One of the last things our society in this moment needs is another "ism." Over the past fifty years Americans have been politically corrected with racism, sexism, and classism.
But the other day on public radio I learned of another "ism," one that has boiled me most of my mature life... and much of my immature life.
So I wholeheartedly endorse consideration of yet another "ism": rankism.
An ex-president of a stand-out college (Oberlin) has written a book entitled Somebodies and Nobodies. Its thesis is something we can all (everyone, that is, this side of the Pope) relate to: that those who have power tend to use it without granting those of lower degree the same dignity as they claim for themselves.
Like the bishop who takes eight weeks to answer an urgent letter from a local church's chairperson of the Staff Pastor Parish Relations Committee. Like the executive vice president of a big corporation who is insulated by secretaries from entreaties on behalf a volunteer agency to which he and his caller belong, with "Sorry, but he's very busy right now." Like the pastor who fails to notify a shut-in scheduled for a communion visit, that it has to be cancelled due to an emergency. Like the doctor who keeps patients waiting in his office hours beyond the appointment time. Like the wine merchant on Long Island who interrupts the sale of a couple of bottles of sauvignon when he spies a customer intent on purchasing cases. Like the seminary president who greets you effusively and then promptly spends the rest of the minute of chit-chat looking over your shoulder for someone more important. Like the corporate executive who takes a big raise after imploring his line workers to take a big cut to avoid company bankruptcy. Like the parent who tells his children to "do what I say, not what I do."
Have I missed any of the slights Somebodies regularly visit on the Nobodies? Probably. Just add your own and send it to me.
The ex-President of Oberlin College offers the remedy to this abuse of rank. Actually, said remedy has been kicking around for a couple of thousand years. Christians know it as the Golden Rule, treating others the way you want to be treated. The Old Testament version is Leviticus 19:18, otherwise known as the Second Greatest Commandment. Buddhism puts the same idea in reverse mode, that we shouldn't do to others what we don't want done to us.
Jesus is explicitly anti-rankist. Nowhere more insistent than in Matthew 23: "6They [the Somebodies] love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."
But you, dear reader, have heard my riffs on this theme before. About the clergy who insist on being called "Doctor." About pastors who are like the Holy Spirit: elusive, here and there, but not often enough where you want them to be when you want them. About missions executives who have their secretaries phone you and put you on hold until the boss gets around to speaking with you, because his time is so valuable (and, apparently, yours isn't). You know, the various indignities those with power and position in the church and out of it visit upon those of us who can do them just a little good and very little harm.
That's rankism with a halo, and it's got to go.
The sooner the better, for all concerned, the Somebodies no less than the Nobodies. Because the Golden Rule isn't some idealistic goal; it's the real deal for a better life for everyone. The Oberlin ex-president insists that it is the way to success, for businesses and churches and nations. My experience, such as it is, shouts "Amen!"
On a self-description sheet prepared by a twin for his fifth grade class, he wrote that he aims to treat others the way he wants to be treated. Of course, his soul is surrounded by clergy, five of us in four generations. You can imagine how often I have recently reminded him of what he has written, especially when he seems intent on beating up on his brother. And I shall continue to remind him as long as I am alive, because at the tender age of eleven he has latched on to the secret of happiness in this mortal life.