If anyone is able to have a humble conversation around a difficult topic and model compassion, good listening, love, kindness, and respect, it should be Christians.
Love is kind of our thing. Jesus told us as much.
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
That being said, I’d like to have a conversation about white privilege–particularly when it comes to our faith and communities of faith.
Specifically, I’d like to speak to white Evangelicals as a white Evangelical. I believe that we have a lot of growing to do in the way we think about race, culture, and our faith. I’m not here to bash anyone. So if you are open to engaging in this discussion honestly, I’d like to share my thoughts.
Here are 5 truths about white privilege in American Evangelicalism.
1. White privilege is a reality.
When I’m driving, sometimes I speed. And there have been a couple times when I’ve been pulled over. But my interactions with the police, for the most part, have always been very genial. And I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket–even though I really was speeding and deserved one.
Many of my brothers and sisters of color have not had the same experience. In similar situations, many people of color have been pulled out of their cars, handcuffed, and searched. And while I’m not saying this is always the case, it’s the case often enough that it’s statistically significant.
People of color experience the world very differently than I do. I need to recognize that. I have never been followed around in a convenience store by an owner who was afraid I would steal something. I have never been a part of a church, or any other organization, where there was no one in the leadership structure who understood my culture.
In fact, growing up, I didn’t know that I had a culture. I grew up in a diverse area, and growing up, part of me wished I had a cool cultural background to share. What I didn’t realize was that I did have a culture. It was the culture that everyone else was trying to fit into. But like a fish that doesn’t recognize the existence of water, I didn’t even know it was there.
That’s white privilege. And it’s real.
2. Recognizing white privilege is not the same thing as surrendering to white guilt.
When the topic of white privilege is brought up, I’ve often heard my fellow white Christians say, “I’ve never owned a slave, and I never use the n-word. Why am I being persecuted here?”
And it’s true that we are not culpable for the sins of our fathers. But we do have to recognize that the sins of our fathers have created a system that unfairly benefits us to the detriment of others.
For example, I have never had to set aside or suppress parts of who I am in order to gain educational or career advancement. I’ve never had to act “less white” in order to nail a job interview. I am not daily faced with the reality of my race. And if I fail at something, I have no fear that my failure will be applied to everyone of my race.
These are privileges that have been afforded to me that have not been afforded to others, because of a legacy of oppression in previous generations.
I’m not guilty of causing any of this. I’m not guilty for being white. But I am able to see that a power imbalance exists in our society. And I’m able to see how that imbalance has benefited me.
And just because something isn’t my fault, that doesn’t mean it’s not my responsibility. Even though I wasn’t responsible for how the power was allocated, I am responsible for how I wield the power that has been given to me.
I'm not guilty for being white. But I am able to see that a power imbalance exists and that it has benefited me. And just because something isn't my fault, that doesn't mean it's not my responsibility. Click To Tweet
3. White privilege is in our churches.
As Christians, we need to recognize that not only does white privilege exist, but it exists in our churches. Most white Christians might bristle at this idea. We often quote Galatians 3:28, saying that race is not a factor for those who are “one in Christ Jesus.”
But while the ideal that we are all equal in Jesus is a true and eternal spiritual reality, it is still in need of many practical improvements in the way we live it out.
As a white man, I have never had to set aside part of my culture in order to fit in to a church. I have never had to actively make the choice to set aside the distinctives of my cultural identity in order to fit in with the Christian community in my neighborhood.
And yet this is the reality for many Christians of color. From the type of music we sing, to the topics we discuss from the pulpit, to the events we have, to the types of foods that are present at those events, much of what we do is centered around white culture. By and large, most American Evangelical churches are run by white people for white people.
For most, it’s not necessarily intentional. It’s just the way we’ve always done things.
But while we proclaim (and truly believe) that all are one in Christ Jesus, what we can often communicate is that people from any race or culture are welcome in our churches, so long as they are willing to act white.
While we proclaim (and truly believe) that all are one in Christ Jesus, what we can often communicate is that people from any race or culture are welcome in our churches, so long as they are willing to act white. Click To Tweet
4. We need to be brave enough to admit the problem.
The purpose of this post isn’t simply to beat up on white people. I’ve often heard my white brothers and sisters say that white people are now the most discriminated against group in America. And I fear that they’re not joking when they say it.
I’d like to gently push back and say that the uncomfortable and negative emotions that this conversation stirs up do not constitute persecution or discrimination. We can’t let fear or pain keep us from uncomfortable truths that we need to hear.
And as we honestly look at the issue, the temptation is to become very discouraged. The problem can seem insurmountable. How can we change something that has been so deeply ingrained for so long?
But I truly believe that the Church has a great opportunity here. Because I believe that we are the only ones with the power to enact lasting change that transforms communities. And the reason I believe that is because we have the Holy Spirit who lives in us and among us.
Jesus actually changes things.
But in order for that to happen, my white brothers and sisters, we need to be willing to lead the way in this conversation. And in order to do that, we first need to recognize that the problem exists. And I realize that this is actually a huge hurdle. It can be a volatile conversation. But we need to begin talking about it. And we need to keep talking about it.
5. Caring about the needs of others is the way of Jesus.
White Christians need to give a greater voice to people of color. We need to empower a more diverse group of leaders. We need to listen to their perspective, to their wonderful insights and amazing stories. And that means allowing the culture of our churches to change, along with some of our long held traditions.
To some, that may feel intrusive. But in order to give someone else a place at the table, we need to scoot over and surrender some of our elbow room. I think that’s why my fellow white Evangelicals push back on this so much. It’s a scary thing to give up power.
But this is what Jesus is in the business of doing. And it’s what he calls us to do with each other.
“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:4-8)
Jesus had all the power and privilege in the world. And unlike us, he actually had earned it. It rightfully belonged to him. And yet he laid it all down in obedience to God the Father, so that we might have life.
Where we have power and privilege, we have the same opportunity to lay it down in order to put the needs of others ahead of our own. We have the ability to change systems and structures in ways that are life giving. And in the process, we will have new life breathed into us as well.