Researchers call it the “Last Place Aversion.” Why do people those near the bottom of any social status pyramid treat those beneath them badly? Why do people in low-income groups vote against their self-interest and support systems of inequality? Philosophers and historians have known about this human tendency for centuries. But the explanations offered have not been very convincing.
Until recently. In 2014 researchers[i] suggested that we humans really hate being in “last place.” We will even act against our self-interest if that keeps us out of the bottom of the heap. Nothing makes us happier than having a group or class to look down on. As we move up in status, last place anxiety decreases. As we move down in status, it increases.
In one set of experiments, people were given random dollar amounts. Then the experimenters showed them where they landed on the dollar hierarchy. Each subject then chose one of two strategies. One strategy gives the player more money as almost a sure thing. The other strategy is higher risk but gives the player the chance to move up in the hierarchy.
All the players chose the almost sure thing except for the bottom two. The last-place player wants to move up. The second-to-the-last place player wants to keep from moving down. Both players are willing to tolerate higher risk than average. The one hates being in last place. The other hates the thought of being in last place.
Last place aversion.
Another experiment is a money-transfer game. The players get random amounts of money. Each player has one dollar less than the next highest and one dollar more than the next lowest. Everyone knows their place on the money ladder. Players receive two dollars more. Each player has to give their extra two dollars either to the person directly above them or directly below them on the money ladder.
If I give the two dollars to the person above me, that person will move higher on the ladder (except for the top person). If I give two dollars to the person below me, I fall one place on the ladder. On average, players offer up or down at about the same rate regardless of position.
That’s true except for one person on the ladder. Can you guess which one? That’s right. The second-to-the-last person almost never gives two dollars to the last place person.
Last place aversion.
Of course, you might say, those are games played by undergraduates in psychology programs. That wouldn’t happen in the real world, would it? Think about people in favor of or against raising the minimum wage. The Pew Research Center did surveys to see which lower income group was more likely to oppose increasing the minimum wage. Which group do you imagine was more likely to oppose that increase? You guessed it. Those people being paid just above minimum wage.
Last place aversion.
Well, Pastor, you may say, that’s mildly interesting. But what’s it got to do with anything here today? I’m so glad you asked!
Jesus turns decisively toward Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. On the way, Jesus and his entourage pass through Samaria. Samaria was the territory between Jesus’ homeland of Galilee in the north and Judea, the location of Jerusalem in the south. Jews regarded the Samaritans as half-breed heretics and traitors. They intermarried with conquerors over the centuries. And they worshiped at a temple on Mt. Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem.
The Samaritans were regarded by many Jews as the lowest of the low. The urgency of Jesus’ mission is underscored by the fact that he passes through Samaria.
It was ancient tradition that local folks, regardless of their background, would offer hospitality to travelers. In the first village they come across, Jesus’ followers are rejected and refused.
James and John regard the rebuff as the highest possible insult. I can imagine something like this going through their minds. “We may be hicks from the Galilean boonies and backwaters. But at least we’re not those damned Samaritans!” I’m not swearing here. At least some Jews were sure that Samaritans were cursed by God.
Now we get to one of the awful parts of the text. “Lord,” James and John ask, “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” We don’t have to put up with such treatment from those low-lifes. If we do, those bottom feeders will be one up on us. And we can’t let that happen.
Last place aversion.
That psychological reality is written into the fabric of the New Testament. You may not know it, but it is written into the fabric of American history as well.
In 1675 Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion against wealthy landowners in the colony of Virginia. Late in the rebellion, as things weren’t going well, Bacon offered the promise of freedom to white and black indentured servants and Native Americans if they would fight on his side. More than seventy men of all colors took him up on the promise.
In the end, Bacon’s forces lost, and Bacon died from typhus fever. But the wealthy white men learned a powerful lesson. If all the folks at the bottom ever joined forces, they could overthrow the ladder of privilege that kept them all in their place.
The wealthy folks separated out the poor whites from the Blacks and Native Americans. They offered the poor whites legal, economic, and social privileges. The price of those privileges was cooperation in enslaving the Blacks and the Native Americans.
The historian, James Rice, described the situation like this. The alliance of rich and poor Whites “forced Indians and Africans to shoulder the burden of resolving the tensions and divisions within white colonial society.”[ii] Clyde Ford says that “liberty and equality are possible for the privileged few, because they are denied to a great many, based on the color of one’s skin. That fundamental equation,” Ford concludes, “is as true today as it was in the late seventeenth century.”[iii]
Last place aversion.
This is very odd for us who follow Jesus. Just a few verses before our text, the disciples argue about which one of them was the greatest. They may all have felt superior to the accursed Samaritans, but there was still the matter of their internal pecking order.
Jesus puts a child on the seat beside him. “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus tells the disputing disciples in Luke 9:48, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
For the least among you is the greatest. We’re Last Place Lovers. That’s the discipleship standard. And it’s one of the things that makes us Jesus followers so weird. But how in the world can it be true?
If there’s anything we can say about the God we meet in Jesus, it’s this. You are first in God’s heart. So am I. So is every bit of this beloved Creation. There’s no point in trying to protect my place in the Kingdom of God. Jesus already has that covered.
That’s the good news for today. Last Place Aversion is a waste of time. We’re Last Place Lovers, because we’re all first place with God. So, James and John, the only heavenly fire you’ll get is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That fire calls people of every time and place into God’s beloved family. And in that family, everyone is in first place.
What does this mean for us? I’ll make a few brief suggestions. When I’m worried about my spot on the ladder, I’m getting this Jesus-following thing wrong. The Spirit helps me let go of that worry every day.
Whenever we get the chance to dismantle and demolish human hierarchies, we Jesus followers should be part of that work. These are the things that Paul calls the works of the flesh in Galatians 5. I’m thinking about racism, misogyny, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism for starters. We live in a time when some folks want to put all the old hierarchies back in place. So, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
Whenever I get the chance to lift up anyone in a last place, I need to jump at the chance. That’s what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit. I pray that you and I can be bear that fruit fully and daily. Amen.
[i] “LAST-PLACE AVERSION”: EVIDENCE AND REDISTRIBUTIVE IMPLICATIONS. Ilyana Kuziemko Ryan W. Buell Taly Reich Michael I. Norton. Working Paper 17234. http://www.nber.org/papers/w17234. NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138 July 2011.
[ii] Quoted in Clyde W. Ford, Of Blood and Sweat, page 117.