I’ve taught about this topic based on this section of text at church before, but for no reason in particular, this passage has been running through my head again and I thought I would try to clarify and solidify my thoughts through writing.
Unlike the gospels of Luke and Matthew, the gospel of John does not tell us about the birth story of Jesus at the beginning of the book. Instead, John chooses to explain Jesus’ entrance into the world as the Creator God taking on human flesh to bear His image perfectly and put on display humanity as humanity was intended to be. However, it is my contention that John’s gospel does contain a birth narrative, but the birth of Jesus does not occur until the end of the book.
So as not to get bogged down, we will be flying through these texts, only pointing out what is pertinent to my argument, and deliberately ignoring some of the most important elements of the story. We’ll start with Jesus on the cross nearing death.
But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He *said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then He *said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.
For our purposes, there’s only one thing I want you to pay attention to in this passage, which we probably normally wouldn’t give a second thought. Who are the women here? Well, we have Jesus’ mother, whose name every reader or hearer (hereon, we’ll use only the term reader, even though most of John’s original audience heard this text read to them) knows. Mary of course. Then we have Mary and Mary. So, Mary, Mary, and Mary.
The text goes on to tell us about the death of Jesus. He’s given sour wine, then He parallels Elohim in Genesis, with, “It is finished.” At this moment, Jesus gives up His Spirit.
Everyone is in a hurry to bring him down from the cross before the Sabbath or they would have to leave the bodies on the cross for a whole day cuz silly reasons. To double check to make sure Jesus was dead, they pierce his side, and out of him flows blood and water. He was quite dead.
Then we come to the story of Jesus’ burial.
After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body. 39 Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
We’re reading through John and we hear Mary, Mary, Mary, there is a ten verse depiction of Jesus’ death, and after we come immediately to Joseph. Mary, Mary, Mary… Joseph. “Mary” is fresh in reader’s minds, and then “Joseph.” What is commonly associated with these two names in close proximity to one another? Jesus’ birth. I think John wants us to have the story of His birth in mind right now. Given that both of these names are common, it is perfectly plausible their usage is purely coincidental. I would tend toward calling it a coincidence, except for other elements of the text.
Because of what we see in the rest of this gospel, we know John is a well thought out writer who is very deliberate about what he says. Rarely, if ever, does he provide specific details without reason. He tells us Jesus is going to be laid in a tomb, a new tomb. No one had ever been laid in it. Just like the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus (Pun not intended in the Greek). It’s a virgin tomb.
Here’s the kicker of the passage, and perhaps the most important reason for seeing this part of John as a sort of birth narrative. John tells us Nicodemus is there. Nicodemus is here to both foreshadow what is about to happen and to provide a theological explanation of what does happen. No other gospel tells us about him. Not only that, John also happens to specifically point us to the first meeting Nicodemus had with Jesus. The importance of referencing Nicodemus is found in this conversation.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to get some questions answered. We pick up this iconic conversation in John 3.2
this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus *said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’8 The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus continues on in the conversation to frame this new birth as a “heavenly thing” and as what brings the “life of the age (of the kingdom of God)” to the reborn. He also talks about himself being raised up as the means by which the people of God will receive the salvation from death to receive the life he speaks about in this passage.
With this background in mind we come to the resurrection in John 20, the climactic moment of the author’s birth narrative. In this chapter, Mary goes to Jesus’ virgin tomb and finds it empty. Later she is the first to see the risen Jesus whom she mistakenly believes to be the gardener.
John’s reference to the story of Nicodemus provides one lens through which we are to view Jesus’ resurrection. It is the new spiritual birth which allows the reborn to see the kingdom of God. What was confusing in John 3 has now become quite clear. No, it’s not about climbing back into the mother’s womb. Other than being impossible, that would simply result in another birth of the flesh. This is a birth of a different sort.
The gestation process of the new birth takes place in a tomb. The precursor to a birth of the spirit is a death to the old fleshly ways of law, sin, division, centralized religious control, and the like. Jesus’ death to sin on the cross was his conception and the resurrection with a new, imperishable body is his birth. Jesus was born again with a body fit to see and experience the kingdom of God.
The resurrected Jesus in the garden is the new Adam, the first of humanity to experience both a birth of water and one of spirit. Jesus lovers are to follow him into the tomb that they might also be born, “not of [blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1.13). As revealed in the conversation with Nicodemus, it is the raising up of Jesus like the serpent which enables us to share with Jesus in this spiritual rebirth through death and resurrection – experiencing the life of the age in the present as we await the fullness of this life in the future.
*As a pertinent post-script, Jesus frames his death and resurrection as a birth story in John 16.20-22 as well.
Reading chapter 31, a message from God to his conquered people who have been exiled to a foreign land, I noticed something new . The author repeatedly uses a unique name which I didn’t recall seeing so often during read throughs of previous chapters. “Ephraim,” the name for one of the tribes of Israel, is scattered throughout this passage. Here are its uses.
“For there will be a day when watchmen
On the hills of Ephraim call out,
‘Arise, and let us go up to Zion,
To the Lord our God.’”
“With weeping they will come,
And by supplication I will lead them;
I will make them walk by streams of waters,
On a straight path in which they will not stumble;
For I am a father to Israel,
And Ephraim is My firstborn.”
“There is hope for your future,” declares the Lord,
“And your children will return to their own territory.
18 “I have surely heard Ephraim grieving,
‘You have chastised me, and I was chastised,
Like an untrained calf;
Bring me back that I may be restored,
For You are the Lord my God.
19 ‘For after I turned back, I repented;
And after I was instructed, I smote on my thigh;
I was ashamed and also humiliated
Because I bore the reproach of my youth.’
20 “Is Ephraim My dear son?
Is he a delightful child?
Indeed, as often as I have spoken against him,
I certainly still remember him;
Therefore My heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,” declares the Lord.
In the book of Jeremiah, the largest book in the Bible, there are seven uses of the word, “Ephraim.” Four of them are found in this one chapter. Only in this chapter is Ephraim referred to directly as an individual. All other uses are descriptive (hills of Ephraim, offspring of Ephraim). The frequency and uniqueness of the use of “Ephraim” here is a good indicator of a deliberate literary move.
After noticing this, I did some “research” (that’s a generous term for my brief internet search), on why. The first reason which came up explains the use of the term Ephraim at the outer layer of meaning. Ephraim was the strongest tribe of those which formed the northern kingdom of Israel, and thus using the name was shorthand for referring to all these tribes. I believe it safe to say the author intended to include all these tribes when referring to Ephraim. However, it should be pointed out, there are already well established terms for distinguishing the northern from the southern kingdoms, Israel and Judah, respectively. This explanation doesn’t quite explain the why.
A few other people pointed out Ephraim is the second son of Joseph who was the second to last son of Israel (who also, as long as we’re going through this list, was the last born of Isaac who was the second born son of Abraham). These are those who were the chosen sons through whom God’s people would descend. In the ancient near east, the standard was for the firstborn son to receive the inheritance. God’s manner of choosing who would inherit his kingdom was different, unexpected, and often included those who were overlooked by others, the weak, the humble.
The implications of this are at least twofold. By focusing on Ephraim, the last born of all the patriarchs of the Israelite tribes, God is pointing out his love for the lowliest in society and his intention to elevate their status and do great things to them and through them. Certainly exiled Israel can identify with those in the lowest position at this time. This also hints at the gentiles, the latter born group of people, entrances into the kingdom of God with as much status as God’s firstborn, through the new covenant referred to in this chapter.
I will suggest it serves another purpose in the text. Full disclosure, I have a four month old son named Ephraim. So, I’m definitely inclined to pay more attention to his name than most. Conveniently, I also know what the Hebrew word Ephraim means in English. It means “fruitful.” Before we get into the implications of this, here’s why Joseph chose this name for his son.
Joseph entered Egypt as a slave, become a prisoner, and then the second most powerful man in the entire nation. He was forcibly extracted from his life and family and brought to Egypt against his will, and yet God still used him and gave him good things. In this context, when Joseph has his second son, he says they will name him ‘Ephraim, “For,” he said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”’
Egypt was not a place where God blessed Joseph only, but where he blessed all of the people of Israel for centuries. This foreign nation was where a small immediate family grew into a nation of people. And eventually, when this nation within Egypt were made into slaves, YHWH brought them out and blessed them elsewhere.
Jeremiah’s use of “Ephraim” should not only cause the reader to think “fruitful,” but also to think of the story of Ephraim’s naming. God has a history of making his people fruitful. He even does so when they are in a foreign land. He even does so when they were forced to come to the foreign land against their will. “Ephraim,” in a word, tells a story of hope, of God’s faithfulness to his people even when they are brought by their oppressors into a land of affliction. He has provided fruitfulness before in a similar context, he will do so again. YHWH is assuring Israel that despite their circumstances they are still his fruitful firstborn.
The hope God communicates, hope for freedom, hope for a renewed relationship, hope for future safety, brought about by a moment of complete forgiveness, is best summed up in 31.31-34.
31 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.33 “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
From another writing project in which I deal with a handful of arguments for male authority over women from this text:
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
Sometimes interpreters will use Genesis 2 to argue for men’s position over women in the hierarchy of Creation. The attempt to demonstrate this comes from a flawed understanding of the purpose of this chapter and an ignorance of Genesis 1. God has already outlined the hierarchy of Creation in Genesis 1. This chapter is not designed to speak to the issue.
Still, there are some who use chapter 2 to posit male authority over females. These arguments which place men over women are common enough it is worth the time to address some of them directly.
In Genesis 1, it looks like male and female were created at the same time. However, in chapter 2 Adam was created before Eve. As one who has been alive in the world for longer, it would make sense for Adam, with his more expansive knowledge of the world, to have a position of authority over her. God deliberately created man first because He wanted men to always have a position of leadership over women.
The main problem with this conclusion is its presumptiveness. There’s no reason in the text to assume being made first put one in a position over others. In fact, were one going to use the order of creation as a way to figure out God’s original design for hierarchy, the exact opposite would have to be concluded. We already know humans are over the rest of creation and humans were created last. The creatures with the highest authority are those created later. If woman was created last of all, then God must want her to have dominion over everything which came before, including man.
Eve is called Adam’s “helper.” When the ESV (and many other translations) use the word “helper” to describe Eve’s relationship to Adam, they are not intending to communicate the idea of some sort of hierarchy. When modern readers perceive Eve to be Adam’s subordinate because of the use of the term helper, they are reading their experiences into the text.
The assumption of some readers that to call someone a “helper” is to subordinate them is not without reason in our modern context. It is common in the work environment to refer to less skilled people as a “helper.” Children who aid in cleanup or who are being kind to younger children are also called “helpers.” A helper is someone who is there to be of assistance to the person who is in charge. We often use “helper” to refer to someone who is in a position of subordination.
The word for helper in the Hebrew text carries no such connotations. The Hebrew word for helper is Ezer. This word is most often applied to God. God helps humanity out sometimes, this certainly doesn’t make him a subordinate. Using similarly shallow arguments to those seeking to prove patriarchy, it would be very easy to conclude Eve must be Adam’s superior, since the same term applied to her is also applied to God. The text is not trying to say anything about a hierarchy at all.
The process of Eve’s creation is another event some use to conclude that God designed men to be in a position over women. Adam slept and then God used his rib to create Eve. She is a part of Adam’s body. Adam is the originator of Eve.
Only a small logical step is required to propose that Adam has rightful authority of Eve. She owes her very existence to him. He owned the rib from which woman was made, so he should have some continuing rights of ownership. Adam obviously has authority over his own body and Eve is simply a separated extension of his body. As one created from someone else, it is reasonable to conclude Adam is above Eve in the hierarchy of creation.
Yet, we find ourselves only able to use these verses to justify a hierarchy between man and woman if we ignore the preceding text. Adam wasn’t created out of thin air either. He originated from another substance – dirt. Is dirt over man in the hierarchy? Quite the opposite, the earth is the very thing over which man is to rule. In the interest of a consistent application of the hierarchal hermenuetic, if man was created from the substance over which he had dominion, then it must be that woman is supposed to have dominion over man.
Or perhaps interpreting Genesis 2 as if it is trying to tell us something about an authority difference between men and women is the wrong way of reading it altogether.
5 “For thus says the Lord,
‘I have heard a sound of terror,
Of dread, and there is no peace.
6 ‘Ask now, and see
If a male can give birth.
Why do I see every man
With his hands on his loins, as a woman in childbirth?
And why have all faces turned pale?
7 ‘Alas! for that day is great,
There is none like it;
And it is the time of Jacob’s distress,
But he will be saved from it.
8 ‘It shall come about on that day,’ declares the Lord of hosts, ‘that I will break his yoke from off their neck and will tear off their bonds; and strangers will no longer make them their slaves. 9 But they shall serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.
When I read this over quickly, my first thought was, “God’s talking about judging Israel again.” I don’t know if other readers are like me, but I’m inclined to simply throw passages into this equation: Old Testament Prophet + talking to Israel + talking about human suffering = judgment language. I ran the numbers on my first skim through, and I totally misread the passage.
YHWH’s begins his speech by informing Israel He has heard a sound of terror. This isn’t God acting or proclaiming, He is listening. He is paying attention to His people. YHWH does not hide his face from them, He sees them. He understands their pain.
YHWH is not pronouncing judgment here. God is using empathetic language to let Israel know He understands what they are going through right now. Using the visceral and universal metaphor of labor pains, YHWH reflects their suffering back to them. He demonstrates an intimate knowledge of their circumstances. God sees as if He were in their shoes, looking through their eyes, taking on their perspective. Their pain feels like the most tremendous and debilitating pain they can imagine.
This God knows their pain. While is true the sin of the people has caused their desperate and painful condition, He is loving and forgiving. The merciful God who sees will not allow the pain to endure forever. He’s going to do something about it. He’s going to set things right.
His solution points us obviously to Jesus. I’ve pointed out many times in writings, lectures, and in conversation that choosing a king was a rejection of God. God also promised a descendant of David would be on the throne forever. Jesus is the unique and unexpected solution to this (and many other) problems. Jesus is both God enfleshed and a descendant of David. Jesus both fulfills the promises of God to David and rectifies Israel’s rejection of YHWH as the only rightful king.
I think I’m going to restart doing this regularly. I have a few creative outlets I’m focusing on right now, but I currently have none where I am specifically focusing on Scripture, save for sub 140 character twitter posts, but that hardly counts. This type of writing is also nice to do because it’s fairly easy and I hold it to a very low standard. These blog posts aren’t completely without thought, but they don’t require very extensive thinking either.
Jeremiah 29, huh. There are so many rabbit trails on which we could travel. I’ll work on staying focused and brief.
How about Jeremiah 29:12-14. These verses are a part of a message sent to people from Jerusalem who were taken and are now living in exile in Babylon. God chose to use this time to speak hope to His people in their time of potential despair. They didn’t heed Jeremiah’s warnings and repent, thus God chose not to prevent their conquering. So, now what. God didn’t protect them because of their sin. As covenant breakers in a foreign land, where do they stand with God? The passage in its
12 Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’
The Jewish religious practices ascribe a lot of importance to objects and geography in the worship of YHWH. So much emphasis is placed on these things, the very presence of God is thought to be directly connected to them. God is where the Ark of the Covenant is. The Holy of Holies is where God’s presence is strongest. As one moves outward, the potency of God’s presence decreases. It’s next strongest in the sanctuary, less in the outer courts, still less in the city of Jerusalem, and still present, but weaker in the land of Judea as a whole. The further away one gets from the Temple, the further away one gets from God Himself.
If the presence of God is geographically related, then the exiled Jews have a problem. They’re in Babylon. They’re really far from Jerusalem and they can no longer make trips to the Temple. God directly addresses any fears about His absence. YHWH lets them know His presence extends even to Babylon. Away from home, under power of a foreign rulers, in the midst of a multitude of other gods, YHWH is with them. And He’s as available for relationship as ever. They need only seek Him truly and honestly to find Him. The promise of presence is wonderful and unexpected news to a people who thought their sin drove them away from God.
These words were penned to a very specific group (Jewish exiles in Babylon), at a very specific time (during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar – I don’t know dates people), with a very specific message (God will bring the Jewish people back to Jerusalem). How might a message of return from exile apply to followers of Jesus thousands of years later?
For most of human history, the people of God have been a people in exile. Followers of Jesus are no exception. We are told by new testament authors to identify so strongly as citizens of the kingdom of heaven that we consider ourselves as strangers in a foreign land wherever we find ourselves in the world. We are told to live like those whose home is elsewhere, whose home is different, than the place and culture in which we currently reside. In our exile, God speaks a message of hope – including promises of His presence where we are and promises of a return back to where we belong.
Ultimately, the people of God then and the people of God now are waiting for the same grand return from exile. It is the sin of the world which makes followers of Jesus exiles at present. It was the sin of the Israelites which made them exiles in their time. It was sin in the garden which exiled humanity from the world as it should be. All people of God across history look forward to this final return, when redeemed humanity is brought back to the home for which their heart has always yearned.
Today is Memorial Day 2016. It’s a day to remember the millions upon millions who have been killed in war. It’s a day we all feel a semblance of the sorrow millions feel everyday thinking about the child, the friend, the brother, the uncle, the wife they will never see again. Today is when we recollect the multitude of tragedies felt by so many.
As this day approached, I’ve been thinking of the mistakes I made in my life as it pertains to the nation, the military, and soldiers themselves. I’ve done, thought, believed, and said many things in my life that were harmful to the well-being of American soldiers. I spent most of my life participating in and encouraging a culture which has resulted in and continues to result in the death of millions. For these things, I would like to apologize.
I’m sorry for participating in the propagandistic religious rituals of the State. I’m sorry for standing with the crowd, staring at the flag, putting my hand over my heart, and reciting the pledge of allegiance. I’m sorry for taking off my hat, putting my hand over my heart again, and looking on at the piece of colored cloth with pride while someone sang the national anthem. I now realize these things are designed to create emotional and spiritual devotion in children, turning them into mindless followers of their nation’s rulers.
I’m sorry for believing and spreading war propaganda. I’m sorry for believing 9/11 was an isolated incident, unrelated to the hundreds of thousands of innocent middle easterners dead as the result of US foreign policy. I’m sorry for thinking starting a war in Afghanistan was a reasonable way to hold Al Qaeda accountable. I’m sorry for believing the ridiculous notion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction other than the ones the US gave them that they subsequently destroyed, and for thinking the presence of such weapons justifies an invasion. More than buying into these absurd notions, I’m remorseful for repeating them, arguing for them, and spreading these rationalizations of violent aggression. I now realize these ideas were deceptive and manipulative, designed to convince the populace to go along with sending their young men and women to kill and to die pointlessly.
I’m sorry for engaging in the type of soldier glorifying behaviors which encourage people to join the military. I’m sorry for all the times I thanked troops for their service. I’m sorry for thinking and acting as if troops were heroes. I’m sorry for believing and propagating the idea that the US Military fights for the freedom of US Citizens. This perception, despite being widespread, can be proven false in a moment by any thinking person. The invention that troops fight for freedom is a façade to hide the truth: troops fight to satisfy the lust for wealth and power of politicians and their brothers in arms.
Today I feel these tragedies on many levels. Every time someone dies it is tragic. It’s even more tragic when they fight, kill, and die for a cause they believe in, but which doesn’t exist. They fight and die to serve their government overlords, to fill the coffers of defense contractors, to keep politicians in power, and to satisfy the bloodlust of the tribalistic masses who won’t stop beating the war drum. For the many ways I encouraged these lives to be wasted, for men and women to become empty sacrifices of the State, I’m sorry.
I promise I will not dishonor the memory of the many victims of war by being a pawn of the State any longer.
Hey ladies and gentlemen. Neither you nor I knew if I would ever revisit this blog. Here I am. The occasion? I wanted to take a break from my regular discussion of controversial issues to talk about race. I’ve talked a little about the topic in the past. I don’t talk about it much.
Why now? Cuz my stupid friend who’s not stupid at all but actually pretty smart, genuine, kind, open-minded, open-hearted, generous with consuming the creative projects of others, and a good writer wrote this.* You should read this blog post even though I’m going to spend some time disagreeing with it. John humbly and honestly deals with his thoughts on race and privilege and he is just generally a person worth reading. The post is based on a Macklemore song entitled: “White Privilege II.” Can you guess what the song is about?
I didn’t actually listen to the song. I read the lyrics. I don’t enjoy Macklemore’s music. It’s just not my style. I’m becoming an old curmudgeon with musical tastes which remain largely unchanged.
Up front: I generally don’t like talk about white privilege. I don’t think it’s a helpful concept. Do you know what the concept does? What it does is group a massive chunk of the population together by race, and then invites people to make assumptions about their lives, thoughts, worldview, and experiences based upon the color of their skin. As someone who is very interested in the unique lives and stories of individuals, I’m not really into making assumptions about others based upon the color of their skin.
That being said, I readily admit I am privileged. Looking back at my life, there are many privileges I can easily recognize. I grew up in an upper middle class household. I grew up in a safe neighborhood. I had two parents in my life well into adulthood. I was cared for. I was homeschooled for a few years of my life. I’m of average attractiveness, at least average enough I didn’t suffer much mocking by my peers. I was naturally able to do well in school. I was more athletic than most. I have had many good friends.
These were major aspects of my life which privileged me in relative to many people. They were easily noticeable. Do you know what I never noticed? Privilege due to my race. Should we blame my white blinders? Maybe. I wonder though, if I can’t see due to my white blinders, why don’t I also have my wealthy family, two parent household, or athlete blinders on? Why would I readily see and acknowledge one privilege and not another?
While surely there are cases where people with skin colors of various shades have certain privileges others do not, this doesn’t mean I think white privilege is a helpful idea with which we should permeate culture. It can lead to a lot of insanity. The concept, from my perspective, misidentifies those white people who were not as privileged as I am (not to mention ignores the black people who were more privileged than I).
White privilege assumes members of a particular race have had similar experiences. What about the white people who grew up with only a drug addicted mother at home? What about those who spent a lot of their childhood hungry? Who were abused and molested by dangerous men their mother brought into their house? Who lived in fear? Who were embarrassed to even show up at school? Who were in some danger of getting killed or robbed because of the neighborhood they lived in? A liberal application of the word “privilege” certainly fits my life, but is it fair to apply such words to the millions of others who share my skin color but not my experiences?
Are These Wrongs Racist?
When describing the song, John says,
The newest song, “White Privilege II,” exposes Macklemore’s own struggle with privilege and his desire to advocate for what’s right and standing in solidarity with people who’ve been wronged—by things like disproportionate police brutality, systemic injustice in schools, cultural appropriation, and more.
I want to talk about some of these wrongs which have been brought up.
Disproportionate Police Brutality
The first one is “disproportionate police brutality.” This is absolutely a real thing. If you look at the numbers of deaths of blacks compared to deaths of whites at the hands of police officers (as well as other numbers related to police brutality), there is a significantly higher percentage of blacks who suffer police brutality. But this begs the question: why?
I’m no defender of the government monopoly on security services, but I have serious questions about whether racism is the reason behind a disproportionate number of blacks experiencing police brutality. I’ve never see numbers related to police brutality comparing races which also accounted for things like: single parent household, household income level, corporal punishment in the home, and education level of the individual and of their parents. Maybe these factors, and factors like them, explain the disparity without even needing to factor race?
I strongly suspect if these factors and others were taken into account, it would be very difficult to find a racial difference. If anyone has numbers relating to race which are normalized for many of these other contributing factors, I would really like to see them because I’ve never been able to find something like that.
Sometimes people assume things like African Americans having things like lower incomes, less education, higher levels of single parent households, etc, than Caucasians is the result of racism of the present or an indicator of the continuing impact of slavery. There is no reason to assume this. In this brief interview Thomas Sowell explains briefly why such disparities still exist and are often very noticeable without needing to reference an event from 150 years ago to explain the data. If you’re interested, Walter E. Williams and Thomas Sowell do some really good work in this area.
I understand there are many stories about black people who were pulled over or stopped by police for doing nothing wrong at all. Many of us have heard them from people who believe they were racially profiled. I do not doubt the veracity of these stories. I make no claims about whether they were racially motivated stops or not. They may have been, they may not have been.
In case you don’t know me, I’m whitey mcwhitester and could not be mistaken for a person of color unless I was interacting with someone who was blind. Despite this, I have also had run-ins with the police for doing nothing wrong.
In highschool, when I was 16-18 years old, I would go jogging at night. During these nighttime runs, I was stopped by police frequently. So frequently that even though I didn’t bring a wallet with me, I made sure to always bring an ID. Many times I would think about where I was going to jog, and would deliberately avoid places where I thought it was more likely I would run into the police, because getting stopped was so annoying.
My highschool friends and I were also pulled over on occasion while driving for being suspicious. Nothing wrong with the car to justify a stopping. No crazy driving. No laws broken. No drugs (except sugar and caffeine from the Mountain Dew). Just a buncha dudes in a car acting suspiciously by driving around.
I’ve also been pulled over for no reason while I was by myself. One one occasion I was told to get out of my car. When I did, the officer told me to get into the squad car. Then he grabbed my wrist, twisted it and my arm behind my back without warning. I’m lucky I had been drinking at bar bible study that night, or I might have not have been in such a good mood and may have instinctively responded to the wrist twist with self-defense. With my arm twisted behind my back he led me to his vehicle with his partner, put me in the back of the squad car, and locked the doors. Then they ran the license plates and registration on my car. They thought I had stolen my own vehicle and said as much.
In my interpretations of these events, I never assumed these stops were racially motivated. I assumed they were related to my age and sex, but not my race. However, I think if I was black growing up in this world, I would have concluded these stops without reason were an act of racial profiling, but I would have been mistaken. What people would have taught me about myself and the world around me would have caused me to make false conclusions about how I was treated and why I was treated in such a way.
Perhaps this is my white privilege in action: Because I was never taught people would be mistreating me because of my race, I never assume they are (unless they make racial comments). I would hate to grow up in a world where people taught me I was being suspected of a crime, ignored, held back, and mistreated by the system and people within it simply because of my skin color. An education like this would cause me to walk around misinterpreting many of my interactions with others. Maybe we are teaching people to misinterpret some of their life experiences.
Systemic Injustice in Schools
I don’t have much to say about the second point: systemic injustice in schools for blacks, because I know nothing about it. If it is related to school funding, I would be interested to know whether whiter schools in a similar area with a similar per capita income level receive more funding simply because of the skin color. Or is perhaps the funding level related to factors other than race?
My understanding of this term is that it refers to someone experiencing an aspect of someone else’s culture, enjoying it, then imitating and integrating the piece of culture into their lives. This was classified as a “wrong.” I’m not sure what’s wrong about it. This is something people do all the time with other people. They like music they hear others listening to, movies others watched, clothing styles others wear, language others use, and they integrate these things into their lives. Cultural appropriation is one of the primary ways we discover our likes and are shaped by the world around us.
What could possibly be wrong about this? The idea seems to be that white people appropriating black culture is a way of wronging the black community. If this is what is meant, I am disturbed. To say whites appropriating black culture is wrong is to discriminate because of someone’s race. You have the wrong skin color and therefore you aren’t fit to dress or talk or act or eat a certain way. That’s only for people whose skin is a different color than yours. Does anyone else find this to be kind of a distorted way of viewing people and groups?
Not Caring About Race Is Not the Same as Not Caring About Someone’s Story
As a general rule, I don’t really care about your race. It’s a physical characteristic. We should both recognize the loaded history behind the characteristic and that, it’s not all that objectively different than eye color or hair color. While I don’t care about your race, this doesn’t mean I’m not sensitive to your experiences or that I don’t care what you have gone through as a result of your race.
I care about your story. Your life. Your experiences. How others have treated you. If you’ve experienced racism, that’s a big deal and I’d like to hear about it. I also want to hear about it if you were mocked for your eye color, hairstyle, or other superficial qualities like skin color. These experiences are a part of your story and shape who you are.
I will not, however, make assumptions about you based on your race. I won’t assume you’ve experienced racism because of your skin color nor will I assume you’ve experienced privilege. I do not believe relying on presumption is a fair way to treat another human being. Everyone is an individual with unique experiences and deserves to be thought of as such.
John goes on to say,
Racism and partiality are problems we can’t ignore or run away from.
Certainly not. But can we please be absolutely confident someone or thing is racist before we use the descriptor? Calling someone a racist is one of the worst terms you can apply to them. I’d rather have every racial epithet in the book thrown at me than accused of racism. We better be very confident with very strong evidence to back it up in order to call someone a racist.
It is scary to me when people notice differences between groups and start throwing around terms like “systemic racism.” Sometimes there is systemic racism. There are many systems which explicitly favor one race over another. However, it is unfair to look at the results of systems (rather than how they are setup) and say something like, “Asians do better than whites in school and their average income level is higher, therefore there is systemic racism favoring Asians and suppressing whites.” We need different evidence to substantiate such claims than differences in results.
I know racism still exists in the world. I’m not trying to pretend it doesn’t. I am afraid of people assuming it’s ubiquitous and in their confirmation bias, seeing it in places where it is not. When we do see racism in practice, many of us should assertively speak out against it. Everyone should avoid participating it. It is much easier to spot and maintain focus on racist acts when we are more careful to make sure what we are pointing out is indeed racism.
I think conversations about race are important as racism has been such a given in the world since the earliest recorded history. I am concerned sometimes these conversations lead to more division and more group delineation, not less. I am concerned about the identifications of people as oppressed or privileged based on skin color which seem to happen so freely. I am concerned about people losing their individuality in the minds of others and just being identified as a member of a group. I’m concerned that some of the calls for people to talk about race or acknowledging of white privilege or bringing up of things like systemic racism, are sometimes self-centered posturing by the person to make themselves look better, more liked, or feel better about themselves.
Walter Williams, an economist, says something I believe to be insightful in one of the articles I linked to above. He says he thinks a lot of this white privilege conversation is actually based around white guilt over what other white people did to black people decades ago.** Don’t worry, Walter is black so his opinion counts. For anyone who feels guilt about their white skin color, Dr. Williams has a pardon for you. You’ve been absolved of guilt by association so now without guilt you are “thus obliged not to act like a damn fool in your relationships with Americans of African ancestry.”
* John is so likeable, I hate writing something which disagrees with what he says, even though I think he will be happy to have inspired me to write something in response to his words.
** It should be noted that to feel guilty about what people of your same skin color have done is to prioritize your association with people of your skin color above people of other skin colors. While this may not be racist, it is certainly the type of collectivist mindset which creates division between groups that can lead to racism and often does. Ideally, the level of solidarity and association we feel with others should have very little to do with race.