Understanding Privilege and Leveraging Its Power
Dominique Dubois Gilliard’s Subversive Witness: Scripture’s Call to Leverage Privilege offers a significant scriptural examination of the issue of privilege with a focus on the responsibility Christians have for using privilege for healing and wholeness. Adapted from Gilliard’s work, this post offers a framework for beginning to think biblically about the topic of privilege.
The expressions of privilege
Privilege has a multitude of expressions. Think about the witness of an often-overlooked biblical character: Lydia (see Acts 16:11–15, 40). She was a woman of privilege, a wealthy businesswoman who understood that she was blessed by God to be a blessing to others. Lydia recognized that God had not entrusted her with wealth to hoard her resources or to construct a buffer between her and the pain and suffering of her neighbors.
Lydia understood that her resources were to be used to make God’s name known and love shown. She is renowned for her stewardship, how she used her fortune to further the kingdom and love her neighbors. Lydia offered her home to provide refuge for those oppressed by systemic injustice, and her home was the first gathering place for Christians in Philippi, commonly called the city’s first Christian church.
Lydia saw her privilege as something emboldening her to participate in the kingdom through serving those in need. How we use what God has entrusted us with is a powerful testimony to those around us, and Lydia leveraged her privilege to demonstrate to the world who and whose she was.
Privilege, however, does not mean that someone has not endured trials and tribulations. Scripture reveals that God also entrusts people who have endured oppression with privilege. After enduring abuse and being sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph was liberated by God, who then entrusted him with privilege (see Gen. 37–47). Joseph became vizier, the second most powerful position in Egypt.
If Joseph’s heart had not been in the right place, he would have abused his power and privilege to enact revenge against his brothers. However, God kept Joseph’s righteous anger from spiraling into bitterness, and when given the opportunity to return evil for evil, Joseph chose to show God’s love, ultimately remembering that his privilege had a missional purpose. Joseph bestowed unmerited grace upon his brothers, loving them in the same manner that God first loved us.
God calls privileged people to strategically leverage our access, influence, and resources to subvert the status quo and advance the kingdom. Our possessions are not just for us; they are things we are called to steward to further the kingdom and sacrificially love our neighbors. God does not entrust people with privilege to exploit it for selfish gain; privilege is supposed to be used to bear a subversive witness, to usher in the inbreaking kingdom and participate in the missio Dei.
However, as fallible people, we are prone to allowing privilege to control us instead of allowing the Spirit to guide our steps and stewardship of privilege. Racism, patriarchy, classism, and other forms of privilege—and the -isms that produce these privileges—are not of God. They are not a part of God’s original intent. They are not power dynamics God condones, and they are not patterns to which Christians should conform. We are called to pattern our lives after Jesus, our crucified and resurrected Savior.
Legislative, economic, and educational privilege
Privilege comes in many forms, and not every manifestation holds the same social currency. In the United States, race, gender, citizenship, class, education, sexual orientation, and able-bodiedness have been the chief expressions of privilege, with race, gender, citizenship, and class historically holding the most weight. Privilege is also stackable, meaning a person can possess multiple privileges at once.
For example, initially only free, landowning, white men could be US citizens. Individuals who possessed five privileges—status (freedom), class, race, gender, and citizenship—were politically valued and socioeconomically subsidized over and against all others. That means that from its inception the US gave wealthy white men access to property, power, resources, and wealth that all other people were denied for nearly 144 years.
Moreover, after this period of exclusive access, white people were democratically endowed with unique access to important resources until at least 1965. This unique access has endowed most white children with the privilege of growing up in secure neighborhoods with premium amenities, matriculating in superior schools, and having access to more lucrative vocational opportunities. It has also included a criminal justice system that has legislated with a white bias. The vestiges of this history of systemic injustice linger and continue to undermine our proclamation of “liberty and justice for all.”
For example, school funding in the US derives from three sources. While the percentages vary from state to state, generally 45 percent of a local school’s funding comes from local property taxes, 45 percent comes from state funding, and 10 percent comes from federal funding.¹ Property values vary immensely from neighborhood to neighborhood and district to district. With that variance come vacillating tax revenues.
These economic disparities create inequalities regarding access to quality education nationwide. Consequently, since the early 1970s, nearly every state has seen at least one lawsuit concerning school funding and equity. A recent study examined the 13,000 traditional public school districts in the US and found about 7,600 where more than 75 percent of students were white and about 1,200 where more than 75 percent of students were nonwhite. While the nonwhite school districts were much larger (usually located in large cities) than the white districts, the two groups had nearly the same number of students: 12.8 million children in nonwhite districts and 12.5 million in white districts.²
However, in 2016 nonwhite districts received nearly $54 billion in local tax dollars—or about $4,500 per student—while white school districts, which had higher incomes and lower poverty rates, collected more than $77 billion—or just over $7,000 per student.³ On average, states added another $6,900 per student to white districts and almost $7,200 per student in nonwhite districts. The comprehensive gap in state and local funding was $23 billion. White districts, on average, had more than $2,000 more in funding per student than nonwhite districts.⁴
The report found the following:
Despite more than a half-century of integration efforts, the majority of America’s schoolchildren still attend racially concentrated school systems. This is reflective of the long history of segregation—policies related to everything from voting to housing—that have drawn lines and divided our communities. Race and class are inextricably linked in the U.S. When comparing the poverty level of racially concentrated systems, a clear divide emerges. Predominantly white districts are far better off than their heavily nonwhite peers. These statistics confirm what we know about income inequality and the effects of segregation.
In the United States, 20% of students are enrolled in districts that are both poor and nonwhite,⁵ but just 5% of students live in white districts that are equally financially challenged.⁶
This is only one example of how white students have continued to enjoy unique access post–1965. This unique access continues to order society.
How privilege shapes society
We will never learn to leverage privilege to further the kingdom and love our neighbors if we continue to deny the existence of privilege. Acknowledging privilege is not about condemnation, shaming, or guilting one another into coerced actions. Christians are called to acknowledge privilege because it is real and because doing so liberates us from its power.
Confronting and addressing privilege liberates us to live into our created purposefully and freely acknowledging privilege should not be contentious. Privilege exists because of our unwillingness to deal soberly with structural sin and the legacy of inequity it has bred.
Fundamentally, privilege is the by-product of our ancestors’ sins and the rotten fruit of the church’s indifference to systemic oppression and complicity with evil. Privilege is rarely neutral or benign; it almost always comes at the expense of our neighbors.
Privilege connected to embodiment (how our bodies are constructed—race, gender, health, and more) slowly but surely negates the fundamental biblical truth that we all are made equally in the image of God. It therefore subtly creates a sliding scale of humanity, where some lives are respected, protected, and valued over and against others. Privilege is the offspring of hardened hearts and unrepentant spirits. It shrewdly sustains and frequently expands systemic injustice, social inequities, and targeted oppression. Privilege is not just something certain individuals are endowed with; it also becomes institutionalized, perverting a society’s customs, education, laws, and practices.
Many people possess privilege and experience marginality concurrently. White women, for instance, because of white supremacy and their proximity to white men, have been granted privileges and access that people of color have largely been denied. For example, of the $120 billion worth of new housing subsidized by the government between 1934 and 1962, less than 2 percent went to nonwhite families.⁷
People of color were locked out of homeownership, while white Americans were essentially given exclusive access. Nevertheless, the racial privilege white women enjoyed did not negate the sexism and patriarchy they were subjected to. White women, while enjoying racial privilege, were still denied the full rights of citizenship and democratic participation until 1920—144 years after white men but 45 years before most people of color.
Similarly, men of color benefit from male privilege but are excluded from the perks of whiteness. We do not have to overcome sexism and patriarchy—in fact, we benefit from them—but we are relentlessly hounded by racism. We have a categorically different experience than white men.
Just as privilege is stackable, so is oppression. Women of color, particularly undocumented, uneducated, impoverished, and/or disabled women of color, uniquely elucidate this. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe this phenomenon, the overlapping oppression that women of color endure.⁸ These women must overcome systemic barriers that others do not, and our inability, or perhaps more precisely, unwillingness to acknowledge this, is rooted in sin.
Possessing privilege does not mean your life is necessarily easy. Nor does it mean you have not endured hardships. It does, however, mean that if you struggled to overcome, you had fewer barriers to clear—particularly systemically and legislatively—than you would have had without your privilege. As a person with privilege, this may seem insignificant. If it does, know that the obstacles you are minimizing and brushing off have thwarted your neighbor’s pursuit of progress, equity, and justice for centuries. For instance, the federal government, under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, revealed in 2004 that when people of color are approved for mortgages, they are more likely to receive higher cost “subprime” loans. These loans are offered at rates that are 0.1 percent to 0.6 percent higher than its standard rates.
While this difference may seem inconsequential, over time it equates to thousands of dollars in additional interest payments. Interest on a thirty-year, $180,000 mortgage loan at a 6.5 percent interest rate would total about $21,000 more than the same mortgage loan at a 6 percent rate.⁹
Privilege blinds its beneficiaries to the many unjust policies like this that still exist and allows them to minimize how profoundly these injustices continue to shape society.
Leveraging versus abandoning privilege
Having privilege is not a sin, though sin has perverted our systems and structures in ways that engender sinful disparities. Privilege creates and expands anti-gospel inequities that infringe on collective liberation and shalom. It endows a few with educational, socioeconomic, political, vocational, and other advantages while disenfranchising many—simply because of how God intentionally created them.
While we cannot control how we are born, and therefore some of the privileges we are endowed within a world marred by sin, we can and must—if we are going to have integrity—acknowledge that privilege emerges from ancestral sin and is reified in the systems and institutions we uphold today.
Unequivocally proclaiming that privilege is a distortion of God’s will frees us from being captive to it. Our Creator never intended for the divine image to be affirmed, respected, and protected in some more than others because of a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, class, citizenship status, land of origin, sexuality, mental cognition, able-bodiedness, and physical attractiveness.
When we can confess the sins that breed privilege and renounce the inequities it engenders, then, and only then, can we understand privilege—and the unique access it grants—as a subversive tool that can be leveraged to further the kingdom and love our neighbors. Building from this foundation, privilege becomes a unique opportunity for us to bear witness to who and whose we are. When we leverage privilege instead of exploiting it, we function as the leaven in the loaf, the moral compass and accountability in spaces and places of distinction.
Proverbs 31:8–9, where King Lemuel’s mother gives him instruction on how to be a righteous king, gives us a picture of what privilege should be used to do. It reads, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Since privilege is stackable (meaning we can hold many different forms simultaneously) and various forms of privilege have different manifestations, there are two categories of privilege: those we can renounce and those we cannot fully forsake.
How we steward the privileges we can renounce reveals whether we believe we serve a God of scarcity or abundance—one who has created enough for everyone’s needs but not enough for all our greed.
Identifying the power of our privilege
Christians with economic privilege need to ask challenging questions to ensure we are not exploiting our privilege for selfish gain.
Does where I live . . .
- prohibit me (and my family) from being proximate to the least of these?
- Does this lack of proximity breed indifference toward their plight?
- Does this lack of proximity hinder me/us from loving our vulnerable neighbors well?
- disconnect me (and my family) from the pain of my people?
- Has this disconnect caused me/us to choose individual freedom over collective liberation?
- Amid this disconnect, can I truly tell if the Spirit reveals that I am still not free?
- reflect the mosaic nature of the kingdom?
- If not, how does this shape my racial and economic imagination (and my children’s)?
- Does this prohibit me/us from authentically pursuing the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
- If diversity is a revelatory gift from God, what revelation am I missing out on when I choose homogeneity?
- provide room to shelter a neighbor in need?
- How do passages like Acts 2:42–47; 1 John 3:16–18; and Luke 3:10–11 inform how I steward what I have been entrusted with?
- How do the stories of the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus inform my understanding of kingdom economics?
There are more questions to ponder, especially if we live within a gentrifying community:
- Do I send my child to the neighborhood school?
- If I do not send my child to the local school or shop at our local grocery store, what does this communicate to my neighbors?
- And more importantly, how am I intentionally investing in the flourishing of the local school and neighborhood in which I reside if I choose to send my child, and spend my money, elsewhere?
When we see our access, assets, education, resources, status, social capital, talents, and wealth as solely for our benefit or the enrichment of our family, we sin because we exploit our privilege for selfish gain and therefore refuse to participate in the economy of the kingdom and the inbreaking reign of God.
Using our privilege for good
We are called to prayerfully discern how we can relinquish privileges that can be divested as an act of loving obedience to God, in sacrificial fellowship with our neighbors. There are some privileges we cannot forsake. We are born in a certain place, in a particular body, with certain capacities and genes. I, for instance, cannot completely abandon my maleness—and consequently the privileges it engenders.¹⁰ I can, however, intentionally leverage these privileges for justice when I am in relationships of accountability with my sisters. I can discern with them how I go about leveraging my influence, platform, and voice to advocate for institutional accountability, change, and equity. I can learn from my sisters how I can advocate on their behalf in helpful ways—not as a male savior—when they are not present, I can boycott organizations that desire my voice while excluding theirs, and I can recommend my sisters anytime I get asked for recommendations.
However, when I understand my male privilege as the rotten fruit of my ancestors’ sins, I am called to even more. With relational accountability and transparency, I can intentionally invest in women of color, who are dually oppressed and are constantly overlooked for leadership development and mentoring opportunities because of things like the Billy Graham Rule, where men almost exclusively focus on discipling and investing in other men to “avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion.”¹¹ I can dedicate a portion of the proceeds garnered from my platform to invest in the flourishing and platform expansion of women of color. I can also be intentional about submitting to the leadership of women of color.
In keeping with repentance for the sin of patriarchy, which I did not create but I do benefit from, I can bear kingdom fruit by discipling other men to dismantle patriarchy, leverage male privilege, and discern how they, too, can produce fruit in keeping with repentance. I can investigate why so few sisters are at tables of power; use my platform to uplift how Scripture calls us to affirm, see, and treat women; and publicly acknowledge the indispensable role women have played in my own discipleship and faith formation. I can also humbly and publicly confess when I get it wrong and commit to doing and being better without making excuses.
- Corey Turner, “Why America's Schools Have A Money Problem,” NPR, April 18, 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/04/18... school districts included many large cities and were much larger than the white districts. White school districts included many small rural areas. “Nonwhite School Districts Get $23 Billion Less Than White Districts Despite Serving the Same Number of Students,” EdBuild, accessed January 18, 2021,https://edbuild.org/content/23-billion.
- Laura Meckler, “Report Finds $23 Billion Racial Funding Gap for Schools,” Washington Post, February 25, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com... Meckler, “Report Finds $23 Billion Racial Funding Gap for Schools.”
- Twenty-seven percent of students are enrolled in predominantly nonwhite districts. Twenty-six percent of students are enrolled in predominantly white districts.
- “Nonwhite School Districts Get $23 Billion Less,” EdBuild.
- “Race—The Power of an Illusion,” PBS, accessed January 18, 2021, https://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_06_a-godeeper.htm.
- Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991).
- Alan H. Goodman, Yolanda T. Moses, and Joseph L. Jones, Race: Are We So Different? (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 203.
- The exception to this statement being someone who has sex reassignment surgery.
- Billy Graham, “What’s ‘the Billy Graham Rule’?” Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, July 23, 2019, https://billygraham.org/story/the-modesto-manifesto-a-declaration-of-biblical-integrity/
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