Dominique Gilliard, Subversive Witness: Scripture’s Call to Leverage Privilege (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021).

Stephen Preskill, Education in Black and White: Myles Horton and the Highlander Center’s Vision for Social Justice (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2021).

I once asked my students at a largely white, evangelical private school whether they considered themselves privileged. Without hesitation, nearly every student acknowledged that they had been “blessed” by their parents’ financial wealth. They pointed out how that economic stability enabled them to travel, eat at great restaurants, buy things, and of course, attend their school of choice. But the conversation got trickier when I asked them to consider whether their race could provide any privileges. There, I was met with silence. One student eventually asked, “Could you give us some examples?”

In his second book, Subversive Witness, Dominique Gilliard offers a stunning phrase that has stuck with me for weeks and that nails my intentions in taking these kinds of conversations to that place of awkward silence. “The cure for the pain is in the pain,” he writes.[1] The cure is in nudging us to confront our shortcomings of self-perception, to consider how our power and privilege harm or help the world and ourselves. 

In Subversive Witness, Gilliard specifically applies the lens of power to ancient stories, inviting readers to see the Bible’s witness as one of heroes, heroines, and even some villains who come to see their privilege as a gift to be returned to God rather than hoarded for themselves. This difference between stewardship and ownership is contextualized by linking Pharaoh’s daughters, Moses, Esther, Paul and Silas, Zacchaeus, and others to twenty-first-century parallels. Each narrative reveals the opportunity to leverage privilege to correct an injustice.

Although Subversive Witness is not specifically addressed to white Christians, there’s enough subtext to read between the lines and recognize that it applies to this demographic. For example, here’s how Gilliard describes privilege:

Privilege connected to embodiment (how our bodies are constructed—race, gender, health, and more) slowly but surely negates the fundamental biblical truth that we all are made equally in the image of God. It therefore subtly creates a sliding scale of humanity, where some lives are respected, protected, and valued over and against others. Privilege is the offspring of hardened hearts and unrepentant spirits. It shrewdly sustains and frequently expands systemic injustice, social inequities, and targeted oppression. Privilege is not just something certain individuals are endowed with; it also becomes institutionalized, perverting a society’s customs, education, laws, and practices.[2]

That definition does not call out any particular race, but it is imminently relevant to white power structures of twenty-first-century America. Bodies constructed by “race, gender, health, and more” become inured to suffering and buffered by privilege, and the net result is a malformed theology and ethics. Privilege thus “lures us into interpreting challenging Scripture passages as optional or only applicable to others.” It can embolden “an a la carte faith that masquerades as Christianity.”[3]

To help readers combat the potentially reflexive praxis of constructing their own ethic, Gilliard skillfully pivots from interpreting well-known biblical passages to connecting them to modern contexts, effectively closing the imaginative gap between our times and the Bible. For example, in the story of Moses, Gilliard incorporates the findings of recent trauma literature. Moses murders a fellow citizen, flees Egypt, and then returns traumatized by his violent act. His body certainly keeps the score, and so does his criminal record. And yet neither Moses’s deep wounds nor his privilege disqualify him from divine service; both must be submitted to God. Otherwise, Gilliard writes, the temptation to permanently withdraw from the sites of suffering will be great, and “we miss transformational opportunities to help induce freedom, liberation, and deliverance where captivity, disenfranchisement, and despair have reigned too long.”[4] After all, risking more pain, counterintuitive as it may be, is both the cure and the way of the cross.

In addition to the temptation to withdraw, there is also the temptation to hold on. The privileged rarely loosen their grip on power, and that includes Christians. Yet the Scriptures challenge the followers of Jesus to decrease for the sake of Christ’s increase (John 3:30). There are norms, like modes of exchange, that have become second nature for Christians, and these “anti-gospel tables”—rugged individualism, white supremacy, and patriarchy—need to be overturned. Unfortunately, recent Christian behavior has done little to convince those outside the faith that we will do anything other than “choose privilege, self-centeredness, and allegiance to worldly empires over sacrificial love and justice.”[5]

It can be especially difficult for Christians in power to see the ways their interpretations of the faith have caused problems for others. For example, in the American South, where Gilliard resides, faith is culturally dominant, and some churches, denominational offices, and publishing arms are ubiquitous brands, creating versions of Christianity that largely mirror the excesses and cruelties of American life. One imagines that Gilliard had the recent squabbles over Confederate monuments or critical race theory curricula, when he wrote, “Unchecked privilege fosters mythology, emboldening an ahistorical theology and worldview. It allows whitewashed history to be canonized and institutionalized, immoral men to be venerated and revered, and nations to live in denial and unrepentant sin.”[6]

The path forward for the privileged is, in theory, relatively simple: confess sins, lament, and change course. Gilliard describes lamentation as “an anguished acknowledgment that things are not as they should be, a tormented wail beckoning the Lord to intervene with righteousness and justice.” But Gilliard notes that privileged people structure their lives to avoid the causes of lament—to have all their needs met and to stave off the things that threaten them. Churches, he suggests, do not practice lament; indeed, some have even “prohibited lament.” Such an absence is a denial of how things are and of how they should be. Lamentation “forces us to slow down,” but to keep from being reminded that we are not everlasting, we deny our temporality and push to achieve, build, and protect what is gained.[7]

It is not particularly enjoyable to slow down, self-reflect, and acknowledge our, especially when the internet provides a chorus ready and willing to reinforce our self-justifications. As Gilliard rightly asks, “Is the gospel still good news when it costs you something?”[8] One need to peruse social media for only a minute to observe white male theologians whining about their waning public influence while decrying the increasing influence of female and BIPOC theologians. They use every old offensive trick in the book, slinging terms like woke, postmodern, eisegesis, and identity politics—theological dog whistles where the speaker knows his intentions will be heard. But the game has changed, and there is no pain like holding on too long to old privileges when things have passed us by.

Myles Horton, a native of Savannah, Tennessee, who was born into poverty, might not come to mind as one of the privileged. Yet Stephen Preskill’s nuanced portrait of Horton in Education in Black and White reveals a poor, white southerner who leveraged what little status he had by connecting with the rural South’s economically distressed. Horton dedicated his life to “ordinary people” as the cofounder and director of the Highlander Center, and Cornel West described him as his “incredibly courageous and visionary brother from Tennessee,” a crucial figure in altering the racial status quo, and “one of the great existential democrats of the twentieth century in terms of understanding democracy as a way of life.”[9]

Horton witnessed his mother’s compassion for their neighbors, as she often took half of the family’s supper to them, which meant Horton went to bed hungry many nights. He understood his mother’s mission, and he became committed to alleviating poverty in whatever ways he could. At Cumberland University, Horton showed glimpses of what would be his future by organizing a protest against fraternity hazing, challenging abusive behaviors explained away as norms of Southern tradition. He attended Union Theological Seminary at the urging of his pastor, where he would be deeply influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, who served working-class congregants in Detroit and participated in the labor movement. At Union, Horton began to formulate the idea for what would become a crucial meeting place—an intersection of race, class, and gender—a school that would help shape the American South.

The Highlander Folk School, now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center, was founded in 1932 near Monteagle, Tennessee, and it became one of the few sites in the United States where interracial gatherings could take place to exchange ideas, share meals, sing freedom songs, and dream better versions of democracy. The Highlander’s work focused on teaching adult learners about their collective power in organized labor and civil rights movements; it existed “to educate rural and industrial leaders for a new social order.” Horton paid attention to the work of organizers like Saul Alinsky, yet he rejected methodologies that conceived of work as a zero-sum game. He saw himself as an educator: “The purpose of Highlander is not to solve problems but to use problems and crises as the basis for educating people about a democratic society. To make them want more and make them understand they can do more.”[10]

Finding willing participants for interracial gatherings in Highlander’s early days was difficult in the segregated South. Horton recruited historically Black college and university professors and students—particularly from nearby Knoxville College and Fisk University in Nashville—to attend Highlander events, even though their presence drew threats of violence. The Highlander school’s impact truly began to be felt when the United Auto Workers held an integrated workshop in 1944, which the Highlander school hailed as the first gathering of its kind in the South.[11]

Horton and Highlander could not fly under the radar for long and soon drew the gaze of Southern powerbrokers. In 1954, Horton was subpoenaed by Senator James O. Eastland to appear before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which accused Highlander of being infiltrated by Communists. In early 1957, the Internal Revenue Service punitively ruled that Highlander did not meet the requirement to be considered a tax-exempt institution due to Highlander’s integrationist work, a ruling Highlander spent much of the year fighting. And in 1959, Highlander was in the crosshairs of the Tennessee legislature, which passed a resolution to investigate the school as a subversive institution. Two years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a judge’s ruling that the Highlander should lose its charter. Although the Monteagle location was shuttered, it found a new home in Knoxville in 1961 under the new name the Highlander Research and Education Center. It remains operational to this day, a little over twenty miles outside the city center in New Market, Tennessee.[12]

The Highlander Folk School is perhaps best known for receiving Rosa Parks’ history-altering visit for a two-week workshop four months prior to the beginning of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. At Highlander, Parks not only found a supportive activist community, but in Horton she also found a southern white man who defied her expectations and experiences with others:

Myles Horton just washed away and melted a lot of my hostility and prejudice and feeling of bitterness toward white people, because he has such a wonderful sense of humor. I often thought about many of the things he said and how he could strip the white segregationists of their hardcore attitudes, and how he could confuse them, and I found myself laughing when I hadn’t been able to laugh in a long time.[13]

Highlander was also a progressive place for female leadership, a rarity in the patriarchal South. Horton’s first wife, Zilphia, was instrumental in creating the environment of hospitality and music that infused the school. Zilphia adapted a song brought to Highlander in 1947 by striking Black tobacco workers called “We Shall Overcome,” which was eventually popularized by folk singer Pete Seeger. Zilphia altered the melody and lyrics to what would become an iconic anthem. Black women assumed high places of leadership as well. Septima Clark, for example, became Highlander’s director of workshops and established citizenship schools throughout the South. Veteran civil rights movement stalwart, Ella Baker, who had experiences in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), convened workshops at Highlander in 1960 that led to the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).[14]

Although Preskill details Horton’s role in approving female leadership, he honestly assesses that Horton was not always quick to champion them without “the active and persistent intervention of female staff, including Helen Lewis, Sue Thrasher, Juliet Merrifield, and Candie Carawan, as well as many others, to turn Highlander into a place where women leaders routinely enjoyed the same respect as men.” Horton and director Mike Clark were slow to provide childcare facilities and better medical insurance for their dedicated female staff until they utilized the very nonviolent tactics of negotiation famously developed at Highlander.[15] This dark corner of Highlander’s history is an important reminder that even institutions founded on principles of equality and democratic participation will not always easily address their own failures.

Preskill concludes Education in Black and White by detailing the friendship between Horton and Pedagogy of the Oppressed author Paulo Freire. The two first met at a conference in 1973 and nurtured a friendship over their shared commitment to adult education. Horton and Freire met again in Knoxville in 1987 for a week-long meeting while Freire was grieving the loss of his wife, Elza. Their extended monologues with each other became the book We Make the Road by Walking, and Freire credited the meeting and friendship with Horton as reinvigorating him to write once again.[16] It was a fitting testimony to Horton’s lasting effect beyond the geographic boundaries of the American South and upon educators and activists everywhere, sparked by his love of learning and belief in the transformational possibilities of democratic participation.

Horton’s life provides a crucial link to Gilliard’s thesis that a particular pain is the cure to addressing privilege. Horton always desired to plant Highlander in Tennessee—it was “the region he knew and loved best. He looked on Tennessee as the place where he could make the biggest difference in people’s lives, because it was under his skin, inseparable from how he saw himself as a person and an activist.”[17] But the hard work of curbing privilege will bring discomfort, possibly even pain, when you attempt to do that work in your own backyard.   

I recently talked to a Savannah native and asked him if he had heard of Myles Horton. He didn’t know the name, to say nothing about the details of Horton’s life. I grew up two hours north of Horton’s birthplace in Savannah, Tennessee, and only an hour away from Humboldt, Tennessee, where he moved as a teenager. I did not know his story until graduate school. I suppose now that the life and legacy of Horton and the Highlander Center might be filed under the false umbrella of critical race theory and excluded from the possibility of being added to any Tennessee school curriculum—more whitewashing of history in the name of maintaining the personal comfort of the privileged.

But only the fragile and insular need to be shielded from history. To create a false world for the next generation is the epitome of privilege—one that proves to be damaging to us all. Instead, exemplary figures must be highlighted for privileged people, so we might see how to walk a courageous path. In civil society, we may refer to these figures as “heroes.” Followers of Jesus call them “witnesses.”

Blessed are the truthtellers. It can be a painful thing to tell it true, especially in the places and to the people you know and love the most.

[1] Gilliard, Subversive Witness, 185–86.

[2] Gilliard, Subversive Witness, 9.

[3] Gilliard, Subversive Witness, 171 and 173.

[4] Gilliard, Subversive Witness, 69.

[5] Gilliard, Subversive Witness, 181 and 27.

[6] Gilliard, Subversive Witness, 4.

[7] Gilliard, Subversive Witness, 51, 49, and 51.

[8] Gilliard, Subversive Witness, 33.

[9] Preskill, Education in Black and White, 9 and 3.

[10] Preskill, Education in Black and White, 66 and 88.

[11] Preskill, Education in Black and White, 113.

[12] Preskill, Education in Black and White, 196–97.

[13] Parks quoted in Preskill, Education in Black and White, 159.

[14] See Preskill, Education in Black and White, 108, 161, 192, 162, and 211.

[15] Preskill, Education in Black and White, 241; also see, 253.

[16] Preskill, Education in Black and White, 276–77 and 285.

[17] Preskill, Education in Black and White, 5.