“Privilege” and “inequality”—these two words can start a firestorm of discussion. Many pastors and evangelical leaders have latched onto the concepts and are preaching them with fervor. One would think the terminology ran through the pages of Scripture itself. I recently saw a church doing a series on “dismantling racism” for Lent, and one of the “questions for contemplation” was, “What beliefs, privileges, and rights are you willing to give up to pursue racial equity?”
These conversations dominate much of evangelicalism now. But the way we talk about these topics is vitally important. As Christians, we need to think through the social justice controversy carefully. Erroneous assumptions often undergird the discussions. Cloaked in language of “kindness” and “charity,” they can be difficult to recognize.
Let’s expose some of those assumptions.
One video that became quite popular compared privilege to a head start in a footrace. Standing before a lineup of young people, a man holds money over his head and says:
“The winner of this race will take this. It’s a $100 bill. But before I say go, I’m going to make a couple of statements. If those statements apply to you, I want you to take two steps forward. If those statements don’t apply to you, I want you to stay right where you’re at.”
Using this analogy, he illustrates how “privilege” affects success in our lives. Certain advantages—like growing up in a financially stable, two-parent home, for instance—put people ahead, smoothing their way in life.
For each advantage he names, some of the contestants move forward. When the race finally kicks off, those in the back with the farthest to run, lose.
Success: A Zero-Sum Game?
Intentionally or not, the analogy presents success as a zero-sum contest. Who, or what, do the runners compete against for the prize? One another. In this example, only one prize exists, and only one person takes it. The underlying premise seems to suggest that, in order for one person to succeed in life, another must fail. Only those with natural advantages win.
And here is where “privilege” really comes under fire. If success comes only through surpassing your neighbor, then it would seem that any starting advantage would make for an injustice. Advantages, as such, become a culprit society must purge. This introduces the dialogue on inequalities.
Karl Marx also saw prosperity in zero-sum terms. He built his philosophy on the premise that two groups, rather than working in cooperation with one another for mutual benefit and success, were in fierce competition with each other and could not exist any other way. In his Communist Manifesto he claimed that all of history “is the history of class struggles.”
Marx divided society into the bourgeoisie (the rich, those who owned property and capital), and the proletariats (the working poor). The former had unfair advantages; the latter unfair disadvantages. The “haves” oppressed and exploited the “have-nots,” who remained poor because of the “haves.” He envisioned a day when the “have-nots” would rise up and take power and property from the “haves.”
“In one word,” he said, “you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so: that is just what we intend.” He wrote: “Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie; in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society,” and, “[the fall of the bourgeoisie] and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”
Today, Marx’s ideas on class warfare greatly influence debates regarding “privilege” and “inequality.” The philosophy, as it is currently applied, pits people against each other, dividing us by ethnicity, gender, socio-economic or religious background, etc. Bystanders on the sidelines keep tally of the score as the various groups compete with one another. Marx’s intellectual heirs grumble about any hint of personal advantage, as if they could turn any blessing into an excuse for outrage. The social justice crowd calls on government to “do something” about these inequalities (which usually only results in more injustice and partiality).
Advantages and disadvantages certainly exist in life. We should distinguish between the different types. An advantage or disadvantage may be due to:
1) Choices I make.
2) Choices others make which affect me.
3) Things beyond any human control or influence.
When a student makes poor grades from a failure to apply himself, he eventually harms his prospects for college admission—and even his career. He faces a disadvantage of his own making.
If a man grows up in poverty in a neglectful or abusive home, or if someone discriminates against him based on the color of his skin or his religion, he experiences disadvantage by the choices of others.
A person born with a serious health condition from birth must live with disadvantages. All people are born with different endowments.
All of us experience a mix of advantages and disadvantages in many areas beyond ethnicity, gender, and religion. Arguably, we are more affected by things like physical attraction, natural talents, intelligence, personality, friendships and family relationships, regional opportunities, adaptability, health, and changing odds of passing years.
Life deals a different hand of cards to each of us. We add to or take away from these advantages/disadvantages with our own choices, but there are always things completely beyond our control. What we can control is our responses to these circumstances and the choices we make in light of them.
In the race analogy, the man tells the runners in the front, “It’s only because you have this big of a head start that you’re possibly gonna win this race called life.” Said another way: You experience success only because others are disadvantaged and can’t equally compete. This idea leaves the sensitive individual feeling guilty over his wins in life.
The false idea of blessings as a source of guilt has worked its way into the church. Many teachers once thought to be reliable are peddling the notion that one must do a sort of penance for one’s “privileges”—perhaps even give them up. They insist the Bible teaches we must generously give, not merely out of grace and kindness in obedience to Christ, but because it is a “justice” we owe society (in order to equalize disparities, of course). Some, like Tim Keller, tell us the following in regard to privilege: “The Bible actually says you…are involved in injustice, and even if you didn’t actually do it.”
In reality, the Bible says the following:
“But if a man is righteous..and if a man does not oppress anyone…if he keeps his hand from injustice and executes true justice between one person and another…he will certainly live, saith the Lord God.
“However, he may father a violent son who sheds blood…oppresses the poor and needy…will he live? He will not live! He has committed all these abominations, he shall certainly be put to death; his blood will be on himself.
“Now, behold, he fathered a son who saw all his father’s sins which he committed, but he has seen them and does not do likewise…he has not…oppressed anyone…instead, he gives his bread to the hungry, and covers the naked with clothing, he keeps his hand from the poor…he will not die for his father’s guilt, he will certainly live…
“Yet you say, why should the son not suffer the punishment for the father’s guilt?
“When the son has practiced justice and righteousness…he shall certainly live…A son shall not suffer the punishment for the father’s guilt, nor will the father suffer the punishment for the son’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”
(Excerpts taken from Ezekiel 18:5, 7-10, 12-14, 16-17, 19-20.)
This passage deals directly with the subject of injustice and oppression. It shows us that God imputes sins to each individual, not blaming or disciplining the innocent for the sins of the guilty.
While Scripture acknowledges disparities and inequalities in life (and condemns any injustice which might bring them about), it does not indicate that the reason for them is always and inherently due to injustice. Consider these verses:
“But the Lord said to [Moses], Who has made the human mouth? Or who makes anyone unable to speak or deaf, or able to see or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11).
“It is He who changes the times and the periods; He removes kings and appoints kings; He gives wisdom to wise men, And knowledge to people of understanding” (Daniel 2:21).
“The Lord makes poor and rich; He humbles, He also exalts” (1 Samuel 2:7).
God holds health, knowledge, wisdom, power, and prosperity in his hand. We have the responsibility to make wise choices, but ultimately he gives and he takes. Because he loves both justice and mercy, he requires them of his people: “do justice…love kindness…walk humbly” (see Micah 6:8).
While the social justice movement spawns its own ideas for addressing inequalities (most of them resembling the very injustice and partiality its proponents claim to be fighting), Scripture instructs differently: Be just in your dealings. To be just is to shun cheating or defrauding and to oppose the attempts of others to do so. It is to speak up for the rights of our neighbor (see Deuteronomy 24:10-18, Proverbs 31:8-9, Isaiah 1:17).
The Bible rebukes the sin of partiality—toward rich or poor, black or white (Exodus 23:1-3, Leviticus 19:15, 35-36, James 2:1-9, Galatians 3:28, Romans 2:11, Acts 10:34), and where we find this kind of partiality in society, business, government, or our justice system, we ought to oppose it.
Then Scripture tells us to generously bless others as God has blessed us. We’re to act with kindness and mercy (see Deuteronomy 15:11, 24:19-20, 1 Timothy 6:17-18). This is different than the idea of justice (though, in a Christian’s life, you ought to find justice and mercy paired together).
Justice punishes wrongs; the mercy of generosity meets needs—not under compulsion or because the giving is “owed” to the person. We are debtors only to Christ, so we can give cheerfully without compulsion. In the same way that God gives us a grace that is not owed, so we voluntarily give our neighbors mercy and kindness beyond what is owed. Generosity is only generosity if we are not paying a debt owed to another person.
When God blesses you, advantages gained (and disadvantages overcome) work to the mutual benefit of everyone. This is God’s way of doing things. We give from gratitude, not guilt.
Two different motivations lurk behind our culture’s focus on “privilege” and “inequality.” A number of politicians, activists, and even religious leaders stoke the fires of animosity. Some of these leaders, especially those who are “woke,” and those on the political left, stand to make political gain or financial gain by dividing society.
The divisive actions of such people are no accident. When they promote partiality and division under the guise of “justice,” they prove themselves to be charlatans instead of true defenders of the weak.
In their proposed solutions, leftists give little evidence of having studied the historical causes of the successes and failures obtained by different social groups. Given their apparent lack of interest in economic principles or the factors that lead to success, it is hard to take their moral posturing as anything other than a cynical game.
On the other hand, many sincere Christians simply want to promote sympathy. They encourage us to recognize the disadvantages others face, just as the race analogy video suggests we “learn more about someone else’s story.”
But when it comes to actually addressing socio-economic problems, advantages (which Marx’s heirs cynically rename “privilege”) are not a problem to focus on—not if we want to see as many people prosper as possible. We all find ourselves possessing various advantages and disadvantages, influenced by innumerable factors. Inequality is not, in itself, an indication of injustice.
To speak personally for a moment, my grandfather demonstrated to me that success is not a zero-sum game. He endured a challenging start to life. Growing up in poverty in a fatherless home, he dropped out of high school after tenth grade to seek employment. As a poor, young married couple, my grandparents started their own business printing business forms for companies. It succeeded, expanded, and grew to have over 100 employees. They treated their workers well, implementing a four-day work week and introducing profit-sharing. They paid the best wages around. Everyone wanted to work for them. Kindness guided their work, and they let others share in their success.
My grandfather started “at the back of the line.” He wouldn’t have qualified for a single advantage mentioned in the video. But as he moved forward he brought people with him, giving many others opportunities. In a free and capitalistic system, success often benefits not only the successful person, but those around him as well. Even occasions to develop skills and knowledge can propel others forward to future success of their own. While politicians rush to enact policies to promote “equity,” evidence suggests government intervention can perpetuate inequality. What has actually helped bridge “wealth gaps” is freeing up the market.
Is it right to view life as a zero-sum competition in which only those with special advantages can succeed? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to acknowledge that all people are able to achieve success? What if a reward waits “at the end of the line,” not just for one person (or group of people), but for each individual who overcomes his own fears, disadvantages, and weaknesses? What if success belongs to every person who runs the race well, regardless of where he started—whether way in the back or far out ahead of everyone else?
Regardless of the motive behind the race analogy video (and of any similar arguments), it makes two mistakes: It heaps manipulative guilt on those who feel “advantaged,” and it provides fuel for discontentment and envy among those who feel “disadvantaged.” The video presents a false dilemma, making it appear that we must compete against one another. Our fellow neighbor is misidentified as an obstacle standing in the way of our success.
God has not promised equal outcomes. God has not called unequal outcomes “unjust.” Justice has a definition, and that definition does not look like the distortion presented by those who have jumped on the social justice bandwagon.
We each have our own race to run. Run it well. Act justly. Show mercy. Give cheerfully, not under compulsion. When you are bombarded with preening manipulation—be it from the pulpit, the lectern, the news desk, or the socially conscious ad sponsor—understand that your virtues are your virtues, and their vices are their vices. This is the privilege of the man with a clean conscience.
Tabitha AllowayTabitha Alloway is a wife and homeschooling mother of three who enjoys reading, writing, and exchanging ideas with fellow believers.
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