Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Uncomfortable Thoughts about Privilege

Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.
Deuteronomy 8:11-15

The recent heat wave was unpleasant (some of us think it was very unpleasant) in Rhode Island, but it was much worse in other parts of the country. After enduring several summers in Philadelphia without air conditioning, my daughter, Carolyn purchased a small room air conditioner last week. That evening she described her Facebook status this way:

"It's so hot, and I am so relieved to finally have AC. This kind of extreme weather reminds me of how privileged I am to have good shelter. Safety from the elements should be a right, but unfortunately it is often a luxury..... (This sermon brought to you by my heat-addled brain - apologies, Facebook friends)"

Privilege is a word that grates like fingernails on the blackboard. When I was in grade school, if someone seemed to be claiming an unfair advantage, someone else would ask sarcastically, “What do you think you are, privileged?” To be “privileged” was not a good thing.

It is ironic; of course, everyone (almost) wishes to have special privileges without being thought “privileged.” We want people to know that we have worked hard for the things we have.

But it is a good thing sometimes, to reflect on how privileged we are.

One of the young families in our church is expecting another child at any moment. Last Sunday in our worship service, during the announcements, we had a good laugh when I called out to the two physicians in the congregation to be on alert in case the baby decided to arrive during worship. I have several friends who are physicians and are always willing to help me navigate the healthcare system. I do not call them often, but when I do I am aware of how different my life is from millions (billions) of other people.

That’s what it means to be privileged.

Acknowledging privilege is not denying hard work. It’s just being honest about where we are.

Years ago in another church I was counseling with a teenager who was planning to drop out of school as soon as she could, because it seemed to her a waste of time. As I talked about the value of education, I mentioned the practical applications of what she was learning. I told her that without learning fractions it was impossible to know how much things cost (this is even more important when the “unit prices” are so often wrong or misleading).

She had no idea what I was talking about. “We just buy whatever is cheapest,” she said. I was confused. How can you know how much something costs unless you can compare pound for pound, or gallon for gallon? She repeated her answer, “We just buy whatever costs the least.” They were buying milk by the quart, because a quart cost less than a gallon or a half gallon.

Between my life and hers, there was a vast socio-economic gulf. Some of it can be explained by choices, and some of it can be explained by effort. But part of it was the result of where we started. I did not grow up with money. Our family was on the lowest rung of the middle class. (We pause now to reflect on how I am writing about privilege and I cannot help saying that my family did not have much money. If you press me, I will engage in a spirited but highly refined game of “one down-manship” in which I will attempt to prove just how far I have advanced beyond my humble beginnings.) But I grew up in a stable family, with secure food and shelter, and I was blessed by parents who believed in education and taught the values of thrift and hard work.

If you are reading this, then you have access to the internet. And you can read. And you have time to read on the internet. And if you have that access and can read, and have time, then you are privileged.

Some of us are more privileged than others. And we should be aware of the differences. But when we reflect on our own privilege, we reflect on the ways in which we have more than others, and our concern is directed toward those who have less. When we reflect on our privilege, we don’t worry about those who have more than we do, we worry about those who have less.

We do not reflect on our privilege to make ourselves feel guilty, but to help ourselves live with gratitude and compassion.

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