Privilege, Whiteness, Alienation, Renunciation, and Gospel

At the third session of the Symposium for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Urban Ministry, I responded to a presentation on Raymon and Henry Emerson Fosdick’s relationship to Rockerfeller, I spoke of renunciation (of privilege and whiteness) and  voluntary poverty (drawing on the Monastic Tradition) as an answer to the problem presented.  I spoke deliberately but also knew the potential for misunderstanding (I also knew I was using provocative language that could be misunderstood in a particular way).

The responses of the presenter and respondent in this session were challenging and i feel showed a misunderstanding that I partially expected to elicit .  The presenter (Amy Hall of Duke) responded by talking about white male self-flagellation, and the problem of a theology of suffering that must create or invent suffering for the privileged individual when there is little or no suffering.  She saw this as a harmful self-denial, and an unwillingness to face oneself.  And I agree.  But renunciation and voluntary poverty in my mind aren’t such things.  Renunciation and holy poverty are about clearing the spiritual landscape of  barriers to one’s authentic self.  Reggie L. Williams response honed in on my suggestion of renunciation of Whiteness.  If I understood him correctly the claim was that one could only renonce a choice one makes not properties given to one by an overarching system.  I found this a strange claim.  As i see it, renunciation concerns precisely those things that are dictated to one by an hegemonic and demonic system, that demands my allegiance as a mere fact of life.  If I’m turning my back on something that has to do with my own choices, I’d use the term repentance.  It’s true I can’t repent for being white only for what i do or have done as a white person, and I can personally repent from the sins of a racist system of which I share in as privileged by that system.

I’m not married to this idea of renunciation of privilege and whiteness per se.  But what I was trying to get at was that monasticism and stories of early monastics like St. Anthony, were often stories of privileged Christians turning away and giving up their privilege and power (wealth that in the ancient world was used also for the civic good) to become powerless in the terms of that privilege, power, wealth and  status given by the system.  I’d argue that St Anthony and many early monastics from privileged and wealthy families were, through choosing voluntary poverty and the ascetic life, renouncing the sort of influence that the Fosdick’s had through their whiteness and  maleness and ties to  wealth and privilege of  the Rockefellers.  Sure there is suffering in these stories and we could see them as self-inflicted, but the point was something larger:  freedom before and  in relationship to God, which leads to being able to be authentically for others.

Bonhoeffer was also briefly referenced, and I’m alluding to him above.  Such allusion is appropriate Bonhoeffer is a footnote to this story of Riverside Fosdick, Rockefeller, and Harlem. I mention this since Bonhoeffer is in the back of my thoughts around this, and was, at least in my mind, a footnote to our discussion.

I do understand the objection though.  And I do question the path I have chosen.  There are dangers to what I have said, and there are difficulties if this were taken systematically or as some form of one size fits all prescription.  What I’m talking about needs to be based in an address, conviction, and call from Christ and the Spirit

However, the responses seem to say that the authentic place of someone with privilege and who is white is the embrace of that privilege and status.  But what if privilege and the category of privilege is alienating?

I at least have experienced it in this way.  As I have attempted to understand the cultural situatedness of my attitudes and upbringing what i have found is that being white erases all particularities and histories.  the systemic structures of privilege and race and class both give me a privileged status but at the cost of particularity.  In part it seems to me that whites tend to assume others have ethnic foods or accents, or culturally bound theologies and not themselves not only because “white” is normative but because white like the other categories of a racist structure,  masks or erases difference and particularity of those within the privileged class.  To be white I must deny that being German or Swedish is anything more than kitsch and food choices at Christmas.  Granted the system does this more destructively and insidiously with the minority or underprivileged groups, but this doesn’t deny that even as a white person, I have a particularity that “white” can’t and isn’t intended to encompass.  In fact I’m to ignore particularity in identifying as white. the privilege I hold as one who is sorted into the category of “white” is dependent upon my not viewing myself as other than other white people.   From my observation of my family and others who are 3  or 4th generation European Americans, it is precisely being white that keeps us from connecting the injustices suffered by our immigrant parents, grandparents and great grandparents with what asian, hispanic and other immigrants suffer today.  White identity by definition it seems to me prevents solidarity with  people sorted into the other categories of this racist system.

This leads me to wonder about the authenticity of whiteness.  Why wouldn’t privileged persons in a system of privilege be called by the Gospel to renounce that privilege for their salvation, that is to encounter before God their true selves.  If the issue is loyalty (As Reggie Williams asserted in his response to Hall), and identity and loyalty are closely tied, it seems to me that identifying as white and seeking to use that identification to change the racist system, is an exercise that may cosmetically change things, but will also re-inscribe the system and its categories on the altered situation.

 I must also admit that while being european or more to the point Swedish and German (which by the way is not free of sins of colonialism etc. so I’m not attempting to escape complicity ) makes sense.  Choosing this identity doesn’t free me from ethnocentrism or even the risk of assuming that my Swedish, or German or European American ways are just the way things are.  So this isn’t an attempt to ignore the possible continuing collusion of a European identity with a white racist system and its injustices.  

The only true identity and the only loyalty that will free me to be my authentic self isn’t any human particularity, but is Christ.  If I renounce and turn aside from any identity for anything other than Christ and Christ’s body, the Church, my action is futile and the height of foolishness.  I thus wonder if Hall’s observation of some white males and their self-flagellation is that they were attempting to be good liberals, or good humans, in their renunciation, rather than seeking to turn to Christ, and the Church.