Privilege has become an extremely contentious topic, but addressing privilege is only controversial because some who benefit from it are adamant about denying its existence. Some of these individuals renounce privilege on theological grounds, claiming the concept is unbiblical. Others contest it based on principles of individualism, refusing to apologize, take responsibility, or strive to make amends for “something I did not do” or “the sins of my ancestors.” Still others reject the existence of privilege because they believe it insinuates that “I did not earn what I have through hard work.” In my book Subversive Witness, I address these rebuttals and, more importantly, illustrate how refusing to acknowledge privilege leads to blindness and hardened hearts that embolden sin and injustice. Here is a glimpse into my thoughts on this topic (and you can also join my free August 26th webinar to hear from me directly as well).
The Relationship Between the Gospel and Privilege
Instead of denying that privilege exists, sidestepping the topic, or feeling overwhelmed by its weight, the gospel demonstrates how we should deal with privilege. Scripture affirms that privilege is real and declares that while we have the option to exploit it for selfish gain or to passively benefit from it, we are called to soberly acknowledge and faithfully steward it. Missionally, we are commissioned to leverage privilege to further the kingdom and sacrificially love our neighbor.
Naming privilege requires spiritual maturity. It feels threatening because it reveals our sustained complicity with broken systems, structures, and laws that deface the imago Dei inherent in our neighbor. Despite the risk, the church must be courageous enough to address privilege because when we do not, or when privilege is unbridled, it distorts the communion God intends for us to enjoy with our Creator and with one another. The church must be courageous enough to address privilege because when we do not, or when privilege is unbridled, it distorts the communion God intends for us to enjoy with our Creator and with one another. Click To Tweet
How Satan Uses Privilege
When we ignore or deny privilege, we conform to the pattern of this world and become well-adjusted to things to which our faith calls us to be diametrically opposed. Satan uses privilege as a constant temptation, baiting believers away from the will of God into sin and self-centeredness. What we do with privilege is a spiritual battle, one we are incapable of winning on our own strength. We need the Holy Spirit and the mindset of Christ to overcome the evil one, just as Jesus did in the desert. When we take on the mindset of Christ, empowered by the Spirit, we will rebuke Satan and overcome the temptation to exploit privilege for selfish gain. When we do not, we succumb to sin, exploit privilege, and ignore the anguished cries of our neighbors, turning a blind eye to their suffering to sustain the privileges we have chosen.
Having privilege is not a sin, though privilege emerges from sin. What is sinful is exploiting privilege for our own advantage and turning a blind eye to the suffering of our neighbors in order to sustain it. Scripture repeatedly acknowledges privilege and provides insight into how privilege insidiously functions today. Learning to unmask privilege can be painful work, but the cure for the pain is in the pain. By candidly addressing privilege, we create a unique opportunity for the body of Christ to turn away from sin and reorient ourselves toward God and neighbor through the spiritual disciplines of remembrance, confession, lament, and repentance. Having privilege is not a sin, though privilege emerges from sin. What is sinful is exploiting privilege for our own advantage and turning a blind eye to the suffering of our neighbors in order to sustain it. Click To Tweet
Understanding Privilege as a Subversive Tool
When we can confess the sins that breed privilege and renounce the inequities it engenders, then, and only then, can we understand privilege—and the unique access it grants—as a subversive tool that can be leveraged to further the kingdom and sacrificially love our neighbors. Building from this foundation, privilege becomes a unique opportunity for us to bear witness to who and whose we are. When we leverage privilege instead of exploiting it, we function as the leaven in the loaf, the moral compass and accountability in spaces and places of distinction.
When addressing privilege, we must forthrightly reckon with sin. Racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, and other -isms produce privileges that are not of God. They are not a part of God’s original intent. They are not power dynamics God condones, and they are not patterns to which Christians should conform. We are called to pattern our lives after Jesus, our crucified and resurrected Savior.
The disparities that flow from these -isms are a consequence of sin, our institutionalization of it, and unwillingness to repent of it. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that God entrusts people with privilege and power, with a missional purpose of creating life, flourishing, and fostering shalom where death, destruction, and oppression have reigned for far too long. God entrusts people with privilege and power, with a missional purpose of creating life, flourishing, and fostering shalom where death, destruction, and oppression have reigned for far too long. Click To Tweet
Subversive Witness in Scripture
Scripture highlights several people—Jesus, Esther, Paul, Silas, Zacchaeus, Moses, Jochebed, Miriam Shiphrah and Puah (the Hebrew midwives)—who bore a subversive witness. While some subversive witnesses play leading roles within the biblical narrative, others play supporting roles. Nevertheless, all subversive witnesses seek the kingdom first, pursuing God’s will on earth, as it is in heaven. One person who bore a subversive witness but often gets overlooked is Lydia. Lydia was a wealthy businesswoman who understood that her resources were to be used to make God’s name known and love shown. She is renowned for her stewardship, in how she used her fortune to further the kingdom and sacrificially love her neighbors. Lydia offered her home to provide refuge for those oppressed by systemic injustice, and her home was the first gathering place for Christians in Philippi, commonly called the city’s first Christian church. All subversive witnesses seek the kingdom first, pursuing God’s will on earth, as it is in heaven. Click To Tweet
Lydia saw her privilege as something emboldening her to participate in the kingdom through serving those in need. She understood that she was blessed to be a blessing. How we use what God has entrusted us with is a powerful testimony to those around us, and Lydia leveraged her privilege to demonstrate to the world who and whose she was.
Privilege, however, does not mean that someone has not endured trials and tribulations. Scripture reveals that God also entrusts people who have endured oppression with privilege. After enduring abuse and being sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph was liberated by God, who then entrusted him with privilege (see Gen 37–47). Joseph became vizier, the second most powerful position in Egypt.
If Joseph’s heart had not been in the right place, he would have abused his power and privilege to enact revenge against his brothers. However, God kept Joseph’s righteous anger from spiraling into bitterness, and when given the opportunity to return evil for evil, Joseph chose to show God’s love, ultimately remembering that his privilege had a missional purpose. Joseph bestowed unmerited grace upon his brothers, loving them in the same manner that God first loved us.
Stewarding Our Own Privilege
God calls privileged people to strategically leverage our access, influence, and resources to subvert the status quo and advance the kingdom. Our possessions are not just for us; they are things we are called to steward to further the kingdom and sacrificially love our neighbors. God does not entrust people with privilege to exploit it for selfish gain; privilege is supposed to be used to bear a subversive witness, to usher in the inbreaking kingdom and participate in the missio Dei. However, as fallible people, we are prone to allowing privilege to control us instead of allowing the Spirit to guide our steps and stewardship of privilege. The church should lead the way in naming oppression, confessing our role in it, and addressing as well as eradicating the systemic disparities privilege engenders. Click To Tweet
The church should lead the way in naming oppression, confessing our role in it, and addressing as well as eradicating the systemic disparities privilege engenders. Denying that privilege exists only exacerbates the evil it produces and prohibits us from actively participating as co-laborers with Christ in reconciling the world to God. Rather than merely affirming the status quo, the church should be a transformative presence in the world. We’re commissioned to be repairers of the breach and ambassadors of reconciliation who demonstrate that we are Christ’s disciples by our cruciform love one another.
If you are interested in further learning from Dominique Gilliard on the topic of understanding privilege, we invite you to join our free webinar on Thursday, August 26th.