In Mark 10, we encounter a story of a man with many possessions; a man who has kept the commandments and by all outward appearances – to the Jews of Jesus’ day – lived a devout, religious, and exemplary life. He runs to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. This Rich Man, recognizing Jesus’ authority as a teacher, and with a humble posture and desire to learn, quickly faces the slavery of his own existence: he is shaped and ultimately bound by his own avarice.
Jesus tells the man to sell what you own and give it away to the poor. Jesus is not only interested in the man’s relationship to his wealth, but with the man’s relationship with his neighbor. St. Basil the Great, in his homily To the Rich, preached: “You have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many...If you had truly loved your neighbor, it would have occurred to you long ago to divest yourself of this wealth.” The Rich Man found himself desiring the Kingdom of God without practicing the precepts that make the Kingdom a reality.
As I grieved, cried, and reflected on the events of this past week, specifically, of the violent shooting of Alton Sterling, a black man, shot dead in the street in Baton Rouge, and the next day, Philando Castile, shot and killed during a routine traffic stop, I realized something quite significant: I am the Rich Man.
I walk around this country with a currency of inestimable value. It is currency that is inscribed on my body and lived out subtly in all of my relationships. It affords me space to walk without fear for my life, live without financial anxiety, and gives me power to speak and be heard. I didn’t choose it, but I have benefited enormously. I was born rich; I was born white. It is the lens through which I experience the world, and even the lens through which I interpret scripture.
Social scientists call this ‘rich-ness’ white privilege. White privilege is the flip side of racism (in its American form), and one does not undo systemic racism without acknowledging and working through white privilege. Soong-Chan Rah, in his book The Next Evangelicalism, defines white privilege as the “system that places white culture in American society at the center with all other cultures on the fringes” (72). What it means to be white, then, becomes the norm for what it means to be human. All other cultures have been expected to conform to this center for acceptance, power, and achievement. Dismantling the social sin of racism requires those of us in the white community to grapple with this reality as it marginalizes people of color.
We, the evangelical white community, are the Rich Man.
The Nazarene church, like the Rich Man, is devout, well-intentioned, and in many ways leads an exemplary life. We seek the Kingdom of God, and pray for God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. We continue to ask Jesus, “What must we do to inherit eternal life?” And, I hear the Lord’s voice echoing from Mark 10:
“Go, sell what is yours, and give it to the poor.” In other words, give up your social currency, your privilege, and give it away for the life of your neighbor. If you truly love your neighbor as yourself, you will divest yourself of your privilege so that others may live. Divestment should look like a form of submission to people of color. We should give ourselves to the work of listening and long-suffering. And when the time comes, we will be invited to use our privilege for the betterment of others, to leverage our social capital and relationships for the work of justice.
We are at an apex moment of decision as a church community. We can either die to our privilege and follow Jesus; or we will go the way of the Rich Man, bound to the slavery of our rich-ness. My hope and prayer is that we become the kind of people who humble ourselves and follow the way of our Lord. Let us not desire the Kingdom of God without putting into the practice the precepts that make that Kingdom a reality.
As I watched my Facebook feed explode with questions this past week, it occurred to me that we have no practices for moving forward. We desire rightly but fumble around blindly. I would like to suggest three initial steps in moving forward.
1). Read minority voices. In all honesty, many of us live within homogenous neighborhoods. Our social networks by and large reflect our own way of thinking, and our churches predominately favor white cultural norms. Our experience is radically different than our black and brown brothers and sisters. For many of us, we do not know how to enter into conversations about race and white privilege for fear of saying the wrong thing or inducing heavy awkwardness. It will be awkward; we will make mistakes. But we do not have to enter blindly. We can begin to learn and change by preparing ourselves with new lenses. A great way to do this is by simply reading more widely from those with different experiences. Here are a few books that are helpful:
- Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman
- The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
- Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Next Evangelicalism, by Soong-Chan Rah
- God of the Oppressed, by James Cone
- Disunity in Christ, by Christina Cleveland
2). Find a Minority Mentor. Grappling with white privilege is difficult work. And we can’t do it by ourselves. We need the voice of others to correct us in all grace and truth. The face of America is changing. By the year 2042, minorities will be the majority in this country; and in some cities and states, this is already a reality. But we often neglect to see that the vast majority of new immigrants in the United States are already Christian. We are not witnessing a decline in Christianity per se; rather, recent trends merely connote a decline in a particular form of Christianity, what is being called the “de-Europeanization of Christianity.” Most communities in the United States have many ethnically diverse churches. Make a new friend you trust, and ask them to mentor you.
3). Show up and Listen. Show up to community meetings. Show up to prayer vigils. Show up to protests. Show up to open gyms. Show up at the wide range of social spaces inherent in your community. And once you are there, stay quiet and listen. We have controlled the conversation for hundreds of years. Now, it is time to listen. Listen to people's hurts and pains. Hear the prayers of lament. Cling to their expressed hopes and dreams for their families and community. If we learn to listen, we can learn how to change.