Dismantling the white male industrial complex
I fondly remember my glory days as a flag football star in my 10th grade gym class. Our teacher, Coach Boggs, knew that our co-ed games could easily devolve into a bunch of boys engaging in rough-and-tumble play that excluded the girls, so he altered the rules of the game. If a boy scored a touchdown, it was worth the usual 6 points. But if a girl scored a touchdown, it was worth 12 points. Eager to win, the boys on my team devised plays to include us girls and it wasn’t long before their inclusivity paid off. You see, even though I’d never played football before, I understood the game. (I’d been an ardent football fan since 8th grade when I discovered that hot hot HOT guys like Tony Gonzalez played football for nearby Cal.) Plus, I’d been an athlete since I was 5, and had developed solid hand-eye coordination as a volleyball, basketball and softball player. So by the end of our first game, the boys realized that I could run, catch, and score as well as they could. And from that point on, all plays went through me and were designed to take full advantage of my strengths. I was the centerpiece of the offense and everyone else played supporting roles.
This was a blazing success, partly because we had the element of surprise on our side. The boys on the other teams had scoffed at Coach Boggs’ scoring rules and had continued to exclude the girls on their team. So they were shocked to see me, a girl, playing a central role in our offense. Before they could get their bearings, I had already scored 3 touchdowns and racked up 36 points. Game over. My teammates called me their secret weapon and did everything they could to protect me, coddle me, and keep me happy. Like I said, those were my glory days. (I peaked early.)[i]
WHITE MEN ARE NOT THE SECRET WEAPON…
Those of us who understand issues of power and privilege know that white men are the Princes of Privilege in our society. No group has more power, access, voice or influence than white men. They decide who gets a seat at their power table and they set the societal standards for what is acceptable, normal, fair, beautiful, valuable, and newsworthy. (Unfortunately, this rings true in the Church too.) As a result, social justice advocates logically view white men as important stakeholders in the fight for justice. Since white men hold the power, it makes strategic sense to try to convince white men to re-allocate their power, use their power to create space for diverse voices, and significantly participate in the fight for justice. I don’t disagree with the logic behind this approach, but if we’re not careful, we can overestimate the importance of white men in the fight for justice.
Reconcilers can start to treat white men as if they’re the secret weapon to dismantling injustice. If we just get one of them on our team, we’ll win. If white men talk to other white men and convince them to check their privilege, we’ll win. If white men (rather than people of color) lead the discussion on racism, the other team won’t see it coming, and we’ll win. If white men tell the stories of the oppressed, people will listen and we’ll win. If white men make injustice an urgent issue, people will pay attention and we’ll win. Their touchdowns are worth twice as many points.
So white men become the centerpiece of the offense and everyone else takes on supporting roles. Accordingly, we design all of our plays with them in mind, and we protect them and coddle them and do everything we can to keep them happy.
If they’re not comfortable with a social justice plan, we scrap it.
If they’re not ready to move forward just yet, we slow down.
If they want to go into a cross-cultural ministry setting, we let them go (even if they’re not ready and their well-intentioned interactions will be tainted by colonialism).
If they’re feeling angst-y, we talk them through it (even though listening to their privileged angst is painful for us).
If they remain unconvinced and unrepentant, we wonder what we’re doing wrong, we lose sleep, and we lose hope.
In the end, our earnest and logical efforts to include white men in our social justice causes often end up making it all about them. In doing so, we contribute to and uphold a white male industrial complex that maintains the unequal power balances that we originally set out to address.
…BUT JESUS IS
Logic says that white men are the secret weapon, the key to dismantling unjust power structures in the church and beyond. Heck, even research[ii] suggests that effective social justice movements require strong leadership from the people in power (e.g., white men). Of course it’s logical to urge white men and other powerful people to join the fight for justice. Further, from a theological standpoint, it’s important to urge white men to join the fight for justice because the people of God (all of us) are called to be a just people and because God hates oppression. (I also think that white men should join the fight for justice for their own good, but that’s another blog post.)
I rejoice when white men wake up to the reality of oppression and choose to fight against it. But in the end, whether or not a white man (or any other powerful person) joins the cause (or stays committed to the cause) doesn’t make or break my day. I don’t give them that much power.
My hopes for a just world don’t rest on the white man’s shoulders. My hope is in Jesus and in the power of his death and resurrection.
The truth is that the battle for justice won’t be won when white men finally join the fight. The battle was already won on the cross. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is at hand. It’s here. It’s happening. It’s already been set in motion. We’re inevitably moving toward a world that reflects the prophetic reality of the resurrection. Justice will be done. All things will be made new. And Jesus graciously invites all of us to partner with him in that movement. We all can play a crucial role. But let’s never forget that Jesus is the secret weapon. Jesus has already determined the outcome of this battle and he will use whoever is willing to accomplish his plan. The Kingdom of God is at hand, whether white men participate or not.
A DIFFERENT STRATEGY
The white male industrial complex keeps people’s eyes on white men, what they need and what they’re thinking and feeling. So rather than contributing to the white male industrial complex and focusing most/all of our justice efforts on convincing and engaging white men, I propose a different strategy, that involves two parts:
Turn toward the Holy Spirit – As Christian reconcilers, we must listen to and wait on the Spirit of Pentecost. A few of years ago, I taught a reconciliation class at a seminary. I had 17 students; all were white and 14 were male. 11 of the white male students were defiantly opposed to taking the class. They didn’t think that reconciliation and justice issues were relevant to their ministry goals and they had no problem telling me so. At the first class, I noticed that many had a negative and visceral reaction to the idea of white male privilege. This was a tough crowd and I knew that my winsomeness, eloquence and strategic teaching weren’t going to cut it. I needed Jesus’ power and the Holy Spirit’s wisdom to effectively teach this class. I needed to know what to say, how to say it and when to say it. I needed to trust God to transform and soften these men’s hearts. So I decided to spend as much time praying for the class as I did prepping for it. Thanks be to God, my prayers were answered! Week after week I saw hearts softening and repenting and growing. White men may be the Princes of Privilege, but the Lord holds the king’s heart in his hand.
As Christian reconcilers, we need to go beyond logic and strategic organizing. We need to ask the Holy Spirit who to pray for, who to talk to, when to speak hard truth, when to turn the other cheek, when to pick a fight, when to walk away from a fight, when to start praying for someone, when to stop praying for someone, when to give voice to the privileged, when to silence the privileged (and risk their retaliation), when to pay attention to the powerful, when to ignore the powerful, when to dig your heels in and refuse to give up, and when to focus our efforts elsewhere. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to show us where the good soil is and where the hard ground is. And we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us sow into the good soil and give us the discipline to walk away from the hard ground, trusting that God will send rain when the time is right. We need to ask the Holy Spirit when to move forward with a justice plan and when to slow down. And we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us to trust that the Kingdom of God is at hand, even when all hells seems to break loose when we follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance rather than conform to the white male industrial complex. The Holy Spirit should guide and protect our strategic movement, not white men or anyone else.
Turn toward the oppressed –If we’re following Jesus’ Spirit, it will lead us to prioritize the needs and perspective of the oppressed over the needs and perspective of the privileged. The white male industrial complex keeps people’s eyes on white men, but any victory that Jesus leads will significantly involve the oppressed. As such, the Christian reconciler’s eyes should follow Jesus’ gaze to the oppressed – and all social justice efforts should be focused on the oppressed, should benefit the oppressed, and should empower the oppressed.
This summer, I’ve been studying The Seven Signs in the Gospel of John with some of my friends. More than anything else, I’ve been struck by how much Jesus’ miraculous signs involve the oppressed. I think I’ll write a blog post about this when we’re done studying all 7 signs. For now I’ll just say that Jesus makes a point of revealing his character and power to the oppressed first. It seems that Jesus’ plays went through the oppressed and were designed show them who he really was. It’s the women, slaves, and the sick (and not the privileged) who got an insider’s glimpse into who Jesus really is and got to participate in his jaw-dropping miracles. Jesus was the centerpiece of an offense that significantly involved oppressed people. I like the sound of that.
[i] By the way, our efforts were fruitful. We were the league champions that year -- which meant nothing and everything at the same time.
[ii] See chapter 9 of Disunity in Christ for a longer discussion of this.