This is not an article concerned with race—that is, “pro-this” and “anti-that.” This is an article about privilege, a force whose effects are potent yet so well assimilated that those who have the most of it fail to realize it even exists. It is a force that transcends assignment to specific cohorts and permeates all of human history and experience.
Over the past several weeks, Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times has written several informative and insightful op-eds called “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” There, he pushes back against several of the “white delusions” about life in modern America of people of color and draws upon several sources in order to conclude that not only do race relations deserve more attention but also that we live in a very unequal society, where many experiences are not universal.
Although I enjoyed reading Mr. Kristof’s articles, I think that singling out “whites” is an incorrect path to take. Privilege is blind to the individual, and no matter who you are—black or white, male or female, rich or poor—it will undeniably change the way you see and interact with the world. Thus, this applies either to a single black female billionaire who “just doesn’t get it” or a dirt poor, unemployed single white male who “just doesn’t get it.” In order to get it, one must first realize that their experience is not normative and that it is a direct result of a passive phenomenon that requires no active engagement. A celebrity who walks into a room without doing anything highlights this point exactly. The genuine truth of reality can only be achieved by embracing the subjectivity and contextuality of our experiences.
A seminary professor of mine recently made a very profound statement: “The opposite of oppression is not liberation but privilege.” Oppression equates to forces keeping you in a state of subjugation, and privilege are forces keeping you in a position of power. Freedom and liberation may abolish one’s oppression, but freedom requires hard work and responsibility. Some may actually shun this freedom because of this expense and therein go from one dangerous form of oppression—imposed—to the most lethal of them all: self-acquired. In fact, a secondary conclusion to be drawn from the quote is that the more privileged you are, the more danger you pose to those who are oppressed because there will always be a finite number of resources available to the human community.
Is this a critique of the privileged? Of course not. There is nothing inherently evil or wrong with it, but the key to the entire issue is how that privilege is used. In fact, biblically speaking, one person not thought of as privileged but who had many advantages, Jesus Christ, proves to be a fitting example of how privilege is to be used: for the sake of others. Consider all the privileges that Christ had, keeping in mind the context of society He lived in more than 2,000 years ago: He was a male (God could have chosen to incarnate Himself as a woman), healthy, charismatic (as a boy he stunned scholars in the temple), had a desired skill and a job (carpenter), had wealthy friends (Lazarus), had a family, He read from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4) in the synagogue and on the Sabbath (a privilege reserved only for well-respected members of the Jewish community), and He wore very nice clothes—this is why in John 19:23, Roman soldiers, recognizing the material’s value, took His garments (which were seamless and woven in one piece from top to bottom) and cast lots for who could keep its pieces. Also, when Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22), at the time this locale was “reserved” for the elite, who restricted access to the site. So, not only was Jesus allowed to pray there, but He also had the pull to bring His disciples with Him. When my son (just a regular boy) was born, we were brought cards, balloons, and boxes of diapers. When Christ was born, he was brought (Matthew 2) gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Have you ever pondered what Mary and Joseph would do with those gifts and how their enormous value would benefit the family in terms of securing privileges that the average family at the time would not have?
Here’s another example: In Matthew 26:6–10, it says, “Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table. But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, ‘Why this waste? For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me.’” At the time, the alabaster container was worth more than the perfume that it housed. In fact, in antiquity, an alabaster vial was worth as much as a farmer made in an entire year. Such vials were a sign of wealth and tended to be passed down within families as a means of inheritance just as families pass down trusts or real estate. The disciples were upset because something so valuable was “wasted.” Christ’s response was quick and to the point: “This woman is using what has been given to her for her own privilege in order to serve someone else—and for this, what reason do any of you have to bother her?”
Christ’s life stands as a shining example to everyone: He lived by an ethos of selflessness and was driven by an ethic of love for others. The power of the cross reveals the ultimate voluntary relinquishment of power and privilege for the sake of humanity. If, then, to meet a person, group, or faction proclaiming to be using their “Christian” ideals for action that contradicts this ideology, then you should direct them to the Bible to discover what and whom Christ really stood for. To speak about Christ means to speak about a liberation theology that seeks to maximize service to other people. The irony is that Christ’s liberation theology applies not only to the oppressed but to the oppressors as well. This must involve, first, the recognition of their own privileges and, second, how their “way of doing things” actually reinforces a perverse paradigm, whose existence they often refuse to acknowledge. To confront this dichotomy and then deny it leads to the development of an ideology that dehumanizes many so that all actions are “justified.” To confront this reality and then to fight against it requires a healthy dose of prophetic imagination, which in turn leads to hope, then eventually to liberation. But what is liberation truly?
In one of my favorite stories in the New Testament (Acts 16:16–40), we are presented with two men, Paul and Silas, who encounter a young girl possessed by an evil spirit of divination, who apparently is quite popular and profitable. In the name of Jesus, Paul was able to heal her, and one would think that the girl was now liberated, but she wasn’t. The girl was, in fact, a slave and therefore someone else’s property. Verse 19 says, “But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.”
The irony was that a slave had been set free but her owners viewed her liberation as a time for lamenting because profit was now lost. The girl may have been “freed,” but her oppressors remained in bondage to business and therefore could not let her go. When religion remains in place, there is no quarrel, but when it dares to step out of place, fighting ensues. When the girl’s owners brought her liberators before the authorities, nationalism and anti-Semitism were invoked against Paul and Silas to conceal profit motives. Paul and Silas were then thrown in jail, where they praised and glorified the name of God. Then divine intervention happened and freed both Paul and Silas. When the jailer became aware of this, he was distraught, cognizant that the penalty for letting a prisoner escape was certain death. As W. H. Willimon wrote in Acts: Interpretation, “Having the key to someone else’s cell does not make you free. Iron bars do not a prison make.”
When the jailer was poised to commit suicide, Paul said, “‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!’ And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.’” In other words, the prisoners, without privilege and who were bound in chains, were now liberated and in the position to evangelize to their oppressor. They could have utilized their new positions of power and allowed the jailer to harm himself, but that would have turned an oppressor into a dead man and would have left his family without. Instead, they chose to show the jailer, a potent symbol of bondage and oppression, that he, in fact, was bound by his own subscription to a perverse ideology where the subjugation of others benefited the self. In effect, the jailer represents in modern society all those who boldly declare how “free,” “privileged,” and “powerful” they are yet carry the burden of Washington, Rome, Greece, Babylon, Assyria, or Egypt around their necks.
Christological freedom produces acts of free will motivated by love, and uses privilege for the sake of others. Freedom confined to the self is always limited by one and constrained by time, whereas freedom focused on humanity is without limit and is will endure for generations.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal