This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Why the Church Must Address Privilege.


One of the ways colonialists control a conquered nation is by giving privileges to some groups but not to others.  This divide-and-conquer tactic generates resentment among those left out.  The genius of it is that people often don’t perceive the privileges they are getting.  So if anyone ever tries to establish equality, the privileged feel like they are losing and the others are gaining at their expense.  Colonialism thus depends on imposing a zero-sum mentality on people.  And, while groups of conquered people are distracted by maintaining, gaining, reducing the special privileges of some, the elite leaders and their cronies are quietly continuing to increase their own wealth and power.  Which is the whole point of colonialism.

This was the situation facing the early church.  The apostle Paul recognized it more clearly than most.  Some scholars, reading the New Testament in the context of the Roman Empire, suggest that this is the basis of his argument in Galatians.

Paul was inspired to write his letter to the Galatian congregation because they had been visited by a group telling them that in order to be complete as Christians they must formally convert to Judaism and keep the Jewish Law.  This was not merely a dispute about religious practices religious.  It had to do with privilege.

Jews in the Roman Empire had one important privilege: they were exempt from the requirement to worship the Emperor as a god.  It was mandatory for everyone else in the Empire to demonstrate loyalty to the State and express unity as subjects of the Emperor, by offering this regular worship.  Jews didn’t have to do this.  (Part of the deal was that the priests would pray for the Emperor in the Jerusalem Temple.)  

As long as the newly founded communities of Jesus-followers were considered Jews, they came under this legal exemption.  But with Paul converting increasing numbers of Gentiles to the faith, and not requiring them to be circumcised or to keep kosher, a rift developed.  The Jewish establishment was less and less inclined to accept as Jews these Gentile believers in Jesus.  If the Christians were not considered Jews, then they will lose the exemption, and face the requirement to worship the Emperor like everyone else, which of course would be a violation of their faith.

So the people who came to Galatia, whom we traditionally refer to as “Judaizers,” would have made the argument that the new Christians had a choice.  Either they could accept circumcision and the Law, remaining under the exemption from Emperor-worship, or they could be dismissed from Judaism.  In which case they would have to worship the Emperor or suffer the consequences, which could be severe.  The argument was very tempting: “Suffer a little pain now, and undertake the discipline and morality of Jewish Law, and you too can separate yourself from Rome.  Jesus himself was a Jew who kept the Law.  You can be one too.  We’re forming a new, liberated society according to God’s Law, as fulfilled in Jesus Christ.”  In other words, they probably sold Judaism as a way of resisting Rome, but within the system.

Paul’s whole mission to the Gentiles is anti-Roman to the core.  He is preaching about a man whom Rome executed on a cross, which was the penalty for sedition, but who did not stay dead, but is now risen and alive, and working spiritually in the lives and congregations of his followers.  They are worshiping a traitor to the Roman order.

Paul’s missional strategy included identification with the ethne, the term used for the many nations and peoples conquered and subjugated by Rome.  But he realized that the followers of Jesus could not identify fully with the people of the Empire if they grasped the privilege that came with being Jews… precisely because of who was deigning to grant them that privilege: Rome.

Jews were, Paul realized, just as conquered and subjugated as everyone else.  This is obvious in the Romans’ willingness to execute on a cross one whom they identified as “King of the Jews.”  The Jews were not God’s special people as far as Rome was concerned.  Rome’s treatment of Jesus — not to mention thousands of others — revealed that the Jews were just another victimized nation.  The State’s granting of an exemption from Emperor worship made them seem different and blessed.  But in reality this exemption was nothing less than proof that they were bought and paid for by Rome.

Participation in such a deal with Rome and acceptance of Rome’s exemption wedded the Jewish establishment to Rome.  It was to sell-out to the Empire, accepting the Empire’s gracious exemption, in return for loyalty.

If Gentiles started becoming officially Jewish, they would not be witnessing to a new world or the Kingdom of God; they would just be accepting privileges from Rome, separating them from everyone else.  It would be toxic to Paul’s mission.

Paul insisted that the way to follow the King of the Jews, Jesus Christ, was by rejecting all privilege, wealth, and power from the manipulative hands of the Roman conquerors.

Fast-forward to today.

Many white Christians are waking up to the privilege we have always enjoyed under Western Civilization and Christendom.  We white people didn’t even know we had these privileges.  We accepted the Modernist, liberal ideology that everyone is equal and everyone has the same opportunities, and if you’re not a success in this society it’s your own damn fault.  We have assumed the privileged status of Christianity, especially Protestantism, in our country.  We simply accepted it when we got off with warnings, light sentences, or low fines when we broke the law.  We believed that everyone can live where they want, shop where they want, buy what they want, drive where they want, and go to school where they want.

And so on.

For many reasons, this set of convenient and self-serving lies is beginning to crumble.  We are realizing that we have been and continue to be beneficiaries of a system steeply stacked in our favor.  And we also realize that this system has been routinely and reflexively manipulating privilege to pit different kinds of poor and working people against each other, to preserve and increase the wealth of the elite. 

Now what?

I think the missional example of the apostle Paul is that, first, followers of Jesus have to live like and with the oppressed, marginalized, exploited, rejected, incarcerated, conquered people Jesus comes into the world to save.  We have to reject our exemptions and privileges, and stand as accomplices with those who never had them.  Second, we have to build solidarity among oppressed groups in the spirit of Galatians 3:28, recognizing none of the divisions and pecking orders imposed by the elite.

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