I had hardly considered the idea of privilege before moving to New York a little over three years ago. Though I was the eldest son of an upper middle class white family that had the means to send me to a private high school and pay for my bachelor’s degree from a well-respected university, I still imagined that only really rich kids who went to Ivy League schools were actually privileged. Though I was aware that racial tensions still simmered beneath the surface of my rural Virginia community, I remained unaware of the extent of the past and present injustices that fueled that tension.
Living in New York quickly made the reality of my privilege unavoidable. I marveled that the Dominican family upstairs squeezed three generations into a small two-bedroom apartment out of economic necessity. I erupted with outrage at the catcalls that followed my wife down the street. And I was dumbfounded by the stories of my black and Latino friends whose encounters with police seemed to have no reasonable explanation aside from racial profiling. My parents’ wealth, my gender, and the color of my skin – all things I had done nothing to deserve – had conspired to spare me from a vast array of pains and hardships.
For all who come to this point on similar journeys of discovery, there is a choice to be made:
…to continue as an accomplice in society’s framework of privilege by working to solidify your advantages over others, or
…to consciously steward your privilege in ways that extend its advantages to those currently on the outside.
As I’ve wrestles with this choice, the words of Philippians 2:4-8 have been both a challenge and an encouragement:
4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Especially at Christmas, it’s incredible to remember that as the Son of God, Jesus held more privilege than anyone else in history. Yet as a Jewish infant in a Bethlehem stable under Roman rule, he could hardly have been more powerless. Now, he calls us to steward our privilege similarly as one of the many ways we die to ourselves day after day so that we can find true life in him.
And though this sounds glorious, the thought of using the full weight of my privilege to impart it to others over whom I now enjoy distinct advantages can also be terrifying. I am eager to see the marginalized gain power and a voice of their own, but I fear that in speaking up on their behalf, I will lose mine. I wonder what will happen if the resources, influence, and platform to which I’ve grown accustomed no longer find their way to me as easily. I still often see my privilege as a safety net, a fallback option to rely on in case I slip through the cracks of God’s care or simply don’t like how close he brings me to difficulty and discomfort.
When I feel these fears rising, emptying myself as Jesus did becomes a step of faith. Do I trust that God can and will guard me, provide for me, care for me, and fulfill his plans for me if I choose to use my position of privilege in society for the benefit of others? Can I rest in the knowledge that even if it feels like I’m in free fall, he will never leave me or forsake me? Can I set my mind on the true riches of the Father’s honor instead the counterfeit security of my position in society?
I want to say “yes” to all of the above, but in order to do that, I have to remember that Jesus provides more than just an example to follow in laying down privilege for the sake of others. We were once cut off from the benefits of a relationship with God because of our sins. Jesus’s choice to lay down his privilege made it possible for us to instead become co-heirs of the Father’s kingdom with him. Trusting that Christ has secured for us the incredible undeserved riches of God’s kingdom gives us the security we need to empty ourselves of the undeserved benefits society bestows on us.
My fearful heart balks at loosening my grasp, but I long to see what God will do when I let go. We cannot fully divest ourselves of our privilege, but we can choose to regard it as a gift to be stewarded and spent for the flourishing of those who are now baselessly denied their full dignity as bearers of the divine image. I pray God will give us the faith and courage to give that privilege away, and that our obedience will speak powerfully to the world at large of his surpassing worth.