The Mind of Christ
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
11 September 2005
Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine, recently wrote a book entitled God’s Politics: How the Right is Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. In this book, Wallis tells a story from 1980’s South Africa at the height of apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu had just begun a new phase of his campaign against the apartheid government. Wallis was attending services that week at the cathedral where Desmond Tutu was preaching. During the service, soldiers and the security police entered the cathedral; these armed men surrounded the congregation. Wallis writes that people were very afraid. It was possible that they would all be killed right then. Wallis says that Tutu then did something marvelous. If you’ve ever seen him in person or on tv, you’ll be able to picture the look. He smiled that gentle, kind smile he has. But his eyes had that strength they do. Tutu spoke out to the soldiers, “You have already lost! Today I invite you to join the winning side!” Wallis says that Tutu’s words electrified the room. The congregation rose and began to dance. They danced outside and past the soldiers and down the street.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “Nonviolence is Christianity in action.”
Today is the fourth anniversary of that horrible day when terrorists attacked the United States. In order to commemorate that day, I have played with the lectionary and moved this passage to today; it is really the epistle lesson two weeks from today. This is also my favourite passage of scripture. So many theological themes are suggested by it, that I could preach a whole series of sermons from this passage.
Today, though, I want to point out the key theme of this passage. It is that Christian unity is found in possessing the mind of Christ precisely at the point where Jesus demonstrates the virtue of humility. Jesus gives up his position of equality with God in order to sacrifice himself on behalf of others.
Humility has long been mis-characterized in Christian thinking. The way humility is usually described it actually ends up being a vice and not a virtue. Normally we are told that to be humble is to think less of oneself than one is worth. However, that is actually the vice of pusillanimity – a great English word that is rarely used. Its opposite is the vice of vanity – to think more of oneself than one is worth, though we more often connect it with physical appearance and not inner attitude. Vanity is closely associated with the Greek vice of hubris that attitude of exalting oneself and ones position above others to the detriment of the community. Hubris is best illustrated in Homer’s Iliad by the character of Achilles. Achilles is insulted by Agamemnon and reacts angrily, arrogantly, and petulantly. He believes his own position and worth to be greater than it actually is. His attitude results in devastating consequences for the community of Greek soldiers and eventually results in the death of Achilles’ own lover Patroclus.
Humility is actually having a proper sense of self – not thinking one is worth less or worth more than one is. It is having a proper understanding of one’s place in relationship to others. Or, as Roman Catholic scholar Luke Timothy Johnson defines Paul’s concept of humility, it is “placing oneself appropriately within the life of the community.”
So there is a form of pride that is a virtue and not a vice. If being humble is having a proper sense of oneself, then that means believing that you have worth and value. That you are a beloved child of God. To take pride in that truth, to take pride in our authentic self, is not a vice. It is not thinking too much of ourselves, because it is thinking accurately about ourselves and our role in the community.
Humility is connected to our sense of empathy and compassion for those who are suffering. When we see what is happening in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast and in refugee centers around the country, we realize that it could just as easily be us, that those folk who are suffering are just like we are. We want to help because we know that they deserve to be cared for.
Having a proper sense of ourself affects all our relationships. How different it is in a family or work situation where everyone acknowledges the worth and value of everyone else and no one thinks they are superior to anyone else. We need humility in our business and political relationships. We humans need to be humble in relation to the rest of creation.
In this passage, Paul is most concerned with humility as essential for the unity of the church. It is a church where folk are prepared to sometimes sacrifice what may rightly be theirs for the good of the greater community. It is a church where everyone values everyone else – their gifts, their role, their story, their uniqueness. It is a church that is less concerned with being efficient and practical and more concerned with being faithful.
It is humility that allows us to embody the Christian virtue of nonviolence. It is humility that makes us peaceable and peaceful people. Only when we begin to view all others as beloved children of God who are equal in worth to us, can we begin to act toward them in a way that respects their personhood, their sanctity, their lives and well-being.
Nonviolence is the more difficult road. It calls for imagination, creativity, patience, and sacrifice. Some say that the path of nonviolence and humility is not practical. But that is not the point. We are not called to be practical; all we are called to be is faithful. But history shows that when we follow this path of discipleship that we do assault the gates of hell, fling them open, and set captivity free. Gandhi did it in India. Bayard Rustin, who was Quaker and therefore a pacifist, studied Gandhi’s methods and applied them to Christian thinking. Rustin, a gay man, then instructed Martin Luther King in the nonviolent philosophy that achieved amazing success in the American Civil Rights Movement. Desmond Tutu and others followed both models in South Africa in the 80’s and the apartheid regime fell.
The true lessons of 9/11, the war, and of Katrina are that we humans are at our very best when we reach out in sacrifice and care for someone else. And that we humans are at our worst when we try to impose ourselves upon others. Violence is never the answer to humanity’s problems. As Dr. King said repeatedly, violence only leads to more violence. Only when we respond to one another in love as sisters and brothers can humanity move forward into that bright vision of the future.
To change the world we must start with ourselves. We need to cleanse ourselves of those aspects of our personality that keep us from being humble and nonviolent. We must then work to live this way in our closest relationships. Let us seek healing for our brokenness; then let us seek to live in communion with one another, so that we might be empowered to change the world by living like Jesus did.