Acts 23:12-35 Playing with status


I don’t know why I’m finding the ending of Acts so anticlimactic. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading it through a contemplative lens, and there’s nothing very contemplative about what’s going on here. We get told about maneuvers by the Roman authorities to keep Paul safe, and there’s something of the potboiler about this section, but it doesn’t really lift the spirit or edify the soul. And since the entire ending of Acts has something of dry reportage about it, I will use these last posts to close out this study by returning to some of the themes I’ve frequently touched on. Today I’ll talk about identity and status, because Paul is relying on his status as a Roman citizen to keep him safe.

A very important thing happened long before the Diocese of Southern Ohio launched this Big Read of Luke/Acts. I was sitting with a group of friends and colleagues who were planning the Becoming Beloved Community initiative, and I said something like, “we need to be clear that a large part of Becoming Beloved Community is about combating racism.” Several of my African American friends immediately spoke up, and what they said surprised me. In essence, they wanted no part in one more anti-racism initiative. We’ve spent our whole lives trying to explain racism to white people, they said, and all of the church’s efforts have been about the conversion of white people. If we’re going to have any real change, it will only come when white people stop being the center of attention, when their need to understand or feel that they’re good stops taking all of the oxygen in the room.

I went away from that meeting troubled in my heart, because I knew that they were right, but also that their correct assessment of the situation meant that I couldn’t play a central role in the work. They were saying to me, and to other white men, it’s time for you to sit on the sidelines, to be patient and listen, to help where you can, but to give up the illusion that your transformation is actually helping us in any profound way. I affirm that it’s time for us white men to pay attention to a story that isn’t about us, and to not try to make it about us in any way. Obviously, the fact that I’ve written an entire blog about Luke/Acts demonstrates that I have a hard time doing this.

Like Paul, when I venture out to do or say something radical, I am always protected by my status. And during the last nine months I’ve been engaged in what people in the improv world would call a status negotiation. People like Keith Johnstone have written about how status works in our everyday lives. Status is a given. In any situation we are either playing low or high status. Johnstone uses the example of three teachers he knew in his youth to demonstrate this.

We’ve all observed different kinds of teachers, so if I describe three types of status players commonly found in the teaching profession you may find that you already know exactly what I mean.

I remember one teacher, whom we liked but who couldn’t keep discipline. The Headmaster made it obvious that he wanted to fire him, and we decided we’d better behave. Next lesson we sat in a spooky silence for about five minutes, and then one by one we began to fool about—boys jumping from table to table, acetylene-gas exploding in the sink, and so on. Finally, our teacher was given an excellent reference just to get rid of him, and he landed a headmastership at the other end of the county. We were left with the paradox that our behaviour had nothing to do with our conscious intention.

Another teacher, who was generally disliked, never punished and yet exerted a ruthless discipline. In the street he walked with fixity of purpose, striding along and stabbing people with his eyes. Without punishing, or making threats, he filled us with terror. We discussed with awe how terrible life must be for his own children.

A third teacher, who was much loved, never punished but kept excellent discipline, while remaining very human. He would joke with us, and then impose a mysterious stillness. In the street he looked upright, but relaxed, and he smiled easily.

I thought about these teachers a lot, but I couldn’t understand the forces operating on us. I would now say that the incompetent teacher was a low-status player : he twitched, he made many unnecessary movements, he went red at the slightest annoyance, and he always seemed like an intruder in the classroom. The one who filled us with terror was a compulsive high-status player. The third was a status expert, raising and lowering his status with great skill. The pleasure attached to misbehaving comes partly from the status changes you make in your teacher. All those jokes on teacher are to make him drop in status. The third teacher could cope easily with any situation by changing his status first.

Status, then, is always a negotiation. We “play” status. That is, with different people we are high status or low status, and we indicate our status to them by eye movements, posture, gestures, and words. What my friends in that meeting about the Becoming Beloved Community were asking was that I agree to accept low status for awhile. Sitting and listening in silence is a low status thing to do. Accepting that I don’t actually have any experiential “in” to another person’s story is a low status thing to do. Being humbled by my own lack of understanding, and by the array of human experiences that I have no knowledge of, is a low status thing to do. They were asking me to play low status so that they could, finally, play high status. In my own clumsy, misbegotten way, I’ve been trying to agree to their request. And yet, still, I’ve been writing this blog. I feel very much like Paul in this moment, full of a vision of a Beloved Community, but all too willing to fall back upon the status that my identity has given me without a second thought.