The Reverend Professor Vernon White Canon Theologian
Sunday, 13th August 2017 at 3.00 PM
A king with old fashioned hard power—not a constitutional monarch of soft power but an absolute monarch with real political and religious power—was petitioned by his people. They wanted him to improve their lives, lighten their burden. The King considered his options. But his closest friends pandered to his innate pride and love of power. They persuaded him to reject his people’s petition, and make their life even harder. So, unsurprisingly, the people rebelled; conflict and civil war ensued—and ‘Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day’, as the narrator of that story from our first Old Testament reading concluded.
In our second reading, by contrast, when early Christians Paul and Barnabas found they had power and were treated as gods, they refused the seductions of power. ‘Friends’ they said to their crowd, ‘we are only mortals like you’. And what followed from that, far from conflict, was something palpably and profoundly positive. That act of humility (for that was what it was) proved to be part of a moral and spiritual revolution which changed human history. The revolution was a turn from seeing power over people as the great goal of life, to seeing that serving people humbly is an admired goal. Christ himself had birthed this revolution. Paul and Barnabas were trying to live it out when they rejected the adoration of the crowd, refused the seductions of pride and power, and devoted themselves to serving and healing people not lording it over them.
It’s important to realize how radical this revolution was. Seeing humble service as a virtue, at least ideally, may not now seem exceptional. But it was then. The ancient world hardly rated humble service as a virtue at all. For most of the Greek world (apart from some stoics) humility and service was considered moral weakness, not moral strength. Their gods were defined by their power over people; successful and good people were defined by their power over others. So when Christians saw God in Christ defined not by domination over people but by his humble service of people, and held that up as the ideal, it was indeed a moral (and theological) revolution.
This is not easy to accept. Even if it’s accepted in principle, the practice of it is difficult and rare. It’s counter-intuitive to many of our basic biological, social, and psychological instincts for security and survival which constantly drive us to seek power and dominance over others. That is why humility is still hard to find, even after Christian faith replaced pagan and Greek culture as the main moral influence of the west. To our shame it’s not always been apparent in the church itself.It’s certainly not apparent in popular culture which continues to reward self-promotion more than humility (humility doesn’t exactly rate highly in TV reality shows!). Nor for that matter does it rate much in the corporate world, where advancement is usually predicated on selling ourselves, promoting ourselves over others, not modestly trying to serve others.
What’s more, it continues to have its critics in principle too, as well as in practice. Modernity sometimes has tried explicitly to push back even on the ideal of humility. Spinoza was certainly sceptical about it. Nietzsche, as one might expect, was utterly scornful. ‘Humility’, he said, is just being a ‘trodden worm’, someone who has curled up to be small and unnoticed in order to avoid being trodden on again. Feminist philosophy too has been wary of it—rejecting humility simply as the ideal men promote to keep women in their place…
But we mustn’t be beguiled. Neither popular culture nor these more serious critics of humility are right, because they’ve misunderstood what humility really is. For in fact the spiritual revolution of humility, this call to humble service, was never about weakness. It doesn’t mean undervaluing ourselves so we just curl up as cowards or door-mats. Paradoxically, it was actually meant as a channel for a different kind of power, not weakness.
How so? The root of true humility in Christ starts simply by being honest about ourselves; being brave enough to face the truth of what we really are. That means accepting we are limited, and flawed; it also means accepting we are gifted by God’s grace and given value by God’s grace (we are ‘simul iustus et peccator’, as Martin Luther put it; that is, both flawed and yet loved and favoured). What then follows is this: such clear-eyed honesty about ourselves can free from all pretence and striving about ourselves; free from self-delusion and self-assertion we can expend our energy on love and service to others; free from self-preoccupation our energy can flow out in the service of others; a channel is opened for God’s grace to work through us outwards.
Both Augustine and Martin Luther saw this clearly: what really diminishes, weakens, constrains us, is self-preoccupation and self-promotion—being ‘curvatus in se’, being closed in on ourselves. Whereas true humility opens us up. That is the exactly shape of living we see so clearly in Christ, whose humility was precisely a power-house for effective love, not a hiding place for weakness.
I don’t underestimate how hard it is to sustain this revolution and to live it realistically in this world; how hard it can be to trust its soft power to really change the world. But it does. Just a little humility is precisely what would have forestalled the civil war unleashed by that Old Testament King’s pig-headed pride. And when Christ and his early followers exercised that power of humble service it did demonstrably heal people and situations. As it will in any age.
We should try it—in personal relationships, even in political life. Give up the obsession with promoting ourselves, and see what happens! As a former American president is crediting as saying, ‘there is no end to what can be achieved if you are willing not to take the credit for it.’ Counter-intuitive? Yes, perhaps. But then if this is ultimately the sort of power that God has chosen, it will have effect…