In today’s Times there is an intriguing story about the efforts of Mr Xi, the Chinese President, to curb extravagance on the part of those who work for the State and occupy important posts within it. A decree has gone out that this elite is no longer going to be allowed to drive foreign imported cars, particularly those from Germany, such as Audis and Mercedes. They will be required to drive Chinese made models instead. The problem for the Chinese officials is that Chinese cars are not known for their reliability. But there is also a problem for their perceived status in the eyes of their fellow citizens. ‘How,’ remarked one tweeter, ‘can a senior PLA officer possibly maintain his usual expression of aloof complacency at the wheel of a Geely? (local car)’ It is these two words ‘aloof complacency’ that seems to capture aspects of hierarchical behaviour the world over. My younger daughter, who spent a year in China, tells me that for a country who is wedded to Communism, the Chinese have developed a remarkable variety of marks of status, including the size and shape of their spectacles!
What do these two words, ‘aloof complacency’ imply? They imply that people who occupy a high position within a hierarchical structure often develop a body language and pose that proclaims their position at all times. Aloof is a word that describes a self-important pose, an expression around the mouth accompanied by a straight back. It says two things. Look at me and be impressed and simultaneously keep out of my way because I am too important to be bothered with the likes of you. It is not difficult to convey that message from the driving seat of a large imported foreign car.
The other word, complacency, picks the part of the attitude that wants nothing to do with lower forms of life. In any hierarchy one way of asserting your position and keeping your status is by disregarding or dominating those below you. They are simply not worth your attention. People below you in the hierarchy do not just get ignored, they do not engage your compassion or what Christians would call love. Complacency thus involves detachment and such detachment seems part of the pose adopted by many who occupy high places within hierarchies the world over.
Another story parallel to the Chinese report leapt at me from the pages of this week’s Tablet, the Catholic weekly. This is the news that Catholic clergy, with a few exceptions, may no longer expect to achieve the honorary title of monsignor. This title was given to clergy by the bishops for such things as long service or loyalty to the bishop. Pope Francis has spotted no doubt a kind of careerism and ambition for titles among the clergy which involved a certain preening themselves as somehow more important than their fellows who were doing identical jobs. The Church of England has a similar system which rewards clergy who have stayed loyal to the system for a long time in one place, by awarding them the honorary title of Canon. The title has virtually no duties or extra responsibilities but allows some of these clergy concerned to make minor alterations to their robes as well as inviting his parishioners to alter their term of address to him from ‘Vicar’ to ‘Canon’.
These examples from China and from the Catholic and Anglican churches can probably be paralleled by the reader through countless other examples from a variety of walks of life. In my school days I can remember the way that promotion to becoming a prefect meant that one instantly stopped speaking to boys who were not prefects. In short, hierarchy, whether political or religious, has a horrible capacity to corrupt people and make them less human, compassionate and loving. There are some telling words in the gospels when Jesus comes in on a conversation among his disciples about who was the most important. He said and I paraphrase, ‘Kings and Lords exercise authority and lord it over others, but it shall not be so among you. Whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all’. There is a long sermon that could be preached on these few words. We may comment that the undergirding message of this passage seems to have been completely lost over the centuries. Few people criticise constructively the malign effect of hierarchy on some individuals. They do not see that although it is necessary to have different levels of responsibility in government and church as well as in every other form of human organisation, it does not necessitate the ‘aloof complacency’ that quite often accompanies it. Christians follow a master who saw right through power games in society and so should we. Jesus spoke some memorable words in Matthew 23. 5 when talking about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. ‘Everything they do is done for men to see. They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets …..’ How little things have changed!
To return to the theme of this blog overall and the relevance of these news stories, we can finish by simply noting that ‘aloof complacency’ is a temptation always inherent in hierarchical organisations and this will increase the likelihood that power over others will be abused. An increase of responsibility within a hierarchical structure is not sufficient reward for some. They have to gild the lily by behaving in self-important ways that ultimately seem to be pointless and self-defeating. It is particularly disappointing to find church organisations sometimes drawn into the same vanity power games as others. The abuse of power wherever it is found is also often going to be rooted in this kind of vanity and superior attitude. That is a good reason for us to be alert to notice it and resist it. Although ‘aloof complacency’ is not easy to withstand when we are pushed down by it, we can at least recognise its ultimate futility and even see in this futility aspects of humour. Perhaps ultimately pomposity and vanity are best defeated by humour and ridicule. No doubt the Chinese tweeter raised a few wry smiles when describing the behaviour of the Government officials in his country!