No, The Gospel has Much to Say about Power: Replying to Barlow and Bolton’s Panel Review
Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, Crosswords, the blog of Columbia Crown & Cross, published a piece co-written by Nathan Barlow and Chris Bolton. The piece reviews a recent panel, “Race and the Gospel,” held on campus by Columbia Faith and Action (CFA). Given the divisive and often vitriolic nature of dialogue around the topics presented, we as a staff agreed that we should promote positive and honest conversation on this issue. With that goal in mind, we are publishing the following as one Columbia undergraduate’s response to Barlow and Bolton’s review.
To open my response, I’d like to thank the reviewers, two dear friends and brothers of mine, for their contribution to the ever-important conversation regarding race and the Church. However misguided I find their reflections to be, I nevertheless recognize their faithful commitment to Christ and their passion for sharing their understandings of the Faith with others. Additionally, I must clearly state that my relatively short treatment of Barlow and Bolton’s piece will focus only on pertinent theological issues. I have neither the perspective of a person of color nor the academic qualifications of an “identity politics” expert—a conceptual paradigm which seems to commandeer the reviewers’ concerns with contemporary conversations about race—and I make no attempt to speak as any such authority. What I have to offer is a cluster of brief theological and biblical insights which directly relate to the issue at hand.
The reviewers’ assessment of the danger of what they refer to as “secular discourse” infiltrating the Kingdom-oriented mission of the people of God is a valid concern. It is indeed possible for politically-loaded phrases such as “white privilege” or “colonialist power structures’ to enter the vernacular of the Church, and get tossed around with no meaningful effect other than to incite further racial division and contempt. However, a fear of “identity politics” seems to subtly drive the majority of Barlow and Bolton’s discussion of the panel content, thus rendering their eyes blind and their ears closed to any legitimately Christian understanding of “power” in the narrative of Jesus.
The reviewers explicitly state that their critical assessment of the discussion stems largely from a problem with the rhetoric employed by the three panelists. Barlow and Bolton claim that the panel failed to arrive at anything profound “[because] the conversation was conducted entirely in the language of privilege and prejudice … the parlance of our age.” If the reviewers’ arguments were indeed limited to mere rhetorical disagreements, I would still find their criticisms to be dogmatic and unconvincing. Their curt dismissal of the notion that Jesus was a “colonial subject” demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the significant historical context of God’s incarnation in the Christ.
Barlow and Bolton quickly decry the panelists’ emphasis of the fact that Jesus was a “brown-skinned oppressed minority living under Roman imperial occupation,” commenting, “It should matter very little to us today that Jesus was a ‘colonial subject.’” Here is where Barlow and Bolton miss the mark most poignantly. The incarnation of God in Christ is not an arbitrary entrance of God into time and space for the sake of some kind of abstract, decontextualized, salvific work ultimately unrelated to earthly power structures—au contraire, mes frères. That Jesus was a Jewish prophet living under Roman occupation is not merely a fun fact about the incarnate God, but rather serves as a fundamental key for comprehending God’s entrance into the world and identification with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. In Christ we see God working from below, and the way in which the reviewers downplay the sociopolitical backdrop of the gospel narratives makes me wonder if they would go as far as to claim that the story of Jesus would have equivalent theological weight if He were a Roman centurion. One would be hard-pressed to read the gospel accounts, let alone the entire New Testament, and leave with the understanding that Jesus’ social and political identity was irrelevant in the eyes of the biblical writers.
Though the panelists certainly did not describe Jesus’ work using the following terms, I grant to the reviewers that Jesus’ Gospel “was not one of class struggle or organized resistance,” given the host of revolutionary connotations that come to mind in our post-Marx age. However, it would be irresponsible to deny any and all connections that the Messiah’s ministry, life, and death had (and still have) to matters of race, class, and empire. To call attention only to a few relevant passages, Mary’s Magnificat serves as a prophetic word-painting of the way in which God will address issues of power imbalance through Jesus. 1 The Son of Man has a particular preference for the ‘others’ of his day: lepers, prostitutes, Gentiles, and the ceremonially unclean of all kinds. 2 Mark subtly casts Jesus as a kinglike counterfactual to Caesar at the end of his gospel. 3 And, although the Christ is not a political revolutionary per se, His ministry, death, and resurrection certainly resulted in lifestyle changes for his followers, who left their day jobs as fishermen and tax collectors to become healers and wealth-redistributors. 4 Additionally, when Jewish Christians deliberately neglect Hellenistic Jewish widows in their daily distribution of bread, the apostles create a special office within the Church to address this legitimate socioeconomic injustice. 5 I hope it is clear that I do not claim that “there is nothing beyond the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed,” only that such relationships do exist between various people groups. These power imbalances are of critical importance to God, and therefore should also be a top priority for His people.
The narrative cornerstone of the history of Israel is all about God’s liberation of an ethnic people group from enslavement under a corrupt imperial power; and a consensus of contemporary New Testament scholars find that the book of Revelation largely functions as an anti-imperial tract. 6 Race, class, and empire matter a great deal to God. Indeed, God is ultimately unconcerned with the distinct status of men and women, Jews and Greeks, or slaves and masters only in relation to His love for and faithful pursuit of all people 7. Paul flattens out the racial and socioeconomic differences for the recipients of his letter only when drilling the point that these “taxa” have nothing to do with their status as the accepted, beloved children of God. It is precisely because God justifies people of different races, ethnicities, and social statuses that we are called to live in harmony, welcoming one another on the same terms. 8 However, living life together as a diverse body of believers does not and cannot entail ignoring the differences between us, as the reviewers seem to suggest, briefly glossing over racial and ethnic distinctions in just three sentences of article space.
Describing God’s self-emptying of divine power, Paul writes,
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9
Here in Philippians, we get a Christological formulation of God’s self-emptying of power for the sake of serving others, all with a personal cost, ultimately unto death. It is vital we understand that God empties Himself not onto the throne of Caesar, but into the form of a servant. Caesar wages war; Jesus washes feet.
And the epistle-writer tells us to follow in Christ’s footsteps. Paul prefaces this passage with an exhortation to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus;” that is, to empty oneself of power—and privilege—in humility, all unto the service of the other. 10 Power does matter. Barlow and Bolton rightly cite Philippians in support of their basic claim that “Paul made his worldly identities subservient to his identity in Jesus,” with which no Christians, including our panelists, would disagree. 11 However, the reviewers apparently fail to realize that Paul is intimately aware of his inherited ethnic privileges, and that he is mindful of the ways in which they give him power and opportunities that others do not possess. Though it may not appear “woke” on the surface, a first-century form of “privilege talk” is practically dripping off this section in the apostle’s letter to the church in Philippi. Christ empties himself of his power and status for the sake of the world, and Paul similarly gives up his legitimate positions of power so as to share the sufferings of Christ, all for the sake of those to whom he ministers. 12
To employ power for the sake of the oppressed and the marginalized, we must first identify the ways in which we have unique powers and platforms unavailable to others around us. Therefore, we must ask ourselves the following (legitimate) questions: Do we have opportunities that our neighbors do not? Do I have certain privileges that, say, a black man lacks? What can I leverage for the sake of my neighbor from which they would not otherwise benefit? To suggest that we take a moment to identify our power and our privileges for the sake of serving our neighbors is not to blindly succumb to the spirit of our age—as Barlow and Bolton suggest—but, rather, to faithfully follow God in the Spirit of Christ. To not ask these questions of ourselves is to abandon the self-emptying way of Jesus.
A proud Minnesota native, Jesse Thorson (CC ‘18) serves on campus as Co-President for the Student Union for Sustainable Development and Outreach Coordinator for the Veritas Forum. Jesse is passionate about addressing climate change, making music, and eating more than his fair share of pancakes. You can find more of his theological musings at jessethorson.wordpress.com.
- Luke 1:51-53 ESV. ↩
- Mark 1:40; 5:2-3; 7:26; et al. ↩
- Mark 15:12; 15:17-20; et al.
- Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37. ↩
- Acts 6:1-3. ↩
- White, L M. “Understanding the Book of Revelation.” PBS. Accessed February 23, 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/revelation/white.html. ↩
- Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11. ↩
- Romans 15:5-7. ↩
- Philippians 2:6-8. ↩
- Philippians 2:5, emphasis mine. ↩
- Philippians 3:5. ↩
- Philippians 3:10. ↩