Recently, I read this post by Hannah Mudge on threads about privilege. It’s a good article with a reminder (not very controversial I’d have thought) that if you have privilege as a Christian it’s your responsibility to listen to others who are less privileged and use your privilege on their behalf. It strikes similar themes but totally different notes to this ranty post by IFES Secretary for Dialogue (ironically) Vinoth Ramachandra. He is offended at the thought of “American men” (their gender a point he underlines twice) investing in theological education for African pastors.
All of this got me thinking about the discourse about privilege. Hannah’s piece is saying, I think, that privileged white men should use what they have to serve other Christians, who are not the majority. One could be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what the white men Vinoth critiques are doing. But no, they are to be criticised for what they are doing, for this talk of privilege has moved from something to consider to a way of attempting to silence people with whom we disagree. Privilege poisons their input.
It seems to me this is another example of Christians buying into the presuppositions and terms of secular discussion unthinkingly. I’m sure Hannah only wants white men to consider people who are not white men. In fact the use of “privilege”, as Ramachandra shows, is more likely to be a way of discounting the views of people we don’t like and who we identify (whether fairly or not) with oppressive voices. It’s racism in reverse. Very obviously in the case Ramachandra cites – for while I do find the name “theological famine relief” rather patronising, what’s clear is that the call for help has come from African pastors and that these white men ARE using their privilege to respond to that request for help. But writing them off as white men allows him to sideline their theological views as imperialistic, limited, sinful even.
And of course that’s just silly – because the very fact of their privilege means that they have had access to top class academic institutions, they can read widely and fully, and importantly, they can travel to gain a world perspective on Christianity. In this case, I’d have thought it’s their very privilege that makes their input to theological training valuable.
What’s also true is that they have much to learn from female Christians with a different skin colour in the developing world – something none of them would deny I’m sure. But their privilege is being used against them as a weapon, as it often is in secular rights based discourse, and that is not something into which Christians can buy.
Rather, it seems to me, Christians are assured of their value in Christ apart from skin colour, class, ability or education, and are gifted by God’s Spirit, every single one empowered to serve other Christians. Which means I should spend more time wondering how to love the Christians I know and know of, with what I have, rather than slapping down Christians I don’t agree with using secular tools. I wonder if this whole “hermeneutic of suspicion” of people with privilege is getting us anywhere at all – the people for whom it seems to be valuable are the people who want to poison the well against Christians with whom they disagree.
Mark Meynell said all of this in a much wittier way here.