Category Archives: Christian Privilege

A Common Table?

One of my best friends from high school is Jewish. He’s not very religious at all, but being Jewish is an important part of his identity. As we’ve gotten older, our lives have taken us in different directions, but we’ve stayed close, in part (I think) because we share our traditions with one another—he celebrates Christmas with my family and I have celebrated Passover and Hanukkah with his. A few weeks ago, I invited Peter to come to a church service at which I would be preaching. I invited him as a friend—not as part of a missionary enterprise—and I was very touched when he agreed to come.

I meant to warn Peter before the service that there would be Communion. I wanted to tell him that Communion is for Christians who feel prepared in their hearts to receive the body and blood of Christ as holy sacrament. “No pressure,” I wanted to tell him—“you are still welcome here, even if you don’t take Communion.” But I was busy preparing for the service and we weren’t able to connect beforehand and so I never got to relay the message.

When it came time to celebrate the Eucharist I looked over at Peter. I had knots in my stomach. I hope he doesn’t feel uncomfortable; I hope he doesn’t feel pressure; I hope he understands what is going on.  As the thoughts ran through my head, I actually considered running over to him; but before I knew it, I saw that he was in line to receive Communion. And a moment later, he had received and returned to his seat.

Afterward, I asked him how it had felt to receive Communion in a Christian church. “I enjoyed it,” he said. “It felt personal.”

“You know you didn’t have to take it, right?”

“Yeah, I know” he said. “But I wanted to.”

At home that night I thought about what it meant that my Jewish friend had taken Eucharist. Was he a Christian now? No—not even close. He remains strongly rooted in his Jewish heritage and tradition. But I felt that this friend—someone who has known me for over 10 years and has seen significant changes take place in my life—knew me in a different way. I felt that even though we would not continue to worship together, we were more deeply connected. Receiving Communion is very important to me as a Christian; it is a major way that I connect with God and strengthen my faith. Being able to share Communion with Peter—even if it didn’t have any spiritual significance for him—allowed me to convey this very important part of my faith in a way that was deeper than words. I felt honored to have been able to invite Peter into a Christian worship service that welcomed him and included him, despite his differences from other congregants.

Still, I wondered: Was it okay that he received? What if the celebrant had known that he wasn’t Christian—would he have been refused? I know that some churches have very strict rules about who can and cannot receive Communion—these are serious and contentious issues. In fact, disagreements about the Eucharist have led to major disputes and splits throughout Christian history. I myself have been kept from Communion in certain worship settings and I know others who have had to look on because they didn’t fit fellow Christians’ criteria. I don’t hope to build a compelling theological argument for the necessity of inclusive Eucharist in this blog post, but I do want to say that there is something very powerful about extending our tables, even to those who are not prepared to receive Christ into their hearts. After all, the gifts themselves have the power to transform each of us. What would happen if we didn’t require each person to be our ideal of a Christian before sharing in the bread and cup? If we didn’t hold onto these gifts so tightly, would we find both ourselves and others transformed?

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Christian privilege at college: Interfaith work needs more than good intentions

By Hannah Pynn, guest writer for Faithline Protestants.

I want to first identify myself as a protestant christian who is wrestling with my privileged identity. Being raised in a christian family, I was immersed in a christian community throughout my childhood, attended a christian school for eight years, and experienced my faith development in a religiously homogenous environment wherein being white, being christian, and being “American” seemed inseparable identities.

Walking through a critique of my protestant christian identity is an intimidating process that is connected to all other aspects of my identity. My gender, race, sexuality, cultural, and even professional identity all face examination through this process.

As a higher education professional that is specializing in student spiritual development, I acknowledge that my value for this aspect of holistic student engagement is strongly tied to my privileged christian identity. During my undergraduate experience, resources and relationships were available to me that enabled me to progress through stages of my christian faith, and there by cultivated my passion for college student spiritual development.

As I continue to deconstruct my christian privilege, I hope the process will shed light on how I might give voice to those that my privilege has oppressed and that, like Jesus, I can act as a humbled advocate for the agency of all people. I’ve chosen to not capitalize the word “christian” in this text to emphasize my hope to diminish the dominance and oppression of my faith.

A non-christian Campus

On my college campus, I have to attend classes on Sunday mornings. We have a winter break, but I don’t get Christmas day off. Last year I had a midterm on Easter Sunday. The university seal has a symbol of a foreign God on it and is prominently placed on the front doors of my student union. I wanted to run for an officer position in my academic club, but a rumor started to circulate that I was a religious extremist and only wanted to convert people. At the beginning of university ceremonies, the president of my university steps aside for a priest to chant a prayer that I do not know or understand. There is a small christian student group on campus that I go to for support, but I have to drive to a bigger city that’s an hour away to attend church.

Okay, this isn’t my university. If it was, I think that I would feel incredibly isolated and it would take a lot more effort to practice my faith. I have not had this experience because of my christian privilege in higher education. Replace the names of the holidays, symbols, and prayers in the paragraph above and this describes the experience of university students, faculty, and staff who do not identify as christians in the United States.

I thought christians were oppressed

When I first heard of christian privilege, I argued with the concept. I have been taught my whole life that christians have been an oppressed people since Jesus walked on earth. We are counter-cultural, we have customs and values that non-christians don’t understand, and it takes sacrifice to be obediently committed to God. However, when I began developing genuine interfaith friendships without the agenda of proselytizing, I started to see how easy I had it, especially on the college campus where I work. I began listing out some of the individual, institutional, and societal privileges for me as a Christian (Blumenfeld, 2009; Schlosser, 2003)

*Some of these are adapted from the “Beginning List of Christian Privileges” (Schlosser, 2003) to specifically articulate christian privilege in higher education environments.

1. I have Sundays and major christian holidays off, therefore I don’t have to rearrange my school or class schedule to observe my holy days.

2. Course reading assignments have references to the christian God, the bible, and portray christians as the dominant faith that has won wars and shaped classic literature.

3. If I want to find christian friends on campus, I have multiple denominational and non-denominational student clubs and organizations to choose from.

4. It is easy to find a romantic partner who shares my christian faith. (Ok, this may not be easy, but chances are there is more than one other christian on campus that is of dating age.)

5. When someone on my campus refers to God, I can assume they are referring to my christian God.

6. My college or university very likely has a history of being a christian institution and may have christian symbolism in their traditions or ceremonies.

7. There is a chapel on my campus or a christian church in very close proximity.

8. It is easy to see others on my campus wearing christian symbols on their jewelry, clothing, or body art.

9. When displaying christian symbols as a form of personal expression, I do not have to worry about being physically harmed or assaulted.

10. I can find people reading bibles in the public areas of my campus buildings.

11. If I wanted to choose a christian college or university, there are many denominational options available in my state.

12. People on my campus know the names and dates of christian religious holidays.

13. Philosophical or religious debates on my campus have a representative from the christian faith.

14. My christian holidays are considered “normal” and are observed by my government and my culture.

15. I have the option to vote for christian politicians who are making decisions about my education system and its government funding.

16. My christian faith is never regarded as exotic or foreign.

17. My personal expression of my christian faith is viewed as a personal choice, not as a cultural mandate.

18. Volunteer projects and service opportunities at christian-based hospitals, organizations, or businesses are readily accepted as valid educational experiences and can even be counted for credit.

19. I can choose if I want my christian identity to be public or personal at school.

20. If I get married young, people do not assume that my christian faith creates a system of marital oppression.

21. I am viewed as a complex person, not viewed solely by my christian identity.

22. When I tell others that I am a christian, they ask about my denominational affiliation and understand that there is diversity within the christian faith.

23. As a christian, I am encouraged as part of my religious duty to persist in sharing my faith with classmates, friends, and acquaintances, regardless if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

Christians as the oppressor

These privileges do not come easily; they come at a cost for people of other faiths and belief systems. In order to gain these privileges, christians limit the freedom of others under the good intentions of telling people about Jesus on their college campus.

I have met christians who sign up to be conversation partners with international students with the hope of sharing the gospel with them. International students sign up for these programs to learn English, and christians take advantage of their desire for friendship and language support.

I have met christians that have protested Pride Centers on their campus because they say they shouldn’t have to pay student fees to support something that is against their religious beliefs. The LGBTQ student community is a group of people who are highly at risk for poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and depression. The reason for their suffering is largely because of the christian community using political leverage to limit the rights they have as United States citizens.

I have met christians who have participated in social justice programs but are not willing to acknowledge the need for racial, LGBTQ, environmental, and women’s rights justice. Addressing social justice issues like abortion and human trafficking without fighting all systems that oppress and disenfranchise vulnerable populations prioritizes the value of some humans over others.

I have met christians who attend events put on by other religious student organizations so they can carry their bible and start up conversations about Jesus with non-christians. There are a multitude of other ways that christians can develop relationships with people who believe differently, invading their safe spaces to carry a christian agenda is disrespectful at best and threatening at worst.

These actions are examples of christians (knowingly or unknowingly) leveraging their dominance on college campuses. Christians believe that they have the right to take these oppressive actions because they have the good intentions of getting out the message of Jesus.

What do I do with my christian privilege?

I often hear stories from my interfaith friends who experience prejudice, hate, and marginalization from the christian majority that surrounds them. It is a painful process for me to acknowledge that my grace-based faith had been used as a tool of oppression to try to gain dominance over others. But I believe that identifying myself as someone who benefits from and has even leveraged my own christian privilege, is the first step in aligning myself with the humility of Jesus.

Philippians 2:6-8

6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Jesus humbled himself and did not leverage political power, privilege, or strength in order to make known his good news. Jesus loved, listened, and served. As someone who works on a college campus that is full of all creeds and faiths, I hope to give support and access to all students.

What do you do with your christian privilege on your college campus? How will you repair the damage that christian privilege has done to other faiths?

 

More readings on christian privilege:

Blumenfeld, W. J. (2009). Christian privilege in the United States: An overview. In Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (pp. 3–22). The Netherlands: Sense P.

Schlosser, L. Z. (2003). Christian privilege: Breaking a sacred taboo. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 31, 44–51.

Seifert, T. (2007). Understanding Christian privilege: Managing the tensions of spiritual plurality. About Campus, 12(2), 10–17. doi:10.1002/abc.206

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The Elephant in the Room: Christian Privilege & Interfaith Work

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.

Shalom/Sala’am/Peace,

~ Lisa

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 lseiwert@ctschicago.edu.

1Lewis Schlosser, “Christian Privilege: Breaking a Sacred Taboo,” Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Volume 31(January, 2003), 48-49.

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