Thursday, April 23, 2015

Discussion of White Privilege at Moody Bible Institute

My alma mater, Moody Bible Institute, has been in an intense and rather public discussion over the past few months over the term "white privilege". It's hit the news, it's been all over social media with the hashtag #mbiprivilege. The discussion arises, I think, because Moody is a unique place that has been intentionally trying to recruit students from the city around them, from downtown Chicago, which means a growing population of minority students with an urban background. Their background is entirely different than the majority of students who are Caucasian and grew up in pretty homogeneous and conservative communities in the burbs or rural areas.

How great is that, though? Different groups and experiences meeting in college, opening each others' eyes and diversifying their perspectives, building relationships and resulting in conversations between devoted Christian brothers and sisters. It's a strength of Moody's, but also their challenge. Opposite backgrounds and differing perspectives that are only just being challenged will result in frustration, anger, and sometimes inappropriate words and actions.

Recently professor Brian Litfin wrote an an article in the Moody Student newspaper against the use of the term "white privilege". I will caveat here and say that Dr. Litfin is a gifted teacher whose church history teaching was very influential for both my husband and I. I have been frustrated by his words in this discussion, but I believe the best way to respond is seek truth through healthy and honest discussion. There is no use simply condemning or mocking a view that he is now attempting to respectfully express, and which clearly represents the perspective of many. We have an opportunity to talk here, amongst brothers and sisters. Let us do so with gentleness and respect, as was modeled by Moody's president in his letter here.

Professor Litfin argues several points, the first being that the term "white privilege" implies collective responsibility for individual sin, but that under the New Covenant each individual is held responsible for his own sin. Indeed, that is true in terms of sin held responsible before God. However, that's not what we are discussing in the discussion of white privilege. We live in a society where we consider the citizens responsible for their country, their society. And so, if there is unfair privilege for one group and disadvantage for another, then all members of society are responsible to fix that brokenness.

It is not so much about fault or blame as is it is about responsibility.  Another Moody professor, Jamie Janosz wrote an article in Christianity Today titled "White Privileged Like Me" that described how most of Caucasian Americans are raised to think of our lives as morally neutral, and I think this is on point. If our lives are morally neutral and we haven't individually chosen privilege or hatred or discrimination, why are we being held guilty? No, not guilty, friends, but responsible. If systematic poverty is tied to race in this country, who is responsible? The citizens of the country. Particularly those with the majority of the vote, since we are run by majority vote.

This is crucial both in our faith and in the way our country works. We must be willing to take responsibility for each other. All of us. Throughout scripture we see that we are, indeed, our brothers' keeper, held responsible for the state of being of those around us. Particularly those with power are seen as responsible before God for the state of those who are powerless in that society.  It is clear in the New Testament too, that we are to, "Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil 2;4).  The example of Christ is striking.

There is indeed privilege that is good and beautiful, reached through hard work and righteous living. However, those who have worked hard are not exempt from considering their brothers, considering the problems around them. If Caucasians act as though what they have is what they deserve because of hard work, it implies that those who do not have must not have worked as hard. Do you see the arrogance there? That is exactly why this discussion is important. We assume that the path others are on is the same as ours, and cannot see through others' eyes until we are willing to listen and without defensiveness to what others are saying.

It is absolutely true that there is still much struggle and disadvantage for many Caucasians, the primary one cited usually being deep economic struggle for many. However, this is changing the subject. Each area of privilege and disadvantage must be dealt with individually. Think of the founding fathers. This country was founded because of the unfair disadvantage in place in the governing system of England at the time. The founding fathers fought for their rights. The disadvantage they fought does not negate the fact that at the same time the founding fathers had a terribly unfair privilege over the slaves that worked for them. Both situations needed to be addressed. Claiming our own disadvantage as a reason not to be called privileged sounds distinctly whiny - let's be willing to put aside our own struggles and come alongside others in theirs.

And so it is that I absolutely think we need to discuss white privilege. This year the USA has been rocked, again and again, with angry conversations about race and justice. When Ferguson hit the news I was struck that nearly every African American I knew expressed grief and anger at the system (regardless of their thoughts about the individual case) because of their own life experience here. That came from rich, poor, urban, rural, educated and uneducated, believers and unbelievers, people that are famous and just your everyday Joe. There was resounding consensus, and it was pretty obvious from the silence and quiet conversations of most of my Christian Caucasian peers that many of us didn't understand, couldn't relate.

The other experience this year was moving back to this country, where there are also deep discussions about race and privilege going on, or perhaps not going on but held under the surface with deep resentment. I am so struck at the responsibility to step out of our own situation and attempt to see through others' eyes, to advocate for others. It is the way set out for us by God. The first to do so should be believers.

 Another Moody student newspaper article talks about the academic origins of the term "white privilege" and says, "Self flagellating apologies from a particular white person... are silly and profoundly unproductive. More productive is prayerful consideration of the unjust power systems in our society and how they affect our lives."

I don't have answers and often can feel helpless, but I'm so glad we're having this discussion and hope we don't grow weary, because if we listen we can start to seek answers together. I am frustrated when things are endlessly discussed and never acted on, so I've resolved to start by reading this and this to try to push myself forwards. I only wish I could join in for the upcoming lecture by Dr. MacDuffee on the topic at Moody!


Andrea Ward said...

Our individual responsibility might be low, but our collective responsibility is high. And that matters. I just wish I knew what I could do. I have had discussions with several people of many colors. It seems that many are unwilling to admit their privilege. They cite the individual victims as a proof that their privilege doesn't exist. And quite honestly it makes me angry. How can they look at these situations and hear about the dozens or even hundreds of others and not see it? How do they listen to people of color from all areas of society and not hear the pain and anger? It is long past time for us to leave our WASP bubble and see how others live. The language we speak doesn't make us better. The color of our skin doesn't make us better. And us stopping to listen to those of other languages and other skin colors doesn't make us lesser people. It makes us better people. Thank you for being a reasonable voice.

Kacie said...

I'm so with you, Andrea. Same feelings. But since my own husband and I have spent hours intensely discussing this over the past month, I know it's really hard to find consensus, common ground a way forward. And he and I from nearly the same background!

Andrea Ward said...

That is actually encouraging to hear. I was starting to feel like I was the only sane one or that I was really crazy. It sounds like neither one of those is true. It's just a topic that is that hard to walk through.