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.Google+