While the Restoration scriptures consistently warn against the stratification of society into classes, our zeal for education and achievement tends to produce exactly that.
Eugene V. Debs said “…while there is a lower class, I am in it…”, and those words echo several themes in the New Testament. In this post and in your comments, I’d like to explore how we can avoid or resist the tendency towards privilege and class identity.
The church has defined my primary role in life to be the provider of material goods for my family. Within the last two years, President Hinckley spoke about this in general priesthood meeting and quoted the scripture which says that anyone who doesn’t provide for his family is worse than an infidel. Most men I know feel a strong sense of urgency about this responsibility, and we tend to think that if a little providing is good, a lot of providing is even better. We tend to have large families, and that necessitates larger homes and multiple cars. And it goes without saying that homes always need to be maintained and cars always need to be repaired.
The church also advises us repeatedly to get all the schooling we can. The advice is often couched in terms of securing a living in a competitive environment. In that sense, I am literally “getting ahead”, or gaining a comparative advantage over others. My parents gave me every advantage, and I’m doing the same for my own children. Most of us would do anything we could to secure the future of our children, but I am wondering if there should be limits, and what those limits are.
We tend to derive a strong sense of ourselves from what we do for a living. “What kind of work do you do?” is a question we expect to hear very soon upon meeting someone new. And we value some occupations above others. From my office where I perform my work (software engineering) I can look out the window and see other men at work, laying brick. I’m not at all sure that what I do is more valuable or meaningful than what they do. And with the wages that skilled craftsmen earn, I’m not sure I make any more money than they do. However, I know that we are in different classes, and the reason is because I went to college.
I think the gospel can counteract and neutralize class differences. For instance, those differences can go away when we serve together and visit in one another’s homes. However, some things about the church tend to reinforce a class system. A man who went to college is more likely to be called to leadership positions than a man who is a bricklayer, or the owner of a Roto-Rooter franchise. Why is that?
It is my belief that sometimes the drive for achievement and excellence can be harmful, not only to ourselves but to the greater community. And while education is no doubt valuable in terms of earning a living, how much of it can fairly be thought of as nothing more than credential acquisition? How can we be high achievers while simultaneously keeping faith with “the least of these”?