Other than vague, rather generic calls to “repent,” “confess,” and “humbly listen,” there appears to be few concrete solutions offered to evangelicalism’s perceived problem of “white privilege.” Of course, calls to “repent,” “confess,” and “humbly listen,” are very much biblical! But in the aftermath of incidents like the recent tragedy in Ferguson, those calls appear astonishingly nebulous. Not to mention, they assume something that may or may not be accurate. Namely, that “white privilege” is a thing and is behind the shooting, the ensuing riots, and the ongoing racial tensions in America.
Is the issue of “white privilege” — or “privilege” in general — addressed in Scripture? And if so, how could its biblical treatment apply to us in the early 21st century?
In a nutshell: The concept of “white privilege” is rooted more in critical race theory than Scripture. From my perspective (as a lay person with minimal theological expertise), the Bible doesn’t isolate “privilege” to any one race, class, religion, institution, or government — it is a heart problem, a human problem. Privilege can be found within ANY society, class, gender, religious or people group.
Furthermore, “privilege” is a spiritual issue far more than an institutional or racial issue. Because privilege is a heart issue, every attempt to “heal” racism or discrimination through institutional, legal, organizational means will ultimately fall short. No law can change a racist’s heart. Only God can.
(Due to the scope of this subject, I’m going to limit myself to focusing on the New Testament church.)
Privilege in the Early Church
The New Testament church was an amalgam of racial, economic, gender, and ethnic streams. To the Jew, there were simply two categories of people: Jews and Gentiles. The convergence of those worlds at Pentecost produced gobs of tension. The boiling point was reached at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) wherein the church council decided that Gentile Christians need not keep the Mosaic Law. As much as this was a theological debate, it’s reasonable to assume that certain cultural and ethnic issues were animating some Jewish Christians to impose Jewish law upon Gentile believers.
For example, in writing to the church of Rome, the apostle Paul addressed his Jewish brothers who mistakenly believed their ethnic and religious heritage earned them some sort of “spiritual status.” Romans chapter two, in particular, zeroes in on the ethnic history that left some Jewish Christians feeling self-righteous. First, the apostle argued that the Jews “have no excuse” (2:1) to judge others, primarily because “it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (vs. 13). So just because they received and “heard the law,” they were no better. Especially when the “Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law” (vs. 14). He writes,
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Rom. 2:17-24)
We can assume from this that some Jewish Christians were “boasting” in their “privilege.” Because they were God’s “chosen people,” they had the Law, “the embodiment of knowledge and truth,” they assumed that they were superior to their Gentile brethren. Thus, they were given to lax conduct believing that they had a leg up, spiritually speaking.
The New Testament also speaks to the issue of “class privilege,”that Christians were showing favoritism to their more wealthy members. The apostle James deals with this at length in the second chapter of his epistle:
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (James 2:2-9)
Interestingly, the Bible is not here calling out the rich (except to off-handedly indict them for using their power to exploit the less privileged) as it is to rebuke believers for bestowing favoritism upon them. In this case, “privilege” was bestowed by the less privileged; the “privileged” were empowered by those with a false value system (e.g. the belief that having more was better than having less).
Regarding class, the New Testament writers clearly exhorted their more wealthy Christian brethren to be on guard and remain humble. The apostle Paul wrote to young pastor Timothy:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (I Tim. 6:17 NIV)
What’s important to note here is that neither wealth or class are condemned, but the pride and a false sense of assurance they can produce. This appears to be a consistent approach throughout the New Testament.
Scripture also speaks often to “privilege” associated with position. Perhaps the most well-known is Christ’s teaching to His disciples:
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. “It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave (Matt. 20:25-27 NIV)
Here, Jesus institutes a new model of “servant leadership,” one that aspires to serve rather than to “lord over” others. This approach to authority is important because it does not condemn the “privilege” of positional authority, rather it condemns its abuses.
For example, the New Testament affirms numerous positions of authority: Government, spiritual leadership, offices and roles, spiritual gifts and talents, marriage and family, etc. While each of those positions / roles / gifts can afford someone special “privilege,” Scripture never condemns the institutions / positions themselves, just their abuses. Look how the apostle Peter addresses his “fellow elders”:
…shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. (I Pet. 5:2-3 NIV)
Peter is echoing the words of His Lord! Again, the approach is not to dismantle or challenge a position of authority, but to challenge its misuse. The minister should not use their “privilege” as a means for “sordid gain” or “lording it over” others. This same pattern seems to follow throughout the New Testament. Husbands are to love their wives like Christ loved the Church (Eph. 5:25), not be bossy, abusive, or insensitive. Fathers are not to “exasperate” their children, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Even masters were to treat their slaves with “respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart” (Eph. 6:5-9 a subject I’ll talk more about in my next post).
So while the early church dealt with the issue of “privilege,” it was never consigned to one race, class, or group. Both the Jew and the Gentile could be “privileged,” the leader and layman. Both the wealthy and those who showed favoritism to them shared fault. Furthermore, the biblical approach to privilege was not to denounce those who were blessed with some sort of privilege (and as we’ll see in my next post, most everyone is), but to walk humbly and check our own selves, lest we too become haughty.
In my next post I’ll discuss how all “privilege” is rooted in pride and ingratitude and what I read as the biblical solution.