Privilege

to whom much is givenSadly, the bulk of political speech flooding our airwaves today is obsessed with boasting about their accomplishments and smearing their opponents. Candidates who were born on third base boast of hitting a homerun, and take full credit for their “superior success.” Candidates who have benefitted from the compassionate policies that existed for their ancestors’ immigration, proudly proclaim their intentions to export children who know no other home than the USA. I am saddened by this prevailing attitude that says: “I got mine so you are just out of luck.” Many good people act as if the privileges they enjoy are solely the result of their hard work. Furthermore, they often assume that most poor people are in that condition because they are lazy or unintelligent. “Just work harder” is often the only encouragement given by those with privilege.

As I have traveled the world I have been fortunate to have my life touched by people from a variety of conditions. Some from great affluence living in very comfortable environments and others who are living in dire poverty and struggle from day to day to feed their children. After I returned from a recent trip to Senegal I assembled a PowerPoint slide to represent an insight that I had on this trip. I put a picture of the newest British royalty, Prince George, as he was held by his moWhat do these two children have in commonther alongside a photo that I had taken a few days earlier, of a similar aged baby being held by his mother in a remote village of eastern Senegal. The caption that I wrote, “what do these two children have in common” was followed by the answer “neither chose into which family they would be born.”

As I understand the message of Jesus, and the life that he modeled for his followers, he was deeply committed to lifting the less fortunate up rather than keeping them down. Greatness was represented as being a servant, which stands in stark contrast to the claims of greatness that tend to attract followers in our America. If we take the life of Christ as our example, the more one is privileged the more they are expected to serve those less privileged. The first requirement of following this example involves recognizing and embracing the privilege in which we have been born.

There are many examples of how the privileged fail to accept their responsibility. In a meritocracy such as we experience in the United States of America, success in virtually every area of our society is attributed to hard work or intelligence. People who have been born with certain gifts, willingly take credit for their gift. People who inherit large sums of money are frequently viewed as successes based purely on their wealth. Meanwhile many people who have fled the unimaginable violence and hopelessness of their homeland, are considered criminals and outlaws. 

One plausible reason for this condition is that well-intentioned people fail to recognize their privileges.  Recognizing our privileges requires self-awareness, humility, and a willingness to admit that much of what we have accomplished, or that with which we have been blessed, is not entirely of our own doing.  While I do not claim to have mastered this process, I have tried very hard to be grateful for the blessings I have enjoyed and acknowledge that they are largely a product of opportunities or privilege of which I had little or no control. I understand that this attitude is not preferred as a political strategy and might make it difficult to win a political contest.  Nonetheless, I am sure that it has made me more grateful and hopefully more useful.

I am immensely grateful to have been blessed with a good education, a highly rewarding career, an amazing family, and good health.  But as I examine each of my blessings, I am hard pressed to take credit for any of them.  In spite of very limited financial resources, my parents instilled in me a sense of right and wrong and a strong work ethic.  I was gifted with good height and athletic ability which, along with some outstanding coaches and role models, allowed me to attend college on a basketball scholarship. As a white male, I have not experienced the extra workplace burden of “proving myself,” a reality often endured by people of color and females. I have been blessed with good cognitive ability and good health, both of which can be attributed to genetics.

If there is anything that I can take credit for in my successes, it is a willingness to walk through the doors opened for me by others. Yet even this required a degree of trust that was likely nurtured in me by the sound parenting and mentoring I received as a child. It would be the pinnacle of arrogance and fraud for me to represent myself as one whose successes are based purely on my merit. For this reason I resist the concept that one can “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”  I did not choose my parents; I did not order my physical structure; I did not negotiate my genetics; and I did not select the country where I was born.

I recognize that privilege exists on a continuum. In theory there is one ‘most privileged’ person on earth and everyone else is somewhere lesser on the privilege continuum to a theoretical ‘least privileged.’ Privilege is also a multivariate construct that is not simply defined by a single variable. Although variables such as skin color, family heritage, or physical characteristics are all significant, they cannot fully explain privilege. It is far too simple to address privilege as a one-variable issue, yet this does not lessen its reality or the need for those who are followers of Christ to recognize their privilege and embrace the additional expectations that accompanies these blessings.

No person has ever chosen the family in to which they were born but we can choose how we handle privilege. The model that Christ gave use is to reject an attitude of superiority and willingly accept the greater responsibility that privilege brings. A responsibility to help others reach their potential, not delight in maintaining an elevated status above them. If servant leadership and humility was celebrated in our nation, and held up as the standard, not only would our current political debate have a completely different tone but we would also have a much more compassionate world in which to live.much is given2

9 thoughts on “Privilege

  1. Loved your essay! Steve, you should run for the presidency…. Amen! I appreciated everything you said… And As a Jew your comments regarding Jesus resonate equally as strong. Our Jewish tradition regarding respect for all mankind aligns mighty with the teaching of Jesus!the best. Howard

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    • Thanks Howard. I hope people of all faith traditions will feel this way. Within our separate traditions we all find a call to compassion. As for the presidency…I am afraid that I have too many faults and my habit of admitting them might not play well in that arena. 🙂 However, if I do I will call you to be my manager. 🙂

  2. Love it, Steve. I’m going to share this with my school community. It’s an important message in our current narcissistic society.

    We miss your wisdom and leadership in SAIS, but it looks like you have found your true calling.

  3. Dr. Robinson, while I mostly agree with the broad strokes on privilege that you outline like those who have been blessed must help those in the community who are in need and that I stand on the shoulders of the family tree that God placed me in. I am conflicted between that and the role of government when I read commentary similar to your own in regard to immigration.

    — I am saddened by this prevailing attitude that says: “I got mine so you are just out of luck.”

    While this is a prevalent attitude if not exactly recognized by most who hold the view I would like to understand how open the boarder should be from your perspective? I wonder if the desire by the humanitarian and the evangelical leadership to be wide open puts the larger country, infrastructure, culture, and available jobs at risk? How much is too much? Is there a too much and if so are we anywhere near it? It seems to me that the personal responsibility that I have to be a servant to the community is not the same responsibility that government has in regard to protecting the country. Thanks for your time.

    • These are really good questions that are worthy of discussion. I am not sure where the line is between an appropriate level of compassion and being more ‘closed’ as a way of providing protection. I certainly lock my doors at night. I also see one of the roles of government as providing security for the citizens, however, given that the government is ‘We the People,’ I am not sure that the “government” can take a less compassionate position than the people who make up the government. It seems to me that the ethos of a nation’s citizens should be reflected in the actions of its government.

      It also seems to me that at times we inappropriately draw a distinction between expectations of citizens and expectations of the collective whole. That doesn’t feel right to me and it seems to smack of a ‘mob justification.’ We know that it is easier for people to participate in bad behavior as a part of a mob when they never would do such as an individual,

      I recognize that individuals and governments must make decisions when experiencing tension between two good values. In this case, the tension to keep its citizens safe and the other being compassion toward those in need. Rushworth Kidder addressed this tension in his book How Good People Make Tough Decisions. His argument was that we are often confronted with making a choice between two values that, on their own, are both good values. The tensions that he highlights are Truth vs. Honesty, Group vs. Individual, Mercy vs. Grace, and Long-term vs. Short-term. I can envision a similar situation for our government’s decision makers when they weigh the tension between compassion and security.

      It would be nice to see more humility when making these decisions and when running for office. My desire is to see candidates recognize that their privilege is a product of something that they enjoy because of a compassionate America, and call into question what appears to be proposals that take a less compassionate approach. The immigration policies that are appropriately compassionate for Cuban immigrants should exist for others who are fleeing a homeland filled with violence and persecution. I understand that the oppressive communist government of Cuba makes our stance more politically palatable, however, I feel that our compassion as a nation should be consistent in spite of the level of political acceptance. I am convinced that illegal immigration is driven more from a position of people fleeing something bad and it is not simply that others love Americans so much that they want to be near us.

  4. Thank you for the detailed response. I especially like the two examples of Cuban immigrants and the violence of mob rule. Both of these are concrete and directly applicable to give me more to work through on this topic.

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