Dear James (7)–Privilege and Power

Dear James,

My apologies that it has taken so long to write you back—travel, illness, company, and work, together conspired to take me out of the game for a while. Please be assured that I have not forgotten our correspondence.

In your last letter you brought us to one of the great bugbears of our time—the question of privilege. You say that you “can appreciate the vision for reconciliation” that I have outlined (and I hope you will do a great deal more than simply appreciate it!), but ask how this, now, connects to the discussion of privilege that appears to dominate our public discourse. It is a highly appropriate question, and I’m glad you have presented it.

First off, I think that the language of privilege is what Lewis described as a Bulverism. A Bulverism is where you or I dismiss a person by means of appealing to a factor outside of whatever position he or she has espoused. A classic Bulverism is the phrase, “You say that because you’re a woman.” Note that in saying this, I have not addressed the claim of my disputant, rather I have identified some separate factor in her persona (namely, her womanhood), and am using it to dismiss her position summarily. Instead of dealing with a person as the person he or she is, or even instead of dealing with the arguments as the argument, I am introducing an external factor in order to win my case.

Most of the time when I hear a person identify “privilege” in another person it’s this kind of dismissal—“You say that because you’re privileged.” It is a conversation-ending statement in much the same way that, were I to announce to my wife, “You say that because you’re a woman,” I would discover that I had ended the conversation. In both cases it stifles understanding and denies effective communication. It can also, we should note, ruin a relationship.

However, we should acknowledge that power is real, and that furthermore differentials in power really do exist between people. I have been raised in North America, am the beneficiary of dietary and social benefits which are attendant to my upbringing, have been well educated, and today inhabit a career which (barring extreme circumstances) ensures that I will never rank among the global poor. In those senses, of course, we might identify something likening itself to a kind of privilege—that is, to the gift of circumstances which have enriched my life apart from my effort.

But this difference in power and advantage must be sharply distinguished from issues of race—not to suggest that they do not at times combine, but that they are not the same thing. My use of power, and my beliefs about race, can be combined for either great good or great ill. We must remember that racism, historically, always begins with belief about the self—not with belief about others. Nazi Germany believed first in the primacy of Arianism, and that belief in themselves gave permission to redefine and dehumanize others, especially the Jews. Japanese Imperialism similarly believed in the native mastery of their own heritage, and this gave them permission to dehumanize the Chinese, as well as their other enemies in the Second World War. Japanese and German atrocities were birthed, in other words, from their beliefs about themselves, and only secondarily from their beliefs about others.

I hope you can see that, within these structures, power is a neutral force. It can be used for either good or evil, applied to either health or destruction. Racism, false belief in the self which redefines the ‘other,’ added to power, creates vast destruction. But racism can be just as prevalent among powerless people as “privileged” ones. Racism is racism; power is power.

Notably, within this dialogue of privilege and race we still witness an abuse of power—in this case with the inversion of the power differential through words. “Privilege” is thrown about as a term to silence the opposition. Words are used, not to encourage understanding, nor to expand the boundaries of human self-perception, but to divide, exclude, and punish. The language of “privilege” is then reduced to a punitive missile aimed at leveling the perceived inequality of power. To use this language, then, is to commit an injustice in the service of one’s favored justice.

This brings us, at last, to the use of power, which is really the most helpful discussion we might have. Here, as a clarification, we ought to keep in mind that the fact of identifying power (or privilege) does not mean that we have dismissed power. The fact that I have a measure of privilege relative to others is not in itself a problem, it is how I use that power which is important. The Christian question to ask, then, is this: am I being a good steward of the power with which God has entrusted me? This, of course, is precisely what we see in the parables of the talents and the pounds in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels respectively. In both cases that master (our Lord), has entrusted his servants with unequal responsibility. This is a point we mustn’t overlook, because inequality is a fact of life, and it is therefore not an evil fact. When the master returns, each of the servants is then judged according to the responsibility he was given. On the Day of Judgment I will answer for how I have made use of the gifts God has given me, and you will likewise answer for the gifts God has given you. And it won’t matter then that I had more than you, and you had more than person X, but it will matter a great deal whether we have been faithful stewards of that which we have been given. And the standard of judgment will not pay regard to the quantitative value of that trust.

One of the great strengths of the dialogue about “privilege,” then, is that it can highlight for us the fact that many of the things we have taken for granted are in fact portions of the investment God has placed in our lives. They are therefore elements of our stewardship for which we are accountable. In this, the role of the Church in the dialogue of race and power ought to inhabit a profoundly prophetic voice, calling the powerful to convert their resources (all of them!) into service for the Kingdom. We ought not, in other words, blame white Christians for being white, or privileged Christians for being privileged, or black Christians for being black, but to each and all we should call them prophetically to seek the complete sanctification of every aspect of their lives—of race, power, privilege, and all else.

At the same time, the danger remains that those who perceive themselves as “underprivileged” will forget that although they may have less power and access than others, they are equally responsible to spend their power well. We are all judged alike, and if identifying privilege makes you feel better about yourself, then I suggest that you are motivated by envy rather than justice, and that you are in an altogether dangerous place.

All that being said, I believe that the world’s vision of privilege and race is deeply flawed, while the Church’s vision presents great hope. The world claims that we are unequal and divided, and that therefore we should take power forcibly from the privileged and distribute it among the underprivileged. What the world neglects to mention is that this change still operates under the dictates of power—it is not that we have transcended power, merely that we have made it change hands. The new masters will be every bit as wicked as the last, if not more so. The Church, on the other hand, says that the answer to the problem of race is the New People of God, and that the answer to the problem of power is its complete submission to God’s purposes. Instead of suppression, or vindictiveness, it is an action of redirection and sanctification. In Christ we do not do away with race or power, but sanctify them both, and therein lies the glory of the Church.

It’s time for us to wrap this up, but maybe we can end with a personal point—you yourself have already experienced some of this power in meeting with your fellow disgruntled church members. There is great power in coming together, in talking things through, and in dreaming about how to change the situation in your church. Have you considered what it will look like to convert that power for the service of Christ’s church? What will true submission to Jesus’ agenda look like for this group? What might it look like for your neighbors?

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios


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