The Disease of Christian Privilege

The Disease of Christian Privilege May 14, 2018

In our current cultural climate, there has been a lot of talk about “Privilege.” A lot of folks have been forced to examine the ways that our society has been built to favor a certain type of people at the expense of others.

We often hear talk about “White Privilege”- it’s the reality that Western Culture was designed by white, European, straight, men, in order to function on their behalf, make their lives easier and better, and give them advantages in the race towards power, wealth, and success.

And as we examine white privilege, we discover that the way the system was set up to benefit white people was by marginalizing, abusing, and manipulating people of other races, religions, ethnicities, and genders to be used to uphold white men’s standard of living, and preventing folks that were not white from climbing the ladder of success, wealth, power, and fundamental equality.

While our culture is slowly working to destroy those systems of privilege, the reality is that our culture is still set up in ways that are beneficial to white people. That give white people an advantage over people of color in just about every aspect of life.

So, when we talk about privilege, this is what we’re talking about.

In the same way that the insidious disease of white privilege has infected our culture, it is also true that Christian privilege has infected us as well.

Let me explain.

Did you realize that nearly every aspect of our society is built to favor a Christian perspective? From the ordering of the days of the week, to the holidays our government observes, the words on our money and monuments, to the very laws that govern us- all of them rely on and favor a Christian perspective.

In fact, many Christians take great pride in declaring that we are a “Christian Nation” or at very least a nation founded upon “Judeo Christian Values”. We love knowing that the language and influence of Christianity is favored in this country, believing that God is glorified what a nation and the world is “Christianized”.

On one hand, you may think, this is exactly what Jesus wanted, right? To convert the world to Christianity and therefore, create a world built on a Christian rhythm and way of seeing and being?

Or you may think that having a nation that honors Christianity above all other perspectives is just a minor detail that doesn’t really effect much for anyone.

But think for a second about growing up in another religious worldview- be it Judaism, or Wicca, or Islam, or Bahai. None of those worldviews rely on our calendar, our holidays, our language, or our laws.

Imagine what it is like to live in a society where it is hard to get off work or school to celebrate a holy observance. Or when your faith dictates that you pray at certain points in the day, but your work doesn’t provide a space to do that. Or when your faith has been stigmatized as dangerous or demonic by powerbrokers in society – this aspect of your life that is so important to you is now demonized by the powerful and forces you to hide it or suppress it.

Not only do we as Christians benefit from Christian privilege, we’re actually proud of it. We tout it as a victory. The more that culture becomes “Christianized” the more we’ve accomplished our mission.

What’s stunning is that this is the furthest thing from what Jesus taught, hoped for, or embodied.

Jesus never called for his disciples to Christianize culture. To make every aspect of culture about Christianity, and to marginalize and minimize those who were not Christian.

He didn’t even call us to convert everyone to a new religion called Christianity- that’s not what the Great Commission is all about.

No, Jesus called us to go into the world and proclaim good news- news of liberating love for everyone- and to make disciples, or in other words, invite people to follow in the example of Jesus. To emulate the life Jesus lived and work to create the world he dreamed of.

And did you know that you can do that without ever making someone a Christian? In fact, did you realize that when Jesus told his disciples to go into the world and preach the gospel, there was no such thing as Christianity- it didn’t exist. He wasn’t telling them to make people Christian.

He also clearly wasn’t telling them to make people Jewish- we find that out in the Book of Acts.

He wasn’t asking them to ask anyone to convert from their religion, or their culture, or their social setting. Rather, he invited everyone in every culture and context to embrace a path of self-sacrificial love for the good of their friends, neighbors and enemies.

Have you ever considered that many of the earliest followers of Jesus never converted from Judaism? They simply adapted Jesus teachings to their own religious teachings?

And throughout history, many various religions and cultures have also adopted Jesus teaching and example without every becoming Christian.

See, what I want you to hear this morning is that Jesus was not a Christian. God is not a Christian. And God doesn’t want everyone to become Christians.

That isn’t the point.

Christianity isn’t the best religion. It’s not the most correct religion. And I firmly believe that the earliest followers of Christ and Jesus himself would have been horrified to have seen the religion that emerged in Jesus name.

Followers of Jesus were called to follow Christ into their own culture, religion, or context, not to join a new religion.

But within the hundreds of years after Jesus and his disciples were gone, the followers of Jesus began to advocate for a certain set of religious practices, certain doctrines, certain hierarchical structures- they began to do exactly the opposite of what Jesus himself did- they created institutions of privilege and power.

They diluted the simple way of Jesus and created a religion that had very little to do with giving to the poor or loving your enemy, and more to do with appeasing God and paying one’s religious dues to an institution in exchange for salvation after death- something Jesus rarely talked about at all.

And you have heard it said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”

When Christianity was endorsed by Emperor Constantine and later made the official religion of Empire- again, something that Jesus himself would have been enraged by- and the Christians were given power and privilege, they quickly abandoned the simple path of Jesus in exchange for the things of the world.

And for almost 1,700 years, this new religion called Christianity grew and spread as a political, social, and religious force. The Christian Church- whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or other- grew into powerful institutions and amassed quadrillions of dollars.

Christianity became the most powerful force in the world, and in a very real sense, even to this day, it still is.

Do you see the irony? The religion founded by a man who was murdered by the empire for being opposed to the oppressive ways of the empire, became a religion endorsed by the empire.

A religion that created emperors and kings and presidents.

The religion founded by a homeless itinerant teacher created the wealthiest institutions in human history.

A religion ignited by one who was constantly critiqued for embracing the most marginalized and despised of society has become the most powerful force for marginalization and oppression that that world has ever seen.

Church- this is our tradition. This is our reality. And yet we rarely think in this way. In fact, if you grew up in church, you were likely conditioned never to think like this. To in fact, oppose this thinking.

You were taught that Jesus was the only way to God- which actually meant that Christianity is the only way to God- and told that if we didn’t make the world Christian, it’d go to hell in a hand-basket.

We were taught that if we didn’t try to elect politicians and leaders who advocated for Christian values and ideals, that we were failing Jesus’ call to be faithful disciples.

And so, we all became cogs in the wheel of Christian Privilege. Perpetuating a culture and world that favored Christianity above every other religion, creating a force that has raped and pillaged cultures, countries, and traditions around the world for thousands of years.

It’s for this reason that this new series is so important for us. To hear other perspectives and worldviews. To hear the ways that our Christian privilege has impacted the lives of people of other faiths. To dispel the lies that Christian Privilege perpetuates that anyone who isn’t a Christian is not Christ-like, is wicked, or demonic.

See Church, I am not saying it’s bad to be a Christian. It’s not bad to belong to this new religion. It’s not bad to follow Jesus in this way. But if we are going to embrace our Christian identity, we must be willing to own the ways that we have failed to emulate Jesus, the ways we have brought death and destruction to the world, and be willing to work hard to destroy the root of Christian privilege in our own lives, churches, and world.

And what is stunning is that in this moment of human history, where the Spirit of God is shining a light on all people who hold privilege and calling us to work to destroy the oppressive systems that endow us with such privilege, those at the top of all of these hierarchies are crying out “unfair”.

I mean, haven’t you heard a lot of noise in the past decade about “Christian Persecution” in America?

Haven’t you heard preachers yelling about the attack on Christianity because people want to remove “In God We Trust” from our money, stop requiring prayer in schools, or move a statue of the 10 Commandments off a government property?

Don’t we hear a lot about “Christian persecution”, but I bet that today is the first time that many of us have heard about Christian privilege.

I’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad.  

Because see, when the playing field becomes leveled, it feels like persecution to those who once held power.

When the mountains are lowered and the valleys are lifted, those on the mountain tops feel like what’s happening is unfair.

Equality feels unfair to those who benefited from oppression.

So, let me be clear- there is no such thing a Christian Persecution in America. There is no place in this country where it is not beneficial to identify as Christian, to go to church, or to celebrate Christian holidays.

No, there isn’t persecution, but there is a whole lot of Christian privilege.

And as followers of Jesus, we are called to work hard to dismantle the systems and structures of Christian privilege.

To own the ways that society is bent in our favor, and work hard to help other religions to experience the same benefits we are afforded in this country.

This is literally the heart-beat of what it means to follow Jesus.

One of the earliest creeds that followers of Jesus gathered around and recited in their worship gatherings is found in the book of Philippians where Paul writes it out. This passage is a description of how Christians are supposed to live their faith and life. Paul writes:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
 
Jesus, who was in the form of God, didn’t exploit his powerful position, but instead, emptied himself. He gave his privilege and power away, and stood in solidarity with humans- but not just any humans, the lowest valued humans- slaves. Not only that- he gave up his power so much that he died the death of a common criminal.

Then Paul writes:

Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

Jesus honor, his blessing, his position came from his willingness to humble himself. To serve others. To sacrifice himself for the good of others. That’s how Jesus received the blessing of God. That’s why Jesus was exalted- not because he exploited his position of privilege, but precisely because he gave it up to help level the playing field for others.

Then Paul commands the church: “Adopt this attitude- the one that was embodied by Jesus…”

He commands followers of Jesus to adopt this posture. To embody it. These are our marching orders.

Do you have power? Give it up.

Do you have wealth? Give it up.

Do you have position? Give it up.

Don’t exploit it- utilize it to bless and liberate others. Use it to wage a war on the powers and principalities that seek to marginalize others.

This is the very attitude of Christ, and it should be the attitude of Christ followers.

And do you recognize that this isn’t an easy path to follow? It’s not easy to give up privilege. It’s not easy to give up power. It’s not easy to not be selfish.

This is why Jesus said that the path to follow him was “narrow and few find it”. But he also promised that those who do walk on the path of Jesus will find “life, and life in its fullest.”

This is why Jesus said the path of the privilege was “broad and leads to destruction, and many walks on it.”

It’s easy to keep perpetuating systems of privilege. Its comfortable for many of us who benefit from those systems. But if we keep walking on those paths, they lead to destruction- of our souls, of others’ lives, and of our world.

And how do we practically begin confronting the insidious disease of Christian privilege?

We follow Jesus example- we open our door, we set a table, we invite them to sit, and we listen. We learn. And we act on their behalf.

And starting next week, this is what we’re going to be doing here as a church community- inviting those who are marginalized in our society because of their beliefs to come and teach us. To reveal truth to us. To help us see the world in a different way.

And that is a true gift.

Because at the end of the day, the claims of privilege are fake and vanishing. Christianity doesn’t own truth. It’s not the only way or the right way. And those of us committed to seeking God in the way of Jesus must be willing to find God speaking and working in the places we’d least expect to find God- in our “others”, in the perspectives of those whom wave been taught to ignore and or to accost. In the face of those who we have been conditioned to see our enemies.

Because we are all one human family, emerging from the same prism, the same light, the same God, and out of that, we shine forth the diverse perspectives, positions, cultures, beliefs, and attributes that make us each unique.

Because that is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

About Brandan Robertson
Brandan Robertson is an author, pastor, thought-leader, and contemplative activist working at the intersections of spirituality, sexuality, and social renewal. Brandan is the Lead Pastor of Missiongathering Christian Church in San Diego, CA and the author or contributing author to six books, including Nomad: A Spirituality For Travelling Light (DLT Books, 2016), True Inclusion: Creating Communities of Radical Embrace (Chalice Press, 2018), and the editor of Our Witness: The Unheard Stories of LGBT+ Christians (DLT Books, 2017). Brandan earned his Bachelors Degree in Pastoral Ministry & Theology from Moody Bible Institute and his Masters of Theological Studies from Iliff School of Theology. You can read more about the author here.
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