Privilege: Taking a Step Back
“Hold your breath, these things come in threes…”
In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, America’s racial tensions are once again at the forefront of our headlines. Only six years ago, our country was locked in a bitter debate about what our problems are and how to solve them. Now, we are revisiting them, empty handed.
Around 2017, this video surfaced, and proposed a solution to America’s racial tensions. “If we only understood our privilege,” it speculates implicitly, “we would be able to resolve our differences.”
A group of young college students line up for a race to win $100. They all talk with each other excitedly, smiles on their faces as their leader vies for their attention. This is no normal race, you see. There are a few additional rules.
“If your parents are still married, take two steps forward.”
Many of the students excitedly leap forward, taking as much ground as they can. The leader watches them solemnly, and continues with more rules.
“If you grew up with a father figure in the home, take two steps forward.”
Several of the students blithely leap forward again, excitedly chattering as the camera focuses on a young male with dark skin, awkwardly kicking the dirt while he stays at the starting line.
The list goes on and on. The further the students separate, the more the awkwardness grows. Those at the front start sharing shy glances with each other, dreading each coming instruction.
Finally, the leader asks everyone up front to turn around and look at those behind them.
“Everyone still has to run the race,” he explains. “But this race wasn’t fair from the start, and those at the front were given an unfair advantage that others did not have.”
The students leading the pack stand nervously at the front, arms sheepishly crossed as they sit exposed in the limelight. Seemingly, there is no prize. Only a lecture.
The leader goes even further, throws this toxic gem in: “The reality is, if this was a fair race, and everyone’s back on that line — I guarantee some of those black dudes would smoke all of you. It’s only because you have this much of a head start that you’re possibly going to win this race called life.” Apparently, this activity was designed for part of the group’s benefit. The others merely serve as a prop.
The film ends with the students in a circle, as the leader admonishes them. “If you didn’t learn anything from this activity, you’re a fool.” The screen fades to black, as a Bible verse appears on screen.
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth.
1 John 3:17–18
No one would argue that it’s better for a child to grow up without their parents. Study after study has examined the difficulties boys face when they grow up without a father. Having worked for nearly a decade in Christian ministry to young men, this fact is very close to my heart. This exercise does well to call attention to that fact… but it does so in a strange way.
If your parents are still married, you get to take two steps forward—you get to cheat the system.
Having parents that are still married is considered an “unfair advantage”? Having a father lets you cheat the system? Is a fatherless home supposed to be the standard? This sounds barbaric, but it’s far closer to the truth to tell the students, “If you live in a single parent home, tie this rope around your legs.” Instead, students with a father are singled out and shamed. What should be a blessing is turned into a curse.
But it’s not enough for the students at the front to form their own opinions. The instructor viciously cuts them down to size. “Some of you up front wouldn’t stand a chance. You’re nothing without your privilege. Anyone who fails to understand this is a fool.”
Supposedly, this is the solution to America’s problems.
The instructor correctly notes that none of the students are to blame for the situation they were born into. But then he proceeds to separate them into the victims and the guilty. Instead of inspiring those born into better situations to help others, he guilts them and belittles them.
Is it any surprise to see a “privileged person” involved in empty self flagellation on Twitter? Refusing to take part in a discussion because they feel they have no place in it? That is false humility, and cowardice. What does that do to help those in need? Didn’t they read the Bible verse at the end, that we aren’t to “love God with word or talk, but in deed and truth?”
I was once told that horses had an interesting defense tactic. If they are ambushed by a pack of wolves, the horses circle up, face each other, and kick outwards at their attackers. Donkeys, however, face the opposite direction, and kick each other to death.
I feel as if this is an adequate metaphor to explain how the notion of “privilege” fails to solve America’s inequalities. Faced with the problems of police brutality, prejudice, and hatred — we add to our list of problems. We despise each other for “failing to recognize our privilege”. Based solely on appearances, we divide the country into the “privileged” and the “under privileged”, and start to assign blame. Can we really fight prejudice with more prejudice?
This hostile approach hasn’t fixed our problems, only worsened them.
A Better Way
Many people like the sound of the Bible verse cited in the video. If you’re interested, may I read you another common passage? This chapter is often read at weddings.
Paul, the author of “the love chapter”, writes of Christianity as a footrace. Like the instructor in the video, Paul explains that God gives gifts to some people, but not others. He even says that without one gift in particular, you “are nothing.”
[But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all.]
If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.
If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.
1 Cor 13:1–3
That verse from 1 John 3 is easy to grasp, because it talks about the charity of others. Even people who don’t read (or follow) the Bible would abuse the passage to guilt others into charity, but Paul turns that on it’s head. Charity without love is futile. The external focus on other’s charity turns to an inward focus on our own hearts.
Only a chapter later, 1 John 4 emphasizes the importance of love. Without love, you can’t know God. But what’s more, look at how the Bible motivates us to love others! Not with guilt or shame, but with more love!
Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love — not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.
Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other.
1 John 4:7–11
Similar to the privileges discussed in the video above, the love that God offers is an unwarranted, unearned gift. But unlike the privileges which are distributed unequally, God’s gift of love is available to ALL.
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
But it keeps getting better! In the race above, there was only a single prize. At the end of the race, there would be one victor, and the rest lose. A hundred dollars wouldn’t last a trip to the grocery store. But not so for those who accept this gift!
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:7–8
Do Not Let Your Love Grow Cold
Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, he cautioned us about the end times.
At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold.
Doesn’t that sound like today?
Many churches are rediscovering the fact that Christianity calls us to “defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.” (Ps 82:3) This is undeniably a good thing to warm up to! However, I hear this so often, that I fear Christianity is getting tunnel vision.
False prophets promise an earned salvation through sola aequitas, social justice alone. They forget that Christ’s love is a gift, and not earned. If the love of Christ is forgotten, the results are before you in that video. Judgement, guilt, shame, hostility, blame, envy, and hatred. Without Jesus, speaking eloquent words of lament and giving to the poor are nothing more than clanging gongs.
No one can deny the evils we have seen filmed in the past month. Many friends I have spoken with feel powerless to change their world, and have expressed despair and anger over current events. I’ve been there myself, and turned to my own anger as a tool to fix things. But man’s anger doesn’t bring about the righteousness that God desires.
When Jesus explained the greatest commandments, he listed them in order. First, love God. Then, love your neighbor. In our own strength, we are incapable of loving our neighbor. It is only if we accept God’s love first that we are able to love other people. We love others, because he loved us first.
In times such as these, my brothers and sisters in Christ, do not let your love grow cold.