Of Poverty, Privilege and Politics

An exchange in yesterday's Democratic Party presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan is generating a lot of social media buzz, if not attention from the mainstream press. In response to a question from one of the moderators about what "racial blind spots" the candidates might possess, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), stated:

When you are white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor, you don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you are walking down a street or dragged out of a car...We must be firm in making it clear that we will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal justice system.

The reaction on social media was swift, with some critical of his blanket statement tying blackness to ghetto life (Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart wrote on Twitter, "He knows that all Black people don't live in ghettos, right?") and others decrying the assumption that white people "don't know what it's like to be poor". 

Still others defended him, saying he was awkwardly trying to illustrate the cultural impact of institutional racism.

As someone who once ran for office myself, I can understand how a candidate might not effectively translate what's on his or her mind into a coherent statement, especially in the heat of a debate. Truth be told, effective argumentation is a rare skill that needs to be practiced regularly, and the only profession in which argumentation is consistently utilized and refined is the law, which explains in part why "the world's greatest deliberative body", the U.S. Senate, is comprised mostly of lawyers!

I believe that Senator Sanders and Secretary of State Clinton were both seeking to curry favor with black activists by describing, in their own words, the concept known as "white privilege", which simply states that white people possess an inherent societal advantage over people of color, even if they don't exercise or benefit from it, because the dominant institutions and culture are designed, operated and maintained by white people.

I have been struggling with the concept of "white privilege" for years, ever since I first heard the phrase uttered during a radio program in 2009 on which I was unfortunate enough to have been one of the guests. The notion has since become a cause celebre in leftist academic and political circles, and while I understand the point its advocates are trying to make, I am conflicted on whether or not the mere phrase itself is constructive or destructive in advancing a dialogue on racial healing. My thoughts on the topic are still evolving, and even the thoughts I've formulated up to this point are incomplete, so this is clearly a topic for another day.

There is one thing I can say with certainty, and that is this: while the concept may have great political utility, it has almost no divine value. This episode reminds me of why politics alone is inadequate to addressing human suffering and healing.

First of all, politics seeks to segment and categorize us so we can be either more easily insulated or isolated as a group. Second, and most important in my humble opinion, it doesn't have a well of compassion deep enough to care about everyone who is hurting, regardless of their tribe. 

As a Christian, I don't see poverty as a competition between blacks and whites to see who is more downtrodden or less worthy of my aid. The fact there are many more well-off white people in America than black people doesn't free me from my Christian obligation to care about and for the poor without exception or conditions, as Jesus did. 

As an elder in my multicultural church, I pray weekly with poor white people who struggle to keep food in their pantries, who live in rented abodes that can be described as modest at best, who suffered or suffer from abuse at the hands of family or people they trusted, whose marriages are disintegrating, who battle with physical or mental illnesses, or addictions they can't afford to treat, who attempted suicide, who are fighting to raise children without a second parent in the home - the list of troubles is staggering.

When I contrast that, however, with my comfortable life where, even in my worst times, I never lacked for food, clothing, shelter or medical care, and my marriage and family remained strong and intact, my heart breaks in shame for even thinking about my own troubles. That these suffering brothers and sisters in Christ are part of an ostensibly "privileged" race, or that people who look like me are supposed to be at a disadvantage because of historic oppression and systemic racism, is irrelevant to me because of a stark reality that is staring me in my face. 

God has given me so much and, therefore, much is required of me.

It's that simple. The black people in our church and community who are also suffering only add to my heartbreak, and my desire to see all people served. 

Politics can't accommodate everyone who hurts, however, not only for the reasons previously noted, but also because the path to political success is a zero-sum game - to win, someone else has to lose, and if you dare to equate their suffering, someone is bound to be offended. 

In the Earthly City, politics plays favorites; in the City of God, we are warned, "But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers" (James 2:9). 

In the Earthly City, one side is "good" and the other "evil"; in the City of God, "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10). 

In the Earthly City, people are encouraged to use their misfortunes and frustrations about an unjust society as fuel to stoke their rage; in the City of God, "This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger" (James 1:19). 

In the Earthly City, people show love and pride only for their own tribes; in the City of God, we are to "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4).

There is one virtue in the City of God that would spark the engines of compassion and move people forward to lend their aid to all who are hurting, regardless of what tribe they come from.  Ironically, it is the same virtue which would open people's eyes and hearts to the impact of centuries of slavery and institutionalized discrimination on today's black community, and the systemic barriers which still remain, achieving what the proponents of "white privilege" so ardently desire.

That virtue is humility.

A humble heart has a vast reservoir of grace for people who suffer, and the patience and care to listen to others and not dismiss them when they tell their stories, and the humble person neither expects nor wants anything in return. That is why I believe with all my heart that committed Christians, black and white, are better equipped than political activists to advance the national conversation on race. To love others without expectation may be a losing proposition in a presidential debate, but it's a formula for peace in our land.