Put That Down!
Responsibility does not have to be accompanied by privilege. It does sound like a simple concept. When you discuss it in the abstract I suspect most of us would agree. Responsibility is something that each of us have to carry, whether large or small, and so it need not result in us being excessively rewarded for what we have done. And of course, where we do find ourselves on the receiving end of privilege, the paradox is that with it comes a deeper need for us to act and live responsibly.
Privilege is just that – it is not a right. It may be the result of hard work or it may not. It doesn’t really matter. Yet we seem to be increasingly surrounded by those who mistake privilege for a right, ignoring any sense of responsibility. I must admit that sometimes in the white heat of our beliefs we can all too easily lose sight of the need for a balance between the position we are accorded and the way we behave in that place.
When I was a young (ish) Primary school teacher I spent some time at a very ‘go-ahead’ school. As I look back now I realise that in many ways we were putting into practice ways of working that some newer schools have yet to begin to apply. But this didn’t come easily. The Head Teacher was un-relenting in their assertion that we should always be looking for ways to help improve the lot of the children in our care. This seemed to require a lot of paperwork and extra-curricular time for the already busy yet committed staff.
I can remember being incensed one lunch-time when I was walking through the dinner hall on my way to a lunchtime meeting and found the Head Teacher helping the dinner staff serve the midday meal. ‘What on earth were they doing?’ I fumed, but worse was yet to come. On my return journey I was met with the sight of the Head now carrying the tray for a small Year Two child. I watched as the Head Teacher patiently walked this little child over to the tidying racks and helped them unload their tray and by now I was furious.
‘Put that down!’ I was tempted to shout over the counter. Surely the Head Teacher of a large school like this has more important things to be getting on with? Or wasn’t there someone else who could help the child? How could the Head justify the use of their precious time in this way? While we were all beavering away at planning and assessing and marking, our leader had time to dole out macaroni cheese!
I realise now that I was guilty of misunderstanding the privilege of being a Head Teacher. The Head’s principle of ‘children first’ was being played out in front of me but I was too in awe of the position they held to really consider the responsibilities that they were displaying so perfectly to the whole school. I am glad to say that this leaders actions soon pervaded and there were soon many more teachers willingly sitting with and helping the children during lunchtimes.
It is just over a year since Pope Francis succeeded to the papal throne and he continues to both please and alienate in fairly equal measure. Those who connect his position with ideas such as power, ultimate authority and a right to speak deeply into other people’s lives are much dismayed that Francis seems more concerned with his responsibility to God than maintaining his position of privilege.
If the reports from the first few days of his investiture are accurate this is no surprise. “Carnival time is over!” He said as he relinquished the traditional papal red cape trimmed with ermine that his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI gladly wore on ceremonial occasions. “There’s room for 300 people here,” he’s reported to have remarked as he was shown his new apartments. “I don’t need all this space.”
As bishop he frequently travelled around Buenos Aires on public transport, cooking for
himself in his unpretentious apartment and reportedly told told his fellow bishops in Argentina not to waste their money on travelling to Rome for his installation ceremony but to give the money instead to the poor.
My Head Teacher and Pope Francis share a view of their position that was demonstrated by Jesus when he was on earth, giving us all a pattern to follow. As Son of God, if anyone could have demanded rights and privilege it was him. If anyone could have sat back and demanded tribute it was him. If anyone had a reason to think of themselves as being out of the ordinary it was him. Instead he chose to heal, to listen, to defend and, ultimately, give his life for others.
It is all too easy to become so involved with the sense of how important a role is, that we forget that privileges, such as money and access, are intimately linked to our responsibility to others.
So I long for the day when a newly signed footballer decides to give up his immense monthly salary to a local school or homeless centre and accepts a much smaller wage for the privilege of doing something they love for a living. I long for the day when a banking executive accepts that the money they have been paid in wages is more than they need and genuinely foreswears a bonus.
And I long for the day when privilege, monetary or otherwise, is more regularly bestowed on those who take responsibility for the lives of those around them through acts of kindness, however small they may seem.