White Privilege Is Not in the Bible...or...Why White Christians Need to Pay Attention to Sociology
Several weeks ago I asked some blogger friends who are a whole heck of a lot smarter than me to respond to the following question: What form of privilege do you personally feel is most urgent for the church to wrestle with in order to be the community Christ calls it to be? The answer proved to be much more difficult to answer than anticipated, if nothing else for the sheer volume of legitimate answers we could give. Lauren Rea Preston, a fellow STL Southsider, responded with the post herein. I'll let you read and find out more about her on her own blog, linked at the end of the post. For now, settle in for some wise words.
If I had been asked this question a year ago, I probably wouldn’t have had an answer. A year ago exactly, I needed a new academic advisor in my doctoral program, and through a series of events, I changed my research focus to the social construction of “race” in education. After that, I was ready, willing, and able to tell everyone I knew that the biggest problem in the church was racism. However, this also marked the point at which I started successfully getting into inadvertent arguments with my family and fellow church members about “race,” racism and many other related topics on a regular basis.
At first, I felt like I was drowning, wishing someone would throw me a lifeline. The conversations were confusing, muddled, and emotionally draining.
And then the lifeline came.
The turning point in these conversations came when I began to read anthropologists, sociologists, social psychologists, and other anti-racist activists who did research in the area of discourse analysis, racial segregation, and the social construction of racial difference. I read their works and I could hear myself (White, middle-class) and my White, middle-class friends and family almost verbatim. There were patterns that we had all learned about how to speak (or not speak) about “race” and how to not sound racist (or at least try). On top of that, there were theories about how we had all learned to talk and think that way.
For the first time, I began to cut through the confusion in my mind about “race” and racism. I had language to talk about how our society came to be the way it was. I was so incredibly grateful for the scholars who had done this important work. So I continued to fervently preach their message to my White, middle-class friends and family.
I met with some friends and family who were excited to hear what I was saying, but those positive voices were inevitably drowned out by the voices who were still confused and hurt about my message. I wanted to share with them the scholars who had impacted me the most, but I instinctively knew that this would not go over well, as most of the scholars self-identified as socialists, feminists, and/or atheists. Having grown up in a conservative, White Christian environment, I knew this group of people was considered to be more degenerate than mere academic scholars. I re-doubled my efforts, and began to search for theologians and pastors who were talking and writing about what I had been reading. What I found was disappointing.
First, it seems that very few White theologians and pastors are talking and writing about systemic, institutionalized racism. There are a few books that talk about interpersonal racial reconciliation (McNeil & Richardson, 2004; Piper, 2011), a few books that talk about institutionalized injustice generically (Keller, 2012), and one sociologist in particular who studies racial segregation among White evangelicals (Emerson & Smith, 2000). This list is in no way exhaustive, but it accounts for the books about “race” that are currently most well-known among White evangelicals and White evangelical-like denominations.
In all of these cases, I found another unpleasant surprise as I attempt to share what I was reading. Depending on the theological leanings of my friends, they either loved or hated certain theologians and pastors. For example, there are many people I know right now who wouldn’t touch Piper with a ten-foot pole for one reason or another. And even if they did read his book, it would do nothing to even open up the can of worms that is systemic, institutionalized racism, because it mostly deals with why it is morally wrong to believe that Black people are inferior. Which is certainly a good place to start, but nowhere near where we should end.
So before I can even answer which type of privilege Christians need to wrestle with most, I have to say: White Christians need to develop a “sociological imagination.”
Sociologists are able to see the world in ways that are supremely helpful to understanding our experience. Along with anthropologists, they are the ones who describe how “race” is not a biological or cultural reality, but is social constructed. Going all the way back to W.E.B. Dubois, they are the people who talk about a system of “White privilege,” which is the other side of institutionalized racism.
White Christians mostly don’t know about these concepts, because to be brutally honest, White churches were helping to maintain Jim Crow laws and racial segregation on Sunday morning and every other day of the week for much of this time. We absolutely have to listen to what sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists are saying about "race," racial identity, privilege and oppression, because we as White Christians have not been developing a capacity to think about these topics. If we can listen with discernment, we will begin to understand why it is so critical to be aware of the society in which we live.
Another important point is that "race" is not in the Bible. Neither is racism. In the Bible, we can see examples of prejudice or injustice based on ethnicity (e.g. the Jews' opinion of the Samaritans) or social class, to which we can draw parallels today. The difference is that the system of social class today in the U.S. was created and has been maintained through a hierarchy of racial groups, namely, the dominance of those people who are considered White. And White people are not in the Bible, either. However, injustice is in the Bible. And "racism" is fundamentally based on injustice.
Why is it important to note that “race” is not in the Bible? Mostly because many White Christians who engage in the current discussions revolving around modern-day “race” issues seem to think that we can gain all the knowledge we need about these issues from the Bible, without having to actually pay attention to what sociologists are saying, not to mention what our brothers and sisters of color have been saying for centuries. And typically, the stories from the Bible that I have heard used to talk about racial reconciliation (e.g. the Good Samaritan) have mainly focused on eliminating interpersonal racial bias. However, racism is more than just personal bias.
Systemic, institutionalized racism, or White privilege, is a system that unfairly advantages White people over everyone else. And Systems of oppression are discussed in the Bible; God seemed to have very strong opinions about those. This falls under the category of "unequal scales" or kings and rulers who oppressed their subjects.
I think that White Christians have first and foremost resisted sociological theories and an emphasis social responsibility in the Bible because we have embraced a version of the gospel that has come to be synonymous with "Western culture," military domination, capitalism, and radical individualism. We therefore theorize about the world in terms of individual responsibility, "Protestant work ethic" or a meritocracy, and absolute morality defined by the aforementioned Western culture. This fundamentally puts us at odds with anything that has the word "social" in it. Because, "the gospel is not about society, it's about me and Jesus."
What might help us make the leap is to realize that Jesus wasn't American. He wasn't White. He wasn't Republican, Democrat, or Green Party. Also, it might be helpful to think of societies as made up of individuals. So when I say that God is interested in redeeming society, you can imagine that he is also interested in redeeming all the individuals in that society, as well. The Bible absolutely discusses the concept of corporate guilt, generational sin, institutions, systems, and culture. It also challenges individual choice; there are stories are replete with example of individual human agency (not at odds with God's sovereignty, obviously). In the end, Jesus came and is coming for the purpose of redeeming the whole world.
Many White Christians I have talked to about "race" and racism also think that I am calling them a racist. Again, this goes back to the radical individualism. Another benefit of developing a sociological imagination is that White people can begin to talk about systems without constantly thinking that everything is "about me." I am implicated in the system, but I am not solely responsible for the whole thing, either.
Christians have been very quick to point out that sociologists need Christianity, but I contend that Christians equally need a sociological perspective. The problem of sin as explained in the Bible was written in a context over 2000 years ago. We need to be able apply the Bible to our context today, and that means paying attention to what is going on in our society, realizing that we need other people to help us see where our blind spots are.
Sometimes folks think I'm just pointing an accusing finger at other White folks, but let me tell you, my husband and I have been doing some soul searching. In my family, we have been talking about White privilege and the damaging “White hero” complex. I moved into South City to move against the trend of White flight, only to discover that we were part of a trend of "revitalization" on our street (i.e. White gentrification). I came in with notions about "helping the neighborhood kids" when in reality, we have had little lasting contact with neighbors. Additionally, I never thought that maybe I should ask the neighbors what they might want help with; I just assumed I knew what they needed. This is sobering, but it shouldn't be crippling. Because if I really believe the good news of Jesus, I have hope that I can find mercy for my ignorance, and wisdom to do better. Much of this mercy will come through listening and learning from others, specifically people of color and White anti-racist folks who have gone before me.
The gospel of Jesus Christ challenges White people to recognize the system of White privilege and racism in which we live, repent of taking unfair advantage, consciously or unconsciously, as well a rejection of any overt racist beliefs and/or actions. Additionally, the gospel gives us the power to change, and to use our privilege redemptively, with discernment, wisdom and humility. We have the blessing of being part of a diverse new family called the church, which is Christ’s body on the earth. While we’re on this topic, I recommend Dr. Anthony Bradley’s (2013) recent book “Aliens in the Promised Land” to hear the voices of people of color in the church.
I feel that this approach is so totally hopeful. Instead of being terrified that sociologists are going to pollute our minds, we are free to learn, realizing that all truth is ultimately God’s truth. I imagine anti-racist workshops in White churches everywhere becoming like small revival centers, where the Holy Spirit convicts, cleanses, and gives the divine strategies for truly just personal and societal change. I’m calling to my White brothers and sisters to not be afraid or defensive, but instead to embrace the journey.
What forms of privilege do YOU think are most dangerous to the church, readers? Comment below or message with a post idea...pretty sure I'll say yes.
For more back story on Lauren Rea's own anti-racist journey, see her blog at http://urbanrestorationstl.blogspot.com.
Bradley, A. B. (Ed.). (2013). Aliens in the Promised Land: Why minority leadership is overlooked in White christian churches and institutions. P & R Publishing.
Emerson, M. O., & Smith, C. (2000). Divided by faith: Evangelical religion and the problem of race in America. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Keller, T. (2012). Generous justice: How God’s grace makes us just. Riverhead Trade.
McNeil, B. S., & Richardson, R. (2004). The heart of racial justice: how soul change leads to social change. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press.
Piper, J. (2011). Bloodlines: Race, cross, and the Christian. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway.