Since graduating from college, I have received countless emails asking alumni for donations, most of which I have ignored. After the umpteenth solicitation, I started to think about why I should “give back” and reflect more deeply. “What benefits had I received from my elite education?” There were some obvious answers: social prestige, higher income, intellectual capital, and an influential network. But I also recognize subtler benefits, evident in my own behavior and that of graduates from similarly elite institutions. Take how you address your boss at work. There is a fine balance in body language and tone we use to demonstrate respect for his or her authority, while at the same time exerting a casual confidence so that we don’t slide into servile deference. This approach to hierarchies as “ladders, not ceilings,” as “enabling rather than constraining” was not learned in a Career Center workshop on “networking,” but in classroom interactions with professors. There, we learned how to listen attentively, to raise our hands politely in order to contest our professors or offer up our own ideas, and to speak professionally in the classroom but then casually, even intimately, during office hours.
We learn, in other words, how to embody ease in almost any social situation, and so we carry ourselves comfortably in the interview room, in a brainstorming meeting, or at the bar. This ease is at the heart of our social education in elite academic institutions, according to Shamus Khan, a professor of sociology at Columbia, who undertakes ethnography of St. Paul’s, a top boarding school whose students typically go on to the Ivy Leagues. In Privilege: The Education of an Adolescent Elite, Khan argues that for these students, nearly 70 percent of whose parents were handing over $50,000 a year, their economic privilege manifested itself in far deeper ways than the size of their wallets. It inscribed itself on their very bodies and the way that they carried themselves. It was a cultivated ease that was evident in their casual references to both highbrow authors and mass-culture pop songs, in how they managed to look busy without looking overwhelmed, and how they respected hierarchies without treating them as permanent blockades.
Khan takes great pains to demonstrate that the practice of ease is cultivated through experience and is not something one is simply born with. At the same time, “privilege” exists in that we, by virtue of belonging to a particular group and through no merit of our own, receive the right conditions that allow us to cultivate the trappings of ease—such as a family who values education and who can afford not only to buy a house in a good school district but also to chauffeur us around to our various extracurricular activities. And this goes beyond having an “advantage,” like nice weather during a sporting event or finals, because like other “privileges” it represents a systematic and sustained advantage (which is why “privilege” tends to be classified along the axes of race, class, sex, and sexual orientation).
The mistake of the students at St. Paul, then, lies in the fact that they understand their success mainly in terms of individual effort. As a friend of mine puts it, “Recognizing privilege doesn’t mean we aren’t standing—it means we know we are standing on someone else.” Or as Sir Isaac Newton famously put it, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
The Christian tradition provides resources to acknowledge our privilege and steward it responsibly, while also acknowledging the richness of creative, human agency in the face of adversity, for Jesus occupies the role of both the privileged and underprivileged. He gave up the privilege of Sonship and was unjustly crucified to enable us all to become privileged sons and daughters of God.
This paradoxical perspective goes beyond most of the discourse surrounding privilege, which sorts everything in terms of systems with “winners” and “losers” rigidly assigned. At its worst, it is brutally reductionist, defining people mainly by their privilege or lack thereof, leading to an arrogant silencing of those with privilege from speaking or having any epistemic credibility (e.g. “You are only making that claim because of your privileged identity”). Language such as “blessed are the poor in spirit” or “blessed are those who mourn” cannot exist in such discourse. The possibility of blessing for those who suffer exists because they possess redemptive agency. As Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar who worked as a counselor for prisoners, observes, Jesus provides an example of how one can use one’s own wounds for redemption.
After all is said and done, pure critique of privilege does not get us where we need to be. We need an alternative vision of what the good life is like so that we can work towards the restoration of relationships and not just the eliminating of wrongdoings, to move towards forgiveness and not just equity, so that we have something to fight for and not just against.
Yet it is still a useful, albeit limited, lens. To learn and uncover privilege is to acknowledge that one’s epistemic position—how one sees, defines and interacts with the world—is influenced by systemic factors far outside of one’s agency or consciousness. It is, in other words, affected by the narratives—of race, class, sex, and so on—that one is a part of. The real power of the lens is when it illuminates how the power dynamics between multiple narratives provide the context for discriminatory actions and norms, when it looks behind the black-and-white realm of moral innocence or guilt to see what is underneath. Because both privilege and the experience of being underprivileged touches all of us to varying degrees we need the lens’s moral critique.
Jesus goes one step further in challenging those with privilege. The rich, young man cannot stomach leaving his riches to follow Christ. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, cannot, partly because of his elite education, comprehend what it means to be “born again.” The very benefits of privilege can turn into snares that prevent us from receiving the ultimate privilege of salvific grace, which requires that we lay down our crowns, put down our arms, and humbly receive what cannot be earned.
At its best, privilege can be seen as grace. Having parents who care about you and have enough money to support you is a blessing that should make us grateful, not guilty. However, we should remember that some benefits have come at the expense of others. The privilege of being an American and receiving better treatment in developing countries as a tourist compared to locals is a fact of American dominance. But our relative prosperity rests on many shoulders past, including not just our prescient founding fathers but also African-American slaves.
Moreover, having privilege makes it much easier to ignore the concerns of those without it. In 2011, one in four women experienced workplace sexual harassment, as opposed to one in ten men. The predominantly masculine privilege of not having to worry about sexual harassment at work might explain why 59 percent of men call workplace sexual harassment a problem as compared to 69 percent of women. In all of these examples, agency is nowhere to be found, which is what distinguishes privilege from moral guilt. Privilege consists of undeserved benefits bestowed upon everyone to dramatically varying degrees; moral guilt is harm intentionally committed of which everyone is capable.
Within the Christian tradition, the greatest privilege of all is to be adopted as children of God not because of our merit but because of Christ’s atonement. Yet it is also a privilege that came at the cost of Christ’s life. When we understand that it was our sin for which he paid so dearly, we are driven to our knees in humility. This posture of humility towards one’s privilege can branch into a myriad of responses ranging from gratitude to guilt to awe, but ultimately the responses must translate into service. This is where moral responsibility does lie: one’s response to one’s privilege.
In one of his blunter parables, Jesus tells the story of the unmerciful servant whose enormous debt is forgiven by his master. Later on, the master finds out that that forgiven servant had jailed one of his own servants for not repaying a much smaller sum. The master summons his forgiven servant and says, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” That servant is led off to jail himself. Jesus does not mince words: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Thus we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The privilege we have as the forgiven is inseparable from our responsibility.
How far does responsibility extend? Once again, the model of Christ provides guidance. The apostle Paul writes to the church in Philippi:
Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.
Christ was not reactive but proactive in adopting the experience, even the nature, of humanity. He is a model to those with privilege and those who suffer. To those who suffer, blessed are those who mourn and who are poor in spirit, for you can better identify with Christ’s suffering and also share in his redemptive power. To those who are better off materially or socially, Christ gave up his comfortable privilege and stepped into the lives of those who are estranged from the Father in order to reunite us with his Father. Christ provides not just a “model example” of how to steward privilege in a redemptive manner. He is the Redeemer and the Messiah in whom we can put our hope and trust, freeing us from the overwhelming anxiety of constantly assess- ing our privilege in the mistaken belief that we alone shoulder the burden of “saving the world.”