CHRISTIANS – CHASING ELITISM OR EXCELLENCE?
Recently St. Stephen’s college in Delhi held a debate to argue whether the institution is a centre of excellence or a centre of elitism. The two opposing sides were represented by a faculty member, a student and distinguished alumni. After all the arguments were finished, the College Debating Society decided that the institution was indeed elitist, presumably on the strength of the arguments presented.
Since then I have been confused - I know that elitism and excellence are not the same, but are they similar? Is excellence usually to be found in places where the elites gather and are only the elites capable of excellence and the rest of us are mediocre fluff that can stay or go away without society being unduly bothered. And then, is being elitist a proud badge of honour? I remember the former president of the Delhi Gymkhana Club in a recent conversation with The Indian Express proudly defended his club being elitist and a watering hole for a highly selected group of people.
But for a moment, leave alone the Gymkhana Club, though I suspect that women might have a bone to pick-for in its exclusive class of the elect, it excludes the married woman from applying from membership. Its website clearly specifies that any widow choosing to apply needs to presumably keep her husband’s death certificate handy to attach with the application form.
Coming back to St. Stephen’s College and other such oases of excellence, I think I am a stakeholder in whether this institution and others like this ought to be majoring on elitism or excellence and if excellence is only the domain of the rich and the powerful, which basically constitute the elite. The reason I am a stakeholder is that colleges and institutions like these are substantially subsidised by the tax payer, a large number of whom are not going to darken the doors of any college – elite or mundane. But, considering that St. Stephen’s College is a Christian institution, there is another question to ask. And that is the biblical stand on excellence and elitism. What does the Scripture say about excellence? The Book of Philippians Chapter 4 says this:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
The Bible exhorts us to pursue excellence. To be fit for the 21st Century we need to pay attention to the quality of what we do. The Church of Jesus Christ is not the place for the left-overs. It’s not the place to do the minimum required or what we can get by with. It is surely not the place for mediocrity. From the ancient days of Israel comes our lesson – The Old Testament taught the people of God to bring their best. From the modern lessons of business comes the word: pay attention to quality. If we want to make disciples of Jesus and reach generations that have come to expect quality in return for their commitment of time and energy, then we need to listen.
Paul calls us to focus on “any excellence” and “anything worthy of praise” (4:8). We cannot afford for the church, or theological education, or any of our lives to be an example of mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness. There is too much mediocrity, too much “playing church” and “feigning academic rigour” and “being nice” among Christians, rather than holding ourselves to standards of excellence and an ambition for the Gospel. The Gospel calls for excellence in our study, in our worship, in our service. But we are not called to “competitive excellence.” But while the Scripture encourages us to always pursue the spirit of excellence, what does it have to say about promoting elitism?
In Matthew 15 , we read a story where, as soon as Jesus and His followers enter the district of Tyre and Sidon, a woman approaches them and cries out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Well, Jesus does not reply at all, and the disciples seem to sense from His silence that He is blowing her off. So, ramping up their excitement and nastiness, they call out, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” It’s like the disciples are saying, “Hey, Enough enthusiasm! Can’t you tell Jesus doesn’t want to have anything to do with you and, for that matter, neither do we?”
The disciples are demonstrating their own sort of elitism. The 12 apostles here see themselves as the chosen few, the cream of the crop, the entitled elite, the devoted dozen, the Lord’s own Dream Team. They are, without doubt, passionate about Jesus. However, apparently they don’t have much interest in sharing their Teacher with those, who like this woman, they consider the unenlightened masses.
When Jesus makes the comment that His ministry is directed only to “the house of Israel,” the disciples, most likely feeling justified, must be thinking, “Exactly.” They are, after all, the insiders. They are a part of God’s chosen people—and, moreover, they’re disciples of the long anticipated Messiah, Jesus, whom God has anointed to be King of the Jews. Who does this woman think she is accosting? Well, despite the fact that this woman is an outsider, she is compelled to come to Jesus and, in the end, she receives that which she seeks—her daughter’s healing.
Very often we Christians come across like the first disciples, insiders who were certainly excited about their faith, but also cranky and basically uninterested in sharing their discoveries with the outsiders around them. It’s important to be willing to bend and even break our patterns, and to learn from the culture around us and try shake off our elitism.
We can’t wish away the Doon Schools and the Scindia School and their modern day equivalents, and perhaps they have the right to their place under the sun. But we are in worrying times if the Bible-endorsed pursuit of excellence is perceived to be the same thing as the pursuit and preservation of an elitist class. The way I see it, excellence is inclusive – it is open to embrace anybody; on the other hand, elitism is like a wall--it keeps people out of the charmed inner circle of things.