by Brian Litfin professor of theology
The topic of “white privilege” recently became a subject of campus discussion after a poster from the student group Embrace was vandalized. I contributed negatively to that discussion when I criticized the poster on Facebook. My post then went viral on Twitter and was picked up by the news media.
Although that gossip-fest involved a lot of sinful slander, it doesn’t excuse my own sin of having used harsh words against a respectable student group. The Lord used Colossians 4:6 to remind me that my speech should always be gracious. Under the Spirit’s conviction, I made a point of seeking forgiveness from all involved.
Underneath my snarky Facebook post, however, lies an issue that requires critique. While social media is a ridiculous place for this, a campus newspaper is the perfect venue. I would like to propose five reasons why the term ‘white privilege’ isn’t appropriate for Christian discourse. This language is taken straight from a radical and divisive secular agenda. As such, it should be subjected to the penetrating light of God’s Word.
Before I list my reasons, let me acknowledge that the term “white privilege” is intended to address an important topic. The problem is, the term itself is inflammatory, so the real topic goes unheard because of the offense. Here are five ways the term “white privilege” is objectionable to many in our community:
The term can imply corporate responsibility for others’ sin. Collective sin was operative in the covenant community of Israel, such as with Achan (Joshua 7). However, with the arrival of the New Covenant, individuals now stand or fall before God for their own actions (Jeremiah 31:29-30). According to scripture, “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat … each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:10, 12). Therefore, an entire race should not be held accountable for the sins of individuals. It doesn’t work like that anymore.
The term can be an unloving use of the power of naming. In scripture, the act of naming something claims authority over its identity and destiny. Jesus did this when he gave Simon a new name: Peter (Matthew 16:18). However, it is one thing to name a friend or one’s own community for the sake of encouragement, and another to name someone for the purpose of criticism or shame. In so doing, we aggressively define others, stigmatize them, lump them together. But can billions of people really be described with the catch-all term “white” and then uniformly be assigned certain privileges? No. Such behavior is unloving because it forces simplistic categories on others that they themselves do not embrace.
The term can contradict God’s approval of the very things that convey historic privileges. Consider how some Americans of all races have reached privileged positions today: through stable family units that saved money and passed wealth to their descendants. Most Caucasians aren’t the offspring of slave owners, but merely of hard-working forefathers who did what was right. My own grandfather was an immigrant from Canada who scrimped and saved as a dry cleaner in Detroit. My dad was the first in his family to go to college. He went on to earn Ph.D.s at Purdue and Oxford. This certainly gave me privileges — but that is something God celebrates! The book of Proverbs repeatedly tells us that a life of diligent labor, careful family stewardship, and wise foresight will reap earthly rewards. “All hard work brings a profit” (Proverbs 14:23), and rightly so. Privilege is not something to be scorned, but only its exclusive and unjust use.
The term can display a critical spirit that misconstrues reality by highlighting only the negative. We must not buy into a Hunger Games mythology of vapid suburban elites entertaining themselves at the expense of others. In reality, the doors are not entirely shut to minorities today, nor are white people universally trying to close them. In fact, I often see a lot of “white love” as the American church reaches out to the needy. Why must we criticize our Caucasian brothers and sisters? The secular world does this, but it is unworthy of Christians. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 tells us to “encourage one another and build each other up.” Where sin does exist, the answer is not the ungodly modern practice of “calling it out.” Instead we are to offer gentle critique (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:25) and cover the offense in love (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Pet. 4:8).
The term can blind us to the cry for social justice from the white oppressed. If white people are characterized as doing just fine, we can safely ignore them. But what about the Caucasian widow, the orphan, the sex trafficking victim, the mentally ill, the homeless, the imprisoned, the handicapped, the physically abused, the addict, the rural poor? All of these populations are filled with white people whose cry of suffering rises to the ear of God. Acts 6:1 speaks against the sin of excluding some from social justice based on racial divisions. When we characterize “white people” as being privileged, we unintentionally squelch the voices of the oppressed and make them invisible. This is a harmful by-product of using imprecise language borrowed from worldly unbelievers.
I suggest we should rip the term “white privilege” out of our discourse at Moody. The underlying issues that need to be addressed should be described with more wholesome, less divisive terminology. Though I grant my fellow Christians the right to disagree, I know I stand with many in our community who find this language repugnant. Why employ terms that divide the body of Christ? As students of God’s Word, let us draw our terminology from the Bible, not the wisdom of man.