Wednesday, September 13, 2017

White Privilege and the Rich Young Ruler

Lego people trying to push a lego camel through the eye of a lego needle. Image source.
Matthew 19:16-30 is the passage we usually call "The Rich Young Ruler." Go over and read it, and then let's talk about it.

Typically, in the past when I've read this passage, I've gotten stuck on verse 23, where Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven." First of all, when I was a kid and it never occurred to me to think of my family as "rich", I wondered why some hypothetical rich people might have a hard time following God and getting saved. Sunday School teachers told me rich people are more likely to trust their money instead of trusting God. Or they feel like they don't need God, whereas poor people have trouble getting their basic needs met and therefore they have to "rely on God" (and aren't they so lucky, they all must have such good spiritual lives because of that). But, the Sunday School teachers reassured us, some rich people are Christians. It's totally possible.

And then I got into radical Christian missions, and I started to think I was "rich." I learned about poor children in Africa who don't even have clean water, and Christian leaders put a lot of guilt on us- we have so much money compared to them, we need to donate, "give til it hurts", we need to go save them. Then the story of the rich young ruler became something to be scared of- like if I'm rich, does that mean I can't go to heaven? Does that mean I have to give away so much that I end up worried about having enough money for day-to-day needs?

But today I'm going to share a completely different interpretation of this passage. I'm not saying this is the "correct" interpretation or this is what Jesus "really meant." Is there even such a thing as "the correct interpretation"? I have an interpretation here that will hopefully be meaningful to you if you are a feminist, if you care about injustice, if you know that privilege is a real thing, if you think "white guilt" doesn't really help anybody.

First of all, I believe the kingdom of heaven is the world as God intended it to be, where there is freedom and equality and no injustice. We should work to bring the kingdom of heaven to the earth. And anyone who is working toward that vision of equality is supporting the kingdom of heaven- even if they're not Christian and wouldn't use the term "the kingdom of heaven." What matters is what people do, not the language they use to describe it, or their religion.

So when Jesus says it's hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven, he's not talking about the question of "will you go to heaven or hell after you die?" He's talking about participating in the work of bringing the kingdom of heaven to this world. People who are rich and/or privileged are less aware of injustice and have less incentive to get involved in righting the wrongs.

Actually, the "wait, if I'm rich does that mean I might not be able to go to heaven?" interpretation takes this passage and makes it incredibly self-centered. Jesus wants us to help others and bring justice to the world, but we get all stuck in "wait am I good enough or not? I'm one of the good ones, right? #NotAllWhitePeople." Like when we take a conversation about violence and discrimination against people of color in the US and make it about white feelings- we want someone to reassure us that we, personally, are not racist- and that desire overshadows our concern about the actual injustice that's actually happening.

So we shouldn't understand "It's hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven" to mean rich people are the victims of this passage and they're the ones we should focus on. It's not about them. It's just saying that, in a practical sense, people who are privileged aren't likely to be the ones doing activism and bringing about big changes that overturn systems of oppression.

If you're white in the US, you can pretty much go through life completely unaware of the systemic injustice that people of color deal with. Recently on Twitter I saw a photo of a protest sign that said "If Hillary won I'd be at brunch right now." And someone on Twitter was saying, that's a problem- injustice was built into every system in the US long before the 2016 election. People are protesting now, but that doesn't mean that if Clinton was president, everything would be fine and there would be no need to protest. (But that doesn't mean "both candidates were equally bad" or some crap like that.) But if you've never had to actually experience systemic racism, it's easy to believe that all this stuff about racism and white supremacy just started now.

At first when the rich man asks Jesus what to do, Jesus tells him to obey the commandments, and lists a few of the big ones- don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't give false testimony, honor your parents, love your neighbor. The man says he has kept all these laws, but he wants to do more. That's when Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give to the poor. Similarly, those of us with white privilege may have "kept the commandments"- we never explicitly made a choice to do something racist. We never said the N word. We never went to a KKK rally. We never believed black people are biologically inferior. But that's not really enough. We still have privilege, and that separates us from the actual reality of injustice in our world, just like the rich man's money separated him from participation in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus tells him to sell his possessions- and that means for those of us with privilege, in order to really do the work of bringing justice to this world, we'll have to take actions that are risky and costly. (I don't think we have to sell all our possessions- I don't see how it would help anyone if I put myself in a state of constant anxiety over not having enough money.)

And I strongly believe we need to count the cost. Don't just start doing stuff because "it's the right thing to do." Don't just jump in and hope God will take care of you, like the radical Christian missions teachers told us to do. Figure out what cost you realistically are willing to pay. And I don't think there's one "right answer" about that; again, I'm very wary of radical Christian missions ideology which says as long as anyone else is in need, it would be wrong for you to ever buy anything nice for yourself. But those of us with privilege do have a responsibility to use it to help advocate for justice. Privilege isn't something we should feel bad about; mostly it's something we're born with. It's not bad to have privilege (there's no reason to feel bad for being white), but it does mean we have a responsibility.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for people who are unaffected by systemic injustice to get involved with fighting against that injustice. But this passage isn't about condemning them to hell for that, or feeling bad for rich people- that puts the focus in the wrong place, just like when we white people are more upset over being called racist than about the actual reality of racism.


One more thing: OBVIOUSLY the characters in this bible story were NOT white, American, or English-speaking.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Why Does the Kingdom of Heaven Belong to Children? (Matthew 19:13-15)

Next post: The Parable of the Living Wage (Matthew 20:1-16)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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