Sitting in a busy coffee shop in downtown Chippenham as lots of ordinary folks stroll by I’m reminded of a movie title, “Ordinary People”. It was an ironic title because the movie was filmed mainly in a posh suburb of North Chicago—Lake Forest—and portrayed people on the high end of the socio-economic spectrum. The contrast between comfortable Chippenham and toney Lake Forest is striking.
Here’s a question, then. Why are there so many more towns in the world like Chippenham than Lake Forest? I’m guessing that both are roughly similar in their head counts. But if we compare the number of high-end names in either town it wouldn’t be a contest. I’m told that Prince Charles’s present wife lived near Chippenham in her earlier marriage but she’s long gone and I’m not sure who’s left to count. Lake Forest, on the other hand, reportedly still has a number of movers and shakers living in elegant and inaccessible estates.
As I pondered the Chippenham crowd I was struck by our ordinary features: our plain clothing, plain speech, plain faces, and for most of us, too many spare pounds around our waist. And I count myself as a full member of the ordinary crowd. I have a load of education but by most standards I’m a fit: I’m slightly disheveled and obviously aging, I regularly fumble events and names in my forgetfulness, constantly make silly errors in speaking and writing, and I can’t carry a tune in a bucket when I sing. There’s much more ordinariness to me, of course, but I don’t really notice my limits until I’m around some of the Lake Forest crowd.
I know the Lake Forest crowd because I once served as an associate pastor in a Lake Forest church. But I wasn’t invited into the crowd. Mere presence doesn’t bring participation. A single social faux pas closes doors, and any cluster of awkward features causes latches to be locked.
That’s a key rule in gaining and maintaining elitism: those who don’t belong are made aware that they don’t belong. Distinctions and distance are important. So the truly elite only cross paths with ordinary people as short term social gestures because that’s the point of being elite: one’s standing in the pyramid of life is everything and it needs to be displayed from time to time. Separate entrances to hotels, airports, and lounges are the standard fare.
Then there are places like India, Nepal, and Cambodia, where I’ve traveled. Places where most Westerners are immediately elevated into a modestly elite status: using air-conditioned hotels, traveling by cars, and so on. So I’m conscious of how relative the notion of “ordinary” actually is. But let’s set that aside for a moment.
These comparisons raise a theological question: why is God so unfair? How is it that he allows huge numbers of people to be born into poverty and to be bound to lesser positions in life by their modest heritage, intellect, beauty, skills, and training? And why is it that so few are graced with sparkling intelligence, impeccable social instincts, striking appearance, top physical skills, gifts of leadership, and the like? If God created all of us, isn’t he finally responsible for our low estate? And, presuming he is, does he even care?
The Bible, as it answers our complaint, shocks us. It offers us a vision of a humble God. So humble, in fact, that he doesn’t begin to fit the profile of Aristotle’s deity and the adaptation of that deity to Christianity that is widespread. The Bible’s God, for instance, counts others more important than himself: the Father glorifies the Son, and the Son glorifies the Father, and together they share their glory with their followers. Aristotle’s elitist God, on the other hand, can only think of himself. And he regularly reiterates his status as the peak figure in any pyramid of power because his power defines him. The Bible’s God, by contrast, is moved by the power of love—as epitomized in the cross—and he uses his powerful love to draw people into his fellowship of free grace. His goal is to give of himself to his followers for all eternity in every way he can imagine.
This helps explain why it was always the religious, the political, and the academic elite who killed God’s prophets and in a finale of rage crucified his Son.
Do we see the point? To be elite is to be like God. And it’s awkward to be increasingly successful as a Godlike person only to discover that the true God is the opposite to what was expected. He’s selfless; they’re selfish. He can describe himself as the God who “is love” while the elitist God is defined mainly by ruling and reigning. The true God longs to walk among us while the elitist God insists on being above and wholly separate from all in his transcendence.
All of which explains God’s promise in 1 Corinthians 1—that he draws his heavenly community mainly from those in the world who are foolish, weak, low, and ordinary. They much more readily respond to humble love.
That brings us to a final question: why do the humble folks in Chippenham, Cambodia, India, and Nepal get such an unfair advantage! Don’t the elite deserve something more than Sheol for all their efforts?