American Christians need to come to terms with the idea that losing their privilege – the advantaged status they hold in American society – is a holy act. After all, loss of privilege is at the core of the Gospel story. Not only does the cross demonstrate that the relationship between Christianity and privilege exists, but it implores us to let go of it.
Recently, I watched a TEDx talk called “Privilege Loss” by Thomas Owen, a brilliant Senior Lecturer at Auckland University of Technology. Owen presented an overview of the dominating forces behind the anger people feel when they experience a loss of privilege (in all of its various forms) within culture. See TEDx Talk Here
Owens argues that the loss of privilege creates a moment within the individual whereby they not only lose something important to them, but many are also confronted for the first time with the privilege they denied having for so long. After all, you cannot lose something you never possessed. The individual’s anger over the loss is their admission of privilege.
It’s important to recognize that the issue of privilege runs through a whole host of social issues, not just race. However, for the sake of making this particular article concise and beneficial, I am writing about privilege generally. Privilege refers to the social benefits or advantages that ANY group or person inherits simply by being part of that group.
The Cross Creates Privilege Loss
Nobody stood to lose more than the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. The Jews were under the oppressive thumb of Rome and were so heavily taxed that many lived in extreme poverty. The most affluent Jewish class were the religious leaders. Their status as power brokers granted them privileges (fewer taxes, for one), that the average Jew did not receive.
The appearance of Jesus upon the world stage served to subvert the religious leaders, which is why they became Jesus’s most significant adversary (not the “sinners” as you might expect).
The following that Jesus amassed and the messages He preached threatened the authority of the religious leaders. For the average Jew, His message of faith apart from the works of the law no longer made the Jewish priests as relevant. His messages of love and hope empowered the people, especially the oppressed who were considered equal in God’s eyes – a stark contrast to how they were treated in their society. If relevance was taken away from the religious leaders, they would no longer enjoy the privileges given to them by Rome.
It’s important to understand that the religious leaders believed that the goal of Jesus was to replace them with His kingdom. The cross then was an opportunity for the religious leaders to maintain their status of power and privilege by putting the threat to death.
However, there was a plot twist in this drama playing out. The cross did not bring death…It did not bring loss…It did not force the Jews to return to the religious establishment. Instead, it cemented hope and it empowered the people.
Unbeknownst to the religious leaders, their pursuit of the cross itself became the undoing of their established power and privilege structure. The movement they tried so hard to suppress was elevated through the cross.
The warning signs were there for the religious leaders. Despite their knowledge of the law and the prophets, they failed to heed the warnings that were directed toward them.
We read in Malachi 3 that the reason Jesus was needed was that those in power refused to relinquish their privilege to aid those who were being oppressed. You can see this message woven throughout the Gospels. The Gospels paint a picture of a generation of religious leaders who greatly feared losing their privilege and status within the hierarchical structure of Judaism (John 11:45-48) – so much so that they humiliated and killed anyone who threatened their stranglehold on power.
Church Privilege Today
Have you ever wondered why the sinner is NOT an adversary of Jesus, but instead a friend? And, at the same time, the people who are supposed to be His allies were instead His enemies? (Matthew 9:11; 11:16-19) It is because power and privilege are the opposite of what the Gospel preaches.
Power often involves a person of privilege oppressing others to maintain the status quo. The majority of the Old Testament can be summarized as one large power struggle between the Jews and God; and between the Jews and outsiders. In the New Testament, this was Jesus’s primary message to the religious leaders.
Jesus was a friend to “sinners” because those who were supposed to be advocating for them were instead their oppressors. We have the same issue in today’s day and age.
Just like the religious leaders of the New Testament, many of today’s religious leaders still have much to lose with regards to their power and privilege, which manifests itself primarily through the political culture of our country. The structure of this privilege is largely protected by conservative Evangelical and conservative Catholic leaders.
This protection extends beyond national politics and can be observed through local church groups as well. From covering up sexual abuse claims to covering up personal transgressions of the clergy, the need for Church leaders to maintain their status is ingrained in our religious culture.
Unfortunately, this is not new as most of church history can be characterized by the religious establishment attempting to seize or maintain power and control. However, in today’s culture, it has become more dangerous because it threatens to fracture the Church. It is no longer an issue of liberal versus conservative or even denomination against denomination. Even within these groups, we see fractures occurring.
Like many of the attempts in the past, if leaders can control the way people think, then they can control the way people behave. The United States is supposed to be a free-thinking society that values dialogue and free speech, and yet oftentimes when the privilege of conservative Evangelicals and conservative Catholics are threatened (or held accountable), those speaking are oftentimes disparaged or bullied into a compliant silence.
It is the duty of any gospel-proclaiming Christian to uplift the oppressed. However, doing so requires those who are a part of the majority to relinquish the comfort their privilege provides. It requires those who may see the world in black and white to realize just how gray everything is. But, perhaps most difficult, it requires the Christian to love those with whom they may disagree with.
There was once an occasion that a rich young ruler approached Jesus and fell to his knees to ask him what was necessary to receive eternal life. Jesus responded by saying “sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor.” The story goes on to say that the young man left saddened because he had many possessions. However, neither having possessions nor being rich prevents someone from entering the kingdom. Jesus knew that, for this ruler, selling everything he had would relinquish his privilege by forcing him to live like those of a lower economic class. The fear of loss was not only over his possessions, but also his privilege.
Unfortunately, the vicious cycle continues as many church leaders are still an enemy of Jesus. Many of the lessons we have been given throughout both Testaments as well as church history regarding abuse of power have largely been ignored. Just like the lessons of Israel were lost on the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, so too have the lessons of Jesus’s day been lost on two thousand years of church history.
The fear of losing one’s privilege is a legitimate concern that should be recognized and dealt with. With that said, simply diagnosing the issue doesn’t solve the problem. The only thing that will solve the issue of privilege in our country is to create equity within all of our systems, including the Church. What’s more, as an example of what it means to be Christ-like we should not lag behind our culture, but lead the way. We should set the example of what it means to accept people in all of their diversity.