White (and Black and Red and Yellow and Brown) Privilege

African-American-Business-WomanWhat I find most objectionable in Matt Chandler’s comments about the Ferguson, Missouri conflagration (literally) is his remarkably unverified and unverifiable statement that “white people, in most cases, have easier paths than most black people,” and, in particular the utter omission, if he is going that route, of addressing secular privilege, female privilege, Asian privilege, homosexual privilege, Roman Catholic privilege, black privilege, Episcopal privilege, college-educated privilege, manual-dexterity privilege, environmentalist privilege, and on and on. There is no white privilege on the campus of some West Coast universities where Asians are clearly superior to whites in intellectual performance — and everyone rightly privileges them on this point. Everybody is privileged in some situations and not in others. It is Matt’s intellectual and social over-simplicity that’s especially offensive. I mean right behind his commitment to political correctness.


White privilege is not a sort of lifelong social construct. Different kinds of people during different times of their lives with different characteristics and in different social and cultural situations are privileged. When a black businessman walks into a Four Seasons wearing a Hickey Freeman suit, he is privileged. When a white construction worker walks into the same establishment wearing blue jeans and a dirty T-shirt, he is not. There is no such thing as white privilege or black privilege or male or female or Asian or old or young or rich or poor privilege as an overarching life category.


Further, I would be less inclined to believe Matt is capitulating to political correctness were he to boldly challenge the reigning radical racial paradigm. Had he said, for example, “There are some whites who are privileged in this country, and there are some blacks who are privileged in this country, and we need to understand what ‘privilege’ all about,” I’d have a greater respect for him. I’d really enjoy hearing him expostulate on the black privilege of socially unjust racial hiring and admissions policies that harm Asians and Hispanics.


There are huge, unverified biases behind the common notion of “white privilege.” I wish Matt had mentioned some of them. 


An Economic KICK (Keep It Complex, Knucklehead)

You have, no doubt, heard the famous advice to speakers, writers and salesmen, expressed in the abbreviation KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. It’s good advice for speaking, writing and sales. But it’s bad advice for other activities.

In fact, the bleating of sincere, moralistic souls for simplicity in modern life is often, by intent or not, a call for increased tyranny.


The Tyranny of Simplicity

In the economic sphere, the victory of simplicity almost always necessitates the deprivation of liberty. A good example is price controls. The economy sure would be a lot simpler if tomorrow the federal government decreed that the price for a dozen eggs across the country must be $1.00, the price for every loaf of bread must be $2.00, and the price for a gallon of low-fat milk must be $3.00. Just think how this would simplify certain calculations of grocery store owners and managers. It would be a simple and soon disastrous decision. Why? The free market rests on a highly complex interplay of human decisions, and it cannot be reduced to a simple formula.

I don’t understand all the motivations behind, and mechanisms implementing, the human decisions that every two weeks bring the ice cream truck to deliver to my very own doorstep chocolate mud pies, for which I fork over a little hard-earned cash and then greedily devour. It sure would be a lot simpler to explain why there should be a new law from the Sacramento capital requiring that a dozen chocolate mud pies be delivered to all Californians with the initials PAS.

A lot simpler, yes, but a lot less successful and, worse still, a lot more tyrannical.

In his astoundingly learned and extensively documented work Fire in the Minds of Men, James Billington observes again and again how that revolutionary socialists have historically been committed to a radical social simplicity. Among these revolutionaries, there has been an eerie obsession with geometric and mathematical formulas as a pattern by which society should be redrawn. “If Newton could discover the law of gravity and reduce it to a few simple formulas, why can’t we discover the laws of society and reduce them to a few simple formulas?” The problem is that human society is not analogous to the laws of gravity. Men, made in the image of God, are relatively free moral agents; and the attempts to reduce their society to a few simple formulas inevitably results in tyranny.

By intervening in the free decisions of the grocer, the state sets into motion processes that extract food from everyone’s table. The bewildering complexity of activities and processes that underlay the exchange of goods and services in the marketplace requires and perpetuates human liberty. Each of us makes thousands of decisions every day, most insignificant, some occasionally momentous. If those decisions are voluntary (non-coercive), without molesting life, liberty, or property, they combine with everybody else’s decisions to produce a dramatically free society.

Don’t ask how this happens. Don’t ask how my decision to buy my daughter a new pair of tennis shoes benefits not only the shoe salesman and the shoe store, but possibly a butler in Paris, a baker in San Jose, and a candlestick maker in Tokyo, but this very well could happen and this sort of thing happens every day. If you try to simplify this dizzying complexity, you end up stealing liberty from a lot of people and eventually produce massive shortages (just ask somebody who lived in the old Soviet Union or anybody who lives in today’s North Korea). The complexity of multi-billions of free decisions by millions of people fosters liberty, while the simplicity of a few thousand decisions by a few hundred government bureaucrats creates tyranny.


The High Cost of Simplicity

Now the main problem with “simple” price controls is that they absolutize economic information while lacking the capacity to absolutize the reality underlying that information. Imposing price controls on eggs, bread, and milk can’t make chickens lay more eggs, the soil grow more wheat, or cows give more milk. In a free market economy, prices are simply information about underlying realities, not greedily erected, artificial barriers to keep poor (or middle-class) people from getting what they “deserve.” You can’t change the underlying reality by freezing prices, but you sure can change the reality of available products and services by coercively freezing prices: price controls always produce shortages, which hurt everybody’s reality.


Complexity and Human Action

I repeat: almost every attempt to simplify the main factors in the realm of the exchange of goods and services in a market economy results in a loss of liberty. Why is this? Because the leading factors in a market economy are not products, services, or even prices, but human decisions and other human actions. Goods, services, prices, and exchanges are the result of human actions, not vice versa. State interference in the market disrupts these human choices and in so doing, creates tyranny. If, in an alleged effort to keep prices down for grocery shoppers, the state imposes price controls on eggs, bread, and milk, the result will (temporarily) benefit consumers (the first ones that get to the grocery); but it surely will not benefit the grocery owner, who, all other things being equal, is forced to pay fluctuating market prices to his suppliers for these products. It doesn’t take a Ph. D. in economics to figure out that the simplicity of price controls benefits one group at the expense of another group. Soon, such price controls will hurt almost everybody, because if the grocery owner isn’t free to charge the price he wants, he eventually won’t be able to afford to buy at his suppliers’ selling cost; and if the supplier can’t sell his goods to the grocer, he will eventually quit buying from the farmers and dairymen, who will be stuck with food that cannot readily enter the marketplace.

Note how complex the spurious attempts at economic simplicity can get.

In the realm of economics, we need to replace the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) with the KICK principle (Keep It Complex, Knucklehead).


Junk Culture, Join It, or Change it?


Until recent times, Christianity was a dominant force in the Western world. To one degree or another, and usually to a large degree, Christianity shaped the culture. By culture, I mean the external manifestations of the inward, guiding impulse of a society: its education, arts, politics, technology, economy, and so on. This impulse is always religious. Culture, in the words of Henry Van Til, is “religion externalized.” Each religion produces a particular kind of culture; Christian culture is different from Islamic culture, Buddhist culture, Satanist culture, New Age culture, secular culture, and so on. Today, the religion of Western culture is secularism. Therefore, our politics, education, entertainment, and technology are predominantly secular. This is our root problem. Getting this particular candidate elected or that particular law passed won’t solve it. The problem lies much deeper. We need an entire cultural root excavation.

When Christianity began to lose its cultural dominance to secularism in the United States after the War Between the States, it was relegated to an opposite role, countercultural. Christianity became the ignored — and sometimes persecuted — minority. By the middle of the 20th century, certain Christians began to investigate what the proper relation really should be between Christianity and culture. This never would have happened had not Christianity lost its cultural leadership, but it is an investigation we cannot afford to dismiss today.

Three of the insightful treatments of this issue were Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture, Christopher Dawson’s small book The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, and J. Gresham Machen’s essay, “Christianity and Culture.” Niebuhr, Yale theologian for many years, was “neo-orthodox,” about halfway between orthodox and modernist, but leaning in the modernist direction. Dawson, a brilliant British Roman Catholic historian, was offered a Harvard teaching post late in his life. Machen, an eminent New Testament scholar and founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, was an orthodox Calvinist. All three offered deeply penetrating analyses of how Christians historically have related their faith to their culture — and how they should do it today.

When you boil it right down, there are three main ways to approach the relationship between Christianity and culture, and we had better learn them if we expect to make sense of what  Christian responsibility is in today’s culture.

Cultural Abandonment

First, Christians may abandon culture. This is a seemingly easy route. It is certainly popular. It has been the majority view of non-Roman Catholic conservative Christianity in this country since 1880: “The world is going to Hell in a handbag; Christians will soon be ‘raptured’ up to heaven; and even if they aren’t, our job is to win a few souls to Jesus, not try to change the world. Heaven belongs to Christians, but the world belongs to the Devil.”

Cultural abandonment has sold the church into cultural bondage. It says, “Jesus and the Bible should exercise authority over the individual Christian, family and church, but not over the media, education, arts, and politics.” In other words, the proponents of cultural abandonment deny the Lordship of Christ in all of life. They often complain about the evils of modern culture. But it’s their own inaction and laxity that allow the forces of evil to gain the upper hand and, eventually, enslave them. This has been going on a long time now. In the words of a popular novelist, the problem with doing nothing is that you never know when you’re finished.

Culturally, doing nothing simply will not suffice.

Cultural Immersion

Second, we may immerse ourselves in culture. This has been the agenda of Protestant liberalism since late last century, and it includes professed evangelicals like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo today. It has been the view, “You’ve gotta be like ‘em to win ‘em.” Because liberals understood that cultural elites mightily influence society, they wedded their version of Christianity to causes popular among those cultural elites. This meant that religious liberals quickly lined up behind popular socially and politically liberal causes, since this is just where the cultural elites were standing. These causes, as diverse as the temperance (anti-alcohol) movement, civil rights movement, and state socialism, were considered “forward-looking,” and “progressive.”

Today, the religious liberals’ “progressive” causes include ordination of women and homosexuals, legalization of homosexual “marriage,” expansion of abortion rights, and acceptance of goddess-worship. You may have noticed that these just also happen to be the views of the Eastern Establishment, Hollywood, and the major media. The cultural immersionists believe that they can win over the society to Christianity by adapting Christianity to the prevalent ideas of the culture, particularly its secular elites.

Cultural immersion suffers from two fatal errors. First, it has no standard by which to judge right and wrong. Long ago the disciples of cultural immersion jettisoned any belief in the full authority of the Bible. Therefore, they cannot say with certainty, “This is right and this is wrong.” The only thing cultural immersion really labels wrong is opposition to its own ever-shifting agenda. The real enemies are the “absolutists” — those who contend that abortion, socialism, homosexuality, feminism, and racial preferences are wrong. To the cultural immersionists, the “absolutists” are the only dangerous crowd.

Second, cultural immersion quickly becomes outmoded. He who marries the spirit of the age becomes a widow in the next. Right about the time the religious liberals had slavishly adopted a “progressive” anti-war posture in the ’30s and ’40s, for example, their more progressive counterparts, the secular liberals, had become rabid warmongers. Just when the religious liberals were getting onto the equal rights bandwagon, the secular liberals were fashioning the “special rights” bus. Religious liberals simply change along with the prevalent secular culture, reshaping (that is, disemboweling) Christianity in the process.

Cultural Transformation

There is a final view on the relation between Christianity and culture. We may work to transform culture. This view does not retreat from culture. Nor does it make culture the norm and try to find an area of agreement. Rather, it sees culture as fallen in sin and in need of godly change. This position has been held by certain Roman Catholics (like Christopher Dawson), many Protestants (especially postmillennial Calvinists), and certain culturally active evangelicals (Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, for instance).

This view is the right one. It says, “We must not abandon culture, because Christ is Lord of culture too. But neither may we immerse ourselves in culture, because our Lord and the Bible stand over it and judge it. Our job is to work to bring every area of culture into line with the Bible.”

This means that every area of modern life should be Christianized: technology, media, arts, education, economy, science, and politics. By “Christianized,” I mean aligned with what the Bible teaches. I don’t just mean Christians should be leaders in these fields. I mean that these fields themselves should have a distinctively Christian — i.e., biblical in character. This is just what the Puritans, leaders in early colonial America, believed about culture. Permanent society on this continent was founded by cultural transformers.

Cultural transformers believe they do their work by the gospel, faithful obedience, and the power of the Holy Spirit. They are not on a “fundamentalist jihad.” The use of guns and other forms of coercion to impose Christianity and its law would horrify them. They know that Christianity cannot be imposed; it must be embraced. They work relentlessly to get others to embrace it.

Unless we want our children and grandchildren to be fighting the same cultural battles with the sin and evil that afflict us today, Christians had better become cultural transformers.