Ladders and Circles —by Jinny Batterson
On a recent Sunday morning, our congregation sang “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” an adaptation of a 19th century African-American spiritual, in a service about accountability. Even though the word “accountability” has been mouthed by those in positions of power for more than a human generation—holding teachers accountable for students’ performance, holding office holders accountable for appropriate sexual conduct, and so on—many of our current social, political, and environmental structures are not accountable, either to human or to planetary well-being. If I understood the hymn’s relevance, its implication was that our society has failed to provide needed ladders for those in poverty or distress to climb their way out, or even to reach an escape ladder at all. Our minister urged us to consider both personal and societal changes to bring our behavior into closer alignment with our professed values of human dignity and worth. Later in the day, I got a second dose of “accountability audit” from social activist William Barber II, who came to Raleigh to speak at a different congregation as part of the intensification of a nationwide Poor People’s Campaign. Barber combined individuals’ stories of living in poverty with statistics about our worsening wealth imbalances, war profiteering, voter suppression, and degradation of the natural environment. He highlighted the huge gaps between what we profess as a nation founded on the principle of a “more perfect union” and the ways many of our current institutions operate.
Through both morning and evening church, I kept the image of ladders in mind. But I also remembered a different shape. In our UU hymnal, “Singling the Living Tradition,” we’ve frequently borrowed hymn tunes from other Christian traditions and tweaked the lyrics to make the language less full of “almighty God” talk and more inclusive of the glorious spectrum of humanity. During the morning’s service, I noticed that on the page facing the hymn about Jacob’s ladder was a more recent addition, “We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle.”
Most of my life I’ve been uncomfortable with a strictly hierarchical view of the world. Of course when I was a child, I knew that my parents were nearly always in charge of our family, but as I grew up, I increasingly found that overly general mentions of ladders and of “higher” or “lower” could set my teeth on edge. I often prefer images of circles, where power and movement can flow in many directions—in, out, up, down, right, left, forward, back. I have yet to come up with any consistent long-term way to balance my needs for hierarchies and fairly fixed structures with my needs to remain fluid and adaptable—the balance shifts over time. Implying a gendered component from the names “Jacob” and “Sarah” in the facing hymns would be imperfect and incomplete—the term “pecking order,” after all, refers to hens, not to roosters.
Most of those in positions of formal leadership struggle with issues of hierarchy and ladders, I believe. Aside from pressing a “big button” and potentially blowing the planet to pieces, or firing advisors who are perceived as insufficiently loyal, our national chief executive has few powers as an individual. He/she must rely on the acquiescence of others to carry out his/her commands. He/she must cajole, inspire, and/or bully others into doing his/her bidding.
Those in circles of various kinds face other challenges—determining who is in charge of what can be confusing. Diffuse power can lead to overall powerlessness. Yet in many ways circles are more resilient. The absence or death of a single member, or even of a proportion of the overall membership, does not necessarily destroy a circle. Often new members step in to fill the gaps. Circle members learn a variety of skills, so that leadership can rotate with little decrease in overall effectiveness. A different hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” written in the early 20th century and frequently adapted since, speaks to the long life of circles.
So let’s celebrate ladders and work to make them more accessible to all who need them, but let’s not forget that circles are important, too.