Hierarchy is the primary foundation of the world’s systems. Military model. Corporate model. Winners vs. losers. Rich vs. poor. Powerful vs. weak.
The reason hierarchy prevails is because it works so well for us. It’s what we’re used to. It’s what we know. We’re so wrapped up in our hierarchical, pyramid-like thinking that it’s difficult for us to conceive of, much less implement, a different paradigm.
Throughout history, hierarchy has most often manifested itself negatively as patriarchy, with racism and economic inequities running close behind. Males of all races, rich or poor, generally have more power and status than females throughout the world, with few exceptions. Hierarchy pervades all societies.
As our world keeps evolving, some progress is being made toward leveling the gender and racial playing fields in parts of the world, but economic equity still lags far behind. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7), perhaps he knew the hardest thing for humanity to overcome would be the greed and narcissism that sustains unjust hierarchical systems.
Pockets of egalitarianism do thrive here and there, however. And the movement against patriarchy and racism seems to be gaining some ground, in spite of major setbacks.
Most of the progress that’s been made can be attributed to Jesus’ influence upon humankind. Without Jesus, egalitarianism and mutuality would have little hope of existence. Women, minority races and the poor would have little chance for equal respect, freedom and opportunities.
Jesus initiated an egalitarian movement, showing people how to live and love without dominating each other. But Jesus – and courageous others since his time – paid the ultimate price for challenging the status quo. Progress is rarely achieved without conflict and casualties.
Amazingly, some modern Christians are among those thwarting progress toward egalitarianism, all in the name of biblical fidelity. Fundamentalists and inerrantists keep trying to push society backwards to the hierarchical world of the Bible, where women basically had no rights and slavery was common.
An exaggeration? Perhaps. But even if societies only reverted to the attitudes of the 1950s, not the first century, the world definitely would be headed in the wrong direction. Pushing backwards is futile, anyway. The egalitarian cat has worked its paw out of the proverbial bag; there’s no going back to the way we were.
Hierarchical models of adult relationships are especially problematic at the top and bottom tiers. People at the bottom of the pyramid constantly struggle to improve their status, often looking upon those at higher levels with envy, sometimes hatred, because they feel trampled upon, hopelessly stuck near the bottom due to a system over which they have no control. They are determined to rise higher than the bottom tier.
People at the top of the pyramid often have a sense of entitlement that accompanies their elevated status. They sometimes think they deserve to be at a high level because they are smarter or work harder or are simply destined to be in that position.
Many are grateful to God for their high status. Some even believe that God placed them at the top just because they are male, or white, or good, or American and so on. While they enjoy power and privilege, their biggest struggle is with constantly having to scramble just to keep their place on the pyramid. They are determined to perpetuate the hierarchical system that keeps them at the top.
In her wonderful allegory, “Hope for the Flowers,” author Trina Paulus tells of Stripe, a caterpillar who tries to climb a huge pile of caterpillars, all trampling on each other in their blind quest to reach the top of the pile. Ultimately, Stripe reaches the top and discovers that there’s “nothing there” except other caterpillars struggling with all their might to maintain their high position.
Stripe finally quits playing the game, gets trampled to the bottom, crawls away and eventually is transformed into a beautiful butterfly, able to soar above meaningless caterpillar piles everywhere.
Like Stripe, in order for all of us to be transformed and have a better life together “more than we can ever imagine,” we must somehow find the courage to move beyond hierarchical systems and work toward implementing better relationship paradigms. Difficult? Extremely. Impossible? Not with God helping us.
Naomi K. Walker is an ordained Baptist minister. Now retired, she served as music/worship pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, from 1995 to 2017.