#Blessed: Grace and Privilege in the Church
Northside Church is nestled within the Buckhead Community of Atlanta, Georgia. Among the wealthiest neighborhoods in the United States, Buckhead is a beacon and bastion of white privilege. Our congregation’s demographics reflect this reality, as we are almost entirely white and upper-middle class in make-up, as well as, it seems, in design. The men of our Fire Pit Fellowship (my specific focus) are comfortably in the center of this world. Many of them are retired executives of large corporations and banks, such as Coca-Cola, Delta, and Bank of America. While active in the church, they are also power players in the community, sometimes on a national level.
The impetus for this particular project grew out of the dialogue I have had with these men on the subject nature and character of the Christian life. As part of my research, I engaged them further in several conversations about grace and privilege. It was obvious from the beginning that the confusion between these two concepts was deeply entangled within their thinking, and as a group, they had no clear understanding of God’s grace, particularly as it is outlined in Methodist and Wesleyan doctrine. Grace for them had come to mean ‘the blessings of God,’ rather than work of God in both moving us toward and sustaining us in event of salvation.
In our first conversation, I asked the deceptively simple question: What is grace? I received a myriad of answers to this question, including the traditionally valid, “grace is the unmerited favor of God.” While the men connected this idea to the work of salvation, particularly the crucifixion of Jesus, they also took it much further. Like a clear but distorted lens, the ‘unmerited favor’ that God had bestowed upon them became a way to explain how they had been so successful in life. While these men were quick to highlight how hard they have worked to get where they are, God’s grace was the guiding force and drive for all of it. As one of them said in absolute sincerity and humility, “I would not be here and have what I have – my family, my home, my life – if it were not for the grace of God. He has given me everything. I have been truly blessed.”
With that last comment, we have what I believe is the core of the confusion, that is, collapsing the dense and detailed nature of God’s grace into the singularity of God’s blessing. Beyond that, it also betrays just how confused their theological thinking on this subject really is, since they believe both that their hard work and discipline are responsible for their success and that it is the result of an unmerited favor of God. When I pressed them on this paradox, the answers I received were telling, none more than from a retired lawyer who attended every gathering we had: “Lord knows, I’ve done the work of three men, but it was God who prepared the way for me. He gave me strength when I was weak. He made things easier. He opened doors that would have otherwise been closed to me.”
The nature of the confusion we have expressed here is between specifically what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’ and what we now call ‘white privilege.’ These men had confused that grace of God that ‘goes before’ with the potential blessings of God, and so opened the door to understanding their privilege as the grace of God itself. These men took the ‘doors opened’ to them by this privilege as the very activity of God moving on their behalf, preparing the way for their success, rather than their salvation.
Addressing the Issue
The core of the issue is the confusion between grace and privilege, which then moves out into defensiveness and blindness to the related issues of white privilege. Rather than directly address the issue of white privilege, which I believe would be less effective given the blindness that privilege creates, my project begins the process toward full awareness through a practice of meditation, couched in community, and centered around the sacrament of eucharist. The goal of this practice is that the church will come to a fuller understanding of God’s grace, clearing up the confusion between grace and privilege. Based on Wesley’s small group model of class meetings, and centered around the sacrament of eucharist, the program I have introduced at Northside Church is called: Table.
I have developed the form of the Table curriculum based on the Stoic practice of meditation employed by those such as Marcus Aurelius, Anselm, and Ignatius. The structure and practice of this meditational form is particularly suited for the purpose recognition, insight, and transformation of the heart and mind of the disciple. Its six stages or positions, are as follows:
- Catharsis – characterized by the analytical and systematic detachment or destruction of an idea or system.
- Skepsis – a fall into extreme doubt and despair about the loss from catharsis.
- Peripeteia – a stage of reflection that leads to a radical shift in understanding or view.
- Agnagnoris – recognition of changed perspective and a guiding principle or will.
- Acensus – ascension from the darkness and despair of what is lost, toward the higher and external aspects of being.
- Reconsttuctio – having ascended, the world and self are rebuilt on the new perspective.
The content and focus of these meditations is pulled directly from the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer found within the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew. It is designed to map onto the season of Lent, though it can be used over any six or seven week period. Using the metaphor of the self as a house, the curriculum envisions God’s grace as both wrecking ball and contractor, demolishing who we are and rebuilding us in the image of Christ.
Here is a video outlining the curriculum:
Final Thought on Moving Forward
While the program and curriculum I have developed does address the nature of God’s grace, it does not directly address the issue of white privilege. My goal was to clear up the confusion between these two ideas, and so set the table for dealing with the issue of privilege in the Church – which is the next step, demanding careful consideration. Part of the process of true self-examination, which the Table program is designed to do, is coming to awareness and then to terms with our privilege. It is not enough to simply have conceptional clarity or awareness of privilege – we must find practices that help us dismantle and move beyond it. These practices must engage the process of slow transformation of the heart, as well of the mind, and express themselves with the actions of our body. I have great hope that the Table program will be faithful, if not effective, in moving our church in that direction.
For Further Reading
Some resources I used in my project that might be helpful in going deeper into this issue are:
Watson, Kevin. The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience. Kentucky: Seedbed Publishing, 2017.
Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.
Cavanaugh, William T. Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
Johnson, Allan G. Privilege, Power, and Difference, 2nd ed. Boston :McGraw-Hill, 2006.