What do I do with the reality of my privilege?
By a complete accident of birth I am a white, male minister in the USA. I live in the country that has had the most of everything at least since WWII, maybe before. I am a minister in West Texas, where religion is as much a part of the environment as mesquite. I am a male in a world that has, seemingly from the beginning of time, given males unassailable advantage. I am white in a world where whiteness has had immediate cache above every other human color.
I have a good education, even a PhD. And it was practically free in exchange for nothing more than some hard work at academics. Every job I have had came looking for me. Twice when I tried to find a job on my own, it didn’t pan out, but something better did: a great job that arrived on my doorstep unexpectedly.
Privilege. I live a life of privilege.
My story has echoes with the story of ancient Israel: a people chosen by God in Abraham to be God’s “treasured possession” (Exod 19:5). That’s privilege. To be sure, if you look in the cracks, the OT also glimpses some realities that undermine the privilege. God freely gives Ishmael a promise of greatness similar to Isaac’s (Gen 16 & 21). Amos says that God was just as much involved in the redemptive history of Arameans and Philistines as the redemptive history of Israel, so Israel shouldn’t claim any privilege (Amos 9:7).
Yet it is also undeniable that the OT depicts God playing favorites with the children of Abraham. And how did that work out for them? Pretty badly in the end. Turns out that God expects more from those whom God privileges. The prophetic singer about God’s Servant said that Israel’s primary job description didn’t involve an internal task but was an outside job: to be a “light to the nations” (Isa 49:7). We also remember that Jesus warned about disaster for the chosen who didn’t have their lamps ready when the time came (Matt 25).
So, the analogy would mean that as a white, male minister in Texas, I have a lot of responsibility to live up to. “To whom much is given much is required” (Luke 12:48). And at some point I’ve got to figure out how this privilege is fundamentally for the sake of others. Oh, to be sure, as I minister I do things for others. That’s my job. But I also live with all the perks of my privilege. And I secretly love the perks.
What is my responsibility toward the rewards of privilege? Just enjoy them? I suspect enjoying them is ok. But the ok-ness comes with two caveats. One is humility: that I figure out how to see it all as grace and completely give up thinking I some how deserved or earned my privileges. Yet I seem to be wired just the opposite — to assume deep inside that I somehow deserve it all. Is that the insidious evil of privilege showing its head?
The second caveat is that I think I have to join in turning the tables — that is, join in undermining the very privilege I breathe.
What I mean by that is to be part of a divine movement of reconciling all things by dismantling the privilege. (What irony! The divine plan in the OT seems to be giving the privilege to a few in order for them to consistently dilute the privilege by giving it away.) Of course I can’t actually accomplish the dismantling of privilege on my own, but can I help to reduce the privilege? Can I make a move in the direction of dismantling the cultural advantage of maleness over femaleness? Can I have some part in reducing the monetary and political advantage of being a North American? Not merely for the sake of lessening privilege, but for the sake of sharing the privilege somehow so that the privileged part evaporates. Can I be part of reducing the advantage of whiteness by helping to make an equal place at the table for persons of color. And on it goes: dismantling the advantages of privilege by sharing the privilege until it is so diluted that it is no longer privilege.
These are high words. Noble thoughts. I feel pretty good about being so woke — so privileged — that I can type them.
And I suspect, I don’t really mean them.
I suspect I am nowhere near being ready to give up one ounce of my privilege. But maybe, just maybe, I can see the privilege for what it is: completely undeserved. Then by naming the privilege, I can get to a place of making a little progress on humility. Maybe I can get a little better at seeing that it’s all just gift, given to me by someone else — seeing how little of it is my achievement. If I can improve there, maybe I begin to find the courage at some moments to begin working on the dismantling part.
“God be merciful to me, a privileged sinner.”