Monday, June 29, 2020

Anonymous Asks (99)

“What should I do about my ‘privilege’?”

The Lord Jesus once told a story about a man who tested three of his servants by bestowing upon them varying degrees of privilege. To one he gave five talents of money to invest, which a marginal note in my Bible tells me was something in the order of 100 years’ wages for a laborer. That was a huge privilege, not to mention a mammoth responsibility. To another servant he gave two talents, or forty years’ wages. To a third he gave a single talent to manage, which is still more than I make in six years.

All three servants were exceedingly privileged.

Most of this man’s servants were not, unless you count being employed as a privilege ... which it kind of is, when you think about it. The parable doesn’t tell us how many other servants’ investment aptitude didn’t get tested — we must suppose these others just carried on doing their regular jobs — but the master addresses these ordinary, ‘unprivileged’ servants twice in the last three verses of the parable, so we know they were quietly there doing their servant thing.

Already we have a problem with the modern ‘privilege’ concept. Jesus apparently did not see equality as a thing to be grasped.

Always Show Up at the Eleventh Hour

A similar issue of apparent inequity occurs in another of the Lord’s parables, this time having to do with wages rather than opportunity. A second master sends laborers into his vineyard at varying intervals over the course of a twelve-hour workday, then pays all of them a day’s wage. To get a picture of what that meant, let’s assume the original full-day laborers contracted with the master of the vineyard at minimum wage, say the equivalent of $13/hr, for a total of $156 for the day. That means the laborers who worked only nine hours were paid an effective wage of $17.33/hr, the laborers who worked six hours received an effective wage of $26/hr, those who worked three hours $52/hr and those who worked only an hour, a whopping $156/hr.

Moral of the story: always come along at the eleventh hour, right? Those last guys were seriously privileged. They happened to be in the right place at the right time through no particular virtue of their own, and they cashed in big time. Naturally, the fellows who had worked the entire day for minimum wage fumed about this and called it unfair.

This is the part of the parable where perhaps we expect the Lord to have the master engage in a little redistributionism to even things out. If this is our mindset, we will be disappointed. God does not appear to have the passion for equality we might think he should ... or at least not equality by our standards.

The Existence of Privilege

Does privilege exist? Of course it does. It’s just not limited to “white” people, whatever that dubious designation may mean to you. Accidents of birth which benefit people “undeservedly” happen to individuals from every nation on earth. Noticing this truth just depends on the metric you are using.

One example: 70% of today’s NFL players are black, averaging salaries of about $2.7 million a season, despite the fact that blacks make up only 26.4% of the US population. But these men were gifted at birth with a unique and very desirable set of skills that has made their talents incredibly marketable. They are ‘privileged’ — which is not to say they didn’t work very hard to get where they are, but the hardest work in the world won’t get you into the NFL if you don’t first possess a very defined and rare set of natural physical gifts.

Let’s consider an arguably less-controversial example of non-white privilege. The (Han) Chinese and South Koreans have the highest average measured IQs on record. What can this be but an unearned privilege of either genetics or native culture? What exactly did these folks do to deserve being so much smarter than everyone else? (Incidentally, Americans come in a rather pathetic 24th place when we use relative IQ as our standard of equality.)

In for a Penny ...

One more, since I’m already toast anyway. Migrants from India make up 0.7% of the US population but occupy somewhere between 40 and 70% of Silicon Valley tech jobs. Some combination of intelligence and education (both in India being accidents of birth) and opportunity created by non-protectionist US employment laws (which is not accidental at all, but is certainly not within the control of migrating Indians) have made this wildly disproportionate overrepresentation of Indians in the US tech industry possible. If you don’t consider these white-collar workers comparatively privileged, I guarantee you many folks in India do, and would take their jobs in a heartbeat.

So then, if our standard of equality demands proportional racial representation in every desirable area of human endeavor, then 39-69% of California’s migrant Indians need to be dispersed into other, probably less lucrative fields of employment, as do 43.6% of the NFL’s blacks, most of whom will lose their jobs to much less-athletic and less-watchable ‘whites’, who make up 63% of the US population but only 27% of NFL players. After that, we should probably ask Han Chinese and South Korean university students in the US to skip a few classes and flunk a few exams so the rest of us can catch up. Moreover, with respect to inequity caused by egregious financial privilege, we should note that ethnic Jews, who make up less than 2% of the US population, also made up a colossal 35.5% of the entries on the 2012 Forbes 400, which lists America’s richest people in order. Presumably the equity-obsessed mobs would be okay with stripping 94.4% of America’s Jewish billionaires of their assets, though that would undoubtedly create near-tectonic issues for the US economy, not to mention absolutely annihilating the financial base of the Democratic party.

The Ubiquity of Privilege

These are far from all possible examples of race-based “privilege” out there in the world to fixate on, assuming we were inclined to do so. If making all these “racial privilege-based” adjustments to people’s lives in the interest of achieving some sort of across-the-board demographic equity is suddenly beginning to sound a bit unappealing to you, I must say I fully agree.

More importantly, even if we could satisfactorily resolve race-based privilege issues, we would only have begun to address other perceived inequities in society, including but not limited to those between abled and disabled, fat and thin, short and tall, male and female ... and even time-based inequities, such as the fact that women born especially attractive are unarguably more privileged than other women during their teens and twenties, but observably less privileged than their earlier selves when they reach their fifties. How do we address that one? Should society force eligible men to choose between marrying aging divorcees or less-attractive twenty-somethings in order to even out the “sexual market playing field”?

To sum up then, privilege certainly exists, and it exists in absolutely every area of life. It always has and always will. The question is what a Christian ought to think and do about it.

A Sovereign God and Inequity

As has already been pointed out, God is remarkably unconcerned about the inequities of opportunity and reward we perceive in the world, except to the extent that his word warns us repeatedly about the sin of envy. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” inquires the master in the Lord’s parable. “Or do you begrudge my generosity?” The bad guys in the parable are not the privileged eleventh-hourers, but rather the grumblers and begrudgers. The lesson of the parable is for them. God’s sovereignty over the gifts and opportunities he bestows, and his right to distribute them as he pleases, are repeatedly noted for us in his word. “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” Spiritual gifts are dispersed by “one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”

Where privilege in this life is concerned, God is ultimately in charge, and none of us dare tell him he’s got it wrong. He hasn’t. Every privilege granted to anyone, saved or unsaved, is an opportunity for sharing or sacrifice, a chance to test stewardship (and don’t think failure to appreciate and use what you have been given is a small sin, as the fate of the wicked and slothful servant in the Lord’s parable so well illustrates), as well as a learning experience for those who have not been granted either your particular privilege or the often-onerous responsibilities which so frequently accompany it.

Me and My Privilege

So then, as a Christian, what should I do about my privilege? I’ve almost surely got some, no matter which tribe I happened to be born into. As a servant of Christ, I am very much responsible to him for what I choose to do with it, and I’d best get right on that:
  1. Share it. If your privilege is wealth, make it your goal to be generous and ready to share as opportunity arises. If your privilege is an elite position in society, then do everything you can to bring others up to your level. Never hesitate to associate with the lowly. If your privilege is a skill or ability, find ways to glorify God with it.
  2. Sacrifice it. Sometimes we are privileged in life in order to have something to sacrifice. After all, everything we ever give God has to come from him in the first place. I know several Christians who had exceptional skills conferred on them at birth, but chose not to pursue the further development of those talents, or the careers in which they might have been very successful in worldly terms, because they preferred to devote their time to serving Christ. Who could argue?
  3. Use it. If we are disinclined to sacrifice our privilege (and the Lord certainly never requires this of us), then we had better make good use of it. The one thing about privilege which the parable condemns is burying it in the ground and doing nothing with it. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required. Running and hiding from our privilege, or throwing others of our ilk under the bus who possess it, is not an option given us.
  4. Enjoy it and be thankful for it. Paul tells Timothy that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy”. Do not be ashamed of what God has given you, and make sure to give thanks for what you have been given.
  5. Understand it. Privilege is not a sign of God’s special favor for your good behavior. It is a test of your stewardship and obedience. If envy in the underprivileged is both unflattering and un-Christian, then pride from the undeservedly privileged is probably even worse.
  6. Hold on to it loosely. Again, Paul tells Timothy to charge the privileged in this world not to “set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches”. Any advantages we were born with in this life are, well ... privileges. They are not rights. They can easily disappear tomorrow. So don’t bank on them, and don’t get too invested in them, whatever they may be.
Christianity vs. Collectivism

Privilege is real and God-given. We all have it in some form, but to really understand what we have and make the best use of it, it is necessary to first acknowledge God as the Giver of All Good Gifts and give thanks to him for what we have been given, not chafe at what we think we are missing and which others seem to have in no short supply. Once we understand that we too have been granted many good things in life which we have done nothing whatsoever to deserve, we are then in a position to share these gifts with the world around us and use our privilege to elevate others. That is what privilege is for.

The world does not do this. It believes the solution to ‘the privilege problem’ is to demonize those who currently appear favored and attempt to disperse their goodies to those it calls underprivileged, a strategy which has worked remarkably poorly in South Africa. Where the right-living Christian individual seeks to elevate others with the tools at his disposal as he is able, the secular collectivist seeks to strip away the assets and privileges of select groups of targeted scapegoats in order to (allegedly) bring all to the same level. Christianity elevates, while collectivism pillages, robs and ruins.

A Word of Caution

IC’s two-parter here last week on the bankrupt ideology of collectivism contains this warning for Christians about collectivists, a group which includes all those who complain about racial and social privilege:
“Do not join their programs and efforts. Do not adopt their terms or their framing of the situation in the world. Do not harmonize with the siren songs they sing, nor bow the knee at their altars when they call you to do so.”
This is exceedingly sound advice. Let me reaffirm its importance at this particular cultural moment. Christians need to steer clear of mouthing emotionally-charged rhetoric that sounds just and equitable on the surface, but manifestly is not in application.

Privilege is no less than God’s unmerited favor to you and to me; grace by any other name. Only God ultimately decides who gets what at birth ... or, for that matter, during the course of our lives through circumstances beyond our control. All nations and societies have benefited from privilege in one form or another. If our popular culture refuses to permit us to use the word “privilege” in a sentence without that usage painting a target on its designated oppressor-group-of-the-month, it is better that we not use the word at all than that we join the angry masses in distorting its meaning and, in doing so, find ourselves inadvertently promoting an ideology of envy, hatred and ungratefulness to God.

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