The Challenge of Elitism

Once my son Andy came to me and asked “Dad, when Jesus calls those scribes and Pharisees “whitened sepulchers”, was that like calling them sons of bitches?’ Well, first of all, you might guess where Andy heard the SOB term. In any case, Jesus, normally loving and compassionate, was indeed very direct and harsh in his confrontations of officials. So direct, in fact, that some of them played a role in having him killed.

We live in a culture that has much elitism to it. Basically elitism refers to an attitude of superiority based on wealth, position, or status. The basic message of the elitist is “Because I have wealth and power, I am better than everyone.” It may further include an attitude that, because of my position, rules that apply to others don’t apply to me.

The prophets of the Old Testament also spoke out against elitism, challenging persons at every level to see the poor and the marginalized as brothers and sisters. The prophets, too, were persecuted and even killed for a message that challenged the power structure.

The world of politics has become elitist. These days one can only run for public office if one is wealthy. People like Harry Truman would never make it into the halls of power these days, mainly because he was not wealthy.

Similarly, the world of professional sports has become elitist. Several years ago outside of Fenway Park, I had an encounter with Dave Roberts who is now manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was very approachable, down-to-earth, and warm. Apparently such an attitude is not common among professional athletes.

Elitism, however, is not strictly a function of wealth and position. For within each of us is a potential elitist. Any time we judged someone as “less than” because of their physical appearance or state in life, we are elitists. If I have a gift that others lack, e.g., musical ability, and I judge others as “less than” I am an elitist. And if I begin to believe that, because of my stature in life, I deserve special treatment, I am an elitist.

The challenge of elitism is a much greater spiritual challenge than most of us realize. That’s why the prophets as well as Jesus spent so much time cautioning about it. Elitism is at the root of the dangers of wealth. Elitism gives rise to some of the great problems of our age to include racism, poverty, violence, and political fringe groups. Elitism is certainly at the heart of discrepancies in wealth distribution but it is also at the heart of the violence of the Capital riots a years ago.

As with so many other social problems, we can feel helpless. What can I do about racism? About violence? About poverty? I don’t have an answer for that. What I do know is that the place to start is within. Finding and facing the elitist within me. This does not mean that I become passive. I can still object to someone else’s offensive or unfair behavior. But I must always balance such righteous anger with self-awareness, keeping in mind Thomas Merton’s caution: “…when one is firmly convinced of his own rightness and goodness, he can without qualm perpetrate the most appalling evil.”

Reflection: What have bee your experiences of elitism?