It’s not a specific memory so much as the impression that I’ve had this interaction a thousand times. It’s usually the house. You walk in, thank the residents for their hospitality, say something like what a lovely home, and then they say we’re blessed.
Even as a child, I had inconvenient questions about this exchange. We went to a lot of homes. The people who said we’re blessed had the biggest ones. I would furrow my thick pubescent eyebrows and wonder why it was that God blessed some people and not others.
My Sunday school classes always stressed that God didn’t love people based on their actions, but rather because God was God, and God was love, God picked us first. “We love because God first loved us,” “not what my hands have done,” and all that. But I suspected that, honestly, God liked good people more than God liked bad ones. The same way your parents loved you all the time, but they loved you a little more when you had just cleaned your room and a little less when you were throwing a fit about your sibling getting more goldfish crackers than you did. And if, as I had been told, God rewarded people for doing the right thing, the people with the most rewards presumably also did the most right things, and those big, fancy houses and cottages and boats sure looked like rewards to me. Ergo: God loves rich people better, and that’s why they’re rich. They’re blessed.
I was also uncomfortable with that answer. Partly because I knew I was not—relative to my middle and high school peers—a Big House Person, and I wanted to believe that I was good. Partly because sometimes the kindness of my classmates seemed almost inversely related to their “blessedness.” Truthfully, I could find no clear correlation between people’s goodness and how much they had been “blessed.” Plus, my Calvinist catechism classes weren’t exactly prosperity gospel—technically, those rewards for good deeds were crowns in heaven, treasures stored where thieves do not break in and steal, nor moths and rust decay, and so on. But everyone still went around saying we’re blessed when good things happened to them or in response to compliments about their nice stuff, like God earmarked it for them—no other possible explanation.
It’s made me more uncomfortable as I’ve gotten older and moved through industries and workplaces that don’t act like the meritocracies I was raised to believe in. And it’s made me more uncomfortable as I learn about redlining systematically denying black families mortgages and the opportunity to build generational wealth, that because education funding is tied to real estate taxes, poor children are segregated into under-resourced schools, that veterans of color didn’t have access to the G.I. Bill benefits that sent my grandparents’ friends to college, that—for these and many similar reasons—in 1967, the median black family had one fifth the wealth of a white one, and now it’s one tenth.
I also know that I feel lucky that I don’t have college debt, in large part because of the generosity of family members. And that I get (slightly) discounted rent because my landlords are my mom and dad. When we get an unexpected check in the mail, or inherit furniture, or some other gift of money or stuff, I am thankful. If I believe in the goodness of God, I should be grateful when I experience it in material forms. I could call that a blessing. I could call all of it blessing.
My point is just that I don’t know, anymore, or maybe I never knew, how to think about blessing. I’m learning to think more about privilege and race and the relationship of my family’s financial security to our whiteness, to economic, educational, and criminal justice systems that have been designed to benefit people like us. And I suspect that we sometimes use the language of blessing as a neat way to sidestep the questions those things raise: if we’re blessed, we’re not responsible for what we have. If God blessed us, then we’re not responsible for people who don’t have it. If we’re blessed, maybe God just loves us just a little more.
And that’s not our fault.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.