Repenting of privilege, signalling virtue, following the crowd

Jun 16, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

We are in very challenging times, when ‘the madness of crowds’ threatens to sweep us all along in its wake.

We’re hoping for leadership from the spiritual elders of our institutional church, who can guide us through our cultural crisis with wise guidance from the word of God. Instead we continue to get capitulation to the secular zeitgeist. Just yesterday: on the prominent Thought for the Day slot on the Radio 4 Today programme, a Church of England theological college Principal spoke, in the context of reopening of shops and restarting of Premier League football, of the importance of leisure for human wellbeing, even in a time of national emergency. I waited for the punchline, where he would say that, like sport and shopping, corporate worship is also essential – but it never came. There was no reference to church or faith at all. Perhaps the message is that… the church is relevant because it cares about what everyone else cares about?

And last week, a photo opportunity for Bishops and clergy in front of a locked Cathedral door, as, carefully distanced from each other by the required minimum two metres, facing away from the consecrated place, they ‘take the knee’. For them, this is symbolising their support for the anti-racism movement, but it could also be interpreted as a powerful symbol of how the priority of God has been displaced by obeisance to the ‘health and safety’ response to the pandemic, and to a secular ideology driven by social media.

This was emphasised again by an article by a Bishop (it doesn’t matter which one – the problem is not individuals, but a corporate culture) who wrote in the Church Times of the need for all white Christians to follow his example, and repent of their “quiet privilege”. What are we to make of this?

I don’t see anything in the bible that says we have to ‘repent of privilege’, and certainly not to repent of the colour of our skin, or our biological sex. We certainly have to repent of sin (and that includes searching our hearts for prejudice and misuse of power, apologising for it and making amends), and we are called to use any privilege we have in the service of God and others. To some much is given. Of them, much is expected. One could contradict this, and argue that the very fact that some are born with and receive more than others is itself unjust and must be remedied by revolution and enforced redistribution, but this is Marxism not biblical Christianity.

Rather, privilege, like a talent in the parable, is a blessing from God for which we’re to give thanks and invest wisely and humbly. Again and again in Scripture the privileged, whether spiritually: God’s people saved and brought into a covenant with him, or materially: those satisfied with food and good things, are warned not to take these things for granted, or to think that “the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Deut 8:18), but rather to attribute all we have to God’s grace. And because of this, from the recognition of undeserved privilege must flow not eternal signalling of admission of guilt, but sacrificial generosity and commitment to the upliftment of others.

Jesus gives a challenging take on this when he says that privilege is not just about being comfortable – in fact it might involve being profoundly uncomfortable and powerless. “Blessed [one might say ‘privileged’] are the poor in spirit…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…those persecuted for my sake”, and even more shockingly “woe to you who are rich”. There are the obvious, material things which confer advantages, but also unseen and eternal blessings for the disadvantaged and uninfluential who are “rich towards God”.

What does this mean for the affluent white Christian in the West? It may be that he grew up in a loving family, with hard working parents who provided him with a good education, self-confidence, the ability to manage money, and other key life skills. Should he repent of this “privilege”? No because these are blessings from God, but he should be careful not to be arrogant or selfish. His entry into the kingdom of God, and that of his children, is made more difficult by the allure of his wealth. He may be called to repentance from greed and lack of concern for the poor, and to take action in the form of sacrificial personal giving, working to change the company’s social responsibility policies and targeting the church’s mission policies to reflect a bias to the materially poor. But what no-one is called to do is despise and be ashamed of God’s good gifts, or worse, one’s cultural and racial identity.

What about the structures of power, the unseen matrix of white Western hegemony, entrenching injustice? Is it a myth to be dismissed, or a reality requiring universal ‘conscientisation’ and revolutionary change? Certainly in Scripture’s portrayal of life under Egyptian or Roman rule, and the bigger picture of the rise and fall of kingdoms, we can trace the dynamics of political power and we’re given insight into the spiritual forces behind them. But in their encounters with the living God, privileged individuals who represent forces oppressing Israel – Naaman, the rulers of Nineveh, the Centurion of Capernaum, Zacchaeus, the wealthy cloth merchant of Philippi – are not asked to repent of their ethnicity or their unwitting complicity in the power structures of the day, but to recognise the Lord’s authority, submit to him, receive forgiveness for wrongdoing and live lives of love. It may be that societal change needs to come about, either by tweaking what is basically a good and just system, or more profoundly, but this is best effected by the Lord according to his sovereign will in response to the crying out of his people – violent godless revolutions do not have good historical pedigree.

This tradition is at the heart of the response of God’s people to racist and other forms of unjust oppression throughout history. It is not apolitical and pietist, because when God arises to come to the aid of his oppressed people the result is society-wide not something that is just restricted to church. It is not secular and human-centred in its philosophy, because the casting down of the mighty, if that’s necessary, and the lifting up of the humble is of the Lord. And the result is not increased enmity between peoples and the collapse of society, but reconciliation and peace.

The frantic self-abasement by the white middle class as part of their ‘great awokening’ is a disturbing thing. It brings to mind an image of a schoolteacher in a north Vietnam village in the 1960’s, his spectacles lying broken in the dust, confessing his bourgeois privilege and pleading for mercy before the revolutionary guards – it’s the influence of Robespierre and Lenin and Mao rather than a movement of the Holy Spirit. The Bishops have clearly been attending well to their seminars on white privilege and unconscious bias. They have swallowed the progressive worldview and their mission now appears to be not to bring the gospel of Christ to the world, but the doctrine of intersectionality to their flock, by giving it a Christian veneer.

We can do much better than this!

Let’s not repent of privilege. Let’s repent of sin, which may include misuse of privilege, or the worship of society’s idols, or the toxic blaming of the ‘other’.

Let’s not signal virtue, but be secretly virtuous. Not kneeling to Black Lives Matter,  but supporting ministries which uplift black lives, and perhaps even looking to godly black leadership through the Gafcon movement.

Let’s not follow the crowd, but follow the one who has compassion on the crowd, who was condemned by the crowd, who rules over the crowd.


See also: Clergy kneel to those who’d trample over themby Alice Williams, The Conservative Woman

When Everyone Kneels, Who Will Stand Up for Western History and Culture? by Giulio Meotti, Gatestone Institute


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