“White Privilege” or Majority Population?

In the late 1990’s many of the highly charged terms we use to describe each other weren’t around.  “Racist” was about as descriptive as it got.  This struck home with me as I was in a graduate school class called “Social and Cultural Exegesis.”  It was a class dealing with cultural analysis in light of biblical principles.  The professor was a brilliant Chinese man.  The class was populated mostly by Koreans, black men and white women; there were two white men in the class and I was one of them.

At one point in our discussion, I said something that prompted a black man in my class to say to me from across the room, “You’re a racist.”  This hit me in two ways.  First, being born and raised in my part of the Midwest meant I wasn’t exposed to racial tensions like in the South (for example).  I went to school with black folks, women, Asian folks and, I am Hispanic.  I didn’t have the oppressed experiences at the hands of others so I didn’t develop a skin-level animosity towards them.  So, the charge of being a racist didn’t even make sense to me.  Secondly, I had done some thinking on cultural issues and concluded that my views were surely friendly to other minorities.  After all, I was half-Hispanic, so to be called a “racist” was offensive to me given my genealogy and self-reflection.

I stood up and said (indelicately), “You’re the racist.  You hate white people.”  To which, a Korean man stood up and told me I was out of my mind.  Continuing to ramp up our defenses, the three of us, equal in height and build and passion, closed the distance until we were face-to-face-to-face.  A lull in our yelling happened and I turned to the shocked professor and strongly recommended he pray to end the class (I was in training for ministry after all!).

The three of us were rattled.  I don’t think any of us believed the charges we hurled at each other.  What I mean is: each of us were stopped in our tracks and forced to contemplate each other’s words.  We were surprised and doubtful of ourselves.  It was certainly a movement of God since at one point we were just about at blows with each other.  After class, we decided to meet regularly to discuss each other’s perspective.  I for one wanted to show them I was not a racist (not a good motive).

Over time and discussion, those men became some of my closest friends for the rest of my time in seminary.  They patiently taught me something very important – something I wish we’d currently contemplate instead of “white privilege.”  That is, in most cultures, certainly in our own, there are “majority” populations and “minority” ones.

Majority populations are the greatest in number of a particular people group.  European-descended whites are the majority population in our culture (currently).  But, apart from being the most numerous, the white majority population built our culture (as many are pointing out these days).  While, they built it in a way that was consistent with their values, priorities and purposes, they built it imperfectly.  They knowingly and unknowingly built it to suit them.  Of course, this makes sense: any majority population would build and, as long as it was the majority, maintain its culture to suit itself.  This “maintenance” could be just (if it benefits all) or terribly unjust (if it oppresses some to benefit others).  In either case, it is knowingly and unknowingly done with the benefit of the majority population in mind.

To recast this dynamic in terms of “white privilege” is unhelpful and short-sighted.  This is because it confuses race with a sociological dynamic of majority population / minority population that is present in every culture.  Similar categories of violence, oppression and injustice minority populations in this country battle are present in every country in its own minority populations.  To be sure, the struggles and injustices of minority populations will vary depending on the country, but the fact of their existence across cultures remains.

To be the majority population “culture-builder” means to be blind to much of the impact of what was built on minority populations.  This blindness has many causes but sin is its root.  Here I have in mind sins of “omission” as well as those of “commission.”  We purposely curate our lives for our own benefit while at the same time we make those who are in our lives fit in what we’ve made.  The same is true for all of us: this is why marriage is so hard so often.  What we’ve also seen is while this is happening on a micro-level, it is happening at a macro-level: culture-building is happening in the same way.  To be in the majority means doors that open to us were fashioned by us to open to us and for those like us.  Again, this makes sense, persisting in some amount of blindness means we have no other way to build.  For those not in the majority, those doors might or might not open, might or might not “fit.”  They know it keenly whereas the majority does not (“omission”).  (On an important side-note: this is why the kingdom of God is built by the Lord, according to His Law and for His glory.  He asks all who come into it, to fit into what He has done not what we are doing.)

To accuse those in the majority population of racial culpability simply for being in the majority may be unjust and certainly will not lead to discussion and enlightenment.  In the moment, when the men called me “racist” I only wanted to prove to them that they were wrong; I wasn’t interested in listening.  Am I unique?  Can we say our national discourse is characterized by those who want to listen?  It was only after time and Holy Spirit-wrought humility in my heart did I hear those men say:

What we mean is: you are blind because you are not a minority.  Since you are not a minority – not like we are – you cannot see what we see.  Your “cultural glasses” weren’t made to see it.  And you might never be able to see it as we do.

Their expectation of me wasn’t that I become part of their minority population since that was impossible: I was born a white male and I remain that way.  Instead, they wanted me to recalibrate my approach to minorities: to interact with all minority populations as a self-conscious member of the majority population.  Not a value statement, a fact: European whites built this culture and I’m one of their descendants. Among other things, that would mean, (and they didn’t put it this way) they needed me as an advocate for them in the majority population.  In one sense, minorities are “strangers” in the majority population.  Likewise, they needed me to be a humble sojourner with them in their minority spaces where I am a “stranger.”  I believe the only way this is truly possible is not engaging in “privilege redistribution” but that we become citizens of something completely different than anything we have made: the kingdom of God.  (I digress again.)

But today in our culture, many try to press the point by slinging out terms like “white privilege” or “white theology” or “white supremacy.”  And then, demanding the overturning of them all.  For those of us in the majority population, what we hear is sweeping racial disgust solved only by the stripping away of what our forebears have made – that we all enjoy in some measure.  This is no solution.  As cultural slurs or political talking points, these aren’t helpful as they aren’t precise: they are subjective terms the users get to define holding the debate hostage.  “White privilege” when it is used as an accusation or put down will not help those in the majority population to see and to correct the disadvantages present in the minority ones.  It will not further the discussion to the point where blindnesses are overcome and change can happen.  It furthers suspicion and distrust.  It will most often simply lead to making more walls, creating more distance.

Is it possible for majority and minority populations to live justly together?  It’s hard to conceive but it is worth working for.  Perhaps what is gained in the current divisive cultural conversation is the reminder that there will always be work to be done.  Surely, the starting point for this isn’t (again) in privilege policing or racial shaming.

It’s Not Fair: Part 2

The rub for many people on the issue of same sex attraction (SSA) or homosexual activity isn’t personal.  In other words, in some places and circumstances, folks don’t understand all the fuss.  The statistics indicate those living in homosexuality is between 2-4%.  Most people aren’t personally or directly living with this issue.  They are confronted with the cable news reports and “front page” (if you can call it that….) news websites.  These kinds of “confrontations” are usually met with either distant disapproval or distant approval.  They turn the TV off a little more anxious (or joyous) about our culture.  No biggie.

Many, however, know people who do have to personally or directly live with this issue.  To be numbered among this crowd means you have to make a choice.  Because the openness of many lesbians and gays to flaunt and glory in their practice or demand approval (even tacit), the rest of us are required to decide how to think about their activities and how to live with them.

Few issues cause as much angst as this.  Few seem so personal, even intimate.  If I was a drunk and I demanded that others accept my drunkenness most of you would say, “No.  You will kill yourself and ruin your family.”  And you’d be correct.  If I was a gambler and I regularly spent my wages at the slots and kept coming to you for money, you’d say, “No.  You have responsibilities to your family and you’re wrecking their lives and I won’t be a part of it.”  In our cultural moment, however, a son or daughter or friend or co-worker or mother or father emerges as a lesbian or gay person and makes the same demand.  And often the answer is “Yes.  What courage!  What happiness!”

Why?  Well, confusion is one reason – we just don’t know what to think.  But often we give approval to homosexual activities because we think to do otherwise isn’t fair.  “I get to sleep with my wife; how can I tell someone he can’t sleep with his male partner?”

We come to this fairness doctrine by several paths.  We hear homosexuals say things like, “I was born this way.  I deserve to be happy.”  Or, in Christian circles, “God doesn’t want me to be miserable.”  Let’s look at each one.

First, “I was born this way.  It’s not fair for you to tell me to live differently.”  Most of the time, we could restate this by saying, “This attraction is so strong and easy in coming that I must’ve been born this way.”  If I wanted to speak to someone who made this claim, I wouldn’t try to deny the strength and ease of the attraction – I know the pull of attractions all too well.  As I’ve said in another post, I have my own attraction-issue (OSA: opposite sex attraction) and I know its strength and its ease.  Yet, to claim SSA or homosexual lusts are an inherent and created part of who I am (such that God would call them “good” and so must I) is a leap.  Neither faith nor science can legitimately make that one.  In fact, science has no evidence to confirm that a person is born a homosexual.  Science has proven without a doubt, the opposite: that we are created male and female, only.  (Physiological exceptions are just that, exceptions.)

No one should deny the power of temptations but the strength of temptation isn’t the same as the inevitability of what it’s calling for. Our temptations are fallen and therefore not the pristine original intention.  Christians cannot justifiably make this claim.  The Bible is clear on how God makes us (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6).  The Bible is clear on homosexual activities (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).  The Bible is also very clear on how each of those who claim to follow Christ must live: holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4).

So, do we believe, “I was born this way and it is unfair for you to tell me I have to reject it”?  The “coming-out” stories carry weight – especially among those we dearly love.  No, we don’t buy it – not in the way it’s usually offered.  No one is “born this way” in the sense that homosexuality is inevitable because it is inborn.  The same is true for those with OSA: I wasn’t “born this way” in the sense that lust, fornication and adultery are inevitable.  This objection assumes too much with too little data and ignores too much conflicting data.

Second, “God doesn’t want me to be miserable so why deny who I am?”  This is a very American thing to say: “God doesn’t want me to be miserable.”  There’s no proof in the one place there should be: the Bible.  It is more accurate to say, “I don’t want to be miserable so I won’t deny who I am.”  Which person alive doesn’t agree with that?  Which of us wants to be miserable?  Very few, I suspect.  But when does “I don’t want to be miserable” turn into “It is wrong for me to be miserable?”  Do we realize how much destructive behavior follows from that “law”?

Christian, as a matter of fact, the Bible says that all who claim to be Christ-followers will have to deal with misery.

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, [Jesus] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death in order to present you holy and blameless

Now, I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions…

It is interesting how we are fine with Jesus being miserable so we can be saved but not fine with being miserable so He can be glorified.  Paul wasn’t morbid.  He simply understood Jesus’ words that if the world hated him, it would hate all who follow Him (e.g., Luke 21:17).

Any Christian who would suggest that God approves sin so that a person won’t be miserable has lost his mind.  In fact, God forbids sin so that a person won’t be miserable.

There is unfairness in the world: that any who are spared the penalty of their disobedience to God would then turn to that God and make claims the He is unjust in denying their sins.  To cry, “Not Fair!” when we urge people to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Christ is to betray that what a person really wants is to live in any way he wants no matter what.

Who is going to tell you how to live?

I’ve been reading several books on this hot cultural topic of homosexuality.  I overheard a man recently say something like, “Homosexuals make up between 2-4% of the population and there are less than 170,000 same sex unions in the nation – this isn’t a very big deal.”  I wonder what it was like in the days and weeks after Roe v. Wade back in 1973?  Surely, abortions were uncommon and the population affected small.  No one can now say that decision was a light one, can they?  I suspect we are in a similar cultural moment.

Still, this issue brings to the fore a common (if unstated) argument in favor of homosexuality: “Who can tell me how to live?  I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”  You see, buried in here is the “I can do whatever I want and no one can tell me otherwise” ethic.  So, this is really a statement of authority or rather, priority.  A Christian (or anyone claiming to be) has to contend with a very different ethic: I can not do whatever I want because God can tell me otherwise.  (The Lord’s Prayer is an easy proof text, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven….”)   In shorthand the choice becomes: Scripture interprets Experience or Experience interprets Scripture.  In other words, will I allow the Bible to tell me how to live even if it is uncomfortable or asks me to deny things that I greatly desire?  Or, am I going to follow down the path of my desires and then retool my understanding of what the Bible or the church says?  This matters because of the Bible’s clear and unequivocal condemnation of homosexual activities.

For those who don’t really hold to the Bible as the authoritative testimony of God, then this isn’t an issue.  But, for all who do make room for Jesus Christ in life, it is THE issue.  The honest Christian who believes that homosexuality is allowable or even commendable knows that he is denying the authority of the Bible.  Here’s what pro-homosexual New Testament scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson, states about what is really happening:

I think it is important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience of thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us (Cited in Kevin DeYoung, What does the Bible really say about Homosexuality, 132).

As you can see in Johnson’s quote, what makes him convinced is experience.  Specifically, the “conversion” experiences of family members, friends, co-workers and media personalities who “come out.”  These people are hailed for their courage and hated for the mental gymnastics they put family and friends through.  Well, maybe not hated but at least they force all people around them to choose: are you going to be “happy” for me and my new found “freedom to be me” or will you become my enemy by telling me this is wrong?  Don’t you see how happy I am?”  These coming-out conversion stories are always immediately connected to identity re-identification (see my earlier post, “I am…lost?”).

Every “conversion” story is a story about exerting personal authority over God’s authority; it is saying: “My interpretation of what I’m experiencing has more weight than God’s interpretation of what I’m experiencing.  And, your interpretation should be just like mine.”  There are other issues found here but no less.