JD Greear: 'White privilege' exists; here's what Christians can do

A person attends the MLK50 Conference, hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Gospel Coalition in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 2018. | (Photo: ERLC)

In a culture where “white privilege” exists, Christians must work to ensure that all members of society have access to the same rights, Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear said.

In a recent podcast, Grear, who is also the pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, answered the question, “Is white privilege real?” by acknowledging that while all Americans have access to the same laws and rights, “there's this kind of invisible set of assets that I get from being a part of the majority culture.”

The pastor said that after talking with many of his “brothers and sisters of color,” he came to understand the issue on a deeper level. One of those individuals was George Yancey, an African-American sociologist from North Texas University, who explained that the term “privilege” was first developed by a white woman in the 1980s to talk not about race but male privilege in academics.

So privilege is not an exclusively racial thing (those who are good looking also enjoy certain benefits). But the term was later applied to race. Is there a privilege that you get from being white? This white privilege, which was defined in the podcast as “an invisible package of unearned assets that whites can count on cashing in each day,” can range from something innocent to something harmful.

Greear pointed out examples of where there is a social advantage in being white in the United States than in being non-white.

“When I get pulled over by the police, I've never one time questioned whether or not it was because of my race,” he said. “Every person of color I know has some story that goes back to this happening where ... there was a line of questioning that was being given to them because they were a certain race.

"There is a clerk following you in the store because they assume maybe you'll steal something."

When it comes to employment, the person who is hiring might naturally be drawn to people who look like them. And when it comes to the justice system, race may be a factor in a person's sentencing, Greear noted, citing evidence indicating that being a person of color increases the likelihood that the death penalty is given.

Yancey said “privileges” are like “rights” — meaning “you don’t want to take rights away from one and give them to somebody else,” but “you want the right that one experiences to be experienced by all.” 

“If there's a burden of being a person of privilege, of whatever kind of privilege it is, that is to leverage it so that others can experience what you experience,” Grear said. 

So how should Christians respond?

“If I've been given any privilege in whatever situation, I'm going to leverage that not for self, but leverage it to lift others up," the pastor said.

Grear pointed out that politicians are split on the issue; some will say that because of America’s history of exploitation and discrimination, the black community deserves certain benefits and privileges. Others, he said, will say that while government can provide “access and opportunity” and “level the playing field,” African-Americans “are the only ones who can prosper themselves.”

Regardless of race, gender or class, if you follow the acronym DESK (diploma, employment, spouse, kids), then you will most likely succeed in life, Greear remembered someone saying.

“[Yancey] said, ‘You know, we can talk about how to level the playing field and all these sorts of things. but really that's something that every person can do. And if they'll do that, they'll become a person of privilege.’ He said the more the government tries to get in and redistribute things, the worse it becomes.”

But many believe the playing field is so unequal to begin with.

Still, Grear said he’s not “called or competent” to discuss the political aspects of the issue, adding: “As a pastor, I can say to all Christians, whatever privilege you have, it is your responsibility to leverage it to help others who are not as privileged.”

The pastor said that the “dividing line” on the issue isn’t between liberal or conservatives strategies to empower people, but “between people who care about others and them experiencing the same privileges we experience and those who don't.”

“As a Christian, whether you adopt more of a progressive or a conservative approach, you can care about this issue and want to see all people in our culture treated with dignity and experience the same privileges that any of us do."

Grear concluded by encouraging listeners to surround themselves with those of various backgrounds and cultures: "These things are only really learned about in relationship,” he said. “And so it's more than just podcasts and articles. You need to have friends that are not like you because they'll help you see things that are from a different angle than you're used to.”

A fellow Southern Baptist, Pastor Matt Chandler from Texas, has also spoken out about "white privilege" in recent years, lamenting its reality.

"The challenge with white privilege is that most white people cannot see it," Chandler said in 2014 following the shooting of Michael Brown, an African-American teen, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. "We assume that the experiences and opportunities afforded to us are the same afforded to others. Sadly, this simply isn't true."

The Southern Baptist Convention has made efforts to acknowledge and seek forgiveness as part of an endeavor to recognize their past moral failings on race issues.

In 2017, the group’s flagship seminary released a report detailing their history of racism and support for slavery: “We must repent of our own sins, we cannot repent for the dead. We must, however, offer full lament for a legacy we inherit, and a story that is now ours,” wrote The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr., in the 71-page “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The SBC's public policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has also been focused on racial reconciliation in recent years, with president Russell Moore calling racism "anti-Christ."

"What would it say to the world around us if they saw our churches made up of every tribe and tongue and nation and language serving one another, loving one another?" he said.

"What they would see is a sign of contradiction to the outside watching world."

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