Any World Cup fan will argue that a certain amount of team favoritism is good for adrenaline and vuvuzela sales. But as it concerns wealth and power, the church has an historic abhorrence and a checkered love affair with favoriism as it concerns the rich and powerful.
Before Constantine brought the church into the halls of power there was a good deal of caution exercised when it came to dealing with people of fame and fortune. A third century document on church order, the Didascalia Apostolorum
, forbade Bishops from interrupting the reading of the word during a service in order to greet a person “honored by the world.” The same document goes on to exhort Bishops to get up and offer their own seat should a poor man or woman enter the congregation. It is this extreme vigilance regarding how we treat the rich and famous in comparison to how we treat the economically handicapped (I would add the socially, mentally and physically handicapped as well) which the church has so often lost sight of.
It’s not that the materially poor, mentally ill, or socially awkward people aren’t allowed in Christian gatherings (though there are some places where this is the case). It’s really that we generally tend to grant greater attention and privilege to those already privileged by their good looks, their social adeptness, or their material wealth. James calls this kind of favoritism “evil” (Jas. 2:1-13). It supports the caste system of the world where power tends to concentrate and advantage of the powerful often at the expense of the majority of humanity which exists on less than $3 per day and has almost no voice in global systems.
I am as challenged as anyone in the area of favoritism. Though I think I do pretty well in spending time with those whom others tend to ignore (I was one of those awkward, ignored kids in Jr. High and High School). There are, however, other areas where I give special attention to those most like me and struggle to overcome an attitude of judgment regarding people unlike me.
Case and point: I’m probably about as much a pacifist as I feel I can be given the reality of evil in a fallen world. There are times when force may be needed to protect the weak. Nonetheless, I have some pretty specific convictions about this present US (along with other country's) military engagement in the Middle East – a war soon to become America’s longest.
As I boarded a flight after a long trip I relished the fact that the seat next to me was empty. Just as they were closing the boarding door a large guy in combat fatigues got on. I could see he had a seat further to the back because he kept looking down the aisle toward the back of the plane and then at his boarding pass. Seeing no one next to me, and since he was the last person on board, he plopped down in the empty seat.
I scrunched against the window, a little “put out” that I would no longer have space to spread out after a long journey. Then I began to wonder what it must be like to take another human being’s life – to violate the call of Christ never to repay evil for evil and to love your enemy. I began to swell with some distain for this stranger whom I knew nothing about. This was a form of dis-favoritism. If an Anabatist had sat next to me (though I doubt I would have known by looking at them) I likely would have lit up in conversation and been glad to share the space with someone who thought more like me.
As we descended to land at Madison’s Dane County Regional Airport, the soldier pointed to the cross tattoo on the inside of my right wrist.
“Can I ask about your cross?” He said.
“Well,” I replied, “When Jesus was raised from the dead,” … which, by the way, is an interesting way to begin an answer to any question … “he retained the marks of his crucifixion. I figured that since he marked himself for all eternity out of love for me, that I could mark myself in this life out of love for him.”
The soldier pressed his imposing figure closer to me and held his hand out with an enormous smile.
“Praise God!” He said. “I’m a Chaplain in the US Army. Let me tell you; you hear about foxhole conversions – well it’s true. So many men are finding Jesus in the Army. I don’t even know how much of a Christian I was until my faith was tested like this.”
I was caught in my arrogance and judgment. My views on war and violence have not changed, but my attitude of favoring some while dis-favoring others took a hit that day. We simply cannot afford to be led by our broken and arrogant tendencies to distance ourselves from some people based on fairly arbitrary criteria while drawing near to others (in this regard I recommend Chris Heuertz and Christine Pole’s book Friendship at the Margins
). God’s favor is so much bigger than my narrow grid of acceptability.
If we must show favoritism, let’s at least show favoritism to everyone equally.