Why White Privilege Should Matter to the Church

I spoke at a small InterVarsity conference last weekend on the subject of white privilege.  It was my first-ever speaking gig and when I met with the conference organizer she asked if I could walk the students through my 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness but also include why I think it’s important for Christians, particularly white Christians, to be engaging in this conversation.

I was cool and calm and collected and said, “oh, yes, yes, of course, of course, no problem” (you know, ’cause I totally speak at conferences ALL THE TIME) and then panicked all the way home.   I purposefully left that aspect, that perspective, OUT of my white privilege post.  Not because I don’t think it’s important but because it felt overwhelming to include even one more thing in that series.  So I just tacked a one-liner onto my list of resources at the end of the post, left it to the experts, and called it a day.

But I do think it’s a conversation that the church should be having.  And here’s why.  One of the foremost calls on the life of a Christ-follower is to seek justice.  Micah 6:8 is one of the most well-known verses on this.

“The Lord God has told us
what is right
and what he demands:
“See that justice is done,
let mercy be your first concern,
and humbly obey your God.”

The American justice system is mainly about protection and punishment.  Protecting the rights of our citizens and punishing those who violate them.  But the Christian concept of justice goes so much further and deeper than this.  Christian justice is about shalom.  Shalom is the Hebrew word that encapsulates the Hebrew understanding of the world as God intended it to be.  It’s the word used most often in Scripture to describe God’s intentions for the world.  That’s what we seek when we seek justice.  We seek shalom.

The book of Revelation is a glimpse (albeit a confusing one at times) of what it will look like when the kingdom of God comes in full.   It’s a glimpse of shalom; of the world as God intended it to be.  And the Church is called to be a harbinger and a seeker of that vision.

In Revelation 7:9 we see that this kingdom of God will include “every race, every tribe, every nation and every language.”  Those aspects of our personhood — our skin color, how we talk and who we hang with — aren’t going to be dismantled and erased into some sort of generic heavenly homogeny.   Those things, those parts of who we are will be preserved.  Deepened.  But what does that mean, exactly?  What will that look like?  Let’s fill it out a bit…

Yeah, not like this

It means we will each have the same skin color as we do now.

It means that we’re still going to have our tribes.  When I imagine a “tribe”, I think of the indigenous tribes of South America, Pakistan, Ethiopia.   The first nations of the U.S.  and Canada.  But I think it also means my tribe here and now.  My people.  My peeps.  My community.  My family.  My friends.

It means that we are going to hear every imaginable language.  And it’s going to be so much more than, say, English and Spanish and Swahili.  It’s going to include our lingo, our vernacular, and the ways that we speak our various languages.

It means that every type of person will be there.  We’re talking turbans and long beards.   We’re talking neck coils and saris and sombreros.  We’re talking baggy jeans and backwards ball caps.  It means we’re going to have some poi from our Hawaiian friends.  Roti and naan from our Indian brothers and sisters.  Salmon from Alaska, injera from Eritrea, croissants from France.  It’s ALL going to be there.

Can you imagine?

What a vision God gives us.  What an incredible, rich, beautiful image we get to strive for and yearn toward as the church.  But even just a perfunctory consideration of race in our country reveals a huge chasm between this image that we’ve been given in Revelation 7 and our current reality in the U.S.  Sitting in the discomfort of this and looking a little closer at what white privilege is (and what it isn’t) will reveal just what stretched that chasm so wide.

The church is clearly missing the mark.  We are failing to live into the vision laid out for us.   The overwhelming majority of our churches look nothing like Revelation 7:9.  And what’s worse?  We don’t care.  We don’t care and we white folks don’t want to talk about it.  Revelation doesn’t say anything about heterosexuality or the second amendment or Sarah Palin or Barack Obama yet it’s all that we’re blogging and e-carding and tweeting.  But it does say something about race.  It does say something about the incredible variety of people that are part of shalom.   So let’s talk about that.

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