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Elite or responsible?

Privileged... and so

Privilege. Most of us who read this blog are indeed among the privileged, certainly when we take in a global perspective. I appreciate though that we do not consciously live in a global environment but a local one – whether that be a geographic or social context, and so we often have a mixed experience where we are also disadvantaged in some ways. There were many privileged groups in the New Testament times, being a Roman citizen certainly set some apart as elite. It is though the shift of ‘status’ that took place through the Gospel that I am focusing on in this post.

This has come into fresh focus with some of the wider writing I am involved in and also as we have ‘zoomed’ into a situation where the predominant cultural view is that of male dominance, with Paul (and Jesus!) seen as favouring the male.

The great egalitarian text of Paul in one of his earliest pieces of writing is Gal. 3: 28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Written into the contentious situation where these non-Jewish converts were being subjected to the teaching that any follower of Jesus that was not in compliance to Jewish law was not a ‘full’ member of the community of God’s people.

This bit is strong!!

We even read of Paul confronting Peter face to face, and the strength of the conflict was very strong. There was a good (missiological) argument that had won Peter over. Those who came from James had a compelling argument: ‘how would they ever reach Jews back in the homeland if the Jewish followers of Jesus were fraternising and eating with Gentiles. For the sake of the Gospel you have to pull back, Peter.’ It does not get stronger than that, and if is or this reason I don’t think it was as simple as Peter was making a backward step but he felt compelled to take a compromising step for the sake of non-offence to the Jews, a step for the Gospel. That makes the conflict even stronger. The missiological argument could not overpower the fundamental Gospel one! (Think we have it hard trying to work out what is a godly redemptive compromise!) Back in the day, to be involved in a slave owning group who professed faith could have been argued for: a compromise for the sake of the Gospel… but eventually that compromise was not a compromise for the Gospel but a compromise of the Gospel. Deciding when that shift takes place takes wisdom and insight, and knowing what has changed in our society with respect to the Gospel likewise is very challenging.

Privilege… Either it feeds the demonic idea of elitism / above someone else; or it pushes us toward the ‘responsibility’ element. I consider that over centuries there was a downward trajectory in the life of Israel from the commissioned responsibility for sake of the nations to the elitism of chosenness. I have also been considering (of late) that maybe if we are of the ‘zionist’ bias (not one I can see in the NT at all) maybe there is also a knock on with regard to how we see the gender issue of male and female. Both seem to come from a way of reading Scripture that I find strange, but one I have to respect as I have no reason to suggest that those who read that way are not acting with integrity. I simply hope the reading is not being fuelled by any form of elitism.

With the household codes (the instructions on ‘husbands’, ‘wives’, ‘masters’, ‘slaves’, etc.) Paul follows the conventions of the day where philosophers and religious writers would lay out how their philosophy / religion would not at any level disturb the status quo of the Roman society. In our culture they are not too radical (understatement!!) but in that culture he carefully redefined them. He moved the dominant one from a position of ruling the roost to a place where they were to be an animated source of life.

There was an anonymous letter written to a person names ‘Diognetus’, mid 2nd Century, that suggested that Christians were to the world what the soul was to the body. They were to be present and animating. (The quote below is fairly long, the specific part I am referring to is in bold… so feel free to skip to that point… and apologies for the male language.)

Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonour, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen.  The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

The explanation is somewhat hellenised, indicating how quickly there was a shift from a Jewish psychology to a Greek-oriented one, but nevertheless the description as an animating life-giving source is very clearly put.

In the Gospel the privilege of Jew over Greek was nullified (I count it all ‘dung’ said one very privileged Jew; the NT era Jews were basically given a generation to respond to Jesus etc.); the rich were always being slapped about – we do not read ‘woe to you poor!’ but we often read ‘woe to you rich’; and in the Gospel any male privilege that might be inferred from creation is totally cancelled. The Greek of Gal. 3:28 seems to deliberately use the same construction as we find in Genesis, but reversing it – no ‘male and female’.

No privilege, indeed we might suggest that there is a bias the other way because of the Gospel! And any privilege that society might give, or we find ourselves in is to promote life (the shift in Paul’s household codes), to work toward an egalitarianism with everyone finding true life, and a corresponding emptying out of the privilege. Privilege is to be temporal and can only be in order to move things in the direction of the new creation.

8 thoughts on “Elite or responsible?

  1. Well that was thought provoking.

    That Diognetus quote was well worth the full read.

    Just on this point of Privilege being cancelled by the gospel. My reading has been more that Privilege is transformed by the gospel into Responsibility, in a kind of “to he whom much has been given, much will be expected” kind of way

    No apologies for the male language 😉

    To me there seems to be clear NT acceptance that individuals will possess different measure of talents and indeed, that there will always be rich and poor among you.

    The gospel emphasis is on how you use the measure of privilege you have for the good of the world.

    Talent begets privilege in the way that talent begets influence. People will gather to gift (charisma), power and influence and, yes, privilege follows. What you do with it counts

    Of course none of what I have said cuts against the desire to remove structural roadblocks for people based on ethnicity, gender and so on. I just make the point that even in an imagined perfect world of equal opportunity, privilege will emerge

    blessings all

  2. I think the meaning of privilege is that it has nothing really to do with talent – though narratives are put forth that say otherwise. Research has shown that the meritocracy is mostly a myth. My level of talent doesn’t matter much if I am of a gender and group that is not normally privileged. Yes, I might get lucky but generally I would not.

    Research into small tribal groups shows that they make time and effort to deflate boasting and to promote sharing of resources earned by talent. This helps maintain equality and reduce conflicts within the group. It becomes socially unacceptable to boast of one’s accomplishments. And if a talented hunter – any large kill must be and is happily shared out with households that lack talented hunters. It would be unacceptable to keep the resources gained by talent to oneself. So the social inequality is reduced as is the inequality of resources. In other words, they work to reduce any claim to privilege on any grounds. A modern equivalent is restricting CEO salary as a multiple of that of the lowest waged employees. It tends to produce more social equality and less of a sense of privilege.

    Privilege is not something earned by talent. It is something claimed usually based on gender (male), race (white though there are elites within and between other cultures/tribes/ethnicities), history, blood, culture (western civilization is somehow superior at least in most of our minds) and other claims. And over time it is systematized, that is written into how cultural institutions – formal and informal operate. They are set up to reinforce the privilege of those who claim it. Elite schools admit privileged idiots as long as their families make big donations. Those privileged young idiots go onto powerful positions due to family connections and on and on. It simply replicates itself like a rather nasty virus.

    Talent has little to do with it.

    1. Ann… hugely grateful for this contribution. Privilege is often so hidden, either by cultural (ab-)’norms’, or deliberately by those with vested interested in maintaining the status quo. It makes critiquing of it very difficult – those who are privileged (the ‘me’s’ of this world) have to be honest as to what do we know, and those who know, the ones who have experienced the underside of this rarely have a voice that will be responded to. The level of ‘humanity’ that Jesus exhibited in that epoch is staggering… and Paul did pretty good too!

  3. This issue is not that talent does or does not get rewarded. It is who defines talent. Who rewards it and how. Who gets rewarded. Privilege always seeks to reinforce and promote privilege for the future – that is what determines the who and how of talent and rewards.

  4. So it seems that you are saying that there are seasons throughout history where there is a certain impetus from a deeper understanding of the revelation of what the gospel means which brings about change and as Paul said if the gospel is being preached he is happy even if it’s not in a perfect way or setting!. Is that how the kingdom comes in bits and pieces over millenia? So the revealing of the heart of God starts off counter-cultural with Jesus (deeply controversial especially in the way he dealt with women and elevated them in fact – thinking of his mother and Mary Magdalene being the first disciple to see him risen, also the way he touched the unclean etc. etc.) but continues to challenge and provoke as centuries pass so what is acceptable now will not be acceptable in the future perhaps? Upheaval and uprisings and men/women of deep convictions and conscience precipitate change as the gospel permeates society and history whether people know it comes from Jesus or not. If I understand rightly?

    1. That would indeed be my perspective. We cannot change the Gospel, we have to work out what it means / how it is applied in any (new) situation. New situations, or new understandings also reflect back on how the Gospel should be applied / what the core message means.
      I am not sure if Paul ‘saw’ the end of slavery or not. If he did he was so far beyond his time. If he didn’t this does not diminish his level of revelation. The important aspect is what do we ‘see’ in the light of the revelation that he carried.

  5. Thank you Martin whole post so interesting. So much to think about.

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