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Monday, September 6, 2010

An Invitation to Evangelical, White Males

A while back I attended a conference in Memphis where a white, evangelical, male, who is also a Texas Judge, made a remarkable statement. He said that as a white, evangelical man, “I am the most discriminated-against person on the face of this earth!” As a well-paid employee of the U.S. criminal justice system who sits in judgment of others – a criminal justice system in a nation that comprises under 6% of the world’s population, yet houses over 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, with an enormously high African-American population – I was astounded at the thought of what could be so repressive and so challenging for this white male in such a unique position of power to feel so powerless and victimized.

As he talked, it seems he felt threatened by the changing culture in which we live. He made it abundantly clear that he was uncomfortable with what he called, “changing sexual standards,” “alternative lifestyles,” and an “influx of cultures into the United States.” While he never pointed to any specific actions which constituted discrimination against him, he conveyed that his greatest frustration is that the things he previously enjoyed and took for granted, he no longer was able to.

After leaving I almost felt sorry for the white, evangelical, male, judge from Texas because indeed, the world has changed. Change is difficult and even at times threatening. As a fellow white, evangelical, male from Texas (although I am not a Judge), I share with him that change threatens my ability to control events in the world, which have such an enormous impact on me and my family. And in an increasingly globalized world where white men (particularly white evangelical males from the South) are an ever-decreasing minority, there is real fear.

Yet, when I reflect on the Scriptures, I also realize that nowhere in Jesus’ teachings does Jesus ask his disciples to attempt to hold on to their positions of control or dominance. In fact, quite the opposite is true. When arguing broke out among the disciples as to who was the greatest among them Jesus admonished the disciples and insisted that the new society he was building among the disciples be distinctively different from the society they had formally known. He said, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

This overturning of societal status and rank represents a transvaluation that occurs when Christ’s reign is realized or incarnated in society. As Christians who are calling the world to recognize Christ’s reign over the world, this is a transvaluation we should not only be aware of, but one we should model. However, the truth is that this kind of ordering of society is threatening to those of us who have benefitted from the old rule, from the old ordering of society. The wonderful promise of a new world in which those who have been marginalized will be brought in, those demonized will be honored, and those crushed down will be lifted up carries with it the reality that what Dr. Stephen Charles Mott calls the principle of redress be realized as well.

As Dr. Mott states in his book, Biblical Ethics and Social Change, “the goal of redress is to return people to a normal level of advantage and satisfaction in the community, particularly with respect to the capacity to earn a living and to have a reasonably happy life” (1982:68). Redress is a necessary aspect of justice which “implies that each member of the community will in fact be strong enough to maintain his or her position in relation to the other members” (1982:67). Redress requires that as the marginalized are brought in, those who dominated access to resources must give way and share that access. Redress requires that those who have been unfairly demonized for their place in society must be honored and that those of us who have received all of the honor and accolades, must assume a new seat in humility and perhaps obscurity. Redress requires that those crushed down will be healed and lifted up and the powers and mechanisms which were used to crush them be transformed into structures that ensure equal and just redistribution of resources. Redress ultimately holds that those of us with access to resources advocate and work to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied.

Redress thus holds promise for the poor and oppressed as well as demands upon the affluent and powerful. This is indeed threatening for white, evangelical, males (and non-evangelical males for that matter) who have benefitted from the current social, economic and political order. But yet, it is perhaps in the current ordering of society that lay our greatest form of captivity. In the current ordering of society I too often miss the power of serving with and under women in positions of power and leadership. As a white male I too often miss the discovery of learning about my brothers and sisters of other ethnicities and races. As a white male of privilege I too often miss the amazement of the creativity and strength of the poor to survive in a society in which everything is stacked against them.

As my white, evangelical, male friend who is a Judge in Texas well knows, repentance is difficult. Outside the grace of Jesus and regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, it is impossible. But let us not mistake holding on to power and excluding others we deem as being different and perhaps even threatening as a way of supposedly bringing reform and renewal to the Church. I grow exceedingly suspicious of hearing about a call to reform and renew the church from fellow white, evangelical males who do not also carry the message of personal repentance of racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, radical individualism, materialism, and other forms of exclusion.

Reform and renewal cannot be taken seriously until those openly calling for such actions first repent of our own forms of sin. For white, evangelical, males, reform and renewal must begin with our recognition that the values we have been raised with and even taught – values of power, dominance, attaining great wealth and honor – are to be intentionally transformed. If the Kingdom of God calls for a transvaluation of all that we hold dear – and it does – then the values we adopt must include humility, service of others, working for the justice of others ahead of ourselves, an intentional inclusion of others, and selflessness.

I pray for reform and renewal of the church, but unless it carries with it the transvaluation of all of our allegiances such as maintaining a mass accumulation of wealth and power, then reform and renewal is at best, merely empty rhetoric, and at worst, a means to further bring divisiveness, exclusion and dominance.

So, to my white, evangelical, male friend who is a Judge in Texas, I hope you are listening. Jesus extends to you, to me, and to all of us white males (evangelical or not) who are struggling with changing cultures and a globalizing world, a glorious invitation: repent and become a participant in his Kingdom-dream of seeing the first become last, and the last first. It may not sound like all we wanted or heard about previously, but being last in the Kingdom of God surely beats the heck of not being there at all.