By Audrey Stallsmith
When it comes to movies, what do an eccentric western filmed in the '50's and a recent Oscar-nominated drama have in common? For different reasons, they both got me thinking about equality--or the obvious lack thereof.
The western, called The Ride Back, concerns a deputy who has been a failure all his life. When sent to bring back a wanted man from Mexico, the lawman--though obviously scared out of his skull--determines this is the one thing he's going to get right.
The good-looking and self-confident outlaw, on the other hand, possesses the kind of easy charm that makes people eager to forgive him. So he has plenty of friends on his side, while the lawman must struggle along on his own.
The other movie, Remains of the Day, portrays two men of the World War II era, a Nazi-sympathizing English aristocrat and his butler. Convinced that his master is a very important man who hosts very important political meetings, the butler sacrifices his own personal life to make sure those meetings run smoothly. In the end, however, the master is disillusioned and disgraced so that, ironically enough, both men have wasted their lives on the fascist assumption that some men are born better than others.
But is that, we might ask ourselves, such a wrong assumption? When based on race it certainly is. There's too much variety in any ethnic group to make it plausible that one could be intrinsically superior to another.
But, when we look at humans in general, we have to acknowledge that some people receive what seems an unfair excess of advantages--good looks, intelligence, wealth, etc.--while others have to get by on virtually nothing. Jesus' parable of the talents admits this inequity, since it shows different servants being entrusted with different amounts of assets to invest. Before we begin to envy the have-it-alls, however, maybe we should recall that "Much is required from those to whom much is given, for their responsibility is greater." (Luke 12:48b, LB)
Obviously, the only equality that we really possess is in God's eyes. Because, as Helmut Thielicke writes in Life Can Begin Again, "every person is ultimately a thought of God," every person is important to Him. And God isn't bound by our limitation of not having enough love to go around.
(Actually, if we have His spirit in us, we're not really bound by that limitation either. But we prefer to think we are, since it's just too difficult to love certain people!)
"If there is equality," C. S. Lewis asserts in The Problem of Pain, "it is in His love, not in us." Malcolm Muggeridge agrees in Jesus Rediscovered. "Only as children of God are we equal; all other claims to equality. . .only serve in practice to intensify inequality. . . The commandment to love our fellow man follows after, and depends upon, the commandment to love God."
In other words, we can only manage to treat other people fairly if we see them as children of God too, and thus as our brothers and sisters. Some of those siblings are, of course, estranged from the family, but that shouldn't make them any less valuable to us.
Within the family, we need all the different types--the weak as well as the strong--because, according to George MacDonald, "each person can worship God as no one else can." And, for any institution to work properly, it must be dependent on a large variety of members.
We can see this in all aspects of life. In the theater the leading man wouldn't be able to function without all the other actors playing supporting roles to his starring one. A garden full of only big splashy flowers would overwhelm the viewer without smaller blooms to add balance to the composition. And the body, as Paul tells us, wouldn't be able to function without its unseen parts which are often much more important than the obvious ones.
"The basis for our unity," Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey write in their book Fearfully & Wonderfully Made, "begins with our diversity." And that's as true for the Body of Christ as for the human body! "God requires only," the authors conclude, "that each person be loyal to the Head."
I've recently been reading A Perfect Mess by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, which posits that less organized people and institutions are often actually more productive. Their lack of rigid structure, the book argues, makes them more flexible and responsive to changing situations. We often think that the world would be a much neater place if God had made everybody to exactly the same set of specifications. But it would be a much less interesting and productive place too!
God created instead a system where us very different people could smooth off our sharp edges by abrading against each other. Once we learn to rub along together, we become far more than we ever could have been alone.
"Without the correction, the reflection, the support of other presences," George MacDonald notes, "being is not merely unsafe, it is a horror." That could probably be illustrated by how frequently prisoners in solitary confinement go mad. "You cannot become human on your own," Frederick Buechner agrees in A Room Called Remember. "We must love each other or die. That is the law."
And love doesn't keep score. It is often impossible to determine exactly how much each part in any machine or each person in any institution contributes to the whole. And, if our goal is the same one, it shouldn't matter.
For instance, the teen that is saved under the preaching of an exciting visiting evangelist may deplore--in comparison--the dullness of his/her little old lady Sunday school teacher. But the fact that the teen was open to the evangelist's message may actually be attributable to all the truths learned in a dryer fashion from that plodding Sunday school teacher.
"God has no prejudices," Thielicke states in The Waiting Father. In other words, he can use any one of us who consents to be used, no matter how great or small our talent may be, as long as we also consent to be cleaned up. "The sunlight plays no favorites," Fulton Sheen agrees in metaphor, "but its reflection is different in a lake than in a swamp."
Black and white, rich and poor, male and female are all souls to God. But if, as Buechner asserts, men and women are created "to complement one another as human beings," we women should be asking--as Sheen urges in On Being Human--for equity, not equality. In its most literal form "equal" means "the same." And we don't really want to be men, after all. There are so many things that they, poor dears, can't do. Give birth, for instance. And the differences between male and female add spice to life.
As Elisabeth Elliot points out in Passion and Purity, men--being generally more aggressive and self-confident as well as action oriented--tend to be initiators while we woman, who are more likely to worry ourselves into virtual paralysis, often do better as responders. And, while males favor absolute justice, we females are, as Sheen expresses it in Life Is Worth Living. "called to temper the world of justice with love."
That doesn't make either sex superior, just different. And we need this balance of opposites to keep the world from reeling too far one way or the other. "The tragedy of the modern woman," G. K. Chesterton contends in The Victorian Age in Literature, "is not that she is not allowed to follow man, but that she follows him far too slavishly." Implying, by doing so, that she really believes the male way is better!
"The doctrine that all individual souls. . .are equal in their value and in their right to freedom and self-fulfillment is Christian," Dorothy Sayers writes in Begin Here, "and rests on the Christian doctrine that all are equal in the sight of God and each individually responsible to Him." Perhaps that's why we're having such difficulty in imposing democracy and/or the rights of women on non-Christian nations. What seems obviously moral to us may not seem so to those raised in another religion-or to those who don't believe in God at all.
"So far from it being self-evident that men are created equal," Chesterton notes ironically in one of his columns, "it is not self-evident that men are created, or even that men are men. They are sometimes supposed to be monkeys." "In Bolshevism and similar things," he adds elsewhere, "we are watching a crazy contradiction, in which the ideal of equality is extended more and more extravagantly, while the only reason for equality has been flung away."
Perhaps that's why, these days, we all seem to think that equality means debunking, tearing everyone else down to our level--or, preferably, even lower than our level! In the parable about the Pharisee and the publican, the former gloats about how superior he is to the latter.
"But this measuring of oneself by looking downward," Thielicke warns in The Waiting Father, "makes everything he (the Pharisee) says-despite its truth in detail-false and untrue." By contrast, Thielicke points out, the publican "measures himself upward. God himself is his standard." With God as our measuring stick, we aren't going to be in any danger of thinking too highly of ourselves!
Looking up to other people also helps keeps us humble. But that respect is endangered in a competitive society which makes us, as David Redding puts it in Before You Call I Will Answer, "thirsty for the blood of anybody who's better than we are." If we persist in disillusioning ourselves about other "saints," however, we may--as Chesterton writes in one of his poems--find that we have "shattered the glass in its glory and loaded ourselves with the lead."
I know that there are many writers I'm never going to be able to match, but that doesn't excuse me from trying. And it means I'll always have something towards which to aspire. In Twelve Baskets of Crumbs Elliot prays, "Let me remember a saint's frailties only so that I don't excuse myself from achieving what he achieved."
Reluctant as we American Christians may be to admit it, equality is not really the Christian ideal anyway. Heaven, after all, is a monarchy, not a democracy. Democracy only became necessary because, in a fallen society, no man can be trusted with too much power.
But, once we are sure of God's love and our adoption into the royal family, we no longer feel the need to assert our rights so stridently. This obsession with what is owed us is, after all, also part of the fallen world. As children of the true kingdom, we are free to follow our Brother's example and give ourselves away for others instead. One of the inhabitants of heaven in Lewis' The Great Divorce says, "I have not got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You'll get something far better."
"I believe," Lewis concludes in Fern-Seed and Elephants, "that if we had not fallen Filmer would be right, and patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government. But since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that 'all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality. . . Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live."