We have been discussing the concept of Noblisse Oblige recently at our church. I cover this idea in chapter 4 of my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide. Noblisse Oblige means, “nobility obliges.” It is the idea that was very prevalent in the Old South that noble people act benevolently toward their inferiors because that is what good people do. With a higher state in society, there is privilege. When one has privilege, he/she should act in ways suited to their positon above others. Good people do good things toward those less fortunate because it is fitting. This is how many whites operated in relationship with blacks and why they felt that race relations were fine. They were “noble” people who treated their “inferiors” well. Why should blacks complain? They had it good and were well treated by whites. The absurdity of the arrangement was lost on most whites because they were blinded by their own supposed good deeds toward those “less fortunate” than themselves. They failed to see that their sense of identity was built on a false construct.
A society based in benevolence can be a good thing. However, when structural superiority/inferiority is built in to the equation, the result is embedded and strengthened systems of injustice and oppression. The “superior” feel as though they are doing their duty through their good works and the “inferior” become satisfied with the hand outs. Nothing really changes. Actually, the very system that produces the stratification of society is strengthened.
There has been a great deal of discussion lately about “white privilege” and a call for white people to “check your privilege.” The idea is that to be “white” is to be privileged in this society because of history and past injustices. There is truth here that is undeniable. We do not start each generation with a clean slate. We build on the past, for good or ill. But, the problem with the appeal to addressing “privilege” in this way is that the very discussion continues to reinforce the divisions and the past inequalities. “Privileged” people are called to recognize and lay down their “privilege” because that is what good/just people are supposed to do in a liberal society. However, the privileged person remains privileged. He cannot stop being who he is or disappear from society. So, stratification continues and even worsens.
Evangelicals have fed into this bifurcation of society through our understanding and response to the categories of “lost” and “saved.” We call upon ourselves to act as good Christians should toward the “lost” and the poor and needy both in America and overseas because that is what good Christians do. We appeal to our “noble” identity as followers of Christ and declare that it is our duty to do good to those in need and to share the gospel with the lost. Fair enough and there is truth here. But, when we make the appeal this way, we often end up dividing ourselves from others further and little good results from it. Sure, we might take a short-term mission trip, help build a house, hold some native children, take some pictures, and do some good. Some money might be given from us, who are wealthy, to them who are not. But, does anything really change? Is this just “White Man’s Guilt” or “Christian Paternalism”? Is it Noblisse Oblige all over again?
Jesus has a better way. It is the way of sacrificial love. Jesus put on flesh and made His dwelling among us. He emptied himself of the Divine Perogative. He died the death of a criminal for us. He didn’t just do this because this is what good saviors do (although this kind of goodness was inherent in His being). Jesus came for us because He truly loved us. We were made in the image of God and He came to rescue us and restore that image and reconcile us back to God. To do this, he was not just generous. He gave Himself completely. His love was sacrificial and not at all self-serving.
We are called to love others the same way – not just because that is what good people or good Christians do (although this is partially true) but because people – the object of our love – are worth it. They are valuable. They are made in God’s image. Jesus died for them. We need to really see them for who they really are in God’s sight and not according to the place that our society assigns them – and us. How can we go on satisfied when our communities are broken and people around us have no hope? How can we engage in charity operations that make us feel good while nothing essentially changes from month to month and year to year? Jesus turned the world upside down and reordered society. Slave owners and slaves ate at the same table. That had never happened before. Soon, the slaves were freed. Rich and poor were together as equals. Jews and Greeks and Barbarians ate and worshiped together. They were now one in Christ. Good works occurred, but they occurred in a new society and a new context and for new reasons. The Church was a view into the Kingdom of God where Jesus had full reign. Everything was different. The good works were demonstrations of what God was like and how Heaven really is and what embodies sacrificial love really means toward others who are worth it in God’s sight.
Where do our good works and mission flow from? Do we engage in these things because that is what “good Christians” do, or have our hearts really been changed and broken with love for other people -the love that Jesus has for us?
Noblisse Oblige looks good on the surface, but it is a counterfeit to Agape – Sacrificial Love. It has no power to change individuals or society. Rather, it just reinforces the normalcy of division and social stratification and privilege of superior/inferior. But, in the church where agape dwells, there is no superior/inferior. Things are different and new and we are all changed day by day into the image of Christ, the Suffering Servant. On earth as it is in Heaven …