Let’s get into it.
The events in Charlottesville deserve the special attention and sense of immediacy they’ve provoked over the past week or two. Why? Because the issue of racism in America is persistent and destructive, of course, but also because so many of us have the option of turning our face away when it doesn’t directly affect us. Maybe that’s the most important new lesson I’ve learned in this—I may bristle at the jargon that litters the rhetoric of social activism, but I have no doubt about this one fact:
My life is an example of what it means to be a privileged white American.
I’m a 54-year-old white guy from a nice suburb. In the dictionary under “privileged”, there could be a picture of me with my family. A few months ago I was pulled over for speeding while driving with my teenaged son. As the officer came toward the car I showed my son what he should do if this ever happened to him—I put my hands on the wheel and I narrated everything I did before I moved a muscle. When the officer went back to his cruiser I told my son that black dads had to have a very different conversation with their sons—that a simple ticket for speeding could lead to some pretty awful outcomes. I tried to communicate how unfair that was, which doesn’t always ring true when you’re on the lucky side of unfair. But it’s more than that.
The simple fact that I can turn my focus to something else if I choose is what the concept of privilege is all about. As a seminary president and pastor of a church, if I chose tomorrow to launch a series of talks or articles on what it means to be a Christian, without reference to the call to take up the cause of the marginalized and oppressed, the overwhelming majority of the people I serve would be just fine with that.
The essential privilege of being a white American is the freedom to choose what outrages me, and to look away from the rest.
It’s not enough for me to say that my privilege is accidental. Of course that’s partly true, just as it’s true for those who are born tall or smart or pretty or strong. But my accidental privilege has its roots in something intentional and evil. We still need to be reminded that the African-American experience in this country is different from other immigrant narratives. My grandparents came to America from Italy to build a better life and to escape from the Second World War. Most blacks in this country are the descendants of men and women who were kidnapped, sold (and re-sold), and bred for lives of brutal slavery. It’s for that reason alone (though there are others), the only proper Christian response to being unfairly privileged is to recognize it and wherever possible, surrender it. At the very least I believe the call on me is to exploit my privilege to benefit someone else.
All of this is rooted in the Christian faith. We believe as Christians that the person we know as Jesus existed eternally with the Father and the Spirit as an expression of God. The choice to become human—the Incarnation—was also the choice to give up the benefits of being God; in Jesus, God “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”, and through that sacrifice showed what God was really like—who God really is. (See Philippians 2:1-11)
It is the Christian’s task and calling to show the world what God is like. We share the words he spoke and we try to live by the ethics he taught, but we can’t in the process forget the example he set. Christ emptied himself in order to love fully and to restore completely. Our calling is the same.
Faithful Christians have been trying to address these issues for years. Back in 1973 a group of evangelicals reaffirmed the Christian responsibility for creating a more just and loving America. At the heart of the statement is this critical line:
“We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism, and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the Body of Christ along color lines.”
I know that it’s hard to reconcile the evangelicals who wrote that sentence with the odious vandals who desecrate the faith in our own cultural moment. But they were real and that confession is every bit as true today as it was 44 years ago. Where the church of Jesus Christ—you know, the one who gave up being God for us—when the Church of Jesus is responsible for dividing the faithful by color, it’s tempting to want to tear the whole thing down and start over. But that would be missing out on what the transforming power of the gospel can do in our churches and in our lives.
It’s not enough to deplore our sinful history. We’re called to repent that sin and allow God to show us a better way. That begins with learning to see the world through another person’s eyes. It’s about asking questions—it’s about reading people you might not normally read. It’s about letting your guard down long enough to hear someone else’s story. It’s about surrendering the choice to turn your attention—and your heart—away.
It is astounding to me that there are still white supremacists in this country, and that their history is tolerated as casually as it is. The thing is, it’s been easy to ignore them because, well, they weren’t coming after me. But maybe they are. Maybe when a Confederate flag waving hatemonger attacks my black neighbor, my Jewish neighbor, or my Muslim neighbor, that violence is being done to all of us.
Until I learn to see it that way, I will be living neck-deep in my swamp of privilege.