Are we Blessed or Privileged? Do we know the Difference?
I recently read White Picket Fences by Amy Julia Becker. I met Amy Julia in seminary and we quickly became friends. There were a couple of things that stood out to me about her right away. First, she was really smart. Honestly, I felt intimidated by her. In no way did she present herself as superior but I could not help but notice her thoughtfulness and her intention about topics we were tackling in our seminary classes or the depth in which she would take any conversation. Something else I noticed was her simple dress. Being a person that likes fashion I noticed she wore the same necklace everyday and rotated about three solid colored sweaters. Eventually I would realize even her dress was intentional and she prefers not to call any sort of attention to herself…but she did. In seminary she earned the respect and listening ear of both the theologically liberal and conservative. Her posture was humble but her position in culture, as I learned, was not. She had my attention. I knew I would learn from her. I believed her friendship was a gift. I did not realize how her words would continue to shape me in motherhood and ministry but they have and they will.
After fifteen years of staying at home with my children I went back to teaching last year. It still feels overwhelming at times so when Amy Julia asked me to lead a team to read her newest book, I was hesitant. I knew I would be challenged by a book describing privilege. Yet, I also knew it could equip me to more fully invest in the city to which my family has been called. I live in Memphis, a city full of brokenness and a city full of hope. A city where privilege severely divides but one where you can find numerous people (predominantly young) attempting to live out something different. SInce moving here ten years ago my husband and I have never been more aware of socioeconomic and racial divide and disparity. We too, desperately want our lives to mirror God’s unmerited love and grace to all people regardless, but at times we feel inadequate to do so. So, for all of those reasons and more I said yes to reading White Picket Fences with a Facebook community, most of whom I’d never met.
Here in the South we talk a lot about blessings. By definition, a blessing is unmerited or undeserved. The word is used as a part of my Christian faith but it is also used here culturally. Good things are blessings. Sweet tea is a blessing. Sending my kids to a good school is a blessing. Having a cute picture of my kids in smocked dresses is a blessing. Winning a soccer game is a blessing. The term is also sincerely used to convey the belief that God gives us blessings as part of his unmerited love for us. These gifts do not come as a result of our good works or our hard work but as a result of God’s grace. We do not earn salvation or status. My faith also teaches me that any blessing I have is to be used to be a blessing. So, my faith (should) take away my pride and humble me to see how I might bless others. Not those with less or those who are inferior or superior but those that are fellow humans, fellow Image Bearers. Early on in this book I began to realize that my idea of a blessing and my idea of privilege were a bit mixed up. I began thinking back on my life and reconsidered all that I personally call a blessing. I have parents that love each other and have remained together. I was easily able to go to college and then graduate school. I married a man who loves me well and we have four children that are able to attend a private school. I count each of these circumstances as blessings for which I am thankful but the truth is there is privilege involved. These realities have been relatively easy for me. And as Amy Julia recounts her own story, her advancements in life were even easier for her. There are many people for whom these realities will never be options due to circumstances beyond their control.
When I think about the terms blessing and privilege I understand both to be unmerited favor of some sort. One has a negative connotation and one has a positive one. I think of unmerited privilege as the result of a broken, faulty, hurtful system that attempts to keep certain people ahead of other people, yet I see unmerited blessing as a gift and if seen correctly, something that should humble me to be used to bless others….not because I am better or worse but because of our common humanity. A child has no say whether they are born to affluence, no say as to whether their parents stay together, no say if they are able to receive healthcare or proper nutrition. Is it a blessing that my children have all of these things or is it a privilege that I have not been mindful to ensure for other children other than my own? According to some studies, 65% of all children that live in my city are hungry. With all of the wealth that is present in Memphis, I can no longer honestly call this a blessing. This seems to be the result of privilege. Yet I say my own children are blessed. They have never been hungry…. At least not for more than a couple of hours. So, I live in tension and with more questions than answers. White Picket Fences is a book for those that find themselves in this kind of tension.
When I read about blessings in the Bible they do not exist solely for the person that receives them. Unmerited grace and blessing is to be shared. We often hear the phrase we are blessed to be a blessing. As early as Genesis 12:2, we see God deciding to bless an individual. He blessed Abraham immensely, but not for just Abraham and not just for his immediate family. Abraham was blessed beyond measure so that he would bless numerous generations from numerous families that would come after him. His unmerited blessing would change eternity. So, as a white, upper middle class mother of four children in a private school, White Picket Fences has forced me to ask, how will the blessings I have been given affect eternity? Am I using them to be a blessing or are the gifts I have encouraging a divisive privilege that is harmful in the city that I love?
As I read, I was grateful that Amy Julia anticipates this confusion and she has a whole chapter on privilege and blessing. I literally sighed when I got to this part of the book. All of my uncertainty has not been answered but I now have a framework to consider the difference and seek faithfulness. Amy Julia is imploring her readers to join her in a humble posture of asking questions, listening, and considering possibilities.
Interestingly, Amy Julia also brought to light the reality that privilege harms both those that have it and those that do not. With vulnerability she shares how privilege has harmed her and our larger privileged community. Anxiety, eating disorders, alcoholism, affairs, and materialism cause much harm in our families, our churches and our communities. I see this in my world. The sheltering from injustice and real significant pain seems to have caused us to come up with our own. Teens from affluent homes have more anxiety and depression than those from poorer homes where children have to work together to build the family. Privilege isolates and we were never meant to be isolated. I cannot help but wonder what our collected privileged life would look like if we were so concerned about the collective welfare of others that we did not have time to spend countless hours online and worried about temporal things. What if privilege actually became something positive? What if privilege and blessing were both means of empowerment for all peoples? These are the conversations Amy Julia wants us to have. Not with angry tones or a defensive posture, but with humility and hope and ultimately love. Love that comes in the form of sacrifice. I have been forced to look at the whole of my life. My lens with which I understand privilege is being changed. And that my friends, is what I consider a blessing.
If you have any inkling to step out of your comfort zone and listen, this book will bless you with stories, tears, hope, and thoughtfulness. This book about privilege will be a great blessing to you. I promise.