The Privilege Paradox—What Jesus Taught About Fairness

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Remember that viral video, from a few years ago, that has a bunch of young people lined up in a field?  

As the music plays, we hear an announcer tell participants this is a race for a $100 bill and  then proceeds to list off statements that will allow some to advance.  If both parents married, if they had a father figure, if they had access to private education, if they never had their cell phone shut off or had to help their parents with bills, and the list goes on.

For those of us who have studied socioeconomic issues, and have long pointed to things like fatherless homes as being predictive of outcomes, this is no surprise.  In fact, fatherless homes have a stronger correlation with negative outcomes than race.  Many mass shooters come from broken homes.  We should be talking about such things.

However it seems many of my former religious peers, raised in conservative Mennonite cloisters, prior to watching this video, had been completely unaware of this ‘privilege’ of family structure.  Suddenly their ignorance had been revealed.  But, some, rather than simply ponder and reflect, used this new knowledge to bludgeon others and suggest that anything less than feeling deep shame equal to their own is somehow sinful.

One problem with being raised in a religious culture where indoctrination and conformity is preferred to open discussion is that many coming from this background are nearly incapable of critical thought.  A media presentation like this dazzles them and there’s no reason they can imagine to question the conclusions.  They see what they’re supposed to see, what was carefully edited and prepared for them to see, and what the lecturer tells them to believe.

The video, unfortunately, frames things in terms of race.  The one announcing even explicitly saying “if this was a fair race…some of these black dudes would smoke all of you.”

It’s ironic that this man plays on racial stereotype, the perceived athletic advantage that some have, while simultaneously making the case that privilege is about getting the money at the end of a race.  He undermines his own thesis.  If some young people, as a result of their athleticism, can get into a prestigious university, how is that not also privilege?  

More importantly, where does that leave those of us who neither had the athletic prowess nor the academic chops nor wealthy parents to provide for our education?

My father was absent, out on the road weeks at a time, I went to public school because my parents couldn’t afford the Mennonite school tuition, I never had a cell phone growing up and also eventually had to pay rent to my parents for the privilege of living under their roof, is that unfair?

Who is to say that a person raised in single parent home is truly at a disadvantage to someone with a learning disability?  

And is it actually true that those with non-athletic scholarships didn’t earn any of that reward through their own hard work?

A big problem with the presentation is how it frames privilege in a very narrow and misleading way.  The list of factors is extremely selective.  He never mentioned the many other disadvantages (or advantages) that can shape outcomes, things like physical stature or gender, affirmative action and health.  There is also no attempt to explain why these factors should be weighted as they are.  Ask different questions and the completion of the results may completely change.

Breaking Down Privilege 

The problem with the privilege narrative is not that it highlights the advantages that some have over others.  We all know that an athletic tall guy is more likely to dunk a basketball, and have a girlfriend, than the 5′-5″ tall perpetually last-picked dude.  All of the things listed in the video may very well have an impact on outcomes and yet there are so many other things people overcome that never got mentioned.

The message is right, in that we should be aware of the disadvantages others face, but does a disservice in framing privilege almost entirely in terms of race.  And, with that, feeds insecurities, builds upon division, encourages animosity or guilt—all without providing any actual solutions.

To get to solutions we need to break down the framing:

1) Not About Race

The irony of the “white privilege” claim is that, when we get to specifics, the advantages some have are often not actually about race.  

Fatherless homes, for example, have nothing to do with race and everything to do with the choices of a prior generation.  My dad took responsibility, he provided for his children, my mom remained loyal to him despite his shortcomings, and us children benefited.  

Do you know who else had that privilege?

The daughters of Michelle and Barack Obama.  

Not only that, Sasha and Malia, had access to private school, prestigious universities, and other opportunities that a working-class child (such as myself) could only ever dream about.  Sure, they may have similar skin color to Trayvon Martin, but that’s where the similarities end and to say otherwise is to be absurd.  The average blue collar white person has more in common with racial minorities than anyone in the ruling class.

My school friend, Adam Bartlett, the one who eventually killed himself and another man, was a victim of sexual abuse as a child.  Not only that, but he wasn’t all that athletic, wasn’t a great student, had nothing given to him by his parents, yet we’re supposed to believe that he had this thing called “white privilege” and was actually better off than the daughters of the President?

This idea that privilege is about color, that fatherless homes and poverty is a matter of race, is the very definition of prejudice.  It is a message bad for the racial minorities whom it both disempowers and discourages.  It is also wrong, an injustice, to the many people deemed privileged who face the exact same challenges and never get as much sympathy or help.

The truth is that statistics never tell us about individuals.  There are many born into poverty and poor conditions who do overcome their circumstances.  It has as much to do with attitude, the things we believe and are told to believe about ourselves, as anything else.  The very things that can be a disadvantage in one case can be motivation in the next.

2) Let’s Address Culture, Not Color!

If we’re truly interested in changing results then we need to talk about the elephant in the room.  Why do some children grow up in single parent homes, in poverty, while others do not?  More importantly, what can we do to prevent this from repeating?

Woke nationalism, a far-left Marxist political movement adjacent to this sort of privilege propaganda, would have people believe that more money (in form of reparations or government programs) is the solution to disparities in outcomes.  Rather than address the root cause of disparities, they blame-shift and promote acceptance of toxic behavior.  

Black Lives Matter, for example, doesn’t support the reestablishment of traditional families.  And, worse, many promoters of the “white privilege” narrative would have us believe that things like work ethic are somehow related to skin color.  They are explicitly encouraging the very things that the video would have us believe hold people back from success.

Just today, while writing this, a BLM leader in London, was shot in the head.  Her story not all that uncommon in the inner-city, where gang warfare and honor culture, a criminal underground, leads to many violent ends.  

Are we truly supposed to believe this is black culture?  

Should I celebrate that the majority of shootings in my little corner of the world are perpetrated by a rather small minority?

My answer is a hard N-O to both questions.

No, we should not accept fatherless homes as normal nor be an apologist for the honor culture that so often leads to violent outcomes.

No, skin color does not, should not, should NEVER determine our behavior.

Many things that are being framed in terms of race are actually cultural and a direct result of choices.  A man, no matter his color, does not need to murder his ex-wife because she is with another man, or shoot someone over a borrowed hat, there’s no excuse.  My little town does not need drive-by shootings, we don’t need more bodies dumped in remote locations.  And, yes, we need to ask why the ‘disrespect’ of a mask requirement was a considered a reason to murder a security guard, why a successful NFL athlete took a former friend to an industrial lot to execute him for talking to the wrong people.

It is culture, not color, that is shaping outcomes.  And to conflate color with culture is the very epitome of racial prejudice.  Seriously, saying that black people must act differently, must be more expressive, must prefer particular kinds of music, must talk a certain way, is the same kind of ridiculous thinking behind minstrel shows.  We should be beyond this, we should be judging by content of character rather than color of skin, stop promoting foolishness!

3) Life Is Not Competition

The most egregious presumption in the video is that life is a competition and ending up with more money is the goal.  Talk about spiritual rot posing as enlightenment!

Sure, your bank account may be somewhat a product of the home, community and culture that you were raised in.  Hunter Biden certainly has an advantage over me in terms of earning potential given his father’s high political profile.  And, trust me, it has very little to do with anything he’s done.  For sure, if he were the average Joe, if the 1994 Crime Bill applied to him, he might be in jail for a long list of crimes.  But that ‘privilege’ doesn’t mean he’s a success compared to me, does it?

Some extremely wealthy and visibly successful people are extremely unhappy with their lives.  No amount of access to private education, cell phones, health care, or whatever, is going to solve a feeling of inferiority or self-loathing.  And, if anything, more wealth in the hands of a disgruntled person will only enable them to do more evil.  I mean, was Hitler, a struggling artist and disenfranchised military veteran, improved by the power eventually given to him?

No, not at all.

This idea, in the video, that life is a competition, that more material wealth equates to success, is completely wrong and deserving of the severest rebuke.  What is truly shameful is that those religious folks sharing this message never once stopped to consider the metrics of success presented.  So much for the first being last and last being first, as Jesus taught, apparently to them life is all about the accumulation of stuff and political power.  

Sad.

Maybe if we would, instead of pitying and patronizing people, start preaching the truth, start telling dead beat parents, or anyone making excuses for themselves, to repent—then we would see positive change? 

But that would require us to see others as being our equals, capable of choosing good behavior.  It would require being unpopular and to stand at odds with the virtue signaling of the social elites.  Those who are honest about matters of culture, who confront woke nationalism and racist lies, they are the only people systemically oppressed.

Jesus Defies Privilege Narrative

No, matters of bad character and toxic culture are not fixed by more money, consider this parable:

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. “ ‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 

(Matthew 25:14‭-‬30 NIV)

Of the parables that Jesus told, this one has to be one of the most harsh and counterintuitive.  I mean, who can blame this servant, given so little, for burying his talent?  

Was it fair that, before the investment phase even began, the “wicked” and “lazy” servant was already at a severe disadvantage?

While this parable affirms the idea that what we’re born with has little to do with what we’ve done.  However, it departs radically from the central notion of the video that success at the end of life is “nothing to do with what you’ve done.” 

This flies completely in the face of the social justice gospel and, frankly, everything that comes naturally to me.  As one who always felt like the servant given little and thus was fearful of God, this parable confounded me.  Didn’t the initial disadvantage, the unequal distribution of wealth, shape the outcome?

Are we now going to say that Jesus lacked understanding, compassion or sensitivity?

Should we cancel Jesus?

We could replace the wealth or talents of the parable with “privilege points” and not change the message.  Jesus who said, “to those much is given much will be required,” also said those who are given less by God should be appreciative and invest well rather than make excuses.  

In other words, if you have no father, you can wallow in the disadvantage or choose to invest in the next generation so they do not suffer as you did.  If you were excluded, as I was, on the basis of lacking stature and athletic abilities or other things not within your control, you can harbor the grievance, let it take over your life, or you can use it as motivation to do unto others what wasn’t done for you.

The reality is that Jesus was being far more compassionate in addressing the spiritual matter at the heart of many negative outcomes and ignoring questions of fairness.  Furthermore, life is not a competition for material gain, it is not about the rank we attain in society either, and to frame it in such a way only shows a complete lack of discernment.  The privilege narrative is not only racist to the core, it is also at odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Instead of chastising innocent people for their alleged color privilege, trying to burden them down with guilt.  Instead of telling some people that they lack the ability to be successful simply on the basis of their outward appearance or place they were born, which is a total lie.  We should love our neighbors, rebuke this notion that life is a competition for money, and call all to repentance.

Where To Go From Here?

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The past few years have been monumental for me. This blog has followed my own personal journey from the initial ideation about love, faith and spiritual life to some major transitions. I’ve changed careers, departed from the denomination that had been the identity I most cherished, and basically had my life turned upside down.

This blog had started as a result of a prayer, as an act of faith, and was to chronicle a fight to overcome the odds. I had realized my own limitations. I was single, in my mid-thirties, working a job that didn’t suit me very well, and worried about being the unfaithful servant who buried his talents. Unfortunately, for myself, I didn’t know a way out of the predicament.

But, instead of wallow in my self-pity, I decided to actually believe what Jesus said, “everything is possible for one who believes,” and with complete reckless abandon, prayed to God asking that the impossible be made possible for me.

I had committed to believing beyond human reason or my own rationality, to believe without adding the qualifications so often used by the religious to excuse their own lack of faith and as a means of preserve their self-serving status quo. My aim was to overcome whatever, the bad luck, personal failures or cultural prejudices, that kept me from living out the potential that seemed to be locked away somewhere and yet was still unrealized.

Of course a big part of that prayer, given the importance of marriage in a conservative Mennonite setting, was in hope of finally getting beyond the invisible barrier to my romantic success and finding the “right one” who could love me despite my imperfection.

My deepest fear had always been that love is little more than a post hoc explanation of something determined at a far baser level. In other words, that love was decided by attributes mostly biologically predetermined or based in performance. If a person lacking the right inborn characteristics is essentially unlovable, then the whole mythology we build around love as something pristine or pure is a delusion and love itself becomes a justification of our selfish or carnal ambitions.

I was determined to disprove that hypothesis. I intentionally sought out a girl theoretically “out of my league” for a variety of those lesser reasons. Before this, I had always picked pragmatically based in who I thought would say “yes” (although they often didn’t) and not with any real faith. This time I picked on what I believed God wanted me to be and because she seemed to be the one who could get me past those limitations. She wasn’t someone who seemed frozen in indecision, she shared my own cultural ideal and would compliment my strengths and weaknesses.

Alas, her sanity won out over my irrational faith-fueled hopes.

However, in telling my story of faith and struggle this blog gained popularity. Over the time my hopes ran into the brick wall of her reasons she couldn’t love me (very much like those I had feared) this blog rose to prominence in the Mennonite blogosphere. Suddenly, in my moment of deep despair and disappointment with my Mennonite ideal, I had an audience of thousands. In a matter of hours a sardonic post assigning points for marriageability, something I wrote one morning while stewing over the reality of the depressing situation I found myself in, was a viral sensation and had obviously resonated with a great swath of people.

After that, I wrote a string of posts about some of those issues I’ve had with the church I was born into and previously didn’t know how to express. It was during this time that a blog post about fundamental flaws in the current conservative Mennonite thinking was picked up by Mennonite World Review. It later made rounds in a conservative email group posted by none other than Peter Hoover who had, by writing Secret of the Strength, inspired my Anabaptist perspective many years before and put me at odds with the creeping influence of fundamentalism.

The great irony in it all was that I reached the pinnacle of my own influence in the Mennonite world *after* I had attended my last service.

Since then, in a greater irony, I’ve seen a romance blossom that would’ve been impossible had I remained Mennonite and evidence of that kind of love of the faithful variety that I did not find where I had most expected to find it. There is a real story of the impossible being made possible developing, not the story of love triumphing over the odds that I had thought I would tell and yet every bit as powerful. However, too much is in limbo right now regarding that circumstance to write about it.

Beyond that, there is also my being immersed into Orthodoxy and the difficulty of putting that experience into words. I mean I could argue for Orthodox Christian practices and perspectives, I have written a couple blogs trying to explain such things to my Mennonite audience, yet Orthodoxy is something better to be experienced. Like Jesus said “follow me,” they make an appeal that is not strictly emotional nor intellectual, but experiential. Faith is something that must be walked to be understood. The Orthodox don’t proselytize in a Protestant manner. No, instead, they invite others to “come and see” like Philip did in urging Nathanael to join him and rely on the mysterious work of God:

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-50)

Can anyone rival that with eloquent words or elaborate arguments?

I know I can’t rival that sort of mysterious work in my own words and worry that my words will actually take away from the beauty of the ancient faith. I mean, what could I possibly add to something so wonderful and profound with my clumsy and simplistic explanations?

So this all leaves me with a dilemma as a writer. Am I more than a one-trick pony? Even as I’ve progressed over the past few months, I feel my blogs have started to become a bit repetitive, as if I only really have one story to tell, and that has bothered me. My area of expertise, at this point, is how to fail miserably trying to find love in the Mennonite context. My painful past is something that I would rather transition away from, something to be discarded along with “former delusions” that I renounced at my Chrismation, to make way for a brighter future.

But the question remains, what will be written in the next chapter?

Where to go from here?

The Child of a Creative Mind

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A couple months ago I was hit by a book idea.  I say ‘hit’ because that is exactly how it felt.  The source seemed external, the ideas flowed into my consciousness as if being downloaded and I worried I would not be able to get them out fast enough to keep my mind from bursting like an overfilled balloon.  The result was over 17,000 words and a ‘chapter’ that may actually transform into a first book of a series when it is the right time to pick up the project again.

The “Spirit of God” Found in Creativity

My ‘experience’ is not unique to me.  It was topic of a TED talk, “Your elusive creative genius,” where author Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of her thoughts after writing a book that went big and what she has learned since.  She describes a “protective psychological construct” ancient people used that has been displaced with individualistic rational humanism.  People of the past would attribute a “creative thing” other than themselves, which Gilbert argues was healthier and may relieve some of the anxieties felt by many creative people.

Interestingly Gilbert mentions the Greek word “daemons,” which translates as it may sound and is a spirit that possesses a person.  In the Christian lexicon, the word has a rather negative connotation and is the root of demonic.  Others, she claims, would chant “Allah, Allah, Allah” (translates “God, God, God”) when they caught a “glimpse of God” in the extraordinary expression of a person that could not be explained.  However, Gilbert does leave out one thing and that is how the Bible testifies similarly about a creative mind that originates from God and is God.

“Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.”  (Exodus 35:30-35 NIV)

In today’s age it seems even the religious do not characterize craftsmanship as a spiritual gifting and yet we see in the passage above that the “Spirit of God” is given credit for artistry.  Many Christians today tend to compartmentalize their pursuits labeling some activities as ‘spiritual’ and others as ‘carnal’ or lower, but I believe this could be errant thinking.  Perhaps God deserves more credit for the things we commonly attribute to human enginuity or efforts?

If we saw our work (mundane or incredible) as an expression of the glory of God within us rather than our own selves we would be freed of the fear of rejection if our work is not received well or appreciated and also of the problematic overinflated ego if we are successful.  If our great thoughts, athletic talents, entrepreneurial spirit or any unique abilities are not our own it changes how we use them and should make us more apt to share them without reservation.  Giving others what God gave us is the ultimate act of worship.

Child[ren] Born of God’s Spirit

In the Gospel accounts it is noteworthy that the religious critics of Jesus credited demons or the devil (Matt 12:25-28, Mark 3:22-29, Luke 11:15-19) for the miracles he performed.  Jesus countered that his works were good and credited his power to perform and authority to the Spirit (or ‘finger’) of God.  But this wasn’t to merely borrow divinity, it was to claim divinity and to a people who believed in a distant removed God this was blasphemy.  It was in reply to a charge of blasphemy Jesus quoted Psalms 82:6:

“Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’?  If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?  Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father.  But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”  (John 10:34-38 NIV)

Jesus appeals to their own Scripture where the Psalmist describes those “to whom the word of God came” as being divine or a ‘son’ of God.  But this idea of ‘sonship’ is not exclusive to Jesus alone, it is what Paul is talking about with the doing away of Scripture (the law) and becoming children of God through the faith of Jesus:

“Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.  So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”  (Galatians 3:23-27 NIV)

And…

“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”  (Romans 8:14-16 NIV)

Embracing the Gifting of the Spirit

To be a ‘follower’ of Jesus is about much more than book knowledge and desperately trying to please God through our religious devotion.  No, those who share in Spirit that was in Jesus have freedom to use the gifts God gives.  Many who claim to know Jesus seem not to have embraced the power promised through the Spirit.  Could they be as the servant who buried his talent for fear (Matthew 25:14-30) and deceived?

“Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”  (James 1:16-18 NIV)

Do you have a “good and perfect gift” that is left idle for fear of what others may think?  If so, do not fear, be free of those who confine you with their cynicism or doubt, and embrace the gift.  We are given abilities both ‘natural’ or otherwise to bring glory to the creative mind of God.  So, write, sing, work, play, administer, encourage, dance, dig ditches and do everything to honor God.  Stop worrying and live more fully in the Spirit.