Privilege, Power, and Envy
Chalcedon Report No. 324, July 1992
It is a fact of history that some people are privileged and others are not. The privileged status can be earned, inherited, or seized by force; in any case, it conveys power, and, very often, envy. Man being a sinner, he resents the privileges of others, however much deserved. This resentment has often led to revolutions; these have not improved the situation and have usually worsened them.
This fact of privilege has caused man great problems from antiquity to the present. The Greeks of old resented the aristocracies of their city-states and supplanted them with regimes that were only worse. The Roman plebeians rebelled against the old order for generations; what followed the often evil, old, aristocratic republic was the empire and totalitarian tyranny.
Very often, the people in power create a group to be made the target of the popular anger: Congress creates and regulates the Internal Revenue Service to do its will, and the IRS gets the animosity. Medieval emperors (and kings and popes) used some Jews as their agents, and all the Jews paid the penalty. It was not usually anti-Semitism as much as it was anti-establishment anger. Byzantium never used Jews, and the Jews there never had any problems; it was the Goths, servants of the emperors, who were hated and resented.
Envy usually seeks a close-by target. In old Russia, it was not the tsar and Moscow that were resented as much as the local kulaks, rich, successful peasants. Because hatred and envy are personal feelings, their targets are made personal and close: it therefore becomes blacks, whites, and other racial groups, nearby persons who typify all the privilege and power that is resented.
Thus, today, especially since the riots of early May 1992 over the Rodney King trial, American whites are increasingly resentful of blacks because some, a small minority, rioted, looted, and attacked whites and Asiatics. These rioters were not hardworking, gainfully employed Christian blacks, but welfare recipients and people with criminal records. Their refuge has been their color and poverty, and this has given them a “privileged” status of self-pity and immunity to blunt criticism because of their color. The charge of racism has become a convenient refuge from the truth for black hoodlums, and for black and white politicians and media.
If poverty and a nonworking status invoke widespread pity and feelings of guilt among the affluent, they will be used as tools of privilege and power. Wealth then becomes a handicap. One aftermath of the Los Angeles riots was the unwillingness of the successful people in Beverly Hills and elsewhere to use expensive automobiles. Cheaper makes were purchased to conceal their wealth, because wealth had become a liability.
This represents a moral inversion. To work hard, to advance and rightfully gain privileges, is normally seen both as socially necessary and morally sound if done honestly. Now many view it as a liability. I learned a few years back of two clergymen in the Midwest who preached that it was “immoral” to make “too much” money; one man set the limit of morally viable income at $30,000, the other at $40,000. This probably tells us what they made! In one large church, a member asked a friend, a neighbor and a pastor at another church to help her locate the verse, “From each according to his needs, to each according to his abilities.” She was outraged when the pastor said the sentence came from Karl Marx, not the Lord; the pastor plainly did not know his Bible! (In the 1950s, a pastor-friend had a like experience, with a like outcome. In this instance, the woman wanted to locate the verse, “Honesty is the best policy,” which, of course, comes from Benjamin Franklin, not the Bible.) Such is ignorance in the church.
The rise of envy is destructive of social order because it strikes out against all legitimate, as well as illegitimate, privilege and power. It ensures the victory of the envious over the diligent and working persons in a society. It leads to a conflict society in which hatred replaces neighborliness. It is also a fertile cause of anti-Christianity because Biblical faith stresses the necessity of virtue for privilege and power in a godly society. It is both anti-Biblical and suicidal for a society to war against godly privilege and power.
Our Lord makes clear that the ungodly love to lord it over men (Matt. 20:25–27), and ungodly wealth and pride keeps men out of God’s Kingdom (Matt. 19:24). On the other hand, we are also told, “The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it” (Prov. 10:22). The Christian goal is not to enthrone envy by abolishing all privilege and power (the pretended goal of Marxism), but to abolish envy and to establish justice, peace, and mercy under God.
In Proverbs 14:30 we are told, “A sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones.” This is true of both men and societies. Nations eaten with envy are rotten to the core. Proverbs 27:4 says, “Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous; but who is able to stand before envy?” God promises judgment to peoples according to their envy (Ezek. 35:11), because it is envy which brings on His anger and His vengeance against a people.
Envy begets hatred, and it divides a nation and its peoples; it destroys marriages and families; it splits churches and organizations. Basic to its life is this premise: let no man be better than I am. But envy is now basic to the life of states; it is a constant force and motivation in politics and education. The churches are in silence about it (and others of the deadly sins). Take away the appeal to envy, and most politicians would have no platform left, and many men and women would lose their motivating force.
Envy is basic to theft, whether illegal, or legalized through taxation and expropriation. We are as Christians summoned to abandon envy and theft. As St. Paul states it, “Let him that stole steal no more; but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28). Honesty and work become the motivating forces for godly charity. Elections are coming up soon in the United States. If we vote for the platforms promoting envy, God will judge us.
Topics: Biblical Law, Culture , Education, Humanism, Socialism, Statism