The Politics of Privilege—Philippians 3:4a-14 (Alastair Roberts)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

Privilege is a ubiquitous reality in our world, though one to which we are often oblivious as privileged persons. In Paul’s description of his posture towards his privilege he gives us a worked example of what conformity to Christ can look like and poses the challenge to us to follow the same path in our own situations.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

In a popular reading of these verses of Philippians, Paul was once the stereotypical Pelagian, believing that he could earn God’s favour through his ethical exertion. After his Damascene encounter with the Risen Christ, Paul came to the awareness that his own righteousness—i.e. his moral effort—was insufficient and that, instead of trusting in his own good works, he should trust in the perfect divine righteousness of Christ instead.

This reading is a compelling one in many respects. It seems to make prima facie sense of the passage and, more importantly, it articulates a deeply Christian logic, a truth that has proved liberating for countless persons over the centuries, declaring the fact of God’s free acceptance of us in his Son. On closer examination, however, cracks start to appear.

One of the first things that might trouble the reader holding this interpretation is that, of the things that Paul formerly counted ‘gain’, most of them do not actually have to do with his own works. Rather, they describe advantages that Paul enjoyed purely by virtue of his birth or ancestry. Whatever we might say about his later Torah-observance and zeal, being circumcised on the eighth day, being an Israelite, being a member of the tribe of Benjamin, and having impeccable Hebrew pedigree were largely accidents of Paul’s birth, unrelated to anything that he himself had done.

Instead of serving as signs of moral attainment, these biographical details were indicators of covenant status, signs that Paul was situated—or so he once thought—on the inside track of God’s purposes. We need not, of course, just switch from a reading focusing entirely upon performance to one that speaks only of status: both are present. However, matters come into clearer focus when we understand the sort of identity that Paul once boasted in, not least because similar genres of identities continue to exert a powerful force in our own world.

If the identity that Paul is describing here is not that of the classic legalist, what is it? I believe that an analogous sort of identity could be found in the patriot. Paul wasn’t that unlike the patriot who takes pride in the fact that he is a true American (as opposed to all of those unwelcome immigrants). His family’s presence on American soil dates back to the Mayflower. His forefathers fought for their country. From as early as he can remember, he has been steeped in American culture. He has a large stars and stripes flying outside of his house and a wall devoted to portraits of the presidents within. He is a hard worker who is living his own American dream, attending church twice a week, and putting money back into his community. He only buys American products, he devotes himself to studying American history, and has always been politically involved and invested in the wellbeing of the nation. The ‘performance’ of such a patriot isn’t undertaken to ‘earn’ American status, but to demonstrate and broadcast his claims to it, to mark him out from those who aren’t Americans (or are ‘lesser’ Americans), and more fully to ground and celebrate his sense of identity in it.

The roots of Paul’s former identity lay in the Torah, Israel’s covenant charter and Declaration of Independence. As Paul committed himself to the Torah and its way of life, he was showing himself to be a true Israelite. The ‘flesh’ which he speaks of probably refers to something broader than sinful human nature alone, encompassing also the familial and social network to which persons belong.

Paul’s attitude towards this status is striking. He now regards it as dung and loss for the sake of Christ. For the sake of Christ, Paul suffers the loss of all things, surrendering them so that he might be found in Christ. Rather than the status that he once so highly valued, Paul now wishes to pursue the status of being in Christ, a status that entails being conformed to Christ’s death in order to share in his resurrection.

When we step back and look at the picture that emerges, analogies between Paul’s account of his own story and that of Christ’s humility in taking the form of a servant in chapter 2 of Philippians appear in sharp relief. Both Paul and Christ enjoyed a privileged status and both regarded that status as something that they would not take advantage of, giving up privilege for the sake of service and the way of the cross. Being conformed to Christ entails sharing the shape of his story, refusing to aggrandize ourselves in our privileged statuses, abandoning former privileges, and following the path of service instead.

It is at this point that the significance of the analogy between the identity that Paul describes and our various privileged forms of status should become apparent to us. Although Paul the legalist trying to earn his own salvation may not strike so close to home to us, Paul the privileged person who is called to adopt an entirely new posture towards his privilege may prove to be uncomfortably so.

Privilege is a powerful reality in our social, civic, and political life. As our eyes are opened to its dynamics (a good sign of being privileged is that we generally don’t have to think about it), we can see the effects of privilege and the perspectives that typically accompany it in every area of our existence. Whether the privileges in question arise from race, gender, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, language, socio-economic status, class, education, age, physical ability, or some other factor or combination of factors, we need to become aware of the advantages that we enjoy over others, often merely by virtue of the accident of birth. These are all ways in which we habitually take confidence in the flesh, being assured that we will be given a hearing, that we will fit in, that we will enjoy security and safety, that we won’t suffer lack.

Reading Paul’s account is a challenge to the privileged—a challenge to us. It is a challenge to discover what it might mean for us to conform our relationship to our privilege to that of Christ. As in the case of Paul and Christ, our privilege may not be something that we can simply give up—Paul never ceased to have a privileged Jewish background and Christ never ceased to have the privilege of equality with God. However, being conformed to Christ entails a radical transformation in our attitude towards and exercise of our privilege.

Like Paul, we are called to recognize our privilege, the ways that we are accustomed to taking confidence in the flesh. And then, rather than boasting in and pursuing this confidence, we are to become servants like our Master, taking the path of the cross. What does being conformed to Christ look like for someone possessing our privilege? Living out the answer to this question is our Christian vocation.

Photo: James Lee Flickr – Creative Commons

9 thoughts on “The Politics of Privilege—Philippians 3:4a-14 (Alastair Roberts)

  1. “What does being conformed to Christ look like for someone possessing our privilege? Living out the answer to this question is our Christian vocation.”

    I really wish you hadn’t ended it there. I think it is too easy to be vague when a specific answer might cost us something we do not wish to lose. The question is powerful and is for our time. The answer should not deposit us comfortably back into our expensive seats.

    I think there is a very simple answer for Christians: use your privilege to demand justice.

    Too many of us practice alms giving without thought for why it was necessary in the first place. Hospitality and generosity can be rendered falsely, as forms of condescension, ways to meditate on one’s own prosperity and power. They do not address the poverty of their contexts. They keep the poor man grateful and the rich man benevolent. And thus they are not truly self emptying.

    1. The purpose was not to be vague. I wanted to leave the reader with the question, because I don’t believe that there is a single or a simple answer. Also, because there is only so much that one can say within the limited words afforded to one in such a piece.

      I don’t believe that using your privilege to demand justice is ‘the’ answer. It will probably be one part of the answer, but it may not even be the main part. It is far from sufficient to describe the form of action that Jesus or Paul took, for instance. The way of the cross is far, far more radical than an appeal to others to exercise justice. In fact, such an answer can also comfortably ‘deposit us back into our expensive seats.’ As long as we believe that our primary responsibility as privileged persons is to appeal to other more powerful agencies to exercise justice on our behalf, we can be absolved from a much more costly exercise of our own agency. By itself, ‘demanding justice’ is seldom especially self-emptying and it usually leaves our enjoyment of our privilege relatively intact, often bolstering it with a sense of moral self-righteousness.

      Certain forms of alms-giving can indeed be problematic and private charity can serve to palliate social injustice (I am currently checking a PhD thesis on the works of mercy in the Christian tradition, so this subject is very much on my mind at the moment). However, Christian alms-giving can also be much costlier in certain respects than demanding justice. Christian alms-giving calls us to be personally present to the poor (the sort of personal presence that Jesus and Paul showed towards people), to slow down our lives, to come in contact with others’ pain, to go outside of our safe and cloistered environments, calling us to the sort of engagement that we usually avoid by allocating money and appointing official agencies to deal with social problems, rather than getting our own hands dirty. Christian alms-giving can be personally costly in ways that demanding justice is not.

      Neither Christian alms-giving nor demanding justice are at all sufficient of themselves to fulfil the charge of Christian charity, which is far more far-reaching and is also one of the reasons why I left the question open.

      1. “Christian alms-giving can be personally costly in ways that demanding justice is not”

        Here is an example of how it can bring one into a dramatic encounter with God:

        BUMS

        A few weeks ago, I was walking into South Station in Boston when I noticed a man off to the side who looked rather lonely, but I figured that this is none of my business, so I kept walking until I heard a plea, “mister”. I turned around and walked over to the man who then asked for money. I gave him a few dollar bills and felt that I did my good deed for the day. A few minutes later a young man approached me to ask for $10 in order to buy tickets for himself and his girlfriend to Maine. I gave him the $10 but I began to feel that this was going a little too far. I bought some Chinese food and sat down to eat when a woman came up to my table asking for money. I may not have looked very happy because she said right away that she was sorry to bother me because she was probably at this table before. I did give her a few dollars, but I was tempted to ask God if He expected me to feed every bum in South Station. I thought, however, I better not because He might tell me that He was one of those “bums”.

        .

  2. Great post! I actually just preached on this yesterday (and found this post/blog through “suggested articles” on Facebook when I posted my sermon.) Glad I found it! Looking forward to reading more/following this blog.

  3. What’s at issue here is where does our sense of significance come from. If it comes from Christ, then any sense of significance that comes from our other associations is minimized because of what Christ brings us. So when us Christians put too much weight on our other associations, it simply reveals that Christ is not as important to us we might claim He is.

    This is a good post especially the linking of Paul’s potential source for Jewish pride and patriotism. Thank you.

  4. “Reading Paul’s account is a challenge to the privileged—a challenge to us. It is a challenge to discover what it might mean for us to conform our relationship to our privilege to that of Christ.”
    Here is an example of an encounter which tempted me to challenge Christ.

    Bums

    A few weeks ago, I was walking into South Station in Boston when I noticed a man off to the side who looked rather lonely, but I figured that this is none of my business, so I kept walking until I heard a plea, “mister”. I turned around and walked over to the man who then asked for money. I gave him a few dollar bills and felt that I did my good deed for the day. A few minutes later a young man approached me to ask for $10 in order to buy tickets for himself and his girlfriend to Maine. I gave him the $10 but I began to feel that this was going a little too far. I bought some Chinese food and sat down to eat when a woman came up to my table asking for money. I may not have looked very happy because she said right away that she was sorry to bother me because she was probably at this table before. I did give her a few dollars, but I was tempted to ask God if He expected me to feed every bum in South Station. I thought, however, I better not because He might tell me that He was one of those “bums”.

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