How can Privileged Christians Work Strategically for Equality?

What privileges do we have as Christians? Whatever our situation, we have more privilege than we think we do. What makes us believe in the phenomenon that we believe that we are marginalized when we really are very privileged? How can we model after Jesus and use this privilege to advocate for, minister to, and serve the disenfranchised?

From Dec 27 – Jan 1, volunteers with our network of early career Christian academics are liveblogging seminars at the Urbana conference, a mission-focused student gathering of 16,000 Christians from across North America and the world. This post was co-written by Vivian Chen and Nina Thomas.

Christena Cleveland

Dr. Christena Cleveland in an Urbana15 plenary presentation.

Here in St Louis at the Urbana 2015 conference, Christena Cleveland sets out to answer the question, “How can privileged Christians work strategically for equality?” Cleveland is an Associate Professor at Duke University’s Divinity School and is working on her new book titled, The Priesthood of the Privileged. She completed her undergraduate work at Dartmouth College and also received her PhD from UCSB. Cleveland’s scholarly work includes integrating social psychological perspectives on intergroup and intercultural processes with current reconciliation dilemmas within the Christian church and the broader society.

Cleveland begins the seminar with a disclaimer explaining that the event will not be able to explain the details of privilege due to time constraints. But, Christena has a blog with a whole section dedicated to privilege, including a six part series on listening well as person of privilege.  

“There is a problem with inequality within the church,” says Cleveland. “Some people have a seat at the table and other people don’t.” This session is directed towards people who are more privileged and how we with our privilege can speak with people who might not be privileged.

Jesus- Kenosis (To Empty Ones’ selves)

Christena describes how the Bible positions followers to see that inequality exists and commands followers to be like Jesus. Christena represents this through the Greek word,  “Kenosis,” which means reincarnation or the emptying of one’s self. Cleveland verbalizes “Kenosis” ,“[do] not stay in the place where one is treated well” but instead go to empty yourself to be with Jesus and others.

“Kenosis” begs the question that Christena aptly asks, “How does He [Jesus] empty Himself as a human being in this context?” Jesus is often look as the oppressed one, refugee, baby born in a manger.On the other side of this, Jesus identified with many privileged groups in biblical society. Jesus was a Jew, in that time, “Jews were not as good as Romans but considered better than being a Samaritan,” demonstrating his privilege.  Jesus was oppressed, but he was male, so relative to women he had power. Jesus actually had many privileges.

When do we see Jesus utilize his privilege to advocate for others? Christena aptly asks the audience to observe how Jesus interacts with his privilege in scripture. She shares the observation that Jesus is always always interacting in cross cultural situations. The example that Christena spotlights is the raising of Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5. Jairus is this person of great power, a ruler in a synagogue. He asks Jesus to go heal his daughter. Jesus agreed to heal his daughter. Meanwhile, a woman who was sick and bleeding for 12 years approached Jesus from behind as he is traveling to heal Jairus’ daughter. Christena brings in cultural context mentioning that in biblical society (again weird phrasing?) being sick meant being unclean, a “bad” person, unfit to be touched by anyone. The uncleanliness of the bleeding women is a foil to the privilege of Jairus. Yet, out of faith she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and she was healed. Cleveland states “Jesus could have kept on walking.” But, we all know he didn’t. Jesus stopped and asked, “who touched me?” Cleveland jokingly yet not proclaims Jesus obviously knew who touched him. He is Jesus after all. But, his question brought all eyes on Jesus.

Cleveland interprets in this scripture that “Jesus used his power and directed everyone’s attention from Him to this woman who no one ever payed attention to. [And through Him], she was able to tell her story” with the full attention of the crowd following Jesus.

That’s just one example that Cleveland mentions of how Jesus used his power. “He gives voice to people who don’t have voice in society. Cleveland suggests Jesus’ actions as a foreshadowing and “a precursor to the cross when Jesus stands in the gap for us.”

“Our society is kinda like Jesus’ society…” Cleveland defines privilege as the way society accommodates some people while alienating other people. “I’d say middle class and higher, so not just Downton Abbey” jokes Cleveland.

What about us? Do we have privilege?

In transition to focus on today’s Christians, Cleveland polls the audience, “What are some privileges we have?” Common answers included education, wealth, beauty, race. Less common answers that were reminders of the invisible forgotten privileges included right handedness, mental and cognitive ability, able bodiedness, US citizenship.

Why do we forget these invisible privileges? Christena suggests that there are lies and idols in our culture that diminished our ability to see these privilege.

American Idols that Disguise Our Privilege

Christena implicates three deeply rooted and idolized American fallacies that prevent the privileged from acknowledging privilege: Individualism, Equality, and Meritocracy.

Christena defines individualism as “nothing outside of you can affect the outcome of your life.” However, Christena refutes individualism with her own story. Christena earned an Ivy League undergraduate degree and not just one, but earned TWO advanced degrees. Although Christena worked very hard, she admits that she was not alone. She had the privilege of Ivy League educated family members, college preparatory boarding school, access and exposure to cultural events and activities such as the ballet, etc. Christena acknowledges her and her siblings’ privileges outloud, stating “we all were raised that way and we all ended up getting our dreams and I look at this and think of the ways we had support for our dream.”

Does having support discredit individualism? But, Christena didn’t you work hard for your degrees? Christena further dispels the individualism idol by the juxtaposition of her story to the stories of students in her neighborhood. Christena recalls that “There were kids who all had the same dream I had, [but] in all the ways society propelled me, [those same ways] prevented them from reaching their dreams.” These students attended the neighborhood high school, which had graduation requirements that did not fulfill many college application requirements. So students who graduated from the high school were “not eligible to attend college because the school didn’t offer courses that fulfilled requirements needed to apply to college. Simply by growing up in that neighborhood, set [those students]on track so society would alienate them.”

With one short summary, Christena revealed individualism as a fallacy: “the number one indicator of whether you go to college is what family were born in. Individualism, not true. We don’t do it alone, we have so much support. That is our privilege.”

Equality: But, don’t we treat everyone equally?

Christena quickly proclaims, “Equality is a myth… The way we’re treated depends on even what our name is.” Christena refers to the 2002 study, “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”, by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan. Bertrand found that resumes with names, “Emily” or “Brendan,” were twice as likely to be called in for an interview than resumes with names, Jamal and Lakisha, even if the resumes were exactly the same. Christena insightfully suggests that “No one will admit to it because no one realizes they are doing it. Equality is simply not true.”

Meritocracy: But, if we work really hard we can get the jobs we want…right?

Christena describes meritocracy as the “idea that everything is based on merit, people who deserve the job get the job.” Americans idolize the formula that how successful a person is reflects how hard he or she worked. However, Christena asserts that meritocracy cannot be true because the aforementioned individualism and equality, that would be foundational for meritocracy, are also false.

Hard work does not determine success, says Cleveland. Instead, success is rooted in  the random set of privileges one inherits; our success is fostered by the inequalities and subconscious prejudices around us.

Yes, we see that we have privilege. Now what do we do?

Once we recognize our privilege, what should our response be? Christena recalls a student who asked her, “Am I inherently at fault?” Her answer: “no, you are not inherently at fault, but you have inherited a fault. But it is up to you to fix it.”

Cleveland continues, “God loves flesh, he loves humanity. God came to earth as a human. This idea that we are created in the image of God.” 

Cleveland challenges the audience to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and leave their “turf”. Jesus was intentional about meeting a wide range of society. Are we? Moms in Touch International is a group that gathers moms from the same high schools. Mothers then pray for their children. These gatherings tend to be comprised of upper middle class white women. The moms realized schools they sent their kids to was super diverse  and because of such diversity they know there are other women from other cultures. Cleaveland shares that the meeting of these moms meeting 11am on Wednesday mornings.  She asked them, “What about your life makes you available at 11am in the morning?” After hearing their answers, she challenged them “leave your church in the suburbs and be in a low income spanish church and find out what it is about your life that makes you available at 11am on Thursday mornings but not other people.” These women actually did it. They picked up their families and 5 or 6 months later they met with Cleaveland. She was shocked, “What, no one actually does it…” The mothers joked, “first of all, I have flesh on my bones for the first time.” regarding their experience.

Many of the mothers who didn’t join the Moms in Touch group don’t have private transportation, and they live in a neighborhood that can be dangerous. In response to the needs of other women, the meeting time was changed to 11pm on Thursdays. Cleveland comments “they didn’t know it but they were emptying themselves of privilege,” representing “kenosis.

Audience Questions

Q: What changes will happen when whites are the minority as time passes?

A: Numbers aren’t going to do it, look at South Africa.  I don’t see the conversation changing. I think as baby boomers see how much the world changed there’s this fear that there’s more inequality. That’s not actually the same thing as as discrimination.

Q: What do you think about the issue of leadership when white people speak on behalf of people of color?

A: I think part of leaving your turf is submitting to the leadership that’s already there. It’s harder for people who are used to having a voice.

Q: Is Black Lives movement important, if so why?

A: I think it’s one of the most important things happening in the history of the United States. … [it’s] all about bringing world into alignment with how God sees the world.

Q: How do you address “white shaming”?

A: Cleveland has published a blog post on her site by Daniel Hill about 7 stages of white identity in the process of white people unpacking their identity

If I were you I would fluff off the shame and try to listen to the truth. Many white people are not aware… there are ways to do it more graciously, but when you’re oppressed for years it’s hard to present your words eloquently, it will come out angry. We can allow the holy spirit to do its work and sift out and see the truth.

Cleveland recalls a time when she witnessed anger from a friend because of the issues of privilege, “She would often explode on me… we were the same race but I didn’t deal with being mentally disabled, social security system.” she continues “Not all college educated people are like that…” Cleveland had to stop herself and remember to listen: her friend was trying to say something and give her information.

Q: How you address the idea that racism does not exist?

A:  People are not going to see what they don’t want to see. I spend more time praying for people’s hearts … start by praying for your friends. I’m a big fan of data, you can show the experience of black people and how it hasn’t changed but actually got worse under Obama administration. (when addressing the fact that our president is black, racism can’t exist)

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Vivian Chen

Vivian Chen is a PhD candidate focusing on molecular and cell biology in the Department of Biology at Stanford University. Her research is currently focused on unique dynamic protein interactions that enable efficient biomass production in algae and hopefully model protein states observed in human disease in the Jonikas Lab. When not in the lab, Vivian is an avid purveyor of cooking competition shows, amateur runner/yogi, and aspiring artist. She also is currently co-leading Stanford’s InterVarsity’s Graduate Women’s Fellowship.

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