It can be a pretty hot topic word nowadays.
“Our mission is to serve the underprivileged.”
“They’re just a bunch of spoiled, privileged rich kids.”
“What’s all the talk about ‘white privilege’? I don’t act privileged.”
As much as we’d like to attach behavior to privilege, that isn’t actually the definition of it.
You see, having a privilege is something you swim in. Like a fish, you can’t tell that you are wet. You just are.
And like a fish, often you didn’t choose or control the world of privileges that you were given. It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing either.
It just is what it is.
The only time a fish can realize that it functions best being wet is only when it’s taken out of the water. Then, scarily enough, it realizes the thing that caused it’s world to function best was the water it swam in.
Where privilege gets confused.
What we have in our world is not a problem of fish living happily and functionally in good water. That’s a perfectly good thing.
It when those fish don’t realize that it’s the water that gave them an advantage and they assume that it was all their hard work and good morals that caused their success.
It’s when they hold their same high expectations to the other less fortunate fish that were washed up on shore due to a storm and haven’t been able to get back into the water.
The difference between the 2 fish isn’t hard work and intelligence.
The difference is one lives in the water, and one doesn’t.
Where privilege goes wrong.
Sometimes the fish that are doing well swimming in the ocean get really bitter when the fish on the shore are given help to get into the water (especially if it’s a government program).
The fish complain, “But I did all this hard work to build my life in this ocean, and that lazy fish over there is in that situation due to it’s own choices. Don’t you dare use our water to assist. That fish needs to create it’s own ocean.”
Often these fish don’t even realize they are wet and swimming in a high-functioning ocean, that the systems around them benefitted them to a place of success.
When you don’t know you have privilege, you can only be judgmental.
When you know you have privilege but don’t want to share it, you can only be selfish.
What do we do with privilege?
Now, some of us recognize the certain privileges that got us to where we are (ranging from education, literacy, gender, race, family, wealth, place of birth, country of origin), and some of us have more of them than others.
But we’re somewhat unsure of what to do with those privileges.
We can’t deny them. They exist. I live in it. I’m the fish that’s sopping wet with those privileges.
So, we can simply embrace them and accept the realities of the benefits we individually have.
“I acknowledge that coming from a family of high morals and ethics have me a privilege of soundness of mind, of childhood development knowing I am loved and worthwhile, and of family support for my life decisions.”
“I acknowledge that being white grants me safety, respect, and perception of power and wealth in many places in the world, including my home country.”
“I acknowledge that being a male immediately grants me better work opportunities and higher pay, while also bestowing a presence of power in most settings.”
So I get the part where we accept what is and become aware of it.
But I really struggle with what to do with my privilege.
Normally, we start getting all action-oriented and start making plans.
“Ok, so I have all these benefits that others don’t. I have decent income and a wealth of business knowledge, so thus I’m going to use my privileges to help all these other people that don’t have them.”
We make of list of all the people that don’t have what we have, who don’t have lives that we have, who we view as definitely under-privileged, and we take our plans to them to tell them exactly what they should do in order for them to be equal like us.
Because we want equality, right? Justice and equity for all?
But I soon came to realize that they only reason I could make these decisions to help is because I have the power to. That even my decision to step out and “help” came from a direct privilege.
So what does it mean then to serve others not from a place of power, when typically even the choice to serve comes from the powerful ability to make that decision?
As a Christian, I look at the life of Jesus to find direction here. He obviously was the standard for giving up privilege and power to serve people. And boy did he sure help and change people’s lives!
This verse in Philippians 2 has particularly been captivating my mind for months now:
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality of God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on the cross.
What does it mean to give up our privileges?
If helping others means that we have to hold on to our privileges and power in order to help, then what does it actually mean to give up our privileges for the sake of others?
A privilege revelation while on Care and Compassion
We drove the bumpy, dusty roads of Nylenda, an area in Kisumu, Kenya. Kisumu is a pretty developed city in Kenya, the third largest in the country, but several parts are impoverished and stuck in cycles of poverty.
Those slums — those are the targets for this team. We rode with a group of 3 Kenyans who have dedicated their lives to caring for the most sick and and AIDS-infected in Kisumu. In fact, they call their team “Care and Compassion.” Armed with medical knowledge and humongous hearts, they find the most needy and most sick, and support them into a hopefully stable condition. Stable physically, emotionally, spiritually.
We went from home to home, seeing several people in various stages of health. But more often than not, they were barely skin and bones, struggling with HIV and AIDS and often with other sicknesses like tuberculosis.
As difficult as it was to see, I was grateful to be with such a great team who was caring for these people in such loving, wholesome ways.
But then — I’ll never forget the last home. We walked to the door way of a home, and sitting right inside of the doorway was a lady perhaps not older than 40. She was sitting slumped over on a mat, unable to even lift her head to greet us. As we walked by we tried to shake her frail, limp hand.
As we came to understand the situation, everything about it seemed hopeless. No one would help her. Due to the stigma of AIDS, her neighbors wouldn’t take her to the hospital, and even her son who lived there wouldn’t help out. We brought food with us, but there would be no way for her to make the food or take her medications properly.
Even though this team was there to support her in getting back to good health, they worked in partnership with families so that dependency wasn’t created. They also didn’t have resources to handle all aspects of transportation, cooking, administering medications, etc. This situation was pretty desperate, though, they recognized. So they knew that very soon they would have to intervene.
As we drove back home, this idea of giving up privilege to serve came back to me, and I mulled over those verses in Philippians 2 and thought how maybe I was laying aside privileges like Jesus did to do this work.
And then the revelation came, with the not-so-comfortable truth.
Angela, to give up privilege is to literally switch places.
What? Switch places with this woman? No, I think I would do better to help her out, use my voice and resources and intellect to make a difference.
But would you switch places with her?
Switch places?? Eh, well, I guess I could. And I’m sure I could figure things out. I know I’d have my family that would help me by taking me to the hospital, and I know I’d have access to healthcare options to get my medication, and I have a lot of friends and networks who would intervene, and I already know how to start businesses so I could get myself back on track financially . . .
No no, you’d have to lose those things too. You can’t take any of them with you when you switch places.
But . . . without those things I’d be . . .
What does it take to lose privileges?
Well, in short, it requires everything.
And that’s a pretty steep cost. Pretty much too radical.
In order to be willing to lose privileges for the sake of others, only one thing would ever motivate someone to make that move.
And that one thing?
No one would ever do that much sacrifice for any other reason. It’s simply too much to lose ourselves without any promise of return.
Which then made me realize why Jesus’ love is so astounding.
In just a little way, I was able to imagine for a moment the audacity of Jesus’ birth and coming to earth.
In a crude micro-comparison, it would be like me losing everything, my position and education and money and friendships and family and history and color and power, and taking the body of an AIDS-infected friend-less woman and sitting helplessly on the floor with no ability to care for herself.
What humility that would take.
And yet that’s the humility He exemplified by leaving behind his privileges as the very Son of God, and taking on the confined body of a human, and being like us, in all it’s limitations and brokenness.
And the only reason Jesus would do something like that?
He did that so that you and me could be in his family. So that we could have relationship with him. So that we could advantage of his God-privileges.
He switched places.
He took our AIDS and gave us whole life.
He took our broken relationships and gave us loving families.
He took our self-destruction and gave us Image-bearing love.
He took our shame and gave us everlasting hope.
And this is the best example of humility we can have.
This is what it means to give up privilege.
It looks like love.
It looks like humility.
It looks like losing ourselves so that someone else can advance.
And it’s a whole more extreme, and life-changing, then we could ever imagine.
So then the question isn’t how much can you do with the privileges you’ve been given.
It’s how much can you humble yourself and sit in the place of another and love them unconditionally and lose yourself so that they might advance.