Two weekends ago, I had the privilege of lecturing and preaching in an inner city church in Minneapolis, MN. My lecture focused on reconciliation and my sermon focused on election and predestination. This dear congregation and its leaders are intentionally pursuing multi-ethnic ministry in the very heart of one of Minneapolis’s most diverse inner city communities. This pursuit is evident both by the diversity and the multi-ethnic leaders in the church.

During a question and answer session at a church fellowship, one of the church’s elders (a white brother and founder of a private Christian inner city school) asked me to state three ways I think white Christians can be allies in the cause of reconciliation and justice for marginalized minority groups. This brother’s question was especially important because he started an inner city school for the purpose of providing the same quality of education for marginalized inner city kids (both minorities and whites) that was easily accessible for privileged white and minority kids in suburban contexts in Minneapolis.

My answer stated three ways that I thought all Christians with privilege could be allies with marginalized and under-privileged minorities and whites in their communities for the sake of the gospel. The following lists and explains my three answers with a couple of additional points.

  1. Do not Deny Privilege!

American Christianity is rich with privilege. Christians are saved by grace through faith apart from works (Eph. 2:8-9). Jesus became a poor human so that we would become spiritually rich (2 Cor. 8:9). Though limited, American Christians experience privileges associated with religious freedom.

Why, then, do many of the same American Christians generally resist the concept of American white privilege? There is more than one complicated answer to this complicated question. But I propose at least one. The concept of white privilege seems to challenge the American ideal of meritocracy.

Explanations of white privilege usually suggest that the American system has arbitrarily privileged white people over other races—especially African-Americans—since white people created the American system to prioritize whiteness and white people (just look at the atrocious statements some of America’s founding fathers made about black bodies). The privileged whites—it is argued— socially constructed whiteness as normal and superior and non-whiteness as abnormal and inferior.

Marc Lamont Hill, an African-American professor at Morehouse College, recently agreed with this description of white privilege, arguing on CNN (urbanintellectuals.com) that white privilege is evident by the unmerited benefits that white people experience in this country, as a result of a racist system. Hill’s comments appear to conclude that the successes of whites are largely due to white privilege.

At a summit on reconciliation, I heard a fellow speaker, a white Evangelical pastor, describe himself as a racist, because he is a white man—as he said—born into the American, socialized system of white privilege with all of its benefits. His comments connected American racism exclusively to whiteness and to the racist system that he believes whiteness created instead of connecting racism to sin and to sin’s impact on individuals and social structures, which would include the social construct of race. When white Christians hear these definitions of white privilege, they generally and understandably recoil, because these descriptions seem to suggest white American success is the result of inherited and unmerited privileges.

There is, however, a more balanced way to discuss the concept of American white privilege. Traditionally, the U.S. has prioritized whiteness from its very beginning, a point supported by slavery, reconstruction, and Jim Crow. The effects of this prioritizing are generally evident today in some—not all—aspects of American culture (e.g. education disparities, economic disparities, and disparities in the legal system, etc.).

The question for American Christians should not be does privilege exist? But how can those with privilege use their privileges to bless others? White Christians should not deny that some form of American (white) privilege exists, and minority Christians must be honest and admit that many of us benefit directly from white privilege.

  1. Use Privilege to Help Those Who are Marginalized!

Christians, especially American Christians, are spiritually privileged (2 Cor. 8:9). Many American Christians are born into a privileged status of freedom and opportunity, while the vast majority of us have done nothing to earn these privileges. However, many Christians in other countries are often born into an underprivileged social status, suffering numerous social disadvantages because of their racial, economic, religious, or ethnic identities regardless of how hard they work.

Regardless of our race and whether our privileges are graciously given or earned, American Christians should use privilege to bless the underprivileged instead of relentlessly denying that they have it and instead of using their privileges to maintain their privileged status over the marginalized groups.

And Christian minorities (such as myself), who benefit from white privilege should be quick to admit that they benefit from white privilege and have been given the currency of minority privilege because of the benefits that come to them in this country by means of the exploitation of marginalized groups.

For example, I’m a Southern Baptist (a privileged denomination), and I teach at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (a very privileged seminary). Our denomination was founded in part because of the denomination’s leadership supported slavery. And Southern Seminary was founded by men who owned slaves and believed in black inferiority. There was a time when I would not have been allowed to join a Southern Baptist church or to be admitted into Southern Seminary because of the pervasive racism within the Southern Baptist Convention.

And yet, I’m the only 4 time graduate of Southern Seminary, and I’m the first African-American with a multi-ethnic heritage to teach New Testament at my beloved school. My black privilege as a professor at one of the largest Evangelical seminaries in the world has come because of prayer, the hard work of others, my own hard work, and because of the exploitation of black people. That is, I (and all students and faculty members at Southern Seminary) benefit in some way from the slavery of black people that provided financially stability to the denomination and the institution during the days of slavery.

Christian minorities with privilege must be willing and eager to use our privilege in Evangelical spaces to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ to every tongue, tribe, people, and nation from all kinds of different backgrounds, to bless and serve the marginalized, and to speak against all of forms of racism, classism, and injustice whenever these things raise their ugly heads instead of denying that they have privilege and instead of using their privilege to distance themselves from marginalized majority and minority groups without privilege.

  1. Stand with Those without Privilege!

Those with privilege have access to more opportunities than those without it. Christians with privilege should therefore pray about and look for ways they can use their privilege to help those who suffer marginalization or disadvantages in their churches and communities because of their racial, ethnic, religious, education, or class identities.

For example, perhaps a way a majority or minority business Christian man with wealth could promote gospel reconciliation would be to fund a top flight inner city private Christian school, where the gospel would be regularly preached, for under privileged and poor kids from different backgrounds who would not otherwise have an opportunity to gain a quality education and go to college.

  1. Identify with the Marginalized in Both Church and Society!

Many people with privilege live isolated lives. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that one benefit of financial privilege is to be able to live in a society or community that is isolated and detached from certain kinds of communities and from the problems that exist in them. To be clear, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with a Christian wanting to live in a safe environment or even a comfortable environment—contrary to what some might say.

But Christians with the privilege to avoid social marginalization must be intentional about trying to find ways to identify and associate with those whose reality is one of constant injustice and discomfort. Otherwise, Christians with privilege will become immune to the very kinds of suffering that Jesus experienced and immune to the very kinds of people whom Jesus came to save and with whom he spent much of his time. Christians with privilege should look for ways to step out of their privileged status, take the posture of student and servant, and identify with the marginalized group in both church and society. One way privileged Christians can do this is by taking the time to listen to the narratives of the marginalized groups in their churches and in their communities, ask them how they can help, and use their privilege to help them in the name of Jesus and for the sake of the gospel.

  1. Privilege Comes with Great Responsibility

Christians with privilege must regularly remind themselves that with great privilege comes great responsibility. Christians should not use their privilege to hurt the marginalized, but rather to advance the reconciling gospel. And Christians with privilege should responsibly and faithfully use their privilege for the sake of unifying all things and all people in Christ.

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