The Stumbling Block of Christian Privilege

The words “Unpacking Christian Privilege” were prominently displayed on the bulletin board.

A couple of years ago, a residence hall staff member at Appalachian State University created the bulletin board with the goal of sharing some examples of what many suggest are unearned benefits afforded to those of us who are Christians.

Unfortunately, within a few days of its creation, the bulletin board got vandalized.

I can only hope that a Christian was not the source of the vandalism. Such behavior clearly does not represent the character and wisdom of Christ. But, the incident itself presents an opportunity to consider the following question:

How might Christians think about, and respond to, discussions of Christian privilege?

Some of the unearned benefits that many describe as being reflective of Christian privilege include the ability that Christians have to freely practice our faith on campus without fear of violence, the close alignment between university holidays and Christian holidays, and the prevalence of Christian symbols all around us. These are just a few of the examples that frequently surface during discussions about Christian privilege.

Sure, some could argue that Christian privilege does not permeate all work and learning spaces on nonsectarian campuses. A body of research, including a bit of my own, has revealed that some Christian faculty and students have experienced various forms of marginalization.

But, I am not convinced that arguing about the nature and extent of Christian privilege is productive.

Rather than thinking about Christian privilege as a concept to be debated, perhaps we should consider thinking about it as a stumbling block to be removed.

Christian privilege is a stumbling block. On many levels, it impedes honest and civil dialogue among people holding various religious, spiritual, and non-religious perspectives. We focus on, and stumble over, the issue of Christian privilege to such an extent that thoughtful reflection on the actual substance of our various worldviews is frequently thwarted.

If we hope to have constructive dialogue about worldview differences in higher education, the stumbling block of Christian privilege will need to be removed.

So, what can Christians do to take steps toward removing this stumbling block?

  1. We can humbly acknowledge the Christian privilege that does exist in higher education.

Let’s not deny the privileges that Christians do hold, such as those mentioned earlier. Focusing on where we do hold privilege, rather than debating the extent of Christian privilege, will go a long way toward encouraging honest and civil dialogue.

  1. We can refrain from making assumptions that reflect the Christian worldview.

For instance, when we ask someone where they go to church before we even find out their religious, spiritual, and/or non-religious identity, we are making an assumption that they do, in fact, go to church. Such an assumption is based on the Christian worldview, wherein church attendance is a regular practice.

Also, when we quote the Bible to those who are not Christians in an effort to try to justify a belief, value, or action, we are making an assumption that they view the Bible as authoritative, as Christians do.

Such assumptions, according to many in higher education, reflect Christian privilege.

I’m convinced that our dialogue will be more constructive if we ask others about their beliefs rather than assuming that they think or behave in a way that aligns with the Christian worldview.

  1. When others talk about dismantling Christian privilege, we can choose to believe that they are seeking parity and not trying to persecute Christians.

The suggestion that Christians are being “persecuted” in higher education here in the U.S. is both inaccurate and inflammatory.

Rather, what is happening is that many who are opposed to Christian privilege are striving to balance the playing field, so to speak, in terms of power and privilege. Most people I know who are writing or speaking about Christian privilege are not seeking to persecute Christians.

Rather than embracing a victim mindset, Christians can extend grace to all involved in these discussions and can wholeheartedly try to understand others’ perspectives. 

  1. We should be willing to give up the privileges that we hold as Christians and can ask those who have been offended for practical suggestions as to how to do so.

The Bible is replete with references about denying ourselves, being the last rather than the first, and giving up privileges (e.g., Matthew 16:24-26; Mark 9:35; Philippians 2:5-11; Philippians 3:4-11). It is clear throughout Scripture that Christians should not be seeking to either attain or maintain power or privilege.

The only thing that Christians here in the U.S. should be striving to maintain is the freedom to express our faith.

Our expressed willingness to dismantle Christian privilege provides evidence that we genuinely care about others and about their experiences on campus.

So, let’s help create campus climates wherein students of all religious, spiritual, and non-religious identities are free to express their faith without fear. Let’s be willing to change university holidays, if need be. Let’s be willing to remove the extra Christian symbols that are in some of the common spaces within our nonsectarian colleges and universities. And, let’s carefully consider how other concerns about Christian privilege can be rectified.

Let’s demonstrate to those who are not Christians that we care more about their hearts than about our privileges – that we want to serve, rather than to be served.

After all, that is what Jesus did.

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