One of the great things about America is that we have, as one of our founding precepts, the belief that “all men are created equal.” There are some societies that are founded on the concept of different “levels” of society, known as “castes.” When you’re born into that society, you are born into a particular caste, which defines how valuable you are to society, what sort of labors you will perform, and where and how you will live out your life. In America. Of course, we don’t have a caste system, at least not a formal one. But, many of us have a “caste attitude.” You can observe that phenomenon daily in almost any busy elevator.
Most folks, while riding an elevator, tend to stand in silence with their eyes on the “you are here” floor display. When people board or exit, they are generally nice about it, even cordial at times. However, what happens when a different “type” of person boards the elevator—someone of a different race, heritage, or apparent socioeconomic background from the other riders? We’ve all seen it happen, and we all know what results. People often scatter for the four corners of the little box, and can’t wait to get out.
I was reminded of that phenomenon yesterday, as I boarded an elevator in a typical 10-story, snooty, white-collar office building. I boarded on the second floor, joining four other riders, two men and two women, in typical formal office attire. As soon as the door opened, these four made a bee-line for the four corners of the elevator, giving off visual cues that said “E-WWWW! Keep your distance!” with all the subtlety of a hyperactive three-year old full of sugar and caffeine. I was dressed in blue jeans, an open collar shirt, and carrying a tool bag. I obviously wasn’t “one of them,” so I was to be avoided and kept at a distance.
As I stood with my eyes fixed on the display and thought about the dynamic I’d just experienced, it occurred to me just how silly that automatic reaction was. After all, how much information did they really have? They didn’t know a thing about me. They didn’t know that I’m a middle-manager that runs the Engineering department of the largest broadcasting group in the state. All they knew for sure is that I don’t wear a suit and tie every day. They didn’t even know where I was going, or why. With such limited information , how could they reasonably conclude that I’m a bad person and a threat?
What was even more interesting, however, was the return trip. I was accompanied by two other passengers—a well-dressed suit-and-tie gentleman, and an equally business-attired woman. Both were pleasant riding companions, who didn’t seem at all put out by my attire—or by the fact that I was also half-drenched with sweat after working on the hot roof for a couple of hours. They seemed able to look beyond appearances and respect me as a person, rather than for the clothes I was wearing.
I have to admit that I’ve caught myself slipping into a caste mentality. It’s easy to do, and it’s the basis of almost all bigotry and discrimination. It’s harder to consider each person as a person, rather than as “one of THOSE people.” It’s more work, there are more risks involved, but it’s also a much more satisfying way of relating to the world around you. Some folks don’t want to risk being hurt, so they never look beyond the outer layers when they encounter people.
The perfect role model for relationships is Jesus. He never showed any sort of bias or favoritism for any subset of humanity. He was remarkably consistent, approaching both the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless in exactly the same way—looking beyond the trappings and seeing their hearts. Jesus’ attitude of non-discrimination was one of the things that the stiff, hard-hearted religious leaders of His day found most troubling. They had a caste-like attitude. They were the highest level of people, with everyone else arranged under them, at far lower levels. Jesus challenged that way of thinking. He saw every single human being as having the same value.
In fact, He thought we were valuable enough that He gave His life for us—ALL OF US, not just “His kind.”