"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

White privilege: reflection on a post-Christian concept

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In a recent sermon, I made a direct comment about the idea of “white privilege” and stated categorically that it was a post-Christian concept which had no place in the life of a believer.  While I heard many affirming comments from several of the >three hundred (mostly white) people who listened across three services, I did get a very small bit of push back.  That push back challenged my stance on the question of “white privilege”, and some suggested that given my indigenous history I should really understand the question of ‘white privilege’ differently.  I’ve spent a few weeks researching and reflecting and praying on the question, and this is the result of that reflection.

First, I want to make it clear that no where did I imply that it was not important for privileged groups of any colour or race to acknowledge their privilege and status, and their complicity in ongoing cycle of oppression and violence.  That is a read-in of a meaning that was not spoken or intended…and contrary to the usual post-modern mechanisms of interpretation, I mean what I say, and I don’t say what I don’t mean.

The bit of what I said in my sermon about remembrance, and the outcome of the USA election which saw Trump win over Clinton (I dislike quoting myself as it’s one of the hallmarks of this highly narcissistic age, but provide this for convenience).  If you’re going to engage this idea, you need to read this paragraph very carefully, for the argument I was crafting is subtle.  Please note, no where in that text do I discount the idea that there are privileged cohorts in the world, and that those cohorts have destructive power over others without realizing it.  Please also note that what I clearly say is that Christians do not have the ability to engage concepts such as ‘white privilege’ because it is inconsistent with our faith.  More on that in a bit.

This is a particular facet of our post-modern discourse, manifested specifically through the medium of social media.  There is a line of reasoning around the idea of ‘white privilege’ which automatically means that the voice of any white person is discounted because of their privilege and power within the culture.  They are literally non-people before they type a word, merely because of the race into which they were born.  I will rebuke this gently, but very firmly, as not being a safe place for a Christian to dwell.  If you are one who follows that line of reasoning, it is a good time to get back into Scripture and look for God’s perspective on any thought which marginalizes any group of people, white, black, yellow or red.

At this point I’m usually rebuked as speaking from a place of white privilege which, aside from being frankly racist, is incorrect.  Listen when I tell you that as an indigenous Christian whose family heritage was stripped away because of the racism of mostly white, protestant settlers, if someone had a right to point a finger of condemnation at white men and women, it is someone in my shoes.  Why don’t I?  Because I repented of that line of thought and Christ washed me clean with His blood.  It is not about blame, but all about reconciliation.  My call is as an agent of peace and truth, not anger and hatred.

It is a truly perplexing time in this post-modern era.  Post-modernity at once proclaims that words only have the meaning that we assign, and any attempt to define truth is really just an effort to hold power over another.  So in an era where there is supposedly no absolute truth, we find that people are even more highly polarized than before, a polarization that is paradoxically the result of even more strongly held absolute beliefs.  This is a hallmark of the irrationality of this age, something made plain through the election campaign.

A Word on the Sermon Writing Process

The ‘white privilege’ comment in the sermon was really a footnote, or as you would call it in a legal decision from the bench, an obiter comment.  That is, something not crucial to the overall thrust of the message.  I added it in because I had just been involved in a very disturbing exchange on Facebook.  It started with a comment about Trump being a misogynist assaulter of women (which I’ve no problem with, and indeed directly mention later in the sermon).  It devolved into a discussion about ‘white privilege’ and a bit of a guilt fest about how essential it was to recognize and embrace ‘white privilege’.

Now, the reason I included a direct rebuke for Christians in the sermon is because that is where I was led when writing.  My sermon writing process involves the traditional exegesis, original language study, reading an array of commentaries and scholarly articles, and finally reading other people’s sermons on the same text (www.textweek.com is a great research resource, even while it trends to the liberal end of the theology spectrum).  Throughout that time I meditate and pray on the text – and usually carry a copy around in my work bag so that I can review and reflect on it in quiet moments and annotate it.  That process spans two or more weeks (since as an honorary assistant I have the ability to space out preaching in 6-week spans around my secular full-time day job).  When it comes to the actual writing of words, there is a bit different process at work.

Sermon writing is, for me, a primarily prophetic undertaking.  I do not mean that in the modern use of the word ‘prophetic’ where it is understood to mean any activity that reflects on the Word.  I mean it quite literally.  This is probably the subject of a book at some point, but it is tightly tied into my spiritual gifts and my particular calls in ministry.  It is true to the extent that I hesitated for years to even mark my sermons under copywrite, because I still don’t consider that the words are mine.  That certainly draws on the research and prayer that preceded the writing but it is not an exercise of my intellect alone.  It is the same as any person who God may call into a particular task, and equips with the gifts to fulfill that task, to His greater glory.

What that means in really practical terms is that there are bits of the sermon which come forth unexpectedly as I’m writing.  When I first encountered that I attributed it to the creative function of my mind alone, in the same way that sometimes the solutions for unsolvable problems seems to come with a good nights sleep.  Later, once I had been preaching for several years, I noted a pattern arising.  That pattern invariably had those unexpected bits as being the pivot points upon which the entire message turned, and also the parts which people consistently picked out as ‘speaking directly to them’.  I’ve lost count of the number of times someone will call up one of those obiter comments and say, ‘I was just praying about that last week.’  That, to me, is a clear hallmark of an intervention by God as I can’t trace the message back to my intellect.

I can expand that statement to include the bulk of the sermon.  Sometimes I think my only real role is to write the connecting sentences so the ideas cohere.

The other aspect of the process is where inspiration will come in.  In the weeks before a sermon I will have bits of poetry or essays drop into my lap unasked, that invariably have a dramatic impact on what is written.  That’s one of the reason I include an added page of notes now, so readers can see where some of the genesis of ideas had come from.

This is a long introduction to say that the ‘white privilege’ rebuke was something that came out of that same source of inspiration.  This does not mean that I’m claiming special revelation and inerrant word, just that when things pop up like that I no longer just discount them as my mental fluff.  So, when there was a bit of push back, I thought it appropriate to dig rationally and prayerfully into the concept to see if my rebuke had divine overtones, or if it was just my personal dismay at feeling so exposed and discounted in a social media discussion.

“White Privilege”

I will tell you in advance that my rational inquiry has done nothing to change my perspective on the idea of ‘white privilege’.  It is a post-Christian concept.  What I did discover in that investigation is that rejection is a minority position among North America (and particularly American) Christians.  Taking a strong minority position means I am either being really prophetic, or really idiotic.

One final comment on the role of the preacher in community.  My vocation as a priest is to be a truth-teller, which means that if I am doing my job properly (meaning following God’s leading as best as my sinful mind will allow), my sermons should always have the effect of making people uncomfortable and uneasy in their present dispensations – including me.  That is the goal of all biblical preaching, as the preacher calls us out of our complacency and comfort to again confront the cross, our role in that event, and how we are a redeemed race the other side of the cross.  Sermons intended to make people feel content and pleased are more psychology than faith, and the church has lost much of it’s way around the role of preaching through the introduction of homeletic psychology.

What this all means is that what I preach is not my opinion, or rather should not be my opinion.  These are not simply thoughts to be batted about in the public square like a cat bats about a ball of twine.  There is a gravitas to the production and delivery of a sermon beyond anything else I do, and it is normal for me to experience spiritual warfare before, during and after the delivery of a sermon…usually directly in proportion to the criticality of the message (to the extent that during delivery to a particular community, I can say, ‘whoa, that was a powerful one’).   What it also means is that if I misuse the pulpit to preach opinion, that rebounds as a burden on my soul.  That is equally true for a person who dismisses a sermon by saying, “I disagree”, or “He’s a conservative/liberal/white/indigenous/male/veteran, what else would you expect him to say?”  The dismissal of God’s word rebounds on to that person’s soul. Prophetic utterance is fraught with peril for both prophet and hearer.

All this to say I take the role of preacher as one which is of epic importance, and presents a real risk to my salvation if I do not enter into the process in fear, trembling and in submission to the Lord.  (Matthew 18:6 if you want a scriptural reference)

So, I’ll attack the idea of ‘white privilege’ from a number of perspectives: logical, theological and practical.  It’s important first to begin with a word about the fundamental irrationality of this age, because that context (post-modernism) is at the root of this discussion.

Post-Modern Discourse or “How I Came to Love Irrationality as the Cornerstone of All of My Thought”

Who is the Christ?

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

And the irrationality of the age is nicely highlighted by Pilate’s question to Jesus: What is truth?

An interesting exercise is to search through the New Testament and to find out how many times Jesus self-refers using the word truth, or others refer to him as truth.  This is a pretty unambiguous image, unless you re-contextualize truth into a post-modern concept.  That, unfortunately, is what much of the mainline church has done because it is the only path which allows the church to free itself from outdated concepts like loving God and loving neighbour.  (93 times in the NT, not all Jesus)

Why do I say that?  In the Anglican context in particular, the presenting issue has been same-sex marriage.  I say ‘presenting’ because it is a symptom of a greater underlying issue, which is a disregard for the two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; love your neighbour as yourself.  How on earth, you might ask, can making the church more inclusive reflect a lack of love for neighbour?

This way: when the decision was made to pass resolutions which made same-sex marriage more permissive there were a number of people who left the church for other denominations.  You can’t call a particular step inclusive, when the effect was to exclude another group (in this case, those who hold to an orthodox view of biblical interpretation).  What you are actually doing is selecting a different group of people to wilfully exclude.  I would call that a violation of the second great commandment, since you cannot argue that you are loving your neighbour when the result of your actions is to have people leave.

The usual counter to this is that these people chose to leave, and it has nothing to do with the church.  I would suggest that this misses the point entirely.  Those who are supposed to now be included are also making a choice to join, at the same time others are making the choice to leave.  A truly inclusive community, one that manifests the love of Christ, has no such boundaries or requirement to make decisions to stay or go, except in response to a calling from God.  Look at Vanier’s L’Arche communities as examples of this.

A truly inclusive community is one that welcomes all who come, including people like Paul Bernardo.  I used Bernardo as an example in a talk to my seminary colleagues, who were predominantly from the inclusive end of the church.  What had been frustrating me was all this discussion about being welcoming to those of other sexual orientation and how the church needed to change.  My reply was that I had no issue with sexual orientation, but I wondered if those who were so vocal about welcoming other people into our church would feel the same way about having Paul Bernardo over for dinner?  A number said to me afterwards how challenged they felt because they realized that their call to love all had some very real limits.  Hallelujah – fiat lux!  Another lie is revealed…that we are quite happy choosing those we wish to love, but are still unwilling to embrace the true radical love of Christ.

I think symptoms like these illuminate the underlying irrationality which exists even within the church, the one place where we should model truth, regardless of how painful it might be.

What allows this sort of discourse to exist is the post-modern reality that mutually contradictory thoughts are considered to be a normal part of life.  The classic example I keep coming back to is this article, Samantha Shrugged.  Don’t get hung up over abortion being the topic in the article, as it’s really not the point.  Look at how the discussion unfolds to the point where the assertion is made that truth doesn’t matter, because anyone can choose what to believe or disbelieve, whether it’s objectively true or not.

The irrationality of the age shows clearly when people refuse to follow their beliefs through to the logical extension, for example, arguing that what science says doesn’t matter because the individual is the ultimate arbiter of what is ‘truth’.  Try that with gravity, or requiring oxygen to be able to breathe, or the size of an I-beam required to support a particular cantilevered load.  As physicist Richard Feynman said (during the Challenger investigation), “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

I think this is one reason why you don’t find many scientists or engineers jumping into post-modernity…the stress that makes a tie-bar bend exists fully independent of my thoughts about what it should be or why the bar might bend.  If I want my designs to serve humankind, rather than killing them, I need to pay close attention to the absolute truths of nature.

The Illogic of ‘White Privilege”

What strikes me as fundamentally irrational about the idea of ‘white privilege’ is that it is a self-contradictory concept.  What do I mean by that?

Well, one of the powers that a dominant cultural group holds is an unlimited ability to self-name.  Their power permits them to define who and what they are.  This is not a power shared by the oppressed.

Those living on a First Nations reserve on bad land, under a multi-year boil water order, do not have the ability to name themselves.  This is one of the fundamental issues that indigenous people have with legal terms like ‘indian’ or ‘aboriginal’.  Most are rejecting those terms as identifiers because they are titles assigned by the oppressor.  (one from the Indian Act, the other from the Constitution Act of 1982).

So the ultimate display of power than an oppressor group can undertake is to self-label.  That is explicitly clear in the white person’s response to ‘white privilege’.  The primary argument I have heard and read comes back to something like…’how dare you suggest my white privilege is not real…can’t you see how guilty I am about all my privilege?’

Which I find to be the ultimate irony.  A white person, telling an indigenous person, that they are wrong in not accepting their self-imposed title of ‘white privilege’.  If I was not called as a priest to proclaim truth, I would laugh and walk away because it is such a silly thing to argue.

So here is the oppressor class, arguing that they have the right to self-identify as oppressors.  That is not a power shared by the people over whom they are feeling guilty so it is, in the end, one more demonstration of the power that they are feeling guilty about.  This is the inverse of the original power imbalance, which is now somehow supposed to be redeemed because they’re feeling bad instead of powerful?  A power imbalance is not conducive to equality regardless of how or why the power imbalance exists.

The Implicit Racism of ‘White Privilege’

Calling out a group defined by racial terms is a racist act.  (I think there is another irrational falsehood at work here, which is that only whites can be racist which is also nonsense)

That is not moderated by intent: that is, there is no such thing as good racism.  A group who are traditional oppressors don’t suddenly become loving because they have used their power to self-label in a derogatory and racist fashion.  The arguments I see against this are all around stating that ‘white privilege’ is not racist because it has a good end goal of eliminating racism by making oppressors more aware of their power.

I cannot get my head around the question of implicit racism – and how you cannot redeem a racist assertion by saying that it is achieving a really good end product.  That is utilitarianism at it’s worst.

If you look at an example like the situation in the townships in South Africa before and after apartheid I think this is clear.  Apartheid was awful, a crime against humanity and horrifically racist. When apartheid falls, the white farmers are robbed, raped, murdered and forced from their land.  Is that justified because they were coming from a position of ‘white privilege?’  And were things any holier when that was supplanted by ‘black privilege?’  Asked another way, why did we not hear about ‘Tutsi privilege‘ or ‘Hutu privilege‘ out of the Rwanda genocide?

Those terms should sound a bit shocking, because to a white person, using a term like ‘black privilege’ would almost always be seen as a red card activity.  Likewise, attempting to explain the Rwandan genocide as a problem of ‘Hutu privilege’ reacting against ‘Tutsi privilege’ sounds horribly racist.  I’ll suggest this is because the act of assigning such a term along racial lines is always a racial act and therefore an example of racism.

I see some of that manifested in Canada.  When my daughter and I came out as Metis, there were some comments received from friends like this, “It will be nice that your daughter won’t have to pay tuition.” and “It will be nice that you no longer have to pay taxes.”

In response to that, take a short dose of Wab Kinew.   “I even once had to pay a land transfer tax, ironic”  Wab is status, meaning he is legally registered as an indian under the Indian Act…which is a class of aboriginal who has access to a set of benefits that the Metis do not receive.  For us, no free tuition, no pass on taxes.

On that rabbit trail for a bit…the only benefit I’ve received from declaring that I’m Metis is a lot of very polite racism and strained looks.  In the elevator the other day, one of my co-workers asked about the pin I was wearing, an aboriginal veteran’s pin.  I replied that it was an aboriginal veteran’s pin a friend had given me.  The silence that followed was deafening.  I think there were two things going on, the first was I don’t look classically aboriginal, so the asker is left wondering why I’m wearing the pin, but is fearful of asking the follow-on question because of the silencing culture that exists because of things like ‘white privilege’.  He can’t ask the question because to do so would be open to attack as an oppressor.  The other possibility is he was confused why this obviously white guy is wearing a veteran’s pin and wasn’t willing to call me on it.  Both of those responses are a bar to any form of relationship or reconciliation.

An easy question to ask: “Are you an aboriginal veteran?”  Which is not asked because of the chilling atmosphere created because of ideas like ‘white privilege’.  I’m even not offended by the comment, ‘You don’t look aboriginal’, even though such a thing is another example of racism. What does an aboriginal person look like?  There are full-blood Mohawks from New York State who are mistaken (by other First Nations) as white…I heard this story from a Winnipeg Indigenous chaplain who was a Mohawk and had to constantly explain to aboriginal families when they said, ‘We asked for an aboriginal chaplain’ that he was in fact indigenous.  We would never say, “Hey, you don’t look black” or “Hey, you don’t look Chinese”, so why is acceptable in other racial contexts?

[by the way, in response to the ‘you don’t look aboriginal’ I tell the story about my teeth…which have hooked roots, a typically indigenous genetic trait; or about my daughter’s receipt of a Metis scholarship…and how all the award winners on the stage went from a swarthy, glossy black-haired electrician to a number of very fair red heads…that is the reality of the Metis nation!]

All this to say that the labelling of any group, for whatever reason, whenever that term is racially identified, is an overtly racist act.

“You whites are so predictable!”  Doesn’t feel very nice does it?

Now this is different from recognizing the need to acknowledge history and to understand how settler relations with the indigenous involved forced starvation and genocide.  And why every time I fly into Ottawa I’m struck to my core at the pain that a statue of John A MacDonald causes me while I wait to collect my bags.  [beyond scope here but if you want a shift in view about MacDonald read James Daschuk’s brilliant book, “Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life“.  This is not light bedtime reading.]

But, as I heard Wab Kinew say in response to a question about ‘decolonizing’ settlers, what is needed is not recognition or decolonizing, what is needed is people who are willing to step out and meet indigenous in a new way of interacting.  That involves acknowledging the other as a sovereign nation in it’s own right, and using that as the starting point of the rebuilding of relationship.

That will never officially happen in this era, because our government insists on using the tools of power and privilege to guide it’s deliberations in what to do to fix the ‘indian problem’.  Sure, that’s surrounded by benevolent language and gestures, but it is still the same old power dynamic just with more politeness.  Now, notice I did use the word privilege, but not in the context of ‘white privilege’.  If you had noticed, our Minister of National Defence is not white, and there are numbers of not-white MPs…this is not a white problem, it is a power problem, and ultimately a problem of falleness that impacts all of the Creation.

‘White privilege’ as a Post-Christian Construct

This is the aspect which troubles me greatly, for to hear Christians proclaim their right to self-label as privileged white people is directly contrary to Christ’s teaching about the fundamental self-worth of each person.  The text which pops to mind is this one:

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. (Romans 10:12)

or this one: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

or this one: Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)

In a text about ‘white privilege’ the author started by quoting the Galatians text and then immediately stated that instead of removing racial distinctions, this text emphasized how important they were to God because He made mention of all those races.  That’s a completely contrary interpretation to what the passage plainly says.

If St Paul is so explicit in his assertion that there are no more racial distinctions in Christ (and note no more gender distinctions either), how is it acceptable for a white Christian to label themselves as ‘white privileged’?  Similar to my comments about how this is perpetuating racism, it is contrary to the removal of racial boundaries which we see clearly manifest throughout the Gospels and Epistles.  Christ speaks to the Samaritan woman.  Who was a neighbour to the beaten Samaritan?  All races hear the Gospel proclaimed in the Acts account of Pentecost, in their language and dialect.  This is not the image of a God that sorts by race, or by oppressor/oppressed status.  (See the bit about Mirislav Volf below)

Illustrative of our proper stance in this question of oppression was the model of Christ in responding to abuse from oppressors in the 1st century context.  No Greek or Jew, slave or free, but Christ is all, and in all.  (Col 3:11 again).  No cursed Romans, no blessed Jews, but all in need of God’s salvation.  So if Christ is in all, and I label myself as oppressor, what does that mean to Christ?

The act of marginalizing any group, including a self-marginalizing statement, is incompatible with a God who values all individuals equally regardless of their state of sin or grace.  For a saviour who was so concerned about those who had no voice, the act of targeting one racial group so as to remove their voice is not coherent with those teachings.

Jesus consistently gives voice to those who have no voice.  Think of the adulterous woman, about to be stoned to death.  Jesus intervenes, disperses her accusers (and soon to be murderers) with a ‘let him without sin cast the first stone’, and then releases her with ‘go forth and sin no more’.  He did this over and over again in the Gospels to all those who had no particular voice (a healed leper – go and tell the priests what has happened to you…and so on).  So what do we do with a thought, ‘white privilege’, which has the specific outcome of silencing a whole population distinguished by nothing but their skin colour?  This is in no way consistent with the teachings of the Christ.

[I’ll also note that this net also catches all the fair-skinned First Nations and Metis by default, since we have to self-identify to pull ourselves out of ‘white privilege’.  It is a dull blade by any measure, something else contrary to Christ’s sharp and incisive truth-telling.]

A further test is the intended outcome of the ‘white privilege’ label.  From what I’ve read this is all about shaming, and self-shaming.  It is the ultimate power claim, “Look at how privileged I am. Isn’t it awful?  Aren’t I a bad person?  Can’t you see how guilty I feel?”  Remorse is a spiritually toxic place for the Christian (thanks D for that idea) because it plunges you into a place of feeling really bad, without presenting any path to repentance.

The real issue is the fallen state of humanity, which is why singling out any racial group is so fundamentally contrary to God’s Word.  The problem in Rwanda was not privilege, but a willingness to discriminate against people based on tribal affiliation which went both ways.  The problem in Canada with our indigenous peoples is not privilege, but a desire to preserve old power structures independent of race. The problem in Canada with disabled veterans is not racial, but a failure on behalf of our society to care for those in need.  This is all about sin, a constant across all humans, independent of race or status.  Associating particular sins with a racial group, aside from being racist, removes the general onus on all of us to recognize our sinful nature and our need for Christ.

History does not support that Canada has a ‘white privilege’ problem.  What history tells me is we have a problem with treating people with the love that God demands we display.  In Canada that happened to be the genocidal policies of mostly Protestant white settlers, something which hit indigenous, Japanese and Chinese immigrants in particularly different ways.  Today it continues as official disregard for people in need: indigenous or veteran.  That sad story has been, and will be, played out around the globe in many different faith, race and religion contexts, many of which don’t involve white people.  (Read A Bear, A Backpack, and Eight Cases of Vodka for a perspective into 1980’s anti semitism in Soviet Russia)

In Africa that continues to be manifest by inter-tribal warfare, and a slave trade that is alive and well and involves few whites.  In the Middle East it is manifest by Muslim killing Muslim because they don’t belong to the right sect or historic belief group.  We, as broken humans, have infinite capacity for evil against our fellow humans…and ‘white privilege’ discounts all of the other racial groups enacting evil by focusing in on one racial group in particular.  It also ignores the reality that discrimination exists across almost every racial boundary in the world, by pointing the finger at only whites.

Finally, the label ‘white privilege’ is an inescapable sin.  Like Pilate, it doesn’t matter how many times you wash your hands because the blood of the innocent man simply will not come off.  Assigning the term as a racially-oriented one paints all whites as privileged, which can never be escaped.  This is contrary to God’s will for his people which is abundant life, joy and peace that passes all understanding and ultimately total redemption of all their sins.

‘White privilege’ is in no way a Christian concept, and Christians need to stop promoting it as something consistent with God’s teaching.

As a final point, someone has to explain to me how the creation of another, exclusive, binary category is something which forwards God’s kingdom.

The Real Goal of ‘White privilege’

What is really at work in the ‘white privilege’ movement is an attempt to make people feel good about how bad they are feeling about themselves.  This is because in the post-modern era, feeling really bad about yourself is a technique intended to confirm that you are a really, really good person.  This is another overt power grab: “Look at how bad I feel about being white!  Pity me!”

The movement is really about gaining pity for oneself, because pity requires no relationship or reconciliation.  Worse still, it breeds an expectation that others feeling pity for you is a right.  Pity is a uniquely post-modern response to the question of injustice.

This is an old friend, the sin of pride, manifesting itself in a subtle way.  Your level of approval is measured by how shamed you feel, and so the discourse turns not to reconciliation or (gasp) restorative justice, or even to repentance but to a long list of justifications as to why you have the right to claim ‘white privilege’.  I will tell you, as an indigenous man, that this refrain is the exact same one I’ve heard throughout Canadian history because at it’s core it is just another white assertion of power over others.

This is something I’ve been hearing ever since the Battle of Seven Oaks and the First and Second Red River Rebellions.  It is another case of someone dictating to me how I am supposed to view you, and how I am supposed to refer to you.

At a class I attended prior to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s visit to Edmonton, after a particularly direct presentation on indigenous history in Canada, the presenter (a status Cree man) noticed several (white) woman in the front row who were crying.  He pointed them out (how insensitive) and then said, “I don’t want your tears.  Tears do not help solve any of the things which brought us to this point. What I want is your willingness to enter into a new form of relationship with me, so that we can learn to share the land.”  My point exactly and I could re-write that line by inserting ‘white privilege’ in place of tears, feeling really bad does not change anything.

‘White privilege’ is a social media idea that does not involve revision of life.  I don’t see hordes of white people travelling to North Dakota to stand against pipelines, chained to trees in Clayoquot Sound to stop clear cutting, or marching right here in Edmonton with Idle no More. What I do see is hordes of white folk on social media arguing about who is the most depraved, and shaming other white people who don’t display the requisite level of guilt.  If ‘white privilege’ is working, where is the uprising of settler folk to demand, say, that the Indian Act be destroyed and a new relationship put in place?

It is not happening because shame in the post-modern context serves to convince us that we are good, because we feel so bad.  It achieves none of the transformative good that biblical shame is intended to bring into being.

A Classic Example of a Christian Claim of ‘White Privilege’

 

As I was researching this, I came across an article from Moody Bible College in Chicago affirming that the church cannot give up use of the term ‘white privilege’.  The article was in response to a Facebook post by a professor at that school about why ‘white privilege’ is not a Christian idea.  I’m not that compelled by his argument, so I’m not referencing the original post.  The response article I take a number of exceptions with, and posted those in a comment.  I just noticed looking for the link that my comment (which was there last week) is not yet displayed on the site.  I’ll include it here just for the record.  The original article is here.

 

One of the reasons I took issue with the article was very bold misuse of two favourites of mine, Walter Bruggemann and Miroslav Volf.

Quoting the original article: “The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done, not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death, and know the pain of the criticized one. Prophetic criticism aims to create an alternative consciousness with its own rhetoric and field of perception.” (99)

If you take away a person’s right to name things, to make meaning through language, you ultimately take away their access to justice and reconciliation. Why do you think the writers, philosophers, and educators are always the first to be silenced and imprisoned when a dictator is rising to power? Because words have power.

My concern with this assertion is that it suggests that whites are somehow dis-empowered by the statement that ‘white privilege’ isn’t a Christian concept. If ‘white privilege’ is real, than they are the one racial group which had, by definition, the power to self-name. That is a power not shared by the oppressed. How does the self-assertion of ‘white privilege’, as a powerful and privileged activity itself, counter the privilege it seeks to highlight?

Second issue is the use of Bruggemann in this manner. Assigning guilt to one’s self by self-naming does not ‘enter into the death’ of the oppressed. It is a self-directed action only, and has to be taken an extra step to turn into action. Convincing myself my race is particularly sinful is different than actually stepping into relationship with the oppressed, where I can then attempt to enter into the death they experience.  [If the implication is that whites ‘enter into the death’ of those oppressed, this just reinforces again that this is an overt act of power by the oppressors…I feel your pain as the oppressed because I feel so guilty about being an oppressor.  Stop.  Please.]

So, how do those with a voice calling themselves out on white privilege give the voiceless a different standing before God? It is a penny short of the actual call on the Christian. It also implies some degree of inescapable sin. Sin can be repented of, but ‘white privilege’ as sin, because it is racially designated, can never be washed clean.

As a person who has been on the receiving end of that white racism, I’m not interested in having you tell me how aware you are of your culpability under the ‘white privilege’ label. What I want is relationship where we stand reconciled before God, both of us redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, and convicted of our fundamental value because of Christ. I can not see any coherent way that ‘white privilege’ gets you to that point because it does not, ultimately, point to the cross.

I also find it interesting that the original challenger at Moody, Brian Litfin, is a professor of theology, while the article I was responding to is from a professor of communications.

Litfin in his apology for his original snarky article raises a couple of good points about why ‘white privilege’ is a post-Christian concept (the rest of his argument I still have trouble with):

Before I list my reasons, let me acknowledge that the term “white privilege” is intended to address an important topic. The problem is, the term itself is inflammatory, so the real topic goes unheard because of the offense. Here are five ways the term “white privilege” is objectionable to many in our community:

The term can imply corporate responsibility for others’ sin. Collective sin was operative in the covenant community of Israel, such as with Achan (Joshua 7). However, with the arrival of the New Covenant, individuals now stand or fall before God for their own actions (Jeremiah 31:29-30). According to scripture, “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat … each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:10, 12). Therefore, an entire race should not be held accountable for the sins of individuals. It doesn’t work like that anymore.  [yup, and an inescapable sin, since there is no way you can escape culpability if you’re white]

The term can be an unloving use of the power of naming. In scripture, the act of naming something claims authority over its identity and destiny. Jesus did this when he gave Simon a new name: Peter (Matthew 16:18). However, it is one thing to name a friend or one’s own community for the sake of encouragement, and another to name someone for the purpose of criticism or shame. In so doing, we aggressively define others, stigmatize them, lump them together. But can billions of people really be described with the catch-all term “white” and then uniformly be assigned certain privileges? No. Such behavior is unloving because it forces simplistic categories on others that they themselves do not embrace. [and this is soecifically the reason there is no Jew or Greek in the eschatological community God calls us to join]

[…] The term can display a critical spirit that misconstrues reality by highlighting only the negative. We must not buy into a Hunger Games mythology of vapid suburban elites entertaining themselves at the expense of others. In reality, the doors are not entirely shut to minorities today, nor are white people universally trying to close them. In fact, I often see a lot of “white love” as the American church reaches out to the needy. Why must we criticize our Caucasian brothers and sisters? The secular world does this, but it is unworthy of Christians. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 tells us to “encourage one another and build each other up.” Where sin does exist, the answer is not the ungodly modern practice of “calling it out.” Instead we are to offer gentle critique (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:25) and cover the offense in love (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Pet. 4:8).

[…] I suggest we should rip the term “white privilege” out of our discourse at Moody. The underlying issues that need to be addressed should be described with more wholesome, less divisive terminology. Though I grant my fellow Christians the right to disagree, I know I stand with many in our community who find this language repugnant. Why employ terms that divide the body of Christ? As students of God’s Word, let us draw our terminology from the Bible, not the wisdom of man.

A Particularly American Concept

One other reason that I believe ‘white privilege’ has no place in a Canadian Christian context, is that it was born of a thoroughly America secular thought process.

The first mentions of the idea of ‘white privilege’ come out of the American liberal secular social justice movement in the 1990’s. Anytime the church looks at importing secular social justice thought it needs to be very cautious, because many times those secular thoughts contain the seed of the spirit of this age.  The USA is still wrestling with a large degree of blood guilt over it’s involvement in the slave trade, and so race issues in the USA have a particular extreme polarity that is not present in Canada.  The church is not to look to the culture for understanding of how we are to love, as we already have that written out for us in clear terms.  [I preached this topic this past week – see link]

The whole ‘white privilege’ discussion is generated by a particular American exceptionalism which is the root cause of ‘white privilege’ (thanks M for that idea).  There are aspects of Litfin’s response which reflect some facets of that attitude, like the belief that hard work should be rewarded with material benefits – something plainly foreign to the Gospel.  The whole idea of ‘white privilege’ is a distinctly North American discussion, and in other parts of the world it would not occur to people to form the argument in this way.

The idea of ‘white privilege’ is also a particularly post-modern term, because the idea of self-loathing is something central to the discourse around the spirit of this age.  This is way beyond my scope, but this is the same concept leveraged by advertising in order to sell products, the idea that we are somehow incomplete, weak and inadequate unless we buy something, and buy that something often.  ‘White privilege’ is an extension of the cult of inadequacy mostly thrust upon us through the relentless process of advertising.

It also nicely plays into the cultural context that places offending someone as the most severe sin we can commit against another human being.  That is also a post-Christian concept because the Gospel should be highly offensive to the ears of this world.  We are, as Christians, by our nature called to be offensive to the spirit of this age.

So Where do We go From Here? – A Practical Question

Now, the question of people being aware of how they are part of the systemic violence in the world (like all of us with smart phones who support blood cobalt mining in the Congo) is an important goal.  I don’t think framing it as a question of ‘white privilege’ helps achieve that end.

For example, the fact that we in the first world without many exceptions live a standard of life that the rest of the world envies makes us all privileged on a global scale.  The fact that we have First Nations communities that live in third-world squalor does not alter that privilege, it just highlights our inability to equitably distribute the bounty of this nation internally, which mirrors the same reality internationally. Conclusion, every citizen of Canada is a sinful human.  We confirm that every time we use a smart phone enabled by the inhumane mining practices in other parts of the world.

 

We, as members of the first world, participate in that global cycle of violence against others merely by our consumption.  That is true regardless of our race or gender.  To ascribe particular blame to one group in particular is fundamentally contrary to the word of the Gospel – all have fallen short, all continue to fall short, but all have a path to repentance and salvation.


 Footnote 1:

Another point is the danger of ‘white privilege’ drawing non-whites into sin.  This is where Miroslav Volf would have some particularly harsh words for us.  There are large parts of the indigenous community who will buy into ‘white privilege’ because it fits well with their brokeness. By proclaiming ‘white privilege’ you potentially allow those still caught in the cycle of despair to once again become victims to oppressors. Are we not past that sort of relationship yet?

[Even while recognizing the injustice and evil that lies at the feet of the white race]  This is a form of prideful self-identification.  It is again a claim of privilege over others!  “Look at us whites.  We are so bad!  Look at all of my power!  I’m way more powerful than anyone else!  Look at how I’ve abused that power!” (thanks M)

Which reminds me of a bible parable – Luke 18:9-14:

9 [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed[a] thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

As I made clear in the sermon, the call on the Christian is not retribution, and particularly not self-retribution, but reconciliation and peace.  It is also not about puffing ourselves up by telling everyone how bad we are, for that itself is a sin. (see Volf, below)


Footnote 2:

In a paper about white privilege in missionary contexts, the author offered this reference list to support the concept.  I noted these are all secular references, again a warning flag:

For helpful introductions to the issue, see Paula Rothenberg, ed.: White Privi- lege: Essential Readings from the Other Side of Racism (New York: Worth, 2002); and Frances Kendall, Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authen- tic Relationships across Race (New York: Routledge, 2006). For an overview and discussion of whiteness, see Melanie E. Bush, Breaking the Code of Good Intentions: Everyday Forms of Whiteness (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004) 15–18. For a more personal reflection see Robert Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege (San Francisco: City Lights, 2005). For a discussion of the difference between white power and white privilege, see Joseph R. Barndt, Understanding and Dismantling Racism: The Twenty-First Cen- tury Challenge to White America (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007) 85–110.

Performing safe cross-secular importation requires a high degree of discernment and skill that is not present in the article I snipped this from.  The thing that distinguishes Christian missionaries is their willingness to accept personal discomfort and risk in order to live in community with others…like moving to the Congo with the MCC, like living among tribespeople in Tibet.  ‘White privilege’ does not necessarily help that relationship.


Footnote 3:

This is a review of Miroslav Volf’s astounding book, Exclusion and Embrace.  Anyone who is interested in engaging race relations where repentance and restoration are required should read Volf.  I wrote a post on the why behind why I think the book astounding here.  Let me say that Volf is the first theologian I have read who actually gets the depth of difficulty associated with forgiving someone, and why most of the church doesn’t understand soldiers.  You can’t really speak into that reality until you have seen the brutality humanity is capable of first hand, and Volf did and struggled with what a proper response for a Christian might be to the ‘other’ who has just slaughtered and raped a village of your countrymen.  [This is the fundamental reason I can’t take Hauerwas’ absolute pacifism seriously…I can’t buy even an exceptionally well-reasoned opinion from a theologian who has never had to either 1) make the decision to kill someone 2) make the decision to forgive someone who has killed someone close to you.  Volf has been there, done that, got the T-shirt in a way I’ve not encountered before outside the military.]

 

Why this is relevant at the end of my ‘white privilege’ post…because Volf points out clearly that Christ’s answer to oppression was not to condemn the oppressors, but to tell the oppressed to repent.  This reversal is one of the aspects that makes Volf’s work so mind-blowing, and counter-cultural to the established Christian understanding of oppression.  We still don’t get this in the organized church!  The answer to oppression is not to encourage the oppressors to self-label themselves with ‘Roman privilege’ but to tell the oppressed to repent.  Think about that in the context of the ‘white privilege’ debate.  Volf, I believe, would laugh at the ‘white privilege’ concept…and would instead call both oppressor and oppressed to join together at the foot of Christ’s cross, there to seek mutual forgiveness for their sins.

 

As to why we still don’t get it in the organized church.  The Anglican Church of Canada just released a study package on money.  I’ve gone through it once, and won’t be using it as a teaching resource.  Why not?  Because it perpetuates the same falsehood wrapped around ‘white privilege’.  The document focuses on those who perpetuate the cycles of financial oppression…but doesn’t strongly point the finger back at the reader.  Every person who spends money in a first world country, unless they are exceptionally cautious, is perpetuating cycles of financial oppression.  Each time we select an off-shore manufactured item, we are perpetuating that cycle…including Apple products.  But, it is still trendy to point the finger at ‘them’ who are the evil ones perpetuating violence on others.  That’s not a Christian perspective because ‘them’ is ‘us’!

In fact, as soon as you think you’re holy, you’ve lost it. (I’ve added all the bolding)

 

In Exclusion and Embrace (1996), Miroslav Volf points out that Jesus didn’t tell the rich and powerful Romans to repent of oppressing the Jews. Instead, he turned to the victims of the Roman Empire and said: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” At first glance, this doesn’t make much sense. Volf writes, “should Jesus not have demasked the ideological construals of ‘the poor’ as sinners and challenged the oppressive practices these construals served to legitimate?” Of course, Jesus did this as well, but by calling on the victims to repent He prevents them perpetuating the cycle of hatred. “Victims need to repent of the fact that all too often they mimic the behavior of the oppressors,” Volf says, “let themselves be shaped in the mirror image of the enemy. They need to repent also of the desire to excuse their own reactive behavior either by claiming that they are not responsible for it or that such reactions are a necessary condition of liberation.” Repentance and forgiveness are divine acts, and Volf recommends that we bring our rage before God just as the Psalmists did. He observes, “by placing unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice. Hidden in the dark chambers of our hearts and nourished by the system of darkness, hate grows and seeks to infest everything with its hellish will to exclusion. … But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion – without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.”

People who expect that a stubborn commitment to nonviolence will end violence are naive, Volf writes. He says that when he preached non-retaliation in his native Croatia at the end of the Srebrenica Yugoslav wars, his sermon fell flat. He was preaching to “people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit.” The idea that “we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love” just doesn’t work in the face of such evil. And so Volf turns to the Rider on the White Horse in the Apocalypse, who is also the crucified Lamb. We are not God, Volf reminds us, so it is not our place to take revenge on our enemies. God alone will judge “those who insist on remaining beasts and false prophets,” and He will do so violently. These are people, the Bible assures us, who, “ensnared by the chaos of violence which generates its own legitimizing “reason” and “goodness,” … have become untouchable for the lure of God’s truth and goodness.” We can rest assured that evil will be dealt with completely, and that on the cross Christ died “for an unjust and deceitful world.” Christ’s death and resurrection is the basis on which we can forgive. Volf writes that “since the new world has become reality in the crucified and resurrected Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) it is possible to live the new world in the midst of the old in an act of gratuitous forgiveness without giving up the struggle for truth and justice. One can embrace perpetrators in forgiveness because God has embraced them through atonement.”

The idea of embrace is central to Volf’s theology of reconciliation. “Reconciliation with the other will succeed only if the self, guided by the narrative of the triune God, is ready to receive the other into itself and undertake a readjustment of its identity in light of the other’s alterity,” Volf says. This requires a sort of “double vision,” where instead of trying to see things from nowhere, which is clearly impossible, we approach truth both from our perspective and, stepping out of ourselves, from the perspective of our enemies. This involves crossing a social boundary in order to enter into the world of the other, and also that we take the other into our own world. Volf is remarkably pragmatic about how successful this sort of double vision will probably be, but it is certainly a good start. “Nothing can guarantee in advance that the perspectives will ultimately merge and agreement be reached,” he writes. “We may find that we must reject the perspective of the other. Yet we should seek to see things from their perspective in the hope that competing justices may become converging justices and eventually issue in agreement.”

The motivation for peace-making must be that we see the other in terms of relationships instead of thinking only about right and wrong. Volf recommends “redeeming the past … not by willing but by thinking, by an interpretative act of inscribing the tragedy of the past in the pre-condition of a nontragic future.” His ideal is the father of the prodigal son, who remembered his son as son rather than as someone who had sinned against him. When the father welcomed back his long lost son, Volf writes, “no confession was necessary for the embrace did not rest on moral performance and therefore could not be destroyed by immoral acts.” When seeking reconciliation, we need to look at what unites us as humans, sisters, brothers, and children of God, instead of focusing on what has and has not happened in the past. This is much more of a challenge for people of color than for whites, for whites have been much more sinners than sinned against, but it requires all of us to repent and to move forward. [exactly, the degree of sin is not the important discriminator, nor skin colour, but that all, victim and oppressor, have fallen short of the grace of God]

As a manifesto of this new way of living, Volf offers this ecumenical confession based loosely on the Barmen Declaration of 1934:

“You were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; or all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galations 3:28).

One in Christ.  All of churches of Jesus Christ, scattered in diverse cultures, have been redeemed for God by the blood of the Lamb to form one multicultural community of faith. The “blood” that binds them as brothers and sisters is more precious than the “blood,” the language, the customs, political allegiances, or economic interests that may separate them.

We reject the false doctrine, as though a church should place allegiance to the culture it inhabits and the nation to which it belongs above the commitment to brothers and sisters from other cultures and nations, servants of the one Jesus Christ, their common Lord, and members of God’s new community.”

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Written by sameo416

November 29, 2016 at 12:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] I wrote a few weeks back a long, long reflection on the post-modern idea of ‘white privilege&#…  I came across a couple of other articles, written entirely from a secular perspective.  My critique of the concept is principally from a Christian context, as I can see no indication in Christian teaching that we have the option of segmenting one group along racial lines. […]


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