What happens when you build a society on the idea that if you work hard enough you will be successful?
I mean it sounds a good idea, doesn’t it? It seems to indicate that everyone has an opportunity to rise to the top. It does away with the old aristocracy with its inherited status and wealth. Surely it provides a level playing field?
But what if it doesn’t? What if it creates a much more divided, antagonised, immobile society?
That’s the contention in a fascinating book called The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel. It’s about the way we have built our world on merit and the impact that has had on society. (Although the book isn’t a theological book I was intrigued to see Sandel making the connection to theology—some of which he gets right, and significant chunks he gets badly wrong.)
If we get to the top by our own effort then it has the triple effects of creating pride in the successful, anxiety and fear in those en route to achieving, and despair in the unsuccessful. If my success is down to me, then the successful can think “Well done me, I deserve this”, and the flip side of the coin leaves the unsuccessful caught in a cycle of self-denigration “It’s my fault. I can only blame myself.”
He argues that even our education systems are tailored to provide a grading of people according to intellectual ability, which leads to a undermining of the dignity of work. More pride for some and more self-doubt for others.
The problem with thinking that we get to the top by our own efforts is that it ignores several other factors. We aren’t all born with the same gifts, so we can’t take credit for being good at something the origin of which we had little say in. We aren’t all born into the same opportunities—family background, wealth, geographic location, genes etc.
Whilst the old aristocracy is gone, it has been replaced by a new and even harder to shift ‘meritocracy’—those who think they deserve their exalted position. Sandel contends that even with the aristocracy there was an underlying awareness that you had your status simply by chance. Whereas the new meritocracy thinks they are entirely deserving of their status.
Sandel argues that all of this feeds into the great social unrest we see sweeping Europe and America in these days.
What becomes clear is that once we leave God out of the picture, we tend to take pride in what we have done, failing to acknowledge that we are not the great shapers of our lives that we like to think. We forget to our cost, and society’s cost that, “There but for the grace of God go I”—had circumstances been otherwise, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The West’s great project to eradicate God and to make ourselves the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls has deepened the unholy trinity of pride, fear, and despair.
This is evident, not just on a social scale, but on a religious scale too—which is why the title of the book caught my eye initially. The Tyranny of Merit could equally well be applied to any religious system which makes our eternal destiny depend on our effort. If we think it depends on our effort we inevitably become proud of our achievements, fearful of not having done enough, or despairing that our good could ever outweigh our guilt.
God has saved us from the tyranny of merit and its unholy trinity by enacting instead the triumph of grace. He sent his Son to do what we couldn’t do: to live the life we couldn’t live, and pay for the life we did live. And when we accept the triumph of grace, we find it breeds a different trinity: humility (I am a sinner saved only by Christ’s work), confidence (Christ has done enough), and hope (no-one is too bad for Christ).
And Christians too need to be on their guard that they do not slip back into the tyranny of merit—living the Christian life on what Jerry Bridges calls the performance treadmill. Always trying to earn God’s approval which has already been graciously given. Or taking that sideways glance at other Christians, measuring yourself against them to boost your pride or to beat yourself up—either way it’s merit’s tyranny.
Perhaps preachers especially need to beware that they do not revivify the tyranny of merit in their preaching—always chiding, chivvying and guilt-tripping people to do more, and not reminding them of both the security and enabling power of grace.
So flee the tyranny of merit, in all its forms, and enjoy instead the triumph of grace.