The Privilege of Privilege

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This piece is primarily addressed to my fellow White American brothers and sisters.

When I was little, I would revel in the collection of stickers.  I always loved finding pretty ones and shiny ones.  I loved the ones with special characters and big vinyl stickers and traditional gold stars.  I always had high hopes for these stickers.  I wanted to use them for projects and to decorate my notebooks and water bottles.  I would wait for the most special moment to use those stickers, but whenever a moment presented itself, it never seemed to be the exact right occasion to use them.  I never wanted to risk messing them up or using them on a subworthy project.  They would remain in their packaging, always admired and held with great expectation, but never used.

Several weeks into this pandemic, I, like so many others, began feeling deep grief and lament.  But not for the reasons you may expect.  Sure, I was sad I couldn’t move as freely, go to the park with my kids, and go on dates with my husband.  I mourned the loss of Easter celebrations and birthday parties and end of year preschool activities.  I deeply missed gatherings at church.

But predominantly, I began to wonder, “Why me?”  For me, this pandemic has largely been nothing more consequential than an annoying inconvenience.  My life has changed minimally.  I don’t have to worry about eviction or foreclosure or my husband losing his job.  I don’t have to wonder where my next meal is coming from.  My loved ones and I are all healthy.  My water heater needed replacing, and my son needed an emergency dental procedure both within days of each other, and I didn’t even blink about where the money would come from to cover these expenses since I have the luxury of insurance and home warranty coverage.  Who am I to deserve all this?  What did I do?

Then it was all magnified by the reports of the deaths of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.  I felt as if my heart would explode out of my chest in grief and rage at this constant sin committed against God’s image-bearers.  Yet, I still largely remain unscathed.  Because of my skin color, I have the luxury of decrying their deaths and basically moving on with my life only marginally affected.  I don’t have to live with the day to day threat and systematic oppression these men and women have to face from the moment of conception.  So why me?  Why did I get to be born a middle class suburban white girl with access to a fantastic education and largely no hardships in her life?  I deserve none of this privilege.

And do you know what I did?  I felt guilty.  I bemoaned the blessings of my life to my husband.  I lamented the very things people were in the streets protesting the equal right to.  I was sad about how God made me and the gifts He bestowed upon me.  Woe was me.  I took the plight of others and made it about myself.  It’s sickening, and I’m pretty embarrassed to admit it to you.

That being said, you may feel the same way I did.  You may feel like you are screaming into the void, longing for justice and change and healing and peace and unity.  You may feel like you’ve been handed all this power and privilege yet you have no idea what to do with it.  After all, “privilege” is only negative when A) we don’t recognize we have it and B) we don’t do anything with it.  Not recognizing it is ignorance.  Not acting on it is complacency.

I am often tempted to view God’s blessings like the story of Jacob and Esau.  Isaac bestowed his full blessing on Jacob and left Esau with next to nothing (Genesis 27:34-35).  But with God, there is not a finite amount of blessing.  We are not blessed at the expense of someone else’s blessing.  Our God is a God of abundance.  When God made His covenant with Abraham, He didn’t say, “I like you the best, and I like no one else.  You and you alone have my favor.  You will be a great people and only they will have all the privileges of life.  Lord it over the others accordingly.”  No!  He said, “I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3, CSB, emphasis added)  

God is very serious about His creation.  His love runs deep.  He gave His Son – Himself! – for His creation, and this is not to be taken lightly (Romans 5:8).  By blessing Abraham, God gave him a great responsibility.  He charged him to care for His creation just as He charged Adam (Genesis 2:15).  And if you have any further doubt if our God cares for the oppressed, hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (verse 40, CSB, emphasis added)

If I do nothing with this blessing, the result is the same as those stickers I had as a kid that remained in their plastic, a disappointing reminder of “what could have been.”  But it’s actually way more serious than that.  Also in Matthew 25, Jesus tells The Parable of the Talents (vs. 14-30).  If we are not good stewards of the gifts and responsibilities given to us by God, we are like the final servant, “evil, lazy” (vs. 26), and “good-for-nothing,” only worthy of being thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (vs. 30).”  You see, the servant tells his master that he was afraid, so he hid the talent in the ground (vs. 25).  To me, that sounds a lot like “I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing.”  Does this sound familiar?  It does to me because I’ve been saying it to myself for far too long.  My actions, or rather inactions, have been evil, and lazy, and good-for-nothing.  And worst of all, I’ve been missing out on the mission God called us to.  I’m missing out on being part of His story.

Mother Teresa could not have said it any better when she admitted:

I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that He will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do.  I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength.  I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.

If you don’t know what to do, it always starts with your own heart, and it always starts with prayer.  Getting down on your knees is the first step because “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34, ESV) and I would venture to add “and the hands do.”  Asking God to “transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Romans 12:2, NLT) will not only change you but the world.

“What to do” next will look different for each of us because God has created and blessed us each uniquely.  It may look like volunteering, donating money, donating resources, sharing a platform, reading, researching, being quiet, listening, reaching out, advocating, engaging in civil discourse, investing in those around you, recording, speaking out when witnessing injustice, self-reflection, running for office, and so so much more.  It will look different for all of us, but it will always look like Christ, the ultimate advocate for the oppressed.

My fear is that you will read this and think I’m writing as some act of penance to absolve my sin of complacency.  My fear is that I will sound sanctimonious.  My fear is that you will think I’m jumping on a bandwagon or co-opting the Black Lives Matter narrative to make it about myself or how white people can swoop in and save the day.  My fear is that I’m unintentionally saying the wrong thing or being insensitive or offensive.  But my greater fear is that I’m not using my stickers.  So I’ll start now.  I’ll make mistakes.  I’ll put them on the wrong thing or use them for an unworthy project, but I’ll use them with abandon.  And I hope you will, too.

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