Lately I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about privilege. It’s one of those topics that conjures up strong feelings almost immediately—which is both helpful and unhelpful.
Helpful because privilege is something that absolutely needs to be considered. Types of privilege are real, of course—racial, economic, gender, cultural, and so on. But more importantly, privilege affects real lives. Privilege is not an abstract concept that academics debate. It shapes ground-level realities that can harm or help individuals, families, and entire communities. If our goal is to give our lives away on behalf of others, in the name of Jesus, we would be wrong to ignore solutions simply because they might make us uncomfortable.
The strong feelings associated with privilege can be unhelpful, however, if they prevent or short-circuit real conversation. The church often cringes at phrases like “white privilege, ” for example, because we don’t know how to have a constructive, ongoing conversation about race. Yet our goal must always be to go deeper in our understanding of complex issues, rather than defending our preconceptions.
Part of our difficulty here stems from our dual identities as followers of Jesus and 21st-century Americans. Our thinking about privilege can be almost schizophrenic. On the one hand, many of our privileges are guaranteed by the law. That is, we can legally protect and enforce certain privileges, even if others wish to take them from us. On the other hand, the Gospel invites us to hold privileges with an open hand, ready to set them aside or give them away for the benefit of others.
Comfort, security, wealth, societal standing—all of these and more can become either objects to protect (for our own benefit) or opportunities to share (for the benefit of others). Jesus showed us that intentionally laying down privilege is often the means of kingdom building. In the Sermon on the Mount we see privilege being given up—when a person gives up the “right” to hold a grudge, for example, or the “right” to judge—so that the kingdom can be built up. In Matthew 25, Jesus connects righteousness and eternal blessing with the intentional sacrifice of temporal, physical privilege.
This is the crux of the tension we face as American Christians. We are privileged in countless ways, yet the law (and the mores) of our land fail to move us toward biblical behavior in the area of privilege. The gospel, however, calls us far beyond personal rights. All of us—all Americans, yes, but all people as well—are kin, and without the deliberate setting aside or sharing of privilege, our human family cannot flourish. For the gospel to be actual good news, it must be good news for everyone, and not merely for the privileged.
This conversation can be particularly problematic when it comes to the privilege of wealth. If we in the church bother to talk about “rich people, ” for example, we tend to be spectacularly shallow. Rich people should feel guilty about their wealth. Enjoy your wealth as God’s blessing. Your wealth makes you evil, so you need to give it all away. Just tithe…Jesus doesn’t ask any more than that. These simplistic caricatures tend to produce derogatory stereotypes on all sides, rather than constructive conversation. As Christians, we cannot afford to let the uncomfortable nature of discussing wealth divide us, yet there are few resources to help bridge the gap and move together toward biblical flourishing.
This is the context in which I read the new book Junkyard Wisdom: Resisting the Whisper of Wealth in a World of Broken Parts. Roy Goble is a friend of mine, and what I appreciate about his book—about the way he lives, really—is that he is one of the few voices speaking about Jesus and the privilege of wealth in a way that is simultaneously honest and constructive. Reading it reinforced my suspicion that moving forward together in this area is impossible until, both individually and corporately, we learn how to speak in a new way about wealth.
Roy is certainly aware of the temptation to think simplistically about wealth. “It’s tempting to believe those answers, ” he writes. “But I believe they’re all wrong, at least for me. Yet I also believe that God doesn’t want to hang me out to dry, with no viable options for how to live. He wants me to abide in Jesus and live the way Jesus lived. It sounds corny, but God wants me to make a difference in the world—and not primarily with my money, but with my life.”
This conviction has led Roy to prioritize relationships, especially with the poor, and to fight against the constant temptation to operate exclusively in circles of people who are similar to him. As he writes, “No matter what our income level, walls of security and distraction inevitably insulate us from the poor or anyone else who might threaten our comfortable life. Yet despite our trappings of wealth—or perhaps because of them—we continue to experience a spiritual hunger for something deeper and more meaningful.”
This is the quest at the heart of Junkyard Wisdom. Roy insists that his journey may not look like my journey or your journey—and that’s okay, as long as all of us are prayerfully putting the words of Jesus into practice. (In a clever footnote about this, Shane Claiborne shows up to say, “Roy gave me this book to read, and it’s true: God doesn’t call everyone to sell everything and move to the inner city or some foreign country. Or even to have dreadlocks like I do. For the record, I don’t think God is calling Roy to sell his business and give everything away. But that’s not to say he won’t someday. Careful, Roy!”)
Because of the complexity in the conversation about wealth, this is a book full of metaphors. Building and tearing down walls. The junkyard. Wrestling. Ripples. Roy reaches for various ways of describing the difficult and sometimes gut-wrenching decisions we must make. Take Roy’s concept of walls. “We wealthy people—and that includes most of you who are reading this book—are adept at putting up walls to insulate ourselves, ” he writes. “Walls of comfort, pride, or denial. Walls made of nothing sturdier than distraction, distance, and new experiences. But those walls don’t simply separate us from the pain of life. Whether we know it or not, those walls separate us from people. And what’s most troubling about those walls is that, in the absence of tragedy, such walls work. But that begs the obvious question: because of my walls, whose suffering don’t I know about?”
As invitations go, Roy’s is an uncomfortable one: to begin “to utilize our wealth and our talents to create Kingdom relationships, beginning right in our own communities. To tear down the walls, both literal and cultural, separating God’s children in our neighborhoods and across the globe.”
Yet as outcomes go, it is hard to imagine a more inspiring or scriptural one. “We like to say that God can use anyone, ” Roy writes. “That’s true—but it helps if you’re not completely self-sufficient and satisfied without him.”
On my journey to understand more about privilege—mine and others—I have read countless books, talked to people all over the world, and searched scripture. It’s refreshing to find a book like Junkyard Wisdom that pushes all followers of Jesus to ask better questions about privilege. My prayer is that we will engage the topic of wealth and discipleship with greater honesty, courage, and hope, knowing that Jesus is calling all of us to continue this vital conversation. As we speak to each other, rather than about each other, may our privileges become opportunities to put the transformative words of Jesus into practice.