Privilge and Wilson

Since I think I’m the one who raised the issue that prompted Wilson’s post on White privilege, I figure I should respond. I’m very thankful for Wilson’s engagement on this topic, and hope this will be a fruitful discussion.

In Wilsons first three paragraphs, he makes the following points: these are his musings on an uncomfortable topic, and that two basic responses to privilege are guilt or gratitude, and gratitude is right. I certainly agree that the ‘guilt’ response is a common default response to the introduction of the topic of White privilege, and as such, that’s a problem, primarily because privilege is something you have, not something you do. But what you do with it is where the sin can come in, but the having of it is pretty hard to avoid. And gratitude for privileges we have is often the right response.

I am tiny bit surprised that these were the only two responses to privilege that Wilson considered, and I will get to why in a bit, but there are important biblical considerations about what to do with even ‘good’ privileges that a person has, that, as a person highly knowledgeable about the Bible and theology, i would have expected to pop into Wilsons mind, even if he were to dismiss or qualify those considerations. But these are immediate musings on an uncomfortable topic, so missing a third thing to consider isn’t awful, and is understandable, and we can continue the conversation and mention it.

In Wilson’s fourth graf he is careful to balance the sins of the privileged with the sins of the unprivileged: pride vs envy. Nothing wrong with this per se, but we need to think about how to teach that to both. One difficulty is, if the pastor is privileged in a certain way, how can he best teach about the sin of envy to the unprivileged? What approach can he use? Wilson’s book on integrity made a good point about this in the case of a wife and a husband:  A man can teach his wife submission through his own Godly example of submission. How, we may ask, can that apply in relation between the races?

Fifth graf: gratitude should always be our response, and the sin we might have is a sin of pride, since there is no sin of “privilege” per se. This is true, but Wilson intimated that the sins of privilege were ‘many’ before, and now the sin of pride is all we must confess. Pride is a ‘root’ sin in many ways, so that’s appropriate in one sense, especially if we see many manifestations of that one root pride, not just a puffed up, obvious sense of superiority.

Wilson then says that its ok for him to have a response of gratitude for his white privilege, and he shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for it. I can agree that guilt is the wrong response, but very sure that gratitude is not the only or best response. This is because Wilson isn’t really addressing why whiteness is a privilege for him: he doesn’t see it as anything other than one more thing to be grateful that one has such as money and an education.

But let us consider Peter: is it not odd to consider him full of gratitude that, say, he’d been kept from unclean common gentiles by the Torah? Peter had to learn that no man was unclean. That a privilege he had, that in one sense he could be grateful for, needed repentance. God was going to break down a wall of hostility that had been erected between gentile and Jew.

If privileges are granted to a person because of culture and society, and the culture is granting those privileges for very wicked reasons, or even unthinking reasons, can we really claim gratitude in those circumstances? If I never even have to think if a shop clerk is eyeing me suspiciously because of my race, I may be grateful (I’m probably not, because that kind of privilege is invisible, a topic Wilson broached and I will return to later), but should I not also be a bit incensed at her disparate consideration of another man merely based on his appearance?

Here’s a hypothetical (with problems, but work with me here…) Say Wilson went to Afghanistan, and the men of the village welcomed him over for a smoke and some beer. and he went, and had a great time, and then asked if he could bring his wife next time. And they say, no, we don’t want unclean defiling females touching us, or making us think lustful thoughts with their exposed ankles. Would he be grateful for the privilege that allowed him the camaraderie with such men?  I assume he would tell them in no uncertain terms that he was uninterested in possessing that privilege and he would tell them, that in the gospel, no woman is unclean or unworthy of their presence. (Perhaps he and his wife would decide that for purposes of his increased access to the men, he would not bring it to the fore immediately. That’s fine, but will he really feel gratitude that he has a privilege in that culture his wife lacks?)

That’s a very visible privilege, and many privileges are invisible: the things we whites don’t have to consider in navigating life. Knowing you have invisible privileges may not make you guilty of anything but it does give you a measure of responsibility: because they are invisible TO YOU, you need to have someone make you aware of when your privileges may be trampling over someone else, and you have a duty to consider educating yourself as to what manner of invisible privileges you may be ignoring. (This is why it may have been a good idea for Wilson to find some African-american reviewers of his books on slavery before publishing them. He could have avoided a lot of pain for himself and others. Wouldn’t that have been preferable?)

I recently almost insisted that my wife and daughter use a subway station that I thought was more efficient than another route. They raised safety concerns (from the press of crowds) that I thought were not weighty. Then I realized that when I’m in a crowd, I don’t feel it: I’m 6’2″ and can have clear lines of sight in a crowd to what’s going on around me. I’m not bothered in a crowded subway station. This privilege (pretty minor) is one I can be grateful for, but because its invisible to me…compared to other’s experience, I was about to run roughshod over my wife in deciding what was best.

Wilson makes good point about the duty to know each other across the divide. Carl Ellis speaks of his brushing of his daughter’s hair. She said “it hurts daddy, really” and he, not feeling the pain, denied her reality “no, it doesn’t hurt”: her cries interfered with his completion of the task and were not significant to him. He needed them to stop to get the job done, but his daughter’s hair was hurting. That’s something to do with privilege besides having pride: “I sure am glad then when i brush hair i don’t feel the pain.”

Can a white man know what its like to be shunned? to be ostracized under law? To have had parent or grandparents who suffered under such oppression? Wilson goes from saying privileges are invisible to seemingly denying that it matters: that all that matters are the things we can immediately spot and empathize with, that a seared conscience would be required to miss (I’m not sure that’s the point of the parable of the good Samaritan, by the way: even people with feet of clay all the way up to their knees might come up with justifications for ignoring the plight of the man: and its the less privileged, the Samaritan, who gets it)

I understand that the harder matters are harder, but it is not the case that trying with harder matters juts ruins things with do-goodery. Solidarity would be one way to approach the matter, rather than an on-high attempt to float in and help from a superior position.

But claiming “We cannot erase the privilege,” butts up against an important biblical thread:  Can Paul not count all his privileges as rubbish? And if he counts them as rubbish, is he ‘grateful’ for them, or realizing that pride in them has become a snare (as it was for his own people)?

Can Wilson count the godly culture of the south as rubbish? If Christ did consider equality with God, a privilege he had by right, as a thing to be put aside for the purpose of taking the form of a servant then it’s hardly true that we can do nothing to erase privilege. How will the beautiful and educated and wealthy person use their privileges is the question. And when the privileges are something that hinders the unity of humanity (like racial privileges) the question of how those privileges are used is even more crucial.

I hope Wilson will consider integrating this biblical consideration into his thinking. Currently, he expresses shock that one might be required to ‘ask God for a do-over’. Does that sounds like someone in John chapter 3 perhaps? Is he a teacher of white america, and does not know these things (I kid, I kid).

Because that is the call of Christ, to take up our cross daily, deny our self, and follow the Christ who took the form of servant. We have been ‘bid to come and die’, so yes, spiritually and symbolically, and in our actions in the wider world, we are constantly called to “go back to non-existence” and get a do-over.

Wilson cites the verses of master and slaves. I have a few problems with how he uses them. While its true that Paul does little in those verses to directly challenge the material relationship between master and slave (one still obeys, the other gives orders) there were things the masters were commanded to do right away: to wait for one another at the common table of the Lord. At the table of the Lord, they gave up all privileges and denied all merits. They did not stand before God at the table of the lord and say “I thank you Lord, for the privilege I have that I am not like other men, such as my slave Tertius over here”

When they did things like the above, the gospels and Paul made it abundantly clear that in fact they were supposed to feel guilty about how they abused and misunderstood the nature of the privilege they possessed.

I could develop this more, but like Wilson’s post, I’m musing on something uncomfortable. Just as pride is not the only way a privileged person may respond, envy is also not the only way in which an unprivileged person might respond. When in 1964, black and white knelt in prayer at the foot of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, asking for admittance on Easter, I don’t really think envy was uppermost in their mind, but rather their valid sense of indignation at the exclusion the privileged were privileged to practice with no one ever calling them on it.


About p duggie

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