Allow me to begin by saying that someone really needs to start defending privilege. It needs to be lauded as a good thing, an admirable thing, a blessing from Heaven. If someone doesn’t start defending privilege pretty soon, we could eventually get to the point where a person might be pilloried simply because he has been blessed by God in anything. He might be attacked for his wealth, or his shared DNA with the predominant ethnicity, or for the fact that he grew up in a stable home. I know this mighty seem like crazy talk to you, but I am warning you . . . it could get to that someday.
The world is not flat, and cannot—by any measures that we take—be made flat. Inequities abound, in the very nature of the case. We live in mountainous country, and not on a great plain. Someone else will always be taller, more attractive to women, more gifted, smarter, wealthier, and better than you at racquetball. Deal with it. No, let me change that. Deal with it spiritually.
To change the metaphor, it does not matter how you rearrange the classroom, whenever you are done, somebody’s desk will be closest to the window.
In other words, someone will always be privileged. And in the same way, and for the same reasons, in any larger culture some groups will always be privileged, of necessity. The people who know the language. The people who grew up here. The people with money. The people of the dominant ethnicity. The representatives of an approved minority. The people with brains, looks, charisma, and luck. The people whose fathers know a guy. The people who hustle while they wait.
The mere fact that some guy is ahead of you in line is no basis for resentment. No, on top of that, the fact that some guy was born ahead of you in line is no basis for resentment. In the immortal snark of Ann Richards, think about the guy who was born on third and who thinks he hit a triple. Is that privilege? It most certainly is, and it should bless you that there are people out there who were born on third.
That said, there is nothing wrong with—and a good deal right with—the successful removal of the grotesque inequities, like chattel slavery, or the hardscrabble working conditions of coal miners two centuries ago, or the unspeakable health care that the poor received under Caligula. But when we deal with such things, we are dealing with sinful correlatives of privilege, and not with privilege itself. Moreover, that is why we must deal with them in a spirit of gratitude, and never in the spirit of that canker ressentiment.
Attacks on privilege as such are therefore of necessity dishonest. They are not actually trying to get rid of privilege in itself, as they claim, they are rather trying to overthrow who has it. What begins as “all animals are equal” always ends with “but some are more equal than others.”
The difficulty is that many Christians are naïve, and they believe the rhetoric of these cultural commies, these agitators, and on top of that, they frequently carry the seeds of destructive envy—the sin that drives all such rhetoric—in their own hearts. The problem is that envy is wickedness. Envy is hatred of God. “A sound heart is the life of the flesh: But envy the rottenness of the bones” (Prov. 14:30).
That bone cancerous envy is the present sin, and the ostensible reason for indulging in such envy is some gauzy vision of a future in which all the inequities of the current privileges have been removed, and (magically!) no new inequities will have arisen to take their place. But because all of this is a grand exercise in lying to ourselves, because all social justice revoStop building alabaster cities for tomorrow when you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning and, once out of it, you have trouble making it.lutions are driven by envy—the new inequities are always a smoking crater, a sulfurous pit. But enough about Venezuela.
So here is the envy-free revolution that Christ introduced into the world. Do the right thing now. Stop building alabaster cities for tomorrow when you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning and, once out of it, you have trouble making it.
A generation before the modern social justice snowflakes appeared, Screwtape described them perfectly, with most of the emphases mine.
“But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”
As has been pointed out in this place before, the world is a fallen place. Because it is a fallen place, wherever privilege exists, privilege has been abused. But it is no solution at all to attack the very concept of privilege (because that is inescapable). Rather, we must learn how to attack the abuse of privilege, and stop sneering at the various devices our culture developed over centuries to discourage such abuse. Such devices included various chivalrous practices to help deal with male privilege, noblesse oblige to deal with class privilege, and so on. These practices aimed at the sanctification of privilege, and not the eradication of privilege.
For example, Scripture is firm and unrelenting in its insistence that the privileged not use their position to feed their own conceits. Are the rich privileged? You bet.
“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:17–18, ESV).
In a word, the practice of noblesse oblige on the part of Christians who are wealthy is not condescending, but rather mandatory. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” (Rom. 12:16, ESV). This is nobility associating with the lowly. It is not the nobility pretending as though they must join the ranks of the homeless. Do not put on airs. Don’t sit up there on top of your swollen dignity.
Was there such a thing as slave-owner privilege? Also, as above, you bet. But what do you do with it?
“Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1, ESV).
There is no way to read Scripture faithfully and still conclude that privilege is an inherent problem. It is attended by problems, but the mere fact of it is not a problem in the root.
Also keep in mind that various privileges layer. They stack on top of one another or, more often than not, one cancels the others out. Sometimes the cancellation of privilege is due to sin, as when Herod—who had all kinds of privilege—was eaten by worms and died (Acts 12:23). Other times the person with the apparent privilege is not really privileged at all, and it does not appear that sin has anything directly to do with it.
“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.” (Prov. 15:17).
You can have millions of dollars and a cheating husband, and you can be strapped month-to-month and be happy in love. You can have a country club membership and agonizing pain in your feet. You can get a job in the White House and resign three weeks later in disgrace. Privileges are related to people, and the whole thing is complicated.
Great in the Kingdom:
Jesus was no leveler. He does not require us to rip out the chief seats in the synagogues, but He does chide those who in the wrong way loved their places there (Matt. 23:6). He does not rebuke us for having seats of honor at wedding receptions. Rather, He teaches us the best way to get into those seats.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:8–11, ESV).
Jesus never said that the kingdom is “like a pancake, flat in the pan in all respects.”
When we get to the point when we delight in the privileges that other Christians have, that we don’t have, at that point it would be safe to say that we almost have it.
The Unbearable Whiteness of Being
So bring it down to a test case, that of white privilege. Is there such a thing? Yes, of course. But here is the difficulty. On the one hand we do have some practical problems that spin out from white privilege. Such problems can be huge, small, or imaginary. What such problems cannot be is optional. If you have a country with a population and history like ours, at this point in time there is absolutely nothing you can do about the fact of white privilege. But the fact of white privilege is not a sin. Where does the Bible say it is a sin? To object to such a thing in itself is like objecting to Japanese privilege in downtown Tokyo.
You can do something about white people acting in supercilious and boorish ways. And in that spirit, let me nominate the whitest sin I know of. I am speaking of white apologies that twist in the wind, apologies that treat such privilege as a burden of guilt instead of an opportunity for grateful service. If I might steal a phrase from John Piper, in order to use it in a way he probably won’t approve, don’t waste your white privilege.
I am talking about the agonistic writhings of people—really white people—who cooked up the guilt of white privilege. The problem is that the white privilege shtick is one of the very whitest things we do. How white is it? It is as white as King Uzziah’s forehead. It is as white as the reverse side of an American Vision position paper. It is as white as a Jethro Bodine-sized bowl of room temperature cream of wheat. It is as white as a praise and worship song played by a white band with a black bass player right out of central casting. It is as white as pre-torn jeans.
We really need to knock it off.