Something I've noticed is that people of privilege usually have a hard time interpreting any limitations upon their privileges as anything other than injustice.
Something else I've noticed is the way people of privilege find it easy to identify the mote of privilege in the eyes of others, but have a hard time seeing the same luxuriating log in their own eyes.
Why is this?
Human nature, one might quickly answer. Fallen human nature, or sin, a Calvinist or Augustinian would quickly offer as an amendment. But all we have said with either of these responses is that everybody does it and it isn't good. Such responses beg the question "Why?"
Why do we not recognize our own privilege? Why do we feel that any infringement on our privilege constitutes an injustice?
The old saying goes that fish swim in water they can't define. And many of us swim in a sea of privilege we take for granted. In fact, in the United States the overwhelming (OVERWHELMING!) majority of us live with a level of privilege that is virtually inconceivable for many of the world's inhabitants. It is not so much that we are bad or evil (well, not necessarily) as that we are inured to our own condition of privilege.
Being thoughtless isn't the same thing as being evil. But if we cultivate a habit of thoughtlessness and seek to find refuge in our thoughtlessness so we don't have to face the suffering of others, well, the end result can surely be the same as possessing evil intentions. So, what can we do?
The nineteenth-century writer Anthony Trollope had a remarkable gift for painting human failings and foibles with an almost bemused divine detachment. In his novel, The Warden, Trollope tells the story of an elderly chaplain of a group of elderly men living in what we might today call a rest home, a small set of cottages near a great cathedral where these elderly working class men (who would have been lonely and indigent but for their small pensions, room and board) lived together and benefited from the church's charity and their chaplain's pastoral care.
In Trollope's story, a newspaper reporter was tipped off that, while these men lived in total dependence upon the charity of the church, their chaplain, a man of their age, earned a generous salary as a minister. He lived in a nice manse and had ample funds left over to pay for the music he wrote for his cello to be published.
When the newspaper story hit the public, instead of becoming defensive, the elderly chaplain became penitent, sensing that the men for whose spiritual care he was responsible had suffered an injustice - although unintended - at his own hand. The truth, of course, as Trollope unwraps the story, was much more complicated than the newspaper reported or the old chaplain interpreted. The Warden, the pensioners, the reporter, the church that employed the chaplain and provided the pensions and housing for the elderly men, the newspaper for which the reporter worked and the public that purchased the papers were all part of a system and structure of complexly interrelated privilege, a society that reinforced and replicated roles, all of which were assumed virtually entirely without consciousness on the part of any of the individual players.
What is really interesting in this particular story is not so much the role the reporter played, though it is easy not to be sympathetic toward him. We learn soon enough that he is not seeking justice but, in his own way, is cynically exploiting the plight of the elderly pensioners to advance his career. The really interesting point in the story is that an individual, the elderly Warden and chaplain of the retirement home, in an act of conscience, attempts to understand and live into a consciousness of the role he plays in this system of privilege.
Having spent the majority of my adult life in vocations both churchly and academic, I can say that few of us in either of these vocational worlds recognize the incredible privilege in which we live. And, of course, we aren't alone in this.
I remember a conversation many years ago between Johnny Carson and Kris Kristofferson on the old "Tonight Show." They were talking about the acting profession. Kristofferson described the daily grind of make-up, rehearsals, and filming. At some point Carson said something to the effect that most people probably don't realize what hard work acting is. Kristofferson responded, yeah, but Johnny, we both know that what we do isn't real work.
It so happened that Kris had actually worked for a living before his songs started selling. He knew as he sat there on Johnny Carson's sofa that he lived a life of unimaginable privilege in comparison to many of the working folks he had known.
I can't tell you how often I have felt that Kristofferson could have been speaking for my chosen professions and a lot of others. I don't engage in a career as demanding and perilous as the folks who catch the fish I love to eat. And I know full well that I don't work as hard as the folks who make sure that potholes are plugged in the roads along which I drive my car or that my garbage is regularly collected and disposed of. (I know these examples from personal experience because my first two jobs were working on a sanitation truck and laying asphalt highways.) In fact, if pay were linked to the Common Good, sanitation workers would be on scale with heart surgeons and public school teachers would make more than U.S. senators.
Privileges questioned will be privileges ruthlessly defended. But I guarantee you our arguments wouldn't convince the prophet Amos with his contempt for temples where the peoples' sacrifices were consumed. But, then, there are so many such temples in our henotheistic society.
This is why I've often felt that if we really want justice to roll down like waters, we might best start by looking first at our own checkbooks, credit card statements and calendars before going on the rampage against OPS (that is, Other People's Sins). Maybe the hope lies in whatever change might occur in the hearts and minds of individual persons, individuals who would be willing to question and to change their own participation in the structures of privilege and prejudice in our society.
This is something that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hinted at in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail back in April 1963: "History," he writes, "is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals."*
A great cloud of witnesses gathers round us, and angels stand on their tip toes watching to see if finally we can and will transform a society that has systematically resisted sharing privilege. May we not let down the angels. May we not let ourselves down, too.
* James M. Washington, editor, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (HarperCollins, 1986), p. 292. As those who heard my remarks at Louisville Seminary’s Fall Convocation a few weeks ago, I have asked our seminary community to read or re-read Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham City Jail, truly one of the most profound and significant documents in American history.