The word ‘privilege’ belongs to a class of words that can just as easily stop a good conversation as start one. For many people it’s a helpful concept to be used when discussing power structures. Some people hear it as a demand that they feel guilty about their race, gender, sexuality, whatever; an accusation of racism and sexism, and general close-mindedness.[i] A word which is supposed to mean something specific[ii] can easily mean only ‘this conversation is now over.’
Which is a shame, because Christians getting better at ending conversations than beginning them. Part of the problem is that many American Christians, especially those with the power to influence national discourse, are precisely the demographic which feels most threatened by the concept of privilege. Despite our persecution complex, our faith in the United States is overwhelmingly guided and represented by people with almost every possible privilege in our society: straight, white, wealthy, Christian[iii] men.[iv] Does that make them bad people? Of course not. But when we, at the top of society, cast ourselves as the victims, we deafen ourselves to God’s words, and blind ourselves to the work that God means for us to do.
Christians should care about privilege because it is one of the fundamental Biblical narratives that positions of power are morally and spiritually blinding. We see it in the Old Testament. The pride and riches of Egypt serve as the backdrop for the oppression of the Israelites, and Pharaoh, with the resources of a god, cannot hear Moses and his God. The saga of David and Solomon can be read as the story of two men who are gradually tempted away from God’s call by their power and riches.[v] And the theme gets stronger in the New Testament. Our consumer society frequently and conveniently forgets that the earliest Christian communities were socialist communes. Jesus was not vague or subtle in his demand that his followers leave behind money, possessions and position before they follow him. He said that it was harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. He consistently stood with the poor, the prisoners, and the prostitutes against the politically and religiously powerful of the time.
But I think the parable that best explains what privilege should mean to a Christian is Luke 18:9-14:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When we read “Pharisee” we are primed to read “evil person who killed Jesus.” But the non-time-travelling recipients of Jesus’ teaching would have recognized a Pharisee as a respected member of the community. Jesus identifies the Pharisees by their societal privileges: “Woe to you Pharisees, who love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.”[vi] While we identify the Pharisees as the spiritually hypocritical, we can miss the other connotation: the Pharisees stand for the socially, politically and economically privileged.
The tax collector stands for the most hated person in society. A Jew who collected taxes for the Romans, selling out his people to the foreign invaders. A desperate and ostracized person, and the protagonist of the parable. Because he makes no defense before God, denying nothing. Society has told him that he is evil, and he makes no defense, because he only looks towards one Judge. He doesn’t build, on shifting sand, a narrative in which he is the righteous one. He merely asks for mercy, and walks away forgiven.
The parable turns on the Pharisee’s blindness to the fact that God isn’t buying his BS. He expects God to be impressed with the very things God has gifted him. The Pharisee has never been desperate enough to steal. He’s had plenty of access to the culturally-acceptable marriage options. Free from manual labor, he is free to fast. He has enough that a tenth of it is a painless sacrifice. He has defined his own righteousness precisely in those things for which it is easiest for him to be righteous. And while he looks down on the people who don’t fit in the system that he and his people have created, he imagines that God sees as he sees, and dares to pass judgment on God’s behalf.
So, we return to that already-tired phrase, “check your privilege.” The concept of privilege combines two insights found all through the Bible, crystallized in this parable. First, we should regard everything we have as a gift from God. There is no narrative of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” in the Bible. There is a narrative of God equipping God’s children to do God’s work, and the most faithful of God’s children are the most fervent in their thanksgiving. When we check our privilege, as Christians, we should be digging down into our spiritual pride and seeing where we’re taking God’s gifts and making them into our own righteousness. Second, we should strive to see from the perspective of a God who stands for the justice of the marginalized. We have to stop re-defining righteousness to protect ourselves and to blame the poor for their own predicament, to ‘first make thieves then punish them.’ We have a mission to tend to a sick world. It’s hard to help if we won’t let ourselves be honest. We can’t fulfill our Biblical duty to care for the prisoner if we close our eyes to the fact that people of color in the United States are more likely to be arrested for, and receive longer sentencing for, the same crimes as White Americans. We can’t serve the poor if we don’t admit that it’s harder for the poor to just go to school get jobs when the experience of poverty itself literally saps brainpower, or that inequality in our society is increasing, not decreasing, or that we sometimes don’t see the homeless as fully human. We can’t serve the Lord in truth if we sometimes willingly and sometimes in ignorance or by silence circulate lies about homosexuality. We can’t welcome the foreigner if we don’t overcome our prejudice and embrace the fact that immigrants actually create jobs. We can’t tend to a sick world if we’re lying about the symptoms to spare ourselves the guilt.
When we ignore our privileges, we become the Pharisees in the parable. We stand in our churches and say “I thank you God that I am not like other people. Not like the gang-bangers, the homosexuals, the drug-addicted, the politically misguided, the single mothers, the illegal immigrants.” We are blind to the fact that we have been power to define what is righteous in our society, and we’ve chosen those things which come easily to us. To check our privilege is to exit the temple, walk down among the sinners, to try to see the world from the perspective of the poor and the God who loves them. To admit that our worldview might be self-serving, that we have pasts and presents and probably futures of oppression. Nothing shocked the Pharisees so much as the fact that Jesus could so often be found among the sinners. We should rediscover that scandalous truth. “The first duty of love is to listen,”[vii] and if we believe Jesus when he says that how we treat the poor, the homeless, the foreigners and the prisoners will be the measure of our devotion, we need to listen when the marginalized in our society ask us to consider our privileges over them. We worship the God of the living, not of the dead, and God speaks more powerfully through the people who unsettle us than the Scripture which comforts us. The concept of privilege is the unsettling but necessary plea of the marginalized that we listen to their experience, as vulnerable and willing to admit fault as the tax collector whose only prayer is ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ The first duty of love is to listen, and if Christians want to have any compassionate presence in national discourse, we need to leave the temple, stop judging, and start listening.
[i] To be fair, there is often a certain… combativeness in certain liberals which backs up this perception.
[ii] Good place to start
[iii] A long, great article about Christian privilege, for the skeptical. And a shorter blog post for the skeptical with less time.
[iv] I am writing as someone who is all of these things
[v] David goes from the slaying of Goliath to taking an unlawful wife, Solomon goes from making just laws to constructing temples for other gods. For a good analysis of how particularly Solomon runs back on the Exodus narrative, I recommend Walter Bruggemann’s Journey to the Common Good, p. 46-50
[vi] Luke 11:43. “Woe to you, white males, who love respectful greetings from law enforcement, higher wages and lower arrest rates for the same jobs and crimes as women and people of color, respectively.” I’m like halfway joking.
[vii] Tillich quote, because I can’t make it to the end without one