I first heard the term “white privilege” during my second year of seminary during Kip Elolia’s class on liberation theology. Dr Elolia was brand new to our seminary so I didn’t know much about the content or professor, but take a squiz at this piece of Dr Elolia’s biography and see what you think:
As an African theological educator he tries to dispel the assumption that western theology is normative and universal while other theologies (African, Asian, Latin American, and Black) are local, contextual and limited. Therefore, in his teaching he engages students to be open to a broad theological curriculum and pedagogy that goes beyond the emphasis on the Global North (West) to include the experiences of the majority of Christians in the Global South.
So you’re offering to expand my world as someone from outside my worldview?
Liberation theology was born out of necessity. It was launched by a collection of brave Catholic priests who had trained in classic european theology but lived among the poorest of the poor in South America. Many of them grew up poor themselves. They found the euro-flavored theology to be unhelpful to their context, so they set about to write their own theology. They saw a need to add orthopraxy to orthodoxy. Right practice to right thinking. They recognized one of the fundamental realities of Scripture that most of us hadn’t considered: Scripture, unlike any other classic text, was written from the margins of society, by the culturally powerless in the shadow of powerful hostile empires. Most theology is written from the center of society by the powerful. This should be obvious to every one of us and actually, we should be scandalized by it. That scripture is one of the very few pieces of historic literature written by the underdog, and yet it has prevailed for thousands of years as the single most influential writing in human history. That fact alone should make an atheist stand up and take notice.
But until that class, it had never occurred to me – this simple, base, profound reality. Scripture was written by the marginalized and I, as the very poster child of power and privilege, read it through the lens of power and privilege. What might it look like if I could put on a different lens?
And so Dr Elolia took us on a journey starting in South American with Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutierrez, then James Cone’s brilliant and militant black theology, then onto Asia for Kosuke Koyama’s fascinating and baffling “Water Buffalo Theology” which may be the most non linear, prose jumping work I’ve ever read. We studied Native American and Feminist and Womanist theology. I continued after the class was over to incorporate Aboriginal Theology, about which my next post will focus.
Liberation theologians, mostly the South American crew, coined the phrase “God’s preferential option for the poor.” The Vatican hit the roof. God loves everybody, they said. Yes, replied these brave priests, but God leans toward the poor. The scripture says it over and over. About 3000 times actually. Now days many of us take this as a given but back then they were branded heretics.
Oh how my mind was blown. All these voices from the margins bringing to life scripture I thought I had already known. These same voices, sometimes gently, sometimes provocatively, often times angrily challenging my status as a white man of privilege. A status I didn’t even know I had, like a fish who can’t describe or discern the water it is in. But now I knew and I had to wrestle with what to do about it. I wrestle to this day.
I learned a fundamental truth in that time: people with power never willingly hand over power to the powerless and/or oppressed. If you take a quick mental journey through history’s great freedom movements: MLK, Ghandi, all the way back to Moses and Pharaoh and “Let my people go!” Each movement has in common the need for the oppressed to fight for power that is rightfully there’s. That is why revolution and uprising is often necessary. Some liberation theologians added that it is why violence is sometimes necessary.
Liberation theology has a militant and oft times liberal edge to it, I don’t buy it wholesale, but I found it to be an essential piece in my understanding of how to view scripture, how to see what is really there, rather than what I think is there. It forced me to face the scriptures that I didn’t even know I was ignoring and most of all, it made me face the power of white privilege that blinds me to the suffering and struggle of brothers and sisters on the margins, or who are oppressed and stripped of power.
And so the gospel: surely one of the most radical edges of the gospel is the reality that in Christ, powerful people can willingly lay down their power or share their power with powerless people. After all, that is just what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus the most powerful human who ever lived, willingly laying down his power for those trapped, powerless to manage our own sin. Phew.
I’d like to post more about this because of the way it profoundly shaped my ministry posture and approach to scripture, but also because of a second, more disturbing truth: the modern status quo of evangelical Christianity desperately needs to learn to listen to the voices from the edge if we’re going to have any hope at sharing a robust, full, life giving gospel.
More to come.