Racial Justice

Jesus, Power, and Privilege

“Much more will be expected from the one who has been given more” (Luke 12:48).

African Americans have endured 400 years of struggle, and some white brothers and sisters could only last about 14 days before growing frustrated and lashing out with defensive words such as “I will not apologize for being White!” or “I’m tired of white privilege being thrown in my face.”

In her book aptly called White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo explores why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism“For those of us who work to raise the racial consciousness of whites, simply getting whites to acknowledge that our race gives us advantages is a major effort. The defensiveness, denial, and resistance are deep.”

Austin Channing Brown, in his book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whites shares one common defensive mechanism: “When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, and that the label racist should be applied only to mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination.” Since I don’t use the “n-word” and always smile at the black folks at the gym, everything’s good in the world.

Yet, DiAngelo suggests: “To continue reproducing racial inequality, the system only needs for white people to be really nice and carry on – to smile at people of color, to go to lunch with them on occasion. To be clear, being nice is generally a better policy than being mean. But niceness does not bring racism to the table and will not keep it on the table when so many of us who are white want it off. Niceness does not break with white solidarity and white silence. In fact, naming racism is often seen as not nice, triggering white fragility.”

Hear me out: acknowledging the reality of white privilege is not an attack on whiteness in general. There’s no shame in being privileged or being white in and of itself. It’s just a fact. The issue is whether or not we’re aware of this privilege, understand such privilege often comes at another’s expense, and, most importantly, what we decide to do with our privilege. Some deny the reality altogether, suggesting it’s a fantasy of the political Left being used to divide America by race even further. See, for example, Dennis Prager.

So, for those just becoming familiar with the concept of white privilege and those who are offended by the idea, let me say again: There’s no shame in being privileged or being white; it’s whether or not we’re aware of this privilege, understand that privilege often comes at another’s expense, and, most importantly, what we decide to do with our privilege. 

Let’s instead ask how we can use white privilege for the glory of God and in service to others. WWJD?

Jesus the Christ wasn’t white, but he did enjoy “divine-privileges” including access to royal riches, heavenly power, and divine influence. Pointing this out is not to shame Jesus, but explain something true about him. But what did he do with his divine lineage, heavenly riches, supernatural prerogatives? Let’s read:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him… (Phil 2:5ff)

So, John Dickson suggest that Jesus transformed Western civilization by turning “humility” into a virtue. He offers the following definition of the humility Jesus modeled and calls us to strive toward. Humility is “Not humiliation. Not low self-esteem or hiding your talents and achievements. Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status and use your influence for the good of others before yourself. To hold power in service of others.”

The opposite of humility, of course, is pride. The American Dream can easily become an ego-stroking vision for life. It rewards those who look out for #1 and make something of themselves through self-determination and personal ambition. I’m all about self-determination and personal ambition, but in service of what? My dreams? My success? My family? My country?

What about the least of these?  What about others’ success? What about global peace and prosperity?

The pleas of black and brown brothers and sisters should not be to repent of our whiteness, or be ashamed of our privilege and status, but rather to acknowledge systemic inequalities and certain advantages white people have enjoyed and to now use that position, power, voice and influence to work to confront a broken system and build a more just society for all people. Let’s read that line again, slowly, and let it just hang in the air:

Humility is the noble choice to forgo your [privileged] status and use your influence for the good of others before yourself. To hold power in service of others.”

Jesus had all the status and privileges and advantages of DIVINITY, and he didn’t exploit it, cling to it, boast about it and use it for his own advantage. Instead, he lowered himself in order to elevate those below him. He leveraged his status to lift others up. He emptied himself to fill others up. He used his voice to confront the powerful and speak out for the voiceless. He gave all, becoming poor in order to make many rich. He didn’t base decisions on what he would get in return.

Jesus gave to those who could never pay back. He held power in service to others; “He came not to be served, but to serve and give his life away” (Mark 10:45). This is so counter cultural! This is so radical! This is so basically Christian.

This scripture is all about shocking way Jesus didn’t let his privileged status separate himself from those below him. He shocked people for the company he kept, offended the established social hierarchies, and blurred all the lines of social propriety. He even staged a small protest and wrecked some property in the Temple on one occasion.  

So, to my white brothers and sisters who think their whiteness is under attack and that white privilege is an invention of the Left, please bring this issue before God in prayer and ask, “What privileges do I enjoy that others do not have? How can I offer whatever blessings and benefits I have received or worked hard to earn in service to others?”

A final warning: this line of thinking could unintentionally reinforce a superior attitude as the “savior” of “those poor black people” and have a patronizing ring to it. This must be guarded against at all costs. Part of this calling means using one’s privilege and power to elevate voices of color and humbly placing oneself under the wise leadership and tutelage of black and brown teachers and leaders.

“Whoever has been given much will be responsible for much. Much more will be expected from the one who has been given more” (Luke 12:48).

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:3-5). 


2 replies »

  1. Lot’s of great stuff in this post especially about the importance of humility in everything we do.

    Did wonder about the following sentence?
    “He even staged a small protest and wrecked some property in the Temple on one occasion”
    Can’t help but wonder if you think that Jesus would be participating in the looting, burning, vandalism, injury to police officers(heaven forbid) in Minneapolis if He was here in the flesh today? Reminds me of the argument you once dismissed that because Jesus used a whip on animals and possibly humans he would not always be against violence or use of weapons.

    WWJD about Derek Chauvin?
    Matthew 18:12-14
    Is there a white woke pastor out there brave enough to preach about this little one?

    It is important to preach about racial injustice these days. But is there really any significant risk? Or worst case is it just virtue signaling (aka pride)?

    • Thanks for reading, Phil. No, Jesus wouldn’t be found looting or burning the city! I added that line with tongue-in-cheek, and I intentionally used the phrase “staged a small protest” because contrary to the popular reading assuming Jesus had some kind of a “temple tantrum” I don’t think he lost his temper, harmed animals, destroyed property and made a big scene. I think it was a calculated instance of symbolic prophetic action much like Jeremiah smashing a pot in the temple to symbolize its imminent destruction (see Jer 19 & 7). Re Chauvin, we should pray for his redemption of course, and that God would bring Kingdom people around him. I’m sure the Good Shepherd is pursuing him as we speak. Matt 18 is about believers restoring other believers who stray; is Chauvin a believer and an active member of a church? If so, I would hope his pastor/community are working to restore this “little one.” Peace.

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