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Privilege and Grace

In social justice circles, we talk about being aware of privilege, but it is very rarely understood what the next steps are after awareness. This is especially true when the discussion about what constitutes privilege has already been heated with fiery resistance. Those with privilege are afraid: if I admit my privilege what are you going to ask me to do next?

That’s an important question to hear, because - in the United States anyway - the population group with the greatest amount of privilege are wealthy, cis-hetero, Christian white men. The standard that has been set for them of how they ought to respond to an acknowledgement of their privilege is denunciation. “Jesus told him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.' When the young man heard this he went away in sorrow, because he had great wealth.” Matthew 19:21-22. The message here is for the rich man to denounce his wealth and to refocus his attention on spiritual matters. Biblical Jesus was harsh about the unlikelihood of wealthy individuals to embrace spirituality; He compared it to fitting a camel through the eye of a needle.

Denunciation was hardly the point of this message and it is hardly the point of the standard that this privileged population is meant to live by. By identifying themselves as Christian, this population is stating to the world, “Here is the value system against which I choose to be measured.” If they are being internally consistent with their value system, the standard for answering privilege is GRACE. When Biblical Jesus says, “Then come, follow me,” He is making a statement that forces the same question and triggers the same fear: If I follow You, what are You going to ask me to do? This is another way of stating, the things You might ask me to do might not be worth whatever it is You’re calling treasures in heaven. The questioner then rejects their faith and falls back to holding tightly to the treasures they have on earth: their privilege.

So what does grace have to do with dismantling privilege? Grace is demonstrated when we accomplish the following 3 interdependent things:

  • Acknowledge the needs of others

  • See ourselves as the equal of others

  • Acknowledge our own spiritual vacuum

These are the same things that Biblical Jesus laid out as the process for the rich man to denounce his wealth. Let’s break down these three aspects.

Acknowledging the needs of others

It is impossible to acknowledge the needs of others without talking to them, without seeing their needs. Tons of research has found how exposure to diversity encourages inclusivity and equanimity. This has been the point of building integrated schools and neighborhoods. If a person goes their entire life without seeing what it is like to live in need, they can so easily ignore it and go on enjoying their privilege.

Seeing ourselves as the equal of others

When a privileged person sees a person who is in need, there is often a strong urge to “other” that person. The argument toward compassion and dismantling privilege starts with the smallest statement, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Well, if as a privileged person you have been the recipient of grace, what allows you to access that grace but not the “other”? Here, the privileged person must make a decision: can they see themselves as the equal of the other, with some form of access the other has not been provided? What then? Privileged people are called, as recipients of grace, to extend their access to grace to those without access.

Acknowledge our spiritual vacuum

Humanity is innately spiritual. It is evident in how automatic it is for faith systems to bloom from culture and in how we look to unknown realms of existence to explain what we cannot grasp by ourselves. Spirituality need not direct a person to an established religion, but it does direct a person to interrogate their own ethics and morality and to commit to a code by which they will live. When we are spiritually bereft, we stop pursuing the unknown; we forsake ethics and morality and our own conscience; our culture begins to erode. The privileged person builds culture around their own thoughts and teachings; they see themselves as all-knowing and that whatever they do not know is irrelevant; they isolate themselves from society and create pockets of people who will follow them instead of walking beside them.

When discussing social justice, we can offer answers to the fear that grips the privileged person by explaining these decision points. What will they be asked to do? They will be asked to acknowledge the needs of others, understand that they are equal with others, and see that they are spiritually bereft in some aspects of their living. They will be asked to be in community with people who are different from them, to observe their sameness and differentness, to extend their access to resources, and to interrogate their core values against how they choose to live. Until the privileged person undergoes this transformation, they cannot be part of a just society.

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