When is “privilege” not a problem?
Daniel k. eng | AUGUST 7, 2019 | 4 MIN READ
I’ll never forget the time I was really irked at the graduation ceremony of an elite American university. In one of the speeches, a university administrator acknowledged one of the graduates, who was a fifth-generation graduate of this esteemed institution.
The crowd cheered.
I was horrified.
Even if we can set aside the unfairness of university legacy admissions, this announcement and the crowd’s approval was a celebration of the rich getting richer. I remember having a feeling of overwhelming disgust.
Privilege is real. Some people or groups of people, because of no work of their own, are given advantages that others don’t have. Sometimes sociologists call it social privilege. Privilege can come in different ways, such as access to higher education, connections that lead to employment, or lower interest rates for loans. Systemic inequality has existed for centuries, and it’s not going to end anytime soon.
But I shouldn’t make others feel guilty for their privilege. First, it’s not their fault. They didn’t have control over the circumstances into which they were born. Second, I have privilege too.
Yes, my ethnicity puts me at a disadvantage in some areas. But my gender and nationality give me access to opportunities that the majority of people in the world can only dream about. The fact that my parents have advanced academic degrees and a stable marriage has given me more access to opportunities than others.
It’s not productive to feel guilty about my privilege. I can’t change my circumstances or the system we live in. However, what I can do is be responsible. I can ask myself, What am I doing with my privilege?
In his book, Insider Outsider, Pastor Bryan Loritts writes:
Pastor Loritts is right. The Apostle Paul reminds us of the privilege that Jesus has and commands the believers at Philippi to have the same actions and attitude as the Savior:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:3-8)
Did you catch that? Jesus could have used his divinity to his own advantage. Instead, he used this privilege to serve others. With his divine nature, he died on the cross for you and me.
In fact, Jesus’ death on the cross has ultimate value for you and me because of the privilege he had. In other words, the cross has no effect without the inequality that exists between Jesus and us. Jesus used his divine nature, as only he could, to serve others.
So we see that privilege was not a problem for Jesus. He had privilege, and he stewarded it for our good. With the inequality that existed, he did something for us that we could never do for ourselves. We are called to have the same attitude.
When I was at that college graduation, I didn’t want to celebrate the legacy graduate. But perhaps I’d have felt differently if I had heard that this person was planning to use this privilege to improve opportunities for the underprivileged. That kind of stewardship is worth celebrating.
In a few months, I anticipate being awarded a Ph.D. from an elite university. That credential will (and already does) open doors for me. God has entrusted me with privilege. With this privilege, I have the responsibility to steward it well. In some ways, I’ll be like the servant in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 25:14-30) who received more talents than another. Again, I shouldn’t be guilty about it; God gave it to me. But I should feel responsible. What will I do to benefit others who don’t have the same opportunities? What will it take for God to say to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23)?
God has given each of us a certain measure of privilege. Some receive more than others. We can always be asking, “Why does someone else have more than I do?” But the better question for each of us should be, “What do I do with the privilege I’ve been entrusted with?”
Daniel K. Eng is male, American, and has never been in need. He grew up with educated parents who are still alive and still married. He received music lessons, got hired for jobs because of connections, and has been approved for every credit card for which he applied. He has never been afraid of sitting in a taxi alone with the driver, being harmed by the police, or being chosen for extra airport security screening.