It has taken me 40 years to accept my privilege as a white, middle-class man.
I hated this idea. Hated it. Because I’ve always prided myself on something – that I am a good guy, one of the proverbial good guys in fact.
I help other people. I empower women and people of color. I worked hard to get where I was and made sure I didn’t tread on anyone else along the way.
I didn’t go to one of those evil private schools, and although I happened to attend an elite university, I only got there through hard work, not breeding or nepotistic connection.
Privilege is a cultural “thing,” of course, and something to get self-righteous about on the internet. But it’s never been a feature of my journey. I’m one of the good guys.
Except, that’s not really true.
Now, I’m not going to waste my limited space here in explaining to you in depth why I’m privileged, or why I’ve always had access to far more power than most of the people around me.
But it’s true. I was born into a middle-class area, in which my parents owned their home.
That meant I was in catchment for a well-performing primary school, which slingshotted me through a grammar school to the University of Cambridge, after which my career options opened up rather wide.
At the same time, I was born as a man into a system historically skewed to favor my gender.
And on top of that, I was born a rather brilliant, Dulux-shade of English white in a culture which only half a century ago still had hotels with window signs that read, “No blacks, no Irish.”
I get it now. Privilege was layered on top of privilege. What bothers me though is how long it took me to get there.
Because as a white, middle-class man, I was also part of a system that came with a pre-installed set of defenses against the accusation of unbalanced power. Namely, the myth of working hard – as if those from working-class backgrounds defy their very category; the argument that things are changing and that the world won’t rectify itself overnight – always leads to tokenism and a pragmatic continued embrace of the status quo.
I was happily pottering along in what Richard Rohr calls the first half of life, convinced that having an answer for everything was enough to prevent me from ever having to listen to the arguments.
Eventually, a few things shook me out of my bubble. As a hopefully maturing Christian, I began to think a bit about systemic sin, rather than just personal sin.
Jesus came to liberate the entire world, not just people who once got road rage or had a fake ID when they were 17.
He came to break down systems – the very systems that elevate one person above another based on history, greed, prejudice and luck – and as his follower, I think I’m meant to play a part in that.
So, this led me to listen to a few people who were different from me, people who I’d usually put up those tried-and-tested defenses against.
And do you know what? When I actually listened, I started to see the fault lines in the “good guy” defense.
So, aged 40, I started to write a book for my teenage self (or more practically, for the teenagers I work with today as a youth leader).
I wanted to short-circuit the ponderous journey of my own life, through which I’ve unwittingly overpowered so many people who don’t share my privileges.
My starting point is this: If you’re presented with the facts about your gender as a man – and particularly a white, middle-class one – and a biblical rallying call to decide what kind of man you want to be in this broken world, maybe you’ll choose to be the sort of guy who doesn’t just pragmatically accept the state of the world but decides to live in contrast to it.
To do that means engaging in one of the hardest things of all: the relinquishing of power and privilege.
And that’s why Jesus is the best possible role model you could have as a guy. He had power and privilege to a level we can’t even comprehend, and yet he gave it all up for the sake of this broken world.
His subversion of power is miraculous and beautiful. It is the beacon of light by which we might actually see powerful men change their hearts.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in Issue 1 – 2020 of Mission Catalyst, a publication of BMS World Mission. It is used with permission.
Martin Saunders is Director of Innovation at Youthscape, former Editor of Youthwork magazine and the author of “The Man You’re Made To Be.”