Yesterday I came across an interesting article in the April issue of The Lutheran that raised a question I've been pondering since. It's a question that I believe is important for all of us to consider.
Because the online article is only available to subscribers, below I've included the passages that caught my eye.
A distant voice of alarm called out as I read the snazzy postcard I received in the mail from a local church. "Come and See Our Newly Renovated Community Center!" it read. A glamorous picture of the remodeled and expanded building glossed the center of the card. The closing line read: "God has richly blessed us!"
The large congregation was in a middle-class area. Undoubtedly, their economic affluence had helped make the building project a reality during these difficult economic times.
I studied the card for a moment and set it aside, but hours later that voice persisted. "What is it?" I thought.
Another voice came to mind. It was that of my friend, Rubi, a social worker and member of a Lutheran congregation. "We are blessed!" I could hear her say, "We have a strong community, beautiful children and the sun is shining on us today!"
Her church is of modest means. No doubt the congregation that sent the postcard is blessed, but is their new building a sign of God's blessing? What about churches in more modest neighborhoods? Are less wealthy congregations somehow less blessed?
Sometimes we say "we are so blessed" when we mean "we are so privileged." I know, as I sit and type on my fancy computer that this is a tricky ethical conversation. I'm not out to critique the gap between the rich and poor at this moment. I'm not suggesting we hand over all our material possessions. I'm suggesting we think about the difference between the privileges and blessing in our lives. It's a question of not only semantics but theology.
Maybe, in the face of our social addiction to materialism, it's become normal to confuse our blessings with our privileges. The prosperity gospel is all around us. Famous "pop" church leaders preach that material success is an indication of God's favor or blessing. Cultural messages teach us to idolize material things like fancy cars, nice clothes, sexualized bodies, and expensive homes. Suddenly a big, beautiful home or an elaborate vacation becomes a "blessing."
But the opportunity to own material things like a brand-new car, a gym membership, or an expensive suit is ours as a result of our economic privilege.
In the U.S., whites have been historically privileged over people of other ethnicities. All over the world, corporations are privileged over individual farmers or factory workers. Throughout the centuries, society has privileged certain characteristics over others. Privilege is a result of social construction. It's born of systems such as slavery, colonization, and patriarchal societies that honor certain kinds of work. Privilege is not divine providence.
...When we equate God's blessing with material things, it can give rise to an attitude that we are an "exceptional" country that is somehow more blessed and "better" than the rest of the world because we are materially privileged. We may think our technology is the best, our ideas are the best, our views about religion, our way of life...you get the idea. But perhaps we aren't necessarily exceptional-just privileged.
Jesus reminds us in John 10:10 that he came so we might have "abundant life." What does that mean to us? Do our material goods compose "abundant life?" What blessings make your life abundant?
The line between a privilege and a blessing isn't always clear. Sometimes there is tension. For example, is a glass of clean drinking water a blessing or a privilege? Is the peaceful neighborhood where I live a blessing or a privilege? Is my first-rate education a blessing or a privilege? Is my local, excellent hospital emergency room a blessing or a privilege?
*Credit: Lindsay Mack, former ELCA missionary; The Lutheran April 2011 - emphasis mine
Are will guilty of speaking of our privileges as "blessings?" Does it matter what term we use? (I think it does.) Are we really correctly representing to the world what it is to be blessed when we put vanity plates reading "HISWILL" on our Lexus or tell them that God "gave us" our new laptop/iphone/car/big house/etc?
I wish more Christians would seriously consider this question.