THE POWER OF GIVING UP POWER

When I was in high school my friends called me "white boy" ... a lot. On the east side of San Jose few areas were truly segregated. Filipinos, Mexicans, Vietnamese, African-American, White, and many more groups of people all made up our brilliantly diverse side of the city. To be sure there were certain pockets in which ratios would change and other places where money carved deep scars in neighborhood maps, but growing up nestled up to the east foothills I found myself in predominantly multi-ethnic environments.

My little league teams were diverse.

My church was diverse.

My block was diverse. 

My schools were diverse.

 

TOGETHER BUT SEPARATE

My high school in particular boasted a robust cross-section of our side of the city. We all lived and learned together. But contrary to some presumptions living in a multi-ethnic context didn't make us all "colorblind" (as if this were some inherent virtue). Too often many assume the goal of relationships and perspectives between ethnic groups is colorblindness; that we would all somehow learn to ignore our different pigmentations in order to treat each other fairly. In his new book, White Awake Chicago pastor Daniel Hill deftly lifts such a veil. Hill writes, "Colorblindness minimizes the racial-cultural heritage of a person and promotes a culturally neutral approach that sees people independent of their heritage." Colorblindness may lead to some type of togetherness, but there will still be deep separation because ethnic heritage will have to become neutral (which in many settings is code for become "white"). No, at Mt. Pleasant High School we could all see we were different from each other. Though we all played, worshiped, lived, and learned together, we were still divided. And our division was never more clear than at lunchtime. You see, we may have just had algebra together but during lunch we scattered across the quad, divided by classes and kinds. It's amazing what food reveals.

I imagine James Meredith, the now writer and Air Force veteran, knew all too well (and exponentially more severely) what lunchtime was like for us in high school. Meredith bravely broke the "color barrier" at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962, escorted by the national government. From that moment forward however he may have been at the same school as the white student body, but it was very obvious to everyone there was still unquestioned separation. That's the complexity of human relationship especially between races. We can be in the same room with different kinds of people, yet remain completely divided. This can be true for many reasons. However I think it comes down to a single issue.

The first time I was called "white boy" was during football practice. Well, actually it was while I was walking to practice from the locker room. Our high school football field and locker room were separated by at least a mile. I'm almost certain they were in different zip codes. This particular day I was walking with a few of my Mexican teammates. We were talking about nothing (as most teenage boys are exceptionally gifted at doing) so I don't remember exactly what I said, but I do remember how one of my teammates responded and I remember the sound of his discontent. He said to me, "man you're such a white boy." Then he made a smacking sound with the side of his mouth and subtly shook his head. I stopped. He and my teammates kept going toward the field. All of a sudden I didn't feel much like a team.

It was a strange feeling. Honestly I'm not exactly sure what he meant by it, but I know how I felt about it. I felt like our jerseys were not enough. Double days were not enough. Early morning weights were not enough. There was a wedge between us of culture which no amount of winning or losing could ever overcome. He and I were different. That much was clear. But his comment was actually an awkward kind of compliment. You see, the more he and others called me white boy the more I realized their meaning. When something I said or did revealed an aspect of my culture that was distinct from one of my non-white friends, I was promptly reminded I was a white boy. Usually it had something to do with evidence of financial stability, my lack of street smarts, or me (a seventeen-year-old) telling a dad joke. However, as much as I knew they were making fun of my privilege I also knew they were jealous. A phrase meant to cut me down and make fun of me was also a reminder that many my non-white friends would have traded places with me in a second. My whiteness was a punch line, but it was also powerful.

And that's the singular difference between proximity and unity ... power. 

 

MORE THAN A FEELING

A few months ago I had lunch with a few friends. They picked the spot. It happened to be in a part of the city I hadn't been to very much. Okay, I'd never been there. We went to this incredible BBQ spot whose aroma was only exceeded by their reputation. It was delicious. But about halfway through our meal I realized something ... I was the only white person there. I was with two of my African-American friends and another buddy who is majority Native American. At a restaurant in a part of town I had never been to I found myself in a significant minority. 

Days later I was tempted to believe I had had a revelatory experience. Many of my friends of color have shared with me that often eating at restaurants in other neighborhoods (let's just say neighborhoods I frequent more often) can be uncomfortable. I always thought this was because they were in a numeric minority. After all isn't that what the title "minority" means? I was tempted to make a massive generalization belittling racial tension to a numbers game. So, I thought ... when any person or people are in the minority, they should have a similar experience, right? If James Meredith were white and was breaking the "color barrier" of an all African-American school, his experience would have been the same, right?

Wrong.

It's amazing what food reveals about the heart. You see, what many of my friends have shared with me is that they are treated differently at certain restaurants. Many times this creates a level of nervousness and even fear, often keeping them from going to certain places. But at the BBQ spot that day, I didn't feel fearful at all. I wasn't nervous. So, even though I found myself in the numeric minority I still possessed a particular privilege which revealed to me that our collective lack of racial harmony is not a matter of numbers, but a matter of power.

It's why an Uber driver stopped in front of me on Wednesday (when I hadn't set up a ride) and not the African-American man standing on the same curb less than a hundred feet away (who was waiting for the ride). 

It's why at the grocery store this month a clerk reminded the Latina mother of two in front of me to return the cart to the store after she unloaded at the car but not me.

James Meredith knows this all too well. 

My friends know this all too well. 

My teammates knew this all too well. 

So why do some of us keep missing it? Well, in short we don't like admitting privilege and power. It makes us very uncomfortable. (In fact, I imagine some readers will never make it to this paragraph.) After all if we admit privilege and power we might have to give some up. To be sure it is difficult and costly, but it also costly and difficult for others when we ignore such dynamics and settle for colorblind relationship that only result in diverse proximity, but never true unity.

And that's what must happen. Unity will only be achieved and true diverse community enjoyed when power is laid down. And as follower of Jesus we need look no further than our Lord to see this better way. In Christ true power is only found in our giving up, in our surrendering of earthly ambition and advantage. In Christ we are free to be fully exposed, fully vulnerable, and fully transformed by a different type of power. 

 

TRUE POWER

Having laid the groundwork of what many theologians have called "horizontal reconciliation" ... a bringing back together of diverse human beings through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ... the Apostle Paul continues in his letter to encourage believers to cultivate, build up, and bear with one another in this union. He writes in the fourth chapter, "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:1-3). He speaks not only a unity of the Spirit made possible by Jesus but also an eagerness to maintain it. Oh that we would be a people eager to maintain what Jesus made possible! Instead we are often far more eager to ignore our privilege and protect our cultural power; this pathway is fundamentally opposed to the good news of Jesus. There is a better way.

Spiritual unity is a bond which only Jesus could weave together. It's of unique stock because it is a togetherness which has eliminated what separates us and frees us to be both one and diverse. God does this by putting to death our lust for privilege and power. His death breaks down our defenses. His humility tears down dividing walls of hostility. You see, in Jesus we can be together and not separate. This is primarily revealed in his own character and work and relationship with the Godhead. Paul wrote to the Philippian church, "have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:5-8). Jesus was and is God. Yet he laid down his eternal privilege and power in order to humbly identify with humanity in the incarnation and humbly die for the sins of humanity on the cross. And it was then--after his death and resurrection--that Jesus was highly exalted by the Father. In other words the true power displayed by Jesus to bring us together is the power of giving up power. 

Here is the better way. In Christ our eagerness to maintain privilege and protect power is swallowed up in a new brand of eagerness ... an eagerness to maintain unity by giving up power. 

So, what does this look like? Well, back in Ephesians Paul makes clear what holds us together. We are bound by love. Through the love of God we are made one. And in our oneness as the people of God we are lead through a unified leadership and caring structure which Paul maps out in the context as well. But then he speaks again to everyone about this unity, "speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds it builds itself up in love" (Ephesians 4:15-16). Growing up in Jesus together is about remaining unified together in the gospel. And as a diverse group of every tribe, tongue, nation, and people group there is a singular ethic, ideal, and power that equips us to eagerly acknowledge and give up privilege and power ... love.

Love unites us. But love also is a way of seeing the brilliant diversity and uniqueness of each ethnicity and people group. You see, I don't love people by ignoring who they are--colorblindness--rather because I love my sisters and brothers I want to know all that it means to be them. We are not united when ethnic culture is denied or ignored or worse, forced to become white. No, Jesus' incarnation and death are way more powerful than that. It is when everyone's ethnic culture moves to a secondary position of priority and the culture of Christian love described in Ephesians 4 is incarnated first and foremost, then we find harmony and reconciliation that puts the beauty of all ethnicities on display within a redeemed community. In other words, when we lay down our power and pick up love we find the true power to be one in Christ. In fact, this is the hallmark of Christian community.

 

KINGDOM LOVE

Jesus brings love to life. I think this was particularly true when he said, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). That's exactly what Jesus did. Jesus died. The problem with our racist and corrupted hearts--often revealed in our blind enjoyment of cultural privilege and power--is that we are trying to stay alive. We are refusing to die. And we must ask, why? Why is it that a people who follow the humbly crucified savior believe our pathway to glory will be any different than his? They way of Jesus must be our way.

It reminds me of the way we often read Jesus' instruction about prayer given to his first century followers. He taught them to pray saying (among many other things) ... "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). We usually pray these without trembling. That's a mistake. This is a lethal prayer. Usually we interpret this instruction as a desire for order, joy, and the goodness of Jesus' kingship to rule and reign in the systems and people around us. And that is true, but it is incomplete. After all, the context is one in which Jesus has just said that the kingdom of God is here, but not yet fully realized (Matthew 5:1-13). Then he takes time to reframe morality away from just the hands and feet and primarily about the heart. Then he teaches them to pray. Therefore if nothing else the prayer for the rule and reign of King Jesus to come on earth as it is in heaven, is a prayer for the kingdom to invade our hearts first. It is a prayer inviting the uncompromising kingship of Jesus to destroy the false kingdoms of self, privilege, and power I'm building for myself in my own heart ... so that then his kingdom would flow throughout the earth.

It is a lethal prayer. If we pray it and he answers us it will cause us to die to ourselves and our kingdoms. But the good news, when we pray this prayer, we get new hearts that love Jesus and love like Jesus. And when we receive a heart like his I believe we'll see his kingdom come on the east side of San Jose ... at the University of Mississippi ... on the curb waiting for an Uber ... at the grocery store ... in Chicago ... and on the football field as it is in heaven. Perhaps it will begin simply by looking at lunchtime with fresh eyes.  

 

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This article is part of a series, "The Good News & Race".

1.1 ... The Great White Assumption

1.2 ... The Missing Masterpiece

 

 

 

 

Jason Helveston