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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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