In recent years “privilege” has become a prominent feature in American social and political discourse. Many wish to look at all things through the lens of privilege; others deny the existence of privilege outright, at least in certain contexts. What is privilege? Does it really exist? What difficulties are involved? How should Christians respond?
“Privilege” involves a right or immunity granted as a benefit, advantage, or favor (cf. Webster’s Dictionary). Privilege is granted or obtained through different means. Some privileges are obtained through significant effort and resourcefulness (e.g. standing or resources because of one’s efforts in education or in the marketplace); others are obtained by accident of birth (e.g. citizenship in a developed nation, having wealthy parents).
“Privilege” is considered as such because it is rarely evenly shared. Many would like to imagine that they live in an environment that would facilitate egalitarianism if we just worked a little harder to obtain it; others imagine we live in an environment of equality of opportunity, and if people just worked hard enough, they could obtain privilege as well.
Reality and the witness of Scripture testify to the persistence of privilege and inequality. There have been rich people and poor people for as long as there has been civilization; the rich benefit from preferential treatment, and the poor often have suffered injustice (cf. Isaiah 3:15, James 2:1-7, 5:1-6). Some have gained benefits from citizenship of various nations which others have not enjoyed (e.g. Acts 22:42-49). Egalitarianism would seem to be a great ideal but has proven oppressive and anything but egalitarian when attempted. Furthermore, Jesus Himself declared that the one who has will receive more and the one who does not have will have things taken away, vividly exemplified in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 13:12, 25:14-30): all humans may be equal in value in God’s sight, but people have different abilities and capacities, and God will judge accordingly. Some inequality, therefore, will remain a given in the present creation.
Those who would deny the existence of privilege in various contexts tend to be the very people who benefit the most from it. Admittedly the one who has always maintained privilege will find it hard to perceive it: to them, the privileges they maintain represent what is normal. Humans tend to consider their own experiences to be normal and project those assumptions upon others; thus, those who maintain privilege tend to assume that everyone else has the same benefits or access to those same benefits they enjoy.
We can see these forces at work in many forms of discourse in America. Almost everyone recognizes the existence of financial inequality in America, and many have bought into the myth of meritocracy, as if all those who have benefited have done so because of superior skill and effort, and all those who remain or have fallen into poverty have no one but themselves and their laziness to blame. Yet many who have succeeded have done so because of many privileges they have obtained: material wealth of parents, a loving and caring household, an emphasis on the importance of education and hard work, perhaps a church or community environment that encouraged such aspirations, teachers who took a special interest in a person, etc. Many who remain in poverty never had family members or a community who thought they could amount to anything and found it difficult to understand how to apply to go to college, how to function in class, or how to prepare for a job interview, etc. A major issue in American society involves privilege which comes from a person’s racial background: many Americans, even faithful Christians, have experienced great hardship and awful treatment solely on account of the color of their skin, experiences that those of other racial backgrounds would never imagine they would have to endure.
As Christians we do well to prove sensitive to concerns regarding privilege. We have been warned about judging others lest we be judged by the same standard; we have many “blind spots” because of our lack of perspective (Matthew 7:1-4). Not for nothing does James encourage believers to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19): others have experiences we do not have, and we may be blind to the benefits we have that others do not enjoy. Only by listening to others and being willing to accept what they have to say, however uncomfortable it may be for us, can we seek to transcend the limitations of our own perspectives. We must resist the assumption that such discussions are merely political: while many partisan groups have weaponized discussions of privilege for political ends and purposes, for many people the issues of privilege and inequality are lived experience and transcend political concerns as assuredly as concern regarding life in the womb.
What are Christians to do about privilege? We do well to recognize the ways in which we maintain privilege; in some cases we do well to praise God for them (i.e. the privilege of knowing God in Christ and having been led to the truth). The Lord Jesus had all privilege and renounced it all to take on flesh and dwell among us (Philippians 2:6-8); we are to have the same mind among ourselves (Philippians 2:5). We may have to renounce certain benefits and privileges in order to remain faithful Christians and in so doing take up our cross to follow Jesus (e.g. Philippians 3:3-11).
Christians do best when they leverage their privileges to the benefits of all men, especially those of the household of faith. Those who have wealth in resources do well to use those resources not for their own aggrandizement but as blessings for others (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship to facilitate the preaching of the Gospel; we can use the advantage of American citizenship to do the same (Acts 22:44-49, 25:11). Above all we should use the benefits we have in God in Christ as His body to build each other up (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16): we should provide support for each other in the faith and as individuals develop relationship with those in our communities and provide encouragement and support for them as well.
In Christ all are equal (Galatians 3:28); in the resurrection we will all share in the same salvation and glory (Matthew 20:1-16). In this life, however, privilege and inequality will remain. We do well to uphold the truth of God in Christ and work to serve others as a benefit, pointing always to God who has blessed us and saved us, and share in the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry