Today’s question comes from Beverly.  She writes: “I just read this article ( about the ways in which evangelical churches have tried to address racism in their theology, and how those attempts often fall short of creating systemic change by focusing too much on individual relationships, with God and with people of color. It struck me that this analysis could apply well to non-evangelical churches also, and certainly to atheist groups (if you substitute moral philosophy for theology).  What do you think of this analysis, and what do you do in your own congregation to cultivate a theology that does not privilege whiteness or coddle white fragility?”

There is so much here to chew on.  Let me throw out a few initial thoughts and then invite you into this timely question.

One of the profound differences between Evangelical and Progressive Christian communities has to do with a difference in emphasis.  As the author of the article correctly noted, Evangelical Christianity tends to emphasize the individual (and her or his PERSONAL salvation) above all else.  That’s why in their encounters with others, they often lead with a question like, “Do YOU know Jesus as YOUR personal Lord and Savior.”

Progressive Christianity, on the other hand, tends to focus its attention on systems (social justice) and groups (we are ALL God’s children) – and often shies away from talking about things of a personal nature.  One way to make some Progressive Christians uncomfortable is to ask them to talk about their personal relationship with, or experience of, God.  They would much rather talk about theological ideas or systemic issues than personal faith matters.

The challenge for us Christians, then, is to figure out how we can bring both aspects – the personal AND the systemic – together in order to address important matters today.

One of the challenges I’ve found in trying to get Progressive Christian community to explore issues like racism is that many Progressive individuals want to talk about what others (i.e. members of the “other political party, for instance) are doing that are terrible.  If you try to move the magnifying glass away from other groups (of which the individual is NOT a part) onto either groups with which they identify (or worse yet, themselves!) they get extremely nervous.  I suppose that’s because it’s much easier to look at others’ brokenness (dare I say “sin”) and not our own.

So how do I try to do that with my own congregation?

There are a couple ways: both of which are admittedly subversive.

First, instead of talking about the big political concepts like “immigration reform” or “white privilege”, I speak in very personal terms.  When it comes to talk about matters of white privilege, for instance, I like to start by talking a lot about assumptions we make.

I like to get people sharing stories about times when they had a difficult experience with another because they assumed the other person had a similar set of experiences or attitudes when it turned out they didn’t.  Then I gently try to start opening their eyes to the fact that there are some who assume everyone has shared their experiences and attitudes that have more power than other – and get to inflict (and sometimes legislate) their assumption on others.  Other people don’t have the luxury.

This gets at perhaps one of my most controversial assumptions I make in my life and ministry: I don’t believe that most people are evil and mean to force others to live and think like they do.  Instead, I believe that many are simply naïve.  I believe many are in fact good-hearted; they just need to be challenged to understand that not everyone sees things the same way they do because of their different backgrounds.

Once they come to realize that, I’ve found that even some of the most rigid folks I’ve encountered can be reached.

This leads me to a second way I work with people.  You’ll notice that I didn’t use the phrase “white privilege” a lot in my words above.  There is a reason for that.

From my perspective, the greatest challenge we face is getting individuals to realize two things: (1) the privilege they enjoy from their social location; and (2) the ways that privilege can blind them to the plight of others.

No matter what our social location is, there is a part of our self that is privileged over others.  Those who are of European descent, for instance, have privilege over Latinos or African-Americans in our society.  Those who are male have privilege over those who are female.  Those who are heterosexual have privilege over those who are bisexual or homosexual.  Those whose gender identity was consistent with the physical traits they were born with are privileged over those whose gender identity is different.

So why, then, am I hesitant to use a qualifier – like “white” – before talking about privilege?

I’m hesitant because when I use a qualifier, it seriously affects – and in many cases, minimizes – the reach of the conversation I am trying to have.  If I talk about “white privilege”, for instance, it is clear that I am addressing the system injustices that are perpetuated against people of color by those of European descent.

As a consequence, I’ve noticed a couple of things happen.  First, people hear the qualifier and decide what position to take in the conversation – before the conversation has even happened!  They decide either I identify with the qualifier and so therefore I must defend myself – and those like me – from the charge that we are bad people; or they decide that I don’t identify with the qualifier and decide I’m one of the good people.

That kind of posturing makes it incredibly difficult to engage people on the deepest levels.

Another reason I tend not to use qualifiers before the word “privilege” is because I believe that all of us enjoy privilege on some level.  Our challenge is to be honest and “own” our privilege in some areas – and what might be perceived of as our powerlessness in other areas.

In other words, I believe very strongly in the interconnectedness of oppression.  When it comes to matters of privilege of any type, I don’t want people to walk away from our conversation thinking, “I’m in no way a part of the problem.”

I want to find creative ways to get individuals to understand that the problems we face all boil down to privileging – which is based on the assumption that there is a right and wrong way to be.  Those who are “right” deserve more power and privilege than those who are “wrong”.

As a pastor, my job is to constantly take on the matter of privilege by declaring God loves us all equally.  And our job (as Christians, in my call) is to respond to that reality and love each other equally in word and deed.  Therefore, we are called to challenge and confront expressions of all privilege wherever we find them: in others, and in ourselves.

So what about you?

What matters does Beverly’s question – and/or the article she shared – raise for you?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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1 Response to Privilege

  1. Stevie says:

    Just examining our privileges is good. It helps us have empathy. Just thinking of my privilege of having water to drink every day and good medical care makes me thankful. But it’s good to think of ways we can help, rather than retreat to our comfortable corners and be glad we don’t have those hardships. I must commend my brother in law, Steve Carkeek, who examined his own privilege and formed a non-provide, “Compassion Tanzania.” They have built wells in 15 villages.

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