The Church Pecking Order
by Debbie Hooper Cosier | 11 August 2020 |
Fair warning: I can be a little over the top about animals. I have many domestic and wild critters living here on our rainforest property. They regularly feature in my social media feed, which makes me uncomfortably aware that I appear to some as a kind of multispecies version of the crazy cat-lady.
Sorry, not sorry.
A few weeks back, I was saddened to discover that one of my hens had developed a large bald patch on her neck, and looked somewhat shabbier than usual. She was acting strangely too, hanging out at the back of the yard away from the other hens, and darting nervously when I brought food. Occasionally another hen would snap at the spot where her feathers were already down to their white stumps, and she’d squawk and run off.
I had added Randall the rooster to my flock because I’d heard that roosters are meant to calm hen behaviour by establishing themselves at the head of the flock. Clearly, our Randy’s efforts have resulted in no such serenity. I would later learn that a rooster can actually cause more problems: when he tries to mate with a hen, he can leave wounds.
And here’s the sad truth: hens love nothing more than fresh blood and the taste of raw chicken. Sometimes, a perfectly healthy hen will literally be cannibalised.
They are animals, after all.
Expressions such as henpecked, pecking order, and knocked off their perch originate with fowl—and they’re well-earned. Hens have a wholesome, timid, fluffy, egg-laying reputation, but underneath there’s a cruel dominance mentality. Chickens easily fall into brutality. They usually choose one or two to ostracise, “othering” them for a group-agreed reason that isn’t obvious to us. (If you want to do an interesting internet search, try “chickens attacking…” and see what comes up. Not suitable for children.)
All we, like chickens
Chickens remind me of our own worst human tendencies. Pretty early in our lives, we buy into a pecking order. It makes us feel bigger when we make other people appear smaller. Teachers in a 2018 study rated ‘lack of teamwork, empathy, and support between students’ the Number 1 problem in schools. Without intentional cultural intervention, pecking order mentality peaks in the teen years, splitting them roughly into three groups: 1) those doing the othering, 2) the othered, and 3) those who swing between the two.
As we age and the dimensions of our henyard shift and broaden, this tendency dilutes. Self-awareness increases. But when threatened, behaviours like favouritism, exclusion, triangulation, and gossip have a way of reasserting themselves. Even people who are extremely self-aware sometimes struggle to listen to their consciences, and will plough on regardless, because feeling popular—or, in the case of gossip, feeling like we’re the ones “in the know,” the observant, funny ones—has a stronger pull.
The church henhouse
When pecking order mentality is low and all is happy in the henhouse, churches can be havens for the sad and lonely, sanctuaries for the “othered.” With some willing to take others under their wing (finally, a good hen metaphor), some who care deeply, and volunteer to help the othered passionately, a congregation can be an amazing, supportive, healing place. Christians should, after all, be the best at loving because of the grace Jesus modelled, which softens us and brings out our better natures.
But the church is people, and church people can be just as prone to pecking at others as chickens are. “‘Attack that person’ is a familiar mode,” one pastor told me. “You can feel it in a congregation. It spreads like a virus. It takes on a life of its own and it’s hard to stop.”
It happens in children’s Sabbath school rooms and adults’ classes, amongst worship leaders and music groups, in the kitchen before potluck lunch, sometimes to the pastor or the pastor’s wife, and on church committees and conference boards. Sometimes decisions have nothing to do with God’s leading, but everything to do with who’s on whose side.
When pecking order dominates thinking, we squabble over resources, and “other” others to keep the henyard exclusive and intact. There are plenty of examples of selfish saints competing for and protecting their own comforts and freedom. History shows Christians capable of even worse abuses, such as massacre and persecution, and—more recently—complicity in abduction and abuse.
Victims, bloodied and raw, get up time and again, thinking, “How can anyone, even God, really love me if these people don’t?” When one becomes the lowest hen, he doubts his worthiness, distrusts his judgement, self-isolates, and suffers from depression and physical breakdown. The lowest hen lives with shame, regret, and anger. Being the lowest hen destroys people.
In the henhouse
The current climate in the Christian henhouse is a deeply troubling reflection of what is going on in broader society, where opposing groups are racing to take their place at the top of the pecking order. Normally nice Christian people will say things like, “My freedoms are more important than yours,” or label people with childish titles such as Social Justice Warrior to put them down when they wish to invite ine refugees, Black and Indigenous peoples, women, LGBTQ+ people and other othered peoples who are deprived of equal standing in the henhouse.
We say uncommonly cruel things in our raging disputes over what is true and real. First, we decide which group we belong to, then we grope for arguments acceptable to our group—and thus avoid the embarrassment of spreading the wrong arguments or acknowledging a logical point from someone on the other side. We’d almost rather evacuate the henhouse than share our perch with people who don’t agree with us.
It was bad enough in person. It can be even worse on social media.
Overcoming our worst impulses
If Jesus were walking the earth today, maybe he’d abandon the sheep metaphor and replace it with a few chicken stories. There’s no doubt that we, like chickens, have gone astray. But we, unlike chickens, can engage and act. We can have conversations. We can change our course. We can apologise.
I’m not saying that life isn’t messy, that choices are always clear cut, or that Christians must be perfect. But if we would stop for a minute to think about what we’re really aspiring to, we may find the humility to recognise when we’re being spiritually, organisationally and socially territorial, defensive and even abusive. We may remember the mercy offered to us by God and offer it to others. We may reclaim our mission and purpose to bring justice to those who are powerless to claim it for themselves. We may realise that we can do better at aligning our actions with our greater mission and purpose.
We overcome our worst impulses by loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and going the next step: loving our neighbours as ourselves. We do it by remembering that mercy is for all, without distinction.
Debbie Hooper Cosier is a former teacher, now a writer, who lives with her husband, Barry, and sons, Jamie and Braden, in the Tweed Valley in northern New South Wales, Australia. Her website is freshwriting.com.au.