Muhammad Ali, the famed boxer, was not known for his humility.
Regularly, Ali reminded folks: “I am the greatest.” But once a flight attendant brought perspective to Ali’s life. As Ali’s flight was taking off, Ali refused to buckle his seatbelt. Approaching the champion, the flight attendant confronted him, insisting that he must fasten his seatbelt. Retorting, Ali said: “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” Responding, the flight attendant said: “And Superman don’t need no airplane.”
Frankly, Muhammad Ali’s tendency is not rare. it’s widespread, with an absence of humility epidemic. Thus, perspective is urgently needed. The Apostle Paul tutors us.
“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death — and the worst kind of death at that — a crucifixion. Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever …” (Philippians 2: 5-11, The Message)
These verses outline the whole of Philippians, surfacing the letter’s mega themes — mindfulness, participation, self-emptying, enslavement, humility, particularity, and victory — all pointing to the necessity of being in Christ, in community, in contrast to the self-exalting culture of Adam and Rome.
The theme of humility is especially striking. For as John Dickson points out, humility was far from a virtue in the Philippian context. In fact, in the Greco-Roman world, the word humility was roughly equivalent to crushed or debased, associated with failure and shame. As Dickson goes on to note,
“…in the 147 pithy maxims of the Delphic Canon from the 6th century B.C., considered by ancient Greeks to be the sum and substance of the ethical life, there is no mention of the theme of … “humility”… In its place [is the theme] “the love of honor.” (https://www.abc.net.au/religion/how-christian-humility-upended-the-world/10101062)
A prioritizing of honor, rather than humility, continues. Our current trajectory is upward mobility, not downward mobility, underscoring personal privilege and status.
An example is the prioritizing of the U.S. and its greatness. Often this theme is limited to the rhetoric of the current president (e.g. “Make America Great,” “Keep America Great”). But such bias characterizes most American politicians. For example, during the 2018 State of the Union address, chants of “... USA, USA, USA ...” were shouted not only by established “America-First” proponents (right-wing Republicans and Democrats), but a majority of Congressional women, as they celebrated their record numbers in the 116th Congress.
Celebrating One’s country is not bad. But when celebrating sounds like superiority and “besting” other countries, it is problematic. For at the heart of the American dream is Lincoln-like humility, that celebrates the beauty of America, but not at the expense, of the beauty of other nation-states.
Sadly, aggressive rhetoric is on “steroids,” as persons work overtime to “shout others down,” on a variety of polarizing issues. A visible example is an increase in name-calling and mean-spirited innuendo, gossip, even slander. A while back, Quartz, itemized “popular” pejorative words, current in the U.S. political system, used by both liberals and conservatives (https://qz.com/291533/this-is-how-liberals-and-conservatives-insult-each-other). What resulted was not flattering, with persons of all political persuasions using words like idiot, troll, crazy, loser, fool and moron, on a reoccurring basis.
And so, in our quest for greater humility, we can begin by humbling our language, curbing our tongue, in line with the caution of scripture:
“... Never let ugly or hateful words come from your mouth, but instead let your words become beautiful gifts that encourage others; do this by speaking words of grace to help them ...” (Ephesians 4:29, The Passion Translation)
But as severe as arrogant speech and action are, they are not a recent phenomenon. As David Brooks argued at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, our current hubris started in the 60s in the move toward sexual liberation, and in the 80s in the bent toward personal financial liberation. Both, Brooks argued, were “… ways of separating the individual from the community, celebrating self rather than the whole” (https://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2012/12/26/new-york-times-columnist-david-brooks-to-teach-humility-course/37403161/). But the humble person, Brooks contends “… has the ability to become unselved” (https://brooks.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/02/imho/#postCommenthttps://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2012/12/26/new-york-times-columnist-david-brooks-to-teach-humility-course/37403161/).
Paul agrees: humility unselves.
But not humility alone, but humility in Christ. For an attitudinal mind-shift is inadequate unless empowered by a transcendent mind-shift, cultivating the “… same mind … that was in Christ-Jesus …” (Philippians 2:5).
As Michael Gorman has pointed out, this cruciform mind-shift is radically, divinely, comprehensively, participatory. For as Paul calls us to cultivate the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, Paul is calling us to cultivate a missional vocation:
“… [a] way of thinking, acting, and feeling — in [our] community, which is, in fact, a community in Messiah Jesus …” (Michael Gorman. Apostle of the Crucified Lord. Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans, 2017, p. 504.).
Such an outward focus, in Christ, is transformational, as it underscores a key theme in Philippians, that: “…. the Philippians [are not to] merely to believe this gospel,” as Michael Gorman stresses “…but to become that gospel, and thereby to ‘shine like stars in the world’ (2:15) and advance the gospel …” (Michael Gorman. Apostle of the Crucified Lord. Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans, 2017, p. 488.).
Such a missional vocation can indeed give us the ability to become unselved, as it calls the individual back to the community, to celebrate the whole. Rather than accenting triumphalism and independence, it underscores servanthood and interdependence, elevating not Rome and dominant culture, but Jesus and contrast culture. For as Stephen Mattson reminds us:
“Sometimes, being a good Christian meant being a bad Roman. So, before you accuse people of being unpatriotic, ask yourself which empire they’re actually serving” (https://www.amazon.com/Great-Reckoning-Surviving-Christianity-Nothing/dp/1513803409).
Ouch, but wow! What a prophetic, accurate word, of what it truly means to be humble, including humble-nationalism. For at the heart of the Christian movement — historically — is a dethroning of any Caesar, and an elevation of Jesus. As Father Steve Grunow has noted:
“... The reason for Rome’s persecution of the Church is not always understood by Christians. It was not simply the case that the Roman system was intolerant of religion; as a point of fact, the Roman system was inherently religious and willing to sanction a diversity of cults. The reason for Rome’s persecution of the Church was that Christians proclaimed that Christ was an authority that was higher than that of Rome and its emperor. We call Christ ‘Lord and Savior’ and do not realize that these terms are not just honorary titles or theological abstractions. Caesar held the titles ‘Lord and Savior’ and would tolerate no rivals to this claim. That Christians would call Christ, who had died at the hands of Roman power, their ‘Lord and Savior’ was an affront to Caesar’s status and authority...” (emphasis added) (https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/the-saint-who-refused-to-bow-down-to-caesar/1339/).
As so to wrap Jesus in the flag of any nation-state, is heretical, profoundly contrary to the biblical conclusion: that Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Thus, at the Christian obedience is radical surrender and enslavement to the only One, truly worthy, to lord-over life, the One we give-over, our very selves.
Again, the Jesus of Philippians 2:5-11, models for us, the way forward, a Jesus who ...
“… did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … [humbling] … himself … [becoming] obedient to the point of death …” (Philippians 2:6-8).
One of the most triumphal human achievements, was the first summitting of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzin Norgay in 1953. An unreported aspect of their trek, however, was the symbol Hillary took with him and buried on Everest’s summit: a small crucifix.
As John Dickson reflects, the reason is unclear. Hillary was not an overtly religious man. But “… perhaps it was a token of his own humility, trying to honor a ‘higher power’ at the moment of his greatest triumph…” (https://www.abc.net.au/religion/how-christian-humility-upended-the-world/10101062).
Sir Edmund Hillary’s tokenism is our tokenism. For, we do keep striving, climbing.
But as we do, humility beckons and intrigues.
For, perhaps, the ultimate summit, the ultimate triumph is found not on the heights but in the depths of human need, in community, in contrast, in Christ.
Paul Mundey is a minister, consultant, and writer. Currently, he is serving as Moderator of the Church of the Brethren, the highest elective office in the denomination. For 20 years he served as Senior Pastor of the Frederick Church of the Brethren, Frederick.