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Commentary: An invitation to evangelical white males

A UMNS Commentary
By Bill Mefford*

April 9, 2008

 
Bill Mefford

A few months ago, I attended a conference in Memphis, Tenn., where a Texas judge, who identified himself as a white, evangelical male, made a remarkable statement. He called himself "the most discriminated-against person on the face of this earth!"

I was astounded by the comment.

After all, he is in such a unique position of power. How could he possibly feel discriminated against? As a well-paid employee of the U.S. criminal justice system, he sits in judgment of others. He serves in a nation with less than 6 percent of the world’s population, yet that houses more than 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated. There is an enormously high African-American population among those incarcerated, but this white judge believes he is "the most discriminated against."

I was a rapt listener as he explained his plight. Apparently, he feels threatened by the changing culture in which we live. He is uncomfortable with "changing sexual standards," "alternative lifestyles" and an "influx of cultures" into the United States.

The judge never cited specific actions that constituted discrimination against him personally. Nonetheless, he conveyed his frustration that he no longer can control things he previously took for granted.

Conflicting thoughts

I left that conference with conflicting thoughts. I almost felt sorry for that evangelical, white Texas judge because the world is indeed changing.

As a fellow white, evangelical male from Texas myself, I agree that change threatens my ability to control events that have an impact on me and my family. In an increasingly globalized world where white men are a minority on the decrease, there is a palpable uneasiness, especially because we have occupied positions of power for so long.

On the other hand, when I reflect on Scripture, I realize that nowhere does Jesus instruct his disciples to hold on to the status quo. Quite the opposite is true.

“In an increasingly globalized world where white men are a minority on the decrease, there is a palpable uneasiness, especially because we have occupied positions of power for so long.”

When arguing broke out among the disciples as to who was the greatest among them, Jesus admonished them. He insisted that the new society he was building would be distinctively different from the society they had formerly known.

Jesus said: "You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave––just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28) 

Reordering of society

This overturning of the status quo represents a transvaluation that occurs when Christ’s reign is realized. As Christians calling the world to recognize Christ’s reign, this is a transvaluation we should not only be aware of, but one we should model.

Overturning of the status quo represents a transvaluation that occurs when Christ’s reign is realized.

Reordering society is threatening to those of us who benefitted from the old order. Christ offers a wonderful promise of a new world in which those who have been marginalized will be brought in, those demonized will be honored, and those crushed down will be lifted up.

This promise carries with it what Stephen Charles Mott calls "the principle of redress." In his book Biblical Ethics and Social Change, Mott states that "the goal of redress is to return people to a normal level of advantage and satisfaction in the community, particularly with respect to the capacity to earn a living and to have a reasonably happy life." He says redress is a necessary aspect of justice that "implies each member of the community will in fact be strong enough to maintain his or her position in relation to the other members."

According to Mott, redress requires that as the marginal are brought in, those who dominated access to resources must give way and share that access. He says redress requires that those unfairly demonized for their place in society must be honored. And, he adds that those who have received all of the honor and accolades must assume a new seat in humility, and perhaps obscurity.

“Christ offers a wonderful promise of a new world in which those who have been marginalized will be brought in, those demonized will be honored, and those crushed down will be lifted up.”

Mott says redress requires that those crushed down will be healed and lifted up. He says the powers and mechanisms used to crush them will be transformed into structures that ensure equal and just redistribution of resources. He emphasizes that redress ultimately holds that those with access to resources should advocate and work to gain that same access for those who have been restricted or denied.

Redress thus holds promise for the poor and oppressed, according to Mott, and places demands on the affluent and powerful. Redress is indeed threatening for white, evangelical males—and non-evangelical males for that matter—who have benefitted from the current social, economic and political order.

In the current order, I too often miss opportunities to work with and for women in power, for example. As a white male, I too often miss the discovery of learning about my brothers and sisters of other ethnicities and races. As a white male of privilege, I too often miss the amazement of the creativity and strength of the poor to survive in a society in which so much is stacked against them. 

Repentance is difficult

As that white, evangelical Texas judge knows well because of his work, repentance is difficult. Outside of the grace of Jesus and regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, it is nigh on to impossible.

Let’s not, however, mistake holding on to power and excluding others we deem different or threatening as a way of bringing reform and renewal to the church. I grow exceedingly suspicious of hearing about a call to reform and renew the church from fellow white, evangelical males who do not also carry the message of personal repentance of racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, radical individualism, materialism and other forms of exclusion.

Reform and renewal cannot be taken seriously until those openly calling for such actions first repent of our own forms of sin. For white, evangelical males, reform and renewal must begin with our recognition that the values we have been raised with and even taught––values of power, dominance, attaining great wealth and honor––are to be intentionally transformed. If the Kingdom of God calls for a transvaluation of all that we hold dear––and it does––then the values we adopt must include humility, serving others, working for justice for others ahead of ourselves, intentional inclusion of others and selflessness.

I pray for reform and renewal of the church. But unless that renewal carries a transvaluation of all of our allegiances related to wealth and power, then it is at best, merely empty rhetoric. At worst, it is a means to protect the current status quo of divisiveness, exclusion and dominance.

Jesus extends a glorious invitation to that Texas judge, me and to all other white males, evangelical or not, who are struggling with changing cultures and a globalizing world. His glorious invitation is to repent and become a participant in his Kingdom dream of seeing the first become last, and the last first. That may not sound like all we wanted or heard previously, but being last in the Kingdom of God surely beats not being there at all.

*Mefford is the program director, civil and human rights, United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the denomination's social justice agency.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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