Personal Reflections on Power and Privilege


The following is an excerpt from a recent ordination paper that I wrote which sought to answer the following question: Explain the effect of power and privilege in areas of race, economic class and gender upon your life and ministry.

If racism is a “system of advantage based on race,” (Tatum, Beverly Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria) then I am a person of significant privilege.  I experience privilege beyond just the sociological categories of race though.  I am a tall, relatively fit, well-educated, socially upper-class, heterosexual, white male who was raised in an affluent suburb of Minneapolis.  Growing up I was always a part of the dominant group, and because I was always a part of this in group, I struggled to see the presence of difference.  I saw my cultural experience as normal.  I was never overtly bigoted and neither were my parents, but I always understood my manner of life as the right way.  It was the American way.  It was the successful way of life.

Throughout a variety of experiences, I came to see the world from a different perspective.  I spent one year living in Africa as a missionary.  I had a very positive experience serving there.  It was here that I was first introduced to cultural differences embodied by the colonial style missions work that was ubiquitous there.  I spent a summer in Thailand doing an ethnography on an “unreached people group” that spanned the Laotian, Burmese and Thai borders.  Through this experience, I came to see the value and diversity of culture.  We tried to understand their culture first and foremost in our research.  I also spent a summer in Beijing where similar culture encounters helped to deepen my appreciation for a way of life different from my own.

These mission trips provided helpful cross-cultural experiences but they did not do much to help me understand my position of privilege in America.  I could talk about the rich beauty of cultures around the world, but I was still relatively naive about my own cultural position at home.  I mostly assumed that my culture was America’s culture.  Then I got married to my wife, Mary, who is a second generation Korean American.  Her parents moved here when they were in their late twenties from South Korea and Mary was born in Jersey City, NJ.  She grew up in a home where Korean was the primary language spoken and her dad planted a Korean-speaking church.  When I married my wife I became one flesh with a cultural outsider, and myself became something of an outsider.  When Mary acts or speaks on behalf of our family she is not given the same treatment that I received from society.  I experience racism through her continued encounters with a racist world.

Jesus was an outsider.  He grew up as the quintessentially powerless pariah.  He was a Jew in a Roman dominated country.  He was poor.  He was homeless.  He was even rejected by his own people.  He was thrown out of his hometown for being too religious.  He was rejected by the religious for not being religious enough because as a friend of sinners, he socialized with all the unclean people.  Even crucified criminals mocked him.

Christians are called to follow this Jesus who lived on the margins of society.  Throughout much of the New Testament we are repeatedly warned not to fall in love with the world, but to fix our eyes on Jesus, to think of heaven, and to live as citizens of the coming Kingdom.  But this is virtually impossible for white Christians who enjoy unprecedented power on the global stage.  How can we understand what it means to follow a man who lived on the margins of society when we hold such positions of power?  How can the church teach us to live on the margins of society when it reflects the power structure and the dominant culture of the world around it?

My wife and her family get this intuitively.  I’ve seen the way she lives.  I’ve experienced the churches that her parents lead.  Immigrants and ethnic outsiders are eager to embrace their place in an alternative world because their place in this world is repeatedly maligned.  They are told by the culture in a myriad of ways that they do not matter and that they do not belong in this world.

The world in which I grew up always told me I belonged.  It told me I was important and valuable.  I did not need a God or a gospel to do that.  Why would I want to be a citizen of heaven when being a white male in America was such a good place to hold my citizenship and have my identity?  I am now united to my non-white other half, and I see the way this world that worked for me also works against her.  I’ve come to appreciate the character that is formed in my wife because of the marginal experience she has in this world.  We worked together at a church in Boston that was predominantly Asian-American, and I recognized the same richness of character in other non-white Christians.  I have seen the value in becoming an outsider.  Being so intimately attached to Asian-American cultures puts me in a position of significant privilege.  It has helped me understand what it means to live as an alien and an exile in the world.  I have grown in my ability to understand my own identity as a heavenly resident, and now I hope to lead a church that likewise strives to define itself by it’s allegiance to heaven and not this world — no matter how beneficial allegiance to this world promises to be.  I hope we live as citizens of our coming kingdom, and I hope that causes us to feel out of place within the world in which we live.


4 responses to “Personal Reflections on Power and Privilege”

  1. Hey John;
    Out of place in the world, I agree; but I must take issue with the representation of Jesus you portray. He did not live on the margins of society; he cut across many divides. He does not intend to stay at the margins or with the powerless; He will upset them all, return all authority to its rightful place, and create new categories of the powerless. Do you agree?

  2. I think in terms of race, class, and economic position Jesus was on the margins of society. I think he was such a provocative person that he could transcend those barriers, like you said. He was able to cut through the barriers and boundaries of every human division. He interacted with rich young rulers, prostitutes, tax-collectors, and Pharisees. Everyone was drawn to him.

    But what I think is interesting is that his ministry was not from a position of power. He didn’t leverage any worldly power in accomplishing his ministry in the world. I think this is clear when Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert. Satan offers him national/political power. For someone who wanted to proclaim the Kingdom, this would have been a good platform for proclamation in both word and deed. Instead he chooses to continue his ministry as an social outsider, and I think by doing so he reveals the radical other-worldliness of the Kingdom of God. When we follow Jesus we are called to live in the world but not by the ways of the world or in the power of the world.

    I don’t think this means Christians can’t be in positions of power in society. I just think one shouldn’t say I want to be in a position of power because that’s how I believe I can do the most for the Kingdom. That’s not what Jesus did, and I don’t think that’s how the Kingdom works. Power in the kingdom looks like suffering-service and sacrificial death. The first will be last and the last first.

  3. In your list of personal attributes you forgot to put good-looking. 🙂

    Seriously I loved this post. It’s amazing.

  4. I feel compelled to respond to this post because it is partially about me but all the while hesitant because I do not have an agenda nor am I an ostentatious or attention-seeking person. This post is about Jesus so I won’t write too much. I only want to voice that I feel heard. I feel seen.

    For someone who always has to balance the dual-cultured nature of being different with one foot in the dominant culture and one in my own unique culture, I feel like John’s post hits a deep chord not often struck.

    For me, this post isn’t about making people feel badly so please do not take it that way. It is about how some times as believers we do not belong in this world. We are often cultural outsiders trying to survive, honor God but be engaged with the world.