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).Continue reading “An Exercise in Looking at ‘White Privilege’ through Marxist and Gospel Filters”