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.


  1. Very well written Naomi. You could lead a conference on this topic. You're very well versed and very well spoken. thanks for sharing

    Bill Tiemann

  2. Thanks, Bill, for your kind words. Hope things are going well with you these days. - Naomi

  3. This is very good reasoning. I think a lot of what's been happening for many years is that women have grown dissatisfied with Category 1-- but instead of blaming the inherent injustice of Category 1, the church has blamed the women, or their "indoctrination by feminism." A Category 1 marriage is seen by many in the church as ideal, and therefore a marriage which moves into Category 2 is seen as caused by "ungodly feminism," and the conflict is assumed to be rectifiable by moving the marriage back into Category 1. Thus we get lots of blame-shifting, with the ones in power/domination never taking responsibility for their role in the conflict.

    And since Category 3 often occurs for a while before Category 4 is effectively reached, the unrest of Category 3 is blamed on the egalitarian beliefs rather than on their difficulty in implementation. Category 4, therefore, is believed to be impossible, and therefore never given a chance to exist.

  4. Good comments, Kristen - thanx for responding.

    Contrary to some, I believe category 4 IS attainable--I have seen it firsthand in marriages, churches--but it almost always happens only after a lengthy journey (keeping feet to the fire) through categories 2 & 3 towards the goal of a just, lasting, peaceful relationship.

    Sustained conflict is unsettling & people tend to give up too soon. It seems easier to "keep the peace," becoming passive...which always results in regression towards category 1.

    Also, it's important to note that even wonderful relationships in category 4 will still have disagreements and conflict--just a part of being human.

    The difference is that in category 4 there is no assumption that one party will have more "weight" in deciding the outcome of a disagreement. The ground is level as they work through the difficulty.

  5. Thanks, Naomi. My husband and I have attained a "category 4" relationship-- though I still fight the tendency to think of all the domestic labor as inherently "my job." The housework was all my mother's job, and I watched her during my first 18 years. It's a hard thinking pattern to break. But my marriage continues to get better as we learn mutual service, rather than one-sided service!

  6. This makes so much sense. Hierarchalism as scarcity thinking -- you nailed it. When there is an abundance of freedom in Christ for all, if we would just cooperate with Him and with each other.

  7. This was a fantastic post. Thank you!

  8. f.y.i. - A condensed version of this blog posting was published online by on August 25, 2011 with the title, "Do Your Relationships Revolve Around You or Others?"