Friday, February 10, 2012

Love Dissolves Hierarchy

Yesterday afternoon, the small group of students who are preparing for full incorporation into the Roman Catholic Church met again in my classroom for our weekly meeting. This week our topic was "The Teachings of Jesus" and we turned, once again, to Father Robert Barron's fantastic Catholicism video series. For anyone interested either in learning about the Catholic faith, or deepening one's own experience of the faith, I suggest this series strongly.

There is a scene when Father Barron is discussing the dynamism behind Mother Theresa of Calcutta's work. Asked once by a Dominican priest what animated her ministry, she asked him to spread out his hand and she touched a finger as she uttered each of five words: "You Did It To Me." These words echoed deep within my heart as I watched the video and have been haunting me since then.

Father Herbert McCabe writes that "Christian love implies equality." It is different from simply being nice, or being kind, or being philanthropic. Christian love is re-creative, because it recognizes the inherent equality between human beings. Think about it:
A master sometimes can be kindly and considerate to his slave, the slave can be loyal and affectionate towards his master: all this within the terms of his slavery. The master's kindness does not make him any less a master, the slave's affection does not make him any less a slave. ("God," 4)
 Regardless of the intention of the master, come nightfall he will retire to his turned-down bed and the slave will return to his quarters. The hierarchical relationship remains - each is etched by the imbalance of power that marks one as 'master' and the other as 'slave.'

Authentic love, however, dissolves the imbalance of power. Love "is slowly corrosive of hierarchy, and vice versa." Love is the great leveler of the playing field, enabling humans to look past cosmetic differences and enabling them to see one another as created. It is love that does not pander, nor does it condescend, but rather is creative of the space in which the beloved is freed to be who he or she is.

I think of this in terms of teaching. I can say, in a non-creepy way (I hope), that I love my students. I want the best for them. This being said, I never lose sight of the fact that I am the adult in the room and that they are, for the most part, children. Love does not mean that I have to do any particular thing at any given time. Instead, the love I can show them is by not doing anything save for allowing them to be themselves. Love creates space, it enlarges the area we occupy together, and empowers exploration.

In time, these students grow older. It is funny, and sort of cool, to meet students who graduated two years ago as they tremulously say, "Hey, Ryan" as opposed to "Hey, Mr. Duns." Emboldened by an invitation and feeling that the shared-space may permit it, they risk embracing the equality authentic love demands.

By no means do I intend to sound anti-hierarchy. I think there is an important function and structure provided by hierarchy (I'm a Catholic, a Jesuit, after all). I think, though, that hierarchical structures are means-to-and-end rather than ends in and of themselves. That is to say, I view the hierarchical structure of a classroom, of my relationship with my religious superiors, as a training ground in love and equality. As I give my students space to learn and explore, and as my superiors give me the space to develop my talents, in both cases is there an enlarging and is there growth. Good parents provide structure for their children, not as an end but as a means of child-rearing. As the child grows and the strictures are relaxed, it is because the child has been formed and is being granted greater freedom. Is is the unloving parent who never relaxes, who never grants freedom to the child.

The danger of viewing the hierarchy as an end, rather than a means to an end, is clear to my mind in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The efforts of not a few of its members to preserve the hierarchy from scandal - often by duplicitous and un-loving means - has led to a tremendous crisis in confidence. The very structures that were, and are, intended to help people learn to love as Jesus loved and called us to begin to live now as we will live forever in God's Kingdom, have become roadblocks and scandalous to many.

Christian love is a radical love, one that has the courage to transgress boundaries because when we enact love, we do so in the confidence that our actions will be remembered on Judgment Day when we hear, "When you did these things, You Did It To Me." I fear the contrary is true, that when we neglect to love, or when we act counter to love, we will feel the sting of knowing that our contributions to others' affliction will be remembered likewise, "You Did It To Me."
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