You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. ~ Luke 10:27
Interfaith engagement calls me and fascinates me, yet also troubles me. For me, it’s rooted in the above words, which ground love of neighbor as the heart of my faith. Interfaith engagement was also the basis of my thesis project at Chicago Theological Seminary. I studied Christian privilege and the ways such privilege disrupts the full potential of interfaith work, and my full potential to offer love to all my neighbors, Christian and non-Christian.
Christian privilege is a touchy subject because acknowledging privilege makes us squirm. I’m a white woman. When I first heard the term “white privilege,” I resisted. Since I love and care for people regardless of skin color, I felt somehow exempt from white privilege. I didn’t see white privilege as part of a system of oppression impossible to step out of or avoid. Because racism works to push one group of people down, privilege is the necessary “up” side to that equation. People of color are systematically disadvantaged in our society as evidenced in endless ways including access to education, housing, medical care, and in our criminal justice system. Where people of color are disadvantaged, white people are more advantaged. It’s a simple equation, but it’s difficult for whites to feel our advantage. Our privilege has become normalized.
A similar phenomenon hangs over interfaith work. Christians in the United States, even those of us deeply committed to religious pluralism, are steeped in privilege. In spite of our best efforts to foster religious tolerance and mutual respect, Christianity is normalized and reinforced as the default and expected religious identification of Americans. Other religions are exactly that; they are “other.” And just as it’s difficult for me as a white person to see my white privilege, it’s difficult for me as a Christian to see the ways our culture privileges my Christian identity.
To illuminate these enculturated advantages, psychologist Lewis Schlosser created a list helpful in naming and understanding Christian privilege. The statements are designed to be read in a true-or-false fashion, with true statements indicating the benefit of religious privilege. I include a sampling from his list and invite readers to consider the validity of these statements vis-á-vis their own lives:
- I can be sure to hear music on the radio and watch specials on television that celebrate the holidays of my religion.
- I can be sure that my holy day is taken into account when states pass laws (e.g., the sale of liquor) and when retail stores decide their hours.
- I can assume that I will not have to work or go to school on my significant religious holidays.
- I can be sure that when told about the history of civilization, I am shown people of my religion who made it what it is.
- I can easily find academic courses and institutions that give attention only to people of my religion.
- I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my religion most of the time.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a ‘credit to my religion’ or being singled out as being different from other members of my religious group.
- I can buy foods (e.g. in grocery store, at restaurants) that fall within the scope of my religious group.
- I can travel and be sure to find a comparable place of worship when away from my home community.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my religion will not work against me.
- I can be fairly sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my religion.
- I can remain oblivious to the language and customs of other religious groups without feeling any penalty for such a lack of interest and/or knowledge.1
To Schlosser’s list I would add the following:
- I can feel confident that I will receive fair and due process under the law and will not be detained or interrogated due to my religious identity.
- In film and television, I am likely to see positive portrayals of members of my religion.
Sharing this list is not meant to shame Christians. The forces that constructed and reconstruct our privileged position have lengthy historical, political and social roots. We Christians, like those of us with white skin, have been thrust into this system involuntarily. However, acknowledging the existence of this troubling phenomenon is the first step toward undoing its corrupting power.
Attempting to view Schlosser’s exercise from the perspective and experience of a non-Christian opens our eyes to the often invisible power and punch of Christian privilege. This list helps me to imagine living as a non-Christian in American society and the daily bombardment of messages, subtle and overt, that a non-Christian religious identity is somehow less worthy.
Perhaps more importantly, this list pushes me to ask how I can show love to my neighbors who are steeped in a culture that says my religion is better than theirs. How can I help to foster authentic interfaith engagement—based in principles of mutuality, interdependence and respect for difference—when the larger culture declares the opposite of those principles? How can I offer hospitality and welcome when our culture normalizes my Christian identity and alienates other identities? What does it mean to extend love of neighbor from a privileged position? Time and again Jesus refuses privilege and “lowers” himself according to societal standards: washing feet, eating with sinners, healing lepers. How am I called to actively resist my privilege in ways that challenge systems and give value to those whom society devalues?
These questions trouble me. I hope that individual Christians and communities of faith will discuss this list, perhaps reading it in parallel with the Good Samaritan story. The troubling questions it raises do not have easy resolution but they must be considered, confronted, and wrestled with. “For I was a stranger [or made to feel strange] and you welcomed me.”
May we work together on love, and welcome, and the dismantling of all forms of oppression.
Lisa Seiwert serves as the Director of Recruitment & Admission at Chicago Theological Seminary, where she earned an MDiv and STM with an emphasis in interreligious engagement. As of October 24, she will be an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ. She has worked in faith-based community organizing and ministered with The Night Ministry, a Chicago-based outreach program serving homeless and vulnerably housed youth.
Chicago Theological Seminary has a long-standing commitment to interfaith work, and a vibrant and engaged Center for Jewish, Christian & Islamic Studies. The institution recently received a grant to develop curriculum intersecting ecological and interfaith commitments. Known as “ECOmmunity: The Ecology of Theological Education in a Religiously Pluralistic World,” the program expands social outreach, increases curricular offerings and education in interreligious and ecological studies, and increases religious diversity. For more information about this new initiative or other programs at CTS, visit the website at www.ctschicago.edu or contact Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1Lewis Schlosser, “Christian Privilege: Breaking a Sacred Taboo,” Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Volume 31(January, 2003), 48-49.