Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Response to Questions on 'Top-Down' Social Change 2 

This post concludes my clarifying observations on James Jordan’s argument for top-down social change. I am writing in response to a number of comments that I have received, both online and offline. Dennis Hou’s thoughtful post on the subject is especially deserving of response. The criticisms given by Dennis and others are in the back of my mind as I write these thoughts. However, the thoughts below are not intended as a direct answer to Dennis and others. Rather, they are an attempt to more clearly articulate the position that I hold to, and which I believe Jordan to hold to, on this issue, while taking into account the various considered criticisms that have been presented. I will readily admit that I do not find much in Dennis’ comments to take issue with, excepting, that is, his reading of Jordan. Perhaps his post can be best read as a helpful qualifying corrective to potential misreadings of Jordan’s argument.
Jordan is not arguing that the elite are to be regarded as independent of the masses. Leaders and those under them are mutually constitutive. There is no head apart from the body. No one member can say to another member, “I have no need of you.” In fact, if we follow biblical teaching on the subject we are led to the conviction that weaker members are absolutely necessary for the body as a whole, and that the members that we deem to be less honourable are the members on which we ought to bestow the greater honour (1 Corinthians 12:22-23). Our Lord formed His Church primarily of the marginalized, the dishonourable, the weak, the poor and the despised. Christ died for the weaker member and all of us should be prepared to lay down our lives to such a member too. The practice of paedobaptism is a constant reminder of the fact that one does not have to be strong to be a full member of the Church. One is reminded of David and his motley band of followers in Adullam’s cave (1 Samuel 22:1-2). Christ identifies with the exiles in the place of death, just as His father David did. The Bible teaches us that God has chosen ‘the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him’ (James 2:5). God does not see as man sees: He looks at the heart. Any argument that claims that God somehow holds the rich and powerful in higher regard that the poor believer hasn’t even begun to do business with Scripture. I do not believe for a moment that Jordan holds to anything remotely resembling this position. Jordan is trying to draw our attention to the significance of the role played by the elite, a role in which they are distinguished from the masses. Highlighting the importance of their role need not imply the despising of those who do not belong to the elite. Placing an emphasis on reaching fathers as heads of families need not imply a disregarding of mothers and children, nor need an appreciation of the importance of seeking to particularly reach the heads of nations imply a lack of concern for those who are subject to them. What is the role of the elite? The elite do not exist for their own sake (no one does). The elite are called to be God’s servants, with a particular task to perform. Those who are the greatest must be the servants of all. God has put a lot into their hands and they will be called to give stricter account for what they have done. God is ready to uphold the cause of the widow, the orphan and the alien against them. The role of the elite is to protect, uphold, guide and exercise God’s authority over the masses. If they cause one of God’s little ones to sin it would be better for them if they had millstones placed around their necks and were cast into the sea. God will resist a proud elite. An elite that exalts itself and lords over the masses will be judged. God can easily accomplish His purposes irrespective of the will of such an elite; not even the hand of the king can stop the hand of the sovereign Creator. In the gospels and Acts we see a perfect example of the manner in which God can confound the elite and judge the false shepherds of His people. God will raise up true shepherds to replace false ones. When we understand the role of the elite we will appreciate why it is important to aim for the head when seeking to bring about reformation. The reformation of the whole body must always be our goal; we cannot just satisfy ourselves with a reformation of the elite. Nevertheless, if we are to bring about the reformation of the whole body we must pay particular attention to reaching the head.
Many elites operate in terms of a pagan ethic that exalts the solitary hero, who successfully advances himself over others. Grasping and retaining power is the most important thing. Our Lord manifested a form of ethic that runs opposite to the heroic ethic that is followed by many leaders today. Jesus operated in terms of a servant ethic. True greatness is found not in self-serving power-grasping, but in self-sacrificing love. When Jesus had the opportunity to grasp at power and control, He did not do so. Rather than lord it over the people of God, He chose to lay down His life for them. When the Church seeks to change a given society, she cannot content herself with merely changing those who hold the reins of power. This is not enough. The Church must also change the very way in which power is conceived of. All too often the Church has permitted itself to be domesticated by the powers that be. It is the symbol of the cross that stands against all such attempts to tame the gospel. The cross speaks of the confrontation between the powers of this world and the Lord of glory they crucified. It speaks of two fundamentally incompatible views of the exercise of authority. The cross teaches us that, if we would sit one the right and left of Christ in His kingdom, we must also occupy those positions at Calvary. Any attempt to justify an elite’s lording over the masses will involve a dangerous muting of the message of the cross. The elite are called to submit themselves to the lowly Messiah and follow His example.
I have argued in the past that, in the new covenant, we still have a special priesthood. I firmly believe that such a position has a strong biblical foundation. Within the Church we have those who represent and symbolize the authority of the Bridegroom over the Bride. I will quite possibly be posting more on this subject sometime in the next couple of days (in a post dealing with the subject of the role of women), so I won’t go into a great deal of depth on the issue here. Some might claim that such a position undermines the equal priesthood of all the baptized. Yes, it does. The Bible never teaches that all Christians are priests in exactly the same manner. All the baptized are members of a royal priesthood, but this royal priesthood is differentiated. Does this mean that members of the special (or servant) priesthood have more access than God than those who are not? No, I don’t think so. The privilege of access to God is not so much about our being priests as about our being members of the Bride. Every member of the Church from the smallest child should be permitted to come to the Table of our Lord and enjoy His presence there. This privilege is given in Baptism. The fact that we all enjoy equal access to the Bridegroom, now that Christ has purified us as His Bride, ought to remind us that the servant priesthood do not stand as intermediaries between the Bride and the Bridegroom, maintaining a distance between the two. Quite the opposite. The special priesthood serve to symbolize and represent the Bridegroom’s presence and authority to the Bride. They are called to act on behalf of the Bridegroom to protect the Bride and ensure that she does not become defiled. Arguing for the existence of a special priesthood is not to deny the existence of a general priesthood. Every person becomes a priest in Baptism. However, the priesthood of the laity must always be exercised under the authority of the special priesthood, who symbolize and represent the authority of the Bridegroom. In the creation order, mankind was placed in the garden as an appointed priesthood. However, Eve’s priestly activity had to be carried out with an appreciation that Adam was her appointed head. She was to participate fully humanity’s task of husbandry in relation to the creation. However, she was not to forget that Adam was her husband, the one who had been committed with the task of guarding her. Those of us who belong to the order of the laity are in much the same position as Eve. Priestly roles are also played within society by governments, intellectuals, educators and others. The priestly role of such people is that of maintaining boundaries (political, ideological, cultural, economic, legal, etc.) within society. These people are called to exercise the task of husbandry over society. Many today would like to deny the existence of such a group. They try to fool themselves into believing that society does not need people to exercise this role of husbandry and that we can accomplish the reformation of society while safely ignoring any who play this role. Jordan is arguing that the task of societal transformation cannot be accomplished if we fail to address such people or provide true replacements for them.
Jordan places social hierarchy firmly in the context of mutual service. Those who might question my reading of Jordan on this point will find it supported by Jordan’s comments in such places as this. A top-down understanding of authority is perfectly compatible with a commitment to servant leadership. Just because the shepherd is called to lay down his life for the sheep does not mean that he is not over the sheep in some manner or other. An openly hierarchical society is far more suited to the development of a servant ethic than an egalitarian society is. Jordan is attacking the egalitarian tendencies of Presbyterian and Baptist thought. Within an Episcopalian structure there can be less of an emphasis upon ‘equality’ and more of an emphasis on ‘mutuality’. Episcopalianism, with its unapologetically hierarchical structure, recognizes that there are different stations in life and in the Church. They seek to maintain an elite and groom future elites (the formation of an elite also generally follows a top-down pattern — those who are in a higher station groom people below them to be raised up in time). By resisting the egalitarian and radical democratic ideals of every individual being on the same plane, they stop the growth of envy. We are not all in a rat race, seeking to get to the top of the ladder. Rather, in a hierarchical society, everyone has their particular station in life, which they are called to be faithful to. Some are naturally situated in a higher station of life than others. However, they are not to presume that they are somehow morally better or more valuable in God’s sight than everyone else. Rather, they must live up to the relationship that they are in with the rest of the social body and serve the other members. Those who occupy a lower station in life are not to envy those who rule over them, but thank God for the manner in which their rulers free them to exercise their own particular callings faithfully. In a hierarchical structure, ambition is far less likely to degenerate into resentment and envy. The practices of the Church should curb the development of proud elites. The elite are called to sit down at the same table as the poor, and not to arrogate all the best seats themselves. In the Church the rich man is called to rejoice in his humiliation and the poor man in his exaltation (James 1:9-10). The elite are constantly reminded of the character of true husbandry, as seen in our Lord. In a society infected by egalitarian thinking, those who rise to a high level in society are more at risk of thinking of themselves as morally better than others and despising those who occupy lower stations. They are more likely to be the object of other people’s envy and have others wishing to pull them down. In egalitarian society, where there is not the same prizing of excellence that exists in elitist and hierarchical societies, those who are in leadership positions will often have others trying to undermine their leadership, rather than serving them. In fact, in a society infected by egalitarianism, those who rise to leadership will often do so by mere force of personality and will exercise tyrannical leadership over those below them (who are trying to gain power themselves). Recognizing our differentiated callings is important. We are not all called to serve God and each other in the same manner. When we recognize the existence of different stations in life (and, hence, an elite) we will realize that not everyone is called to try to get to the top of the pile. Rather, we are all called to live faithfully in our own particular station in life. The time may come when this faithfulness is noticed and we will be set apart for a higher station, but we do not take this exaltation to be something that we are entitled to. As egalitarianism infects our society the servant ethic of leadership, the ethic that our Lord teaches us, is lost. In a society affected by egalitarian ways of viewing the world, leadership is seen as something to be competed for and grasped. Those who possess it are to be envied and detested. In a hierarchical society, no calling need be morally devalued, even if there is little exercise of power associated with it. Those who get into positions of power do not get there by grasping, but by careful training and cultivation of the requisite character for the station, as they submit to those who are grooming them for it. In such a society we will be ruled by our betters (not morally better, but better fitted for that particular task). We will all benefit as a result. Our leaders will not be those who have ruthlessly fought to gain their positions and have successful learnt to crush everyone in their path in the process. Rather, they will be people who have learnt to submit themselves to the training of character and inculcation of excellence provided by the elite. In the process they will have learnt a servant ethic as opposed to the ‘heroic ethic’ of self-serving ambition and self-advancement. Our leaders will be great as a result of how they serve us, rather than as a result of how successfully they grasp power for themselves.

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