I grew up on a cul-de-sac in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio; it was one of many privileges in my childhood. My parents modeled fidelity in their marriage, provided a stable home, instilled a protestant ethic, earned a handsome income, and gave me numerous opportunities: summer camps, Little League, theater lessons, and a winning smile secured by years of orthodontic treatment. I earned none of these privileges but let them propel me up the social ladder.
A top-notch education:
another rung, another privilege.
Early work option as paperboy: another rung, another privilege.
Access to a thriving, Charis church: another rung, another privilege.
Citizenship in the great USA: another rung, another privilege.
Born male in a man’s world: another rung, another privilege.
White: another rung, another privilege.
Two years ago my wife (Liz) and I adopted a child from Ethiopia. Sensi does not evidence the stereotypical features of Ethiopians: caramel-colored skin, fine facial features. He was born in the Gambela region, close to the border of Sudan. My son is dark, his forehead broad, his lips lush.
Sensi does not look like me. Or his mother. Or his sisters. He has made our family “conspicuous,” meaning we stand out. e frequency of second glances has lessened in our immediate community, but I notice them when we venture out of our hometown.
Raising a black son has heightened my sensitivity to second glances, suspicious looks, and the privileges of being white. I know I can walk down my street at dusk wearing a hoodie with no fear of repercussions. A day will come when my black, soon-to-be teenage son would be wise not to. I can walk through a record shop without extra eyes on me. A day will come when my black, soon-to-be-teenage son will be scrutinized when strolling through stores. I could be pulled over for speeding and get o with a warning. A day will come when my black, soon-to-be-teenage son may get pulled from his vehicle for the same infraction.
I have greater awareness of these realities as the white father of a black son. My privilege—inherited and culturally-conditioned—grants me undeniable advantages in the world as it stands. I may not like white privilege (or male privilege or any other privilege), but my feelings for an idea do not invalidate it.
My sister-in-law, a decade-long resident of Chicago, introduced me to the idea of white privilege. She pointed me to a podcast (“On Being”), where the host, Krista Tippett, interviewed a white female, professor Eula Biss, about her wrestling with racial advantage.1 I listened, nodding at times, shaking my st at times, and, by the end, feeling powerless. Biss waxed eloquent but offered feconclusionsns. She had no answer beyond awareness.
Paul’s letter to the Philippian church pivots around one of the most profound descriptions of Jesus Christ. Referred to as the Christ Hymn, Philippians 2:6-11 details Jesus’ pre-existent glory, sel ess incarnation, inglorious death, and unrivaled ascension to God’s right hand. Virtually every commentator notes the “inverted V-pattern” of the text: from glory to grave to greater glory. e passage is doctrinally rich and doxologically potent. But Paul’s driving purpose for the Christ Hymn is neither theology nor worship. He intends a lesson on ethics.2
After greeting the church (1:1-11) and updating them on his circumstances (1:12-26), Paul calls them to live as citizens of God’s kingdom: bold in suffering, united in spirit, humble, and selfless (1:27-2:5). The Christ Hymn illustrates how to live—the attitude to maintain—in a culture preaching the gospel of Caesar and promoting the virtue of status.
Residents of Philippi would have felt the pressures of gaining and preserving honor in their status-conscious populace. A Roman province stocked with retired military, Philippi was known as “Little Rome.” Archeological findings in Philippi tell a story of status, privilege, and broadcasting one’s honor on memorial stones, donor plaques, and political writings.3
Paul, a true student of culture, knows the honor game people play in Philippi. And he counters. It is the only letter he writes without asserting his apostolic title (1:1); instead, he exclusively takes the moniker “slave of Christ Jesus.” He labels his inherited and ascribed list of bragging rights a pile of manure (3:4-8). He emphasizes heavenly citizenship over Roman (1:27; 3:20). And, at the heart of Philippians, Paul presents Jesus as the perfect ethical model of climbing down the ladder of privilege (2:6-11).
Jesus—full of glory and truth, united in fellowship with God the Father, boasting unlimited and unrestricted access to divine attributes—released His grip on divine privilege. Hellerman writes, “ The point is not that Christ ‘emptied Himself ’ of something. The point is that He ‘emptied Himself,’ or poured himself out.”4 His descent showed that selflessness and sacrifice for others are greater aims than securing one’s own status.5
Talk of white privilege is not popular among white people. Talk of male privilege rubs most males wrongly. We feel defensive when anyone points out our naturally-born privileges. I’ve felt it at least. But defensiveness is not productive. Neither is guilt. We did not choose our birth race, gender, culture, generation, or socioeconomic condition.
A better starting point—a more Christ-like attitude—is for God’s people to admit their privileges. I am a white, male, married, middle-class, educated, American whose first loyalty belongs to Jesus. My privilege probably means local police and mortgage lenders give me the benefit of the doubt. My privileges probably mean I have more access to education, career, and recreational activities. My privileges probably mean I have no relatives currently incarcerated.
The story for women, immigrants, and black people is different. They often start lower and climb slower on their ascent up the ladder of privilege. Until we admit our diverse set of privileges, feelings of guilt, blame, anger, victimization, and suspicion will fester. These qualities are a far cry from the mind of Christ.
Of course, the disparity of privilege does not call us to disparage all privileges. Rather we may appreciate our privileges. I appreciate my parents’ fidelity and financial stability. I appreciate my country with its freedoms and progress. I appreciate my seminary education, safe neighborhood, and strong masculinity. But healthy appreciation sees every privilege, advancement, and opportunity as a gift from God (Jas. 1:17). And God wants us to share his gifts not hoard them.
Thus we must learn to limit our privileges. Pastors need not take the closest parking spot at the local hospital but can leave it for family visitors. Men need not get the “last word” at family meetings but can practice the art of listening. Wealthy people need not buy the “Fast Lane” pass at the amusement park (racing past the poor slobs in the regular, hour-long line) but can practice the art of patience. Politicians need not take special transportation for every trip across town but can interact with the people and learn from them like Churchill’s famed subway ride. And white people need not keep their safe silence from racial issues since they are the protected majority but can learn to engage in difficult racial conversations as peacemakers. (For some people to speak up about white (or male or evangelical) privilege would spell their death. Such is the mind of Christ—even death on a cross.)
If the Gospel truly breaks down spiritual walls—between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-22; Col. 3:11)—making us one people of God, we might suppose God wants to destroy social walls, as well. Or, to keep with the ladder metaphor, God wants us to leverage our privileges to lift others. Perhaps this means teaching English to immigrants or applying to become foster parents. Perhaps this means befriending an Indian family who recently joined your workforce. Perhaps this means mentoring at-risk youth from a different racial background. Perhaps it means moving to a more diverse neighborhood to love others who are truly “other” than we are.
The expressions will vary but the direction will remain the same: we climb down to raise others up. Jesus perfected the ethic. Let’s begin the descent.
Timothy D. Sprankle is pastor of Grace Brethren Church, Lees- burg, Ind., where he first expressed these thoughts in a sermon.
1 Listen or read the transcript from “Let’s Talk about Whiteness” here: https://onbeing.org/programs/eula-biss-lets-talk-about-whiteness- jan2017/
2 is does not invalidate the theological or doxological contribution of Philippians 2:6-11. Paired with Hebrews 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15-20, it makes a powerful statement about the divinity of Jesus. Linked to Isaiah 53, Mark 10:45, and 1 Peter 2:20-25, it highlights the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. Set beside Revelation 1-7, it emphasizes the glory of Jesus.
3 See Joseph Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Church Today and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Kregel Aca- demic, 2013), 81-98.
4 Ibid, 145.
5 God would vindicate Jesus, heightening his status (name and seat) in the second half of the Hymn (2:9-11).