1 Kings 12: A Sermon on White Privilege (Part Three)

Preface: This is a sermon I delivered at Echo Church on July 10, 2016 (you can listen to it here). I’m publishing my manuscript here as it could prove useful to Christians investigating this subject. I never intend my sermon notes for publication, so there is no citation of the research provided here. All of the factual claims here are the result of research and, to the best of my knowledge, all of this material can be easily cited; I haven’t yet taken the time to provide it here. Part One is available here and Part Two is here

Perhaps even the mention of white privilege offends you. I use the term purposely because I assert that it’s very real.

You may ask how I can so confidently state something as fact that is actually just a sociological theory. I could cite the work of scholars, but nearly all of them are secular, so it could be said that’s it’s not actually a Scriptural approach to the issue. Or I could list off a series of Bible verses, but there’s not one singular text that speaks to white privilege, so it would be a systematized approach that would be open to critique as well. Or maybe I should just list off my academic credentials and say I have pieces of paper that affirm my brilliance so you should suck it up and listen to me.

In short, I do not have an airtight defense of what I am about to say, and you might call me irresponsible. “Preacher, stick to the gospel,” one could say, but I am telling you that white privilege stands opposed to the gospel and therefore, I am obligated to say something. Church, all of this is born out of my experience from four decades living in a city fraught with racial tension. It’s woven into Cincinnati’s DNA. It’s our context. We must understand it.

In order to get there, can I tell you my family’s background? During the Great Depression, my grandparents brought their family to Cincinnati from deep Appalachia (southern Kentucky) when work in the coal mines dried up. The settled in Lower Price Hill, one of the white ghettos in Cincinnati, in the 1930’s and carved out a living there. CCU’s affiliation with BLOC Ministries permitted me to walk those same streets where my grandparents, father, aunts and uncles were raised, but I was a visitor to that neighborhood. You see, my dad’s family was able to get out of that neighborhood and move their economic status.

That transition is a birthright I share constantly. It’s easily packaged in the narrative of the Protestant work ethic. My father was raised in poverty but sought the American dream, and through hard work and persistence, they made it so that the grandson of Appalachian immigrants could become a member of the educated class.

But even though they were poor, they had something that many American poor today do not have—the pigmentation of power. White skin. My family’s key advantage was being born in a country where whites controlled the power. It provided them advantages in accessing capital, and acquiring real estate that a black family would never have had.

The American dream requires more than just overcoming poverty. An anecdote for you:

When I was nine years old, coming home from church work night, my dad and brothers were pulled over in Westwood on Harrison Avenue by the police. The officer shined a flashlight in our car, complained that I and my younger brother should really be in seatbelts (even though this was years before seat belt laws) and let us go. The next day, my father was reading the newspaper and exclaimed, “that’s why we got pulled over! Someone robbed a business in a red truck and they were checking if it was us.” Three decades later, I vividly remember that experience but you know what I don’t remember? Fear. Fear that something violently could happen to my father or even myself. But if I was black and my children were with me, this would be a legitimate fear.

A key principal within Christian faith is the Imago Dei, that humanity is made in the image of God and this is what gives us worth. This is why we worship Jesus: because he died for all people regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, economic status, or even if they’re just horrible people. This is the gospel. Our country, however, has a long history of inequality toward most of these people groups, but especially toward blacks in the United States—from their legalized enslavement, to a section of our constitution counting them as three-fifths of a human being, to them not even being granted full civil rights until fifty years ago.

And this doesn’t even touch on the issues within our own city.

Even though we view Cincinnati as a northern city, separated from the institution of slavery by the Ohio River, this city was culpable. One historian noted that, “Cincinnati was a Southern city on free soil” and much of its growth in the years of the Civil War was a result of the work of slaves to the South. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, the state of Ohio passed a series of “black laws” requiring free blacks to post $500 bond to guarantee their freedom and good behavior. In the first half of the 1800’s, a series of race riots occurred, where whites angry at blacks would enter African American neighborhoods and burn them to the ground. One such riot took place in 1841 when the Cincinnati Enquirer printed an article suggesting that blacks were stealing the jobs of whites and it resulted in one of the worst riots in the city’s history as lynch mobs roamed the streets.

There is housing in this neighborhood that was built for poor blacks. Why are they unique? Jacob Schmidlaap installed indoor plumbing. This was 1911. Barely 100 years ago the consensus of white America was that blacks couldn’t properly use indoor plumbing.

And just last summer, about a mile away from here, Sam DuBose was tragically killed, the result of a traffic stop for a missing front license plate. I’ve been driving without one since someone on the street backed into me eight years ago and we haven’t ever put one on my wife’s new car.

I could go on and on and on, but I’ve either made my point or alienated you entirely. The point that we need to take is this: white privilege is still a reality in these United States. And it still has negative repercussions on an entire segment of our population.

I’m going to use Proverbs 31:8 here, but I’ll do so with a postscript. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” My use of this text could be perceived as a message of superiority, and I do not use this to imply that blacks in our country are in the same place they were nearly 250 years ago. More so than ever, there have a voice today and, for the majority, are not destitute. And I will confidently offer that our country’s prejudices are shrinking. One example: the election of an African American president. Another is a conversation I had with my ten-year old daughter this week about race. She was interested but not fully comprehending because she is used to diversity. The coming generations will be less and less prejudice than those before.

But that doesn’t mean that white America is handling it well. You see, the privilege of the previous centuries has provided an existence that we view as normal. Again, we worship at the altar of the Protestant work ethic without truly considering if we are just fortunately to have been placed within this context. Whether you recognize it or not, there is an underlying guilt that creates a need within whites to justify this status. Claiming that racial issues are ancient history is just on of those constructs.

In social systems, the majority will always feel threatened by the minority. It’s basic psychology: people feel vulnerable if something has the potential to take away from their livelihood. It’s this concern that permits them to rationalize an existence that defends their justification, and it’s the minority group that experiences the negative repercussions.

You know, I cited psychology, but in reality, this is the lesson in this week’s Scripture text. Why was Jeroboam insecure about losing his kingdom? Because he did not trust in the promise the Lord hand made to him. Similarly all of us on this earth are faced with different challenges that bring on feelings of insecurity. Friends, it’s not necessarily bad for us to feel insecure. The promises of God are for our eternal security so maneuvering in the here and now is still an exercise of faith. While on earth—this fallen sphere—we’re still subject to tragedies and horrible experiences. God understands that we will wrestle with trust.

This insecurity made Jeroboam afraid. This same fear is what grips many whites today. It’s the history of our young country. Not to get too political, but it is why many people in this country are frightened of immigrants. Throughout our history, Americans have shown prejudices toward minorities out of the fear that they will usurp them from their status. Yes, church, this is the same emotion behind white privilege. Again, this is not necessarily sin. We can experience fear while still learning to trust the Lord, but we must not remain living in fear. The gospel is us entrusting our entire futures to the Lord. If our faith is in gun control, or law enforcement, or limited immigration, we’re putting our faith in humanity and not the Lord. Fear is a human emotion but it is not a biblical ideal.

For Jeroboam, fear drove him to sin. He led his people toward idolatry so he could retain power. The question for the privileged, then, is are we permitting our fear to lead us toward sin?

UNDERSTAND THIS: it’s not a sin to be white and middle class. But if we use that privilege to suppress the opportunities of those without a voice, then we are violating the words of the Scriptures and the very spirit of the gospel.

So with all the application for this week, we should I tell you? To pray for peace? To befriend a black person? To hug a police officer?  Let me make it extremely simple. I preach more about who God is and who Jesus is than I do about altering behavior. The reason why is that if you cannot grasp the essence of Christianity, your actions mean very little. The more you know about God, the more it changes your life. And this is my application for you today: own it. FOR THE MAJORITY OF US, JUST RECOGNIZE OUR PRIVILEGE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE. I'm asking you to see where it can take you. 

As I was praying how I’d conclude all of this, my prayer was answered when I received a letter from a pastor friend of mine. He knew I was preaching about this and thought I needed some help. As he challenged, I hope it speaks to you.

The times look dark and as the clouds grow thicker, the stupidity of the nation seems to increase. If the Lord didn’t still have Christians here, I would be apprehensive. But he loves his children; even as they are sighing and mourning before him, and I’m sure he hears their sighs, and sees their tears. I trust there’s mercy in store for us at the end of all this; but I expect there’s still more to go before we get into a right channel, before we’re humbled, and learn to give him the glory. 
The state of the nation and the state of the churches are both deplorable. Those who should be praying are fighting among themselves! How many Christian leaders are more concerned for the mistakes of government than for their own sins? When will these things end? 

Now, while I was sent this letter by a pastor friend, he took it from another pastor. And (with some minimum edits) it’s actually the words of a minister that were written in February 1778. The controversy of which he refers to is the Revolutionary War (and it was actually a British pastor that wrote this). I found his words especially comforting, because this minister actually helped contribute to the Christian community like no one else has over the past two centuries.

You see, just six years before he wrote this, John Newton wrote these lyrics:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

You do know Newton’s story, don't you? He was a slave trader who became a pastor and then, in the latter years of his life, passionately fought for the abolishment of slavery. Newton's background makes the entire collection more profound. He was able to finally recognize his privilege, then spent his time undoing the damage he caused.

He moved from fear to freedom. We must do the same.

Deuteronomy 31:6
"Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”