One of my all-time favorite movies is “Remember the Titans,” made in 2000 about the football team at an all-white high school in Alexandria, Virginia, that was integrated in 1971.
There’s a great scene where linebacker Gary Bertier, the white team captain, confronts defensive end Julius Campbell, one of the new black players, about being selfish and not helping his teammates. Julius counters that Bertier isn’t doing his job as captain because he doesn’t call out the white linemen when they fail to block for one of the black running backs.
At the end of the scene, Bertier accuses Julius of having a bad attitude…and then Julius drops the mic:
“Attitude reflect leadership…captain.”
What that scene (and actually the whole movie) dramatically points out is the way that an ingrained sense of privilege can lead us, often unknowingly, to the harm of other people.
Privilege or purpose?
Last week I introduced the theological theme of purpose vs. privilege that has occupied much of my writing, teaching, and preaching of late. Today I want to unpack it a little more fully.
I first started to sense the idea that the theme of purpose vs. privilege is an underlying thread woven deeply into the biblical narrative about four years ago when I was in the midst of a long, deep dive into studying the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) through the lens of Dallas Willard’s brilliant book, The Divine Conspiracy.
The more I dwelled in the Sermon on the Mount over the better part of 2+ years, the more it started to really inform my entire hermeneutic. I began to see it not as a series of instructions or guidelines for behavior, but as a way of being that is centered on a radical awareness of the worth and dignity of all things.
Don’t give me your attitude
Without writing an entire book report, what Willard so beautifully demonstrates in The Divine Conspiracy is that the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ manifesto of how life is supposed to work. Especially through the “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” monologue in 5:21-48, Jesus is getting beneath the behaviors of Mosaic law to the attitudes that drive them.
Rather than pointing out (as is often taught) that the Law is far too difficult to live out on one’s own so we need Jesus to save us from our inability to carry it out, what the Sermon on the Mount actually does is reveal that there is no difference between dehumanizing attitudes and dehumanizing behaviors.
“Do not kill” is more than just an instruction not to commit murder, but to so deeply recognize the humanity in others that you could not possibly conceive of such an act.
“Do not commit adultery” becomes less about cheating on your partner and more about mentally objectifying others for your own satisfaction, either physical or emotional.
“Do not break your oath” is not just about keeping your word for the sake of your own honor, but for honoring the dignity of the one to whom you make the promise.
In other words, Jesus is stripping away all sense of personal privilege. He is revealing all the ways we think ourselves superior to others and places us all, no matter our station in life, on a level field with one another.
Righteousness of the Pharisees
In that light, the greatest virtue is living for purpose.
“You (Israel) were given a purpose: to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. To bring delight and flavor and love into the world. Don’t mistake the gifts of purpose for privilege. Don’t hoard them and keep them to yourself to exercise power and influence over others, but instead use them so that everyone everywhere knows that the true essence of God is love.” —Matt. 5:13-16, (my paraphrase)
Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to this sense of purpose as “righteousness.” He warns his followers that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, the self-appointed religious leaders of the time.
What Jesus means to point out, I believe, is that the kind of righteousness displayed by the Pharisees was little more than self-righteousness, a putting on display of their piety in order to cement their place of privilege.
True righteousness, Jesus says, is to be true to your God-appointed purpose.
You had one job
Let’s rewind a little further for some perspective. In Genesis, God encounters this dude named Abraham and makes a promise to him: that his offspring will become a great nation…a nation with a very specific purpose. A vocation, if you will.
“All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3b, NIV)
This is the key part of Israel’s back story in the Old Testament narrative: to be a nation chosen by God to carry out God’s purpose of blessing.
And the rest of the Old Testament tells the story about how Israel failed again and again and again to live into that promise.
Because Israel wanted to keep God’s blessing to itself. To have power and influence in a world where it was more often the bullied than the bully. To turn the tables on the nations that continually overran its borders and carried its people into exile.
To make Israel great again.
Israel wanted to take the privilege of God’s promise to Abraham without taking on the responsibility of the purpose God intended.
In fact, we can go even further back in the story to the Creation myth and see where the story that we refer to as “The Fall” or “Original Sin” is also really a story about placing privilege over purpose.
When the first humans in the story chose to take what they want for personal pleasure, they chose the privilege that went along with their freedom and ignored the purpose of their responsibility to steward the Creation.
Privilege puts self at the center of the universe. Privilege takes.
Purpose revolves around the other. Purpose gives.
And when we live for purpose rather than for privilege, that’s where the Kingdom of Heaven is.
Welcome to the reboot of joewebbwrites.com. After an extended dry season where my writing has been limited to a few sermons and work projects, I’m re-launching with a series of articles on the theology of purpose vs. privilege. I welcome your feedback and conversation over the concepts I present here…just keep it civil and keep it classy.
The kingdom is coming, y’all.
 I use the word “myth” to denote a story that people tell to try to explain their perception of reality. It should not be read as meaning the story is not true, although I might argue that truth and facts are not at all the same thing.