Social Justice


IRD writers and contributors comment on what social justice is, and how Christians can advocate for it based on the Gospel and natural law.


August 4, 2014

Checking On My Privilege (And, Yes, It’s Still There)

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of commentaries on the issue of social justice—what it is, and how Christians can advocate for it based on the Gospel and natural law. Read the first one here.

This is a retort I am seeing in social media debates that center on social justice issues: “Check your privilege.” I am not sure what this means—and maybe this is because I am from a mostly privileged background.

It seems that if one doesn’t have a deep appreciation for the abiding institutional oppression that undergirds all modern life, then it is assumed that one is either willfully ignorant or simply blinded by the sort of privilege that is sustained by said institutional oppression. Professing a profound concern about injustice, structural inequalities, and human rights is en vogue nowadays and academia has wholly embraced Postmodernism, teaching droves of young people to look at western culture through a lens of structural oppression.

I know this because I was one of those young people. At NYU, I was taught by the brightest minds in academia about Postmodern theory. So I suppose this gives me some rudimentary understanding of oppression—even if it isn’t so much first hand.

My Postmodern education taught me, at the very least, to know what I don’t know. Sure I may have lived in Africa and South America for a few years doing international development work, but Postmodern thinking has taught me that as a white-male-American, I am unable to truly understand oppression the way the oppressed do. Maybe I can sympathize with the oppressed, but I can never empathize: Empathy implies some essential understanding of oppression and, as a white-male-American, I can never truly understand it. I should aspire to only sympathize (or feel sorry for) those who are oppressed—at least this is the argument that I often see being made in popular culture.

In contrast, the new film series, For the Life of the World (FLOW), makes the case that even for society’s privileged class, empathy is not only possible—but that it is essential—for the realization of true justice. Produced by a team of theologians from the think tank where I work (the Acton Institute), FLOW could well be described as a Christian guide to engagement in Postmodern culture.

Using a hockey match that has devolved into fistfights as a metaphor for an unjust and broken world, Dr. Anthony Bradley, an Associate Professor of Theology at King’s College in New York City, has been cast in the role of a referee who must restore order. Bradley expounds on his role as referee and then makes a startling revelation about why there is so much injustice and hurt in the world. Bradley says we are missing one thing:

“Hospitality: The reason why there is still so much pain and dependency in our world, I’m sorry to suggest, is because of us, the Church. In this, we’ve abandoned our call to hospitality. One of the most ancient Christian virtues: True hospitality. And I’m talking about opening your door to the stranger.”

The suggestion that the Church has abandoned its calling to hospitality was demonstrated by my own church only a few Sundays ago. From the pulpit, the pastor exhorted the congregation to sign letters that had been prepared for us in the church narthex. We were told that the letters were part of a campaign designed to “end hunger forever.”

Curious (and I admit it: doubtful) about how the Church was going to end hunger through a letter-writing campaign, I asked for a copy of the prewritten letter. It was written by an organization called Bread for the World, which lobbies Congress for an end to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement. Wanting to learn more, I visited the Bread for the World website, which is written in the tone of so many “Christian” lobbying organizations: It manages to patronize even as it panders. The tone is that of a Postmodern thinker who believes that privileged Presbyterians will never truly understand hunger issues from their comfortable, bourgeois lives. Perhaps this is why the letters are prewritten: Privileged folks could never write such a letter on their own.

This example, though egregious, points to a larger trend I’ve started to see at least in my own church: the tendency to focus on the macro, the institutional, rather than the micro, the individual. In the Presbyterian Church (USA), this institutional activism can be seen in the way it has spent the last 50 years debating, ad nauseum, its investment policy. Just a month ago, the Presbyterian Church (USA) divested from a handful of companies who “provided material support” to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This is just the most recent decision in a long history of divestment activism: tobacco and gambling companies in the Sixties, arms and munitions companies in the Seventies, companies working in segregated South Africa in the Eighties.

I don’t mean to argue that this sort of prudent investing isn’t important. It is. But my worry is that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has taken to heart the notion that the charge “check your privilege” is supposed to invoke: The idea that those with privilege can never truly be in communion with those who are oppressed. This is in stark contrast to the concept of Christian hospitality. This hospitality is profoundly egalitarian in the sense that Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews:

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

More succinctly, Pope Benedict wrote this: “Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.” In one short sentence, the former Pope formulates what sets Christian justice apart from Postmodern justice: Postmodern justice is transactional and works toward recompense; Christian justice is relational and works toward redemption.

  • Aivis

    Peter, a great article.

    I have to say, I find this whole “privilege” cult strange and as a campaign to breed hate and division. Perhaps, that’s because I come from Europe. Having said that, I moved from a post communist state to the UK- and often some liberals like to think that due to that I should get some special benefit – it is counterproductive and doesn’t solve anything.

    But you have greatly shown why these claims of privilege are irrational in Christian sense because we are supposed to open doors and love our neighbours and alike. I think many progressives today ignore human instinct and true empathy, and instead create a hateful environment that does not foster discussion.

    • Peter Johnson

      Thanks Aivis. Yes, it’s almost as if the “privilege” cult wants to keep folks like me from participating in the conversation about justice. But it is precisely “privileged” folks like me that ought to be part of the conversation if we are to truly realize social justice.

      Acton’s “For the Life of the World” illustrates this, telling the story of Jean Valjean (Les Misérables) whose life changes when he is shown radical mercy by a “privileged” bishop, from whom he steals valuable silverware. Just one very poignant example of justice that goes beyond recompense to a broader view of what justice should mean for all of us. In modern times, I think the late Chuck Colson–and his Prison Ministries–is a great example of justice that goes beyond simple crime & punishment. The congregations participating in Prison Ministries really live out this call to Christian hospitality–opening up their homes and congregations to convicted felons. That really is a radical openness to the stranger–and I believe it is necessary to realize true redemption.

      I definitely recommend taking a look at “For the Life of the World.” It raises a lot of great questions about how best to engage in postmodern culture and discourse.

      • Aivis

        Thank you for your recommendations. I have never actually thought about Les Misérables from such a perspective.

        I couldn’t agree with you more that people such as yourselves should not be kept quiet by self-righteous “warriors for justice”. I think this is especially true for those in poverty. I am appalled that so many youngsters, in Britain at least, that have grown up in relatively well off families think they know what’s best for those in poverty. It creates a false narrative, where dissenting ideas are unwelcome.

        I have been following Acton Institute for over a year now, I really love it’s approach to faith and political economy. I have seen a little bit of “For the Life of the World”, but not much, so I will definitely have a closer look at it.

        • Peter Johnson

          So glad you’ve heard of us, Aivis. Check out our PovertyCure stuff too–especially if you’re interested exploring the sort of degenerate paternalism fostered by the well-off, liberal elites. It’s a real eye opener.

          I have experienced first-hand how these policies hurt poor people in developing countries–and am glad that folks are beginning to think more deeply about what it means to move “from paternalism to partnership.”

  • Holly Rowley

    Thanks for this article, Peter, and for moving the conversation in a different direction. Marvin Olasky states, “Social justice is the sum of millions of acts of relational justice.”

  • Namyriah

    I can’t speak for the whole nation, but in my area the vast majority of homeless people are white males, so I’m always amused to hear that we white males are the “privileged” ones. Back when feminism kicked in, the feminazis claimed they wanted to find “fulfillment” in jobs just like men did, conveniently overlooking the fact that most men did not wear ties to work but came home grimy and sweaty at the end of the work day. Only people who spent their lives sheltered in academia could be so narrowminded as to equate white maleness with “privilege.” My cotton-farming ancestors are probably laughing in their graves.