NPR, Faith, and Privilege: Am Impromptu Conversation with My Son

I was listening to an interview on NPR while driving my 13-year old son home from rock climbing. There was a former white nationalist on the program talking about how white supremacists has rebranded themselves as “white nationalists.” He talked about being involved in promoting agendas of the white nationalists by appealing to the baser instincts of white voters. He talked about using toned-down white supremacist rhetoric (e.g. various anti-immigration policies, signs posted in Spanish, “white pride,” etc.) in order to keep people from feeling “racist” while still playing on certain racial tendencies. You can read the transcript of the interview here (please note that I’d previously omitted that the gentleman being interviewed was a former member of the white nationalist part and have corrected that error with this updated posting).

My son was listening and asked some questions, which led into a long conversation about prejudice and privilege. It wasn’t the first time I’ve had this sort of conversation with my son. Having spent five years in Chicago Public Schools, he had encountered difference in ways he hadn’t when he attended elementary school in Central Illinois. Even so, the manner in which the gentleman being interviewed described his successful use of white nationalist rhetoric made this particular conversation noteworthy and challenging.

I don’t consider myself an expert on white privilege or matters of difference. My initiation into the conversation happened when I was serving as an academic dean working with an ethnically diverse student body. I also tried my hand at addressing what might be needed for my own academic discipline (Old Testament Theology) to adapt to a more multi-ethnic environment. Despite my limited experience and thinking on the matter, I had to come up with some way to have a conversation with my son. Here is a paraphrase of what I told him…

“Fear is a powerful motivator. We live in a world where too many people are consumed with keeping what they have, which usually means keeping the world the same. There are some people who actively seek to diminish others because they feel the color of their skin, their gender, or their socio-economic status, somehow means they have less dignity.

There are others who are blinded by biases…we all see the world from our own perspective. Often times, we won’t understand the experiences of others because we haven’t had their experiences…we haven’t walked in their shoes.

Maybe the best thing we can do is to remember moments when we have been disadvantaged and that others experience different obstacles…they are differently disadvantaged than we are. Once we find those points of connection, we will begin to recognize more fully that the world is not the way it should be and can find ways to stand with (rather than against) those who are disadvantaged.”

My son and I went on to discuss some of what it means to think about these matters biblically. Here is a portion of what we discussed.

As a Christian, I believe joining with and caring for the disadvantaged demonstrates some important truths about God. Those who trust in Him are uniquely resourced to care for the disadvantaged because we know that, in the end, we are on the side of God and God doesn’t lose.

As a white male, I understand the discomfort that can accompany decisions driven by a desire for cultural and gender diversity. It can be frustrating to feel what I can only assume many female or non-white individuals have experienced over the years…that, in some instances, I am less-advantaged because I am a white male. The loss of advantage in certain instances has also highlighted for me the many other advantages I have as a white male in Western society. I’m also thankful for my female colleagues and colleagues from different cultures and their willingness to patiently add to my understanding of the often challenging dynamics with which they deal.

So, as a white male, I feel challenged by these issues. I can, to an extent, understand the fear of loss that drives some to follow ideologies rooted in white nationalism as was described on the program my son and I heard on NPR that night.

Fortunately, I’m not only a white male. I am also an evangelical. I realize that term may leave a bad taste in the mouths of some. I have some hesitancy using it to describe myself…in the end, I feel that I should not only own the label, but also seek to redefine the term in the way I live my life.

As an evangelical Christian, I take comfort in knowing that God’s resources and blessings are not finite, nor do they only come through one particular social arrangement. Even if I or my kids no longer receive the social benefits of white privilege, we will always enjoy the presence of God with us.

God offers resources that allow us to live differently in a world that is not as it should be. While those who believe in Christ sometimes act as if those resources aren’t available, it does not negate the fact that God’s storehouses are full…he stands ready to support those who are faithful to him.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t know how to navigate these rather challenging waters without the theological framework that the Scriptures provide. It is challenging enough to navigate them after more than a decade of formal theological education. I am confident, however, that if those who follow Christ think theologically about these matters…if we can take a step back, start with who God is and understand who we are in relation to him, we will find the theological resources to live differently in a no-quite-right world.