Weather Report November 2016

Two brothers were responsible for the Royal Navy and Army in New York during the American Revolution: Richard and William Howe, respectively. They were descendents of an “upwardly mobile aristocratic family” in England. Historian David Hackett Fischer says of Admiral Howe, “His opportunities came by privilege, but his achievements were won by merit.”1
What constituted privilege in 18th century England? At the top of the list of unearned advantages would have been education. The Howe brothers were taught by private tutors and schooled at Eton. Despite the quality of their education, both proved to be average students. The Howe family owed any prominence it enjoyed to its women. According to Fischer a maternal grandmother’s connections opened doors to the royal court where the brothers became friends with the future King George III.
At a recent meeting of the deacons, those present had the opportunity to complete an exercise designed to highlight unearned advantage. As a participant I read a list of twenty statements. For each statement that was true for me, a tally mark was made under “true”; I did similarly for any statement that was “false” for me. After totaling the tallies, I then subtracted the sum of the “false” tallies from the sum of the “true” tallies. A higher number was said to point to a greater likelihood of unearned, and largely unacknowledged, benefit.
Honestly I did not think of the Howe brothers at the deacons’ meeting; I made the connection later.  More specifically, I recalled the historian’s placement of the brother’s privilege over against any achievement. As a white male I am reminded often of advantages that are uniquely mine. The first two statements on the aforementioned exercise said this much: “I am male” and “I am white.” White men benefit from unearned advantages that non-white men do not.
In their day, the Howe brothers enjoyed benefits beyond what was commonly experienced by most. Long before the term “white-privilege” was coined to describe such unearned and unacknowledged advantage, Richard and his brother were privileged. Like any other British institution, the Royal Navy showed deference to privileged youth; Richard’s opportunity came by privilege. Yet, the Navy required its officers to earn any achievement.
Any serious reflection on the opportunity afforded me in my life inevitably leads me to expressions of gratitude for the number of individuals who believed in me and gave me an opportunity. I am aware that as a white male I am the recipient of at least two unearned benefits and acknowledge the role these advantages played in creating opportunity. Yet privilege alone does not adequately characterize my story. Along the way I had to earn any achievement. To assign the modest achievement in my life to “white privilege” alone would be a slight to my personhood. Even at my best, I could not avoid resenting such a narrow summary.
Scripturally, privilege is often portrayed as gifts entrusted to us by our Creator. This privilege presents opportunity, or in Jesus’ own words, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Benefit from largely unearned advantages permeates my life. The human need in the world calls for such privilege to be applied, to put to work, or in the language of the parable of the Talents, “traded for gain.” I am of the opinion that we are all more likely to acknowledge the unearned advantages in our lives where any achievement is understood as having been earned.     —Steven
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1Fischer, David Hackett. Washington’s Crossing. P.68.