Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ethics for Elitists: Part Two of Two

This summer, with three simple words, a friend of mine offended both me, an editor of Christian nonfiction books, and the editor of a magazine for Christian anarchists. "You're both elites," he told us, to our shared chagrin. "Don't worry," he quickly averred. "You're elitists, yeah, but you're elitists in Christian publishing." That's what we in the biz call a backhanded compliment.

Elitism isn't something you're born with, although it is something many people are born into. Elitism is a byproduct of power, and since power corrupts, elitism is corruptible and potentially corrosive. The power of an elitist can be godlike, and godlike power is something mere mortals should always handle with care.

So, what should we elitists do with all our power? Jesus sums up all the Law of Israel and all the commandments of God in two ideas: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength; and, love your neighbor as yourself. In a previous post I reflected on loving God as elitist ethic; here I'll spend a little time on what it looks like for an elitist like me to love his neighbor as himself.

(Please feel free to interact critically with both these posts. We elitists need to stick together, and two elitist heads are better than one.)

When elitists would ask Jesus how to be good, he would generally tell them to strip themselves of the trappings of power. Some of those trappings are material, consumable; to the rich young ruler, for example, Jesus suggested that he no longer be rich or a ruler. (I write about this encounter in my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville.) To the teacher of the law who asked Jesus to list the most important commands of the Bible, he responded with two: Love God, and love your neighbor the way you love yourself. When this elitist pressed Jesus to elaborate, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan.

Teachers of the law in Israel were, like me (and maybe like you), the upper crust of a crustless sandwich. Governed as they were by Imperial Rome, they nevertheless mastered the ancient Hebrew law and lorded it over their fellow Hebrews. By contrast, Samaritans were outcasts, scorned by Israel and left to their own devices. Samaritans had been the first to slide into idolatry in Israel's complicated history with God. The prophet Micah called Samaria's sin "incurable." If this teacher was the upper crust, Samaritans were the crumbs.

So when Jesus tells a story that makes the hero not a teacher of the law or a liturgist of the ancient ways but a stinking Samaritan, you can imagine the bristling and blustering that went on. To think of a Samaritan as a good neighbor, let alone a heroic neighbor, was a kind of betrayal of centuries of tradition.

It's worth noting that Samaritans weren't falling all over themselves with love for Israelites. Jesus' interaction with a Samaritan woman at a Samaritan well is testy long before it ever gets warm or reverent. The story Jesus is telling this teacher of the law is outlandish, audacious: it suggests that people who would never have anything to do with each other could in fact love one another.

The moral of the story of the Good Samaritan is not that there are good nonelitists out there. It's not that since even nonelitists can show mercy, we elitists ought to do excel in it. The moral of the story is that there is no such thing as elitism. There are only neighbors in the world, and each of us must decide daily whether we will be a good one or a bad one.

Now, this lesson is easily coopted by elitists. "Ah yes," we mumble, the leather elbow pads on our tweed jackets straining as we stroke our salt-and-pepper beards thoughtfully. "We are all cut from the same cloth. Why, the wisest man I ever met was the janitor in the library at university. Jesus is right." We claim Jesus for our elitist team and pay lip service to some iconic nonelite. This sort of move is classic: its nearest neighbor, perhaps, is "I'm no racist. Some of my best friends are ____________."

Meanwhile we continue to enjoy our power, and we smile and nod at the janitor as we leave for the day, without considering what this neighbor might need from us, what we might need from this neighbor. We self-segregate, we elitists. So do nonelites, of course; the rules of the game are such that we all accept the status quo and operate within it, even find comfort in it. But self-segregating is not consistent with an ethic of Jesus.

As he unpacks Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, Jamie Arpin-Ricci reminds us of an important point: "How are we to love the least of these [described in this parable as the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and so on] if we never encounter them?" Elitists are, I suppose, "the most of these"; by contrast, everyone around them is the least. They are also, we know from Jesus, our neighbors, regardless of their or our station in life. But as Jamie reminds us, in Jesus' parable the least of these are also, somehow, mystically, Jesus. And so those who we think are the least are no such thing; it is we, the elite, who need the encounter. It is we, the elite, who need our neighbors.

Trippy, I know. The point remains that there are no elites, and there are no nonelites. There are only neighbors, and it is important to God that we love our neighbors as ourselves. For elites like me, that means using our power to engender a more loving culture, to make it more likely and not less likely that we will encounter our neighbors, regardless of their status, so that we can love them like we should, and so that they can love us like they should. Every neighbor brings something with them to the relationship. We elites may not bring much, but we do have power--cultural, financial, political, whatever. Good neighbors don't hoard what they have; they share it, and they make their neighborhood better for everybody.

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