by Ethan Mack
The issue of privilege, in its specific intricacies, is one I would like to set aside for the moment because dialogue on the issue often becomes bogged down in political ideology and it’s an issue I know very little about. Rather, I would like to discuss privilege in general sense, abstracting all kinds and sources of it. In doing so, I plan on suggesting an appropriate response to the existence of privilege in its manifold ways of being.
Privilege, as far as I understand it, can be defined as the given advantage one possess over the other. Privilege is “given” in the sense that it is received by no merit of our own. We speak of being privileged more so in relation to a man who inherited wealth than we do the product of a “rags-to-riches” story. The second thing is that privilege is always relational. We are privileged or underprivileged only in relation to others. In being a native citizen of the United States, I am privileged in respect to those who live in a Third World country. At the same time, I am not privileged in respect to the top 1 percent of income earners. The third point we need to make about privilege is that, taken in this broad sense, there are many kinds and sources of it. Race, wealth, intelligence, physical attractiveness, athletic ability, musical talent, etc. are all factors that can affect privilege to varying degrees and in varying ways.
In addressing privilege, the first thing we need to do is acknowledge its existence. Romantic notions about a world in which everyone starts on equal footing is all well and good, but I find these to be nothing more than romantic notions. The reality is that as we find ourselves in the world, there are certain gifts which are simply “there” without ever being brought about on account of our own power. After coming to terms with the existence of privilege, the path forward is a little unclear. However, I find that the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 is helpful here. The parable is about a master and his three servants. Upon leaving his house, the master distributes talents (high-valued currency) among his slaves; to the first he gives 5, to the second he gives 2, and to the third he gives one. The first and second go out, invest the talents, and ultimately double their master's wealth. For this deed they are each called a “good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23) by their master. Furthermore, they are both are promised a great reward for their actions. The third servant, on the other hand, decides to bury his talent and thus returns only what he had been given. For this deed, he is cast out into the darkness where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).
There are two major points we can extrapolate from this parable. The first is that we have to cultivate the “givens” we have received in such a way that we are always prepared to give everything back to God. The third servant was willing to return what he had received, but his failure to cultivate anything resulted in his doom nevertheless. The second thing we should notice is that the “givens” are not always equally distributed. If this story was merely about cultivating our gifts, there would be no need for including both the first and second servant. Undoubtedly, the first servant is more privileged than the second since he received more than twice the amount of talents. However, both are promised the same reward of their actions. This suggests that what's ultimately important, according to this parable, is not how much one is given, but rather, what one does with that is given.
If we are to take Christ's parable seriously, it begs the question: how exactly does one cultivate our “givens” while remaining directed towards God? I believe the answer lies in a virtue largely forgotten in the modern world: gratitude. In gratitude, we take all of our privilege- all of our “givens,” everything that makes us who we are- and we give thanks to the God that made us that very thing. In being grateful, we acknowledge all of our privilege, going back to even the privilege of being alive. Also, as a direct consequence of the act of gratitude, we are driven to cultivate what we have, and direct these gifts/advantages toward the greater good. This “cultivation,” if it follows from authentic gratitude, can never be a selfish hoarding of what we have been given. Rather, in recognizing that our gifts come from a God to whom we are grateful, we understand that these gifts must be freely given to others. Thus, gratitude prompts a directing of the privileged towards the underprivileged. This brings a certain harmony (though imperfect in this life) to the human condition following the initial inequality that it find itself in.