Responsibility

Sigh. I feel like I’m in the middle of a series of blog posts dedicated to removing whatever conservative credentials I might have left. Hmm. Never mind. That’s not really a bad thing. Because I’m not really a liberal, either. Be that as it may, I’m about to do something dangerous.

I’m going to talk about privilege.

Wikipedia files this concept under “dominant privilege” and offers this definition:

“Dominant privilege is a sociological concept describing the unearned advantages enjoyed by members of the dominant culture.”

There’s also a link to a syllabus about privilege (PDF).

Now, I’ll wave the tattered remnants of my conservatism and say that I generally get irritated by discussions of privilege. I’ve seen my share of privilege discussions, and they often go like this:

Non-white non-male: Waah! My life is so hard because The Man keeps me down.
White male: Are you sure The Man is keeping you down?
Non-white non-male: Shut up! You have privilege and therefore are incapable of understanding me or having any wisdom at all!

Or like this:

White male: I have privilege, and now I have guilt! I am a terrible person and refuse to be consoled, because I am white and male. I abase myself for my genetics.

Yeah, these sorts of conversations irritate me. A lot. So much that I’d be tempted to pitch the whole concept.

Except that it’s kinda true.

I tend to focus on socio-economic privilege, so let’s talk about the rich and the poor.

I love the wisdom literature of the Bible. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes just lay it out there without apology, explaining life the way it is. And, not surprisingly, both books say a lot about the rich and poor. For example, Proverbs 10:15 says:

A rich man’s wealth is his strong city;
the poverty of the poor is their ruin.

In a related passage, Ecclesiastes 7:12 says:

For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money,
and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.

These passages lay out a simple fact: having money protects you. The rich have protection from the world, but the poor are exposed to additional suffering. Or, as my mother put it, having money makes life easier.

That’s privilege.

(Yes, I’m aware that the Bible is full of warnings about the deceitfulness of wealth. However, this is because wealth actually does bestow power, though not as much as the rich think.)

The conservative response to this fact tends to be something like this: “Sure, having money makes life easier. But, this is America. We all have an equal chance to get money. Those with money just did the work, while the poor just refused to work hard.” Really? Proverbs 22:7 says:

The rich rules over the poor,
and the borrower is the slave of the lender.

For all that we want to deny it, the poor are at the mercy of the rich. This is a fact of life. We are not all equal. Some are stronger than others, and that will not go away.

In other words, we will not be able to rid ourselves of privilege. This is simply true, and we need to stop lying to each other and ourselves about this.

So, what then?

If the rich are stronger than the poor, then the rich have a greater responsibility than the poor. The Biblical principle is that the strong care for the weak. As an example of this, Romans 15:1 says:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.

Think about it like this. I’m a pretty big guy. It’s a rare occasion to meet someone who is taller than me. Over time, I’ve realized that this means that I need to be very careful when I move around people, especially children. If I’m not careful, I will knock someone over or step on someone. Because I’m bigger and stronger, I have a greater responsibility to consider the impact of my actions.

Privilege is often used to attempt silence the strong. That’s wrong, because it’s simply an attempt to attack the strong. Instead, the powerful should be reminded of their privilege in order to remind them of their responsibilities to those who are not privileged.

Of course, this goes side-by-side with the need to remind those who are not privileged that they should not envy those who are privileged. Rather, the strong should help the weak because it is their responsibility, and the weak should humble themselves to accept help from the strong.

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD,
and he will repay him for his deed. (Proverbs 19:17)

In light of all this, next time I’ll talk about an issue that’s been on my mind recently: gentrification.

See you then.

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13 responses to “Responsibility

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Lance,

    On the face of it, yeah, I’m comfortable with that. Noblesse Obligé often runs into problems when people are unwilling to admit that they need help or when the help is offered in an arrogant fashion. But, as a general principle…yeah, I’m good with that.

  • Lance D. Allen

    nteresting.

    While I’ve always known it’s the good Christian thing to do to help out the poor, I don’t know that I ever thought about it being an obligation or responsibility of any sort.

    I guess I’ve always bought into the idea that we are all self-made, and that as such, no one owes us anything, nor do we owe anything to anyone, unless they’ve helped us. The idea of the rich having a responsibility toward the poor is.. something old come new again, I guess.

    I’m still not convinced I buy into what you’re saying here. The individualistic streak is still very, very strong in me. I think if someone offers honest help, I have an obligation to accept or decline honestly and graciously. If I someone asks for help honestly, I feel they deserve to be considered honestly. I don’t know that I think anyone has a responsibility to help them, but it is the mark of simple decency to help when you can, where you believe (whether or not it’s true) that they really need it.

    I guess.. I guess everyone owes it to themselves to be good and decent people, no matter where they are in the social strata, but I also believe that goodness and decency are something that we have to determine for ourselves.

    That keeps with part of what you’ve said.. The powerful (or rich) do have a responsibility to use their power (wealth) carefully, so as to avoid causing harm inadvertently. Big men shouldn’t run over children, and the wealthy shouldn’t trample on the poor. A responsibility to go further than that though…

    I dunno.

  • Lance D. Allen

    Crap. I didn’t think the first one sent. Feel free to delete the first one, as I did a small rephrasing to better say what I wanted to say before trying again.

  • jon

    I don’t think any thing you’ve said goes against conservatism. I think true conservatives see value in helping their neighbor and the community in general. I guess the question is, HOW do Christians deal with some of the tougher problems of the poor?

  • James Brown

    Seth, you and I should talk more. I more-or-less agree with you, and would further add this thought: If you accept that all we have is the gifts the Lord has given us, then it is our obligation to use them in service. Wealth is one of those gifts. It becomes a problem, and a matter of ‘priviledge’, to use the loaded terminology, when it is used to selfish ends.

    Also, while I definately agree with your second example of irritating conversations around priviledge, your first example:
    “Non-white non-male: Waah! My life is so hard because The Man keeps me down.
    White male: Are you sure The Man is keeping you down?
    Non-white non-male: Shut up! You have privilege and therefore are incapable of understanding me or having any wisdom at all! ”
    … is an example of itself. When white male asks “Are you sure…?”, that’s passing judgement, which is an aspect of priviledge. White male needs to ask “What can I do?”

    James

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Hey, James, thanks for stopping by.

    “If you accept that all we have is the gifts the Lord has given us, then it is our obligation to use them in service. Wealth is one of those gifts. It becomes a problem, and a matter of ‘priviledge’, to use the loaded terminology, when it is used to selfish ends.”

    This may be quibbling over terms here, but I’m suggesting that “privilege” is one of those gifts. This keeps it from being perjorative. Status is a fact; what you *do* with it matters.

    “your first example […]… is an example of itself. When white male asks “Are you sure…?”, that’s passing judgement, which is an aspect of priviledge. White male needs to ask “What can I do?””

    And here’s where I have to disagree. Sometimes, in these cases, The Man really is keeping someone down. In other cases, The Man has nothing to do with it, and the person is blame-shifting. Sometimes, both are true simultaneously. Pointing this out isn’t privilege.

    I remember coming across a weird verse in Scripture. Exodus 23:2-3 says: “You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.” I blinked when I read this. I could figure out all kinds of reasons to speak against partiality to a rich man, but partiality to a poor man? This didn’t seem like it would be a problem.

    Then I remembered the various privilege conversations I referenced in my blog post. It’s possible to use your wealthy status to pervert justice. It’s also possible to use your poor status to claim a false victimhood and pervert justice. Neither are acceptable.

    To be clear, I’m not saying that my stereotypical white man does indeed know what he’s talking about. To the contrary! There are often gulfs of culture and life experience that are not easily crossed. And, yeah, often white middle-class suburbanites don’t understand certain things which are simply facts of life for (say) the black community or the urban poor. One simple example: are the police on your side or not? The white middle-class suburbanite doesn’t even think about this question. Of course the cops are on our side! We’re good people! I’m thinking that some of my neighbors might not take the same view, though.

    So, yes, I’m arguing in favor of passing judgment. But it must be a true judgment, determined by the facts, regardless of who is involved.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Jon,

    “I don’t think any thing you’ve said goes against conservatism. I think true conservatives see value in helping their neighbor and the community in general. I guess the question is, HOW do Christians deal with some of the tougher problems of the poor?”

    You know that I’d be happy to shed my “conservative” label, so some of that statement was just that desire talking. The other part of it is the part of me that still reacts to discussion of “institutional racism”, even though, increasingly, I see evidence of it at work around me.

    And yes, how do Christians deal with the poor? Still working on that.

    Though, part of the answer is to convince the rich to give a damn. Because helping the poor will take money. And, uh, they have it.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Lance,

    “While I’ve always known it’s the good Christian thing to do to help out the poor, I don’t know that I ever thought about it being an obligation or responsibility of any sort.”

    Some food for thought, then. (I’m pulling this together quickly, so pardon the scattershot.)

    “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor
    will himself call out and not be answered.”
    Proverbs 21:13

    “A righteous man knows the rights of the poor;
    a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.”
    Proverbs 29:7

    “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'”
    Deuteronomy 15:11

    “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.” Deuteronomy 14:28-29

    “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.”
    Leviticus 19:9-10

    And finally, a story, told by DeWayne, one of my coworkers.

    There was a certain time when DeWayne’s family was struggling financially. So, another man in his church pulled him aside to offer him some assistance. DeWayne politely refused. But the man pushed.

    “The Bible says that it is more blessed to give than receive, right?” the man said.

    DeWayne nodded. “Sure.”

    “Then why are you trying to deprive me of this blessing?”

    DeWayne shuffled his feet in embarrassment. Then, he accepted the assistance.

  • James Brown

    Seth, we should have this conversation next time we’re in the same space, because I think we’re just running with slightly different perspectives on the same thing. You know, the kind of thing that is sorted out in about 15 seconds everywhere except online.

    Because I agree with you that there are certainly cases and times where blame-shifting happens. Probably a lot. And I bet there’s lots of times where blame-shifting *and* priviledge are in action, which is very messy.

    But one of the priviledges enjoyed by the majority is the ‘assumption of correctness’, and that imparts a weight to questions. If a rich man says “This is so.” and a poor man asks “Really?” then the poor man is challenging authority. If a poor man says “This is so.” and a rich man asks “Really?” then they are exerting authority – even if they don’t want to.

    Perhaps it’s more clear that we’re basically agreeing if I phrase it this way: “Authority is another of the things we can be given, and we are beholden to use it responsibly.”

    James

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    James,

    Yeah, we probably agree more than we disagree. This:

    “Perhaps it’s more clear that we’re basically agreeing if I phrase it this way: ‘Authority is another of the things we can be given, and we are beholden to use it responsibly.'”

    I can get behind.

  • Brennan Taylor

    Great post, Seth.

    You describe yourself as a conservative, but like James, I am close to where you are, just coming from the other direction (I’d describe myself as a liberal).

    Privilege is one of those loaded terms that has a different meaning in vernacular than it does in academic settings. That causes a lot of the problems that come up when the word is used. I think if you do your best to look at things from the other person’s perspective and to give their view some respect you’ve gone a long way towards avoiding it. It’s just that pesky word that gets everyone’s back up.

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