The Pain of Privilege
Roughly two years ago, the Occupy Wall Street protest began in Zucotti Park near New York City’s financial district.
The movement gained traction nationally by raising unspoken issues of social and economic inequality with the most salient one being wealth distribution in the United States.1 “We are the 99%” was the familiar cry of protestors as they championed the cause of the “common man” of America while demonizing the 1% for their corporate greed, undue political influence, and flat-out meanness for not playing nice and sharing their wealth.
However, to understand a percentage one needs to know both the numerator and the denominator. Sure, many Occupy protestors may have been part of the 99% in the United States by making less than $370,000 of adjusted gross income per year,2 but what if the denominator consisted of the entire human race instead of just Americans?
Well, it turns out that most of the protestors would indeed be the “global elite” as many had incomes higher than $37,000 per year.3 Given that about 900 million people live on $1.25 per day,4 it is understandable why Americans with a median income of $51,0175 by and large are members of the global 1%. One could even say that Occupy America has existed for centuries; instead of a series of protests, it has been waves of immigration both legally and illegally.
To bring this issue closer to home, Berkeley students by definition have been, currently are, and will be the global elite. We attend an elite institution (read: no Berkeley inferiority complex here6) that provides an elite education that helps us secure an elite career trajectory, which in turn will place plenty of us in the American 1%. Approximately 6.7% of the world has a college degree,7 and an even smaller number graduate from the top universities. Berkeley – no matter what Berkeley students tell themselves – is a premier university by any standard in the world. Because of this privilege, there are generally two ways Christians at Berkeley come to grips with this reality: the path characterized by guilt and the path characterized by obligation. An individual who walks down the path characterized by guilt will look at the statistics above and feel guilty. This type of Christian often simulates thought experiments regarding what life would have been like if they were “radical” followers of Christ. Perhaps, they say, they would not have attended university at all and thrown off all financial, social, and professional concerns. But they instead listened to their parents, “reason,” or the wisdom of the times and ended up at Berkeley.
When confronted by the impoverished of the world, the homeless around Berkeley, or any other reminder of the less privileged, they feel terribly inadequate and ill-deserving. This is heightened particularly when they compare their faith to the faith of their persecuted Brothers and Sisters overseas or those homeless Christians who are “truly” living by faith. Within this paradigm, there is an unspoken idolization and idealization of financial hardships and suffering. This is a form of poverty theology, a Christian perspective that “considers those who are poor [and suffering] to be more righteous than those who are rich and [relatively comfortable]” and “honors those who choose to live in poverty as particularly devoted to God.”8
The path of guilt runs parallel to “Suck-It-Up” avenue. Because I am not 1) poor, 2) persecuted to death, and/or 3) suffering extraordinarily in some way, the reasoning goes, I should be a) able to handle this and b) not consider what I am going through as a big deal – as if when we come to God with our problems, He would say, “LOL! First world problems much?” Such a view of Jesus makes us, Western Christians, turn the trials of the first world into something trivial. Many times we may not face dramatic and traumatic experiences (though these occurrences are certainly not uncommon).9 More likely we face death by a thousand paper cuts: relatively small instances of pain and hurt that slowly accumulate as we continue to brush them off our shoulders. We may now know how much we’ve suffered until we find ourselves all of a sudden overwhelmed and at the end of our ropes. To put it simply, Christians on the path of guilt generally feel that the cross is always heavier and borne better on the other side: someone else has got it worse than me – and they’re doing more for Jesus with their life.
Others take the path characterized by obligation. Those on this path tend to try to get the most out of life as if they have to show their appreciation for their unearned privilege and prove that they did not let it go to waste. They do this through quantifying their experiences – x units of class, y number of extracurriculars, z hours invested in however we define ministry. There is a fixation on producing tangible results.
Just like when we were told we were special snowflakes in kindergarten, the rhetoric of this path is hyperbole. There tends to be a view that simply going to Berkeley will make us worldchangers, planet-shakers, and history-makers. Indeed, our lives will impact others and change the course of eternity; however, it is incredibly naïve to simultaneously hold that all of us will affect culture on a macro-scale. Whereas the path of guilt undermined our contribution to society, the path of obligation overestimates our impact – mostly because if we feel indebted by our privilege, we have a need to prove that we were a worthwhile investment in God’s portfolio.
But, what happens when we find ourselves stuck at a job we hate? What becomes of life when some of us forego career to stay at home with the kids? Does this mean God loves us less because it seems like He’s using us less – or, God forbid, did we miss our chance? Perhaps, this is one of the reasons Christians have such a hard time transitioning to young adult life and find themselves deeply discontented. It was not like anything they expected because we painted a specific picture of a life of influence and success and anything short of that seems like failure. By conflating faithfulness to God with how much we impact the world, we are setting up many Christians for disappointment. At the end of the day, this is a form of prosperity theology that espouses that “those who are affluent [or successful] [are] being rewarded by God because of their faith.”10
Both ways of approaching privilege miss the grace of God. Grace explains how and why we received the privilege that others did not: because God sovereignly chose to despite the fact that we did not deserve it. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that social and cultural capital, which are intangible resources that children inherit from their parents that affect how they speak and think, determine who ends up in positions of power in society (like getting into Berkeley).11 As unconventional as it may sound, Jesus used this as an avenue of grace to bless us. We received economic, social, and cultural capital along with opportunity that we neither earned nor deserved. However, without such gifts we would not be where we are today. But, that does not mean He loves us more or less than anyone else!
There is no moral quality to whether we were born rich or poor, privileged or not-so-much, woman or man. It is not because we are such great people that God had us born with privilege. We are not better or worse people based on our birth status; that is the mistake Jesus corrected when His disciples asked who sinned when a person was born blind – the child or the parents. He made it clear that it was neither because it was ultimately God who places where and how each one of us is born.
The point is that God’s gifts are freeing and life-giving to those He blesses. As a good Father, God loves to give good gifts to His children. We should not feel guilty about receiving His gifts because that would be akin to feeling guilty about God loving us. Feeling like we have received too much and others too little would be like telling God that He is not very loving – something most of us don’t believe! Moreover, His gifts come with no strings attached. God is not an investment banker. He is not necessarily looking for a return on investment because through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. He always loves and accepts His children, regardless of their performance. Thus, we have no pressure to prove ourselves because we are already successful in Christ and this reality opens us to serving Jesus in all capacities – even in ways that are considered lowly. Taken together, we can live our lives as a part of the global elite – humbled for we have received by grace, appreciative of the opportunity Jesus has afforded us, and excited and unashamed to use our talents for His glory and the betterment of His world.
1. Sledge, Matt. “Reawakening The Radical Imagination: The Origins Of Occupy Wall Street.”The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 10 Nov. 2011. Web.
26 Oct. 2013
2. Fact, In. “What It Takes to Get into the Top 1%.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.
3. Kenny, Charles. “Foreign Policy Magazine.” Foreign Policy. N.p., Mar.-Apr. 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2013
5. Hargreaves, Steve. “Poverty Rate 15%, Median Income $51,017.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 17 Sept. 2013. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.
6. This is the strange phenomenon where many Berkeley students undervalue Berkeley even though most of the undergraduate programs are in the top 5 in the nation
7. Finnegan, Leah. “6.7% Of World Has College Degree.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 19 May 2010. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.
8. Driscoll, Mark. “The Theology of Rich and Poor.” The Resurgence. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.
9. ½ of our parents are divorced, 17% of men and 25% of women are or will be victims of sexual assault, etc.
10. Driscoll, “The Theology of Rich and Poor.”
11. Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Readings In Economic Sociology (1986): 280-91. Print.
David J Park is a junior studying Business Administration, leveraging his undeserved privilege to be the special snowflake Jesus made him to be and change the world. He attends Reality SF, and hopes to plant a church after working a couple of years in business.
Tags: academia, capitalism, Christian, college, economics, education, elitism, faith, guilt, immigration, injustice, Jesus, justice, law, love, money, Occupy Wall Street, Pierre Bourdieu, politics, privilege, reason, sociology, suffering, theology, UC Berkeley, university