When I think about the changing cultural and religious landscape, I often visualize a large theater where we collectively go for connection, entertainment, and a sense of purpose. On the main stage of that theater is a figure that looks a lot like me: a white, heterosexual, cisgender male. That figure has been performing one of the longest solos in history. In the face of a dissatisfied audience, he’s reluctant to hand over the mic to a different voice and take a seat. Instead, he offers encore after encore that no one requested.
In my own career, I feel this metaphor in action. As a pastor and occasional writer and speaker, I have enjoyed being at the center of the cultural and religious landscape. I can, however, see my time with the mic wrapping up and perhaps for good reason.
Fewer and fewer folks seek spiritual insight from Christian circles, even progressive ones. If they do, they’re generally not seeking cis-hetero-white-male voices, which I understand. Those aren’t the voices I’m learning from these days, so why should I expect others to? There’s a sort of historical leveling of the playing field happening right now, and it’s a beautiful thing.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have tough implications, like rethinking my career path. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t going to turn into one of those plight of the white guy articles. The world certainly doesn’t need more of those. I like to think that most open- minded white men would logically support the increased prominence of other voices, especially in light of how many of those voices were tokenized, trivialized, or blatantly ignored for so long.
The problem is, we’re not logical. We’re caught up in our emotions. The loss of space in the cultural landscape can feel like suffering — even if it’s ridiculous to call it that in the face of things like police brutality and sexual assault. To borrow an image from Viktor Frankl, suffering behaves like a gas that fills a room regardless of the quantity of gas or size of room. Perceived suffering, no matter how minuscule, always wants to take up as much space as possible in our psyche.
So while the loss of cultural importance isn’t even in the same playing field as what women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks have endured, it tries to hold the same weight in the minds of straight white guys like me.
That’s where cis-hetero white men need an intervention. We need something to help us expand our capacity for understanding so that we can find an appropriate place for our own experiences. We need to acknowledge own own feelings while putting them in the broader scope of the feelings and experiences of others.
For white guys who follow Jesus, the stories and symbols of Jesus can act as this intervention. They have the potential to expand our capacity for empathy while also acknowledging any perceived suffering. Those are literally the basic images of Christianity: a divine being who knows what it feels like to suffer and who also insists on prioritizing the interests of others, especially those who have endured oppression.
Not to mention, if we spend any time looking at Jesus’ suffering at the hands of a brutal empire, we are quickly asked to examine our own social locations. My standing often looks more like that of the occupying force rather than the occupied resistance. I’m sitting on the largest heap of historical advantage the world has known, which puts any perceived suffering in perspective.
The stories of Jesus also intervene with the socio-economic roots of the perceived suffering of white men. As voices like mine lose their centrality in culture, the underlying fear is that there won’t be enough space for us. Yet, Jesus is constantly trying to show his followers that, in the face of perceived scarcity, there are actually plenty of resources to go around (see Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-36, Mark 8:1-9, John 21:1-14).
While not always easy, adopting Jesus’ socio-economic outlook tends to knock the wind out of perceived suffering by addressing the underlying anxiety. It’s the intervention many of us need.
When the intervention works, we stop fighting for more solo time. We take a seat and listen for awhile — at least until we find where we fit. Then we can seek to harmonize with a larger chorus of voices working for a better world. It turns out, the whole thing sounds a lot better that way.