How should the privileged engage the perspectives and struggles of the marginalized?[1] This question is one that has weighed heavily upon me for years, but has taken on a new force in the events of the past year – Black Lives Matter and police shootings, debates over immigration and refugees, and the complicated mess that is the 2016 presidential election.

Christian radio stations – the preferred radio of many evangelicals – has been playing a song recently called “Kings and Queens.” After describing homeless street children in the first verse, the chorus goes on to say:

Boys become kings, girls will be queens
Wrapped in Your majesty
When we love, when we love the least of these
Then they will be brave and free
Shout Your name in victory
When we love, when we love the least of these[2]

This song captures much of the traditional white evangelical approach to the poor: a focus on loving “the least of these,” but also a certain kind of presumption about our own role. These children will be kings and queens… when? When we show them love. They will become brave and free (bringing to mind the patriotic “home of the free and the brave”)… when? When we love them. The bridge goes on:

If not us, who will be like Jesus to the least of these?

The song invokes the familiar phrase “the least of these” from Matthew 25, where Jesus offers a parable of the judgment day, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory,” separating the goats from the sheep. In doing so, the songwriters confuse entirely the point of the passage – a not uncommon occurrence when this parable is invoked. In Matthew 25 Jesus (“the king”) explicitly identifies himself with those in need: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (vv. 35-36). In other words, Jesus does not tell the sheep, “Well done! You have acted like me, Jesus. You have been my hands and feet.” Rather, he tells them, “Well done. When you were giving to those in need, you were giving to me. I was present with them, even though you did not recognize it.”

Jesus turns our expectations on their head. As he is wont to do.

We expect recognition for serving those who are “needy” – specifically, recognition that we are acting in a Christ-like way. Instead, Jesus points to the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, and says, “See them? They are like me.”

In certain theological circles, this idea of the poor representing Christ has been taken a step further, placing them at the center of God’s saving action in history. Jon Sobrino uses the phrase “no salvation outside the poor” to capture this notion, subverting the traditional formula “no salvation outside the church.” After describing the ways in which the “crucified peoples” of the world are like Yahweh’s Suffering Servant in Isaiah, Sobrino goes so far as to call them the “bearers of salvation.”

This approach goes a long way toward upending the white messiah complex, of which both conservatives and progressives are guilty. Yes, that’s right, progressives too. In fact, those of us (white, middle class) who identify as “progressive” or committed to “social justice” think ourselves to be in no danger of falling into the traditional paternalistic mindset (reflected in the song above). We easily engage in self-justification and place ourselves on little pedestals above such ethnocentric people. We surround ourselves with those who think like we do, feeling quite satisfied and self-righteous. As many have pointed out, the temptation of social media for venting righteous anger only encourages such practices of self-congratulation.

But are we insulating ourselves within our own little progressive bubbles – advocating for the “marginalized,” without ever actually listening to them? Some have commented recently on progressive liberals’ arrogance – and there is a real danger here. It is bad enough to exhibit a classist disdain toward poor whites. But such arrogance takes on an even more troubling hue when we consider our relationship to non-Western Christians. What do we do when our African Christian sisters and brothers believe differently than we do? When they are not as “enlightened” as we are? In the United Methodist Church’s discussions of LGBTQ issues at their recent General Conference and in the complicated history of the Anglican Communion, the presence of the global church is a real factor – a church where stangnant Western denominations are confronted with exploding growth in the Global South. Too often, these conversations take place with little acknowledgment of the colonialist implications of the enlightened attitudes of Western Christian leaders – and so-called progressives are often the worst offenders.[3]

In other words, sometimes our real on-the-ground encounters with those on the margins upend our abstract and romanticized notions of them. Are we willing to engage with flesh-and-blood people? Even when they seem to us not just strange but ignorant and even immoral? Or are we simply enchanted by the idea of the poor and marginalized? Worse, are we using them for our own gain – political, academic, moral?

As a white woman studying Latino/a theology and practice, I am acutely aware of such dangers.

Even seeking to live life with and learn from those flesh-and-blood people on the margins comes with its pitfalls. A recent article titled “The Third World is not your classroom” captures the situation well: the problem lies in the assumption that marginalized people are always at the ready to enlighten the privileged. In other words, we end up burdening the poor with our own need for enlightenment. If they are the “bearers of [our] salvation,” how can it be any other way?

There are no easy answers. Clearly, we must truly engage those on the margins, hear their stories, learn of their struggles. And somehow, some way, not exploit them for our own purposes. Constantly question ourselves. Allow them to set the terms of the conversation.

I would like to be able to tie up this post with a nice little bow: a conclusion that resolves all the tensions, rises above the typical ruts, and offers a “third way.” But I find that I cannot. Real flesh-and-blood encounters are messy. People are messy. Life is complicated. We can, at the very least, be grateful for a God who enters into that mess and identifies with those whom society blames for the mess being there in the first place. Every time we seek a superficial peace and order, this God destabilizes our view of ourselves and others, continually calling our ways into question. May we allow the Spirit to do such work in us and in our communities.


[1] I struggle with the proper term to use here. “Marginalized” has its problems, but I think still captures well the idea of those that are pushed out of the center of society by those with power. This marginalization can take a number of forms

[2] “Kings and Queens.” Songwriters Butler, C., Parisien, J. A., and Otero, J. Published by Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

[3] Clearly, this is a complicated issue, in that it involves multiple marginalized groups, including LGBTQ persons. My purpose here is to highlight one aspect that is too often neglected, specifically by those generally concerned with social justice.

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