Tag Archives: Privilege

Quick Review: Between the World and Me

Last week I finished Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  What a powerful book. I did this by audiobook, which was read by the author, and I think that made it even more powerful. The book is part autobiography and part letter to the author’s son, bringing a powerful personal touch to weighty topics.

The author documents his journey growing up African-American in Baltimore and the impact of systemic injustice and iniquity on him and others in his community. He provides the historical background to understand a more robust view of identity as it has been shaped over time. It’s a powerful read or listen even if it’s just out of a desire to understand more one’s experience in communities so shaped by power driven or overtly racist policies. But it’s much more than that.

One of the central metaphors that Coates builds his narrative around reflects a philosophical as well as poetic framing of how systemic injustice and racism impact identity. This metaphor is that of one becoming “disembodied,” where because of injustice or racism and the reality of one’s identity that he feels the shame of someone else having control of his body. That loss of autonomy, safety, and the self-worth that comes with security is an ever-present reminder of how power structures work against him.

This brings the reflection and discussion of racism from beyond abstract arguments or activism to the visceral truth that systemic injustice always has a fleshly impact. It touches the core of the marginalized identity because it is a fundamental reality that someone else can take control of their body and exercise power over them in a myriad of ways.  This way of experiencing and seeing the issues adds further heartbreak for the ways so many are shaped by injustice in deep ways to the core of their being.

Coates uses some new phrases besides the typical language. He refers to majority culture folks who find comfort in the current unjust systems as “people who think themselves white.” White is synonymous with offender or perpetrator.  He uses another word which forces one to wrestle – plunderer. He is using these words of those who find comfort in the benefits of injustice or in various ways perpetuates the system. He is not equating all white people with plunderers or racists. He uses “white” as not just an ethnic designation, but rather as an ideological tribe of sorts that through self-interest perpetuates contemporary injustice. It’s not a rejection of white people, but of an establishment that is benefitting from various forms of violence that continually keeps those outside down through the various forms and threats of disembodiment.

There’s so much here and the whole thing is a skillful and beautiful expression of deep pain and righteous anger. My summary is wholly inadequate. I would have loved more spiritual reflection or engagement. It’s hard to read things like this when there doesn’t seem to be hope or meaning anchored in a larger worldview. But that’s not where the author is coming from and in the meantime, he does convey some form of hope, albeit alongside a strong dose of reality without sugar coating what it means to journey in this world on the other side of institutional power.

I recommend it as a powerful journey into the depths of just how dark the impacts of systemic injustice are in the U.S. from a history of racism and racist policies.  This isn’t my story, but these are stories that need to be heard.  There are parts that are hard to here as one who has lived a more privileged existence in the U.S. from an ethnic standpoint, but it’s important to look, feel, and reflect on how I live and the broader communities and society that I am a part of.

 

Quick Review: The Myth of Equality

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been able to go through Ken Wytsma’s The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege and want to pass on highest recommendation if you are in the Northern American context.

Last year I read Wytsma’s book Pursuing Justice and it was a good complement to this book. But The Myth of Equality is a needed book that seeks to lay out theological, historical, sociological context for both historical racism as well as contemporary racism in its various forms. I won’t give a comprehensive summary but will hit the highlights.

First, he did good Biblical and theological work, building on some of his work in Pursuing Justice. It informs the reader, especially if there’s not much Biblical or theological background, on the spiritual backdrop of the discussion.  He’s working to give the average lay church member, especially white lay church member, a context for the discussion outside of attacks and emotions. Most important to this is the question of who God is and what does God care about.

Second, he does a great job unpacking a “history of racism” that is very insightful and informative in terms of political and social develops several hundred years ago.  However, the unpacking and analysis of racism in the U.S. including slavery and then through the various post-Civil War legislation and government efforts through the 20th century is downright piercing. Even for someone who has read or studied much of what was covered in other places, to go through this history is deeply disturbing and generates a flood of emotions. But the reader is brought into the sacred space of just how much suffering has been driven by the systematic oppression and marginalization of ethnic minority groups in the U.S.

My heart started pumping midway through in an excited way because Wytsma goes into Walter Brueggeman’s work in The Prophetic Imagination to discuss the dynamics of power, leadership, change, and theology.  This book was one of the fundamental influences on me in terms of how I view leadership overall and the church’s role in the world.  To get a chapter about the “royal consciousness” was a delight. However, to do a deep analysis today on themes of racism and privilege through that lens continues to be sobering.

One of my big takeaways related to the discussion on privilege was a section where he discussed “creation stories” as a metaphor for each person’s story. Many are “birthed” into stories where they only know possibilities and freedom. Others are birthed into stories that have origins in shame, invisibility, closed doors, and a host of other atrocities. While it’s true that God can redeem every story, this was a helpful new window into understanding how people come at these discussions from very different lenses and perspectives. It’s simply very hard to connect and form relationships of equality and dignity without an awareness into how these starting points in a society impact identity.

I personally liked Wytsma’s approach to the language.  I think there is more to write on terms like privilege and white supremacy and other core terms of the modern discussion. I think Wytsma handled them well without resorting to a single story approach.  My struggles with these words over the years have primarily involved a pragmatic struggle with how hard it is to explain them to people prior to being able to have a meaningful conversation when there are so many landmines of meaning and interpretation around them that escalate emotion in often unhelpful ways. But Wytsma I think does a really good job explaining how these terms fit in the contemporary discussion and why they are appropriate even though there are all sorts of semantic and meaning issues connected to them in the journey of common understanding.

This is an important book for the church because more and more in the church want to be a part of a different story, but so many do not know the history and the reality that is often hidden from them if they’ve not leaned into cross-cultural relationships and issues of social injustice.

This is a 2017 book so it might be new to you, but I’d encourage you to go through it with some people you do life with.

 

Quick Review: Playing God

This month I worked my way through Andy Crouch’s Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.  Really this year I’ve worked through what is a trilogy essentially from Andy Crouch with three books that all revolve around the central theme of what it means to be human as God intended, as God’s image bearer. The first book in this thematic series is Culture Making, which I reviewed a few months back and I’ll review the third book Strong and Weak, which was released this year, sometime next week.

All three of these books are highly worth reading and I recommend reading them sequentially and together because of the continuity of ideas, language, and frameworks offered.

While Culture Making focused on the themes of creating and cultivating as image bearers, Playing God focuses more specifically on the theme of power and authority – related to its original design and intentions and to its abuse.

In a refreshing statement, Crouch begins the book with a clear thesis that power is a gift. It has purposes for people and communities that glorify God and that are meant to serve and honor other people.  But we all know the world is full of people who use power for their own gains, so the gift of power gets corrupted into something much worse. Actually we all use power for our own gain – that’s the power of sin in our lives. We all need to learn how God wants to redeem power for his purposes.

Crouch makes mention in several books of the importance of developing a theology of image bearing around the whole of Scripture – with special attention to Gen 1-2 and Rev 21-22. He argues that these 4 chapters guard against the dualistic theology prevalent for so many generations – where the only concern is trying to save souls from sin (Gen 3 – Rev).  I think it’s a helpful reminder to really think deeply about the whole Biblical narrative and its implications for all of life.  That’s the power of developing a theology of image bearing, whether it involves creativity or power. A solid theology of image bearing should inform all of life – relationships, power and authority, calling, and community.  This is what I appreciate about what Crouch attempts to do in his books.

Some of the sections that I think Crouch really did a great job with are his treatment of the themes of idolatry related to power. The chapters on idolatry and icons are really helpful and I’ve already gone back to a couple of those chapters.  There are some very helpful sections that help someone evaluate their hearts as the source of their behavior and what they worship in practice.

Another strength of the book is a framing and his effort to articulate the dynamics and even provide some measure of a theology of privilege. Privilege is often used pejoratively as a label. I’ve seen it misused more often than not, which is why Crouch’s efforts are really valuable.  While there are problems and limitations with the word “privilege,” no one can deny that this points to a reality which is very much true. It’s not an American thing either. Privilege exists as a social reality across the world that impacts identity and communities. Crouch offers one of the more balanced efforts to explain the blessings (opportunities) and

Crouch offers one of the more balanced efforts to explain the blessings (opportunities) and the dark side of privilege in its impact on relationships and society. These are realities we must help people understand through a more complete theological lens – not just through the lenses of social activism and social justice. These issues point us back to a more comprehensive vision of shalom, of what human life and community is meant to be.   For much of the last century and beyond, t

For much of the last century and beyond, there has been a theological gap in bias and practice between social justice and evangelistic mission.  There continues to be a divide today, albeit with different influences and forces driving some of those divides and reactions. Crouch attempts to bridge some of this gap through a theology of image bearing and power.  It is not the focus of the book to provide a comprehensive theology of the church as it relates to social action, but nonetheless there are very helpful sections to help inform how we think about the church’s role in society as part of a Great Commission vision.

Much of his work in Playing God gets elaborated on in Strong and Weak, in which he provides a helpful conceptual framework to illustrate how image bearing and power in community goes wrong….and right sometimes.

This book has very wide relevance and application so if you have not read it, I recommend getting all three of these books onto your reading list soon.