This week’s newsletter features an excerpt from my friend Dominique Gilliard’s new book. But first…
Earlier this summer I got to spend some time in NYC with good friends and last week our family camped at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I hope you’ve had some moments of refreshment and retreat this summer. These are chaotic days and it’s important that we’re pacing ourselves for the long haul!
Next month I’m running the Race Against Gun Violence here in Chicago to raise money for New Community Outreach, an organization I help lead. This summer NCO ran a leadership development program for youth, hosted a large back-to-school fair, and tends a community garden which provides fresh produce for our neighbors each Saturday.
If you’ve found this newsletter helpful, would you please consider a donation to this fundraiser? Thanks!
I’m thrilled to feature an exclusive excerpt from Dominique’s new book, Subversive Witness. I’ve learned a lot from Dominique over the years, and I’m excited for more people to have that opportunity.
Naming privilege requires spiritual maturity. It feels threatening because it reveals our sustained complicity with broken systems, structures, and laws that deface the imago Dei inherent in our neighbor. Despite the risk, the church must be courageous enough to address privilege because it distorts the communion God intends for us to enjoy with our Creator and with one another. Denying that privilege exists only exacerbates the evil it produces and prohibits us from actively participating as co-laborers with Christ in reconciling the world to God.
Addressing privilege is only controversial because some who benefit from it are adamant about denying its existence. Some of these individuals renounce privilege on theological grounds, claiming the concept is unbiblical. Others contest it based on principles of individualism, refusing to apologize, take responsibility, or strive to make amends for “something I did not do” or “the sins of my ancestors.” Still others reject the existence of privilege because they believe it insinuates that “I did not earn what I have through hard work.” This chapter addresses these rebuttals and, more importantly, illustrates how refusing to acknowledge privilege leads to blindness and hardened hearts that embolden injustice.
Having privilege is not a sin, though privilege emerges from sin. What is sinful is exploiting privilege for our own advantage and turning a blind eye to the suffering of our neighbors in order to sustain it. Scripture repeatedly acknowledges privilege and provides insight into how privilege insidiously functions today. Learning to unmask privilege can be painful work, but the cure for the pain is in the pain. By candidly addressing privilege, we create a unique opportunity for the body of Christ to turn away from sin and reorient ourselves toward God and neighbor through the spiritual disciplines of remembrance, confession, lament, and repentance.
Taking this humble posture allows us to see that Scripture outlines how we faithfully steward privilege. The Bible gives us tangible tools to move beyond denying or feeling immobilized by privilege. Passages like Acts 16 elucidate how we can subversively leverage privilege to seek the kingdom first and become a cruciform people who sacrificially bear witness to the love of God in a broken world.
Acts 16:16–40 is a story about police brutality, a corrupt criminal judicial system that is more committed to money than justice, and devout disciples who refuse to turn a blind eye to injustice within their midst. This passage exposes privilege, particularly in the last five verses. After Paul and Silas endured public persecution and humiliation—being stripped naked, beaten with rods, and severely flogged—they were falsely accused of crimes, stigmatized as Jewish foreigners, and unjustly imprisoned without even being given a trial. The text tells what happened the next morning:
When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.”
But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly with- out a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”
The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. (Acts 16:35–39)
The magistrates only cared about their abuse of Paul and Silas when they realized they were Roman citizens. This is privilege. Privilege aborts justice, leading judicial systems, power structures, and governments to treat a person or group preferentially—with more compassion and dignity than others— because of their citizenship, class, surname, social capital, sexual orientation, religion, or an aspect of their embodiment (race, gender, ethnicity, able-bodiedness, attractiveness, and more). Judicially, privilege leads to unjust verdicts and societal outcomes that exacerbate the preexisting gaps between the privileged and the disenfranchised. Justice systems render these oppressive judicial decisions without ever truly being held accountable for the social inequities they produce and reinforce. This unethical judicial legacy is alive and well today in the US.
Paul’s response to the jailer further demonstrated his under- standing of Rome’s unjust judicial system. He knew exactly how to counter the immoral magistrates’ attempt to conceal their oppression. Instead of allowing the Roman officials to sneak them out at the crack of dawn without witnesses, Paul demanded judicial accountability. He proclaimed to the jailer, “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out” (v. 37).
Since Paul knew that he and Silas were bludgeoned, denied a trial, and unjustly imprisoned because they were accused of being Jews, he also understood that he could have ended their oppression at any point by simply declaring that they were Roman citizens. However, rather than exploiting their privilege to avoid suffering, Paul and Silas chose to endure persecution as “foreigners” in their hometown. They suffered in solidarity with the oppressed to expose the systemic sin the Roman criminal justice system was mired in. Paul and Silas thereby embodied the Christ hymn found in Philippians 2 by choosing to suffer in solidarity with those who did not have Roman citizenship, taking on the oppression that their non-Roman neighbors were subjected to daily.
Paul and Silas demonstrated that when followers of Jesus notice injustice, we have a responsibility to intervene and work to end it, whether we helped create the injustice or not. Paul and Silas confronted a sin their country’s foreparents were responsible for, a sin that they as Roman citizens were still benefiting from. However, rather than exploit these benefits for selfish gain, they subversively used them to bear witness to their true citizenship as followers of Christ.
Pharaoh’s daughter in Exodus chapter 2 lays bare a central question that is at the heart of Scripture, one the Bible consistently poses yet we frequently try to avoid: Is the gospel still good news when it costs you some- thing? Moreover, when bearing witness to the gospel could cost you everything, as it could have for Pharaoh’s daughter, do we still consider this news good? When we study a text like this Exodus passage and do not walk away with application questions like these, we are missing the point of Scripture and stifling the Spirit at work within our sacred text. When we fail to grapple with the cost of discipleship and the ethical implications a text like this should have on our spiritual formation, we embolden our members to mistake silence, inaction, and “apolitical” responses in the face of oppression as faithfulness to God. When we truly allow God’s Word to be a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, we will truly have to reckon with the deadly costs of silence, protecting privilege, and giving our allegiance to worldly empires.
Pharaoh’s daughter becomes a model for us regarding how one responsibly stewards privilege for the furtherance of the kingdom and the good of neighbor. What starts as compassion grows into conviction and matures into a rigorous commitment to justice. We see the fruit of this maturation in the life of Moses and the selfless, God-honoring decisions he grows up to make. Moses did not make these faithful, sacrificial decisions on his own; he was discipled by both of his mothers in an under- standing of what faithfulness entails.
Finally, lest we forget, Pharaoh’s daughter—as much as she should be revered—had the opportunity to be transformed only because of Jochebed’s faithfulness and the faithfulness of the Hebrew midwives before her. These women’s nonviolent civil disobedience created a divine opportunity for Pharaoh’s daughter to be confronted with her sinful complicity.
Terence Fretheim describes the “divine irony” flowing though this passage, highlighting how God used what Pharaoh saw as weak, what the empire saw as lowly and despised, to shame the strong (cf. Jer. 9:23; 1 Cor. 1:26–29). Fretheim writes, “Rather than using power as it is usually exercised in the world, God works through persons who have no obvious power; indeed, they are unlikely candidates for the exercise of power. . . . But they prove highly effective against the ruthless forms of systemic power.”9 James Bruckner affirms this interpretation, writing, “The midwives’ courage and fear of the Lord contrast with the powerful, yet paranoid, pharaoh. . . . Here we see the beginning of the key role women played in God’s deliverance of Israel. . . . The ‘power’ of the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, was at once real and tenuous— completely opposite to the power of Pharaoh’s violence.”
Pharaoh could not fathom a resistance movement led by women. His command, “If you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live,” exemplifies this. Bruckner describes the irony of this decree: “Pharaoh thought men were the threat. In fact, it was women who continued to outfox him.” Terence Fretheim writes, “The daughters are allowed to live, and it is they who now proceed to thwart Pharaoh’s plans.” Finally, Bruckner concludes, “The women of the text play all the decisive roles. Jochebed, Miriam, the daughter of pharaoh. . . . By the end of the story, the pharaoh (who never shows up in this narrative) is thwarted by the women, even as he was by the midwives in Exodus 1.” Thank God for the faithfulness of our foremothers and the remnant who refuses to cower before imperial power!
We should be familiar with how civil disobedience can create unique opportunities for divine transformation. We have seen this happen time and time again through the faithful wit- ness of our great-grandparents, abuelas y abuelos, and ummas and appas, all of whom help constitute the great cloud of witnesses. We follow in the footsteps of prophetic leaders like Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., Ida B. Wells, Cesar Chavez, Óscar Romero, Hélder Câmara, Sharon Maeda, Fred Korematsu, Toyohiko Kagawa, Gordon Hirabayashi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and André and Magda Trocmé.
While many within the body have become accustomed to seeing nonviolent civil disobedience and the social disruptions these protests cause as sinful, this text—and history—demonstrate that this nature of resistance amid oppression—refusing to obey unjust laws and tyrannical leaders—is faithful to the gospel. Furthermore, God has uniquely used these faithful responses amid evil and oppression to confront those who have been complicit with, and have even driven, oppression, helping them to recognize their sin. This divine revelation has led to confession, lament, and an earnest effort to make amends through bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. The four Hebrew women in the passage and Pharaoh’s daughter demonstrate this and give us keen insight into how this plays out.