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Egalitarianism

The following article has been published in the June 2019 edition of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.

One of the remarkable aspects of the New Testament in the Bible is its egalitarianism.  The stories of Jesus’ encounters with others include those who are prosperous as well as those who are poor, disadvantaged, or needy; the powerful and those on the fringes of society; all were treated with the same degree of challenge and respect.  Similarly, the writings from the early church treat all equally. 

The most striking aspect of this is the inclusion of Gentiles of all classes from around the first century Roman Empire in a movement that originated in the heart of the Jewish homeland with an itinerant Jewish rabbi.  Similarly, the treatment of women in the New Testament is quite radically egalitarian for its time.  But more generally, the Christian message is that all are created in the image of God – and all fall short of presenting this image to the world. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” 

Bishop David Hamid, the Anglican Bishop with responsibility for this part of the Diocese in Europe, spoke about this at a recent workshop in Barcelona.  Quoting the second century Bishop Irenaeus, he distinguished between the image of God and the likeness of God.  “We are all created in the image of God,” he said, “and that image is never lost.  But the likeness of God in us is marred by our fallibility and tendency to sin.”  He went on to suggest that the way to restore the likeness is to follow the teaching and example of Christ.  

Personally, I find the idea that none of us is perfect both comforting and liberating.  The world is permeated by a sort of false perfectionism that is exploited by commercial interests to encourage material consumption.  The idea that we can become more perfect human beings by buying more things is, of course, completely delusional.  Owning more possessions does not really make anyone happier – in fact it often leads to more anxiety!  George Gershwin, in Porgy and Bess, captured that sentiment: “Folks with plenty of plenty / They’ve got a lock on the door / Afraid somebody’s gonna rob ’em / While there out (a) making more – what for?” 

So, increased consumption will make us neither happier nor more perfect – and in fact might lead us down a path in the opposite direction.  And the pervasive false perfectionism has other, dangerous aspects.  Air-brushed pictures of models in magazines, the internet and social media draw young people into the realm of eating disorders, from which it can be very difficult to escape. 

So how do we live our lives as fallible yet hopeful human beings, neither caught in a “slough of despond,” to quote John Bunyan, nor striving for a false, fool’s paradise of unattainable perfection?  

Perhaps a specific word from the Lord’s prayer offers something.  The New Testament was originally written in Greek, and the seventeenth century translators left us the word, “trespasses.”  It’s not the best word for the modern world.  It comes from Greek words that mean “debt,” or “missing the mark,” rather than straying over boundaries.  

Life itself is a gift, for which we are inevitably indebted. To treat it otherwise – to take it for granted – is just plain arrogant.  So there’s the biggest debt.  Beyond that, there are a host of smaller gifts that life presents to us.  All of this leaves us with a debt that no human being can actually repay.  In that respect, the size of our debts to our creator is not significantly different. 

As I say, I find all this quite liberating.  There is no point in judging myself against the abilities or the achievements of others.  There is equally no point in setting myself up in judgement over others.  We are all broken, to some degree.  So let’s stop striving for perfection – in ourselves, or others – and live our lives in grateful appreciation for the gift of life that can never be fully repaid, simply striving to do the best that we can with what we have been given.

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