We live in strange times. We hear conversations in certain circles about white privilege, while in other circles we hear complaints that white men face discrimination. Which is it? Standing at the center of the last Presidential election was the claim that the white working class was being ignored. The same arguments undergird the current immigration debates. When the Black Lives Matter movement emerged after the shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer, many White Americans responded with a declaration that “All Lives Matter.” While this response sounded egalitarian, it failed to acknowledge that in our country the powers and principalities have valued white lives more than black and brown lives. We may have elected a Black President in 2008 and again 2012, but it’s clear from the rhetoric of the hour that we are not living in a “post-racial society.” In fact, even today we are living with the legacy of decisions made decades ago that privileged European-Americans over Americans from other regions of the world. Unfortunately, these patterns of discrimination, segregation, and racism have infected the church as well as the rest of the culture.
So, what should Christians do about the realities of our society? That is the question taken up in The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma, a White Evangelical minister and educator living in Bend, Oregon. Wytsma wrote this book because he sees unacknowledged white privilege infecting the white evangelical community. He is the founder of The Justice Conference and President of Kilns College and wrote this book at the request of an editor at InterVarsity Press who heard him address privilege in a speech. I am glad that the IVP editor made the request, because this is an honest and compelling look at a problem that will not go away. Indeed, my own denomination has pledged to be an “anti-racism, pro-reconciling” church. All clergy are required to receive anti-racism training. I’m glad the training is required, but it does suggest that even in a more liberal Mainline denomination with a General Minister and President who is African-American that problem still exists.
I will admit up front that as a White Male, it is uncomfortable admitting to privilege. I want to think of myself as innocent of bias and prejudice. I want to believe that I've earned what I have. Unfortunately, reality tells me that despite growing up in a home without a lot of money, I grew up with certain privileges not available to persons who do not share my ethnic background. Our home was small and old, but we did have a home on a safe street in a nice part of town. Not everyone had that opportunity, sometimes simply because the rules stood against them. While many rules have changed, the legacy continues.
Wytsma divides his book into three parts. The first part has to do with "the story of race." It's a story many have heard but need to hear again. One of the things we need to hear is that the idea of race is a rather new phenomenon. It began to emerge during the “age of discovery,” and received reinforcement during the Age of Enlightenment. Science and Manifest Destiny, accompanied by religious blessing, went a long way to subjugating peoples across the globe whose skin color was not white. Desire for land and resources received support from emerging science that emphasized differences in skin color and hair texture to define what was “normative” and what was not. With that as a foundation, policies on where people could live and how much financing they could get were implemented, with governmental guidance. We call this redlining, and it helped create the segregated cities of today. Most Americans do not know that the government encouraged banks not to lend to people of color but encouraged suburban sprawl through lending practices that favored whites. That's part one. It contains very important information.
Part two, takes a more spiritual look at things. Wytsma explores the question of equality in conversation with the kingdom of God. He calls on fellow evangelicals to look closely at how they understand the Gospel, noting that it has important social justice implications. He addresses the traditional discomfort with justice conversations within Protestant/Evangelical circles, noting that concern for justice need not conflict with divine grace. When we talk about salvation, it is not simply about getting into heaven, what Wytsma calls the “salvation industrial complex.” What he wants to do here is help us move between two competing narratives. One places all the emphasis of escaping this life for the next. The other places all the emphasis on this life. Wytsma believes both miss the boat.
Finally, in part three he addresses the challenge of privilege. Most specifically how "racism went underground." While are seeing a resurgence of racist speech, for the most part people have found other subtler ways of expressing racism. We call this dog whistles. He speaks of implicit bias that causes us to look others with suspicion. We make assumptions about people, such as Blacks are lazy or prone to violence. We recently heard the White House chief-of-staff call those eligible for DACA, but didn’t register, lazy. Again, drawing on stereotypes that have been fed by the culture and then are used to suppress people. The good news is that implicit bias can be dealt with. We just have to look inside and recognize where it is present. Part of that, is to recognize privilege on the part of White Americans.
This is one of those books that needs to be read, not only be White Evangelicals, but by all Christians. It can open conversations about what justice involves. To take but one issue—abortion—for some Christians this is a major issue worth giving extra-ordinary effort, in the belief that life needs to be protected. On the other hand, there are Christians, usually on the theological/political left that wish to leave that issue aside, believing that it is a decision to be left to a woman. Here as with many issues, the sides have been drawn, and little fruitful conversation can be had. Wytsma is pro-life in that he opposes abortion. However, he knows that this is not the only issue to be concerned about. One issue that needs addressing is race.
Regarding race and the church, I was in a conversation with an African American pastor about the topic. He expressed both amazement and gratitude that I was willing to talk openly about race, something he rarely finds white pastors willing to do. Maybe this book can empower more conversations, so that someday we can get to the point where all lives do matter. But first we must recognize those lives that have historically not been valued. Here is a starting point for that conversation. To reference another book, by an African American Christian, we have a better story to tell. Let’s tell it. This book can help us start that conversation, including the one about White Privilege.