I watched a televised debate recently among 20 or so Democratic presidential candidates. As they engaged with the topic of immigration, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, observed that “the Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion. . .. We should call hypocrisy; for a party that associates with Christianity to say it is OK to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religion language again” (June 28, 2019, Fox News).
While I am deeply committed to the cause of the fatherless, the widow and the foreigner (Deut. 10:18), and I have personally welcomed the stranger into my home, it was not the issue of immigration reform that captured my attention in Buttigieg’s comment but the issue of Christian privilege. How we, collectively, have lost our voice in the public arena when we intend to communicate care but cause harm instead. Whether or not you agree with Buttigieg’s statement, the fact remains that the words and actions of some Christians often cause all Christians to be perceived in a negative light, regardless of the issue. This is a clear indication that we have not exercised our voice or our position of privilege in caring or responsive ways, and we are – consequently – losing the right to be heard. The Church must take this indictment seriously, whether we feel individually culpable or not.
About 10 years ago, I attended a diversity workshop with academic colleagues. This was the first time I was ever confronted with the notion of privilege, and not just white, heterosexual, academic and economic privilege, but Christian privilege as well. Initially, I was distraught by the way Christians were being portrayed. After all, I claim the name of Christ – Christ is my very life! I do not picket abortion clinics or wave banners that dehumanize persons identifying as LBGTQ+, and when I saw Christians portrayed this way, I felt grossly misrepresented. As uncomfortable as it was for me, however, this experience proved to be a pivotal point. I realized that I might not have been actively contributing to the problem of marginalization, but I was also not part of the solution. As a Christian, I was guilty by association, whether I liked it or not.
Writer Nel Noddings asserts that care has not happened if the cared-for does not perceive the action as caring. For many years, I struggled with this notion. I am wired to be a nurturer, and caring well for others matters very deeply to me. I felt that if the motivation behind my caring actions was well-intended, then I had “cared” for others, whether it was perceived that way or not. I have since learned that I need to be far more intentional about seeking to understand the needs and perspectives of the other and respond by caring in ways that the other person will perceive as caring, as Sean Schat has written about. He affirms the good intentions of the carer, but reminds the one caring that even if their intentions are noble, a failure to care in ways that are perceived as caring will typically result in a failure to communicate care successfully. Even if our intentions are good, if we fail to truly understand how care is seen and experienced by others, then we have failed to communicate care successfully.
OUR FIRST JOB
The Church has much work to do in this area. Too often, Christians are blind to our own privilege. We see “sin” in the world, and we feel a Biblical duty to confront it. We do need to be salt and light, but how we do this matters. We need to begin by loving people – all people – where they are. Every human being bears the image of God (imago Dei): those who know Christ, those who do not yet know Christ, those within our families, those beyond our families, those who are like us, those who are different from us, those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree (Col. 3:11). Our job is to love first. If we closely examine Paul’s writings to the New Testament church, we will see that the call to confront sin is a call to keep brothers and sisters within the Body accountable to holy living, and not to reform those who have not yet called on the name of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-13; Gal. 6:1ff). Jesus and his disciples didn’t “clean the fish” before they caught them. By clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and love, we can more graciously extend the love of Christ, not only to our brothers and sisters in the faith, but to the world around us (Col. 3:12-14). When we lead with love, we are best positioned to build bridges, open doors, and invite others to his table.
Social researcher Brené Brown asserts that those of us who hold privilege bear the responsibility for engaging in the hard conversations that will break down the systems that perpetuate the marginalization of others. We don’t like this; we shy away from it. But Brown maintains that “to not have the conversations because they make you uncomfortable is the definition of privilege” (The Call to Courage). It falls to the Church to invite these conversations and to lead by listening. But this must be done with sincerity, with no agenda attached. Only then can we truly care responsively for the world around us and create space for Christ’s message of love, hope and redemption to be heard.
Church, we cannot continue to bludgeon people with Truth. We must lead by loving and listening if the true message of Christ is to be heard. Christ does not need us to defend him; he needs us to represent him authentically, by loving as he loves.
As Christians, will we choose to use the privilege we possess for good and not ill? Will we choose to initiate difficult, uncomfortable conversations about difference and diversity and be truly invitational in our approach? Will we lead with love? Will we (as St. Francis prayed) seek first to understand, rather than to be understood? If we will stop, listen, suspend judgment and love first, we will truly show the world that we are his disciples. In so doing, we will not only restore our rightly-ordered voice in the public arena, but we will make Christ compelling to others.