WHAT ST PAUL MIGHT SAY TO THE MIDDLE CLASSES
We cling unthinkingly to secular modes of distinction which undermine what it might look like to lose all things for the sake of Christ.
Despite claims to the contrary, status is alive and well today. People have a natural tendency to rank themselves in hierarchies. This starts as early as the school playground, with its ruthlessly enforced pecking order, through to international summits, where the position you obtain at the photo-call is at least as important as the communiqué which follows. Assertions of a classless society today are undermined by the sheer number of times people use the term ‘middle class’ to distinguish different cultures from one another.
Overt divisions still exist and the most egregious of these is the way celebrity culture has spread like mould, where fame has become as important as talent rather than an adjunct of it, leading to the depressing yet logical conclusion that people might legitimately aspire to becoming famous as an end in itself. Those who lived through an era where this culture was less rampant may see through its spurious charms yet easily and complacently overlook the inherent credulousness of a new generation which has known nothing else. These loud distinctions are supported by the striking growth of subliminal rankings today, like the judgements which are made of people by the label they wear – or don’t.
People endlessly distinguish themselves from others in order to assuage their insecurities and anyone who thinks they are immune is probably self-deceiving. Where we were educated is part of our story, but it also forms our identity and the judgments others make of us. The same can be said for where we live and shop, how we look, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the Facebook profile we create, the job we do and the money we earn. We may not admit it, but we make these and other distinctions in the company of others, sizing them up and grading them accordingly. Expressing it like this makes it seem a little ugly and spiteful, but we rarely expose these assumptions for public scrutiny and so enable them to subsist.
In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul speaks compellingly of the impeccable status he acquired as a practicing Jew. This was rooted in the identity he assumed at birth – a kind of spiritual nobility – and fostered by his single-minded pursuit of purity under the law. All this is raised in order to dismiss its value when compared with knowing Jesus. ‘Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ’ he says; Christians are used to interpreting this argument through the contrasting prisms of law and grace.
Paul thought he had virtue in his relationship with God but it had no saving value; only the sacrifice of Christ adds the merit we lack and such is the nature of grace. Rarely, however, do we stop to think Paul’s line of argument might have something to say to the secular statuses we assume for ourselves today. All our distinctions: schooling, job, body shape, wardrobe, house and possessions should be regarded as loss compared to knowing the surpassing love of Christ. Loss, incidentally, is the polite way of describing what Paul really meant.
Mostly when we speak of the spiritual process of dying to sin and living to God we imagine an inward dynamic which transforms our character. We are cagier about its implications for our identity, because this has assumed more importance than character in modern society and we do not wish it to be impugned by others if we challenge its relevance. This is no argument for a new ethic which does not care about the way we appear, for we must love ourselves also, but we have not properly fashioned a shared spiritual identity which casts fresh light on the preoccupations of our material age. If you doubt me, consider how – if I may put it this way – ‘middle class’ we have allowed the Church to become.
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