An Exercise in Looking at ‘White Privilege’ through Marxist and Gospel Filters

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 ….” 

Philippians 3:8

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”

Tracing the Origin of Natural Law & Equal Rights in Western Thought

The law of loving your neighbor as yourself written on the tablet of the heart by God

In Chapter 9 of Tom Holland’s book, Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind, he traces the idea of natural law back to 1150 AD when a lawyer named Gratian compiled the first canon of law in the west. His work (the Decretum Gratiani, as it came to be called) was derived from and Scripture and the writings of the early church fathers. It was an attempt at comprehensive harmonization of those two sources.

The original notion of natural law came from the Stoics: “The Stoics believed that the fundamental moral principles that underlie all the legal systems of different nations were reducible to the dictates of natural law.” Gratian syncretized the Stoic notion of natural law (the law of nature) by attributing it to divine origins which he found in the nation of law written on men’s hearts, summarized as the law of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Holland observed that for a millennia Christianity existed without “what Muslim lawyers had long taken for granted – a comprehensive body of written rulings supposedly deriving from God Himself”. Holland is struck by the contrast of the Christian notion that God “wrote His rulings on the human heart”.

Holland first picks up that theme in his book with Saint Augustine of Hippo in Chapter 5. Hollands description of Augustine’s words – that “God writes His laws on the heart,” and, therefore, “Love, and do what you like” – is a theme Holland traces as he finds it in the history of western thought.

So, again, Holland picks up on the fact that Gratian opened his Decretum Gratiani (as it came to be called) with the statement that all law can be summed up in a single command: love your neighbor as yourself. Gratian called this idea “natural law”, summarized by the statement, “all souls are equal in the sight of God”. Gratian identified this principal to be the foundation stone of true justice.

Holland mistakenly attributes the notion to Paul (“Paul’s authority on this score was definitive…. [e]choing the Stoics”) and finds Gratian’s syncretism of the law a decisive departure from earlier ages:

“Much flowed from this compilation that earlier ages would have struggled to comprehend. Age old presumptions were being decisively overturned – that custom was the ultimate authority, that the great were owed a different justice from the humble, that inequality was something natural and to be taken for granted.”

This is the central theme of Holland’s book – “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” (its alternate title). His book is an attempt to trace back the roots of modern notions, such as the idea that people have “equal rights” stemming from natural law (“inalienable rights”) that fundamentally inform modern, western thought.  

Holland notes that these ideas do not flow out of Greek or Roman philosophy or law. They were are much foreign to the world of classic Greco-Roman thought. They are definitively Christian – Judeo-Christian – in their origins.

Holland, of course, is an atheist. He comes to these conclusions through his study of western civilization. He is an “outsider” to Christianity, which perspective makes his observations so interesting – the that he picks up on the novelty of these ideas as being a distinctively Christian departure from classical Greco-Roman thought.

He also wrote Dominion coming off the heels of writing a similar work on the history of Islam. The contrast was striking for him. Whereas Islamic scholars attempted to proscribe laws for every detail of human life, including things like how to brush your teeth and dog ownership, Christians distilled law down to a single phrase – love your neighbor as yourself – and rested in the confidence that God writes His laws on people’s hearts (“not in ink” as Augustine said). The influence of Holland’s awareness of that contrast is striking.

It shouldn’t be surprising, coming from his perspective, that Holland doesn’t get things exactly right. When Augustine focused on love, he wasn’t championing anything new, and Paul was not the source of the notion that the law can be summed up in the phrase, love your neighbor as yourself or the belief that God writes His laws on human hearts. While he might attribute these things to Paul and Augustine, the history is much older and deeper than that.

Continue reading “Tracing the Origin of Natural Law & Equal Rights in Western Thought”

Listening in on a Discussion of the Coronavirus and the Church

What some might see as a threat to the vitality of Christian community, others see as opportunity to advance the kingdom of God.


I am reading through the Bible chronologically this year and paying attention to themes that sweep from beginning to end. One great theme is the promise to Abraham and his descendants, that God would bless him and make of him descendants that would be too numerous to count, and by them God would bless all the nations of the world.

I just got done contemplating why, when God entered the world as a human being and came to “His own” His own people didn’t recognize or receive Him. They had developed their own expectations that were very focused, understandably, on the nation of Israel and the promised land, and Jesus didn’t meet the expectations they had. (See What We Can Learn from Expectations about What God Is Doing.)

Expectations are good. It’s good to be expectant about what God is doing, but the danger is that we anchor those expectations in our own perspectives, which are unavoidably limited. Our expectations should be shaped by Scripture and relationship to God alone, but (being human) we tend to superimpose our own personal, community, societal, cultural and philosophical models on top of that foundation. Sometimes we even import biblical principles on top of a foundation that is not biblical.

American Christianity is no different than any other cultural expression of Christianity in that regard. Perhaps, American Christianity is even super-sized in that tendency, however, because of our historical sense of manifest destiny and extreme confidence in the rightness of the great American experiment in Democracy, capitalism and constitutional framework that has allowed the United States to thrive and become the dominant country in the world.

Because of the human tendency to filter everything through our unique perspectives and miss what other people with different perspectives can see, I spend time listening to and reading Christians and people with other perspectives from other parts of the world. For that reason, I listen to many of the episodes of the Unbelievable? podcast with Justin Brierly, a British Christian, who interviews people from various parts of the world from various viewpoints, including Christian and non-Christian worldviews.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a confluence of varying viewpoints in the Church global, the American Church, and communities in and out of the Church and societies all around the world. That global pandemic has, perhaps, heightened the degree of angst that comes to bear on other issues in the world and locally, such as the current racial tensions in the US and particularly acute response that we have experienced as events have unfolded that have opened and exasperated old racial wounds that have not yet healed.

How we respond to these things as Christians is critical. It affects the effectiveness of our mission to carry out the Great Commission – the marching orders Jesus gave to His followers to spread the Gospel throughout the world. The pandemic means that we can no longer carry on “business as usual”. Indeed, God often used catastrophic and extreme measures to accomplish His purposes throughout Scripture and (certainly I believe) continues to do so today. There is opportunity in these times to adjust with what is happening, listen for what God is saying to the Church and advance His kingdom.

I think of these things as I listen to the recent interview by Justin Brierley of three Christians talk about the coronavirus: Mark Sayers from Australia, AJ Roberts from Los Angeles, Ruth Jackson from Great Britain. Continue reading “Listening in on a Discussion of the Coronavirus and the Church”

What Does God Want from Us?

This question gets at the whole point of Scripture….


If God is the creator of the universe, of everything seen and unseen, as the Bible says, if God was intentional in His creation and made us in His image as the centerpiece of His creation, what was His intention for us? What does He want from us?

This question gets at the whole point of Scripture, but I think we miss the point among all the words sometimes.

Even people who believe that God exists and acknowledge God made us get lost in the words sometimes. We see in Scripture lists of “do’s and don’ts” and rules and warnings, and we fail to see the big picture, the purpose of God. We fail to see God’s character and heart.

The Law was intended by God to show us what is right and, more importantly, to reveal to us that we are incapable of doing what is right in and of ourselves. (Rom. 7:7-25) We all fall short (Rom. 3:23), and we fail to do what we know we ought to do. (Rom. 7:18-19)

Anyone who depends on doing right to make themselves right with God are cursed (Gal. 3:10). If they fail at one point, they fail at everything. If a person refrains from killing anyone his entire life except for one time, he is still a murderer – not because of all the people he didn’t kill, but because of the one person he did kill. If a person lies only once, he is a liar.

If you sin once, you are sinner. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)

The point of the law is to help us understand that we can’t achieve righteousness by our own efforts. It’s impossible for us. We must depend on God for it. The Law was given alongside the promise of God to show people their sins to that we would receive the grace that God offers us through Jesus. (Gal. 3:19)

Salvation (from sin and death) is a gift God gives us by His grace; God gives us salvation by grace so that none of us can boast about having earned it. (Eph. 2:8-9)

But is this all God expects from us? Is this all God wants from us – to be saved from sin and death? If salvation from sin and death was all God wanted for us, He could have made us without the capability of sinning, and He could have made us eternal from the beginning.

Continue reading “What Does God Want from Us?”

A Christian Perspective on Black Lives Matter and White Privilege

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.


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?

Continue reading “A Christian Perspective on Black Lives Matter and White Privilege”