I recently had a conversation with a close friend on the topic of privilege, the bugaboo said by some to be at the root of all unjust inequalities in modern society. Specifically, my friend and I discussed the proper attitude of Christians toward the concept of privilege. Many Christians, particularly those who seem susceptible to a perverse desire for the approval of anti-Christian secularists, claim that condemning privilege is itself a Christian posture. But this mentality exhibits either an unawareness of the roots of the attacks on privilege, or an attempted amalgamation of those roots and Christian doctrine, a syncretism that may lead ultimately to apostasy.
To understand the problem that such a position holds for Christians, we must first understand what is behind the attack on privilege. In Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver had a great summary of the anti-privilege mentality. Weaver wrote, “In the United States there has been a tendency officially to castigate ‘economic royalists,’ managers of industry, ‘bourbons,’ and all who on any grounds could be considered privileged. It looks alarmingly like a full hatred of personal superiority. The spoiled children perceive correctly that the superior person is certain, sooner or later, to demand superior things of them, and this interferes with consumption and, above all, with thoughtlessness.”
That’s a bit of a harsh assessment, and no doubt the people who condemn privilege don’t see themselves in that light, but nevertheless Weaver was right to point out that jealousy and resentment lay behind much anti-privilege sentiment. It is crucial to understand that the attack on privilege is rooted in egalitarianism, which in turn is based on the assumption that everybody is the same. But everybody is not the same, as everyone (even, deep down, the egalitarian) already knows. Certainly, there is a sense in which we are all fundamentally equal in our common humanity, dignity, and proclivity to sin, and it was this basic equality that led to idea of equality under the law, what Scripture calls impartiality.
But there are many ways in which individuals are not equal. What’s more, many of the differences between us are clearly from God. People differ in intelligence, beauty, athleticism, health, energy, leadership ability, even drive. We differ in upbringing and culture, which influence our priorities and attitudes. God’s providence is in this diversity, and the unequal distribution of these God-ordained differences leads not only to different starting points, but to clearly different results. People blessed differently by God enjoy different rewards, and some enjoy more wealth and a higher status in society (and it is wrong to assume, as materialists do, that these gifts are better than other types of gifts that God gives).
But there are many ways in which individuals are not equal. What’s more, many of the differences between us are clearly from God.
This leads to the other target of privilege deniers, which is hierarchy. If some people have higher status, they have positions of authority. The egalitarians want a society in which nobody is in authority over anyone else, but no society, including socialist ones, has ever worked that way or ever could. What happens is that societies built on this kind of philosophy become more authoritarian than ones that start off with the recognition of the need for hierarchy, for with hierarchy comes not only rights, but duties. Just as God blesses people differently, so, too, He puts them in positions of authority and holds them accountable for their leadership. Denying the validity of authority doesn’t ultimately rid the world of authority, but it does substantially reduce the standards which those in authority are held to.
Defending “privilege” in these ways does not mean that every inequality is justified, nor every exercise of authority. Unjust barriers deserve scorn, and unjust authority should be rejected. It’s undeniable, given the fallen state of our world, that some people misuse privilege, though the Christian must admit that even here the primary sin is not against society or others, but against God, from whom all blessing flow. However, it no more invalidates “privilege” that some people misuse it than spousal abuse invalidates the biblical institution of marriage.
But while secular anti-privilege crusaders are on shaky ground, it is particularly problematic for Christians to attack privilege, for a couple of reasons. First, it is sin for the Christian to show discontentment and ingratitude with one’s own blessings from God, just as it is a sin to be jealous of someone else’s blessings from God. The Bible has a word – covetousness – for this, and it is explicitly condemned in the Decalogue.
Second, such a posture indicates that these Christians have adopted clearly secular, clearly unbiblical philosophies and are attempting to retrofit Christianity to them. The idea of a classless society, marked by a lack of authority and a bland homogeneity of talent and reward, is not a biblical concept, and indeed many parts of the Bible point to just the opposite, the authority of the husband over the wife and the variety of spiritual gifts being just two examples. God has clearly instituted hierarchy and even privilege into the church and His world, for His glory and the fulfillment of His purposes.
Christians should take care that God’s blessings are well-used (and even inheritance is a blessing from God). But Christians should not be taking cues from the world and their arguments against the structure God has built into our lives. Such an endeavor will ultimately undermine the church itself, mirroring the breakdown of the family and all of the social consequences attendant to it which are so plainly seen today. This breakdown has resulted from secular society’s unrelenting egalitarian agitation against the inequality in structure and result of the family, and Christians invite that sentiment into their churches to the peril of their doctrine. The more Christians and churches follow down this path, the more they will cease to preach the Gospel. The more they will cease to be Christians and the Church.