Churches Must Address the Toxic Residue of Elitism | Sojourners

Churches Must Address the Toxic Residue of Elitism

For America’s ruling class – the lawyers, judges, doctors, and other Ivy-League graduates who run many of the institutions who shape the fabric of American life, the witness of Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was a moment of reckoning.

When it comes to the issues of power, privilege, and gender that shape our behavior every day, churches, once considered some of the most potent moral forces in American society, have been largely missing in action.

All too often, instead, they have reflected the biases and divisions of the communal landscape in which they were founded. If Sunday worship is often still the most racially segregated hour of the week (this 2015 survey found many congregants like it that way), it’s also likely that Christians mostly prefer to be around people who share the same values and social class.

Think about it for a moment. How does your congregation interact with the economically disadvantaged? Perhaps you have a food closet or a soup kitchen. Maybe you have a thrift shop and sell them clothes at discounted prices. Perhaps your church collects money at Thanksgiving for a group that works with the poor to give them a leg up.

But they probably don’t sing in the choir alongside you, bring a covered dish to the potluck supper, or discuss a Scripture passage at your small group meeting.

How often, outside perhaps of youth group small group, do we talk about the fraught topics of sexual assault and harassment? We know that such episodes are sadly common among female teens and even adult women. The role of women as church leaders has been debated for decades, but the challenges faced by female students or women in the workplace seem to get almost no mention in our congregations.

Nor are you likely to hear about privilege and class from the pulpit.

In this, we reflect our society, and a certain hypocrisy that has served America’s ruling elites well. We don’t like to talk about privilege, about the economic, social, ethnic and racial criteria, let alone being born male or female, that give some people an unjust advantage from the moment they are born. We prefer to pretend that anyone can succeed in advancing to the top of the American pyramid if he or she tries hard enough.

I can all too easily imagine an environment in which teenage boys in an elite boarding school were blind to the feelings of others, where they laughed while allegedly assaulting a helpless (and younger) victim, or taunted and assaulted a shy college classmate.

While faith hasn’t been the dominant motif in the Brett Kavanaugh narrative, it’s been a background theme. Kavanaugh was then and is now a practicing Catholic. Given his presumed position on challenges to Roe v. Wade, faith has been seen as a net positive, particularly among conservative Christians.

The Georgetown Prep motto is “forming men for others since 1789.” How well-formed was the cadre of young men who participated in what seems to have been a culture in which heavy drinking and sexual boasting was allegedly prevalent, even if it wasn’t explicitly encouraged. But Georgetown Prep, even the Georgetown Prep of the early 1980’s can’t be solely blamed for the debacle we are facing.

It’s not surprising that the reckoning against our unofficial ruling classes begin with a privileged white woman confronting an even more powerful white man. Even though it’s clear that many women still endure bias and harassment, many white women simply have more agency and voice. It’s an unexpected and unsought opportunity for congregations all over the Untied States to start to have these awkward, difficult, and revealing conversations about harassment, elitism, and gender.

Churches are uniquely situated to challenge the gaps between the comfortable and the afflicted, and to deal with the toxic residue of elitism and class prejudice that continues to divide one America from another — but not if we remain complacent, timid about having unpredictable conversations (the kind in which Jesus engaged on a regular basis), or worried about the consequences.

It’s abundantly clear that Jesus was a disrupter. Too often, we really don’t seem to want him to disrupt us because, then, we might have to change. Again and again, he reminds us that we’re not called to defend the institution but to promote a Kingdom in which the marginalized flourish and the forgotten are raised up. Recognizing that they are our brothers and sisters, our Kingdom equals, is just the beginning. But isn’t it time we got started?

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