One of my former students recently posted about fundamentalist Christians. To me, it seemed that he was accusing them of supporting the wholesale murder of those whose sexual morality conflicted with their own. While I am not a fundamentalist, I have several family members who are. Reading the post, I thought, “This couldn’t be further from the way my family actually treats their neighbors, regardless of sexual ethics.”
So I posted a reply.
I posted a reply to someone I hadn’t spoken to in over decade, someone who lived in another state. I didn’t think the reply was insensitive; I was simply offering the truth wrapped in straightforward language.
His reply was swift and stinging.
He was hurt and enraged, calling me out for publically chiding him when I hadn’t even sent a simple “How are you?” via messenger. Who did I think I was, he asked, to so blithely wander into a conversation that meant so much to him?
I was stunned, but I also heard my sand-box self retort, “You hit first with your caricature, so there!” And thus the cycle of violence and accusation could commence.
I had (albeit unwittingly) dropped the “H-bomb” of our era: From the safe distance of 30,000 feet of Facebook, I unloaded a payload of public humiliation before flying off to my next newsfeed item.
Sadly, I’m not the first to feed this monster. Many of our daily interactions suffer from an easy willingness to humiliate others under the guise of being truthful or, in Christian circles, of being prophetic. We might even profess that these posts are a form of tough love. But as many experience, it feels more like incessant, callous violence. Rather than connecting us, such habits fracture society, churches, and families. The harvest is loneliness and depression.
The antidote to this ritualized humiliation is Christian humility, richly understood and wisely practiced. To me it seems that humility and humiliation are entangled at their core, so we need to consider a couple of things about their interrelatedness. First, Christ comes to us in our enemy. Even those who irritate and enrage us offer gifts of insight or expose our need for the Spirit’s transformation. Second, we may have to drop the H-bomb on occasion, as all good prophets do. The kicker is that Christian humility trains us to humiliate only those for whom we will also willingly die. Let me unpack this.
Humility as Unlearning the Security Comparison Brings
Consider the parable Jesus tells about the Pharisee and the toll collector. Deceptively brief and simple, the parable highlights humility as the posture of love of God while it simultaneously hammers away at the sure-footedness of the devout.
New Testament scholar Dale Bruner substitutes “the Serious” for Pharisees and scribes, and I am one of these: A woman who publically and professionally encourages others to faithfulness to the God of Israel. Like the Pharisee in the parable, those of us who are Serious often keep our distance from others. In our private thoughts and public statements, In public prayers or position papers, true believers separate from those whose lives appear morally questionable, whose views dangerously flirt with the broader culture even if they do not actually go to bed with it. We measure our faithfulness and orthodoxy by comparing ourselves to them. (If we are devoutly progressive, we also seclude ourselves from others ; Jesus’ parables exert pressure on anyone with convictions.)
The toll collector represents the Unserious. In their collusion with the Empire, they are worthy of contempt and public shaming. Yet Jesus insists that these compromising and compromised can bear witness to genuine humility. Comparing his life not to another human but rather to the living God, the toll collector shrinks, overwhelmed by utter need. As is commonly noted about humility, this virtue depends on seeing ourselves clearly; for the toll collector as for all the Serious, humility springs from failure, finitude, and fragility. Only awareness of the emptiness of our hands opens them to the gifts of God for our own and others’ good. As usual, Christ destabilizes any source of security other than the mercy of God. Often ignored by we Serious, the very people whom we find distasteful and shameful offer us a mirror that might yet save our souls.
What does this mean in pragmatic terms?
When I come home to debrief a conflict (from serious abuses to the smallest of slights), my husband eventually gets around to asking a set of irritating questions: Is there anything true in what they are saying? Regardless of their meanness or of mistaken views, what can you see of God or learn about yourself in this? He regularly talks me out of firing off an email and encourages me to hold the situation uneasily before God. He discourages me from comparing my rightness to my antagonist’s wrongness. He points out and I eventually see that opponents become (complicated) gifts, persons to whom I learn to listen for the voice and nudge of the Spirit who guides us into truth. My impulse to drop the H-bomb short-circuits the patient attentiveness I need in order to see God speaking through my opponents. This is one reason Christ ate with suspicious characters; they reminded him of his identity as the One beckoned to witness to God’s prodigal grace. Many of us do this in ordinary ways by staying at the dinner and communion table with family, congregants, and neighbors whose views may even appall us—yet we claim them as Christ’s own, as those through whom we learn humility.
Mutual Assured Destruction: The Vulnerability of Humble Humiliation
But we can’t stop here. To do so turns humility into a milk-toasty virtue that never risks offending someone’s sensibilities. It mimics our culture. Instead, Christ’s parable is a shaming critique. And that’s the paradox: Jesus advocates for humility, all the while humiliating his antagonists! How can that be?
Here’s what makes that paradox possible and godly: Jesus, like the true prophets of YHWH never expresses contempt from a safe distance. Like Jeremiah and Hosea, he suffers, worships, and eats with those he chides. Their fate is his own and a brutal one at that: At this point in Luke, he is about to die a humiliating death for these same stubborn, self-righteous jerks.
So before we drop the H-bomb of humiliation on others, before we press ‘send,’ you and I need to ask ourselves if we are willing to die for them to live. If we wish to be true prophets and followers of Christ we have to connect our own welfare to those we humiliate with truthfulness, becoming vulnerable to them even as we expose their shame. In this way, humility is the temperament of love, something that is never practiced from a safe distance. We’ve got to break bread with our enemies first. Only then can we know how to receive and enact the mercy of our humble, humiliated—and sometimes humiliating—messiah.