I’ve been having a come-to-Jesus conversation with someone I’ve never met.
Her name is Robin, and she’s the one who’s imploring me to repent and be saved.
That’s not unusual. Now and then, I hear from a reader of this column, or a blog reader or Facebook friend, who expresses what I usually perceive to be a sincere concern for the state of my soul, because something I wrote doesn’t conform to their understanding of who Jesus is or how God works.
Robin came right out with it. She quoted the passage from the First Letter of John, which Lutherans sometimes use as a preamble for a rite of public confession: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
My sin, according to Robin, is privilege.
Because I sense she’s speaking from a place of pain (details of which I won’t share without her permission), I don’t think she understands that I am not saying I have no sin.
Privilege is a sin. It’s a sin to which I confess readily.
I struggle, however, with how pastors should address the sin of privilege, how people who are guilty of this sin should respond and how to evoke authentic repentance instead of useless, hair-shirt guilt.
What is privilege?
Privilege is any benefit that people get because of who they are, if that benefit is not available (or less available) to people who are different.
Privilege can be evident in tangible things like access to wealth, employment, education, food, housing and health care.
But the presence or absence of privilege can be perceived in more subtle ways, as some of us are coming to realize all too slowly and reluctantly.
I remember a scene from the TV show “All in the Family” (early 1970s), in which Archie Bunker addressed an African-American man as “boy,” and the man responded quietly, “I’m not a boy, I’m a man.”
“So am I, but I don’t go around making a point of it,” said Archie.
To which the black man replied, “You never had to make a point of it.”
That’s the quintessence of privilege — never having to assert your right to fair, humane treatment, let alone go to court and sue for it.
What many people consider basic human rights — respect, courtesy, a place at the table wherever vital decisions are made — are, in fact, not equally available to people of certain skin colors, ways of speaking, economic status, sexual orientation or gender identity.
One of the challenges of addressing privilege, however, is that it’s not something you either have or don’t have. There are degrees. For example, I might have privilege as a pale-skinned person of European descent, but lack privilege because I am not male.
We run into trouble if we attempt to quantify how privileged one individual is compared to another, and if we make rules that attempt to address privilege, but which have the unintended consequence of fostering a new form of oppression.
I don’t know the answer — for Robin, for society or for the church.
But I do know what Christ said about privilege: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”