Some of us are old enough to remember the “Members Only” jackets we wore in school. Back then, you were “in” if you had one. Fashion trends are a way of marking the privileged in our society with everyday, mundane items. But our friend Branden is forced to consider his daily wardrobe choices much more carefully than either of us. Harvard-educated, married, and the faithful dad of two energetic kids, Branden recently shared his thought process about several of his daily activities:
“I don’t wear hoodies. I try to avoid stores that sell the exact item that I’m wearing in fear of being accused that I stole it. I have to be conscious of my skin at all times. … Now don’t get me wrong — there are times when I forget about the color of my skin, but I’m quickly reminded when I turn on the TV and fail to see anybody who looks like me that is not committing a crime. I’m quickly reminded when a white woman clutches her purse when I walk by. I’m quickly reminded when I go to the store to buy a doll for my daughter but none of them look like her. I’m quickly reminded when cops follow me as I walk home from the mailbox. And I’m quickly reminded when I fail to ask for a receipt at the checkout lane and I’m stopped at the door to verify my purchase.”
Those of us, however, who enjoy the privileges of membership in the majority culture do not think about such things. Simply because we were born Caucasian and male in the U.S. and Australia, where the majority of those who make laws, own businesses, and pastor churches look like us, we can easily fall into thinking we don’t have skin color or speak English with an accent. Only “African” theologies and “ethnic” hair products need adjectives. Unconscious of our whiteness, we act as though our theology, hair styles, and other social practices are “normal.”
Walking in Branden’s Shoes
So how do we walk into a store or home from the mailbox in Branden’s shoes?
Recently, our Christian missions class took a walk to map our cultural landscape. In a straight line, seminarians filed outside onto the lawn between our chapel and student center. At first, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, side-by-side as equals. Then the professor started asking them to take one step forward or back based on their experience of our cultural goods and ills. For example, “If you grew up in a neighborhood where most of the police and elected officials share your gender, race, and ethnicity, take one step forward.” Then, “If you’ve ever been followed by mall security, accosted by police, or accused of stealing simply because of the color of your skin, take one step back.” Before long, the mood began to change as gaps grew between fellow students. While every individual’s experience of cultural goods and ills is unique, a clear pattern formed —white males born in America were in front of the line. Behind them were our community’s white women along with some of our Korean male students. Then, standing together in a slightly staggered mix of students, were other international students, most of whom grew up with professional or upper middle-class parents, and a couple of our white men, who grew up in poorer families. Behind them were our African-American women and our community’s small number of African-American men, respectively.
As classmates processed the experience, it was clear that those who had been in the front of line were frustrated, confused, and saddened. “White privilege” and “male privilege” were readily visible in the gaps. Those training for various forms of ministry together felt their diverse experiences and cultural histories in the distance between them. They were confronted with the reality that all of us do not start school, job interviews, or dealing with our problems from the same place in line. Some have more opportunities and resources, more chances to fail, more margin for the mistakes that we all, inevitably, make.
The Exercise of Privilege
Andy Crouch in his book “Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power” has provided a helpful definition of cultural privilege. “Privilege,” Crouch says, “is the name for all the good things we do not need to try to acquire, because they simply flow to us as a result of past exercises of power.” Many cultural privileges come to us as an inheritance. We did nothing to earn them. Some of those “past exercises of power” were good, like parents who worked hard to buy a home. Their children will inherit the cultural and financial privilege of a wealth-producing asset that they did nothing to gain. However, some of those “past exercises of power” were evil. More than likely, the house they bought was in a neighborhood where the housing association once required someone to sign a restrictive covenant that read something like this:
“… hereafter no part of said property or any portion thereof shall be …
occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race, it being intended hereby
to restrict the use of said property … against occupancy as owners or tenants
of any portion of said property by people of the Negro or Mongolian race.”
Racially restrictive covenants were so common in American cities between the 1920s and 1960s that many, if not most, who enjoy the privilege of inherited wealth do so, in part, as beneficiaries of such racist practices. By 1940, 80 percent of the residential real estate in Chicago and Los Angeles was bound by these restrictive covenants. In the 1950s and ’60s as suburbs began to grow, home financiers and insurers began to withdraw their services from city neighborhoods that had undergone a racial change. According to a 1973 report, “Understanding Fair Housing,” published by the U.S Commission on Civil Rights, “In St. Louis, mortgage lenders freely admitted to shutting off housing funds to large areas of the city except in white neighborhoods.”
For all who enjoy the privileges of the cultural majority in any society, not just America, the cultural goods we enjoy are a “mixed bag” produced through beautiful acts of hard work, parental love, etc., and through horrific acts of oppression and injustice such as segregation and racist real estate practices.
But what is our responsibility for the use of cultural privileges in our own exercise of cultural power? For those who follow Jesus, the most powerful One, we cannot answer except in relation to Him. Philippians 2-3 gives us a framework for our use of power and privilege in several ways.
Moisés Silva, in his commentary on Philippians, discusses how, first of all, Jesus recognized His power. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (2:6). Second, Jesus humbled Himself in obedience to God and suffering service to humankind. “But, he made himself nothing, by taking the form of a servant. … And being found in human form, he humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:7-8). Third, Paul imitated Jesus and shared His power by discipling others to imitate Jesus. To the church at Philippi, he wrote, “Adopt this frame of mind in your community, which is proper for those who are in Christ Jesus” (2:5).
After describing Jesus’ use of power and privilege in Chapter 2, Paul describes his own conversion to Jesus’ ways in Chapter 3.
To fellow Jews, Paul’s résumé was written to impress. The first four items form a list of cultural privileges he inherited: “circumcised the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews” (3:5). Like Jesus, Paul recognized his cultural power. His list forms a “mind” (2:5) — a way of leaning into the world that gives “reason for confidence in the flesh” (3:3-4). Paul’s circumcision separated him from the Gentiles. He was not a proselyte or God-fearer who had come to Judaism from the outside. He was the ultimate cultural insider of an early church in the process of defining its identity in relation to the synagogue. Within Judaism’s ranking system, Paul was not of dubious tribal heritage. He was a Benjamite, a member of one of the tribes that remained in the southern kingdom of Judah, faithful to the House of David. Unlike others who had been overly influenced by Hellenism, Paul’s sect, the Pharisees, fought fiercely to protect their Jewishness. He was “a Hebrew of the Hebrews.” [However, while Paul was on his way to use his privileges to force others to observe the law that marked his racial, cultural, and religious identity, the Risen One of “surpassing worth” interrupted him (3:8).
Jesus relativized Paul’s privileges and re-narrated his exercise of cultural power.
The Gospel: Power and Privilege to Serve Others
The Roman political narrative of dominating power, which met and subdued Jewish insurgency in Palestine soon after Paul’s letter arrived in Philippi, was subverted by a different type of sociocultural power altogether. When Paul called the church at Philippi to “live only worthily as citizens of the gospel” (cf. 1:27; 2:15; 3:20), he was well aware of its social and political nuances. Following “Christ Jesus, my Lord” (3:8), Paul learned to use his power and privileges for the sake of others to serve God’s reign over every culture (2:9-11), especially his own. Using his status as an Apostle, Paul relativized the significance of his own cultural goods by summarizing the way the Gospel incorporates people of every race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status into one common, intercultural life as the church.
He does not use this summary everywhere, only particularly where the misuse of cultural privileges and power threatens Christian identity and mission in Galatia, Rome, and Philippi. At Philippi, Jewish Christians were teaching that Gentile converts could not worship God truly unless they received a primary mark of Jewish identity, circumcision (3:2-3). Though formerly he had agreed with these “Judaizers,” Paul saw that his cultural privileges had not brought him a true knowledge of God. In fact, they had corrupted his relationship with God, because he had given his cultural credentials too much “confidence” (3:3-4). In the light of Christ’s revelation, however, Paul saw that “righteousness” or “justification” does not come through cultural privileges or human traditions. It comes only “from God” (3:9) as a gift.
Human beings, alike in sin, are “justified by faith” (cf. 3:9; Romans 3:21-26; Galatians 2:11-21); that is to say human beings are incorporated into Christ’s righteousness and social body, the church, by placing complete “confidence” in Him (3:8-11). Instead of fostering a “rivalry” between cultures, Paul counted his own “gain” as “loss” and “others as more significant than” himself (2:3). He “welcomed,” “pleased,” “edified,” (Romans 15:1-7) and “served” (1 Corinthians 9:19-27) those who were culturally “other,” because “Christ humbled himself, taking the form of a slave” to share the power of His life.
How will we, who are members of cultural majorities, use our power and privileges to imitate Christ in cities not so different from Philippi?
First, we must recognize our cultural privileges and repent of ways we have placed our “confidence” in them, instead of in Christ.
In St. Louis, our churches are learning that relational neglect in the family of God is one damaging result of our misplaced “confidence” in cultural privileges. One forum on the events in Ferguson addressed a question shared among many white Christians and churches here: “Why so much anger?” The question itself exposes the relational distance between white and black members of God’s family. As one leading black pastor from the city recounted that night, “We don’t know each other.” White pastors from the county were calling him to ask that he introduce them to black pastors who minister in their neighborhood, not his.
The way of cultural majorities in the world is to expect cultural minorities to come to us, to relate to us on our terms, and to use cultural power to protect our privacy, our right not to get involved. Christ’s incorporating righteousness involves us, however, and calls cultural majorities in His society to serve “the other.” Calling on leading pastors in African-American and other minority communities for introductions is a start, but repentance will bear fruit in regular practices of communication, fellowship, and service together that strengthen our family ties. Some St Louis churches, graduate programs, and nonprofits are creating new structures such as internships, scholarships, and partnerships where minority- and majority-culture Christians can learn from and welcome one another, as well as bear witness to Christ’s righteousness together.
Privilege, Anger, and Justice
The reason there is so much anger being expressed on our cities’ streets — some of it constructively and some destructively — is a lack of righteousness that has produced a deep distrust between law-enforcement officials and their communities. A key element of social justice is proportionate response. Punishment and reform measures must fit the crime. But, as Washington University law professor John Inazu recently wrote in The Hedgehog Review, “Missouri’s use-of-force statute is a shockingly broad law that risks grave injustice.” The meaning of “justice” is articulated for citizens such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, the police officers who caused their deaths, and the grand juries who decided not to indict in particular laws. When a law “risks grave injustice,” Christians and all their neighbors who seek a just society must speak up for legal reform. Those who enjoy the privileges of membership in cultural majorities have an even greater responsibility to do so.
Paul had his own run-in with the law and an abusive use of force at Philippi. He did not lose his life, but he and Silas were stripped, beaten with rods, thrown in prison, and placed in stocks. Their crime? Disrupting the trade of idol-makers and slave owners (see Acts 16:20-24). Paul spoke up to expose the injustice and demanded a public accounting (16:37-39).
The merciful, generous demonstration of God’s justice in Christ to justify Paul moved him to act in kind, to use his power not only to create equity in the body of Christ but also to bear public witness for a just society. The great mission of the church is to “make disciples of all people groups” by “learning Christ” (Ephesians 4:20) and by apprenticing others in all His ways. Jesus shared His power and righteousness with the Apostles, even the least of them — Saul-become-Paul — in order to multiply His way of using power in obedience to God and in service to humankind. To be sure, membership has its privileges. Privileged members of cultural majorities often fail to notice their culture unless something goes wrong.
On Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, some of the more painful wrongs of our culture erupted. Paul’s résumé of cultural privileges not only shows us we have much to give by sharing our cultural power; it also shows us that have much to gain — a true knowledge of Christ himself.