Hoi polloi” is Greek for “the people.”

In a post launching a series of other posts on populist anger and elitist aloofness, use of a Greek phrase may seem a bit out of turn. Only an elitist would address or write about “the people” with such obscurantism (or use a word like “obscurantism”).

I suppose it is an attempt at honesty. Or less nobly, maybe it is may way of trying to demonstrate that I am really self-aware. Like many of us, I have inhabited multiple social domains. My childhood was spent on a farm, I have worked on two construction crews, two landscaping crews, and for four lumberyards. But right now, my business card reads “Dr.,” and instead of writing a long overdue blog post I should be writing a paper also due for the British New Testament Conference. And I should perhaps also admit that when I had lunch at the university college where I served as chaplain, I regularly dined at “high table.”

Now, having a PhD with papers to present and being able to list some publications on a CV (from the Latin curriculum vitae) or having the educational background that allows one to drop phrases from ancient languages do not necessarily make one “feel” like an “elite.” The vocational road has been quite demoralizing, at least for me, a path of downward rather than upward mobility. And sitting at “high table” often led to embarrassing moments (like mispronouncing “Van Gogh” in a conversation about art).

But the business card looks really impressive, and the folks I used to work with in those lumberyards would probably whistle and then poke fun at me for being one of “those people”—you know, the sort of people who might sup at “high table” rather than at Mary B’s Home-cookin’ Buffet. (Oh, for some of Mary B’s fare right now…).

“Those people”—I remember how my coworkers and I would take on a subservient demeanor when more well-to-do customers appeared on the scene. For many, it was a survival mechanism, because “this is how the world works.” I remember what it is like to be tearing out drywall and covered with itchy installation in a house where the homeowner’s garage was filled with nicer, more expensive power tools than the ones in my truck.

When I make the walk each day to my office—a pedestrian commute that leads me between a 13th century castle and an 11th century cathedral on a World Heritage site—I often pass joiners (carpenters) and masons plying their trade. Maybe it is pride, maybe it is a desire to connect, to relate, but there is a part of me that wants them to know that I know how it feels to be gripping brick with half-frozen fingers, how it feels to spend a day with a thin film of cement cracking over your knuckles and cheeks.

But I am in tidy trousers, and a jacket draped around my white collar, walking to an office that will shield me from the elements where I will sit comfortably as one of “those people,” a highly educated professional with the (it is assumed) guarantee of upward mobility in high-brow society: aka, an “elite”

“The people.” And “those people.”

Paring ourselves up into these polarities is so unhealthy. Yet the “us-and-them” mentality is certainly reflective of social realities. These social realities are becoming manifest today in the “surprising” rise of Donald Trump and in the “shocking” Brexit vote. They are surprising and shocking for some because such populist outcries are inconceivable since the professional (elitist?) experts have pronounced them ridiculous. They are surprising and shocking for others (there is that word again) because it is such a novelty for our outcries to actually be heeded enough to enjoy some degree of success.

I want to think theologically about the populism of our day and the supposed elitism to which it is opposed. And I am wondering, where is Jesus in the mix, and where are the “populist” and “elitist” sensibilities missing each other? What is the role of the church, where is its voice,  and how is its voice divided?

I’m not sure. But let’s think about it…

(More to come.)


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