A recent op-ed bemoaned Brexit and the state of the British government. The English author opined that the prime minister was weak, Parliament was fractious, and once respected democratic institutions were losing public trust. Against this gloomy backdrop, one which has persisted for decades, the British monarchy has rarely been so popular. Why, the writer asks, should a democratic country so revere its constitutional monarchy, which after all selected its leaders not by merit but by an “accident of birth?”
The phrase “accident of birth” has been used a lot in the past 20 years, often to make prosperous people feel badly about prospering. People say “You were born (white, Asian, male, female, rich, American, European, etc.), but your success is merely an accident of birth. You didn’t do it, and you have no right to be proud of it.” Former US President Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build it” gaffe during his 2012 reelection campaign is a variation – partly true, but partly false. The claim “your prosperity is merely an accident of birth” is also used against selected (usually materially successful) members of traditionally disadvantaged groups such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans. The poor can airily dismiss the rich, even as the rich have airily dismissed the poor, with this handy phrase.
From one perspective, there is truth to the claim. No one chose his own parents. My parents’ virtues blessed me, and their vices cursed me. The virtues, vices, resources, and attitudes of everyone else in my life, from relatives to coworkers, did the same thing. This is true for you, and for every person on the planet. Who we are today springs not only from our own actions but also from the actions of those around us. There is no such thing as a purely self-made man (or woman).
“Accident of birth” carries its own baggage, however. First, the word “accident” is generally used for negative events, like a car collision or a sprained ankle. People rarely call a birth accidental, because the coming of a child into the world is usually a cause of rejoicing. Do the critics who bemoan these “accidents of birth” consider any births unfortunate, all births unfortunate, or just births of people that they don’t like?
Second, “accident” implies unplanned and unwanted. No one plans a plane crash or a fall from a ladder, and no one wants them either, except perhaps a terrorist. Most couples plan and desire their children, or at least want them enough to forego abortion. When a couple plans their child, do they not plan to do all they can to benefit that child? Does calling a person’s position an “accident of birth” imply that they were unplanned and are unwanted? Is that the intention?
Third, the word “accident” suggests meaninglessness. What is the meaning of an epidemic, a tornado, or a random mutation that causes cancer? Do parents consider the birth of their baby meaningless? Does society consider the birth of a child meaningless? Are the births of some children meaningful, but not others?
Fourth, if a person’s success is merely an accident of birth, why do some people do well with a “poor birth”, or poorly with a “good birth”. Ben Carson was born into poverty, yet became a neurosurgeon and US Presidential candidate. British King Edward VIII was a playboy and Nazi sympathizer who abdicated his throne to marry an American divorcee, while his brother King George VI led Great Britain through World War II.
The problem is not merely the phrase “accident of birth” or even the term “accident” – it is the attitude behind it. The older phrase “born with a silver spoon in his mouth” communicates the same thing, and contains the same fallacies. A life is measured not by one’s birth, but by one’s service. People born in “privileged” circumstances no more deserve to be ignored than people born in “underprivileged” conditions.
Christians cannot consider anyone’s life an “accident of birth”. God is utterly sovereign, and He has placed each person exactly where He wants him. His Royal Highness (HRH) Prince William (Duke of Cambridge) was born at the perfect time, place, and circumstances to serve the Lord in his generation. The same is true of the poorest Sudanese Christian, or Chinese Muslim. The Church is the Body of Christ, and each person’s job is equally important, given by God for His perfect purposes (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Further, God does not give anyone a “favored position” (wealth, power, etc.) because of anything that they have done, but merely for His purposes. Hindus may believe that kharma from a prior life determines a person’s status in the current life, but Christians understand otherwise.
Birth is never an “accident” to God. A person is never unplanned or unwanted; in fact, the Lord knit each of us together in his mother’s womb (Psalm 139:15). And no birth is ever meaningless to Him. At the same time, the starving Somalian child has no less value than the Premier of China. The Lord does not distinguish based on appearance, wealth, or station. Instead He prefers those whose hearts are completely His.
Simultaneously, to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). God expects everyone to whom He gives talents or resources, no matter how great or small, to use them to benefit others. He will not forever tolerate people hoarding their wealth, and using their abilities only for their own gain. The Creator of the Universe has placed us where He wants us to be – there are no “accidents of birth”. However, like Jesus illustrates in the parable of the talents, God will hold us accountable for what we do with what He has provided. In the end, perfect justice will be done.
The op-ed writer concluded that the stability of the monarchy, the very fact that it is not democratically elected, term limited, and transient accounts for much of its strength. Queen Elizabeth II has been served by 13 prime ministers, from the great Winston Churchill to the vacillating Theresa May. Its pomp, its history, and its dignity provide comfort to the British people, and soft power throughout the world. Therefore, he was willing to tolerate the fact that royals gained fame, wealth, and power through an “accident of birth.”
This writer was right, but he was also wrong. There are no “accidents of birth”. In fact, there are no “accidents” at all. Our God is sovereign over everyone and everything in the universe. Every man, woman, and child on earth will serve Him, whether we want to or not. It is our task as Christians to love Him, to glorify Him, and to enjoy Him.