I have been thinking about the relationship between privilege and stewardship. I worship and serve in churches that talk about stewardship in limited ways. Stewardship’s focus varies from one’s spiritual gifts to their finances or time. This focus reflects the importance of local church membership and participation. For years, I have heard pastors and leaders say, “Remember to give your tithes and offerings” and “Use your gifts in a church ministry” and “Don’t forsake to assemble yourselves each week for Sunday School, morning worship, and Bible study.” While it is important to talk about stewardship as it relates to congregational life, its theological arc is much broader. Stewardship’s focus should be related to our witness of the gospel in the world as we live out the command to love God and neighbor and follow the golden rule (Luke 10:27 & Matthew 7:12). This means we have to think of stewardship in broader ways like our stewardship of the social privileges we have and are often unaware of. I want to reflect on this over the next few months as I believe they will provide wisdom for the journey.
I hear the word “privilege” thrown around all the time in Christian circles, but it is never framed as a stewardship issue. Given the struggle our churches are having the moral and social fabric of this country, we need to rethink both. Too much attention is given to our individual lives. Less attention is given to our neighbors; past and present. Americans have neighbors who were enslaved for centuries, experienced genocide, suffer from exploitative economic systems that enrich the few at the expense of the many, and see religion, criminality, and war used to enforce violent and unjust practices. Thinking about “our” stewardship of privilege “as disciples of Jesus” is sorely needed. Our public discourse around the whole issue of privilege lacks humility, honesty, and a deep engagement with the teachings of Jesus that call us to self-denial and cross-bearing, not a clinging to worldly things. The ways Christians weigh in on these discussions about privilege are revealing and alarming.
Parables like the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, the parable of the pounds in Luke 19, the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 all teach principles of stewardship. People are entrusted with things they are expected to use wisely, compassionately, and justly. If this is the case, why aren’t we thinking of the stewardship of our privileges? Whatever we have in life are gifts from the Creator who calls us to love God and neighbor in just and sacrificial ways because love is more than trite words.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:16-18).
This text is so challenging because it frames love using language of “laying down one’s life” and the use of “material possessions.” Both highlight different aspects of our stewardship of privilege and challenge us to ask how we use what we have for the benefit of others. An expansion of our understanding of stewardship should include everything we have, including race, class and whatever other social privileges we enjoy. We need to do this because the congregationally-focused understanding of stewardship allows people to mask privileges and its effect on their neighbors in three ways. First, it lets them hide in church buildings with privileges that cost people their lives. Second, it absolves them from using the Eucharist to examine the cost of their privileges on members of the body of Christ. Third, it then excuses them from making sacrifices to correct injustices, including the refusal to support organizations, businesses, laws that continue to minimize and marginalize others. If you think about it, the congregationally-focused approach allows Christians to do exactly what the priest and Levite did when they saw a neighbor in need – nothing (they had to get to the Temple). In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus did not lift them up as examples to follow. Instead, he lauded the Samaritan who used his privileges to help a stranger.
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him. Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
There are other places in scripture and the Christian tradition that inform my thinking along these lines.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Galatians 6:10).
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly (A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr.).
By this – a radical self-giving love for others – will everyone know you are my disciples, not your wealth, income, membership at elite societies, where you vacation, your highest degree attained, your race, or what country you live in and love. The world will know we follow Jesus by our love. We wonder why so many are turning away from our churches and institutions. It is ironic to see the radical ways the gospel calls us to live in relation to others, yet our public discourse and witness focuses so much on why we don’t have to do this or why only others are supposed to.
As I conclude, I want to go back to the question the lawyer posed to Jesus – who is my neighbor? Jesus answered with this story and basically concluded “your neighbor is anyone in need” or to frame it in its broadest terms, “your neighbor is everyone.” This story is one of the many places we encounter the radical nature of the gospel that is difficult to live into on a daily basis. This text has teeth that challenges our willingness to follow Jesus, exposes our tendency to hold onto worldly comforts, and ultimately, invites humility as we see just how difficult it is to bear the cross of Jesus.
Like the lawyer, we ask questions of Jesus and get answers that weren’t what we expected. The lawyer asked who is my neighbor? Today, American Christians, shrouded in privileges and comforts, enter into conversations about love and social responsibility with a different question. I think we ask, “How much of my privilege do I have to give my neighbor?” In my theological imagination, I can hear God respond, “everything I have given you.” Now this does not have to mean we give away everything we have and live in poverty. What it does mean is that everything we have should be at the disposal of God and the work of the kingdom. It means when there are opportunities to do good to all people, we take them even if it requires radical sacrifice because everything you have belongs to God. The gospel requires a radical shift in our thinking about what we have and its relationship to others. That’s the hard work of stewardship we are called to as disciples of Jesus.
I am looking forward to digging deeper into our stewardship of privilege next month. I hope you will join me on the journey. Maybe we can change and deepen the ways we think and talk about privilege.