Privilege, Oppression, Intersectionality and the Church
Both sets of terms are designed to stack the deck one way or the other. The negative terms are all loaded: nobody self-identifies as a politically correct cultural Marxist, or actually advocates victimhood culture, or champions identity politics, and although there is such a thing as critical theory, precious few people who use the term negatively have ever read much of it. The positive terms are loaded too. If you are not woke, you are still asleep. If you don’t want social justice, you must want social injustice. If you are not Antifa(scist) or antiracist, you are a fascist racist. And so on.
To complicate things further, key terms are used in completely different ways. Both groups want equity and justice, but one group sees this in terms of outcome (eliminating the gender pay gap, or ethnic disparities in university admissions), and the other sees it in terms of opportunity (making all positions available to all people, even if that means more men become CEOs, more women become primary school teachers and more Asians get first class degrees in Maths). Both groups want diversity, but one group wants diversity of identity (sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation), expressed through representation, while the other wants diversity of ideology (religion, class, political affiliation), expressed through freedom of speech. The word “privilege” may be the most neutral word we have available, but given that the many of the key spokespeople on all sides are as privileged as each other, that doesn’t solve the identification problem either.
With no commonly agreed labels for what we are talking about—which is partly a function of novelty, since much of this discourse has sprung up in the last decade—the conversation is difficult.
I. The Context
An awful lot of what I’ve just said would have made little or no sense to any of us ten years ago. (It still makes very little sense to many of our global brothers and sisters, of course; I’m writing very specifically written in the context of the Anglophone West in 2020.) The language and jargon is new, the dramatis personae are new, and the consequences of getting it wrong are, if not new, at least dramatically inflated. The sheer speed at which opinions are moving—at least if you read the broadsheets, as opposed to listening to the conversations in your local barber—are dizzying. We could call this the Nicky Morgan phenomenon, after the former Education Secretary who voted against gay marriage in 2013, decided she was for it in 2014, and was seeing opposition to it as possible evidence of extremism by 2015. When opinions are changing that fast, and that dramatically, it is hard for the church to keep up with the issues, let alone offer a wise response.
Standing at the end of the decade, we can already see how much things changed in the three central years, 2014-16. The first same-sex marriages in the UK and then the US, following the decision in Obergefell vs Hodges; the sudden switch from gay rights to trans rights, embodied (literally) by the appearance of Bruce/Caitlin Jenner on the front page of Vogue, and fuelled by boycotts and policy announcements about mixed sex bathrooms; the killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, the Ferguson riots, and #BlackLivesMatter; the collapse of Syria and the migrant crisis of 2015; the Charlie Hebdo attack and the debate about free speech and Islam that followed; the socially divisive Scottish independence and Brexit referendums; the election of Donald Trump; the sudden emergence of “safe spaces” on university campuses, alongside a spike in references to trigger warnings, secondary trauma, cancellation, call-out culture, and no platforming; and the accompanying rise in temperature whenever these issues are spoken about. Many in the West, whether Christians or not, found the rate of change exhausting. Me too.
Yet like all sudden transformations, this one had been decades or even centuries in the making. In some ways, paradoxically, it is the fruit of Christian theology. Christianity has a built-in moral imperative towards emancipation, freedom for the captives, and dignity for the downtrodden, and it comes not just from Jesus’s teaching (“the first shall be last and the last shall be first”), but from his incarnation (“he has thrown down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek”), and above all his crucifixion (“he made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave, and humbled himself to death on a cross”). If truths like that are believed, preached and acted upon for long enough, it can utterly transform the moral imagination of a civilisation, with dramatic implications for the dignity and human rights of women, children, foreigners, slaves, the colonised, and anyone whom society has treated as less than human. The elevation of victims is a specifically Christian phenomenon; if you aren’t sure about that, you can just read Homer. As such, what some would dismissively call “victimhood culture” is actually the result of Christian anthropology, even if it has now taken on a life of its own, and reached some conclusions (for instance on sexual ethics) that conflict with Christian teaching. The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
We can also tell the story very differently. We can trace it back to the three major idols of human history (money, sex and power), and the three founding fathers of modernist thought who correspond to them (Marx, Freud and Nietzsche). The Marxist thread insists on a basic division of the world into oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited, and calls all oppressed peoples to unite and revolt against their oppressors. The Freudian thread, in which the suppression of sexual urges is the cause of numerous social problems, eventually leads to the transgression of almost all sexual taboos, the consequent decline of the traditional family, and ultimately any sexual constraint that causes a therapeutic difficulty for anyone, including biological sex itself. The Nietzschian thread starts with the observation that humans are motivated by the will to power, and ends up with Michel Foucault arguing that power is the essential feature of all human relationships. (Foucault still exercises an astonishing influence in the academy; he is currently the most cited academic in any discipline.) If you put all of that together, the world looks like the graphic above.
II. The Challenge
All this is challenging for the church for a number of reasons, some of which we have touched on already. The terminology is slippery, confusing and hotly contested. Things are moving so fast that it is hard to keep up. In some cases we are being asked to accept ludicrous ideas that are self-evidently false. We may therefore be tempted to ignore it, especially since it is mostly concentrated in cities, universities, journalism and antisocial media (at least for the moment), although on balance it is important that we don’t.
Some of it, to be fair, is risible. Men can become women, but white people cannot become black. Asians can become British, but Brits cannot become Asian. Identity matters more than ideas (“you only say that because you’re a …”, “speaking as a …”, etc), until the ideas are unpopular enough, when suddenly they matter more than identity (which is why Peter Thiel is dismissed as no longer gay, Kanye West as no longer black, and Germaine Greer as no longer a feminist, all for expressing ideas that are regarded as beyond the pale). It is no problem for Jamie Oliver to own a chain of Italian restaurants, but for him to serve jerk chicken is cultural appropriation. Authors and actors don’t want to be associated with JK Rowling because she believes sex is real and women menstruate. Schools need parental permission to give a child an aspirin, but not to start treating boys as girls or girls as boys. Unemployed white men in Hartlepool are privileged; a Harvard-educated black multimillionaire, not so much. Inequality is always a result of injustice, except when gays earn more than straight people or Asians earn more than everyone else. Biological males can win medals in female sports and be imprisoned in female prisons, even if they have a history of sexual assault. Howls of oppression are fiercest in the most privileged communities on earth, namely elite universities in rich, Western countries. We could go on. Presented with things like this, the best response is somewhere between a raised eyebrow and a splutter of laughter.
Less absurd versions are available, and they require more critical reflection. In a helpful paper, Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer highlight various “potential conflicts” with Christian theology which may emerge: i) the idea that gender is a social construct; ii) the tendency to reduce truth claims to power plays; iii) the relativist epistemology, whereby a particular sort of lived experience is required for a person to understand the reality of something; iv) the relationship between gender and justice, such that Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is regarded as irredeemably oppressive; v) the collapse of individual responsibility before collective privilege and/or oppression, resulting in all (say) white men being guilty of oppression by belonging to a certain group, and the children being visited with the sins of the great-great-great-grandfathers. Tim Keller, in an excellent article sketching biblical justice and its secular alternatives, offers a related critique, arguing that what he calls critical theory is i) incoherent, ii) simplistic, iii) undermining of our common humanity, iv) in denial about our common sinfulness, v) incompatible with forgiveness and reconciliation between groups, vi) dependent on a “highly self-righteous performative identity,” and vii) prone to domination. Both articles are well worth reading in more detail.
All of this might seem easy to debunk and/or dismiss. But milder and more plausible versions affect the Western church in all sorts of ways. A few examples spring to mind:
Vulnerability and Victimhood. Vulnerability is prized far more than it used to be among church leaders. No doubt all of us have discovered that to some degree in our preaching: people increasingly come to thank us for our honesty, openness, authenticity and courage when we disclose areas of struggle, and some of us have even written books about it (ahem). Some of this is good, reflecting the need for pastors to live lives of integrity and accessibility in front of the people they lead. But we need also to be wary that vulnerability not slide into victimhood. There is an important difference between boasting in weaknesses which would seem to disqualify us from ministry, as Paul does, and disclosing things for the purpose of earning people’s sympathy and thereby qualifying us for ministry, as often happens today. The line may not be clear, but the temptation should be.
Diversity and Tokenism. Is it important to pursue diversity? Most of us would instinctively say yes, for biblical as well as cultural reasons, and probably work harder than we used to at diversifying our leadership teams, conference platforms and even promotional videos in contextually appropriate ways. But things are complicated. It is easy for tokenism to slip in, whereby we want to diversify the platform without diversifying the power. This almost always makes things worse, because it convinces the majority that there is no problem (the “I have a gay friend” defence), and the minority that we are papering over the real issues. We may also prize visible diversity (sex, ethnicity) over invisible diversity (class, education, marital status): we try to avoid photos or websites featuring all male or all white faces, but don’t notice invisible diversity anything like as much, even if at a cultural level it matters more. (Whom do I have more in common with: my black fellow elder who went to a redbrick university and works in an investment bank, or a single white guy who left school at sixteen and works in an Asda on Tyneside?) So it is crucial to ask why we want more diverse teams, platforms and panels, and then apply our answer as consistently as possible.
Progress and Decline. On the basis of most criteria, the contemporary West is just about the richest, safest, most comfortable, most healthy and most educated society in human history. We are far less likely than any of our ancestors, and plenty of our contemporaries, to experience violence, pain, famine, destitution, war, slavery, plunder, genocide, the violation of our rights, or what most civilisations would think of as oppression. Yet we are also more likely than almost any generation before us to lament how awful everything is, especially when we are trying to make political points: the inhumanity of our public policy, the degradation of our hospitals, the violence of our speech, the oppression of our education system, the brutality of the free market, the death of democracy, and the like. It is a version of Moynihan’s Law: the better things are, the worse they seem. It happens on both the left (poverty, racism) and the right (religious liberty, family), and both of them are visible, if not rampant, in the church.
Patriarchy and Eldership. Is patriarchy bad? The cultural answer is obviously yes. Patriarchy is oppressive, and leads to toxic masculinity, harassment in the workplace, pay gaps, rape culture, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and a multitude of other evils. Increasingly this would be the answer in the church as well, sometimes for very defensible reasons (#ChurchToo). But again, things are complicated. Israel was a patriarchy. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were patriarchs, and the nation was led by male kings and male priests. The apostles were all men. The New Jerusalem is a bridal city defended by twelve walls (named after men) and twelve foundations (named after men). The Christian gospel is one in which a faithful husband fights for and rescues his bride from impurity, captivity and peril. And what is eldership if it is not rule by fathers, with the most privileged people—older, theologically literate, respected and usually married men—charged with oversight of the whole community? For better or worse, the church has always been guarded by fathers with authority. The devil hates it. His attempt to make patriarchs the enemy of justice is resoundingly unbiblical, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t at risk of swallowing it.
Privilege and Theology. Should this article—or for that matter my next book, or next sermon—be dismissed as simply another example of white, male, straight, married, cis, rich, educated, Eurocentric privilege? Yes and no. Yes: I am among the most privileged people in human history, and nothing shows that quite so clearly as the act of writing an article about privilege. And you can tell, because I am treating this whole subject as an abstraction, without the pain that comes from being bullied for my sexuality, stopped and searched for my colour, excluded from the room for my sex, or constrained by a disability. But also no: since writing on anything is a function of privilege, requiring money, time, space, physical ability, literacy and education, we cannot dismiss privileged authors unless we are going to stop reading altogether. (The most oppressed do not write books, op-eds or even tweets, because they are too busy trying to survive.) So although we need to take a person’s privilege into account while considering what they say, it is not an objection to taking their argument seriously. If anything, it is the reason we are able to read what they think in the first place.
If we are not already, all of us will face some version of these challenges in the next few years, from its most generous form (do you think it would help you to have a single woman’s perspective in that discussion?) to its most odious one (like the charge that David Cameron experienced “privileged pain” when he lost a disabled child). Many in our churches are well down the track already. It is also the context in which our children, young people and students are being catechised, both formally at school and informally online. So it is worth considering how to respond.
III. The Response
There is a balance to be struck here. We don’t want to be ostriches, ignoring the issue until it goes away. But nor do we want to catastrophise, bewailing every new development as yet more evidence that the West is going to the dogs, and frantically running seminars on the dark menace of critical theory / cultural Marxism / political correctness / grievance studies / identity politics / victimhood culture. (Some of our American brothers and sisters have gone down this route, and so far the fruit has not been very positive.) Instead, let me suggest four things that will help us.
1) Thankfulness. One of the results of being Spirit-filled is that of “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father” (Eph 5:20), which implies that we can find something to be thankful for in everything, a diamond from God amidst any amount of rough. In this case it is easy. As we have touched on already, the defence of the oppressed is a biblical non-negotiable, and would not have emerged in our culture were it not for Christianity. (Ancient Greeks and Romans did not worry about the employment rights of women or migrants drowning in the Mediterranean; some cultures today, less shaped by the gospel, still don’t.) Its current version may have forgotten its Christian roots and got a bit carried away in some areas, but the status of women, children, the poor, slaves, migrants, sexual minorities, and people with disabilities is immeasurably improved relative to two thousand years ago, and in many cases relative to fifty years ago, and this should make us thankful. Addressing the ongoing menace of racism is vital. The last ten years have made sexual abuse harder rather than easier. The provision of gender-neutral kids toilets results from the same instinct as the provision of special needs schools—the desire to be as accommodating and inclusive as possible to vulnerable children—even if I think the latter is wonderful and the former is bonkers. In the grand scheme of things, if we could choose our problems, this would be a decent one to have.
2) Discernment. We often think of discernment negatively, as the art of spitting out the bones within the fish, but there is a good case to be made for seeing it positively: the process of finding all the best fish amongst the bones. Here, once again, there is plenty of good to be found. “Intersectionality” might be a novel bit of jargon with a lot of dubious application, but its central insight—that discrimination based on sex, race, class and so forth overlap—is obviously correct; most of us would see it in the story of the demonised slave girl in Acts 16, for example. In contemporary Britain, black women clearly do face obstacles that neither black men nor white women face. The church has discriminated against gay people, in our language, our humour, our pastoral application, and even our theology (holding the line on gay sex while moving it dramatically on divorce, for instance). Both the reality and the denial of white privilege are ubiquitous in Britain, and are just as visible in the church as elsewhere. So is class prejudice. So is ageism. Intersex people and those with gender dysphoria do struggle in ways that most of us cannot imagine. Our historical narrative is indefensibly Eurocentric, especially in the church. Single and infertile people are treated like second class citizens in many contexts, again, including the church. Those who do not experience all these challenges—like me—invariably are far slower to see them, regard them as significant enough to require action, and take appropriate steps to respond.
3) Fatherhood. Despite the anti-patriarchal rhetoric, there is widespread awareness in our culture of the need for fathers, and of the damage that fatherlessness can cause, especially in the least privileged communities. Research continually highlights the consequences for education, prosperity and crime that flow from growing up without a father; the bizarre result is that “fathers” are valued by the very same people that like to sneer at “married middle-aged men,” even though the two groups are identical. God’s created order runs deep. For all the concern about toxic masculinity, people know that fathers are different from mothers, and that the father’s contribution is particularly important to the development of healthy young men, and that everybody flourishes when those with strength and power use it in love for the good of those in their care, rather than being passive or inert (or disappearing altogether). That is important for us in our practice of eldership and apostleship, since speaking of elders as fathers makes male eldership seem much less arbitrary to people. It is also important for discipling young men in a society that tells them men are dangerous. Training them how to be fathers, spiritually as well as biologically, can be a surprisingly acceptable way of affirming their God-given masculinity.
4) Jesus. Some of us probably thought of it when we saw the intersectionality chart at the top: it is striking how many of the descriptions in the bottom half applied to Jesus. Poor, single, working class, Jewish, from a colonised people; not English-speaking, attractive, European, prestigious or white (if we allow anachronisms for the moment). It has always been part of the gospel that Jesus was born in a Bethlehem stable rather than a Jerusalem palace, died in humiliation and agony, and was strung up on a tree like a lynched and mutilated victim. No one has suffered more injustice, or experienced more oppression for less reason. Victims everywhere find solidarity with this man. Yet Jesus Christ is not just the paradigmatic example of a victim who experienced unjust suffering; he is also the paradigmatic example of unimaginable privilege being used to serve and save those without it. Even as he is being flogged, he is upholding the universe by the word of his power. He remains fully God as he takes a towel and washes the disciples’ feet. As such, he presents a profound challenge to anyone who thinks that privileged people cannot lay it aside and confront injustice—as well as to anyone who thinks that, since privilege is a gift from God, there is no particular need to use it on behalf of the oppressed. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:5-7).