On Humility and Privilege

A few months ago I wrote about the relationship between self-esteem and servanthood. The observation I made then was that we often fail to humble ourselves to take on the form of a servant (Philippians 2.6-8) because we are struggling to secure self-esteem.

Somewhat paradoxically, it takes a lot of ego-strength to be humble--to let others go first, to take the last place, to "wash feet," and to allow others to get the praise, recognition, and accolades. We struggle with this. Not because we are wicked but because our sense of self-worth is built upon praise, compliments, attention, respect and popularity. Thus we engage in what psychologists have called "excessive reassurance seeking," constantly taking the temperature of our social network to verify that we are being noticed, approved of, and included.

As I noted in that earlier post, this struggle for significance is made even more difficult if you lack what this culture defines as "valuable," "worthy," and "significant." We all want to be valued by others but we can struggle if we don't think we have anything of value to offer, share or show to others.

This brings me to the relationship between privilege and humility. And the point I want to make about this is how humility is often the privilege of the privileged.

Let me try to illustrate what I'm talking about.

It is easy for me, in social situations, to not attend to my reputation or my social presentation because, in many ways, my reputation is already well secured. People often kid me about just how shabbily I can dress. My friend Kyle calls it my "homeless chic."

That casualness can give me an air of relaxed non-pretentiousness. But there is a dark side to this. I can get away with this look because of my privilege and reputation. I am a male. I am white. I am a Doctor. And I have an established reputation of success on my campus. I can afford to look like a hippie or a homeless person because of who I am.

Put simply, because my reputation precedes me I can look like I don't care about my reputation. I can be inconspicuous because I'm not inconspicuous. People know who I am.

In short, I can be casual, relaxed and self-forgetful--I can be "humble"--because I'm privileged.

Here's another way to say all this. I can take "the last place"--and pat myself on the back for being so Jesus-like for doing so--much more easily than others because I'm already in "the first place." My ego-strength to be "humble" derives from my pre-existing privilege. I can be negligent, unconcerned, and nonchalant in regards to respect, praise and attention--be humble about it all--because I already have respect, praise and attention.

In this sense humility is similar to charity. It's not charity if I'm giving out of my excess. And it's not humility if I'm constantly operating out of a storehouse of social and reputational capital. 

Consequently, I've come to the conclusion that a lot my "humility" isn't really humility at all. I don't think I have a clue about humility.

All this goes to a contrast in my mind between a deep versus cosmetic spirituality. Most of engage in a cosmetic spirituality. We tweak our prayer life. We volunteer to do the dishes. We show up on weekends to help with a ministry project. We try to be more patient and kind at work. And, to be clear, all this is good, good work.

But in my examen of my humility I've come to realize that most if not all of the cosmetic things I've done in order to be more humble have been built atop things like my privilege, success and reputation. Which means I haven't, as of yet, really gotten around to the deep work of humility. And what that sort of work might entail is a very scary prospect.

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44 thoughts on “On Humility and Privilege”

  1. I've struggled with this same conundrum throughout my life. One thought that has helped me is this: humility does not grow out of self-abasement. Instead, I think it grows from actually being convinced that whatever is good in me is a gift, and then focusing on genuine repentance for whatever is still wicked in me. If I can't find anything to genuinely repent of, then I know that I am falling into pride. If I only focus on the gift aspect, it is all-too-easy for this to turn into another form of false humility...the "Oh Lord, thank you for making me good, and not like those other sinners." But instead to give thanks, and then quickly turn to "Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner"...this is what I think genuine humility looks like, and it is very challenging for me to actually live that way.

  2. Dang, Richard... Your self-analysis is harsh to the point of being overly critical. I think humility comes from within and is more about a spirit of openness and inclusivity in your heart, rather than your external actions. When you value every human being as equally worthy (to yourself and God) and allow the possibility that "the least of these" can be your teachers (and not the other way around)... then it doesn't so much matter what is on the outside, or what you wear or how you choose to serve.

  3. Christ "in" me is the hope of Glory! That's it! There is absolutely nothing in and of myself that does the trick. God must save us from ourselves. That's the Gospel, if I understand it correctly.

  4. I had participated in a lesson on the story of Jesus and the "rich young ruler" in Matthew's account. Your piece today has given me a fresh perspective on in. (Though it may not be accurate.) It seems to me, that this pericope may well be delving into what you discussed. The petitioner (a.k.a. "the rich young ruler") has plenty of privilege, and also seems to have a good dose of cosmetic humility. Jesus' response in telling him to sell all he has, give it to the poor, and follow Him, can be seen as guiding the man into deep humility. Especially as sen through the writer of Matthew's eyes as the pericope ends with Jesus saying that the last shall be first, and the first last. I'd like to hear your thoughts and that of the other readers on this.

  5. Brilliant. Thank you. I would love for you to blog about 'the deep work of humility' and the practices that might lead us towards it. (At least I think I would ... :))

  6. "It's not charity if I'm giving out of my excess. And it's not humility if I'm constantly operating out of a storehouse of social and reputational capital."

    I strongly disagree with this. God always gives good gifts out of his excess. And there was this one Guy who, though in the form of God, took the form of a servant and humbled himself to the point of death, even though he had angels minister to him in the wilderness and could at a moment's notice call on legions of angels to rescue him. Pretty much the ultimate in slumming it while coming from enormous privilege!

  7. I wonder about the relationship between this kind of examen and "The Little Way" of St. Thérese. After all, it's hard to imagine a more self-aggrandizing goal than wanting to be a saint, as she confessed was her early dream. But after realizing and acknowledging her own ego-driven goal, she was able to develop the disciplined practice of the Little Way.

    I think the implication is that any examination of our own shortcomings must be turned outward, and enacted (ie, praxis). But can we trust that Little Way-like actions will accomplish the "deep work of humility," as you put it, or are we still looking for grand gestures of faith? You've given me a lot to think about with this one…

  8. Richard, I'm a pastor who has been reading your blog for the past few months, and have found what you write to be so honest and helpful, and the same is true here. I think that you are willing to go to a deeper level than many on in your reflections on issues like this. I wonder if part of what you describe is about struggling, out of insecurity, to find some "success," but then realizing once you get there that "success" isn't worth near all of the fuss we've made over it: and with this experiential knowledge comes freedom. But I wonder as well, what a humility not built on accomplished security and privilege might look like: how can you arrive at that point if you haven't experienced that realization about "success" or privilege firsthand? The irony is, the more free you become, the more humble you become in confessing your faults, often the more that people applaud and laud you for your humility! I hope you might write more about this at some point. In my own life, I wonder if, after a person has arrived at a certain point of "success," if genuine humility doesn't involve, at some level, "climbing back down the ladder" into obscurity, even for a time. I wonder if it's not like something Will Campbell wrote in "The Glad River," where at the end of Doops' story of Cecilia, the 16th century Dutch Anabaptist who dies for her faith, Cecilia decides to burn the history of her people she has so painstakingly written, because the writing of the story is not the actual story. (But don't take that as an invitation to stop writing! :) I need what you write here.)

  9. I think this adds an interesting dimension to the story of the rich young man, and it adds to Bonhoeffer's discussion of resisting the call of discipleship. But does this illuminate about the others who hesitated to follow Jesus — for instance, what about the man in Matthew 8 who wants to go and bury his father?

  10. I agree, a constant confessional, repentant posture is the foundation. Like you, turning quickly to the Jesus prayer has been a key practice in this.

  11. Thanks Barb. I can be hard on myself. But it's never morbid or depressive. I think you take these practices as far as you joy can carry you.

    I really like what you're saying, framing humility as being in a learning posture toward "the least of these." I've been working on that too!

  12. I'd agree with your analysis here, Jesus looking on him and "loving him" and calling him to something deeper. I think that's exactly what is happening in the story.

    I'd only add that the story goes on where Peter says, "Look, we have left everything to follow you!" And Jesus responds that everyone who has given up homes or family will, in the Kingdom, have homes and family to spare. Which is to say, sometimes I wonder if the story isn't really about "sacrifice" (giving everything away) than about moving from one sort of economy into another sort of economy. An economy, to be sure, that will depended upon humility as you would be asked to be needy person among other needy persons in a economy of care and sharing (e.g., Acts 2, 4).

  13. I've dabbled in writing about this but haven't pulled it all together into something systematic. But one thing I fear is how freaked out people would be. Humility, a deep humility, is really very counter-cultural. It can sound unhealthy and self-loathing to modern ears. I've yet to figure out how to frame and package it all to have it make sense to readers.

  14. I guess I'd say that, yes, Jesus starts with privilege, but that he empties himself of it all, lets it go. And so I ask myself: How much have I let go of mine? The Son of Man had no place to lay his head. He, quite literally, gave his life away. My life--my humility--is nowhere near that sort of thing. Which goes to my final point about a deep humility.

    Basically, I'm a nice enough fellow. To that extent I'm humble. But that Jesus guy was crazy.

  15. Just to pile on a little... I'm in a very similar place; my reputation & "success" is secure so its easy to be humble (with confidence, ironically). It makes me wonder if we should be on the lookout or actively seek those places where we are a stranger... places where our reputation is really unknown, and then to see what humility looks like in those places. Maybe in situations where we have to "work with" others (as opposed to working "for") so that our expertise has to be set aside during the effort. I know when I'm in situations like that, I will tend to "establish my credentials" by using a certain type of wit, as though to say "you may not know me, but you should know that someone extraordinary is in your midst"... I troll for complements. There are so many ways I torpedo genuine humility... and a lot of that is self-delusion...

  16. That's an awesome point. Great question: "Can we trust that Little Way-like actions will accomplish the "deep
    work of humility or are we still looking for grand
    gestures of faith?"

    For me, I trust the Little Way. I'd say it's the Little Way that got me to this point in the post. I remind myself that practitioners of the Little Way were Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa. Their lives are "grand gestures" in our imagination, but I think they would tell a story of accretion, small things building up over years and years. Basically, if you practice the Little Way for about 10 years your life is going to look really different looking back. It's been messing with my life and I'm just starting out.

  17. "actively seek those places where we are a stranger"

    I think that's key, though I don't do a great job at that myself.

  18. Thanks Jeremy. I've been told that Richard Rohr's book Falling Upward has some good insights about this. The book is on my shelf and I plan to read it over the holidays. But the basic idea, as I've been told, is that life is a two-stage process sort of like you describe here. The fist stage is climbing up to secure success. But the second stage is, once you've reached the top, to, in your words, "climbing back down the ladder into obscurity."

    And your last bit of encouragement is, ummm, prescient. I have been tempted to walk away from blogging for these very reasons. Not with any grand flourish or drama, just an easy letting go, climbing back down into obscurity.

    But not yet. :-)

  19. I second the vote for Falling Upward. In fact, read anything by Richard Rohr and you will come away transformed and filled with peace. :)

  20. Indeed. And the earth shaking truth of that statement is that the humiliation is often our own doing. I can look back at the most humiliating experiences of my life and remember that at the time they gave me such pride, especially spiritual pride. Only to later on hear myself whisper, "O God, what have I done?"

  21. Someone once told me, "It's considered humility when the Pope (CEO, elder, whatever) hugs a stinking beggar. It isn't considered humility when one stinking beggar hugs another stinking beggar. So our conception of someone being humble is built on the foundation of our believing that person to be more important, in the first place."

    More personally, this post is really scary to me. 99% of the time I think our tolerance, our humility, our kindness, our openness, our piety, our honesty--is all aimed at projecting ourselves as the sort of people we want to be seen as.

    What freaks me out is that I don't really want to give that up--at all. At the same time, I do want you to see me as someone who wants to give it up!

  22. "A brother asked one of the elders: What is humility? The elder answered him: "To do good to those who do evil to you. The brother asked: Supposing a man cannot go that far, what should he do? The elder replied: Let him get away from them and keep his mouth shut."

    From Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert

    I suspect that the more we talk about humility -- even as wisely as Richard does -- the less we will live it -- suffer it (Philippians 2:8 is the paradigm text). After Simone Weil, I think humility is actually an "affliction" (malheur).

  23. Please - don't get too humble - if the humility you speak of leads you to retire the Experimental Theology blog.
    (but I get it ... if / [when] you come to that place ... when this season ends). So for now, while blessed with E.T., I'll continue to enjoy everyday of it.
    Thanks Dr. Beck - Gary Y.

  24. Richard, are you familiar with "differentiation of the self" and the work of David Schnarch and Murray Bowen? I think it applies here, big time.

  25. We need it. One of my pet peeves with preaching and theology is how little we discuss what we can do, practically. It's why I like Buddhism. They actually talk about practices.

  26. ~chuckles~ does it help any to know i have absolutely no idea who you are other than the thoughts posted here?

  27. If we make our focus the fact that we are God's beloved, and then we begin to live out of that reality, understanding that others are also beloved, wouldn't that be a life-giving way towards humility? For me it's important to know that I am of great worth and value, while recognizing that others are equally sacred.

    What is challenging for me is that we live in a competitive world, so if I are trying to get a job or advance in my career, I have to do something to try to "look good." I don't know if there's any way around that, and I'm not even sure that's always a bad thing, if I'm being honest about my gifts and abilities and my desire to use them for good in some way in the world. My hope is that even though I may need to "jump through hoops" in order to get whatever position it is that I am trying to achieve, that my focus is really on my relationship with God and how to best be a part of what God is doing in the world.

    The other I worry about is if I started to hang out a lot with people on the margins, I wouldn't have any networking ability in the future. I do really admire how Jesus seemed totally unconcerned about that kind of thing, and didn't worry whatsoever about his reputation. So amazing! I hope I can one day reach that level of trust in who I am and my worth that I don't need to worry about what others may think of me as long as I'm staying true to my heart.

    Thanks for the post.

    Richard, what is scary for you about "deep humility?"

  28. recently saw this very interesting essay explaining that the reason poor people would pay so much for luxury goods is that that is what it takes to get the attention of the rest of the public. the whole essay is well worth the read, but a snippet to whet your appetite:

    I remember my mother taking a next door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way — lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person — her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings — got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn‘t work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, “life isn’t fair little girl.”


  29. I don't think you can relate Richard's musings with Jesus' humiliation. As far as the world was concerned, Jesus had nothing, not excess. We can understanding him as coming from a position of excess only insofar as we lay our theological conviction over the top.

  30. Thanks Richard, much to think about. This post reminded me of this RSAnimate of a snippet from Slavoj Zizek. He has a book by the same name which I intend to read one day. I'd be interested to know whether you hear or see some connections. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpAMbpQ8J7g

  31. I'm often rather dismayed by the devaluation of aesthetics among some religious folk. There seems to be an almost gnostic idea that we should disregard appearances entirely, that only our internal selves really matter. This appears to transcend liberal and conservative differences.

  32. Humility is a matter of context. If one has wealth and privilege, then genuine humility for that person will appear one way, and will appear clothed with privilege, while if one is without significant means then humility will look very different, that is it will be clothed in rags. But either can be genuine. It's not about lying about who you are, and pretending to be less.

    When Jesus spoke of the widow and her mite, Jesus was speaking from the context of his own relative privilege, aware of the woman's selfless act from the context of her relative poverty and yet well aware that neither he nor his listeners shared in her poverty. He called upon his listeners, not to take on her actual poverty, but to see her selflessness as a way of life which transcends socio-economics, a way of life which is accessible from whatever degree of privilege we find ourselves.

    Zacheus is also put forth as an example: from his context of privilege he is called to account to those whom he exploited to gain his privilege. He is not called to give it all away, nor to take on the rags of the poor, but to cease his exploitive ways and to do what is possible to reconcile himself where possible with those who suffered sacrifice so that Zacheus could achieve and sustain his relative privilege.

    And so too the rich young man, who is unwilling to give up his attachment to his property, his things, and re-prioritize his life, putting God and neighbor first. He probably didn't have to give it all to the poor, (the apostles retained their property and business interests, even while in Jesus' service) but he could not even contemplate giving up his attachment to his things to more fully embrace the mindset which places love and God and neighbor at the forefront of one's concerns.

    Being humble does not mean surrendering privilege, it is more about how we accept the grace which has come into our life and learning to be a vehicle of grace in the lives of those around us.

  33. Good timing BTW... today's Daily Office reading includes Matthew 18:1-9

    At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

    One wonders how to become "humble like this child"... no preexisting success or reputation to distract the child (or the onlookers!)...

  34. This is a timely thought, for me. I have noticed something over the last few years and, specifically, within the last couple of weeks that I think exposes in me some of what you've written about here.

    I've been broadcasting ACU games on radio regularly since 2008. I also for the last 15 years - either full-time or freelance - have been a TV and radio sportscaster for a variety of national networks.

    This season, as ACU has begun playing Division I opponents (meaning teams most sports fans are familiar with), I have encountered lots of veteran and/or prominent sportscasters. For example, when ACU played Maryland last Wednesday, the Terrapins' play-by-play man was longtime DC-area announcer Johnny Holliday. And the guys calling the game on TV were Wes Durham and former Duke and NBA star Mike Gminski, who is now a CBS announcer.

    Before the game, I introduced myself to those guys and found a way to make sure they knew I've worked for CBS and ESPN and Turner Sports, et al. (It was something subtle, like, "Hey, did you know I work for CBS?") Some of that disclosure was to make a personal connection, which I really enjoy and is certainly my nature. For example, Holliday called Navy football 30 years ago on radio, and I did some Navy games last fall on TV. Durham is an Atlanta guy, and we've known and worked with some of the same people. And Gminski works the NCAA Tournament with veteran sportscaster Tim Brando, who has taken me under his wing the last couple of years. So that was a way of establishing a connection with those guys, and again some of it was likely a legitimate way of connecting.

    But I'm pretty sure that in telling these guys what else I've done and do for national networks I was also trying to justify myself to them, lest they think I'm some anonymous, West Texas yokel who does ACU games in between roping dogies. It was a way of seeking their validation of me as a professional and - who knows - as a person.

    Here is what tips me off to my own nefarious schemes: In the circles in which I move on a daily basis - church, the ACU campus, social media - lots of people know I call ACU games. And if they don't know, it doesn't bother me - perhaps (and I'm getting into some really embarrassing and sinister territory here) because I don't think anyone in these circles is worthy of impressing. Yikes.

    I could be overanalyzing all of this. I've been known to do that. But I've also been known to care far too much about whether or not others think I'm valuable. Surely no one is still reading this. Even I've lost interest. But there you go.

  35. Yay for Buddhism! - I never could figure out a way to negotiate humility in the Christian framework that wasn't incredibly psychologically destructive. Buddhists concepts of compassion and detachment and yoga and meditation, on the other hand, actually work (at least for me.) I don't relate to statements like this:

    it takes a lot of ego-strength to be humble--to let others go first, to take the last place,
    to "wash feet," and to allow others to get the praise, recognition, and accolades. or Richard Rohr's statement about the first half of life being about securing success, and the second stage being about "climbing back down the ladder into
    obscurity." (And while I like much of Rohr's work, he's not exactly climbing down into obscurity, is he?)

    I'm 42, and I am just now beginning to maybe possibly lay the foundation for something resembling success. For me, I find that it's MUCH harder and more terrifying to ask for something that I want, to take up space, to make any demands of other people than it is to serve. Invisibility is my default option (and it can actually be very destructive in my relationships if I get all martyr-y about it.)

    I think one reason that the Christian discussion of humility was so destructive for me is that most of the people preaching about it were well-educated men with advanced degrees and significant platforms, whether that be a pulpit or a publishing contract, so they spoke about humility from their perspective - but that perspective actually plays into my most self and others-destructive behaviors and works against the inner work I actually need to do.

  36. Is Jesus not himself privileged? In any case, it seems easier to humble oneself if one is a god and easier to sacrifice one's life one will just come back to life after a relatively short time in Hell.

  37. Some of those monks might have been on to something, eh? To become obscure, not so much about doing stuff for the poor, broken and nameless, but to be a part of the poor, broken and nameless. Kind of sounds like Philippians chapter 2.

  38. Each station in life faces the same failings but in different situations. It all has to do with motivation. What is my inner, unseen motivation in dealing with the person the way I do, for performing these services, for posting these words, etc. As I am acutely aware of the reality of God's amazing grace in my life and that what and who I am is a privilege I have received from God, I cannot help but put less store in my fame and ability. Serving God and people with the attitude and motivation that our Lord Jesus modeled for us becomes a more vital and natural way of doing things.

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