Are You Leveraging Your Privilege or Exploiting It? | Sojourners

Are You Leveraging Your Privilege or Exploiting It?

Author’s note: Critical race theory has been strategically misappropriated into a catch-all phrase that’s deployed to denounce historic facts and discredit leaders with the audacity to renounce imperial propaganda. This strategy is suppressing the truth in many classrooms and congregations. For example, Senate Bill 3 in Texas seeks to remove seminal content like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the required curriculum, and Tennessee aims to levy fines starting at $1 million and rising to $5 million on school districts every time a teacher “knowingly” violates policies around race discussions.

There is also a spiritual battle going on within the body. As ministers strive to articulate a holistic gospel and call congregants to become “repairers of the breach” (Isaiah 58:12), too many members of the body feel emboldened to rebuke pastors and denounce them as “critical race theorists.” This response is rooted in unbridled privilege, and it illustrates how too many members of the body have conformed to the pattern of this world. Scripture affirms that privilege is real and declares that while we have the option to exploit privilege for selfish gain or passively benefit from it, we are called to acknowledge and faithfully steward it. Missionally, we should strive to leverage privilege to further the kingdom and sacrificially love our neighbors.

My book Subversive Witness elucidates that while unbridled privilege fosters sin, self-centeredness, and hardened hearts, when properly stewarded, privilege becomes a generative and liberating force that compels us to participate in the reign of God in innovative and surprising ways.

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Having privilege is not a sin, though sin has perverted our systems and structures in ways that engender sinful disparities. Privilege creates and expands anti-gospel inequities that infringe on collective liberation and shalom. It endows a few with educational, socioeconomic, political, vocational, and other advantages while disenfranchising many — simply because of how God intentionally created them.

While we cannot control how we are born, and therefore some of the privileges we are endowed with in a world marred by sin, we can and must — if we are going to have integrity — acknowledge that privilege emerges from ancestral sin and is reified in the systems and institutions we uphold today. Unequivocally proclaiming that privilege is a distortion of God’s will frees us from being captive to it. Our Creator never intended for the divine image to be affirmed, respected, and protected in some more than others because of a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, class, citizenship status, land of origin, sexuality, mental cognition, able-bodiedness, and physical attractiveness.

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 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. Proverbs 31:8–9, where King Lemuel’s mother gives him instruction on how to be a righteous king, gives us a picture of what privilege should be used to do. It reads, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

Since privilege is stackable (meaning we can hold many different forms simultaneously) and various forms of privilege have different manifestations, there are two categories of privilege: those we can renounce and those we cannot fully forsake.

How we steward the privileges we can renounce reveals whether we believe we serve a God of scarcity or abundance — one who has created enough for everyone’s needs but not enough for all our greed.

Economic privilege, for instance, enables some the luxury of choosing where to live. Christians with economic privilege need to ask challenging questions to ensure we are not exploiting our privilege for selfish gain.

Does where I live ...

  • prohibit me (and my family) from being proximate to the least of these?
    -  Does this lack of proximity breed indifference toward their plight?
    -  Does this lack of proximity hinder me/us from loving our vulnerable neighbors well?
  • disconnect me (and my family) from the pain of my people?
    -  Has this disconnect caused me/us to choose individual freedom over collective liberation?
    -  Amid this disconnect, can I truly tell if the Spirit reveals that I am still not free?
  • reflect the mosaic nature of the kingdom?
    -  If not, how does this shape my racial and economic imagination (and my children’s)?
    -  Does this prohibit me/us from authentically pursuing the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
    -  If diversity is a revelatory gift from God, what revelation am I missing out on when I choose homogeneity?
  • provide room to shelter a neighbor in need?
    -  How do passages like Acts 2:42–47; 1 John 3:16–18; and Luke 3:10–11 inform how I steward what I have been entrusted with?
    -  How do the stories of the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus inform my understanding of kingdom economics?

There are more questions to ponder, especially if we live within a gentrifying community:

  • Do I send my child to the neighborhood school?
    -  If I do not send my child to the local school or shop at our local grocery store, what does this communicate to my neighbors?
    -  And more importantly, how am I intentionally investing in the flourishing of the local school and neighborhood in which I reside if I choose to send my child, and spend my money, elsewhere?

When we see our access, assets, education, resources, status, social capital, talents, and wealth as solely for our benefit or the enrichment of our family, we sin because we exploit our privilege for selfish gain and therefore refuse to participate in the economy of the kingdom and the inbreaking reign of God. We are called to prayerfully discern how we can relinquish privileges that can be divested as an act of loving obedience to God, in sacrificial fellowship with our neighbors.

There are some privileges we cannot forsake. We are born in a certain place, in a particular body, with certain capacities and genes. I, for instance, cannot completely abandon my maleness — and consequently the privileges it engenders. I can, however, intentionally leverage these privileges for justice when I am in relationships of accountability with my sisters. I can discern with them how I go about leveraging my influence, platform, and voice to advocate for institutional accountability, change, and equity. I can learn from my sisters how I can advocate on their behalf in helpful ways — not as a male savior — when they are not present, I can boycott organizations that desire my voice while excluding theirs, and I can recommend my sisters anytime I get asked for recommendations.

However, when I understand my male privilege as the rotten fruit of my ancestors’ sins, I am called to even more. With relational accountability and transparency, I can intentionally invest in women of color, who are dually oppressed and are constantly overlooked for leadership development and mentoring opportunities because of things like the Billy Graham Rule, where men almost exclusively focus on discipling and investing in other men to “avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion.” I can dedicate a portion of the proceeds garnered from my platform to invest in the flourishing and platform expansion of women of color. I can also be intentional about submitting to the leadership of women of color.

In keeping with repentance for the sin of patriarchy, which I did not create but I do benefit from, I can bear kingdom fruit by discipling other men to dismantle patriarchy, leverage male privilege, and discern how they, too, can produce fruit in keeping with repentance. I can investigate why so few sisters are at tables of power; use my platform to uplift how scripture calls us to affirm, see, and treat women; and publicly acknowledge the indispensable role women have played in my own discipleship and faith formation. I can also humbly and publicly confess when I get it wrong and commit to doing and being better without making excuses.

Excerpt from Subversive Witness by Dominique DuBois Gilliard. Copyright © 2021 by Dominique Dubois Gilliard. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.

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