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.


  1. f.y.i. - This blog posting was published online by www.EthicsDaily.com on February 28, 2011 with the title, "Step by Step, Demolishing Hierarchy's Oppression."

  2. Hi Naomi, I'd love to contact you. Perhaps you can contact me through my website newlife.id.au

  3. Hi, Marg - It's wonderful to "meet" you--all the way from Australia! I did a quick survey of your website. It's so interesting that our lives and calling are parallel regarding theology & women's "place" issues.

    Are you on facebook? If so, friend me so we can get acquainted better.