Several years ago, a colleague at Pacific Lutheran University and I planned an outing for a group of 300 student leaders. The outing was a scavenger hunt in Downtown Tacoma for a variety of sites — museums, landmarks and social service organizations — in an effort for them to have a better understanding of what the area has to offer. Recognizing, though, that transporting 300 students the seven miles from campus to downtown carries all sorts of logistical problems, we opted to use public transportation. As it turns out, though, using public transportation also created a logistical nightmare.

As our students crowded and overcrowded into the buses, there were others — everyday riders — who were forced to wait for later buses. We unintentionally created an inconvenience for those who truly needed to use the buses because we had the privilege of using the buses.

But something else happened in those bus rides. As I looked around the buses, I noticed that most of the everyday riders looked different than me. There were many minorities, some with diminished mental capacity or physical ability, and others who were clearly in the grips of abuse and addiction.

The privilege I possess became abundantly clear to me on these bus rides.  I owned a car but I chose to ride the bus. I was receiving a paycheck but my ticket was donated by the public transportation system. I had (and have) the power to make these choices.

Privilege often goes unrecognized by those who have it but remains a source of envy for those who do not. And the difference between privilege and right is often unnoticed until all have access to the same privilege.

I have noticed the difference and, as a result, recognize more inconsistencies between privilege and right. Access to food and shelter is — not just should be, but is — a right.  Access to education is a right. Access to medical care is a right. Personally, I believe that marriage for all is a right.

In the Christian gospels, Jesus is portrayed as advocating for those without rights, speaking out and acting on behalf of the marginalized. He recognized the difference between right and privilege and did what he could to bring light to that difference.

And, for followers of Jesus, it becomes the responsibility to seek out areas in life where there is a line — clear or blurred — between right and privilege. And when those areas are identified, it further becomes their responsibility to speak out and advocate for the diminishment of those lines.

We must be vigilant in seeking out the instances of right versus privilege. The recognition for me became more fully realized on a city bus. For you, though, it may be simpler—hearing the words of a friend or journalist, passing a homeless man or woman on a street corner, or even feeling the pangs of hunger. How will you respond?

5 Comments

  1. Right on! I’ve been using the idea of rights, privilege and the corollary, abuse of privilege, as a pretty reliable measuring stick for sorting out what is right and what is wrong in this supremely complicated world. I think people should spend much more time thinking about the privileges they have — not that they’re bad in themselves, but they can blind us or make us feel entitled if we aren’t careful.

    I’m unsure if you’re ordained, but as a follower of Christ and a teacher, how would you help Americans come to grips with privilege and feelings of entitlement? I agree that it’s pretty ingrained in our culture.

  2. Kyle A. Franklin

    Hi, Sam! I think that the recognition of right vs. privilege starts with conversation. While I recognize the validity of being “loud and proud” on occasion, more often than not, being loud translates to an unwillingness to truly converse. I believe that I have more power to create change in the one-on-one interactions (or by writing my observations) than if I were to stand on a soapbox and yell it all out. I mean, let’s be honest, most people (including me) write off whatever is said from a soapbox–whether it is valid or not! But if we choose instead to start with simple conversation, we are likely to be better received.

    In order to have a realistic conversation, though, it means being informed and educated. For example–one could argue that our feelings of entitlement could be partially based on the fact that we (the US) consume approximately 25% of the world’s resources while others in the world starve and live one less than a dollar a day. Many of us are used to getting what we want when we want it. This is not a privilege most of the world has. What if, every time we wanted something beyond our basic needs, we waited a month before we made the purchase and, every time we decided not to go through with the purchase, subsequently donated the money we would have spent to a charity or an overseas mission? The world would change and we would live much simpler lives.

    No matter what, Sam, it is going to take time. And honestly, not every person is going to make the changes or respond positively, but every conversation will have merit and changes will occur…

  3. Thanks Kyle! Not quite the response I had anticipated. :-)

    What do you think is different about writing articles and participating in discussion through mass media and social media, and standing on a soapbox as you call it?

    Do you think it’s not too optimistic to expect humans to put off purchases of new things for a month, perhaps even giving away the money saved if one no longer desires the purchase after a month? I’ve never seen anything in human nature that would make me believe that has any chance of succeeding. I feel like people’s privilege needs to be highlighted by those who are disadvantaged by it, and their advocates, for things to happen. I think social pressure and even gentle shaming are pretty powerful tools of social change. Do you not agree?

  4. This is a very timely article considering the current state of our economy and the rampant consumerism that we see around us in our every day lives. It’s as if people have forgotten the real meaning of life and that money and goods aren’t the most important thing in life. People have lost the ability to control themselves.

    Thank you for this insightful post.

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