jesus and the problem of privilege

"Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets." (Lk 6.24-26)
I was thinking of these words yesterday and they mingled in my head with what I've heard about social privilege. White privilege, male privilege, class privilege, etc. I've seen a lot of people struggling with the realization that they enjoy opportunities and access to things that other people are denied, poorer people, women, people of color. There's a certain guilt stirred by that. And often unsatisfactory attempts to atone for their privileges in some way, perhaps by some level of solidarity with the unprivileged. While at the same time trying to secure for the unprivileged some of the same rights and access that the privileged have (which leads to an odd tension). And because this privilege is so ingrained in the social structure, it seems even the most committed prophets against privilege usually can't suggest a personal response that makes much difference for the unprivileged in society.

But if Jesus' words of woe are true, then the problem of privilege looks completely different. Not that privilege doesn't exist; it does. Social privilege means that certain people are more honored and powerful and have access to more of what society offers, and that's certainly exists. But what Jesus seems to be saying, here and elsewhere, is that such privilege is not a good thing. That social privilege is not a benefit but a detriment. And that actually makes sense, if our values and purposes are the same of Jesus', if what we want in life is to learn to trust God completely, rather than trusting ourselves or the power of society. To be honored by a society we do not respect, to be given the power that corrupts, to be tempted with the lures that can only enslave us, these are not benefits. "For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" And so we see Jesus born among the poor in an occupied country, rejecting the power he was offered, and dying despised as a criminal. We also see his message rejected by the privileged and embraced more readily among the unprivileged. The problem of privilege, as Jesus presents it, seems to be that privilege is a serious problem for the privileged.

As Jesus suggested to the rich young man, however, there is something that the privileged can do about this. To be born into an unfortunate situation is not our fault; what matters is what we do with our unfortunate situation. And unlike the socially unprivileged who do not have the access or resources to change their situation in relation to society, the socially privileged can change theirs.

Ironically, the complaints and protests against social structures that privilege only a select few actually reinforce the belief that it is desirable to be so privileged. Jesus showed us that such favors or honors or powers should simply be avoided. If we seek to live the good life that Jesus lived, then the only way society should be lifting us up is on a cross.