Does “White” Privilege Exist? Christian Discourse & Blind Spots at Moody Bible Institute – Part 1

Dr. Brian Litfin’s 5 Blunders:

MBI logoDr. Brian Litfin, a professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute is in a bit of blunder-blender right now. On March 9th, The Chicago Tribune reported that Dr. Litfin made some comments on a social media website that more or less questioned the use of the term “white privilege” by a campus focus group. Later, he apologized for said remarks as they weren’t made in the best of taste. Surprisingly, he openly agreed with those that critiqued him, received phone calls to answer hard questions and followed up his admittedly poor choice of words with an honest and candid public relations response we don’t see that often. While I was disappointed in his comments, I was impressed with his response to the aftermath. It seemed like he would have left it there and moved on, but he didn’t. On April 15th, he wrote a follow up letter-to-the-editor of Moody’s campus paper, the Moody Standard, and the responses have not been quiet, nor should they be.

My connection to this story is that 1. I’m a Moody Bible Institute graduate, 2. I’m a former student of Dr. Litfin’s and 3. As a Historical Theology major, I belonged to his department. As a new professor, Dr. Litfin came into the faculty at Moody with a lot of passion for his craft and a strong academic career in his pocket. I remember visiting him in his office and seeing his valedictorian picture, his high ranked graduation credentials and an impressive library. Each day in class, we would cover the history of the early church fathers and I would learn things about the early Christian tradition that blew my mind. Dr. Litfin on more than one occasion encouraged my young mind with affirmations of my approach to research and our subject matter. My final project for him was a 20+ page paper on the need to understand how Augustine’s personal life must have effected his theology, i.e. that he was a sex addict who became suspicious and outright critical of sexual pleasure in his later years. All of this was problematic for me, thinking that he had defined sin and the theological concept of the “Fall” for the Christian Traditions going on 1500+ years. I didn’t receive the best grade for the project, but I was happy to have done the research.

So, it was with great disappointment that I read his letter. I like Dr. Litfin. He’s a good guy and his initial response to his social media debacle was exemplary. But I just wish he hadn’t written this letter. There are many reasons, most of which I won’t take up in this post. I thought about sending him a personal note or a phone call to discuss these things with him, but I decided not to. Instead I want to publicly counter Dr. Litfin’s call to his manner of charitable civility which he calls for in his letter,

Where sin does exist, the answer is not the ungodly modern practice of “calling it out.” Instead we are to offer gentle critique (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:25) and cover the offense in love (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Pet. 4:8).

In Scripture, there is precedent for his call to charitable dialogue, but there is also precedent for the opposite approach as well. Context is typically what determines this decision. For our context, it seems appropriate “to call Dr. Litfin out”, to not give him the benefit of the doubt, and to respond to his publicly accessible letter with only a private response would be ill-fitting and unjust. In his letter, Dr Litfin provides 5 reasons why the term “white privilege” is objectionable and unfit for Christian discourse. He says,

I would like to propose five reasons why the term ‘white privilege’ isn’t appropriate for Christian discourse. This language is taken straight from a radical and divisive secular agenda. As such, it should be subjected to the penetrating light of God’s Word…The problem is, the term itself is inflammatory, so the real topic goes unheard because of the offense. Here are five ways the term “white privilege” is objectionable to many in our community:

Just so we all know, the writers of Scripture frequently and intentionally used terminology that was deemed radical, divisive and from agendas not their own. Because a term was inflammatory did not make ill equipped for usage and a term being offensive in naming structures, actions and systems that were sinful was usually only a concern when the writers were addressing those who didn’t follow Jesus or were outsiders to the Christian or Jewish community. If you were an insider who should have known better, Jesus, Paul and others did have choice words for you – not always, but it was always an option. In fact, in Matthew 23:27, Jesus publicly likens the teachers of the law and the Pharisees to “whitewashed tombs”, railing on them for their hypocrisy, i.e. they were the ones who should have know better. Maybe Jesus shouldn’t have used the word “white” and just referred to them as really clean tombs since “white” is the operative term that offends. (Anachronism and snark noted)

In what follows I will address 5 objectionable blunders in his letter and offer some suggestions for him at the end.

Blunder #1

The term [white privilege] can imply corporate responsibility for others’ sin…However, with the arrival of the New Covenant, individuals now stand or fall before God for their own actions.

Divided by FaithHis first blunder reads like a textbook example of what not to say out of Emerson and Smith’s, “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.” Their research concluded that the typical white evangelical’s response to race issues was approached with the “the white evangelical tool kit.”[1] This toolkit consisted of 1) accountable freewill individualism, 2) relationalism (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and 3) antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences).[2] Smith and Emerson concluded that, “[white] Evangelicals are…antistructural because they believe that invoking social structures shifts guilt away from its root source – the accountable individual.”[3] Or as some might say, “it’s not a race issue, but a sin issue.” This explanation is not nearly robust enough given Soong-Chan Rah’s recent post that, “American Christians have too narrow of a definition of sin to engage the issue of environmental justice”. I would add, the issues of racialization and racial injustices to that statement.

As a church historian, Dr. Litfin can appreciate the heritage of a man like Jonathan Edwards. Brian’s anti structural freewill individualism has a direct link to the theological tradition inherited from people like Jonathan Edwards. His thinking falls too closely in line with erroneous theological conclusions like that of Jonathan Edwards who argued that he held equality before God with his black slave because they both were sinners. He’s right, as sinners they shared an equal status before God, but that didn’t solve the sin of slavery of which Edwards was both implicitly and explicitly guilty of. Edwards’s son on the other hand became an ardent abolitionist immediately after his father’s death and refused to enjoy the implicit and explicit benefits of owning another human being. What Dr. Litfin doesn’t accept, in his blundering statement, is the role of implicit guilt he shares based upon the benefits of his tradition, benefits procured through explicit sin.

Blunder #2

The term can contradict God’s approval of the very things that convey historic privileges. Consider how some Americans of all races have reached privileged positions today: through stable family units that saved money and passed wealth to their descendants.

I don’t want to belabor this one too much, but it in short order, the blunder is what Dr. Litfin doesn’t recognize, not in what he does recognize, which is the quintessential bane of “white privilege”. First off, he affirms that because God approves of rightly earned privilege, that we should not scorn said privilege. Rightly earned privilege is gained through stable family units that are careful with their money and the result is accrued wealth that can ben transferred generationally. There are much better people who can deal with that conventional reasoning to show how it is easily undermined. I will just mention a few things.

Wealth in the United States and Canada is not merely gained through working hard and being careful with your money. Many wealthy people actually admit that they had colleagues working just as hard as them, but they were in the right place at the right time and that they knew the right people. There is also the issue of opening up businesses in the era that his grandfather owned a dry cleaner. Ask any minority during that era what their chances were at starting and owning their own business compared to the average white American and it’s not too hard to figure out that his grandfather is not an exemplar in the least bit. Lastly, much of the wealth in the U.S. and Canada doesn’t come from just hard work and diligence. Anyone in the business sector will tell you that it is a dog eat dog world out there and anyone is going to take advantage of their implicit advantages to get ahead, “white privilege” being one of those advantages.

whiteprivilege

Sadly, Dr. Litfin’s statement is complicit in what is known as “laissez-faire racism”, a form of racism that blames minorities, particularly the Black community in the U.S., for their own economic plights. While he doesn’t make the claim explicitly, the inherent implication is that disadvantaged minorities are solely or primarily responsible for their predicaments and that if they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps like his grandfather and father before him, things would get better for them. His statement could be true and can be conventionally accepted, but it does the injustice of inherently ignoring the implications of “redlining“, “reverse redlining“, “blacklisting/whitelisting“, and how not so obvious things like highway construction, city planning and housing market incentives[4] are done to segregate minorities from forms of privilege in accessing jobs, housing and other avenues of upward social mobility. He goes on further with his blunder stating,

Most Caucasians aren’t the offspring of slave owners, but merely of hard-working forefathers who did what was right…The book of Proverbs repeatedly tells us that a life of diligent labor, careful family stewardship, and wise foresight will reap earthly rewards. “All hard work brings a profit” (Proverbs 14:23), and rightly so.

So, the hard working forefathers of the Black community in the U.S. who worked hard for generations as slaves for nothing and then worked hard for generations more in a prejudiced context for next to nothing must have not read Proverbs 14:23. Maybe they were reading too much Exodus for their own good. Generations of diligent slave labor, forced family dissolution and hopeless foresights apparently is the fault of the Black community. Two things are clear. Dr. Litfin has universally applied Scripture passages to his heritage that cannot be applied to everyone’s heritage in the same way, i.e. even the way he reads the Bible expresses white privilege. Secondly, the theology that standardizes the conventional wisdom of Proverbs 14:23 but ignores the contentional wisdom of Ecclesiastes 4:4 and 2:11 is not an adequate theology and must contain blind spots.

Then I saw that all hard work and skillful effort come from rivalry. Even this is pointless. [It’s like] trying to catch the wind.  – Ecclesiastes 4:4

But when I turned to look at all that I had accomplished and all the hard work I had put into it, I saw that it was all pointless. [It was like] trying to catch the wind. I gained nothing [from any of my accomplishments] under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:11

Meaning well will never be enough Dr. Litfin. Your choice to publish an article such as this hurts your credibility and the credibility of the institution you represent as well as the graduates whom you instructed. So as you can tell, I’ve chosen to forego your suggested method of Christian Discourse for another method of Christian discourse. You do need to be called out and while you used the example of Galatians 6:1 in your reasoning to not call each other out, it is with great disappointment that I, along with Paul in Galatians, wish that you would have cut the whole conversation off before you ever ventured forward because all you’ve done is contribute confusion, not clarity.

You had time to think this one through and didn’t think far enough. You are good at church history and I learned a lot from you, but one thing you have proven to be unfit for is public commentary on race relations, and the application of Scripture to the bane of white privilege in the American context. This isn’t a matter to just charitably disagree over. In my next post I will explain why and offer the next 3 blunders as well as some suggestions for going forward.
See Part 2 for the next 3 blunders

 

[1] Emerson & Smith, Divided by Faith, pg. 76.
[2] Ibid., 76.
[3] Ibid., 79.
[4] Wilson, William Julius More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 28-30.

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  • Jelani Greenidge

    Thank you. For seriously engaging with the topic and not letting Dr. Litfin off the hook for his blind spots and his defensiveness.

    • Jelani,

      My first thought was to give him the benefit of the doubt and move in the direction of helping him to see through kindness, patience, etc. While that approach has its place, his letter was not only undeserving of that approach, I feel strongly that it deserved a much stronger response for the reasons I provided. Thanks for your affirmation. As an alumni, this is the tip of the iceberg in problems I perceived while there. Moody has many good traits, but this area is one of constant struggle for them and I’m just surprised this was even allowed to be discussed publicly. It’s going to hurt their credibility a lot.

  • Jelani Greenidge

    Also, I left a comment at the Moody Standard, suggesting that if they want to rescind the term white privilege, they should replace it with white fragility.

    As one might imagine, that comment did not pass through their moderation filter.

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  • Jesse Curtis

    My mouth dropped to the floor at this: “My own grandfather was an immigrant from Canada who scrimped and saved as a dry cleaner in Detroit.” I don’t know the exact chronology of Dr. Litfin’s family history, but that probably places his grandfather in Detroit in, what, the 40s, 50s? As such, Dr. Litfin unwittingly gave an example of the very concept he was writing against. What really puzzles me is why he hasn’t realized that there’s just a bunch of stuff here that he doesn’t know. He’s an expert in his field. Has it occurred to him that there are experts in other fields and he should read up before putting himself out so publicly in a field he’s not conversant in? I highly doubt he has ever read Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis, or David Freund, Colored Property, etc.