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Jesus' White Privilege?

Eric Metaxas, evangelical author and radio host, has gotten himself into something of a pickle.

After learning the United Methodist Church [full disclosure: that's my church] was working with Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, to produce a video series on the subject of "Deconstructing White Privilege",  Metaxas tweeted this response:

In a way, it's impressive how much misinformation Metaxas is able to pack into one little tweet.

To begin with, it should be obvious that Jesus was not white. Growing up in Galilee and spending some of his last years in Judea, Jesus would have looked like what he was: a Middle Eastern peasant and preacher. He looked more like this than that.

But more than that, the very concept of whiteness as we understand it today didn't exist in ancient times. Probably the closest analogue would be the Roman Empire, whose citizens could take for granted privileges that non-citizens could never attain. The hue or tone of one's skin did not matter so much as the city of one's birth. And Jesus did not have the privilege of Roman citizenship. As a member of a subject people, he was—to the extent the Romans recognized him at all—a threat to the social order, just as many other charismatic Jews were. When he allowed his follwers to venerate him and to give him titles (Prince of Peace, Son of God, Savior) that were legally reserved for the Roman Emperor, he signed his death warrant. Although the Gospels take pains to minimize the Romans' role in Jesus' death, he was guilty of treason according to Roman law, and could not have avioded being crucified even if he had wanted to. His ethnicity could not help him; it only cemented his outsider status.

And he didn't run from his outsider status; he embraced it. He sought out other outsiders, showing them a respect they perhaps had never seen before. He ate at the home of a tax collector. He touched a man with leprosy. He spoke kindly to a "sinful woman" as she washed his feet. He offered forgiveness to a man paralyzed by guilt. He had a pleasant conversation with a Samaritan woman. He comforted and healed a man "possessed by demons". He touched a woman with a bleeding disorder. All of these put him at odds with the prominent men of his own community, but he was never after their approval. He had a mission to turn the world's values on their head. People of privilege meant nothing to him.

But Metaxas doesn't only misunderstand the concept of privilege in relation to whiteness, he also misunderstands the Christian doctrine of sin in relation to privilege.

Sin, broadly defined in Christianity, is the state of being out of harmony with God and with other people. Sin is to seek one's own good before that of others. Privilege, by contrast, is merely the state of having advantages others do not have.

Jesus' biggest first-century fan Paul of Tarsus belonged to a privileged class. He was born into a prominent Jewish family that also happened to have Roman citizenship. This conferred benefits to Paul that he was not hesitant to take advantage of, even as he acknowledged he did nothing to earn them. But it would be absurd to suggest that insisting on his rights as a citizen was sinful. Privilege and sin are two completely separate concepts; a person can be born into a privileged class and use their advantages to open opportunities for others. A person can also be born into a less-privileged class and use every means at their disposal, legal or illegal, to advance themselves at the expense of others. The corporate philanthropist and the ghetto drug dealer both show us how privilege and self-centeredness can be decoupled.

Eric Metaxas wants us to resolve the dilemma of how Jesus could have white privilege and still be sinless before we examine the notion of white privilege at all. But on closer inspection, there is no dilemma that needs resolving. Metaxas, like so many prominent American Christians, is just trying to shield himself from facing an uncomfortable truth.

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