We are living in a time of a great leveling. Hierarchy and authority structures of all kinds are being challenged, not by opposing hierarchies and authorities but by grassroots movements. Seemingly average people, motivated by one cause or another to challenge governments, organizations and society at large. It seems it doesn’t matter what authority structure they face. Their posture is one of equality, seemingly saying “I don’t care who you say you are, we are equals on the same level.”
Recent examples of this phenomenon are the rapid mobilization of large numbers of people around Greta Thunberg and her crisis level climate change message and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their opposition to the Coastal Gas Link pipeline. In both cases, people or groups with seemingly little hierarchical or institutional authority have taken on governments, world leaders and the societal structures they live in. They have little patience to respect decisions made through processes defined by those structures and simply oppose them, aggressively and publicly. Much of this is of course fuelled by modern social media and the internet which enables the great leveling by rapidly creating connections between those furthest down the societal hierarchy. Social media is enabling the phenomenon we are witnessing which we have previously addressed in 21st Century Reformation.
While the electronic empowering of the great leveling we are currently experiencing is certainly a new development in human history, it is not unique to our generation. In fact, it has happened repeatedly throughout history when outsiders, who do not respect them and consider themselves subject to something else, challenge the ruling hierarchy and authority structures. That something else can be a deeply held conviction, alternative belief system or another authority. All that is needed is for the conditions to be right, usually corruption and arrogance in the ruling hierarchy and a mass mobilization of the opposition, however that may occur.
A first century example
Once such time occurred in the 1st century, during the time of Jesus of Nazareth. While the typical view of his life, death, resurrection and development of the Way (the movement made up of his followers) is through the lens of religion, there is an alternate view.
At the time of Jesus there were two ruling hierarchies and authority structures in existence, the Roman Empire and the Jewish religion. The Romans had their various leaders – tribunes, prefects, governors, senators, emperor, etc. While the Jews had their own – rabbis, elders, priests, chief priest, etc. They each had their own authority within their communities complete with temples and buildings that were symbols of that authority. In addition, they had a common understanding and co-operation between them to keep the peace with each individual seeking to preserve their own position within their respective hierarchies. The Roman system of course was superimposed over the Jewish system, holding the Jews under their feet, subject to Roman rule. As is the case with any hierarchy or authority structure, the goal is to maintain peace at all costs and preserve the hierarchy.
The traditional “religious” view of Jesus is that he was captured, beaten and crucified because of his claim to be God in human form, blasphemy to both the Romans (Caesar is Lord) and Jews (Yahweh is Lord). There is another perspective that is much simpler than that. He was simply a threat to the peace and existing ruling hierarchies. His life and message carried the risk of a great leveling to both. Consider the following situations and Jesus’ words in that light.
Shortly after spending time in the vicinity of the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus disciples uttered “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” This of course is a common occurrence with those who admire hierarchy, authority and the structures that represent them. Jesus replied “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mar 13:1,2)
While appearing before Pilate, the governor of Judea, in his palace (notice all of the indicators of hierarchy and authority) the following exchange between Pilate and Jesus is interesting through this new paradigm “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (John 19:10,11) Jesus is not responding to Pilate as one below him in authority. The apparent hierarchy has been leveled and actually turned upside down.
These two situations are examples of what happens during a great leveling. Existing lines of authority are upended. Their symbols are destroyed and a new reality begins to emerge. The key question to be answered is what will take their place, a new authority structure or something completely different?
The replacement of hierarchy
Jesus was clear on his intentions regarding what would replace the thrown down temple buildings and the religious hierarchy that surrounded it. Consider these words:
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21,23,24)
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
Jesus intentions were clear in everything he did and said. He healed the lowest in society (blind beggars and lepers) as well as the highest (centurion’s servant and nobleman’s son). He treated the despised (prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans), those with apparently no authority (women and children) and those with authority (members of Sanhedrin, governors and rich young ruler) with equal respect provided they had the same posture. Only those who openly challenged and opposed him (Pharisees, teachers of the law and demons) were rebuked or opposed. He was the Great Leveler. No respecter of persons or institutions and one who did not seek any earthly office or position from which to exercise authority.
As we witness yet another great leveling in our society, we need to ask ourselves what is the ultimate foundation of the movements we see around us? Do they seek to simply impose another hierarchy or authority structure upon us? Is Greta Thunberg advocating not only for the elimination of fossil fuels and solution to climate change but also for the establishment of an authority structure to impose it? Are those supposedly advocating for the Wet’suwet’en seeking only to preserve the environment and prevent pipelines or are they also advocating for another authority structure to deny others the opportunity to earn a decent living and support their families?
The test of a true and sustainable great leveling is does it provide freedom or simply another form of subservience to a different hierarchy? We’ll explore this further in a future post.