Confessions of a White Privilege Addict

The following remarks were delivered by The Reverend Jonathan Krogh, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of La Grange, IL for the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Day prayer breakfast held on January 21, 10 AM, sponsored by the Caring Place for Kids, Lincoln & Washington Streets, La Grange, Illinois.

In preparation for this morning’s remarks I read the following words in a December 26 New Yorker article by Eliza Griswold entitled “Evangelicals of Color Fight Back Against the Religious Right.” Quoting social activist Sharon Harper: “The whole Bible and evangelical faith, along with Protestant faith and Catholic faith, has all been interpreted through the lens of empire. All of it. All of it has been interpreted through the lens of Caesar. And Caesar killed Jesus. And Jesus was an indigenous, brown, colonized man.”

Jesus was an indigenous, brown, colonized man.

I have experienced many a spiritual moment discovering I was further from Jesus than I realized. I do not mean the Jesus in my strangely-warmed spiritual heart; I mean the Jesus who, as an undocumented toddler, walked the road with his parents from Bethlehem to Cairo as refugees, a status created by the empowered, jealous and paranoid Herod.

These are for me spiritual moments as I am reminded again and again that being closer to power is not being closer to Christ.

Being swaddled in the rags of powerlessness is closer to Jesus than any acquiescence to rank and privilege.

What we see today among predominantly white evangelicals is what happens when the Gospel becomes swaddled in the sweet silks of secular power. Individually and collectively, you and I become intoxicated by the delicate scent of presumed privilege.

I grew up white (obviously), conservative and evangelical. I grew up in the Midwest, not the South, so there was a narrative that set us apart from our bigoted Southern church cousins. We weren’t segregationists; we were obviously racists, but not segregationists. That made us better than them, a cover for our self-delusion. We weren’t segregationists; we were better Christians.

Such nuanced distinctions numbed our senses to the pervasive opiate of power, and little by little we became intoxicated and addicted to its sweet perfume. Not the power that came through blunt, corrupt exploitation, but the power that comes from institutional structures that quietly and insidiously create an imperceptible, creeping dependence on socially constructed entitlement.

One can learn a great deal about a culture’s values by looking at its heroes; and the heroes of my 1960’s evangelicalism were those who parlayed social credibility among the secular power-brokers, not the sanctified spirit-lifters. They were the sports heroes of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, wealthy millionaires who had given their lives to Jesus, powerful politicians who kept Bibles on the tops of their Washington office desks. Their theology may have been thin, their preaching self-serving, but they were evangelicals AND they had secular popularity/worldly power, and so we were instructed to respect them, honor them, emulate them.

Oh, there was the occasional minority, the African American preacher who could shuck and jive with a pandering set of self-deprecating jokes, the Native American who could play the violin as pretty as any white concert-master. They minstrel-showed their way across the stages of our revivals, making us smile at the magnificence of our capacity to include. Weren’t we wonderful?  

But what we did not see, what we chose not to recognize, was how we were a people embarking on a lifetime of addiction. We were told that being people of influence, people of importance, would give us favor with the king, where someday we might even have the opportunity to testify to those in the highest places, like the Apostle Paul who was able to witness to Caesar and his household by invoking his rights as a Roman citizen.

Whatever compromises we had to make to claim our authority and influence was worth it for the kingdom. We conveniently ignored that Paul came into Caesar’s palace through the dungeon’s doors as a criminal agitator, not through the grand front gates as a respected ambassador.

There was lip service to the fig leaf of evangelical respectability: they didn’t drink, they didn’t smoke, they were faithful to their wives. They prayed, read their Bibles, hated homosexuality, abhorred abortion, were comfortable with interracial marriages but quietly worried the children might be born striped or polka-dotted. They financially supported their churches, which they regularly attended. But that’s not why we paid attention to them. They held our gaze because they were what we longed to be--respected by the world.

We injected their advice, drank in the intoxication of their popularity and snorted the lines of their instruction. And, as with all true addictions, the ingestion of the drug itself successfully deadens the user to its addictive power, to the point where one no longer comprehends the toxic devastation of dependence.

Please understand. This is not a testimony of my own journey from bondage to liberation. It is a confession of my own personal and perpetual struggle. Each and every morning, I wake up white. I wake up male. I wake up in a house where, with the help of a bank, I am permitted to live without question. Every time my car has been pulled over by the police, I know exactly why. I was speeding, I rolled through a stop sign, my plate has expired, I blew a red light. I anticipate and always experience no unwelcome interrogation, no questions as to my purpose, no extraneous discussion about where I’ve been or why I’m here. If a tail light is out, the officer informs me of the automobile’s deficiency and commends repair, usually including the word “Sir” in the informational interaction.

I wake up each day an unquestioned American. I rise as the offspring of white folk as far back as my ancestry can see.

The stories of the oppression of my people are little anecdotes of temporary displacement. A great-great-grandfather who gave up the opulence of Norwegian aristocracy in order to marry a girl from a lower class. Tales of the Great Depression from both of my parents, where for a brief decade respectable white folk experienced what others knew and still know--the insidious helplessness of poverty, the withering anxiety of homelessness, the dehumanization of perpetual unemployment and deprivation.

For me, in my white world, those were transitory, character-building days--those days, as the Psalmist said, when we were only being tested, a definable temporary wilderness which led to a deeper appreciation of the permanent Promised Land, flowing with the milk and honey of resources and respectability.

No, these words this morning are not the confession of one who has discovered the liberation of renounced white privilege.

I offer you instead an insider’s report, a correspondent’s notebook of a participant observer, not from the front of human struggle but from the well-bunkered command post of those born into privilege, those who benefit from the blood and sweat and labor and fear of those born unprotected in the ghettos, the streets and the fields.

Structural oppression, because it is structural, cannot be shaken off like an overpriced coat.

I have been a victim of prejudice--that is, I have been pre-judged by the color of my skin and the Y chromosome in my genes, pre-judged on a daily basis. Shopping in majority African American stores, as I often did when I lived in Hyde Park, I faced constant prejudice. Because I was the white guy in the store, the immediate assumption was that I was management. I remember on several occasions, at the Jewel on Stony Island, being asked by other shoppers why I put the 40-pound bags of dog food on the top shelf, why my store was allowed to be so dirty, and when I was going to finally get some decent produce up in here. By employees, who knew I was not the manager of their store, I was often asked about the corporate office, or if I was a city inspector.

My experiences of prejudice have been the presumption that because I am white, because I am male, for better or worse, I must be in charge, I must have something to say, I must have access to power, I can obviously do something about heavy things on upper shelves.

And as much as I hate to admit it…I like it. Being deferred to has its obvious advantages, but the dangerous addiction comes from a lifetime of being deferred to and presuming it's all about me, the real me, the un-whitewashed, un-male-privileged inner me. I take the illusion of what the world says about me to heart, blind to advantage of privilege that gave me a running head start from the moment of my conception--and the wind has been at my back ever since.

Even in do-gooding, I’m afforded an unearned advantage. Years ago, serving a congregation on Chicago’s South Side and doing home visits with African American members who lived in Englewood, I got a certain pleasure from having the guys on the corner call me Mike; because the only white guy in a clerical collar knocking on doors in Englewood must be Father Michael Pfleger from St. Sabina’s. Tragically, those young men on the street saw my earnest white-guy do-gooding and associated me with the best white guy they knew! Be like Mike…that felt good.

So, no, I’m not exactly celebrating recovery. In fact, now that I’m pastoring a relatively large (by Presbyterian standards) congregation in La Grange, I’m finding even more opportunities for people to think I have something to say. I am no smarter, no more deeply spiritual, than I was when I had my 38-member church in Peotone, IL; but now that I’m serving a church that is able to pay a living wage, I must know what I’m talking about.

So... I am here today hoping to bring some light of context on a day when we commemorate a man who is most remembered for some words he said just a few months shy of my third birthday, August 28, 1963. Words that articulated a dream for America. In Dr. King’s speech we find the dizzying imagination of a dream that someday his children “could be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”

What a dream. Except there’s something potently dangerous when a dream state is projected on reality. And I would suggest that we are a nation, a people, living in that groggy state between sleeping and waking. We are suffering from the stupor of being woken, unsure if what we dreamt is a workable reality or just a hangover.

And now, 55 years after Dr. King articulated a vision for how things could be, in a world in which a mixed-race Hyde Parker who exactly one decade ago this month was sworn into the highest office of the land, I fear that Evangelical White America is succumbing to the stupor and slamming its collective head back on the pillow.

I fear we are falling off the wagon of hope, only to binge again on our addiction to privilege.

And the question before us today is how willing are we, as a people, to renounce the drug of preferential power, gained not through the qualities of character but through the disadvantageous inequalities of racist and sexist entitlement?

You see, as sweet as it sounds as a dream, Dr. King’s visions of economic equality and social justice portend a hard and bitter recovery program for the addicts in our nation. And while there are many expressions of that addiction throughout our society, the one with which I am most familiar is the opioid of choice for white evangelicals.

The demographic shifts over the past two generations in our democratic society threaten to take away white evangelicalism’s drug. The opiate of political and economic power deadens the soul and dissociates one from reality by bringing euphoric pain relief from true human suffering.

On the one hand, I am more than happy to dream side by side with Dr. King for the liberation of HIS children from the dismissive diminution of racism, that they may be judged by the quality of THEIR character; but, on the other hand, I am not so quick to be embraced by the possible nightmare implied--that MY character in that dream-world will also be judged without the advantages structurally afforded to the males of MY race.

And that is the backlash. That’s the evangelical community proclaiming to itself and to the world that we are far better off drunk on power than sober on equality. That is the political and social reality in which we live--just give us white guys the keys; we’re safe to drive.

Except there’s a problem, and it’s the problem glaring at me from the pages of scripture, the very texts those evangelicals taught me to revere. A problem that pours contempt on all my pride. It is the face of that indigenous, brown, colonized man, "who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross."  [Philippians 2.6-8]

Confronted with that text, am I willing to look at my context and undertake hard, spiritual work so that I let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind esteem others better than myself, looking not only to my own things, but also on the things of others? [Philippians 2.3-4]

Am I willing to let go of the privilege to which I am profoundly and terminally addicted and allow the mind of Christ to be in me? To confess that the power of the Good News is not wrapped up in my entitlement, but in the power of Jesus Christ who emptied himself? Who..."hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one of us to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all."  [Isaiah 53.2b-6]

And, like so many addicts before me,

  1.  Am I willing to renounce my addiction to entitled power and confess that my life has become unmanageable?

  2.  Have I come to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity?

  3.  Have I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God?

  4.  Am I willing to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself?

  5.  Will I admit to God, to myself, and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs?

  6.  Am I entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character?

  7.  Will I humbly ask Him to remove my shortcomings?

  8.  Am I willing to list all persons I have harmed and make amends to them all?

  9.  Will I make direct amends to such people wherever possible?

  10.  Will I continue to take personal inventory, and when I am wrong, promptly admit it?

  11. Through prayer and meditation, am I willing to improve my conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for me and the power to carry that out?

  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, will I carry this message to others, and these principles in all my affairs?

Because an addiction to the advantages of structural racism and sexism does not come through a converting moment, it requires a lifetime of vigilant recovery.

Many of you may recognize the path of recovery articulated in the twelve steps I just appropriated to overcoming addiction to worldly power. And struggling to overcome my addiction to privilege allows me to hear the words of Dr. King with a whole new ear--in particular, the words of his sermon delivered on the eve of his assassination on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple, the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee, a sermon with the now familiar title, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”...

"And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."

What my ear hears differently in my struggle for recovery is the antecedent of the first-person plural pronoun “we”, in “we, as a people.”

I once thought Dr. King’s soaring oratory lifted the hearts of the oppressed peoples in this country of African descent. But my heart now quickens at the possibility that Dr. King had my then young, white-privileged, male-self in mind, too. That the Promised Land of which he spoke included not only those pre-judged and forced into grinding submission but also those pre-judged and addicted to unmerited privilege. And, like any other addict, the thought of losing my drug of choice leaves me haunted by worries and fears, but then I hear anew the liberating strains of Dr. King’s words, "I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

That coming Lord, who emptied himself, the indigenous, brown, colonized Jesus.

Please pray for me and for our recovery, that we, too, may overcome someday. Amen.