BECAUSE YOU’RE WORTH IT
That we live in a meritocracy is so widely accepted now it is hard to argue against it. But there are subtle dangers inherent which may deny the gifting of God and the duty we owe him.
Where is our equality as human beings located, if at all? This question underlies today’s difficult yet compelling public discourse about work and rewards. In the last three decades, the argument over economic equality seemed to have been won and lost, with a greater acceptance that in a period of rapid globalisation, some are bound to get richer than others. At least until it became apparent that some were becoming seriously, if not obscenely wealthier than others. In between times the debate moved into one about equality of opportunity: the idea that the State should bother itself less with equality of outcome and more with giving children the so-called level playing field of good access to public services like education and health.
Much public debate proceeds on the basis that we live in a meritocracy. This term was first invented by the social entrepreneur Michael Young in 1958 and it is taken to describe a society where people are rewarded with employment and money according to their skills and effort. This allows for income differentials, giving incentive to people to work hard.
If I may employ a new and ungainly word, the Bible speaks more readily of charisocracy. The word charis, from which we take the word charisma, means gift. For the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, the Church should be governed by the rule of gifts. God showers gifts liberally on his people, which when put together look like a seamlessly joined thousand piece jigsaw. Unless these individual pieces are integrated it simply looks like a fragmented mess. The use of the word ‘gift’ is preferable to the term ‘merit’ because it expresses something profound about origins. We are made together in the image of God. This is the true root of our personal worth as human beings and it suggests we are creative people with different gifts which God calls us to convert into skills for the blessing of others.
Clearly some people are more gifted than others, bringing to mind the ambiguous Carly Simon song: ‘Nobody does it better’ where the outrageous gifting of one person provokes as much jealousy and frustration in the admirer as it does praise. Leaving to one side the occasional person you come across who could open the batting for England while writing a Booker prize winning novel – the kind most of us would cheerfully drown at sea - there are more subtle and less exaggerated differences between most people. The idea that we are gifted, however, calls for humility because we did not create our innate abilities. It is in converting gifts into skills that the genuine risk of hubris and arrogance manifests itself. We forget where these skills came from after we have expressed them for a while.
In the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, one man is given five talents, another three talents and the last man just one. The first two put their talents to productive use and made more talents. These were commended by the lender. The last one buried his in the ground, made nothing of it and was condemned by the lender. Many people, with the sense of justice which is hardwired into humanity, feel this parable is unfair, kicking poor people in the teeth while celebrating the rich, as if it were a grotesque approval of today’s bonus culture. This misses the point. The talents stand for the gifts we are given and the parable encourages us to put these gifts to productive use. Even one talent, in Biblical times, was an outlandish amount of money, suggesting that even the least gifted person has more than enough gifts to explore once they cease to be hypnotised by the ability of others. One reason why more gifted people should be slow to boast of their talent is that more is expected of them: the greater the gifting, the deeper the responsibility.
Gifts are given to enrich the lives of others. In a meritocracy, the idea that personal merit can be put to selfish gain is but a step away. Yet to use our gifts this way shows contempt and ingratitude to the one who bestowed them on us. One of dilemmas of extended peacetime is that the social glue which bound people together in adversity becomes less sticky as we are able to look more to our own interests than others. This effect is perhaps unavoidable but it can and should be mitigated. It is one of the more deceitful illusions of this modern era of individualism to believe that we can make it on our own. We all leave the womb naked and remain defenceless for many years to come. And we are prepared for the adult world of work through the patience and diligence of many skilled and so-called unskilled workers. That we depart this world to face our Maker as empty as we arrived in it is all the perspective we need. We start life equal, we end it equal. This is what God has made. What does that say, then, about how we should treat one another in-between?
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