Wyt(sma) Privilege: a ★★★★★ book review

Recently a friend and mentor, who is a person of color, posted on social media of a recent invitation he had to explain white privilege. To white people.  My friend is a justice advocate, an activist, and well-known Christian leader. He declined the invitation to write about something he doesn’t have. He decided instead to spend his creative energy supporting leaders of color instead of educating us white folk.

4482But Ken Wytsma, on the other hand, is uniquely gifted and qualified to describe white privilege. He is a pastor in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College (where he lectures in philosophy), an author of several quality Christian books, a father of four, and founder of the Justice Conference. He is also pretty darn pasty white. He was asked by Helen Lee at IVP to write a book on White Privilege that would help bridge the gap between those on the forefront of race relations and us white evangelicals who are only beginning to awaken to our racist history (3). In response to both her request and a couple of recent examples of racial bias (in the media, and against folks he knew personally), he wrote The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege. Wytsma probes the reality of privilege and race, theology and justice and the responsibility of the privileged.

In Part 1, Wytsma reviews the history of race and racial attitudes in America. He describes immigration policies which favored white Europeans, the history of racism in European thought, slavery and Jim Crow, law enforcement practices (e.g. how the War on Drugs disproportionately attacked communities of color), and how urban development has reinforced modern segregation.  He offers a pretty solid analysis of America’s racial story—how we got here and how people of color still are affected by ongoing systemic injustice.

Part 2 brings this American story into conversation with our theology and the values of the Kingdom of God. Wytsma challenges the church’s silence about race and the status quo and calls us to more prophetic engagement (94).  He describes how justice is integral to the gospel of Jesus and his cross, and he challenges our transactional and individualized view on faith and spirituality (and the ways privilege plays into it).

In Part 3, Wytsma discusses how white Christians can become more aware of their implicit racial biases, make space for diversity in sharing power and laying down our privilege. This involves intentionally listening and making space for the other, lamenting our troubled history, confessing, and beginning the hard work of dismantling privilege.

This is the fourth book I’ve read from Wytsma and thus far, I think this is, without a doubt, his best book. He discusses the issues of race without making himself the ‘expert’ and without offering pat answers to tough questions. Wytsma gives space for the complexity of race and privilege:

Everyone wants to think they have a good understanding of race. We often treat it like a yes-or-no category. Are you a racist?  No. Therefore, are you good with race? Yes. The problem is, it’s not a yes-or-no category but something with a hundred layers of nuance. . . . As a white man writing a book on privilege, I’ve had to admit from the beginning that my understanding and knowledge of racism end when conversation turns to the firsthand experiences of people of color. (132-33).

Growing up, I wasn’t aware of how I benefited from privilege and all the ways that communities of color were affected by institutionalized racial bias and ongoing systemic injustice. I’m still learning, mostly because I have friendships with people of color that have opened my eyes to some things I may not have otherwise seen. But I have other friends and family which are unaware of the dynamics of privilege and race (either through willful ignorance or because their social circles are almost entirely white). Privilege is at play in American race relations. Opportunities that have been afforded us white guys have not historically, and are not, even now, extended to people of color. We can’t dismantle privilege if we aren’t able to name how it has penetrated our culture and the church. Wytsma does a wonderful job confronting our troubled history and faulty theological assumptions.

This is a short book (only about two hundred pages) so therefore unable to say everything that needs to be said about race and privilege. Wytsma addresses dynamics between whites and blacks most directly, and touches on the Native American/ colonial experience (with a nod toward the late Richard Twiss). He deals with how white privilege affects other minorities more tangentially (i.e. the experiences Latinos and Asians are not in sharp focus here). This isn’t a criticism so much as naming the limits of what Wytsma is able to accomplish through this book. I’d also note that this book is more conceptual than practical, aimed at enlarging our understanding of racial dynamics more than providing a road map of what to do about it.

Everybody I know values diversity and multi-culturalism until it costs something. We love when minorities come to our (mostly white) church, but often we demand minorities change and conform to our way before they really belong. Dismantling Privilege involves real partnership, listening and sharing of power.  It means listening to and sharing in the burdens of those who have suffered discrimination and shame. It means to change. I recommend Wytsma’s book for anyone interested in moving beyond how the dynamics of racism affects us, to effecting real change. All royalties from this book go to The Voices Project, an organization working to empower voices of color.  I give this book Five stars ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the author and publisher in exchange for my honest review.

K is for Kenosis (an alphabet for penitents)

Kenosis is a word used to describe Jesus Christ’s self-emptying—his denouncement of His divine nature in choosing to born human and suffer the shameful death of the cross. Philippians 2: 5-11 describes the kenotic shape of Jesus’ earthly ministry, culminating in His glorification:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus laid aside divine knowledge (Matt 24:36), limitless power, and His divine rights, in order to enter fully into the pain of our humanity and effect our salvation.

If we are to follow Jesus, the same kenotic shape characterizes our own spiritual lives. As Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . .”. We too are called to lay down rights and privilege. But what does this kenosis look like for us? How do we do it?

Fasting, Lenten fasts our otherwise, is one form of self-emptying. By forgoing the food that sustains us, we become more aware of our relative comfort the rest of the time. We also become more cognizant of suffering as we experience, in a small, controlled ways,  the pain of deprivation.

800px-neudenau-gangolf-kruzifixBut fasting isn’t the only kenotic practice we are invited to by following Jesus. If we are serious about putting on the mind of Christ, we also have to lay down our privileges. For me, this means taking stock of what privileges I am afforded as an educated, white, Protestant, cis-gender male and seeking ways to lay down my privilege and sense of entitlement. As a white male, I could choose to ignore racial discrimination and sexism without the threat of personal recourse.¹  I have never been threatened or bullied for my sexual orientation or gender identity. I don’t have to worry about which bathroom to use (I’m a man, the world is my urinal). My education affords me opportunities other people don’t have.

I was born with rights and privileges, but the kenotic nature of following Jesus means that I look for ways to lay aside these rights and privileges in order to enter more fully into the pain of those around me. My kenotic journey began a dozen years ago when my wife and I went to urban Atlanta to love the poor with Mission Year. We were your typical, paternalistic white, do-gooders that didn’t understand the dynamics of systemic racism and privilege but by rubbing shoulders with friends and neighbors (and good mentors), we learned a few things. I’ve continued my kenosis through seminary and post-seminary. Except for a brief tenure as pastor, I have been in jobs where I’ve felt underemployed and had to wrestle with my internal superiority complex and sense of entitlement. Currently, I wrestle with the nature of privilege while raising a family. I want my kids to have every opportunity and to succeed in life, but really I want my kids to follow Jesus. Worldly success or a taking-up-your-cross-kenosis  has a different telos. 

What does kenosis mean to you? How has it shaped your Spiritual Life?


  1. I often hear the claim of reverse racism or reverse sexism. I don’t think either of those are things, because racism and sexism are both bound up with power dynamics in culture. However, by framing racism and sexism as a spiritual issue in discussing kenosis, I am inviting self-reflection on what privileges each of has (from our race, gender, family of origin, socioeconomic status, eductation level, etc.). The claim of ‘reverse’ anything is a smoke screen designed to help us avoid the hard work of self-examination.

Taking Mission Beyond Privilege: a book review

We live in a divided America: Republican and Democrat; haves and have-nots; Caucasians and minority communities; Christians and Muslims (or really anyone else), educated elites and the illiterate. We are divided by politics, religion, race, economics, and culture. And you don’t have to look too far for evidence of how deep the divide. We’ve witnessed the public debate over who’s lives matter whenever someone gets killed and have heard the startling statistic that three-quarters of white Americans are without any minority friends.

y648What Makes D.L. Mayfield’s memoir Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith so good is the way she opens up about the challenges of living in the divide.  Raised on a steady diet of missionary biographies and dreams of heroic self-sacrifice she began living and working with Somali-Bantu refugees with hopes of winning converts and gaining significance from her missional efforts. Instead she found her Somali friends eyed her with suspicion and treated her presence with benign neglect. Committed to friendship with her Somali friends, her attitude gradually shifts to one which is more reciprocal and mutual than that of mere missionary. Her mission field transforms as she learns to give and share the love of God with her Somali neighbors.

When Mayfield begins her mission, she is full of privileged assumptions and believed-expertise. She confronts her own privilege, her  need for recognition, and she makes the shift from expert/sage to that of listener. Here are a couple notable quotes I underlined as I read (chapter titles in parentheses, the electronic copy I read didn’t allow me to specify location) :

I am not poor. I drink lattes during droughts, eat hamburgers during famines. I profit off the world I was born into, an economic system that crushes and oppresses. The problem was that I was born at the top, and so all of those troubles at the bottom used to seem so hazy to me. This is the real problem of being rich and happy and healthy and popular: it becomes easy, oh so easy, to forget about the rest. (Wade in the Water)

The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became. Or at least, this is how it seemed to me. I started off so confident, so sure of my words and actions. Over time, I became immersed in their problems, falling headfirst into a crash course on how hard it is to make it on the margins of the Empire, and I ended up becoming overwhelmed, overworked, and slightly bitter. I went from feeling like an expert to a saint to finally nursing the belief that I was a complete and utter fraud and failure, and this was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s the only way I could ever start to learn to be a listener. (Part 4, The Life-Changing Magic of Couch Sitting)

I liked Mayfield’s book a lot. In part because I could relate to it. I spent two years in ‘urban mission,’ prior to going to seminary, with organizations that required me to raise personal support. In the early days of my mission I found it easy to write ‘support letters’ telling friends back home about what good work I was doing in the inner-city. However these letters became harder to write farther into my tenure as missionary. It became harder for me to ‘pimp the poor’ and as I was confronted daily with the cycles of poverty, addiction and racial inequities, I wondered what good we were doing. Prayer became difficult for me as I watched neighbors and homeless friends gain one small victory only to hit with an insurmountable roadblock (or get sucked back into an addiction).

Mayfield names a similar sense of disillusionment as the missionary romance wears off for her, but she comes out the other end, hopeful, if chastened. Books like this are necessary because they image for us what it looks like to learn to lay down our privilege, rights, and delusions of grandeur in order to join in relationship with the other. In a divided nation like ours, this is sorely needed. I give this book five stars and recommend it to anyone, especially those of us on the privileged side of the divide.

Note: I received this book from BookLookBloggers in exchange for my honest review.

MLK Day and White Privilege in the Church

image-adapt-960-high Each year on Martin Luther King Day, I  read or re-read something from his writings.His earliest autobiography, Stride Toward Freedom, is one of my favorite books. It tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Strike and MLK’s rise to national prominence. Strength to Love reveals King’s thought on Civil Disobedience and non-violence. Where Do We Go From Here?his final book published in his lifetime, provided insight into how to continue the work of justice. Beyond this he has many charismatic sermons and speeches. The Martin Luther King Research at Stanford University has  an extensive collection of his papers. Yet it is his King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail that I turn to again and again (follow the link above to read it online).

In this letter, King responds to criticisms from white clergy members, that his actions in fighting for racial equality was ‘unwise and untimely.’ King defends his tactics and timing and gives a theological grounding for civil disobedience. He urges his fellow pastors to join in the fight against racial injustice. Throughout, he has some strong words about white privilege that are unfortunately still relevant, fifty-three years later. Here are a couple of quotations: Continue reading MLK Day and White Privilege in the Church