Jesus, of course, did not live in Babylon during the 30-some years he walked the earth. I am speaking figuratively here. Jesus urged people to follow him, to live as he did and to “walk” as he walked – to be imitators of Jesus as he was an imitator of God the Father. We follow Jesus wherever we are.
Most people reading this blog don’t live in Babylon either, as in the ancient city. Rather, Babylon is symbolic of our lives in this world. Just as the exiles found themselves living as foreign people in a foreign land filled with foreign gods, followers of Jesus today are aliens and strangers in this world living among people who do not bow down to our God.
When Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon right after they were taken captive, right after they lost everything (their homes, their lives as they knew them, the Temple around which their community was organized), his words would have difficult, perhaps, to receive.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon….” (Jer. 29:4)
That God “sent” them into exile would have been a painful reminder of all the warnings of the prophets leading up to the final siege of Jerusalem, captivity, and long march to Babylon. Jeremiah had their attention, though. The unthinkable, that Jeremiah had long been predicting, actually happened.
In that context, this is what he said:
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-10)
I don’t think we can emphasize enough the timing of these words: this was the very beginningof the exile. They just lost everything. They just got there. Their future was uncertain, though they had hope to return to their homes because the prophets who warned them of the exile also predicted their return.
We are not “of this world” if we belong to God in Christ. We are exiles in this world. This world is our Babylon. In the rest of this blog,
I will relate those words Jeremiah wrote to the exiled Jews to our lives in “Babylon” today, and I will add in the warning, and the encouragement, that Jeremiah gave in the letter that are also instructive to us today. I believe Jeremiah’s words of instruction are how we should follow Jesus in Babylon.
The inspiration for this article comes from an attempt by a black person to explain to a white friend what she means by white privilege. Much of the evangelical world resists the term, fearing its Marxist roots will poison the vine if we let it grow.
Before I get to the article explaining white privilege from anecdotal examples, I did a little research and found an article written by a Marxist critiquing of the concept, “white privilege”. Critique as I use it here means a critical (as in negative) view. (I found the article when searching for the origin of the term, thinking I would find its Marxist roots.)
I found the idea of white privilege can be traced back to a pamphlet, White Blindspot, generated by Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen in 1967 in which they presented arguments for “white-skinned privilege theory”. They argued that the white working class conspired with their exploiters against the non-white working class to achieve certain privileges that the non-white working class were denied. They called on the white working class to repudiate those privileges and stand with their non-white comrades.[i]
The 2020 article from which I take this narrative is critical of the “privilege theory” that developed. It identified the “privileges” that had been gained by largely white working class people included better access to medical care, better educational opportunities, and so on. The article took umbrage with the call for those workers to forgo those hard fought “privileges” to stand with their comrades of color against the capitalist elite.
“The problem with this conception is that these measures, rather than representing undeserved ‘privileges’, were in fact reforms won by the working class through bitter struggle. These class gains represented the return of a small part of the great wealth held by capitalists that workers had produced. Privilege theory – on the basis of unequal access to these gains under racist American capitalism – converted hard-won class victories, reforms and rights into “undeserved” workers’ ‘privileges’.”
The article says that “privilege theory” is “totally flawed” because it pits the white working class against the black working class. The article blames “privilege theory” on “divisive propaganda of the capitalist class” – a kind of divide and conquer strategy that served the interests of the capitalist class by creating tension in the working class on the basis of race. (Perhaps, the fact that “liberal elites” in cloistered universities developed “privilege theory” was another strike against “privilege theory” to a true Marxist.)
This article is not even a year old. Interesting, is it not? Just as the church is leery of white privilege, so are actual Marxists!
To a certain extent, this article exposes the weakness of Marxist theory which thrives on conflict. When conflict is part of the creed, it undermines itself; conflict conflicts with itself. Perpetual conflict begets perpetual conflict. “Privilege theory” is just one example of how Marxism pits factions against each other, even among factions with common interests.
On the other hand, I can argue that the idea of white privilege is actually more gospel than Marxist. I don’t necessarily believe that, but stay with me for a second. Paul urged the Philippians to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus, saying:
Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges….
Philippians 2:6-7 (NLT)
Most translations say that God “emptied Himself”. The Greek word, kenoó, literally means “to empty” and is translated empty, deprive of content or make unreal.[ii] The HELPS word study adds, to be “perceived as valueless”.
The idea that God “gave up His divine privileges” captures the essence of the meaning of the Greek word in a very modern way. I think about this often when I consider the concept of white privilege.
This is the example of Jesus – that he had the attitude of emptying himself and giving up his privilege. Jesus calls us to be like him, to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. Thus, if we have any privilege (white or otherwise), our attitude should be the same as Jesus. We should be willing to give up our privileges, literally or figuratively, and empty ourselves (consider those things valueless) for the sake of the gospel and others.
In the next chapter of Philippians, Paul says,
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ ….”
Thus, the idea of recognizing the privileges we have, whether they are on account of being white, or American or whatever, actually has some biblical roots. Our willingness to recognize that privilege and to be willing to empty ourselves of it for others is consistent with Christian values and faith
The idea of recognizing privilege and being willing to empty ourselves of it may be more biblical than Marxist! (I am not completely jesting to suggest it.)
But this really isn’t the ultimate point I want to make today. I am not here to argue for the concept of white privilege in our interpretation or application of the gospel. I agree that foreign concepts, such as the notion of white privilege, should not be brought into the gospel message. The gospel message has integrity in itself and stands alone in its ability to transform lives and bear the fruit God intended of it.
I do want to argue, though, that Christians should not reflexively recoil from and demonize the notion of white privilege. It’s the language of the modern world, so demonizing it creates a divide between us and those God desires to save.
Rather, I think we can use the term to the advantage of the Gospel. If Paul used quotations from pagan poets and philosophers to bridge the gap to his Greco-Roman audience at Mars Hill (Acts 17), we can do the same with the notion of white privilege (and other words that are used in modern parlance).
The events that are unfolding in the United States are troubling from many angles. Many Christians pinned their immediate and long term hopes on Donald Trump. With Biden as President, the fight against the killing of the unborn has been dealt a significant blow.
But there are many other problems. The racial divide, polarization, political fringe groups, extreme rhetoric, threats of violence, conspiracy theories, fake news, increasing control of popular speech by private monopolies of information, an abandonment of all semblance of non-bias by media, our ability to choose our own tailored news, hatred for people who don’t think like us, an unwillingness to show respect, listen and engage in real dialogue – these are things that are deeply troubling in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”.
To my brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus said we would have tribulation in this world. He didn’t tell us to take up arms and fight it. He said we should follow him, spread the Gospel and make disciples.
His kingdom is not of this world. Jesus didn’t come to empower the Zealots, but to turn them into self-sacrificing servants of God and His kingdom – spreading the Gospel and making disciples.
Islam spreads by the sword. The Gospel spreads by people who wash others’ feet, turn the other cheek and love God, neighbors and even enemies. The Christian wields not a political flag, but a cross that he carries on his own back.
If we are going to fight for the mission of Jesus, our fight should be “to proclaim good news to the poor… to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”. (Luke 4:18-19) This was how Jesus described his own purpose on the day when he stood up in the temple and announced his ministry.
I am finding some solace today in the increasingly polarized world in which we live. I can always find some balm in humor! Over the last half decade or more, I have stepped outside the political fray psychologically, taking a seat in the audience and observing the circus. I vacillate from horror to sadness, but there is always humor to which I can turn for solace.
I have not checked the facts, by the way. Does it matter anymore? Doubt everything. That’s just easier!
I have been meaning to “collect” a bunch of articles and memes in pairs that are the exact opposites of each other. For instance, one article might say, “Trump beats up little girls!” While, another article might say, “Hillary Clinton approves of beating up little girls!”
When I start looking for these supremely ironic pairings, I begin noticing them often, but I haven’t found the energy to do the collecting. Democrat says, “Scientists have proven the world is black”; Republican says, “Scientists have been debunked: the world is white.” Each posting is made with the certainty of inalienable truth.
Most people respond with hearty signals of knowing acknowledgment, replying according to the identities and protocols of their particular form of group think. Though one or two brave souls might dare to post rebuttal, this modern ritualistic dance on social media is practiced to perpetuate and strengthen what we already think, gaining the knowing approval of the people “who matter” in a series of empty triumphs over the time and energy it takes to be candid and introspective about truth.
The truth is that there is plenty of rebuttal to be found if one is simply looking for it. For every black, there is a white. It’s easy, of course, to get lost in the myriad shades of grey. And, perhaps, that’s the real problem of modern (postmodern) people. We fear getting lost and sucked down in the shades of grey. If we can “rise” above that gravitational force of contrary facts, virtually skimming the surface lest we get sucked under the waves, we can maintain our preferred position.
Might I dare suggest another course? The shades of grey are difficult to navigate, no doubt, but it isn’t all black and white. Life isn’t that simple.
That isn’t to say that truth doesn’t exist in a postmodern world. Truth is still truth. It just isn’t as simplistic as we prefer it to be.
Peter was one of the first followers of Jesus. He was one the twelve who became known as “the apostles”, one of the closest followers of Jesus. But Peter wasn’t just a follower, and he wasn’t just one of the apostles. Andrew, Peter’s brother, is known as the first follower of Jesus, but Peter became closer to Jesus then Andrew. Peter was one of the inner circle of the closest confidants to Jesus.
There were only three people in that inner circle: James and John, the brothers from Zebedee, and Peter, and Peter was the main spokesman of the three. Only Peter, James and John went up to the mount to witness the Transfiguration, and only Peter spoke with Jesus about it. Peter wasn’t just a spokesman; he was a leader among the followers of Jesus.
Peter was with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry to the end. He argued, legitimately, about who was best of the followers of Jesus. He boldly declared his willingness to go to prison and to die for Jesus. Of all the disciples of Jesus, Peter stood out above the rest.
So when Jesus told Peter that the rooster would not crow that day before Peter would deny him three times, Peter must have thought, “How much more can I say or do to show you that I am committed?!”
And then, Peter’s world turned upside down. The apostles didn’t understand, really, what Jesus talking about until the drama Jesus tried to explain to them unfolded right in front of them. Without warning, a crowd came walking up to them lead by Judas. The disciples reacted, ready to fight for Jesus, but Jesus stopped them from resisting, Jesus was escorted away… without a fight,. Jesus let them take him like a lamb led to its slaughter.
Imagine Peter, following at a distance, his bold bravado swept away by pained confusion and fear. “This isn’t the way this is supposed to go”, he had to be thinking. “Is this the way it all ends?” In the cloud of his confusion, pain and disillusionment, as he was standing in a crowd around a fire, a servant girl identified Peter as one of the people with Jesus, and Peter denied it.
Two more times at different intervals, Peter denied being associated with Jesus. Immediately after the third time, the rooster crowed, “[a]nd the Lord turned and looked at Peter”. At that instance, the words Jesus spoke just a short while earlier played through Peter’s head, and he “wept bitterly”.[i]
Imagine Peter as the rooster crowed and the Lord’s eyes met his…. All of his words, three years of commitment to Jesus and all the boasting about who is the greatest unraveled completely in a moment in time. Peter was undone… exposed as a fraud.