We need to talk about privilege, pride and prejudice

I want to reflect a little further on the issues of prejudice, racism and classism and why these matter to the church. In so doing, I want to interact with an article that Garry Williams wrote on the matter for the Pastors Academy.

I want to highlight four things he raised

  1. The problem of racism does need to be addressed.
  2. The need to check our own motives before speaking
  3. The risk of reductionism in a debate -specifically regarding White Privillege
  4. Problems with associating with the #BlackLivesMatter Agenda.

Let’s take them in turn:

The problem of Racism does need to be addressed

I don’t want to, or really need to say much on this point except to agree with Garry. It is good to hear other reformed-evangelical leaders recognising the problem. We haven’t been very good about talking about this issue and naming sin as sin.  So, it is important that we keep repeating this. Racism is real, racism is sin and sadly too many people in our churches and communities have experienced it.

Racism is a failure to love our neighbours, but it is also a failure to love God because we put our trust in ethnic or nationalistic identity rather than in the Gospel. Racism within the church brings dishonour to the Gospel. Indeed, given that many people associate Western and British culture with Christian culture, if we fail to speak up about racism outside the church then that brings dishonour too as people associate the Gospel with it.

The need to check our own motives before speaking

This should really be part of preaching and pastoring 101, true about anything we say and do. We are so easily captivated by our own visions and priorities. We so easily deceive our own hearts. And yes, on any given Sunday, it is easy for me to speak in order to win the applause of men.

So, here is the question. Why do we need to caveat advice on speaking out about racism with these reminders? I can’t remember being asked to double check my motives before speaking out on abortion, same-sex marriage, transgenderism or any of a whole host of issues that come up on a week to week basis.

One of the very issues that we need to address is the way in which church leaders, especially in the States have had their motives and theology trashed because they have chosen to speak out. They have been accused of trying to be woke, of their own ethnic pride if Black, of a Social Justice Gospel and of promoting cultural Marxism. 

The risks of reductionism in the debate

There is always a risk of reductionism in any debate especially when angry desperate people take to the streets with slogans. We have seen our fair share of it here haven’t we. “Get Brexit Done” was a brilliant slogan for getting people out to vote but what did that actually mean. #FBPE – Follow Back pro Europe. What does that mean.  I know some people who love Europe and would want us to be part of a powerful free trade block but voted Brexit because they did not like the EU as an institution and saw it as detrimental to the welfare of Europeans. Furthermore, what on earth do people mean when they say “Follow Back” does this mean that they will only welcome followers e who are pro the EU? Would that affect friendships off of twitter and Facebook?  Is my decision to follow you Twitter account therefore an implicit declaration of my political position.

So, all sides of the political divide are brilliant at coming up with slogans that risk reductionism. However, we can also recognise the ability of a slogan to get our attention providing it is followed by nuanced debate and discussion.

Garry has particular concerns about the phrase “White Privilege.” Personally I am not sold on that one either. You see, as a slogan it risks miscommunicating to people two things.

First, people can hear it as suggesting that all white people have privilege whereas people experience other forms of prejudice and discrimination because of class, where they are from, disabilities etc.  There are many white people who have not enjoyed much by way of privilege.Secondly, it can be heard in a way  which suggests that privilege is the sole cause of prejudice whereas often it arises out of envy and fear. 

So, it is not a great slogan from that point of view. Further-more, it often seems to be those who already enjoy privilege due to class, education provision and wealth who seem to be up there shouting the slogans. However, I wonder whether we can also be reductionist by debating the truthfulness of a slogan and missing that behind that slogan are lots of people making the nuanced points we are asking for.

I understand the argument to be more as follows

  • That people are often selfish and sadly self-seeking, wherever they find the opportunity to, they will use power to look after themselves at the expense of others.
  • That people develop systems of power, their selfishness and prejudice becomes institutionalised so that it benefits some and discriminates against others. As well as overt prejudice and discrimination, many people indirectly experience the disadnvantages of the system whilst others indirectly experience the benefits and enjoy privilege.
  • A specific example of this is how the West used its privileged position to colonise and enslave leading to the slave trade.
  • Slavery meant that white people in Britain and America have for centuries enjoyed the benefits of wealth and resources on the back of slavery
  • Even after slaves were freed, they were still at the bottom of the pile in society and Black people have continued to endure the disadvantages caused by slavery.
  • This is combined with implicit bias, so that we continue to favour people who are look like us.  We have assumptions about Black people in terms of their intellect, skills and the value of their culture such as music that are still rotted in past representations of them as primitive and sub-human. 

Within that argument are two other considerations. First of all, that in so far as you see working class racism, it arises because those with privilege manage to hog resources so that the disadvantaged are left to compete for what remains. Secondly, there is potentially an argument that even if some white people are discriminated against by other white people, they are still generally better off and more privileged than BAME people. 

Now we might want to qualify that argument, disagree with it or modify it. However, it is important to recognise that the argument is a little more nuanced and less reductionist than one slogan might suggest.

For example, as a Christian, I would prefer to talk in terms of sin and idolatry.  When we talk about systems and institutions this helps us to be clear that we are not ducking the issue fo the human heart.  We sin by failing to love God and love our neighbour, racism is one way in which we do this. Our sin is often expressed in culturally specific ways because we become like our idols. 

I would also want to emphasise that because of the heart condition, that it is possible to see privilege and prejudice happening everywhere. It will happen within an ethnic group and within a class so that people will find ways to gain power and control over others. Indeed, that is the danger with revolts and revolutions as expressed so powerfully by George Orwell in Animal Farm. Watch carefully, the agitators who claim to be speaking for you and seeking to lead you. They may well have their own agenda.

The complexities of life also mean that it is possible for people to move into privileged circules and become accepted. This means that black people and working-class people can take positions of privilege and discriminate against others. It also means that just because some people jump through the hoops does not mean that the problem is dealt with.

Finally, the toughest concern of all is that human self interest means that people can be complicit, even turning on their own so that Africans themselves were involved in the slave trade selling prisoners of war from  neighbouring territories and criminals from their own tribes and clans.

Noting those things, I would still suggest that it is generally true that I have benefited from privileges that many people from other ethnic groups have not because of my background. It is generally true within the church too that elders, deacons and pastors are more likely to be white and middle class  even in mutli-cultural contexts.

Problems with associating with the #BlackLivesMatter agenda

Garry’s final concern is that if we become associated with the #BlaclLivesMatter hashtag that we may become associated with the wider agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement/organisation.  If you look on the Black Lives Matters’ website you will see specific commitments to supporting LGBTQ issues. 

I would not sign up to that agenda and nor, I believe would many of the others who have used the hashtag. I think this is a misunderstanding both about how language and movements work. First of all in terms of language, there seems to be a belief that language and symbols can be owned and controlled by specific groups and organisations. Now to be sure there are limits, I don’t think we are likely to see the Swastika taken over by a peace loving, equality celebrating movement any time soon and I must admit that I struggle personally with symbols based on raised fists and hands that speak of violence and links to specific political approaches. However, we have watched how the LGBTQ movement colonise language and symbols over time so that eventually the rainbow representing God’s covenant with his people and then diversity and equality in the face of apartheid became a prominent symbol of LGBTQ pride. Now the symbol has been taken over by those wanting to express gratitude to health workers. 

Indeed, missiologists like JH Bavinck have talked about the possibility of taking back words, symbols and ideas because Christ is Lord over everything. Through subversive fulfilment we can show how the vision represented can only be truly met through the Gospel. 

Additionally, I think we have increasingly confused movements with organisations and events. A movement is something far beyond one group or event and beyond the control of the group in effect taking on a life of its own. If there is a Black Lives Matter Movement then it is something far bigger than one particular group or website.

I believe this is so important because whenever I say that I cannot use a slogan because I associate it with a particular group, I risk telling my black friends using that slogan that I associate them with that group. I would rather prioritise identifying with them.

Conclusion

We need to speak up about and against racism in a way that avoids reductionism and that does not buy into other agendas. But we also need to speak up boldly and clearly.

This is the first of two posts, in the second post I want to talk a little bit more about power and privilege in the church.

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