(Editor’s note: this is the second of two articles this week on the topic of privilege. The first by David Swanson took a closer look at white privilege; the article that follows by Fuller professor Vince Bantu is intentionally centering the readers on or from the margins of evangelicalism; if this does not describe you, we still encourage you to read on. You may not be the primary reader for this article, but we believe that there is still much to be gained in listening to conversations such as this one in which the experience of the dominant culture is de-emphasized.)
Being familiar with the term “evangelical” is a good indicator of being socially privileged.
I grew up in a poor neighborhood in St. Louis and was saved at a young age. However, I didn’t find out what an “evangelical” was—or that I was one—until ten years later when I went to an evangelical college. Having now spent twenty years being educated by and working in evangelical institutions, I’ve acquired a significant amount of social capital disproportionate to my community of origin. Very few people who straddle the poverty line use the term “evangelical” or gain access to this movement’s institutions.
Ever since I’ve entered the evangelical caste I’ve noticed a tendency in its institutions to be embroiled in self-assessing conversations about evangelical identity and reform. I’ve also noticed that most people like me who originated from communities on the margins—once granted access to evangelicalism—become snared in the evangelical identity crisis with little to no time or availability left over for our communities of origin.
If you are from the hood, el barrio, the reservation, the trailer park, or any other marginalized community—and have been given a seat at the evangelical table—you are by nature a bridge. We can’t only spend our time building up one side of that bridge. So many of us spend most of our time speaking, teaching, discipling, mentoring, challenging, writing, and serving the evangelical constituency. Oftentimes we spend so much time learning to speak “evangelical” that we become irrelevant to our communities of origin. In so far as much is required of those to whom much has been given (Lk 12:48), I offer the following comments toward a biblical haymanot (“theology”) of leveraging privilege. If you are from the hood, el barrio, the reservation, the trailer park, or any other marginalized community—and have been given a seat at the evangelical table—you are by nature a bridge. Click To Tweet
And although I am primarily addressing those who originally grew up outside the evangelical context—which particularly describes Christians of color—if you are from the dominant culture and have grown up in the evangelical milieu for the majority of your life, I believe you will also benefit from learning about these seven suggestions such that you can leverage your own privilege to advocate for those on the margins.
1. Embrace the Values of the Margins
To be sure, there are many wonderful things to be embraced from evangelical institutions. However, we often are tempted to jettison the values of our communities of origin to the point of internalized racism/classism. All too often I have heard black ministers who have gained access to evangelicalism (through education, denominational affiliation, etc.) disparage the historical black church tradition. We must remember that there’s nothing like momma’s cooking. Daniel availed himself of the resources and knowledge of the Babylonians (Dan 1:17), but he also clung tight to his Hebrew origins despite great pressure to assimilate (1:8).
2. Maintain Close Relationships with Platforms of the Margins
Often when leaders from the margins enter evangelicalism, they don’t spend much time anymore among networks of leaders still in the margins. When I taught at a white, evangelical institution, there was a small group of Latinx students that I would often invite to the local association of Latinx pastors (most of whom had no formal experience in higher education). The students would regularly ignore the local Latinx pastor group but would always be front and center for events sponsored by the school or its networks. We lose relevance when we lose relationship. Despite his proximity to power in Egypt, Moses maintained connections with his heritage, which likely led to his outrage at the sight of their oppression (Ex 2:8-11). We lose relevance when we lose relationship. Click To Tweet
3. Participate in Platforms of the Margins
One of the most oppressive aspects of theological academia is the process by which academic work is deemed to “count” towards one’s professional development. In sum: publishers, schools, journals, and conferences of the powerful “count” while those of the margins do not. We have to resist this nonsense. I regularly attend a colloquium of indigenous theologians that is perhaps one of the greatest unsung resources of the body of Christ today. I am inspired by the presence of highly-esteemed scholars who contribute cutting-edge theological research at an event known to few and not “counted” by the dominant academy. In addition to being called as a minister to the Gentiles (Rom 15:16), Paul leveraged his influence with Gentiles for community development work among his own native Hebrews in Jerusalem (15:26; 21:17-26).
4. Advocate for the Platforms of the Margins in Evangelical Spaces
When Joseph was reunited with his family in Egypt, he shared his power with his entire family and made sure that “the best of Egypt” would also be theirs (Gen 45:16-20). Evangelical networks often have money; meanwhile, leaders on the margins often work multiple jobs to make ends meet on top of their community work. There is a white evangelical church that has partnered with a traditional black Baptist church in my community to help the pastor, who had been bi-vocational for years, to be able to do ministry full-time. This work of empowerment originated through an inter-cultural friendship and advocacy between the two pastors.
5. Speak Prophetically to the Platforms of the Margins
Thoughtful critique is a form of love. When leaders from the margins enter evangelical spaces, they tend to become consumed with critiquing and reforming that movement to the point that they rarely, if ever, provide constructive criticism for the institutions and networks on the margins. We can all do an online search and find dozens of books on justice and reconciliation that are written to the white evangelical church calling for reform, yet how many books can we find that are speaking prophetically specifically to the African-American, Latinx, Korean, or Arab churches? Jesus lived his entire earthly life in a Palestinian squalor that existed on the margins of two major empires, the capitals of which the Son of Man never visited. Furthermore, before our Lord took the message of his kingdom to the center of Jerusalem, he proclaimed its coming in the margin of margins—small, poor villages in Galilee (Lk 4:14-30).
6. Take Jobs in Platforms of the Margins
Most leaders from the margins who enter evangelical space stay there forever. To be sure, this is a good thing that the Lord ordains in many cases. However, it seems very suspicious that, for example, most black seminary-educated leaders do not take positions in black denominations or spend time in black ministerial networks. To use an analogy: I believe that the Lord calls individuals of different races into marriage frequently; however, it seems oddly suspicious that a couple that consists of a black man and white woman is statistically twice as likely to occur as a couple consisting of a white man and a black woman. It seems that there are social forces influencing peoples’ decisions beyond simply love. In the same way, could it be possible that some leaders from the margins—when they learn to speak and act “evangelical”—and who remain in evangelical spaces for their entire career, are making these choices for similar fetishizing reasons? We need leaders from the margins in evangelical spaces to advocate, but we also need some of those same leaders to come back home and empower their communities much like Nehemiah leveraged his access to Persian resources to come home and aid in rebuilding his Jerusalem community (Neh 2:1-10).
7. Create New Platforms of the Margins
When the Hellenistic Jewish widows’ needs were not being met due to an unequal distribution of resources, indigenous leaders were raised up to form a new ministry that would meet this specific community’s needs (Acts 6:1-7). Evangelical denominations, schools, and non-profits sometimes run the risk of narcissism by assuming that it is the responsibility of marginal leaders to reform the institutions that have been created. This may be the call for many leaders; however, there is a need in many of these communities to create new ministries and organizations that bring new resources through indigenous leadership to meet community needs in a contextual way. A black friend of mine who used to work in a white evangelical campus ministry eventually founded his own black campus ministry organization that is reaching black college students in unique and unprecedented ways. There is a continuing need for campus ministries, seminaries, conferences, non-profits, and theological literature that are created by and for the hood, el barrio, the res, and the trailer park. When I was nineteen and gained access to evangelicalism, I already noticed at that time the social difference it made between me and my home church. Click To Tweet
When the Creator promised restoration to his people Israel through the prophet Isaiah, He encouraged them that “it is too small a thing for you to be my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Is 49:6). In the context of being recipients of the Word of the Lord, the Hebrews were at the center and the Gentiles at the margins. Yet the Lord encouraged them that his blessing was not only for them but was meant to be shared. When I was nineteen and gained access to evangelicalism, I already noticed at that time the social difference it made between me and my home church. The Lord reminded me of this passage at that time. Since then, it has been a constant struggle to balance all of the invitations to participate in evangelicalism with still being present in my hood networks.
I am constantly reminded that the privilege and resources which come with being a part of the evangelical world are not only for our individual benefit or that of evangelicalism. There is another side of this bridge that we must begin to attend to if we want the entire bridge to fulfill its connecting purpose.