I've been critiquing a short-story for a friend that is told through the eyes of a young Nigerian child. It has taught me that status is a pretty big deal here. A woman who buys clothes from America is higher than a woman who buys clothes on the street with second-hand stores. A man who grew up in a village with running water is higher than a man who grew up in a village with a well. Someone who speaks English is higher than someone who only speaks Housa or one of the other, I don't know, 500 languages in Nigeria.
So then I was wondering if status is as big of a deal in America, or if I'm just a bit blind to it. I was lying in bed last night, thinking back to my internship in the U.S. Senate. It was in '99, during Bill Clinton's Senate impeachment trial for perjury, and I had the happy job of answering the phones and learning many new swear words from disgruntled constituents. I also got to open and sort the senator's mail and try direct the letters to the appropriate staff person (but what to do with the weekly love letters from a little old lady in Tuscan who filled every blank space on the paper with thousands of tiny little hand-drawn hearts?). When it was discovered I was a pretty good editor I got to proofread some of the senator's speeches, and eventually got to do some legislative research (i.e., The senator's position on a certain issue is this…go to the library of congress and find something to prove him right—I was in heaven)
The senator I worked for, Jon Kyl from Arizona, is a genuinely friendly man. I think it's a pretty good thing for a politician to actually like people. He always stopped to greet whoever was in the waiting room when he passed through. He would shake their hands, ask their names and why they were there, make them feel significant. He learned my name within a week of my coming to work for him, and would recognize and greet me even if I passed him somewhere outside of the office.
One time I was waiting for the elevator to go deliver something or other (email was still a bit new back then, so lowly interns had to physically deliver letters…in actual envelopes) and he happened to be leaving the office at the same time. There is a special, super-fast elevator that only senators are allowed to use, so when his elevator came and I was still waiting for one of the six super-slow-for-everyone-less-important elevators, and he invited me to ride with him. So I'm riding in the elevator with this big important senator (get your mind out of the mud now, I wasn't that kind of intern) and he asks me how I'm enjoying working there, if I'm learning a lot, whether or not I'm planning to go to law school. My time on Capital Hill taught me that politics were most definitely not for me—those people work like 90 hours a week and make about $20,000 a year, and there are all these underground passageways and shops and restaurants underground so you never have to go outside, and some staffers never do (go outside) which is a little creepy, and the receptionist in the office had a master's degree in high-tech weapon systems yet the only job she could get was answering phones and sending people American flags…not for me, no thanks. But it was nice of him to ask.
Someone with close to the highest status in my society treated me with humility and respect. There are lots more senators who aren't that way. I remember when the aide to a certain California senator of the female variety confided that his only job was to escort the senator from place to place and to ensure she encountered as few people as possible. He had a computer program that showed him all the back doors and alleys so his boss wouldn't have to act friendly. I met senators who thought it beneath them to look me in the eye when I took their coats, and others who would stop and shake my hand even though I was only an intern. I got to meet (or at least view) other famous people in my time on Capital Hill: Mohammed Ali, Oliver North, Bill Gates, the executive board of IBM…uh, that's all that comes to mind, but I'm sure there were others. Some of them were self-important, some really personable.
So, is America a status-culture? I don't know, maybe. But I think humility transcends culture, and that kindness breaks down ungodly barriers, and that dignity is meant for everyone. A slave can rise to be one of the most important men in a nation (Joseph), and a king can be lowered to the fate of a madman (Nebuchadnezzar). I may not be able to do anything about arrogant senators who avoid their constituents like the plague, but I can ask the doorman about his wife and children, or offer to shake hands with "the help", you know, treat others the way I want to be treated.
We are letters from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.