Hierarchy

Hierarchy is a bit of a dirty word nowadays. We like the words equality and egalitarianism. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all men are created equal.” Americans often run with this phrase without stopping to consider the nature of the equality. Of course, this preference for equality did not always exist in Western Civilization. The medievals were in love with the concept of hierarchy and found it wherever possible. C.S. Lewis points out that in Milton’s Paradise Lost, under the influence of the medieval model, hell is a democracy. All the fallen angels are included in the council to decide the next act of rebellion against God. Their infernal city is rightly named Pandæmonium. (Pandemonium sounds like an excellent description of current American politics.) On the contrary, heaven is a strictly ordered hierarchy, with God the Father as the supreme monarch. Why do we mistrust the word hierarchy? One reason is that we confuse equality with sameness. Modern culture often determines human value by what a human does. Yet our intrinsic value is found in being created in the image of God. No human is more or less created in the image of God than another, whether they are a president, a CEO, disabled, or unborn. However, this equality of being created in the image of God in no way means that we are identical. Here lies the beauty of the human race. God has given us abilities in different areas and to different degrees. We have the freedom to choose whether we will develop what he has given us or not. What this means is that only certain people would make good presidents. Try as I may, I don’t think I will ever be presidential material, its not the way God has designed me. God has made some of us lungs and some big toes. Just because a person can live without big toes, doesn’t mean they are unimportant. Neither does it imply that a big toe shouldn’t strive to be the best big toe possible. This is the reason I am a complementarian when it comes to gender roles and not an egalitarian. I appreciate women because they are not like men. The are equal yes, but not the same. As Madeline L’Engle points out through her character Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, “Like and equal are not the same thing at all.”There would certainly be less conflict between the sexes if they were just the same, but the world would also be so much more dull and boring. I believe that is why Eve was a suitable helper for Adam. He needed someone that was fundamentally differently from him. What’s more important mechanically, the bolt or the nut? I don’t know, but I do know that you need both to hold things together. Another reason we are suspicious of hierarchy is that it has a acquired a mechanical connotation. Picture the diagram of an organization’s leadership structure. Lines of authority replace relationship. It is sterile and automatic. A more medieval approach to hierarchy is to think of it as a dance. First take a dancing couple. I tried swing dancing for a while. At the beginning it was mechanical, with the male rigidly leading and the female following. Growing in your dancing skills as a lead means learning how to read your partner and respond to them. More experienced dancers achieve a unique unity that is beautiful to watch. Now expand the dancing couple to an intricate pageant. Hierarchy is not a one way street but requires an incredible amount of back and forth. To borrow from Dante’s imagery, hierarchy is not primarily vertical but centrical. (I know centrical is not a word. Accept it for the moment.) Dante places Satan and hell at the center of the universe. The farther he travels outward, the closer he gets to heaven. God’s dwelling place is on the extreme outer edge of the circle/sphere. However, there is a marvelous moment, as Dante is traveling through the levels of heaven in the Paradiso, when the perspective flips on him. From the perspective of heaven, he realizes that God is at the heart of the universe and Satan and hell are on the periphery. The entire universe is engaged in a circular dance around God. Maybe we should stop thinking about hierarchy as a ladder with many levels in which our goal is to climb to the top. Instead we should view it as a matter of finding our proper orbit around the proper center. Outward and inward, rather than up and down. Another difficult we have with hierarchy is that we tend to have a sneaking suspicion that we are at the top or center of the hierarchy. The Truman Show plays on the curiosity that maybe, just maybe, we are the star of the show. It is hard for us to conceive that we could ever be frightened inmate #2. Everyone’s story is valuable to God. However, we must realize that for most of us, our stories are only minor elements of the larger story. Our time on the stage of this world is relatively short compared to the full length of the play. Jesus is the center of the play and we always only supporting characters. Finally, we have all experienced the abuse of hierarchy. Everyone knows what it is like to have a boss who undercuts and devalues them or a pastor who proclaims to love Christ and people, yet is intoxicated by power. We need not even have been hurt deliberately. Instead we were the victims of the general incompetency of a person in the position of power. One popular reaction is to become anti-authoritarian. If only everyone was equal, than we wouldn’t have those problems. The problem is not in the system though; it is in the people. Authority magnifies a person’s character. It makes a good man’s actions better and a bad man’s actions worse. Who can find a good man? Few characters can undergo the magnification process without problems. I would rather have a good monarch than a good president and a bad presidential rather than a bad monarch. Considering the odds, it is probably better to stick with a representative democracy. One of the wonderful paradoxes of hierarchy is the importance of condescension, another word that has become marred in modern culture. I remember watching a movie version of Shakespeare’s play Henry V. At the conclusion of the Saint Crispin’s day speech, which includes the lines, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” I was ready to jump out of my chair and take up arms for Henry. It was the impulse that such a man was well worth fighting and, if need be, dying for. The way that Henry condescended himself to the level of his men helped to make him all the more kingly. Of course, this speech gives the title to the mini-series Band of Brothers, which recounts the experience of the Easy Company of the 101st Airborne, paratroopers in World War II. Their Colonel Winters is another such leader. There were many soldiers who followed their commanders out of fear or necessity. Winter’s men follow him willfully because they trust and admire his character. He truly cares for and values them. This correct balance of condescension and authority is incredibly rare, but marvelous to witness. Jesus is the ultimate example of hierarchy and condescension. Though being very God, he condescended Himself to live and eat with a group of dull fisherman. Yet no one has ever been more kingly than Jesus, or more worthy of following.  

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