Wednesday, December 17, 2008


We are nearing the end of what my friend Mary Stengel calls the Hunger Holidays, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas when Americans respond to the needs of those who are very often called less fortunate. Having worked for a number of years as the Executive Director of our county's Commission on Homelessness, I am thankful for the generosity of so many people during November and December each year. But I have a major problem with the idea that the people we are helping are less fortunate.

Calling someone less fortunate perpetuates a great lie about poverty in the United States, the lie that poverty is, if not the poor person's fault, at least a product of the mysterious power of fortune or luck. Nothing could be further from the truth. Luck has little if anything to do with whether a person is poor. What has a great deal to do with it is privilege.

We don't like to think about privilege, about the privileges that we enjoy, much less the privileges that are denied to others. Unexamined privilege is one of the most dangerous features of American life. When we are unaware of the privileges that we enjoy, we come to a very faulty conclusion about ourselves, the assumption that we earned it all. That assumption often, maybe inevitably, leads to the conclusion that those who are poor or homeless are that way, not because they are less privileged than we are, but because they are lazy or simply the victims of bad luck.

During the past twenty years or so, I have frequently taken an inventory of the privileges that I enjoy, privileges that have made it possible for me to live a fairly comfortable life. My grandfather and both my parents attended Ivy League universities. There were plenty of books in the house as I was growing up. There was never a question about my attending college or going to divinity school. My sexual orientation was never an issue when I was being considered for ordination. And, most obviously, as a white male I have privileges that have been, and are still being, denied to men and women of color. To borrow a phrase from the late Ann Richards, I was born on first base, but thank God I know I didn't hit a single.

In about a month our country will have its first African-American President. I am pretty sure that Mr. Obama has made his own inventory of the privileges that he has received. The time is right for all of us to make our own inventories and to stop thinking of those who are less privileged than we are as less fortunate.

1 comment:

Fr. Daniel Weir said...

A somewhat expanded version of this will be broadcast on WBFO, an NPR station in Buffalo, NY, on Tuesday, January 11. It should also be available on the website at the Listener Commentaries link under Quicklinks.