“A place for everything, and everything in its place.” The quote is attributed originally to Benjamin Franklin. I adhere to this principle in a general sort of way. My stuff is usually in the neighborhood of where it ought to be. Every so often (when I need to feel better about life in general) I go on an organizing campaign in my office or my shop. I get most things in their place, at least for a while.
I’m not one of those people who draws the shapes of the tools on a peg board and labels the spot with a stencil. But I envy the people who do that.
We humans like to have things in their proper places. We are mapmakers. Of course, we make physical maps of our surroundings in order to know where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. But more than that, we make mental maps of our lives and experiences.
Not only do we have spots on our mental maps for our stuff. We also have spots on our mental maps for people. Some of those people spots are personal and reflect our relationships to others. Some of those people spots are more general and reflect our perceptions of and prejudices toward others. We can call those generalized people spots stereotypes. We hang on to them not so much because they’re accurate but more so because they’re handy.
Because we’re also hierarchical critters, we tend to create those people maps in rank orders. Some spots on the map are better, and some are worse. We may rank people based on our own interests, needs, and preferences. We may rank people based on some pecking order and our relative place in that order. Unless we subject our maps to a critical evaluation, we will probably rank people in ways that always benefit us.
One way to think about racism is to see it as a way of mapping people places, both psychologically and politically. We put people into places based on their “types” without considering them as individuals. Beverly Daniel Tatum notes that this type-mapping (stereotyping) is strongly influenced by our cultural surroundings. She points to a study of children at age three who had already developed such type-mapping. “Though I would not describe three-year-olds as prejudiced,” she writes, “the stereotypes to which they have been exposed become the foundation for the adult prejudices so many of us have” (page 84).
When we take our people-maps as objective descriptions of reality rather than personal perceptions, omissions, distortions, and stereotypes, we have developed a prejudice. “Prejudice,” Tatum writes, “is a preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information” (page 85). Since we humans all make mental maps, and since we rely on those maps to guide us through our worlds, we all have prejudices of various types.
One of the type-markers that is most salient in American culture is race. Tatum reminds us of David Wellman’s definition of racism – “a system of advantage based on race” (page 87). We White people take our inherited people maps, treat them as objective truth, and then enact them as laws, social practices, economic systems, and assessments of relative human worth. The White racism in America declares that White supremacy is the natural order of things – that our flawed and twisted White-centered maps are objective descriptions of Reality and therefore must be embodied and enacted.
I think of the infamous “Mudsill Speech” delivered by James Henry Hammond on the floor of the United States Senate in 1858. “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” Hammond declared. “That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have,” Hammond argued, “or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government,” he continued, “and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.”
Hammond asserted that the class in question was Black people. “We use them for our purpose,” he said, “and call them slaves.” He argued that this way of organizing human society conformed to the law of nature. He was sure that such a system was “everywhere” and “eternal.” This is the very definition of taking our human people maps and imposing them on the world around us by law, by custom, by habit, and by violence.
We create our maps naturally and constantly. We tend not to even think about how we expect to have a place for everything and everything in its place. Then we come up with reasons why our particular map is the way it is, and why our map is the right and best map. That’s how ideologies tend to work. We humans engage in a practice, and then we create stories to justify that practice and to serve our interests and the interests of our in-group.
Sabbath is a fine way to organize time – until it is used to oppress some and exalt others. A seating chart at a banquet can reduce the chaos and facilitate the feeding. But it can also tell a story about which people are “better” and which people are “worse.” Our human hierarchies are rarely rooted in any objective measures of actual difference between people. Instead, they are stories we tell to make sure that we are at the top (or at least not at the very bottom).
Perhaps this is part of what we read in this week’s text. It’s not so much that we should always debase ourselves rather than risk being debased. That’s a fine piece of social wisdom, encapsulated in the first reading from Proverbs 25. If all we’re getting in our text, however, is some advice on first-century table manners, it’s not a very interesting text. I think we get much more.
I want to suggest that Jesus is calling us to challenge our own stories about proper place. Don’t take your stories and maps at face value, especially when they conveniently serve your interests and agendas. Yes, my natural tendency is to seek out the highest place on the organizational chart. And I can come up with a very good story about why that is good and right and true. But that very good story may be very good to me only because it serves my needs – not because it reflects any sort of reality.
Of course, I may have learned a story that always puts me at the bottom of the chart. And I may have come to believe, or at least to acquiesce, to that story. But what if that story is wrong? What if it determines the seating chart on the basis of systemic violence rather than on the basis of any facts? When the truth comes out, I may be called up higher.
The story that determines our worth, that gives us our place at the table, is the story of God’s grace, mercy, and love in Christ. That’s the story we hear and tell as Jesus followers. In our story, our friends and siblings and relatives and rich neighbors have better seats because they are worth more to us. In God’s story, the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind have seats at the table because they are worth more to God.
This is certainly part of the Good News of the text – and not just for the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. If my place on the map and at the table depends on what I can produce or manipulate or coerce, then my place is always at risk. Life is then nothing more than a bloody competition for dominance. I will always be looking over my shoulder lest someone pass me up. And I will always be looking up the ladder for the next chance to advance. The finish line is a moving target, and life is an unending round of anxious acquisition.
Some people like that story – especially those at the top currently and those who would like to displace them. But that’s not God’s story. In God’s story we begin with our place at the table and live in the joy of the feast. In God’s story, life is gift rather than accomplishment, grace rather than gain. I know it’s not the “American way.” It’s not late-stage capitalism. The Kin(g)dom is not a meritocracy. I don’t write it; I just report it.
“A place for everything, and everything in its place.” That is God’s organizing principle as well – if we understand that the place of everything, and everyone, is in God’s loving care. Our stories of dominance and hierarchy are not God’s stories. Those stories lead to systemic violence, abuse, oppression, and death. Those stories leave us scratching our way to the top of the heap while we debase ourselves as less and less human. God’s story lifts us up to be the image-bearing people God made us to be.
Can we organize our life together as disciples to reflect God’s story rather than our stories?
Resources and References
Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Twentieth Anniversary Edition). New York: Basic Books, 2017.