Jesus the Privileged

jesus-and-the-poorI often make the mistake of thinking that the incarnation is exclusively about God bridging the gap between humanity and deity, as if Jesus took one cosmic dumpster dive to earth and  it all ended there. But if I look carefully at the Gospels, I’m reminded that even after Jesus “emptied” himself of his divine privileges and took on human form (as Paul eloquently describes in Philippians 2), he didn’t stop there. Jesus’ incarnation traversed not only the vast status differences between God and man, but also the vast status differences between privileged and oppressed humans.

Incarnation means embodied in flesh or taking on flesh.  As a human, Jesus repeatedly took on the flesh of those around him, examined the world from their perspective, bore their burdens, and took up their causes.  And he often did so not only across cultural lines, but also across status lines.

JESUS THE PRIVILEGED

As a free Jewish man, Jesus enjoyed an “invisible knapsack” of privileges in the inequitable society of his day. Unlike slaves, he was free to go where he wanted and even build personal wealth. Unlike Samaritans, he wasn’t shunned by Jewish people or targeted by their unflattering and oppressive stereotypes of Samaritans. Unlike women, he didn’t have to worry that his life was less valuable than a man’s or that his testimony was perceived as less legitimate than a man’s.

Granted, Jesus wasn’t the most privileged person in his society. In fact, in some ways he was a target of oppression. But his social position situated him above a good number of other folks – namely, slaves, Samaritans and women.

But Jesus wasn’t just any old privileged person in his society.  He likely possessed a sociological imagination, something that sociologists argue that everybody needs.  Broadly speaking, a sociological imagination is an understanding of how societal structures (e.g., norms, cultural beliefs, institutions, etc.) propel or impede an individual’s movement in society.

social ladder

You probably have some sort of a sociological imagination if you understand where you and similar others are located on the social status ladder, see how current and historical injustices affect individuals today, and are aware of how society empowers or limits you based on your memberships in race, class and gender groups.

I bet Jesus had a sociological imagination. I bet he knew that he had more voice/status/power/influence than slaves, Samaritans, and women.  I bet he was aware of the powerful status divisions in his society and knew that emptying himself of his privilege would come at great cost to himself. I bet he knew that sticking his neck out for the oppressed would be “bad” for his ministry platform and relationships. I bet he knew that “good” things awaited him if he just stayed in his lane and didn’t try to disrupt the social order. I bet he knew that he could use his elevated social position to cling to power, create a privileged bubble with his fellow free Jewish male buddies, and make a better life for himself.

Nevertheless, as a free Jewish man, Jesus rejected cronyism, abandoned his privileged turf, “emptied” himself of his voice/status/power/influence, and used it to take on the flesh of the disempowered and re-order God’s creation. He repeatedly and strategically emptied himself of his status by defending the defenseless (such as the woman caught in adultery), using his platform to draw attention to the voiceless (such as the woman with the bleeding issue), and paying close attention to justice issues that didn’t directly affect him (as he did with the Caananite woman).

In all three of these cases, Jesus emptied himself for individuals who were considered so unimportant that their names were not even recorded in Scripture. And in all three of these cases, Jesus emptied himself at great risk to his own social status and livelihood. Greg Boyd says that “Love is ascribing worth to others at cost to ourselves.” Jesus the Privileged did this repeatedly and strategically – even to the point of death.

TAKING INVENTORY

If we want to be like Jesus, we need more than good intentions and humble, prayerful hearts. We need to use our sociological imaginations. Privileged Christians often vaguely talk of “emptying” themselves as Jesus did, but rarely do we stop to critically evaluate our social position relative to others, measure power/status discrepancies relative to others and strategically imagine what it would look like to empty ourselves in our various social settings.

This makes no sense.

How do we even begin to empty ourselves, as Jesus did, if we haven’t taken inventory of the status/privilege/power/influence that we are supposedly trying to empty? We must be aware and we must be strategic. As Andy Crouch says, “”Privilege is unconscious power. The problem with unconscious power…it’s almost never used for flourishing.”

As someone who identifies with both privileged and oppressed groups, I find that my social position is constantly in flux, depending on the social situation and the types of people around. So, I regularly (about once a month, and often in conversation with God and others) take time to sociologically imagine my social situations (e.g., at church where I’m a leader, at work where I’m a professor, in my low-income neighborhood where I have relatively more economic means, in the blogosphere where I have a platform, in my ministry where I have a captive audience, etc.). During this time of reflection, I take note of where I have power and a voice relative to others in my social situations.  And then I ask God and others to help me strategize ways to empty myself to empower others in my social situations in honoring and collaborative ways.

Seeing my social world through the lens of a sociological imagination is no easy feat — it requires wisdom and conviction from the Holy Spirit, input from people around me, and a high level of intentionality on my part. And frankly, I often fall short, succumbing to the cronyism and comforts of privilege that Jesus so heroically rejected.  My power is used for flourishing so little of the time.

But Jesus’ example haunts me, beckoning me to to follow him as he re-orders creation. Jesus defended the woman caught in adultery, essentially facing off against a vigilante mob armed with rocks, pointing out their unjust behavior, and preserving the woman’s dignity and life.

201-woman-caught-in-adultery_tif

If I want to be like Jesus I have to use my sociological imagination to ask myself, which people in my various social worlds are unjustly targeted by society’s rocks? What steps do I need to undergo in order to “take on their flesh”, see the world from their perspective, empathize with them, stand with them and ultimately become them? What would it look like for me to put my own body, reputation and livelihood on the line (as Jesus did), in defense of those who are being targeted? What would it cost me? And am I willing to pay the price?

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Up next, Jesus the Oppressed.

32 Responses

  1. Anne Vyn
    Anne Vyn September 23, 2013 at 5:45 AM |

    “I bet he knew that sticking his neck out for the oppressed would be “bad” for his ministry platform and relationships.”

    This should not surprise us as it was Jesus who said, “You cannot serve/love God and money.” Truly loving God and following in the footsteps of Jesus may have serious ramifications on our “ministry status”, on our weekly pay cheque, even on our denominational retirement pensions. Which is more important to us: obedience or financial security? The day may come when we are forced to choose only one.

  2. Chris Theule-VanDam (@theule)
    Chris Theule-VanDam (@theule) September 23, 2013 at 5:48 AM |

    Great post. Thank you for pushing us forward.
    One thought, some commentators say the analogy is not “emptying” but instead, “pouring out” or “overflowing”. Does changing this picture help us to use the power and privilege that we have, as we proactively and consciously “overflow” the character of “Christ in us”?

  3. Brian Foulks
    Brian Foulks September 23, 2013 at 5:51 AM |

    Sister this has made a profound impact on my theological thinking. Du Bios shaped my sociological imagination thanks to my good buddy, Edward Blum, but you have transcended that with this peice.

    For me this may be one of your most important works this far. Never would I have connected the dots thay you just did. The incarnation that you unpack is a Jesus that scares America and most of the evangelical world.

  4. cloakedmonk
    cloakedmonk September 23, 2013 at 10:22 AM |

    “How do we even begin to empty ourselves, as Jesus did, if we haven’t taken inventory of the status/privilege/power/influence that we are supposedly trying to empty? We must be aware and we must be strategic. As Andy Crouch says, “”Privilege is unconscious power. The problem with unconscious power…it’s almost never used for flourishing.” ”

    Wonderfully put together post-very thoughtful. I sat in a Bible study yesterday at church that is intended to move our group from exclusivity to inclusivity and I wondered, “We are not naming who we are! We should pause and take a brief inventory/social location so we can see where we are coming from.” But I did not speak up as it was not my group to run. Next time…

    It is our job to be as Jesus, to stand between the oppressed and the oppressor. If I did not fervently believe this, I would be in the wrong business altogether (working with the incarcerated). That takes privilege and a sociological imagination. Now I have words for it. Thank you.

    2 Cor 13:5a Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves.

    I am wondering if it would be okay for me to re-post at my spiritual practices blog (BeguineAgain.com) on Thursday. We focus on thoughtfulness as a spiritual practice and this is a pretty good match! I will of course give you full attribution and a link back.

    Thank you & shalom.

    Rev. Terri Stewart
    http://www.YouthChaplaincyCoalition.wordpress.com
    http://www.BeguineAgain.com

  5. Evangelist Diane Bullock
    Evangelist Diane Bullock September 23, 2013 at 11:57 AM |

    Christena,

    You have presented a powerful message in this article. I love it! Jesus, the omnipotent Savior, “Stooped to conquer.” As someone mentioned earlier, He used “strategy” when He lowered Himself in status, to reach the oppressed.

  6. Evangelist Diane Bullock
    Evangelist Diane Bullock September 23, 2013 at 12:03 PM |

    Additionally, I would like to re-post also.

    Evangelist Diane Bullock
    Broken Vessels Ministries, Suffolk, VA
    http://www.chosendianebullock.com

  7. Aric Clark
    Aric Clark September 23, 2013 at 1:23 PM |

    Nailed it. As a preacher in a white middle class congregation I spend a lot of time painting a picture of Jesus as a refugee/servant/victim to help people recognize our call to solidarity with the oppressed, but this portrayal is immensely helpful. It offers something we can DO with our privilege. Well done.

  8. Amanda Hays
    Amanda Hays September 23, 2013 at 1:48 PM |

    Brandon Sanderson has an interesting science fiction book out called Steelheart. It’s the first of a series, but it is already starting to have this sort of theme of power and privilege destroying us unless it is used to empower others.

  9. Adam Shields
    Adam Shields September 23, 2013 at 7:04 PM |

    This is a very interesting post. You might be interested in Andy Crouch’s new book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Crouch talks about the role of privilege and how we can use the privilege to empower others. This post fits right in with that thought.

  10. Brad Breems
    Brad Breems September 23, 2013 at 7:08 PM |

    Christena,

    Imaginative and visionary thoughts on what Jesus did as God-in-the-flesh, enlivened by a good word from our friend, C.W. Mills.

    I teach sociolgy at Trinty Christian College and a friend just passed this along to me. Students and I have just read Mill’s “The Sociological Imangination” essay and are studing social inequality at the moment. Would you give permission for me to post this, with your name, on my course page? (Or, if you prefer, I could give them this link and have them read it directlyy from your blog.) Let me know if either or one or the other is acceptable to you.
    Peace. Brad Breems

  11. Heironymus Minoris
    Heironymus Minoris September 23, 2013 at 11:50 PM |

    Hmmmmmm…seems to remain in the contours of the paradigm of the knowledge of good and evil.

  12. Dawn Finch
    Dawn Finch September 25, 2013 at 1:51 PM |

    I am a person who is more privileged than those I serve in the inner city of Los Angeles. I was told, at my former job with a large Christian organization, that I was concentrating too much on the poor and should expand my ministry to include the rich as well to bring in more money. The organization took away my job after 31 years of service.
    You do pay a cost to do this type of ministry! It was very painful. However, a month later I was given a 501(c)3 by a friend who was no longer using it and I believe that God was telling me to keep doing the right thing. I know that He cares about the poor and the marginalized and we should as well no matter what it costs.

  13. Edward Blum
    Edward Blum September 25, 2013 at 10:22 PM |

    very cool piece!!!

  14. Belle Vierge
    Belle Vierge September 26, 2013 at 10:09 AM |

    I am absolutely blown away by this. I’ve been working to be more intersectional in my feminism, and this is the perfect spiritual push for me. It’s too easy to forget how radical Jesus was in how He helped people. I need to be more like that. Thank you for writing this!

  15. ebonyjohanna
    ebonyjohanna September 26, 2013 at 7:00 PM |

    Christena, this is an awesome piece! I really appreciate your perspective and the insights you offer. I learn so much by reading your stuff and can’t wait for your book to come out.

  16. Patrick
    Patrick September 27, 2013 at 9:22 AM |

    Christena,

    Awesome job.

    Even though I was aware of these events in the text, I had never given them the perspective you just did which adds so much to their value and for our understanding of how awesome Jesus is.

    “Behold The Man”!

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  19. sue
    sue September 30, 2013 at 2:26 PM |

    Great post – learning about sociological imagination is very helpful. I’ve always taken the position that Jesus was actually providing a platform for the Canaanite woman, and not unaware of her situation, and it was interesting to see your comments. (At least I think we’re on the same page.). I think Jesus was smart and aware. Thanks for fleshing that out!

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