I could have called this article, Black Lives Matters and White Privilege from a White Guy. I was born white, and I can’t change that, just like my black brothers and sisters can’t change the color of their skin. None of us can change the circumstances we are born with, but we can take personal responsibility for the way we deal with our circumstances.
“Black lives matter” and “white privilege” are phrases that have exploded into our consciousness in the two weeks following the death of George Floyd, the latest in a long litany of examples of disparity in treatment between people of color and the rest of us. The resulting maelstrom is an indication (maybe) that we get it and have finally had enough of it.
But what do we do about it? What does a white guy like me do about it? What does a Christian, a Christ follower do about it?
I am not here to lecture or speak for people of color. I don’t know their pain. I don’t know what it’s like to live life in their skin. I can only imagine what it’s like, but I don’t know really what it’s like.
I can only speak for myself and speak to what I know about Jesus and how he informs us to live in a hostile world full of injustice. I can only speak to people like me. And so, I want to address these phrases and what I think Jesus says to people like me (white Christians) at this tipping point in our history in the United States.
I want to address the phrase, “black lives matter”, not the organization.
To acknowledge that black lives matter is like acknowledging that a house is on fire. When a house is on fire, we call the Fire Department, and no one says, “What about all the other houses?” They don’t need the our attention in that moment.
To acknowledge that black lives matter, we are saying that someone is sick and needs help. When a family member is sick and needs medication, we don’t say, “What about the other people in the family?” They don’t need our help at the moment.
To acknowledge that black lives matter isn’t to deny or ignore the fact that other lives matter. The problem being addressed is that black lives haven’t mattered enough. We need to give our attention to the issue of racial disparity because our history shows us that black lives haven’t mattered nearly enough!
When we talk about white privilege, I know many people who don’t feel very privileged. Many white people are born into poverty, with physical or mental disability, or into dysfunctional homes and other socio-economic, personal and other circumstances that are difficult. White privilege doesn’t discount those things.
White privilege simply means that white people don’t have the added disadvantage of being a person of color. White privilege means that our difficult circumstances have nothing to do with our skin color. We don’t suffer the added difficulty of racial disparity.
We can acknowledge and agree with our brothers and sisters of color that black lives do matter and that white privilege does exist. Simply acknowledging that (instead of responding that “all lives matter” or that white people suffer difficulties too) is a big step in the right direction. It means we are listening. It means that we care.
Now for the following Jesus part. How might a Christian find direction on these things in Scripture?
Jesus had quite a lot to say for us, starting with the second greatest commandment: to love our neighbors as ourselves. In fact, “The entire law is fulfilled in a single decree: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal. 5:4)
If we had the additional burden in this life of being black in a world that is tilted against us, wouldn’t we want others to recognize that disparity? Instead of walking past on the other side of the street, wouldn’t you want some Good Samaritans who are willing to cross over and help?
It’s not enough simply to recognize the disparity, though that is a necessary start.
James 2, in the NIV version, has this chapter heading: Favoritism Forbidden. James says:
“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor.” (James 2:5-6)
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin….” (James 2:8)
And finally, he brings it home:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
In the racial tension that has erupted from the brutal treatment of George Floyd (and so many others before him), we can’t help but notice the pain in the faces and voices of our black brothers and sisters… if we are looking and listening. James says it isn’t enough, though, to wish them well (as we go on with our lives).
I am sure the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan wished the injured man well as he lay in the road in a pool of his own blood. At least, they probably didn’t wish him evil. But that’s not enough! We deceive ourselves to think our well wishes are the response Jesus is suggesting to us.
Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow him. We might imagine ourselves, as I have, being willing to die for Jesus before renouncing our faith, but is that what Jesus is really saying?
Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Jesus is talking about something other than our ultimate death in these bodies.
He is talking about a way of life, not necessarily whether we might ultimately be willing to die for him. A way of life that involves less insistence on “my rights” than the rights of others. A way of life that involves active participation in the purposes of God that are focused on proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom to the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and setting the oppressed free. (Luke 4:16-21)
These were the words Jesus used to announce the beginning of his ministry – his purpose in the world. Of course, he came to die for our sins, but he also showed us what love is like and how we are supposed to live in this world.
If we are going to follow him, we should be doing what he did. Our focus should be his focus. Jesus said he only did what he saw the Father doing (John 5:19), and he calls us to follow him as he followed the Father.
Our mindset should be the mindset of Jesus that Paul described to the Philippians:
“[H]ave the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
“Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant…. (Phil. 2:5-7)
The word translated “made himself nothing”, kenoó, means to empty, render void or be emptied, without recognition, perceived as valueless. Thus, God emptied himself; He rendered his advantage as God of the universe void; he made Himself to be without recognition (honor) and valueless.
He didn’t exalt himself, as he could have. He came for us. It wasn’t about him.
Most translations use the phrase: “emptied himself”. The New Living Translation says, “gave up his divine privileges”.
In this time, I think giving up His privilege as God, as the creator and supreme God over all the world, is an apt translation.
God had the privilege of remaining distant and aloof from us, but He didn’t do that. He loved us, and His love compelled him to leave his sequestered position and become one of us. God didn’t cross on the other side of the road; God crossed over and came to us.
When we agree that black lives matter, we are not saying that other lives don’t matter. We know that all lives matter, but we also need to recognize that black lives have not mattered nearly enough.
When we talk about white privilege, we are not saying that white people don’t have their problems. All people have problems, but many of the problems people of color experience (on top of the problems all people have) are because of the color their skin.
We should seek to have the attitude Jesus had, which is not to consider equality something we use to our own advantage – not to be always asserting our own rights. We can have the attitude of Jesus by listening to the pain of people of color that they experience because of their color. We don’t need remind them of our own struggles that are common to all people in that moment.
We can have the attitude of Jesus by being willing to acknowledge and let go of our privilege, to empty ourselves, to render it void, to refrain from requiring ourselves to be recognized long enough to recognize the value, the worth, the legitimate concerns and pain that our brothers and sisters of color experience at the hands of people privileged with a life of having no care for the color of our skin.
Such an attitude should lead us on the path to following Jesus in these times. It starts with recognition, but it can’t end there. We need to be active in loving our neighbors who are people of color in whatever form that means for each one of us in our daily lives.
8 thoughts on “A Christian Perspective on Black Lives Matter and White Privilege”
This is brilliant and beautiful — a voice I have been waiting to hear. Thank you.
Thank you Jane. It’s been a long time coming, like 60 years for me.