I was at a coffee shop this past weekend doing some schoolwork when this beautiful lesbian couple came in, got some coffee, and left. I don’t know what it was about them, but they were stuck in my mind for quite a while after this. I wondered how the America church would be relating to gays at this point had sweet, loving relationships like that been the primary display Evangelicals had seen all these years.
I remembered that, as I was growing up, one of the primary Evangelical apologetics against gay rights was the whole litany of emotional, psychological, and societal detriments that come with homosexuality. I can’t tell you how many times I was told about the higher rates of depression, suicide, relationship abuse, physical health problems, STDs, and rampant unsafe sexual practices among the majority of gay population. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) suggestion was that, when someone moves so radically against “the way God designed things”, great problems are sure to follow.
(On a side note, don’t take any of this as any sort of statement as to my view on homosexuality and gay rights. I have written about that elsewhere. My point here today is very different.)
But this also really similar to the stats you see among blacks, Hispanics, illegal immigrants, Native Americans, those in poverty, and other marginalized groups that face large societal pressures, prejudice, and discrimination. And this is true even when the members of those groups are themselves Christians.
Thinking of all these things, I began to wonder if there is a connection between holiness and privilege.
When Christians have been in the minority, and when they have been oppressed, when they have “lost” the culture war, then that is when Christians are known in society for loving their neighbor, living distinctively, and being unabashed in their faith. When they have been in power–when they are “winning” the culture war–they ignore the poor and powerless, corruption and abuse is rampant in their leadership ranks, Christianity becomes more and more nominal, and they are known more for their hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and lack of love.
It was true for Constantine then, and it’s true for Evangelicalism now.
Now here’s the paradox: when Christian individuals are part of a marginalized group, their “public holiness” tends to be poor, but their “private holiness” is exemplary. Their groups may be known for their sexual, emotional, and “behavioral” issues; but they are also incredibly loving, caring, and resilient. When Christian individuals are part of the group “in power”, their “public holiness” is really stellar, but their “private holiness” is terrible.
And yet, when Christians themselves–as an entire group–are in marginalized, powerless places in society, both their “public” and “private” holiness is far more in line with the biblical picture.
If you’re safe and secure in your own Christian bubble, with no societal pressures whatsoever, then it doesn’t matter if that illegal immigrant or poverty-stricken family are fellow believers, the primary way the empowered Christians tend to relate to those groups is more on economic and political terms. In other words, they relate to them on the basis of power dynamics.
I’ve written about this before in terms of gender dynamics in the church. Whenever the Church has power, and begins relating to others in those terms, bad things happen.
Saving Us from Our Privilege
So what to do? Three things, I think.
First, we should take on a more “pilgrim” mentality in the world. We should live and act as if we are the marginalized “other” people that we are. Whether or not society affords us deference or influence, we should see ourselves as those without power, refusing to relate to others on the basis of this. We should relate to other believers as fellow believers regardless of how doctrinally, politically, or economically they differ from us. Pursue a robust ecumenism and embrace a society moving more and more towards secularity, because this is where, historically, Christians thrive.
We should follow the example of Christ who, though he had every reason to seize power and privilege, refused it and instead took on the form of a servant. Why can’t we be known for that?
Secondly, we need to redefine “holiness”. Holiness is not simply outward behaviors. The Pharisees had this, and yet the Sermon on the Mount flies in their face after calling them hypocrites. The concepts and words for holiness in the Bible relate to “wholeness” and “wholeheartedness”, so that the outside of our lives matches the inside of our hearts. It is a posture of neediness and weakness, where we allow ourselves to live authentically out of that poverty of spirit. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it doesn’t give us the security of power and judgmentalism. But it is true holiness.
And lastly, let’s bring these two ideas together. We should stop relating to others (and ourselves) on the basis of this holiness in the first place. We see that it takes some societal ease, leisure, and power to live life “properly” without internal change. And so, Christians that are part of groups marginalized for other reasons will tend to lead rougher, messier lives. And similarly, we shouldn’t assume that those in the majority whose lives look “clean” and “pure” are actually “okay”. They probably aren’t.
The center of the Christian life is not “sin management”. The point and goal of being a Christian, day by day, is not to end each day having done “less sins” than the previous day. How people behave is not the point of Christianity, and it kills our souls and causes us to relate to others poorly when we treat it that way. We don’t look at someone’s rate of “healthy behaviors” as some indication of their place in the Kingdom.
We look at them as God sees them–as his children–and we strive to live as citizens of the New World that Christ ushered in at his Resurrection.
And hopefully, in the light of that empty tomb, we might learn what it means to be a gloriously marginalized people, emptied of all privilege we can call our own. And people will see it. And they will notice. And they will be changed.
[image credit: Tomasso Laureti’s “Triumph of Christianity”]