Monday, 8 August 2011

Pitfalls of Hierarchy: Scarcity Thinking & Domination

(4th in a series of articles exploring how hierarchical paradigms negatively impact culture)

Human relationships are complicated. Each of us is uniquely endowed with particular strengths, weaknesses, desires--and peculiarities. The very nature of being human is that we are created to live not only in relationship with God, but with all those other "peculiar" human beings. That's where things get messy.

For humans to live together peacefully on this planet, we must constantly make adjustments in order to get along with each other and achieve satisfying lives.

No matter what the connection--within families, with coworkers, friends, neighbors or people groups--human relationships are in a constant state of flux. We ebb and flow between conflict and resolution, brokenness and wholeness, anxiety and serenity, dissatisfaction and contentment.

Too often we get so stuck on the negative that we have little time or energy left to enjoy the positive aspects of our relationships.

One negative factor is our tendency toward "scarcity" thinking (your gain is my loss) rather than "abundance" thinking (plenty for everyone). We come by this naturally, entering this world as egocentric infants, assuming that everything revolves around our needs and wants.

We grab all we can for ourselves; we have to be taught to share. Unfortunately, many adults--even nations--never fully outgrow their egocentricity.

Scarcity thinking is hierarchical thinking. It's "who's on top," rooted in lack of trust in oneself, others and God. It's "if you win, I'll look or feel like a loser"; "if I don't control you, you will control me"; "if you get lots of praise and recognition, I'll look or feel stupid and insignificant"; "if I don't dominate or intimidate you, you will take advantage of me."

Domination issues underlie much of human conflict: bullying, gender inequities, racial unrest, economic gaps, abuse, war. To the degree that one party in a relationship is allowed to dominate, the other party is proportionately submissive.

Adult relationships tend to fall within one of four categories, each with predictable results:

1. Dominant party + submissive party, both parties comfortable with their roles = generally peaceful relationship.

2. Dominant party + submissive party, one party (usually the submissive one) uncomfortable with role = generally conflictual relationship.

3. Belief in equal parties, but difficulty working out roles in cultural context, one or both parties uncomfortable with role = generally conflictual relationship.

4. Equal parties, successfully working out details of roles, both parties comfortable with their roles = generally peaceful relationship.

Human relationships in category 1 rarely stay there very long. There is something innately human that resists being dominated by others, whether it's slaves seeking freedom, women seeking equality, or the poor seeking economic parity.

At best, category 1 relationships only maintain the status quo--a very tenuous "peace"--because what appears to be willing submission is often only passivity.

In category 1, relationships may outwardly appear to be peaceful because the submissive party has low self-esteem or is too weak or intimidated by the dominant party to protest the inequity.

Or the submissive party may have been indoctrinated, with not enough education or life experiences to discern unhealthy relationships. I once read of a girl who "accepted" incest throughout her early life because trusted relatives had convinced her that it was just "something girls do with fathers and brothers." She didn't know it was unacceptable until she went away to college.

Sometimes the submissive party in category 1 is unwilling to shake up the only way of life she/he has ever known. At the end of the Civil War, some newly-freed slaves begged their former masters to let them stay on as indentured servants because launching out on their own was too overwhelming.

Females growing up in male-dominated homes often enter into male-dominated relationships when they date or marry. For them, it's a familiar way of life, usually reinforced by patriarchal religious beliefs.

Some females, especially those who marry young, transfer directly from supervision by their fathers to supervision by their husbands. They don't comprehend that only God--not any other human being--is automatically qualified to be anyone's "boss."

Dominance is often characterized as being brutal or overbearing toward others, for whatever reason. But dominance can also be subtle--perhaps just an underlying attitude or assumption of entitlement due to being wealthy, male, Caucasian or American.

I once heard a church member proudly say, "My ancestors were good to their slaves," as if that somehow exonerated his family's slave ownership. "Goodness" is not the issue; domination is about lack of freedom, equality and opportunity.

Conservative groups such as Promise Keepers teach that male domination is inherently God-ordained in church and home. Their premise is that men are to be "in charge" of women (whom God expects to submit graciously), but must treat them "lovingly."

Besides this misapplication of Scripture, the problem is that within human relationships, power and authentic love cannot co-exist. Even a kind, gentle, "loving" ruler still retains power to control the direction of others' lives. Again, the real issues are lack of freedom, equality and opportunity.

Some may ask, "How can the conflictual relationships of categories 2 and 3 be preferable to the peaceful relationships of category 1? Isn't peace, even a tenuous "peace," always better than conflict?"

For one thing, there is a difference between the peace found in category 4 and the "peace" found in category 1. Category 4 relationships are justice-based; category 1 relationships are not. In category 4 both parties--not just the dominant party of category 1--have God-given freedom and opportunity to thrive as individuals.

Conflict—especially sustained conflict--is always difficult, and conflict for its own sake is never justifiable. But conflict can sometimes be valuable. Just ask any civil rights advocate if progress made in race relations has been worth decades of struggle.

When the goal is justice and equality for everyone, rather than dominance by some, then non-violent conflict is good. For those who are willing to struggle through categories 2 and 3 in order to achieve category 4, their reward is a lasting, satisfying, "just" peace.

However, scarcity thinking ("who's on top") can thwart progress toward lasting peace. Conflict is not good if the result is replacement of one dominant party by another dominant party. (Think rival gangs in NYC, ruthless tribes in Africa, corrupt regimes in the Middle East.) The goal of "just" conflict is to establish equality and freedom, not further domination.

No matter with whom we have relationship, we must avoid scarcity thinking, which only feeds our human tendency to dominate others, and prevents us--and them--from experiencing the "abundant life" that Jesus offers (John 10:10).

Jesus deliberately shook up the status quo, but Jesus never tried to dominate others. The more we embrace Jesus' way of thinking and treating others, the better our chances of achieving peaceful, satisfying, "category 4" relationships as we help bring about God's peaceable kingdom on this earth.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Pitfalls of Hierarchy: Racial & Gender Superiority

(3rd in a series of articles exploring how hierarchical paradigms negatively impact culture)

Those of us who advocate egalitarianism, working for justice worldwide, may consider ourselves to be enlightened, inclusive and progressive. But hierarchical thinking can linger subtly in our own lives, manifesting itself as racial or patriarchal attitudes of superiority.

For a few months in 1973 I rented a room from a widow in South Georgia. "Miss Ida" was a friendly, genteel, Caucasian woman with one of the most distinctive southern drawls I've ever heard.

Miss Ida* was nearing retirement, but still worked full-time at the local Neighborhood Services Center. There she distributed food and clothing, taught life skills and planned fun events for poor people, most of them African-American clients. She delighted in her work, finding it very fulfilling; I admired her dedication and generosity.

One week Miss Ida hired an African-American woman to help clean her house prior to hosting a party. The woman was as jovial as Miss Ida; from my room I could hear them laughing as they worked together. For some reason the woman wasn't paid that day, but was asked to come by for her earnings later in the week.

A day or so later I was talking with Miss Ida in her living room when the front doorbell rang. She opened the door, had a friendly exchange with the cleaning woman and handed her some cash in an envelope.

Closing the door, she wheeled around and muttered scornfully as she briskly walked by me, "Now they're coming to the front door!" I was speechless, totally shocked. I never expected to hear those words, especially from her.

Apparently, as long as Miss Ida played the role of benevolent white woman everything was fine. But let any of the blacks get "uppity" and presume to act like her equal, then her inbred assumption of superiority quickly kicked in.

A similar situation sometimes occurs when Baptist churches overcome internal political barriers and begin ordaining women as deacons or ministers. Admirable intentions aside, there is a big difference between allowing ordination of women and embracing women as church leaders. Congregations don't always understand that ordination is only the beginning, not the climax, of women's full inclusion into the life and ministry of the church.

Some churches consider themselves to be progressive simply because they ordain a woman or two here and there as deacons. But this can be a mere nod to egalitarianism if these women are perceived primarily as tokens, not functionally equal to their male peers.

In such churches women deacons may serve communion and attend deacons' meetings. But the unspoken assumption is that they will mostly serve quietly behind-the-scenes, still following the leadership of male deacons or ministers in important church matters.

Things will go smoothly for a woman deacon until she starts to act as if she were as capable a leader as any man in such a church. Once she begins leading, voicing her opinions, lingering patriarchal assumptions of superiority quickly kick in. The status quo is threatened. She's soon discounted, labeled as "uppity," "difficult," or worse.

More progressive churches may ordain and/or hire a woman as children's minister or youth minister, perhaps even as minister of education. Some churches perceive of these as mostly behind-the-scenes positions heavily involving the teaching/activities coordination of children and youth.

[Please note that I personally am not critiquing or ranking ministry positions, only observing the thinking of some misguided congregations. Ironically, when it comes to impacting a church's ministry and influence in the community, a strong case could be made that the children's minister position is more "important" than all other ministerial positions. Yet children's ministers--so many of them women--often have little power and receive the least salary.]

For many congregations, the last bastions of male leadership are the "platform positions" (minister of music and, of course, pastor). Churches tend to reserve these up-front, worship-leading positions for men. Even among the most progressive congregations, outspoken about equal opportunities for women, so many prefer hiring males as their primary worship leaders.

It's one thing to invite a woman to preach occasionally; it's quite another to hire a woman as senior pastor. No one is saying that only churches with female pastors are fully progressive and egalitarian. And every pastor--female or male--is not necessarily the right match for every church.

However, it seems obvious that the deck is greatly stacked against women pastoral candidates. Overall, words of affirmation for women ring hollow unless ministerial search committees are intentional about giving serious, not just token, consideration to female candidates.

Those of us who try so hard to live egalitarian lives that embrace women and minorities are sometimes surprised to discover lingering hierarchical, "superior" attitudes, subtly inbred by our culture, in ourselves and our churches. At the Holy Spirit's revelation, it is incumbent upon us to dust out these corners of our spiritual lives, that we may see each other as God sees all of us.


(Upcoming: My next article will deal with hierarchical attitudes in domestic relationships.)

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Pitfalls of Hierarchy: Alternative Paradigms & the Middle Class

(2nd in a series of articles exploring how hierarchical paradigms negatively impact culture)

Hierarchical paradigms shape our thinking about the world in which we live. We tend to view relationships as levels on a pyramid, constantly assessing whether we are above, below or equal to others in intelligence, education, popularity, wealth, attractiveness, health, talent, power, importance, family or even spirituality.

Competitiveness seems hard-wired inside our brains. We instinctively try to outdo others, sometimes dominating or intimidating perceived rivals in order to achieve or maintain a preferred status.

The biggest problem with hierarchical thinking is that it creates far more losers than winners. There are only a few spots at the top of the pyramid, while the bottom is very wide.

All paradigms of divine-human or human-human relationships are inherently flawed. But networking paradigms that emphasize mutuality and interdependence more closely resemble the egalitarian views of Jesus.

Author Bruce Epperly, in Holy Adventure, tells of a sixth-century hermit, Dorotheos of Gaza, who developed a networking model of relationships in which all humans form one circle surrounding God, who is at the center. Dorotheos' paradigm suggests that as humans move closer to God we automatically move closer to our sisters and brothers, and vice-versa. God is the energy center of all relationships, human and divine.

Another networking model of relationships resembles a maypole. In this paradigm, God is the center pole, the top of which is connected with ribbons to humans interacting freely within a circle at the base of the pole.

In addition, there are ribbons connecting humans to other humans. There is no hierarchy among the humans; no one has an advantageous position over another. All humans are on the same level, interacting with God and each other.

Of course, networking paradigms image a perfect world, but the real world is far from ideal. Relationships are very complex, and hierarchy--especially patriarchy--still reigns.

The middle class is in a unique position to unravel the complexities and effect change in hierarchical systems worldwide. They (we) have enough education, power and leverage to challenge effectively the upper class' attitudes of superiority, appealing to their humanity and sense of fairness, persuading them to share their power and wealth with those at lower levels.

The middle class also has enough economic means themselves to raise the living standards and self-esteem of many in the lower class by sharing resources and power with the needy, intentionally lifting them into the middle class a few at a time.

Theoretically, as the top of the pyramid inches lower and the middle becomes deeper and wider, reducing the size of the lowest tier, the model looks less like a pyramid and more like an oval or sphere.

Still, complete metamorphosis lies somewhere in the distant future. Implementing networking paradigms requires courage and sustained effort. Total transformation won't happen in our lifetimes, but we must inch forward towards facilitating much-needed changes.

As I write these words I am starkly aware of my own susceptibility to hierarchical thinking. By American standards, I probably fit economically into the lower middle class tier of the pyramid model.

I may live modestly, not striving for additional wealth; may value all humans as equal brothers and sisters; may speak kindly and work in a helping profession; may care for the earth and contribute generously to charities. I may even challenge hierarchy and advocate egalitarianism.

But I am seriously deluding myself if I think I don't contribute to hierarchical systems. I may not strive ruthlessly to live at the top of the pile, but I do struggle to maintain my current standard of living.

That in itself means that I participate in hierarchical injustice, simply because there are millions of people living at a lower level than myself. I enjoy some privileges--even if I worked sacrificially for them or think I deserve them--only because I have had advantages over others.

I'm certain I would never want to dwell in the lower class. I wouldn't like living hand-to-mouth, without enough food, health care, shelter or transportation; having to do all my shopping at Goodwill, the Salvation Army or the Food Pantry; having to call churches to help with my children's Christmas gifts or pay my rent; having little opportunity for a good education.

Then I remember that even the bottom of the American pyramid looks wonderful to many people in third world countries, where humans are reduced to living in abject squalor and barbarism, where women are treated callously. I may support efforts to help them, but I will do everything in my power not to have to live like them.

So, I am tempted to shake off my "middle class guilt," retreating safely (and gratefully) to my comfortable, mid-level place on the pyramid, trying not to get too depressed about Somalis, Haitians, Indonesians and other poor people.

. . . But there's that nagging, "still, small voice" in my head again, prodding me out of my complacency into action, reminding me that abundant life is intended for everyone in God's kingdom, enough for all to flourish.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Pitfalls of Hierarchy: Is Change Even Possible?

[Note: This article was written just prior to the upheaval in Egypt and is not intended as political commentary on that situation, though much of the article may/may not be applicable.]

(1st in a series of articles exploring how hierarchical paradigms negatively impact culture)

Hierarchy is the primary foundation of the world's systems. Military model. Corporate model. Winners vs. losers. Rich vs. poor. Powerful vs. weak.

The reason hierarchy prevails is because it works so well for us. It's what we're used to. It's what we know. We're so wrapped in our hierarchical, pyramid-like thinking that it's difficult for us to conceive of, much less implement, a different paradigm.

Throughout history, hierarchy has most often manifested itself negatively as patriarchy, with racism and economic inequities running close behind. Males of all races, rich or poor, generally have more power and status than females throughout the world, with few exceptions. Hierarchy pervades all societies.

As our world keeps evolving, some progress is being made towards leveling the gender and racial playing fields in parts of the world, but economic equity still lags far behind. When Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you" (Mark 14:7), perhaps he knew the hardest thing for humanity to overcome would be the greed and narcissism that sustains unjust hierarchical systems.

Pockets of egalitarianism do thrive here and there, however. And the movement against patriarchy and racism seems to be gaining some ground, in spite of major setbacks.

Most of the progress that's been made can be attributed to Jesus' influence upon humankind. Without Jesus, egalitarianism and mutuality would have little hope of existence. Women, minority races and the poor would have little chance for equal respect, freedom and opportunities.

Jesus initiated an egalitarian movement, showing people how to live and love without dominating each other. But Jesus--and courageous others since his time--paid the ultimate price for challenging the status quo. Progress is rarely achieved without conflict and casualties.

Amazingly, some modern Christians are among those thwarting progress toward egalitarianism, all in the name of biblical fidelity. Fundamentalists and inerrantists keep trying to push society backwards to the hierarchical world of the Bible, where women basically had no rights and slavery was common.

An exaggeration? Perhaps. But even if societies only reverted to the attitudes of the 1950's, not the first century, the world definitely would be headed in the wrong direction. Pushing backwards is futile, anyway. The egalitarian cat has worked its paw out of the proverbial bag; there's no going back to the way we were.

Hierarchical models of adult relationships are especially problematic at the top and bottom tiers. People at the bottom of the pyramid constantly struggle to improve their status, often looking upon those at higher levels with envy, sometimes hatred because they feel trampled upon, hopelessly stuck near the bottom due to a system over which they have no control. They are determined to rise higher than the bottom tier.

People at the top of the pyramid often have a sense of entitlement that accompanies their elevated status. They sometimes think they deserve to be at a high level because they are smarter or work harder or are simply destined to be in that position.

Many are grateful to God for their high status. Some even believe that God placed them at the top just because they are male, or white, or good, or American, or… While they enjoy power and privilege, their biggest struggle is with constantly having to scramble just to keep their place on the pyramid. They are determined to perpetuate the hierarchical system that keeps them at the top.

In her wonderful allegory, Hope for the Flowers, author Trina Paulus tells of Stripe, a caterpillar who tries to climb a huge pile of caterpillars, all trampling on each other in their blind quest to reach the top of the pile. Ultimately, Stripe reaches the top and discovers that there's "nothing there" except other caterpillars struggling with all their might to maintain their high position.

Stripe finally quits playing the game, gets trampled to the bottom, crawls away and eventually is transformed into a beautiful butterfly, able to soar above meaningless caterpillar piles everywhere.

Like Stripe, in order for all of us to be transformed and have a better life together "more than we can ever imagine," we must somehow find the courage to move beyond hierarchical systems and work towards implementing better relationship paradigms. Difficult? Extremely. Impossible? Not with God helping us.

[Upcoming: The next article in this series will explore alternative paradigms and the unique perspective of the middle class.]