On Paul and Privilege

Thanks to Caroline Kittle’s excellent recent post, I  have been thinking a good bit recently about what it means to be a person of privilege. I have also been re-reading the book of Acts and ruminating on the situation of the Apostle Paul. There are lots of threads here but a number of them seem to be weaving around the Third Way in a way that I find really compelling.

Paul’s privilege

It strikes me that the Apostle Paul was a man of significant privilege. If we take a look at Paul I find his set of identities really striking: Paul was a male, pharisee trained, and a Roman citizen. Each one of these statuses lent him significant, automatic, social power in a variety of contexts. Being male in the first century Jewish and Roman worlds granted even more status and unearned power than it does in America today. The pharisees were the dominant, respected, religious faction in Judea (the mainstream evangelicals of their day). And of course Roman citizenship (and Paul had inherited his) granted immense political and social privilege throughout the Roman empire. It is actually hard to come up with a way Paul could have been more privileged in any of those arenas (the world in general. Judea, and the pagan Roman empire) without diminishing his privilege in one of the others.

And Paul very much seems to realize this. He recognizes his Jewish privilege in Philippians 3, where he lays out his Jewish credentials,  and he exercises his Roman privilege in Acts 16 and 22, challenging local authorities to grant him the benefits of Roman citizenship. Throughout, he is very much aware of the power his social circumstance grants him. This is really encouraging to me as someone who also benefits from immense privilege and who is also trying to work out what that means for me as I try to follow the Way of Jesus. A bit like Paul, I am someone of immense privilege in my own context. I am a cisgender, straight, white, college-educated, upper middle-class derived, American, male, raised and churched as an evangelical. It’s actually difficult (maybe if I’d had a trust fund) to have more unearned power than I have in this country. The vast majority of social, political, and cultural, and even religious institutions in the US were basically built with me in mind. And I know it, the problem is knowing what to do about it.

How Paul dealt with it

Looking to Paul though, gives me a few ideas about how I might be able to move forward. First I noticed that when Paul is recognizing his privilege in a religious context, he is quick to denounce it. In fact, he calls his unearned power, the “all this” of Philippians 3, shit (skubala in Greek). His whole point in that passage is that it is a mistake to see those things as adding anything to his position in Christ. And I think that is a good starting point for those of us with privilege both in and out of the church. We need to start by recognizing that the power granted to us by our social situation and built of the benefits of that situation, do not count for anything in God’s eyes. Being a straight, white, cisgender, middle class, college educated man, is shit in the Kingdom of Heaven, and the degree to which I find my security in those things is the degree to which I a missing out on the Kingdom.

But Paul doesn’t stop with that I don’t think that we ought to either. While Paul sometimes worked to empty himself of the false values he might otherwise derive from his privilege, at other times, he was remarkably willing to draw on those privileges. Specifically when dealing with oppressive powers and institutions, Paul seems to have been only too willing to exploit his privilege. When speaking to the Sanhedrin and to crowds of observant Jewish non-Christians, Paul touts his training under Gamaliel and his familial bona fides (Acts 22:1-5) in order to gain a hearing for the gospel which his (also privileged) listeners might otherwise have refused him. In Acts 22:30-23:11 he specifically exploits his background as a Pharisee to frame a religious trial in his own favor (pitting the Pharisees against the Sadducees). And when faced with Roman law, Paul seems to have been almost eager to exploit his inherited citizenship rights (privileges) in order to avoid beatings and to gain an audience with a series of aristocrats and ultimately with Caesar (Acts 16:38-40; 22:22-29; and 25:10-11).

So  Paul’s relationship with his own privilege changed based on the context. But there does seem to be one constant. At all times Paul used his privilege to elevate those who were marginalized or oppressed, whether that was himself, or overlooked believers in the churches he wrote to. His goal was to use the power he had, whether earned or unearned, to elevate others, and to spread the Gospel. Sometimes that meant a purposeful self denial, publicly denouncing the very things the world looked to for status and power. At other times it meant calling on those things to confront those who wanted to use their own status and power to oppress others.

What this might mean for me

If I am going to take Paul as an example, I think this has some profound implications for my own life. First, I need to be willing to recognize my own privilege. I have been granted a great deal of unearned social status and power and until I can call it all shit and find my value in Christ alone, coequal with all of His children, then that privilege will be a barrier to my relationship with Jesus and to my access to the gospel. But if and when I can recognize that false status and fake security for the illusions that they are, God is able to use them to give me a voice where others might not be heard. God might use me to reach other, similarly privileged folk, folk who are still so blinded by their own privilege that they cannot yet hear the truer, purer voices of those who are less tempted to find their value in the power systems of this world. God might use me as an example, if and as I stumble towards Jesus.  For God can use shit in beautiful ways, but only once it is seen for what it is. So long as we see our shit as gold, God will do little with it.


*I hope this will lead to some conversation. It is probably clear that I have a lot to learn from the less privileged and if y’all have tips and ideas for how it might help for me to use or deny my own, I am eager to hear from you!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “On Paul and Privilege

  1. I appreciate these reflections on Paul’s privilege. I suppose the next question this brings up for me is whether Paul’s privilege ever affected his writing in a negative way – specifically the way he wrote about slaves, women, or about people having same-sex sex. I think our answers would depend on our view of the inspiration of Scripture, and how we balance Paul’s humanity and sinfulness against the Holy Spirit’s work through him. I do think that considering his privilege and his culture, he wrote some pretty ground-breaking, liberating things about slaves and women, but the fact remains that he also wrote some troubling things.

    As a gay person who nevertheless is quite privileged in other ways, it gives me empathy for Paul when I see him as someone whose privilege and culture may have, at times, limited him from grasping and communicating the full extent of God’s good news for marginalized people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *