01/30/2012 12:17 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Would Jesus Belong to a Country Club?

Two weeks ago an article ran in the Tennessean in Nashville. It described the completely all-white male voting membership of the most exclusive country club in the Nashville area and the saga of one its members. In this news item however, an important story was revealed: social privilege that creates disadvantages can dispense injustice in covert ways.

Here's the story.

The Belle Meade Country Club made news in December when a Nashville judge was reprimanded by a federal judiciary committee for belonging to the club. The panel's conclusion was that Belle Meade engages in "invidious discrimination on the bases of race and sex" and that the twenty-one year long membership of U.S. bankruptcy judge George Paine creates the impression that the judge's impartiality is impaired.

The reprimand was filed on Dec. 2, 2011 by the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the Judicial Conference of the United States. This committee established by Congress oversees violations of the conduct code for federal judges.

Refuting an earlier ruling, it determined that "whether an organization to which a judge belongs practices invidious discrimination and whether that judge has committed judicial misconduct by being a member of the organization are the same question..." Effectively, his membership has a "prejudicial effect on the administration of the business of the courts" and the lowering of "public confidence" in them. This despite his "good faith" efforts at integrating the club during his tenure.

Here we see the application of what some would call "guilt by association." Despite his good intentions, his membership in the exclusive club undermined the public confidence in his ability to be impartial.

However, I would describe the take-away differently. I would call it white privilege interrupted. Let me explain.

The committee commented that his association "severely impaired" the judiciary's ability to efficiently and effectively decide cases. How? By making minorities hesitate to pursue justice in the court of a known member of a discriminating organization? Perhaps. But could it be that the actual practices of the court as well as the fear of potential litigants are implicated?

Michelle Alexander describes these systems and practices in her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. There she discusses the almost unconstrained discretion of prosecutors in drug cases. In the federal case Armstrong v. United States she describes how prosecutors who appeared to be engaged in selective prosecutions based on race avoided damaging discovery. They were able to protect records which might reveal bad behavior through an appeal to the higher court. This is not the only incident of racialized interests and power documented by her.

Might it be that judges with known associations to organizations practicing "invidious discrimination" not only invite public mistrust, but a system that discriminates as well, beginning with arrests and ending with sentencing? Would not prosecutors feel freer to exercise racially-biased discretion in such a judge's court? Alexander actually describes such a system and it reflects the lengths to which power goes to protect itself.

My point is this: white privilege is a system of social advantage that connects the courts to the fairways and the boardrooms to club dining rooms. Dismantling it entails the denial of white privilege, including the public admonishment of those who infuse it into their public service.

But justice as conceived in the Bible requires something more than admonishment. It entails the loss of power by the powerful. It requires injustices wrought by social disadvantage around race and class be reversed.

Jesus knew something about this injustice.

In the encounter between Jesus and the young man in Mark 10, Jesus told the man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. We don't know the ending to the story, however, because he walked away sad.

The man did not walk away sad because he idolized his things. Instead, it was because he idolized his social advantage, his social identity and privilege. As such, it was not simply the loss of possessions that grieved him. His network of privilege would restore those quickly. It was the loss of a way of elite living that troubled him (Mk 10.22).

He grieved because he knew that if he obeyed Jesus, then the belief system that supported his privilege was no longer dependable. He would in fact become one with the people he theologically and socially despised. He would be unclean, marked by poverty.

Here Jesus was speaking to the system of privilege... to a system of control that brought pain upon groups of people through economic, religious and legal channels. This system was not of God. And neither is a system that sustains judiciary racism either in the appearance or the practice of injustice.

Yet, it's so difficult for people to give up their power and privilege. Even more often it's difficult for them to see it.

Country clubs like Belle Meade might not understand their complicity in systems of injustice, but if Jesus were walking around Nashville today, he'd remind them of it.