One of the good things about controversy is that it makes you answer questions you wouldn’t otherwise address, and it sometimes make you answer uncomfortable ones. And despite the fact that Anthony Bradley shouldn’t have done such a lame thing, and shouldn’t still be doing it, we are still expected to turn a spiritual profit on the whole affair. What can we learn about the presuppositions of such controversies?
One of the questions that came up in one of my comment thread had to do with the question of “white privilege.” How much do whites just take for granted, not knowing how different the same world looks to those who do not share in those privileges? That got me to thinking — and Wodehouse once said that certain minds are like the soup in a bad restaurant, better left unstirred — but here are the results of my musings anyhow.
It is easy for modern Christians to assume that privilege while not exactly a sin is still related to it. Bigotry, prejudice, animosity, and malice would be the sins proper, spiritual diabetes, and basking thoughtlessly in your privileged status would be like being pre-diabetic. You aren’t being bad yet, but you are in the danger zone. There is something to this, but the problem is that the spiritual precautions we take are usually in the wrong direction entirely — treating our pre-diabetes with Snickers bars. We tend to fortify ourselves with guilt over that privilege when we ought to be overflowing with gratitude. But this does require explanation.
There are many forms of privilege — wealth, education, birth order, race, looks, age, experience, intelligence, nationality, and so on. Not only that, but you can then start combining them — wealthy and intelligent and good-looking, and so on. Some privileges are detachable, and others are dyed in the wool. The sins that afflict the privileged are many, but the central one would be pride, a sleek arrogance that feels that they somehow earned or merited the blessings that surround them. Born on third, as the saying goes, and they think they hit a triple. The sins that accompany the unprivileged are also many, but the central one would be resentful envy. This is the gnawing sensation in the gut, like a rat was living down there, that feels like it was robbed. Born on first, and they think they hit a triple.
But the Bible teaches us that every form of wealth and privilege we have should always call forth gratitude. If we have sin to confess in this regard, it should be the sin of pride, not the sin of privilege itself. There is no sin of privilege. If someone is insisting that I must repent of racial privilege, repent of the doors that are open to me because of the whiteness “that is invisible to me,” I deny it. The Bible defines sin, not the envious race theories of others. But not only must I not be proud of whatever privileges I have, so also others must not envy them. And because there is always someone who has way more privileges than I do, I can check my heart by seeing if I am as glad for the privileges of those above me, as I am for my own. Envious looks can be seen all the way up the ladder, and they are sinful all the way up.
But there is an important qualification here. We can’t talk about this without talking about it, and we have to use the same vocabulary (privilege) in different areas, and that could trip us up. If someone accuses me of white privilege, and I own it as a form of guilt, then the envy games may continue. But if I regard it as a blessing from God for me (like all my privileges), then this could be immediately twisted into an accusation that I have embraced some grotesquery like “white pride,” as though whiteness really is innately superior. I deny that — the privilege here comes from the culture and history of the thing, not genetics. If I say I occupy a position of privilege in this culture because I am white (which is true enough), but I don’t feel guilty over it, then it is assumed that I am trying to justify some form of soft racism, however mild it might come across to my fellow (privileged) whites, and however glaring it might appear to blacks. Not so.
It is true that white Americans have many privileges (most of which are invisible to them) over against what is experienced by African Americans. But there is no more sense in feeling guilty over this than there is in African Americans feeling guilty over their privileges measured against the average experience of African Africans. Look at the opportunities that President Obama has had over against his half-brother from Kenya. The Scriptures tell us what to do with such situations, which I will get to shortly.
“You don’t know what it’s like . . .” is how the complaint usually starts. This is self-evidently true, manifestly true. And the basic moral duty found in the Golden Rule requires a foundational empathy for others that has learned how to cross (after a fashion) the various barriers that divide us. Husbands are called to know and understand some aspect of what it is like to be a woman (Eph. 5:28-29; 1 Pet. 3:7). Believers are called to know and understand some fundamental aspect of what it is like to minister to some beat-up guy on the other side of a sharp ethnic divide (Luke 10:33). In these situations, the only reason why we wouldn’t know “what it’s like” to be in that other person’s shoes would be because our consciences had been seared with a hot iron. A husband should be able to measure his response to his wife’s headache by how he would like to be treated when he has one like that (Eph. 5:28-29). They both have heads. Both a white man and a black man can know what it would be like to be beat up and left by the side of the road, and so either of them can be summoned to the role of the Good Samaritan.
But there is another sense in which we cannot cross the divide. We cannot erase the privilege, and when we try, we only make things worse with our patronizing do-goodery. A beautiful woman cannot erase that privilege in her dealings with a plain woman. An educated man cannot erase that privilege in his dealings with an uneducated man. A wealthy man cannot erase that privilege in his dealings with a poor man. Even if he gave all his wealth away, that’s the kind of thing that some rich guys do when they endow the monastery they are going to go live in, and he is still the guy who did that.
So I cannot erase the color of my skin, or the position of privilege it gives me. It is what it is. Now what? What does obedience look like when you find yourself born into privilege? Go back to non-existence and ask God for a do-over?
When those who are privileged are made to feel guilty for those privileges, especially the ones that cannot be altered, a scam is being run on them. They are being worked over by guilt so that they will be a softer touch when the right time comes. Those who work them over like this are the envious practioners of ressentiment. But the real way out of the cycle of racial animosities is for the privileged to repent of every form of pride, and for those lacking those privileges to repent of every form of envy.
And here is where it gets sticky. I have been in various forms of “slavery controversies” for at least a decade, and one of the most striking things about these controversies is the blithe disregard many Christians have for the blunt and very clear teaching on the subject in the New Testament. I have referenced a clear set of verses repeatedly, and over those years not one of my accusers has sought to engage with the plain teaching of the Bible. It is like I have been citing invisoverses.
Let us assume that the privileges (and lack of them) that we are talking about are all directly downstream from the fact of centuries of slavery here in North America. If that is the case, then we can reason by analogy from these passages in order to see what we are called to do now, each in our respective positions. The only way these verses would not apply is if our current difficulties had nothing to do with slavery. But to say that gives up the central grievance, and to say that would also have the disadvantage of being untrue. So, what might our corporate sanctification look like?
“And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him” (Eph. 6:9).
Those Christians who were masters (a position of privilege) were not commanded to feel guilty about it. They were commanded to put it into perspective, and to remember that they too were under a Master in heaven, and to recall that their privileged status was going to evaporate at the Day of Judgment. Having gained the perspective of eternity, they were called to remember the laws of reciprocity in their treatment of those under their authority. In short, they were commanded to love.
“Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort” (1 Tim. 6:1-2).
Paul also teaches that those who were servants should honor their masters, and they should be doubly sure to do this if their masters were Christians. But whenever I have heard Christian masters referred to, it has been invariably for the sake of doubling the resentment, not doubling the honor. In short, slaves were commanded to love.
This is not the opiate of the masses. This is not propping up the structures of oppression with Bible verses. Love is the fastest and surest way out of every form of slavery, and it is the only way of escape from the vicious cycle of the racial animosities that continue to afflict us.
White Christians and black Christians have to work together, and this means forgiving one another. Whites must forgive blacks, and blacks must forgive whites. Whites must seek forgiveness from blacks (for their sins as biblically defined) and blacks must seek forgiveness from whites (for their sins as biblically defined). And if your reaction is defensive, seeing that the need to seek forgiveness is a burden that only that other group has (whichever one it is), then congratulations — you are the problem.
“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:17-18).
Those who are privileged are commanded not to be haughty, and to use their position of privilege in the service of others. They are to share what they have, not as though they are trying to be deloused (in order to give the lice to others), but rather because they are grateful, and they want to include others in the blessing.
“A sound heart is the life of the flesh: But envy the rottenness of the bones” (Prov. 14:30).
“Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous; but who is able to stand before envy?”(Prov. 27:4).
Envy is not the path away from slavery; it is another, more insidious form of slavery. Envy consumes the one given over to it — rottenness of the bones — but it can be formidible in the meantime — who can stand before it? But someone once wisely said that bitterness is like eating a box of rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.
And I know that some might say that I have written all this from the safe and privileged position of a white, middle-class pastor in America. That is demographically true, but I have actually written this from another position of privilege entirely. I was privileged to grow up with parents who loved Jesus Christ, and one another, and us. I was privileged to grow up in a home where the authority of the Scriptures was absolute. It says what it says, and it records what it records for God’s glory and for our good.
So I am not trying to be the white guy. This is just my best imitation of the apostle John — we should be doing what we have heard from the beginning, which is to love one another.