There’s been a lot of talk lately about “privilege”, especially when talking about subjects dealing with the poor and with social justice. I’ve had some thoughts on the subject I’m going to write about for a while, but I’ve really had to take some time to formulate my opinions on this. I knew from the beginning that there was something that rubbed me wrong about the whole concept of “check your privilege”, etc, but it took my a while to work out in my mind why. I think after a couple months of thought on the subject, I’ve figured out the whys of this enough to write it down, and I doubt it’s what you think.
There are two sides to this whole equation, the side as seen from the “haves” and the side seen from the “have nots”. I’m going to start with the side of the “have nots”. The idea of privilege basically says that there are certain things endemic or common to a certain group of people that makes it difficult if not impossible to get ahead; that you will never be able to battle against the “haves” who have had everything handed to them. The idea that “I will never get ahead because I’m the wrong gender or the wrong race or I was born in the wrong country or my parents were from the wrong societal class, etc, etc, etc.” My main gripe with this mode of thinking is that it automatically relegates entire groups of people to victim class. Let me start by saying that there are classes within society that generally speaking have a harder time getting ahead. Now that I’ve aired that fact, unless someone is blaming themselves for things beyond their control, the worst thing you can do for someone having a hard time in life is to tell them they are a victim. People who see themselves as victims tend to give up. They see life as something that is beyond their control, and any effort to improve themselves or their situation will be met with failure, because the system is against them. People who see themselves as victims also see anyone better off than themselves as the enemy, and frequently demand their pound of flesh, even if those people grew up in the same circumstances that they did. I’m reminded of the Lakota Reservation near where I used to live. The conditions there are deplorable, worse in fact than those in some of the developing countries I’ve worked in. There was a Lakota man who bought a house to fix and live in. Right after he replaced the windows in the house, his neighbors thought he had “sold out”, and threw rocks to break all the new windows in the house. This is what happens when someone takes ownership of the victim mentality, and there is no profit to anyone in driving that idea home. Some of the people I respect the most started out with the least. Some of them still have very little monetarily, but they are tremendous stewards of what they’ve been given. The difference is that they are not unaware of the difficulties, but they do not see themselves as victims.
The other side of this equation is from the perspective of the “haves”, if you will. This side of the equation bothers me even more. Lately a common way of thinking has been that there are certain people who just by who they are and where they are born, are more likely to be successful than other people. They will have less difficulty in life and more success in what they do. While in a large number of cases this is true, the conclusions drawn from this are what bother me. The conclusion is that one should feel guilty about this and hold yourself back from the benefits of this because someone else did not have the same opportunities you did. Does this make sense? Well, I guess that depends entirely on how you see yourself. Do you see yourself as the final recipient of all the blessings you’ve ever received? Do you see yourself as the ocean into which all blessings flow? If you do, then feeling guilty about how you got where you are makes some sense. But in this line of thinking, it’s still all about self, which is in fact the root of the problems we’re talking about. The unfortunate result of this is a twisted line of thinking by which your feeling guilty about your own success in life somehow absolves you, and by feeling guilty you actually feel better about yourself. It’s as if staring at the severed finger of Saint Guilt in it’s golden box absolves you of your sins. It’s truly an indulgence for narcissists. No matter how guilty you feel about yourself, if you see yourself as the final recipient of all good things that have happened to you, your focus is still on self, no matter how much you say it’s about the less fortunate. Remember, a lake with no outlet is usually a stagnant pond. In some ways, thinking like this actually allows you to secretly feel superior to the less fortunate so long as you feel guilty about it.
The other way of seeing yourself is that if you receive a blessing, it is a gift from God. But it doesn’t end there. If you receive a gift, it is just that; a gift, something given to you because of the generosity of the giver and not because of the virtue or deservedness of the receiver. Gifts, then, are something to be shared, and not something to be hoarded. If you are given good things, whether they are talents or money or favor, these are things to be shared with those who did not receive them. Feeling guilty helps no one and does not help you to be a good steward. If you are not the final recipient of a gift, you are more like a lake through which rivers flow both into and out of. The constant recirculating of fresh water in and out keeps the water clean.
The parable of the talents in Matthew comes to mind. It talks about three people who are given different amounts of money (talents).
“For it (the kingdom of heaven) will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
The two things I notice here is that first, the master (God) gave different amounts to different people, but it was not FOR them. It was given to them so that they would make something of what they had been given for the benefit of the master. The second thing is that the one who was scolded and punished at the end was not the one given the most, who should naturally feel guilty about all he’d been given, but rather the one given the least, because he was not faithful with the little he’d been given.
We are given what we are given to make the world a better place, to bring a piece of the kingdom of God to Earth. If we are given much and spend it on ourselves without regard to those around us, who are made in God’s image, then it doesn’t matter whether we are given little or much. We are still being unfaithful. The book of James sums it up very well. “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” God does not give to us because we deserve anything, so let us treat his gifts as such, and be good stewards with what he gives us. Guilt has nothing to do with it.