There’s a lot of talk today about those of us who have “privilege.” There’s white privilege, male privilege, education privilege, urban privilege, Christian privilege, economic privilege, neighborhood privilege and on and on.
I’m not denying any of these are real; they are. And I’m often reminded that I personally carry several forms of privilege. As a white, male middle-aged Baptist pastor married to a woman and as the parent of two children, I get heard on things others might be able to say or do better if only they could get a hearing.
Too many people deny they have privilege, which is a problem unto itself. But if we look only at those of us who know and acknowledge that we benefit from some kind of privilege, there’s another pressing question to answer: What will we do with that privilege?
Here’s a way to think about this: Have you ever flown on Southwest Airlines? Living in Dallas, home of the low-cost airline, that’s something I do quite a bit. Southwest has a unique boarding process, with each passenger assigned a boarding number based on when they check in or whether they’ve paid more for a lower number. There are no assigned seats. You get to choose your seat when you walk on the plane. And you walk on the plane in the order of your assigned number.
Sometimes I’ll pay the small fee to get “early bird” boarding, which means you usually fall somewhere between position 30 and 50. That’s often just enough to give you a good selection of seats. My goal is to get an exit-row seat where the seat in front of me doesn’t recline, so I can use my laptop without someone jerking their seat back and breaking off my screen.
But I’ve noticed that other people use this form of privilege differently. When given the opportunity to board the plane with most every seat available, some people choose to sit in any seat near the front. Others are intent on grabbing an aisle seat or a window seat. Some are focused on getting seats next to a friend or loved one. I typically see a really tall person with long legs head straight for the one seat on the plane that has no seat directly in front of it.
There’s no one thing people want to do with their boarding privilege. The only common thread is self-interest. Never have I seen anyone use this privilege to do something that benefits anyone but themselves. No one sits in a front seat with the intent of later offering it to an elderly passenger or a frazzled parent with a baby who comes on late.
And that’s the thing with privilege: Seldom do people use any form of privilege to benefit others ahead of themselves. Perhaps that’s why we have so much trouble acknowledging that we have privilege. To admit this would reveal our own selfishness.
What would happen if someone voted based on what would benefit his neighbor more than what would benefit himself? What would happen if someone watched the stock market with concern about what was happening to vulnerable people more than what would benefit her own portfolio? What would happen if someone used their platform of privilege to speak out on behalf of those who cannot be heard rather than demanding more rights for his own tribe?
There’s a word for such a thing: “advocacy.” And it’s not a dirty word or a liberal concept or a pagan trap. It is, in fact, a biblical concept. Jesus taught us the benefit of loving our neighbors as ourselves, of turning the other cheek, of going the extra mile, of bearing one another’s burdens. The Bible oozes with such commands to deny self and care for others in pursuit of God’s kingdom. What Jesus is talking about is how we use our privilege.
Many of us have some kind of privilege. Acknowledging that is the first step. The second step is to determine how you will use that privilege. To quote Jesus again: “To whom much has been given, much is required.”