When I was a teenager, one of the gentlemen in our local congregation referred to me as “Young Master Albright.” Since the person who did this was a friendly fellow and I got along with him and his family, I did not take it as an insult, even if it was a strange way of greeting someone, and after a fair amount of research into the subject of the names in which one refers to others, I found that master was a somewhat archaic but no less pleasing way to refer an unmarried gentleman in the way that miss was the way that one referred to an unmarried woman of marriageable age, a habit I still keep up myself. Yesterday (as I write this), we had a sermonette in our local congregation about the issues of calling people master, and so I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss the entanglement of this word with the assumptions of the world around us.
The deacon who gave the sermonette yesterday had experience, as I do, in the world of martial arts, where it is typical to view one’s instructor as a sensei or master and to bow in respect to them or, as is the case in some dojos, to the front of the room that has a photograph or picture or something of that nature to a master of the martial art that has been particularly important. The speaker commented how this bothered him based on his understanding of the Bible’s command to call no one your master or teacher except for Christ. There has always been within institutions a desire on the part of human authorities to take to themselves the sort of respect that belongs to God, and there has always been in the Bible’s own commandments about respecting authority a tension between the understanding that we are to respect authorities because they are the servants of God but also keeping those authorities accountable to God’s standards because although they are servants of God they are not God Himself. And that is an important distinction to make.
The ideas of mastery in martial arts and in polite European American culture are very different, of course. In East Asia, martial arts were typically infused with a high degree of Buddhist religious thinking, and mastery of the physical techniques of the given martial art were often related to mastery in a spiritual sense of some aspect of reality and how to exploit it. It is easy for us to see that this is at least potentially problematic in nature. We might compare it to the sort of mastery that people imagine that they have over creation by developing science and technology. Mastery here takes on the element of becoming like God, and perhaps losing a bit of respect for God because one sees oneself as an equal or rival instead of as a potential child. Yet the mastery of polite culture is no less problematic, for the sort of respect that people get from being called master or mister implies a sense of mastery of a different kind. Who was I a master over as a teenager, and who am I a master over today? To the extent that one claims mastery over oneself, one has an automatically hostile nature to anyone who would claim authority over me, and to the extent that I am not master of only myself but of others s well, then I claim a domination over others that I resent and rebel against if it is directed at myself.
In the Euro-American sense, then, being called master or mister carries with it a degree of concern about the nature of reciprocity and the relationship between governed and governed. I have never felt it necessary or appropriate to deny calling other people mister or master simply because they were of a different ethnic group than I was, although it should be noted that not too very long ago there were people who were never called mister or missus and were always thought of as boy or girl regardless of their age because it was viewed as revolutionary to call them one’s equals. And while I resent anyone who requests I bow before any other man, resenting such expectations or requests to the point of violent hostility, I have few qualms about considering others to be my equals and my peers, with all the responsibilities and privileges that result from such a status. But while I consider myself to be at least in some ways an egalitarian person, there are clear limits to this, and at the same time there is a clear degree of tension that has always existed between me and between any real or potential authority that must be acknowledged and recognized as well. If I am not inclined to look down upon other people, I am not inclined to look up at them either, and sometimes that attitude has been viewed as an unacceptable challenge. It likely will remain so.