Last Wednesday, Eric gave a sermon on “Grief, Trauma, and Our Response to Systemic Racism”. If you haven’t listened to it or watched it, I highly recommend doing that before reading the rest of what I have to say. Listen here OR watch here.
Among the things he said, Eric challenged us to examine our privilege. He said, “Where is privilege having an impact in our church? All of us within our community have some form of privilege. How are we taking the deep blessings of God and sacrificing them for the sake of other people?”
That got me thinking about the connection between the concepts of privilege/privileged and blessing/blessed. I think there is great benefit to swapping one for the other and at least one huge downside. First the benefit.
English translations of the Bible have rarely used the word “privilege”, while verses about “blessing” fill page after page. However, the terms are often synonymous with the shared definition something like “good thing or advantage, especially when unearned”. Taken this way, we can mine the resources of Scripture as we struggle to answer Eric’s challenge. Consider, for example, God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:
I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, takes careful time to explain that this advantage Abraham and his descendants have is unearned. They did not earn it by dutifully following the Law of Moses. But it has a purpose: they are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. This applies to us because, as Paul says, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).
I do not like this because I prefer to think that I have earned the good things I have and therefore deserve them. (I suspect that many of you are the same way.) So I am prideful and self-satisfied. I feel unjustly attacked when I’m asked to share. To make matters worse, I’m inclined to think that others are not truly deserving of the advantages and good things that they have, especially if they have more than me. This leads to envy and spite. (Once again, I suspect I’m not alone.) Even worse, I can get to feeling really self-righteous about it if I deploy “privilege” talk against them and reserve words like “deserve” and “merit” or even “blessing” for myself.
This leads me to the downside of using “blessing” instead of “privilege”. As I said earlier, both terms point to an undeserved advantage. But “privilege” talk, as it is currently used in our culture, often implies that the advantage is undeserved because it is unjust or has come about as a result of injustice; “blessing” does not have this implication. And some good things and advantages people have DO come from injustice in the ongoing present, recent past, or distance past. The social standing and wealth (or lack of it) that you and I have is wrapped up in plenty of historical oppression and injustice. Therefore, we need to talk about privilege. But I plead with you to keep in mind: talking about privilege comes across as an accusation against others, even when it’s unintended. Accusation is part of the road to reconciliation, so we cannot avoid it. Nevertheless, recognize that you trigger guilt, shame, and anger when you do, and falsely so if the accusation is false.
Fortunately, the Bible has plenty to tell us about all of this. We are to rebuke each other carefully and humbly (Matthew 7:1-6). We are to repent from unjust advantages; consider the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 or Paul’s instruction that “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28). We are to address our pride by recognizing God’s blessing in everything we have, accomplish, and are; as just one example, consider the story of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4. We are to bless others with our blessings (Genesis 12:2), talents (Matthew 25:14-30), gifts (Romans 12:6-8), and riches (2 Corinthians 9:11). We are to use our advantages and the good things we have, whether earned or not, to benefit others.
Finally, I don’t mean to imply that any of this is easy or straightforward. If you don’t believe me, consider the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis. What’s blessing and privilege, earned and unearned, justice and injustice in that story? It is a terrible tangle.