and inherently possess dignity as a result. Our theology of creation compels us to work towards understanding and reconciliation because of the dignity of all persons.
Second is our understanding that salvation is based in God’s covenant and election. The doctrines of covenant and original sin involve system dynamics. Federal headship demands thinking systemically and individually – Adam’s sin is imputed to me, and I personally fell in him, and the same is true of salvation. Without Christ, I am caught in the systemic brokenness of the world, and personally, I am more fallen than I know; in Christ, I possess an alien righteousness, which then equips me to live a fully human life in relationship with God and others. These categories of systemic and personal brokenness and redemption help us see how society, too, works in systems, and systems work powerfully for or against the individual’s will.
Third, the doctrine of unconditional election tells us that we are all, as Christians, unworthy beneficiaries of God’s free grace; individualism, pride, and self-justification have no place in the Reformed worldview. By combining our covenantal and monergistic categories in the public sphere, we listen in humility to the experiences of those who have been hurt by harmful social systems, whether the inner-city teenage mother or the middle-class black pastor. We are sinners like everyone else; as well, because social power has been so abused in the past by whites, those of us who are white need to take responsibility for the system we so often blindly benefit from.
Finally, our ecclesiology tells us that we are closer in reality to believers of all other ethnicities than we are to any nonbeliever with whom we share a similar ideology. It behooves us to listen to other Christians with humility, because they are family. Likewise, we must seek to embody the unity of the invisible church in the visible church, making the church “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Like many of my white friends in Jesus’ Church, I struggle to know how to think and act rightly, to be repentant in meaningful ways. I, too, struggle with the flip-side of the privilege coin – white guilt – in learning to deal with privilege responsibly. But we need to be humbled, and we need to be led by our brothers and sisters of color in this conversation. To whom much is given, much is required, and perhaps this needs to be our strategy: to whom much is given by society, much is to be relinquished for the Gospel.
To my brothers and sisters of color, fellow servants in the Reformed tradition – we need you, I need you. Forgive us for being awkward and defensive when the conversation of race comes up, but please keep bringing it up. Please teach us your perseverance and abundant grace; the Church is so much richer because of your presence and ministry.
The events in Missouri have exposed the deep wounds still present in our culture and church, and we desperately need to have an open and ongoing conversation about race, status, and belonging. Our theological tradition affords us categories that can bear the weight of the privilege discussion. The only question left is whether we will allow these resources to give us the humility to listen to our brothers and sisters of color, learn from their experiences, and then let those conversations drive our Gospel ministry.