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The Table Video

Erin Dufault-Hunter

Practicing Humility in an Era of Relentless Humiliation

Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary
June 15, 2017

Often framed as prophetic truth telling, many of us humiliate others through social media. Viewed through the lens of the Parable of the Pharisee and Toll Collector, we consider how Christian humility offers a creative response to this habit of humiliation in ways that faithfully love others and witness to the mercy of God.

Erin Dufault-Hunter teaches Christian ethics at fuller…. she explores the intersection of technology, gender, sexuality, and socio-economic change, as in her article in the Journal for the Society of Christian Ethics, “The Downside of Getting It Up: How Viagra Reveals the Persistence of Patriarchy and the Need for Sexual Character.” She has published a book on the power of narrative and is currently writing Sex and Salvation: How the Erotic Matters for our Life with God (under contract with Baker Academic). She has presented papers reflecting on the implications of embodiment for a Christian ethic of virtue in ordinary life, such as considerations of faithful parenthood in a medicalized age and the nature of sexual fidelity within a “pornofied” society.

Like what you’ve heard from Erin Dufault-Hunter? Check out her Table article on technology and modern shaming.


So, about a year ago I was going through my Facebook feed and I saw a friend, actually a student, not a friend, someone I’d as a student many years before, post something about who he was sort of calling fundamentalist Christians. And he was posting about how these fundamentalist Christians, what were doing in terms of violence. Essentially I thought implying that these fundamentalists were essentially supporting the annihilation and brutal treatment of sexual minorities.

Now, I’m not a fundamentalist and I mean that in the technical sense of that term, but I happen to have family members who are. And I read this article and I thought this doesn’t reflect how my actual fundamentalist family actually treats people they know. They actually have neighbors who are these sexual minorities and this would be important to them. So, I quickly post back on his web page and continue moving on to the next thing on my Facebook feed. Fairly quickly I got a stinging reply back from him.

He basically said how dare you post this? I, of course, think I’m simply being straightforward. Maybe I’m even exercising tough love, I’m being highly informative. I’m being truthful, maybe even pathetic. But he was deeply hurt. He was like who are you to wander into my life and essentially publicly humiliate me, when you haven’t even so much talked to me in a decade?

Now, there was a part of me that wanted to respond to what my husband calls the sandbox self which is, the sandbox self is the one that goes you did it first, right? You deserved it, right? You humi, oh, oh okay, okay, maybe that’s not the best response. Unknown to me at the time, I had done what I’m calling dropped the H-Bomb of humiliation, I’d unloaded my payload of humiliation via Facebook at 30,000 feet, right? And buzzed right along to my next feed. Now I’m not the only person to do this.

As a matter of fact, I don’t know how many of you saw this but this is the cover of Time Magazine from not long ago. “Why We’re Losing the Internet to the Culture of Hate” by Joel Stein who if you read any of Joel Stein’s stuff you will know is hardly the most PC of persons. But Stein is actually writing about what’s happening to us as people who practice this what I would call this bombing from above.

We are not involved really in each other necessarily, we just dorp it via text, via email and move on. So, I’d like to suggest that there’s a way that we could perhaps address this and I think Jesus actually gives us a poignant little parable that might help us negotiate this, an anecdote to this kind of what people like John Milbank and others are calling a ritualized humiliation in our culture. And I’m going to suggest, I think that humility and humiliation are actually closely interlinked but I’m going to explore two of these interlocking connections. The first is that I would posit that for us as Christians, the other, the enemy, the opponent, the person who disagrees with us, maybe even the person who ashamed us brings us a gift. Sometimes a complicated gift to be sure but the enemy can come to us as gift.

Second, when we are going to drop the H-Bomb, that is if there are moments of humiliation and actually I think there are, we’ll get to that in a moment, we better be sure if we’re doing this as Jesus teaches us, models for us and empowers us to do, that we only humiliate those for whom we are also willing to die. Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a toll collector in the Gospel of Luke.

Now this is short little parable. It’s, I would argue one of those easily overlooked parables especially for those of us who are the so-called serious. Dale Bruner who’s a New Testament scholar, he translates the word whenever he sees the Scribes and Pharisees, he translates those as the serious. Now I love this, right?

Because I am nothing if not serious about my faith. Probably you too. You’re here on a conference on love and humility. You’re serious people about your faith. What Bruner does is says, “Yeah, Erin, that’s you, “you are serious, you are earnest.”

Now in my case, I’m even more like the Pharisees and the Scribes because I happen to actually teach Christian ethics at a seminary. I mean that I am like way up on the serious bar, right? And the serious are people who are very like the Pharisee in the parable in this way. Remember, the parable is the Pharisee goes to pray at temple.

Now we tend to read this as it’s his private little prayer moment but that’s actually probably quite inaccurate. The Pharisee’s going to temple for public prayer. But if you read the parable, Jesus is very careful. He says, “The Pharisee goes and he separates himself “from the other people.” Remember the parable and he says, “I thank you, God,” he sounds like an arrogant person, right? He says, ” I thank you, God, “that I am like this toll collector. “I don’t commit adultery, “I’m sexually pure, “I’m faithful to my wife, “I’ve really limited my porn on the internet.”

This is a challenge of our age, right? I’m trying to do this, I tithe twice a week, I don’t rob, I don’t slander people, I keep the law. That physical separateness, think about how we serious love to do this in print and in person and in posts. We separate ourselves. He separates himself even in public posting and prayer. I am not those people. I am not like those, them over there. Then you have the unserious. Now, I’m an Anabaptist by conviction.

Man: Amen. [laughing]

And if you know anything about that, this guy, the toll collector in our lingo, he’s the guy who totally is compromised with empire. He is the guy who sold his soul to collude. He is the unserious. But Jesus says it is the toll collector who can’t even lift his eyes. He’s separate but he’s not separate from other people. He’s not looking sideways like the Pharisee.

The Pharisee’s looking sideways, isn’t he? He’s like oh yeah, compared to you slime dog, I’m doing pretty well, right? But the toll collector won’t even lift his eyes to God. Why, he realizes he’s standing before the living God and he is utterly dependent on God’s mercy and just says, “Lord, have mercy on me, “sinner that I am.” And Jesus says that guy, Mr. Unserious is the model for us of what it means to be humble before the living God.

Now, this also a parable that hits all of us because we can decide liberal or conservative, progressive or traditionalist, all you need to do is switch that character around a little bit ’cause there’s always an other.

There’s always a them, there’s always a toll collector, a somebody who doesn’t get it who isn’t as serious as we are about following the liberating spirit or as serious about reading their Bibles as we are. It’s an equal opportunity humiliating parable for anyone who is serious about their faith. So, what is Jesus doing here? He’s saying if you really wanna know how to practice humility, be willing to look at the least likely person that you would look toward for some insight about yourself.

Now what does this look like in practice? So, when I come home after what occasionally can be a rough day at work with students, moments of conflict, there can be serious abuses to the smallest of slights, I often unpack these things with my husband and he’s a very understanding guy, he’s emotionally intelligent, he’s very sympathetic, he’s a great person but at one point during that conversation, he’s gonna do something really annoying, it’s like clockwork now.

At some point, he’s going to ask a series of questions and they run something like this. So, rather than comparing yourself to this other person and how they did in the meeting and how you really did better and how you’re actually clearly right, ’cause I’m an ethicist, I think about this stuff a lot, I think I’m right a lot.

And I’m serious about being right. Thoughtful about being right. And he’ll say, “Okay, “what is it though, perhaps even that small thing “that this person is bringing to you? “In what way does this person who seems “like an opponent mirror back to you something “you need to know? “What’s the gift from God in this person to you? It’s a complicated gift often but a gift nonetheless. Now, if we stopped there, that would sound really nice. Humility is receiving the other, the enemy’s gift.

Now that might be irritating enough but if we stopped there, we would really be susceptible to humility as this sort of milk toasty virtue. This sort of Peteena of humility or a cultural kind of version of humility that actually doesn’t capture all of what Jesus is doing in his teaching, in his life and in his spirit among us.

Because here’s the problem with this parable about humility. Jesus actually humiliates in the process of exhorting us to humility. Did you catch that? He humiliates the Pharisee publicly and says you have it wrong. So, for Jesus, practicing humility can also sometimes involve dropping the H-Bomb.

It can sometimes involve humiliating someone else. But here’s the kicker. When Jesus is telling that parable about the Pharisees, what is he about to do? In Luke, he’s about to tell us that he has set his face to Jerusalem and he is going to die there. Not just for the good people, not even for the toll collectors but for those same self-righteous arrogant jerks called the Pharisees.

You see, Jesus is a prophet and if we pretend to be prophets, we wanna pretend as Christians that we are going to tell the truth, then we better remember that Jesus is also a prophet and in the long line of prophets like Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and Hosea, his life is utterly connected to the life of those whom he humiliates with truthfulness.

You see, he doesn’t do what I did and buzz happily above on Facebook and drop that bomb and move on. Like all the prophets, Jesus lives with the people he humiliates. He humiliates two basic groups. One, his disciples, that is the people he eats with, his closest friends, and he does humiliate them on occasion, he uses the language of rebuking Peter, remember when Peter goes oh no, you don’t have to die, that whole thing, bad idea. Terrible plan.

Jesus uses the same language, at least in the Gospel of Mark, that language he uses of sternly rebuking him in public among his friends is the same language Jesus uses to cast out demons. That is not polite, like oh honey, let me explain it to you. No, it is strong language and I am sure that Peter felt the sting of embarrassment and humiliation of missing it so badly.

So, that’s the first group. He’s clearly tied to these guys. He eats with them, walks with them everywhere, he’s linked to them. The second group is people like me. Maybe people like you who are deadly serious about their faith. And who are tempted in that to separate ourselves from the welfare of those who desperately need to also know God’s grace.

So, what might this look? What does it look like to be so linked to the welfare of the person you’re humiliating or to the people, the them? For me this came to mind and this connects to some of what was talked about this morning, for me, one of these moments, people that I’ve had do this for me would be someone like Kevin. I knew Kevin in college and we were part of an inter-varsity fellowship and not to put too, not to say it in an unhumble way, I’m a child of the ’60s, ’70s, like I grew up in L.A., like I get the whole like, I was one of the people who got the race thing, you know what I’m saying? I was onboard. I was in it.

And I’ll never forget this moment that Kevin and I were working on something. Kevin’s African American. And we’re working on something together and I don’t remember what it was but we were sort of arguing about something back and forth, probably planning a liturgy or something like that. And Kevin whips around to me at one point, I don’t remember what we were talking about but he whipped around to me and he said, “That is such a white thing to say.” and I was ticked.

Why, because the first thing I felt was humiliated. I’m not those people. I’m an enlightened person about race. I’m working for God’s big justice plan. But here’s the thing, Kevin didn’t drop that on me from 30,000 feet and move on. He actually still, he became a life-long friend, he worked with me every day, putting up with people like me who couldn’t see how racialized we were and are and he didn’t just leave me, he linked his life to me.

He linked his life’s work in many ways and continues to do this as a pastor working for racial reconciliation and sometimes he gets it from both sides, from African Americans who are like why are you still working with those people? To white people who are like, that’s not a white thing, it’s just right. That’s one of my favorite lines by the way. It’s not white, it’s just right. It’s just right, it just feels right, it seems right.

That’s someone who’s practicing humiliation but not doing it at 30,000. He’s doing it like Christ. Linking his life to mine in ways that were I am sure and continue to be painful for him, hard and costly because there isn’t any easy way to work forward on something like against racial reconciliation and for a new kind of people.

So, before we go out and we drop the H-Bomb on anybody, we better know and we better be willing to stand with that person, to lay down our lives for that person. Maybe humiliation has a place but before that, what it often looks like is seeing those we disagree with, those opponents as gifts with whom, for whom we sit down at a table and we keep working together.

And if we have to drop that H-Bomb, we can never do it at 30,000 feet. Like our Savior who is humble, like our Savior who was humiliated by the cross and like our Savior who sometimes humiliates us in his storytelling, we need to be willing to recognize and discern how to practice humility in the way Jesus does.