David, Bathsheba, and Woke Exegesis

This week, the flagship magazine of Evangelicalism, Christianity Today, published an article by Kyle Worley on the importance of acknowledging the rape of Bathsheba. The episode recounted in 2 Samuel 11, in other words, does not merely document an account of adultery and murder, but should be labeled for what it really is: the rape of an innocent woman by a man in power. “The story of David and Bathsheba,” Worley writes, “is not a story of adultery or an affair, but one where a powerful man is sexually exploiting a vulnerable woman and is willing to use coercive power to call her to his chamber and cover up his actions.” Worley goes on to suggest that Evangelical resistance to admitting David’s rape betrays an unwillingness to acknowledge systemic abuses of power: “I’m convinced that we don’t want David to be a rapist because we don’t want to reckon with the sin of abusive power.”

Bathsheba, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

The article is troubling—it suggests that if I have a resistance to accepting his interpretation (of rape), it is because I have a deeper problem (I refuse to admit abusive power). This, I think, amounts to a bit of intellectual bullying. More than this, however, the article insufficiently accounts for the messy modern dialogue about sex in the Bible, and the easy, if not cavalier way that modern categories of judgment are given interpretive priority over ancient texts—i.e., how a ‘woke’ exegesis can be a distorting one. Ultimately, the article is tone-deaf to the way that a modern label such as ‘rape’ can further distance us from fully acknowledging the power-sins that—I fully agree—are at the heart of the story of David’s sin. The result is that Worley gets it half wrong, and half right, but in the process the wrong makes a mess of whatever good might have come from the right.

We will need to begin by talking about rape. The word itself is potent, violent, evocative, and fearful. It can be ‘triggering’ in that even its utterance evokes in victims the memory of abuse. But this supra-powerful nature of the word is very the place to begin to ask questions. Rape, like the word ‘racist,’ has in our present age become a power-label, not dissimilar to ‘bourgeoisie’ in Communist Russia, or like ‘privileged’ is sometimes used today. Each word, of course, has a definite meaning, but in its cultural context it is invested with additional performative power. They are words that can do things to people. In practice, a given power word in the mouth of a victim levels the playing field. You have done X to me (whatever X might be) and in order to equalize the situation I will label you accordingly. If the label sticks, no fact-finding or investigation is necessary; if I can label you, I can destroy you. Ironically, each word—duly invested by a cultural narrative—has the potential to become its own abuse of power.

“Struggle Sessions” in Maoist China were public humiliations performed against citizens accused of, among other things, thought crimes.

Viewed from this perspective, I might well object to labeling David’s sin with Bathsheba as ‘rape’ in the same way that I would object to labeling Solomon’s acquisition of wealth as ‘bourgeoisie.’ In both cases I would be applying a highly contextualized modern power-word to an ancient context. I am executing a ‘woke’ exegesis on an ancient text, and whatever I gain is likely to come at the expense of important things in the text itself. I would feel quite similarly if I encountered an article asking, “Did David mis-gender Mephibosheth?” The ‘woke’ questions we ask, and the narrative, do not so easily align.

Worley consciously links David’s sin to abuse of power (again, I think this is correct), but neglecting the broader cultural context of our discussion about consent, sex, and gender in the modern world means that he also—subconsciously I am sure—imports an unhappy logical correlative. All rape, Worley’s article suggests, is abuse of power, and on this basis he claims that “the story of David and Bathsheba appears to many modern readers, including me, to meet contemporary definitions of rape.” While it is doubtless that all non-consensual sexual encounters involve some abuse of power, the dynamic between the two categories (sex and power) remains unclear. As a result, it seems that contemporary definitions of rape depend, in part, on an inversion of the initial logic: “all rape is abuse of power” becomes “all abuse of power is rape.” This inversion brings about significant effects—clear conditions of violence are exchanged for fuzzy conditions of power. In turn, the inversion plays into the inherent flexibility of power-words—any situation in which an individual feels personally compromised by the power of an authority can be labeled ‘rape.’ This creates confusion and fear, and while it offers a heady cultural critique of power (down with the bourgeoisie!) it does nothing to help us understand how to manage or shape it. It is a mis-labeling. Ironically enough, it violates the person in power in an unwarranted way.

Marc Chagall’s interpretation of David and Bathsheba.

This brings us back to David. Did David rape Bathsheba? The text doesn’t say, and depending on your convictions about the nature of the text, that may be a pretty strong argument. Furthermore, it is worth noting that, compared to the other episodes of rape in the Bible (Dinah in Genesis 34 and Tamar in 2 Sam 13), David’s encounter with Bathsheba looks very little like these—specifically in the fact that these episodes document the lust of the male perpetrator, the unwillingness of the female victim, the violence of the act itself, and the grim consequences for the perpetrator(s). Instead, David sees Bathsheba, calls her over, and they have sex. There is certainly a power dynamic involved here—David is the most powerful man in the kingdom. But—once again—the modern language of consent does not easily square with the ancient world. Do ancient husbands and wives communicate permission to one another? What rights are given to ancient kings with reference to the property of their subjects? On these issues we are speculating.

If we can speculate about the unarticulated motives of David, then we can speculate about Bathsheba’s unarticulated motives as well. What was she doing, bathing on the roof? Did she know David would be walking past? These questions have, similarly, led to some unfortunate interpretations. Let me be extremely clear—any exegesis that argues that Bathsheba, by being scantily clad, brought this on herself should be rejected outright. The point to highlight is that once again the motives of the characters are unspoken in the text. Do we have other texts that inform our thinking about Bathsheba as well? Curiously, in 1 Kings 1, under instruction from Nathan, she helps to arrange matters politically so that Solomon becomes king instead of Adonijah. How we interpret her motives will depend on how much charity we are willing to extend to her. Is Bathsheba simply saving her own life and the life of her son? Is she merely obeying the advice of David’s court? Or, more maliciously, has this been Bathsheba’s plan all along? It would not be challenging to cast her in the role as the conniving female, working her way to the queenship of Israel by means of the powerful men around her. I think this is a bad interpretation, but it suggests that we have as much evidence to accuse Bathsheba of social climbing as we do to accuse David of rape.

Susan Hayward, smouldering as Bathsheba. It is worth noting that most images of Bathsheba highlight her sexiness while avoiding David’s gaze. Is there something to be said for how we only re-create David’s gaze by participating in it?

What, then, was the nature of David’s sin? Worley’s article rightly notes that Nathaniel, when he calls David out for his sin, critiques David’s abuse of power. But a critically missing component is the opening verses of 2 Sam 11: “In the springtime, when the kings go off to war, David sent Joab…” David is a king, David should be at war, but he’s not. The sin of David begins here, in a changed relationship to his kingship. Instead of performing the duties of a king, David is—what?—enjoying his kingdom? The text will go on to show how he enjoys it disastrously. Not only does he treat another man’s wife as part of the property of his kingdom, he then covers up his indiscretion by arranging to have the husband murdered, then marries the widow. Nathaniel doesn’t accuse David of rape—he accuses him of theft.

Charles Williams

Importantly, the interpretive frame for understanding the David/Bathsheba episode is David’s relationship to his own kingdom. Charles Williams, Inkling and Arthurian poet, captures this dynamic in a phrase he uses to describe the beginning of King Arthur’s demise. Arthur, looking out over his people, asks himself a question: “the king made for the kingdom, or the kingdom made for the king?” Do I exist to serve others, or do others—all that I see—exist to serve me? In that moment, Arthur’s relationship to what is good is corrupted—it constitutes his ‘fall’. Instead of perceiving his power as a tool to benefit the people, now the people benefit his power. David’s sin is the same.

It also seems clear from the text that David didn’t learn his lesson from the episode with Uriah/Bathsheba. In 2 Sam 24 we learn that David is tempted to take a census of Israel. The text is frustratingly silent on what David thought he would gain from counting the Israelites—whether he wanted to know his military strength, or had a new tax plan—all we know is that it represented an act of disobedience. He viewed his people as existing for his plans, rather than seeing that he, as king, existed to serve Yahweh’s plans for Israel. The result was a confrontation with another prophet (Gad, this time) who communicated three options. David must choose: seven years of famine, three months of flight before enemies, or three days of pestilence. We should note, here, that two of these options effect the economics of Israel, and one impacts David personally. David chooses the pestilence, “Let us now fall into the hand of the Lord for His mercies are great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.” But after the plague reaches Jerusalem David recognizes his error and changes his prayer, “Behold, it is I who have sinned, and it is I who have done wrong; but these sheep, what have they done? Please let Your hand be against me and against my father’s house.” Let me suffer—as the king—and not my people. This is how David had to learn that the kingdom didn’t exist for his benefit. This is how David is shaped with respect to his power and authority.

It seems to me that all three sins—the sin of adultery, of murder, and the sin of the census—are, in the text, fundamentally the same sin. Each points to David’s misuse of his kingly power, each seems to lie in the idea of the king as possessing a kind of sovereign ownership over his people, and each demands repentance and re-learning on his part. It also seems to me that, unless we are willing to call the census a ‘rape’ (i.e., all abuse of power is rape), or the murder a ‘rape’, then we ought to be quite careful in labeling the sin with Bathsheba ‘rape.’ I want to point out a further reason for this. Christianity, as a rule, has been beset by three categories of sin in leadership: sins of sex, money, and power. Trenchantly, we seem to focus on sex and money while neglecting sins of power. When a minister has a fall from grace, it is far more often because of adultery or financial misuse than ever because the minster abused his ministerial authority. We struggle even to see the sins of power. In view of this, forcing our interpretation to incorporate a modern definition of rape may be fundamentally counterproductive to the message of the text. If we’re going to see the sin of power, we must see it in all its effect in the text, as it impacts men and women alike.

If we mean to draw from David’s life a critique of the use of kingly power and authority—which we should very much indeed do—then we might want to reconsider the use of power-words, prone to their own abuses of power, in identifying these factors. The narratives—our modern sexual narrative and the Biblical power narrative—are not so easily intermingled as we might hope, and uncritical cross-pollination between them creates harm in our interpretation of the text.

I Used to Know What was Wrong with Willow Creek

I used to know what was wrong with Willow Creek. After my parents separated in 1991, my mom and I attended there. It was massive, and well-produced, and on the whole not a bad place for a recently divorced single mom and her eleven-year-old son. I joined her there for about seven years. We would go both to weekend services and mid-week services. The regular teaching staff included Bill Hybels, Lee Strobel, and John Ortberg. We used to eat in the food court. I played in the orchestra. We made friends. I was baptized in the pond out front.

Willow Creek Sanctuary

Naturally, I began to develop opinions about the place—many of which developed further after I’d left and began to take on some more formal theological education. The language of being “seeker-sensitive” was in the air—we all knew what was going on. Willow was attempting a model of attraction by simplification and production. Simplification meant reducing to the absolute minimum those churchy things that might turn away seekers—hymns, theologically heavy sermons, even the representation of a cross. Production meant controlling the weekly service outcomes—professional musicians and singers, perfect timing, lighting and camera work. Willow both authored and mastered these techniques with immense, almost unimaginable success. By the time we were there some twenty thousand people were attending on a given weekend.

NIV Application Commentary

The image at the bottom is of Willow’s Barrington, Illinois sanctuary. Is the message, “use our commentary and you’ll preach to groups THIS size!”?

Over time, I came to form judgments about the place. Willow was, indeed, successful—and yet it was also shallow. Even as a young man I missed biblical teaching. Even as a young man I could tell that I was being fed diet, Jenny Craig Christianity. There was meat to be had, but I was being offered salad without dressing. Clearly, Willow was also business-like. How else would it be possible to manage 20K people on a weekend without a strong management system? Things moved like clockwork, and it showed. But that same business efficiency masked the ultimately superficial nature of the enterprise. Things functioned, and people were busy, and everybody had a job, and friendships were made—but did it result in greater Christlikeness? Could shallow and superficial teaching generate deep and thoughtful Christians? No, it couldn’t, and my convictions were confirmed a few years back when Willow issued a public apology for being too soft on teaching the Bible. It was an astonishing reversal.

I was troubled, as time passed, at how other churches were eager to ape the Willow Creek model. It appeared that under the influence of Willow’s success they, hungry for their own success, began to implement degrees of simplification and production. The secret to church growth would be programs, lighting, timing, and an ethic of theological laxity. In one of the worst cases, I remember reading about a pastor who attended a Willow Creek leadership summit, and, returning to his home church, announced that he knew just what they needed to revitalize their ministry: theater seats. They would remove their pews and put in theater seats. That would get the butts in the door.

I don’t regret attending Willow for those seven years of my life, and yet I never loved the place. Having moved on, I continued to believe that it served a kind of purpose. A lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise go to church attended Willow. In a church of 20K certainly some—if not quite a few—of its members must be good Christian people.

Hybels bookI could make my peace with Willow Creek because I used to know what was wrong with it. Not anymore. Just a few months ago news began to break about some serious allegations regarding Bill Hybels, Willow’s founding and senior pastor, leadership guru and megachurch patriarch. First in the Chicago Tribune, then other rumors and stories, and lately in the New York Times, we have read how (allegedly, but is seems pretty certain), Hybels has sexually harassed quite a number of his female associates over the years. These were events that took place during my time at Willow. They were happening behind closed doors, and with some frequency, and apparently not a few people knew that Hybels may not be the most safe person to be around. This, the same Bill Hybels who authored the book, Who You Are When No One’s Looking: Choosing Consistency, Resisting Compromise. The irony would be laughable if it didn’t induce vomiting.

Suddenly, there’s much more wrong with Willow Creek than I had anticipated, and my previous critiques, which I could consider somewhat benign, are now more insidious. It’s a rule of thumb that (Protestant) churches carry the DNA of their founding pastors. Was he a gregarious, outgoing preacher? In time that comes to shape the congregation. Was he a reflective, thoughtful counsellor? In time, so also the congregation. Was he short tempered, divisive, and double-faced? So too the congregation. The DNA of Bill Hybels saturates and overshadows the Willow infrastructure. And that’s a frightening thing to realize. There’s now something poisonous running through everything with associations to Willow Creek. The best comparison is to imagine that you found out that MacDonalds, for years, has been grinding up puppies and mixing them into its french fries. Upon discovery of this you might become sick at your stomach. You’d probably never be able to eat them again. Willow has mixed something just as wicked into its brand.


Here’s Brené Brown, speaking (prophetically?) at a previous leadership summit.

Willow Creek’s model promulgated a fundamental expediency about ministry, but with these revelations it appears more than ever that their expediency was influenced by a hunger for power. Willow was eager to be the best, it was quick to believe its own success. To this hunger for power was added protectionism—defending, and even masking Hybels’s concerns because in many ways he was the brand. And, fundamentally, these both reflect a corrupting utilitarianism—if a thing works, we go with it. Hybels worked, and therefore we’ve got to keep going with him. This is the poison that now infects the Willow Creek brand.

In the year 2000, in a move that now screams of incredible irony, Hybels invited then president Bill Clinton to join the global leadership summit, during the Monica Lewinski investigation. The Bills sat across from one another, the pastor offering solace (and… what? acceptance?) to the president. And yet behind the scenes the two were far more alike than we had imagined. Both were using their positions of power to mask corrupt character and decrepit behavior.

US President Bill Clinton (R) answers Willow Creek

One of the things we have to be careful about in these matters is assuming that correlation is causation—just because two events can be linked does not mean that one was necessarily the cause of the other. Did Willow’s weak theology lead to pastoral misconduct? Probably not—especially since churches with solid theology also commit pastoral misconduct. And yet what becomes prominent in this present Willow nightmare is the presence of utilitarianism and the love of power. Is it not the case that a culture of expediency unmoored from reflective orthodoxy creates the conditions for other sins of power? But hang on—is it not also the case that sins of power become self-perpetuating, encouraging greater laxity and utilitarianism? Which came first? Moral failure, or bad theological praxis? It’s impossible to say, but one thing is true—utilitarianism gets masked and hidden in the church, masked in particular by the promise of power and success. It is that power and success that Willow has sold to the churches of the world. It is the poison at the heart of the Willow model.

The fallout is disastrous. Willow leadership models have influenced countless numbers of Christians globally. Willow ecclesiological models have encouraged utilitarian approaches to ministry. And now all of it is impacted by this. “Disaster” might be too weak a word.

Paul, writing to his disciple Timothy, commanded the following, “Keep yourself and your doctrine, remain in them; for doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tm 4:16). Keep yourself, Timothy. Guard your life, your holiness, your purity, your sense of identity. Keep also your doctrine, preserve it with the same fervor as you do your bodily life. And by so doing you will save both yourself and those who hear you. Your life and your doctrine save your hearers, Timothy. It’s both. Willow Creek has failed to keep its life, and it has failed to keep its doctrine. The fallout from this is just beginning. May God have mercy on His Church.

Dear James (G)–Pride and Self-Damnation

Dear James,

I hinted at this throughout our correspondence, but I’m not fully convinced that sins can be ranked—at least in the traditional sense of ranking them. They have degrees of external effects (on individuals and groups), but the real measure of sin in my estimation is in its capacity to remove you from the presence of God. Whether the removing happens on account of your belly, your loins, or your mind seems largely irrelevant. The fact that you have been removed seems to be the most important. In this sense I am skeptical of the division between “mortal” and “venial” sins, since the division seems to be so clearly rooted in a fundamental ranking of sinfulness. Given that, I believe I can still hold Pride to be the chief and worst of sins because it is, fundamentally, the replacement of God with the self. In this it sits behind and beneath all the other sins we’ve discussed; they are, in their extreme, expressions of this attitude of self-love and self-exaltation. To commit the sin of Pride, therefore, is to reject God.

Pride, then, is the sin of sins. But be careful not to confuse this theological pride with our human conceptions of arrogance or vainglory. There is an appropriate pride that I feel when my children do something praiseworthy, or when I take pride in my work to make it presentable. To get at the real meaning of sinful Pride we’ve got to look closely at the Garden again. There, Adam and Eve make a choice. They have the capacity to choose to obey God’s command, to live with the bounds of His provision, or to capitulate with the Serpent’s wishes. They choose against God’s way; they choose their own ethics, their own desires, and I believe that the heart of that choice is a choice to do things my own way. I exalt my will, and diminish God’s. I place my own desires in command, and ignore my Maker’s. I declare my independence and self-sufficiency. And that act of rejection, which happens at the level of the soul, is an act of necessary self-damnation. In Pride I stand upon my own power for life and living. In the extremis of Pride God grants to me the right to stand upon my own power for life and living. The storm necessarily comes, and I, built upon the sand, am washed away.

George MacDonald once wrote that “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” That’s the ethic of self-damnation in practice. I do what I want, for myself, by my own rules, and all others be damned! But the only one I damn is in fact me. We are not self-sufficient creatures, we are creatures, made for a living dependency upon our maker, made for relationships with one another. The inverse of MacDonald’s phrase is therefore equally true, that “The one principle of Heaven is—I belong to someone else.” We see that principle in action when the Father gives to the Son, and the Son gives the Spirit to us, and in the Spirit we are presented as gifts to the Father. At the centre of the nexus of Heaven and Earth is a being whose whole existence appears to be wrapped up in a giving away, a man on a cross who spills himself out for the life of the world.

So much of our world depends on this self-love, this self-supremacy. I’m reminded of that story of Laplace speaking of science to Napoleon. When asked where God fit in this theories, Laplace replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The story may not be true, but the sentiment certainly is. What need has the modern world for a God-hypothesis? We have power, and resources, and medication, and happiness—what use have we for the theory of a God who might interfere with such happinesses as are offered by the world? Who regulates pleasure, and finances, and creativity, and industry, and the treatment of other persons? Isn’t such a “God” merely an interference in fulfilling our true joys? The answer, of course, is “Yes, He is.” He does interfere; but we forget that it is His world with which He interferes.

Pride then expresses itself in our resistance to God’s interference. It is the petulant “No!” which pushes back against the loving (occasionally painful and discomforting) advances of our creator. Pride hates to be told what to do, hates to be told to self-mortify, hates to give up authority over life. It is in this sense that Pride expresses itself through our other sins. Pride behind Lust refuses to release desire to God’s control. Pride behind Greed refuses to trust in God’s provision. Pride behind Sloth clings to control by blocking God’s call. In the grip of Pride, I reject God so that I can maintain what I believe to be control of my self. It is a sin of self damnation, God help us all.

My will is too corrupted to even see all the Pride that sits within me. I need help. And I think the best help we get is to meditate upon the obedience of Christ. He who had all power became powerless so that we could be restored. There—in another Garden!—he says “Yes” to God where Adam and Eve had said, “No.” “Thy will and not Mine.” We go on to examine the extent of his obedience—prayer, pain, loss, fear, suffering, unjust suffering, betrayal, excruciating pain, and death itself. No human has ever or will ever do away with Pride who will not suffer the image of the humble and obedient Christ to penetrate his heart.

James, may image of Christ so penetrate you and I this Good Friday, and bring us to new and restored life this Resurrection Sunday!

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (9)–Hierarchy and the Good

Dear James,

Once again I’m sorry for the delay in writing you—yes, I have received both of your letters in the meantime. I was away for three weeks in the summer, was recovering from illness, and have been otherwise swamped with church work overall. I am glad to get back to my correspondence at last (especially ours).

I am as surprised to hear as I expect you are to report that your pastor has chosen to stick through this difficult time. It certainly sounds like it has been rough. And I can attest to how difficult it is to perform the pastoral office faithfully while every move and motive is being examined by committee. I shudder at the thought. Does his perseverance elevate your opinion of him, or do you begin to think that he is stubbornly refusing to see the truth? Ironically, every pastor needs stubbornness—in positive language we would call it “backbone.” The only question is where we pastors should choose to dig in, and wisdom is the business of choosing those battles correctly.

If you think about it, to choose anything always means to choose between good and bad, and sometimes even between one good and another. I bring this up because of one of your objections—you say that “doesn’t the kind of inequality you are talking about point to hierarchy, and isn’t hierarchy oppressive?” But I think you are wrong to assume that hierarchy is bad—hierarchy, in fact, is necessary for us to make any discerning choices at all. All choices depend on our ability to discriminate between goods, and the process of discriminating requires us to employ hierarchy.

This is actually a process that is grounded in the basis of human thought—that we have the ability to discern between good and bad, and then within goods to discern between good, better, and best. For any given set of choices I have there is often a choice between good and bad itself. For example, I have a son, and the good choice is to feed him, while the bad choice is to neglect him. But within the good choice I also have a ranked series—a hierarchy—of goods to choose from. I can feed him bread and water (good), or I can feed him a bologna sandwich (better), or I can prepare him a proper meal with spaghetti and salad (best). The differences between the three kinds of meals are relative goods. Surely it is better to feed him bread and water than to neglect him, but it is also best of all to provide him with regular, proper meals. The point is that we are making these discernments all the time, and in every circumstance we make choices between goods by utilizing a hierarchy of thoughts.

It is interesting that we see Jesus displaying this process during the temptation narrative. Satan there prompts Jesus to feed the multitudes, perform miraculous signs, and inherit the nations. Jesus refuses Satan in all three temptations, but then goes on in his ministry to do all three of those things. The problem, we see, wasn’t that Satan tempted Jesus with evils, but with goods that were outside of God’s timing. Jesus didn’t really refuse to feed the multitudes, he refused to do it on Satan’s schedule. He made a choice based on relative goods.

So, it is incorrect to claim that hierarchy is evil, or wrong. In fact, even to make that claim you have to argue that hierarchy is bad, and in arguing that it is bad you are arguing that something else is better, and therefore using hierarchy to argue that hierarchy is wrong. You can hear the saw working at the branch even now.

Perhaps this brings us back to our discussion of equality and inequality. I have argued that equality is always a fiction, and that just behavior in the world demands acknowledgement of those fundamental inequalities. This, you have observed, appears to imply a hierarchy among people, and this is a concept which the world finds abhorrent. But revulsion is not an argument, and hatred cannot equalize except by violence. There are people in the world who exceed me in virtue, as well as others who exceed me in power and influence (they are rarely the same people). They are my betters (relative to those particular categories), and I must function in the world acknowledging those differences, aspiring to greatness in virtue and to justice in using the power I have been given. I am not intrinsically more valuable than someone else, but by virtue of the gifts I have been given by God I must administrate those gifts according to their good. Hierarchy, in this way, is inseparable from responsibility and stewardship.

What I think has happened is that we humans fear power and hate pride—at least we fear and hate it in others, because we love it plenty well enough when we have it ourselves. Once again, envious of power and discontented that any should be exalted over us, we use the language of equality to violently reject the differences. The person who says, “Hierarchy is oppressive” is also saying he or she hates that any person would be higher than them. It is pride, rejecting the natural humility of life as a human. Hierarchy is not naturally oppressive, it simply exists. We might well reject actual oppression, and we will rightly condemn all misuses of power. But to reject hierarchy itself is to reject thinking at all. Human discourse decays into meaninglessness. Nothing can be done because nothing can be thought of as right or wrong.

You mention the parable of the vineyard workers from Matthew 20, where the master hires men at different times of the day but pays them all equally at the end of the day. This parable does not, in my estimation, argue for equality—certainly not as the world argues for equality. The point of the parable highlights the order of salvation. The Jews, who were God’s first workers in the vineyard, will receive the same reward (God’s kingdom) as the Gentiles who come in late. The final word gives away the game, “Are you envious because I am generous?” It hearkens to the sin of Jonah, filled with bitterness because God saved the Ninevites. Stated in Paul’s language, this is exactly what it means for there to be “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” These factors no longer give us privileged access to God’s kingdom, which is open to all. There is no place for racism among God’s people. But that does not mean there is neither status, nor roles, nor hierarchy. All are part of the people of God; those exalted by God with power are expected to steward their power for the benefit of others.

So, as you continue to walk with your pastor, try to help him discern these goods. What is the best choice? And is there a better set of options available to him? Remember that at this time you have been given an exalted place—access to his heart and mind. You are “above” many others, but he is “below” the committee. You cannot escape these hierarchies, but you can act as a faithful steward within them. I am eager to hear how the situation develops.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

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