Humility and the Privileged Church

"Self-Portrait in Reflection" by michaelgoodin on Flickr

Content note: ableist language.

Recently I heard a pastor give a sermon about (among other things) what it means to be “made in the image of God” and how one of the ways that manifests is in the movement of our bodies. “The fact that I can walk across this stage,” he said as he strode from one side of the platform to the other, “that we as human beings can volitionally move our bodies — we think about moving, and our bodies respond by moving how we tell them to — this is one way that we reflect God’s image.”

This struck me as hugely troubling because implicit in his illustration is the ableist assumption that all humans have bodies that respond the way they want them to. His illustration — which was drawn from his own observations about humans, not from revealed wisdom about the nature of God — reflected his own experience of having a human body, but erased and invisibled the experiences of people who have disabilities or other reasons that their bodies don’t just automatically operate how they’d like. And by making “volitional movement” a criterion of image-bearing, he implied that people whose bodies don’t always “volitionally move” aren’t fully bearing God’s image.

With one cheap, throwaway sermon illustration, this pastor both erased the existence of people who aren’t like him, and implied that they aren’t of equal worth in the kingdom of God.

This wasn’t an isolated experience. At various times in my church and others like it, I’ve heard pastors talk about dieting and intentional weight loss as ways of sacrificially serving Christ with our bodies, as if being thin carried a greater moral and spiritual weight than being fat. I heard one pastor use an appalling, dehumanizing joke about people with mental illnesses as the ice-breaker for his sermon, as if having a mental illness isn’t already treated with doubt, suspicion, and scorn by the church, as if “mental illness” is a humorous subject and not a real thing that affects real individuals who could be listening to him. I’ve seen a church put “We are too blessed to be depressed!” on their front sign, as if those two things exist in a binary, as if people who struggle with depression are just failing to recognize God’s blessings in our lives. I have experienced churches where hugging strangers is a socially mandated part of the culture, without consideration for whether the person being nonconsensually hugged has experienced abuse and might find that kind of invasion of their space traumatizing.

What these things all come down to, I think, is pastors who have a lack of understanding of privilege. Who don’t understand that their own experiences are not universal, and that it’s their own white, male, affluent, heterosexual, Christian, thin, able-bodied privilege that reinforces the idea that everyone else is like them.

Because – if a pastor recognized that not all people are able-bodied, he would not equate able-bodiedness with being made in God’s image. If a pastor recognized that not all people are free from mental illness (and that mental illness is a complex problem that can’t just be magically prayed away), he would not make jokes or church-sign slogans at the expense of people with mental illness. If a pastor recognized that not all bodies are designed to be thin, he would not equate achieving thinness with morality.

And I’m not even going to get into the way that white American evangelicalism reinforces racism, classism, and gender/sexual inequality.

But recognizing these things also means recognizing that the dominant cultural narrative — that the default human experience is to be white, male, thin, able-bodied, not a victim of assault, etc. — is not the only narrative, and that having an identity that aligns with the dominant narrative is an aspect of privilege.

And confronting one’s privilege — as a pastor, as a church body, as a Christian individual — is an uncomfortable but very necessary part of living out the gospel message that works to bring about the upside-down Kingdom of God in which the last shall be first. And that “the last” in our culture are the people who don’t have privilege in different ways — because of their gender, or their race, or their disability, or or or.

To paraphrase Flavia DzodanMy theology will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

And but so I wish there was a system for educating evangelicals about the basics of privilege and identity politics. I wish this were a part of our church culture. We evangelicals are often so good at trying to love and serve the obviously-oppressed, whether it’s the villagers in Mozambique whose children are being eaten by crocodiles because their only source of water is the river, or the teen moms in our inner-city neighborhoods.

But when it comes to seeing and tearing down the power structures that are in place within our own churches, when it comes to identifying our own areas of privilege so that we can, with humility, step back and elevate those who do not enjoy those same privileges — we have a long way to go.

We think that the problem of oppression is an Out There problem, and we thus don’t identify or address our own privilege and the ways we are complicit in the problem of power asymmetry Out There. And, we don’t identify or address the way we also practice power asymmetry within the church. We don’t recognize that some of The Least of These are right here next to us, that the underprivileged we will always have with us. Even in church.

We see the Others as people to serve, but NOT as people to learn from. They are projects, not people. And they’re certainly not sitting in our pews.*

How do we do better at this, as a church?

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*Of course, this is an optimistic view of what motivates the people one meets on Sunday morning. A more cynical view would be to say that we, the church, are taught to see the Others as people to fear — that outside our church walls lie the threatening secular Them of our Us-vs.-Them Christianity, those monsters who believe in pushing the homosexual agenda and free abortions and making the Ten Commandments illegal. When we believe that everyone who isn’t Us is a Satanic baby-killer feminazi, we’re not going to be willing to learn about white cis hetero Christian privilege either, much less humble ourselves to learn from those scary people outside the church walls who just can’t wait to persecute some Christians.

But mostly I’m trying to quiet my cynicism and believe that the people sitting next to me on the pews would do better if they knew better. Mostly.

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8 thoughts on “Humility and the Privileged Church

  1. I went to a Christian college for two years before transferring back home and during my first round of midterms I began to notice how narrow everything I was being taught was. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was also longing for someone to teach me about privilege and identity. We learned plenty about church history and methods of preaching, but I watch all my friends graduating from there struggle to connect with the people in their church. It’s sad… None of the training you receive to be a preacher matters at all when you’re outcasting and shaming your congregation.

  2. Okay, retyping my comment. Hope it doesn’t post twice.

    I completely agree that the church needs to examine its own privilege. And we need to address our own perceptions of our privilege, too. The church I grew up in is stereotypically white, affluent, highly educated. New York Times-reading, NPR-listening, Ivy League-going types. And those types are happy in the church. But as the economy changes, many of our members, especially the younger generations, have become downwardly mobile, and we refuse as a church to admit it. One of our theologians, Thandeka, wrote a book talking about how our racism and white guilt comes from our panic over keeping up appearances. It’s been several years since I read the book, but she said that the money and effort required to keep up with the Joneses was toxic to social justice and to spiritual health. I know that for me personally, the insistence on Whole-Foods-shopping, Fair-Trade-buying, Etsy-wearing conspicuous consumption helped break my last links with the church. Not that I wouldn’t love to shop at those places! But for my generation, that standard of living comes with massive credit card and student loan debt. For the older members of the church to be constantly harping on how privileged we are, while they drive $30,000 cars and vacation in Strasbourg and the young women work as freelancers and shopgirls, is soul-killing. We need to be honest with each other about our actual situations, not assume that everyone in the church is like us. Okay, that’s a long rant, I’m breaking this up.

  3. As for the hugging, my mom’s UU church has a hilarious system where if you don’t want to be hugged, you make an X with your arms in front of your chest. Like you’re warding off a vampire! Totally not awkward at all!

  4. And my church has an open Communion table–every week the pastors make a big deal about how no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what doubts you have, this table is laid for you. That, combined with the gluten-free Communion wafers and grape juice, shows their real commitment to inclusion. If you have a problem with alcohol, no worries. If you have a problem with gluten (or the Top 8 Allergens), no problem. I serve gluten-free Communion any Sunday I’m there–without the special wafers, I’d be out of luck. (Admittedly, they taste like stale Popchips. Ick!)

  5. Speaking of privilege, do UA students still call Dr. Proenza Louie? Because the name Luis is too hard to wrap their heads around? (I mean, I called him Jerk, but I could at least pronounce his real name.)

  6. Well said, Abi. Pastors ought to have a calling to inclusiveness and ought to choose to understand and use inclusive language. What’s the Kingdom of God if not inclusive? Sadly, that’s a message that seems to be lost on so much of the church these days.

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