With Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and the Baltimore riots sparking dialogue in the church about race and justice in America, it is impossible to avoid discussions of privilege. Except, for some of us, the reaction seems to be to resist discussions of privilege entirely. This effort at willed ignorance stands not only against the reality of privilege, but also against the Christian witness about the gifted nature of our existence.
This is privilege: a road made straight, a route constructed without the labor of one's own hands, traffic and street signs made to fit one's own understanding of the rules of the road.
It is strange to be alive at all, is it not? Then it should not be so strange to imagine people born with advantages beyond their own responsibility. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1943 that it is natural to look back with special thankfulness upon the joys of life, the unflagging support of friends and family, a way made smooth. Many Christians seem to have lost this thankfulness in the intervening 72 years. If they have not, then I wonder why so many react defensively to the concept of privilege. Bonhoeffer says: "no one can create and assume such life from his own strength."[^1]
This is ancient knowlege, not a product of some newly devised postmodern liberalism. Moses says,
Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.[^2]
He goes on to say that to forget this is to forget the Lord God and worship other gods. If wealth is anything in our present situation, it is a god. But wealth is perhaps too ambiguous for this discussion.
Being itself should be the basis of any Christian investigation of privilege. Life, from the Christian perspective, is a gift. Combined with the image of God within each person, the gift of being is the basis of equality for all humanity. This basic equality is erased by our economics, ethics, politics, and cultures. We erase our gifted equality. We sin.
Of course, part of the Christian witness is also an affirmation of our status as forgiven beings. Sin does not have the last word. But here I want to hold on to repentance as a precondition for grace. In relation to inequality, to repent is to contend with privilege. One must ask, how straight is my road? Is it smoother than my neighbor's road? What advantages have I reaped without the labor of my own hands? When has my labor yielded a greater harvest than my neighbor's when our efforts were equal? Have I often reaped more even when my efforts lagged? When my neighbor has been unable to work as I have, has s/he perhaps been burdened by something I do not see or cannot understand?
But one must go further than questions. Bonhoeffer would say that to stop here is "cheap grace." Answers to these questions aren't available in isolation. Life is a gift, and it is as Jesus says:
When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.[^3]
Contending with privilege is the same. First ask imaginative questions, then be reconciled to your neighbor. Only then may you be reconciled to God.
In the future, when confronted with discussions of privilege, simply repent. Turn away from defensiveness and toward your neighbor. Remember your life is a gift. Be reconciled to your neighbor, and offer your life back to your maker.
- [^1]: Letters and Papers from Prison
- [^2]: Deuteronomy 8:17-18
- [^3]: Matthew 5:23-24